Category: Smartphones

Review: The Braven 600 wireless Bluetooth speaker

Braven 600 Wireless SpeakerIf 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 iconic desk speaker from Charlie's Angels

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.

Braven 600 side ports

Side views of the Braven 600. Note the presence of a full-size USB port and an audio out mini-jack.

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.

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.

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.

Bell launches world's toughest phone: The Sonim Bolt XP5520

You’ve got to love yellow and black when they’re used together. No other colour combination says “I’m tough as nails”. Tractors, cranes, front-end loaders – heck just about every serious piece of machinery whether meant for construction  – or destruction  – can be found sporting this eye-catching motif.

So it won’t surprise you to find out that the Sonim Bolt XP5520 (pictured right) is a tough phone.

But what might surprise you is that the Bolt is not only tough, it’s the toughest phone on the planet and Sonim has the Guiness World Record to prove it.

Related: Extreme Tech – Gadgets That Can Survive The Elements

You might also be surprised by some of the other specs on this industrial-strength communicator:

  • PTT (Push-to-talk) capability over 4G networks: This is the walkie-talkie function that lets you chat to one or many other PTT users with just a click on a single button.
  • Super long battery life (up to 12 hours of talk time)
  • 3-year comprehensive warranty (If you manage to break this phone, Sonim will take it back simply to learn how to make their products tougher)
  • Insanely loud ringer and speaker phone: If you work on a job site, there’s no way you’ll hear an iPhone when it rings
  • Dust proof
  • Shock proof
  • Drop proof (and we mean really drop proof)
  • Water proof: You could even take this thing scuba diving
  • Extreme temperature-resistant

When we got word of this supremely heavy duty phone, we were naturally dubious of some of the claims. We suggested that Sonim lend a pair of Bolts to our buddies at Sympatico Autos so they could run a little torture test on the device to see how it fared in real-world conditions. That is if by real-world you mean running over it with a truck, tossing it from the tops of grain silos and dragging it like a rag-doll on a dirt road going 50 km/h.

So how did the Bolt do? Check out the video to find out.

If the Bolt sounds like the phone for you, Bell today announced that they are the exclusive carrier of the super-tough handset, not to mention the first carrier in North America to offer the PTT-over-4G functionality that makes the Bolt such an ideal field-companion. The Sonim Bolt is available for $99 on a 3-year contract.

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

RIM leaks a first look at BB 10 OS

You’ve got to hand it to the guys and gals at CrackBerry.com – they’re on a roll. First they publish some leaked photos of the as-yet-unannounced BlackBerry Superphone codenamed “London”, and now they’ve posted some similarly leaked photos of the next OS that will power the make-it-or-break-it devices from RIM.

Makes you wonder if these “leaks” are leaks at all, or a clever guerilla marketing effort designed to create some buzz for the beleaguered tech giant.

It makes sense if you think about it: Given all of the negative press RIM has received as of late, it certainly can’t do any harm to let it slip out that it is indeed working toward a new and improved hardware and software system if only to give some hope to those thinking of jumping ship.

And in a best-case scenario, the company can use the informal feedback from reader comments and blogger reactions to gauge whether they’re on the right track or need to do some last-minute course-corrections. I know that’s certainly not how Apple would go about product development, but RIM can’t claim (unlike Apple) that they have an innate sense of what the user wants before the user knows (or at least it’s been a long time since RIM has shown this prescience).

You can see all of the leaked shots over at CrackBerry.com and make up your mind if you think BB 10 is headed in the right direction. My initial reaction is yes, I like what I see. There’s no question the new UI borrows heavily from iOS, but then again so did Android. Some things just work. But RIM has also borrowed from Android too with the homescreen widgets concept, demonstrating what Steve Jobs was once quoted as saying: “Great artists steal”.

[Source: CrackBerry.com]

HP kills off TouchPad and Pre WebOS devices

Earlier today came news that HP was making a large software acquisition in the form of a $10 billion buy of Autonomy. They also announced that they would splitting off their PC division. Both were significant announcements to be sure, but there was one other nugget in their press release that was initially overlooked, but which has a much greater impact on the red-hot tablet and smartphone markets: HP is effectively killing their WebOS platform by “discontinuing operations” for their WebOS devices, specifically the TouchPad and Pre units.

Other than vowing to “explore options to optimize the value of webOS software going forward,” and this tweet from Richard Kerris, a VP at HP, we have little more information on the future of what was once one of the most promising smartphone operating systems to emerge since Apple’s iOS made it’s debut with the original iPhone.

It’s a sad end given how well received the first Palm Pre was when it made its surprise debut at CES a few years ago.

At the time, people hailed the device and software platform as an inspired, fresh start for Palm which had been deteriorating badly under the pressure of RIM’s BlackBerry and Apple’s relatively new iPhone.

I’ve always been a big believer in WebOS. It’s a very good OS and it handles things like multitasking , task switching and notifications with greater elegance than the competition. But it took HP too long to develop a tablet device on which to let WebOS explore its potential and when the TouchPad finally emerged earlier this year it was a case of too little, too late. The first WebOS tablet was thick, heavy, sluggish and though it possessed an innovative way to explore its app store, there was nothing in the way of true innovation. The original iPad is a better device and the iPad 2 is light years ahead.

I was curious to see what they would do for second version, but alas, now we’ll never know.

Rest in piece WebOS devices – we hardly knew you.

[Source: ThisIsMyNext.com]