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

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Product Review: The Pebble Smartwatch

After my mediocre experience with the second generation of Sony Smartwatch, I decided to wait for better smartwatches to come out. After seeing the ridiculous Galaxy Gear with its pitiful 16 hour battery life and the Cookoo and Citizen Proximity ignoring the fact that Android has Bluetooth 4.0 support, I decided to buy the Pebble.

Truth be told, I've had my eye on the Pebble for a while. I almost bought it earlier, but videos of it made it look clunky and slow. It's really not. I almost went for the extra hundred dollars and bought a Pebble Steel, but after looking at the specs, it was no better than the regular version of Pebble except with a flashier presentation.

First off, the Pebble's body is a rectangular thing which immediately stands out. I've already gotten several comments about it just based on its appearance. For me, it's just the right size for my wrist. Someone smaller and the watch might overhang, but most people shouldn't have any issues with it. It comes with a silicone strap. Some might find this a bit cheap, but it's really very comfortable to wear. I haven't really worn a watch in years and I find myself missing it when I take it off.

The right side of the Pebble's body is devoted to three buttons: up, down, and an OK button (probably as best it can be described). The left side of the body contains a back button and the charging port. The Pebble uses a magnetic clip with a USB cord. This is the only other item in the box besides the watch. While it is a non-standard charging method, you can't really fault it that much since in order to achieve 5 atm for the watch, it had to be sealed completely. Since it is 5 atm, you should be able to go swimming or use it in the shower. However, I have not yet since I'm a bit leery about taking expensive electronics near water. Maybe in the future I'll see how it works.

The Pebble uses an "e-paper" display, however it's more a transflective LCD than what you might see in a Nook. I doubt the Pebble can maintain an image on the screen without electricity like true e-paper technology does, but I digress. The screen's resolution is 144 x 168 giving it a pixel density of 139. It's certainly not crystal clear and monochrome, but this isn't some super watch. For what the display looks like and what the watch does, it's certainly passable. It's easily readable in daylight and it has a nice feature that a quick flick of the wrist turns on the backlight for night time reading.

So what can it do? Well right now, Android is still waiting for the launch of the Pebble App Store, but the basic uses of the watch are to receive notifications (from your Calendar, Gmail, Email, Facebook, Messaging app, and more), control your music, tell time (obviously), use the alarm, and reject or accept calls. The Pebble is limited to a combination of eight watch faces and/or apps. Still, I was able to load a calendar app onto the Pebble and I've seen other apps for things like using the watch as a speedometer for biking, Google Maps, and a few other programs I don't use.

A sample of an email sent to the Pebble (not my arm).

Overall, I've found it's use very good. I often run around at work with little time to check my phone in the instance of an important message or notification. With the Pebble, the watch gives me a pleasant vibration and the message remains on the screen until I dismiss it with the back button. In the instance of multiple notifications, you scroll through them with the up/down buttons. Multiple dots at the top of the screen indicate how many notifications you have. I'm not sure how many it can store before it is full so someone with more knowledge feel free to chime in on the comments section. When not in a notification, scrolling with the up/down buttons changes with the clock faces.

Another plus is clock faces can be animated (at the cost of battery life) and every thing is done through the Pebble control app. Syncing with the phone was fairly painless on both my Nexus 4 and 5. I believe I only lost connection one time so far in the two weeks of owning it. In addition to helping the pairing process, the Pebble control app also allows you to download a few new watch faces by the company that makes the watch, test notifications to determine how they work, adjust which music player the music command controls, choose which programs can send notifications, act as a go-between for third party apps, and update the firmware. Updating the firmware is easily the nicest part of it as it doesn't require any technical knowledge or wired set-up. Everything is done through the app wirelessly.

Battery life is pretty decent for the watch. I was hoping for a little more than I got, but it managed to eek out five days on the first charge and about five on the second as well. When the battery is getting low a battery icon appears at the top of the screen in the menu section (it never shows in the clock faces to remain unobtrusive). More daily notifications, animated clock faces, and using the backlight and alarm will drain the watch faster obviously. Charging from the computer tends to take about an hour to an hour and a half, but is not too long.

So are there any downsides? Well a little. Navigating with the scroll buttons can be a bit of chore depending on the notification, battery life could be a bit better, and there needs to be more storage for apps. Also, notifications like emails that contain images and HTML show up as code. So those kinds of notifications you'll be grabbing your phone to figure out what's in it.

Still, for all that it does and the story of its origins (the Kickstarter is still the highest funded project on the site), the Pebble is actually a triumph. It's a smartwatch cheap enough for anyone to purchase and useful enough to not regret buying it. It's still got some growing pains, but it's obvious from recent firmware updates, the Pebble Steel, and the app store that the company is dedicated to taking this smartwatch all the way. I recommend it for anyone considering a smartwatch, but remember it's not a do-all kind of watch. Instead, think of it as a notification hub and control center for your phone.

The Good: Comfortable to wear, screen is visible in all conditions, maintains good connection, all updating and app transfer done wirelessly, backlight gesture is a great idea, water resistant to 5 atm, not too costly.

The Bad: Battery life could be a bit better, scrolling larger notifications can be annoying, limited app storage.

Final Grade: B+  

Monday, January 6, 2014

Rapid Review vol. 2

I'm taking a break from a little fiction writing to do a rapid review. Sometimes new isn't always better. A lot of times a newer product comes out and changes way too much about what you love about a product line. Sometimes a newer product does like Apple and doesn't introduce enough new features to be worth your time. A lot of what I buy are the last generation products going on clearance or at extremely cheap prices. Sometimes I buy things brand new if they're really worth it, but most of the time I'm either too poor or too pragmatic to bother with new products. Here's a few things I've picked up recently (and not so recently):

UE Mobile Boombox - Cost $50

Ultimate Ears is a subsidiary of Logitech, after they were purchased by the company in 2008. The successor to the Logitech Mini Boombox, UE Mobile Boombox is a upgrade in several different areas. Compared to the Mini Boombox, it's a little bigger in pretty much all dimensions, but that's owing to a different design. 

The design of the Mobile Boombox has been simplified with a rugged rubber exterior and simple three button system, which is just volume controls and a Bluetooth button for pairing. Gone are the touch sensitive controls on the top that were prone to scratching. However, in the process because of this, you'll no longer be able to control the tracks from the speaker itself. Such is the sacrifice of a modern design.

Still, the unit does sound pretty decent. Because of the larger body design, sound is not as treble heavy as before. Things are a little more balanced with the mids being more pronounced. Bass is about the same as before, which is to say, not much. Even though it lacks bass, the unit is so portable and cheap you can hardly fault it for not being on par with a Bose unit or other competitor.

A couple of other features worth mentioning are a change from NiMH to Lithium-Ion battery. This will make standby times and off times much longer. Lithium battery have much better drain times when turned off than NiMH as I have pointed out before. As before, speaker phone capability is still here. Also, a change from mini-USB to micro-USB will help charging as any standard charger for Android or Windows Phone will do. (The unit does come with its own charger and cord.) Overall, worth purchasing, but pay no more than I did at $50 as the Bluetooth speaker market is saturated.

Pros: Durable redesign, micro-USB charging, change to Lithium Ion battery, sound remains decent.

Cons: Loss of track control on top of unit.

Final Grade: A

Philips O'Neill The Stretch headphones - Cost $30-$70

My favorite headphones are a pair of these. The O'Neill brand of Philips are a high end style of headphones that don't get nearly enough praise. Finding them in stores these days is pretty much near impossible with the likes of Monster, Bose, Beats, and every other brand you see nowadays, but you can still find them on eBay for a pretty low price.

First off, these are some of the most comfortable headphones I've ever worn. I can wear these things for hours with no discomfort whatsoever. I'm a fan of over-the-ear headphones for their noise cancelling properties and these do the job admirably. They have no dedicated noise cancellation, but close off your ears enough to do a more than satisfactory job.

Sound quality for the unit is impressive. We're not talking super high end and audiophiles may not take away the best experience, but the average user is going to find them great. Most of the sound is balanced, but bass will appear weak without some equalizer settings on your system of choice. In fact, one could say the sound is too balanced. You'll need to work with your equalizer settings depending on what type of music you listen to so you can find optimal quality. However, once you find the best balance for your personal taste, they sound excellent.

Finally, build quality is phenomenal. The main piece connecting the headphones is made out of vinyl instead of plastic or metal so it's virtually indestructible. Seriously, I've tried twisting it into tons of shapes and nothing breaks it. You also have a woven cloth-like cord with a break point near the headphones so accidents don't tear the electrical wiring, but just detach instead. These are an excellent buy that I thoroughly recommend for those wanting a higher end pair of headphones without the higher end cost. Only drawback is they are somewhat large and don't fold so they're best suited to home use, plus they lack a mic so you're using these only for listening.

Pros: Extremely comfortable, indestructible build quality, balanced sound.

Cons: Don't fold up so best suited for home use, no optional mic.

Final Grade: A-

Thermos Element 5 Hydration Bottle - Cost $20 - $40

A non-electronic review? Sure. I'm a on the go kinda guy and I like to carry some iced tea along with me. I spent a great deal of time pouring through various bottles going hit and miss. I landed on one bottle made by Thermos that was nice, but a design flaw had it leaking every time I took a drink. 

Now there are a ton of thermos type bottles out there, but many have sipping tops meant for coffee. Since I'm not a hot beverage kinda guy, it took me a lot of time to find this bottle. After browsing through eBay and the web, I came across this guy.

First off, there is absolutely no leakage at period. The design of this is very rugged. From its stainless steel construction with hard plastic on bottom and top, it's about as durable as you can make it. A nice feature of the bottle is a loop with a carabineer so you can attach it to a backpack or even your belt loop if you want. 

In terms of insulation, I can say with certainty it holds up to its claim of 24 hours for cold liquid. It's rated for 6 hours of hot liquid, but as I haven't drank anything out it, I'll just assume its probably right. The opening for liquid is more meant for cold liquids anyway. The only thing I wished was the bottle held a little more liquid. At 22 ounces it's on the larger side, but I've had ones that were 24 ounces or more so it would be nice, but for the money you can't buy a better thermos built for life's travels.

Pros: Durable, no leakage, carabineer for hooking to other items, cold insulation lasts as advertised.

Cons: Could be a little larger, opening for drinking is better suited for cold liquid.

Final Grade: A

That's it for this post. I'll be back sometime soon with more.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A review of Android 4.4.2...

Been away for a while. There's not been a lot of time to review things nor have I had much to review. I'll probably have another rapid review soon, but for the moment, let's take a look at Android 4.4.2.

Note: I skipped over reviewing Android 4.3 because I thought it was really more incremental than essential. 4.3 can be basically summed up as Bluetooth 4.0 LE support, TRIM support, auto-complete in the phone dialer, some minor Bluetooth boosts, a few graphical tweaks, revamped camera app, and a lot of under the hood changes.

Android 4.4 KitKat brings some of the most significant changes to the operating system since Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0. On the surface, the first thing you'll notice on stock Android is the removal of holo blue accents from the operating system. The designers for Android have stated that the holo blue actually interfered with a lot design aesthetics for the system and a switch to a more neutral tone helped bring out the apps instead of focusing on the OS UI.

Personally, at first, I was apprehensive about the change. It took a long time for me to get used to the holo blue theme after becoming enamored with Gingerbread's green. Now, I'm being corralled to another style. Thankfully though, it's actually grown on me due to the semi-transparent notification and navigation bars. At first I thought this transparency would cause issues seeing the clock or buttons, but it didn't prove so.

The only negatives I have with it is there are still some holo blue accents in the system. While the clock, navigation bar, quick settings toggles, and a few others have gone all white, you still have some suspiciously holo blue areas like the settings menu quick toggles for the Wifi and Bluetooth, plus a few random menus. (I will admit, as I'm on a custom ROM, either Google or the ROM developer has taken the time to remove the last of the holo blue accents from my version, but stock ROMs still have it to my knowledge.

This UI polish has also gotten a healthy boost in performance from two areas: memory reduction and better 2D rendering. Project Svelte was introduced in 4.4 to make the OS run smoothly on hardware as low as 512 MB. While you won't see any upgrades to older chipsets outside of custom ROMs, this makes it easy for just about any newer hardware to take advantage of the new version of Android. This is more fragmentation combating to hopefully prevent OEMs from just slapping an old version of Android on their phones and calling it a day.

Smoothness has been enhanced thanks to software vsync that helps predict usage ahead of the hardware vsync and I can attest to its benefits. Much like 4.1 made my Galaxy Nexus feel like a new phone, 4.4 did the same for my Nexus 4. There are a host of technical improvements so if you want to read about them from a former Google software developer, check out this link.

Before I mention any other features, I should mention Google has done a lot this release to shore up consistency. I mentioned in my Ice Cream Sandwich post that the OS seemed all over the place, with certain areas looking different from others. KitKat doesn't have much of this. Some things have been made similar like to add a calendar appointment you get this little clock you punch in your time. This was applied to the alarm clock section as of KitKat. A few other things were made consistent. The font is a little more streamlined, the ugly bold numbers in the lock screen clock and clock app have been made slim, and indicators in the navigation bar on the lock screen help you know to pull up Google Now or go to the camera.

Moving on from the polish of the UI, the most changed thing in the OS is the dialer. The holo theme is almost completely gone here, replaced with a search bar at the top and you favorite contacts when you open the app. You have to push the dial pad button on the bottom to bring up the dial pad with a slick animation. Even on my custom version of KitKat there's still some holo blue in the dialer which shows Google still has a ways to go to remove the overarching theme of the past three releases.

The dialer still has autocomplete like before, but Nexus 5 owners get the extra benefit of being able to search business phone numbers directly from the app and have a internet based caller id from Google Maps. I've tested it out on my phone, sideloading the app, and I can only hope they remove the exclusivity of it and bring it to all Nexus devices. Nexus 5 owners also get the Google Experience Launcher that is basically an extension of Google Now. It does have the nice feature, after installing offline language recognition in US English only, to be able to talk directly to your phone from the home screen and have it search for you. Doing a little sideloading on my Nexus 4 shows it works wonderfully even on my older hardware.

Outside of that, the average user will take note of the wireless printing option in the settings menu. Unfortunately, I can't be of any assistance here, but I'm sure some will find it useful. There's also a Tap and Pay option baked directly into OS that seems to appear when the NFC chip is on. This was likely to stop pushing Google Wallet and put it directly into the OS. Whatever the case may be, I've only been able to successfully use NFC on my phone to pay for something when I had a Google Waller gift card. It never worked with my bank card to my dismay and I've never bothered to try again.

There's a Document app that allows you to view photos, videos, and music. It's basically a stripped down version of a file explorer and I find it a waste. Even the most ad-ridden free file explorer is much better than this so just don't bother. For those with stock Nexus experiences, you'll see there's two gallery apps, one is the old school gallery app and the other is tied into Google+ called G+ Photos. Redundant for sure.

Outside of all this, there is a lot of under the hood changes including APIs for native IR blaster support, sensor batching, step detection, and counters. Immersive mode is a feature that lets you remove the status and navigation bar in apps that you use it. You can get either back just by flicking from the bottom of the screen, but this has to be programmed in. It was first seen early on in the YouTube app which did something similar. You've also got the AOSP browser running Chromium engine instead of Webkit but nobody will notice this outside the support for HTML 5. Stock Nexus devices come with Chrome pre-installed anyway.
Location settings have been separated into high accuracy (which is GPS, Wifi, and mobile networks all at the same time), battery saving (just Wifi and mobile networks), and straight GPS only.

There are a few other minor things like being able to set your default SMS app, but the biggest one that most people won't deal with is the ART runtime. It's a feature buried in the developers section of the settings menu. This alone requires you to go into the status section of settings and click your build number 10 times just to get the developers menu anyway, so this really isn't for the faint of heart.

Basically, ART runtime is the intended future for Android. In the early days of Android (Pre 2.2), things ran pretty crappy on the system and it was sluggish regardless of hardware power. Froyo introduced the Just-In-Time (or JIT for short) compiler. What it did was compile some of the apps code initially to help the app start and then compile what else was needed as you ran the app. Nowadays with high end hardware, JIT is more of a memory hog and a burden than a benefit. ART intends to change this by compiling the entire app from the time of installation (or a reboot when you see the "Android is upgrading" screen) to reduce CPU cycles and memory bloat. It's an experimental feature right now and doesn't work for all apps, but many people have reported getting much better battery life thanks to it. The trade off however, is longer installation times for apps.

Overall, KitKat is great upgrade. It strengthens even the weakest hardware and makes the top-end hardware run great. I can attest that even without ART runtime, I get better battery life and a much smoother performance. Initially, I swore off the upgrade for a while because the custom ROMs were struggling a lot harder to get a stable version going unlike previous versions, but things have come along a lot more smoothly lately. I give KitKat two thumbs up and I think Android is going to be shaped more and more around Google Now in the future.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The iMpulse Bluetooth Controller review - A great first generation product

Kickstarter has been something of a curiosity for me. I hadn't backed anything on the site since for the longest time there really wasn't any projects I cared for or were interested in. The first products I heard about which finally piqued my interest were the Pebble Smartwatch and Ouya game console. Obviously, they been completed and both were planning to make it big time with actual retail support so I decided to start browsing around the site.

 Finally, I came across something interesting: the Impulse controller. The Impulse was a tiny Bluetooth controller you could attach to your key-chain. I was interested, but when I found out they had added new functionally in the form of a presentation remote and key finder, I was stoked. I chose the silver metal version for $45 and placed my pledge in November of 2012. Nine months later and a host of emails involving its progress, I received my controller. I thoroughly recommend you look through the Kickstarter page and its Updates section as it shows the process of how the controller came to be and what it takes to manufacture something like this. A great read for those interested in how our electronics are made. There is also a home page for the controller which is like the Kickstarter page, but significantly simpler and less cluttered.

Unfortunately, there was manufacturing defect with the first controller. I contacted tech support for Black Powder Media and they sent out another controller with apologies. The second controller, another of the full metal variant, failed. I was discouraged, but I offered the company to pay for another replacement. This time I chose just a plastic version. The company obliged at no cost to me, impressing me with their concern. Thankfully, the defect seemed to be in the batch of full metal variants and not the plastic one and I was in business. Ultimately, my device failure helped the team as they have told me they traced the issue and future controllers should not have the problem mine had (the technical term is oscillating frequency failure or in basic terms, my phone couldn't find the Impulse).

The packaging for the controller is economic containing only the controller, sleeve, lanyard, charging cable, and the small cardboard slip for the label. My version contains a certificate of authenticity for purchasing the metal variant.

The package for the Impulse controller as you would receive it (lanyard will not be attached like mine is).

Contents of package: Impulse controller with sleeve, charging cable, and lanyard. (Certificate of Authenticity is only for Kickstarter pledges).
Overall, the controller itself is not much bigger than the key fob for my car. The triangular button and four face buttons light up. On the back, you have the two triggers with the front four-way button having plus and minus signs for presentation mode. Pairing the controller is simple. Merely holding the triangle button for four seconds puts the controller into pairing mode where I quickly found it in my Bluetooth settings.

The sleeve protecting the controller also functions as a stand for your phone or tablet. However, I would not advise using it for tablets due to the weight. It did work great for my Nexus 4 though. It also has a spot resembling the triangle button on the sleeve, which makes it easier to determine which way the controller goes in.

Front view of the controller. 

Rear view of the controller. The tiny hole acting as the "dot" in the web address is actually a reset button you can do with a paper clip.

My certificate I received for pledging the metal variant of the controller.

Charging cable.

The Impulse sleeve. Note the triangle button pattern at the top. This indicates which way the controller should go in.
After you connect the controller, you can download the optional Impulsify program, which serves as an instructional manual and testing for the buttons on the controller. A second and important program for Android is the Find My Impulse program. This program only works when the controller is not connected which happens when it sits too long idle or the triangle button is pushed to lock the buttons. Once activated, the controller beeps loudly allowing you to use it as a key finder. There was an occasion where I had to trigger the alarm twice in order to make it work. My only guess would be the controller was sleeping and had not fully “waked up.”

A screenshot of the Find My Impulse program. This is all it is. Simply tap the screen and it sets off the alarm on the controller.

The Impulsify program which serves as a manual, game recommendations, and testing program for the controller.
The controller’s ergonomics are not bad actually. Although not as comfortable as my Red Samurai controller, the Impulse still works in a pinch. The first thing I tested it on, obviously, was emulator support. My favorite emulator, SuperGNES, works nearly flawless. The only minor quibble I had was the lack of a button for Start/Select. I opted to use the on-screen buttons for this, but hopefully a future revision of the hardware will add another button since there is enough room for below the triangle button. Some games though are tougher to play due to the small size of the controller. Playing Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past where free form moving is easy, but another puzzle game like Tetris or Zoop required more fine point control and this is where I had some difficulty with it.

Unfortunately, outside of the basic functions and emulator support, the controller lacks gamepad support that was built into Android 4.0+. Even some of the games listed by the Impulsify app do not work properly. Granny Smith only worked partially. The directional pad could control her cane, but her jump did not work on any of the buttons. However, Black Powder Media did release an API that developers could implement to use the controller with games not working right now. They have also told me through my contact with them they are going to provide a firmware update to customers at no charge, which will enable gamepad support in the future.

As far as battery life goes, the Impulse goes the distance. Black Powder Media opted to eliminate any circuitry to check the battery and this allowed them to double the battery life of the controller. The controller will warn you when you are down to about 3 days or so standby by blinking four times. You can fast charge it for 10 minutes and get a few more days or go the distance and do two hours for a full charge.
I have so far been using the Impulse on and off for about a week and have yet to see the low battery indicator light up. The company says the battery life under standby conditions will be about three to four weeks. I imagine sporadic use of functions with standby will last probably about two weeks, which is very solid.

Outside of a lack of gamepad support and an additional button, the only thing bothering me about the controller was the lanyard. The lanyard seems weak and could easily break depending on circumstance. Upon contacting Black Powder Media, they told me the itself should be very strong, enough to actually break the plastic of the controller. What would break would be the metal clasp, but the company kept this considering it is better for it to break away as opposed to the plastic loop on the controller.

Overall, the controller is spot on and it does just about everything it said it was supposed to with the minor exception of gamepad support. While the controller isn't going to be as comfortable as a full size one, it still works when you just want to play for a bit like in a waiting room or on the bus. The basic black plastic version is going to retail for $25, which is a solid deal considering it costs about as much as a basic Bluetooth headset and does a whole lot more. This first version may have a few minor negatives, but it should not be of any consequence when purchasing and future versions will likely iron out any issues. You can pre-order a controller on the store which should ship sometime in October 2013. 

Final Grade: A-

Pros: Lightweight and small size, great battery life, multiple functions, great for key finding and emulators, sleeve is great for protection and a stand for your phone, gamepad support with firmware update.

Cons: Lanyard clasp is a bit weak, could use one more button to help emulators.

Update: Black Powder Media released a firmware update for the controller through their website. This instructions are simple to follow and the result gives gamepad support to the controller. I can attest that it works after testing games like Grand Theft Auto III with it.