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Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V review

LG Optimus V 11In case you didn’t get the memo, Android is getting big. Ahem, ok so that’s an understatement, the platform is becoming hugely popular in the smartphone world as a competitor to Apple’s iPhone. Previously the preserve of monthly contract plans, some no-contract carriers now offer Android smartphones for a song, dance and some green. Virgin Mobile just launched the LG Optimus V Android 2.2 smartphone for an upfront cost of $149.99, and is asking for a measly $25 for a month’s worth of unlimited data, texts and 300 voice minutes. Is this the craziest deal of all time, or is the phone perhaps a stinker? To find out I scoped out seven (!) Radio Shacks until I found one with the smartphone in stock, and then I bought the sucker. Here’s my review after two weeks of daily usage.

LG Optimus V 5Virgin Mobile is shipping the LG Optimus V in a cardboard easy-open container, which is a welcome change from the sealed plastic ones used for previous models. Inside the box you’ll find the phone itself, a two piece USB charger (a cable with a separate plug attachment), headphones with handsfree capability, battery and manual.

For a budget smartphone, the LG Optimus V is a real looker. The main body of the phone is made of two soft touch pieces of black plastic that appear more premium than they sound. Between them across the top of the phone is what looks and feels like a brushed aluminum strip that houses the power button, headphone socket and volume controls. Further down the sides of the LG Optimus V are dedicated buttons for the camera and voice commands, as well as a slot for a Micro SD memory card. A USB charging port sits on the bottom of the smartphone.

The upscale look continues on the front of the LG Optimus V with the four standard Android buttons encased by shiny silver surrounds. It’s good to see hardware buttons rather than the software buttons of some Android devices that only light up when the phone is in use. Around the back things get a little cheaper looking, although it’s difficult LG Optimus V 2(and also less important) to make a phone’s battery cover look impressive. The back is simply a plastic cover with a cutout for the speaker and a silver surround for the camera. Can’t get excited about that, it looks okay, but you’ll spend more time looking at the front anyway.

In a world where most smartphones look pretty much the same, the LG Optimus V fits right in. So while the LG Optimus V is a budget device, most people looking over your shoulder would never know it.

In terms of interior specs, the LG Optimus V sports a 600MHz processor, 320×480 pixel capacitive touchscreen, Bluetooth 2.1 including A2DP & AVRCP for music streaming and remote playback control, a 3.2 megapixel camera without flash, A-GPS, WiFi and the whole shebang weighs in at 4.6 ounces (130 grams).

The LG Optimus V carries Google’s ‘with Google’ branding, so I was hoping for a pretty vanilla Android experience…and that’s pretty much what I found. From what I could see, apart from a couple of Virgin Mobile apps, the LG Optimus V appears to be running something very close to stock Android 2.2. So far all the apps I’ve downloaded from the Android Market have worked perfectly, such as Skype, Pulse and my new personal fave Google Translate. Bear in mind you can only make Skype calls over WiFi with the LG Optimus V.

LG Optimus V 10Even though the LG Optimus V doesn’t have the fastest processor on the planet I found the 600MHz CPU to be perfectly capable as a daily driver for the phone. In my mixed usage of email, browsing, YouTube, streaming audio over Bluetooth and playing Angry Birds, I only occasionally noticed hangs or delays. The LG Optimus V has generally been reliable, although it has spontaneously restarted itself twice in my two weeks of usage.

One welcome addition in the LG Optimus V is that it ships with Swype installed. This allows for fast typing by moving your finger across letters on the smartphone’s virtual keyboard. I was impressed with Swype on the Samsung Epic 4G and it’s all the more useful on the LG Optimus V since the Optimus lacks a hardware keyboard. Swype isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s definitely competent. I wrote this whole review on the LG Optimus V using Swype.

The screen on the LG Optimus V is not super high-res, but at 320×480 it’s dense enough for 3.2 inches of real estate, and I’ve found it to be perfectly usable. Then again, I’m not the kind of person who’s going to get out a magnifying glass and complain if I can see individual pixels. More importantly the screen can be cranked up to be up bright enough to be legible outdoors for occasional things like checking Google Maps or sending texts. Wearing polarized sunglasses also helps to minimize screen reflections when trying to read the LG Optimus V’s screen on sunny days.

LG Optimus V 7One thing I absolutely love about the LG Optimus V so far is its battery life. I’ve found it easy to get through a day with regular usage. I don’t spend all day on my phone mind you, but I do have it set up to pull email from multiple accounts regularly, stream music during my commute and update various feeds in the background. It’s refreshing to not have to turn off things like Bluetooth and background services during the day just to make sure I have enough juice for my journey home. Your mileage may vary though depending on how you use the LG Optimus V.

I’m guessing this power efficiency comes from a few factors. Firstly, the LG Optimus V has a slower processor than the 1GHz+ CPUs on the top end juice guzzling smartphones. Secondly, backlighting the LG Optimus V’s 3.2 inch screen probably uses less power compared to backlighting a 4+ inch screen on larger smartphones. Lastly the LG Optimus V uses 3G rather than 4G, which tends to require a lower power draw from the radio.

On that subject, I’ve seen some forum discussions questioning whether the LG Optimus V is restricted to 1x RTT. I can happily confirm that the LG Optimus V uses 3G where possible and downgrades to 1x RTT if the 3G signal is too weak.

In terms of connection speeds, in downtown Manhattan I’ve been experiencing download speeds that I think are fine for a phone with a smallish screen. In terms of specifics, I’ve measured consistent download speeds of around 1.1Mbps and upload speeds of around 0.4Mbps. For app downloading, watching HQ YouTube videos and listening to Pandora, that kind of speed is absolutely fine. It’s worth checking coverage in your area before you take the plunge though, and bear in mind that Virgin Mobile uses Sprint’s network. So if your area has good Sprint 3G coverage then

LG Optimus V indoor photo 2

The Optimus V captures a decent amount of detail on this indoor shot of Halo with good ambient lighting

you should be fine. Having said that, Virgin Mobile does have a 30 day return policy, so you could always take advantage of that if you’re not happy.

There are a couple of downsides to the LG Optimus V. Firstly, it’s camera is okay for quick snaps but nothing to write home about . It only has a 3.2 megapixel sensor and lacks a flash, so photos in well lit environments come out far better than those taken in dimly lit rooms. I’d really like to see a decent 5 megapixel sensor with a flash as standard on all smartphones. Secondly although the LG Optimus V can record video, it’s not capable of capturing HD footage. Again, I think being able to shoot in 720p should soon be the minimum for smartphones. Lastly the LG Optimus V only ships with a 2GB Micro SD card, so it’s worth setting aside some extra green if you need more storage for your extensive music collection. Given the LG Optimus V’s price though, these issues are easily forgiven since on balance this smartphone is far more capable than its price would indicate.

Check out our review of the new Virgin Mobile Motorola Triumph!

Overall I’ve been seriously impressed with the Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V. It handles run-of-the-mill smartphone tasks competently, looks good and is cheap to run. I was worried that the LG Optimus V might be a let down because of its low price, but in reality it’s possibly the best smartphone value on the US market today.

Neil Berman


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Feb 27, 2011 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , | 12 Comments

OnStar Skype and Internet concept

Looking back through my gigabytes of CES footage, I stumbled across this cool vid that I hadn’t previously posted. There was a handsome new shape Buick Lacrosse at Verizon’s booth that OnStar had decked out with all kinds of gadgety funkiness. The Lacrosse had a built-in Verizon’s 4G LTE modem with tricked out software that allowed the navigation screen to pull data from the Internet such as headlines and YouTube vids. Perhaps even more amazing were the exterior cameras that captured a collision to help catch the perp, and an interior camera for live Skype video calling. It’s just a concept for now, but this all looked pretty much ready for primetime. Here’s hoping!

Neil Berman

Feb 5, 2011 Posted by | CES, Hardware, Mobile, Video Features | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

BlackBerry PlayBook hands-on – Update: Now with video!

BlackBerry PlayBookI just scored some hands-on time with RIM’s answer to the iPad: the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet.  Unlike the larger iPad, the PlayBook sports a 7″ screen but a faster dual core processor.  The tablet’s construction feels good, as we would expect from RIM, and the touchscreen’s responsiveness is great.  The bezel is also active, although it will be interesting to see whether or not this is a good idea after sustained use.  I know I hold my iPad along the bezel all the time, and I wouldn’t want it to respond to my hand movements.  For example, to BlackBerry PlayBook 3bring up the open applications view, you swipe a finger upwards on the PlayBook’s bottom screen bezel.

What I saw was a pre-production unit, but the PlayBook’s performance was impressive.  Multiple applications were open and simultaneously active, even in the task viewer.  I would expect that kind of thing would be a battery destroyer, but it sure looked amazing.  The PlayBook seems to be aimed at either being a home multimedia tablet, or an add-on for a BlackBerry.  There didn’t seem to be a mail client actually on the PlayBook itself, and the BlackBerry rep said that the idea is to go to a browser to view email, or view it through a connected BlackBerry smartphone.

The PlayBook will share the BlackBerry App World, so I guess we might see dedicated email and other messaging apps coming out for the tablet.  However I’d really like to see some dedicated messaging apps, as well as a promise of thousands of apps coming soon for the PlayBook.  It’s launching in March, and if it’s just going to be positioned as an internet tablet with a BlackBerry hook-up, I fear it may get crushed in the consumer space by the iPad, and the wealth of apps that will likely start coming out for Android Honeycomb tablets like the Motorola Xoom.

Here’s the video of what went down…

Neil Berman

Jan 6, 2011 Posted by | CES, Hardware, Mobile, Video Features | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Travel safe

Lenovo ThinkPad Secure USB Drive 3CES is about the future, but it’s also a time to think about the past; specifically keeping the past safe when traveling by backing-up.

Many of us just have one laptop, and when traveling the data on that computer is at greater risk than normal. The extra movement and possible bumps and scrapes during a journey can place hard drives in harm’s way.

Backing-up is not just about traveling of course. It’s always a good idea to have at least three copies of your data, and keep at least one copy stored in a different location to your main home/work location. Now that large capacity portable drives have come down in price, they’re perfect for affordably backing up important media files and documents. Most of the small USB drives don’t need an external power supply and although they current max out at around 500GB, that’s probably big enough for the key documents, photos and other memories that you’d prefer not to lose.

You can get a bit more serious by using an encrypted drive. These help to keep your data safer from prying eyes, which is especially important when traveling if you don’t know how secure your lodgings might be.

Lenovo ThinkPad Secure USB Drive 2I use a 320GB Lenovo ThinkPad Secure USB Drive when I travel. It has 128-bit AES encryption and a user-definable 6-24 digit PIN number which you enter into the drive’s keypad to unlock access to its data.  The drive has a built-in USB cable and doesn’t need an external power supply as long as your computer can supply enough power through its USB ports.  Lenovo includes an adapter so that you can use two USB ports for extra power if necessary, but I’ve never needed to use that accessory; it’s nice to have in case though.  It also comes in a soft travel pouch.  The drive inside the case spins at 5400RPM and I normally see a sustained data transfer speed of around 20MB/s when writing to the drive using Windows 7.

If this sounds wallet-crushingly expensive, I bought my drive direct from Lenovo’s outlet site for $75 some time ago, and when I last looked on their regular site Lenovo was selling the 160GB version for $49.99 brand new. I think that’s a small price to pay for some extra piece of mind. Travel safe.

Neil Berman


Jan 3, 2011 Posted by | Guides, Hardware, Reviews | , , | Leave a comment

2010: The year that changed computers and TV?

Halo TV iPadHappy New Year to all of our readers!! If you’re already in 2011, what’s it like on the other side? On behalf of those of us still in 2010, we’re jealous of the cool fireworks that have been going on.

2010 turned out to be a pretty surprising year. Coming out of a recession it looked like the year would be a damp squib, but in fact consumer electronics spending held strong as we became ever-more obsessed with gadgets.

There were some technologies failed to make an impression, like 3DTV. I’m sure that next week I’ll see a whole new round of excitement around this technology even though consumers don’t seem all that interested in owning it at home. Even some of this year’s 3D hollywood blockbusters disappointed; Tron Legacy springs to mind, which asked moviegoers to pay 3D prices even though much of the movie was presented in 2D. The 2D parts of the movie were too dark with glasses on and more enjoyable with them off…but what’s the point in swapping them in and out for 2D and 3D footage?

The BlackBerry platform surprised us for an unexpected reason. While RIM’s smartphone strategy failed to impress with the disappointing Torch, the company surprised everyone with its PlayBook QNX announcement. I’m not sure if that’s enough to save the company long term though. I still believe that once corporates move away from the BlackBerry platform in larger numbers, the consumer market will choose to sustain the Apple, Google and Microsoft mobile offerings at the expense of RIM’s.

For me the most surprising aspect of 2010 was that the iPad really did turn out to be revolutionary after all. It completely changed the way we look at tablet computers and introduced new people to the computing world, both young and old. For kids aged 6-12 years, their most wanted gadget this holiday season was an iPad. Not a Nintendo DS, or a PSP, or a cellphone. They wanted a tablet computer; that’s how profoundly the iPad impacted the market.

Competitors weren’t ready for this. Microsoft thought they could pre-empt it by showing off the HP slate at CES 2010, and that product didn’t get very far in the consumer realm. Samsung got snubbed by Google for releasing the Galaxy Tab with Android 2.2. Even so, the Tab did put in a decent showing in sales volumes, although I’ve only ever seen one unit in someone’s hands outside of a store, review or trade show.

Netbooks also fell prey to the iPad’s assault. As iPad sales continued to increase throughout 2010, netbook sales suffered. Now nobody really seems interested in the sector at all, but that’s also because low priced ultraportables with decent processors are now hitting the market at under $500.

2010 also turned out to be the year that the mass market got excited about streaming content to their living room TV. With easy to use, high quality services like Netflix gaining huge popularity, Roku and Apple sold good numbers of their tiny set top boxes. Google had a different experience with Google TV, releasing a product that clearly hadn’t gone through a full round of consultation with TV networks, who promptly blocked the devices from streaming their online shows. But the overriding theme is that consumers definitely want to pull content directly into their living room from the internet.

The iPad changed the way we perceive computers and family-friendly content streamers changed the way mainstream consumers want to watch TV. Not bad for a year that was setup to be a “Meh” year in consumer electronics. Bring on 2011!

Neil Berman

Dec 31, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Computing, Hardware, Microsoft, Mobile, Rants | , , , , | Leave a comment

This gadget life: Buying a GPS

TomTom and Garmin took a hit a while ago when Google released free turn-by-turn navigation on Android phones. The GPS market is still alive and well however as I found out recently.

I don’t use Android on my daily phone so I have a choice of subscribing to AT&T’s GPS navigation service on my BlackBerry, using a dedicated GPS unit or having an argument in the car. Since the arguments rarely end well for me and the AT&T service costs more than a low end GPS after a few months, I decided to look at a dedicated unit.

tomtom-xl-340s-gpsThere are really two major players in this market: TomTom and Garmin. Nipping at their heels Magellan, Mio and Motorola have a certain level of presence on the lower store shelves but they’ve never managed to get a strong foothold in the market.

So I chose to concentrate my search on TomTom and Garmin, on the basis that the market can’t be totally misguided. Guess what I found? This is one of the craziest sectors in consumer electronics.

In terms of street prices, the vast majority of GPS products are compressed between $100-250, but within that range there are probably a total of around 20 devices to choose from just from TomTom and Garmin alone. That’s epically confusing.

So what are the main differentiating factors between units? Free vs paid map and traffic updates, clever route guidance and output qualities (screen size, speaker volume). There are a few others like Bluetooth phone integration and FM transmission of routing instructions through a car radio, but by and large these features seem to be hit and miss in their execution. What I mean is, there are too many reports of Bluetooth GPS to phone hookups not quite working and FM transmissions being unreliable when the car is moving at speed to base purchasing confidence on these features. The first three however are known quantities and are the bread & butter of the industry.

Free vs paid map and traffic updates

When you buy an old style road map, AKA ‘a book’, you’re buying a static map that is perhaps a year or so old. If you drive to new places a lot, you might buy a new map book every year to be aware of new roads. You can do the same thing with a GPS; maps get updated a few times a year and you can normally buy a new map download for your device. Sounds simple, but the reality is an expensive proposition. Map updates can easily cost over $50, so you may well prefer to just buy a new device instead as both TomTom and Garmin GPS units typically come with a guarantee that you will have access to the latest map when you buy the device. Subsequent map updates are a pay option.

Both TomTom and Garmin sell GPS units that give lifetime map updates for free, which are a good deal if you plan to use the device for a number of years. The road network isn’t materially changing every day but it does change significantly over a period of years. Two way roads become one way, highway exits get opened/closed and, less frequently, new roads get built.

garmin-nuvi-760TomTom comes out on top here since it has plenty more affordable devices available with lifetime free map updates than Garmin. Plus TomTom has a community feature called MapShare, where owners can submit map updates which then cascade to other participants which is a great way to keep the device up to date. MapShare only works if the device’s current map is less than a year old, so it’s not a long term replacement for buying a new map.

Many TomTom and Garmin GPS units can also receive traffic information over FM and re-route you to avoid snarl-ups. Again both companies offer units that provide this service free for the life of the device. With traffic updates, both TomTom and Garmin have plenty of affordable devices that offer the service for free. The one differentiating factor is that many Garmin units have an FM receiver built into the unit whereas most TomTom get reception through an external antenna that is part of the car charger cable. Garmin FTW on traffic.

Clever routing

I’ll say upfront that this seems to be roughly a tie. TomTom has a clever system on most of its GPS units called ‘IQ Routes’ that calculates routes based on historical traffic patterns for the area and time of day that you are traveling. Garmin meanwhile has ‘trafficTrends’, which does a similar job, although few of its units have this feature.  Most of the research I’ve read indicates that on some occasions one system is better and on others, the competing system prevails.

Output qualities

Both TomTom and Garmin offer GPS units with regular 3.5″ and widescreen 4.3″ screens. TomTom also has some affordable 5″ devices. It seems that the Garmin devices are generally brighter than comparable TomTom units, although TomTom owners don’t seem to actively complain that they are unable to view the screen of their GPS.

It’s a different matter when it comes to speaker volume, where TomTom owners seem to praise the loudness of their devices which is important if you like to listen to the car radio at a decent volume. By comparison there is plenty of feedback out there from Garmin owners complaining that they have to keep an eye on their GPS in case its instructions are drowned out by the radio. Some of the TomTom units also have adaptive volume settings that output louder instructions on the highway.

Any recommendations?

Like I mentioned earlier, I mainly considered the three factors above. I was definitely interested in Bluetooth and FM transmitter features, the hands-free phone capability is appealing and makes all the more sense when coupled with anXL340TM FM transmitter for hearing callers over the car radio. I’ve had experience with in-car FM transmitters in the past and can certainly attest that reception can be hit and miss, so I decided to pass on the feature.

I decided that I wanted a widescreen GPS to make it easier to read all the info that gets crammed into the screen, and 4.3″ was big enough for my needs. It seemed to be a tie on routing but I liked the crowdsourcing idea of MapShare for getting up to date info from the community.  The price difference between devices with lifetime maps and traffic updates vs the same model without those features was close enough to make the lifetime updates seem like a good idea. Finally I wanted to be able to hear instructions clearly over whatever was piping through the car radio.

All of that guided me to the TomTom XL340S-TM. The XL bit means it has a 4.3″ widescreen, the S means it has some nice extras like spoken street names and lane guidance for funky highway exits and the TM means it has free lifetime traffic and map updates.  There are some pretty good deals available online for this unit.

I then proceeded to download the Eric Cartman voice, so the TomTom now curses at me even when I’m going the right way.  I feel that’s a regression from my passenger navigator who only cursed occasionally, but she tells me  it’s progress.

Neil Berman

Dec 25, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

EFO iPazzPort multitouch review

EFO iPazzPort backlightSo far we’ve reviewed each EFO iPazzPort model revision and enjoyed seeing this cute mini-controller develop into an excellent product. One of our wishes of previous models was for EFO to add multitouch capability to the iPazzPort. Well EFO has been listening because lo and behold the latest iPazzPort is multitouch aware.

EFO iPazzPort multitouchMuch of this fourth generation model is identical to the third gen, so have a look at our review of that iPazzPort for a more detailed look at this wireless controller. Cosmetically they both look the same, with identical key layouts and black or white color choices. The key feel is the same, with rubber keys giving a decent typing experience if not quite at the BlackBerry level of feedback.

One interesting change is that the fourth gen iPazzPort stays awake constantly, whereas the third gen model would go to sleep after a short time to save battery. There are pros and cons to each approach. The third gen model can definitely go longer between charges if you’re only using it occasionally, but it needs a wake-up key press when used after a few minutes. Perhaps owners were complaining that the trackpad wasn’t responding, when they needed to press a key to wake the controller. Whatever the situation, the fourth gen is constantly available which is nice, but needs more frequent juice-ups as a result.

So how is the multitouch on the new iPazzport? Well it just worked straight out of the box with Windows 7. Two finger web page scrolling with the iPazzPort was great, although Windows does not provide quite as fluid an experience as Mac OSX – but that’s an issue with Windows rather than the iPazzPort.

The addition of multitouch makes the new iPazzPort an even more usable wireless controller for a living room HTPC. Plus with third gen’s other features like the laser pointer and access to incidental and function keys remaining intact on the new model, EFO has a strong device on offer here.

Neil Berman

Nov 29, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kinect for Xbox 360 review

KinectArms a-flailin’, legs a-kickin’ and heads a-bobbin’. That’s the view that Kinect gets as you and your pals progressively lose your inhibitions.

The genre of action gaming, made groundbreakingly popular by the Nintendo Wii, has taken a while to migrate to the Xbox and PS3. Finally with Sony’s Move and Microsoft’s Kinect, the wait is over. So has the wait been worth it?

First impressions of the Kinect

The Kinect ships in a thankfully small box, which is easy to carry home for instant gratification purposes. Inside the box, the Kinect sensor takes up most of the space, with a setup guide, the Kinect Adventures game and a one piece cable with power and USB connectors in there as well.

The Kinect sensor is actually smaller and more premium looking than I was expecting. It’s a glossy black plastic affair, with a rubberized base that helps it perch on top of your favorite TV. The main unit is connected to the base with a little silver neck.

The setup guide is easy to follow and installation took just a few minutes as the Kinect progressed to calibrate itself by looking around and listening to ambient noise in the room. An automatic update was also downloaded during the installation process. After that I was all set.

Using the Kinect

When you start up an Xbox 360 with the Kinect installed, the regular dashboard appears and then the Kinect needs another few seconds to start up. You can then interact with the Kinect by waving a hand in the air or by talking to it. Both methods work well, but the voice control likes a quiet room to help the Kinect to understand what you’re saying.

The regular dashboard scoots away and the Kinect dashboard, or Hub as it’s known, appears. From within the Hub you make selections either buy holding your hand steady over a tile for a couple of seconds or speaking the name of the tile you want to engage. I expect most people will choose hand waving, unless you have a quiet room in which case vocal instructions are a viable option. The hand waving is intuitive and easy to use; the first time I tried, I didn’t hold my hand steady for long enough and the selection didn’t engage. But when you get used to sticking a steady hand in the air it becomes second nature.

Once you’ve engaged the Kinect into action, we hit the first hitch. Unfortunately only a few of the Xbox’s capabilities are available through the Kinect Hub. You can access the game disc currently in the drive, a very limited amount of DLC such as ESPN and some other video content, but that’s pretty much it. There’s no access to Netflix or the remaining bounty of good stuff we’ve come to love from the living room friendly world of Xbox.

I would expect that the Xbox dashboard and Kinect Hub will converge in time as more Xbox apps become compatible with the Kinect. But at the moment it feels like we are in the dangerous territory of having two parallel software interfaces coexisting on the platform.

I’ve been using the Kinect with two launch titles: Dance Central, which seems to have been the most popular title so far and Kinect Adventures, which ships with the Kinect. I’ll start with Dance Central, which is a dance game that fills the dual role of being both amazingly good fun and getting you in shape.

Dance Central includes a decent selection of songs that have their own dance moves. As you progress through the game learning the moves, the Kinect tells you how good your dancing is and is very responsive to your movements. You can slow down the action if you’re having difficulty nailing a particular step.

What makes Dance Central so amazing is that I completely forgot that the Kinect sensor was even there. I felt like I was interacting with the game tutor in my own private dance class. There was nothing to hold or wave, no sensor mats to walk on, nothing strapped to my body relaying information. The beauty of the Kinect is that when games work well, they’re wonderfully immersive.

After a good shot of not dancing very well, but sweating profusely, I turned to Kinect Adventures. This bundled game is a collection of simple active games that do a good job of showcasing the Kinect’s ability to track multiple players with fun games. There are five mini games in Kinect Adventures that all require active play. Kinect Adventures is a mild to very active game; at the extreme end of the scale Reflex Ride will have you jumping constantly to propel a cart, while dodging obstacles in your path. It’s a non-stop sweat ride, in a good way.

Some of the games, like Rallyball, demonstrate how Kinect can sense the arrival of a second player and turn a game instantly from being a one player into a two player game. It’s seriously cool to see your avatar walking into the Rallyball court and just start to play alongside the existing player. You can then walk off and the game continues, but with one player.

Kinect Adventures lacks the depth of Dance Central, but is a more immediate and better party game. It’s also free with the Kinect, and plays better than you might expect of a free game.

Some Kinect downsides

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. If you’re expecting the Minority Report experience (I wasn’t but I continue to live in hope), then brace yourself for disappointment. Precogs do not ship with the Kinect at this time. Joking aside, the hand gestures work well but lack the fluidity of the Minority Report aspiration. Ultimately the Kinect sensor has to be able to figure out if you just waving your hand or actually performing a gesture, so the couple of second confirmation period makes sense.

Occasionally the Kinect sensor became confused when two players were in the room. Sometimes it would give menu control to player one and on other occasions it would switch to player two. Not a biggie, but inconsistent.

Speaking of rooms, now we know why the early demos were done in such spacious environments. Kinect likes a spacious room. The setup guide asks for the Kinect sensor to be 6ft away from you for one player games and 8ft away for two players. That’s a stretch in my New York City shoebox, and it’s worth bearing in mind if you’re planning to buy the Kinect to use it in a small room. The distance from my TV to my sofa is just over 8ft and we were able to play one and two player games fine; although during two player games the Kinect occasionally asked one of us to move backward if we started edging forwards during the limb-waving hysteria.

Does Kinect raise the bar for action gaming?

Overall my Kinect experience has been hugely enjoyable. Aside from a couple of minor issues, I’ve been immersed into the game environment in a way that could only be bettered by Tron. Graphically we seem to be a little stuck in Wii-world, so I’d love to see a Call Of Duty for Kinect. That would take the experience to a whole new level altogether.

Neil Berman

Nov 22, 2010 Posted by | Gaming, Hardware, Microsoft | , , , , | Leave a comment

Mini-review of the Samsung Galaxy Tab

Samsung Galaxy Tab

I scored some playtime with the Samsung Galaxy Tab earlier this week.  For newbies out there, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab is the foremost Android-based tablet competitor to the iPad both in price and intended usage.  That’s where the similarities end however.

The Galaxy Tab has a seven inch LCD screen (not AMOLED) that provides approximately half of the screen real estate of the iPad’s 9.7 inch IPS panel.  The Galaxy Tab is correspondingly around 50% lighter as well, weighing in at 0.84 lbs compared to 1.5lbs for the iPad.  The operating systems are obviously different too, with the iPad running an iPad-optimized version of iOS, whereas the Galaxy Tab runs Android 2.2 with some Samsung app enhancements to make the experience more tablet-

 

Samsung Galaxy Tab keyboard

The Samsung Galaxy Tab docked with its optional keyboard

 

friendly.  The Galaxy Tab is likely to be available on various carriers contract-free for around $599-$649 and on a two year contract for around $399.

I’ll keep this short.  The Galaxy Tab is a disappointment for the large amount of money being asked.  As a contract-free proposition it costs around the same as an iPad 3G.  I won’t even go into the pros and cons of locking yourself into a 2 year contract by buying a Galaxy Tab at the lower price.  I can’t see why anyone would want to do that when Google has said that the version of Android running on the Tab shouldn’t be used on tablets.  It’s pretty clear that since future versions of Android are rolling out (imminently) and the CEA said this week that eighty Android tablets are coming in the next 6-9 months, I can’t imagine who would want to be locked into a 2.2 device for two years with no guarantee of a software upgrade to a possible future tablet-blessed version of Android.

Using the Galaxy Tab was pretty near identical to using a large screened Android smartphone, except that the Galaxy Tab is unable to make regular voice calls.  Most apps looked the same as their smartphone equivalents but were just larger, which seemed to defeat the benefit of having more screen real estate.  Unlike the Samsung Epic 4G, loading web pages was a little slow on the Galaxy Tab but I’ll put that down to the WiFi connection where I was using it since a lot of people were pulling data at the same time.  What I can’t excuse the Galaxy Tab for however is that once pages were loaded, scrolling and zooming was laggy compared to the Samsung Epic 4G which is buttery smooth in this regard.  The physical look and feel of the Galaxy Tab is okay, but there is no real premium feel to the device.  It does look nice and feels solid, but it’s an all plastic affair rather than a more upmarket metal design.

I’m in two minds about the merits of the seven inch screen.  Like the iPad, the Galaxy Tab is too large to put in a regular trouser or coat pocket, so it is unlikely to go everywhere with you.  Given that limitation I’m not sure if the seven inch screen conceptually works.  Let’s say you carry a four inch smartphone daily and your use-case for the Galaxy Tab is to carry it occasionally or use it at home for larger screen browsing and media consumption.  I’m not sure why you wouldn’t just choose the iPad instead, since Samsung Galaxy Tab web browserwith a screen that’s around 100% bigger you really can do a lot more; it’s not as if the iPad is materially less portable.  By comparison, even though the Galaxy Tab’s screen is much larger than a four inch smartphone screen, it’s still not really big enough to fully enjoy desktop versions of websites unlike the iPad.

My biggest concern about the Galaxy Tab however is the one I previously wrote about; I think this device is heading for a soft fail.  There just isn’t enough software that takes advantage of the Tab’s seven inch screen to make it compelling just yet.  The Wall Street Journal Android tablet app is probably the first high profile release, but the Tab-optimized app selection is tiny compared to the tens of thousands of iPad-optimized apps.

Would I buy a Galaxy Tab right now?  Dedicated Android followers will undoubtedly enjoy the Tab, but based upon what I’ve seen so far I’d have to say that the iPad is a better proposition for typical Main Street users.  I really want there to be good Android tablets out there to push the overall market to a higher level, and Samsung has done a solid job with the hardware, but the software is just not in place yet to turn the Tab into the market leader.  If a good selection of optimized apps gets released then I’d be willing to give the Galaxy Tab a second look, but for now I can’t see a compelling mass-market case for buying one over the similarly priced iPad.

Neil Berman

Nov 12, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hands-on with Sennheiser’s MM550 stereo Bluetooth headphones

Around this time last year we went hands-on with the Sennheiser MM450 stereo Bluetooth heaphones.  They sounded great but were expensive, around twice the price of Nokia’s BH-905 and even more still than Sony’s excellent (but not noise cancelling) DR-BT50.  Sennheiser has updated the MM450 with the MM550 which, unlike the on-ear MM450, sports a closed back design. Just like the MM450, the MM550 is able to stream music over Bluetooth (A2DP), handle calls and offers playback remote controls (AVRCP).  I scored a listening session with the MM550 this week and here are my impressions.

Update: We’ve now written a full review of the Sennheiser MM550, or you can continue on this page and read our initial hands-on impressions.

Features of the Sennheiser MM550

  • NoiseGard™ 2.0 noise cancelling technology, available when using the MM550 either wirelessly or wired
  • Stereo Bluetooth A2DP, AVRCP and hands-free calling
  • TalkThrough – one press of a button turns on the external microphone so you can hear outside sounds without removing the headset
  • Neodymium magnets and patented Duofol diaphragms
  • SRS WOW HD™ sound enhancer
  • Large closed back ear cups
  • Direct cable option
  • Integrated track and volume controls
  • Collapsible and a carry case is included

Listening to the Sennheiser MM550

In the demo the MM550 was paired to a Motorola Droid and the pairing process was straightforward.  I was in a fairly noisy environment and the noise cancelling was turned on when I put on the MM550.  Outside noise was significantly attenuated although by no means silenced.  As with most noise-cancelling headphones I was able to hear people speaking around me but there was a notable difference between when the noise-cancelling was engaged vs disengaged.

When I pressed play on the MM550 it was immediately clear that this is a rocking set of cans.  The SRS WOW HD enhancer was switched on and, while I’m not a fan of that feature on Motorola’s S9-HD, on the MM550 it produces a superb  sound.  Basslines are solidly resolved, there’s an airy top end that creates a perception of openness and the soundstage is wide without sounding artificially stretched.  What’s great of course is that with the noise cancelling turned on, you can enjoy all of this at lower volume levels.  This is the kind of reproduction though that makes you want to crank it up to 11; a truly engaging, driving and yet non-fatiguing sound.

Interestingly all of that good stuff went away when I disengaged the SRS WOW HD.  I often find that headsets that have enhancers sound great in one state but not both.  Typically I prefer the natural balance of the headphones with the enhancer switched off, as long as the engineers have done a good job.  With the MM550 however the sound became empty and tinny with the SRS WOW HD disengaged.  Now admittedly I only spent a limited time listening to the MM550 but I honestly don’t think this was a perception issue as I switched between the on and off positions of the enhancer.

Other funky features of the MM550 include TalkThrough, which mutes the music and activates the external mic so you can hear outside sounds.  This worked well and is a very useful feature.  The MM550 is also collapsible for portability.  It’s not quite as compact when folded as the Sony DR-BT50, but the collapsing is a handy feature.  The MM550 also comes with a detachable cable for use as regular wired headphones, which makes them good travelling companions for travelers who want to make use of in-seat entertainment and other wired sound sources.

The Sennheiser MM550 is rated to give 20 hours of talk time, or 8h/10h of wireless music playback with/without noise-canceling engaged.  Although I would love to listen to the MM550 for that amount of time, I didn’t have the opportunity to test these claims.  I also didn’t try making any calls with the MM550.  I did however try all the playback and volume controls, which worked fine when paired with the Motorola Droid.

If you’re reaching for your wallet, I’ll warn you that the MM550 will retail at $499 so it’s unlikely to fit within all budgets.  If money’s no object though, for music lovers they’re definitely the best sounding stereo Bluetooth headphones I’ve heard.

Neil Berman

Nov 10, 2010 Posted by | Audio, Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Samsung Epic 4G review: Part 1

Samsung Epic 4G

Epic – that’s a big word. Sprint and Samsung are suggesting that this member of the Galaxy S family is not merely vibrant, fascinating or even captivating. No, they’re saying it’s epic, like the Godzilla of smartphones. That’s a bold claim, especially in such a competitive space. After all, making an epic claim like that could lay you wide open if the device is an epic fail. We held back on asking Sprint for a review unit until the carrier switched on 4G in New York. The network went live a few days ago and here’s our review, so what kind of epic is the Epic 4G?

First impressions of the Epic 4G

The Epic 4G ships in a regular Sprint and Samsung branded box. Inside are an assortment of guides together with wired headphones that serve as a hands-free set, a USB cable and power adaptor. The power adaptor is one of those nice small block designs with a USB port that allows owners to connect the same USB cable as supplied for the Epic 4G’s connection to a computer. That’s a nice touch for travelers and we’d like to see more manufacturers following suit (several already do this).

The Epic 4G itself is a smart-looking device. It’s a Galaxy S device and as such the front surface is an all black glossy affair. The back is matte black with a chrome surround separating the two. Sliding the screen up reveals a landscape keyboard with flat keys bordered by the chrome surround. Some reviewers have commented that the Epic 4G is too plasticky compared to other flagship competitors, but we think the Epic 4G’s look and feel works well, especially with the keyboard exposed. Below the screen, capacitive Menu, Back, Search and Home buttons light up when needed.

There’s a front facing camera for video calling as well as a five megapixel rear camera with LED flash that is also capable of shooting HD video at 720p. Around the sides are a volume rocker, dedicated camera two-stop shutter and power button. The top of the Epic 4G houses the headphone socket and micro-USB charging port. Hidden inside the back plate is a MicroSD card slot, and the Epic 4G ships from Sprint with a 16GB MicroSD card already fitted. While we prefer externally accessible MicroSD card slots, the one on the Epic 4G is accessible without needing to remove the battery although you do of course need to snap off the back plate.

The five row keyboard is fully featured, with a well designed partially staggered Qwerty layout. The Epic 4G sports a dedicated number key row, as well as dedicated cursor arrows and keys replicating the front plate’s Menu, Back, Search and Home buttons. There is also a dedicated key to access emoticons. Symbols are accessed either using the Fn or Sym keys. Samsung have clearly put some good thinking into the keyboard design.

Hiding beneath all of this is a Cortex A8 Hummingbird processor humming along at 1GHz.  There is 512MB RAM and 512MB ROM, WiFi supporting 802.11b/g/n and GPS.  The screen is a Super AMOLED at 800×480 and the whole package weighs in at 155g.  That’s pretty respectable compared to the closest keyboard-bearing competitors; the Epic 4G is 14g lighter than the Motorola Droid 2 and 25g less than the T-Mobile G2.

All that horsepower is driving Android 2.1, with and update to 2.2 believed to be on the way. Samsung has layered its Touch Wiz skin on top of that, and Sprint has added its own apps such as Sprint TV and Navigation that are included in the Simply Everything package.  As with the HTC Evo 4G, Sprint asks for an extra $10 each month to enjoy the privilege of unlimited 4G data (although the equivalent plans still undercut Verizon and AT&T) and the Epic 4G itself costs $249.99 on a new contract after rebates.

If that’s got you all hot and bothered, stay tuned for the rest of the review which is coming soon.  Or if you just can’t hold yourself back, dive into the gallery and sample photos that we shot using the Epic 4G.

Neil Berman

Nov 8, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews, Video Features | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Can the Samsung Epic 4G replace a pocket HD video cam?

While we complete our review of the Samsung Epic 4G, here’s some food for thought.  The Epic 4G can serve as a Sprint 4G mobile hotspot, potentially cutting the need to pay for separate a home internet.  It can handle the general smartphone stuff with ease too.  But does it have the chops to take a pocket HD video cam out of the frame as well?  We tested the Epic 4G’s HD video recorder in various light and motion scenarios and here’s what we discovered…

Remember to choose 720p if you want to watch in HD rather than the default 360/480p.

Neil Berman

Nov 7, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews, Video Features | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MacBook Air (late 2010) review

MacBook AirLet’s be honest, the original MacBook Air was beautifully flawed. Outwardly it was a desirable laptop, but under that pretty aluminum exterior all was not swell. Overheating, under performing and overpriced, the original MacBook Air failed to achieve mainstream success. With the new models, though, Apple has rewritten the playbook.  This 13″ 1.86GHz 2/128 model has superior specs to the previous version while putting itself on offer for hundreds of dollars less at $1,299.  Let’s see what it’s like…

First impressions of the MacBook Air

MacBook Air restore USB driveAs with all Apple products the Macbook Air comes in nicely designed packaging. There’s precious little in the box, just the Macbook Air, magsafe power adaptor with extension cable, start guide and a unique USB flash restore thumbdrive. The Macbook Air doesn’t have an optical drive so the inclusion of the USB thumbdrive is a cool idea and feels like the way forward for future laptops.

The original MacBook Air was svelte, but the new model raises the bar even further.  0.68 inches at its thickest, the new MacBook Air tapers to just 0.11 inches at the front.  It really is remarkable and made possible due to the all solid-state nature of the guts of the beast.  The hard drive of the old model has given way to an SSD on a bare circuit board, which saves precious millimeters of height.  The weight meanwhile has remained at 2.9lbs, presumably because any space and weight efficiencies have allowed for more battery cells.

MacBook Air logoIt’s difficult to describe just how stunning this new MacBook Air really is, so I suggest you feast your eyes on the photos in the gallery.  In my view this is the best looking laptop ever made, it’s definitely worth making a trip to a store just to fondle it if you have the opportunity.

Around the sides of the MacBook Air are two USB ports, an SD card slot (only on the 13″ model), a mini display port, headphone socket, microphone and charging port.  The keyboard is the standard MacBook chicklet affar, the trackpad is able to register four-fingered multi-touch gestures and the screen is LED-backlit like the previous MacBook Air.  There’s a webcam above the screen and the speakers are nowhere to be seen, but they’re in there somewhere.  The underside has four black feet and that’s it.

Using the MacBook Air

In many ways using the new MacBook Air is a similar experience to the old one, except pretty much everything that was problematic about the original has been resolved in the new model.  MacBook AirFirstly, the replacement of the unpleasantly slow 4200rpm hard drive with the new SSD has resulted in a 13.7 second boot time and 1.6 second shutdown time.  That speed bump carries over to application launch times, which are fast.  Most apps seem to launch with one or two seconds and the whole system feels extremely snappy even though the processor has remained the same.  It just goes to show how much of a bottleneck can be created by a slow hard drive.

The speediness of the new MacBook Air carries over to its graphics capabilities, as the new model has been stepped up to a GeForce 320M.  While no graphics powerhouse, the new model handles full screen video very capably, without any alarmingly heat buildup.  I was able to stream a 1080p YouTube video without any problems.  Sure the underside does become warm, but far less than other laptops I’ve used recently, and when the fan does kick-in, it’s whisper quiet.

Battery life was a big disappointment with the original MacBook Air; while the specs promised 5 hours, I never seemed to be able to get more than 2-3 in actual usage.  The new 13″ MacBook Air promises 7 hours and, although I haven’t done a full drain test, it feels pretty accurate.  Apple is definitely making strides in this department, as we saw earlier this year with the iPad which also delivered as promised on battery life.

The trackpad, keyboard and screen work just like a 13″ MacBook Pro, so I’ll hold off on going into specific detail here.  On the software side, the new MacBook Air ships with OSX 10.6 Snow Leopard and iLife ’11 as with the rest of the current MacBook range.

On the downside, there is no option to specify a backlit keyboard.  In my view this is a real omission, as using the MacBook Air in a dimly lit room or on a night flight for example becomes very problematic.  This can be partially remediated by using a USB gooseneck light, but it’s not a particularly elegant solution.

The 13″ MacBook Air’s 128GB of storage (upgradeable to 256GB) is potentially limiting if you have a large media collection.  Personally I think 128GB is enough storage for most users’ music and photo collections, plus a range of apps, on the basis that most video content is streamed from the likes of Netflix and Hulu these days.  There’s always the option to use a portable drive for the rest of your content.  I could easily cope with this amount of storage for my main computer, as long as I had a little 2.5″ 500GB USB drive in my bag for video edit footage and backups.

Is the new MacBook Air a good buy?

Many commentators have suggested that there is still a viable role for the base 13″ MacBook Pro alongside the 13″ MacBook Air.  I’m not so sure.  Even though the MacBook Pro has a faster processor and more storage space, I think this will make little difference to the average user.  The new MacBook Air boots-up faster, has great performance for everyday tasks and weighs far less than the Pro.  In my mind that leaves the MacBook Pro in the hands of niche users who really need more power and the MacBook Air in the hands of pretty much everyone else.  This is going to be a big seller.

Neil Berman

Nov 6, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Computing, Hardware, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MacBook Air (late 2010): It still fits

MacBook Air manilla envelope

In case you’re missing 2008, the new MacBook Air 13.3″ still fits; the 11.6″ of course is a little loose.

Neil Berman

Oct 31, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Hardware | , | Leave a comment

EFO ‘smallest and lightest’ iPazzPort review

EFO iPazzPortWe’ve reviewed many EFO iPazzPort controllers over the last year. Up to now they’ve followed a similar form factor but EFO decided to go even smaller with the latest model, which is a credit card sized keyboard and trackpad combo.  I’d love to be able to describe this model by a specific name but EFO simply differentiate it from the other iPazzPorts by calling it the ‘smallest and lightest’ model.

For the uninitiated, EFO’s iPazzPort range aims to provide an ultraportable wireless controller for a variety of uses from HTPC use to acting as a games console thumb board to serving as a business presentation aid.  This iPazzPort is Windows, Mac and Linux compatible.

First impressions of the credit card sized iPazzPort

This latest iPazzPort is notably smaller than the versions we’ve reviewed up to now. The front facing dimensions are similar to a credit card, and it’s about as thick as three stacked on top of EFO iPazzPort keyboardeach other.  While we haven’t felt that the previous form factor was too big, we can understand that the smaller size makes sense for certain use cases. For example for a business presentation this model fits in a shirt pocket more conveniently than the larger size. To get an idea of the size, this model is slightly smaller than a regular size BlackBerry.

This model is also extremely light. There’s not much inside the iPazzPort except for a battery and a circuit board but the smaller size makes this model feel featherweight compared to the regular, already lightweight version. This model also feels more solid. The main body is still made from plastic but this stuff feels higher grade than the other iPazzPorts. The keys have a rubber finish which makes them ready to press, with a similar texture to the model we recently reviewed.

The trackpad on this model is far smaller than on the regular iPazzPort, due to the smaller size of the whole device. It still offers tap to click thought, although no multi-touch which has been on our wish list of features to be added to the iPazzPort for some time.

EFO iPazzPort trackpadThis iPazzPort also has dedicated page up and down buttons, also similar to the version we looked at recently there’s a red last pointer built into this model. The keyboard is backlit in a cool orange glow for use in dark environments.  Around the sides there’s a power button, although the iPazzPort will go to sleep to save battery life. At the base of the iPazzPort is a standard USB charging port.

Using three credit card sized iPazzPort

The keyboards across the iPazzPort range have come a long way since we reviewed the first model a year ago. This model carries on these improvements offering good tactile and usable key spacing for those of you used to typing on a portrait smartphone. The QWERTY key positioning is slightly off in places, since the keys are aligned vertically rather than being staggered but it’s fairly easy to adapt to the layout.  The keyboard backlighting works very well.

The laser pointer works just as well as on the larger version; my only thought with the placement of the activation button is that it’s on the right side of the iPazzPort. This might be more convenient for right handed than left handed users if the user wants to switch between using the laser pointer and trackpad/buttons.

EFO iPazzPort power and laser buttonsEFO recently switched back to RF transmission for the iPazzPorts from a brief foray into Bluetooth, which has been a good move.  Windows 7 detected the device almost instantly and there was no need for pairing.  Another benefit of moving away from Bluetooth is that the battery of this model lasts for a good few hours, which should be plenty given that users are unlikely to use the iPazzPort as a primary keyboard for a whole day at a time.

The trackpad is responsive, however its small size makes it a little harder to get used to than the larger iPazzPort which has a standard laptop size trackpad.  It gets the job done though.  One aspect of using the trackpad that I found very difficult to get the hang of was the button placement to the right of the trackpad.  It felt very unnatural to fish out the secondary mouse button; the trackpad button placement of the larger iPazzPort feels far more logical, but of course that model has enough real estate to allow for easier button placement.  I’d also love this device to have a multi-touch trackpad; a saving grace is that EFO is adding multi-touch capability to the next version of the regular size iPazzPort, so if multi-touch is a must-have for you then stay tuned for our review of that one when it comes out.

Should you get out the credit card for the credit card sized iPazzPort?

What’s amazing about this iPazzPort is that it crams the most essential keys and functions of a trackpad and keyboard into a tiny package that looks pretty decent.  For the $50 being asked, the iPazzPort works as promised with no major flaws and would be a great complement to HTPCs and business presentation users.  I’d just wish EFO would start coming up with some different names, which would help me to describe the different models more easily!

The photos in this post were taken with a Samsung Epic 4G.

Here is the EFO iPazzPort product page.

Neil Berman

Oct 30, 2010 Posted by | Computing, Hardware, Home Theater, Photo & Video, Reviews | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Video: New MacBook Air boot time is 13.7 seconds

Here it is, the new 13″ MacBook Air.  The photo has it still napping in its box after the long trip from Cupertino, but a short while ago I switched it on.  Here’s what happened…

That’s crazy fast.

Neil Berman

Oct 27, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Computing, Hardware, Mobile | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Preview of Sprint’s 4G service in New York City

Sprint Epic 4GSprint will be officially turning on its 4G service in New York City on November 1, and were kind enough to toss a Samsung Epic 4G our way for some pre-launch action.  Monday’s 4G launch will cover the five boroughs, as well as some nearer areas of New Jersey and parts of Long Island.  Sprint has already lit up various other cities around the country with 4G, and by the end of the year will have covered 55 markets.  The story doesn’t end there, as the carrier told me that it will continue the rollout next year which will include solidifying coverage across the New York City area.

Although the service goes live officially on Monday, it is largely available right now while the Sprint techs make their final pre-launch checks.  For newcomers, Sprint chose to base its 4G service on WiMAX which promises average download speeds of 3-6 Mbps, with peaks of 10 Mbps.  Those speeds Sprint Epic 4G 3will easily allow customers to stream HD video, do high quality video calling and download large files quickly in good coverage areas.  When I fired up the Epic 4G I saw 5 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up as you can see in the photo, which is frankly phenomenal compared to 3G speeds.

At those speeds you might expect people to start abandoning their home internet connections, especially since Sprint does not currently have data usage caps for 4G.  I asked Sprint for their views on this and they openly encourage people to use either their 4G phone’s mobile hotspot feature or the Overdrive mobile hotspot as a home internet replacement.  Sprint doesn’t offer a wired internet service so it makes good business sense for them to try to attract new customers this way.  I expect the other carriers will do the same thing when they launch their 4G services…and the traditional ISPs might wince at the prospect.

Sprint Epic 4G 2Sprint does face a couple of challenges with its 4G rollout.  Firstly the other carriers are snapping at its heels; notably Verizon has announced that its 4G LTE network will be available on some cities by the end of the year and AT&T is working to get its 4G LTE network ready during 2011.  Sprint’s head start has probably allowed it to lock in a good deal of 4G early adopters onto two year contracts though with the Samsung Epic 4G and the now iconic HTC Evo 4G.

Sprint’s second challenge is a technical one, rooted in the frequency being used to deploy WiMAX on the wireless spectrum.  As a guide, lower frequencies tend to penetrate buildings and distance better than higher frequencies which is why GSM customers often see EDGE coverage in weak signal areas – EDGE has been deployed at a lower frequency in the spectrum than GSM 3G and CDMA EVDO, so it can reach more places.  WiMAX is being deployed at 2.5GHz, which is a step above the 3G frequencies, so Sprint has had to install WiMAX transmitters more densely compared with EVDO to provide good coverage.  New York City presented its own unique challenges to the deployment due to the high density of large skyscrapers.

Over the coming weeks we’ll be giving the Epic 4G a good workout, as both a daily 4G phone and mobile WiFi hotspot, so stay tuned for our review.

Neil Berman

Oct 26, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Hardware, Mobile, News, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Frost’s holographic projection iPad is the coolest TV gadget effect ever

Holographic projection iPadIn tonight’s episode of Chuck on NBC, Frost pulls out an iPad to set the scene for Chuck and Sarah.  But this is no ordinary iPad…this iPad magically projects a holographic image R2-D2 style.  Is this iPad 2.0?  Sure would be cool!  Is it plausible?  No way!  Do I want one?  Hells yeah!!!

Neil Berman

Oct 25, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Home Theater, Photo & Video | , , , | Leave a comment

Using a Kindle 3 for web browsing and blogging

 

Kindle 3 web browser screen sunlight

The Kindle's E Ink screen is great for use in sunlight

 

I’m always on the lookout for new mobile writing platforms, so when the new Kindle 3 was launched a couple of months ago I thought I’d give it a whirl.

The eBook capabilities of the Kindle are well known, but its web browsing and blogging abilities are less established. In fact, even in the menus on the Kindle 3 the web browser is listed under ‘Experimental’. Plus, for writers/bloggers there’s no dedicated text editor. So at first glance it’s unclear whether buying a Kindle 3 primarily for web browsing or blogging is a good idea.

Some people have commented that it’s possible to add annotations to books and turn these into ad-hoc notes. Although this can be done, I’m going to concentrate here on blogging in a more direct way.

The web browser on the Kindle 3 is a Webkit affair and far superior to the browser on previous Kindles. The Kindle 3 is actually able to render plenty of pages correctly, although there’s no Flash or any of the fancy plug-ins that we take for granted on even a basic netbook. Pages can also take a bit of time to load, especially over 3G if you have the 3G Kindle 3.

The secret to enjoying web content on the Kindle 3 is to use mobile versions of sites wherever possible. The desktop site of the New York Times for example will render on the Kindle 3’s browser, but the newspaper’s mobile site will render far quicker and offers access to full articles in a way that’s much easier to navigate with the Kindle 3’s cursor keys.

The same principle applies to email sites. I have been able to successfully use Yahoo Mail’s mobile site, while GMail’s mobile site has been hit-and-miss and Hotmail has never worked for me on the Kindle 3.

That leads us to blogging. I’ve been able to use the Kindle 3 to access the mobile WordPress.com site, but there are limitations. The mobile WordPress.com site only seems to allow post creation and does not seem to allow access to saved drafts. This means that if you want to partially write a post to complete later on the Kindle 3 or save as you write, you’ll be out of luck. Plus if you’ve just finished writing your greatest post ever and the WiFi connection to the Kindle 3 drops, I assume your masterpiece might be lost. I haven’t experienced this myself, it’s just a risk I envisage when you’re creating a document online and are unable to save it along the way.

Fear not, there’s a way to blog more safely from the Kindle 3. Yahoo Mail’s mobile site does allow access to your Drafts folder, which means you can write an email and save as you go along. Then when you’re done, use the post from email feature that many blogging sites offer (such as WordPress.com) to publish your post.

Of course you could also leave your post as a saved email draft and then polish it up when you get back to a laptop. If you don’t have a Yahoo Mail account, it’s easy to set one up. As I mentioned I’ve had mixed success with GMail and no luck using Hotmail on the Kindle 3.

Writing with the Kindle 3 is a so-so experience. It gets the job done, but number and symbol input requires a lot of button pressing. The keyboard is also a little wider than ideal and the keys have poor tactile response compared to, say, a BlackBerry. However it does work acceptably and after a short stint of writing I started to warm to the experience. I also find that due to the refresh time of the E Ink screen, I sometimes write quicker than the screen can display the text. However the Kindle 3 always catches up.

Why all this effort when smartphones and iPads are becoming so ubiquitous? Well the Kindle 3 has some unique advantages. Firstly the screen is easily readable in sunlight, in fact it’s better in sunlight than in the shade. Secondly the Kindle 3’s battery lasts for ages and the device is extremely portable; it’s difficult to put a figure on the real-world battery life but I’ve enjoyed a full week of sporadic use from the Kindle 3 with WiFi browsing. Thirdly, for just $189 the Kindle 3 3G version allows you to read web content on a decent size screen in more places than a typical laptop that just has WiFi connectivity.

So the Kindle 3 can be a useful device for web browsing and blogging. Just go into the experience with your eyes open; it’s not an ideal platform for these use-cases but it provides functionality to get many of the basics done, and is one of the only viable options for use outdoors in sunnier climates.

Neil Berman

Oct 22, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Guides, Hardware, Mobile | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ABC, CBS & NBC blocking streaming shows to Google TV devices

Have you been calling around your local Best Buys in search of a Sony TV with Google TV so you can watch Modern Family online at your every whim?

Hold them horses cowboy and stand down on the bank loan, because Google is finding out just how hard the networks will fight to keep you from cutting off the cable. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that ABS, CBS and NBC are blocking streaming episodes to Google TV devices. While owners of the new Apple TV can watch some network content for 99c an episode, it’s clear that those networks don’t want consumers to be able to bypass that paywall with a Google TV. There are also reports out there that Hulu is blocking Google TV browsers from streaming content as well.

It looks like it’s going to be a tough journey for Google TV. Trying to sell a TV product without content provider agreements is hard enough, but when your product gets blocked for doing what customers expect it to do it’s likely to turn into a messy situation. This certainly highlights how hard it’s going to be for the whole web-on-your-TV thing to really happen.

Neil Berman

Oct 21, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Home Theater, Photo & Video | , , , , | Leave a comment

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