Category: Android

A 3D-capable Amazon phone might signal the next wave in retail

Image courtesy of Steve Jurvetson/Flickr.com

Image courtesy of Steve Jurvetson/Flickr.com

Interesting times for Amazon. Especially in the hardware space. First we get the surprise launch of their new set-top box, the Fire TV, now rumours are spreading of an imminent smartphone from the retail giant.

Not that this rumour is new, per se. We’ve been hearing speculation about an Amazon phone almost as long as we’ve been hearing about an HDTV from Apple. But this time, the rumour comes with a new level of specificity at least as it relates to a key tech spec: the handset will supposedly ship with a quad set of cameras that will enable a retina-tracking, glasses-free, 3D display.

Let’s assume for the time being that this phone, if real, will be a logical stable-mate to the existing Kindle Fire line of tablets. This would mean Amazon’s proprietary fork of Android and access to all of Amazon’s streaming services. Certainly not a bad set of specs. Especially if they include access to the Fire TV’s game store.

Frankly, if this was all there was to this rumoured handset, the right price would make it a very popular choice. Amazon’s tablets have received very favourable reviews and it seems likely that an Amazon phone would fare equally well.

But I’m troubled by the 3D aspect of the report. I know that movie studios continue to flog 3D on all of their mega-budget releases as a way of luring audiences to theatrical releases (with the correspondingly over-priced tickets). Some people even choose 3D over 2D when given the choice. Not me. I’m completely over 3D. Most of the time my brain becomes so accustomed to the effect that 20 minutes into the movie the only thing I’m noticing is the glasses on my face and the darker picture on the screen (non-3D movies are noticeably brighter).

As for home 3D? Fugedaboudit.
Even if we owned a 3D TV I doubt we’d ever use the 3D part. My neighbour, who is as big a movie buff as you’re likely to find, never uses his TV’s 3D capability. I suspect he’s far from an outlier on that count.

Which brings us back to why Amazon would choose to include 3D on a handset, especially when others have tried (and failed) to market one successfully.

The most obvious reason is that they want to enable traditional 3D content, i.e. movies and games. Nintendo has enjoyed relative success with their 3DS line of hand-held game consoles and those who have them assure me that the 3D part is really enjoyable (I’ll have to take their word for it).

But there may be a secondary element to Amazon’s 3D strategy: retail. Though I’ve never felt that the current model of multiple-angle images in gallery format was insufficient when looking at products online, perhaps Amazon wants to take the virtual shopping experience to the next level by giving shoppers a more immersive and realistic view of catalog items.

Could such an evolution in the display of retail objects (or indeed any objects) be a game-changer? My instinct is to say “no” purely based on my lacklustre experiences with 3D in other contexts. But I underestimated how profoundly popular having an “iPod Touch on steroids” would be when the iPad was first released, so I’m willing to concede that the experience of 3D shopping might be one of those things you need to see, before rendering judgment.

What are your thoughts on a 3D phone from Amazon?

 

Google’s PhoneBloks concept is exciting and it’s never going to work (for the mass market)

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When you love tech (sometimes just for tech’s sake), it can be pretty heady stuff to read up on the projects that Google has on the go. Consider this incomplete list, it’s really quite extraordinary:

You’ve got to hand it to Larry and Sergei. When they dream, they dream big. How cool is it that a couple of guys who came up with a better way to index the web are now in a position to influence the course of human history?

But when you roll the dice on monster concepts, you’ve got to be prepared when some of them don’t pan out. Of the items on the list above, there’s a good chance that all but the space elevator and human lifespan will make it from concept to reality. Even the driverless car–an idea that we were scoffing at less than 6 years ago–is real, and it works and they’re even legal in some places.

What I like about all of these projects is that there is a strong chance that if they work out as planned, they will see mass adoption. A lot of people are going to want the benefits these projects will offer.

But I can’t say the same for Google’s most recent foray into the future: Project Ara.

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Project Ara is Google’s concept for a modular smartphone platform. You may have heard of this already under the name PhoneBloks. Turns out, they were once separate efforts that are now united under the combined Google/Motorola banner (even though Google has agreed to sell most of that company to Lenovo).

It’s a fascinating and wonderful idea: What if, instead of having to trade in, sell, or giveaway your old phone when newer features hit the market e.g. a fingerprint scanner or better WiFi, you could simply upgrade just that component, leaving all of the phone’s other features and functions untouched? Moreover, what if you could choose from several sizes of device and then customize exactly which of these modules it came equipped with when new, knowing you could swap the modules later if you needed something different?

It sounds like techno-nirvana, especially for those of us who grew up playing with LEGO and admiring the component Hi-Fi systems our parents had lovingly assembled in the family room.

But as appealing as this concept might be for the small percentage of folks who value versatility and upgradeability over simplicity, PhoneBloks will never reach a mass market and that’s why its future is bleak.

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Don’t get me wrong, I would like PhoneBloks to succeed, but after watching industry trends for the last 20 years, these are the factors that are going to work against it:

Design

Though the name makes it obvious (as do the product renderings), let’s not forget that these phones will be well, blocky. Even if the modules themselves end up with gently curved corners and are made as low-profile as possible, it’s physically impossible to create a phone using swappable modules that can be as thin and light as a phone that embeds these components internally. If the PhoneBloks concept takes off, after a few generations the modules might actually evolve to the point where they don’t protrude from the phone’s frame. But even if that happens, the overall product will remain larger and bulkier than an equivalently equipped embedded-design.

The Myth Of Upgradeability

One of the core beliefs that the PhoneBloks concept is based on is that consumers really want to be able to change their phone’s capabilities over time. And while that might be true of certain elements (like wishing you could have a better camera or be able to access Siri) the market has proven itself exceptionally willing to forego features like expandable storage or even replaceable batteries. Just think, back in 2007 when Apple launched the iPhone, people who were used to having BlackBerrys and feature phones scoffed loudly at the iPhone’s sealed battery (not to mention its pathetic battery life). Once BlackBerrys and other competitors started shipping with expandable storage via MicroSD cards, these same people scoffed again at Apple’s apparently disdainful decision to only offer the iPhone in set storage sizes (8, 16, 32 etc.) But we’re all familiar with what happened. The market decided, much to the surprise of tech pundits and Apple’s competitors alike, that these things just don’t matter as much as everyone thought. Did consumers wish that Apple had offered these two features? Perhaps. But you’d never know it by looking at the sales numbers.

The Myth Of Customization

It seems especially true in western countries—and no more so than in the U.S.—that a person’s individual nature is considered holy. We are all unique, with our own personalities, and thanks to our freedom within our wonderful democracies, we get to express these personalities any way we see fit. Or so the theory goes. From that belief comes the notion that what people value is the ability to make an object “their own” through customization. And sure enough, this is true in areas like people’s homes, their choice of clothes, makeup, vehicles and consumption of the arts. Everyone picks what she or he likes. Everyone’s different, right? Actually, no, we aren’t.

The truth is, while we might have differing tastes on small things like the colour of our walls, or brand of footwear we’re loyal to, on a massive scale, we’re far more alike than we’d like to think. Not convinced? Just look at the success of a store like IKEA, or a movie like Frozen, or a musician like Bruce Springsteen. We might not all like the same things, but when we do agree, we agree on a massive scale. So it follows from this that, despite our whining about wanting choice and customization, what we really want is the same thing that a lot of other people want: a really good experience. We happily join the crowd when we find one.

We even have a recent example of customization’s failure to win over a mass market: Last year, Motorola debuted the Moto X, a really well-built, well-designed Android smartphone. It had a competitive feature set, it scored highly with reviewers, and it had a killer feature that should have catapulted it to dominance: In the U.S. you can order it online and pick from a wide variety of case colours and materials including real bamboo and wood. If there was any truth to the notion that the market was being heavily underserved in the area of choice, the Moto X should have been a runaway success. After four months on the market, it had reportedly only sold 500,000 units – a tiny number when compared to the 33.8 million iPhones Apple sold during a similar period. So much for wanting to be different.

The Enduring Appeal Of “New”

PhoneBloks should be lauded for their environmentally-conscious goal of not tossing out a phone simply because you want a feature upgrade. So-called “built-in obsolescence” is a drag. Why won’t my first generation iPad run Apple’s latest version of iOS, for instance? It just makes a ton of sense to stick with the product we bought and then, over time as things change, we just upgrade the parts that need upgrading.

Except that human beings are a peculiar species. We can simultaneously acknowledge the logic of such an idea, while we gaze longingly at the brand-new, shiny model. It’s possible to upgrade a car through the dizzying array of aftermarket products. But most of us don’t. It’s possible to upgrade the components of a desktop PC (as long as it’s not an iMac!) but apart from more RAM, most of us don’t. Even when faced with one of the most popular upgrades of all time: the home reno, it’s amazing how many people will opt to sell their house and buy one that already has the features they want.

We love what’s new, even when it’s only a little better than what we currently own. Especially when buying new won’t break the bank. We see this every time Apple releases a new iPhone model. A huge chunk of the early buyers are always existing iPhone owners, many of whom are upgrading from the immediately prior model.

So despite being able to soup-up a PhoneBloks phone hot-rod style, the mass market will continue to value a shiny new phone over a shiny new Blok.

So What, Who Cares?

If you’ve been thinking throughout this piece that I’m being thick, and that of course the PhoneBloks concept isn’t for everyone, I know what you mean. After all, why get all negative over a new idea just because it won’t resonate with a mass audience? And how do you really know? After all, it hasn’t even hit the market yet and the idea has almost a million supporters. Plenty of successful ideas started small, right? Ahem, Facebook! Yes, yes and yes.

It’s absolutely true that PhoneBloks needn’t achieve iPhone-like sales figures in order to prove itself a successful model for the smartphone industry. But it’s also true that it must nevertheless achieve a minimum level of adoption in order to simply stay alive. Given what I’ve outlined, I just don’t think this will happen. And it’s a shame, because ideas like PhoneBloks are what we need to spark the next round of innovation in an industry that has become dominated by two giants.

Hipstreet Equinox 2 10.1" Android tablet review

Now might just be the worst time in the year to be making a buying decision when it comes to tablets.

Not only do we have more choice than ever when it comes to these devices, but those choices seem to be expanding daily.

A few months ago Google launched its first tablet, the Nexus 7, a 7-inch model made by ASUS, for the extremely competitive price of $229 – less than half the price of an iPad. Yesterday, Microsoft revealed its pricing on the new line of Windows 8 RT devices known as “Surface.” At $499 it too is cheaper than the iPad, albeit not by much, but has a much larger screen and vastly expanded support for external peripherals and memory.

Plus, it’s a virtual guarantee that tomorrow, Apple will be launching its own line of smaller iPads, rumoured to be called the “iPad Mini” with price range between $250-$350.

All of this creates an environment where consumers will be able to choose not only three different mobile operating systems (iOS, Android, Windows 8) but several excellent choices when it comes to the hardware that these operating systems run on.

It’s into this incredibly packed and competitive market that Canadian company Hipstreet hopes to sell its 10.1″ Android tablet, the Equinox 2.

On paper, the Equinox 2 sounds like it hits all of the right notes:

  • Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
  • 5 point multi touch screen, 16×9 ratio, 1024×600 resolution
  • MicroSD card reader
  • WiFi b/g/n
  • 4GB capacity – expandable to 32 GB with Micro SD card (not included)
  • 1.2 GHZ processor with 1GB DDR3 RAM
  • Rechargable lithium polymer battery built-in
  • High speed direct mini USB 2.0 interface (x2) plus HDMI
  • Built in speakers
  • Built-in front facing 0.3MP camera
  • Multiple language format
  • MSRP: $229

Not a bad set of specifications. At first glance, with the exception of built-in memory, it appears to offer much more tablet for the buck than the similarly priced Google Nexus 7. But specs can be deceiving – especially when it comes to portable devices. Tablets, smartphones, portable gaming systems – even laptops – get handled a lot and our tactile experience with these products depends heavily on their use of materials and build quality. This is where the Equinox 2 hits a fairly significant snag.

You notice a couple of things right away after picking up the Equinox 2:

– The back panel is made of plastic. And not the kind of grippy plastic that you might find on the Nexus 7 or even a BlackBerry PlayBook.  Instead, it has a glossy black finish which is both smooth and oddly tacky to the touch. When you first look at it, it has a kind of high-end piano-like sheen to it, but within minutes of handling it, that sheen is replaced with a mess of finger prints, smudges and dust particles. The material acts like a Swiffer for dirt. So while many devices use plastic as all or part of their exteriors, not all plastics are equal.

– The Equinox 2’s edges are flat, but become bevelled where they meet the screen’s surface. At both the flat-to-bevel and bevel-to-screen transitions, there are hard ridges that  feel uncomfortable in the hand after a while – it’s a small thing, but given that HipStreet encourages Equinox 2 owners to use it as an e-reader, you would expect a device that feels great to hold for longer periods.

– The screen surface is also plastic. Unlike the back and sides of a tablet, which can be successfully designed with plastic, a touchscreen’s surface has to possess certain qualities: Effortless finger glides for the hundreds of taps and swipes you’ll be performing; an even surface so that distortion is kept to a minimum; static-free – even though finger smudges are unavoidable, extra dust and dirt particles are not. The Equinox 2 misses the mark on all fronts.

The surface itself is riddled with small undulations – mostly toward the edges but a few creep into the main viewing area. As a material, high-quality glass alleviates all of these concerns, whereas cheap plastic makes them worse. How much worse? The resistance I feel while dragging my fingers across the Equinox’s screen surface is significant. If you’d never tried a device like the iPad or PlayBook, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was normal for a touch-screen. It isn’t. Even the surface of my decidedly dusty computer desk proved to be smoother for finger-dragging. And when you combine the friction of the surface with the hit-and-miss nature of the screen’s responsiveness to taps, the effort of interacting with the Equinox 2 becomes truly annoying.

A very noticeable light leak appears in the lower-left corner of the Equinox 2.

Turn the Equinox 2 on, and further evidence of poor design and build quality present themselves.

With the tablet lying on its back on a smooth surface like a tabletop, even slight pressure against the device’s bezel caused the screen to distort in a roughly thumb-print sized area just above the middle of the screen. You could see this when tapping almost anywhere on tablet’s screen or even on the back panel.

The screen also exhibits moderate-to-bad light leakage on the lower left side of the screen, where the gap between the plastic touch panel and the LCD beneath it is particularly noticeable.

At 10.1″, the Equinox 2 offers plenty of size, but the low resolution of 1024×600 means the pixel density is very low, resulting in graphics and text that are rougher around the edges and harder to read than tablets with the same resolution but with smaller screen sizes. Despite the tablet’s ideal movie ratio of 16×9, the resolution isn’t sufficient to deliver all of the detail in a 720p HD video. If you want to see videos in their native format, you’ll have to use the HDMI port.

My gripes about the Equinox 2’s design and build quality aside, the tablet does have some strengths.

The inclusion of USB ports that support not only the connection of the tablet to a PC for content transfers, but also the other way around – to read and write data from accessories like thumb drives and portable hard drives, is a great feature often only found on tablets that cost twice as much as the Equinox. Likewise, having an HDMI port is handy for those who want to watch videos on the big screen. The ability to expand memory via MicroSD cards is also a plus, though frankly given the Equinox 2’s paltry 4GB of on-board storage, popping in an 8 or 16GB MicroSD card is practically a requirement to enjoy this device.

The Equinox 2 boasts more ports than the average tablet, including a USB Host port.

But these features are only of real benefit to the user if you have great apps and other content to run on the Equinox, which brings me to my next major reservation with HipStreet’s latest tablet.

It runs Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), which in my opinion is the first version of Google’s OS that gives Apple’s iOS a serious run for the money. Apps open quickly, and transitions are managed smoothly. Switching between open apps is a snap, and the included Dolphin browser is serviceable if not super-speedy. The Equinox 2 runs ICS well enough, but there’s a catch.

Not all Android tablets and smartphones are the same. Well, they’re the same in principal – Google makes the base Android OS free to use by any company on any device – but if you want the full Android experience, you need to buy a device that has been certified by Google as “Compatible“. In other words, a device that has passed Google’s test to ensure that all 3rd party apps written for the Android OS will work, and one which is eligible to run Google’s own native apps such as Chrome, YouTube and Maps. Moreover, a device must be compatible if it is to provide access to the Google Play Store – which the primary source of downloadable apps for Android.

Hipstreet’s Equinox 2 appears to be amongst the group of Android devices that is *not* compatible, and that’s a big catch. The result is that not only are Google’s most popular apps missing from the Equinox 2, there’s no way to get them because the device doesn’t have access to the Play Store.

Instead, the tablet ships with a different app store, known as GetJar. GetJar is a universal app store of sorts in that it isn’t built for any one operating system. Instead it caters to them all. But GetJar is by no means a substitute for the Play Store. Only free apps are available from GetJar, and while the store attempts to ensure compatibility of the apps with your device, it’s not as reliable as the Play Store. Some popular apps can be found on GetJar. I downloaded and installed Skype, Angry Birds and the Kobo ereader apps which all work just fine on the Equinox. But there are no YouTube or Google Maps apps, and many popular free apps for compatible Android devices are missing like Amazon’s free Kindle app, or even Facebook.

When you combine the Equinox’s unfortunate build quality with its lack of decent native apps or the ability to access the Google Play Store, you end up with a tablet that simply can’t compete with other products in this category, despite its attractive price.

It pains me to reach such a negative conclusion on a Canadian product, but I wouldn’t be doing you the reader, or Hipstreet, any favours by candy-coating my impressions.

If you’re in the market for a tablet, you’re on a budget and want to shop Canadian, I highly recommend RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook. For $129, you can pick up a 16GB model which will blow away any 7″ tablet dollar-for-dollar and many larger ones too. And while the PlayBook still lacks the kind of app support you can find on either iOS or fully-compatible Android devices, the app store is still growing and may see an additional shot in the arm once RIM releases its BB 10 models in the new year.

If after reading this, you’re still interested in the Hipstreet Equinox 2, you can find it at The Source and Staples stores, where prices range between $179.99 and $229.

Review: Sony Xperia Tablet S

Update Friday, October 5: Sony has halted sales on the new Xperia Tablet S due to concerns around the device’s ability to deal with liquid spills. According to Reuters, the company has discovered small gaps between the frame an the screen, which can let liquid in, thus compromising the tablet’s seal.

A year ago, Sony launched its first tablet effort, the Tablet S. It was 9.4” touchscreen device running what was then Google’s only version of Android for tablets – Honeycomb.

It had a unique design with its wedgy, folded-edge body, a good screen, and a built-in IR transmitter that could turn the Tablet S into a remote control for your home theatre equipment.

But it was pricey, the remote control feature lacked macros, and thanks to Honeycomb, the user experience wasn’t especially snappy or compelling. You couldn’t even use the included SD card support for anything but transfering your media files to the device’s internal memory. And there was no HDMI out – a feature that surprised many given that the tablet was supposed to (among other things) play nicely with Sony’s line of Bravia TVs.

While many reviewers praised Sony’s industrial design, the high price and poorly executed feature set kept the Tablet S from earning wide support amongst reviewers or consumers.

The Xperia Tablet S

Fast forward barely a year and Sony is back, on a mission to show that they can take constructive criticism and respond with a better product.

And that’s exactly what the new Xperia Tablet S is – a better tablet in every way.

Design

The new Xperia Tablet S preserves some of the folded-magazine design from the first version

Those of us who tried the original Tablet S gave Sony high marks for being willing to take some risks with the physical shape of the product. Its asymmetrical design meant that the top edge was thicker than the bottom. Or if you held it sideways in portrait mode, the right or left side was thicker. This not only gave the Tablet S a slight incline when using the device on a flat surface, making typing a little more comfortable, but also made holding the device while using it to read or surf the web one-handed a much better experience too.

And while the new Xperia Tablet S has toned down the wedge-shape, the folded-edge profile remains and still delivers a great reading and surfing experience thanks to the textured finish on the tablet’s backside.

Gone is the all-plastic case, replaced with a combination of plastic and aluminum which give the Xperia Tablet S a higher-end feel and puts it on the same level as the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab in terms of materials. The tablet feels surprisingly light in the hand considering its overall dimensions are similar to other, heavier tablets. Sony claims battery life is about 12 hours for watching video and 10 while wirelessly surfing the web. These are excellent numbers however I wasn’t able to fully verify them. My guess is that real-world use will prove to be slightly less.

Dual stereo speakers sit near the bottom edge, concealed behind slits covered in a fine mesh. The sound quality is great for a tablet, and more than ample for watching YouTube videos or listening to the occasional song, but you’re still better off with dedicated external speakers for any serious listening activities.

The new Multi-Port comes with a removable cover that needs to be kept in place if you want your Tablet S to remain splash and spill-proof

Around the left side, you’ll find a covered panel containing the SD card slot and immediately above that is the headphone jack, while on the bottom edge, protected by a removable cover is the new Multi-port. The Multi-port works much the same way as Apple’s dock connector. It handles charging and data transfer via the included USB cable, and with the help of an optional $39 adapter, it can be used as an HDMI-out jack for sending HD video to your HDTV.

Perhaps the best part of the Tablet S’s new physique is the one you can’t see: Sony has equipped this baby with an invisible hydrophobic coating that makes it spill-proof. You won’t be able to immerse the tablet in liquid, but as long as you keep the protective covers for the side and bottom ports in-place, the Tablet S should be able to handle most of the common mishaps that can befall a device that is left on a kitchen counter.

The screen is still not on par with Apple’s industry-leading Retina display, but it nonetheless delivers crisp, rich images and video. Unless you’re holding the two displays side-by-side it’s unlikely you’ll feel cheated by the Tablet S’s lower pixel density.

Under The Hood

Inside, the new NVIDIA Tegra 3 Quad-Core CPU does a great job at keeping the Tablet S quick and responsive, while delivering enough graphics performance to easily handle the many 3D games available for the Android platform, plus Sony’s own PlayStation Mobile offering which will headed to tablets including the Tablet S in October.

That quick new processor is part of what makes the Tablet S a joy to use, but the larger part is Google’s Android 4.0 OS, better known as Ice Cream Sandwich.

If you’ve never used an ICS device, you don’t know just how good Android has become as an operating system.

Android 4.0

Gestures are recognized instantly, while transitions are handled without stutter and apps execute without hesitation. Scrolling is buttery smooth, which in itself is a big improvement over the previous Honeycomb OS. Android on tablets is now a lot of fun.

As good as ICS is, there’s always room for improvement. Normally when manufacturers try to layer their own software on top of the stock Android experience, results can be mixed, which is really to say, not good. The previous Tablet S was an example of Android-meddling yielding no real benefits.

This time around, however, Sony has left the core ICS experience virtually untouched, adding only enough functionality to help the Tablet S stand out from the crowd – in a good way.

Universal Remote

The Tablet S's Universal Remote Control app has a minimized view that can float over your other open apps for always-on access

The first exclusive feature is the media remote capability that Sony preserved from the first Tablet S. Unlike the first version, which was little more than a graphical display of your existing remotes and thus not very helpful, the revamped app brings the missing piece of the puzzle: Macros.

Macros are, for the uninitiated, user-customizable “groups” of commands that can combine any amount of “key presses” from your standard remote controls. It’s macros that give a product like the Logitech Harmony Remote its popularity. Being able to hit a single button labelled “Watch TV” and then sit back while the remote turns on every device in your home theatre and sets all of the right inputs is the holy grail.

Sony’s Universal IR Remote Control can do that. And unlike the Harmony, if you’re not happy with the way a given macro works, you can edit the sequence of commands right on the screen – no cables or syncing with a PC required.

You’re still left dealing with the fact that a smooth-surfaced tablet screen isn’t as intuitive to use as a physical remote, but that is the only drawback.

The second, and arguably the best of the exclusive features, is the Tablet S’s Guest Mode.

Guest Mode

Guest Mode lets you create separate user profiles for everyone in your home

Finally, you can now hand over your tablet to a friend, child, co-worker or spouse and not have to worry that they might accidentally delete an important email or pull up a webpage that you were on which (ahem) you’d rather they not see.

All of this because Guest Mode creates the equivalent of user accounts on a PC or Mac. As the tablet’s administrator, you can assign different accounts, each with its own name and permissions. You could for instance, create a “Kids” account and set it so that it only has access to specific games, and perhaps the YouTube app. Or you could create a profile for your spouse that gives access to everything, but keeps your email and web surfing separate. Passwords can also be assigned to keep those folks where they belong!

Given that our tablets are quickly becoming the most used appliances in our homes, and everyone feels a certain ownership, Guest Mode is a feature whose time has come. Every tablet should have it.

More…

I’m not going to spend much time on the other apps that Sony has included such as Walkman, Movies, Music Unlimited etc. These are all decent media playback or store apps but, with the exception of the Walkman app – which includes all of the features found on Sony’s excellent line of portable media players such as the SenseMe auto-playlist function, these apps are mostly on par with the stock Android equivalents.

It is worth noting however, that these native Sony media apps all have the ability to “throw” audio and video (depending on the app) to DLNA-compatible devices on your network e.g. a Sony PlayStation 3 or a set of DLNA-equipped Wi-Fi speakers. This means that content playing on your tablet can play wirelessly on your HDTV or other devices. Think of it as similar to Apple’s AirPlay feature, but not quite as universally executed.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out how aggressively Sony is supporting the Xperia Tablet S with a slew of accessories.

From covers, to keyboard cases, to stands that dock, charge and let you rotate the tablet into various positions, what Sony doesn’t have in 3rd-party support for the Tablet S, they are making up for themselves with some genuinely innovative and well-designed accessories.

Finally, let’s cover price. The Xperia Tablet S starts at $399 for the 16GB model, while the 32GB model will run you $499. That’s it – no other memory capacities and no 3G/4G cellular options (at least, not in Canada). Those prices aren’t exactly a bargain compared to other Android tablets, which you can find for up to a $100 less, depending on the brand and model, but it’s also a $100 less than what Sony was charging for the 16GB model of the first Tablet S.

Notably, it’s also $120 less than a comparably equipped iPad.

Factor in Sony’s superb build quality, splash/spill-proof coating, Guest Mode and IR remote control and there’s a strong argument to be made that the Xperia Tablet S is actually the value leader in the 9-10” tablet category.

Conclusion

While Sony’s first tablet effort left us wanting more – much more, the new Xperia Tablet S delivers the missing pieces, throws in a few welcome surprises, and carries a price tag that while not a bargain, is certainly not a show-stopper.

If you have been holding off on buying a tablet, the Xperia Tablet S would make an excellent first purchase. It’s beautifully designed, it runs Google’s superb Android Ice Cream Sandwich and it has been built to handle nearly everything a household will expect from it, or throw at it.

Far from throwing in the towel on tablets, Sony is back, and better than ever.

Can Sony's new Xperia Tablet S succeed where the Tablet S failed?

You have to give Sony credit. Last year, the company debuted their first effort at creating a consumer tablet, hoping not so much to rival the iPad (something they sensibly realized wasn’t going to happen) but to establish themselves as the definitive #2 player in the space. To say they missed that target is an understatement.

While reviewers had kind things to say about the Tablet S’s physical design such as the innovative wedge shape that made it more comfortable to hold sideways, there was far more in the minus column, thanks mostly to some poorly executed and/or missing features.

The bottom line was that if you’re going to charge the same price as an iPad, you had better give users a compelling reason to pick your tablet. Apparently most consumers felt that had not happened and sales figures for the Tablet S barely registered on global tablet purchases.

That was then. Today, Sony comes back to the tablet table, this time with a new brand (their tablet is now part of the Xperia family of products which includes Sony’s Xperia smartphones) a new look (thinner, lighter) and has addressed at least some of the shortcomings of the Tablet S.

The Xperia Tablet S as the new model is called, comes in 16 and 32GB flavours, sells for $399 and $499 respectively and runs the more modern Android 4.0 operating system from Google.

The new form factor is mostly the same as the original. Screen size and resolution are unchanged at 9.4″ and 1280×800. But this time around Sony has reduced the “curled” portion of the tablet wedge to just the upper (or side) third of the case instead of the previous design’s nearly constant taper from one edge to the other. The overall effect is to make the new Tablet S appear thinner, though the official measurements seem to indicate this is mostly an optical illusion.

Sony has also made the Tablet S more robust. It now sports a splash-proof coating which Sony claims makes the tablet resistant to all kinds of splashes, from any direction, so long as the port covers remain securely in place. This is a very good idea given how many tablets end up in the kitchen as they serve the double-duty of internet appliance and digital cookbook.

Internally, the Xperia tablet gets a speed boost from the latest Quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, plus the cameras get a spec bump too going from 0.3 megapixels in the front and 5MP in the rear to 1MP up front and 8MP in the rear, which is pretty much standard on all smartphones, and much better than average for tablets.

The last of the (major) physical changes is the presence of a “multiport.”  This replaces the micro-USB port from the first version and gives the Xperia Tablet S a critical  feature: USB and HDMI-out via an adapter cable. The first Tablet S could only send video wirelessly to compatible displays like Sony TVs, lacking a physical way to do so. This is an improvement to be sure, but I’m not a fan of proprietary connections and accessories. Apple forces iPad owners down this road by only offering HDMI via a 30-pin cable and I’m really disappointed that Sony chose to follow them.

But on to better things!

One of the ways that Sony sought to differentiate their first tablet was the inclusion of an IR transmitter capable of controlling all of your living room devices via a bundled remote control app. It was a great idea, but for some unknown reason, Sony left out the ability to program “macros” – the powerful feature which gives a product like the Logitech Harmony line of universal remotes their broad appeal. Without macros, you’re forced to jump between remote “modes” as you operate each device in your home theatre separately. It’s the tablet equivalent of having all of your physical remotes sitting on your coffee table in front of you. In other words, it doesn’t solve any of the problems associated with owning multiple devices.

The Xperia Tablet S finally addresses this gap by introducing programmable macros such as “Watch TV” which will then automatically send the necessary IR commands to your various pieces of equipment. How intuitive this macro feature is to use is unknown right now. Let’s hope Sony took a page from Logitech’s playbook.

Finally, the one feature which I think proves that Sony is finally “thinking different,” to borrow Apple’s now defunct slogan, is the ability to create a “Guest Mode” account on the Xperia Tablet S. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the BlackBerry PlayBook’s best features is something called BlackBerry Balance, which lets you create a virtual wall between your work-related activities and your personal ones. Sony’s Guest Mode does the same thing by creating profiles for different users, much like you can do on Windows and Mac computers. Using Guest Mode, you can set access permissions for apps, widgets and even desktop wallpapers, for each user account.

This is a tremendously useful innovation which Sony claims is exclusive to the Xperia Tablet S. I can easily see parents justifying the purchase of this product based solely on the strength of Guest Mode alone. I’ve long believed that tablets, unlike smartphones, are communal devices that end up being used by everyone in the household. With Guest Mode, there is finally a way to hand over the tablet without handing over control of personal and/or sensitive information.

Oh, one more thing.

Sony has spared no expense in creating a dedicated line-up of accessories for the Xperia Tablet S ranging from dedicated chargers, desktop stands and covers that include built-in keyboards.

Of course, we’ll really only know how good the Xperia Tablet S is once we get our hands on one, hopefully very soon.

The new tablet goes on sale September 7, but you can pre-order online today.

HTC One V launches in Canada with Bell

HTC One V launches in Canada with Bell, TELUS

If you’ve been waiting for one of HTC’s new “One” line of Android phones to land in Canada, wait no more.

Today Bell launches the HTC One V, which is the smallest and lightest of HTC’s flagship “One” line of smartphones.

The One V, which we presume stands for “Value,” is certainly one of the least expensive ways to jump into the smartphone market with several attractive pricing options: $299.95 to buy it outright, with no contract, $59.95 on a three-year no-data contract and $0 if you add a data plan to that 3-year contract.

So it’s affordable, but does that mean it’s less capable? No. Consider the following specs:

  • 1 GHZ processor
  • 512Mb of RAM
  • 4GB on-board storage (expandable via MicroSD cards)
  • 3G HSPA connections
  • Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich)
  • HTC Sense 4.0
  • 800×480 3.7″ display
  • 5MP front-facing camera with 720p HD video recording
  • Beats Audio

Another cool feature is the ability to capture still images while simultaneously recording video which helps take the anxiety out of the decision on whether to take a photo or capture a video – now you don’t have to choose. Speaking of the camera, the One V will ship with “HTC ImageSense, a new suite of camera and imaging features that allow it to rival traditional digital cameras” according to HTC’s press release.

And here’s a pretty sweet bonus: HTC One V users will have access to a special 25 GB Dropbox account for two years. That’s a lot of storage for your photos and videos. Normally free Dropbox accounts only come with 2GB of space.

We’ll be getting our hands on an HTC One V shortly so check back here soon for a full review!

If you’re curious about the full HTC One line-up, check out this excellent comparison, and a look at the unusual material process for the One S case. The HTC One S is slated to come to Bell later this year.

The HTC One V will also be available to TELUS customers later this month.

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Disclosure: Sync is owned and operated by Bell Media, a wholly owned subsidiary of Bell Canada.

Sony Walkman NWZ-Z1000 Series hands-on review

Sony's Z1000 Walkman is an Android-based competitor to the iPod Touch

Sony's Z1000 Walkman is an Android-based competitor to the iPod Touch

Pros:

  • Superb audio performance
  • Snappy performance
  • Big, 4.3″ multi-touch screen
  • Micro-HDMI out
  • SenseMe Channels
  • FM Radio
Cons:
  • Huge/thick/heavy form factor
  • No cameras
  • Compass mode is quirky
  • External speakers only so-so
  • Expensive
Overall:
  • If you’re looking for a full-fledged Android device that can handle movies, music and photos and don’t mind the lack of on-board cameras, the Sony Walkman Z1000 Series is an attractive device with great sound, but you can find more features in a smaller package for less money elsewhere.

The Sony Walkman has been a presence on the personal audio scene ever since Sony invented the category back in the late 1970s. Since then, the line of portable music (and more recently media) players has evolved continuously to keep pace with an industry that has seen more convergence than any other in recent memory. And while Apple’s iPod line of devices changed the rules of the game just over a decade ago, Sony has never given up – reinventing the Walkman at each stage to offer buyers an alternative to Apple’s juggernaut with all the hallmarks of the Sony brand: solid industrial design and audio performance.

But Apple is a tough competitor, and when they launched the iPod Touch hot on the heels of their runaway success iPhone, it became clear that the notion of a digital music player being a one-trick pony was antiquated to say the least. A new paradigm had been created – one where music, photos and video were but three elements in a vast sea of portable-computing options.

And yet, seemingly caught unprepared, Sony stuck to the basics and continued to pump out respectable, if somewhat uninspired media players. Not that they had much choice. In fact, until Google released Android, there was little any manufacturer could do to keep up with the iOS tsunami.

But there were a few bright spots for Sony’s Walkman. 2008’s NWZ-S Series introduced one of the best noise-cancelling systems available without needing to spend $350 on a set of Bose headphones. It also marked the addition of “SensMe” Channels – a proprietary way of organizing your music into mood-based categories – an innovation which has yet to be improved upon. Nearly 4 years later, the NWZ-S Series is still my music player of choice.

There were some “what were they thinking?” moments too: They ditched the SensMe system on future models of the Walkman and the ill-conceived and over-priced X Series proved that just because you add Wi-Fi, a touchscreen and a browser to a media player does not mean it will be appealing or successful.

Learning from both of these lessons, Sony is back for another kick at the portable media player can.

This time out, they’ve kept the good: Brought back SensMe, solid sound performance; and dropped the bad: the tiny screen, awful browser of the X Series have now been replaced by a full if not perfect implementation of Google’s Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) mobile operating system.

The result is a device that launches the Walkman brand into portable-computing territory without giving up the audio credentials that have been the Walkman’s hallmarks since the beginning.

Unfortunately for Walkman fans, this evolution isn’t without its trade-offs.

In creating the NWZ-Z1000, Sony has directly targeted Apple’s iPod Touch. The comparison is unavoidable given the capabilities of each device.

Design

In every dimension, the NWZ-Z series dwarfs the iPod Touch. It’s wider, taller, thicker and heavier. Take a look:

Sony Walkman NWZ-Z1050 Apple iPod Touch
W/H/D 70.9 x 134.4 x 11.1 mm  58.9 x 111 x 7.2 mm
Weight 156g  101g

Despite its heavy-set measurements or perhaps because of them, the Walkman feels solid and well built. Sony has never suffered from poor build quality or awkward design and the Z series is no exception. From the player’s cool-to-the touch metal frame to its nearly flush front surface and quirky but comfortable sway back, the Walkman has an instantly familiar feel to it. And there’s no question, you simply can’t get a 4.3″ screen without accepting a device with an overall larger footprint. Still, it’s only 22g lighter than the Samsung Galaxy Note which offers a larger screen and full 4G/LTE connectivity.

The button layout will be familiar to anyone who has used an all-touchscreen smartphone or the iPod Touch. The top power/stand-by button, side-mounted volume rocker and bottom-positioned headphone jack have become fairly standard on all devices of this size. The one departure is the dedicated Walkman logo button (Sony calls it the “W.” button) which sits just above the micro-HDMI port. The inclusion of this button is the one nod Sony has made to the device’s media-centric lineage. Hitting hit brings up the media playback controls on-screen regardless which app or home screen you’re on at the moment, and wakes the Walkman if it’s in stand-by. While I like the idea of a dedicated media button, it doesn’t address the common weakness in all touchscreen media players: you can’t operate them blind. There’s simply no way to leave the NWZ-Z1000 in your pocket and have control over play/pause track skip forward/backward or any other aspect of the media player except for volume.

It’s hard to accept that Sony, who so happily followed Apple down the design path of the iPod Touch, overlooked one of the few areas where they could have improved on Cupertino’s design. In fact, the NWZ-Z1000 could have borrowed from Sony’s own design legacy in the form of dedicated playback buttons from the X-Series, or from Apple’s playbook in the form of an inline-remote on the cord of the included earphones. Sadly, it received neither.

The curved plastic back is intriguing. It certainly sets the Walkman apart from the rest of the media player landscape, but it isn’t so much of stylistic choice as it is a functional requirement. Because Sony’s engineers placed the internal speaker on the Walkman’s back panel instead of the edges, placing the unit face-up on a flat surface would mute the sound almost completely. The curve gives the speaker a millimetre or two’s breathing room and that’s just enough to let the sound emerge.

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Screen

The NWZ-Z1000’s screen is a beauty. The white LED-backlit LCD TFT screen runs at WQVGA (800×480) and while that doesn’t yield the same kind of pixel density as the iPod Touch, which packs 960×640 into a smaller screen, you don’t notice the difference. As you might expect, browsing the web on a bigger screen is better, all things considered.

I’m a little surprised Sony didn’t opt for OLED on the Walkman as it would have been superior for battery if not for overall contrast, but I guess that at 4.3″ the cost was prohibitive.

Still, when it comes to viewing photos or movies, the Walkman performs well even without the higher-end display technology. It generates a bright, crisp image with blacks that are black enough to handle space scenes even if they aren’t perfectly pitch-black. In my experience, no LCD-based screen can deliver truly deep blacks.

One minor complaint is that the capacitive-touch doesn’t seem to be as sensitive as other screens I’ve tried. Taps didn’t always register and had to be repeated. Another niggle is the surface of the screen itself – more than other surfaces, it seems to be a real finger-print magnet. Without any evidence to support this, my guess is that oleo-phobic coatings adhere better to glass that plastic.

Performance

Other than the occasional missed-tap mentioned above, the NWZ-z1000 is a snappy performer which seems to handle the various demands placed on it by the Gingerbread version of the Android OS effortlessly. That’s probably because the Walkman is packing a Dual Core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU running at 1Ghz. That’s a lot of horsepower when you consider the latest version of the iPod Touch is running a single-core ARM Coretx-A8 at 1Ghz (underclocked to 800 Mhz).

I loaded Frontline Commando, a free first-person shooter, from the Android market and it ran seamlessly – as did Raging Thunder, another free but not very good racing game.

All of the native movie formats I tested ran perfectly, however playing back an .mkv file using the free movie player “MX Video Player” resulted is some dropped frames and occasionally out-of-sync audio.

One notable area of weakness is the compass. One of the coolest things in Android is the ability to turn on Compass Mode while in Google Maps’ Street View. This lets you hold the device in front of you and move it around (up/down, side-to-side) and have the Street View screen respond as though you were actually standing at the location on the map, looking around at the buildings and streets. But I found that the Walkman’s digital compass behaves erratically when in this mode, jumping jerkily around and not giving a smooth rotation of the street view surroundings.

Speaking of maps and directions, I’m still not sure I understand the point of navigation and mapping apps on devices without persistent data connections. With the Walkman (or the iPod Touch or any device that relies on just WiFi), if you want to get directions while in your car or anywhere else WiFi access is going to be problematic, you’re out of luck.

As I mentioned earlier, sound quality is one area where the NWZ-Z1000 really shines. The included earbuds are excellent and though I found their design a little odd, they were very comfortable and did a decent job with sound isolation. I miss the active noise reduction system from earlier Walkman models, but it’s not a deal-breaker. Sony included their proprietary EQ settings such as Clear Base, Clear Stereo, VPT Surround and a 5-band graphic EQ. I’ve always appreciated these settings on digital players and I’m glad to see Sony found a way to include them in an Android device. Sony has also included 2 settings that are meant to enhance the performance of the internal speaker: Clear Phase and xLOUD, but don’t bother with them – there is simply nothing that can make the internal speaker sound like anything other than what it is: tiny, weak and sad. That’s ok though – very few media players in any price range do a good job with this.

Featured Apps

Some of you will remember that Sony launched their first Android tablet last year – the Sony Tablet S. Reviews were mixed, but among the highlights were some of the exclusive apps that Sony included on the device: Infrared Remote Control, Sony Reader and PlayStation Games.

For reasons known only to Sony, none of these have made their way onto to the NWZ-Z1000. I’m willing to overlook the remote app’s absence – I wasn’t all that impressed with the implementation on the Tablet S, and since the Walkman doesn’t have an infrared sender or receiver it would have been pointless.

But the lack of the Reader and PlayStation games is a big mistake. Given that the Walkman’s main competitor has a built-in ebook solution (iBooks) and is already the most popular mobile gaming platform thanks to the enormous collection of free and paid games in the App Store, you would think these two areas would be on the top of Sony’s must-have list.

But no. Even though the built-in HDMI output could have enabled PlayStation games on the big screen, something which Sony appears to be philosophically opposed to (their Sony Ericsson Experia Play can do PlayStation games, but can’t output to HDMI whereas their Experia Arc can output HDMI, but can’t do PS games), the Walkman can’t run these exclusive games. Likewise, even though the NWZ-Z1000 sports a bigger screen than the iPod Touch, which would naturally make it a better e-reader, no reading apps are loaded by default.

What you do get are Sony’s “Original Apps” collection: Music Player, Video Player, Photo Viewer, FM Radio, DLNA, Wi-Fi Checker, W.Control and Music Unlimited.

At first I couldn’t figure out why one would need Sony versions of apps that are standard on every Android device. The reason they’ve been included is their clever use of DLNA. Just like on the Tablet S, you can use these apps to “Send To” compatible displays on your network. Watching a video on the Walkman and want to see it on your DLNA-equipped HDTV? Two taps and you’re done. Same thing for photos and music.

This DLNA technology works in reverse too, such that if you have a compatible DLNA media server (home PC, PS3, etc) you can access that content and view it/listen to it on the Walkman.

While buggy at times, this DLNA implementation is a strong argument that Apple’s AirPlay isn’t the only game in town for those who want to flex their wireless network’s muscles.

Wi-Fi Checker is an app that, well, checks your Wi-Fi connection by connecting to your chosen access point and then giving you some rudimentary feedback such as your assigned IP address and a confirmation that you are in fact, connected. Not quite sure why Sony felt the need to include it given that Android’s existing wireless stats are pretty good.

W. Control is merely a preference setting for how you want to interact with the maximized view of the Walkman or “W.” media playback controls. You can choose to single or double-tap the screen for play/pause and whether you want left or right swipes to skip you forward or backward one track. This should have been baked into the existing Settings app in Android.

Finally, Music Unlimited is Sony’s answer to iTunes – an online store where you can preview and buy then download music tracks directly to the Walkman.

Closest Competitors

Thanks to its size, the NWZ-Z1000 has few true competitors. This can make direct comparisons a bit tricky. Other than the iPod Touch, there are only two other devices in the Canadian market that come close, without looking at smartphones since they really do represent a different category. These are the Archos 5 32GB and the Dell Streak 5.  The Archos is the same price as the Walkman but lacks access to the Android Marketplace and doesn’t support DLNA. The Dell Streak includes cameras but because it is built as a mobile data device, you can only buy it on contract with Rogers Wireless, or no contract for $399. In my opinion the Archos, while a very capable media player, is a less-than-ideal Android device and requires optional accessories to support HDMI out. The Streak looks attractive, but if the price of the Walkman strikes you as high, the Streak won’t appeal either.

Conclusion

The Walkman NWZ-Z1000 enters the market with a peculiar set of features that makes it both unique and unexceptional at the same time. While it is a capable media player that offers a bigger screen than its closest competitor, the lack of any on-board cameras limits the ways in which you can use the device for anything other than media consumption.

Even though it’s more expensive that the iPod Touch for the same memory size, the Walkman delivers two strong arguments for the additional dollars: screen size and CPU. If you find the iPod Touch’s screen a little on the small side – as many people do – the NWZ-Z1000’s 4.3″ window is a much more comfortable viewing experience.

The Walkman’s dual-core CPU barely breaks a sweat as you put the device through its paces – there is virtually no lag or delays when moving from app to app or within the various menus. The iPod Touch isn’t as speedy and there are times when it feels like it’s running to catch up. If you value snappy performance over bells and whistles like on-board cameras, the Walkman is the clear winner.

You’ll be able to find the Sony NWZ-Z1000 Walkman at major electronics retailers later this spring for $299 for the 16GB size and $349 for the 32GB model.