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Steve Ballmer talks up Windows 7 tablets, devices still lacking

Steve Ballmer Windows 7 tabletIt feels like a long time ago that I was sitting in Microsoft’s CES keynote in January where Steve Ballmer showed off HP’s elusive Windows 7 tablet. That device is yet to come to market, while the iPad has walked off with over 3 million sales. It also seems that Android tablets are set to make a splash with companies such as Archos already at market, Samsung coming and plenty of others due to follow.  HP has intimated that it is concentrating on the Enterprise sector with its Windows 7 tablet and refocusing on Web OS for consumers.

So it was bizarre that Steve Ballmer’s press conference produced less certainty around Windows 7 tablet delivery than his CES keynote. At least in Las Vegas he was actually holding a tangible prototype device that seemed like to come to market. The message this week was that Windows 7 tablets are coming but we don’t know when.

To my mind this there are two things wrong with this message. Firstly, the lack of timeframe is severely problematic since the iPad holds the consumer mindshare in this sector. Android is poised to bite a chunk out of that near-monopoly as demonstrated by recent demand for the cheap (but unfortunately not cheerful) Augen GenTouch 78. Augen GenTouch 78So as consumers in this small market buy an iPad or Android tablet, Microsoft’s first generation sales become smaller by the day in this sector without a meaningful product. I mean when people need convincing to buy one first gen tablet, who needs two?

Secondly, as I’ve said before, Windows 7 feels like the wrong platform for a tablet and Windows Phone 7 feels like the right one. Just as Apple successfully ported iOS from the iPhone to the iPad, Microsoft should do likewise with Windows Phone 7. The OS is already touch optimized and is designed to run on low power touchscreen devices delivering sustained battery life and fun interactions.

Every Windows 7 tablet device I’ve used suffers from slow start-up times, poor battery life and has been challenging to use without a stylus. They’re essentially netbook-speed devices with a touchscreen and no keyboard; the Archos 9 is a case in point. The market has clearly demonstrated that this is not what it wants, as we can see from the success of the iPad.

Microsoft has admitted to missing a cycle in the smartphone market. It should review its tablet strategy to avoid missing another one.

Neil Berman

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Jul 31, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Hardware, Microsoft, Mobile | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why I’ve pre-ordered the next generation 3G Kindle

kindle beachI’ve never had a strong desire to own a Kindle. I don’t read books, I’m not excited about reading electronic books and I spend more time ‘curling’ the page corners of Winnie-the-pooh in iBooks than actually reading the marvelous work. So why did I buy the new Kindle that was announced yesterday?

Simple: It has a sunlight readable Webkit browser with free 3G. As regular readers may have picked up, I enjoy my time in the sun and I sometimes choose my gadgets based on their sun-tolerant capabilities. My Dell Latitude ATG is a case in point. The iPad unfortunately doesn’t fare quite as well. While being great for indoor use, it’s just okay outdoors. The screen is viewable as long as you have a sun shade but contact with direct summer sunlight sends it into a heated frenzy.

Kindle NewspaperThe Kindle is an entirely different proposition. Designed to be used for hours in the sun, it’s e-ink screen has no glare and its battery life is measured in days. On the downside e-ink has notoriously slow refresh rates and the Kindle’s display is grayscale rather than color. That’s fine by me since most of my web surfing when I’m lazing outdoors is text based, so I can live without video-capable refresh rates and vibrant technicolor.

Now that the new Kindle 3 will have a Webkit browser, which is the foundation of Chrome and Safari, it should render web pages pretty well. I’m not expecting pages to be works of art, like I said I just want to read the text content. Having that browser available on 3G without a subscription in such a lightweight and daylight readable package was too compelling for me to refuse. If the browser is good enough I may even cancel my monthly data subscription for my iPad 3G.

I’ll let you know if that’s really a viable option on August 27th, when the Kindle is released and delivered into the ‘wild’ a.k.a. My Messy Apartment.

Neil Berman

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Jul 29, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360 hands-on impressions

Kinext Xbox 360 bundleI got some hands-on time with Kinect for the Xbox 360 today.  Actually “hands-waving” is a more appropriate term than “hands-on”, since with Kinect you are the controller.  As a refresher or intro for the uninitiated, Kinect is an upcoming hardware release for the Xbox 360 that turns your body movements into gameplay inputs.  There’s been extensive coverage of the Kinect technology elsewhere so I’ll keep this purely subjective.

Once I learned how to control menus, which is not immediately intuitive, I had a blast with Kinect.  The Xbox 360 responded to my movements instantly, and there was no perceptible lag at all.  After an energetic session my previous concerns about Kinect remain that we might all be too lazy to turn it into an enduring success.  However, just like with the Wii Fit under my sofa, plenty of us will buy one.  I can see Kinect being a big hit for parties and fitness, sports or dance aficionados though.

The Kinect is due to be released on November 4 in the US and is available for pre-order now for $149.99.  The bundle pictured above will sell for $299.

Neil Berman

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Jul 24, 2010 Posted by | Gaming, Hardware, Microsoft | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sony Vaio P VPCP111KX hands-on

Sony Vaio P VPCP111KX 1The original Sony Vaio P launched at CES 2009 to considerable excitement over its slim form factor. This euphoria was somewhat tempered by the weak performance of its Intel Atom processor, which struggled terribly to power the Vaio P’s Windows Vista installation. Wow, just writing ‘Vista’ brings back all those long forgotten memories…

Fast forward a year and a bit and we’re blessed to have a new and improved Sony Vaio P. This time it’s running Windows 7, but the Intel Atom remains *sigh*. I think the world’s moved on from the Atom unless you’re spending under $300, but the Sony Vaio P VPCP111KX asks for $799.99 in return for spending its life with you.

For that significant amount of money you get a stunning looking ultraportable with the power of a netbook and, as with the original Sony Vaio P, a widescreen at such high resolution that you need super specs or fighter pilot vision to comfortably use it. There’s a 64GB SSD in there too along with WiFi 802.11n and Bluetooth. But for me none of those now unimpressive additions compensate for the fact that I was straining over the screen to see what I was doing.

The keyboard is comfortable with well sized and spaced keys, while the trackpoint feels awkward just because it’s sitting in a cramped space for bending your arm. Engineering a well placed mouse pointer on such a small device is always going to be a challenge though. I closed my eyes, prayed a little and the reached out to touch the screen hoping that perhaps the trackpoint was not required, but alas, the screen just stared back at me unresponsively. On second thoughts controlling Windows 7 by touch on such a high resolution screen would probably be one of the least enjoyable computing experiences I could imagine.

Overall the new Sony Vaio P VPCP111KX looks stunning, but look at your friend’s one instead. For the same money an iPad and a regular netbook is a better way to spend that $800.

Neil Berman

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Jul 22, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch review

Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch 8

Sitting all over America today are people who yearn to upgrade to a smartphone without paying through the nose on a monthly basis for the privilege. Meanwhile sitting in various Virgin Mobile warehouses is the LG Rumor Touch smartphone. Tying these two things together are Virgin Mobile’s Beyond Talk unlimited data and text plans, which start at a very reasonable $25 per month with 300 voice minutes. So is this the disruptive force that will make smartphone adoption ubiquitous?

First impressions of the Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch

The LG Rumor Touch is a new addition to Virgin Mobile, offering a 3 inch touchscreen with slide out keyboard, email/web/social-networking integration and downloadable Java apps. It runs a proprietary LG Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch 9operating system that supports touch throughout. Other notable features include a regular 3.5mm headphone socket, Bluetooth, a micro SD card slot and a 2 megapixel camera with video recording capability.  There’s no fancy OS here or App Store, but the specs are a good match for social-networking-cash-maximizing-wanna-get-something-that-works-and-doesn’t-break-the-back people.

Speaking of dosh, the LG Rumor Touch costs $149.99 and you then have a choice of no-contract pay monthly unlimited data, web, text and plans that have different voice minute allowances. The $25 plan buys you 300 mins, $40 gets you 1,200 mins and $60 buys unlimited talk time. Even better, while there is sales tax applied to the monthly cost, there are none of those pesky hidden charges that can take a $70 monthly contract cost up to around $80-90 when the bill arrives. The Beyond Talk sales tax, at least in New York, takes the $40 plan to just under $44 at the time of writing. And since there’s no contract you can cancel at any time or go up/down plan levels. So when compared to typical voice+data contracts over two years these Virgin Mobile plans can deliver significant savings.

While that all sounds great it’s clearly only useful if the LG Rumor Touch is any good, so is it?

Using the Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch

The LG Rumor Touch feels good in the hand. It appears to be well made and the slide out keyboard feels like it has a solid locking mechanism. The whole device is reasonably light at 4.59 ounces and is compact enough to hide in a pocket with ease.

Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch 11The social networking and email integration works well enough, although I had difficulty getting new email notifications to come through willingly from online email services.  I found that generally had to load up the email app each time I wanted to access my email, even though I had told the Rumor Touch to run the app to the background when not in use.  This would probably not be an issue for a light user who might only check their email once or twice a day, but I found it annoying to have to wait the few seconds for the email app to load each time I wanted to check my mail.   There’s Facebook integration out of the box and apps like Google Maps and Opera Mini can be easily downloaded.  I was impressed with how quickly the Rumor Touch downloaded and rendered Google Maps data, including satellite images.

On the subject of web content, Opera Mini is definitely a worthy download for the LG Rumor Touch as the built-in web browser is fairly weak. It tends to display information in more of a WAP format compared to how a state of the art smartphone would fully render a page. The Rumor Touch does download information fairly quickly though, as Virgin Mobile uses the Sprint 3G network to provide its service. However one online issue I encountered frequently was that the LG Rumor Touch often failed to play YouTube videos. I have to assume the issues were due to network congestion because while on some occasions YouTube video streaming worked fine, trying to stream the same videos on other days failed. Even when YouTube playback was successful the LG Rumor Touch often thought about the task for upwards of 30 seconds before starting to play the video clip, which is too long in my opinion.

The music player and camera can both make use of the LG Rumor Touch’s micro SD card slot, so with a high capacity card installed it’s possible to carry a large amount of media. The music player works well enough but unfortunately does not play in the background when other apps are in use. That was surprising, especially since most other apps on the LG Rumor Touch can be sent to run in the background.

Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch 5The camera is decent for general use, although its 2 megapixel resolution lags behind some of the competition. It’s fine for occasional snaps though. There’s also video camera functionality offering QVGA resolution, which is only 320×240.  It records video, but not to a high standard and is no rival for the HD-capable cameras on high-end smartphones.  Nevertheless the feature is useful as long you keep its limitations in mind.  It will play back at acceptable detail on a screen the size of the one on the LG Rumor Touch, but larger computer screens will not flatter the output of the video recorder.

The touchscreen does its job, but it’s resistive rather than the capacitive technology found on the likes of the iPhone and some other touchscreen smartphones. This means it’s more responsive to fingernails or stylus input than broad finger flings. Once you get the hang of it though it’s perfectly passable but don’t expect pinch-to-zoom or any of that funky stuff. The screen colors are vivid and the display is bright.

If touchscreens aren’t your thing, the LG Rumor Touch has a fully featured slide-out keyboard. The keyboard includes a dedicated row of number keys, which is a welcome feature, as well as button for instant access to emoticons. The keys themselves are easy to press and offer good feedback. I found it was easy to type with the LG Rumor Touch with good accuracy.

Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch 14Battery life was good on the LG Rumor Touch. I managed to get almost two days of general usage between charges, which I consider to be perfectly acceptable for a data phone. I find that current smartphones need a daily charge (some even need an intra-day fill-up) so it’s always nice to know that a phone has some leftover juice if I forget to charge it overnight.  Kudos also to LG for adopting the standard mini USB charging port for the Rumor Touch.

Call quality on the LG Rumor Touch was good, and these days we expect nothing less from a modern phone. Callers heard me fine and I heard them fine in New York City. I did not experience any dropped calls during my time with the LG Rumor Touch.

Is the Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch a good buy?

For a smartphone newbie or light data user, the LG Rumor Touch is a good choice at an excellent price point. It provides enough functionality to enjoy social networking, email and basic web browsing on the move in a compact user-friendly package. While it trails the better featured smartphone market leaders by some margin in many areas, its price point is also stratospherically lower than most competitors over a two year period.  If you’re considering buying the LG Rumor Touch as a genuine iPhone contender though, you will be disappointed.  More demanding users who want better smartphone functionality on a budget might prefer to consider Virgin Mobile’s BlackBerry Curve 8530 which sits at a slightly higher price point.  Stay tuned, our review of the 8530 is coming soon…and as promised here is our Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530 review.

All details, including monthly plan features and costs are accurate as at the time of writing and may change in the future.  Consult Virgin Mobile for the most up to date information.

Neil Berman

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Jul 17, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | 54 Comments

Antennagate: Can we move on now?

Nothing much to say about Steve Jobs’ Apple press conference today on the iPhone 4 antenna issue, except “can we now move on to something that’s irking more than 0.55% of a product’s user population?”

I still haven’t come across anyone who says the iPhone 4 antenna issue materially impacts their usage of the phone and it wouldn’t stop me buying one. I did just buy a BlackBerry Bold 9700 however and can’t replicate the ‘disappearing bars’ trick on-demand that Steve demo’d. Perhaps that’s because I’m in the AT&T network stronghold that is New York City. Wait…wha?

Neil Berman

Jul 16, 2010 Posted by | Hardware | Leave a comment

A controversy bar (n)one

While we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to hear what Apple has to say about the iPhone 4 antenna reception issue, the company has now acted to fix its wrongly calculated bars.

If you recall, this is the issue where iOS devices were incorrectly reporting levels of signal strength. Fixing the calculation means that the larger bars are likely to go dark more often leaving just the smaller bars lit, like on most other phones. As part of the fix, Apple has made the smallest bar larger, it’s now about 40% the size of the largest bar at a glance.

You might be forgiven for thinking this is misleading, after all one bar means your phone can’t do much, right? Well here’s the thing about digital cellphones…if a good phone has one bar, that means it has locked into a digital signal. That in turn means that it can probably make a call. I’ve encountered many situations where one bar on my BlackBerry is fine for calls and data, as long as that low signal level is consistent.

The consistency is the crux of the issue. Imagine you’re at a WiFi hotspot; if your laptop only reports a connection speed of 11MBps, that’s probably fine for most needs as long as the link quality is upwards of 75%. Likewise if you have one bar, you’re probably doing ok as long as that low signal level is being received consistently. A single bar that sporadically flashes on and off is the one you really need to worry about because it means the signal is fading in and out.

So I’m cool with Apple making that smallest bar bigger. I actually think it’s the most important bar of the five since it’s the digital on/off indicator for your phone’s reception, so it needs to be easily visible. In fact now I think about it the small bar on my BlackBerry is too small to be easily seen at distance so I would be happy for RIM to follow Apple’s lead on this.

Neil Berman

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Jul 15, 2010 Posted by | Apple | , , , , | Leave a comment

This gadget life: Choosing a smartphone

Regular readers might have noticed that I’ve been writing about smartphones a lot recently. This is partly because iPhone 4 and Evo 4G hysteria all came around at the same time, but also because I’m in the market for a new smartphone.

My trusty BlackBerry Bold 9000 has an almost dead trackball having recently acquired an unplanned taste for coffee, and this summer has seen an abundance of smartphone releases.

Like many people, I have some generic and some specific use cases for a smartphone, which guide me towards certain platforms.

Firstly, I need something that is enterprise friendly. In my case this roughly narrows down the range of acceptable platforms to BlackBerry, Android and iOS (iPhone). Not to get too deeply into the relative pros and cons of each of these at an enterprise level, for my needs these platforms are either natively enterprise ready or can provide secure email functionality through add-on apps. Winner: Used to be BlackBerry hands down but these days it’s a tie.

Secondly, the ability to type quickly and accurately is important. The iPad has certainly taught me that software keyboards are not an impediment to fast typing, but accuracy becomes challenged as the virtual key size reduces. It goes without saying that BlackBerry hardware keypads are excellent but software keyboards on the larger smartphones like the Evo 4G are also easy to use accurately in landscape. I’m 50/50 on the iPhone keyboard, and find that I need to make a correction every couple of sentences. Winner: Tie between BlackBerry and large-screen Android smartphones.

Thirdly, I need my smartphone to work reliably in year round temperatures. New York City summers are hot and humid, so my phone needs to function well under direct sunlight with plenty of environmental moisture in the air. There’s sufficient anecdotal evidence on the web to suggest that the iPhone copes poorly under sustained sunlight, with temperature related shutdowns being commonplace. I have had that very experience on my iPad after just five minutes of direct sun exposure. My BlackBerry Bold 9000 has never given me a heat warning, even after hours of use under the sun, plus the screens of most of the current BlackBerry range, such as the 9xxx series, are viewable in daylight. It’s difficult to assess the situation with Android phones as there are so many models. The Evo 4G does seem to have some heat issues although it sounds like these are more connected to signal strength with the device getting hot as it searches for a signal in weak coverage areas. Winner: BlackBerry.

There are a host of other considerations of course, such as Internet browsing, media playback and size/weight. For my use case, the web browsers on most smartphones are good enough for my occasional usage with the exception of the BlackBerry which has a disappointingly poor browser. Media handling is good on most modern smartphones, although the iPhone has the disadvantage of having to be tied to a specific computer for mass media transfer. The iPhone also has an incomplete Bluetooth implementation for stereo headset usage. For size and weight, the iPhone and BlackBerry devices win over the 4+ inch Android smartphones that are less pocket friendly.

For now I’m torn between the Evo 4G, Samsung Captivate and BlackBerry Bold 9700. The BlackBerry 9800 slider may also get onto my shortlist if we ever get a release date. Even though the BlackBerry platform has much to do to catch up to the user experience of iOS and Android, its reliability continues to make it a compelling platform as a daily workhorse.

Neil Berman

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Jul 12, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Mobile | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On location with BlackBerry Bold Tour 2010

BlackBerry Bold Tour 2010This is the first weekend of RIM’s BlackBerry Bold on Tour, so I stopped by New York’s South Street Seaport to sample the Boldacious action.  Read about what I saw in my post at BerryReporter

Neil Berman

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Jul 11, 2010 Posted by | Mobile | , , , | Leave a comment

Pixel Qi screen on a smartphone?

Pixel Qi netbook screenIn these sunny summer days, each new smartphone review seems to dedicate a sentence to whether the device’s screen is viewable in daylight. So far no consumer smartphone on the market truly shines under the sun. While some fare better than others, the range is from useless to just passable.  We’ve been stuck here for a while now, but I’m hopeful that things are about to change for phone-loving sun worshippers.

Color screen technology with good refresh rates that is genuinely viewable in direct sunlight is starting to make its way into laptops.  Pixel Qi, which has been showing off prototype screens for some time now, recently launched a DIY kit for certain netbooks that sold out almost instantly. While Pixel Qi’s screens provide poorer color reproduction than leading Super AMOLEDs and LCDs, they are far more usable outdoors. So does it make sense for this technology to become available in smartphones too?

The answer is actually not crystal clear.  Yes it definitely makes sense for people who live primarily outdoor lives to not have their use-cases restricted by their smartphone screen.  However on the other side of the coin, those who love watching videos and playing games on their smartphone are likely to enjoy a richer experience from a Super AMOLED or LCD, even if that means a compromise in daylight.

There are also other players in this game.  When we step into the shoes of a retailer or manufacturer that wants to sell devices in a store, other considerations come to light.  Their marketing departments want a product that sells itself in a controlled retail environment, and a vibrant screen is part of that “wow” factor. We’ve seen this already in the laptop market with glossy screens which, placed next to more practical matte displays, look shiny, attractive and probably sell in higher volumes as a result.

Even if Pixel Qi echoes its laptop strategy by releasing DIY kits for smartphones, that would be a great start. This is a revolution that would need to start at grass roots to gain enough traction to win mass market mindshare and consequent retail implementation.  By that time hopefully the indoor capabilities of Pixel Qi’s screens may even rival current Super AMOLEDs and LCDs.

If this dream does become reality of course only solves half the problem; the smartphone itself must be built to sufficient tolerances that it can survive intense heat without shutting down. Some manufacturers are better at this than others, but perhaps having Pixel Qi’s screen technology in the smartphone market could be the push manufacturers need to improve their hardware engineering.

Neil Berman

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Jul 10, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Hardware, Mobile | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Get UZU while it’s free

UZU is an immediate favorite on my iPad, and it’s free to download for the 4th of July weekend. Get it now, it’s a creative masterpiece. Tip: the more fingers you use, the more wacky it gets.

Neil Berman

Jul 3, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Hardware, Reviews | , | Leave a comment

Microsoft Kin destined to become MBA case study

Microsoft Kin One Kin TwoThe Microsoft Kin…

a.k.a. The phone that’s so cute it took me five minutes to figure out how to make a call;
a.k.a. The teen phone that’s as expensive to run as an iPhone;
a.k.a. Right product, wrong price: MBA case study…

…is on it’s way out.

This is really sad. Kin is an exciting product marred by pricing that just doesn’t make sense for its target market, and that’s a shame for all those who have invested their blood, sweat and now tears in it.

Neil Berman

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Jul 1, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Microsoft, Mobile | , | Leave a comment

   

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