Tagged: comparison

Battle of the wireless audio players: Pioneer XW-SMA1/3 vs. Sonos PLAY:3

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.

When it comes to wireless home audio, the two names you need to know are AirPlay and Sonos. Here’s a quick recap in case you aren’t familiar with these words:

AirPlay

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.

Sonos

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).

Sonos PLAY:3

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.

Pioneer XW-SMA1/3

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.

Conclusion

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.

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Samsung Galaxy Tab vs. Apple iPad: Battle of the Tablets

Samsung's Galaxy Tab (left) Vs. Apple's iPad (right)

Samsung's Galaxy Tab (left) Vs. Apple's iPad (right)

For the first time since the iPad went on sale earlier this year, it has a competitor. And I’m not talking about a thin and light laptop or netbook or even an eReader no matter how fancy they may be. I’m talking about the Samsung Galaxy Tab: an Android 2.2 powered touch screen device that rivals the iPad in all but a few areas and even manages to up the game with some features that the iPad lacks.

But when everything’s said and done, has Samsung managed to beat Apple at the tablet game? I wish the answer was an easy “yes” or “no”, but as is the case with so many Apple-Android comparisons, the answer is “Sort of, well, maybe… um you might want to sit down.”

Hardware

So let’s begin at the beginning, with a quick look at the specs for these touch-screen devices. For the purposes of this review, we’ll look at the iPad WiFi+3G 16GB and the Galaxy Tab 16GB, since the Tab isn’t available as Wi-Fi only:

Apple iPad Samsung Galaxy Tab
Size (H/W/D/weight) 242.8/189.7/13.4/0.73 kg 190.1/120.5/12/0.38 kg
Screen size 9.7″ 7″
Screen resolution 1024×768 1024×600
OS iOS 4.1 Android 2.2 “Froyo”
Processor/speed Apple A4 1Ghz ARM Cortex A8 1Ghz
Wi-Fi a/b/g/n a/b/g/n
Bluetooth 2.1+EDR 3.0+A2DP
2G/3G GSM/EDGE 850/900/1800/1900
UMTS/HSDPA 850/1900/2100
GSM 850/900/1800/1900
HSDPA 900/1900/2100
Internal storage 16GB 16GB
External storage n/a Up to 32GB (MicroSD)
RAM 256Mb 512Mb
Cameras none 3.2MP rear/1.3MP front
Audio support HE-AAC/AAC/Protected AAC/MP3/MP3 VBR/Audible/Apple Lossless/AIFF/WAV MP3/WAV/eAAC+/AC3/FLAC
Video support H.264 (mp4/m4v/mov) MPEG4 (mp4/m4v/mov) Motion JPEG MP4/DivX/WMV/H.264/H.263
Battery life (claimed) 10 hr 7 hr
Price* $679 (Apple) $649 (Bell) $674.99 (Rogers)

*Pricing is based on n0-contract. Discounts may be available with locked-in contract terms. See mobility dealers for details.

The Tab and the iPad side by side. Photo courtesy of Gadjo Sevilla via Flickr.

The Tab and the iPad side by side. Photo courtesy of Gadjo Sevilla via Flickr.

Display

Okay, so without getting too deep into the above chart, you’ve probably already identified the key differences between the iPad and the Tab: The Tab is smaller, slightly thinner and much lighter than the iPad and it has two cameras whereas the iPad has none. It also has less screen resolution: 172,032 fewer pixels than the iPad to be precise, and for those who like relative terms that’s 21.8% less.  That might be an important number later on. While Samsung has not used the same wonderful AMOLED screen on the Tab as they did on the Vibrant S (a rumoured 2011 update to the Tab will have it), the LED-backlit LCD screen gets the job done and I think compares favourably if not perfectly to the iPad’s larger display.

The Galaxy Tab really does fit in a jacket pocket. We left it sticking out a bit for the photo - it actually goes all the way in. (click for larger image)

The Galaxy Tab really does fit in a jacket pocket. We left it sticking out a bit for the photo - it actually goes all the way in. (click for larger image)

Size, Usability

The Galaxy Tab’s form factor is probably the best argument against Steve Jobs’ now-famous claim that the “current crop of 7″ tablets will be DOA – dead on arrival.” With all due respect to the Apple research and development team, I think a 7″ device can provide a very good user experience for most tasks and frankly, a much better user experience than a 9.7″ device for a few specific tasks. The Tab is ideally sized and shaped for holding in a single hand. Most adults will be able to grasp both sides easily. The curved back not only helps in cradling the Tab but reduces fatigue too. The iPad is heavier and wider which means your hand can only hold it like a dinner plate, or cradled in the crook of your arm clipboard-style. Neither is ideal. Somewhat ironically – considering the fact that the iPad was never conceived as laptop replacement – an angled lap remains the most comfortable position in which to use it. And by the way, if you prefer to type with your thumbs as on a Blackberry or other phone-sized device, you can do that on the Tab in portrait orientation. Try that on an iPad. On a related note, the Tab has a vibrate function – something that Apple chose not to include on the iPad – and it’s a welcome addition. You can use it for alerts (the Tab is actually small enough to fit in a jacket pocket) or as haptic feedback when you type or my favourite use: to enhance gaming. While playing Labyrinth HD, I was delighted to find the Tab vibrating subtly when the virtual metal ball hit the walls or other objects. Now that I’ve had this experience I think it would be foolish of Apple not to include vibration in the next release of the iPad – it would be a boon for game developers.

E-reading

The smaller form factor also enables the Tab to be used as a true e-reader. Now I know you can read books on the iPad, and according to one recent study 66% of iPad owners use their device for reading books. That’s a pretty impressive stat. But does it mean that the iPad is a great e-reader? No. It simply means that people who own iPads probably don’t own dedicated e-readers like the Kobo or Kindle. We’ve got an iPad and a Kobo at home and when it comes to reading there’s no contest, the Kobo wins. The e-ink screen is far less fatiguing on the eyes, but it’s the weight of the iPad that is the real barrier. Trying to hold that thing in your hands comfortably for more than ten minutes? Impossible.  The Tab’s lighter weight and smaller screen make it a genuine competitor to the Kobos and Kindles of this world. The LCD screen is still no match for e-Ink, and there are no dedicated buttons for page turns, but I don’t think you’ll mind most of the time.

Processor

In terms of pure muscle, these two gadgets are definitely in the same weight class. In fact, Apple’s A4 processor – the same one it uses in the new iPhone 4 and iPod Touch, is essentially the same chip that Samsung has packed into the Tab. Yes, the Tab does have twice the RAM as the iPad, but keep in mind, RAM is less of a factor when it comes to overall performance of a mobile device like these units than it would in a PC. What matters most is how well the OS manages that CPU. I’ll get to that in the software section.

Battery Life

Apple boasts that the iPad will give you up to 10 hours of constant use when on Wi-Fi. The Tab’s power is good for 7 hours according to Samsung. But do those claims hold up in the real world? My experience with the iPad is that the battery is at least as good as Apple suggests, and maybe even a bit better. The Tab on the other hand seemed to under perform the brochure.  My feeling is that 5.5 is probably a more realistic number.

Cameras

And no doubt you’ve noticed the presence of not one but two cameras aboard the Tab. This is where most Apple faithful were let down by the iPad. Of all the criticisms levelled at the device on launch, the lack of a forward-facing camera for video chats was universally agreed upon.  The other big irk was no USB port. Samsung has obviously learned from Apple’s trailblazing by ensuring that the Tab addresses the camera issue, but unfortunately they botched the implementation. Neither the front or rear facing cams produce decent images, even under good lighting conditions – something that is truly surprising given the success they’ve had with on-board cameras on their mobile phones. Worse still – and this should be a cautionary note for other manufacturers – the forward facing camera produces an awkward looking image of the person holding the device for a number of reasons. First, the offset of the camera from the screen means your subject (probably you) appears to be looking away from the lens – slightly to the left or slightly down. We’re used to this effect when people use laptop or desktop-based cams, but on a small, portable device the effect should be minimized – try the FaceTime cam on Apple’s iPhone 4 if you doubt me – it’s nearly perfect. Secondly, whether you hold the Tab in landscape or portrait mode, the image captured by the front camera is always in portrait mode. Again, they should have taken careful note of how the iPhone 4 does it: rotating automatically to match the device’s orientation. As an aside, I mentioned the lack of a USB port on the iPad, and the Tab lacks this function too but what it can do is recharge over a regular USB 2.0 port on your PC, something the iPad can’t do: it needs a dedicated 10W power supply. Traveling with the Tab means only bringing along the sync cable which is one less accessory to remember.

Multimedia

One area where the Tab has a real chance of improving on the iPad is media-file compatibility. The iPad, as with so many i-devices, supports only two standards of video (well three if you include Motion JPEG but I don’t know anyone who uses that format) and five standards of audio.  While most of us can get by on the audio support, the video limitations can be frustrating – no DivX, xVid, MKV, avi, mpg playback. So I was pretty pumped to see a new player open this space up. The Tab improves upon the iPad’s efforts with DivX and WMV support but then disappointment sets in when you go to play videos on the Tab. The image quality itself is good, but there were noticeable stutters in the overall playback. It wasn’t awful and some people might not even notice it. But when you compare it to the iPad’s super-smooth video performance it definitely comes up short.  One last note on videos: Even though the iPad offers native support for a few codecs, there are now a handful of great 3rd party apps including the very capable VLC Player that can handle many of the popular formats that aren’t supported. They do this via software as opposed to hardware which means that playback isn’t quite as smooth as the iPad’s native video app, but they give users a solid option for broad media support on the iPad.

Software

Form-factors aside, the actual user experience is defined by software. But there are two components to software: the OS which regulates the way the hardware is manipulated and governs the basic functions such as volume levels, touch input, copy/paste, multi-tasking etc., and apps which are the programs that actually give the device the functionality you need (web browsing, watching videos, facebooking, email etc.)

On the app side of the equation, it’s hard to compare these two devices. In the iTunes App Store, there are over 41,000 apps that are designed either for the iPad or both the iPad and iPhone. There are few apps designed for the Tab itself and the Android App Store is just not set up for this relatively new category. I’m sure over time this will change but for now, I’m going to focus on the core elements of the iPad and the Tab – namely the OS and the apps each device ships with.

Android vs. iOS

This is the part where we come dangerously close to religion or politics in terms of topic sensitivity. These two competing operating systems are like flip sides of the same coin. They both strive to offer a powerful yet simple touch and gesture-based way of interacting with mobile gadgets along with easy access to growing libraries of free and paid apps that leverage the capabilities of each device. The philosophy behind each couldn’t be more different.

With Apple, it’s their OS running on their devices. The OS has been tuned for precisely the device that runs it and every single app in the iTunes App Store has been verified to run on every device listed in the compatibility portion of the description. If you like a neat, orderly and practically bullet-proof experience on a device, iOS is the way to go.

Android was born out of the belief that a mobile OS should be open, with as few rules and regulations as possible. It’s the Wild West compared to Apple’s walled garden. The upside of course is that you can choose from a growing list of devices that run Android and there is no one calling the shots but you when it comes to the apps you can install and run. Hardware developers are free to run their own “skin” on top of Android. In Samsung’s case that skin is called TouchWiz 3.0. This means that though Android devices are similar to one another, they all exhibit unique characteristics.

Now that we’ve discussed our two camps, what does this mean for the iPad and the Tab? It really comes down to elegance and sophistication.

The iPad runs a smooth as butter. Flicking between app screens, scrolling, transitions – these all happen beautifully and seamlessly. The combination of the iPad’s vibrant screen and iOS’s interpretation of your touches on the glass is a thoroughly elegant and sophisticated experience. It’s like driving a luxury-class European sedan.

Android 2.2 + Samsung’s TouchWiz on the Galaxy Tab performs more like sports car. The power is there, and you never feel like you’re waiting for things to happen, but everything is just a little more jarring. Turning the device from landscape to portrait orientation results in a “snap” transition on-screen to the new layout. When scrolling web pages, the text loses its edge smoothness until you stop moving and only then does it return.

If you’ve never used an iPad, I doubt very much that these things will bother you or cause you a moment’s concern. But it’s hard to get out of the lap of luxury and get comfortable in a little two-seater.

But of greater concern to me is the way the Tab handles Android apps. For the most part, apps run well and the Tab seems to manage its larger resolution (compared to Android phones) with the same “doubling” that the iPad performs on iPhone apps. There was a notable exception however. The racing game Asphalt 5 however, could not decide where it wanted to display itself on the screen. Consequently there were large white spaces at the top of the screen and buttons were no longer mapped for touch correctly. To stay with the car analogy, it was a wreck.

That’s something that has always worried me about Android. Similar to Microsoft’s Windows, which has to run on a vast number of different machines and processors, with thousands of programs and at least as many peripherals, Android needs to work well on lots of different mobile devices. Steve Wozniak, Apple’s other co-founder, recently made the same observation and even went so far as to say that he thinks Android will eclipse Apple’s iOS as the dominant force in mobile computing. Can such a system ever be as reliable as one where both OS and gadget are paired from the start, the one designed for the other? Time will tell.

Text-input

One area however where Samsung’s implementation of Android beats the pants off the iPad is text-input. The Tab includes Swype. I’ve said this before: every device with a soft-keyboard should be equipped with this software. While I’m getting pretty good at tapping on those imaginary keys, being able to just drag your finger from one letter to the next and voila – your chosen word appears – is simply marvellous. Of course if you’d prefer not to use Swype, that’s fine – the standard soft keyboard layout is excellent and includes a feature which I sorely wish the iPad and iPhone had: the ability to press and hold a key to access a secondary character instead of switching modes. Physical keyboards can do this through alt and ctrl keys and I’ve just never understood why Apple clings to their first-generation keyboard.

Bundled Apps

Much like the iPad, the Tab ships with a minimal set of apps – just enough to get you going on email, calendaring, web browsing and other standard activities. Some of these apps have been well thought out – the calendar for instance gives you a great layout for looking at your day, week or month and makes navigating your appointments a breeze. Others don’t perform as well: the Photos app has trouble keeping up as you swipe from one photo to the next and the slideshow option produces jerky, stepped transitions that absolutely pale in comparison to the iPad’s presentation skills.

The email app is a mixed bag. The layout and overall readability Is excellent both in portrait and landscape mode, but there are some frustrating drawbacks such as no ability to individually delete emails from the inbox view without first entering a delete mode from the menu options.  It can also be tricky to differentiate unread items from the ones you’ve read since the only difference is a slight bold treatment to the subject lines of the unread messages. What’s odd here is that the mail app on the Galaxy S Vibrant avoids both of these pitfalls. Hard to know if this is an Android 2.2 issue or just a mis-step on Samsung’s part in porting their mail app to the Tab.

One of the big surprises on the Tab is an app they’ve called the “Music Hub.” The first surprise is that this is Samsung’s answer to the iTunes Store – at least as far as music purchases are concerned. It’s the first time I’ve seen the app on any Android device and Samsung hasn’t made much effort to highlight it in any of their press. The second surprise is how good it is. Powered by a company called 7digital, the store offers downloads in DRM-free MP3 format. The store is easy to browse, has a decent if not comprehensive selection of artists and tracks and the whole thing has been optimized for use on a tablet. Given that Android users don’t have access to iTunes from their devices – at least not currently – Samsung’s Music Hub is the next best thing.

Conclusion

If you’ve patiently read through all of my observations on the Galaxy Tab vs. the iPad, and are still wondering where I stand, let me summarize:

  • Android 2.2 with Samsung’s TouchWiz skin is a great OS for multi-touch devices but this combo running on the Tab is still no match for Apple’s iOS running on the iPad for overall smoothness and sophistication
  • Some of the Tab’s included apps are not as well executed as those on the iPad
  • The smaller footprint of the Tab does not hold it back as much as many anticipated and even gives it an advantage when it comes to e-reading and text input using the two-thumbs or Swype method. The Tab can be pocketed which might be a huge plus for some ultra-mobile types
  • Ignore the addition of the two on-board cameras. They work, but they don’t work well enough that you would choose them over the camera on your phone.

To decide if the Tab is right for you, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you value a smaller, lighter device that is pocketable and can double effectively as an e-reader?
  • Do you prefer the idea of Android’s flexibility and customization over the locked-down nature of Apple’s iOS – even if it comes at the price of a less elegant interface?
  • Are you more interested in a productivity tool and place less of an emphasis on high-end multimedia capabilities?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions you owe it to yourself to check out the Samsung Galaxy Tab before making your final decision.

BlackBerry vs. Palm Pre: Should you switch?

bb_vs_preAlong with almost everyone else who attended this year’s CES down in Las Vegas, I was surprised by Palm’s debut of a new smartphone – one which not only seemed poised to take on the iPhone, but was also a complete departure from the company’s previous mobile phone offerings.

As the first looks started to filter in, followed later by the reviews coming out of the U.S. from folks like Walt Mossberg, David Pogue and CNET, my interest intensified and I found myself lobbying the gang over at Bell Mobility to get my hands on one as soon as possible.

Of course, that put me in the same boat as every other Canadian tech journalist who had yet to spend some hands-on time with the device.

My turn finally came in the week following the phone’s August 27th launch here in Canada.
The biggest question I had before using the Palm was this: Could I see myself swapping my trusty BlackBerry Curve for the Pre… would it enable me to do all of the tasks that I have become so used to being able to do while on the road? This was my primary yardstick as I put the Pre through its paces.

Form Factor
My review unit came with the phone itself, as well as Palm’s innovative Touchstone desktop charger – a tiny USB-powered black pedestal that recharges the Pre without wires. Simply place the Pre on the Touchstone’s angled surface and it magnetically secures itself in place and begins charging. Very slick. Not that I mind plugging my BlackBerry in at night, but there’s a distinct cool factor to the Touchstone.

My only critique of the Touchstone is that it doesn’t go far enough… now that I have had a taste of cable-less charging, I want it to sync with my PC too! Perhaps in the next version?

The Pre itself is a very attractive gadget. Its glossy black surface and rounded shape make it look more like a case for an exotic watch or pair of sunglasses than a phone.  It feels fantastic in your hand; its size and shape makes touching it oddly irresistible.

Keyboard
This may be the most controversial feature on the Pre: its slide-out QWERTY keyboard. For seasoned BlackBerry users, this – pardon the pun – is a key area of comparison.

I’ll reiterate here what so many others have already observed: The edges of the keyboard are sharp. Though you get used to it, you can’t help but wonder if there was any way the designers could have come up with a different solution, perhaps a rubberized edge made from the same material as the phone’s back plate?

Compared to the Blackberry Curve’s raised plastic ‘keys’, the Pre’s keyboard feels more like a blister-coated film. Typing on it often required the use of the tips of the thumbs as opposed to the pads. The pleasant surprise was how much tactile feedback these tiny bumps were able to convey when pressed. I was expecting a hollow, thin feel as though I was forcing the curve of the blister to invert and then pop-back, but instead was greeted with a positive and solid click. While the keys themselves are small and tightly spaced – if you can get used to them – you should be able to type almost as quickly as on a BlackBerry.

What you will notice – at least I certainly did – was that my thumbs kept bumping into the lowest portion of the main body of the phone. It wasn’t a deal breaker, but it did get annoying at times.
Also, if you ever find yourself trying to type while reclined or lying down, you’ll soon give up: It’s nearly impossible to counter the phone’s top-heavy balance when in this position, and it has a tendency to fall towards you. Not recommended.

If you have gotten into the habit of writing lengthy emails on your BlackBerry, the Pre – well let’s just say you’ll start favouring brevity over bombast.

Integration with Outlook/Exchange
For as long as I’ve used a BlackBerry, I have found its seamless integration with Outlook simply outstanding. And once full wireless syncing for all Outlook folders became available, I was hooked. For me, working in an enterprise setting with the full BlackBerry Enterprise service at my disposal, it has been mobile nirvana. The only tasks I ever feel compelled to do on my laptop is composing long emails that require attachments, or doing folder management whereby I move items from the server to my local machine. Everything else is possible from the BlackBerry, and best of all, it’s automatically reflected in my Outlook when I shift back to my PC. It’s this experience that I think turns people into crackberry addicts, and I was skeptical of the Pre’s ability to emulate it.

The good news for prospective platform-jumpers is that, with a few exceptions, the Pre delivers.
Palm makes use of Microsoft’s Exchange Active Sync (EAS) protocol, which enables mobile devices and other non-Outlook apps to swap data with an Exchange server. If you work for a company that uses Exchange, check first with your IT department to make sure they both support and can enable EAS on your Exchange account. Without this, you’ll be stuck with basic POP email support.

Fortunately I was able to get EAS activated and within minutes my Pre had sync’d my Contacts, Inbox, Calendar and Tasks, all without connecting a single cable.  This was a great relief since my last experience syncing a Palm device to Outlook was almost 8 years ago using a Palm Pilot V. It wasn’t pretty.

I was delighted to discover that the ability to search our company’s Global Address List (something I have come to depend on) is available on the Pre, as is the ability to email all the attendees of a calendar event.

Email
Skimming through your inbox is effortless on the Pre; a simple upward or downward finger swipe on the list of emails scrolls the items as quickly as you wish. The Pre displays time, sender and subject lines by default and also gives you a 1-line preview of the body. One area where the Pre excels is in text display and no feature shows this off better than reading an email. Not only does the Pre render full HTML messages they way they were meant to be seen, but just as in the web browser app, you can pinch and um, unpinch to zoom in and out of the content. Fonts are rendered beautifully. If you find it difficult to read an email in the standard portrait orientation, just flip the Pre on its side and it automatically shifts to landscape mode.

One thing I did notice when it comes to email – and indeed most of the Pre’s features – when compared to the BlackBerry, actions feel slightly sluggish. For instance, when you open an email on the Blackberry, clicking on the item immediately switches the screen to the full text of the message. Because the Pre is a multi-tasking device by design, opening items is the same as opening a new window – there is a brief pause while the screen opens the email in order to display it. Considering the flexibility of being able to have multiple windows open at once, and being able to render full HTML, it’s worth the slight lag. But if you’re coming from a BlackBerry, it does take a little getting used to.

Contacts
Although I didn’t get to fully take advantage of this feature, the Pre can pull contact data from Gmail, Facebook and other sources to create a merged view of your entire social sphere.

Whether this is something you’ll want to do really depends on how separate you like to keep your work and social lives.

Whenever possible, the Pre pulls down image information associated with a contact which give the address book a much friendlier, personal feeling than the BlackBerry’s all-business ‘rolodex ‘ style of contact management.

Web surfing
Surfing the web is one of the areas where the Pre truly shines. The browser renders full web pages the way they would be seen on your computer, and lets you zoom in and out with ease. If you’ve ever seen the iPhone’s web browser and wished you could have that on your phone, the Pre is without question the device for you. But more relevantly for this article, if you are a BlackBerry user and have found yourself wondering why it is that RIM can’t seem to deliver a decent mobile browsing experience, you may not be able to go back to your old BlackBerry once you get your hands on the Pre.

Issues
Of course, no product is perfect and the Pre is no exception. Notwithstanding its amazing range of features, there are some things the Pre lacks.

Search: Though using the Pre’s Universal Search feature is good, it only comes with the ability to search the phone itself, Google, and Wikipedia from the search interface. Oddly, there is no way to add additional search providers.

Profiles (or lack thereof): One of the BlackBerry’s strengths is the ability to manage all of the various types of alerts for emails, calls, IMs, text messages, etc. You can set the behaviour for each one and specify that it do something different depending on whether it is in or out of its holster. The Pre on the other hand, lets you set the ringtone, and choose between silent and regular notifications. That’s it.

Out of Office Message: I love being able to set my Out of Office notification message from my BlackBerry, but the Pre doesn’t support this. Still unsure if this is a problem with the Pre itself or a lack of integration on the EAS side.

Notes: The BlackBerry treats its Notes section as an extension of Outlook – any notes you take on the BlackBerry are synced to Outlook and vice versa. The Pre’s notes function is divorced from the sync operation and doesn’t talk to Outlook at all. We’re not sure why this is.

Calendar Invites: This was a big surprise – you can schedule events in your calendar on the Pre, but you can’t invite anyone in your contacts to attend. It’s an especially puzzling omission given that it gives you the option to email all the attendees of a meeting to which you have been invited. Hopefully this is a bug that can be corrected on future releases of the Web OS.

Battery Life: It’s been mentioned by many reviewers already so I won’t belabour the point, but if you’re used to the BlackBerry’s incredible battery life, you will need to get used to recharging the Pre religiously every day. For some people, especially heavy mobile users, this is going to be an issue. One way to deal with it is to carry a spare battery with you (it can be swapped easily by remove the back cover). The other thing you can do is turn off any unnecessary connections e.g. Bluetooth, which could eat away at your battery.  It’s also possible that Palm will be able to improve battery life with a combination of Web OS tweaks and perhaps a longer life battery.

Conclusion
Despite its drawbacks, the Pre is an amazing smartphone. Fun to use and even addictive after a while, it brings a sexy look to a category long-known for its function-over-form tendencies. For BlackBerry owners who can live with the compromises the Pre requires, it is an attractive option – especially given its new lower price of $150 on a 3 year contract. However die-hard BlackBerry fans who don’t want to give up any of its superbly integrated Exchange server features – or its legendary battery life – will find the trade-offs just too much to deal with.