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Virgin Mobile Motorola Triumph Android smartphone review

Motorola Triumph packaging 3

New updates added at the bottom of the review!

Additional updates added in the comments…all is not well with the Triumph :(

Further update: After returning my original Triumph, I returned my second one as well and have gone back to the Optimus V. After a few days of usage I found that there were too many basic issues with the Triumph. Details in the comments at the end of the review…

The Motorola Triumph has been one of the most anticipated smartphone of 2011. This Android-powered slate phone is Virgin Mobile’s most advanced smartphone to date and takes the prepaid market forward with a respectable 1GHz Snapdragon processor, 4.1 inch screen and 5 megapixel, 720p HD video-capable camera. The Motorola Triumph bests Virgin Mobile’s current Android flagship, the LG Optimus V, which we reviewed previously. It’s also more expensive at $299 upfront with no contract on Virgin Mobile’s Beyond Talk prepaid plans. So can the prepaid market support a premium Android smartphone like the Motorola Triumph? Here’s our review…

First impressions of the Motorola Triumph

While the original release date for the Motorola Triumph was July 19th, my local Radio Shack was happy to sell me one yesterday. Lucky me! The Motorola Triumph comes in Virgin Mobile’s now familiar easy-open packaging, which houses the smartphone, a two-piece charger/USB cable, a battery, a quick start guide and a MicroSD card adapter. There is a 2GB MicroSD card pre-installed in the phone, which should be sufficient to hold a fair amount of music, photos and videos at least initially. The MicroSD card is removable which makes it easy to install a higher capacity card if desired.

Motorola Triumph frontThe Motorola Triumph has a minimalist look with few frills. The casing is made of dark gray textured plastic and the four inch capacitive touchscreen dominates the front of the smartphone. The four standard Android buttons below the screen are also capacitive. There’s a forward facing video camera above the screen to the left of the earpiece for video calls.

Around the sides are volume buttons, an on/off button, micro USB port for charging and data transfer and a mini HDMI port for connecting the Motorola Triumph to an external monitor or TV. Nice. Unfortunately an HDMI cable is not included in the box however. The back of the Motorola Triumph houses its 5 megapixel camera which also serves as a 720p HD video camera, and there’s an LED flash as well. There is no dedicated camera button, the camera is activated by launching the camera app.

The Motorola Triumph feels light for a smartphone with a four inch screen. At 5.04 ounces it’s easy to carry in a trouser or coat pocket without feeling uncomfortable, although it might weigh down a shirt pocket. While the Motorola Triumph is a little plasticky and lacks a premium feel, I like the clean lines of the device; the screen almost stretches to the edges, the back is flat and the phone is pleasingly thin. It’s a simple minimalist design.

Using the Motorola Triumph

Like Virgin Mobile’s LG Optimus V, the Motorola Triumph ships with Android 2.2 with hardly any carrier modifications, which is great for those looking for a stock Android smartphone. There are a few preloaded Virgin Mobile apps and wallpapers, but nothing intrusive. Sync’ing with Google services works as expected, and I haven’t found any blocked applications so far. For example, Skype installed properly and I was able to make a call over WiFi although I haven’t tried making a 3G Skype call yet.

In general operation the Motorola Triumph’s 1GHz Snapdragon processor makes the smartphone feel more snappy than the LG Optimus V, which is clocked at 600MHz. The Motorola Triumph also has far more onboard memory at 512MB, which definitely helps to keep the device humming along smoothly. The larger screen size and faster processor of the Motorola Triumph may however lead to worse battery life than the LG Optimus V. It’s early days yet and I’ll update this review with my experience of the smartphone’s battery life after more regular usage.

The Motorola Triumph paired quickly with the Bluetooth hands free and stereo headphone devices that I’ve tried so far. For stereo Bluetooth fans, the Motorola Triumph supports A2DP for stereo audio streaming and AVRCP for remote control over playback. I was able to control Pandora’s play and skip controls using a stereo Bluetooth headset.

As with the LG Optimus V, I was unable to use a Bluetooth headset on the Motorola Triumph for a Skype call. I’m not sure if this is possible on any Android smartphones at present, has anyone successfully managed to do this…?

The 5 megapixel camera on the Motorola Triumph produces respectable photos that in my opinion are easily good enough for casual use. If your primary camera usage is snapping general photos and uploading them to social networking sites like Facebook or taking casual vacation shots, then you could probably leave your point & shoot camera at home if you have the Motorola Triumph. It’s definitely a step up from the 3 megapixel camera on the LG Optimus V. I will post some photos that I took using the Motorola Triumph using its out-of-the-box settings, stay tuned!

The video camera also does a decent job. There is no image stabilization, but video come out looking absolutely fine for a mid-range device. Bear in mind that shooting 720p HD video requires a lot of storage space, so upgrading the supplied 2GB MicroSD card to a larger size might be advisable for budding directors.

Downsides to the Motorola Triumph are difficult to fully capture at this stage. I’m still only on day two with the device and I’ll add to this review as I continue to use it. So far I’ve only been using the Motorola Triumph on WiFi, so I haven’t made calls using it yet apart from Skype, although I have no reason to expect that it would have problems making regular calls! Motorola Triumph batteryThe microphone, earpiece and speaker worked well on Skype and I will update the review if I encounter any issues with network calls. In particular I’d like to add an idea of battery life after more consistent usage and I’ll also report back on whether the device starts to exhibit slow-downs and other performance side-effects that sometimes appear after time with smartphones.

The main issue I’ll raise now though is the price. At $299 the Motorola Triumph is not an impulse purchase, but it does offer good value compared to having a two year contract. Virgin Mobile has also just changed its Beyond Talk pricing, which now costs $35 for 300 minutes and unlimited data & texts (previously $25), rising to $45 for 1200 minutes (previously $40) and $55 for unlimited talk time (down from $60 previously). Virgin Mobile also just announced that it will throttle users down to 256kbps if they exceed 2.5GB of data usage in a month. While 2.5GB is more than enough data for many users, it’s disappointing to see Virgin Mobile adopting throttling especially when its parent company (Sprint) has not announced similar restrictions for Sprint customers on the same network.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Motorola Triumph ships with Android 2.2 Froyo rather than the latest version of Android, which is 2.3 Gingerbread. I forgave the LG Optimus V for this since Gingerbread was still fairly new when that device launched. However Android 2.3 has now been out for a long time and new devices should really have the latest version of the operating system installed when they ship. This is a big issue compared to the iPhone, or a laptop computer which will pretty much always ship with the latest version of its platform’s operating system.

Also, for those of you who like to use your phone outdoors, the screen of the Motorola Triumph is virtually illegible in sunlight. This is in keeping with many devices out there, and the screen is viewable outdoors in the shade.

On balance the Motorola Triumph works out well compared to a similarly spec’d smartphone on contract. Even though the price just increased by $10 each month, light voice minute users will still do well on Virgin Mobile’s $35 plan over two years compared to a similar voice & data contract on other carriers. The other plans are also good value. Remember that if you ever decide to stop using Virgin Mobile, there is no early termination fee and you can sell your phone to recoup some of the purchase cost. Just be sure to completely wipe the device of any personal data before selling it or passing it on to someone else.

So in that light, the $299 upfront cost is not quite so bad. At least that’s what I talked myself into when I bought the Motorola Triumph yesterday! In my two days of usage, the Motorola Triumph certainly seems like a solid contender and may well encourage those on contract to consider taking up the flexibility and lower overall cost of Virgin Mobile’s plans. The Motorola Triumph might not have some of the frills of the current top end smartphones, but it should easily meet the needs of many users and then some. Things sure have changed in the prepaid world.

Some updates:

I’ve been using the Motorola Triumph for a few days now and noticed a couple of things. Battery life seems good overall, I’m easily able to get through a day with moderate usage. Network signal on my Triumph is weak, definitely weaker than the LG Optimus V. There have also been a couple of occasions where I had to reboot the Triumph because it failed to re-find a signal for a prolonged period of time. The Bluetooth implementation has also been buggy for me so far. The Triumph either routinely refuses to connect to devices it has paired with previously, or it takes a long time to connect with them. Bluetooth signal drops are frequent.

On the whole it’s been an enjoyable phone to own so far, but cell radio problems and Bluetooth issues should not be present in a $299 smartphone in 2011. There’s nothing worse than having no bars when your friends have lots!

Additional updates in the comments…all is not well with the Triumph :(

Further update: I have gone back to using the Optimus V, the Triumph’s issues became too frustrating in day to day usage.  Details in the comments…

Neil Berman

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Jul 17, 2011 Posted by | Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

This gadget life: Tomtom traffic avoidance

I recently made a thousand mile road trip over three days for a three hour meeting. Sounds like a crazy idea, but instead of flying we I decided a road trip might be fun. Might.

On such a long drive many things can go wrong, apart from the car itself. One can get lost, have an argument over getting lost, get stuck in traffic and become stressed about time. The last thing we wanted was to drive all that way and miss the meeting.

So we set out on our journey in a shiny 2011 Nissan Sentra from an unnamed hire company with my Tomtom 340XL TM. This was my first experience of using a GPS in skyscraper-filled Manhattan, and it took the Tomtom about two minutes to lock onto satellites. In case you’re not familiar with GPS devices, that’s a long time. The Tomtom normally locks on within seconds.

The lock came and went as we traversed roads lined with impossibly tall buildings, and after leaving them in our wake all was well. That’s when the T bit of the 340XL TM name came into its own.

The T stands for Traffic and means that this 340 shipped with Tomtom’s traffic receiver. This is an antenna that the 340 uses to listen for traffic updates broadcast over the airwaves and the device then redirects you to avoid delays. It worked amazingly well.

We were leaving New York City at a notoriously bad time of day for traffic but the Tomtom did a superb job of avoiding the jams. We actually didn’t sit in any snarl ups at all, as the Tomtom rerouted us time and again promising to save us ten minutes here and fifteen there.

So, hours of driving later we arrived at our destination. Stress-free, argument-free and frankly downright impressed.

Neil Berman

Apr 29, 2011 Posted by | Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This gadget life: The lack of Flash on the iPad

 

Zillow iPad appThe lack of Flash on the iPad really came home to me this week.

I’ve been using Zillow to do some house hunting. Zillow has a dedicated iPad app, which is why I use it instead of Trulia.com or Realtor.com. The Zillow app is a good experience on the iPad, not groundbreaking, but totally solid.

For the uninitiated, using the app is simply a case of manipulating a Google Maps pane on the left of the screen to display properties details on the right. There are search filters, market data for the property being viewed and a photo viewer.

I tried the regular Zillow site on a laptop this week. I won’t say whether it was a PC or Mac, but the experience was significantly worse. The site was slow to load, Flash crashed twice and the search information was presented in a less friendly way compared to Zillow’s iPad app, which is optimized for the iDevice’s screen resolution. I went straight to Trulia.com.

The messages I take from this (admittedly singular) example are as follows. I find that I almost always use dedicated iPad apps rather than a browser where possible. If there are competing sites providing similar information I will almost always use the one that has a dedicated iPad app if I’m using my iPad. Lastly I’m glad for the first time that the iPad doesn’t support Flash because I think its omission has encouraged sites to create good dedicated apps. Zillow is a case in point.

Neil Berman

Mar 29, 2011 Posted by | Apple, Mobile | , | Leave a comment

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


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

Taking the fight to recessed headphone sockets

panasonic rp-hc500As many previous iPhone owners discovered, recessed headphone sockets are a pain.  It’s difficult to find headphones with a plug slim enough to fit into a recessed socket and a market sprang up for ungainly adapters. I’ve experienced this pain first hand with my excellent Panasonic RP-HC500 noise canceling headphones.  The RP-HC500 is one of the best sets of noise canceling cans ever made, crushing comparable Bose QCs on build and sound quality in my opinion.  But while I love detachable cords since they preserve the lifespan of good headphones, the RP-HC500 has a recessed socket.

recessed headphone socket

Ugh, recessed headphone sockets

One day I came home to find that my cats had ripped through the RP-HC500’s cable, leaving me with a dilemma.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find any cheap off-the-shelf replacement cables that will fit a recessed socket.  So I could either pony up the ridiculous $20+tax+shipping for Panasonic’s official replacement cord or tell my cats to fix it before their next feed.  Since I reckoned my cats’ cord cutting abilities were superior to their repair skills, it looked like I’d have to hand over the cash.

recessed headphone socket RP-HC500

A typical 3.5mm stereo male to stereo male cord is too fat to fit into a recessed socket

That was when the DIY bug bit me.  I had some 3.5mm stereo male to stereo male cords lying around,and I wondered if I could trim them down to size.  Out of the box they were too big to fit, but I hoped that between a Stanley knife and some delicate carving I could fashion a $2 replacement.

cutting the cord

Cutting the cord - don't try this at home!!

It actually turned out to be a five minute job and my RP-HC500s are now singing again, ready to make plane journeys a pleasure once more.  See, we’re not such a throwaway generation after all!

recessed headphone cord RP-HC500

The cut down plug now fits the recessed socket

Here’s the warning: I don’t recommend doing this at home because it’s easy to wreck your cord, plug and fingers.  But if you’re a risk taker and choose to ignore my warnings, be careful not to cut all the way through the plug’s casing.  Also, the RP-HC500’s cord plug was rubber, which made it possible to carve the plug; I don’t think I would have seen a successful outcome if the plug had been made of hard plastic or metal!

Neil Berman

Jan 17, 2011 Posted by | Audio, Home Theater, Photo & Video, Mobile | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Verizon, 4G LTE and the iPhone

Just a few short years ago AT&T had the iPhone on the fastest 3G network and Verizon had, well, a line-up of forgettable devices. There was not a Droid in sight in Verizon’s range, let alone an iPhone, and the idea of a superfast LTE rollout was a pipe dream.

Fast forward to 2011 and the tables have well and truly turned. At CES Verizon kicked it out of the park with some well endowed smartphone and tablet devices, along with amazing LTE speeds and it looks like the carrier may announce tomorrow that it will start selling the iPhone.

It could be a fantastic year for Verizon. LTE really is barnstormingly fast and if a CDMA iPhone does get announced tomorrow I think it makes sense for one simple, but not immediately apparent, reason.

We all know that AT&T’s network suffered badly when the iPhone came along, due to the amount of data its users were consuming. Specifically AT&T called out a small percentage of data intensive users who were proportionately pulling far more data than other consumers. So we would expect the same thing to happen to Verizon, right?

I don’t think so, and not because Verizon’s network is impervious. Rather, I expect many of the more demanding data consumers will trade up to Verizon’s new LTE network because the speeds are so much faster. This migration would free up significant capacity on the carrier’s CDMA network, allowing space for iPhone users to pull data at good speeds.

So if Verizon does announce a CDMA iPhone tomorrow, I think the arrival of LTE has given Verizon the confidence to do so.

Neil Berman

Jan 10, 2011 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Mobile | , , , , | Leave a comment

Is the Motorola Atrix a computing game changer?

Motorola Atrix laptop dockOf all the smartphones announced at CES, the Motorola Atrix could have the potential to be a truly game changing device…but not for the most obvious reasons.

Like its newly announced competitors the Atrix sports a dual-core processor, 1080p video playback and a slick form factor. Where the Motorola Atrix stands out though is its integrated Citrix thin client software and built in apps that turn the Atrix into a computer when docked.

Motorola Atrix laptop dock 2What do I mean by docked? There are two Motorola dock accessories for the Atrix. One is a desktop dock with three USB ports, one HDMI port and a charging port. This allows the Atrix to connect to a monitor, keyboard and mouse.

The second accessory is a dumb laptop that has a built-in dock behind the screen. When the Atrix is docked in the dumb laptop, it acts as the brain for the laptop and the same desktop apps become available for use.

What are these apps? Most importantly there’s a Firefox browser with full Flash capability, and since the Atrix is powered by Nvidia’s Tegra 2 platform Flash works really well. There’s also a built-in Citrix app for using the Atrix as a thin client for virtual Windows 7 desktop environments. This is similar to the Citrix Nirvana concept from a while ago, but this time it’s a production device in the hands of real users.

Motorola Atrix desktop dockSince the Atrix connects via HSPA+, the Atrix in connection with the laptop accessory or desktop dock could be a perfect traveling companion for mobile folks who want a lightweight always-connected experience. Plus, since the Atrix can be expanded to 48GB of internal storage, it has enough capacity to store significant amounts of local media and files too.

The docking experience was seamless when I tried it out. When docked, the Atrix switched to show its desktop apps view on the external screen. The phone’s mobile view is also available as a window floating over the desktop windows, which shows text messages and other phone events.

The browsing experience was good, although pages did load a little slowly since AT&T’s coverage within the Motorola booth was weak. Once a page loaded however, scrolling worked fine and there’s a full screen mode as well.

I’m really excited about the Atrix, it’s the thin client I’ve been waiting for ever since I saw the Citrix Nirvana concept device. It will be interesting to see if the Enterprise adopts the Atrix for mobile staff. It would seem to be a perfect companion to a virtualized workplace where users carry the laptop accessory when traveling and dock the Atrix into the desktop dock in the office.

Neil Berman

Jan 7, 2011 Posted by | Analysis, CES, Mobile | , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

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

Sennheiser MM550 review

Sennheiser MM550 14We scored a hands-on, or perhaps that’s an ‘ears-on’, with the Sennheiser MM550 stereo Bluetooth noise-canceling headphones last month.   That quick listen got our eardrums all excited, and Sennheiser was kind enough to loan us an MM550 so that we could get better acquainted. For the specs and general info, check out our earlier hands-on with the MM550.  In this review we’ll dive into more detail on the physical, technical and sonic aspects of the MM550.

First impressions of the Sennheiser MM550

The MM550 is marketed and priced as an ultra-premium headset, so we were expecting something special when opening the brown FedEx box that arrived at theONbutton HQ. We were greeted by a smart looking store-friendly retail package, which was easy to open without a knife (yay!). Hiding inside was the MM550 itself and a soft pouch containing Sennheiser MM550 5a USB cable, headphone cable and charger with several international adaptors; Sennheiser really is expecting some serious jetsetters to buy this headset. Given the pricing of the MM550 and it’s billing as a do-everything set of cans, it’s good to see that Sennheiser included a good range of travel accessories.

The MM550 feels good to hold; for a closed back set of headphones the MM550 is light but evidently well made. The fitting mechanism on the headband is smooth and the headband itself has a decent amount of flex, giving the impression that it will be easy to get the MM550 to sit comfortably on the head. The ear arms fold inwards to make the MM550 more portable. The ear pads have a very soft cushion that closes around the ear helping to reduce ambient noise and making the MM550 handy in the cold, windy New York winter climate. The closed back design of course also allows for larger drivers to be placed within the ear pads.

The right ear pad houses all of the MM550’s controls; power/play/pause, track skip, volume, noise canceling, Bluetooth and the SRS WOW HD enhancer are all controlled from here. On the left ear pad a Sennheiser logo takes pride of place, presumably enclosing the MM550’s rechargeable battery. The micro-USB charging port is also on this ear pad.

Using the Sennheiser MM550

The MM550 paired without issue with the Samsung Epic 4G and BlackBerry Bold 9700.  Both of these smartphones support A2DP (stereo audio streaming over Bluetooth) and AVRCP (remote playback control over Bluetooth), so they were ideal candidates for testing the MM550.  In both cases, the MM550 technically functioned perfectly.  Playback and volume controls worked as expected, and I never needed to re-pair the MM550 during the testing period.

Sennheiser MM550 9Call quality on the MM550 was excellent, and the headset distinguished itself by being the only stereo Bluetooth headset I’ve used outdoors where callers say they can hear me clearly.  Due to the microphone’s placement all the way back at the ear, most stereo headsets have difficulty picking up spoken words.  The one issue I encountered outdoors however was that the microphone did pick up some street noises too prominently; callers still said they could hear me but that the street noises were also very audible in these cases.  Indoor call quality with the MM550 was excellent.  As you would expect, the MM550 interrupts music playback when an incoming call arrives and takes you back to the music when the call is over.

The noise-canceling features of the MM550 has been well thought through by Sennheiser’s engineers.  The MM550’s noise-canceling technology, called ‘NoiseGard 2.0’, does its business without introducing noticeable sound effects into the music.  That’s a bigger complement than it may appear, as many noise-canceling systems introduce hiss or significant coloration but this is not a problem with the MM550.  The MM550s however do not completely block out external sound, but they did a good job of significantly reducing ambient noise on the New York subway and made listening to quiet content such as podcasts much more pleasurable during a typically noisy journey.  The noise-canceling also allows you to hear content better without needing to cranking the music up to 11.

Sennheiser MM550 16One interesting feature of the MM550 is that when the noise-canceling button is pressed, the microphone activates and passes external sound through the headset instead of music playback.  Sennheiser calls this ‘TalkThrough’.  So if you’re listening to music in a store for example and then get to the register, by pressing this button you can have a normal conversation without needing to take off the headset.  The Plantronics BackBeat 903 has a similar feature, and it’s nice to see it being implemented on other headsets.

So how does the MM550 sound with music?  Listening to consumer headphones is often a subjective experience; increasingly people prefer a more bass heavy delivery and consumer headphones have been moving in that direction in recent years.  The MM550 is designed to give a balanced delivery of the music, with the SRS WOW HD enhancer

available to provide some extra sparkle if you want more excitement from your content.  I’m not a fan of adding enhancers to headphones or amplifiers, because from my experience good headphones and amps are able to give a good sound delivery without needing enhancement.  But consumers generally expect some kind of enhancer or bass boost, so these things exist as a result.

With the SRS WOW HD enhancer off, the MM550 does deliver a reasonably balanced sound with a slight accentuation of the upper vocal frequencies at the expense of some of the lower midrange.  The bass is punchy and there are plenty of highs, so this slight lack of lower midrange produces a very open sound that doesn’t suffer from any muddiness.  It also means that some vocals can tend towards thinness, even sounding a little harsh sometimes.  Pop, dance and Jazz Sennheiser MM550 12sounded great in my listening time with the MM550.  The bass in Mylo’s Drop the Pressure drove the track with energy and Uniting Nations’ Ai No Corrida bounced along with real verve.  It was with Country music that the MM550 tended to produce occasionally harsh female vocals and guitars.

Turning on the SRS WOW HD enhancer, the bass became really solid on the MM550.  Dance music powered through the ear pads in a superb way and without sounding muddy.  The enhancer adds significant amounts of midrange boost however, which can sound harsh on some music genres after extended listening.  So while the SRS WOW HD enhancer gives an instant “wow”, as I experienced during my initial hands-on, I tended to enjoy the MM550 for longer periods with it switched off.

The MM550 can also work as a regular set of cabled noise-canceling headphones.  In this mode the MM550 sound almost identical to when they’re connected over Bluetooth.  The sound is perhaps slightly clearly, but the difference is almost imperceptible.  The MM550 ship with a regular stereo cable rather than a three ring hands-free cable, so they can only be used as a hands-free cellphone headset when connected over Bluetooth.

The MM550 has one noise-canceling quirk, whereby the noise-canceling circuit momentarily disengages when switching from one music track when you’re listening to a playlist.  It’s not a big issue, but is just a little odd because the silence breaks for a split second while you’re in a break between tracks.

Sennheiser MM550 15Sennheiser quotes 8 hours of stereo Bluetooth music playback with noise-canceling for the MM550.  Although I did not track my exact listening time with the MM550, I only needed to charge the headset once during my testing and I listened to it extensively.  It felt like Sennheiser’s battery claim is ballpark accurate.  Various factors will impact battery life with wireless products, so it’s difficult to really assess claims.  For example a headset will have to work harder to maintain a connection if the device it’s talking to is at the limit of its reception range.  Also, switching a headset on and off uses proportionately more battery life because the headset has to expend significant energy searching for a connection.  When a stable connection is secured, the power usage reduces.

Can the Sennheiser MM550 justify its premium price?

Overall the Sennheiser MM550 is an excellent headset.  That does need to be put into the perspective of its extremely high MSRP of $649, which currently translates to around $499 on various online retailers.  If you can live with the MM550 as your only headset for noise-canceling, stereo Bluetooth streaming and cabled duties then you might be able to justify its premium over other closed back designs.  It does pretty much everything very well, but whether it does it hundreds of dollars better than the competition is a difficult call.

Neil Berman


Dec 12, 2010 Posted by | Audio, Mobile | , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Er…is it meant to do that? (Windows Phone 7 edition)

image

Don’t y’all try using that WP7 home screen in landscape mode…

Nov 13, 2010 Posted by | Microsoft, Mobile | , , | Leave a comment

T-Mobile’s US problems are bigger than iPhone

t-mobile-mytouch-4g-dummy-phone

T-Mobile's flagship (dummy) phone, the MyTouch 4G. If you want to try one, you'll need to ask first.

T-Mobile posted some disappointing results for its US division last week and laid the blame at the door of the iPhone, which is not available on T-Mobile US.  Analyzing that comment, it’s important to ask why this should this be a bigger problem for T-Mobile than for Verizon or Sprint, who are also sans iPhone.

To my mind there’s a simple answer and I’ve said it before.  T-Mobile needs to have a good look at their stores and figure out how to get more people into them.  The Sprint, Verizon and AT&T stores near me are always busy with customers fiddling with phones, trying them out and deciding which device works best for them.  The T-Mobile stores are typically empty because they have pretty near nothing interactive on display.  Their in-store demo phones are dull-screened plastic dummies and would-be customers cannot get a feel for how they work.  A friendly T-Mobile salesperson did pull out a working MyTouch 4G for me when asked, which is the carrier’s flagship and heavily advertised iPhone competitor, but the version on general display is the plastic dummy.  It’s the opposite of the “come and play with me” iPhone displays in AT&T stores.

It would be like going Best Buy and having to decide which TV to buy without actually seeing them working.  At least if you buy a $1,000 TV and get bored of it, you can move it to the bedroom and get a new one next year.  With phones we’re talking about potentially getting locked-in for two years based upon a plastic dummy.  I think most nervous consumers would say no thanks to that idea.  Although plenty of consumers buy gadgets on-spec through mail-order channels, that doesn’t cut it for many consumers.  Those folks need to build trust in a device and understand how it can benefit them before buying.

The CEA told us this week that consumers love to just play with gadgets, even if they have no intention of purchasing.  These opportunities for test drives are essential for gradually familiarizing consumers about a company’s products, especially for T-Mobile given the carrier’s current campaign to educate consumers about its 4G products.  Sprint showcases its 4G devices in store for consumers to experience, Verizon does a similar job for its Droid brand and of course there is a dedicated iPhone demo area in AT&T’s stores.  The message to T-Mobile is clear: entice customers into the store with the campaign, but then give them things to play with when they’re there and they’ll start drinking the Kool-Aid.

Neil Berman

Nov 13, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Mobile, Rants | | 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

Windows Phone 7: Because we want to use gadgets less?

Windows Phone 7 in and out commercial

I’m clearly missing something with the Windows Phone 7 In and Out campaign.  The idea that we need a phone to get us “in and out and back to life” can only be aimed at non-participating consumers who get annoyed about how much time their friends spend using smartphones.  I say that because if you told an iPhone, Android or BlackBerry owner that there is finally a smartphone platform that will allow them to do things quickly, they would probably laugh in your face.  I’ve used all three and none is particularly slow or onerous to use efficiently.  There’s always room for a new approach of course, but let’s see some examples in the ads to show us how great life could be, rather than just words.  Of course, there is a huge group of consumers that has not yet committed to a smartphone.  So if Microsoft’s research is telling the company that those folks would jump in if they could have something quick and easy, then perhaps this is the right message.  Problem is, I reckon that when people think about quick and easy they think about iPhone.

Neil Berman

Nov 8, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Microsoft, Mobile | , , , | Leave a 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

Think Android is not ready for Enterprise? Actually it’s Good

 

Android Good emailThere’s been plenty of noise surrounding the iPhone’s supposed march into the Enterprise, but little discussion about Android.  The iPhone natively supports Exchange email but it’s a little trickier with Android.  Of course, companies that have made the move to GMail will find Android smartphones like Sprint’s Epic 4G to be useful partner devices.  However these companies are probably more likely to be smaller businesses with a small footprint that want to reduce the costs associated with an Exchange/Outlook environment.  That thought fits with the recent discussion I had with Sprint, who told me they had seen the Epic 4G being picked up by plenty of small businesses but less so among larger companies.

The fundamental issue with the iPhone and Android in Enterprise is security.  BlackBerry has long been the darling device of the Enterprise market due to its encyption and security capabilities.  But using the Epic 4G, I’ve come to believe that this device is possibly the best consumer/corporate device on the market at present.  It combines the consumer friendliness of Android with a great keyboard, all rooted (sorry for the Android pun) in first rate hardware.  So how can the security concern be overcome?

There is a nifty piece of software out there from a company called Good, that allows Android (and also iOS) devices to receive Exchange email and calendar data in a secure smartphone app.  It takes a little more effort to implement than just regular Exchange, but it provides a secure container on the phone that is likey to satisfy many of the more stringent corporate IT security policies.  Good is totally self-contained on the device, allowing the user to have other apps and media just like normal.  Compare this situation with a corporate BlackBerry that is typically locked down to only be capable of making calls and sending messages from company accounts.

With Good on Android or iPhone, it’s a win-win.  Employees are able to have an awesome smartphone like the Epic 4G and the IT security folks still get what they need.  At the start of the year I predicted that BlackBerry had peaked in terms of market share; software like Good could make RIM’s outlook all the more precarious.

Neil Berman

Nov 4, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Mobile, Software | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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