Tagged: product review

Lytro camera debuts to positive reviews

If you haven’t heard about the Lytro, start with our introduction to the camera.

As a refresher, the Lytro is a digital camera like no other. Instead of merely capturing “flat” light – colour and brightness – the camera’s sensors are capable of measuring the trajectory of the light itself. The big advantage to this is that the whole notion of what is in focus at the time you take the photo becomes irrelevant as focal distances can be decided after-the-fact and altered using software to suit your needs.

When the company announced its first product last year, it was clear from the beginning that they were onto something huge. Their demo “living photos” were very impressive displays of what the technology could do, and the cameras themselves were as different in their design when compared to traditional cameras as their photos were.

But as with any new technology, the truest test is how it fares when put through its paces by reviewers out in the real world.

The Lytro seems to have passed the test – though not without a few caveats.

In The Verge’s review, David Pierce notes that “the effect is amazing but the photos aren’t.” His experience with the Lytro shows that while the camera definitely does what is says it can do, it can’t do it reliably under all shooting conditions, with low-light being an especially challenging scenario.

There are some minor quibbles with the overall design of the Lytro itself, but Pierce reserves his biggest criticism for the camera’s screen which he deems too small and “kind of terrible.”

Walt Mossberg over at All Things D, is equally upbeat about the Lytro’s technology but doesn’t seem as concerned as Pierce when it comes to the camera’s physical attributes. He does however make the point that there is a learning curve when it comes to taking good photos with the Lytro – words to remember for those who are eager to get their hands on one.

Both reviewers note that the engineers behind the Lytro plan to release software updates in the future that will further enhance the camera’s capabilities without necessitating a hardware upgrade which should be comforting for those looking to be first in line for the ground-breaking device.

What Lytro’s debut proves more than anything is that the technology is real, it works and it’s the most amazing advance in photography since the beginning of photography itself. And, as with any technology, there is plenty of room for improvement. With any luck, Lytro will succeed in licensing its innovations to major manufacturers and in the future we’ll all be snapping “living photos” regardless which camera we happen to choose.

Sony Walkman NWZ-Z1000 Series hands-on review

Sony's Z1000 Walkman is an Android-based competitor to the iPod Touch

Sony's Z1000 Walkman is an Android-based competitor to the iPod Touch

Pros:

  • Superb audio performance
  • Snappy performance
  • Big, 4.3″ multi-touch screen
  • Micro-HDMI out
  • SenseMe Channels
  • FM Radio
Cons:
  • Huge/thick/heavy form factor
  • No cameras
  • Compass mode is quirky
  • External speakers only so-so
  • Expensive
Overall:
  • 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.

Design

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
Weight 156g  101g

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.

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Screen

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.

Performance

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.

Featured Apps

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.

Closest Competitors

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

 

 

Samsung Galaxy S Vibrant vs. Apple iPhone 4: A touchy comparison

Samsung's Galaxy S Vibrant (left) and Apple's iPhone 4 (right). Click for larger image.

Samsung's Galaxy S Vibrant (left) and Apple's iPhone 4 (right). Click for larger image.

Though it shocks a lot of people when they find out, the truth is I have never spent much time with an iPhone. Sure I’ve used one on an occasional basis as friends and colleagues have let me play with theirs, but my primary device has always been a BlackBerry.

But my good ol’ BlackBerry Curve is beginning to show its age in a big way and I’m gearing up for my next mobile device. The question is, do I stay with the King of the Keyboard or do I throw caution to the wind and join the legions of people who have ditched physical buttons for touch screens? As luck would have it, both Samsung and Apple were kind enough to lend me their flagship smartphones to perform a head-to-head comparison. I’ve now had the Samsung Galaxy S Vibrant for a month and the iPhone 4 for two weeks. And though we don’t have room here to discuss every aspect of these two high-tech marvels, here are my thoughts on how they stack up in a few key areas.

Screen

The first thing you notice about the Galaxy S Vibrant is how it lives up to its name. The Super AMOLED touch screen which measures 4” and has a 480×800 resolution is truly stunning. The blacks are deep; the colours are rich and jewel-like. I’ve always preferred OLED to LCD when it comes to HDTV displays (though sadly this use of the technology has yet to catch on at the manufacturing stage) and the same is true when it comes to the mobile arena. The iPhone 4 uses an LED-backlit IPS-LCD screen at 3.5” with an astounding 640×960 resolution which they refer to as a “Retina Display”. Though the specs are impressive, in comparing the iPhone 4 to the Galaxy S, I didn’t find that text was any easier to read on the iPhone or that images were any sharper. Both phones have excellent screens, but the Galaxy S’s larger and brighter display makes for a better viewing experience.

Text Input

The obvious benefit to touch screen phones over their physical-keyboard brethren is the larger display area and easy, gesture-based interaction. But when it comes to typing, many people find that real buttons can’t be replaced with soft ones. I’ve always been one of those people and it’s been the biggest reason for sticking with my BlackBerry. As I had suspected, typing on the iPhone 4 – even in landscape orientation with a wider keyboard layout – was difficult and required a lot of backspacing. Over the years, my thumbs have developed such familiarity with the location of letters on my BlackBerry Curve that I can often watch the screen and not the keys while maintaining a very good level of accuracy. I recognize that I might get there with the iPhone given enough practice and there are plenty of iPhone users who demonstrate superb typing skills. But the thought of having to go through the inevitable months of pain while I condition myself to a totally different system depresses me.

And then I discovered Swype. And the world changed just a little. Swype is software that ships with the Galaxy S Vibrant and it gives users a completely new way to interact with the soft keyboard on their phone. Instead of trying to accurately hit those little keys, Swype only asks that you trace a path on the keyboard from one letter to the other. You don’t even have to be all that accurate. At the end of the word, remove your finger from the screen and voila – the word you were typing, er, swyping, automatically appears.

It sounds like magic and most of the people who I show Swype to have the same reaction: “No way!” It’s that good. So good in fact that when I switch from the Galaxy S back to the iPhone, I’m even more irritated by the iPhone’s keyboard. Every touch screen phone should come with Swype.

Form Factor

The two phones are fairly similar in outward appearance: Black slabs that are all-screen with a few physical buttons on their front and sides. The Galaxy S is slightly larger in width and height but is lighter in the hand than the iPhone. To some this will feel good – especially if you plan to carry it in your pocket, while others will prefer the iPhone’s heft and its solid feel. The iPhone claims to be the thinnest smartphone on the planet, and while that might be true, you’d need a magnifying glass to be aware of the difference between these devices.

The Galaxy S keeps its power/wake-up button on the side near the top of the phone while the iPhone maintains its traditional top-mount location. While I prefer the iPhone layout, it’s not a big deal. More impactful are the Galaxy S’s three navigation buttons at the bottom of the phone. Nowhere else does the Android vs. iOS experience become so similar to the PC vs. Mac debate. Apple has always maintained that a one-button mouse should suffice when using a computer while PC mice typically feature two or more buttons. And so it goes with the iPhone – a single “home” button that performs several tasks, while the Galaxy S offers the same physical button, but flanked by two dedicated soft-touch keys: “menu” on the left and “back” on the right.

I’m going to take a guess that if you agree with Apple on the whole mouse design issue, you will have no problem with their single home button – instead relying on the operating system to provide you with all the navigation options you need. I’m not in that camp. I like my computer to have a two button mouse (with a scroll wheel!) and coincidentally, I really like having a menu button and back button available to me whenever I want them on a smartphone. Can you get by without them? Sure – the iPhone works just fine without them. But they sure are handy.

Call Quality

Despite the entire furor over “Antennagate”, I didn’t experience any issues with dropped calls on either the iPhone or the Galaxy S. But there was a noticeable difference in the quality of the sound itself. On the iPhone, voices sounded rich and natural – at times it was hard to tell I was talking on a mobile phone. The Galaxy S on the other hand, sounded tinny and distant. This wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for me as voice calls are something I do only rarely, but if you’re a big talker, the iPhone wins hands-down.

Email

This is one area where I wish I could combine the strengths of each phone into one device. The Galaxy S gives you great control over your inbox, letting you perform bulk actions like multiple-delete, something the iPhone lacks. [Update: the iPhone 4 can do this too, but you need to jump into an edit mode to do it – Thanks Robert for the clarification in the comments section]. Whereas the iPhone does a better job of rendering HTML emails to preserve their original format. The Galaxy S lets you access all of your mailbox subfolders (inbox, sent items etc) from any screen, but the iPhone lets you see message threads as a single item, so you can more easily see how a conversation has progressed over a series of replies.

Photos & Video Recording

Both devices have 5 megapixel cameras capable of capturing 720p high-def video at 30 frames per second. Both have software zoom capability. But the iPhone takes a slight lead in this category, based solely on improvements to the iOS. The iPhone 4 can capture HDR (High Dynamic Range) photos which significantly improve the look of images that would otherwise have washed-out areas or poor detail. In video mode, you can trim the video clips you just shot and immediately upload them to YouTube via Wi-Fi.

iTunes Vs. Samsung Kies

Though most smartphone buyers are going to judge their next device based on what it can do when you’re out and about, some consideration should be given to how easy it is to transfer content to and from the device using your PC or Mac. When using an iPhone, iTunes is the de facto standard for device management. Though there are certain weaknesses (e.g. you can’t import or export photos and videos via iTunes on a PC) iTunes is a very polished piece of software with two undeniable strengths: 1) The built-in store gives you super easy access to a wealth of first-rate content including music, movies, TV shows and Apps. 2) You can back up every app, video and song you have bought from the App Store so that if your iPhone dies you haven’t lost your investments in content.
The Galaxy S line of phones has an equivalent to iTunes known as “Kies”. What’s odd is that this very useful piece of software is largely unpromoted by Samsung. There’s no mention of it in any of the product manuals that accompany the phone, and I only happened to stumble upon it by accident when googling an unrelated search. Kies is essentially a virtual desktop program. When launched on a PC, the program simulates a desktop complete with a “My Computer” icon in the top left corner and a dock area that contains icons for the program’s various functions such as “media player” and “photo viewer”. Anyone who has worked on a Mac will immediately see the similarity to MacOS. When you connect your Galaxy S device via USB, it shows up as a mounted icon in the upper right corner. The reason for the desktop interface is that Samsung is trying to provide an all-in-one environment for duplicating the functions of the smartphone. Instead of jumping from one app environment to the other the way you would on the actual phone, these functions appear as windows on the Kies desktop. It’s a system that works surprisingly well. The ability to fully back up your phone is absent as is any connection to an e-commerce platform to buy content, but I expect that Samsung will be adding this soon, given their recent announcement of their iPad competitor, the Galaxy Tab and its associated storefront known simply as the “Media Hub”. While Kies may still lack the sophistication of iTunes, given that it is still early in its development cycle compared to the more mature iTunes (now in version 10), there’s plenty of reason to think it will get better as long as Samsung doesn’t abandon it.

Battery Life

If you’re a BlackBerry user, battery life is one of the big differences when it comes to using other smartphones. My Curve has been known to go for three days without a charge and I have never had the battery die on me during regular use. I’d already heard the complaints about the iPhone 3G and 3GS batteries so when I got the iPhone 4 I was prepared for regular charging. Much to my surprise, I was able to get two days out of the iPhone before needing to charge, and that was with fairly liberal use of Wi-Fi, 3G and calling. No massive hour-long conversations or anything, but neither did I hold back. The Galaxy S on the other hand was never able to go more than 24 hours on a full charge, and even then, I wasn’t able to use it as hard as the iPhone. A few people in the office were quick to blame things like the Samsung’s larger AMOLED screen, but I don’t think the difference is a result of power-hungry components. I suspect the reality is that Apple put a much higher capacity battery in the iPhone 4 than in previous models. Apple has made enormous strides in battery life since the first iPod models hit store shelves and I think they have finally achieved a balance between weight, cost and longevity. Not being able to replace the battery on the iPhone is no longer a reason to avoid it, if ever it was.

Conclusion

The Galaxy S Vibrant and the iPhone 4 are both incredibly sophisticated and powerful smartphones that are ideal companions for people who want complete control of their digital lives while on the go. Which one you choose will likely boil down to how you answer the following questions:

  • Are you already hooked into the Apple ecosystem because you own devices like the iPad or iPod Touch? If so, you may as well get the iPhone 4 as it will allow you to maximize your existing investments.
  • Are you frustrated by the inaccuracy of touch screen keyboards? Samsung’s embedded Swype application largely takes the pain out of this experience and 2 minutes of playing with it will make anyone feel speedy.
  • Are you swayed by fashion and trends? Get the iPhone 4. You’ll get tons of admiring glances and you’ll have a virtually unlimited choice when it comes to accessories for dressing up your phone.
  • Do you prefer to exert more control over your technology instead of going with the default settings? The combination of Samsung’s TouchWiz 3.0 interface and the Android 2.1 OS gives you lots of choice in how you interact with the Galaxy S.

As for me? Well, I’m waiting to try out RIM’s BlackBerry Torch before making my final decision. But if I had to choose right now, I’d probably go with the iPhone. While I preferred the overall user experience of the Galaxy S, having an iPad at home has made me an App Store junky and I’m reluctant to give up on our collection of apps even if it means a few more typos.

Cisco Valet: Wireless networking as simple as 1-2-3

Cisco Valet PlusWireless networking is the best thing to happen to computing since the invention of the laptop. Cut the cord and roam around your house, office, cottage, or your local coffee shop all the while still connected to the Internet. No wonder so many people have jumped on the Wi-Fi bandwagon and set up home wireless networks.

But not everyone has taken the leap. According to research by IDC, a whopping 61% of Canadian households still don’t have a wireless set up at home. One reason for this might be that these consumers have no need of a wireless environment. Perhaps their one computer is a desktop and it sits right next to the DSL or Cable modem and never moves. Or perhaps it’s that setting up a wireless network can be a bit daunting. Add to that all of the concerns around wireless security and it’s easy to see why there might be a certain reluctance among some folks to get their hands dirty.

It’s this group of people that Cisco is targeting with a new line of wireless routers, known as Cisco Valet. If you’re familiar with Cisco’s line of Linksys routers, the Valet devices will look very familiar. They share the same thin, rounded-wedge profile as their Linksys brethren but sport a friendly silver and white paint job which gives them a more approachable look when compared to the shiny-black Linksys units.

When you open the box, there is no instruction booklet - just the router and a USB key.

When you open the box, there is no instruction booklet - just the router and a USB key.

The key difference between the two product lines is simplicity. While the Valet routers pack much of the same leading-edge wireless software and chipsets as the Linksys boxes, they come ready out-of-the box requiring almost no set-up or customization.

The Valet is aptly named. The whole experience is just like dropping off your car with a (good) valet: you hand them the keys and your parking troubles are instantly dealt with. In the case of the Cisco Valet however, it’s you who gets the key – a USB key in fact – that comes with the router. It’s this key that is, er, key, to the easy set-up.

1. Grab the USB key and plug it into any wired or wireless computer in the house.
2. Grab the Cisco Valet and connect it to your DSL/Cable modem and a power outlet.
3. Follow the step-by-step on-screen wizard on your computer.

valet-screen-1

Click for larger image

A few screens and easy to understand choice later, and you’ve set up a fully secured Wi-Fi network that lets you surf the Internet (and do tons of other things) from anywhere in your home.

If you need to get other computers connected, just remove the key and repeat steps 1 and 3.

A few weeks ago I wrote about one of my favourite new products – the Kodak Pulse digital frame. It’s a photo-frame that lets you update the images via email, without needing a PC. But as someone rightly pointed out in the comments, the frame is useless if the person who buys it (or gets it as a gift) doesn’t have a Wi-Fi network. The Cisco Valet is the perfect answer to this problem, since even though it *does* require a PC for the initial set-up, the process is so painless, it makes an ideal companion to the Kodak frame.

valet-screen-3

Click for larger image

In case you’re worried that the Valet is so dumbed-down that it lacks the advanced settings needed to do more sophisticated things like port forwarding, don’t be: Behind the elegant Valet user interface is a full web-based set of menus which give you the same access to the router’s inner-workings as you would find on any of the Linksys products. But I have a feeling very few people will ever want to peek behind the curtain.

My favourite feature of the Valet – beyond the incredibly easy set up – is the “guest” function. When you set up the router, it automatically creates a secondary network, one that is completely separate from the network that now connects all of your home equipment.

This second network is effectively a tunnel directly onto the Internet, to which you can grant access at any time, and to any person. Say your friend comes over with their iPod Touch and wants to download a new app. No problem. You simply give them the name of the secondary network and an easy-to-remember password and they’re online in seconds. But at no time can they access any of your computers, networked storage devices or any other piece of equipment in your house. Best of all, if your guest happens to be one of your children’s friends, you can impose the same rules around which websites are off-limits.  That way no one ends up seeing something they shouldn’t.

The Cisco Valet is a Wi-Fi N product which means that if you have a Wi-Fi N equipped PC or other device, you will experience greater speeds and much greater wireless range than the previous “G” generation of wireless products. In fact, even if your devices are still the older “g” standard, you will likely get better range and performance, if not faster speeds, than your older “g” router.

You can pick up the Valet in one of two flavours: the regular Valet which at $99 is the best value for small homes and businesses, and the Valet Plus at $129 which is a better device for larger homes or businesses that need additional wireless range.

If you’ve ever considered creating a wireless network for your home or office, but have feared the complexity of such a set up, Cisco’s Valet family of products is easily the best solution.

Fujifilm revives the instant camera

Fujifilm-Instax-Mini-7S-Instant-Camera-1Being a parent often means getting to tell your kids crazy stories about what life was like when you were a kid and then watching the expressions of amazement or confusion on their faces.

“That’s right – when I was your age, phones were stuck to the wall and you had to dial phone numbers using this big, er, dial!”

It’s endless fun. One of my favourites is reminding them that there was a time when screaming “let me see!” after someone takes a photo simply wasn’t an option.

Because my kids live with a tech editor father, they aren’t surprised when I come home with yet another shiny new gadget. You might even say they’re blasé about it.  But when I brought home my review copy of Fujifilm’s Instax Mini 7s, I knew I held in my possession the power to amaze. Not because the Instax Mini is the latest and greatest, but precisely because it isn’t.

I sat down at the dining room table and pulled the chunky and somewhat bulbous-looking camera from my bag and beckoned both children to come closer. They’re so used to having a camera in their faces (I confess to being an unrelenting documentarian of our family in both photo and video) that they both instantly pulled their usual photo poses: My daughter dutifully smiled angelically while my son managed to contort his features into a face that, well, kind of makes you want to call a doctor.

fujifilm-printsJust as instantly, I snapped the photo. Then the unthinkable happened. Instead of that frozen moment in time appearing on a screen on the back of the camera, a small rectangular document emerged from the top.

The double-take that both kids executed was priceless. I wish I had had the presence of mind to capture it on video.

30 years ago, this was the quintessential Polaroid moment. Back then, everyone who witnessed what had just happened knew what came next: you grab the white-and-black flexible card and shake it in the air (to this day I still don’t know why we did this) and then wait – often impatiently – for the photo to emerge from the layers of chemicals embedded in the print.

But to a child who has never been photographed with anything other than digital technology, this was a new experience. Realizing I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do a “magic trick”, I asked the kids to step closer, placed the freshly snapped print on the table and proceeded to wave my hand mystically in the air over it. A few nonsensical incantations later and the image appeared.

My daughter rewarded my efforts with a giggle while my son, who was given a photo printer for Christmas this year, said “Cool, make me one too!” He was nonplussed to learn that not only was there no digitally-preserved version of the photo; there was no way to print any more – unless we took the same photo again.

Which brings us to the real question: Why, in this age of digital photography, when we never have to live with a photo that isn’t to our liking, or spend money printing an image we might not want to keep, would we want to bring back the instant-print cameras of days gone by?

The answer is simple: It’s still fun after all these years.

While the uses for an instant camera like the Instax Mini and it’s bigger brother the Instax 210, are limited only by the imagination, parties are the most obvious time to pull one of these cameras out and start shooting.

The memories can be shared immediately and unlike digital photos which can make their way onto the web with ridiculous ease, instant photos tend to stay in the real world where they are enjoyed by a select few – which is kind of the point.

The Instax Mini 7s, ($80.99 at Amazon.ca) when compared to modern point-and-shoots, is laughably big, and possessed of so few buttons and settings you’re tempted to start looking for hidden hatches. Other than the shutter-release button, there is only a small selector switch that lets you choose between 4 shooting modes including indoor, outdoor-cloudy, outdoor-sunny and outdoor-really-sunny. There isn’t even a power button – this is accomplished by pulling the lens out manually from its retracted/closed position.

The built-in flash fires for every shot, regardless of the shooting mode. When indoors, it’s a necessity but like most built-in flashes, its range maxes out at about 4 feet.

fuji-instax-mini-film-twin-packThe prints are a credit-card sized 3.5”x2” with a generous white border that is slightly thicker on one side – just like the classic Polaroid prints you remember. Even the colours and skin-tones plus deep depth of field that kind of flattens the image all feels just like the original. You buy them in 10-print cartridges – which are going for $10 on Amazon.ca.

The Polaroid 300

The Polaroid 300

One thing that you will quickly find if you do a little googling, is that Polaroid themselves markets a camera in the U.S. called the ‘300’, which as far as I’ve been able tell, is a total clone of the Fujifilm Instax Mini 7s. When I called Fujifilm to ask what the story was, they kept the answer short and a little mysterious: Yes, Polaroid and Fujifilm have a partnership but the details are under wraps. Why the cloak and dagger? Who knows. My guess is that they want to keep the two brands very separate, to the point where they don’t sell the two cameras in the same market.  Polaroid owns the U.S. while Fujifilm seems to be everywhere else.

On this note, Fujifilm claims that the Polaroid 300 film will not work in the Fujifilm Instax Mini 7s. But I find that highly unlikely. If you ever find yourself in the U.S. with your Instax and in need of film, I say go ahead and pick up the Polaroid product. It’s probably made my Fujifilm anyway. I mean look at the cameras – they’re identical.

There’s no question, the Fujifilm Instax Mini 7s will draw a crowd – maybe even more so than Apple’s new iPhone 4 – how’s that for $80 worth of entertainment?

Get retro and have some fun. It’s what the Instax was made for.

Kodak's Pulse: A digital knight in shining armour

Kodak Pulse - Alternate ShotI’ll tell you this for free: no good deed goes unpunished.

It started the way it often does. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy marries girl. Boy has children with girl. Boy is a hero for having given both sets of parents grandchildren.

But hero status is fleeting. It disappears altogether when the grandparents start to complain that they never get any photos of the children.

Digital photography has been a game changer. No more rolls of film. No more expensive processing fees. No more hoping that the shot you took worked out but not knowing for sure until days later. But along with digital photography comes digital distribution of the photos and not everyone is ready for that part of the revolution.

I used to get prints made all the time. But after a while it became a hassle. Since all of my photos are on my computer and can be seen any time I like, having prints seemed sort of old-fashioned. Creating prints just so my kids’ grandparents could have them was even less appealing to me.

I decided to use the technology as my shortcut. “Here’s the deal,” I told my folks and the in-laws. “I’ll email you all of the best photos I take and you can decide which ones to print.” I soon learned that people who talk of “doing the internet” are so technologically inept that asking them to master the steps involved in downloading an email attachment and taking it to the local photomat is akin to herding cats.

Eventually technology came to my rescue, or so I thought, in the form of the digital photoframe. “Brilliant!” I declared. A device that lets the grannies see photos of their precious angels and I don’t have to get prints made and they don’t have to get prints made and everyone is happy. Everyone is getting a digital frame for Christmas! All I have to do is show them how to transfer the photos from their PCs to their frames. All I have to do is… right.

Summer has come and gone 3 times since then and yet both grannies stare at the same photos of the kids that were on the frames when they received them.

“Why?” I asked my mother. “Is it really so hard to just transfer a few photos now and then?”

I received a somewhat pitying look in response.

Every visit to my mother-in-law’s I would sit down on the couch and stare at the digital frame. Its blank screen mocked me from its position beside all of the other frames – the ones with prints in them.

Fast forward another year. I stumble across Marc’s post about a new frame from Kodak called the Pulse. It’s small, black, and unlike all the other frames on the market that can play movies, music and even act as a second monitor for your computer, the Pulse only does one thing: display digital photos.

But the Pulse has one feature that all the others lack. A feature so well thought out, so simple in its execution, it’s worth more than a dozen of the other frames. The Pulse is the first digital frame that never has to be connected to a computer and can receive new photos directly via email.

It’s as though the engineers at Kodak understood my pain and had set out to deal with it.

After you buy a Kodak Pulse, you go through a one-time set up process which connects the frame to the internet over your Wi-Fi connection. You then register the frame with Kodak’s website and you get your choice of an email address. This is the email address that you or any of your friends and family can use to send photos to your frame.

If email is like, so last decade, and you are in the habit of using Facebook for your photo sharing, no problem. The Pulse can be configured to pull photos from a Facebook account.
You never need to transfer images by swapping out memory cards or messing around with USB cables, though both of those options still exist should you wish to use them, but why on earth would you?

The Pulse’s 7″ touchscreen lets you do some very basic tasks such as deleting an image you don’t like, and changing the slideshow settings. The rest of the frame’s advanced functions are accessed via the Kodak website. From there you can see all of the photos on the frame, upload more from your PC, or delete any you don’t want. You can also sort the photos by who sent them to you – a handy way to perform bulk image management.

Two areas that I would like to see improved in a future update:  Within the website management tool you can only see the uploaded photos as thumbnails – there’s no way to see the full image. Also, there is no way to change the order of images once they’re uploaded. While you can set the frame to display photos randomly or in order, without control over the order, it’s hard to create a “story” or timeline effect. I have a series of quotes from my son from the age he started speaking until now. I’ve turned them into individual images and I’d like to intersperse these with photos from the same time period. At the moment, that can’t be done, unless I delete all of the images on the frame and then re-upload them one at a time.

In a nod to energy conservation, the site gives you control over when the frame turns itself on and off, with the option of having it turn on when a new image is received.

The frame automatically checks for firmware updates and advises you when they should be installed – another example of how Kodak has evolved the digital frame into a true internet appliance.

At last, the grannies have the latest photos of the grandkids, the only person who had to touch a computer was me… and Hero status has once again been conferred on the boy.

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.

Hands-on Review of Sony's X-Series Walkman

Sony X Series Touchscreen Walkman

Sony X Series Touchscreen Walkman

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of the S-Series Sony Walkman. The combination of tiny form factor, amazing battery life and un-matched sound quality keeps it at the top of my list of MP3 players. It’s the one I take with me everywhere; including the gym where normally a smaller unit like an iPod Shuffle would be preferable. I just can’t bear to be without the noise-cancellation and the SenseMe features of the Walkman.

So I was super curious to see what Sony would do with the new X-Series Walkman which made a sort of sneak-peek debut at this year’s CES show in Las Vegas. At the Sony booth it sat inside a sealed transparent cylinder, teasing us with it’s glossy screen and minimalist design. For me, the wait ended when Sony Canada finally sent me a review unit last month. I’ve now been playing with it for a few solid weeks – here’s my take on Sony’s latest addition to the Walkman family…

Form Factor

For the X-Series, Sony has bulked up the Walkman quite a bit from the S, B and E series. It’s thicker, wider, longer and heavier than the previous generation. For iPod enthusiasts it’s like going from a Nano to an iPod Classic. Sony has wrapped the edge of the case with a textured plastic that reminds me of rough-granite. I know that doesn’t sound immediately appealing but it was a good choice – holding the Walkman in your hand with the sides of the unit gripped by the edges of your palm feels good. Unlike other players which have made use of slippery surfaces for the entire case, the Walkman doesn’t feel like it’s about to slip from your hands. Even if you were all sweaty from a work out, it would likely stay put.

The next thing you notice on the X-Series is layout of the external controls, of which there are quite a few. Unlike Apple’s iPod Touch who’s super-minimalist design offers only home, power and volume buttons, the X-Series offers users a greater variety of controls which, considering the fact this is a touch screen device is a surprise – but a very welcome one.

As anyone who owns a touch screen media player will tell you, they’re lots of fun to interact with but the moment they disappear into your pocket, your left with a feeling of sensory deprivation. How do you pause or play, or switch tracks without having to haul the thing out again, unlock it and start poking and swiping with your finger?

Sony has obviously realized that there’s no reason why a touch screen can’t be complemented with a few physical buttons to allow ‘blind’ operation of the essentials. That’s why sitting atop the X-Series’ top edge is a trio of small but very accessible buttons: Track back, Play/Pause and Track forward.

With these controls, you can easily reach into your pocket (or if you’re really dexterous just feel through a layer of clothing) and do the two most-needed activities when listening to music. Navigate and Start/Stop.

Of course there are also controls for volume level, Noise Cancellation On/Off (more on this later) and a Hold switch in addition to the Home button on the front of the Walkman.
Interestingly, Sony seems to have abandoned the bottom facing headphone jack  that Apple popularized with the first generation iPod Nano and which Sony subsequently adopted on all of its recent Walkman models. The jack has now moved back to the more traditional top facing spot on the upper left edge of the device. While I was not initially a fan of bottom mounted jacks, I’ve become one since they debuted mainly because I like that when I place the player in my pocket head-down (which keep the player in the same vertical orientation if it was in my hand) it means the headphone cord isn’t being crammed into the bottom of my pocket. I’m always fearful of the headphone jack giving out due to increased stress on the headphone plug, and have had many portables die on me over the years for that very reason. So while I’m sure Sony had a good reason for moving the jack, I’d prefer it on the bottom.

Speaking of jacks and plugs, I really wonder what Sony was thinking when they designed the headphones for the X-Series. Don’t get me wrong I LOVE the way they fit, the sound they deliver, the integrated noise-cancelling, it’s all top notch. But the plug itself – it’s HUGE, at least by today’s standards. The non-flexible portion of the plug measure 2cm in length.  By comparison, Apple’s standard plug for the classic iPod earbuds is half that size. Then you need to consider the flexible portion (which frankly isn’t that flexible) which adds another 1cm to the overall length. Suddenly, we’re at 3cm for the plug which incidentally is 1/3 of the overall length of the Walkman itself. Go on, call me a nitpicker, but Sony can’t you figure out a way to make this thing shorter? Ok I had better stop talking about this  – I think my blood pressure is getting dangerously high.

Touch Screen

The screen on the X-Series is a delight to behold. The OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) display is bright, clear, and crisp and the colours absolutely pop out at you with a vibrancy that makes you wish your TV was made of this stuff. The 16×9 aspect ratio lends itself perfectly to viewing movies and the 3” diagonal size is big enough that you could easily sit through a feature-length film without too much trouble. While the iPod Touch’s screen is a more generous 3.5” diagonal, the Walkman’s vivid display, tighter pixel spacing, wider viewing angle and super-fast pixel response rate makes for a more appealing viewing experience. One thing I learned however is that OLED screens, unlike LCDs, do suffer from burn-in if the same image is left on the screen for too long. Not a problem for watching movies, but something to keep in mind if you’re leaving a photo or other static image displayed.

The touch interface is good, though it takes some getting used to and those with thicker fingers may find some touch activities awkward. Using the touch screen is very straight forward and there are no multi-touch gestures as on the iPod Touch. You’ll find that the X-series prefers light, quick taps instead of heavier ‘presses’.  The on-screen ‘buttons’ respond with both a subtle amber glow and an optional audible ping to let you know you’ve successfully made contact.  This generally works very well and I found that after a few minutes I was navigating around the various screens quickly and easily.

Then there are times when using the touchscreen to navigate your music can be tricky. You can ‘flick’ to scroll through a Cover-Flow style view of your albums, but it takes a while for the Walkman to update the album cover thumbnails leaving you with a series of placeholder icons as it catches up. The flick motion is not as sophisticated as on the iPod touch. The “spring-back” feeling is imprecise, and on longer lists you can often end up scrolling much faster than you want.

Where it gets really awkward is trying to surf non-mobile friendly websites with the Walkman’s built-in browser.  It’s not actually the touch-screen’s fault as much as it is the browser’s.  It’s just not up to the task of rendering and navigating full-scale webpages. More on this in a bit.

Lastly, and this is a sad truth for all touch screens, the thing is a crazy finger-print magnet. No sooner have you peeled back the factory plastic protective coating and tried a few of the device’s features, and it’s covered in smears and blotches. Since there’s obviously no getting around this with the current generation of materials, Sony, I suggest you take pity on your buyers and include a micro-fibre cloth or bag with every X-series. It wouldn’t cost much and it would be welcome accessory.

Sound Quality and Noise Cancellation

Let me repeat, in case I haven’t made it crystal clear. Sony’s Walkman media player sound great. But the S and X Series take it to a whole new level. The secret is in the unique combination of high-quality circuitry and software that they use for sound processing, and the superb earbuds that are also the conduit for the Walkman’s noise-cancelling function. If you stripped away all of the other bells and whistles and simply kept MP3 playback, noise cancellation and the earbuds, this would still be a device worth owning.

While the S-Series had noise-cancelling, it was non-digital. This means that exterior sounds are picked up by the earbuds’ built-in microphone and these are automatically cancelled by an opposite noise profile being generated through the speakers in the earbuds. It’s a great system that generally produces the desired effect. In the X-Series, Sony has introduced a digital version of the NC system. The primary benefit is that you now get three options for fine-tuning the noise-cancelling to your environment. The choices are Airplane, Bus/Train and Office. Although subtle, these settings do make a difference.  Which mode you choose depends a lot on what the primary source of noise is in your immediate vicinity. At my office, I keep a fan running under my desk because I tend to feel to warm if I don’t. The constant whir of the fan is best cancelled by the Airplane mode. But if I turn the fan off, and switch to Office, the Walkman seems to do a better job of dampening the general buzz of activity combined with the HVAC’s white noise that is present in so many office environments.

On the music side of things, the X-series shines. Sony has kept the plethora of equalization and surround effect options that they implemented on the S-Series. The abundance of choice means that, with a bit of experimentation, anyone can tailor the sound to suit their tastes. The earbuds have a shape that so far is unique in the headphone universe, a design that I call a ‘hybrid-bud’ because it looks like someone fused a traditional earbud with an in-ear sound-isolating model. The result is the best fitting and best sounding earbud that I’ve found – at any price. I think Sony may have realized that these buds might find a home in people’s lives beyond the Walkman: The S-series buds had a small lug on the plug portion that prevented them from being used with any other device but the Walkman. The X-Series has done away with that design and these new buds will fit any standard mini-jack device.
Also present on the X-Series is the ability to plug the Walkman into any other mini-jack device so that you take advantage of the noise-cancelling circuit – perfect for watching movies on an airplane – Sony even includes a double-jack headphone adapter for that very purpose.

Wi-Fi, Web Browsing and YouTube

The implemention of  Wi-Fi on media players hasn’t been consistent by any means. In the case of Microsoft’s Zune, it was touted as a way to make music ‘social’ by allowing fellow Zune users to discover each other and share musical tastes. You could also use the Wi-Fi to wirelessly sync your Zune to your PC if you happened to leave the USB cable somewhere else. The Social aspect never really caught on, partially because shared songs could only be played back three times before they expired but mainly because the odds of finding someone else near you with a Zune was almost zero. The wireless sync option was neat, but it was dead slow compared to using a cable, and for most people the need to sync was less than the need to recharge, so the feature was rendered a bit moot.

Apple on the other hand, uses Wi-Fi exclusively on the iPod Touch and its sole purpose is Internet access. It uses it for the browser, the App Store, iTunes and to enable any apps that depend on net access to function.

Sony’s use of Wi-Fi fits more with the Apple scheme than with Microsoft’s, but lacking a sophisticated mobile browser and not having any kind of app store or online music shop, we’re left wondering why exactly Sony included it. There are three things you can do with the X-Series Wi-Fi: Surf the web, access YouTube via a proprietary interface and download subscribed podcasts. It turns out that this seemingly limited feature set is a Canadian-only problem. In the U.S., the X-series comes equipped with the Slacker online radio service, and you can download songs from the Sony music service (in fact they give you 100 free downloads when you buy the X-Series) which means the iTunes missing part of the equation at least gets filled south of the border. Not so for us Canucks.

As I mentioned earlier, the built-in browser is horrible for traditional websites. Trying to navigate a full webpage, especially one that is designed for the width of computer screen is hard enough what with all the side-to-side scrolling required, but then you’ve got to patiently wait for the whole page to load, which can take quite a while. Expecting to see embedded videos? Sorry. Even though the custom YouTube interface works nicely, surfing the real YouTube doesn’t work at all since there’s no flash support. But, it does a good job with mobile-friendly ones. And quiet a few sites – Google included – do recognize Sony’s browser as a mobile device, which goes a long way to making it work.  But until the mobile web develops into a more robust experience that it is today, surfing on the Walkman will remain something you will probably want to avoid.

Strangely, one of the things that makes the browser so awful is something that I think could be easily fixed: there is no option to use a soft-QWERTY keyboard for text-entry. Instead, we’re reliant on alpha-numeric keypad like the kind you find on cellphones. It just doesn’t make sense – here we are with a responsive, vibrant touch screen and yet we’re forced into an awkward text-entry system that was designed to accommodate people who only had 10 keys at their disposal.  There are some nasty gotchas associated with this scheme. If say, while in the browser you go to the trouble of tapping your way through a site’s url like “www.sync-blog.com”  and you say ‘OK’, you get an error. The ‘http://’ must be there – otherwise the browser doesn’t know what to do. Worse still, the exact combination of taps required to generate that string of characters took me at least 15 seconds. Brutal. Sony, if you can give us a QWERTY keyboard via a firmware update, please do – it will enhance the usability of the browser immeasurably.

YouTube on the other hand, is beautifully integrated. From the home screen on the Walkman, you can access the YouTube option directly. Once in and connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot, you get the current list of featured videos. My experience playing back YouTube videos was flawless. No streaming issues, no buffering, just clean and smooth video.

You can search YouTube by Featured, Most Viewed, Keyword or Related. And, despite the aforementioned torturous text-entry method, the results are great – YouTube and the X-Series were made for each other.

But perhaps the best part of having YouTube so tightly integrated on the Walkman is using your own music collection to explore videos. While playing any song on the Walkman, tap the web icon on the bottom of the screen and choose the YouTube option. Up comes a list of every video that matches the combination of Artist and/or Song Title. I tried a few songs at random and in each case I was able to find a video that went with them. One in particular, AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, yielded a live performance of the song which I had never seen before (how the heck does Angus maintain that blistering guitar riff for so long?). It’s a great way to explore music and an even better way to explore YouTube.

Other Features

The X-Series has the kind of full feature set that we’ve come to expect from nearly every portable music player:
– FM Radio (but still no FM Radio Data Service… why??)
– Photo Gallery (images look incredible on that OLED screen)
– Movies
– Podcasts

These are all well executed and so I’m not going to go in-depth on any of them.

Two things I will point out though are:

Battery Life – Sony rates it at about 33 hours for regular music playback which is a little less than the iPod Touch and 9 hours for video playback which is significantly better than the Touch. Attribute this to the X-Series OLED screen which sucks much less power that the backlit LCD screen on the iPod.

Missing SensMe Feature – On the S-Series Walkman, one of my favourite features is the SensMe Channels. This cool feature analyzes all of your songs as they get loaded onto the Walkman and then categorizes them into 9 different genres based on 12 different musical elements like beat, rhythm, tonality, tempo etc. The result is 9 playlists that are based on your mood, and not on a pre-defined set of songs that you or someone else assembled. Better still, those channels update themselves automatically anytime tracks are added or removed from the Walkman. I thought it was a brilliant idea so I’m completely dumbfounded by Sony’s decision to remove it from the X-Series. Sony, if you’re listening, PLEASE bring back the SensMe channels with a firmware revision – it’s a killer app and I miss it a lot!

Software

Unchanged with the X-Series is the availability of the Sony Content Transfer software. This little utility which shows up as small window on XP and as desktop Widget under Vista, gives you complete drag & drop functionality over the Walkman’s contents. You can move files from within Windows Explorer or you can do so from within iTunes or Windows Media – the choice is yours.

Or if you prefer, you can install the provided Sony Media Manager software. This gives you a simple yet effective interface for managing and moving your files around; though don’t expect any sophisticated extras. One big gripe: The Media Manager software has the ability to automatically convert any video file you have on your PC to a format that is compatible with the X-Series. An essential feature if you want to watch videos on your Walkman. The catch is that this feature isn’t enabled by default – you have to go online and pay $12 for the upgrade. $12! Seriously Sony? You’re selling a device that was built from the ground up to be a video playing machine: 9 hours of battery life, awesome sound, 32GB of memory and stunning screen. You are also charging people $499 for the privilege. But now, in a move that boggles the mind, you want people to pay an extra $12 to be able to transfer their videos effortlessly to their Walkman. That is just not cool. Take the $12 hit and make it a standard feature. It’s the right thing to do.

Summary

This was a challenging review to write. There’s a lot to love about the X-Series: Great sound, awesome screen, fun features, generous internal memory and very strong battery performance.

On the other hand, things like a rotten browser and cumbersome text-entry really drag an otherwise compelling package down.

Lastly there’s the whole question of X-Series vs. iPod Touch. They beg to be compared to one another even if the differences are significant.  And at $429, the 32GB iPod Touch is $70 cheaper than the $499 X-Series.

It comes down to this: If listening to music really matters to you – i.e. you want the best sound possible from your portable – and you want a vibrant screen that lets you play movies anywhere, I say get the X-series. You won’t be disappointed with the sound, the visuals are breath-taking and there’s a lot of fun to be had with the Wi-Fi features, especially YouTube.
If however, you’re looking for an alternative to the iPod Touch, keep looking.  The Touch is quickly evolving into a full-fledge portable computer capable of way more than simple media playback. The X-Series can’t compete with the vast array of features found on that device. But it can and does outshine the Apple unit in the sound and vision departments which are arguably the two most important features of a portable player anyway. If the $70 price difference is bothering you, look at it this way: You won’t find an add-on noise-cancelling option for your iPod that works as well as Sony’s – at least not for $70.