Monday, May 26, 2014

Rapid Review vol. 4

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

SanDisk 64 GB Media Drive - $120

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Grade B+

Philips Bluetooth Speaker BT3500 - $79

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

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

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

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

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

Final Grade: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bad: Slight delay when turning on.

Final Grade: A 

Monday, May 5, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outdoor shot with the rear facing camera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Grade: A