Archive for February, 2011

Apple Refreshes Macbook Pros, Unveils Thunderbolt I/O with Intel

It’s been quite a busy tech morning! Apple has announced the annual refresh to the Macbook Pro line, adding a new camera capable of HD video calls (3x the resolution of the old line), and a lot of internal stuff. First off, the graphics cards are now AMD made, replacing the NVIDIA ones previously used. A huge change, and a trend you’ll see with many new high-end laptops, is the processor. All models are using Intel’s new Sandy Bridge processors, which show a huge bump in graphical performance and increase battery life substantially. The other big change that you might be seeing elsewhere is the addition of the Thunderbolt input/output port. This new technology, developed by Intel, promises 10GB/s transfer rates, both to and from the device. This will allow for full length HD quality movies to transfer in a matter of seconds, and will have applications in ethernet, display, and file transfer.

There are two variants of the 13 inch and 15 inch models, and just one 17 inch model. The prices range from $1200 for the lowest 13 incher to $2500 for the high end 17 inch. They are available for purchase online now.

Also launching for Apple today is the Mac OS X Lion developer preview. The full version of the new OS isn’t out for a couple months, but you can expect to learn a lot more about the iPad-ification of the Mac in the coming months. Also, March 2nd is an Apple keynote which will inevitably announce the iPad 2. You can definitely expect to see that covered here as well. Stay tuned!


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Sprint Makes the HTC Arrive Official, Naming Puns Abound

You remember those teaser tweets from Sprint over the last few days? Well they finally came clean with the details, and it is indeed the HTC Windows Phone 7 device we thought, just a different name. The HTC Arrive will, well, arrive on March 20 for $200 on contract. Despite the name change, the phone itself remains the same. The Arrive will feature a 3.6 inch touchscreen, slide out QWERTY keyboard (which also allows the screen to tilt up when slid out), 1GHz Snapdragon processor, and packs 16GB of on board memory. Sprint also said it will launch with the update to Windows Phone 7 which allows for copy and paste among other things. Preorders start today.

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Sprint Possibly Getting the First CDMA Windows Phone 7 Device? (UPDATED)

The two tweets you see above are from Sprint’s official Twitter account. What does this have to do with a possible Windows Phone 7 launch? First off, the official name of certain aspects in Windows Phone 7 are “Hubs”. These hubs consist of app groups like Zune Pass for music, pictures and videos stored on the phone and places like Facebook, and XBOX Live for gaming. Add that to a recent update for WP7 that was announced by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer that adds cut-and-paste, and more importantly, CDMA support for Sprint and Verizon. No word on when Big Red will get theirs.

As for the phone itself? It will most likely be the HTC 7 Pro. Sprint’s CEO, Dan Hesse, was seen at CES earlier in the year with one, as if you needed more convincing. The phone itself has a 3.6 inch touchscreen, slide out QWERTY keyboard, 8GB of internal memory, 5MP camera capable of 720p video, and will most likely be just 3G enabled, no 4G. Sprint will be officially announcing it on Thursday, but you probably won’t be able to get your hands on one until March. Check out the video below to keep you satisfied in the meantime!

UPDATE: Another tweet from Sprint with the same hashtag, describing how WP7 throws contacts from all sources into one. Definitely going to happen on Thursday!

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Android’s Best Alternative Homescreens

The thing I love most about Android is the ability to change pretty much everything about it. This includes the entire interface of the phone itself. While I love the widget-filled, customization-packed homescreen that you get out of the box, sometimes you get bored. That’s where alternative homescreens come in. They completely change the paradigm of the User Interface (UI). There are plenty out there, but there’s just not enough time to cover them all, and in an effort to narrow the playing field, I decided to only go with apps that are very different from the traditional style. There are a lot of apps that are home replacements, but they keep the seem idea of panels of stuff, just make a few tweaks to it. Things like LauncherPro, Zeam, and aHome are very good at what they do, but you won’t see them below. Let’s jump into it!

*Spark, made by HipLogic, is a very interesting app. It focuses mostly on keeping you informed. It has the weather on the top (the landscape mode shows an extended forecast), a customizable app shortcut slider (scrolls horizontally), AP News, deals from Groupon, and then your Facebook and Twitter, which cycle through statuses. Always at the bottom are Phone, Browser, and app list buttons.

I do like the overall look of it, and the idea of having most of my pertinent info on the same screen is nice. It would be much better if you could customize a little bit more. I’d like to be able to add LivingSocial and other deals sites in with Groupon, and adding my own RSS feed in with the AP News would make a lot of sense. One of the best and worst things it does is social networks. There’s no way to comment, like, or Retweet from within the app. It just shoots you over to the Facebook and Twitter apps to do so. There’s also no easy, clear way to refresh your feeds. However, the huge plus it has is the ability to post to both Facebook and Twitter simultaneously, something that too few apps allow for. If you want a very simple way to keep up to date while still having solid functionality, *Spark is a very good option for you.

NetFront is a little tricky to explain. It’s like a carousel of both apps and info on one screen. You have a large circle of app shortcuts, which is fully customizable. The whole circle is contained in two panels. The one on the right is the main screen, showing half of your circle. You can drag the circle around until you find which app you’re looking for, and bring it to the front. Some apps have been optimized for NetFront, showing you a preview of what’s in it. For example, when the Phone app is in focus, NetFront displays your call log in a scrollable list. When an app that can’t do this is in focus, a user defined widget will be on the top.

On the left screen, instead of the widgets and previews, you’ll find all of your apps in a cube that you scroll up and down. You’ll also find the other half of the app carousel along the bottom. The app list is how you set apps onto the carousel, using press and hold, then moving it to the spot you want. The whole experience can be a bit laggy, and despite the fact that they include Evernote on the carousel, that force closed every time. The Facebook feed preview did this on occasion as well. There’s no native way of posting statuses or liking, commenting, or retweeting either. Facebook and Twitter are inconsistent as well. If you click on the Twitter app from the carousel, it opens the Twitter app. But clicking the Facebook shortcut will bring a pop-up asking if you want to open the app. Clicking on a status or tweet in the previews will send you to the web. Very weird. There’s a lot of good ideas floating around here, but until they figure out the execution, it’s not going to replace my homescreen.

This is a really weird one at first. SlideScreen is similar in approach to *Spark in that it has all of your sources of info on one screen, sorted vertically. But the similarities stop there. SlideScreen goes for the glanceable information approach, a new trend in tech UI. The screen is cut in two by a large gray bar in the middle. This has your time, date, weather, battery level, and connection status (bars). Above this is your notifications: Phone, Texts, Gmail, and Calendar. Below, you find Google Reader for RSS feeds, Facebook, Google Finance (for stocks), and Twitter. The way all this is managed is the cool part. The gray bar can be pretty much anywhere, showing more of or hiding different aspects. If you slide the gray bar to the top, you can get full screen for each different feed, instead of the 1 or 2 items in the feed. Either in the preview or full screen, each item can be marked as read by swiping it to the right. Each item is color-coded and there’s an icon to the right, so you know where it’s coming from. Also, pressing Menu shows your app list, with 8 customizable shortcuts at the top.

I love this app, but it’s not for everyone. The first problem is that not everyone uses GMail for email and Google Reader for RSS feeds, and there’s no way to change those. You can take them off the front screen, but can’t replace them. Again, there’s some annoying inconsistencies in it. Clicking on the icons on the right will bring you to that app for everything on the top part, and Facebook, but you can’t make it open your Twitter app. Also, while clicking on an item on Facebook shows you the comments, there’s no way to comment or like. You can share stories in your Reader feed through apps, which is very handy. If you just want a super simplistic and effective way of seeing everything, SlideScreen is perfect.

This one will be brief, but I had to include it. MetroUI recreates the Windows Phone 7 UI, which I adore. It’s not a perfect recreation though. While the texts, missed calls, and Gmail tiles alert you of new items, that’s it. The creator is still working on it, so they may come in the future, but having working weather, Facebook, and Twitter tiles would be nice. Adding new tiles and rearranging them could be better too. You have to tap and hold on an item in the app list to make new tile, and the arrangement is based on a priority number. Tap and holding to slide tiles around to arrange them would be much easier. MetroUI does do a very good job of cloning the WP7 look and feel, tile animations and all, and is very cool to use.

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A Tale of Two Subscriptions

On Wednesday, Apple announced some new requirements for its App Store regarding subscription based services. The change was brought on by the growth of magazines and cloud-based services, like Rhapsody, who we’ll get to in a minute. The change was not much of a shock due to the Sony Reader app being denied from the App Store earlier this month. Apple informed Sony that it could no longer offer access to content that was purchased from outside the app. This was just another chapter in the long book of inconsistent App Store rejections.

The new subscription plans require Apple get 30% of in-app subscriptions, the same percentage they get from app purchases in the first place. They also require app makers to either allow for users to subscribe in-app, instead of linking them to the web to do so. The other requirement is that content makers/deliverers must charge the same price in the app as they do anywhere else. This prevents a mark-up to recoup any loss in profit from Apple’s cut.

Now, none of these changes might directly affect the user, but they might still feel the sting of it. Apple not allowing any mark-up on the content directly takes a cut of the developer’s profit has not made them any friends. Rhapsody, the largest music streaming service, came out against the new requirements, saying that it would no longer make financial for them since they have to pay royalties to record companies already. The change that will effect users is a scary one. Apple is also demanding that companies share their subscriber data, giving Apple even more personal data about their customers.

Always with the good timing, Google took this opportunity to unveil their new service, One Pass. One Pass not only allows content distributors to keep their customers’ data to themselves, it also only takes 10% of revenue from the subscription. It makes for a much better deal for companies, keeping online subscriptions low. As far as users are concerned, One Pass will also make the content they care about device nonspecific. The same article can be viewed from any computer, phone, or tablet. They will be able to view the articles from multiple sources with a single login. Whether or not One Pass will become a large ecosystem, but it certainly seems to be the more consumer friendly, and more profitable to content creators and distributors.

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Review: HTC Inspire 4G

Today I was lucky enough to get my hands on an upcoming handset for AT&T, the HTC Inspire 4G. While the specs might be pretty similar to the HTC EVO 4G on Sprint, this phone is a whole different visual animal. It sports a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, a 4.3 inch LCD screen, runs Android 2.2, but with the newer version of HTC’s custom skin, SenseUI.

My main problem with this phone has nothing to do with the device itself. The name, and inevitable marketing, is entirely misleading. AT&T has decided to follow in the footsteps of T-Mobile, which is to confuse customers as much as possible. Let’s be clear about something: As far as I’m concerned, this phone is NOT 4G. Both T-Mobile and AT&T are now claiming their HSPA+ network to be 4G, which it really isn’t. Essentially, the “G” stands for Generation, which is a frustratingly vague term. HSPA+ is only an improvement on the existing 3G technology, whereas Verizon and Sprint have actually starting building a whole new network from the ground up. AT&T is still in the process of building a true 4G network, just like Verizon’s LTE. They dubbed this phone to be their first 4G phone despite the fact that it is not LTE compatible. This annoys me immensely.

As far as the average user is concerned, it is faster than the other smartphones AT&T has and is faster than the 3G competitors on Sprint and Verizon. We’ll get to the numbers in a little bit. For now, HSPA+ does beat up other 3G networks, but falls short in the 4G arena, making this phone far from future-proof. In a year or so, when LTE is more readily available, you’ll be missing out on quite a bit of speed. Now, back to the phone.

This phone is just plain sexy. The unibody construction just looks gorgeous from all angles. As much as I adore my EVO 4G, it looks clunky next to the Inspire. It’s frighteningly skinny, yet in no way feels like you are going to break it. The solid metal construction is a much better build quality than many other phones out, even high end models like Samsung’s Galaxy S line. As you can see above, the phone has an 8MP camera with dual LED flash. It takes very good pictures and records in 720p. The back has a solid matte finish, and while it’s a bit heavier than an iPhone, it feels very good in your hands (cue the inappropriate jokes). I also like how the bottom part of the back pops off, allowing you access to the SIM and microSD card without taking the battery out. Big plus, but the battery still poses its own issues, which we’ll get to in a moment.

I did have a couple complaints about the hardware, most nit-picky, but one a big design flaw. I don’t like how the headphone jack (standard 3.5mm) is at the bottom of the phone, next to the charging port. It seems much less natural than the top placement that most phones and mp3 players have. I didn’t like how much the camera sticks out past the rest of the body, made me afraid to put it down face up, as I don’t want to scratch the lens. Also, the speakers are not very loud at all, nowhere near the volume of its EVO brother.

The huge design flaw of the Inspire is the battery cover. There’s a small plastic cover that fits around the volume rocker on the side that conceals the battery. Despite the little groove to place your nail in, getting it off is an absolute pain. Literally. My nail bent backwards trying to pry it off. I got to the point where I considered getting my knife out to pop it open so I could turn the thing on, but didn’t want to damage the phone. The only way I could manage to get it was to get my nail completely inside the groove and then slide it to the corner and then pull. It was painful, but I finally got it. It’s rare that HTC has such a design flaw, and especially one that will leave the sides of most people’s phones completely scratched up. The battery then slides in sideways, which is kind of cool, but totally not worth it.

It’s difficult to review the software of this phone without going into large rants about Android, fragmentation, and the definition of open-source. So I’ll just focus on the SenseUI customizations. This is the first time I’ve been able to experience the newest version of Sense, and it’s even better than the versions I’ve already loved. All of the software tweaks look gorgeous, and there’s a lot more customizations than before. In addition to making the different Scenes (different “profiles” of setups for your widgets) more accessible, HTC added in additional skins, allowing you to change the color scheme and even the shape of some widgets. Some schemes had curved edges to the HTC included widgets, some had them the squared off. Some changed the colors, and my favorite gave everything a wood grain finish. All the skins look amazing and it’s a feature that would normally require some rooting to acheive.

Beyond the aesthetic changes, there are a lot of functionality oriented tweaks. Those familiar with Android are used to the pull-down notification pane for their emails and texts. While this is still there, the pane adds a row for the recently opened apps at the top as well, making it easier to switch between them. You can still hold the Home key to see the 8 most recent, like other Androids, but this is even more convenient to me, though I would like the option to put Wifi, Bluetooth, and other toggles in there as well, like Samsung’s skin. The camera interface is also changed a lot. The zoom bar is always visible on screen while not being obtrusive, and the flash and settings windows are easy to get to. The fun effects, like Distortion, Grayscale, and Negative, are also very easy to access.

I had to do some speed tests to see firsthand if the Inspire was worthy of the 4G title. I compared the Inspire to my HTC EVO side by side for the 3G test. The Inspire killed the EVO and then some. Both phones had 3 steady bars where I did the 3G tests, and the Inspire was in HSPA+. The EVO turned out an average of 400 or so kbps on the download, 200kbps upload. The Inspire rounded out around 2800kbps down, but the upload fluctuated between 120-320kbps. However, if AT&T is going to try to play the 4G name game, it will need to produce a lot more. When I popped on the 4G on my EVO, it sky rocketed to an average of 5300kbps down, 980kbps up, leaving the Inspire in the dust. So for most people in the country, AT&T’s faux-4G will work very well; I won’t down play it’s every day speed. But overall, I think it’s premature of AT&T to call anything 4G.

Wrap Up
If you’re looking for a really high-powered Android phone on AT&T, the Inspire is a great choice. It is an absolutely gorgeous device, even if it sacrifices a bit of accessibility for the sake of looks. There’s nothing cheap about this phone, except its price. Despite the fact that this hardware on most other companies would cost you $200, this guy will go for only $100 with a contract ($450 without) on AT&T and it launches this Sunday, February 13th. Definitely the phone to go for, if you don’t want to drop the $200+ for the soon-to-be released Motorola Atrix.

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RIP Palm or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the HP Bomb

Today, HP had a huge conference unveiling 3 new products, all attempting to reinvigorate the WebOS operating system. The only thing absent from the conference was any mention of Palm, who made WebOS and the Pre, which ultimately failed to sell. It looks like HP, who bought Palm last year, is trying to erase the memory of Palm to bring WebOS back to the spotlight anew.

First off, we have the HP Veer, a very small phone that is the lower end of the WebOS line. It features a 2.6 inch touchscreen and slides up to reveal a small keyboard that will look and feel familiar to Palm Centro users. You also have a 5MP camera (no flash), 8GB of internal storage, and an 800MHz processor, which is all you need for the virtually lag-free WebOS.

Next, the flagship Pre 3. This one has an iPhone sized 3.5 inch touchscreen (just a bit bigger than the Pre 2), and slides up for the keyboard as well. One nice addition is the on-screen keyboard, which was missing on previous versions. The processor is a beastly 1.4GHz processor which will help out with recording in 720p on the 5MP camera. It will come in both 8 and 16GB increments, though which carriers and when weren't discussed for both the Veer and Pre 3.

The big news is the WebOS tablet, the HP TouchPad, that was announced to compete with the iPad and high end Android tablets coming out. It has a screen almost identical in size and clarity to the iPad, has a faster 1.2GHz dual-core processor than the iPad and upcoming Motorola Xoom's 1GHz, and has a front facing camera which will be used for Skype and other video conferencing services. It will come in 3G and 4G variants, but again no mention as to which carriers will have it. The first model launched will be WiFi only and it will have 16 and 32GB versions.

The biggest allure of these devices to me are the connectivity possibilities that HP included. If you connect the devices through Bluetooth, you can use what they call Touch to Share. By simply physically touching a Pre 3 to a TouchPad, whatever website was loaded on one device will be opened on the other.

The tablet wars are definitely heating up, and even if you don't want a WebOS phone, the TouchPad should be seriously considered by potential tablet buyers.

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