Category: LTE

One month with the Apple iPhone 5

I’ve never driven a Porsche 911 and I’ve certainly never reviewed one. But I imagine that getting your hands on the latest 911 is a little like getting your hands on a new iPhone.

Apple’s iPhone is their 911. It’s the one product the company makes that has wowed journalists and buyers alike for what seems like (at least in tech terms) forever. And just like Porsche, Apple has methodically rolled out changes with each new model that improve on the previous device while staying true to the core elements that have made the iPhone the most iconic device in consumer technology. The iPhone 5 – which is actually the 6th generation of the iPhone – does just that.

I’ve been using the iPhone 5 as my daily smartphone for one month, and everyone who has spotted me with the device has wanted to know what I think.

The answer is simple: It’s a great device.

But let’s put that assessment in context. Prior to getting the iPhone 5, I had been using an iPhone 4S for about a year, and the iPhone 4 before that. So for me, that sense of incremental improvement is particularly acute. The iPhone 5 is a great device, because it improves on a series of smartphones that were already great devices.

If you’ve owned an iPhone in the past, the latest version will feel completely familiar – almost eerily so. I can’t think of another player in the smartphone market, with the possible exception of RIM’s BlackBerry, which has stuck so strictly to  its original form factor and user experience. Even if you were to upgrade from the very first iPhone, you would be comfortable with the 5 within, well, 5 minutes.

That said, here’s a brief run-down of some of the iPhone 5’s most notable features:

The Screen

In Apple’s own way (which is to say somewhat grudgingly) they have acknowledged that there is a benefit to be had with a larger screen. But also, true to their vision, they only increased the height of the iPhone 5’s screen, not the width. This means you get one extra row of icons on every screen and apps have a slightly larger canvas on which they can get clever with interactivity. But in practice, you get used to this larger screen instantly – you don’t even realize the extra room is there. Perhaps that was the idea. And even though much fanfare was made about this change when Apple announced it, I don’t think it’s reason enough to buy the iPhone 5. The reason is that none of the benefits of the large-screen phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S III or the HTC One X are present on the iPhone 5. Those other phones actually increased the relative size of objects on the screen, by making *both* dimensions of the screen larger. You get more room for web pages and the text is larger and therefore easier to read. Since Apple kept all of the proportions the same, but added a bit of extra scrolling room, nothing appears “bigger”.

The Body

If Apple can lay claim to one undisputed title, it would be for industrial design. There is nothing like the iPhone 5 on the market that approaches its simplicity and elegance. It’s a delight to hold. If thinner and lighter are qualities you appreciate, you’ll love this phone. But there is a natural ergonomic price to be paid when you go this thin. It gets a little harder to hold securely. With previous models, gripping the phone meant that your thumb naturally rested on the side unless you were using it to tap in a phone number or trying to text one-handed. But with the iPhone 5’s rail-thin design, there is a tendency even for someone with relatively small hands like myself, for the thumb to roll forward onto the front edge, rather than sit squarely on the side. Having less surface area in contact with your skin means poorer overall grip. I have a feeling that this iPhone will not only break sales records, but also set new records for the number of times it gets dropped.

But that might not result in the tragedy so often associated with dropping an iPhone 4 or 4S. Those models were clad in glass on the front and back, whereas the iPhone 5 uses mostly aluminium on the back panel. It may get scuffed, but it is far less likely to break, and of course shattering is highly unlikely. Only time will tell if the 5 proves more durable than its glass-jawed predecessors, but it seems like a good bet.

The Lightning Connector

What happens when a company changes a connection that has been standard on all of their devices for 10 years? You get a lot of frustrated users. There’s no kind way to say it: By adopting the new Lightning connector which graces all of Apple’s new products, they have made every existing accessory that depended on the older 30-pin connector, obsolete. Unless that is, you opt for the $35 Lightning-to-30-Pin Adapter, which as of the writing of this article, was still unavailable for testing. Even with the adapter, it’s unclear whether older accessories like alarm clocks with built-in docks will be as functional. I can only imagine the stress that your 30-pin dock will have to endure with the added leverage of the adapter plugged in and moved around daily.

That said, the Lightning connector is a *very* nice design. It’s small, sturdy, clicks into place with a decidedly satisfying popping sound and is reversible which means no more looking to see which way the plug is facing. Would everyone have preferred an existing standard like MicroUSB? Sure, but that’s not how Apple rolls.

The Software

Surprisingly, the most controversial feature of the new iPhone wasn’t a feature of the phone itself. Instead, it was what Apple had done to iOS6 – the latest version of iOS that runs all of Apple’s mobile products. With iOS 6 getting its debut alongside the iPhone 5, it was the first time consumers had a chance to play with the more than 200 new features Apple had introduced. But not all of the 200 changes were additions. Some were removals of features. The popular Maps app which had always been powered by Google’s excellent mapping data, got ditched in favour of Apple’s own proprietary mapping product – a move that resulted in one of the rarest events in the tech world: Apple’s CEO apologizing for the quality of their product and actually suggesting alternative apps in the short term. I can’t claim to have made an exhaustive study of the new Maps app – others have already done that. Suffice it to say there are good parts (fast rendering, free turn-by-turn navigation, 3D view of major urban areas) and bad parts (inaccurate driving directions, old data, no more Google Street View).

Maps wasn’t the only shocking change. Gone too was the native YouTube app. This was the more puzzling of the two Google-related changes. With Maps, you could see that Apple wanted to stop working with Google and start promoting their own product. But Apple doesn’t own and, as far as we know, has no plans to compete with Google’s video behemoth YouTube. So why Apple chose to remove the handy YouTube app remains a mystery. Functionally speaking, the change has been mostly mitigated by Google – the YouTube website which the Safari browser takes you to when you choose to watch a video – does an excellent job of creating a mobile-friendly interface. It’s still not quite as clean as the native app, but it’s surprisingly good all things considered. Plus, if you simply want to browse YouTube, Google has released their own standalone iOS app, which works well.

Of course iOS 6 brings lots of other great features such as panoramic photos, enhanced Siri capabilities, integrated sharing via Facebook and Twitter and Personal Photo Streams (to  name just a few). There’s certainly lots to like about this update.

4G LTE (Long-Term Evolution)

The iPhone 5 is the first iPhone that comes equipped with the latest standard in high-speed mobile data known as 4G/LTE. In theory, you should be able to get download speeds up to 75mbps and uploads of up to 25. In practice, it’s usually less, but it’s still amazingly fast – usually faster than the connection you have at home. But finding an LTE signal can be tricky. Coverage can be spotty, even in areas that show as being covered on your carrier’s map. But perhaps more importantly, is the toll that LTE takes on battery life. In my semi-scientific comparison, I found that using LTE reduced battery life by about 10%. That’s not awful, but if you’re the kind of person who finds they can barely get through a day on a single charge, you might want to leave LTE turned off until you absolutely need the extra speed for a specific task.

The EarPods

Yep, that’s the name that Apple has given its newly-redesigned ear-buds. They’re still white. They still have that handy in-line remote with microphone, but now they possess a distinctly bulbous look which lets them sit just a little more securely in your ear. They do not provide much in the way of sound isolation, and despite Apple’s claims that they have figured out a way to coax $100 sound out of $30 ear-buds, I found that I could barely detect a difference when I tested the new EarPods against the previous design. They sound a bit better, but I’m hesitant to even say they’re 10% better than the older design. It’s hardly a deal-breaker. After all, the old ear-buds weren’t shunned by users – I still see their hallmark white cables on tons of people every day. What is a bit odd is the carrying case that Apple thoughtfully included with the EarPods. Odd in the sense that it is not a very friendly piece of plastic. The combination of having to seat the EarPods just so in the case’s contours and needing to wrap the cables so that the in-line remote end up in its allotted groove, and well, it’s a bit frustrating.

In the end…

If you’re of the opinion that iPhones are just for the feeble-minded followers of the cult-o-Apple, the iPhone 5 isn’t going to change your mind. Quite the opposite. Because it embodies all of the attributes that have made the iPhone the enormous success that it is – and then some – you will not want this latest version either. For you, may I recommend the Samsung Galaxy S III.

But if you like the way Apple has carved out its approach to the mobile space, the ease-of-use that pervades all of the company’s products or just the envy-inducing  design of the iPhone 5, I can wholeheartedly say you won’t be disappointed.

(Image credit: Apple Inc.)

HTC Windows Phone 8X, 8S first impressions

What do you do when you’re HTC and you’ve found your market share gobbled up by competitors like Samsung, LG and others despite putting great products like the HTC One X out there?

Differentiate yourself, preferably without relying on the same software that all of your competitors (except Apple) are using.

This might well have been the thinking behind today’s announcement of two new smartphones from HTC powered by Microsoft’s brand new mobile OS: Windows Phone 8.

The HTC Windows Phone 8X and 8S are two interpretations of what a Windows Phone 8 handset should be. The 8X is a 4.3″ touchscreen phone that boasts HD resolution, 8 and 2.3 MP rear and front cameras and NFC. It has 16GB of unexpandable internal memory and 4G/LTE cellular connectivity. The 8S for its part, is smaller at 4″ in diagonal measurement, is limited to 4G speeds and lacks a front camera. Its 4GB of memory can however be expanded via MicroSD up to 32GB. Both phones have non-user replaceable batteries.

Specs aside, it’s the design that really sets the 8X and 8S apart – at least in terms of HTC’s previous efforts. Rounded edges, super-smooth screen surfaces and a slightly rubberized back surface all make for a very pleasing phone to hold. But while these Windows Phone 8 handsets look different from other HTC models, they bear a striking resemblance to the other company that is going all-in on Windows Phone – namely, Nokia.

The Windows Phone 8X will come in a variety of colors including California Blue, Graphite Black, Flame Red and Limelight Yellow.   The Windows Phone 8S by HTC will be available in Domino, Fiesta Red, Atlantic Blue and High-Rise Gray.

Too close for comfort? The Nokia Lumia 900.

Aside from a few minor differences, HTC’s 8X and 8S look for all intents and purposes like the Nokia Lumia line of handsets.

This similarity has not gone unnoticed by Nokia, who have already chimed in with their opinion. They’re not impressed.

HTC disputes the similarity. HTC’s North American president, Mike Woodward claims that no one looking at the two phones could mistake one for the other.

We had a chance to go somewhat hands-on with the new devices at HTC’s well-attended launch event in New York.

I say somewhat because while we were able to hold the units and even listen to some audio tracks to get a sense of how the integrated amplifier and Beats Audio enhancement worked, we were not able to try out many of the Windows Phone 8 features such as web browsing, email or instant messaging.

The HTC Windows Phone 8X and 8S side by side

What we were able to experience was the exceptional feel that HTC has managed to engineer into these phones. The screens were vivid and bright, without being over-saturated. They felt lightweight without feeling cheap, plasticky or fragile. The 8S will be particularly attractive to those with small hands, with its slightly narrower and shorter physical dimensions.

Also of note is the front-facing camera on the 8X. It has a unique ultra-wide angle lens which lets users compose self-portraits with way more room in the frame for friends or other background details.

HTC wasn’t offering any details around pricing beyond saying that the handsets are expected to be in market with Bell and Rogers in Canada for a November timeframe. However it would be reasonable based on the phones’ specs to expect something in the neighbourhood of $100-$175 on a contract.

BlackBerry 4G LTE PlayBook: Same tablet, crazy price.

The new 4G LTE PlayBook launched by RIM yesterday, with all three major carriers, is essentially the same PlayBook the company released a little over a year ago. To say this is a “new” PlayBook would be overstating things. Other than the 4G/LTE cellular data connection option indicated in the model’s name, the only difference is the processor, which received a modest speed bump from 1 GHZ to 1.5 GHZ.

Literally everything else about the 7″ tablet remains the same. Even the box it ships in.

So you’d think that this slightly updated PlayBook would be priced in-line with the non-LTE versions you can find on store shelves today i.e. $229 for a 32GB model. Nope, not even close.

Turns out the 4G/LTE PlayBook, which only comes in the 32GB capacity so far, retails at most carriers for the astonishing price of $549 without a contract.

Let that sink in for a moment…

If you want a PlayBook with 4G/LTE connectivity and a slightly faster processor, you’ll be shelling out an additional $320, or put another way, 139% more.

Just to be clear, this is not an indictment of the tablet itself. The PlayBook, while still under-appreciated by much of the tech media, and certainly not a fan-favourite with consumers, in nonetheless a very good tablet. To see how well it has aged, check out Marc Saltzman’s comparison between the PlayBook and the brand-new Google Nexus 7. The addition of 4G/LTE is a really great option – much like other 4G/LTE devices, it absolutely blazes along. In downtown Toronto at mid-day (peak network usage time) I was able to get speeds of 35Mbps download and 5Mbps upload. Not too shabby.

But poor sales numbers forced RIM to heavily discount all models of the PlayBook, thus changing the landscape dramatically. No longer were we to compare the PlayBook to its larger and more expensive competitor – the iPad. Instead, especially here in Canada where the Kindle Fire isn’t on sale, we now see the PlayBook as a great alternative for people who don’t want an ereader and a tablet – the PlayBook is small enough and inexpensive enough to be both (precisely the territory Google is hoping to exploit with the $209 Nexus 7).

All of which means, unfortunately for RIM, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

There is no world now, in which a 32GB PlayBook with 4G/LTE is worth $549.

The very most RIM can expect to people to pay for this mobile speed premium is $130 – the same price difference that Apple slaps on all 4G/LTE versions of the iPad – which means a new 4G/LTE PlayBook should actually cost $359. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) that is exactly $10 more than the 3-year term subsidized price of the new PlayBook: $349.

Now, I know there are folks out there who will point out that even at $549, the 4G/LTE PlayBook is still $100 cheaper than a comparably equipped 16GB iPad which only has half the storage. That’s absolutely correct. But don’t forget, Apple’s latest iPad is a technological tour-de-force with a screen resolution unmatched by any tablet. And even if comparisons to the iPad were meaningful (they aren’t at this point in time), it can’t change the fact that RIM’s own discounting of the original PlayBook has created this unfavourable situation.

RIM, expecting the backlash from the 4G/LTE pricing, has decided to throw the carriers under the bus. “RIM works closely with its carrier partners on its product launches. Pricing, plans and contracts are determined by the carrier,” according to RIM’s agency, Brodeur Partners of New York.

This seemingly out-of-touch-with-reality pricing  might be, in some twisted way, RIM’s way of getting you to buy a BlackBerry. I know, sounds wacky, but hear me out:

For $99 on a 3-year contract, you can get RIM’s range-topping Bold 9900 4G. It may not have LTE speeds, but it’s still a great device for productivity. And because the PlayBook’s biggest draw for BlackBerry owners is the ability to tether the two devices seamlessly, sharing one data connection, you could pick up a 32GB non-4G/LTE PlayBook for $229. Since you’ll already be paying for the monthly carrier charges on the Bold, there’s no need to pay again just to provide the PlayBook with its own data connection.

If RIM still has a surplus of PlayBooks it’s trying to get rid of, which the current pricing seems to confirm, this strategy might make sense: in giving people lots of incentive to buy BlackBerrys and PlayBooks together instead of just PlayBooks on their own, the company addresses two problems at once – getting rid of their soon-to-be-obsolete BlackBerrys and surplus PlayBooks.

It’s a long-shot, to be sure, but these days – sadly – everything about RIM is looking like a long-shot.

I like the PlayBook. Especially at its current $200 price point for 16GB. Everyone I’ve spoken to who owns one still enjoys using it and has no regrets. But I can’t get behind a $320 premium for 4G/LTE connectivity, the value simply isn’t there.