Sony’s latest Android tablet is a worthy successor to the Xperia Z, with unique features, an incredibly thin and light design and a gorgeous screen. But battery life is not as good as it could be.
The Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet ($529 16GB) is a remarkably thin and light device. At 426 grams, the Z2 is significantly lighter than the comparably equipped Apple iPad Air (469 grams) even though it has larger overall dimensions.
The chassis exterior is coated in a rubberized finish on the back and uses edge-to-edge scratch-resistant glass on the front. The sides (what little there are of them) is finished in a metal-look plastic material. Unlike the iPad, there is no metal shell.
Although this results in an amazingly light device, the problem with this design is that the Xperia Z2 gets all of its rigidity from the internal framework and the glass screen itself. Which it to say, you can actually flex the tablet without exerting much pressure at all. I suppose this isn’t necessarily an issue of quality – I wasn’t able to come even close to damaging it through normal use—but it doesn’t give you a tremendous feeling of confidence.
Have you noticed that, for the first time in recent memory, Apple seems to have pulled back on its blistering rate of new, innovative product launches?
Consider the fact that although the company refreshed virtually every product in their line-up this year, and even introduced a new, smaller iPad, not one of these products is an innovation in the market. They are evolutionary, not revolutionary.
This innovation “lull” comes at a dangerous time for Apple. Its core product lines: the iPhone, the iPad and the Mac (including desktop and laptop models) are under the kind of competitive pressure that hasn’t been seen in years. Android as a mobile OS has finally come in to its own, and is seeing huge success, especially in its Samsung Galaxy SIII guise which, for the first time since the iPhone’s debut in 2007, has outsold Apple’s flagship.
At the same time, Microsoft is taking the enormous gamble of leap-frogging Apple in the desktop OS market with Windows 8 – an OS that fuses touch-based computing and classic mouse-and-keyboard computing into a single experience.
Some might say that this situation is a natural part of the technology life-cycle. Product innovation happens in waves, especially at the hardware level. Perhaps we’re simply in the trough of a hardware innovation wave.
That being the case, the obvious place for Apple to try differentiating itself (until its next revolutionary product) is with software. The company already enjoys an enviable ecosystem where hardware and software are designed in lock-step, ensuring that the one always complements the other. But it’s time to do more.
Apple seems to have overlooked one of the most promising areas of mobile computing: contextual task automation. In some ways, it’s hard to believe that they’ve missed this boat. After all, Mac OS X has some of the most powerful automation tools of any OS: AppleScript and Automator.
Between these two tools, users can exercise almost any level of control they desire over the functions of their Macs. Automator provides a graphical way of doing so, and requires no programming knowledge whatsoever. AppleScript can fill in the blanks, giving power-users even greater control.
If you’ve never heard of these tools, or you have but have never used them, there’s a good reason: task automation on computers is largely used by professionals to speed up workflows by having the computer complete certain repetitive tasks. But its power is limited by the number of contexts users find themselves in. Given that the average PC, whether desktop or laptop, has no GPS, accelerometer, compass, barometer, phone or proximity sensors, it’s almost deaf, dumb and blind compared to a smartphone (bad analogy given that all PCs have webcams, mics and speakers, but bear with me).
But mobile devices are a different story. They’re with us wherever we go and connect us to every type of information imaginable. Best of all, they have a high degree of contextual awareness thanks to the various sensors mentioned above. This fact has not been lost on the Android camp.
Recently, two examples of contextual automation have caught my attention. The first is the Motorola ATRIX HD LTE, an Android smartphone that Motorola has customized with various options including something they call Smart Actions. At their core, Smart Actions are simply a way for a user to create “if/then” conditions for just about any situation s/he can think of. One fabulous example: IF I’m driving and someone texts me THEN send the following automatic reply “Thanks for your text. I’m currently driving and will respond when it’s safe to do so.”
There are dozens of such useful conditions that users can customize (the phone ships with several pre-programmed options).
The other example was demo’d for me last week: Sony’s new “Bond Phone”, the Xperia T, comes with Smart Connect, a free Sony app that can be installed on any Android 4.0 device. Much like Smart Actions, Smart Connect lets you script trigger events in addition to managing certain external devices like Bluetooth headsets.
So why then, has Apple ignored such a fantastic opportunity to be the dominant player in contextual automation?
Not only does the Cupertino juggernaut have a wealth of experience in this area, they have a uniquely synchronized set of hardware, software and services. Imagine the possibilities for a customer who is fully committed to Apple’s ecosystem and owns an iPhone, iPad, iMac, Apple TV and several AirPlay-compatible speaker systems.
Here’s just one scenario…
Our happy-go-lucky Apple user is strolling home after getting off the bus/streetcar/subway, while listening to her favourite podcast on her iPhone. But as she arrives at her front door, the podcast still has 10 minutes left. As soon as she unplugs her EarPods, her iPhone automatically routes the podcast over AirPlay to her speakers in the living room. A text message is sent to her boyfriend who is working abroad, letting him know she’s home if he wants to FaceTime before he turns in for the night. Because the time is now 5:30 p.m., her notifications preferences switch so that new emails from work no longer trigger sounds or vibrations, but personal emails still do.
Needless to say, that was the best I could do off the top of my head, but clearly the possibilities are endless. But there’s no reason why Automator for iOS shouldn’t be social too. I could see an entire scene developing around such an app, with users sharing their favourite scripted events and even in-app purchases, so that developers with a knack for AppleScript could sell advanced Automator processes designed for professionals of all stripes.
So readers, what say you? Would Automator for iOS be the kind of thing you’d like to play with? Or are you content with the existing automatic processes within iOS? Or does Siri do all of your bidding?
Let us know!
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.
Earlier this year, a new company known simply as “Nest” announced their first product: the Nest Learning Thermostat. Now available in Canada, its distinctive round shape is a design throwback to the non-programmable thermostats of a few decades ago.
That simple, elegant exterior which immediately drew praise for the way it complemented nearly every decor masked a highly sophisticated internal design that is more smartphone than thermostat. The Nest’s central selling feature (other than a design which sets it apart from every other thermostat on the market) is simplicity. It is designed to be a thermostat that never needs to be programmed because it has the ability to “learn” your needs and then program itself accordingly thus saving you time and hopefully, money too.
How much money? Up to 20% savings on your energy bill according to the company’s claims.
Nest achieves this savings by doing something automatically that people, it seems, don’t do by themselves: actually program a programmable thermostat. The company quotes a study which claims that 90% of programmable thermostats are rarely or never programmed.
How does it work?
After installing the Nest in place of your existing thermostat (see video below) and walking through a simple set-up procedure, you simply rotate the Nest’s outer ring to the desired temperature and walk away. The Nest will keep your home at that temperature until you change it – which is something you should do as often as possible during the first week. This is the Nest’s break-in period in which it learns your needs but also your habits. Thanks to a collection of on-board sensors, the Nest can determine when you are at home, when you are sleeping and when you are away. It uses this information combined with the temperatures that you physically set to come up with its own set of program parameters.
At any time you can view this self-programmed schedule (for an entire week) and make adjustments if you feel the Nest hasn’t chosen optimal settings.
In theory, this whole process should be very straightforward and not at all time-consuming – after all, this is supposed to be far easier than programming a regular thermostat. In practice however, I found that it wasn’t so simple.
What is the temperature?
One of the big differences between a standard thermostat and the Nest, is the way temperature is determined. You might think that 20 degrees is a standard measurement of temperature but the Nest has a different opinion. Nest has a range of sensors that measure temperature, humidity, and ambient light levels so when the Nest tells you it’s 20 degrees indoors, it can often feel colder, when compared to what 20 degrees felt like when your older thermostat said it was that temperature. As an explanation for this discrepancy, the company says, “Not all thermostats are created equal. Different manufacturers use different sensors and different methods of calculating the ambient temperature. The thermostats can sometimes arrive at different ambient temperature measurements as a result.”
Control freaks, beware
The Nest’s fully-automated setting, known as Auto-Schedule learning, is the feature that will have the greatest effect on your energy costs if you’ve never bothered to program your thermostat. It does this by combining the temperature settings you provide via the outer ring, with what it can detect of your at-home vs. away behaviour. After a few days, if you take a look at the schedule screen, you can see the results of this process. It may surprise you. I found that the Nest had decided on several temperature settings throughout the 24-hour cycle that seemed counter-intuitive. On Mondays, for instance, it included several temperature points that we colder than any temperatures we had ever input manually.
Upon closer inspection I found many of these seemingly random settings thrown in throughout the week (the Nest lets you program as many temperature settings over the course of a 7-day cycle as you wish) and became frustrated by the system’s decisions.
Again, if you never program your thermostat, the Nest’s Auto-Schedule is bound to save you money. But for someone like myself, who has always been very picky about programming the hell out of my thermostat, it seemed to be kicking on the air conditioner more than I would like.
Why it needs Wi-Fi
The Nest is truly a thermostat for the internet era. Its on-board Wi-Fi connects to your home network (no wired option exists) so that you can leverage some of the Nest’s features from the road. Using a PC with a web browser or the free Nest app for iOS and Android, you can set the temperature directly or access and change the schedule. This is handy for those situations where you depart from your normally schedule comings and goings, and want to get the house warmed up or cooled down before you come back. I’d like to see Nest add another feature to this app: send you an alert if it is taking an unusually long time to reach your set temperature – something that could indicate a serious problem with your air conditioner or furnace. N.B.: The Nest takes its power from your furnace/AC’s existing wiring. There is enough voltage to keep the Nest operational. However, it may not be quite enough to keep the Wi-Fi portion of the Nest’s functionality going all of the time. In my installation, I’ve noticed that if I keep the Nest’s display lit for longer than about five minutes, the battery depletes to the point where it can’t maintain the Wi-Fi connection. Typically, it regains the charge necessary to re-connect within a few hours. The company does mention in the install manual that this can happen, and if it becomes a constant problem, you can have a professional installer do some extra work to provide the Nest with the voltage it needs to be fully charged all of the time. For me, it hasn’t been worth going this extra step.
Home or Away?
We mentioned before that the Nest can tell if you’re around or not. Those on-board sensors can detect movement up to 20 feet away. When it thinks you’re not home, it enters into an “Auto Away” mode, where it suspends all heating and cooling functions in order to save energy. But it does so within parameters that you set. These so-called “safe temperatures” are the minimum and maximum temperatures that you are comfortable with when away from home. I set mine at 65F minimum, 80F maximum (yeah, I know those are Fahrenheit, but for some reason I’m incapable of thinking in Celsius when it comes to indoor temperatures. Weird, right?) which seemed prudent given that we have cats. If the house was truly empty when we’re not there, I might have set these even farther apart.
See the savings
The Nest has two ways of showing you how much energy you’ve saved, should you care to look. On the Nest itself, you can enter the Energy option to view your energy history, day by day and get a sense both visually and via text of your energy usage. There’s no dollar value attached to the number, simply an indication of how long your AC (or furnace) was actively cooling or heating your home.
But if you really want to do a deep dive on your energy consumption, the iOS or Android app is the way to go – especially on a tablet. The Nest app’s detailed breakdown of energy use by day not only shows you precisely when and for how long you heated or cooled your home, it also shows you why any particular day was above or below average. Sometimes weather is the cause. Other times your own intervention will be the reason. Or the Nest will have saved you energy via AutoAway – all of these explanations are displayed on the energy tab.
Does it actually save money?
It depends. If you never bother to program your thermostat, the Nest will save you money for sure. Even if you don’t bother to try teaching the Nest, its Auto Away feature will at least keep unnecessary heating/cooling while you’re away to a minimum. If you opt for manual programming and essentially use the Nest the same way you would a conventional programmable thermostat, it can still save you a bit of cash – mostly in the summer. The Nest has a feature called AirWave, which takes advantage of the fact that when your air conditioner’s compressor turns off, the cooling elements that reside inside your furnace tend to stay cold for several minutes. During that time, the Nest keeps the fan going. Because the compressor is the part of the AC system that uses most of the electricity, the Nest can keep cooling your home at a much reduced expense – at least for a few minutes. It’s a neat trick that few if any other thermostats can do.
But to really see the financial benefit of the Nest, you need to a) have never programmed a thermostat before and b) be diligent in training the Nest during that key 1-2 week break-in period. Even though I have had the Nest installed for a month, it’s still too early to tell just how much money it may have saved me. Only a detailed analysis of my utility bills from the same period a year ago will reveal any useful numbers, and even then, with the incredibly hot summer Ontario has had this year, a meaningful comparison may be impossible.
Can the average homeowner justify a $250 thermostat? If you’re genuinely too intimidated by your existing programmable thermostat to actually program it, or your thermostat is so old it can’t be programmed, then yes, the Nest – even at $250 will likely pay for itself within a year, maybe two at the outside. After that, you’ll be saving money. Though the initial set-up may seem a bit daunting, the Nest, in day to day use is as straightforward as you could ask.
For the folks like myself who have always paid close attention to their heating and cooling settings, the savings may be harder to achieve. But even if it takes several years for the Nest to help your bottom line, the product does have other features which may help you justify the steep price of admission.
Being able to remotely control your home’s heating and cooling from anywhere in the world is pretty awesome. Add to that a detailed overview of your energy usage and the ability to program a nearly unlimited number of temperature control points on a 7-day schedule, and you might just find $250 a small price to pay for that level of control and information.
Finally, if you’re really looking for a reason to buy a Nest, there’s always the cool factor (and I don’t mean AC) – the Nest will look better on your wall than any other thermostat I can think of, and I guarantee it will be a conversation piece for the foreseeable future!
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.
Disclosure: Sync is owned and operated by Bell Media, a wholly owned subsidiary of Bell Canada.
- Superb audio performance
- Snappy performance
- Big, 4.3″ multi-touch screen
- Micro-HDMI out
- SenseMe Channels
- FM Radio
- Huge/thick/heavy form factor
- No cameras
- Compass mode is quirky
- External speakers only so-so
- If you’re looking for a full-fledged Android device that can handle movies, music and photos and don’t mind the lack of on-board cameras, the Sony Walkman Z1000 Series is an attractive device with great sound, but you can find more features in a smaller package for less money elsewhere.
The Sony Walkman has been a presence on the personal audio scene ever since Sony invented the category back in the late 1970s. Since then, the line of portable music (and more recently media) players has evolved continuously to keep pace with an industry that has seen more convergence than any other in recent memory. And while Apple’s iPod line of devices changed the rules of the game just over a decade ago, Sony has never given up – reinventing the Walkman at each stage to offer buyers an alternative to Apple’s juggernaut with all the hallmarks of the Sony brand: solid industrial design and audio performance.
But Apple is a tough competitor, and when they launched the iPod Touch hot on the heels of their runaway success iPhone, it became clear that the notion of a digital music player being a one-trick pony was antiquated to say the least. A new paradigm had been created – one where music, photos and video were but three elements in a vast sea of portable-computing options.
And yet, seemingly caught unprepared, Sony stuck to the basics and continued to pump out respectable, if somewhat uninspired media players. Not that they had much choice. In fact, until Google released Android, there was little any manufacturer could do to keep up with the iOS tsunami.
But there were a few bright spots for Sony’s Walkman. 2008’s NWZ-S Series introduced one of the best noise-cancelling systems available without needing to spend $350 on a set of Bose headphones. It also marked the addition of “SensMe” Channels – a proprietary way of organizing your music into mood-based categories – an innovation which has yet to be improved upon. Nearly 4 years later, the NWZ-S Series is still my music player of choice.
There were some “what were they thinking?” moments too: They ditched the SensMe system on future models of the Walkman and the ill-conceived and over-priced X Series proved that just because you add Wi-Fi, a touchscreen and a browser to a media player does not mean it will be appealing or successful.
Learning from both of these lessons, Sony is back for another kick at the portable media player can.
This time out, they’ve kept the good: Brought back SensMe, solid sound performance; and dropped the bad: the tiny screen, awful browser of the X Series have now been replaced by a full if not perfect implementation of Google’s Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) mobile operating system.
The result is a device that launches the Walkman brand into portable-computing territory without giving up the audio credentials that have been the Walkman’s hallmarks since the beginning.
Unfortunately for Walkman fans, this evolution isn’t without its trade-offs.
In creating the NWZ-Z1000, Sony has directly targeted Apple’s iPod Touch. The comparison is unavoidable given the capabilities of each device.
In every dimension, the NWZ-Z series dwarfs the iPod Touch. It’s wider, taller, thicker and heavier. Take a look:
|Sony Walkman NWZ-Z1050||Apple iPod Touch|
|W/H/D 70.9 x 134.4 x 11.1 mm||58.9 x 111 x 7.2 mm|
Despite its heavy-set measurements or perhaps because of them, the Walkman feels solid and well built. Sony has never suffered from poor build quality or awkward design and the Z series is no exception. From the player’s cool-to-the touch metal frame to its nearly flush front surface and quirky but comfortable sway back, the Walkman has an instantly familiar feel to it. And there’s no question, you simply can’t get a 4.3″ screen without accepting a device with an overall larger footprint. Still, it’s only 22g lighter than the Samsung Galaxy Note which offers a larger screen and full 4G/LTE connectivity.
The button layout will be familiar to anyone who has used an all-touchscreen smartphone or the iPod Touch. The top power/stand-by button, side-mounted volume rocker and bottom-positioned headphone jack have become fairly standard on all devices of this size. The one departure is the dedicated Walkman logo button (Sony calls it the “W.” button) which sits just above the micro-HDMI port. The inclusion of this button is the one nod Sony has made to the device’s media-centric lineage. Hitting hit brings up the media playback controls on-screen regardless which app or home screen you’re on at the moment, and wakes the Walkman if it’s in stand-by. While I like the idea of a dedicated media button, it doesn’t address the common weakness in all touchscreen media players: you can’t operate them blind. There’s simply no way to leave the NWZ-Z1000 in your pocket and have control over play/pause track skip forward/backward or any other aspect of the media player except for volume.
It’s hard to accept that Sony, who so happily followed Apple down the design path of the iPod Touch, overlooked one of the few areas where they could have improved on Cupertino’s design. In fact, the NWZ-Z1000 could have borrowed from Sony’s own design legacy in the form of dedicated playback buttons from the X-Series, or from Apple’s playbook in the form of an inline-remote on the cord of the included earphones. Sadly, it received neither.
The curved plastic back is intriguing. It certainly sets the Walkman apart from the rest of the media player landscape, but it isn’t so much of stylistic choice as it is a functional requirement. Because Sony’s engineers placed the internal speaker on the Walkman’s back panel instead of the edges, placing the unit face-up on a flat surface would mute the sound almost completely. The curve gives the speaker a millimetre or two’s breathing room and that’s just enough to let the sound emerge.
The NWZ-Z1000’s screen is a beauty. The white LED-backlit LCD TFT screen runs at WQVGA (800×480) and while that doesn’t yield the same kind of pixel density as the iPod Touch, which packs 960×640 into a smaller screen, you don’t notice the difference. As you might expect, browsing the web on a bigger screen is better, all things considered.
I’m a little surprised Sony didn’t opt for OLED on the Walkman as it would have been superior for battery if not for overall contrast, but I guess that at 4.3″ the cost was prohibitive.
Still, when it comes to viewing photos or movies, the Walkman performs well even without the higher-end display technology. It generates a bright, crisp image with blacks that are black enough to handle space scenes even if they aren’t perfectly pitch-black. In my experience, no LCD-based screen can deliver truly deep blacks.
One minor complaint is that the capacitive-touch doesn’t seem to be as sensitive as other screens I’ve tried. Taps didn’t always register and had to be repeated. Another niggle is the surface of the screen itself – more than other surfaces, it seems to be a real finger-print magnet. Without any evidence to support this, my guess is that oleo-phobic coatings adhere better to glass that plastic.
Other than the occasional missed-tap mentioned above, the NWZ-z1000 is a snappy performer which seems to handle the various demands placed on it by the Gingerbread version of the Android OS effortlessly. That’s probably because the Walkman is packing a Dual Core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU running at 1Ghz. That’s a lot of horsepower when you consider the latest version of the iPod Touch is running a single-core ARM Coretx-A8 at 1Ghz (underclocked to 800 Mhz).
I loaded Frontline Commando, a free first-person shooter, from the Android market and it ran seamlessly – as did Raging Thunder, another free but not very good racing game.
All of the native movie formats I tested ran perfectly, however playing back an .mkv file using the free movie player “MX Video Player” resulted is some dropped frames and occasionally out-of-sync audio.
One notable area of weakness is the compass. One of the coolest things in Android is the ability to turn on Compass Mode while in Google Maps’ Street View. This lets you hold the device in front of you and move it around (up/down, side-to-side) and have the Street View screen respond as though you were actually standing at the location on the map, looking around at the buildings and streets. But I found that the Walkman’s digital compass behaves erratically when in this mode, jumping jerkily around and not giving a smooth rotation of the street view surroundings.
Speaking of maps and directions, I’m still not sure I understand the point of navigation and mapping apps on devices without persistent data connections. With the Walkman (or the iPod Touch or any device that relies on just WiFi), if you want to get directions while in your car or anywhere else WiFi access is going to be problematic, you’re out of luck.
As I mentioned earlier, sound quality is one area where the NWZ-Z1000 really shines. The included earbuds are excellent and though I found their design a little odd, they were very comfortable and did a decent job with sound isolation. I miss the active noise reduction system from earlier Walkman models, but it’s not a deal-breaker. Sony included their proprietary EQ settings such as Clear Base, Clear Stereo, VPT Surround and a 5-band graphic EQ. I’ve always appreciated these settings on digital players and I’m glad to see Sony found a way to include them in an Android device. Sony has also included 2 settings that are meant to enhance the performance of the internal speaker: Clear Phase and xLOUD, but don’t bother with them – there is simply nothing that can make the internal speaker sound like anything other than what it is: tiny, weak and sad. That’s ok though – very few media players in any price range do a good job with this.
Some of you will remember that Sony launched their first Android tablet last year – the Sony Tablet S. Reviews were mixed, but among the highlights were some of the exclusive apps that Sony included on the device: Infrared Remote Control, Sony Reader and PlayStation Games.
For reasons known only to Sony, none of these have made their way onto to the NWZ-Z1000. I’m willing to overlook the remote app’s absence – I wasn’t all that impressed with the implementation on the Tablet S, and since the Walkman doesn’t have an infrared sender or receiver it would have been pointless.
But the lack of the Reader and PlayStation games is a big mistake. Given that the Walkman’s main competitor has a built-in ebook solution (iBooks) and is already the most popular mobile gaming platform thanks to the enormous collection of free and paid games in the App Store, you would think these two areas would be on the top of Sony’s must-have list.
But no. Even though the built-in HDMI output could have enabled PlayStation games on the big screen, something which Sony appears to be philosophically opposed to (their Sony Ericsson Experia Play can do PlayStation games, but can’t output to HDMI whereas their Experia Arc can output HDMI, but can’t do PS games), the Walkman can’t run these exclusive games. Likewise, even though the NWZ-Z1000 sports a bigger screen than the iPod Touch, which would naturally make it a better e-reader, no reading apps are loaded by default.
What you do get are Sony’s “Original Apps” collection: Music Player, Video Player, Photo Viewer, FM Radio, DLNA, Wi-Fi Checker, W.Control and Music Unlimited.
At first I couldn’t figure out why one would need Sony versions of apps that are standard on every Android device. The reason they’ve been included is their clever use of DLNA. Just like on the Tablet S, you can use these apps to “Send To” compatible displays on your network. Watching a video on the Walkman and want to see it on your DLNA-equipped HDTV? Two taps and you’re done. Same thing for photos and music.
This DLNA technology works in reverse too, such that if you have a compatible DLNA media server (home PC, PS3, etc) you can access that content and view it/listen to it on the Walkman.
While buggy at times, this DLNA implementation is a strong argument that Apple’s AirPlay isn’t the only game in town for those who want to flex their wireless network’s muscles.
Wi-Fi Checker is an app that, well, checks your Wi-Fi connection by connecting to your chosen access point and then giving you some rudimentary feedback such as your assigned IP address and a confirmation that you are in fact, connected. Not quite sure why Sony felt the need to include it given that Android’s existing wireless stats are pretty good.
W. Control is merely a preference setting for how you want to interact with the maximized view of the Walkman or “W.” media playback controls. You can choose to single or double-tap the screen for play/pause and whether you want left or right swipes to skip you forward or backward one track. This should have been baked into the existing Settings app in Android.
Finally, Music Unlimited is Sony’s answer to iTunes – an online store where you can preview and buy then download music tracks directly to the Walkman.
Thanks to its size, the NWZ-Z1000 has few true competitors. This can make direct comparisons a bit tricky. Other than the iPod Touch, there are only two other devices in the Canadian market that come close, without looking at smartphones since they really do represent a different category. These are the Archos 5 32GB and the Dell Streak 5. The Archos is the same price as the Walkman but lacks access to the Android Marketplace and doesn’t support DLNA. The Dell Streak includes cameras but because it is built as a mobile data device, you can only buy it on contract with Rogers Wireless, or no contract for $399. In my opinion the Archos, while a very capable media player, is a less-than-ideal Android device and requires optional accessories to support HDMI out. The Streak looks attractive, but if the price of the Walkman strikes you as high, the Streak won’t appeal either.
The Walkman NWZ-Z1000 enters the market with a peculiar set of features that makes it both unique and unexceptional at the same time. While it is a capable media player that offers a bigger screen than its closest competitor, the lack of any on-board cameras limits the ways in which you can use the device for anything other than media consumption.
Even though it’s more expensive that the iPod Touch for the same memory size, the Walkman delivers two strong arguments for the additional dollars: screen size and CPU. If you find the iPod Touch’s screen a little on the small side – as many people do – the NWZ-Z1000’s 4.3″ window is a much more comfortable viewing experience.
The Walkman’s dual-core CPU barely breaks a sweat as you put the device through its paces – there is virtually no lag or delays when moving from app to app or within the various menus. The iPod Touch isn’t as speedy and there are times when it feels like it’s running to catch up. If you value snappy performance over bells and whistles like on-board cameras, the Walkman is the clear winner.
You’ll be able to find the Sony NWZ-Z1000 Walkman at major electronics retailers later this spring for $299 for the 16GB size and $349 for the 32GB model.