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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

Mini-review of the Samsung Galaxy Tab

Samsung Galaxy Tab

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

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

 

Samsung Galaxy Tab keyboard

The Samsung Galaxy Tab docked with its optional keyboard

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Berman

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

Hands-on with Sennheiser’s MM550 stereo Bluetooth headphones

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

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

Features of the Sennheiser MM550

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

Listening to the Sennheiser MM550

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Berman

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

Samsung Epic 4G review: Part 1

Samsung Epic 4G

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

First impressions of the Epic 4G

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Berman

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

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

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

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

Neil Berman

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

MacBook Air (late 2010) review

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

First impressions of the MacBook Air

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

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

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

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

Using the MacBook Air

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the new MacBook Air a good buy?

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

Neil Berman

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

TestSeek provides a one-stop review & shop site

TestSeekWith the overwhelming amount of gadgets in today’s market, picking the right one has never been more confusing. At theONbutton we try to review gadgets as well as we can but it’s always a good idea to get as many opinions as possible, so you can make the right decision about your gadget purchases. With this in mind we like the look of the ever-growing TestSeek.com.

We found TestSeek to be a great site because it allows you to find expert product reviews in one central place. Unlike some shopping sites that have been hit by scandals of fake reviews, TestSeek manually collects links to expert reviews from independent sites. TestSeek also includes user reviews in a separate section so you can see how the devices have fared in the hands of real users.

TestSeek also has price comparisons on the site which allow you to find the best price on that shiny new toy you’ve been dreaming of.  We also liked the various language options on the site, of which there are around ten in total.

Just promise us one thing; if you see a product on TestSeek that we liked and everyone else seems to hate, let us know!!

Neil Berman

Nov 2, 2010 Posted by | Guides | , , | Leave a comment

EFO ‘smallest and lightest’ iPazzPort review

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

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

First impressions of the credit card sized iPazzPort

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

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

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

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

Using three credit card sized iPazzPort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the EFO iPazzPort product page.

Neil Berman

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

Pre-launch review of Sprint 4G WiMAX in New York City

I’ve been using the Samsung Epic 4G on Sprint’s WiMAX network in New York this week. The 4G service is due to go live officially on November 1 and, in short, it rocks. I’ll go into the Epic 4G in more detail in a separate post, for now I’ll concentrate on reviewing the 4G service itself.

I’ve been connecting to Sprint’s 4G service in a few areas; although primarily in downtown Manhattan and the commercial waterfront area of Jersey City. In all cases I’ve experienced consistent download speeds indoors of 4.5-5Mbps and upload speeds of 1Mbps. Outdoors the speeds have been around 3-4.5Mbps down and 1Mbps up. These are average download speeds measured with the Speedtest.net Android app. The specs of Sprint’s WiMAX service suggest that peak bursts could be up to twice those speeds.

What does this mean in real life? I was able to download apps in the Android Market faster than I could search for the next ones. Downloading podcasts and streaming videos became a trivial matter. I even tested using the Epic 4G as a mobile hotspot streaming an HD YouTube to the new MacBook Air, which worked like a charm. Basically it’s been like having a home internet connection in my pocket.

That speaks to the dicussion I had with Sprint about customrs using their phones or an Overdrive to replace their home internet connection. In an instant I saw that this is a real option. For an average user in a good coverage area, Sprint’s 4G service is should be quick enough to replace a typical home internet service. Taking the Epic 4G as an example, you could carry it as a daily phone and then put it into hotspot mode when you get home to provide your home internet service. For someone paying a typical $40 per month on home internet, that’s a decent savings. Whether that’s feasible though would depend upon your type of usage and network coverage.

One thing that’s really surprised me is how well the 4G signal has held up in my usage, given the higher frequency being used for WiMAX in this deplyment compared to 3G. This is probably due to thehigh density of pico cells that Sprint has deployed to provide coverage across the city.

There are still a could of dead spots here that Sprint said they are going to continue working on. But overall if the speeds remain this good post go-live then this is a service I can recommend in a heartbeat. The post go-live experience will be the true acid test though. As a friend said over dinner, if we had tested the iPhone a week before launch in New York City then it probaly would have been a superb experience, but as more and more iPhones placed strain on AT&T’s network,the quality of the experience degraded.

Will Spint’s 4G WiMAX network experience similar issues if there is a rush of subscribers? We’ll have to wait and see. But if it holds up, it will be a strong offering. The other variable is how successful Verizon’s 4G LTE deployment will be when Big Red lights it up shortly. If you’re in a good coverage area though, Sprint’s 4G WiMAX could be all you need for both mobile and home internet.

Neil Berman

Oct 29, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Motorola S10-HD stereo Bluetooth headphones review

Stereo Bluetooth headphones have long been one of my favorite topics on theONbutton.  I’ve not been shy about my issues with the lack of choice in this sector and frustrations about Apple’s imperfect Bluetooth implementation on iOS.  The winds of change look to be blowing in the right direction though. Apple’s latest version of iOS now supports proper stereo Bluetooth remote control (AVRCP) and hopefully that means manufacturers will feel free to launch a wider range of headsets.  Motorola has had stereo Bluetooth headsets in its lineup for some time and we’ve previously reviewed the S805 and S9-HD, finding both to be solid contenders.  The company has built upon the S9-HD’s design to deliver the new S10-HD and we have one right here, so let’s see if it’s any good shall we?

First impressions of the Motorola S10-HD

With the S10-HD, Motorola has stayed with a similar behind-the-neck design to the S9/S9-HD. As with the S9 family the ear arms of the S10-HD that house the controls and headphones are flexible, while the rear piece housing the battery, USB charging port and power button is solid.

The whole device has a more rubberized feel than the S9 family. They both feel built to a similar high level of quality, but I’m guessing the rubber coating of the S10-HD is designed to make the headset more sweat-resistant than the S9 family. Many people chose the S9 headsets or the Plantronics BackBeat 903/906 as jogging partners and while the S9 seemed to be more sweat resistant than the Plantronics design, the S9 was still vulnerable to moisture. The headset itself feels about the same weight as the S9/S9-HD, although the rear piece is slightly wider presumably to accommodate a higher capacity battery.

The ear controls are near identical to the S9 series, with the track play/pause, forward and back buttons on the right earpiece, while the volume and call controls are on the left earpiece. The only material difference with the controls is that on the S9-HD a long press on the track forward button would toggle the SRS WOW enhancer on and off, whereas this enhancer is not present on the S10-HD.

There are four sizes of ear fittings in the box to allow for a comfortable fit in the ears. They serve a more significant purpose than just comfort however; more about this later. Other items in the box include a power adapter and manual.

Getting comfortable with the Motorola S10-HD

The S9 series was always a polarizing headset. Some people loved the snug fit, which practically guaranteed that they would never fall out of your ears by accident. Others meanwhile found the fit too tight for long term comfort. The S9 series headsets also loosened gently over time, so they became more comfortable after frequent usage, while still retaining a sure-feeling fit.

The S10-HD feel just as snug as my S9-HD did on Day One, although the S9-HD look visibly looser at rest after a year of use than the brand new S10-HD. The various earpieces have a significant impact upon comfort too, because while the smaller ones allow the arms to grip closer to the side of the head, the larger ones push the arms out. So if you find the fit too tight against your head, trying the larger earpieces might be helpful.

Walking around, although the rear piece of the S10-HD is sizable it doesn’t seem to get in the way as much as the rear of the S9-HD. This might just be due to the shape of my head, but I found I could move my head up and down more freely with the S10-HD than with the S9-HD.  Having said that, they do still seem to restrict movement of the head when looking upwards.

Using the Motorola S10-HD

The S10-HD enters pairing mode when switched on for the first time. You can of course also get it into pairing mode after that as well. The headset paired with my iPad and BlackBerry Bold 9700 easily and subsequent reconnections were extremely quick and reliable; I never needed to re-pair the S10-HD, which is in keeping with Motorola’s typically excellent record with Bluetooth devices.

If you’ve ever used an S9 series headset then your fingers will fall naturally onto the controls of the S10-HD. For newcomers, it’s an easy headset to get to know. I found I needed to be a little more precise with key presses compared to with the S9-HD, perhaps that’s because the rubber coating adds a little more distance between the headset’s exterior and the interior button contact.

One of my issues with the S9-HD was that it often lost the Bluetooth signal when walking in open areas or far from other objects, with the phone in my trouser pocket. This resulted in choppy music playback. This has definitely improved with the S10-HD. The new headset’s receiver seems far more able to hold onto a Bluetooth signal when walking around. I went for a brief run with my phone in the front and then back pocket of my shorts, and the S10-HD held the signal without dropouts in both cases.

So how does music sound through the S10-HD? The S9-HD was a solid performer, easily improving upon the original S9, and the S10-HD keeps the reputation going strong. But to tell you more about the characteristics of the sound quality I need to go back to the earpieces.

While it would appear that the different earpiece sizes just impact upon comfort, they actually have a profound impact upon the sound characteristics of the headset. At a basic level, the larger earpieces produce significantly more bass than the smaller ones.

Listening more deeply, it seems that without any earpieces fitted, the S10-HD has a presence peak around approximately 1-3kHz, which is the frequency range of much of the human voice. This characteristic accentuates vocals and is similar to the effect heard when selecting a ‘Pop’ equalizer preset on many stereos. The bass and treble frequencies are still there but the boosting of the midrange pushes the vocals to the foreground.

The acoustic properties of the earpieces has an effect of boosting the low end frequencies, and this is most pronounced with the largest earpieces. I found the most balanced sound was with the second largest earpieces.

With these fitted, basslines were solidly resolved without being over-accentuated. By comparison while the Plantronics BackBeat 903 produced a more open airy sound with more room at the treble end, the Motorola S10-HD is the headset to choose if you want a pumping bassline. Just like the S9-HD, the S10-HD can produce an amazing amount of clear bass, which really is remarkable given the small size of the headphone drivers.

What’s also great about the S10-HD is that while the bass often gets lost to street noise on other headsets, the snug fit of the larger earpieces means that the bass remains intact when walking around wearing the S10-HD.

Of course the S10-HD will let you make calls as well, and it does a reasonable job of this given its design.  Callers’ voices come through very clearly, but for them to hear you it helps to be in a quiet environment since the mic is mounted on one of the earpieces.

There are a couple of issues with the S10-HD. As with the S9 series, the fit will probably continue to polarize opinion regarding how comfortable the S10-HD is to wear over extended periods. I found the S10-HD to be very comfortable when worn for a long time with the second largest earpieces. But your mileage may vary depending upon the shape of your head.

The other issue relates to the volume of the S10-HD. Some devices surrender control of volume to the Bluetooth headset, and both the iPad and Bold 9700 behaved this way with the S10-HD. In both cases I found that the minimum volume did not go low enough for all use-cases I would envisage for the headset. I actually thought that the unit Motorola had sent me was faulty but the second one they sent had identical volume levels. I then paired the S10-HD to a Samsung Epic 4G and this issue was not present, since the Epic 4G allows you to control the master volume from the phone when connected to a Bluetooth headset. Whether this is a problem for you will depend upon your cellphone and how loud you like to listen to music. If your cellphone allows you to control music volume on the phone when connected to a stereo Bluetooth headset then this will probably not be an issue for you at all.

It’s worth mentioning that the Plantronics Backbeat 903/906, Sony DR-BT50 and Motorola’s own S9-HD also exhibit this issue, although those headsets go down to lower minimum volume level than the S10-HD.  These headsets should really all be able to output a negligible volume level if requested.  Perhaps it is an issue with the Bluetooth A2DP stereo audio streaming protocol rather than the headsets, since it seems to affect so many of them – I’d be interested to find this out.

Motorola S10-HD: The final sound-check

At $79.95 the S10-HD comes in at $50 less than the S9-HD did when it was released last year, and if you’re a fan of the Motorola S9/S9-HD then the S10-HD will most likely appeal to you.  Equally if you’re looking for a headset to wear when jogging or working out, the S10-HD should be one of the headsets near the top of your shortlist.  The sound quality of the S10-HD is very enjoyable and uniquely configurable due to the characteristics of the earpieces.  I love that Motorola has vastly improved the S10-HD’s ability to hold on to a Bluetooth signal compared to the S9-HD.  If Motorola, along with other manufacturers, could resolve the minimum volume issue then the S10-HD would be pretty close to perfect.

Neil Berman

Oct 18, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | 63 Comments

Samsung WEP301 Bluetooth headset review

Samsung WEP301We recently reviewed the Aliph Jawbone ICON and BlueAnt Q1 Bluetooth headsets, which are both high end devices at the top of their game. While those headsets offer premium features they come with a premium tag. Some might say all they want from a headset is to sit in a room and talk hands-free without frills. Many others lose headsets so often they now limit their expenditure to the minimum (I wonder how many right now are under car seats?) At the more affordable end of the market Samsung has a range of Bluetooth headsets to meet these needs, and we’re going to look at their WEP301 model today.

First impressions of the Samsung WEP301

The first Samsung headset I ever used was the diminutive WEP200, which was a seven gram marvel of miniaturization way back in the day. The WEP301 feels just as light, although its construction feels less premium. From a distance the WEP301 doesn’t look cheap with an attractive silver color finish, but when you get up close it’s clear that the headset was made with a price point in mind.

I don’t have a problem with that, as long as you buy the WEP301 expecting a silver color plastic finish rather than a metal exterior.

Speaking of the exterior the WEP301 ships with a selection of patterned plates that can be affixed to the headset to create a personalized look, which is a fun addition by Samsung.

The other notable item in the box is the power adapter for charging the WEP301’s battery. Unfortunately the headset does not use the standard mini-USB charging port that the likes of Plantronics and Aliph have adopted along with so many cellphone manufacturers. So no brownie points to Samsung for this decision.

The WEP301 sports a multi-function button that acts as a on/off control, plus there are also dedicated volume controls. There is also a light that indicates connection status and reports when the headset is in pairing mode.

Using the Samsung WEP301

Pairing was straightforward with my BlackBerry Bold 9700 and I never found re-pairing to be necessary. Sound quality was very good indoors using the Samsung WEP301. I really didn’t feel like I was using a budget headset when making calls in a quiet controlled environment. Unfortunately there’s no fancy noise canceling technology that the more expensive Bluetooth headsets boast, so call quality on the WEP301 does suffer outdoors as with many other headsets.

There is a detachable earhook which I found to be a necessity as the WEP301 would not securely in my ear without using it. The earhook can be fitted for use on either ear and swiveled to fit different ear shapes. As with the construction of the headset itself, the earhook feels cheap. However it just about does its job; the headset never fell out of my ear but it didn’t feel super-secure either. The Plantronics 395 we reviewed recently does a better job of ensuring a secure fit, although it is slightly more expensive.

One excellent feature of the WEP301 is its long battery life. Samsung quotes 5 hours of talk time for the WEP301 and I did get close to that number in real life usage. I certainly found myself reaching for the charger less frequently than with many other headsets, but that doesn’t forgive the omission of the standard mini-USB charging port.

Does the Samsung WEP301 stand out from the crowd?

Overall the Samsung WEP301 is a good choice as a budget headset and the custom design plates are a fun touch. Those with a little more to spend should also consider the Plantronics 395, which is on a higher level in terms of both build quality and comfort.

Neil Berman

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Aug 31, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

EFO iPazzPort review (3rd generation)

The EFO iPassPort is now in its third iteration and it’s been great to see how this HTPC keyboard/trackpad combo controller has developed over the past year.  In my review of the version 2 iPazzPort, I had some lingering questions about the typing experience and said that “…I’d actually love EFO to take something like one of the larger BlackBerrys…and place the left and right buttons where the call buttons normally live.” Well that’s exactly what EFO appears to have done, fitting the new iPazzPort with a keyboard that looks very similar to that of a BlackBerry 8800 series smartphone.  So let’s see if third time’s a charm for the iPazzPort.

At first glance the 3rd gen iPazzPort looks similar to previous iterations, but this version has some significant enhancements.

The keyboard design and layout has been completely reworked. Keys are now closer together and with better ergonomics. Whereas the previous gen iPazzPorts had keypads arranged with flat horizontal key rows, the new model is far easier to type on if you’re used to typing on a BlackBerry-style smartphone.

The keys themselves offer slightly better feedback than previous versions of the iPazzPort, although the experience is still far from a BlackBerry for example. I was able however to type far more fluently with this iPazzPort compared to previous ones. The backlight is still present which means typing in a dark home theater living room is no problem.

The key layout is also a big step up from the previous model, with media keys now included as well as all the useful secondary keys such as Ctrl, Tab and Fn 1-12. There are also dedicated page up & down buttons that make webpage navigation much easier. Most of the important keys now feel like they’re in the right place, although I’d love to see standalone up & down keys or support for two finger scrolling, which leads me to…

The trackpad – no changes here unfortunately. There’s nothing specifically wrong with the trackpad; it works perfectly well, is a good size and support tap to click as previously. However in a world of multitouch trackpads it would be great if the iPazzPort offered two finger scrolling for effortless webpage navigation. There might be a hacky way to enable this, I’ll let you know if I discover anything.

The third gen iPazzPort now has a red laser pointer built-in, which makes it ideal as a presentation device. The pointer light is bright and is easily viewable in well-lit rooms. It also doubles as the most amusing toy my cat had ever seen, he chased the thing around the apartment non-stop for an afternoon.

The build quality of the iPazzPort seems largely unchanged. It feels light and well put together but lacks the premium feel of something like the Logitech diNovo Mini. It also costs a fraction of the price, so that needs to be taken into account.

The iPazzPort retains the mini-USB charging port and internal lithium-ion rechargeable battery of its predecessor. It comes with a USB charging cable. The iPazzPort goes to sleep after a few seconds if not used to save battery, and consequently the device gives plenty of use between charges. Whereas the 2nd gen iPazzPort used Bluetooth, the 3rd gen model goes back to RF transmission. This might also contribute to the good battery life of the device.

Overall the 3rd generation iPazzPort represents a bigger leap than the changes between the 1st and 2nd gen models. The redesigned keyboard, inclusion or media keys and laser pointer now make the iPazzPort even more compelling as a great HTPC or presentation controller. Now if EFO can get two finger scrolling going in the next version and reverse engineer the key feel of a BlackBerry Bold, this will become a truly great product.

The EFO iPazzPort 3rd generation costs $45 and is available here.

Neil Berman

Aug 19, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Home Theater, Photo & Video, Reviews | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530 review

Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530

Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530

Last month we reviewed the Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch and concluded it worked well as a smartphone for newbies or light data users. We suggested at the time that Virgin Mobile’s BlackBerry 8530 might be a better bet for those looking for a more rounded smartphone experience and promised a review, so here it is.

We covered Virgin Mobile’s Beyond Talk plans in our review of the LG Rumor Touch, but the one difference with the BlackBerry 8530 is that Virgin Mobile asks for an extra $10 per month. This is presumably due to costs associated with

Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530 back

Back

BIS usage and the higher volume of data that the BlackBerry 8530 will likely consume compared to the other Virgin Mobile data phones. This extra amount brings the base Beyond Talk plan to a still very reasonable $35 with unlimited data, texts and 300 minutes, or $50 for 1,200 minutes. The unlimited minute plan becomes $70 including data and texts. At the time of writing the same situation still applies regarding taxes which is that, in New York at least, the only tax applied is sales tax.

Now back to the BlackBerry 8530. While being a new addition to Virgin Mobile, the BlackBerry 8530 has been on the wider market for a while now. At $299.99 it’s the most expensive phone in the Virgin Mobile line-up, and twice the price of the LG Rumor Touch. So is it twice as good?

First impressions of the Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530

When the 8500 series was announced I was skeptical about it during a BerryReporter podcast. My feelings at the time were that BlackBerry already had the 8900 Curve series and should have made the 8500 Curve series more teen orientated with a more obvious social networking focus and fewer traditional BlackBerry menus. RIM chose not to do that and released the 8500 series with the same OS as the rest of the range. While I remain unconvinced of this strategy on most carriers, I think it works well on Virgin Mobile since the 8530 is the only BlackBerry available on that network. More on the software later.

Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530 battery and micro sd

Battery, micro SD and camera

Looking at the hardware, the BlackBerry 8530 comes in any color on Virgin Mobile as long as it’s black. I was somehow expecting a red option since that is the color I associate with Virgin Mobile and I thought that would be a distinctive tell for the carrier but black it is. The casing is shiny black at least and does look smart. There’s a small, subtle Virgin Mobile logo beneath the keyboard.

The keyboard is a similar design to the 8900, with mildly ridged keys in the standard BlackBerry layout. The 8530 has the optical trackpad of the newer BlackBerrys, rather than the trackball which was famous for needing regular cleaning art best or occasional replacement at worst.

Above the trackpad is the screen, which is one of the newer dazzlingly vivid BlackBerry screens. Unfortunately the resolution is only 320 x 240, so it lacks the stunning pinpoint resolution of the higher end BlackBerry models. The result is that small OS text can look a little pixelated although still perfectly readable.

The left side houses a standard 3.5mm headphone socket, micro-USB charging port and assignable button. The volume controls and a second assignable button are on the right side.

On the top of the 8530 there are track skip and play/pause buttons, the latter of which also serves as a mute button.

There is a two megapixel camera on the back without a flash and a micro SD card slot hides under the battery cover. Thankfully the micro SD card is accessible without needing to remove the battery.

As with the rest of the BlackBerry range, the 8530 feels very well built. It might not ooze the enterprise class quality of the Bold 9000 or 9700, but it feels like it’s built to last.

Using the Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530

The Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530 runs version 5 of BlackBerry OS, which is pretty vast so I’ll concentrate here on some of the main features.

Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530 App World

BlackBerry App World

The Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530 is able to access BlackBerry App World, which is RIM’s equivalent of Apple’s App Store. There is a wide range of BlackBerry apps available now, and since the OS is able to multitask it’s perfectly possible to have Facebook and IM or RSS apps running in the background while you’re watching a YouTube video or writing an email.

On the subject of YouTube, the BlackBerry 8530 was easily able to stream YouTube videos over the Virgin Mobile network, which actually uses Sprint for cell service. I preferred using the Player for YouTube app which I downloaded from BlackBerry App World, to browse and stream videos rather than the YouTube website but that’s purely a matter of personal preference. The message here is that while I struggled to stream YouTube videos consistently with the LG Rumor Touch, the BlackBerry 8530 worked perfectly every time.

The BlackBerry 8530 has 256MB for app storage, which is a decent amount since BlackBerry apps are generally pretty small in size. The micro SD card can only be used for media files, so if you run out of space for apps you’ll need to clear some out before installing more.

Speaking of media files, the media player on the BlackBerry 8530 is good to use. Videos look fine using the onboard player, although I missed the crystal sharp resolution of the screens on the Bold 9000 and 9700. Pictures can be browsed using a finger swipe across the trackpad.

Music is easily searchable and searches are instant. Playlists can be created on the phone itself and skipping within tracks is simple. There are repeat 1 and All settings as well as shuffle. The speaker is decently loud, although completely

Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530 browser

Browser

lacking in bass definition; it’s better suited to spoken podcasts than music playback. For music the headphone socket delivers excellent sound quality and the top-mounted playback control buttons are a useful feature.

Something I always look for in a smartphone is whether it supports Bluetooth A2DP stereo audio streaming and AVRCP playback remote control. The BlackBerry 8530 supports both of these and happily streamed music to a Plantronics BackBeat 903 stereo headset with full remote control capabilities. Incidentally this streaming also works fine with downloaded apps that are enabled to use it, such as Pandora and Stitcher, which is handy to know.

The web browser on the BlackBerry 8530 is okay, although nothing special.  It is able to render pages fairly well but lacks Flash and any sense of speed.  It is usable however for basic web surfing and the trackpad serves adequately as a mouse.  Serious surfers may want to look at a downloadable browser such as Bolt.

If you’re considering the Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530 over the LG Rumor Touch it may well be to take advantage of the renowned BlackBerry messaging capabilities. The 8530 does not disappoint in this regard offering an excellent keyboard, BlackBerry Messenger and downloadable clients for the major IM platforms. Virgin Mobile includes a Twitter app straight out of the box. The BlackBerry 8530 also supports multiple email inboxes and handles email far better than the LG Rumor Touch.

Photo taken on BlackBerry 8530

Photos taken on the BlackBerry 8530 are passable for occasional use, although Halo looks unimpressed

The two megapixel camera of the BlackBerry 8530 is passable but a weak point of the device. By modern standards the resolution is too low, with five or at least three megapixels now being the minimal standard. The camera does take decent shots though and is good enough for occasional use, but with its lack of flash don’t count on using it in low light environments.  There’s a second photo below taken at close range which reveals issues for macro shooting.

Many of the other drawbacks of the Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530 are common to the whole BlackBerry range. The 8530 takes a long time to boot up if it crashes, so we’re thankful that the platform is relatively stable. You will probably need to reboot once every couple of weeks though to give the 8530 a fresh start if you typically have a lot of apps open simultaneously.

The screen of the BlackBerry 8530, like most other BlackBerrys, is not touch enabled. However the BlackBerry 8530 is very quick to navigate using the optical trackpad. If you’re dying to get a touchscreen phone though, look elsewhere.

Call quality of the BlackBerry 8530 was good with no significant issues. It was able to pair with Bluetooth headsets if you prefer to talk hands-free. Battery life was fine, with two days being achievable with light voice and data use. Heavy users will probably want to juice up the BlackBerry 8530 every night.

Summing up the Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530

Overall the Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530 is an excellent choice if you’re looking for a proper smartphone for a low monthly cost. It’s definitely worth the extra over the LG Rumor Touch if you’re planning to be a heavy data or want a more robust messaging experience. There is the extra $10 monthly to consider above the normal Virgin Mobile Beyond Talk plans plus the initial outlay for the phone is high, but it works out favorably over two years when compared to buying the same phone on a contract with some other carriers. However the market is no longer standing still and MetroPCS has also recently launched the BlackBerry 8530 at a lower device price point but a higher minimum monthly cost. As ever, check out all the deals in your area before you jump in!

Neil Berman

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Aug 15, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Hands-on with the BlackBerry Torch 9800

BlackBerry Torch 9800 slide-out keyboard

BlackBerry Torch 9800 slide-out keyboard

The BlackBerry Torch 9800 has been eagerly anticipated by BlackBerry fans for a long time, but early reviews have left some disappointed.  After getting some hands-on time with RIM’s latest smartphone, here are my initial impressions:

BlackBerry Torch 9800: Build quality and looks

The BlackBerry Torch is small and well formed.  This smartphone could have been a large brick, but it’s almost the same size as a Bold 9700.  The Torch is slightly thicker but at a glance the two BlackBerrys share very similar dimensions, which is remarkable when you consider that the Torch has a slide out keyboard.  The Torch feels as solid as one would expect from an enterprise class BlackBerry.  Fit and finish seems to be top notch and the sliding keyboard has a satisfying click when it engages.

BlackBerry Torch 9800: Keyboard

BlackBerry Torch 9800 alongside Bold 9700 keyboard

BlackBerry Torch 9800 alongside Bold 9700 keyboard

A BlackBerry is only as good as its keyboard, and the one on the Torch is okay.  Since it has to slide under the main body of the device, the keys cannot be raised as high as the Bold 9700 or 9000 and consequently it can be hard initially to type quickly.  The Palm Pre and Motorola Droid have the same issue and each of those smartphones handled the problem in their own ways; the Pre has little bobble keys and the Droid went completely flat.  The Droid 2 has adopted slightly raised keys, similar to the Torch 9800.  I did find that typing became fluent after a few minutes but the edges of the chassis, as with the Palm Pre, do sometimes get in the way of quick typing.

There’s also an on-screen keyboard, with which I really struggled.  I couldn’t get into any kind of fast and accurate typing rhythm with the on-screen keyboard, and always reached for the hardware keyboard when I became too frustrated.

BlackBerry Torch 9800: Touch screen and general speed of operation

The Torch has a regular glass touch screen, unlike the Storm which has SurePress to register screen inputs, and for general navigation and opening apps I found the touch screen to be perfectly responsive.  Much hasbeen said about the Torch being slow due to the extra demands of OS 6, but in my limited time with the Torch I didn’t really experience slowdown issues.  I don’t feel that the OS makes efficient use of touch in the same way as Apple iOS or Android, but RIM has created that issue for itself by releasing the Torch with an OS that is also destined for its non-touchscreen devices like the Bold 9700.  So the touch efficiency of OS 6 only goes so far before it feels like an add-on.

Neil Berman

theonbutton.com

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Aug 14, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360 hands-on impressions

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

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

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

Neil Berman

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

Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch review

Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch 8

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

First impressions of the Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch

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

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

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

Using the Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch a good buy?

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

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

Neil Berman

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

Plantronics Explorer 395 Review

Plantronics 395 3

What’s under review: Plantronics Explorer 395 Bluetooth headset, MSRP $49.95

What rocks: Good call quality, simple to use controls, comfortable snug fit

What’s rocky: Earhook is unobtrusive but non-removable, lacks A2DP for listening to audiobooks or podcasts

Verdict: An excellent mid-range contender

We recently reviewed the Aliph Jawbone ICON and BlueAnt Q1, which are high end Bluetooth headsets.  Time for something more affordable we thought, which coincided perfectly with Plantronics launching its new mid-range headset, the Explorer 395.  So they were kind enough to send us a sample for review, and here is what we found …continue reading

Apr 23, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Apple iPad Review (update: now with video!)

Apple iPad 32After so much anticipation, the Apple iPad is finally here.  There’s been hype to the heavens on this one, so it’s time to reveal whether the iPad actually delivers now that it’s landed …continue reading

Apr 3, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Hardware, Reviews, Video Features | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Aliph Jawbone ICON review

Jawbone ICON 3The Jawbone ICON is Aliph’s latest Bluetooth headset and comes with quite a family pedigree behind it.  Aliph’s Jawbone range has long been a headline name in the  Bluetooth world, so when Aliph sent us a Jawbone ICON review unit we put it through its paces …continue reading

Mar 26, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews, Video Features | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

theONbutton’s Flash HD video test: Hardware acceleration Mac vs PC

Flash has gained huge amounts of column inches in 2010.  This is mostly because of Apple’s current stance of not including it on the iPad while claiming at the same time that the iPad will be the best way to experience the Web.  Many commentators have disagreed with this statement because Flash is integral to so much online multimedia content.  As we previously explained part of Apple’s contention is that Flash is too processor intensive, which we agree with, and the company is pushing for HTML5 to be more widely adopted as an alternative.  Meanwhile as we also previously explained, Adobe is taking steps to use graphics hardware to accelerate Flash HD video decoding, which promises to allow smooth playback of content on computers with supported graphics cards.  The problem for Apple users is that due to the ongoing sparring between Apple and Adobe …continue reading

Mar 11, 2010 Posted by | Reviews, Software, Video Features | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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