Tagged: Tablets

Hipstreet Equinox 2 10.1" Android tablet review

Now might just be the worst time in the year to be making a buying decision when it comes to tablets.

Not only do we have more choice than ever when it comes to these devices, but those choices seem to be expanding daily.

A few months ago Google launched its first tablet, the Nexus 7, a 7-inch model made by ASUS, for the extremely competitive price of $229 – less than half the price of an iPad. Yesterday, Microsoft revealed its pricing on the new line of Windows 8 RT devices known as “Surface.” At $499 it too is cheaper than the iPad, albeit not by much, but has a much larger screen and vastly expanded support for external peripherals and memory.

Plus, it’s a virtual guarantee that tomorrow, Apple will be launching its own line of smaller iPads, rumoured to be called the “iPad Mini” with price range between $250-$350.

All of this creates an environment where consumers will be able to choose not only three different mobile operating systems (iOS, Android, Windows 8) but several excellent choices when it comes to the hardware that these operating systems run on.

It’s into this incredibly packed and competitive market that Canadian company Hipstreet hopes to sell its 10.1″ Android tablet, the Equinox 2.

On paper, the Equinox 2 sounds like it hits all of the right notes:

  • Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
  • 5 point multi touch screen, 16×9 ratio, 1024×600 resolution
  • MicroSD card reader
  • WiFi b/g/n
  • 4GB capacity – expandable to 32 GB with Micro SD card (not included)
  • 1.2 GHZ processor with 1GB DDR3 RAM
  • Rechargable lithium polymer battery built-in
  • High speed direct mini USB 2.0 interface (x2) plus HDMI
  • Built in speakers
  • Built-in front facing 0.3MP camera
  • Multiple language format
  • MSRP: $229

Not a bad set of specifications. At first glance, with the exception of built-in memory, it appears to offer much more tablet for the buck than the similarly priced Google Nexus 7. But specs can be deceiving – especially when it comes to portable devices. Tablets, smartphones, portable gaming systems – even laptops – get handled a lot and our tactile experience with these products depends heavily on their use of materials and build quality. This is where the Equinox 2 hits a fairly significant snag.

You notice a couple of things right away after picking up the Equinox 2:

– The back panel is made of plastic. And not the kind of grippy plastic that you might find on the Nexus 7 or even a BlackBerry PlayBook.  Instead, it has a glossy black finish which is both smooth and oddly tacky to the touch. When you first look at it, it has a kind of high-end piano-like sheen to it, but within minutes of handling it, that sheen is replaced with a mess of finger prints, smudges and dust particles. The material acts like a Swiffer for dirt. So while many devices use plastic as all or part of their exteriors, not all plastics are equal.

– The Equinox 2’s edges are flat, but become bevelled where they meet the screen’s surface. At both the flat-to-bevel and bevel-to-screen transitions, there are hard ridges that  feel uncomfortable in the hand after a while – it’s a small thing, but given that HipStreet encourages Equinox 2 owners to use it as an e-reader, you would expect a device that feels great to hold for longer periods.

– The screen surface is also plastic. Unlike the back and sides of a tablet, which can be successfully designed with plastic, a touchscreen’s surface has to possess certain qualities: Effortless finger glides for the hundreds of taps and swipes you’ll be performing; an even surface so that distortion is kept to a minimum; static-free – even though finger smudges are unavoidable, extra dust and dirt particles are not. The Equinox 2 misses the mark on all fronts.

The surface itself is riddled with small undulations – mostly toward the edges but a few creep into the main viewing area. As a material, high-quality glass alleviates all of these concerns, whereas cheap plastic makes them worse. How much worse? The resistance I feel while dragging my fingers across the Equinox’s screen surface is significant. If you’d never tried a device like the iPad or PlayBook, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was normal for a touch-screen. It isn’t. Even the surface of my decidedly dusty computer desk proved to be smoother for finger-dragging. And when you combine the friction of the surface with the hit-and-miss nature of the screen’s responsiveness to taps, the effort of interacting with the Equinox 2 becomes truly annoying.

A very noticeable light leak appears in the lower-left corner of the Equinox 2.

Turn the Equinox 2 on, and further evidence of poor design and build quality present themselves.

With the tablet lying on its back on a smooth surface like a tabletop, even slight pressure against the device’s bezel caused the screen to distort in a roughly thumb-print sized area just above the middle of the screen. You could see this when tapping almost anywhere on tablet’s screen or even on the back panel.

The screen also exhibits moderate-to-bad light leakage on the lower left side of the screen, where the gap between the plastic touch panel and the LCD beneath it is particularly noticeable.

At 10.1″, the Equinox 2 offers plenty of size, but the low resolution of 1024×600 means the pixel density is very low, resulting in graphics and text that are rougher around the edges and harder to read than tablets with the same resolution but with smaller screen sizes. Despite the tablet’s ideal movie ratio of 16×9, the resolution isn’t sufficient to deliver all of the detail in a 720p HD video. If you want to see videos in their native format, you’ll have to use the HDMI port.

My gripes about the Equinox 2’s design and build quality aside, the tablet does have some strengths.

The inclusion of USB ports that support not only the connection of the tablet to a PC for content transfers, but also the other way around – to read and write data from accessories like thumb drives and portable hard drives, is a great feature often only found on tablets that cost twice as much as the Equinox. Likewise, having an HDMI port is handy for those who want to watch videos on the big screen. The ability to expand memory via MicroSD cards is also a plus, though frankly given the Equinox 2’s paltry 4GB of on-board storage, popping in an 8 or 16GB MicroSD card is practically a requirement to enjoy this device.

The Equinox 2 boasts more ports than the average tablet, including a USB Host port.

But these features are only of real benefit to the user if you have great apps and other content to run on the Equinox, which brings me to my next major reservation with HipStreet’s latest tablet.

It runs Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), which in my opinion is the first version of Google’s OS that gives Apple’s iOS a serious run for the money. Apps open quickly, and transitions are managed smoothly. Switching between open apps is a snap, and the included Dolphin browser is serviceable if not super-speedy. The Equinox 2 runs ICS well enough, but there’s a catch.

Not all Android tablets and smartphones are the same. Well, they’re the same in principal – Google makes the base Android OS free to use by any company on any device – but if you want the full Android experience, you need to buy a device that has been certified by Google as “Compatible“. In other words, a device that has passed Google’s test to ensure that all 3rd party apps written for the Android OS will work, and one which is eligible to run Google’s own native apps such as Chrome, YouTube and Maps. Moreover, a device must be compatible if it is to provide access to the Google Play Store – which the primary source of downloadable apps for Android.

Hipstreet’s Equinox 2 appears to be amongst the group of Android devices that is *not* compatible, and that’s a big catch. The result is that not only are Google’s most popular apps missing from the Equinox 2, there’s no way to get them because the device doesn’t have access to the Play Store.

Instead, the tablet ships with a different app store, known as GetJar. GetJar is a universal app store of sorts in that it isn’t built for any one operating system. Instead it caters to them all. But GetJar is by no means a substitute for the Play Store. Only free apps are available from GetJar, and while the store attempts to ensure compatibility of the apps with your device, it’s not as reliable as the Play Store. Some popular apps can be found on GetJar. I downloaded and installed Skype, Angry Birds and the Kobo ereader apps which all work just fine on the Equinox. But there are no YouTube or Google Maps apps, and many popular free apps for compatible Android devices are missing like Amazon’s free Kindle app, or even Facebook.

When you combine the Equinox’s unfortunate build quality with its lack of decent native apps or the ability to access the Google Play Store, you end up with a tablet that simply can’t compete with other products in this category, despite its attractive price.

It pains me to reach such a negative conclusion on a Canadian product, but I wouldn’t be doing you the reader, or Hipstreet, any favours by candy-coating my impressions.

If you’re in the market for a tablet, you’re on a budget and want to shop Canadian, I highly recommend RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook. For $129, you can pick up a 16GB model which will blow away any 7″ tablet dollar-for-dollar and many larger ones too. And while the PlayBook still lacks the kind of app support you can find on either iOS or fully-compatible Android devices, the app store is still growing and may see an additional shot in the arm once RIM releases its BB 10 models in the new year.

If after reading this, you’re still interested in the Hipstreet Equinox 2, you can find it at The Source and Staples stores, where prices range between $179.99 and $229.

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Review: Sony Xperia Tablet S

Update Friday, October 5: Sony has halted sales on the new Xperia Tablet S due to concerns around the device’s ability to deal with liquid spills. According to Reuters, the company has discovered small gaps between the frame an the screen, which can let liquid in, thus compromising the tablet’s seal.

A year ago, Sony launched its first tablet effort, the Tablet S. It was 9.4” touchscreen device running what was then Google’s only version of Android for tablets – Honeycomb.

It had a unique design with its wedgy, folded-edge body, a good screen, and a built-in IR transmitter that could turn the Tablet S into a remote control for your home theatre equipment.

But it was pricey, the remote control feature lacked macros, and thanks to Honeycomb, the user experience wasn’t especially snappy or compelling. You couldn’t even use the included SD card support for anything but transfering your media files to the device’s internal memory. And there was no HDMI out – a feature that surprised many given that the tablet was supposed to (among other things) play nicely with Sony’s line of Bravia TVs.

While many reviewers praised Sony’s industrial design, the high price and poorly executed feature set kept the Tablet S from earning wide support amongst reviewers or consumers.

The Xperia Tablet S

Fast forward barely a year and Sony is back, on a mission to show that they can take constructive criticism and respond with a better product.

And that’s exactly what the new Xperia Tablet S is – a better tablet in every way.

Design

The new Xperia Tablet S preserves some of the folded-magazine design from the first version

Those of us who tried the original Tablet S gave Sony high marks for being willing to take some risks with the physical shape of the product. Its asymmetrical design meant that the top edge was thicker than the bottom. Or if you held it sideways in portrait mode, the right or left side was thicker. This not only gave the Tablet S a slight incline when using the device on a flat surface, making typing a little more comfortable, but also made holding the device while using it to read or surf the web one-handed a much better experience too.

And while the new Xperia Tablet S has toned down the wedge-shape, the folded-edge profile remains and still delivers a great reading and surfing experience thanks to the textured finish on the tablet’s backside.

Gone is the all-plastic case, replaced with a combination of plastic and aluminum which give the Xperia Tablet S a higher-end feel and puts it on the same level as the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab in terms of materials. The tablet feels surprisingly light in the hand considering its overall dimensions are similar to other, heavier tablets. Sony claims battery life is about 12 hours for watching video and 10 while wirelessly surfing the web. These are excellent numbers however I wasn’t able to fully verify them. My guess is that real-world use will prove to be slightly less.

Dual stereo speakers sit near the bottom edge, concealed behind slits covered in a fine mesh. The sound quality is great for a tablet, and more than ample for watching YouTube videos or listening to the occasional song, but you’re still better off with dedicated external speakers for any serious listening activities.

The new Multi-Port comes with a removable cover that needs to be kept in place if you want your Tablet S to remain splash and spill-proof

Around the left side, you’ll find a covered panel containing the SD card slot and immediately above that is the headphone jack, while on the bottom edge, protected by a removable cover is the new Multi-port. The Multi-port works much the same way as Apple’s dock connector. It handles charging and data transfer via the included USB cable, and with the help of an optional $39 adapter, it can be used as an HDMI-out jack for sending HD video to your HDTV.

Perhaps the best part of the Tablet S’s new physique is the one you can’t see: Sony has equipped this baby with an invisible hydrophobic coating that makes it spill-proof. You won’t be able to immerse the tablet in liquid, but as long as you keep the protective covers for the side and bottom ports in-place, the Tablet S should be able to handle most of the common mishaps that can befall a device that is left on a kitchen counter.

The screen is still not on par with Apple’s industry-leading Retina display, but it nonetheless delivers crisp, rich images and video. Unless you’re holding the two displays side-by-side it’s unlikely you’ll feel cheated by the Tablet S’s lower pixel density.

Under The Hood

Inside, the new NVIDIA Tegra 3 Quad-Core CPU does a great job at keeping the Tablet S quick and responsive, while delivering enough graphics performance to easily handle the many 3D games available for the Android platform, plus Sony’s own PlayStation Mobile offering which will headed to tablets including the Tablet S in October.

That quick new processor is part of what makes the Tablet S a joy to use, but the larger part is Google’s Android 4.0 OS, better known as Ice Cream Sandwich.

If you’ve never used an ICS device, you don’t know just how good Android has become as an operating system.

Android 4.0

Gestures are recognized instantly, while transitions are handled without stutter and apps execute without hesitation. Scrolling is buttery smooth, which in itself is a big improvement over the previous Honeycomb OS. Android on tablets is now a lot of fun.

As good as ICS is, there’s always room for improvement. Normally when manufacturers try to layer their own software on top of the stock Android experience, results can be mixed, which is really to say, not good. The previous Tablet S was an example of Android-meddling yielding no real benefits.

This time around, however, Sony has left the core ICS experience virtually untouched, adding only enough functionality to help the Tablet S stand out from the crowd – in a good way.

Universal Remote

The Tablet S's Universal Remote Control app has a minimized view that can float over your other open apps for always-on access

The first exclusive feature is the media remote capability that Sony preserved from the first Tablet S. Unlike the first version, which was little more than a graphical display of your existing remotes and thus not very helpful, the revamped app brings the missing piece of the puzzle: Macros.

Macros are, for the uninitiated, user-customizable “groups” of commands that can combine any amount of “key presses” from your standard remote controls. It’s macros that give a product like the Logitech Harmony Remote its popularity. Being able to hit a single button labelled “Watch TV” and then sit back while the remote turns on every device in your home theatre and sets all of the right inputs is the holy grail.

Sony’s Universal IR Remote Control can do that. And unlike the Harmony, if you’re not happy with the way a given macro works, you can edit the sequence of commands right on the screen – no cables or syncing with a PC required.

You’re still left dealing with the fact that a smooth-surfaced tablet screen isn’t as intuitive to use as a physical remote, but that is the only drawback.

The second, and arguably the best of the exclusive features, is the Tablet S’s Guest Mode.

Guest Mode

Guest Mode lets you create separate user profiles for everyone in your home

Finally, you can now hand over your tablet to a friend, child, co-worker or spouse and not have to worry that they might accidentally delete an important email or pull up a webpage that you were on which (ahem) you’d rather they not see.

All of this because Guest Mode creates the equivalent of user accounts on a PC or Mac. As the tablet’s administrator, you can assign different accounts, each with its own name and permissions. You could for instance, create a “Kids” account and set it so that it only has access to specific games, and perhaps the YouTube app. Or you could create a profile for your spouse that gives access to everything, but keeps your email and web surfing separate. Passwords can also be assigned to keep those folks where they belong!

Given that our tablets are quickly becoming the most used appliances in our homes, and everyone feels a certain ownership, Guest Mode is a feature whose time has come. Every tablet should have it.

More…

I’m not going to spend much time on the other apps that Sony has included such as Walkman, Movies, Music Unlimited etc. These are all decent media playback or store apps but, with the exception of the Walkman app – which includes all of the features found on Sony’s excellent line of portable media players such as the SenseMe auto-playlist function, these apps are mostly on par with the stock Android equivalents.

It is worth noting however, that these native Sony media apps all have the ability to “throw” audio and video (depending on the app) to DLNA-compatible devices on your network e.g. a Sony PlayStation 3 or a set of DLNA-equipped Wi-Fi speakers. This means that content playing on your tablet can play wirelessly on your HDTV or other devices. Think of it as similar to Apple’s AirPlay feature, but not quite as universally executed.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out how aggressively Sony is supporting the Xperia Tablet S with a slew of accessories.

From covers, to keyboard cases, to stands that dock, charge and let you rotate the tablet into various positions, what Sony doesn’t have in 3rd-party support for the Tablet S, they are making up for themselves with some genuinely innovative and well-designed accessories.

Finally, let’s cover price. The Xperia Tablet S starts at $399 for the 16GB model, while the 32GB model will run you $499. That’s it – no other memory capacities and no 3G/4G cellular options (at least, not in Canada). Those prices aren’t exactly a bargain compared to other Android tablets, which you can find for up to a $100 less, depending on the brand and model, but it’s also a $100 less than what Sony was charging for the 16GB model of the first Tablet S.

Notably, it’s also $120 less than a comparably equipped iPad.

Factor in Sony’s superb build quality, splash/spill-proof coating, Guest Mode and IR remote control and there’s a strong argument to be made that the Xperia Tablet S is actually the value leader in the 9-10” tablet category.

Conclusion

While Sony’s first tablet effort left us wanting more – much more, the new Xperia Tablet S delivers the missing pieces, throws in a few welcome surprises, and carries a price tag that while not a bargain, is certainly not a show-stopper.

If you have been holding off on buying a tablet, the Xperia Tablet S would make an excellent first purchase. It’s beautifully designed, it runs Google’s superb Android Ice Cream Sandwich and it has been built to handle nearly everything a household will expect from it, or throw at it.

Far from throwing in the towel on tablets, Sony is back, and better than ever.

BlackBerry Balance is the PlayBook's killer app

RIM’s PlayBook is without a doubt, one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated devices ever launched.

From its poorly planned debut and lacklustre feature set, to the dearth of available apps (compared to other platforms) and a lack of cellular data at launch, the PlayBook has had a rough ride.

But RIM isn’t giving up on the PlayBook –  as evidenced by the newest 4G/LTE version – and neither should folks who want to use their tablet for work and play.

Despite its shortcomings, which incidentally are fewer and fewer as time goes by, the BlackBerry PlayBook possesses two features that make it unique in the tablet landscape. One of those features is the ability to tether your BlackBerry smartphone to the PlayBook, giving you full access to your BlackBerry’s features but on a much bigger screen.

BlackBerry Balance locked on a RIM PlayBook

Using BlackBerry Balance you can lock your work apps while maintaining access to all of the other PlayBook functions. Click for larger image.

The second is BlackBerry Balance. Balance lets you create a complete separation between work and personal tasks on the PlayBook, a truly outstanding feature that neither Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android platforms have been able to deliver.

Sure, you can enable parental controls on these devices, but these restrictions disable apps completely instead of creating a virtual wall between work and personal apps. It’s the baby-sitter or nanny approach to control.

With BlackBerry Balance, once you’ve indicated that you want to create a “work” container, you can lock the Messages, Contacts, Calendar and Work Browser with a single password. Once locked, these applications are no longer accessible, but the rest of the tablet’s apps remain available – even a secondary instance of the web browser for personal browsing.

This ability to put all of your sensitive work-related info behind a locked door is a boon to families and anyone else who finds that their tablet ends up being passed from one person to another. RIM’s realization that our tablets – even more than our phones –  are becoming shared devices, is a brilliant insight.

BlackBerry Balance running on a PlayBook

When BlackBerry Balance is locked, you can still see that work apps are running, but you need to unlock them in order to see their full screens. Click for larger image.

It’s not without flaws, however. The first being that in order to use BlackBerry Balance, you need to connect your PlayBook to an enterprise email account which is running RIM’s proprietary software on the back-end. If you just use a blackberry.net email address, or a POP email account like the one give to you by your ISP, the feature isn’t available to you.

Balance also plays somewhat heavy-handedly with your locked apps. For instance, if you have a work account and a personal account set up in the Messages app, once locked, you can’t access either. RIM needs to (and claims to have plans to) find a way to only lock that which is work-related, leaving all personal data accessible.

These limitations notwithstanding, BlackBerry Balance is easily the most compelling and unique feature on the PlayBook. I doubt it will be long before Google and Apple catch up, but in the meantime, RIM has a killer app on their hands.

At a time when the company is holding its breath for the next 4-5 months until it can release the promised line of BlackBerry 10 devices, it needs all of the help it can get.

Digital divide: Women more likely to be ereaders

Today, eMarketer released the data from several new reports that show a clear gender-split amongst the U.S. ereader and tablet-owning crowd.  The first survey, from GfK MRI, shows a significant difference between men and women with women being the group that is more likely to own an eReader (Kindle, Kobo, others) while men are more pre-disposed to owning a tablet (iPad, PlayBook etc.).

I’ve come to think of men and women of the same age and income as having very similar habits when it comes to technology adoption, so at first these stats surprised me. And then I started thinking about how people in my immediate social circle have been buying (or receiving as gifts) these gadgets and the trend from the study was surprisingly accurate.

I gave my wife a Kobo a year ago for Mother’s Day. My step-mother received a Kindle from her son. Our neighbour bought a Kobo for his wife on our recommendation and I was originally introduced to the Kobo by a female coworker who had bought one almost as soon as it had become available in Canada. Rhonda Callow just tried her first ereader and was pleasantly surprised by the experience.

And while some of these women have iPads or other tablets in their households, none of them bought or were given these gadgets. Why is this so?

It may be as simple as this: Women read more books than men. At least that was the finding of study of U.K. respondents in 2009 as reported by The Telegraph. I couldn’t find any studies to explain why men have taken to tablets in greater numbers but here’s my theory: Tablets are not cheap. At least not compared with eReaders. You can pick up an amazing Kindle for $139. The base iPad 2 will run you $519. That’s a big gap. So going out on a limb here, I think men have an easier time prioritizing a high-priced tech purchase over other needs (wants) such as clothing, travel or food. Most of the men I know have drastically lower clothing budgets than their girlfriends/wives/partners.  Is this a massive over-generalization? I’m sure you’ll let me know in the comments :)

As second study that took a look at online shoppers provides a slightly different perspective and includes age and income data. Bizrate Insights and Forrester Research together found that tablet ownership is dominated by older, wealthier people with the average age and income at $109,690 and 44 respectively.

But also clear from the study is that these demographics are going to changing rapidly over the coming months as the reported average income of those who intend to buy a tablet is only $83,740 – still a well-off group, but less so than current owners. While the variety of tablets on the market is increasing constantly, Apple’s share of that market has changed little. And since Apple isn’t going to be dropping their iPad prices anytime soon, these numbers strongly suggest that tablet ownership is becoming something that more and more people consider a necessity.

[Source: eMarketer]

Just for fun, let’s see where Sync readers fall in the gender vs. ownership landscape. For the sake of this poll, if you bought one of the gadgets yourself, or it was given to you as a gift, you own it. If you have one in your household but you did not buy it yourself or get it as a gift, you don’t own it.

Are you a tablet or eReader owner?

Tablets, 3D, smartphones set the tone at CES

Darth Vader makes a surprise appearance at CES 2011

CES 2011 is in some ways no different than in previous years: massive. The sheer number of companies exhibiting their products is overwhelming. But that’s CES and I wasn’t expecting anything different. What has come as a bit of a surprise is the number of attendees. The show is jam-packed with people milling around the show floor and making it nearly impossible to navigate some of the larger and especially flashy booths like LG’s behemoth which I suspect is consuming more power right now than the entire Las Vegas Strip – it has hundreds of TV screens of every shape and size imaginable.

This attendance level would seem to indicate that while the U.S. is still trying to pull itself out of a lengthy recession, worldwide interest in consumer electronics is hitting a feverish pitch which hasn’t been seen in the last four years, possibly longer.

Full Article below the Photo Gallery…

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So what’s driving this curiosity? Strangely nothing ground-breaking or hugely innovative. Instead it appears that the industry has decided to hunker down and work on improving two categories that have been around for a few years: 3D and smartphones, while at the same time aggressively playing catch-up to the unprecedented success of Apple’s iPad in the tablet space.

3D, which made a big splash at CES two years ago, and then affirmed its presence last year with more products, is now pretty much everywhere. Every major manufacturer (and most minor ones) now have 3D HDTVs in their lineups and the focus is now on differentiation.

What started out as a single approach to in-home 3D – that being the use of “active shutter” glasses – has now fragmented into at least 3 techniques: the “active” approach, still being pushed aggressively by Panasonic and Sony, the “passive” approach which uses the same polarized technique employed in movie theatres, and a third – glass-less 3D which allows viewers to see the 3D effect with their naked eyes.

While the glass-less or glasses-free TV technology isn’t being scheduled for release just yet, it is maturing rapidly and is already slated to appear later this year in Nintendo’s handheld gaming device the 3DS.  The “passive” technology however will be hitting store shelves this year and I strongly suspect will win over consumers who have been hesitant about making the 3D plunge. The passive glasses are so inexpensive they can be considered disposable, there’s no limit to how many people can watch simultaneously, and it’s inherently flicker-free and perceptually brighter than the active shutter displays. The only catch might be the price of the TVs. At least initially, the polarized TV screens might be more expensive than the non-polarized type.

Will passive win out over active as the true single-standard? It’s far too early to tell, especially since consumer appetite for 3D remains suppressed due to our still-struggling economies, a lack of library-depth in 3D titles and an unwillingness to spend a lot of money buying new technology when many people recently upgraded to HDTV within the last year or two.

On the smartphone front, “4G” and Android are the dominant buzzwords. The 4G label is being pushed around a lot down here in the U.S. and I think it’s creating a lot of confusion for consumers both north and south of the border.

What is 4G exactly? Well according to a strict definition as cited by Wikipedia, it’s a mobility standard that doesn’t exist commercially yet with any provider as 4G requires “Peak data rates of up to approximately 100 Mbit/s for high mobility such as mobile access and up to approximately 1 Gbit/s for low mobility”. The fastest mobile devices at the moment are capable of up to 21 Mbps – a far cry from the 100 cited in the 4G standard.

So why are the U.S. carriers crowing about “4G”? It’s a marketing game. What they’re really referring to is the HSPA+ communication standard – the one that can deliver up to 56Mbps (but is currently running at up to 21Mbps in most countries) and is probably better labeled as “3.5G” since it is an upgrade of the slower HSPA standard (up to 14 Mbps) which along with EVDO was the original “3G” standard.

I guess these companies needed a way to tell people that they were getting something significantly better with HSPA+ than they were getting with HSPA, and probably felt that saying 3.5G just wasn’t going cut it. So they skipped it altogether and adopted 4G. For a good explanation of the current mobile landscape in the U.S. see CNET’s article on the issue. In the Canadian market you probably won’t hear the 4G term used at all. That’s because the major national mobile carriers are already operating HSPA+ and are thankfully resisting the incorrect 4G label. But naturally the power of U.S. marketing will leave some thinking that our American cousins are enjoying something that we can’t get. Rest assured, it ain’t so. So while Motorola’s new ATRIX will likely bear the 4G moniker in the U.S., the very same phone up here will simply be called the ATRIX – no other letters or numbers needed.

Finally, there are really more tablets here at the show than I can effectively discuss in this post, but I will be dedicating a separate post cover just these devices. Everyone it seems now has, or has plans for, an Android-powered tablet of some description, with many companies trying out several different sizes simultaneously. Most of these were anticipated, such as Motorola, RIM, LG etc, but some have been a surprise like Panasonic’s line of VIERA tablets which seem to be designed more as a complement to their TVs than as iPad competitors.

Stay tuned… more (much more) – and videos, to come…

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.

Lenovo debuts 'hybrid' PC

IdeaPad U1Claiming that it’s an industry first, Lenovo has just taken the wraps off a new PC called the IdeaPad U1. The company is referring to smooth and sleek-looking device as a “Hybrid” PC. The difference between a hybrid and convertible or tablet PC, apparently, is that the Hybrid actually contains two CPUs instead of one.

The result is a 3.4 lb laptop, running Windows 7, which can then morph on-the-fly into a completely independent slate PC which runs a custom Lenovo OS dubbed “Skylight”.

The company’s press release says that:

“Leveraging the benefits of both CPU, the two devices can synchronize to work as one with the ability to share battery power, 3G wireless, data and documents. In this way, the base laptop system can serve as a hub and docking station and the slate tablet as a mobile device. The two PCs have been engineered to work together and independently through Lenovo’s Hybrid Switch technology that enables seamless toggling between the two processors. For instance, users can surf the Web in laptop mode and then continue from the same point without interruption if they detach to tablet mode.”

When in tablet mode, the 11.6″ HD LED screen (which is multitouch capable) displays either a six or four-part user interface…

“[the] six-section screen display is designed to enhance the mobile internet experience by letting users easily multitouch access multiple Web-based applications at once such as email, calendars, RSS readers and social networking Web sites. The four-section screen display option is perfect as a media center on the PC such as photos, music, videos and to view/edit documents.”

Connectivity is pretty standard, except for the Wi-Fi module which only does a/b/g – no draft N. It will also come equipped with an embedded 3G module which will provide connectivity for both tablet and laptop modes.

This announcement comes at a time when the entire industry is holding its collective breath waiting to see what Apple’s much-rumoured ‘iTablet’ device will turn out to be when the company holds their next major event on January 27th. All we have to go on is a blog post from a former Apple and Google exec who claims the price point will be in the $1,000 range. Interestingly, that is exactly the target that Lenovo has put on the U1: the expected street price is $999 USD when it eventually goes on sale in June of this year.

I have to say,  that while Apple’s as yet unconfirmed device sounds like it will be an appealing package, if it lacks a physical keyboard option, or is underpowered in the CPU or battery-life departments (something that has been a problem in almost all battery-powered Apple devices), the Lenovo ‘Hybrid’ formula may turn out to be a winner. By combining the strengths of a laptop and a tablet into a single device, they sidestep the biggest question about the iTablet: is the market ready to embrace this platform?

 

More Photos of the U1:

IdeaPad U1_2IdeaPad U1_4

And the full specs:

 

Processor Upcoming Intel proccesor & Qualcomm ARM Snapdragon processors
Operating System 

Genuine Windows® 7 Home Premium and & Slate Mode Lenovocustomized UI with Skylight Interface
Display/Resolution 

High-Resolution 11.6″ LED backlight display, 16:9 widescreenMultitouchPanel for both notebook mode and slate mode– two finger touch
Video Graphics 

Intel® Core2 Duo SU processors
Memory 

Up to 4GB DDR3 DRAM 1066MHz & Slate 512MB DDR1
Storage 

2.5″ SATA SSD up to 128GB & for Slate NAND Flash 16GB, Boot loader 512MB
Optical Drive 

Sound 

Stereo Speakers on Slate, Integrated MIC
Integrated Comms 

Ethernet 10, 100, 802.11a/b/g, Bluetooth, WWAN
Ports and Slots 

Two USB 2.0 and one eSATA/USB combo port, external monitor (VGA DB-15, HDMI), Ethernet (RJ-45), 4-in-1 reader (Multi-Media Card, Memory Stick®, Memory Stick PRO™, Secure Digital Card
Camera 

1.3M integrated web camera
Weight 

Notebook is 1.7kg (3.7 lbs.) and Slate is 750g (1.6 lbs.)
Dimensions 

292x205x 28.35mm, & Slate is 292X205X12.65mm (WxHxD)
Battery Life 

10 hrs , & Slate mode 8 hrs, 3G standby 60 hrs
Included Software 

Software options include: OneKey Rescue 7.0/ Lenovo Energy Management Software 4.0/ Adobe Reader 9.0/ McAfee Virus Scan Plus 2009/ Windows Live essential/ VeriFace 3.6/ Office professional 2007(for WW except CN/Japan)/ Office personal (Only for Japan)/ LPS(Lenovo Passport Service)3.0 (Only for CN/ Auto collage(only install in Win7 Home Premium)/ Lenovo ReadyComm5.1/ APS(Active Protection System) 1.0* Software may vary by region
Pricing 

Starts at $999.00 US

*Pricing may vary by region