Category Archives: smartphones

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Asus announces combined smartphone and tablet – the Padfone

Asus has announced the Padfone, a combined tablet and smartphone running Google Android. The phone docks inside the tablet, which means you get an internet-connected tablet without having to pay for an additional SIM card and contract. It is a similar concept to Motorola’s Atrix, which combines smartphone and netbook. I like the concept and its efficiency, though I am not sure that this is quite the right approach.

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Asus is also having another at at Linux on a netbook. The Eee PC X101 will run MeeGo, the Linux-based operating system which was once a joint Intel-Nokia project, but ditched by Nokia in favour of Windows Phone. MeeGo enables Asus to offer the X101 at a lower price than would be the case with Windows, as well as offering snappier performance; however there will also be a Windows 7 option so I guess the market will decide.

Photosynth for iPhone: capturing the unphotographable

We are having some unusually fine weather in the UK and I went for a walk in the Derbyshire Peak District yesterday. I was reflecting how hard it is to photograph wide vistas of countryside when I remembered that I installed the Microsoft Photosynth iPhone app a couple of weeks ago.

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It really is easy to use: you just fire up the app, tap to start a new picture, and turn the iPhone to new positions guided by on-screen markers. When the iPhone beeps, hold it still and a new photo is added.

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Panoramic photography is not new of course; my old Canon Ixus has a panorama feature. However, you have to navigate several menus to get the mode engaged, manually position the camera, and then use a separate application to stitch the images together.

The Photosynth app by contrast is great to use, and I have taken a landscape picture which I would never have bothered with before. My only complaint is that the beep can be hard to hear, but even if you miss it, the app does a reasonable job, especially in bright sunlight.

There are plenty of interesting images now turning up on the official Photosynth site – check the Mobile Panoramas section.

For more information see the official announcement post and video.

The point to ponder is why the app has come out first for Apple’s iPhone, rather than the company’s own Windows Phone7? Apparently a Windows Phone version is in preparation.

Logitech’s Squeezebox app for iPhone and iPad: nice to have but a missed opportunity

Logitech has released a Squeezebox control app for iPhone and iPad, to match an existing app for Android.

I am a Squeezebox fan. The system is excellent for multi-room – just put a Squeezebox player in any room where you want music, put it on your home network (usually wifi), and it finds your music collection. You can get a player like the Touch, which I reviewed here, or an all-in-one unit like the Boom, which I reviewed here. I rip CDs to FLAC using dbPowerAmp. Squeezebox does multi-room properly, in that each player can play something different, and the sound quality is generally excellent. Internet radio is also available, and there is no need to have a separate tuner.

That said, the appeal of Squeezebox is limited by the techie nature of the product, especially the software. When Logitech acquired Slimdevices in 2006, I thought we might see a new focus on ease of use, but it has not really happened. Apple does this better, making it hard for Squeezebox to compete with iTunes and Airport Express or Apple TV, even though the Squeezebox system is more open and superior in some ways.

There are multiple ways to control a Squeezebox player. You can use a remote to navigate the display on the player, whether the simple but bold display on a Classic, or the graphical colour display on a Touch. You can use touch control on a Touch screen. You can use a web browser on a PC, Mac or any machine on the network. Or you use an app such as SqueezePlay on a PC, or third party apps like iPeng on iOS, or Squeezepad on an iPad.

All these methods work, but in general the web browser is the most feature-rich and good if you are sitting at a desk, while the apps are better if you have a suitable device like an iPhone, iPad, or Android smartphone. The remotes work, but you need to be close enough to read the display and navigation can be fiddly.

An iPhone app is ideal though, so it is great news that Logitech has now released an official app for the iPhone. It is free, and unless you already have iPeng a must-have for Squeezebox users who have an iPhone. Apps are better than a remote for all sorts of reasons:

  • No need to point at an infra-red receptor
  • No need to read a distant display
  • Album artwork on the remote
  • More features conveniently available

I downloaded the new app and ran it. The first thing you have to do is to log into Mysqueezebox.com, Logitech’s internet service. In fact, the impression you get is that you cannot use the app without logging on. I am not sure if there is any way round this, but it seems odd to me. Presuming you are using a local Squeezebox server, why require log-on to an internet service?

I already have a Mysqueezebox account though, so I logged on, whereupon the various players we have around the house appeared for selection. Once selected, I get a menu similar to that on a physical player or on SqueezePlay:

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If I click My Music, I can navigate using the usual range of options, including Artists, Albums, Genres, New Music (which means recently added) or my favourite, Random Mix. Just selected an album is not enough to play it, but shows the tracks; tapping the first track starts it playing. Eventually you will get the Now Playing screen, which you can also access by pressing the musical note icon on the Home screen.

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Perhaps I am fussy, but I am not happy with this screen. As you can see, the album artwork is overlaid with text and controls, and although a progress bar can be shown or hidden by tapping, the other controls seem immoveable, which means you cannot see the full artwork.

My other complaint is that the user interface, while familiar to those who already know Squeezebox, lacks the usability you expect from an iPhone app. Operating it takes too many taps. Take search, for example. You want to find a different song, so you tap Back to get the Home screen, then Search. Type something in, then click Search. The next screen then asks whether you want to search in My Music or Internet Radio. You tap My Music, and still get no results, just a list that says Artists, Albums, Songs, Playlists. You tap Songs, and now you finally get a results list. Tap a song to play.

Personally I think search is such a critical function that it should be available directly from the Now Playing screen; and that it should be smart enough to look for matches anywhere it can and present some top matches immediately.

Another annoyance is that you cannot actually play a song through the iPhone itself. This is such an obvious feature that I cannot understand why Logitech has not implemented it; it would enable your Squeezebox music collection for personal listening on a device. Perhaps Logitech imagines that it is protecting sales of its players, when in fact it is just undermining the appeal of the system.

Well, it is free, I like the Squeezebox system, and the app is useful, so perhaps I am complaining too much. It is frustrating though, because with a little investment in software Logitech could bring its excellent features to a broader group of users.

Escaping Apple: trying to switch away is hard

Mark Wadham posts his Thoughts on switching to Android. Last week he sold his iPhone 4 and switched to an HTC Desire S. I found this interesting, since I have an iPhone 4 and an HTC Desire.

The motive behind Wadham’s switch was to escape Apple’s “over-controlling ways”, rather than immediate dissatisfaction with its products, and there is mild disappointment running through his whole piece:

So in summary, android isn’t really /that/ far off the iPhone. It’s missing the cleanness of the user experience, consistency in the user interface and the glorious wealth of apps, but hopefully that will all come in time. This is a great little phone and I’m happy I made the switch. It’s not as fun to use as an iPhone, and if you’re a real UX freak you should probably stick with the iPhone at least for now, but if you’re someone who likes to tweak and customise and play around with your device android seems much more suited than Apple’s offering.

There is also some irony: HTC’s offering is not as free as he would like.

I would have loved to get rid of HTC Sense and install one of the modded roms like Cyanogen, but that currently isn’t possible due to restrictions HTC has placed on these new handsets …The good news is that, according to the research I’ve done, the root for the Desire S (and the incredible S) isn’t far off.Actually the worst thing about this phone is that it comes with a Facebook app that I can’t remove until it gets rooted.

Still, there is no question that Android is a less tightly controlled platform than iOS. The fact that you can install apps from outside Google’s Android Market is all you need to know.

In usability though, Android falls short. It lacks the obsessive attention to design that characterises Apple’s devices and software; and once you are used to iOS it is particularly hard to switch:

Eventually I got the hang of it, but even now after two days of playing and installing apps and tweaks, the UI still feels counter-intuitive and I have to consciously remember how to do things rather than it being obvious and simple like iOS.

One thing I have noticed since getting these two phones is the impact of Apple’s dock connector. There are countless iPhone/iPod docks and although there is often an option to use a non-Apple device with a mini-jack cable it is not as convenient or elegant. You cannot easily build a generic Android dock because there is no exact equivalent.

Another issue is apps. Once you have purchased a bunch of apps, you can transfer these to another iOS device. If you switch to Android, you have to start again.

There is also iTunes to think about. Let’s say you have got used to iTunes and have your music stored there. While it is possible to transfer non-DRM music to Android or other non-Apple devices, it is not necessarily obvious how to do so; and iTunes itself will only sync to Apple devices. Personally I am not a fan of iTunes; but I can see how it tends to encourage users to stick with Apple.

The bottom line is that escaping Apple requires some determination, once you are hooked into its ecosystem.

More germs on an iPhone than on a toilet seat? Proporta’s screen protectors kill the other kind of bugs.

Today’s inbox brings the disturbing news that:

In independent laboratory tests, the E. coli population on an untreated screen protector soared from 200,000 to 13 million in 24 hours.

Note the inclusion of the word “untreated” in this sentence, preparing us for the good news that:

The unique SteriTouch® coating on Proporta Antimicrobial Screen Protectors not only prevent this unbridled growth, but eradicates the E. coli completely.

The idea is that touch screens get, well, touched a lot; possibly even by more than one person. Touching spreads germs, so if you want to be safe maybe Proporta’s new “anti-bacterial germ resistant advanced screen protector with steritouch for iPad2” is just the thing for you. Bug-zapping screen protectors are also available for iPhone4, iPod touch, HTC Desire HD, Blackberry Torch, and Samsung Galaxy S2.

If this sounds like your thing, head over to Proporta’s site where you can also learn that

the average mobile has 25,127 germs per square inch, whilst the average toilet seat has just 49.

While quoting this sounds like a great way of annoying an Apple fanperson, the scientist in me would like a bit more information please. What about other things in our life that are touched frequently, door handles for example? How does the risk from using an “untreated” mobile device compare with that from, say, shaking hands with someone? Or travelling on the London Underground in the rush hour?

I am all in favour of a cleaner, healthier world; though I also recall theories that too much hygiene can be counter-productive since the body’s built-in defences need some enemies to munch on in order to operate at full efficiency. It makes some kind of intuitive sense.

Still, if you would like your shiny new Apple iPad2 to be more germ-free than a toilet seat, it looks like an Antimicrobial Screen Protector is the answer.

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: Plantronics Calisto 825: a speakerphone for Microsoft Lync, iPhone or other mobiles

When I was at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this month I came across the Plantronics Calisto 825, a speakerphone for Microsoft Lync (formerly known as Office Communications Server) or for any mobile over Bluetooth.

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The device is USB powered and seems particularly well designed and built. The sound quality is excellent, the touchscreen buttons clear and nicely spaced, and there are some neat extras.

But what does this thing do? When I received it I did not have Lync installed, so I tried it with an Apple iPhone. You pair the mobile with the Calisto, and once done, the device picks up the iPhone whenever it is within range.

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Answer yes, and calls to and from the mobile are routed through Calisto. I am a big fan of hands-free devices, and this one works really well.

If you get one of these, I recommend that you also get the optional PA50 wireless mic.

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This little guy docks and charges on the Calisto when not in use. When you are at your desk, you clip it to your collar. Speakerphones work better with an external mic, as otherwise the mic is in the same box as the speaker, making it hard to avoid feedback or echo. The PA50 has good audio quality. It also has a mute button on the sides – essentially you squeeze the unit to mute the mic – and a big button to answer or end the current call.

The PA50 has what Plantronics calls 360 degree sound. This means you can lay it on the middle of a table and use it as a mic for an entire meeting.

This is an effective iPhone speakerphone then; but it is also designed to work with Microsoft Lync Server, which I have just installed on my test network.

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Setting up Lync Server is not trivial, but that will be subject of a separate post. Once installed up though, integration with Calisto was simple: plug it in, and it works. I did have to set Calisto as the default audio and microphone for the Lync client:

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The beauty of this system is that now both your mobile and Lync calls arrive on the same device; and for dialling out you can choose between them. Note though that Calisto is not a full Lync client, in that it does not offer a pick-list of Lync contacts or show their availability: to get that, you have to use the client on the PC.

Some Calisto models can link to a landline as well, giving you three ways to connect.

I am impressed with Calisto, which is a nicely designed unit, particularly in conjunction with the PA50 wireless mic.

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.