Category Archives: mobile

Acer’s R7 the most twisty Windows 8 tablet/laptop yet

What is the name for a laptop that is also a tablet? A tabtop? Or perhaps a tabletop, which is a good way to describe Acer’s R7. The hinge (called “Ezel”) swings up to become a stalk supporting the tablet, raising it above the table.

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What is the value of this configuration? Maybe you can think of something?

The thinking here (if I have it right) is that you can get the screen closer to your eyes than would be possible with a normal laptop. In other words, the flat table-top is not the normal use, but rather a tilt towards you but raised above the keyboard, if you see what I mean.

Alternatively, there is a backwards configuration which, I was told, is for presentations. The keyboard is your side, while the screen points into the room.

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Of course, you won’t actually be able to see the screen yourself but that is a small detail versus the great view afforded to your audience. I am being a little unfair – the idea I think is that you sit screen-side too, and control it by touch.

You can also fold the screen flat to make a standard fat tablet configuration.

Failing that, there is a keyboard-only mode – note, no trackpad on view.

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This is to avoid hitting the trackpad by mistake, apparently. Or if you really want a trackpad, you can have it, but note that it is behind the keyboard:

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A bit odd? Let’s just say, different.

Close the lid, and looks like just another laptop.

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For more information on the R7 see here.

Review: Power Cover for Microsoft Surface tablets

I took advantage of a recent US trip to purchase a Surface Power Cover, at the Microsoft Store in Bellevue, near Seattle.

The concept is simple: you get an external battery integrated into a Surface keyboard cover. The keyboard is similar to the second version of the Type Cover, though curiously without backlighting other than a caps lock indicator. The keys are mechanical which for most people means you can type faster than on the alternative Touch cover, though it is less elegant when considered as a cover rather than as a keyboard.

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The trackpad is the same on all three second edition covers, which is to say, not good. The problem is not the trackpad itself, but the mouse buttons, which are NOT mechanical keys (they were on the first edition Type Cove). Given that you need to press and hold a mouse key for some operations, having a physical click on the trackpad buttons is particularly useful and much missed. Another annoyance is that you cannot disable tap to click, which means some mis-clicks are inevitable, though on the flip side it is easier to tap to click than to use the fiddly mouse buttons.

Having said that it is the same, I have noticed that the trackpad on the Power Cover seems a bit smoother and better behaved than the one on the Type Cover 2. This could be sample variation, or that it is new, or that Microsoft has slightly tweaked the internal design.

As you would expect, the Power Cover is heavier and more substantial than the Type Cover, though I find you notice the weight more than the bulk. Even with the Power Cover, it is still smaller and neater than a laptop. The extra rigidity is a benefit in some scenarios, such as when the keyboard protrudes over the edge of a table. The fabric hinge, which is a weak point in the design of all the Surface covers, seems to be the same on the Power Cover and I fear this may cause problems as the device wears, since the extra weight will put more strain on this hinge.

As with the other keyboard covers, if you fold it back under the tablet, the keys are disabled. In this mode the Power Cover is purely an external battery.

I used the cover with the original Surface Pro (it is compatible with all the models other than the original Surface RT). I understand that a firmware update is needed for the power cover to work; if so, it installed seamlessly though I did need to restart after connecting the keyboard for the first time. Everything worked as expected. If you click the battery icon in the notification area you can see the status of both batteries and which is charging, if you are plugged in; generally one one charges at a time.

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I boarded my flight and noticed that the Surface is smart enough to use the external battery first, and then the internal, presumably on the basis that you might want to remove the keyboard and use the Surface in pure tablet mode.

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It is impossible to be precise about how much extra time you get from the Power Cover, since it depends how you use the machine. It is a big benefit on the original Surface Pro which has rather poor battery life; extended battery life is perhaps the biggest real-world difference between the Surface Pro and the Surface Pro 2. Subjectively I have doubled the battery life on my year-old Surface Pro, which for me makes the difference between running out of battery fairly often, and hardly ever.

The Power Cover costs $199, which is expensive considering that you can get an entire spare Android tablet or Amazon Kindle Fire for less; but put in the context of the equally over-priced Type Cover, which costs $129, you can argue that it is not that much extra to pay. Prices from third-party sites will likely be lower once availability improves.

If you need it, you need it; and this must be the best way to extend the battery life of a Surface tablet.

The Surface keyboard covers are not perfect, and I still sometimes see an annoying fault where the mouse pointer or keys stop responding and you have to jiggle the connection or tap the screen a few times to get it back (I am sure this is a driver issue rather than a poor physical connection). Still, I put up with a few irritations because the Surface gives me full Windows in a more convenient and portable form factor than a laptop, and there is more right than wrong with the overall design.

Summary:

  • If you already have a keyboard and your Surface lasts as long as you need – forget it.
  • If you have a Surface that runs out of power with annoying frequency (probably a Surface Pro 1), this is worth it despite the high price.
  • If you don’t have a keyboard (for example, you are buying a new Surface) then this is worth the extra cost over the Type keyboard.

Wearables or swearables? Mobile World Congress panel raises the questions but not the answers

An event called Wearable Wednesday, which took place last night at Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress, promised to explain the “State of the Wearable Economy”; but anyone hoping to better understand the economics of wearables after the event would have been largely disappointed – the closest it came was a statement by an Intel spokesperson that the number of connected devices is growing by 300% per year – but it was a fun and thought-provoking event nevertheless.

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The event was organized by Redg Snodgrass of Wearable World and featured some product pitches and a panel discussion. 

Raimo Van der Klein from GlassEffect, which offers apps and services for Google Glass, talked about contactless payments using Glass and showed a video in which a payment (using Bitcoin) is confirmed with a nod of the head. It sounds dangerously easy, but he went on to explain that you also have to read a QR code and make a voice command: still hands-free, but veering towards being too complex.

Despite wearable technology being cutting-edge and with obvious huge potential, the panel discussion was somewhat downbeat. Wearable technology lacks a killer app, we heard. Sonny Vu, founder of Misfit, emphasised that wearable technology has to be “either beautiful or invisible”, with both characteristics rare today. Wearables look like they are designed by engineers for engineers, he said.

That is a fair description of Google Glass, which seems to me more of a prototype than a product, fascinating though it is. One speaker declared that his wife will not let him wear Google Glass “because you look really stupid”. Add to that the unsettling “you are spying on me” effect that Glass has on others, and you get something that is less than attractive to most people.

Other issues discussed were power, with agreement that having to charge a device every few days is hopeless for something you are expected to wear all the time,  and fragmentation; there is no standard wearable platform.

Journalist Ina Fried who moderated the panel posed the question: is the future of wearables in low-power sensors, which talk to your smartphone where the intelligence resides,  or smart devices (some with displays) that do more but suffer from high power requirements?

In discussion with Vu afterwards he observed that the wearable technology that is already proven to be big business is the watch. Watches are proven and attractive devices that we use constantly. Someone asked me, why bother with a watch when you have a smartphone; but there are good reasons we still wear watches, including hands-free access, security (much harder to grab a watch than a phone) and instant results.

You can therefore see the logic behind smart watches: take something we use already and extend it. Unfortunately it is easy to make the watch concept worse rather than better, by adding complexity or the burden of constant recharging.

Another big theme is fitness sensors, and here at Mobile World Congress they are everywhere (Sony’s SmartBand and Samsung’s Gear Fit are two examples from big players). Is the public as fitness-obsessed as these companies hope? That is unknown, but it seems likely that health monitoring via wearable sensors will only increase. Questions raised include who owns the resulting data, how we can prevent it being used in ways we dislike (such as raising health insurance premiums if you have “bad” results), and whether it will breed hypochondria. Doctor, my heart rate is up a bit …

Privacy tends not to be a theme at this kind of event. “In a couple of years you will have the camera on continuously” enthused Snodgrass. As ever, the technology is there before we have learned what is appropriate usage or how it should be regulated, if at all.

Samsung Galaxy S5 with Gear 2, Gear Fit: quick hands-on, screenshots

Samsung unveiled the Galaxy S5 Android smartphone at an event last night in Barcelona, during Mobile World Congress. I attended the launch and spent some time trying the new Galaxy after the event.

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The first thing that struck me is how light it feels. It is 145g according to the spec.

Here is the home screen:

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The UI in general is clean and easy to use:

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I was interested in the camera, having looked at the camera on the new Sony Xperia Z2 yesterday, in comparison to the Nokia Lumia 1020. The S5 has a 16MP camera and Samsung showed off its fast automatic focus in the press launch. Here are the camera options:

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I took a couple of snaps with both the S5 and the Lumia 1020 for a quick comparison. The Lumia easily bested it. I’d judge that the Xperia Z2 would easily best it too. That said, the camera is fine and I doubt users will be disappointed; it’s just not the best choice if you are particularly keen on photography.

Health is big theme, especially in conjunction with the Gear Fit band. Samsung’s JK Shin said that keeping fit is a third key feature in a smartphone alongside camera and connectivity. Here is the fitness app:

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Samsung has included a heart rate sensor, so I took my pulse:

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There is a Kids Zone, reminiscent of what Microsoft has done for Windows Phone:

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Other notable features are water and dust resistance, fingerprint sensor with PayPal integration, and apparently new Enterprise security features of which I hope to learn more later today.

It looks like an excellent phone. A game changer? Enough to draw users from Apple? It feels more like just another smartphone, albeit a good one, but that may be just what the market wants. No silliness like the S4’s air gestures, just a solid new smartphone.

On sale date is April 11 2014.

Key specs:

  • LTE Cat.4 (150/50Mbps)
  • 5.1” FHD Super AMOLED (1920 x 1080) display
  • 2.5GHz Quad core application processor
  • Android 4.4.2 (Kitkat)
  • Camera: 16MP (rear), 2.0MP (front)
  • Video: UHD@30fps, HDR, video stabilization
  • IP67 Dust and water Resistant
  • WiFi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac HT80, MIMO(2×2)
  • Bluetooth®: 4.0 BLE / ANT+
  • USB: USB 3.0
  • NFC
  • IR Remote
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, gyro, proximity, compass, barometer, Hall, RGB ambient light, Gesture(IR), Finger Scanner, Heart rate sensor
    2GB RAM
  • Storage:Internal Memory: 16/32GB, microSD slot upto 64GB
    Size and weight:  142.0 x 72.5 x 8.1mm, 145g
  • Battery: 2800mAh Standby time: 390 hrs / Talk time: 21 hrs
     

Smartphone Camera fun: Nokia Lumia 1020 vs Sony Xperia Z2

Sony has announced the latest Xperia, the X2, here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

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The Z2 boasts “a pro-grade camera far beyond smartphone class performance”, and captures images at 20.7MP, as inscribed on the rear:

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Sony calls its imaging sensor technology Exmor, and the Xperia Z2 uses Exmor RS for mobile.

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The camera software on the Z2 has an extensive range of options, some of which are shown below.

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How does it compare though with Nokia’s PureView technology, and in particular the Lumia 1020 with its 41MP camera?

First, I tried taking a similar point and shoot picture of the delightful view from the Sony stand.

Here is the Sony. It is a detail from the full image, so you can view it at full resolution:

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and here is the Lumia:

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Note that I am not using a tripod so the quality is influenced by how good the image stabilisation software is, as well as the inherent quality of the optics.

Sony has a special demo to show off the low-light performance of the Z2.

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See that small hole? You align the phone so that the camera can see through the hole, and take a picture. It looks like it will turn out blank, but actually picks up an image from the low light:

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This is not full resolution, but you get the idea.

My first effort with the Lumia was a disaster:

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I was sure it could do better, so I whacked up the ISO sensitivity and set the shutter to 4s:

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Still, in terms of automatic settings detection, the Sony proved more effective.

Which camera is better? On this quick and dirty test I felt that both phones performed well, but I am not ready to give up the Lumia 1020 yet. Then again, you do have to live with the slight protrusion of the Lumia 1020 lens from the body, whereas the Z2 is perfectly smooth.

Disclaimer: I am not a photographer and my interest is in taking quick pictures of decent quality conveniently rather than getting the best that can be achieved. I look forward to more detailed comparisons of the Z2 vs Lumia 1020 from photography enthusiasts in due course.

Alcatel OneTouch shows Pop Fit wearable smartphone at Mobile World Congress

Alcatel OnTouch has announced the Pop Fit here in Barcelona, on the eve of Mobile World Congress.

The Pop Fit is a tiny 2.8” 240×320 pixel phone running Android 4.2, but well equipped for wireless with wifi, Bluetooth and GPS. It is designed as a media and fitness phone that you can strap on your arm when out and about.

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Here it is in action.

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You can get your music from internal storage (there is a micro SD slot), or from apps like Spotify and Sound Cloud.

Also included is the Runkeeper app for keeping track of your running and fitness efforts.

A smart flip cover, included in the box, protects the phone and lets you control media playback through the cover. There is also a choice of coloured snap-on back covers in the box.

The Pop Fit will retail for around €89 and be on sale from May 2014.

Alcatel OneTouch is a mobile phone brand owned by Chinese giant TCL Corporation, whose origins are in a tie-up between French company Alcatel and TCL back in 2004. However Alcatel sold its stake in 2005 leaving only the brand name.

Review: Acer C720 Chromebook and reflections on Chrome OS

When I saw the first announcement of Chrome OS I was amazed and wrote a breathless post:

I’m watching Google’s press briefing on the forthcoming Chrome OS. It is amazing. What Google is developing is a computer that answers several of the problems that have troubled users since the advent of the personal computer.

That was in November 2009. Unfortunately it has taken me a while to try a Chromebook (the generic name for a computer running Chrome OS) for myself; but I have been trying out an Acer C720 and what follows is in part a review of this machine, and in part some wider reflections on the Chrome OS and Chromebook concept.

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In terms of hardware, a Chromebook is another take on the netbook idea: a small, light laptop but running Linux rather than Windows. The earliest netbooks also ran Linux but the mass market could not cope with it; Google has done what is necessary to make it work for non-technical people, not least by hiding almost all of the operating system other than the browser.

I have given detailed specifications at the end of this post, but in summary this is an 11.6″ traditional clamshell laptop/netbook with 1.4Ghz Intel Haswell processor, 2GB RAM and 16GB SSD. It weighs just 1.2Kg

It’s cheap. You can pick one up for just under £200 at Amazon; it’s smart looking and does not feel as cheap as it is.

At left we have power input, HDMI out, USB 3.0 port and a standard headset socket.

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On the right there is an SD card slot, USB 2.0, and a lock attachment point.

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You can get a touchscreen version for an additional £80 or so but it does not seem worth it to me.

When you turn on for the first time, you have to accept the Google agreement. You won’t read it all, but here is something you should note:

You acknowledge and agree that Google may stop (permanently or temporarily) providing the Services (or any features within the Services) to you or to users generally at Google’s sole discretion, without prior notice to you…

You acknowledge and agree that if Google disables access to your account, you may be prevented from accessing the Services, your account details, or any files or other content which is contained in your account.

More on this later.

You can sign in as guest, and use the device to browse the web, or you can sign in with a Google account. If you sign in as guest, none of your activity (including any files you download) will be preserved when you sign out. This is a nice feature for, literally, guests for whom you want to give internet access while protecting both your privacy and to some extent theirs.

Normally you will sign in with a Google account. If you have used Google’s Chrome browser, much will be familiar. What you get is the browser, which you can run full screen or in a resizable window, and a taskbar along the bottom which shows running apps, date and time, network connection, battery status, and notifications.

Local storage is accessible via a file browser. This gives access to a Downloads folder, Google Drive which is cloud storage but includes offline files that are available locally, and USB storage devices that you attach.

I attached a drive full of media files and was able to play MP4 video and FLAC audio without any problems. Some file types, such as PDF and Microsoft Office, open in the browser. This aspect can be disorienting; there is no Quit option, but you just close the browser tab when you are done.

At the left of the taskbar is an Apps button which you might think of as a Start button since it has the same purpose. Click it, and app shortcuts appear in a window. You can also press the Search key, which sits where you would expect to see Caps Lock.

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A Chrome OS app is a web app, though it can take advantage of Chrome features like access to local storage or NaCl (Native Client), which lets you run compiled native code in the browser. NaCl is enabled by default.

I actually have a web app in the Chrome Store – apologies it is not very good, but it was a demonstration to support this how-to; it is really not difficult to adapt a web site though as ever, excellence is more challenging.

As an app platform, it would be wrong to think of a Chromebook as “crippled”, though it does require a change of mind-set if you are used to apps on Windows, OSX, iOS or Android. Apps are sandboxed, of course, and run in the browser, but native performance is possible and there are ways to access devices like the camera and local storage. Adobe Flash is also available. This is a physics demo using Native Client:

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and this is an audio editor:

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Can you get your work done? Probably, but if you are like me you will miss a few things like Microsoft Office or equivalent, or the Live Writer blog authoring tool (for which I have not found a good replacement on any platform). Of course you have full access to Google Docs, for browser-based document editing.

It also turns out that a Chromebook is a rather good Microsoft SkyDrive or Office 365 client. Perhaps it is just familiarity, but I prefer Office Web Apps to the Google Docs equivalents.

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I did experience an oddity in Office 365. I clicked a link to a recently opened document, which was an URL to a .docx file. This should have opened the document in Word web app, but instead it opened in a beta of Quickoffice running as a Chrome extension. This is bad, since editing the document and hitting save opened a Save As dialog for the local drive, or Google Drive, not the SharePoint site, and when I tried a document including an image, it was reported as corrupt.

It is possible to do some coding on a Chromebook, for example using the rather good online scripting IDE at script.google.com. This is a debugging session using the example script, which creates a document in Google Apps and emails a link:

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If you get stuck, there is always remote desktop to a Windows box as a fallback. There are several clients to choose from, of which I used 2X:

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Although the Linux shell is hidden unless you enable developer mode, you can press Ctrl-Alt-T and open crosh (Chrome OS Shell), enabling simple network testing with ping as well as an ssh client. More features magically appear if you do enable developer mode.

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Chromebook pros and cons

A Google Chromebook has several big advantages.

One, it’s safe; not entirely safe perhaps, but relatively immune from malware given that most users never get deeper into the operating system than the web browser, and therefore neither does anything else – though the machine is in fact hackable (in a good way) if you switch to Developer mode, and you can do things like getting shell access or installing Ubuntu if you want.

Second, it is good value. You are not paying for Windows or Office, and whatever deal Google makes with OEMs like Acer must be generous enough to allow for low prices.

It would actually make sense for Google to subsidise Chromebooks if it needed to, since they drive users to its services.

Third, a Chromebook is cloud-centric. If you lose it, or upgrade to a new machine, all your data will be there on Google’s cloud and you will hardly notice, with seamless sync of settings when you log in.

Fourth, Google and its hardware partners (in this case Acer) have done a good job. Sleep and resume works reliably – more so than any Windows machine I have known – and boot from cold takes seconds. Performance is fine, provided you have a strong internet connection.

There is no unwanted third-party software here unless you count Google’s own services; but if you did not want them you probably should not have bought a Chromebook. The out of box experience is good.

What are the annoyances? Here are a few.

The user interface is effective and not difficult to learn, though I do find that the screen fills with multiple tabs which is ugly and not that easy to navigate. You can float a browser window by dragging it down, in which case you get something that behaves as a new instance, and you can switch between instances with alt-tab.

Printing is awkward in that you have to set up Google Cloud Print and send your documents to Google and back even if the printer is right next to you.

Working offline is a problem but maybe not as bad as you have heard. The app store has a section devoted to apps that work offline, and you can create and edit documents offline other than spreadsheets, which are read-only. There is no problem with playing some videos or music from the built-in storage or from a USB drive when on the move and offline. If you are going to be offline a lot though, this is probably not the best choice.

Is this machine locked to Google? Maybe not as much as you would expect. There is no alternative web browser, but you can set your search engine to Bing, DuckDuckGo or anotehr if you prefer. Or you can enable developer mode and you install Linux, either in place of, or alongside Chrome OS. The two obvious choices are ChrUbuntu and Crouton, and setup is nicely explained here

http://www.kitware.com/blog/home/post/498

Does this machine breach your privacy? That is tough to answer; but it is worth noting that Chromebook offers, as far as I can tell, the same privacy settings that are in the Chrome browser. If you are happy using the Chrome browser in Windows or elsewhere, there is no reason not to be happy with a Chromebook from this perspective.

That said, this machine is committed to, on the one hand, cloud and web apps, and alongside that, the Google life. The two main objections to the Google life, it seems to me, are that Google’s business model depends on advertising and mining personal data for that purpose; and that it has been known for individuals to get locked out of their Google accounts for what might be arbitrary reasons whereupon comeback is difficult. It may be though that I worry too much, since this is uncommon, and trusting everything to Google is probably not high on the list of the most stupid things to do in IT.

Summing up

This is not a machine for every task. It is not a powerhouse, and in case you had not noticed, will not run apps other than browser apps. Either of those could be deal-breakers and might mean that you need a different device.

It is early days for laptops that run only browser apps, and there are areas of immaturity. Some file types are not supported or badly supported. The app store has limitations, and although there is a browser-based solution to most common tasks, it may not equal what can be done with a conventional app. The user interface is reasonable but utilitarian. Tastes vary, but personally I do not find Google Apps the equal of Microsoft Office yet, and I even miss Outlook, despite its many annoyances.

There are compromises then; but this is still a great little laptop, light and convenient, quick and responsive, and almost immune to PC-style problems and slowdowns.

In business or education, it is easy to see the attraction of a machine that is low maintenance and simple to replace if it breaks, provided that its capabilities match the tasks that are required.

The comparison with Windows RT is interesting and will be the subject of a separate post.

Watch this space. Chromebooks are already making inroads into the market for budget laptops, and in education, and I would expect this momentum to gather force as the platform matures.

Detailed specification:

  • Intel Celeron 2955U 1.4 GHz processor
  • 2GB RAM
  • SD card slot
  • 16GB SSD
  • 11.6″ 1366 x 768 TFT screen
  • Intel GMA HD Graphics
  • Webcam and Microphone
  • 3.5mm headset socket
  • HDMI out, 1USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0
  • Wireless: 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 +HS (High Speed)
  • 3950 mAh battery, quoted 8.5 hr battery life
  • Weight: 1.25 Kg

Review: Om Audio INEARPEACE ear buds. Superb sound

Ear buds are massively popular, but most do not sound that good. Tinny bass and splashy treble is nothing unusual. They can sound good though. At CES I heard a couple of true high-end in-ear headsets, Shure’s SE 846 ($999) and Audiofly’s AF180 ($549); I especially liked the AF180 and wrote about it here.

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But how about Om’s INEARPEACE at a mere $149? No, they are not the equal of the AF180s, but at one third the price they are delightful, musical, smooth, clear and with actual bass.

Om Audio is a company with some personality – “listening to music should be a sacred experience,” says the website, and that is reflected in the packaging, with the ear buds embedded in the side of a foam inner container.

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You get a set of ear buds with an inline controller and microphone for a smartphone, a smart zipped bag, and a packet of ear tips in various sizes.

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The ear buds themselves have a distinctive design, with a cylindrical body. The cable is flat and supposedly hard to tangle.

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Within each ear bud are two drivers, a balanced armature driver for treble and mid-range, and a 10mm coiled driver for bass.

The INEARPEACE ear buds are aimed at those in search of better audio quality than the average in-ear headset, and they deliver. Listen to these and you will not want to go back to the set that came free with your phone. There is adequate treble, but no sign of the shrillness that characterises so many ear buds. The bass is not overpowering, but it is clean and reasonably extended, making music more balanced, rhythmic and enjoyable.

I am not going to get too carried away; these are not the last word in sound quality. There are others to consider in the price range $75 – $150. These are more than decent though, and their musical sound and elegant construction wins them a recommendation.