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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

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

Three annoying things about the new MacBook Airs

1. It doesn’t have a backlit keyboard. Why Apple, WHY?????

2. My hope for a MacBook Air Touch didn’t crystallize, but it looks like the OS is going that way anyway just like I predicted. The iOSX mashup is coming to a MacBookPad near you.

3. This one hurts. If you dropped three large on a MacBook Air 128GB SSD a couple of years ago, there’s a better one in your local Apple store right now for $1299. And your neighbor just bought one for each of his college kids.

Neil Berman

Oct 20, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Computing, Hardware, Rants | , , | Leave a comment

MacBook Air to become the norm?

This time around the rumor mill was on the money, predicting an 11.6 inch addition to the MacBook Air family. The price for entry has come down to $999, or $1299 for the 13.3 inch model, while almost everything else has gone in the other direction. Battery life is now up to 7 hours, startup time is quicker and portability has been improved with the 11.6 inch option.

It’s actually hard to figure out who would choose the base MacBook Pro model now unless you really, really need the faster processor and larger amount of storage.

I have a sneaky suspicion that MacBook Air sales will start to comprise a significant portion of lower cost Mac sales, and for good reason. They have the right balance of mobile portability vs performance for everyday tasks, enough battery life for typical daily usage and, most importantly in this material world, they look incredible.

That’s a rarity for a low price Mac, but I suspect it’s about to become the norm in Starbucks.

Neil Berman

Oct 20, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Computing, Hardware | , , , , | Leave a comment

MacBook Air’s second coming: Can Apple give it the right Touch?

When Apple launched the MacBook Air in 2008, the ultraportable laptop market was heading in a different direction. At the bottom end Asus had just created the netbook with the EEE PC 701, which was ultraportable in both size and weight. Meanwhile at the top, the Sony Vaio TZ was packing a decent processor in a small and light chassis. Lenovo’s X200 and Dell’s Latitude E4200 became the business ultraportable flag carriers with fast processors, long battery life and 12 inch screens.

The MacBook Air by comparison was hardly more portable than a regular MacBook. Even though it was a good deal lighter, its owner still needed basically the same size bag to carry it around. So the netbook and X200/E4200 sectors flourished while the MacBook Air stumbled, plagued by complaints about overheating, underperformance and disappointing battery life.

This time around it’s sounding like Apple may have reacted to the successes of the smaller form factors. Rumors suggest an 11.6 inch MacBook Air refresh possibly coming on October 20th with near instant-on capability from a bespoke case-less SSD.

Funnily enough this is close to what many were expecting to see when Apple launched the iPad; i.e. a netbook competitor with a quick SSD for instant gratification. I’d anticipate however that the MacBook Air replacement would have at least the current model’s processing power, in order to handle OSX.

Touch might be in the mix as well, but I’m 99% certain that we will not see iOS on this device just yet because that would send completely the wrong message about the iPad’s input method. I do still believe that iOS will eventually become the main Apple OS with Mac OSX becoming a niche in a few years time. But I think this will happen through increasing the touch capabilities of OSX, continuing with the new version that will hopefully be announced on October 20th along with the new MacBook Air. MacBook Air Touch anyone?

Neil Berman

Oct 16, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Hardware | , , , | Leave a comment

This gadget life

Just a year ago we thought no interesting tech stuff would come out a recession, but it’s been a great year for both hardware and software. Here are my three favorite purchases of 2010 so far:

1. Apple iPad 3G

cat ipadNothing less than a revelation, and the only computer I use at home unless I’m working or watching/listening to media content. The iPad set the bar so high for the sector that it’s only now that other multinationals seem almost ready to launch true competitors, and even those look likely to disappoint on the software front. Rumors of a new iPad for the holiday season are surfacing; if it does happen then my money’s on an additional 7-inch version with Facetime camera, rather than a straight replacement for the current model.

2. Battlefield: Bad Company 2

The Call of Duty competitor hit a high with this year’s FPS release. Set in wildly varying scenery with plenty of variety of both weapons and gameplay, Bad Company 2 is a worth adversary to Modern Warfare 2 and a must have for any FPS lover.

3. Kindle 3G, 3rd gen

I’ve never been a huge reader, but the $189 combination of an E Ink screen, Webkit browser and free 3G data make the Kindle 3G a winner for sun worshipers. It’s no YouTube player, but if your outdoor surfing needs involve sitting at a beach/park/Times Sq catching up on the New York Times then the Kindle 3G is just the thing.

Neil Berman

Sep 19, 2010 Posted by | Gaming, Hardware | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Demo of stereo Bluetooth remote control working on iOS 4.1

It’s taken Apple three years to implement stereo Bluetooth AVRCP correctly on the iPhone OS, but here it is on the new iPod Touch 4th gen!!

Neil  Berman

Sep 10, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Audio, Hardware, Mobile | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

iPod Touch and Nano (September 2010 release models)

iPod Nano coverflowSo now I’ve come down from my iOS 4.1 stereo Bluetooth high, here are some calmer thoughts about Apple’s new iPod Touch and Nano.

First the Nano. It’s cute, very cute. Surprisingly usable too for something with such a tiny touchscreen. Somehow that tiny screen manages to display coverflow artwork and it looks good too, since the screen has excellent pixel density. The wristwatch use case is clear, but the Nano also reminds me of the Pop Swatch. That was the one that clipped ‘into’ your clothing using a clasp behind and clock on top. The physical feel of the Nano is first iPod Nano buttonsrate, it exudes class and seems to be fashioned from a slab of machined metal. I can see this having greater appeal than the previous Nano because this one just has so much ‘I must buy this now’ factor.

Now onto the new iPod Touch. I must buy this now. I must. The retina display is stunning, the HD video looks great and Apple has finally implemented stereo Bluetooth properly (but I don’t care about that).

The new iPod Touch is thin; as seriously thin as the Nano is cute. It almost feels insubstantial just because it’s like holding a long wafer; it really can’t be much thicker than a few credit cards so it can disappear comfortably in a shirt pocket.

I mentioned the HD video earlier, and while we now know that the camera on the new iPod Touch is lame, the quality of its video recording is good. I also confirmed that just as with the iPhone 4, the new iPod Touch can download iMovie as a paid app from the App Store. So this thinnie might really give the Flip/Bloggie posse something to worry about. I might give it a shot as my CES backup videocam to see if it can handle the pressure.

The one thing I’d have loved to see on the new iPod Touch is a slightly larger screen. Even though the retina display renders so much information in a small space, stretching the screen to 4 inches would have hit a real sweet spot in my view.

I can definitely see myself picking up one of these. Amazingly it would be my first iPod, but now that HD video and proper Bluetooth implementation are there, I finally feel the feature set is comprehensive enough to merit the price.

Neil Berman

Sep 8, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Audio, Mobile | , , , , | Leave a comment

Apple TV channel apps

For the last couple of weeks on TWiT, Leo Laporte has been proposing an interesting idea about the Apple TV. Prior to Apple’s press conference last week many people were expecting the new Apple TV to launch with apps, similar to those on the iPhone and iPad. Leo went further, suggesting that those apps would include individual channel apps, so for example we would watch ABC programs through the Apple TV ‘ABC app’ just like on the iPad.

Apple TVFirstly everyone should watch/listen to or download TWiT; it’s great. While Leo certainly gets it right a lot of the time, and the idea of individual network apps is a logical extension of the model that exists for ABC on the iPad, I’m not sure it holds for Apple TV. The fundamental app model does hold, and I definitely agree that we will see Apple TV running the App Store one day. But I don’t believe we will get to the stage where individual networks have their own apps on Apple TV. It just doesn’t work for the channel-hopping armchair consumer and if there’s one thing we know about Apple, it’s that the company cares deeply about the user experience.

It just about works on the iPad because we are still figuring out how best to devour content on that device; while aggregators like Hulu Plus and Netflix work best on the iPad, the ABC app is free unlike the others. However armchair viewers want a simple remote control with a simple program guide. Having to navigate multiple apps with different interfaces won’t convert them away from a cable set-top box.

In time I think even the ABC app will fade away as cable company aggregators push that content to the device, and I mean currently non-existent aggregator apps from the likes of Time Warner Cable for use by their subscribers. The cable companies will not give up their revenue streams without a fight and I think they’re more likely to develop their own streaming aggregators for subscribers than allow the TV networks to go it alone.

I would dearly love to see the ad-supported online content continue to flourish, but I fear we are enjoying a heyday that will disappear when the cable companies enter the online streaming market more forcefully.

Now go and subscribe to TWiT, TWiG, MacBreak Weekly and all the other ones!!

Neil Berman

Sep 7, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Home Theater, Photo & Video | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This gadget life

Reflecting on the past year, I’ve done some wacky things to accommodate my gadget obsessed lifestyle.

Take my old BlackBerry Bold 9000 for example. A great smartphone in almost all respects except that it has a weak Bluetooth transmitter. I mean weak to the extent that I would get music streaming dropouts when walking in open areas where the Bluetooth signal had nothing to bounce against. I always carry my phone in my trouser pocket and it seemed that the only way to fix this was to reduce the distance between the phone and my heaadphones. I couldn’t relocate my headphones so proceeded to buy an army of T-shirts with top pockets. Problem solved. Incidentally the Bold 9700 has a superb Bluetooth transmitter so I’m back to wearing whatevs again.

Kindle 3 web browser screen sunlight

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

Speaking of headphones, regular readers will know that I’m a serious fan of stereo Bluetooth. While there are plenty of headsets that are great for the summer, only a few offer genuine wind protection which is a must-have for New York winters. I sought out the Sony DR-BT50 specifically because they have snug-fitting earpads that do double duty as fair-weather ear muffs. So long wind chill.

Now that we’re onto the weather it’s no secret that I like using my gadgets outdoors. This has led me to convert Apple’s iPad case into a sunshade, choose the BlackBerry Bold 9700 over other smartphones due to its sunlight readable screen,and more recently buy the Kindle 3 just for outdoor web browsing. Am I the only person out there to buy the Kindle just so I can read online content for hours outdoors in places like Battery Park’s WiFi hotspot? Weird eh, but I’m lovin’ this gadget life.

Neil Berman

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Sep 4, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Rants | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does Apple finally mean business?

Yesterday’s research note from Needham suggests that Mac sales growth to businesses far exceeded that of PC makers. We’re not talking a few percentage points here and there; Needham estimates that even in large enterprises where Apple has traditionally struggled, Mac growth ran at 100% in Q2 compared to 20% for PC makers.

Why is this happening?

The easy money is on iPhone or, less likely, iPad adoption within businesses encouraging IT departments to move into the Mac space. While this may be happening in small companies, I doubt that this is a significant driver for adoption in large corporations.

I believe the answer lies with virtualization and the cloud. Increasingly enterprises are moving to virtualized desktop environments, where end user Windows environments are hosted on remote servers and accessible through a web browser. Therefore they can be client-side agnostic, meaning that just like when accessing a website, the user can happily tap away on a Mac or PC. Cloud services like Google Docs work the same way of course.

Large companies still prefer to manage end user computers using a limited number of vendors for ease of support, but Apple is now one of those vendor options for enterprises that have fully virtualized their end user computing platform. Issues regarding uncertainty about Apple’s Mac roadmap remain, but in a virtualized environment the end user hardware roadmap becomes less important since minimal horsepower is needed at the client side. Accessing a virtual desktop can work just fine on a netbook after all.

Neil Berman

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Aug 25, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Computing | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The cost of iTV

A rumor circulated this week on Engadget that Apple might be planning to rebrand Apple TV as iTV. As someone who grew up in the UK this looked immediately problematic for ITV, which is one of the larger UK television networks.

ITV subsequently announced that it has “vigorously defended” its IP in the past, which signals that it may be ready to do so again if necessary.

Let’s look at this another way: Business is all about money. While customers often become emotional about products, the Mac vs PC phenomenon being a recent example, companies are more concerned about maximizing shareholder value.

There is intangible value that can be crystallized out of brand IP in the form of goodwill, estimated loss of future opportunity and rebranding costs. If Apple does choose to go ahead and use the iTV name for Apple TV then any discussions with ITV about taking over the brand name would most likely include a quantification of these items. The outcome of those discussions would probably be determined by whether each party felt satisfied by the investment required (Apple) and compensation received (ITV) to make the trade.

So while ITV has made comments about its IP, I expect these are probably aimed at setting a starting point for negotiations if Apple elects to make a play for the iTV brand name rather than an outright dismissal. Everything has its price.

Neil Berman

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Aug 14, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Home Theater, Photo & Video | , , , | Leave a comment

Apple Store Covent Garden: The calm before the storm

Apple store Covent GardenThis is Apple’s latest store, in London’s Covent Garden, getting prepped for its opening at 10am tomorrow morning. The photo shows its sidewalk entrance at its final desolate moments before the deluge commences. In terms of design, the exterior is in keeping with Covent Garden and resembles the understated look of Manhattan’s 14th St store rather than a landmark like the 5th Ave glass cube.

Indoors the blue shirted Apple folks are getting their final pep talk inside in preparation for tomorrow’s frenzy. So if you’re in London and ready to splurge on a new Apple-thing, head on over there tomorrow. The excitement of splurging at a store opening event sometimes help to ease the wallet pain!

Btw, is it rude to say I snapped this shot with a BlackBerry?

Thanks for the tip Dave.

Neil Berman

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Aug 6, 2010 Posted by | Apple | , , , , | Leave a comment

Dummy phones are dumb

I’ve recently noticed that my local T-Mobile stores have taken away their demo cellphones and replaced them with non-functioning replicas. This seems like an effective way to make products look boring and empty a store.

While the local Sprint, Verizon and AT&T stores are packed at lunchtime with deep-pocketed office workers trying out those carriers’ latest smartphones, the nearby T-Mobile shop assistants look lonely.

In the universe of silly ideas this sounds like a biggie; I mean what kind of mainstream consumer is going to switch to T-Mobile if they can’t even try the goods before they buy.

Motorola Milestone DroidBut then on my current visit to London I wandered through Brent Cross shopping mall and the stores there had dummy models too! What the heck? Even worse, although there was a dedicated Android feature at one store with real smartphones, the devices were half-covered in tape, were totally unusable and looked super-ugly!

This situation is all the more painful for Android because it is a new platform that should be encouraging consumers to give it some hands-on time. The growth rate of Android is clearly phenomenal but, with some more polish around the sales technique, the unit volumes would surely be higher.

Of course this was happening right next door to a busy Apple store full of iPhones that were switched-on *gasp*, fully functional *shock* and beckoning customers to play with them.

So if Apple is able to have working iPhones on display why is it so hard for dedicated cellphone shops to have Android phones on display, and why do Android handset manufacturers allow stores to turn their latest hero device into a non-functioning dummy?

Neil Berman

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Aug 5, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Hardware, Mobile | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Steve Ballmer talks up Windows 7 tablets, devices still lacking

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Berman

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

A controversy bar (n)one

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Berman

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

iPhone 4 received well but receives unconvincingly

iPhone 4Even before the iPhone 4 was available it stunned the world with its record sellout stats, long lines and waiting spots which became a tradable commodity in some cities. In the few days since its retail launch however, its reception has literally been more lukewarm for some.

Fairly consistent reports are filtering through the media about iPhone 4 reception issues, most notably when the phone is held in the left hand with the user’s palm covering the lower left corner of the side antenna. It seems that while Apple tried to do the right thing by being creative to improve the reception issues of the iPhone 3GS, the new design is a problem for many who like to hold the iPhone 4 in their left hand.

Apple has suggested that to alleviate this problem people should hold the iPhone 4 differently which, while being a valid suggestion, doesn’t really get to the root of the issue which seems to be a design problem. Apple did used to suffer from design issues plaguing first generation products but that reputation has recently been set aside with the largely successful designs of recent products with the exception of some overheating issues.

I would love to say this is just a temporary problem for the iPhone 4, but since the antenna is a specific hardware design feature it is unlikely to be fixable through an OS update. Will it hurt sales? I would say almost certainly not. The original iPhone, the iPhone 3G and 3GS all suffered from reception issues and Apple still managed to sell enough of those! It’s probably worth a trip to your local store to make a test call before you hand over your hard earned cash though, just in case your handiwork drops you into the reception dead zone and you can’t bear to change your style.

Rumors are circulating of a forthcoming iOS update that will fix the problem, I think we need to see that in reality as I’m intrigued as to how this could be fully resolved through software.  More likely we may see an updated design same time next year, with the antenna placement shifted somewhat.  A good testing cycle should identify errors such as these, so if anyone notices a sudden uptick in job specs for Apple testers we could infer that either the department is being beefed-up, or the unfortunate folks who missed this gaffe  have left the building.

Neil Berman

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Jun 25, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Mobile | , , , , | Leave a comment

Opposing forces: iAds, data rationing and streaming media

Apple announced iAd earlier this year and yesterday we got to see the fruits of this new strategy.  iAd brings in-app advertisements and allows users to experience ads without leaving an app.  Steve Jobs showed a demo iAd for the Nissan Leaf which looked pretty amazing, but the question is how much data is that iAd pulling and what impact will that have upon your newly rationed data plan?

We have had low bandwidth ads on websites for a long time now, and that will likely remain for a while to come.  The difference with iAds, if the Leaf demo is a guide, is that they could start eating up significant chunks of data.  I have no idea how much data was being pulled by the Lead ad yesterday, it was a 30 second hi-res video introduction into a mini-app, so let’s imagine the whole package was 5MB.

That’s not very much, unless you have the new 200MB Data Plus plan in which case it’s 2.5% of your monthly allowance.  To put it another way if you pull one 5MB iAd daily over a month, you would be close to using up half of your monthly data allowance on the 200MB plan.  You’ve basically paid a lot to view ads.

The solution sounds simple: don’t pull any ads if you are worried about your data usage.  Not so fast.  Since these ads can be designed to be so sophisticated many will likely have carrots to make us pull the whole ad and watch it to the end.  For example at the end of the Leaf demo ad Steve was taken to a screen where he could enter a competition to win a new Leaf.

Perhaps I’m being a bit picky with this example; after all it’s based upon a demo iAd and I’ve speculated on the amount of data it’s pulling.  There is a similar impact upon iTunes, Netflix, Pandora and the like.  Even though those are apps which the user wants to get data from, usage patterns may change unfavorably if users start to get nervous about incurring overage charges.  I guess what it comes down to is the idea that once data consumption starts to be rationed, users will start to be much more wary of how they use their phones.  This phenomenon will not be unique to the iPhone because other smartphones pull a lot of data too, but it is currently unique in the US to AT&T and hey, the iPhone is only available here on AT&T.

There’s always WiFi of course but while AT&T is moving towards a rationing model for cell network data, Sprint is moving ahead in the speed game and offering totally unlimited 4G usage.  With its reliance upon iTunes, the App Store and selling media over the air, the last thing Apple wants is for iPhone owners to think twice about buying music on the move while Evo 4G owners have the freedom to pull whatever they want.  Expect Sprint’s marketing department to capitalize upon this.

Neil Berman

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Jun 8, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Mobile | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is the iPhone 4 also magical and revolutionary?

iPhone 4Until today it looked like the iPhone was starting to lag behind Android’s energy. Smartphones like the HTC Evo 4G and Nexus One were leading the pack from a hardware point of view, and key features were clearly being offered by these phones which were lacking on the iPhone.

Apple’s announcement of the iPhone 4 today will have a significant impact upon this dynamic. Here are my thoughts on today’s announcement, and in the interests of full disclosure I am an Apple shareholder.

iPhone 4: The new screen

While some competitors have chosen a bigger is better approach to screen size, Apple has chosen to stay put at around 3.5 inches diagonally. I’m undecided on whether a larger 4+ inch screen, and therefore a larger phone, is a good idea. Time will tell if the public adopts the sizable form factors of the Dell Streak and HTC Evo 4G en masse. Personally I would have liked to see Apple stretch the iPhone’s screen towards the top and bottom edges of the face plate.

The resolution of the screen looks to be a quantum leap forward, and something which I would love to see added to the next iPad. For gaming and web surfing, the extra detail on offer is likely to be a superb addition. Hopefully it will also be bright enough to be easily daylight readable.

iPhone 4: The new camera and HD video recording

This was one area where the iPhone 3GS was lagging badly behind competitors and while Apple has not put the iPhone to the front of the pack in specs, it may still have done so in quality.

Apple went with a five megapixel camera, which lags the leading phones that have eight. However it sounds like Apple has paid careful consideration to the quality side of the hardware by including a backlit sensor, which should deliver excellent results.

HD video recording is also a welcome addition, with the new iPhone offering 720p 30fps and a tie-in to iMovie which will be a $4.99 download. The iPhone is already the most used camera on Flickr, and this improved hardware could hasten the always likely death of the traditional digital compact camera and camcorder. Flip beware.

iPhone 4: Battery life

Perhaps more than any other large scale device manufacturer, Apple has been making battery life a core selling point of recent products. MacBooks and the iPad boast significant battery life, and this had been lacking in the iPhone. To be fair it is lacking in many other smartphones as well, with the HTC Evo 4G being the most recent release to suffer from short battery life.

Apple sought to address this today by claiming that the new iPhone 4 will have up to 40% better battery life than the current 3GS. That sounds like a step in the right direction, I’ll hold judgment until we see how it performs in real life situations.

iPhone 4: Video calling

I’m not wild about this one, purely because it’s restricted to WiFi usage only. It’s a cool addition, but I believe it will only truly change our communication habits when it is available over the carrier network. I also think that while occasional video calling is welcome, many people prefer to conduct conversations without video so they can multi-task. But aside from individual preferences, having the option is great.

iPhone 4: Multitasking

We’ve known about this one since January, and it will be a feature of iOS4 devices that support it, but it’s worth mentioning nonetheless. I like Apple’s implementation, which similar to Microsoft’s plans for Windows Phone 7, freezes an app and then revives it from the frozen state when the user returns to the app. Other specific apps are able to genuinely operate in the background.

What’s nice about this is that it does not give all apps free reign to constantly spin in the background, which would unpredictably eat up processor cycles and battery life. There are not that many use cases on a phone where this would be useful, so I prefer the idea of preserving battery life. Of course, the current iPhone push notification paradigm is at the other extreme and is very intrusive, so this will be a welcome change.

iPhone 4: Netflix

This in itself may reason enough to convince TV loving fence sitters to make the switch. Having Netflix streaming content accessible anywhere is a major plus and the app looks great. Netflix continues to go from strength to strength.

Is the iPhone 4 worth buying over an HTC Evo 4G?

That’s a tough question, mired in all kinds of considerations such as existing carrier tie-ins and 4G availability, so I’m not even going to attempt to answer it. What’s clearly the case now though is that if you’ve been holding off of owning an iPhone because of hardware limitations, like the below par camera, resolution and lack of HD video recording, then I think that issue just went away.

Now it’s really only about the software, and that is where Android is still playing catch-up.

Neil Berman

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Jun 7, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Mobile | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Slate of the Tablet

Apple NewtonThe tablet market is moving fast this year and it’s hard to keep up. So here’s the State Slate of the Tablet.

Apple iPad running iPhone OS

Since the death of the Newton a long time ago there have been rumors that Apple was developing a new tablet. Steve Jobs finally announced the iPad earlier this year which, in case you’ve been on an extended remote vacation, is Apple iPad theONbutton landscapeavailable now running iPhone OS. It is available in WiFi only or WiFi+3G, the latter being a smart choice to get the most out of the iPad (pictured). The iPad uses the same App Store as the iPhone and iPod Touch. The iPad can run iPhone apps but dedicated iPad apps look best.

We now either own one, want one or don’t know what it’s for. Personally I didn’t know what it was for, then wanted one and lined up on launch day to own one. I now know exactly what it’s for, which is around 75% of all my Internet and media consumption. The chances are that if a website doesn’t work on the iPad, I’ll find another website or better still, an app.

Limitations include the iPad’s lack of Flash support, no easily accessible file explorer and a beautiful screen which is difficult to read outdoors. Strengths include ten hour battery life, loads of great apps and the ability to enjoy good Internet content without having to trawl the whole Internet to find it.

PC tablets running Windows

Windows tablets have existed ever since the release of Windows XP Tablet Edition years ago. These early tablets were typically ultraportable laptops with touchscreens that swiveled to convert the device into a tablet. They used resistiveArchos 9touchscreens and required a stylus for input, or a very precise fingernail.

The current crop of Windows 7 tablets, spearheaded by the likes of the Archos 9 (pictured), are certainly far lighter than their ancestors but the weaknesses remain. Notably the resistive screens and stylus or trackpad input method. Unfortunately there are just too many aspects of Windows 7 usage that require precise interaction to allow tablets to really exploit the OS.

Multitouch gestures have been built into Windows 7 but as soon as you try using an application like Microsoft Office on a Windows tablet, it is beaten in usability by iWork for iPad which was created from the ground up for tablet usage. Battery life is also an issue on Windows tablets which mainly now use the Intel Atom processor. This is a very power efficient CPU but real life battery usage on these tablets tends to top out at 2-3 hours.

Android

The Google and Open Handset Alliance backed Android OS is making a big play for tablet market share. Or perhaps I should say lots of little plays, because like the Windows tablet market the Android one is made up of a gazillion of Dell Streakemerging models. Unlike the Windows market however, the Android devices we’ve seen so far are all running slightly different versions of Android.

Personally I feel that while Android will overcome the obstacle of fragmentation in the smartphone market, I believe it will greatly hinder the platform in the tablet market. Most users ultimately don’t care if they can’t run this or that app on their phone as long as the device runs a core set of important apps. With tablets it’s different because they are perceived as far more capable devices than phones due to their screen size. If a user tries to download an app which only works on Android 2.1 onto a 2.0 device she purchase that day, frustration will mount. The fragmentation of Android builds on tablets may hold back the rise of the platform if left unchecked.

In terms of actual Android tablet devices in the marketplace, we have seen the JooJoo come and be poorly received. That was the most high profile launch until the recent Dell Streak (pictured above), which is a small tablet and large smartphone wrapped up in a heavy, less than pocket friendly chassis. There was a ton of Android tablets announced at Computex last week running various builds of the OS, which seemed to reinforce the idea that fragmentation is the biggest issue facing this platform.

Palm Pre PlusWeb OS by Palm

HP recently acquired Palm and the jury is out on whether the HP Slate, which was due to be launched imminently running Windows 7, will be shelved in favor of a HP Web OS tablet. Those who have used a Palm Pre (pictured) or Pixi may feel that Web OS could be the foundation of a very useful tablet interface. We’ll just have to wait to see what HP has in store for us on this front.

Neil Berman

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Jun 6, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Computing, Hardware, Microsoft, Mobile | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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