Livescribe 3 SmartPen

I’ll admit to being a bit of a pen nerd. I’ve been know to spend silly amounts of time and money at jetpens.com, and yeah I’ve owned and used a fountain pen. Hey, at least I don’t wear a fedora.

Despite this, I don’t actually write a lot. I spend 95% of my time behind a keyboard, and have got to the point where it really is faster for me to get my thoughts out with Evernote and a decent keyboard than it is to pick up a pen and paper. It is however the Evernote connection that got me interested in the Livescribe 3 SmartPen when the team from smartpen.co.nz got in touch.

smartpenSo what do I think of it? It’s a chunky pen. Not much bigger than a nice Cross or Rotring, but – surprisingly – a lot lighter. I’ve drawn a rendering of the pen, using the pen, at right. The ballpoint nib is at the very front tip of the pen, and behind it is a little cavity that I presume contains a camera. The nib being offset is a little weird at first, but you get used to it quickly. You operate the pen by twisting the middle section, which pops out the nib and turns the pen on.

By itself, the pen doesn’t actually do anything more than a regular ballpoint. The magic comes when you pair it with a smartphone and start writing on their special notebooks. Using the pattern on the paper, the pen can track what it is writing and send it direct to your phone. It’s pretty techy, and works incredibly well.

The required Livescribe+ app is serviceable, but not stellar. It works fine to sync pages from the smartpen, but I find I use it mainly as a bridge to Evernote, rather than for any particular heavy lifting. Here’s an example of what a page looks like once it’s synced to Evernote. I’m impressed with the clarity and resolution, and the pen doesn’t seem to miss any strokes even when I’m moving very fast.

Each page in the notebook has “buttons” for recording audio and tagging notes. I was a bit disappointed that audio recording requires the app to be running – the buttons on the notebook simply signal the app to start and stop recording. If the pen itself held the recordings, I’d use that function a lot more, because the offline pen mode is brilliant otherwise. That is: you can simply use the pen without your smartphone connected, and take many pages of notes before syncing with the app. This is perfect for conferences or lectures.

The Livescribe+ app will also convert your handwriting to editable text. I found this about 80-90% accurate, but my chicken-scratch handwriting is very sub-par. In experimentation if I slowed down just a little bit and concentrated on writing clearly, the accuracy was more like 98-100%. If you have neat handwriting, this would work ok.

livescribeI’ve found I use the pen a fair amount to capture a quick scribble, an image or perhaps a mindmap; sometimes a  page of notes in an environment where I don’t feel comfortable sitting bashing away at my laptop keyboard. I think if you’re a big pen-based note taker this pen could genuinely change your world, but for me it’s supplementary.

Still, for the size and weight, this thing is bloody remarkable. I like it.

 

 

Sphero 2: Not just a toy

I saw my first Sphero at Microsoft’s BUILD conference in 2013. Sphero wasn’t new at the time, but after seeing it in action I just had to have one. Who wouldn’t want a silly robotic ball that you can control with your smartphone?

Image via Time.com

Fast-forward 12 months and the revised Sphero 2 is on my desk. It’s faster, brighter and apparently more agile than the original. The 10 year-old and I had a blast putting the new Sphero through its paces, bumping down the hallway and occasionally hitting the ramps. Yup – it’s still pretty hard to get Sphero heading in the direction you want, but it sure is fun while you try.

Out of the box (which includes two jump ramps), Sphero 2 is quite a bit more fun than the original. A new career mode has been added to the basic smartphone app, encouraging users to play with Sphero to unlock new tricks and develop their control skills. There are of course a bunch of other apps to play with too.

But to me, just playing with Sphero using the provided apps is only the start.

Programming Sphero

Orbotix have obviously had a lot of feedback from people like me: coders and parents of curious 10 year olds. Their Sphero MacroLab and more advanced orbBasic apps provide a great way for kids (and adults) to experiment with basic programming techniques. I’m not sure how many institutes have taken up Orbotix’s education discount, but it looks like a great idea.

For those with more experience in coding, Orbotix provides a full Sphero SDK for most platforms, and a bunch of documentation and information via their official developer portal. Orbotix’s GitHub profile is a quick way to to see some of the available samples.

Perhaps one of the more zany things about Sphero is that you can use its location and orientation sensors as input devices, rather than just telling the robot where to go. There are a few examples of Sphero as an input device for gaming and 3D input, but perhaps the coolest one is using Sphero to control a drone:

The demo above uses the AR-Drone Sphero SDK. Perhaps you could take it to the next level by using the spheroSMS package to control the AR-Drone via Sphero via SMS?

In conclusion, Sphero is totally nuts, both as a simple toy and as a tool for education and software development. It’s just plain fun, and I can’t wait to play with the new Ollie, which promises to be like Sphero on steroids.

Grandroids: Samsung Galaxy S4, Sony Xperia Z, HTC One

Sometimes the planets just align in the world of smartphones. In the space of a couple of months, we’ve seen three flagship phones released that seem so similar in specification that they could have been cast from the same mold. They all have 1080p screens and stupid-fast quad core processors. So: what’s the difference? Which one should you buy?

Firstly, from a performance and utility perspective, there’s nothing between these phones. They all do everything you’d expect from a top-end smartphone, and they all do it screamingly fast. You will not be disappointed to own any of these phones.

Forced to pick their differences, here’s how I see it broken down in a few key areas:

Screen

Sony Xperia ZWhen I first saw the Xperia Z (the first of these phones I laid eyes on), I was absolutely floored by its display. 1920×1080 pixels on these screen sizes is frankly bonkers: you cannot pick out an individual pixel, and the huge space for rendering browser content is wonderful. But. But but but. Compared to the HTC One and Galaxy S4, the Z is just missing something. Slightly washed out perhaps? Poor viewing angles? Not a showstopper, but enough that you can easily feel the difference.

The Galaxy S4 screen isn’t without fault either: it’s incredibly bright and punchy, to the point of being offensive. If you get one I highly recommend going into the display settings and changing the display to “Movie” mode. Colours in that mode are more realistic and the screen becomes more comfortable to look at.

Out of the box, the HTC One’s screen is the best of the bunch in my opinion.

Apps and Launchers

All of these phones run Android 4 and have the Google Play store available to download any apps you may desire. However: they take different approaches to the out-of-box experience. The Xperia Z is the most “vanilla”, with a standard-ish Android launcher populated with a few specialist Sony apps.

HTC goes a bit further with their Flipboard-esque Blinkfeed homepage, from which you can swipe to get at, again, a standard Android icon based app launcher. Blinkfeed looks nice, but I think if I was to use the HTC One as my main phone, I’d replace the launcher with something more standard and fill it with the widgets I’d like to use, rather than having stuff pushed at me.

Samsung’s launcher is fairly vanilla, but it comes out of the box packed to the gunnels with … crap. I’m sorry but there’s no other way to put it. I understand Samsungs intentions here: they see that a large number of Android users don’t really install apps or use widgets, so they’re lending a helping hand: here’s your fitness app, and your photo gallery app, and here’s a voice thing, and a translator, oh and a note thing, and … and.

For a user who doesn’t know that the Play Store exists, this might be useful. For readers of this article, and most experienced Android users, this just means removing widgets and uninstalling Samsung crapware until you can make some space and install the decent apps you need. It reminds me, in a bad way, of the crapware that comes loaded on Windows PCs.

Camera

I want to love HTC’s approach to the camera on the One. The science nerd inside me says that having fewer pixels on a small sensor means bigger “photosites”, less noise, and better response in low light. However, the comparison posts that have popped up seem to show that the Galaxy S4 camera blows pretty much everything else out of the water in all but the crappiest lighting conditions.

As with other aspects, the HTC One and Xperia Z cameras are perfectly fine, and will serve you ok for quick snaps, but if you want the best photos out of your smartphone, then the S4 is the way to go.

Physical Design

Samsung Galaxy S4 Physically, the Galaxy S4 is just shit. The first experience out of the box has you removing the flimsy, bendy back cover to insert a battery. The feel of that cover just gives me no confidence in the build quality of the phone. Once on, it also feels sweaty and slippery. Compared to the HTC One and the Xperia Z, the Galaxy’s physical look and feel just fall well short of what we’ve come to expect of a modern flagship smartphone.

If looks and build quality don’t matter to you, this is not a problem. But even considering the S4’s other fantastic qualities, the physical feel of the phone is almost enough to put me off.

In comparison, the HTC One is probably the best looking and feeling phone of this size that I’ve laid hands on. The weight is fantastic, and the feel in the hand is just right. It’s solid enough to give you confidence while not being chunky, and the blend of curves and hard edges make for a great hand-feel.

Likewise, the Xperia Z looks stunning. An obsidian-black monolith, sealed all around with milspec waterproofing, the thing just wants to be touched. The water resistance is a welcome addition: being able to rinse a phone under running water is not something I expected to like, but after doing it a few times I wish I could do it to every phone I’ve owned.

Unfortunately the convenience of a washable phone comes with downsides: every time you want to charge the Z or plug your headphones in, you have to fiddle with the (thankfully well-engineered) port flaps. I’m not positive if the waterproofing remains in effect with the flaps open, but I’d guess not.

If I had to pick one of these three phones purely on looks, it would be the HTC One. If I was a tradesman or regular watersports participant, I’d go with the Xperia Z.

Conclusion

HTC oneIt’s bloody hard to pick a winner from this bunch. They each have their upsides and some very minor downs. The HTC One camera is a disappointment but it looks smashing; the Samsung feels cheesy but is incredibly light and has a fantastic camera; and the waterproof Z could come in very handy, while Sony have also done amazing things with the modding community.

Forced at gunpoint to pick a phone, I’d take the HTC One, but I’d not be at all upset to take home any of the three.

As usual, I’m happy to answer any specific questions in the comments below.

Double Review: Samsung DA-E750 and Logitech UE Boombox

I can’t think of the last time I used a stereo of any form. For the last few years at least, all of the music in our household has come from smartphones, so it’s not wonder that audio docks are evolving fast. In this review I take a look at a couple of offerings from Samsung and Logitech.

samsung e750The Samsung DA-E750 is a beast, which ever way you look at it. It’s 450mm wide and weighs almost 10kgs. I’m not sure if this heft comes from the heavy wooden case, the 100W faux vacuum tube amp, or the woven-glass speaker system. Any way you look at it, this thing is the very definition of super-premium – right down to the retail price: $899 (although JB HiFi will sell you one for $650).

Thankfully the sound generated from the Samsung is super-premium too. It packs a serious punch for something that’s not a full-blown stereo system. Plenty enough power for partying, my only complaint being that it’s a touch too bass-heavy when the volume is low.

Connectivity abounds with the DA-E750. You can connect it to your network via wireless or wired ethernet, and it will turn up as an Apple AirPlay and/or DLNA receiver. Otherwise just use Bluetooth to connect to the dock, or plug your iPhone in directly via the nifty pop-out plug dock. That same dock also has a standard micro USB charging plug, so any phone with a plug on the bottom should fit. My Nokia Lumia 920 sat there happily.

Logitech-UE-BoomboxSomewhat down the other end of the scale sits the Logitech UE Boombox. Weighing in at a svelte 2kg and priced at $349, the UE Boombox supports Bluetooth as a single connection option, and doesn’t have any form of physical dock.

The Logitech is designed to be portable, sporting a 6-hour battery and the ability to pair to 8 different devices and connect to 3 simultaneously. In practice it seems that the last device to play gets priority, so it can result in a bit of a war over audio if multiple phones are trying to play at the same time.

The sound from the Logitech is never going to compete with the Samsung, but it does a wonderful job for what it is. I can imagine it would be a winner with the kids on the beach.

These devices are definitely aimed at different markets and uses, but for me personally (not being a Lotto winner), the Logitech would be my choice if I was forced to select between the two. It’s easily portable, simple to use, and I kinda like the retro-cool styling.

However, if I did have a library with walnut shelving, deep-button leather couch, and a cigar humidor, the Samsung would absolutely take pride of place.

500 Words and Sony Xperia Z

Twitter has destroyed this blog.

I don’t mean that Ev came and smashed my server with a hammer. But because my inspiration and unique thoughts go straight on to twitter without the chance of elaboration (most often to the detriment of society – sorry), I feel no compulsion to come here and write. As I type this I’m finding it difficult to drag these thoughts out of my head, and the very act of writing long-form is alien.

Is this wrong, or just new?

I was gutted, as is usual, to not attend Webstock this year, but didn’t stop me getting inspiration from the event. One suggestion I heard remotely was for creators to write 500 words each day before reading any, as an antidote to the antidata happening online – the trivialisation of news, the sound-biting of thoughts, and the selection of high-fructose corn syrup* entertainment news over the hard-news broccoli.

So this is me, steaming some fresh broccoli for you. Open wide, here comes the aeroplane!

I’ve been an Android hater for many years now. Back in the bad old days of 2.3 I was like the worst kind of Atheist: ranting against the stupid majority for blindly following their Google God; desperately explaining my stance to an unending stream of believers with closed ears. I still say that early Android was trash. Nothing more than a cheap, poorly designed, user-hostile land grab by Google.

Lately, I’ve been playing with Android 4 variants, and last night I got to take a look at the new Sony Xperia Z (both phone and tablet). Wow! Android: you’ve come a long way baby.

Xperia Z_black_frontFrom the outside, the phone is perfect. Some tech blogs are saying the screen is not the most fantastic and the camera needs work. I suggest you take a fucking step back for a minute and just look at the thing:

  • 1080p 5″ screen in a ultra-slim black rectangle
  • Quad-core 1.5 GHz (jesus christ!) processor
  • LTE radio
  • 13MP main camera
  • 2MP front camera supporting 1080p30 video
  • Completely waterproof to 1m for up to 30 minutes

In what world is that not holy-fucking-shit awesome? In what world do you pick this apart and say that the screen looks a fraction washed-out when you view it off-angle? In person the phone is outstanding. The screen looks like paper: you cannot see a single pixel, while its Android 4.1.2 OS – thankfully largely untouched by Sony – is massively fast and smooth. And a quad-core 1.5GHz processor? Son, in my day that was a kick-ass gaming PC. None of my complaints about old Android stand true here.

One of my other complaints about Android has been the shocking treatment of upgrades, with carriers and OEMs leaving customers out to dry on horribly insecure versions. Sony have mostly solved this by cosying up to the modding community, to the point that they were named XDA-Dev’s OEM of the year. One of the comments on that post grumbles that Sony aren’t releasing new versions and have left support to XDA-dev. That’s the point my man! The one thing us nerds have been asking for is the ability to upgrade our own phones, and Sony appears to give us that by default, rather than grudgingly producing a root unlock down the line when they deign it appropriate.

I started watching Burn Notice last night on the recommendation of a friend. I’m talking S01E01 old-school. I had to check IMDB because the program was recorded in 4:3 ratio and the main character was rocking a Motorola RAZR. Take a guess at the production date.

2007. In 2007 the state of the art was a Motorola RAZR. Today it’s that thing up there. I’m going to get all Matchbox Twenty up in here: Let’s See How Far We’ve Come.

*Apparently the actual analogy was pizza-vs-brocolli. My analogy is better.

 

 

Logitech UE9000 Headphones

My first impression: monsters. Big, heavy monsters. In reality they’re not much heavier than my BlackBox M14 ANC headphones that I use for flying, but compared to lightweight in-ear monitors that I normally wear, they’re huge. So, what do you get in this big package?Custom_format_UE9000_BTY1 MED

  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR support
  • Active noise cancellation
  • Optional wired connection with mic and remote
  • Built-in lithium batteries and micro-USB charging
  • Talk-through support when in wireless mode
  • Logitech UE “sound signature”

Basically, the UE9000’s are stacked with every feature you might want from headphones. Run them as premium wired headphones and they sound fantastic. Turn on the built-in amp and they sound even better. Sound reproduction is great, with punchy lows and crystal-clear high notes. But with the NZ$599 price you would expect nothing less.

If you prefer to run without wires, unplug the (extremely well engineered and sturdy) blue cable, and pair them with your Bluetooth device. Again sound seems fine (Bluetooth is never going to be as good as a wired connection), but the cool thing is these headphones also work perfectly as a Bluetooth headset. It’s strange because there’s no nerdy boom mic, but my voice came through loud and clear.

The Active Noise Cancelling is up there with the best – blocking out what little background noise leaks through the comfy ear pads. Given how effective even passive noise protection is on these ‘phones, one cool addition is “Talk-Through”: if you’re using the headphones in wireless mode, you can tap a button on top of the left headphone to reduce the music volume and activate the built-in microphones so you can hear external noises. This way you can chat to people without having to take the headphones off.

Battery life is excellent. I’ve tried to run them flat listening to music for an entire work day on Bluetooth, but was unable to drain the battery. Even if  you could do so, there’s nothing stopping you leaving the micro-USB charge cable attached while you listen.

Pros

  • Fantastic sound quality
  • Great wireless performance
  • Talk-through
  • Excellent Logitech / UE build quality

Cons

  • Fairly heavy
  • Expensive (but not really compared to other high-end noise cancelling headphones)

 

 

Nokia Lumia 920 Review

The Lumia 920 (taken with a competing smartphone)

It’s a fantastic phone. Yes it’s porker at 180 grams, but if you can get over that single downside, everything else is frankly wonderful.

For users coming from Windows Phone 7, the 920 is a huge step-up. The screen is finally on par (and often surpasses) other high-end smartphones; performance is wonderful, with the lack of app load and switch lag making multitasking brilliant; and the new start screen gives you the control you’ve always wanted.

If you’ve never used a Windows Phone, the 920 (and others in its class) might just make you want to.

Hardware

The Lumia 920 brings the familiar polycarbonate body shell from earlier Lumias. Mine is black, but I’d prefer one of the other colour options: cyan, grey, red, white or yellow. The rounded edges feel nice in the hand, and the buttons have been spaced out a little, which makes it easier to differentiate between the volume and lock buttons.

The screen, at 1280×768 rocks a 332 ppi pixel density. For humans, this just means that you’ll fail hard when playing “find the pixel”, just like on the iPhone 4. Brightness and contrast are great, and I haven’t noticed any colour casts or issues.

Another Microsoft device shot with a 920

The camera. Ooohh the camera. Where do I start? Basically this: we took some shots in a dingy Redmond hotel room, and couldn’t stop saying “what the fuck?” when viewing the results. The last time I was this stunned by a camera was when I first used the Canon 5DII. Now there’s no way that the Lumia 920 would match the 5D2’s output, but it’s a hell of a lot better than any other phone camera I’ve used.

Battery seems pretty sweet, and if that’s the one reason the device is so heavy, I can forgive it. Bashing around at Microsoft’s BUILD conference, with flakey WiFi, spending all day tweeting up a storm, and the battery still has 30% charge at 7pm. Not bad at all.

WiFi, Bluetooth, 3G, NFC, and other stuff work fine.

Software

Windows Phone 8 is a player. Finally. Phone 7 was a cool operating system with a stunning new visual design. It worked fine as a phone, but it sucked in a few essential ways that I won’t bother going into.

With 8, performance is bonkers. Running “big Windows” (aka the NT core) means that apps can be massively pre-optimized by the operating system so they load and run super quick. And yes, that means existing Windows Phone 7 apps. Putting 7 apps on an 8 phone is like having brand new apps.

Add to that multiple CPU cores and some serious optimizations around the input and UI thread performance, and you get incredibly slick software. It’s buttery smooth everywhere.

The new start screen is really, really cool. It’s like Android’s customizable launcher without the shitty mess. Pin people, apps, widgets and icons in 3 different sizes, and lay them out in a cool masonry arrangement. For me this was explained best when Steve Ballmer, Joe Belfiore and Jessica Alba held up their phones at the launch event. Three phones, all running the same software, but they looked totally different because of the way each user customized them. None of those users had to root their phones or install custom “launchers”.

Built in apps are fast and work great. Linked inboxes in mail, multiple calendars, the same great people hub, and some nifty new stuff including “Rooms” and “Kids corner”.

Xbox Music with streaming and downloads makes the music hub great, and this is now available to New Zealanders without having to work through a USA Live ID. Like other apps, Xbox music can set your wallpaper using album art, which makes the phone really come to life, even when locked. I’m looking forward to local apps leveraging this wallpaper option, after seeing how the CNN app updates the wallpaper with news photography every 30 minutes.

Another new addition is a real timesaver: not only does the keyboard auto-correct as you type, it also pre-suggests words. If you’re typing a sentence and hit the spacebar, you will get suggestions for the next word without even typing a letter. This is uncannily good: I found it suggested the correct word a good 30% of the time, increasing to 80% after I’d typed a letter or two.

Sure we could have an argument about “Apps”, because Windows Phone doesn’t have Instagram or Letterpress, but my bet is these will come. For one: porting is massively easier in WP8 (I can say this because I have first-hand knowledge of porting c++ iOS games to WP8); and hopefully with 8 we’ll see some decent market share. Hopefully.

So there you go. A biased, enthusiastic review. Feel free to fire any questions in the comments because I’m sure I haven’t covered everything.

Buying

Unfortunately if you’re not one of the lucky few to pick up a 920 at the BUILD conference, there’s currently nowhere you can buy one. There’s no word on carriers for New Zealand at this stage, but given the support of previous Nokia phones, and Microsoft’s planned marketing spend, I’d be confident they’ll show up on all carriers in short order.

New Vonage Calling App for iPhone and Android

[box type=”info” border=”full”]This post is paid for by Vonage[/box]

The app landscape is not short of free calling and messaging apps. Skype and Whatsapp stand at the top of the list. However, Vonage is trying to crack the market with a new iPhone and Android calling app.

Despite them paying me to talk about the app, I’m actually genuinely impressed. It lacks the existing network that Skype and other apps come with, but the app itself is very nicely executed. It feels more like an iOS first-party app than something that has been ported from desktop. It’s very quick to navigate around, and uses your existing address book (let’s hope they don’t upload it like Path did) to make calls and send messages.

If the person you are calling is a Vonage user, the call is 100% free (excluding data charges). To coax your friends onto the service, the Vonage Mobile multi-invite function lets you invite anyone (or everyone) from your contact list with one simple text. Skype requires you to search for users and invite each person one at a time.

Vonage Mobile doesn’t limit calls to people with the app, or even to people who have a smartphone. You can call direct from Vonage Mobile to virtually any phone number on the planet. You can dial internationally without needing to activate special services with your mobile carrier. And most importantly, you can do this with the address book on your phone and your existing mobile number.

There is a cost associated with calling phones directly, but according to Vonage, the app offers international calling with per-minute rates that average 70 percent less than major mobile carriers and 30 percent less than Skype. This savings estimate is based on per-minute rates to the top 50 countries called. Billing is also more convenient, with payment integrated directly into your iTunes or Android Market account, instead of maintaining billing in a separate login.

To see a demo of the app, go check out the “Magic of Vonage Mobile” video on YouTube at the following link:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaRcnY1xZxM

For those of you playing along at home, here is a quick feature recap:

  • Free domestic and international calls and texts to anyone with the Vonage Mobile app.
  • When calling a landline or phone directly, you get international calling with per-minute rates averaging 70% less than major mobile carriers and 30% less than Skype.
  • In-app credit purchases are tied directly to your iTunes or Android Market account.
  • Inviting multiple people right from your address book via SMS or email is easy.
  • Vonage Mobile automatically identifies contacts who already have the app.
  • Your mobile number double as your caller ID (so your friends won’t be surprised by an unfamiliar app-assigned number)
  • Works on Wi-Fi and 3G/4G worldwide.

If better call quality to any of your existing contacts isn’t enough to make you try out Vonage Mobile, there’s just one more thing you should know. Vonage is currently offering free calls from virtually anywhere in the world to the United States, Canada, or Puerto Rico. There are a few circumstances where free calling may not work, like business calls, premium and special service numbers, and satellite phones, but for the most part, free really means free. You also need to stay under 3000 minutes per month, but who talks that much anyway?

Download Vonage Mobile now and check it out on your iPhone or Android phone. Invite your family and friends so you have someone to text or call, then let us know what you think.

Review: Huawei MediaPad from 2degrees

While I wasn’t overly keen to review an Android tablet, I have been impressed by the Huawei devices I’ve used to date, so I was happy to give the new 7 inch Huawei MediaPad from 2degrees a blast.

Bottom line: It’s an good device. It’s around half the price of a 3G iPad ($549 bundled with 2GB of data from 2degrees), with most of he same features apart from the screen size. If you’ve never used an iPad you’d be quite happy with it. You can watch movies, browse the internet, play famous games like Angry Birds, and read e-books using the Amazon Kindle app.

It runs Android 3.2, which is a thoroughly modern and pretty interface for tablets. There’s heaps of screen space to lay out your multiple home screens just as you like, making this device a great option for info-warriors. You could have Facebook, Twitter, calendar, email,weather, etc. all as widgets on your home screens, providing everything you need to see at a glance.

The Android Marketplace is packed with apps that are built for Android 2.x phones. Most of these will run fine on the MediaPad. It is less easy to find apps dedicated to the 3.x tablet version of Android, but they do exist. There’s no word on whether the MediaPad will be upgradeable to later versions of Android (including the new 4.0 version).

The hardware is robust. It looks very similar to a miniature iPad, with the same glossy black bezel and aluminium rear enclosure. The SIM card and MicroSD slots are hidden behind a plastic panel on the back of the case. The one weird thing I found with the hardware was that the micro-USB plug does not charge the device. There’s a separate charge port. This is a bit annoying given the number of micro-USB chargers that most people have floating around.

Here’s the technical details:

  • Screen: 7 inch IPS, 1280×800 pixel
  • CPU: Dual core 1.2GHz
  • Camera: 5MP autofocus
  • Storage: 8GB internal + MicroSD slot
  • WiFi: 802.1 b/g/n
  • 3G: HSPA+
  • Locations: GPS/AGPS
  • Other: Accelerometer, 4100mAh battery
  • Ports: Micro USB, Micro HDMI, Charging plug

There are a huge number of Android tablets attempting to encroach on the market that the iPad created. To be honest, they’re not doing well at all. I don’t see 2degrees’ new entry into the market changing this, but it’s still a good device for the niche. If you want something a bit smaller, a lot cheaper, but almost as capable as an iPad, definitely take a look at it.

Two Weeks with the Apple iPhone 4S

I’m just going to focus on a couple of things here, because you know what this phone is and what it can do.

Siri Speaks Kiwi

Yes she does, and pretty well at that. Siri is the best voice recognition system I’ve used on a phone. Apart from the occasional weird word (“egg” comes to mind), accuracy was incredibly good, even with background music and talking. It struggled a bit when I was driving, but then who wouldn’t in the wall of sound that is my Nissan Sunny. Hey, it’s economical.

But let’s get this straight: Siri is so much more than voice recognition. It’s the lack of “commands” that really does the job. Everything else I’ve used requires you to speak a command: “dial x”, “message y”. Some allow you to use variations like “call/ring/dial”. But you have to remember those commands. Get them wrong, and the phone complains pleasantly.

Siri is different. She gets the general idea of what you’re asking. It doesn’t matter if you say “set a reminder for …” or “remind me to….tomorow” or “tomorrow, remind me to …”, or even “don’t let me forget to …”. The genius in Siri is her ability to find meaning in your statement and build a result around it. Whichever way you put it, 9 times out of 10 Siri will do the right thing.

Combine Siri with the addition of location based reminders, and “remind me to get milk on the way home” becomes something seamless and wonderful. It’s genuinely futuristic.

The big gap for Siri in New Zealand is not the accent. It’s the lack of location services. Ask Siri to “find me a Korean restaurant”, and she’ll politely decline. “Sorry Ben, I can only look for businesses in the United States”. Let’s hope this gap is being closed.

It’s The Ecosystem, Stupid

Chances are – in New Zealand especially – at least a couple of your friends have iPhones. You might have an iPad yourself. Perhaps like me you grabbed an Apple TV just because they’re so damn cheap? The new version of iOS really ties this ecosystem together. Sure there’s been synergy before, but iOS 5 takes it further.

Find my Friends, which I considered creepy, is properly useful and even a bit fun. While camping on Waiheke, friends offered to bring fish & chips for dinner. I invited them to a temporary Find my Friends share (24 hours by default) earlier in the day. Around dinner time, I picked up my phone, expecting to make the normal “What time are you coming? Here’s the address”, call. Instead I fired up Find my Friends and saw them already halfway across the island, homing in on my position. Fun and useful.

iMessage likewise. If you have friends with iOS5 devices, your messages just became free-as-in-data. Certainly much cheaper than SMS messages assuming you have any sort of data plan on your device.

iCloud helps make sense of multiple devices.

  • Sync your mail, contacts and calendar between all your devices. Useful if you don’t have a corporate email account, or if you like to keep your personal stuff separate.
  • Photo Stream automatically syncs your last few photos (actually up to 1000, stored for 30 days), to all your devices. Snap a shot on your iPhone, and it’s automatically available on other devices, including as a slideshow on Apple TV.
  • The iWork integration with iCloud is excellent. Edit a document or presentation (or other iWork doc) on any device, and changes are synced to other devices automatically. You can even download a PDF copy from a browser – probably the simplest PDF conversion I’ve ever seen.
  • iCloud Backup does the backup that iTunes did previously, but stores it safely in The Cloud. In fact, combine iCloud Backup with the new WiFi sync, and you barely need to connect the phone to a computer anymore.

Airplay is great – view a video or song on your iPhone and stream it instantly to Apple TV. Airplay Mirroring (4S only) is a vision into the future of gaming: use your iPhone as a control and dashboard, while the big screen (via Apple TV) is your gameplay screen. Mirroring was flakey for me, and for others I’ve talked. Once it is nailed down it will be a great function.

And we haven’t yet touched on the huge hardware ecosystem, which is arguably more reason to go with the iPhone than anything above. Just check out, for example, this awesome add-on that my boss pointed out. Just one of about three billion different docks, dongles and doo-dads that plug into an iPhone’s dock connector.

Should I Buy One?

The $1,049 to $1,349 question. I’ve broken this one down before. Unless you have a particular need for open devices or crazy large screen sizes, the iPhone 4S is (still) the best phone out there. iOS has matured to the extent that rough edges are really hard to come by. Everything just works.

It pains me to say it, but moving back to iOS after a year with Windows Phone, it’s brutally obvious where Windows Phone needs to catch up: polish and ecosystem. XBox has been around for a lot longer than Apple TV. Why, quite frankly, the HELL does WP7 not integrate with XBox (the device, not the XBox Live back-end) the way iPhone and Apple TV work together? And infrequent but hugely annoying bugs like the “disappearing keyboard” in Mango are just downright frustrating. So close, but just not there yet. Bring on the Nokias.

And then there’s Android. Again, so close but just not there. Unless you have a pressing desire to have an “open” device or giant screen sizes, the iPhone is probably a better choice.

In an alternate universe, Apple would build services like Airplay, Find my Friends, iMessage and iCloud on open protocols so that all devices could play equally. In this universe, that’s never going to happen. So if you want a part of that truly useful, seamless ecosystem, just put your koolaid drinks up and party in the iPhone club.