Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Product Review: Pressy and the Perils of Kickstarter

Ah, Kickstarter, what a wonderful idea. I love the notion of encouraging creativity and removing the middle-man of corporate influence in the creation of products and ideas. Kickstarter has been responsible for the creation of several products I own and thousands of other projects I never got to try.

One of the biggest issues I see with Kickstarter, and I myself on occasion fall into, is a lack of tempered expectations. The old saying: "If it's too good to be true, it probably is" rings extremely true on Kickstarter. You'll get people assuming that a project must be delivered on the first day of the projected month. When that fails to happen, they demand their money back and rant about how the project creator is a fraud and a shyster. They fail to understand that products, services, art, entertainment, etc, get pushed back all of the time. Sometimes designs change for the better or worse and they feel cheated then. This is completely normal human behavior.

Alternatively, project creators often offer the world in the hopes of getting the funding they need. Sometimes they actually believe they can deliver on their promises and sometimes they use it to mask any inadequacies the project has. Often, due to production being cheaper in bulk, they set their goal so high it is pretty much unattainable. Both of these are problems with crowd-funding that need to be addressed in a meaningful way.

Enter Pressy. The concept of the little device doesn't seem very interesting. In essence, it's a 3.5 mm headphone tip with a button on the end. The goal is to create an on-demand customized button. In theory and to some degree practice, this works. More on that in a moment, however.

Pressy is the epitome of what happens with production delays, impatient backers, design changes, and excessive promises. I backed the project back in October of 2013. The projected delivery date was March 2014 and I didn't receive the Pressy until late August 2014. Truth be told, this isn't uncommon. My Impulse controller was a couple months late if I recall as well, but in the instance of Pressy, it helped create a great deal of anger.

One thing that changed was the design of the holder for the Pressy.

The original case design pre-April 2014

The case design that was shipped to backers
As you can see, they made some pretty drastic changes. The original appeared to be of a more harder silicone with a key ring through it. It was a simple design, but considering the project, that's not bad. Afterwards, they used a cheaper, more flexible silicone with a slot to put your headphone cord in. The change was not well-received and I agree. The new holder is much flimsier and runs a back risk of tearing at the loop.

Still, this isn't a massive issue to me considering I was in it for the actual button, not necessarily the extras. 

One of the other issues was a lack of some functionality upon delivery and issues with getting the Android app into the Play Store promptly. This led to fears of a lack of official Android support, but in the end, things worked out. However, there was (and still is) some missing functionality such as the Pressy Screen Drawing and Pressy-to-Talk. 

However, most of the app integration and functionality are intact I can proudly say. I was able to easily program most of my commands and execute them well. Sometimes they took a second or two to activate, but they worked like defined. I will say that the app is very fluid and well designed. I can't say for certain that it follows the Material guidelines for Android L, but it's certainly close enough you'd have trouble guessing.

What I don't appreciate is having to activate the app with the code provided in the packaging. This seems very draconian and somewhat dangerous considering if one loses their code, their Pressy is useless. Of course, this came about because naturally there were copycats. Pressy's delay in shipping facilitated that for certain. There are comparable versions of the button out there for less than a tenth of the asking price. Are they any better? I cannot say, but app reviews on the Play Store put them at a little less than Pressy itself. 

With the copycats coming out of the woodwork, designs changes, delays, and missing functionality, it was the perfect storm to ignite hatred against the little start-up. Reviews for the button have ranged from horrible to average to pretty positive. This is entirely expected from a first generation product. People aren't understanding Kickstarter and what it means. You are investing in something whether it be hardware, software, a movie, music, book, or whatever ever else. You're not buying a product. The reward is to show that something came of the project.

This has led to a burgeoning series of scams unfortunately. There are always people looking to take advantage of a situation for their own benefit. However, this doesn't mean things are bad. Look at PebbleiMpulse, and Meenova who are now on their second generation of Kickstarter projects. Unencumbered by funding issues, they have made improvements to the original and worked on addressing complaints. This is how Kickstarter should work and how people should view it. You're helping someone get their idea off the ground. You're not buying something. Once they've established themselves, you're free to be anger at delays, but these things are projects and ideas, not a streamlined corporation pouring out your goods. 

In the end, I'm alright with Pressy. It was an idea that took a great deal of work to get off the ground, but came through, which is more than can be said of other projects. Would I buy a second generation Pressy? Or perhaps another iMpulse or Meenova reader? Of course, because I've seen how the product develops and how a small company can better address concerns a large one may ignore. I have plans on getting the newer Meenova certainly. Pressy is in an even better place. There's little that can be altered at the hardware level. To succeed all they really need to do is improve the software, which they appear to be doing. 

Is it an A+ product? No, but it's good enough for me and will likely get better. We should support it along with the other hopefuls who want to change the world or at least get their ideas out there. Crowdfunding is a powerful idea that can really make waves. Pebble basically pushed the smartwatch industry into overdrive. The Dual Drive I reviewed came AFTER Meenova. This shows what kind of influence it can have. Just remember though, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Rapid Review vol. 5

After a very long downtime, I'm back with a few new toys to review.

I've gotten into beta testing recently and this Arcadia wall charger was offered to my to try out. First off, dual USB chargers are nothing special to honest. They are a dime a dozen, so anyone of them that can make me take interest is a good thing. The first thing I noticed about this charger was the compact form factor and labeling.

With a sleek, 2-inch cube design and flip down plug, the Arcadia NT90C charger is compact and goes just about anywhere. The labeling of which runs as 2.4 and 1 Amp is excellent and something I rarely see on other dual chargers with variable power. The 1 Amp side is par for the course, but the 2.4 Amp side is excellent for tablets and smartphones alike. I was able to charge my Nexus 5 from 20% to almost 80% in around thirty minutes. The only drawback I've noticed is its cost is a little greater than competing models.

The Good: Excellent form factor, fold down plug, clearly labeled set-up for each USB outlet.

The Bad: A little bit more expensive than some competitors.

Final Grade: A

Portable storage is always a plus in any instance. It had been a long time since I bought a hard drive of any type. I had a few Best Buy reward zone certificates and decided to pick this little guy up. 

My first impression upon opening the package was how solidly this thing was constructed. Most portable hard drives, whether they be USB or AC powered, are made of plastic, but this little guy was entirely encased in metal. It's smaller than my old WD Passport at almost exactly the same thickness as my Nexus 5 (0.35 in vs 0.34 in). This is compared to my older hard drive of a half inch or more thickness.

Plugging in the SS USB 3.0 cable instantly installs the drivers for Windows and works within a couple seconds on Chrome OS. You get your usual onboard backup programs and locking password system. The hard drive only runs at 5400 rpm, but it was very quick and responsive on just about any test I could throw at it. My regular laptop is limited to USB 2.0, so unless I do a large file transfer from my Chromebook, transfer speeds remain limited for me. 

Still, the hard drive is whisper quiet and the brushed aluminum is quite beautiful. The hard drive works with both stand microUSB cords and the SS USB that comes with the hard drive. It also has a three years warranty, far more than I would expect. One thing I would have liked to have seen, not just with this hard drive, but in general for portable hard drives, is a case included. Unless you need gobs of space, this hard drive will suit most average consumers quite well. However, for about $20 more than the standard price you can get a 1 TB version that's a little thicker.

The Good: Solidly built, fast, affordable, works with both regular and SS USB cords, very small and slim.

The Bad: Nothing outside of wanting a case included.

Final Grade: A+

Sol Republic Tracks HD V10 - $77 ($37 - my cost)

Sol Republic is one of those companies I'd been curious to check out for a while now. I had the opportunity recently with these headphones that were dramatically marked down in price. Sol Republic, for those that don't know, was co-founded by Kevin Lee who had a hand in the creation of Beats.

Thankfully, these headphones sound nothing like the bass-heavy Beats. Instead, they very balanced with a bit more towards the mids. Still, both bass and high response is very good. I found the presentation very nice with the packaging. Once I opened the box, I found the headphones are actually the earpieces with an interchangeable vinyl band. Vinyl being the same material in my Philips O'Neill headphones make the band virtually unbreakable. The wires individually hooked up to the earpieces and are designed to break away rather than damage the surprisingly tough cord.

The headphones themselves are actually quite beautiful with metal casing for the earpieces. It also has a three button remote built-in to the cord, but sadly only the Pause/Play button worked for my Android devices. Also, since the earpieces are on-ear rather than around ear, they get uncomfortable after a while and adjusting the band to a comfortable setting takes some work. I found the carrying case cheap, being comprised of loose neoprene. A few issues aside, they are a good set of headphones worth purchasing.

The Good: Very good sound, interchangeable and indestructible headband, breakaway cord, three button remote on cord, beautiful appearance.

The Bad: Somewhat uncomfortable, flimsy carrying case, limited remote use for Android.

Final Grade: A-

Motorola Buds - $70 ($46 - my cost)

Bluetooth headphones should be a true wireless solution to music listening. However, this does not seem to be the case with the ones I have encountered. The Motorola Buds have a unique design of highly adjustable earbuds with cords that travel down to a U-shaped area where the battery resides. Motorola claims 10 hour battery life with these and I'll take their word for it. 

The Buds have very clear quality for Bluetooth headphones which others tend to sound fuzzy in my opinion. The issue I had was the volume never got loud enough, even at max. Earbuds are generally inferior to your average pair of on-ear or over-the-ear headphones, but these lack in volume even to my Logitech earbuds. 

Outside of that, I had no problems pairing them up to any devices I own. The magnets at the end of the U base hold the earbuds, which is a nice touch to prevent tangling, but a carrying case would have been better. 

The Good: Good battery life, clear sound, magnetic bits to hold the headphones.

The Bad: Very weak volume, no carrying case.

Final Grade: C-

That's it for now. I've got reviews for the Pressy and Martian Notifier in the near future. Till next time...


Monday, May 26, 2014

Rapid Review vol. 4

It's been a couple of months, but I've gained some new toys, so it's time for another shot of Rapid Review.

SanDisk 64 GB Media Drive - $120

Portable storage has become somewhat of a fixation for me lately. With so many phone and tablet manufacturers eliminating the SD card slot, adding extra storage can be a pain if you don't want to use (or lack access to) cloud storage. The SanDisk Media drive functions in a way as both external storage and a mini "Cloud" storage device. 

If hooked up to a computer, the media drive functions like any other external storage, but its real trick is working as portable WiFi hotspot for storage. This, of course, requires an app for Android, iOS, and Kindle (sorry, no Windows Phone support yet), but it's free and easy to set up. Setting it up took only a few minutes and after transferring some files to test it, I was able to access them quickly (with speeds capped at the theoretical 54 Mbps of your standard cheap WiFi router).

The drive itself is small and pocket-able with an eight hour battery life which makes it easy to take along and reduces worry over not having enough power. It also charges via the micro USB 2.0 port, reducing additional cords needed. Finally, it has a standard SD card slot for up to 128 GB in addition to the built-in 64 GB. It's possible there will be a firmware update (which is done through the app) to allow higher capacities. 

At $120, some might find it a bit pricey. For them, a $32 GB version exists at only $80 for those trying to save money. Overall, I like it. It makes the transfer of on-the-spot files to my friends quick and painless with multiple people (8 for standard files, 5 for HD video like the package advertises). The only drawback is the USB 2.0 which seems a bit dated. 

The Good: Solid battery life, expandable, compact size, allows for multiple users to access at once, easy to set up, updates to firmware through the phone app.

The Bad: Only USB 2.0, a little pricey for some.

Final Grade B+

Philips Bluetooth Speaker BT3500 - $79

I've said before I have an affinity for Philips products and this speaker is no exception. Found at target one day after the BR-1X speakers mysteriously disappeared completely, I bought this speaker to replace the tiny SBT10 Philips speaker. What drew me to this speaker was the two inch drivers in a compact design. Indeed, the BT3500 bears a sort of retro design with its knob volume adjuster.

The primary concern of any Bluetooth speaker is sound quality. The BT3500 has very strong volume levels for its size and maintains clear audio even at max. However, it has no passive radiator like a lot of other speakers so bass is very weak. In the end, this speaker works great like at my work where equipment makes it hard to hear music and this speaker can push over the noise.

Additionally, it has speaker phone capability, AUX in, and NFC for quick pairing. Battery life is rated at 5 hours, a little on the low side. It does use micro USB for charging, so any standard cell phone charger will work. It comes with a cord, but no adapter, nor is there any type of carrying case so the grill tends to accumulate crud. Finally, it does have a small fold out stand that props the speakers towards the ceiling. Overall, this speaker for me is a little more niche than the BR-1X which is a better deal in my opinion.

The Good: Loud and clear sound at any volume, NFC pairing, speaker phone, AUX in, standard micro USB charging.

The Bad: Very little bass, battery life is subpar, no carrying case.

Final Grade: B-

Vizio 38" Soundbar $160 - ($146 my price)

Soundbars are a good way to boost the quality of your TV audio without the expensive and time-consuming hassle of setting up a 5.1 sound system. I originally purchased a cheap iLive 2.0 sound bar for my TV. After owning it for about six months, I was unhappy with the overall sound quality and decided to buy the Vizio 2.1 soundbar. 

The Vizio 38" soundbar had near critical acclaim from customers and professional reviews alike and it shows. Setting it up took only a couple of minutes and the wireless sub-woofer paired up almost immediately. The sound was excellent and clear across the mids and highs with thunderous bass. There are also settings on the remote to adjust bass and treble along with a couple of Vizio specific settings like TRUsound. It takes a little work, but with some adjustment, anyone can get the type of sound they prefer. I will tell you, while I don't know the wattage of the speakers, they are very loud and can shake an entire room.

In addition to the remote, there are buttons on the back of the soundbar to adjust in case you lose the remote, so it isn't immediately rendered useless like a lot of other soundbars. Adjustments are displayed in the lower left of the soundbar with little LED lights. It isn't as elegant as a display, but I do appreciate so type of indicator that my last one lacked. The soundbar also comes with Bluetooth which is a nice addition typically seen in much more expensive soundbars. Finally, it comes with just about every type of connection cord you could need eliminating troublesome shopping for cords.

Overall, I think the soundbar is an excellent value for anyone looking to boost their viewing experience. The only issue I found was a delay when turning it on until sound came out. It's nothing major, but some might think the system is messed up initially. 

The Good: Excellent sound, very loud, easy to set up, Bluetooth connectivity, audio cords included great value.

The Bad: Slight delay when turning on.

Final Grade: A 

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Nexus 7 (2013 model) - The Best 7 inch Tablet You Can Buy

Very much belated this review is, but I’m back and ready to take an in-depth look at the Nexus 7 (2013 model). The first Nexus 7 was a breath of fresh air in the tablet world. Most tablets weren't any lower than $400, the price of a basic laptop. The iPad dominated the landscape in spite of competition and any other tablets lacked decent specs. The Nexus 7 changed all of that by offering a powerful tablet at an extremely low cost. Just its presence in the tablet caused prices on tablets to drop in a race to the bottom which benefited consumers greatly. So is the 2013 model just as good as its predecessor? Let's find out.

First off, physically, the 2012 and 2013 model could not be any more different from each other in spite of both being made by Asus. Dimension wise, the 2013 model is narrower, thinner, and lighter. It also possesses much more capabilities, but more on that in a second. The first thing I really noticed about the tablet is its thinness and build quality. The 2012 model wasn’t by any means neither cheap nor bulky, but the newer model is as thin as any modern high end smartphone. It also eschews the dimpled textured material on the back for a more matte finish. Overall, the build quality is very solid 

On the front you have your front facing camera, light sensor, and new to this model, LED notification light. The bottom contains the charging port which is also a SlimPort giving this tablet the capability of hooking up to televisions, something the former severely lacked. The right side contains the power button, volume rocker, and microphone. On top you have your standard headphone jack. The left is barren and the back contains the Nexus logo etched into the case with a 5 MP rear camera and stereo speakers at the top and bottom respectively.

On initial glance, the tablet already has considerable bonuses compared to its predecessor. However, the most obvious noticeable thing is its 1920 x 1200 resolution IPS screen with Gorilla Glass. With a pixel density of 323, it was a first for a tablet at seven inches to have such a high-end screen and is crystal clear. Color reproduction is very accurate and brightness caps out at 583 nits compared to the meager 350 of the 2012 model. Although blacks are a bit truer on the 2012 model, its successor manages better contrast. Overall, it adds up to likely the best screen on any seven-inch tablet, perhaps even any tablet.

Internally, the 2013 model is a major step up from the 2012 model. It replaces the buggy, often neglected Tegra 3 processor at 1.3 GHz for a Snapdragon S4 Pro at 1.5 Ghz. This is a bit of a misnomer to be honest. The processor in the 2013 model runs Krait 300 cores with DDR3L RAM running at 1600 MHz. It’s more accurate to say that the processor is actually an underclocked S600, which most of the internet seems to agree on. This is obviously not to undervalue the chipset considering the massively low cost nature of the tablet.

Still, with 2 GB of RAM with 12.8 GB of memory bandwidth compared to the 1 GB and 5.34 GB of bandwidth on the 2012 model, the processor shows immediate performance improvement over the previous generation. This is even with the much denser screen, which is driven by the quad core Adreno 320 that absolutely tears through just about any game you can throw at it.

Outside of the immediate improvement in processing power, the 2013 model comes with several other benefits like built-in wireless Qi charging, Bluetooth 4.0, LTE support for certain models, GLONASS, and Miracast. Save for the seldom used POGO pins on the 2012 model, everything from the former returns such as smart cover support, NFC, GPS, etc.

Diving right in, I rooted my tablet as usual and jumped from the stock 4.3 to the latest version of my choice custom ROM on 4.4.2. Everything from opening apps, playing games, and general UI animations were buttery smooth. There was no lag in the tablet whatsoever owing to the doubled amount of RAM here.
Since it is a new addition, I feel I should comment on the camera a little. First off, don’t go into this thinking you’re going to take professional style photos. You’re barely going to get smartphone quality photos. Using the rear camera in sunlight gains relatively decent photos, but there is some distinct graininess to the edges and some noise.

Outdoor shot with the rear facing camera.

The front facing camera at 1.2 MP surprisingly fares better than expected. Colors were actually very vibrant with it, but sharpness and noise were at appropriate levels for a camera of its low resolution.

Outdoor shot with front facing camera. (Ignore the hideous face I'm making, it was too bright for me)

Finally, there is no flash on the rear camera like my son’s Hisense tablet had or any OIS here. So low light photos on the rear turned out about as good as you could expect. They were washed out in colors and filled with noise, but passable for a simple share on Facebook. I personally have not tested videos on the tablet, but one can assume they will turn out with similar results.

Indoor shot with rear facing camera (Pictured: Captain America bear fighting for Truth, Justice, and Photoshoots.)

On the custom side of things, my tablet personally proved strong. I was able to load a custom kernel and push the CPU as high as 2.2 GHz, the same my Nexus 5 runs at. I pushed the GPU from 400 MHz to 513 MHz with no problems. The custom ROMs have come a long way and I even have multi-window support (albeit with some occasional problems), theme support, and a several other benefits. I found the sound from the headphone jack a little on the low side, but with my custom kernel I was able to boost it to get much richer sound from my headphones.

In the battery department, the 2013 model has been reduced from a 4,325 mAh to 3,950 mAh. However, significant improvements in the processor and Android operating system have resulted in equal or better battery life. I left my tablet on with no actions at 94 percent one night to return later in the next and had only 3 percent. Its claims of equal battery life compared to its predecessor are likely true.

Finally, with a cost of $229 for the 16 GB model, $279 for the 32 GB model, and $349 for the 32 GB LTE model, the 2013 version of the Nexus 7 comes in at a higher cost. However, I think with the massive improvements from the processor to the screen to additional capabilities that the Nexus 7 (2013) is very worth it. In fact, I’d go as far as saying it’s possibly the best value to spec tablet on the market period. Even though it is ten months old now, there’s really nothing you can get close to it for an equivalent price. I managed to get mine for $30 off, making it $249, the same price I paid as the previous model and it has been worth every penny. If I had one gripe about the tablet, besides the lackluster camera, I only wished the stereo speakers were front facing. Other than that, it is hard to closer to perfection than this.

The Good: Significant step up from last year, excellent screen, great performance, good build quality, loads of new hardware features, very low cost for specs.

The Bad: Mediocre camera, speakers could have been front facing.

Final Grade: A

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Rapid Review vol. 3

Time for another dose of shortness. I've picked up several goodies over the course of the last few months and here are a few of the gems I found.

Philips BR-1X - $79

Introduced at CES 2014, this new Bluetooth speaker from Philips caught my eye at Target. The main reason it caught my eye was the two inch drivers as opposed to the normal one inch drivers for a speaker at this cost. Pulling the speaker out of the box, I was surprised by how huge and heavy it is. This thing is built tough, though not waterproof or indestructible by any means. The rubber housing is actually a case that can be removed if you wish, but I don't recommend it.

The front has volume controls and the power button. When the power button is pressed the speaker automatically goes into pairing mode, bypassing the need for any Bluetooth button. Also on the front are IN and Out 3.5 mm jacks because the speaker can be daisy-chained. The back has both a proprietary charger and microUSB port, which drew me to the speaker since this was unique and a first I'd ever seen. Also on the back are a Bluetooth history deleting button and an Outdoor/Indoor button (more on that next).

So how does it sound? Pretty good with an exception. First, this speaker is insanely loud for its size. I was thrown off by how loud it is. The clarity of the sound depends on the Outdoor/Indoor button. For indoor settings, the bass is solid and the clarity very good. The outdoor mode reduces bass with boosted treble to increase volume. The result is only so good to a point. After 80% volume, sound becomes scratchy and distorted. 

Battery life is rated at about 6 hours, which is about average for its class. One odd thing, all the pictures show my model with yellow speaker grills, but mine are black. Nothing important and I prefer them black anyway. Overall, I'm very pleased with this speaker. It matches value for performance.

The Good: Rugged design, powerfully loud sound, great clarity in indoor mode, can be charged by two different types of charger, great price.

The Bad: Outdoor mode distorts badly at high volumes.

Final Grade: A

Philips SBT10 - $30 ($20 - my cost)

I bought this little Bluetooth speaker on Black Friday and it's been in my sling bag since then. I've only used it couple of times, but its not a bad little thing. Size wise, it's thicker than my Nexus 5, but the other dimensions are smaller. It can basically fit in the palm of your hand or the back of your pocket. Inside the box is the instructions and a charging cable, nothing more.

For such a small speaker, it's pretty feature packed. On the top you've got a Play/Pause/Answer button, power button, and mute button. The bottom of the device has an Aux port for running the sound wired and a micro-USB port which is an necessity for any accessory purchases I make in order to maintain charging on the go. It also rubber stops on the bottom and back of the device so you can choose how you want to set it up. 

Pairing with the device was relatively painless, but it took a couple tries for my phone to find it. Afterwards though things were fine. The sound of the device is very good and clear. Bass is lacking, but for a device of this size I'm not going to knock it much. Amazingly, even at max volume, the speaker doesn't distort. It maintains clear sound even at max. However, it will only fill a small room. This isn't a sharing type speaker, more of a personal one. 

The battery is rated for eight hours which is pretty solid given its size. Overall, I would recommend this speaker for anyone on the go that just wants to have some louder music or even do a speakerphone call. However, don't look to this one to be a party speaker. The speaker can be purchased at Wal-Mart or Target. 

The Good: Very cheap, clear sound even at high volumes, excellent battery life, micro-USB charging, speakerphone capability is a bonus for its size, very compact.

The Bad: Weak bass, designed for a small room or personal use only.

Final Grade: A  

SanDisk Ultra Dual Drive 32GB - $59 ($29 - my cost)

These next two entries are actually two different solutions to the same problem: adding storage to cell phones and tablets on the fly. The Dual Drive works like a basic flash drive on one end, simply hooking it up to the computer. On the opposite side of the drive is a micro-USB output for connecting to your cell phone or tablet. 

Now there are some caveats. The device you are going to connect it to has to have USB-on-the-go or USB-OTG for short. A great deal of Android devices have this nowadays. My LG Nexus 5 has it, along with just about every recent Samsung and Motorola phone. Most tablets have it as well. 

I didn't have any issues getting the system to work for both my new Nexus 7 and Nexus 5, but the device only uses USB 2.0 instead of the newer 3.0 format. While I lack any 3.0 ports on my basic laptop, my Chromebook does support it. This leads to long transfers of large files or clusters of files. It also lessens any futureproof capabilities. I found the cost prohibitive as well. I managed to get the device on sale for about $30, but off sale at twice that is too much.

The concept of the Dual Drive is an interesting one, but limited in its scope. If you can find one on sale for what I paid, it's a decent deal, but any more than that and it's not worth it. You're better off using my next entry. 

The Good: Simple to use, variable storage options from 16 GB to 64 GB, compact.

The Bad: Only uses USB 2.0, costly when not on sale.

Final Grade: B-

Meenova MicroSD Card Reader - $12

My second foray into Kickstarter was this little gem. Like the Dual Drive above, the Meenova MicroSD Card Reader aims to assist with USB-OTG support without the need for a separate cord. Where it trumps the Dual Drive is flexibility. 

Smaller than the size of a quarter, the Meenova doesn't have its own storage. Instead, you supplement a MicroSD card and plug it in. This is very useful since you can choose what size you want to use and in the end, it will cost far less than the Dual Drive even with the cost of storage. 

The package contains the reader, along with a keychain attachment and adapter to connect it directly to a computer. Pulling off the cap and plugging the device into your phone or tablet, you'll see a blue LED light up letting you know your device is compatible. Some people don't like this, but I find it useful. My Nexus 5 is compatible, but my Nexus 4 wasn't and this let me know without scouring the web to find out why.

Overall, it's definitely worth it if you need to expand storage like with my Nexus phones that lack MicroSD card slots, but does just fine even with devices that do have one. Having the storage available on a keychain is a huge boon and I think this is probably the best solution to the expansion problem of devices. It's obviously not going to work on Apple devices and only uses USB 2.0, but it's an acceptable compromise given its cost.

The Good: Very cheap, LED indicator to help determine compatibility, keychain and adapter are great for the package, lots of potential and futureproofing thanks to using MicroSD as opposed to static flash.

The Bad: USB 2.0 only might be a drawback.

Final Grade: A+

That's it for this round. I'll be back with another Rapid Review when I find some more goodies out there in the world. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Entering the World of Chrome OS: My review of the Acer Chromebook C720

Chrome OS is certainly an anomaly among the OS's out there. The concept of being connected all the time and using the Chrome browser to do everything sounds ridiculous. However, after working with the Acer Chromebook C720, I found myself really enjoying it.

First, let's look at the hardware. At first glance, you might mistake the Chromebook for a netbook or ultra portable laptop. With a width of 11.3", a depth of 8", a thickness of .75", and weight just under three pounds, the C720 is extremely lightweight and easy enough to fit into any bags or cases for netbooks. The C720 has an 11.6" 1366 x 768 resolution screen, which is pretty standard for a netbook if it were one. I do find the screen to be a little washed out with whites, but most other colors come through bright and vibrant. The screen has good brightness and even 50% brightness is acceptable for most people.

The C720 is powered by an Intel Celeron 2955U dual core processor at 1.4 GHz with 2 GB of DDR3L RAM and Intel HD Graphics with 128 MB dedicated RAM. The storage on the C720 is a paltry 16 GB solid state drive, but it can supplemented with a portable hard drive or flash drive on either the USB 2.0 or 3.0 ports. In addition to that, it has a 3.5 mm headset jack, a HDMI out port, an SD card slot, your standard locking port, and a 1.3 MP webcam. Internally, the C720 has Bluetooth 4.0 and WiFi running all the standard channels. However, there is no ethernet port. 

So how does it perform? To my surprise, phenomenally. Without all the overhead of other OS's like Windows, the C720 is able to process whatever commands you give it lightning fast. While the RAM runs at twice the bandwidth of my Nexus 5, I would still be leery about loading too many web pages. Still, for its cost, it can't be beat. 

Looking at the keyboard is a different experience altogether. While it's arranged in a Qwerty fashion, there are certain differences compared to what you would normally see on a Windows or Mac computer keyboard. The big difference I saw was with top keys and the lack of a delete key. The top keys correspond to different functions for the Chrome OS like expanding the window full screen to remove the bottom bar or changing the volume. Since this isn't Windows there's no Function key, but most people don't even use those keys so it isn't a great loss. The lack of Delete key perturbed me a little, but you can still use Backspace so it isn't the end of the world. The only thing I did wish for was media control buttons like my regular laptop, but that may be asking a bit much considering the stripped down nature of the hardware. I will say that the keyboard has excellent tactile feedback and is very comfortable to use.

The trackpad for the C720 is smooth and has good clicking action. However, there is no normal way to disable the trackpad if you wish to do so. You can disable it if you want to enter the Crosh, the developer's shell by pressing Ctrl + Alt + T, then enter the command tpcontrol set 131 0. Still, I wish there was an easier way to do this. Maybe Google will provide an update to accommodate customers later. While they can't be seen, there are stereo speakers in the laptop hidden beneath the keyboard. They are very loud, but lack bass so you're better off using the headphone jack or Bluetooth speaker for music. 

The Chrome OS initially looks and feels a lot like Windows 7 in some ways. It has the "Start" menu on the lower left with the bar beneath and on the right a clock with battery meter, Wifi signal, and a tiny picture of which user is on the computer currently. Yes, Chrome OS comes with support for multiple users and upon start-up, you're prompted to enter your Google login information. 

This is where the Chromebook could fall apart for some people. I'm personally heavily invested in Google services from Play Music, Play Store, Drive, Docs, etc. So as soon as I log in, I have access to everything I set-up long before buying this Chromebook. In addition, it already sets up my bookmarks and history from my laptop. For someone new to Google services, you may feel underwhelmed. 

Although the bottom bar and "Start" menu have icons for things like Gmail and the like, clicking them opens up a window for the address on the Chrome browser. In many ways, the Chrome OS is crippled without internet access to the Google services, but many things have been made available offline like Docs. This way you could go somewhere and create a document, then when you regain internet access, the document will sync with Google's servers for later safekeeping. 

So how does it actually fare in use for me? Pretty good for the basics. I've put it through the test for some of its claims. I use it mostly for dictation at my friend's house, but I sometimes use it when I want a lightweight large screen to read from. Would it replace my regular laptop? No, not yet. There's still a heavy reliance on the cloud and interaction with the Chrome browser, plus there aren't very many web based versions of high end programs like Photoshop. However, for basic use like web browsing or reading, it's very good. 

Battery life on the C720 is rated at 8.5 hours with a 7 second boot-up time. Both of these are true, but the battery life is dependent on how you use the Chromebook. If you crank everything to max and stream videos all day, I doubt you will make it that time. However, if you just do basic browsing with the brightness set at around 50%, there's no question you could get this claimed battery, perhaps even more. The boot-up time is actually even faster than claimed. It's practically instantaneous.

A few things I tested and researched were stuff like whether you could use a mouse with the Chromebook or how external storage would work. I bought a cheap wired mouse and hooked it up and it worked flawlessly without any need for installing drivers and whatnot. External storage was a bit trickier. I struggled a bit to get the flash drive to work, but eventually I managed to get it to copy over information onto the internal storage. The file browser, coincidentally, is one of the only things you don't interact with through the Chrome browser. There are three options in it: Google Drive, downloads, and external storage.

While the Chrome OS claims to have built-in security, this is a dangerous notion. It's still possible to find a way to infect the browser or OS so the claim is only valid as long as nothing happens to it. Still, it has all of the standard things like anti-phishing and you can download AdBlockers just like on Windows. Without a registry or large sections of system to infect, I will say that it should be difficult. Just be careful with your information like you would on your regular computer.

One nice feature is automatic updates. Unlike the annoying Windows Update feature that eventually forces you to restart (often against your will), Chrome OS only updates on a restart of the system when you choose to.

In the end, Chrome OS is something to be interested in if you just need basic access to the web or need a simple computer to come with you when you go somewhere. At $200, the hardware here is amazing, but any higher (as there are several different versions of this model and Chromebooks from other manufacturers) and you might consider a full-fledged laptop, tablet (particularly the Surface, iPad, or Nexus 7), or if you're willing to sacrifice performance, a good old netbook for your secondary computer needs.

As a parting note, the entirety of this post was done on the Chromebook with no trouble at all. I was able to research it, type it up, find any images I needed, and post it.

The Good: Fast performance, excellent battery life, keyboard feels excellent, low priced, fairly well made, good feature set for cost. 

The Bad: Requires internet for most functionality, no standard way to disable trackpad, Chrome OS limits you to web applications and Google services.

Final Grade: A- (for myself), C+ (for non-Google service users)   

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Best Affordable High End Android Phone, Period: My Nexus 5 Review

Another year, another Nexus. It's been an amazing journey for the series. We're closing in on five years of Nexus and this year's Nexus could easily be one of the best. Let's get down to it then shall we?

First off, while the Nexus 5 is still made by LG, it's vastly different in appearance. While the overall footprint of the Nexus 5 is similar to its predecessor, the Nexus 4 (5.43 x 2.72 x .0.34 vs. 5.27 x 2.70 x 0.36), the materials used to construct them are completely different. The Nexus 4 was made of plastic with glass coating both the front and the back. This gave it a weight of 4.9 oz and what most would describe as a premium feel. It was a fragile thing and there was several reports of breaking the back glass just like the iPhone 4/4s.

The Nexus 5 forgoes this for a polycarbonate shell similar to the Nexus 7 2013 (which I will review later). My black version has a matte finish and its weight is 4.59 oz which worried me that it would be cheap. This is not the case though. The Nexus 5's body is rigid and sturdy with no signs of creaking. In the end, because of its slightly longer body and reduced weight, the Nexus 5 feels more balanced in the hand than the Nexus 4 did.

The front of the Nexus 5 is consumed by the 4.95 inch (marketed as 5 inches) screen with a 1.3 MP front facing camera on the left, an inconspicuous ear piece speaker only slightly bigger than the front facing camera sits in the top center, the top right has well-hidden proximity and light sensors, and finally the now standard three color LED notification is hidden in the bottom center.

On top you have a headphone jack and noise cancelling microphone. The left side contains the volume rocker while the right has the power button and micro-SIM card tray. On the back you have the Nexus word logo etched into the case with the 8 MP camera and flash on the top left. The bottom of the device has what looks like stereo speakers. In truth, it's a microphone port on the right and single loudspeaker on the left.

Overall, first impressions of the device will leave most people underwhelmed. The device is fairly plain looking compared to the more gaudy Nexus 4. The curves are a bit sharper on the corners too which makes it a bit more angular in appearance. Still, I found the device's chameleon like appearance pretty nice. People often ask me what type of phone I'm using when they see it. The only issue I had was the matte finish is prone to smudges. However, they are wiped away pretty easily.

Internally, the Nexus 5 packs the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset running at 2.26 GHz with the Adreno 330 running at 450 MHz. Little needs to be said about this chipset that hasn't already been done on many other sites. Simply put, it tears through everything. Everything from the loading apps, shutting down the phone, overall animations, and installing apps are smooth and quick. The Nexus 5 has 2 GB of LPDDR3 RAM at 800 MHz with a bandwidth of 12.8 GB/s compared to the LPDDR2 RAM running at 533 MHz with 8.5 GB of bandwidth in the Nexus 4. The significant step up in hardware is certainly worthwhile even for someone with the Nexus 4. However, those with Snapdragon 600 chipsets and other similar level processors won't find the upgrade that necessary.

Aside from the processor, the Nexus 5 comes with all of the standard things you should expect in a high-end smartphone. It includes Bluetooth 4.0 LE, GPS, NFC, Barometer, WiFi with ac support in the 2.4 GHz range, etc. In addition, Slim Port support and Qi wireless charging returns from last year.

New to this model are a few things missing in the Nexus 4 that I wanted it to have. The first is LTE support. The Nexus 4 only had LTE unofficially on Band 4 whereas the Nexus 5 has it on all the major American bands save Verizon's. I experienced LTE speeds roughly the same as my HSPA+, but with better latency. However, signal strength in my town is weak in my house (compared to full bars of HSPA+) and ultimately it consumed more battery because of it. Still, there's hope for potential tower upgrades and thus the phone is futureproof in this regard.

The other additions I wanted was a 32 GB storage option and USB-OTG support. The Nexus 4's internals couldn't do OTG support without an external power source, but the Nexus 5 has no problem with this. However, although the phone recognized something had been plugged in, you still need a file browser from the Play Store in order to view what's on your OTG storage.

I've already went into detail about Android 4.4.2 in another post, so I'll spare you that. The screen for the Nexus 5 is a 1080 x 1920 Full HD IPS screen with 445 ppi. Simply put, it's the best screen I've ever seen. The colors are very even with maybe just a little over-saturation. It's pretty much impossible to see any pixels at this high of definition. The clarity is really just that high. However, I think this might be the top end of what I'd be interested in so far as resolution. I don't think you can make the screen any clearer than this and any more will just push the processor harder for less battery. The screen is also made of Gorilla Glass 3 and is smooth and silky under my fingertips. Smudges on the screen are easily wiped away.

The cameras on the other hand, aren't all that amazing. They are very good, but you're not getting the same level you would with a Galaxy S4 or iPhone. Outdoor shots with either standard shooting or the HDR+ mode the Nexus 5 has turns out solid shots as to be expected with the HDR+ shots showing better lighting. Indoors, things can take a hit. With no flash, regular shooting in normal indoor light has noise and a yellowish cast to it. Switching to HDR+ mode fixes the color, but the mode itself has to use a lot of post-processing to do it. Basically, it corrects the color, smooths the image, and reduces the noise.

A shot taken with no settings or flash in regular indoor light.

Indoor shot taken with HDR+ on under normal lighting.

Outdoor shot with no settings or flash taken late afternoon.

Outdoor shot taken with HDR+ late afternoon.
The results with the flash are actually not too bad. I was expecting a washed out photo, but it's much more passable than I expected. The front facing camera is your standard 1.3 MP affair. It's good for the occasional selfie or video chat which is pretty much all they are good for anyway. Overall, the camera is pretty decent. The OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) the Nexus 5 and its sister phone the LG G2 appears to do a good job for low light photos. It's a much better step up from the Nexus 4, but Google still has a way to go with their cameras if they want to be at the top. A start would be updating their painfully bare camera app with more options.

Indoor shot of Bat Bearry with regular settings and flash in low light.

Indoor shot of Bat Bearry with HDR+ mode in low light.

Your standard selfie with the front facing camera.
If there was one thing the Nexus 5 did terribly wrong though, it would be the loudspeaker. In an age when we're getting amplified stereo speakers on smartphones, LG opted for the weakest sounding speaker on a phone I've ever heard. Thankfully I wear my Pebble or I might not even realize the phone rang sometimes. Even worse, placing your finger over the speaker port nearly completely mutes it. This was poor design on Google and LG's part. Hopefully, the next Nexus will rectify this.

In the battery and data speed department, the Nexus 5 runs above average. Data in my area can vary from 3 Mbps all the way to 20 Mbps depending on traffic. Ping speeds with LTE ran at about 33 ms with HSPA+ at about twice that, which is pretty normal.

For battery, provided there are no background programs keeping the phone awake, the Snapdragon 800 is a real power sipper. I don't lose more than 1% an hour which is quite good. I've yet to give it the full range of tests, but I've not had any issues making it through a full day. I may update this in the future after I run some more tests.  

In the end, what puts this phone as the perfect package is the price. Since the tail end of the Galaxy Nexus' life, Nexus phones have gone for $350. My model costs $400 for the 32 GB version, but the 16 GB version still runs this pricing model. For the cost, there's really no better unlocked, no-contract phone. If you prefer a contract version, I'd say go for the LG G2. It packs the same specs and a better camera. Otherwise, you really can't beat this phone if you overlook the bad loudspeaker.

The Good: Phenomenal price point, fast performance, great crystal clear screen, improves upon last year's version considerably, solid build quality, good battery life.

The Bad: Weak loudspeaker, camera performance is average.

Final Grade: A