We’ve clearly hit a point in our technological evolution where we have begun to see the presence of wired connections (whether for data or for power) as an annoyance and not as a critical component of our gadgets.
We crave a life where all of our tech toys can talk to each other wirelessly and – dare we dream – charge themselves wirelessly too.
And while the wireless charging scenario is still a few years from becoming mainstream, wireless data is here and it is rapidly gaining a foothold amongst most of our devices.
Our smartphones, our tablets, our laptops and even the speakers we use to listen to music both at home and on-the-go are all equipped with Bluetooth and/or Wi-fi capability, so why not our hard drives?
Toshiba is tackling this question with their Canvio AeroMobile Wireless SSD ($179). It’s a 128 GB solid-state wireless hard drive that can accept up to 8 simultaneous client connections via Wi-Fi e.g. smartphones, tablets, laptops etc. But it also contains a built-in battery and an SD card reader, which makes the Canvio AeroMobile a nearly perfect wireless data companion.
Over the years, we’ve seen a whole lot of innovation in computing. Faster processors, smaller form factors, touch-screen inputs and wireless data. All of these have had a profound impact on how and where we use technology. And as important as all of these advances have been, nothing has changed our fundamental relationship to these devices as much as improvements to their displays.
Displays are at the heart of how we perceive–and ultimately use—all of our computers, be it the biggest, most powerful desktop or the smallest of smartwatches. It’s the reason that new display technology always leaves me saying “wow.” That was my reaction when I saw my first high-res graphics monitor, when I saw my first colour LCD display and most recently, when I looked upon Apple’s Retina-equipped iPad. These technologies really enhance our use and enjoyment of computers.
So when I was offered the chance to try out ASUS’s PB287Q, one of the first reasonably priced 4K displays on the market, I jumped at the chance.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock (or simply not reading Canadian Reviewer) you’re probably aware that curved screens are all the rage. First it was TVs, with both LG and Samsung debuting curved OLED and LCD HDTVs and UHDTVs.
The rationale being that a curved screen offers viewers better picture quality because it eliminates edge-distortion caused by the increased distance of the sides of the screen to your eye. Yeah, I’m not necessarily buying that reason either, but one thing’s for sure: Curved screens are here and starting with the LG G Flex, they’re going to be in your hand, not just your living room. So the question is, why do we need a curved smartphone?
If there’s one thing that nearly every smartphone and tablet has in common, it’s this: dreadful sound quality from the built-in speakers.
Yes, I know some possess stereo speakers, and there’s certainly a case to be made that when privately watching a video on an iPad in a quiet room, the sound is sufficient enough to be enjoyed.
But the bottom line for speakers is similar to the bottom line for car engines: there’s just no substitute for cubic inches (er, centimetres).
So it’s no wonder that in recent months a whole new category of products has emerged to help consumers with their tiny (and tinny) device speakers. We are now living in the age of Bluetooth Hi-Fi and there are several ways you can use this wireless technology to amp up the performance of your favourite media gadget.
The first is by using a Bluetooth gateway device like the BlackBerry Music Gateway – a diminutive black box that simply relays the audio signal from your phone or tablet to the system of your choice. It’s simple, cheap ($49) and effective. But it’s not portable (you’ll still need to plug it in) and it’s a one-trick pony. Streaming audio is all it does.
The second option is one of the large Bluetooth-capable speaker systems like the Parrot Zikmu. It’s gorgeous, and likely has sound that compares to many high end speakers, but again portability is not really a strength and they don’t come cheap – a pair will run you $1599.
Finally, there are the truly portable, battery powered units that are small enough to fit in nearly any travel bag, yet big enough to deliver much better sound than your built-in speakers.
The Braven 600 is one of these products, and at $149 it’s the perfect compromise between the trio of considerations: price/performance/portability.
The first thing the Braven 600 reminded me of (and I’m dating myself here) is the speaker in Bosley’s office that Charlie used to speak with his Angels in the hit 70s TV show, Charlie’s Angels. The Braven’s all-aluminum wrap-around body is perforated by small holes on both sides, much like the speaker Charlie Townsend’s voice emanated from.
The similarity might not be entirely in the mind of this writer – the Braven 600 is in fact a speaker phone as well as being a wireless stereo speaker. The elegant design lends itself just as well to a boardroom table as it does to a living room, or anywhere else for that matter.
Braven claims that the 600’s battery life is good for about 12 hours of streaming which should be more than enough for times when you’ll need it to be fully unplugged. The battery life is so good, the Braven can also be used as an auxiliary power source for your phone, or any other gadget that be recharged via conventional USB. The company suggests that an average smartphone could get back up to about 70% from empty. Not a bad trick.
As if that weren’t enough, the Braven has one more trick up its sleeve. Remember how the BlackBerry Music Gateway can let you stream music from your device to any piece of audio equipment you own? Surprise: the Braven 600 can do that too, thanks to its audio output jack – a feature that may well be unique in this category.
So how does it sounds? Well, I’m not gonna lie – it’s not going to replace your home theatre system. But it does sound very good for such a small speaker. My experience was that it favoured “brightness” and clarity over low-end bass, but not to a degree that it sounded flat or tinny. Interestingly, vocals seemed to be it’s strong suit, again perhaps not a surprise given its second life as a speaker phone.
But what good is listening to a speaker like the Braven 600 without a point of comparison? Sadly, I didn’t have the Braven’s closest competitor, the Jawbone JamBox to do a side-by-side comparison. So I did the next best thing and hit up YouTube. Sure enough, I found this video from Gear Diary which, while not the ideal way to audition speakers, at least gives one the rough idea. Clearly the Braven more than holds its own when put up against the more expensive and less fully-featured JamBox.
The Braven comes packaged in large, clear acrylic display case which is not recyclable (not cool Braven), but includes an AC-to-USB power block (which looks like a black version of the one that comes with iPhones) plus a USB cable and a short stereo audio cable for 3.5mm jacks. They even throw in a small cloth carrying case.
The Braven isn’t exactly a bargain; I know that for some folks the idea of spending $150 on a wireless speaker still seems like too much. Plus you could probably cobble together a decent sounding system using other components for less. But when you factor in all of the Braven’s capabilities, you’d be hard-pressed to find its equivalent at any price.
If you’re interested in a Braven speaker (they make two others in the series) you won’t be able to find them in any Canadian retailers yet, but you can buy them direct from Braven and they will ship to Canadian addresses.
When Apple debuted the iPhone 5 way back in September, it confirmed several rumours at once:
- The new iPhone was thinner, lighter and had a bigger screen than previous models
- It would be the first iPhone with 4G/LTE connectivity
- Google Maps would be replaced with Apple’s home-brew Maps App
- And, the 30-pin dock connector that had been the de-facto connection for nearly all of Apple’s portable devices for a decade, was no more. In it’s place, a new, smaller connector known as Lightning.
The Lightning connector was pitched as having two big up-sides for consumers:
1) It’s smaller, and though Apple never said so, it’s more durable
2) Because the connector is identical on both sides, you can’t insert it incorrectly.
Ironically, it was probably this last point that earned the Lightning it’s name, despite the obvious connotation of faster connection speeds. Just ask Marc Saltzman what he thinks of that little piece of labelling from Cupertino!
Needless to say, there was a fair amount of hand-wringing after the announcement: “What am I going to do with all of my existing dock accessories now?”
Apple’s reply was a calming reassurance that there would be Lightning-to-Dock adapters available soon after the iPhone’s launch, and that this would be an adequate solution.
So far, so good. Except that “soon” turned out to mean “well over a month” and as far as it being an adequate solution (my words, not Apple’s), the jury is still out.
To be clear, Apple doesn’t just make one Lightning adapter accessory; they make several. The Lightning-to-30-pin adapter comes in two flavours: A cable-based version ($45) that gives you some flexibility in placement of your Lightning-based iDevice, and a small, stubby “ultracompact” unit ($35) that is presumably intended for dock-wielding gadgets like charging stations, alarm clocks and speaker docks.
It’s the latter version that I finally got my hands on last Friday, in eager anticipation of being able to once again charge my iPhone without cables running all over my bedside table.
Alas, when I tried it out, I discovered that one of the Lightning connector’s strengths is now its greatest annoyance, for me at least.
The Lightning connector is actually amazingly well-engineered. The size, shape and design make it unique amongst the world’s growing digital connection universe. One the best parts is the way the male end is designed to snap-in to the female receptacle. It does so with authority, making it the Mercedes car door of the connector world. Once seated, it stays put, requiring a healthy – but not difficult – amount of force to dislodge it. Lightning manages to walk that remarkably thin line in consumer electronics between ease of use and sturdiness of design.
Aye, but there’s the rub: the new Lightning connector is so good, it overpowers the older 30-pin connection. In practice this means that seating the adapter in your dock, then sitting your iPhone 5 onto the adapter results in a stronger bond between the iPhone and the the adapter than between the adapter and the dock.
So now, every time I reach for my iPhone 5, I must yank the adapter free from the base of the iPhone, in order to re-seat it on the dock. Every. Single. Time.Could this scenario I have just described be unique to my particular dock-adapter-iPhone combination? I doubt it. As I said, it’s a by-product of how wonderfully sturdy the new Lightning connector is. Unfortunately, consumers won’t see this as an all-round positive until we’ve replaced our existing 30-pin dock accessories with Lightning-based ones.
And at the rate 3rd-party Lightning-based accessories are appearing on the market (hint: you can’t find any yet), we might be waiting a long time.
Related: Check out Wired Magazine’s feature on accessory makers that have had their product plans (nearly) sidelined by Apple’s Lightning.
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:
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”.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You do not need to spend $169 on a home router. There are plenty of great Wi-Fi routers out there that can handle the basic job of connecting your home to the internet and giving all of your wired and wireless devices the access they need. Find a refurbished model on sale and you might be able to spend as little as $20.
But, if you want to supercharge your home networking experience with a previously unavailable number of features, Cisco’s Linksys EA4500 is about as good as it gets.
The slender, black and silver device has all of the usual features you’d expect in a high-end home router: Dual-band Wi-Fi N (with backwards compatibility for b/g flavours), guest access, printer sharing and even gigabit LAN networking via the router’s 4 built-in ports.
Where the EA4500 really stands apart however, are the extras.
The EA4500 is one of the first Cisco routers to support the company’s Connect Cloud interface. Connect Cloud does several things to make managing a home router easier and more powerful.
- Streamlined interface: Out of the box, a Cisco Linksys router already has one of the easiest control interfaces on the market. Using the included Cisco Connect software, you get a straightforward, panel-based view of your router’s basic functions. Once you complete the free, firmware-based upgrade to the Connect Cloud control panel, this view becomes even more informative, showing you at-a-glance info like network health, how many devices are connected to your router, whether guest access is turned on or off, plus several other handy data points.
- The ease-of-use continues on the left side of the Connect Cloud interface with icons that give you one-click access to security settings, parental controls and every major area of router configuration.
Shared storage via the USB port. Plenty of routers will let you share a printer via the on-board USB port, but the EA4500 goes one better by letting you connect any kind of USB 2.0 storage device which becomes accessible over your network to all of your other devices. Given that you can pay hundreds for a NAS (network attached storage) drive, this one feature alone might be worth the price of admission. Once attached, you can set folder permissions (open to everyone, or go user by user for each folder on the drive), turn on FTP (File Transfer Protocol) which lets you access the drive from the internet, and turn on the Media Server which configures the drive as a DLNA/UPnP accessible volume – translation: you can access the contents of the drive from any tablet, smartphone, game console or media extender that supports either the DLNA or UPnP protocols.
- Online access to your router. Unlike non-Connect Cloud routers, the EA4500 can be accessed anytime from any internet-connected computer. This might seem like overkill, but if you’ve ever been away from home only to have your kids call to complain that Netflix keeps stalling, you’ll appreciate the ability to log in to your router from the office, hotel etc., perform a re-boot of the device and never once needing to tell someone at home to go and power-cycle the router physically (something that scares me when I have to send an 8 year-old to do the job!)
- Support for 3rd party apps. Yes, I know, apps are everywhere these days and now home routers are no exception. While the usefulness of Connect Cloud apps is limited at the moment (Cisco’s own Connect Cloud app for iOS and Android merely reproduces the features discussed in points 1 & 2 above, on your smartphone, there is a lot of potential in opening up the Connect Cloud environment to developers.
Lest we forget, in addition to these handy new features, the EA4500 also sports some of the longest-ranges in terms of indoor and outdoor connectivity you’ll find on a home router, thanks to its 6 internal antennas.
So if all of this sounds pretty good, but still not quite enough to justify the price, hopefully the best is yet to come. If developers jump on the Connect Cloud bandwagon, we could start seeing some seriously cool apps that would extend the EA4500’s capabilities even further.
Devs, if you’re out there, here’s my wishlist:
- Real-time device monitoring. Sometimes, when I walk by my home office and glance at the DSL modem, I see the activity lights flickering away like crazy. Something is consuming a lot of bandwidth, but I can’t figure out what it is. In our house, with as many as 10-15 Wi-Fi devices on the go at any time, it would be super helpful to be able to pull up that list of device and see in real-time which ones are consuming data and how much. This would not only help assuage my paranoia when I think someone has managed to crack my Wi-Fi security, but could be handy in figuring out of the kids are secretly watching YouTube when they’re supposed to be reading or sleeping!
- Remote media playback console. If you’ve ever used Plex or XBMC, you know just how much fun it is to be able to access all of your media through a thoughtful and intuitive user interface. But both of these tools require that your run server software on your Mac or PC. I’d like to see a Connect Cloud app that provides this same functionality for accessing all of the media attached to the EA4500’s USB storage port. FTP is nice, but it ain’t pretty.
If you’re a music junkie, now is a great time to be alive. Not only is it easier than ever to find and buy new music, it’s completely portable. Through devices like iPods, iPhones and other digital media players, your tunes can go wherever you go.
There has been one tricky exception to this digital revolution, and that’s in-home audio.
Yes, you can buy some great docks that let you plug in your i-device or other gadget and get the tunes going in at least one room. But if you’ve got your entire library on your computer, it seems silly to rely on your portable player’s limited memory, plus docks attached to the sounds systems in each room. Thankfully there are two great alternatives if you want to have whole-home control over your music without having to resort to ridiculously expensive professionally installed systems.
A little while ago, Apple started experimenting with transmitting music around Wi-Fi and wired networks from their iTunes software. They called it “AirTunes.” As the name implies, with just iTunes running on your computer, and a compatible AirTunes device like Apple’s AirPort Express, you could be listening to your iTunes collection anywhere you could plug in an ethernet cable or be in range of your Wi-Fi network.
Over time, Apple renamed the feature to “AirPlay” since it became capable of images and videos as well as audio. AirPlay is now an ecosystem unto itself, and many manufacturers are creating audio systems with AirPlay technology baked right in, so no additional hardware like the AirPort Express is needed. The AirPlay component is automatically detected by iTunes.
Currently the limitations on AirPlay are: You can’t stream more than one song to multiple AirPlay speakers from iTunes (they must all play the same song or none at all) and, iTunes itself is the only source of AirPlay audio from your Mac or PC. To access your iTunes library, your computer must remain on, with iTunes running the whole time. You can however, use an i-device like an iPhone or iPad to create a second stream of audio to your AirPlay speakers, but only one. Multiple speakers can only be accessed from iTunes on a computer.
Finally, because AirPlay runs over regular Wi-Fi, if you have other devices that are fighting for Wi-Fi bandwidth, you could experience some interruptions to your music streaming.
Long before Apple started its AirTunes/AirPlay ecosystem, a small company called Sonos was busy creating their own proprietary standard for wireless home audio. They call that standard “SonosNet” and it is effectively a separate WiFi network that runs parallel to your home’s existing network, but because all of the bandwidth is dedicated to streaming Sonos audio, interruptions are avoided. Plus, every Sonos component you add, effectively extends the size of this network, making it more robust.
The Sonos system is made up of two types of components: The software controller (which can run as an App on your smartphone, iPod Touch or tablet) and the hardware player (there are three different kinds of players: All-in-one speakers, amplified players and non-amplified players). You may also need a Sonos bridge device if your home router is located too far from any of the hardware players and running an ethernet cord to the nearest one isn’t practical.
Other than the dedicated wireless network, benefits include: No need to leave your computer turned on if you store your music on a networked-hard drive. Sonos doesn’t need the iTunes software, but it can still access and play all of your iTunes music, as long as the songs are DRM-free. Sonos can play more than one song to more than hardware player. The software controller gives you the ability to group and ungroup players as you see fit. Want one song in every room simultaneously? No problem. Want a different song in each room? It can do that too. The system can also be configured to split a stereo signal between two different hardware players, so that one acts as the left speaker while the other acts as the right.
Limitations on Sonos at the moment are: Sonos is purely for audio. There are no hardware players that connect to your TV or other display devices for showing movies and images. Sonos doesn’t play nicely with AirPlay, unless you buy an AirPort Express and mate it to one of your hardware players, but this is a bit tricky and not every hardware player supports it. There is no way to stream music wirelessly from your smartphone or tablet to a Sonos player, however you can buy special docks that let you use your iPhone or other device as a source of music for the whole SonosNet network. The disadvantage being that if you use that same device to control your Sonos system, you won’t be able to walk around the house with it. Sonos makes two different all-in-one speaker hardware players: the PLAY:3 ($329) and the PLAY:5 ($449).
One of the simplest ways to enjoy a Sonos system is to buy their Sonos PLAY:3 all-in-one speaker system ($329). Using the PLAY:3 wirelessly means you’ll also need the Sonos Bridge ($59). The PLAY:3 is a small, self-contained stereo speaker cabinet which comes in two colours: black and white. Other than an ethernet port on the back, and some small volume buttons on the top surface, the PLAY:3 is as minimalist as it gets. Even the power transformer is contained inside the PLAY:3’s cabinet, leaving only the power cord exposed.
Many people have noted that Sonos takes their design inspirations from Apple and that is very clear in the PLAY:3’s overall look and feel. You can rest the speaker flat, in a landscape orientation, or you stand it on one end to fit into narrower locations. The cabinet has small rubber feet for both options. The speaker’s volume can be controlled either from the software controller, or the physical buttons on the cabinet.
Set-up of the PLAY:3 couldn’t be easier: Simply install the Sonos software on your computer, power on the bridge and the PLAY:3 and follow the on-screen instructions.
As Sonos’s entry hardware player, the PLAY:3 lacks some of the options found in the rest of the Sonos line-up, specifically: there is no auxiliary audio jack and indeed no jacks of any kind other than ethernet. This means that they PLAY:3 is strictly for playing Sonos audio sources and can’t be used as an AirPlay speaker nor can it send its audio to a secondary device like a sub-woofer. There is also no way to power the PLAY:3 down when not in use – it is always on. A somewhat hidden but handy feature is that you can plug any ethernet device into the back of the PLAY:3 and get internet connectivity through the SonosNet wireless network.
One of the earliest companies to join the Apple AirPlay bandwagon is Pioneer. The Japanese company with a long history of making consumer audio products, has embraced AirPlay in almost its whole range of home theatre receivers, and this summer they are debuting their first stand-alone all-in-one AirPlay speaker systems.
There are three models to choose from: the XW-SMA1 ($329), A3 ($429) and A4 ($429) – available in the coming weeks. The A1 and A3 are acoustically identical, the only difference being that the A3 has a built-in rechargeable battery and is somewhat splash-proof for outdoor use. The A4 is a higher-end unit which is more comparable to the Sonos PLAY:5.
For my comparison, I tested an A3.
The SMA1/3’s cabinet (only available in black) is sleek and glossy, without any physical buttons. Along the bottom of the unit are several LED indicators to signal power, network and input status while on the other side are touch-sensitive buttons areas for power, input and volume up/down.
Around the back, you’ll find ethernet, USB, AC in and an auxiliary mini-jack. There is also a small button for activating the speaker’s network set-up functions and a stubby antenna near the top which can be raised and lowered on a rotating cuff to improve Wi-Fi reception.
The SMA1/3 is taller but shallower than the PLAY:3, and it weighs 2 lbs more than the Sonos. Unlike the PLAY:3, the SMA1/3’s power supply is an ugly brick which you’ll need to tuck away so it can’t be seen.
In terms of music streaming options, the SMA1/3 is a virtual Swiss Army knife. Much like the PLAY:3, it can be connected to your network via ethernet or Wi-Fi. Once on the network it will recognized as an AirPlay speaker by iTunes and any iOS device you have. But beyond that, the SMA1/3 is also recognized as a DLNA 1.5 compatible player, which means you can stream music to it from other devices such as your PC, even when not using iTunes.
The SMA1/3 also boasts the ability to handle direct-streaming from certain devices. If you have an i-Device, you can set-up the speaker with Wi-Fi Direct, bypassing the need for a full Wi-Fi network. While this is similar to Bluetooth streaming, it is much more flexible – the Wi-Fi range is much farther than Bluetooth. Similarly, if you have an HTC One smartphone, you can use HTC Connect to establish a direct stream from your phone to the SMA1/3.
Finally, you have two wired options. The first is via the USB port. Connect your iPhone or iPod/iPod Touch using your existing dock cable and you can play music directly. As a bonus, the SMA1/3 will also charge your device. Alternatively, you can use any other portable media player (even an analogue one like a Sony Walkman Cassette player!) via the AUX in mini-jack port.
The SMA1/3 also comes with a dedicated credit-card sized infrared remote to control power, volume, play/pause, next/prev track and input mode from across the room, though in practice this isn’t needed if you’re using AirPlay to control the action via an i-Device.
If you opt for the SMA 3, you get a 5-hour battery and a degree of weather protection for outdoor use.
Each of the networking options offered by the Pioneer unit worked well, and I was especially impressed by the unit’s ability to pull my home Wi-Fi setting from my iPhone when I connected it via USB – that’s a neat trick which I haven’t seen before and it dramatically reduces the hassle of networking a device like this.
So, How Do They Sound?
When it comes right down to it, regardless of the features, you’re buying a speaker system so it had better sound good.
Before I proceed, let me point out that I am not a professional audio reviewer. I have, however tried the SMA1/3 and the PLAY:3 side-by-side using identical tracks and sources as well as some differing material.
The Pioneer and the Sonos are designed to provide what is, in the opinion of their engineers, the best sound characteristics at all volume levels. Some tweaking can be had using the Sonos’s adjustable treble, bass and loudness controls. Strangely, even though the Pioneer lists “Sound Effect (EQ, DRC, Loudness)” on its feature sheet, I was unable to find any way to control these settings. Update: Pioneer has confirmed that while these features are part of the SMA’s audio design, they are turned “on” by default and cannot be adjusted by end-users.
The good news is, they both sound great. The SMA1/3 and the PLAY:3 go for clarity over power with the SMA1/3 excelling at delivering crisp, bright highs. But there is a definite winner in this contest and that title goes to the Sonos PLAY:3. I suspect the reason is the PLAY:3’s speaker profile. Sonos has employed 3 separate Class D amplifiers, one for each of the speaker’s three drivers (1 tweeter, 2-mid-range). It also employs a bass radiator – a passive system for reproducing low-end sounds. The result is a fuller, richer sound than the Pioneer unit offers. It can be heard across all genres of music, but I was especially aware of it when playing jazz – the PLAY:3 let me feel more of bass thrumming than the SMA1/3.
Though Pioneer doesn’t get as specific as Sonos as to the design of their speaker, on the surface at least, they seem close enough: 2 Mid-range, 1 Tweeter and a Bass Reflex Port. Perhaps Sonos’s use of dedicated amps, plus their choice of the bass radiator over the bass reflex is enough to make the difference.
There’s no question that Pioneer targeted the Sonos PLAY:3 in designing the SMA1/3. The size, shape and functionality all closely mirror what Sonos has done. For the most part, this approach is a success, particularly where the Pioneer fills in the feature gaps left by the Sonos. In terms of versatility, you get a bigger bang for your buck with the Pioneer. But Sonos has the edge when it comes to overall sound quality. So which to choose?
To figure this out, you need to determine your priorities. If you want to buy a single unit that will complement your existing sound set-up at home and you’re not looking to build out a dedicated network of audio components, or if you’re a student or someone who lives in a small 1 or two bedroom apartment, the Pioneer SMA1/3 is a great choice. You get plenty of versatility and compatibility and while it doesn’t sound quite as good as the Sonos, you might well feel the extras offset this difference. And I should reiterate – the Pioneer does sound very good. We’re not talking about night and day here. If I hadn’t played the two units side by side, I would have no reason to criticize.
If, on the other hand, you want a dedicated and expandable wireless home audio system that can grow as you grow, the Sonos is the preferred choice. It lacks the Pioneers multiple source options, but its fuller sound works better in big rooms.
Whichever you go with, you’ll be enjoying the leading edge of wireless audio – easily the best thing to happen to music since the first CD was ripped to a PC.