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+