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.  

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Accessories and Android - A terrible relationship

Unfortunately, I don't have any products to review at the moment. Times are tough and money is down. Even worse though, there's really nothing to review. Android has always been treated like a red-headed stepchild when it comes to accessory support. Some of the things I have managed to purchase like my Philips charging dock are really one offs. Seriously, go look in store for some docks with audio capability for Android. Find any? Yeah, didn't think so.

I've found a few things here and there, mostly online. There's a Rock Dock from T-Mobile that I didn't know about, but it's pretty bare bones. Of course, the now discontinued Philips Fidelio line of docks are available on eBay for cheapish now. There are quite a few docks that actually exist, but unless you're familiar with eBay and some Google research, you may be getting something good or something horrible. More to the point, in store shopping is what I'm really getting at. There are occasions where I can only find something online, like a discontinued item or import item, but I typically like to do my shopping in store to ensure I'm getting something good.

Now, do the same thing with Apple. You'll find at least a dozen docks in store from an equal amount of manufacturers. It's depressing to say the least. Apple does do something right and that's create a consistent product across generations. Aside from the 30-pin to lightning port change, one dock will work for just about any Apple product from the iPhone to the iPad to the iPod.

But why shouldn't it for Android? Although Android doesn't have audio out through the charging ports like Apple, you figure there would be some market for these type of things. 99.9% of Android phones use micro USB and everyone charges their phones right? They all have Bluetooth. So why aren't we seeing more of these things? Surely, the dreaded fragmentation word isn't in play considering Apple is just as fragmented these days.

Another example: I really like Citizen watches. They have something called Eco Drive which allows them to be powered by light. They never need a battery. It's a wonderfully amazing product line. Recently, they came out with a watch called Proximity. It uses Bluetooth 4.0 LE and is basically a low-end smartwatch with notifications and out-of-range function for your smartphone. However, read their site and Citizen states they have no Android version of their control program in the works. Really? In fact, you can't even find the watch on the official site anymore.

Another cool smartwatch that I really want is the Cookoo smartwatch. Similar to the Citizen one, albeit much cheaper and requiring basic watch batteries, Cookoo doesn't appear to have anything in the pipeline for Android. There was a beta version that works for exactly one phone: the Samsung Galaxy S4. So, if you don't have that phone, you've got a basic watch that would only cost a fraction of the $130 asking price. This is even after Android 4.3 brought Bluetooth 4.0 support a month ago and their app was just updated two days ago so certainly someone is working on something.

With about a billion devices out there, every one in seven people have an Android device. Yet, companies seemingly refuse to give the platform any accessory support. It's a sad notion indeed that even with raw market dominance across the world, manufacturers aren't willing to get behind Android for anything that isn't a case (and even that can be iffy, just try to find quality cases for the Nexus 4 among other phones). I can only hope as Android grows more unified and less fragmented (as it has been doing so lately very rapidly) manufacturers will start to embrace the platform and really give it some good accessories. I certainly hope so anyway because I'm damn sure not switching to Apple.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A powerful tablet at a rock bottom price - my Hisense Sero 7 Pro review

I recently decided to buy my son a tablet for his birthday. Unfortunately, money has been fairly tight lately, so I needed to keep my tablet purchase under $200. I searched through dozens of tablets from various manufacturers to different sizes, specs, and price points. Finally, I chose the Hisense Sero 7 Pro and here's why:

A look at the hardware itself

First off, a look at the physical appearance itself. The closest competitor in more ways than one is the Nexus 7 (2012 model). The Sero 7 Pro (S7P for short) is just a little taller and wider, but about the same depth. The S7P eschews the soft touch backing of the Nexus 7 for a much cheaper textured plastic. Most stock pictures show the back as being silver, but the reality is it's more of a copper or grayish-brown color. It's weight is certainly heavier, but that's because it packing several different features (more on that shortly).

On the front you have your all black bezel and 7" 1280 x 800 resolution screen with a 2 MP front facing camera near the upper right. The right possesses the power button and volume rocker key. On top, you'll see the microphone, microSD, headphone jack, and mini HDMI port. Finally, the back has the stereo speakers (which are amazing loud and clear, by the way) and 5 MP camera with flash.

Overall, it doesn't quite hit the build quality of the Nexus 7, but it's passable. You can feel the inside is a little hollow, but the back cover doesn't have that much give to it. I could not find any information about whether the screen is using Gorilla Glass and I'm not inclined to damage my son's new toy so be wary. 

What's inside the tablet

Internally, it's specs are almost identical to the Nexus 7. It packs the same 1.3 GHz quad-core Tegra 3 with 1 GB of RAM. It has all of the normal things you would expect from a 2013 tablet which includes Bluetooth 3.0, Wifi in a/b/g/n styles (both 2.4/5 GHz compatibility), NFC, GPS, light sensor, etc. Where the S7P differs from the Nexus 7 is in the following: the S7P actually has vibration (something I mentioned on my Nexus 7 review) and 8 GB of storage compared to the 8/16/32 GB that the Nexus 7 had. 

The tablet comes with Android 4.2.1, and while it's a couple of updates behind, it's certainly not far out of touch like some products. Hisense has taken the minimalist path and there are very few modifications to the OS. There's a screenshot button on the navigation bar and a power saving mode toggle. That's about it. The tablet is bundled with a few pieces of bloatware, but surprisingly, most of them can be uninstalled. You're going to need it because out of the 8 GB of storage, only 5.2 is available to the user after formatting, installation of the OS, and whatever programs you can't uninstall.

Performance is very good for the tablet though. It performs on par with its counterpart, the Nexus 7. Reaction time is snappy and animations are smooth. For the most part anyway. The tablet still suffers the RAM bottlenecks that the Nexus 7 had. This is largely due to having only 1 GB of RAM and the slower clock speed on the RAM when compared to more modern chipsets like my Nexus 4.

One severe defect I noticed was for some reason, trying to use the "power saving" mode in the power saving menu caused soft reboots. Soft reboots are where the OS is still loaded and just basically restarts. They're quicker than a full reboot, but they're still indicative of a problem somewhere in the code. I've switched it to balanced and haven't suffered any more of them lately. 

The battery for the tablet is a 4,000 mAh Lithium Ion which comes in a bit smaller than the larger one in the Nexus 7. Still, during operation the battery holds up well and likely meets the claim made on the box of 10 hours. Standby time, however, falls short. Over the course of 12 hours, the tablet lost probably around 8 percent of its battery where my Nexus 7 only lost half that. Bear in mind, my Nexus 7 is running a custom ROM and kernel so this may impact its battery life. Still, depending on use, you'll likely charge it every other day unless you turn it off between uses. 

The camera bears mentioning since the original Nexus 7 only included a 1.3 MP front facing camera and the S7P includes both a 5 MP rear and 2 MP front. Unfortunately, camera quality is average to below quality depending on location. The rear camera activates with an audible click when starting up the app. Shots outdoors with the rear camera looked passable when scaled back, but zoomed in you can see jagged edges and grainy details everywhere. 

Camera performance

Shot taken of my car with rear facing camera in daylight.

However, the front facing camera suffered poorly, even more so than you would expect for a 2 MP camera. Images lack detail, suffer jagged edges, and have a cloudy, hazy effect to them.

My ugly mug testing out the front facing camera in daylight.

Indoors, the formerly passable quality really takes a hit on both cameras. The rear facing camera looks sufficient for basic images, but the noise on the photo is really turned up here. Also, in darker circumstances, the flash and focus sometimes get a little off leading to unusable pictures.

Taken in my son's bedroom, Bearry the bear seen posing. Using rear facing camera with no flash.
Front facing photos inside are completely worthless without sufficient light. A shot taken again in the same room with a florescent light and some natural lighting from behind looks cloudy, lacks detail, and has the same obvious noise that the rear camera had.

Myself, barely seen in this bad photo from the front facing camera.

If you're taking photos outdoors in the daytime, you should be fine with the results, but for anything else, you're better off grabbing your smartphone or point-and-shoot camera. Bear in mind, while this is 4.2.1 on the tablet, it lacks photosphere in either camera, if you're into that sort of thing.


On the whole, it's a very good tablet for its price of $129 exclusively at Wal-Mart stores. While the 5.2 GB of usable space might be a no go for some people. You can still supplement that with a microSD card. I've yet to test the mini HDMI port so I'll have to do an update on this in the future. Some of the features in the tablet, like haptic feedback, were pleasant surprises I didn't expect. Overall, if you're not trying to keep up with the Joneses then this tablet will suit you just fine. If you're looking for a more updated software experience then the Nexus 7 (2013 model) is a better choice for around $230-270. Hisense has stated they will update to 4.3 in the fall, but only time will tell. They have sent out a minor update which was basically just some bug fixes and under the hood type stuff. If you're looking for premium, well, you'll be going with the iPad Mini at $329+ depending on model. For comparison's sake, you could get 3 Sero 7 Pros for the cost of one 32 GB iPad Mini. Your mileage and opinions may vary on which is the better deal.

In closing, I think the Sero 7 Pro is a very good bargain for its price. It's not for the spec hounds or tech heads, but any regular joe will find considerable value out of this package. If you have any questions, post them in the comments section below.

Pros: High end specs for a cheap price, decent build quality, Android 4.2 installed, more features than the Nexus 7 (2012 model), good performance.

Cons: Inferior camera performance, minor reboots when using power saving mode, only about 5 and a half GB user space.

Final Grade: B+

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Motorola Moto X: Overhyped and Under-delivered

So it's finally arrived, the much vaunted X phone that has been rumored since shortly after Google purchased Motorola. For the last two months or so, a constant flood of rumors and leaks have taken a lot of the thunder out of the reveal. Much of the hype came from the customization rumored for the phone. However, ultimately, there just isn't much to be interested in.

Let's just start off with the phone itself. The Moto X borrows a lot of design cues from its main rival, the LG Nexus 4. Overall, the basic shape is the same. The X is slightly shorter and not as wide which makes the screen dominate the phone and eliminates a notification light. The back, however, has a rounded shape which according to most people who've played with it, is very comfortable to hold. 

Internally, the Moto X comes with the X8 processor system on a chip designed by Motorola. It claims to have two CPU cores, a natural language processor, contextual processor, and a quad-core Adreno 320 GPU. The reality is it's just a modified Snapdragon MSM8960T. It does have more similarities to the Nexus 4's S4 Pro APQ8064 and the newer Snapdragon 600, but let's not kid ourselves here: there's nothing revolutionary about the phone's specs. Everything else is merely passable in the smartphone wars: 720p screen, full compliment of modern versions of things like Bluetooth and GPS, 2200 mah battery, etc.

So what's the big deal? Well, the customization, camera, and software modifications. 

The customization early on was rumored to be like what we have with laptops and PCs: the ability to adjust nearly everything internally such as processor, RAM, storage, etc. What we got was the ability to choose a backplate, accents, frontplate, engraving, and a few minor things like wallpapers. That's it. Is it awful? No. It's a step in the right direction towards moving other manufacturers to make more customizations, but it's not the same level of customization that the computer market has.

The camera is supposed to have Clear Pixel technology which is a sensor that allows more light for better pictures. On paper, it looks like it will, but I'll need to see comparisons in the future to determine if this is true. The software mods are somewhat interesting, but nothing revolutionary. The big things were "always-on" microphone that allows you to talk the phone like you would Google Glass without even touching it, capitalizing on the AMOLED screen technology to deliver notifications, and the quick gesture to open the camera. That's it. Everything else is pretty much stock Android 4.2.2. Not even 4.3.

So overall, the phone does break a little new ground, but it's really more against other manufacturers than something the consumer should jump for joy over. I'll admit, it is a good step in diversifying yourself in a market flooded with Samsung and Apple. 

The biggest problem isn't the phone itself, it's the usual politics that follow it. Motorola isn't going the Nexus route initially and selling on the cheap. It's going through the carriers which under normal circumstances is fine, but we're seeing exclusivity again. AT&T will get not only the phone first, but the option for Moto Maker first to customize your phone (the phone without customization is 16GB and black or white only). The Galaxy S4 was such a huge hit not just on specs or recognition, but due to the fact that it was available on every carrier at almost the exact same time with no exclusivity to it. 

Even worse, Motorola expects consumers to pay $199 for an on contract price. This leads most to believe that off contract prices are going to be near $600. Aside from the exclusivity and the fact that it may take time for Moto Maker to trickle out to the general public, this is largely the issue that's going to make or break the Moto X. The general consensus on the web is that the Moto X just isn't a high end phone. It has no specs that meet or beat the current high end market. This combined with the fact that it is competing directly with the extremely cost friendly Nexus 4 is going to lead to disaster. Motorola says an unlocked Google Play Edition and a "cheaper" variant will be coming soon. The big question is: what are they going to reduce from an already mid-range spec device to make it cheaper and why should the public bother?

If there's one more nail in the coffin, it's this: the Moto X is only going to be available in the USA. Yep, Motorola's big comeback is only going to be available to a market of 300 million people as opposed to the 7 billion that are on the planet. 

In short, Motorola is marketing the experience as opposed to the hardware. That's right, they're trying to take a page from Apple on this one. The problem is they don't have the rabid, backbone following nor the charisma. This is only going to spell disaster for the company. Although jingoistic notions of "assembled in the USA" are heartwarming to say the least, Motorola is marketing to a virtually non-existent following who live in America, will buy anything American, and have way too much disposable cash. Good luck finding all those customers, even with the $500 million advertising Google is going to funnel you. Hopefully, they'll learn from their mistakes on this one and do better next time...if they're still around. We all know how Google likes to give the ax to projects. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rapid Review volume one

I was going to call this another Accessories Galore title, but I realize at least one item isn't an accessory, so I've decided to call it Rapid Reviews since they're mostly bite size three to four paragraph reviews on various things. Also, nothing here is exactly specific. A lot of what I review are things I purchase on clearance or on sale at various places. However, the majority of it will be tech related considering that's my niche. Starting off...

Philips GoGear Mix 4 GB MP3 Player

MP3 players haven't been on my itinerary since I made a push towards smartphones and integrating all my tech into one device. However, I did come across this little guy in the clearance section of Meijer's for $7.50. Because of its extraordinarily cheap cost, I figured what the hell. So how is it?

Well, surprisingly good. I have quite a few good experiences with Philips products in the past (barring the abysmal Fidelio app for Android) and I'm happy to say that the GoGear Mix excels in the most important aspect: sound quality. Indeed, even with my cheap JVC Flats headphones, the results are very full with the aptly named Full Sound boost on and the volume near max. It also has an FM Radio and voice recorder built in as well which adds to the value of it. Adding songs was as simple as drag and drop which means it can also function as a flash drive in a pinch. 

The screen is easy to read and displays a multitude of information including song title, album title, artist, battery life, and more. The screen obviously doesn't allow for album artwork, but that's not a knock against this little player considering its stripped down nature. Another thing I loved was the simple popping the cap off to not only add music, but charge as well. This relieves me of having to keep another charger/cord on hand. The battery life is rated at 13 hours and this is about right (a newer model has twice the battery with about the same features).

The only gripes I have are the lack of a clip to hold it on a shirt or pocket and the recently played function never seems to work. I also had the device freeze up once requiring me to hit the small reset button on the back, but on the whole the player is stable. There is also no memory expansion, but 4 GB should provide around 700-900 songs which can be anywhere between 30-60 hours of music depending on length and size of files. 

Overall, if you're looking for a bare-bones cheap player for yourself or a family member this is it. It's small, simple, and good sounding. Mine was 75% off, making it $30 retail which is what you can find it for on eBay right now. 

Pros: Simple and effective player, very cost effective, decent battery life, FM radio and voice recorder are bonuses, no messy cords to deal with, excellent sound for cost.

Cons: No clip, Recently played function never works correctly, no memory expansion.

Final Grade: A-

Logitech Wireless Boombox 

Here's a beast I've been wanting ever since I seen it hit clearance at Target. Much like my Mini Boombox I wrote about in an earlier post, this is an older model of wireless boombox by Logitech (it has since been replaced by the UE Boombox). I managed to get this on the cheap after waiting it out at Target for $60. 

First off, it's a bit unwieldy to say the least. Not that I don't like the design, truthfully I think it's a nice curvy design that I prefer. However, while this is wireless and powered by a battery for on the go, this isn't like the Mini Boombox that fits easily inside a backpack. This speaker is really more designed for around the home or perhaps a camping trip.

Disregarding that however, this speaker sounds phenomenal. The sound is crystal clear across the board with no muddy sounds or distortion at higher volumes. It has solid bass response without going overboard. I've read that the bass can vibrate the foot (the little pop out stand in the back), but I've yet to personally experience this (probably because I don't max the speaker all the time). Like its little brother, sound trends a little more towards the treble which I prefer for listening to lyrics in my songs. Pairing was also very simple and quick. With two tweeters, two woofers, and four passive radiators, this thing is a lot of bang for the buck even at twice the cost which is generally what you find it for on Amazon.

There are a few downsides to the speaker though. First off, it uses a proprietary connector like you find on most stationary electronics. This means you're not going to be charging it with your cell phone charger unless you have some sort of adapter. The battery is rated for 6 hours and I assume that's correct. However, I'll have to do more extensive testing to determine if that's right. The battery is Nickel-Metal Hydride instead of the more popular Lithium Ion/Polymer variants. While NiMH batteries can contain nearly the same level of power as Li-Ion for size, they rapidly lose charge, often losing the entire charge within the span of a month of non-use so you'll want to either keep it charged or charge it before you head out to ensure good battery life. Thankfully, the battery is replaceable unlike the Mini Boombox and retails for $11 on Amazon.

Finally, like the Mini Boombox, this speaker doesn't come with a case to hold the speaker, power supply, and aux cable. Unlike the Mini Boombox, this thing is so large that finding a case is going to be difficult. There's an official case on Amazon for about $20, but they're scarce, so I'll probably have to improvise like I did with the Mini Boombox.

Pros: Excellent sound quality, great value for cost, battery is replaceable and cheap, easy to pair.

Cons: Proprietary charger, NiMH battery loses charge faster than Li-Ion, difficult to find a case for.

Final Grade: B+

Motorola Digital Photo Frame (Model: MF601)

Another deal I found from Target, this little frame cost $15. It's a 6" 480 x 800 pixel screen. One of the features that drew me to it was the calendar/clock function in addition to presenting photos. Setup takes a little work with the directional pad, back, and home buttons on the base, but isn't too difficult. The frame also uses a standard CR2032 battery to maintain the time in case power is lost which is a nice, but not essential feature. 

Pictures displayed are crisp in comparison to most digital photo frames which tend to have resolutions of 480 x 234 (or nearly the same as the 4.3" PSP game system). Colors are accurate, but contrast seems too high. A minor feature that's almost unnoticeable is a light sensor that adjusts brightness depending on the light in the room. It's a unique feature I haven't seen in any other digital photo frames as far as I know. 

There are a couple of negatives though. First off, the pictures themselves need to be in the corresponding orientation. Trying to display a landscape photo in portrait mode causes the frame to cut off a great deal of the photo providing you a zoomed in view of one section. Even some portrait pictures will suffer this fate depending on how large they are. Overall, the frame has poor scaling. Aside from that, there's no accelerometer so any switching between modes must be done manually.

Overall, this photo frame is decent for its cost (normally around $50). The SD card slot holds up to 32 GB which is tens of thousands of photos. Its thin profile helps it fit just about anywhere provided you can overlook a couple of minor things.

Pros: Slim design, hi-res screen compared to similar competitors, calendar/clock option to go with photos, automatic brightness adjustment, up to 32 GB card sizes, battery backup for clock.

Cons: Contrast is high, scales photos poorly at times, no accelerometer, may be considered small to some people.

Final Grade: B

That's it for now. I'll be back sometime soon with some more things I find lying around stores. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Xbox One...possibly the worst "gaming" console in history

Microsoft is arguably the most unscrupulous, corrupt, monopolistic modern company out there these days. That's really saying something when you compare it to Apple's bullying lawsuit tactics, Google's potential privacy violations, and just about anything Big Oil is doing. MS has been on an odd up and down streak for a while. They do something decent and then follow it up with something disasterous. A good example is following up the wildly successful Windows 7 with the drastic, highly polarizing changes of Windows 8.

So when rumors began floating around about the sequel to the Xbox 360, I pretty much figured things were going to get hairy. First off, let's not even get into what was actually announced or specs or drawbacks. Let's just do a comparison between the appearance of the 360 to the One.

That's the One at top. No, it's not a CD player from the 1980's or the Philips CD-i, that's the actual console. Compare it against the 360 Slim. The new model 360 isn't the pinnacle of art, but it's more modern looking and has the nice touch of actually telling you its name. How nice of it. 

So right off the bat, this console isn't something you're going to be showing off to your friends. How about specs though? Surely this thing must be powerful right? Well yes and no. Comparing it against the 360, the One would thoroughly thrash its predecessor. It packs an eight core processor, 8 GB DDR3 RAM shared between the system and the Radeon GPU, Blu-Ray drive (finally followed Sony's lead eh?), 500 GB hard drive, and support for 4K video output and 7.1 surround sound. Pretty good? Well, not so much when compared to the Playstation 4. 

This is a comparison sheet of the Xbox 360, Xbox One, and Playstation 4. As you can see, Playstation 4's GPU is about 33% more powerful and its system memory is over twice as fast and has nearly three times the bandwidth. The really depressing part about it is the chips are fundamentally the same in most ways. 

So maybe the specs aren't top notch? That didn't stop the Playstation 2 from dominating its generation even when more powerful systems arrived. Surely, it can't all be bad. No, in fact, it gets much, much worse. Let's go play by play on the announcements for this system:

All games must be installed to the hard drive - PC gamers have dealt with this for years, but consoles should be simple. Installation only happened on the PS3 because of the slow read speed on the Blu-Ray drive. Newer drives are three times faster so there's no reason installation needs to happen.

The hard drive is non-removable - Eh? So in addition to forcing me to install games onto the hard drive, I can't even replace it if it gets full. The only "bright" side is that the console will allow you to attach external hard drives over USB 3.0. However, you'll likely need to have a 7200 rpm minimum or I'm guessing you'll potentially have latency issues during gaming. Not sure on this so I'll have to do a little more research.

You're forced to have the console connected to the internet at all times - Microsoft says the console needs the internet for the best experience possible. They say the console only checks for internet connection once every 24 hours. They also go on to say that single player games will be unaffected if you lose your connection...until, you know, it tries to validate your connection later. Then, you're screwed. Lots of bullshit double talk here.

The Kinect is required to be connected and remains listening at all times - Microsoft says the Kinect can be turned off by the user but is always listening even when turned off so you can give it voice commands. Once again, double talk. Something is or it isn't when it comes to basic equipment. We're not talking quantum mechanics here. The sheer fact that you have to have the Kinect is annoying enough.

The word on used games is a clusterfuck - Used gaming has been the apparent bane of the gaming industry. How dare consumers sell and resell things they have bought for themselves? As we all know, used cars nearly destroyed the automobile industry. No, wait, they didn't. So what did Microsoft do here? Well, approximately the same thing they did in the PC gaming industry.

Now, those games that you have installed are locked to your account. So while you could theoretically go to a friend's house and install your game and play with them, if you log out of the account, they're stuck with several GB of worthless data. So how would one even deal with used games? Well, details are sketchy at this point, but it's rumored that you will be able to sell your rights to say Gamestop and a certain percentage of the used game sales with go to the developers (more likely MS though given their greed). 

They've also said once the game is installed on a friend's console, they could buy it at a reduced cost, effectively as it is used. The cost? No one is saying yet till E3 this year. Rumors have even said it will be full price. What it all amounts to? The gaming industry is trying to destroy Gamestop and used games. Is it legal? Well, perhaps. It's hard to say what one classifies games as. Are they considered computer software or are they considered forms of entertainment like movies? If they are the former then yes it's legal as computer software is exempted from First Sale Doctrine (a legal reason people can sell their belongings to others without intervention by outside forces). If it's the latter however, and games are included in First Sale Doctrine, boy oh boy are the lawsuits going to come flying. 

There are other pet peeves with the Xbox One I have are mostly minor and not worth mentioning. Basically, the system is more of an entertainment system than a gaming console. What does it amount to? Microsoft is trying to grasp on to the digital entertainment market long since cornered by Apple, Google, and Amazon. Their PC market is shrinking rapidly and adoption rates of Windows 8 and Phone are abysmal. Are we seeing the beginning of the end of Microsoft? Unlikely, but potentially possible. Android is now showing up on laptops and Google's software is tightly integrated with its environment and costs significantly less than say Office. 

All in all, Microsoft has seemingly gone out of their way to make the process of owning a gaming console as painful as possible. Is there a reason why? Well, my contemplation was the change from PowerPC architecture in the CPU to x86-64. I assume they are expecting people to hack the console and basically steal games by buying them, installing them, and returning them. And they're are right. It's going to happen, but only BECAUSE they chose this route. A gaming console should be as simple as turning it on, inserting a disk, and playing till you're too tired to see. The Xbox One is not a gaming console. As a journalist put it, it's the equivalent to Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose. Welcome to the next crash in the gaming industry.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A look at the PS Vita...

This is a re-post and modified version of a review for my PS Vita

Looking at the system initially, the overall shape of the Vita is much rounder than its predecessor the PSP. The dimensions of the Vita are just a little bigger in every way compared to the PSP. The weight of the Vita (3G version for this post) is pretty the same as the original PSP. However, it feels lighter in the hand owing to the larger size (creating greater weight distribution) and a lack of a metal chassis. It's very shiny and extremely prone to smudges. It lacks any coating to prevent smudges so bring a cleaning cloth. You're going to need it.

For space accommodation, the Vita does a very good job with what it has. The dual joysticks only stick out about a quarter inch from any other button. Obviously, the large 5" touch screen takes up the majority of the front. Aside from the joysticks and screen, the left side of the front contains the standard directional pad and the Playstation button which serves as the equivalent of the home key from the PSP. This button also glows blue when in standby and orange when charging. On the right side you have the Start, Select, and standard four button set found on all Playstation products. This is where I run into a bit of issues. The four button set feels very cramped (though they have great feedback) and playing for extended periods of time can really hurt. The Start and Select button are placed awkwardly below the shape buttons making them difficult to get at when you're playing a game. I personally feel they would have been better suited below the screen like the PSP. There's certainly plenty of bezel to work with. There's also a 0.3 MP camera cleverly placed above the shape buttons. It's built into the system and covered with the glossy plastic so there's no risk of scratching the camera directly.

On the top rim you have the Power, Volume Keys, card slot for games, shoulder buttons, and output for accessories. The power and volume keys appear to be made of metal and look very striking on first glance. Both the accessory and game slot ports have covers which I appreciate at it keeps them dust free. The shoulder buttons are clear and have excellent feedback. They really feel like controller buttons. Overall this area is very well thought out.

The left side and bottom edge contain the SIM card slot on the left (only on the 3G model), headphone jack, microphone port, charging port, and Vita storage card slot. There's not much to say here, but I'm still disappointed in Sony with going with a proprietary card as opposed to the norm. There's no reason you couldn't have a regular microSD card here. The only reason they are doing it is because the Vita is selling at a loss and the cards help recoup costs. On the back side you have the rear 0.3 MP camera, the touch pad which takes up most of the space, and two oval shaped indentations. The indentations are meant as spots for your hands to hold the Vita so you don't disrupt the rear touch pad during gaming. However, in my experience, this made hold the Vita much harder. It's true you can play like this, but this just hastens the cramping of your hands.

Overall I'm giving the physical design of the Vita an 8.5. I'm taking points off because of the cramped shape buttons, placement of the start and select, and overall smudginess of the glossy plastic.

Turning the Vita on, you're greeted with the ultra colorful OLED screen. This is definitely one of the best selling points of the handheld. The Vita's extremely responsive touch screen is used to navigate the "bubble" style menus. You'll see some nods here and there to Android in the appearance. I'll admit I was leery at first of the bubble style they chose. I thought the XMB system the PS3 and PSP had was wonderful, but that wouldn't take advantage of the touch screen and I suppose diminish the system somewhat. Still, it works wonderfully.

Flipping between the home screens is fast as is opening menus. The qHD screen shows fine level details on everything. The ability to stop what you are doing by pressing the PS button and navigating to something else on the fly is excellent. However, some elements of the system seem very counter intuitive. For instance, there's no way to navigate or find files on the system itself, nor can you just plug and play. Instead, you're forced to use a program called content manager to do mundane tasks. Also, there's no way to determine exactly how much battery life you have, only a rough estimate based on the little icon at the top. None of these things are unfix-able  In fact, a software update would take care of them so I'm not too frustrated, but I would like to know what exactly is using up my memory card.

Overall, the replacement for the XMB is pretty passable. However, it is the one time I was hoping the OLED wasn't there. Even on the lowest brightness setting, the colors are almost painful to the eye. Still, the new menu system works and is very stable. Giving it an 8, more if Sony updates the system some.

Internally, the quad core CPU and GPU are a beast of a combination. There's been no word on frequency sets, but the chipset listed runs from 800 MHz to 2 GHz. I'm betting it's running at 1 GHz right now, with some options to increase later on like they did with the PSP. The 512 MB of RAM and 128 MB of RAM is decent, but I just feel like they skimped here. 1 GB of RAM really could have done the system some good. 

Outside of the system's engine, you have all the usual suspects: Bluetooth, GPS (3G model only), Wifi b-g-n, 3G, and Sixaxis motion control. Curiously, however, is no vibration. I figured Sony would have went for this considering it's in every modern smartphone and their controllers. Alas, I assume it was passed on due to space or battery concerns.

Speaking of batteries, I'm happy to say that the battery for the Vita lasts quite long. They said 4-5 hours of gameplay, but I'm getting longer. I keep the Bluetooth and 3G off, plus the brightness low and I usually get 6-7 hours of game time for Vita games and even longer for PSP games. The standby feature is awesome. The ability to push the power button and pause the action, even in the middle of a cutscene, is great. The standby time is excellent too. You can put this system into standby for almost a day or more and come back for a little gaming afterwards. Sony did a great job here, but I'm disappointed with the built in battery.

Overall, I'm giving the guts of the system a 9. The non-replaceable battery and low RAM hurt the system some, but it's damn good for what it costs.

On to games, I'm happy to report that the majority of games you can buy on the PSN for PSP actually do work. You can purchase them directly for the system, but you can transfer them. There's no official list from Sony, but you can find them online at various forums. Still, there are a few choice titles that don't work for the system or can't be obtained at all. These include Crisis Core, MGS: Portable Ops, any of the Lumines games, Motorstorm, Resistance, and Twisted Metal to name a few. If any of those games are your favorites, either get a PSP or hold on to the one you have because they aren't here. PSOne support has been added for quite a few games including some of the most popular like Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy 7, and Resident Evil just to name a few.

For the Vita games, we're a bit hit or miss here. Some of the games are great. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is just like the console version packed into your handheld. Lumines is great and so is Uncharted. However, there's been a lot of really weak games. There's also a lot of digital only games. Now granted, these are games like Plants vs. Zombies and Escape Plan, but for those who enjoy having physical copies beware because there are going to be a lot of these in the future.

Speaking of the future, the Vita's is a bit uncertain. On one hand, you have a new Resistance, Mortal Kombat, and Final Fantasy X HD, but on the other you have a lot of nothing. Really, right now, there isn't much to root for. I'm really hoping for some AAA titles to hit. Gravity Rush looks really cool, but outside of that, there's not much. Compound that with the fact that the Vita really needs these titles, but they are months out and it's going to hurt the system bad.

For the games, I'm saying 8. The Vita needs a lot of work here. Sony needs to get as many PSP titles working. They also need a killer game to make people want to buy the system. Uncharted is good, but a new exclusive Metal Gear or God of War or Final Fantasy could give the system the push it needs.

Everything else... well, the system already has very good accessory support. They have great cases and screen protectors out there. I bought a cradle to keep mine safe along with a nice case that allows me to put up to 16 games in it. Other elements of the OS are OK  Near helps you find other Vita owners close to you, plus welcome park has some nice mini games to help you learn how to use the system. You've also got Google Maps support as well as Netflix (though I don't recommend using it with 3G data). I'm going to give the fluff an 8. None of these things sell the system, but they can't make you think twice about it if they were wrong.

When taken together and averaged, I gave it all an 8.3 (83) or B. There's definitely a bumpy road ahead of Sony. They've really got to get their act together if they're going to sell this thing. The fact that they didn't even have a CAPS lock button before a firmware update is a bad sign. These are things not even worth mentioning during updates if they weren't such necessity. And yet, I can't help thinking Sony could have brought this system out with everything ready to right off the bat. Being hasty has only hurt them before, so why do it again?

Final Verdict: B (Worth it, but do your research first)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Some more accessories,...

My last post dealt with various accessories I use for my phone and tablet. I couldn't squeeze them all in so this post will be a continuation of the last one.

Jawbone Era - Shadowbox design

Ah my trusty Bluetooth headset. This is actually my third Aliph Jawbone headset. I had the Icon, then Era - Midnight (which was lost), and now Era - Shadowbox. The big thing I love about Aliph's headsets is the design and capabilities they give. The Era is longer than its predecessor, the Icon, and the design language is more art inspired than your traditional simple Bluetooth headset. 

The Era comes with an earhook, multiple ear gels, and a charger. Beyond that, the strength of the headset lies in what it can do. The Era is the first Bluetooth headset with an accelerometer so you can use gestures to do things such as answer or reject calls. It also adds wideband audio (or HD audio). However, the really neat thing is the ability to sync the headset with Jawbone's website. Once you do that you'll have the option to change the announcer's voice, enter caller id information, and activate specific features like NoiseAssassin (a military grade noise reduction feature). The voices demand special attention since they're not just plain voices but highly unique sounding "characters". You can choose between gravely sounding buff dudes, flirty party girls, or even a mafioso crime boss and more. The site is also where you will update your firmware as well.

The Era gets about 5 hours talk time which is less than some of its contemporaries, but I don't hold it against it too much considering Bluetooth headsets have a somewhat limited practical usage. The headset also has an app for Android that allows you to put battery information into your notification bar and alter a couple more things with the headset. The only negative to this is the program's voice overrides your "character" voice. Bit of a bummer to say the least. The headset is also expensive when compared to other ones coming in at $120. However, there are often sales where you can find the headset as low as $40. Overall, it's an amazing piece of technology for someone who wants something a little different than the regular headsets out there.

Pros: Superb design, unique features like motion controls and HD audio, programmable voices, additional auxiliary program.

Cons: Expensive, battery life could be better, Jawbone app overrides programmed voice.

Final Grade: A-

Philips Fidelio AS140

My Nexus S finally gave up (somewhat). After screwing up the radio and damaging the IMEI number, my Nexus S decided it would no longer grab a cellular signal. However, everything else still worked. So what was I to do with it? Well, as luck would have it, I found this fun speaker dock/alarm clock at Target for $33. 

Seen here, with the Nexus S coincidentally, the Fidelio dock isn't the most elegant thing I've ever seen, but it's not bad either. The dock comes with the option to connect to Bluetooth, 3.5 mm headset jack, FM radio, or just plain good old alarm clock. After turning the dock on, I quickly acclimated myself to the controls and synced my phone up with the dock. 

I tested it playing a few songs which played flawlessly. The sound was more pushed towards the mid range with some moderate bass and somewhat subdued treble. The volume gets fairly loud, but not nearly as much as one might think based on the appearance of this dock. Overall, it's decent, but nothing to write home about which is a shame because I've had really good headphones and CD players from Philips in the past. 

The big problems I have with this dock isn't the hardware itself, but the Fidelio app that you download from the Play Store. I frequently suffer issues with syncing, settings going bad, and other nonsensical things. I think a large part of this is the fact that the software hasn't been updated for Jelly Bean. This is a big problem with accessories like this. Often the companies release them and may provide a few updates before essentially dropping any support for them.

Overall, for the cost I paid, it's worth it. However, paying much more than that would not be. I chalk this up to the limited support and buggy program for it.

Pros: Many functions for the unit, decent sound.

Cons: Buggy program diminishes the usefulness of the unit.

Final Grade: B- (for the dock), D (for the program)

Seidio Charging Vault

Seidio has been a big part of my mobile life for at least three years now. I started buying them with my Nexus S, trying to find a solid, well-designed case. After several bad buys, I came across Seidio and have bought a Seidio case for every single Android phone thus far. So, naturally when I found out about this product, I was intrigued.

For a long time I carried several different portable batteries around with me in case I didn't have access to an electrical outlet. They tended to vary from 500 mAh to 4000 mAh. The reason I chose the Seidio Charging Vault was the fact that the charger functioned as an AC adapter as well as a portable battery. All of my other  portable batteries required them to be charged separately (usually through my computer ports). With this charger, I get the best of both worlds, an AC adapter when I'm at work and a portable battery if I'm stuck in a situation that requires it. The battery is only 2200 mAh but it's large enough to supply a full charge to my cell phone. It also has two USB outlets to charge two things at once. 

I'll be replacing it soon since the outlet is only 1 Amp and I need a charger with a 2 Amp output for my tablet. There's one from a company called NewTrent for $45 that's double the size of my current battery. The Seidio Charging Vault runs $50 for the version without cords. It's a little pricey, but for someone with just a cell phone, I think it's invaluable.

Pros: Functions as both an AC adapter and portable battery, compact size, two USB ports.

Cons: Lacks 2 Amp output, pretty expensive.

Final Grade: A-

Monday, April 29, 2013

Accessories galore...

I've been toying with several accessories for my phone and tablet, so I opted to write a post about each of them.

Red Samurai game controller 

Overall, the Red Samurai (RS) controller closely resembles your standard Playstation controller. It's more in line with the DualShock 2 than 3 since the L2/R2 buttons are just buttons and not triggers, but it's a good design with rubberized grips to help you hold the controller. Pairing was extremely easy and never failed on both my tablet and phone. Battery life is listed at about 8 hours per charge and I would say that's probably about right. Maybe a bit more. It does take practically forever to charge but that's not something that bothers me.

As far as connectivity, it worked flawlessly for my Grand Theft Auto III game on Android as well as Dead Trigger. Emulators it only suffered one minor issue where the 3 and 4 buttons were backwards from what they should be, but I was able to program them so nothing to worry about. The controller was responsive with no lag to be found. There's no vibration feature as near as I can tell, but at $25 it's less than half the price of a PS3 controller and I didn't have to use alternative means to reprogram a PS3 controller.

Pros: Cheap, easy to pair, works across many games and programs, comfortable to hold, great value, built-in rechargeable battery.

Cons: No apparent rumble function, minor issues with my SNES emulator, battery life could be better.

Final Grade: B+

Bluetooth Keyboard

The suspiciously generic Bluetooth keyboard that I purchased off eBay is really a decent deal. Designed specifically for my Nexus 7, the keyboard was easy to pair and functions as a stand and makeshift cover for my tablet. I've yet to have to charge it thanks to the 55 hour battery life. Only minor concerns that I have were the stand part of it is fairly loose and too much jostling knocks the tablet over. While the keyboard is decently sized, it is after all scaled to a 7 inch tablet so it's not as comfortable as a full sized keyboard. For as low as $18, you really can't go wrong with it since other keyboards can go as high as three to four times this much.

Pros: Cheap, great battery life, pairs well.

Cons: Small size makes it a bit cramped, stand part could be a little tighter.

Final Grade: B

Sony Smartwatch MN800

Ah, the smartwatch. Such a fun concept. Seen all over in places like Dick Tracy, but never made real till now. I bought this hoping it would be similar to my phone or tablet. Unfortunately, I was mistaken. While the "watch" portion of this product works fine, the "smart" element is not really smart at all. The smartwatch itself doesn't actually store apps or have Wifi or anything you might come to expect. Instead, it contacts your phone/tablet as a base where the programs are actually stored. You're merely seeing information from the phone. Not smart indeed.

Overall, I tried to work with it. The battery life was decent, getting around 4-5 days with light to moderate usage. However, the screen is 128 x 128 at 1.3 inches with a 65k color display. This creates a grainy looking screen that reminds you of a flip phone from 10 years ago. It was also finnicky, with its motion sensing not working correctly. It also requires you to stay connected to the phone so no connection, no apps. It was comfortable to wear and had replaceable bands. It also had some bizarre proprietary connection for charging (this is Sony after all, they buck convention whenever they feel). At the $75 I spent, it's not worth it.

If you really want to have a "smartwatch" you have a few other choices: get yourself a sixth generation iPod nano which while not technically a smartwatch is the closest thing out there with good performance, get the Pebble which forgoes a color screen and is much more watch-like, or wait for the next big thing from Google or Apple who both have been rumored to be working on smartwatches.

Pros: Comfortable to wear, good battery life.

Cons: Connection issues, glorified extension of your phone basically, too costly for its function.

Final Grade: D

Logitech Mini Boombox
I've been looking at Bluetooth speakers for some time, but I've never committed under the pretense of not really seeing the use and the high cost. I finally settled on the Logitech Mini Boombox due to the fact that it was on clearance at my local Meijer's. 

I found connection to speaker easy. As soon as you turn it on for the first time, the speaker goes into pairing mode. It connected easily to my phone and tablet. The sound on this little speaker is impressively loud, but lacks some range because of the close positioning of the speakers. The top contains capacitive touch buttons for changing the track, pausing/play, volume adjustment, and pairing. It also contains an aux input so you can forgo Bluetooth altogether. Battery life is estimated at 10 hours and I'm sure it will make that. I'm pleased with my purchase. I only paid $40 but you can get new ones as low as $60 online. If you're want to pay about the same, the highly rated GoGroove BlueSync speaker provides about the same level of quality for about the same price I paid for mine. If you're going higher, you might as well go with Jawbone or Bose.

The only issues I had was with changing programs on my tablet, the speaker would lose connection for some reason. What I mean was it said it was connected but wasn't producing any sound. A quick power cycling fixed it, but it was annoying. It's also prone to scratches thanks to the glossy top, but I purchased a video camera bag to fit it.

Pros: Excellent powerful sound, good battery life, affordable, aux input is a plus, easy to use.

Cons: Occasional connection issues, prone to scratches, sound is not as wide as it could be.

Final Grade: B

Jawbone Up 2nd Generation

Not so much a cell phone accessory as it is a life accessory. I bought the Jawbone Up to help me monitor how well I was sleeping. However, that's just the surface. The Up band monitors your steps, exercise, and has a programmable alarm to wake you when your just taking a short nap or when you are in a light sleep state. 

Of course, the band is just the recorder. The real meat is in the UP band app for iOS or Android. Since the band lacks Bluetooth, you transfer data through the headphone jack. It's quick, usually taking less than 30 seconds, and is pretty foolproof. While you're syncing the program will tell you how much battery which maxes at 10 days, but in reality gets probably closer to 7 depending on how active you are. 

The program will give tons of data from steps walked, calories burned, distance walked, light and deep sleep  cycles, etc. Not only that, the program has access to a large database of food that you can program in to determine your calorie intake. So the band also makes a good assistant for losing weight if you're trying a diet.

The only issues I seen are some inaccuracy in its measurements. Wearing the band on my arm for a day at work, measured around 25,000 steps which is grossly inaccurate. This was likely due to all the motion in my arms doing knife work. Putting it in my pocket and going to work measures around 14,000 to 18,000 which is much more accurate. I still wear the band during sleep however. The band is pretty expensive at $120, but I think anyone interested in their health could benefit from this. If you want a cheaper alternate there is the FitBit at around half the cost but isn't quite as feature rich in my opinion.

Pros: Comfortable to wear, good battery life, excellent program with lots of information, headphone jack connection prevents incompatibility.

Cons: Somewhat inaccurate at times, everything done through program (i.e. no readouts on the band itself)

Final Grade: A-

In the future, I'll post more about these sorts of things. For now, that's it.