Gadget Writing

Welcome to Gadget Writing. This is where you will find articles and reviews on hi-fi and consumer technology.

Review: Plantronics Voyager Pro UC v2 – go hands free everywhere

Today’s gadget is a Bluetooth headset, the Plantronics Voyager Pro UC v2. This little guy fits snugly in your ear and provides hands-free calls with your mobile or PC softphone. The UC stands for Unified Communications; and indeed, once I had plugged in the supplied Bluetooth adapter, which is pre-paired with the headset, my Microsoft Lync client automatically picked it up. It also works well with Skype.

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While that sounds simple, there are actually a fair number of features packed into this device. Some are more successful than others, but it is high quality and thoughtfully put together, right down to the unobtrusive magnetic closure on the padded case.

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Not shown in the picture above, the set also includes a few foam ear tip covers, which are comfortable but tricky to fit, and a mains adapter for charging when there is no suitable PC or laptop to hand.

I have to say that the fit of this headset is excellent: once in place you soon forget about it, and it feels secure and stable. Having wrestled with numerous more awkward headset designs over the years, this is not something I take for granted.

Now a few details. The headset has several controls: volume up and down on the top of the ear clip, power button near the bottom of the ear clip (above the micro USB charging port), and a call button at the ear end of the microphone stalk, in effect on top of the ear pad. These buttons have multiple functions depending on the state of the device and how you press them, so there is a bit of a learning process. For example, pressing and holding both volume buttons when music is playing pauses or resumes the music. Pressing and holding both volume buttons during a call mutes or unmutes the microphone.

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Much of the time you will be pressing these buttons while the headset is on, so you need to feel your way, as it were. How easy you find this will vary from one person to another. I found the volume buttons natural and easy to use, partly because if you rest your thumb on the bottom of the unit, you can easily squeeze the buttons at the top. The power button is a bit harder to find and use, but that does not matter too much because you would most likely take the headset off to use it, though it does speak the remaining talk time if you tap it and this can be handy.

I was less happy with the call button. If you are wearing the headset, and a call comes in, you have to tap this to answer. You can also use two taps to call back the last number, and tap and hold to use voice dialling on your mobile. I found the call button awkward to press and insufficiently tactile, though I am sure this improves with practice.

By way of mitigation, the Voyager has an auto-answer feature. A sensor in the device detects whether or not you are wearing it, and if you put the headset on when a call comes in, it will auto-answer.

The sensor also pauses music automatically when you remove the headset, and restarts when you put them back on.

If you pair the Voyager with an iPhone, you get a useful battery meter at the top right of the screen.

I found the Voyager rather good for listening to music. The quality is fine considering that it is mono. Of course it lacks the immersive sound and quality of stereo headphones; but that is the point – you would use the Voyager when you want private background music while still being in touch with what is going on around you. It is easy to carry on a conversation, for example, while music is playing.

I tried the voice dialling. This is a great idea in principle, since you can initiate a call without ever touching your mobile. First you have to press and hold the call button for two seconds, which is a little awkward as mentioned above. After a pause the Voyager beeps, and you can then speak a name to call. If you are lucky and it is found successfully, the Voyager reads the name to you, and if there are multiple numbers you can specify which one to call. If you are unlucky and your mobile starts calling the wrong person, a single tap on the call button ends the call.

I had some success with this, though it is a bit of an adventure. The key is patience. Once you have spoken the name, there is a wait of several seconds, at least with the iPhone, before anything happens.

PC Software

If you have a PC, you can install the Plantronics software to control your Voyager. The software is downloaded from the Plantronics site. You get a battery monitor that sits in the notification area:

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and a control panel that reports the detail of your device model and firmware, and offers a number of settings.

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Once again, the Voyager earns its UC designation by letting you automatically set your presence status when the device is worn or removed, though I struggled to find a setting for this that made sense for me personally.

One nice feature is that the Voyager integrates with PC media players as well as softphones, though some of my favourite media players are missing from the list.

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If you are a Mac user it seems you are less well served by software, though Bluetooth audio still works, and note that the Voyager integrates well with the Apple iPhone.

The Voyager Pro UC copes with both a PC and a mobile connected simultaneously – that is one of the things you are paying extra for – but I found that some details could get confused. For example, the iPhone got into an state where it could not play music though the Voyager until I disconnected the PC.

Extras

The Voyager is expensive for a Bluetooth headset, but is particularly well equipped. The case is well made and has a belt clip as well as a little pocket for the USB Bluetooth adapter. The mains adapter has an LED to indicate the charging state. The Bluetooth adapter has an LED to show whether the headset is connected, and flashes while data is being transmitted.

Conclusion

Overall I am impressed with both the quality and the range of features in the Voyager Pro. It works well alongside Microsoft Lync, for which it is optimized, and in my view it works even better as a headset for an iPhone or other smartphone.

Note though that if you do not need the Unified Communications features or the USB Bluetooth adapter, then the older Voyager Pro + model is less than half the price. However this model lacks the Smart Sensor of the Pro UC v2.

My main gripe is with the awkward call button. Personally I’d like to see this repositioned next to the volume buttons for easier access.

It is also worth noting that even six hours talk time, which you get from a full charge, soon disappears if you play background music, so charging can be a bit of a nuisance.

Nevertheless, using a device like this shows that it really is not necessary to juggle with a handset just to take a phone call; and if you can get voice dialling to work, you can keep the mobile out of sight until you need it for something important like browsing the web or, well, playing a game.

 

Review: Seagate GoFlex for Mac portable hard drive

I have been trying Seagate’s GoFlex for Mac portable drive, which packs 1TB of storage into a small, light, USB-powered package.

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The drive measures around 120x88x22mm – small enough to fit easily in a pocket or bag. Spin speed is 5400 RPM which is a little disappointing.

But what makes it a “Mac” drive? Mainly that it comes pre-formatted with Apple’s HFS + (Hierarchical File System Plus) file system, which is ideal for performance and reliability under OS X. A possible snag is that HFS+ is not readable from Windows by default, though Seagate has a solution, of which more in a moment.

It is worth noting that you can easily reformat the drive for Windows NTFS if you want.

There is a GoFlex app for the Mac which includes an information tab, a drive test, and the ability to disable the activity lights on the drive. I cannot imagine why you would want to do that.

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Seagate’s GoFlex series has a few extra tricks. The most distinctive is that the interface is removable, which means you are not restricted to the usual USB 2.0. This GoFlex for Mac drive come with two, one for USB 2.0 and the other for FireWire 800, which is substantially faster: up to 786Mbps vs 480 Mbps. USB 3.0 and eSATA interfaces are available separately.

Currently the MacBook Pro, iMac, Mac mini and Mac Pro have FireWire 800 ports. It does make sense to use the faster port when available, especially with a drive of this size, though I cannot help thinking it would have been even handier if Seagate had managed to build the two ports into the main case, rather than having them as clip-on extras.

Still, the fact that you can remove the interface enables another GoFlex trick, the ability to slot the drive into a Media Sharing Dock. I’ve reviewed this dock here; it is a handy device though I have some usability concerns. I tried this with the GoFlex Mac and it worked well, an advantage being that you can access the files over a network irrespective of whether your operating system understands HFS+. Trivial point: the GoFlex drive is silver whereas the dock is black, a slight visual mismatch.

But what if you want to direct-attach your GoFlex for Mac drive to a Windows machine? Seagate has done a deal with Paragon to bundle its HFS for Windows driver. This normally costs around $40.00. It works too; though installation was not quite seamless. The problem is that the drive has to be attached for the install to work, presumably to protect Paragon from unauthorised installs. But when you attach the drive, both Windows and the Seagate Manager for Windows (if installed) prompt you to format it.

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If you agree to format the drive, you will lose any files already on it, so I clicked Cancel. However, while installing the drive software I got this dialog *again* – I suppose the thing to do is to check “don’t show again”. Seagate should update its Windows manager software to be HFS-aware. Once I had the Paragon HFS+ driver installed, and restarted Windows, everything was fine.

I would guess though that most customers for this drive will be using it with Macs and will not run into this issue. It is nice to have a drive designed with the Apple Mac in mind, and with generous 1TB or 1.5TB capacity this is a solid product.

Disclosure: Kudos to Seagate for asking me to mention in my review that that the review sample does not have to be returned.

Review: Seagate GoFlex media sharing dock – Pogoplug in disguise

Seagate’s GoFlex media sharing device, also called GoFlex Net, is a dock with an ethernet connection. You can either attach a single USB drive – though the port is only USB 2.0, sadly – or else plug a GoFlex portable drive (reviewed here) into one or both of the two slots on top.

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If you use one of the slots, then a four-position LED gauge at the front indicates how full your drive is. Lots of lights means nearly full.

Now your drive(s) are attached to the network – but how do you access them? The key thing to realise is that this dock is also a Pogoplug. This is an online service that communicates with your local drives and enables you to access your files over the internet, or share them with friends.

This means that you have to register with Pogoplug, starting with a link on Seagate’s site for registering and activating your dock. I ran into a small problem here. First, I am behind a firewall and I had to enable UDP 4365 send and receive in order to enable Pogoplug to communicate with the Pogoplug service. Second, I had to type in the serial number from the device in order to activate, which in my case meant disconnecting it from the network temporarily. This might explain why there was a long delay before I received a confirming email; and until you click the link in this email your Pogoplug is not really activated.

I also found some usability issues in the setup. I looked at the Security Settings in my Pogoplug web dashboard and wanted to know the purpose of Enable SSH access for this Pogoplug device:

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As you can see from the screen, there is a help link at top right. However, clicking this takes you to the home page for Seagate support:

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Pretty useless in this context.

It turns out there is a story behind this. Each Pogoplug device runs Linux. Cloud Engines, the company which runs Pogoplug, had the bright idea of enabling access to the Linux terminal over SSH, so you could log into your Pogoplug from anywhere and do anything, provided you know Linux. SSH was enabled by default, and with a default password too.

This was a security hole, as bloggers like Rob Pickering observed. So now SSH access is disabled by default, and when you enable it you are prompted to create a new password. Much better.

In fact the security risk was not all that great, because typically Pogoplug is behind a firewall and unless you redirect the SSH port to the device, attempts to access it from the internet would fail anyway.

Anyway, I enabled it for internal access only, and was was able to get to the Linux shell.

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I also downloaded the Pogoplug software which enables you to access your attached drives as drive letters in Windows. There is similar software for Linux and the Mac. I was puzzled by the option to Enable multi-drive mode; again there is no help for this.

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It is no big deal and you can find it explained here; it makes a small difference to how the drives appear in your file manager, for example Windows Explorer.

Once I had done all this I had a P drive on my desktop:

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If you use this on a laptop, you can still see the P drive when out and about, provided you are on the Internet.

The folder called “Files shared with me” is initially perplexing. This refers to files shared with you by other Pogoplug users. It is nothing to do with files you are sharing out.

I thought, “There must be an iPhone app for this”; and there is. I downloaded it. It worked great over home wifi and I could access the drive; but what about when on the go? I turned the wifi off, so I was connecting over 3G only. Sadly the results were poor and I kept getting Error code 5 when I tried to view some images. In the end I created a tiny text file and managed to view it successfully, proving that the system can work:

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Note that Pogoplug never copies your stuff to its own drives, and when you access files locally they are not going over the Internet. Nothing is backed up online, even though it appears as if you can see your files on the Web.

But what about the GoFlex dock?

Indeed. This is meant to be a review of Seagate’s GoFlex media sharing device, but it is mostly about Pogoplug.

This is an issue. The front of the GoFlex box does not mention Pogoplug, though it is named on the back. The fact is, someone might buy this expecting a simple NAS (Networked Attached Storage) device, expecting to get immediately to the stage where the attached drives appear in Windows Explorer.

Instead, they find themselves having to agree to Pogoplug terms and conditions, and being handed a bunch of Internet features which may or may not be required. As I discovered, you can also have firewall issues.

It is possible to access the drives over a Windows network without using Pogoplug – but only after enabling Windows File Sharing for each drive, which is done through … the Pogoplug service. See the GoFlex Net User Guide [PDF] for more details.

It is also worth noting that this is a media sharing device and not a media streaming device. Well, that is not quite true; Pogoplus has added some basic media streaming using Upnp; but I had limited success when trying to use it with a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. On the PS3 I could view pictures OK, but even playing an MP3 file stuttered.

More positively, it is also true that the Pogoplug tie-in offers genuinely useful features. In a nutshell, it is file sharing over the Internet. There are other solutions for this, some aimed mainly at businesses, but Pogoplug’s effort is simple and cost-effective. Since the files remain on your own drive, there are no issues about having to purchase more space as there are with Internet synchronisation services like Dropbox. If you have a large amount of files which you want to make available from anywhere, Pogoplug is worth investigating.

Of course you could just buy a Pogoplug rather than Seagate’s GoFlex dock. The most obvious difference is that the basic Pogoplug, which costs much the same as Seagate’s device, has four USB 2.0 ports, whereas the GoFlex has one USB 2.0 port and two of special GoFlex docks which only fit GoFlex portable drives. If you do have GoFlex drives, the Seagate option is more convenient and looks better too.

Could do better

This is a decent product, but as is often the case among vendors other than Apple, strong features are spoilt by poor documentation and presentation.

My suggestion to Seagate: redesign the product slightly so that Pogoplug services are optional rather than required; and have an install application that does the magic of enabling Windows File Sharing without the need to register for Pogoplug at all. Then Pogoplug can be presented as an optional benefit, rather than being something forced upon you.

The packaging should be clearer and more open about the Pogoplug element of the product.

I’d add that both Seagate and Pogoplug need to work on conveying the essence of what the service does clearly, accurately and concisely. Misunderstandings seem to be common.

Nevertheless, this is a clever and capable device. It is just that it is nothing special as a NAS device, and poor as a media streamer.

Disclosure: Kudos to Seagate for asking me to mention in my review that that the review sample does not have to be returned.

Review: Seagate GoFlex portable hard drive

You may think that one portable hard drive is very like another; and that is a problem for manufacturers like Seagate which want to differentiate their range and build customer loyalty.

The trouble is, one portable hard drive really is very like another; so what can it do? The FreeAgent GoFlex range is its answer, and Seagate has sent me the 320GB model for review.

It is billed as the “world’s most upgradeable hard drive,” though you can’t upgrade the thing you might most want to, its capacity.

What you can upgrade is the interface. The GoFlex drive has a detachable interface which in the model supplied to me has a mini USB port on one end, and what looks like a SATA (Serial ATA) connector on the other.

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You can replace the interface with FireWire 800, USB 3.0, or eSATA. To give you an idea of the performance implications, this is what each of these interconnects is capable of in theory, though I have not measured the performance of this implementation:

  • USB 2.0: 480 Mbps
  • USB 3.0: 4.8 Gbps
  • FireWire 800 786 Mbps
  • eSATA 3Gbps

You can see from this that USB 3.0 is theoretically the fastest, though if I am right in thinking that the drive itself has a SATA interface, it will not be any faster than eSATA and will likely be a little slower. However, USB 3.0 is the future and will be more commonly found on PCs and laptops – except for Apple fans who now have Thunderbolt at 10Gbps – so that is the pragmatic choice. Currently though, most computers only have USB 2.0, in which case you will need to get a USB 3.0 card for your computer as well as for the hard drive.

I question whether many users will bother to upgrade the interface on a portable hard drive. They are more likely simply to buy another one, especially as capacities steadily increase, making new drives better value in terms of the amount of storage you get. The downside of the GoFlex removable interface is that it makes the drive slightly bigger than it would otherwise be.

That said, it does have an additional benefits. You can plug the drive directly into a GoFlex media dock, which will be the subject of my next review, or into a variety of other docks which Seagate offers.

There are a few other things to mention. I use both Mac and PC, and while the GoFlex drive works fine with a Mac, it comes formatted as NTFS which on most Macs is read-only. However, the drive comes with a Mac installer that offers to install the Paragon NTFS driver, which enables read-write, or to reformat for OS X.

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I’d suggest reformatting for the Mac, unless you are likely to use the drive for exchanging files between Mac and PC.

I should also mention that the GoFlex drive comes with some bundled software. Seagate has done a deal with Memeo and offers to install various pieces of free and trial software.

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Since you can get all this software easily enough from the Memeo website, I am not greatly impressed, though there is a free copy of Instant Backup which would otherwise cost $29.95. Personally I use Windows 7 and I am happy to use Microsoft’s built-in backup software, though Memeo has a continuous backup system that looks interesting.

Online backup, which is a feature of Memeo’s paid-for Premium Backup, is definitely a step up from what is built in, but in this case you have to buy online storage space as well as the backup software so it is not going to be cheap – especially if, like me, you have ripped a large CD collection to a hard drive.

The big question: do the extra features in GoFlex amount to enough to meet Seagate’s goal of differentiating its range? The ability to dock the drive is handy, and if you plan on using the media dock then yes, but otherwise you may not really notice any benefit, though it is worth getting a USB 3.0 drive if you can use it or expect to be able to soon.

That said, from what I can tell there is little if any price premium for the GoFlex drives and my 320GB sample worked well, though 320GB is rather small these days, and I’d suggest that at least a 500GB model makes more sense if you plan on storing multimedia files or keeping backups.

GoFlex portable drives are also available in 500GB, 750GB, 1TB and 1.5TB capacity. The sizes of 750GB and above have a fatter case: 22mm instead of 14.5mm. The 1.5TB drive is USB 3.0 only.

Disclosure: Kudos to Seagate for asking me to mention in my review that that the review sample does not have to be returned.

Buy from Amazon.co.uk: SEAGATE GoFlex USB 2.0 – 500 GB – black

Buy from Amazon.co.uk: SEAGATE GoFlex STAE104 cable – USB 3.0

Solar charge your mobile: sounds good, but how practical is it?

Charge your mobile for free while out and about, and also do your bit to save energy: the new Freeloader Classic from Solar Technology International has obvious appeal. But how practical is it?

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The Freeloader has two solar panels, and measures 123 x 62 x 17mm when folded. After 8 hours in the sun, it can deliver power to an Apple iPhone for 18 hours, a Nintendo DS for 2.5 hours, and an Apple iPad for 2 hours. Take care that it does not walk while your back is turned.

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It comes with all sorts of tips, and can also be charged via USB in 3 hours in the event that the sun is not shining. For example, if you are in the UK.

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While I like the idea of solar charging a mobile device, it is another gadget to pack, and could end up as more of a burden than an asset. Instead of just charging your mobile, you have to think about charging your Freeloader and then charging your mobile. 8 hours in the sun is far from instant.

Still, if you are planning a long hike in a remote part of the world, this could be just what you need.

Update: I have now been sent a Freeloader for review. The good news: the unit looks great. The bad news: initial tests are disappointing. It arrived 75% charged … I left it on a windowsill for several days and by the end it had lost all its charge! I am not giving up though and will report in due course.

Freeloader Classic costs £39.99 including VAT.

Tiny data projectors using Texas Instruments DLP chips

Remember when data projectors were huge and expensive, and had bulbs so delicate that you were not meant to move them for half an hour after switch off?

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Things are different now. At Mobile World Congress You can hold an HD projector in the palm of your hand or build it into a mobile phone. The projectors I saw were based on DLP Pico chipsets from Texas Instruments, which contain up to 2 million hinge-mounted microscopic mirrors. If you add a light source and a projection lens, you get a tiny projector.

The obvious use case is that you can turn up at an ad-hoc meeting and show photos, charts or slides on the nearest wall, instead of huddling round a laptop screen or setting up an old-style data projector.

Amazon Kindle goes social with Public Notes, Twitter and Facebook integration

A free firmware update for Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader adds several new features, including an element of social networking.

The features are as follows:

  • Page numbers for easier referencing, for example in essays, reviews and discussions. Page numbers must be included in the digital book for this to work. It is not clear how many titles include them; Amazon just says “Many titles in the Kindle Store now include real page numbers”.
  • New newspaper and magazine layout with a “Sections & Articles” view. Each section has its own article list for easier browsing.

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  • Public notes with Facebook and Twitter integration. This is the feature that makes Kindle reading social. You can attach notes to a passage and make them publicly viewable by other readers who choose to follow you, either on a note-by-note basis, or by making an entire book public through the Amazon website. You can also register a Facebook and Twitter account and have specific notes and ratings posted to those who follow you on those networks.

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The advantage for Amazon is that these features should promote books through viral marketing.

It comes at an interesting time, since Apple’s new subscription rules may make it difficult for Amazon to continue supporting iPhone and iPad with free readers. Apple is insisting on a 30% cut of the revenue for all titles purchased through apps, forming a financial barrier for competitors to its own iBooks service.

If Amazon can cement loyalty to Kindle though social network integration, that could help it maintain market share.

 

First look at HP’s TouchPad WebOS tablet

I took a close look at HP’s WebOS TouchPad tablet during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

This 9.7” machine looks delightful. One of its features is wireless charging using the optional Touchstone accessory. The same technology can also transmit data, as mentioned in this post on wireless charging, and the TouchPad makes use of this in conjunction with new WebOS smartphones such as the Pre3 and the Veer. Put one of these devices next to a TouchPad and the smartphone automatically navigates to the same URL that is displayed on the TouchPad. A gimmick, but a clever one.

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From what I saw though, these WebOS devices are fast and smooth, with strong multitasking and a pleasant user interface. Wireless charging is excellent, and a feature you would expect Apple to adopt before long since it reduces clutter.

I still would not bet on HP winning big market share with WebOS. The original Palm Pre was released to rave reviews but disappointing sales, and HP will have to work a miracle to avoid the same fate.

Motorola Atrix – the future of the laptop?

I took a closer look at the Motorola Atrix on display here at Mobile World Congress. This is a smartphone built on NVidia’s Tegra 2 dual-core chipset. I’m interested in the concept as much as the device. Instead of carrying a laptop and a smartphone, you use the smartphone alone when out and about, or dock to a laptop-like screen and keyboard when at a desk. The dock has its own 36Wh battery so you are not tied to mains power.

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The Atrix has a few extra tricks as well. HDMI out enables HD video. An audio dock converts it to a decent portable music player.

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The smartphone also morphs into a controller if you use Motorola’s alternative dock, designed for fully external keyboard and screen.

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It is a compelling concept, though there is a little awkwardness in the way Motorola has implemented it. The Atrix has two graphical shells installed. One is Android. The other is a an alternative Linux shell which Motorola calls Webtop. While you can freely download apps to Android, the Webtop has just a few applications pre-installed by Motorola, and with no official way to add further applications. One of them is Firefox, so you can browse the web using a full-size browser.

The disconnect between Android and Webtop is mitigated by the ability to run Android within Webtop, either in its own smartphone-sized window, or full screen.

Personally I prefer the idea of running Android full screen, even though it is not designed for a laptop-sized screen, as I do not like the idea of having two separate sets of apps. That seems to miss the point of having a single device. On the other hand, Webtop does enable non-Android apps to run on Atrix, so I can see the value it adds.

Leaving that aside, I do think this is a great idea and one that I expect to become important. After all, if you do not think  Tegra 2 is quite powerful enough, you could wait for some future version built on the quad-core Tegra 3 (name not yet confirmed), which NVidia says is five times faster, and which may turn up in Smartphones late in 2011.

The LG Optimus 3D is amazing

Today I got to see the LG Optimus 3D here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. I was impressed. Of course I cannot really capture it in a pic; but here it is anyway.

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It really is 3D, which is amazing after a lifetime of 2D screens, and with no spectacles required.

The trick is that there are two screen images. When you look at the screen, your right eye gets a slightly different angle on the screen than your left eye. The technology uses that different angle to deliver a different image to each eye. At least, this is how it was explained to me.

There is also a dual-lens camera so you can take your own 3D pics and videos. The Optimus 3D has a 1GHz OMAP4 dual-core processor, and HDMI output for connection to high resolution external displays.

3D is cool and makes for some immersive games. But how much extra will customers be willing to pay for 3D on a Smartphone? Interesting question.