Category: First Look

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.

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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.

 

 

 

In photos: Sony’s Android tablets, the S1 and S2

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Sony Canada confirms that these sleek-looking devices are indeed headed our way. No word on price so far, but they’re due to hit stores “in the fall,” but definitely in time for the holiday season. Obviously as soon as we get our hands on one (or both), we’ll let you know how they stack up against the iPad, PlayBook but more importantly, the other Android tablets beginning to flood the market.

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Why Thunderbolt (Light Peak) changes everything

The new Thunderbolt port as seen on Apple's new MacBook Pro. Image courtesy of Apple.

The new Thunderbolt port as seen on Apple's new MacBook Pro. Image courtesy of Apple.

Have you ever looked at the back of your desktop or the sides (and back) of your laptop and wondered why there are so many ports? Multiple USB ports, VGA, HDMI, Ethernet, two flavours of FireWire (IEEE 1394 and the newer 800 standard), eSATA and on some models you’ll find DisplayPort and Express Card slots too. Regardless of their shape, name or quantity, in the end, they all do the same thing: allow your computer to talk to external devices or networks.

The computer I’m writing this post from has a grand total of 10 such I/O interfaces and until today this abundance of connection options was something I took a sort of pride in. After all, the more and varied ports on a PC, the more and varied devices you can connect to.

Today however, all of that changes.

The Thunderbolt icon. Image courtesy of Apple.

The Thunderbolt icon. Image courtesy of Apple.

Imagine a world where a single, small port on the side of your laptop is all you will ever need to connect to any peripheral or network – including external monitors. Now imagine that this port allows your computer to swap data with those connected devices at a staggering 10 Gbps (that’s 20 times faster than USB 2.0 and fast enough to transfer a feature-length full HD movie in 30 seconds) and that it can pass along up to 10 watts of power to those devices so they need not rely on additional power supplies. Truly plug and play. Now stop imagining.

This new port exists (exclusively for now on Apple’s new MacBook Pros) and is called Thunderbolt.

Thunderbolt is actually the consumer name chosen by Apple and Intel for a technology that the two companies partnered on known as “Light Peak.” Not that Light Peak is a bad name, but Apple has a spectacular record for finding catchy names for new or existing technologies (consider FireWire, MagSafe and FaceTime just to name a few) so Thunderbolt it is. They’ve even designed a clever little lightning bolt icon to stamp on Thunderbolt ports and cables.

The Mini DisplayPort found on older MacBooks - identical in shape to the new Thunderbolt port.

What makes Thunderbolt unique (other than its groundbreaking speed) is that it was designed from the ground-up to be display-friendly. While it’s true that you can attach external displays to USB ports, this has always been a bit of kludge – a clever workaround that forces USB to do something it was never intended to do. Thunderbolt on the other hand, includes both DisplayPort and HDMI technologies within its architecture. In fact, take a close look at the Thunderbolt port (top of this page). Now look at the current Mini Display Ports (image above). Yep, they’re the same shape. This means that existing Mini Display Port cables can snap right into Thunderbolt ports, no adapters required.

The other clever thing about Thunderbolt is that it can be daisy-chained. Apple has always been a big backer of daisy-chain technologies, first with SCSI, then with FireWire – and now Thunderbolt keeps that ability alive. In essence, this means if every Thunderbolt-compatible device had two ports, you could string them all together (up to 6 in total), one after the other, and plug the device that was closest to your PC (the monitor perhaps?) into a single Thunderbolt port on your computer. Voila – instant access to all of your devices and only one cable to keep organized. Sounds very Apple doesn’t it?

Is this the end of USB?

Not likely. At least, not in the near-term. The fact is, almost every single peripheral on the market today was built using USB, so it will be several years before people no longer need USB ports on their computers. And so far, no USB-to-Thunderbolt adapter has been announced (though that’s probably in the works as we speak). Where USB will be most greatly impacted is the development of USB as a future standard. USB 3.0 was only recently released and since then we have seen precious few peripherals with the new port and finding a PC that ships with a USB 3.0 port is very difficult indeed. My guess is that Thunderbolt will effectively kill any future investment in USB 3.0 making it a lame-duck technology.

And what of eSATA?

Since eSATA’s core benefit is higher transfer speeds when compared to USB 2.0, I have a feeling it too will eventually sunset in the face of Thunderbolt’s blistering speed and 10-watt power supply (it’s very hard to find bus-powered eSATA hard drives).

Cost benefits?

It might be a little naive of me to think so, but I’m hoping that the architectural simplicity that Thunderbolt creates will eventually result in lower costs for PC manufacturers. It just makes sense that a single port is cheaper to produce than 10. Whether this turns out to be the case and whether manufacturers end up passing along these savings to consumers is tough to call, but competition being what it is, I remain optimistic!

Apple TV reviewers impressed but not blown away

Apple's re-boot of the Apple TV product. Click to enlarge.
Apple’s re-boot of the Apple TV product. Click to enlarge.

Overall, it’s a pretty good time to be Apple. Their tablet computer, the iPad, has been selling like hotcakes broken a record for the fastest selling gadget since it launched earlier this year. Despite initial concerns regarding the new iPhone 4’s antenna, it’s nearly impossible to find one in stock. And their new line-up of iPods has been met with enthusiasm, even if the form-factor choice for the iPod nano hasn’t exactly been met with unanimous praise.

To round out what has been a milestone year for the company, their second take on their Apple TV product – a tiny black box with no hard drive – has been reviewed by some of the leading tech sites south of the border and the sentiment is upbeat, if not ecstatic.

The bottom line, for those who don’t want to read all of the reviews, is this: Apple TV lives up to Apple’s reputation for slick user-interfaces, simplicity of design and interaction and flawless execution. The $99 price point ($129 119 CDN) makes it almost a no-brainer for those who already own a few Apple products. The available content, on the other hand, is the device’s Achilles Heel.

I’m not surprised by this reaction. The marketing gang at Apple positioned the Apple TV very specifically as the ultimate media-streaming machine – a perfect companion for your HDTV that gives you instant access to first-run movies on the same day they are released on DVD/Blu-ray and then throws in TV shows, YouTube, Netflix and some other goodies to round out the package. So when people discover that the movie selection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, or that TV shows are almost non-existent, you can see why their excitement might be tempered a wee bit.

The silver lining in all this is that content can be improved – vastly if enough effort is invested. And it doesn’t rely on hardware or firmware upgrades. The reviewers all agree that Apple has gotten the basics right. Price, Features, Physical size/shape – they’re all good. So what’s a little missing content? The answer might be different depending on whether you live in the U.S. or here in Canada. If you think Apple TV’s tv show rental offerings in the U.S. aren’t sufficient (they only have ABC, FOX, Disney and BBC for now) you’ll be pretty bummed by the line-up for the Great White North: zip. zero. nada.

Okay, so the content isn’t there yet – my bet is that over time it will be, and it will be great when it comes. And perhaps it doesn’t even matter that much. Most of the reviewers have been quick to point out that if you already own an iPhone, iPad or the latest iPod Touch, you hold the key to unlocking a ton of content on the Apple TV that isn’t tied to what you can rent via iTunes. When iOS 4.2 comes on the scene next month, it brings with a feature called AirPlay. AirPlay will allow any of the devices I just listed to play audio or video content wirelessly on the Apple TV and thus your home theatre and HDTV.

I’ve already discovered plenty of ways to play just about every type of content on my iPad thanks to apps from 3rd party developers. Given the, ahem, prevalence of non-iTunes content out there on the net, it may just be that you never use Apple TV’s rental feature for TV shows. One great example is CityTV’s recently released iPad app. It lets you stream episodes of their shows e.g. The Event, on-demand. After iOS 4.2, that content will be one tap away from your HDTV if you have Apple TV.

Of course, if you *don’t* already own some i-devices, Apple TV loses some of its lustre. And that’s no accident. Apple’s price on the Apple TV isn’t just a function of the revenue-model created by the rental function; it’s a gateway device. It’s designed to get you hooked on the Apple ecosystem if you aren’t already.

Now, if you’re curious to get the deets straight from the herd of horses, here are the links:

CNET.com’s Apple TV Review: Balanced, focused on the technical benefits of the device compared to the Roku

Engadget’s Apple TV Review: Josh Topolsky engages in some constructive criticism

PCMag.com’s Apple TV Review: To-the-point, no-nonsense overview

Ars Technica’s Apple TV Review: More in-depth than the others and somewhat more tongue-in-cheek

Got that? Now, what’s your take? When Apple TV hits Canadian shelves in a few weeks will you be first in line or will you pass in favour of other devices (or none at all?)

The iPad unboxed: can you feel the excitement?

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It’s the kind of hype that only Apple can build. From Steve Jobs’ announcement of the iPad, to the reaction of the blogosphere, to the retail debut in the U.S., it’s hard to recall a device launch that has had this level of curiosity, commentary and criticism. The iPhone launch comes to mind, but if we let the numbers tell the story, the iPad has easily surpassed its smaller sibling in initial sales: more than a million units shipped so far – a sure sign that demand for the new gadget is meeting expectations.

But numbers don’t tell the full story. Especially when it comes to Apple products and even more so in the case of the iPad, a device which on paper at least, fails to impress. After all, from a functionality point of view, the iPad has less going for it than the iPhone. As many observers have pointed out, it lacks a camera, a keyboard, a memory card slot and in it’s current iteration can’t multi-task. Then you get your hands on one and these quibbles take a back seat to the experience of using the iPad. It may only be an iPod Touch on steroids, but that single difference – the size of the screen – makes all the difference in the world.

This isn’t a review of the iPad. If you want to read one, check out Marc Saltzman’s take on the gadget in text and video. He explains why the iPad is a device worth taking notice of and worth trying before you decide if it’s right for you. Instead, this is the story of Andrew Takla, a gadget geek of the first order who made up his mind months ago that he had to have an iPad.

As any self-respecting geek would, Andrew considered the drive down to the U.S. to buy himself an American model, but in the end he decided to delay his gratification by a few weeks and became one of the first to pre-order a Canadian model from Apple’s website.

As the weeks rolled on and talk of supply problems surfaced, some of us in the office began to question his decision. “What if they run out of iPads in the U.S.? Won’t that mean that Canadian pre-orders will be delayed? Andrew, WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?”  You had to admire this man’s resolve. He stood firm. He did not panic. He did not cancel his order and make a run for the border. “Apple will deliver,” he stated calmly. I for one remained doubtful. Perhaps that’s because I’m old enough to remember the terrible iPhone shortages that plagued the Canadian launch of that device. With a shudder at that memory I offered what I hoped was a supportive smile and said, “I hope so.”

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Well today was the day that Andrew was able to survey his skeptical co-worker with a not-so-subtle “I told you so” look as he proudly held aloft the shipping box that contained his iPad. Apple (via FedEx) had indeed delivered. The only thing left to do was perform the ritual unboxing, a ceremony so steeped in tradition it has been documented all over the web in pictures, prose and video.

Andrew began the process of taking the wraps off his new toy, and like a kid on Christmas morning, he could barely contain his excitement. The goofy grin at times looked like it might consume his entire face.

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Andrew’s iPad model of choice – a 16GB version with 3G capability – emerged from its trademark glossy-white box and was greeted with daylight for the first time. As it was held, nay, cradled in Andrew’s paternal hands and raised up so that all could see, I believe I heard the sound of angels singing Hallelujah. Or it might just have been someone’s ringtone. It was an emotional moment.

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Once we had sufficiently collected ourselves, it was time to move on to the next step in our iOdyssey: the First Sync. Carefully, Andrew connected the iPad to his laptop via the USB cable and the crowd around his desk once again breathed a collective “oooh” as the computer dutifully responded with the message “Found New Hardware – iPad”. Have any four words ever sounded so sweet?

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Then, in a somewhat anticlimactic pause in the proceedings, we waited for the iPad to complete its synchronization with the iTunes software. We waited. And waited. It turns out that in Andrew’s pre-iPad excitement, he had gone on a virtual shopping spree in the App Store in anticipation of his upcoming mastery of mobile computing. There were a lot of apps to sync.

Depending on how you look at it, the App Store’s ability to keep all of your i-devices up to date with all of your downloads apps is either a blessing or a curse. I’m sure Andrew was delighted by the slow but steady progress as his new gadget morphed its catalog of software  into a mirror image of his iPod Touch, but I was growing impatient. Watching any device sync is the electronic equivalent of paint drying.

The process did come to a halt 10 minutes later – an eternity from my perspective – and it was time, finally, to perform the ultimate inititation rite for any gadget that possesses the magical ability to connect to the internet sans wires: firing up the browser and checking out a website or two.

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First stop? No not Google – that would be too easy. Instead we pointed Safari to – insert shameless plug – Sympatico.ca, our very own portal and a good test of the iPad’s surfing acumen. It loaded flawlessly. If you’re raising your eyebrows and muttering “So what” at your screen right now, you might not be aware that not every website works on an iPad. Sites that use Adobe’s Flash for all or part of its content will not play nicely with the iPad because the device does not support Flash natively, workarounds notwithstanding. This includes many video sites that rely on the Flash video format for their clips.

At this point, the crowd began to disperse and we left Andrew alone with his new tablet tag-along. It had been an exhausting morning and the pair needed time to bond. Ever the doting dad, Andrew’s first responsibility as an iPad owner is to provide the necessities of life: a cover, an extra charger and a MicroSIM card from Bell Mobility (of course).

Congratulations Andrew, we wish you and you iPad all the best. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Disclosure: Sync is owned and operated by Bell Canada

Hands-on Review of Sony's X-Series Walkman

Sony X Series Touchscreen Walkman

Sony X Series Touchscreen Walkman

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of the S-Series Sony Walkman. The combination of tiny form factor, amazing battery life and un-matched sound quality keeps it at the top of my list of MP3 players. It’s the one I take with me everywhere; including the gym where normally a smaller unit like an iPod Shuffle would be preferable. I just can’t bear to be without the noise-cancellation and the SenseMe features of the Walkman.

So I was super curious to see what Sony would do with the new X-Series Walkman which made a sort of sneak-peek debut at this year’s CES show in Las Vegas. At the Sony booth it sat inside a sealed transparent cylinder, teasing us with it’s glossy screen and minimalist design. For me, the wait ended when Sony Canada finally sent me a review unit last month. I’ve now been playing with it for a few solid weeks – here’s my take on Sony’s latest addition to the Walkman family…

Form Factor

For the X-Series, Sony has bulked up the Walkman quite a bit from the S, B and E series. It’s thicker, wider, longer and heavier than the previous generation. For iPod enthusiasts it’s like going from a Nano to an iPod Classic. Sony has wrapped the edge of the case with a textured plastic that reminds me of rough-granite. I know that doesn’t sound immediately appealing but it was a good choice – holding the Walkman in your hand with the sides of the unit gripped by the edges of your palm feels good. Unlike other players which have made use of slippery surfaces for the entire case, the Walkman doesn’t feel like it’s about to slip from your hands. Even if you were all sweaty from a work out, it would likely stay put.

The next thing you notice on the X-Series is layout of the external controls, of which there are quite a few. Unlike Apple’s iPod Touch who’s super-minimalist design offers only home, power and volume buttons, the X-Series offers users a greater variety of controls which, considering the fact this is a touch screen device is a surprise – but a very welcome one.

As anyone who owns a touch screen media player will tell you, they’re lots of fun to interact with but the moment they disappear into your pocket, your left with a feeling of sensory deprivation. How do you pause or play, or switch tracks without having to haul the thing out again, unlock it and start poking and swiping with your finger?

Sony has obviously realized that there’s no reason why a touch screen can’t be complemented with a few physical buttons to allow ‘blind’ operation of the essentials. That’s why sitting atop the X-Series’ top edge is a trio of small but very accessible buttons: Track back, Play/Pause and Track forward.

With these controls, you can easily reach into your pocket (or if you’re really dexterous just feel through a layer of clothing) and do the two most-needed activities when listening to music. Navigate and Start/Stop.

Of course there are also controls for volume level, Noise Cancellation On/Off (more on this later) and a Hold switch in addition to the Home button on the front of the Walkman.
Interestingly, Sony seems to have abandoned the bottom facing headphone jack  that Apple popularized with the first generation iPod Nano and which Sony subsequently adopted on all of its recent Walkman models. The jack has now moved back to the more traditional top facing spot on the upper left edge of the device. While I was not initially a fan of bottom mounted jacks, I’ve become one since they debuted mainly because I like that when I place the player in my pocket head-down (which keep the player in the same vertical orientation if it was in my hand) it means the headphone cord isn’t being crammed into the bottom of my pocket. I’m always fearful of the headphone jack giving out due to increased stress on the headphone plug, and have had many portables die on me over the years for that very reason. So while I’m sure Sony had a good reason for moving the jack, I’d prefer it on the bottom.

Speaking of jacks and plugs, I really wonder what Sony was thinking when they designed the headphones for the X-Series. Don’t get me wrong I LOVE the way they fit, the sound they deliver, the integrated noise-cancelling, it’s all top notch. But the plug itself – it’s HUGE, at least by today’s standards. The non-flexible portion of the plug measure 2cm in length.  By comparison, Apple’s standard plug for the classic iPod earbuds is half that size. Then you need to consider the flexible portion (which frankly isn’t that flexible) which adds another 1cm to the overall length. Suddenly, we’re at 3cm for the plug which incidentally is 1/3 of the overall length of the Walkman itself. Go on, call me a nitpicker, but Sony can’t you figure out a way to make this thing shorter? Ok I had better stop talking about this  – I think my blood pressure is getting dangerously high.

Touch Screen

The screen on the X-Series is a delight to behold. The OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) display is bright, clear, and crisp and the colours absolutely pop out at you with a vibrancy that makes you wish your TV was made of this stuff. The 16×9 aspect ratio lends itself perfectly to viewing movies and the 3” diagonal size is big enough that you could easily sit through a feature-length film without too much trouble. While the iPod Touch’s screen is a more generous 3.5” diagonal, the Walkman’s vivid display, tighter pixel spacing, wider viewing angle and super-fast pixel response rate makes for a more appealing viewing experience. One thing I learned however is that OLED screens, unlike LCDs, do suffer from burn-in if the same image is left on the screen for too long. Not a problem for watching movies, but something to keep in mind if you’re leaving a photo or other static image displayed.

The touch interface is good, though it takes some getting used to and those with thicker fingers may find some touch activities awkward. Using the touch screen is very straight forward and there are no multi-touch gestures as on the iPod Touch. You’ll find that the X-series prefers light, quick taps instead of heavier ‘presses’.  The on-screen ‘buttons’ respond with both a subtle amber glow and an optional audible ping to let you know you’ve successfully made contact.  This generally works very well and I found that after a few minutes I was navigating around the various screens quickly and easily.

Then there are times when using the touchscreen to navigate your music can be tricky. You can ‘flick’ to scroll through a Cover-Flow style view of your albums, but it takes a while for the Walkman to update the album cover thumbnails leaving you with a series of placeholder icons as it catches up. The flick motion is not as sophisticated as on the iPod touch. The “spring-back” feeling is imprecise, and on longer lists you can often end up scrolling much faster than you want.

Where it gets really awkward is trying to surf non-mobile friendly websites with the Walkman’s built-in browser.  It’s not actually the touch-screen’s fault as much as it is the browser’s.  It’s just not up to the task of rendering and navigating full-scale webpages. More on this in a bit.

Lastly, and this is a sad truth for all touch screens, the thing is a crazy finger-print magnet. No sooner have you peeled back the factory plastic protective coating and tried a few of the device’s features, and it’s covered in smears and blotches. Since there’s obviously no getting around this with the current generation of materials, Sony, I suggest you take pity on your buyers and include a micro-fibre cloth or bag with every X-series. It wouldn’t cost much and it would be welcome accessory.

Sound Quality and Noise Cancellation

Let me repeat, in case I haven’t made it crystal clear. Sony’s Walkman media player sound great. But the S and X Series take it to a whole new level. The secret is in the unique combination of high-quality circuitry and software that they use for sound processing, and the superb earbuds that are also the conduit for the Walkman’s noise-cancelling function. If you stripped away all of the other bells and whistles and simply kept MP3 playback, noise cancellation and the earbuds, this would still be a device worth owning.

While the S-Series had noise-cancelling, it was non-digital. This means that exterior sounds are picked up by the earbuds’ built-in microphone and these are automatically cancelled by an opposite noise profile being generated through the speakers in the earbuds. It’s a great system that generally produces the desired effect. In the X-Series, Sony has introduced a digital version of the NC system. The primary benefit is that you now get three options for fine-tuning the noise-cancelling to your environment. The choices are Airplane, Bus/Train and Office. Although subtle, these settings do make a difference.  Which mode you choose depends a lot on what the primary source of noise is in your immediate vicinity. At my office, I keep a fan running under my desk because I tend to feel to warm if I don’t. The constant whir of the fan is best cancelled by the Airplane mode. But if I turn the fan off, and switch to Office, the Walkman seems to do a better job of dampening the general buzz of activity combined with the HVAC’s white noise that is present in so many office environments.

On the music side of things, the X-series shines. Sony has kept the plethora of equalization and surround effect options that they implemented on the S-Series. The abundance of choice means that, with a bit of experimentation, anyone can tailor the sound to suit their tastes. The earbuds have a shape that so far is unique in the headphone universe, a design that I call a ‘hybrid-bud’ because it looks like someone fused a traditional earbud with an in-ear sound-isolating model. The result is the best fitting and best sounding earbud that I’ve found – at any price. I think Sony may have realized that these buds might find a home in people’s lives beyond the Walkman: The S-series buds had a small lug on the plug portion that prevented them from being used with any other device but the Walkman. The X-Series has done away with that design and these new buds will fit any standard mini-jack device.
Also present on the X-Series is the ability to plug the Walkman into any other mini-jack device so that you take advantage of the noise-cancelling circuit – perfect for watching movies on an airplane – Sony even includes a double-jack headphone adapter for that very purpose.

Wi-Fi, Web Browsing and YouTube

The implemention of  Wi-Fi on media players hasn’t been consistent by any means. In the case of Microsoft’s Zune, it was touted as a way to make music ‘social’ by allowing fellow Zune users to discover each other and share musical tastes. You could also use the Wi-Fi to wirelessly sync your Zune to your PC if you happened to leave the USB cable somewhere else. The Social aspect never really caught on, partially because shared songs could only be played back three times before they expired but mainly because the odds of finding someone else near you with a Zune was almost zero. The wireless sync option was neat, but it was dead slow compared to using a cable, and for most people the need to sync was less than the need to recharge, so the feature was rendered a bit moot.

Apple on the other hand, uses Wi-Fi exclusively on the iPod Touch and its sole purpose is Internet access. It uses it for the browser, the App Store, iTunes and to enable any apps that depend on net access to function.

Sony’s use of Wi-Fi fits more with the Apple scheme than with Microsoft’s, but lacking a sophisticated mobile browser and not having any kind of app store or online music shop, we’re left wondering why exactly Sony included it. There are three things you can do with the X-Series Wi-Fi: Surf the web, access YouTube via a proprietary interface and download subscribed podcasts. It turns out that this seemingly limited feature set is a Canadian-only problem. In the U.S., the X-series comes equipped with the Slacker online radio service, and you can download songs from the Sony music service (in fact they give you 100 free downloads when you buy the X-Series) which means the iTunes missing part of the equation at least gets filled south of the border. Not so for us Canucks.

As I mentioned earlier, the built-in browser is horrible for traditional websites. Trying to navigate a full webpage, especially one that is designed for the width of computer screen is hard enough what with all the side-to-side scrolling required, but then you’ve got to patiently wait for the whole page to load, which can take quite a while. Expecting to see embedded videos? Sorry. Even though the custom YouTube interface works nicely, surfing the real YouTube doesn’t work at all since there’s no flash support. But, it does a good job with mobile-friendly ones. And quiet a few sites – Google included – do recognize Sony’s browser as a mobile device, which goes a long way to making it work.  But until the mobile web develops into a more robust experience that it is today, surfing on the Walkman will remain something you will probably want to avoid.

Strangely, one of the things that makes the browser so awful is something that I think could be easily fixed: there is no option to use a soft-QWERTY keyboard for text-entry. Instead, we’re reliant on alpha-numeric keypad like the kind you find on cellphones. It just doesn’t make sense – here we are with a responsive, vibrant touch screen and yet we’re forced into an awkward text-entry system that was designed to accommodate people who only had 10 keys at their disposal.  There are some nasty gotchas associated with this scheme. If say, while in the browser you go to the trouble of tapping your way through a site’s url like “www.sync-blog.com”  and you say ‘OK’, you get an error. The ‘http://’ must be there – otherwise the browser doesn’t know what to do. Worse still, the exact combination of taps required to generate that string of characters took me at least 15 seconds. Brutal. Sony, if you can give us a QWERTY keyboard via a firmware update, please do – it will enhance the usability of the browser immeasurably.

YouTube on the other hand, is beautifully integrated. From the home screen on the Walkman, you can access the YouTube option directly. Once in and connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot, you get the current list of featured videos. My experience playing back YouTube videos was flawless. No streaming issues, no buffering, just clean and smooth video.

You can search YouTube by Featured, Most Viewed, Keyword or Related. And, despite the aforementioned torturous text-entry method, the results are great – YouTube and the X-Series were made for each other.

But perhaps the best part of having YouTube so tightly integrated on the Walkman is using your own music collection to explore videos. While playing any song on the Walkman, tap the web icon on the bottom of the screen and choose the YouTube option. Up comes a list of every video that matches the combination of Artist and/or Song Title. I tried a few songs at random and in each case I was able to find a video that went with them. One in particular, AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, yielded a live performance of the song which I had never seen before (how the heck does Angus maintain that blistering guitar riff for so long?). It’s a great way to explore music and an even better way to explore YouTube.

Other Features

The X-Series has the kind of full feature set that we’ve come to expect from nearly every portable music player:
– FM Radio (but still no FM Radio Data Service… why??)
– Photo Gallery (images look incredible on that OLED screen)
– Movies
– Podcasts

These are all well executed and so I’m not going to go in-depth on any of them.

Two things I will point out though are:

Battery Life – Sony rates it at about 33 hours for regular music playback which is a little less than the iPod Touch and 9 hours for video playback which is significantly better than the Touch. Attribute this to the X-Series OLED screen which sucks much less power that the backlit LCD screen on the iPod.

Missing SensMe Feature – On the S-Series Walkman, one of my favourite features is the SensMe Channels. This cool feature analyzes all of your songs as they get loaded onto the Walkman and then categorizes them into 9 different genres based on 12 different musical elements like beat, rhythm, tonality, tempo etc. The result is 9 playlists that are based on your mood, and not on a pre-defined set of songs that you or someone else assembled. Better still, those channels update themselves automatically anytime tracks are added or removed from the Walkman. I thought it was a brilliant idea so I’m completely dumbfounded by Sony’s decision to remove it from the X-Series. Sony, if you’re listening, PLEASE bring back the SensMe channels with a firmware revision – it’s a killer app and I miss it a lot!

Software

Unchanged with the X-Series is the availability of the Sony Content Transfer software. This little utility which shows up as small window on XP and as desktop Widget under Vista, gives you complete drag & drop functionality over the Walkman’s contents. You can move files from within Windows Explorer or you can do so from within iTunes or Windows Media – the choice is yours.

Or if you prefer, you can install the provided Sony Media Manager software. This gives you a simple yet effective interface for managing and moving your files around; though don’t expect any sophisticated extras. One big gripe: The Media Manager software has the ability to automatically convert any video file you have on your PC to a format that is compatible with the X-Series. An essential feature if you want to watch videos on your Walkman. The catch is that this feature isn’t enabled by default – you have to go online and pay $12 for the upgrade. $12! Seriously Sony? You’re selling a device that was built from the ground up to be a video playing machine: 9 hours of battery life, awesome sound, 32GB of memory and stunning screen. You are also charging people $499 for the privilege. But now, in a move that boggles the mind, you want people to pay an extra $12 to be able to transfer their videos effortlessly to their Walkman. That is just not cool. Take the $12 hit and make it a standard feature. It’s the right thing to do.

Summary

This was a challenging review to write. There’s a lot to love about the X-Series: Great sound, awesome screen, fun features, generous internal memory and very strong battery performance.

On the other hand, things like a rotten browser and cumbersome text-entry really drag an otherwise compelling package down.

Lastly there’s the whole question of X-Series vs. iPod Touch. They beg to be compared to one another even if the differences are significant.  And at $429, the 32GB iPod Touch is $70 cheaper than the $499 X-Series.

It comes down to this: If listening to music really matters to you – i.e. you want the best sound possible from your portable – and you want a vibrant screen that lets you play movies anywhere, I say get the X-series. You won’t be disappointed with the sound, the visuals are breath-taking and there’s a lot of fun to be had with the Wi-Fi features, especially YouTube.
If however, you’re looking for an alternative to the iPod Touch, keep looking.  The Touch is quickly evolving into a full-fledge portable computer capable of way more than simple media playback. The X-Series can’t compete with the vast array of features found on that device. But it can and does outshine the Apple unit in the sound and vision departments which are arguably the two most important features of a portable player anyway. If the $70 price difference is bothering you, look at it this way: You won’t find an add-on noise-cancelling option for your iPod that works as well as Sony’s – at least not for $70.