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Hands-on with a pre-release Windows Mobile 6.5 Professional ROM from XDA Developers

The success of the iPhone has focused smartphone developers’ attention upon touch.  The Blackberry Storm, Palm Pre, T-Mobile G1 (Googlephone) and HTC Touch HD all looked to compete with the iPhone with large screens and touch interfaces.

Under the hood of the Touch HD was Windows Mobile with HTC’s TouchFlo finger-friendly overlay.  Like historical versions of the Palm and Blackberry OSes, Windows Mobile has generally been aimed at stylus+button input which has made it fast for savvy users.  However in an iPhone age greater accessibility is required and Windows Mobile 6.5 aims to achieve this.

We’ll be looking at a pre-release XDA Developers build of WinMo 6.5 Professional on an HTC Touch Pro (Raphael model), so the actual features I describe may be different to the ones available in the full future release.  We will also concentrate on the significant changes from WinMo 6.1, as much of 6.5 is closely related to 6.1.

Honeycomb application launcher

Many early photos of WinMo 6.5 showed the now-famous honeycomb lattice application launcher, designed to create more space between icons and make the easier to target with a finger.  In the version I’m trying the lattice borders are not present but the formation is there.  The icons are far easier to target than in 6.1, I haven’t missed any yet.

Swiping and scrolling

The scrolling action to reveal further pages of applications has been hugely improved.  Finger swipes now scroll the screen with ease, locking at each page if the swipe is gentle or scrolling through multiple pages if stronger.  The top/bottom bouncing effect has been borrowed from the iPhone and it works well.

This also extends within applications, such as Windows Live where mailbox scolling and mail selection has been made far more finger friendly.  Track forward/back changes in Windows Media player are also a side-swipe away.

Pre-6.5 applications currently have variable scolling implementations however.  AvantGo, for example, still scrolls as well as it did before but the new bouncing effect is not present.

Battery life

I’ve noticed a colossal improvement in battery life on the Touch Pro compared to it’s original AT&T 6.1 build.  The Touch Pro will now easily last a full day with regular periods of data usage.

It’s difficult to know what has caused this uptick, possibly it’s due to more efficient CPU or memory calls or perhaps the lack of HTC’s graphics intensive TouchFlo overlay means the system is being taxed less.  It’s certainly a welcome change and makes the Touch Pro a usable phone for my usage pattern.  YMMV.

3G stability improvements

Whilst 6.1 is a pretty stable OS, the Touch Pro previously had sporadic 3G connection issues which required a reboot.  These issues have vanished on this 6.5 version, and data seems to download significantly faster.  Note that I did not change the radio firmware when I installed 6.5.

So far 6.5 has not crashed on me once, but I have rebooted twice over the last two weeks to refresh the system.  Rebooting is definitely faster than with 6.1, but I put that primarily down to not having to launch TouchFlo following the OS boot.

Finger-friendly menus

All of the 6.5 menus have grown to be more finger-friendly.  It’s now easy to hit the target with confidence.  Even though 6.1 on the Touch Pro had some big menus in places, my hit rate in 6.5 has greatly improved and there might be better coding under the hood making this happen.

Everything else

Much of the remaining experience is similar to using 6.1.  The apps I’ve tried to download, such as Google Maps and AvantGo have worked perfectly.

Is it a game changer?

Whether you like the underlying Windows Mobile platform is a matter of personal taste.  Whilst this version of 6.5 has been great to use on the Touch Pro it continues to be hampered by the relatively small screen of most Windows Mobile devices compared to the iPhone.  This means that making Windows Mobile, Blackberry OS or any other small screen device close-in on the iPhone in terms of finger-friendliness will always be a huge task.

The continued breadth of form factors also hampers efforts, although Microsoft is now starting to get more specific on hardware which should help to standardize the platform for developers writing for a more consistent user experience.  RIM had a similarly diffcult experience taking the Blackberry OS and porting it to the Storm, which was received with mixed opinions.

So all I need now is a Touch Pro with a full length screen, same keyboard and only 3-4 oz in weight.  That’s not the Touch Pro2, but perhaps it could be the Touch Pro3…

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

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Jun 28, 2009 Posted by | Microsoft, Mobile, Reviews, Software | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Transformers – Revenge of the Fallen

Camaro & Bumblebee 6In a word, “awesome”.

In my cousin’s words, “possibly the best cinematic experience of all time”.

This movie is like X-rated hardware porn.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Jun 28, 2009 Posted by | Home Theater, Photo & Video, Reviews | | Leave a comment

Every cloud…Bye bye AvantGo, hello Viigo!

Whilst smartphones now offer web access at decent speeds, pages can still be painful to read on the devices.  Small screens, inconsistent formatting and frequent zooming/scrolling/swiping all contribute to the need for an offline forced-format reader.

That reader for many people has been AvantGo, which has been around for years on most SDK-available PDA/smartphone platforms.  Recently however users have been surprised to see page notifications stating that downloadable content will cease to be provided after June 30.

Why?  It seems the reason comes back to the same smartphones which can now access web pages at decent speeds.  The need for downloadable offline-readable content had decreased.

That’s all well and good…unless you read content in locations where there is weak or no cell network coverage. That means commuters on trains underground or travelling through unpopulated areas.  This is probably one of the larger user groups of AvantGo’s offline service, reading the news services on the way to/from work.

So what now?  Cue RSS readers.  RSS is nothing new but finding a decent reader which pulls large amounts of offline-readable content is tricky.  I have now moved to Viigo, which crushes AvantGo both in terms of content availability and synchronization options.

Whereas I used to manually download AvantGo content daily, I have Viigo set to pull new content every 30 minutes.  News junkie alert.  Since most news sites have RSS feeds the amount of content you can pull is colossal and it is presented in Viigo’s consistent wrapper.

On the downside Viigo page navigation on touch devices is hampered by a lack of finger scrolling support.  I miss this greatly, but hopefully it’s only a matter of time before this becomes a natural addition for Viigo.  Some feeds also download in brief requiring you to go online to retrieve full articles.

So if the cessation of AvantGo offline content is yet another June raincloud, check out Viigo.  It really is a silver lining.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Jun 28, 2009 Posted by | Mobile, Reviews | , | Leave a comment

MSI X340

IMAG0093Hmm…the eagerly anticipated MSI X340; this one turned out to be a mixed bag.  Looks great, feels just OK to hold.  Keyboard is big enough, feels just OK to use.  Some reviewers have said the keyboard is horrific, it’s not quite as bad as that, but it does flex downward in the center more than it should.  The battery is replaceable but is outpaced by the Acer Timeline.

IMAG0100But for $899 it weighs under 3lbs, does HD video, has a bright 13 inch screen and a real-life-useful 1.4GHz Intel CULV processor.  That’s a tempting prospect…especially as many retailers are listing it at nearer $799.  If you like the form factor and can survive with less power the X320 sports an Intel Atom for $599, but also sacrifices the HD capable graphics chipset.

Crucially is the $899 X340 better than a $999 refurbished MacBook Air Rev A?  For HD video, connectivity and battery life I’d say yes; for coolness and build quality probably no.  Then there’s also the Acer Timeline series and the semi-light but powerful Acer AS3935-6504 with a 2GHz Core 2 Duo for $899.  It’s a difficult, but consumer friendly, choice.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Jun 28, 2009 Posted by | Computing, Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

HTC Snap / Dash II Hands-On

HTC Snap

I used to have an HTC S620 / Dash as my daily phone and found it to be a near perfect Blackberry-form-factor Windows Mobile smartphone.  It was light with a great keyboard and decent screen.  The main omissions were a lack of 3G and high resolution camera.

HTC is hoping to fix that in a snap, The Snap to be precise.  As a replacement for the S620 / Dash, the Snap is immediately recognizable as a member of the same family with a near identical form factor.  Here’s a quick hands-on of the Snap.

Snap curved thumbpadAddressing my wish list above, the Snap offers 7.2MB/sec HSDPA compared to the S620’s slow-ish EDGE.  WiFi b/g is carried over from the S620, but might not be enabled on all carriers; it was disabled on the Sprint example here.

The Snap also winds the onboard camera optics up to 2MP, which is no great shakes compared to the 5 or 8MP offerings of other smartphones available today.  Why is HTC so reluctant to implement leading edge cameras into its cellphones?

The keyboard follows the solid functionality of the S620 with an even better feel.  Keys are raised in the center and easy to press.  The revised layout placing keys similarly to a computer QWERTY rather than a vertical alignment works well.

A2DP and AVRCP Bluetooth profiles are also implemented, as on the S620, to give stereo bluetooth headsets control of calls and music playback.

On Sprint’s network data downloaded to Internet ExplorerSnap Internet Explorersignificantly faster than my S620 on AT&T’s EDGE connection.  The Snap’s 528MHz processor also made the Windows Mobile 6.1 Standard experience feel snappy compared to the S620’s 200MHz processor, which I admittedly throttle back to 160MHz to save battery power.

So why no Windows Mobile 6.5 on the Snap…?  This is certainly disappointing, especially given all the 6.5 online chatter currently.  Hopefully a 6.5 upgrade option will be available for the Snap in time.  My experience of an early 6.5 Pro touch-enabled build on the HTC Touch Pro has been extremely positive.

Is the Snap worth an upgrade for current S620 / Dash owners?  Definitely for high data users, maybe for others.  The S620 was already a gem of a device and the Snap offers even more of the same.  It just does it, well, a bit snappier.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Jun 28, 2009 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

iPhone 3GS: stereo bluetooth now mainstream?

Apple’s decision to enable stereo bluetooth on the iPhone 3G will bring the technology into the mainstream, but has it remained on the periphery for a reason?

Like mono bluetooth headsets, stereo ones need to be paired. Nowadays this is straightforward but some phones and headsets have better recollection than others. There so many headsets and phones out there that inevitably some have better bluetooth inplementations than others. Pairings sometimes have to be re-established; this can be due to the phone or headset not being the best at remembering its partners.

Once you’re happily connected, you’re using the A2DP profile which gives audio streaming. If your phone and headset support AVRCP then you’re also getting remote control over music playback as well as calls. This is awesome and has made wired headphones redundant for years for many cellphone owners.  Now that iPhone 3G S has partially caught-up with this technology (allowing play/pause but not track skip), owners have an option to make those white wired earbuds disappear.

So how do you find a good headset? Here are a few options…

Motorola S9 HD

The S9 HD is a one-piece-behind-the-neck design similar to its predecessor, the S9.  The receiver and battery are housed in the connector band with call and playback controls living on the frame outside the earbuds. The power button and mini-USB charging port are on the underside of the connector band. There are three buttons on each side aligned vertically which makes controlling the S9 HD a snap once you’ve mastered the layout. Multi-function buttons are kept to a minimum; it’s the opposite of working a current generation iPod Shuffle.

Pairing was a good expeience with an HTC Touch Pro and Samsung Epix, with both phones picking up the S9-HD’s mono and stereo bluetooth profiles as well as playback controls.

Speech quality was good indoors but outdoors call recipients complained of some wind noise. Music quality was excellent, with solid bass and clear treble with the SRS WOW enhancer left off. With the enhancer on the sound took on an overly bass heavy response with low-mid frequencies being over-emphasized.

When I was standign still outdoors, music playback was consistent but on the move this became a variable experience. In a envionment with lots of objects providing reflections the bluetooth connection was solid. However in open spaces free of people, cars or walls the playback would become choppy unless the phone was close to the headset.

As with many other stereo bluetooth headsets the S9-HD seems to employ timestretching technology to extend playback whilst allowing its music buffer to fill. This results in perceptible pitch changes from time to time; I would rather pay a few dollars more for a larger onboard buffer.

The S9-HD is comfortable for long periods of use and feels light on the head. Some pairs of glasses can sit on top of the earpieces which can be an odd feeling, I found I could wear sunglasses without difficulty after getting accustomed to the feeling. YMMV.

On balance I liked the comfort and sound quality of the S9-HD, but the choppy music playback when walking through wide-open spaces can become annoying.

Panasonic RP-BT10

Sometimes using your own headphones is a must (I’m looking at you, Etymotic lovers) and Panasonic created the RP-BT10 with this in mind. Resembling the previous generation iPod shuffle the RP-BT10 sports transport and volume controls on the main unit and a call control button on the microphone cable. This cable has a standard 3.5mm headphone socket for you favorite cans.  There is a bespoke charging cable, so no USB cable charging option here.

Pairing was a smooth process. The spring-clip mechnism on the main unit allows positioning of the RP-BT10 closer to your phone if necessary for greater connection reliability. Of course if you plan on making calls you will need to ensure the mic is reasonably close to your mouth.

Sound quality is of course dependant on your choice of headphones, the bundled set are OK and need on a snug fit with the supplied ear fittings to get the best out of them.  The benefit of the RP-BT10 though is that you can use any 3.5mm headset you want.

By nature of its design the RP-BT10 also allows you to create a semi-wireless connection between a phone and a stereo system. Simply use a stereo 3.5mm to stereo RCA cable to connect the RP-BT10 to most stereos’ auxiliary input, which will turn your phone into a useful makeshift jukebox.

The RP-BT10 is a good choice if you want to use your own headphones, but the downside is that it re-introduce wires into your setup…and isn’t that what the iPhone community is getting excited about being able to give up?

Motorola S805

Last up in our trio is the Motorola S805. This big DJ-style headset fully covers the ears with call controls on one side and payback on the other. The S805 employs rocker wheels on each earpiece to control volume and track selection.

Control buttons are large and easy to press

One the underside of one earpiece is the charging port, which uses a standard mini-USB connection.

As with the other two devices, pairing was straightforward.  Once in use the buttons on either side pulse in blue, although fortunately this feature can be disabled by pressing the call and play buttons simultaneously for a couple of seconds.

In use callers found my speech to be crystal clear both indoors and outside. Music playback was very good with almost no droputs. Bass frequencies were slightly less pronounced than with the S9-HD, but the overall sound was easy to listen to for prolonged periods.  The headset, although large, was also comfortable and did not feel heavy on the head.

The pitch-shifting effect was evident on the S805 as with the S9-HD, although significantly less so. I’m guessing the S805 has more onboard buffer memory, which would also explain its resistance to dropouts.

Overall the S805 is a great headset as long as you can live with its size.  The S805 is certainly not the most discreet headset available, but its form usefully keeps ears warm and noise out on windy days.

Listen-up, here’s the bottom line…

These are three very different headsets. As a portable one piece solution the S9-HD is a good bet as long as you stay around objects or remain stationary when listening. The RP-BT10 allows use of your own headphones but makes you wire-y. Finally the S805 provides excellent connection strength and a balanced soundstage.

Each one however suffers from sporadic connection issues and even if these are forgiven by savvy owners, they may deter non-techie users from long term usage.  In my opinion this has been a delaying factor to widespread adoption of stereo bluetooth technology so far.

On the other hand I am hopeful that the release of the iPhone 3G S will create renewed energy in the stereo bluetooth market with new product offerings and greater reliability.  I can’t wait to see if Apple releases a headset!

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Jun 21, 2009 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Audio, Mobile | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Laptop prices falling hard

Today’s MacBook price cuts were both welcome and not unique in the current laptop market.  Ultraportables and desktop replacements alike have been suffering from netbooks and Intel CULV powered thin ‘n lights pulling down the whole sector.

It’s pretty cool that you can finally get a decently powered 3-4lb laptop with a 13 inch screen for well under $1,000; MSI’s X340 and Acer’s Timeline are good examples.  Both are HD video capable and provide enough power for day-to-day computing.

These machines pull down the premium end of the ultraportable market like the Dell Adamo and MacBook Air, which don’t really offer much more hardware than the MSI or Acer.  In fact the Dell is probably slower than both.  So now we have a $1,499-$1,799 MacBook Air, which is great news for consumers and effectively sets a glass ceiling for ultraportable prices.

At the heavier end of the market 17 inch laptops are under strain from all-in-ones like the Asus EEE Top which are semi-mobile and keenly priced.  I found a new Toshiba dual-core T3400 17 inch laptop on Amazon this evening for $529.  This thing was fully loaded, you really wouldn’t need much more for a day-to-day desktop replacement…and of course you can install Windows 7 RC and get almost a year of usage before you need to buy a license.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Jun 8, 2009 Posted by | Analysis, Computing, Mobile | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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