18 December 2008

Who is the Nokia N800 for?

I bought a Nokia N800. This being Spurious Starlight, we never acquire the latest tech, and the N800 originally came out at the start of 2007. So now the N800 is just shy of 2 years old, and can be had for just shy of £100 eBay. If you've not heard of the Nokia N800 I don't blame you. Nokia is one of those companies who, although they make more than one produce more than one item, are really only well known for their mobile phones. The N800, however, has no cellular radio within it, but in terms of hardware is actually very similar to a phone both in terms of size and components. Instead, Nokia calls it an 'internet tablet' (NIT). Two years ago when the N800 was released, one of the overriding questions was: who is it for? Two years later is the answer any clearer?

Going by my past posts, you will gather that what I do on the internet revolves around browsing news, staying in touch with friends and family through Facebook and IM, checking email, listening to podcasts (both audio and video) and listening to internet radio. I would say that those few actions account for 90% of what I do on the net - consumption of media rather than creation. What I've discovered the N800 is, is a device which allows me to do all of that in a pocketable form factor.

Surfing the internet is possible on my phone, and using an HTC Touch Diamond with Opera 9.5 really isn't a bad experience, but with such a tiny screen, even with a high pixel density, you can't avoid a degree of claustrophobia. In contrast, the N800 has a huge screen both in terms of size and resolution. It is WVGA 800x480 which means that you can see most webpages without scrolling side to side, and because it uses a Mozilla-based browser, the rendering is near-identical to what you would see on a desktop. It handles javascript and flash which is really impressive too. Pages render relatively quickly via WiFi, but I will say that certain pages do cause it to choke, especially the 'infinite' pages like Google Reader.

Facebook is a bit of a weird one on the N800. If you just enter the facebook URL you get some kind of weird message. Facebook clearly has never heard of the N800 and assumes that it is a mobile web browser, and tries to divert you to a WAP page. If you put the http://www.facebook.com/login.php specific URL in, however, you can go to the desktop version which is what the N800 excels at. Once you are there you get the full fat version of Facebook with every function known - so much better than the mobile or iphone variants of the site.

Communication via Skype works really well, and you can even use the video camera which pops out of the side of the device. You can also instant message using Gizmo which connects to the Windows Live Messenger service. I don't use the other IM services which are supported so I wouldn't know how they work. My onluy concern is that the built-in keyboards are pretty unfinger friendly. Even the big QWERTY keyboard, which is far better than most on-sceen keyboards I have ever used, takes a bit of getting used to. As a result, typing is just a little bit slower and more frustrating. This goes for emailing too. The email clinet is very easy to set up and inludes imap for GMail which is basically what I live on. Multiple accounts are also posisble, and the client polls the servers regularly, witht he D-pad glowing blue when a new mail comes in.

I am not going to discuss media consumption at the moment because I am still exploring the device, But sufficeth to say the built in media player is adequate, but the downloadable player Canola, is amazing!

10 December 2008

Fennec browser and Origami Experience running on Windows Mobile!

I apologise for the somewhat misleading title of this post, because, sadly, it is not true in the strictest sense of the word. However, at the same time it is not entirely false either. I get bored very easily by my devices, and rather than buy a whole new one every time I want a bit of eye candy, I try to explore different ways of trying out another user interface. UIs involving touch are the subject du jour, but neither are particularly new.

For instance, in Microsoft's initial, but now sadly dead, vision of the UMPC there was a UI designed to be finger friendly on relatively small screens. It was called Origami Experience. Sadly, Microsoft in their infinite wisdom decided that it could not be downloaded as a separate overlay of Windows XP. No, they wanted it to be exclusive to the new generation of UMPCs. Thankfully, an enterprising young woman called Neotechni decided to take matters into her own hands and came up with a clone called Mobile Home. She details it in the Origami Project forum.

I downloaded it, and it is indeed feature complete and runs beautifully, but having installed it, I can't make full use of the functionality as I do not have a touch screen desktop. That is where the magic of remote desktop on my HTC Universal comes in. By firing up a remote session, I can use the touch screen on my PDA to really try out the UI. So far I love it! It sure beats the traditional start button-cascading menu-task bar paradigm on such a small device.

Using the same technique I can actually get Fennec, Mozilla's new mobile browser, to run on my HTC Universal too. Fennec builds run on XP but not Windows Mobile at the moment, but by "putting it onto" my phone via RDP I can try it out is it is meant to be. I have to say that being an alpha build most of the functionality is sadly limited, but I do like the screen sliding paradigm of browing and tabs.

I have also used my old tablet Windows 98 Fujitsu LT in this way to try out both Mobile Home and Fennec, and have to say that there is a great novelty value in seeing an entirely different user interface on this prehistoric device.

One more top tip, if you are using Firefox, even remotely, on a touch screen device, then I strongly recommend the Grab and Drag add-on. It makes surfing the web that much easier.

Edit: I added a video of RDP in action on the HTC Universal showing Mobile Home, Firefox and Fennec.

09 December 2008

A review of the Creative Inspire T10i speakers

Quite a while ago I reappropriated my old HTC Magician as an internet radio. The set up was a bit convoluted, but worked quite well. in the interim, however, the phone was requisitioned by my parents and I went back to listening to my internet radio on the PC. I still think this is a bit of an overkill, and there is something vaguely annoying about having to boot up my desktop to listen to a bit of streaming Christmas music. Time to come up with another solution!

While I no longer have the phone, I still do have the SanDisk WiFi SD card and indeed the bluetooth speakers. The bluetooth connection was a bit wasted though, since the only PDA I have lying around at the moment is my old hp iPAQ h2210. This has bluetooth but does not support A2DP. In truth, the Acoutic Energies don't have the best sound anyway, with rather muddy basses and wooly highs. So I figured it was time to look for a new pair of speakers.

In the end I settled on a pair of Creative Inspire T10i speakers. I have had a really good experience with Creative's before and I know that in their price range their speakers really are unparalleled. I originally wanted to get one of the fancy X-Fi speakers since the music playing out of my PDA will have been digitally compressed. Most internet radio streams run at a feeble 96kbps I believe, and it would have been great to have some of that fleshed out using the X-Fi crystallizer system. I'm not going to argue the case for X-Fi, but suffice to say that response to it is a bit subjective - I love it for digital music.

Unfortunately, X-Fi systems come at a price premium and I didn't want to spend more than fifty quid on it. I found one review of the T10is on line and it was really positive, so I figured I would give them a shot. Even so, I was heading rather blindly into the purchase. I ended up spending just under £30 for the speakers on eBay and have to say that for the price the sound really is stunningly good.

The speakers themselves aren't particularly huge but they have a tweeter and a mid-sized cone, as well as a bass port exiting at the top. The right speaker has the volume and tone control knobs, and at the back a power and audio in port. This being the T10 'i' variant, it also came with a dock for an iPhone or iPod Touch - clearly this is something I do not need. As I mentioned, I am streaming internet radio through it at the moment, and the basses are rich and punchy with clean, crisp highs and rounded mids. The sound is really beyond what one would expect for speakers in this price range. Strongly recommended and well worth it: if only because I can now listen to O Come All ye Faithful without first hearing the Windows startup sound!

07 December 2008

Odd phone designs #1

The brand 'not specified' in the mobile phones section in eBay is a veritable Burgess shale of hardware designs which may or may not evolve to the big time. I get a weird thrill from having a look to see what the Chinese designers consider a viable look, and while some of them are truly wacky, there are many which are quite clever. Now and then though, the odd phone really catches my eye, and I just had to post this one: a weird amalgamation of the Nokia 8800 Arte and the LG KT610.

In principle, QWERTY phones need to be long to accomodate the keyboard, so it baffles me just a little that whoever drew up the blueprints decided that this phone also needed a hideaway number pad. Mind you I guess it does make for a sleeker look. The added bonus? Gaming keys because this phone also has a SNES emulator built in!

06 December 2008

A review of the Krussell touch screen pointer

This is a bit of an odd review because I'm discussing an accessory, not some piece of techie kit. But with my new WWAN modem I received a £10 voucher from the 3 accessories store. I had a quick look around, and frankly, a tenner really doesn't go very far, and how many phone socks does one person really need? On the other hand I am indeed a lanyard person. As someone who is clumsy at the best of times, it has stopped my expensive toys from falling onto the floor and smashing into a million pieces on many an occasion. When grabbing the phone from my pocket I also find it gives something handy to grasp onto. I hasten to add that I am not one of those people who like to add dangly bits of jewellery to their phones. I am strictly Corbusier-ian in that sense in that I belive that from is function.

Anyway, to cut a long and not very interesting story short, I decided to go with two Krussell touch screen pointers. The original designers are a company called Triforce based in Sweden, and I remember reading about them quite some time ago. The "triforce" allusion is not to Zelda but to a trangular piece of plastic which is looped through the nylon strap. It is this which you are supposed to pick up and use in lieu of a stylus.

Does it work? Well, yes, and very well indeed. The stylus is durable and sturdy, and the strap itself feels very durable. Do I actually use it? Sadly, given that I have a Touch Diamond which has TouchFlo 3D, an interface designed for the use of fingers, I would have to say no, not very much. If you are the kind of person who prefers to use the stylus, and are constantly losing it, then this would definitely appeal to you. Otherwise my muscle memory makes me reach of the stylus on those rare occasions that I actually need to use one.

30 November 2008

A review of the Huawei E160G 3G modem on 3

Work has been exceptionally dictatorial about its internet usage of late, and with the pre-existing ban on the use of Facebook and eBay at work newly supplemented with a log of all the websites one visits, it was enough to tip me over into getting my own mobile broadband access. As you may know from my previous post, I have an MSI Wind which I have been using as my primary on-the-go computing device for a while now. Ironically, however, while it is a netbook, when I take it out of the house I rarely used it to surf the net, mainly because it is quite difficult nowadays to find an open WiFi access point. My new 3G modem has definitely changed all that.

I did a quick search on the net and knew that I could get a fairly good deal from 3. At their web shop they are offering 3GB downloads for £15 a month. With a bit of digging though, I signed up for a contract giving me 5GB of downloads a month for £7.50. It is over 18 months though, so I hope it works out! The bonus of a £10 accessories voucher was also appreciated!

I received my dongle on Wednesday. It is a Huawei E160G in black, and rather sleek it is too. I used to carry a USB thumbdrive on my keychain, and this resembles it closely, although it is thicker, longer and wider. I did try to attach it to my keychain but as it kept stabbing me whenever I sat down, I abandoned that idea pretty quickly. The other main complaint is that if it is shaped like something you could put on a keychain, why does it not have a keychain loop? Instead it has one of those tiny little holes which it is even difficult to fit a regular mobile phone lanyard through. Rather bad design on Huawei's part I must say.

Apart from the size and the lack of a decent method of attachment, the modem itself is quite attractive. It has a rubberized outer coating with a 3 logo printed in white at one end. Just behind the logo and underneath a thinner piece of plastic is the status LED which glows through the enclosure. Pretty cool. The dongle itself is three-quarters encircled by a chrome edge in which there are two flaps: one is for an external antenna, while the other accepts a microSD card. I was quite surprised at this as I already carry an 8GB thumbdrive and the fact that this can take on that role is a bit of a bonus. Indeed I put my 8GB microSDHC into the slot and it is definitely SDHC compatible.

At the top, under the cap is the USB port and a small tray for the SIM card. The dongle is pretty chunky, and it comes supplied with a USB extension cord so that, if your USB ports are closely spaced, you don't end up blocking two of them. On my MSI Wind I end up plugging the dongle straight into the port on the right, with the left ports being used for my RF portable mouse and the USB thumbdrive. It works out quite well.

Another interesting feature of the dongle is that when you insert it into a PC it mounts as a CD ROM drive and proceeds to install the software. The process is fairly straightforward as it is done through a wizard, but it was slightly annoying that the moment it was loaded, the program told me that an update was available, and it went on line, to get it. This prompted a total uninstall of the original software and a reinstall. Honestly, you'd think it would be trivial to update the modem with the latest software. The microSD reader component mounts as a separate USB drive.

Once everything is up and running, which does take a while, you are confronted with a big orange button you click on to connect. At home I found that I had a 6/10 bar HSDPA connection with a theoretical maximum of 3.6MBps download speed. The modem itself does not support the higher speed HSPA network. In reality, however, and I know that this is contingent on place and time, I was getting measly download speed of only 160kbps, and uploads of 52kbps! Obviously this is sorely disappointing, because it does preclude some of the things you take for granted on the internet like streaming video. That means no YouTube and no iPlayer. I've not read the fine print about whether or not this is permissible anyway under the terms and conditions, but it is clearly not physically possible. Instant messaging is fine and VoIP struggles but does work. No video conferencing though.

So, how do I feel so far? Well, I love the freedom that a wireless modem affords, and I like that 5GB really is more than I need so I don't really have to think about it. It has certainly changed my mobile computing patterns, and I find I am answering more emails, and updating my Facebook profile with greater frequency. My only wish is that I bought a netbook with a modem built into it. While not terribly inconvenient, the dongle does take up one precious USB port and it sticks out a mile! And I live in fear that it will get nicked if I leave it plugged in when I am away from the desk. Overall I am happy with it. Let's see how it develops.

25 July 2008

A quick review of the MSI Wind

The demands I place on my portable devices aren't great. I generally use them for the odd bit of word processing or spreadsheet data entry, and if I am particularly adventurous, might also read emails or surf a bit of the web. That is why until now I have been quite content with my combination of an old handheld PC and an old XP notebook. Then the MSI Wind came along, and it met my needs for a lightweight, relatively powerful and suitably cheap computer, and I rushed out (or actually, logged on) and bought it.

As a portable device the Wind in its Advent 4211 incarnation is a small and light notebook. It feels about the same weight as my MobilePro 900C, and much lighter than my Fujitsu Lifebook P2120. As it happens, the Wind is significantly thinner than the Lifebook (it lacks an optical drive after all) but still deeper than the MobilePro, so the latter still wins on size. However, I never really understood the point of laptops smaller than this because, to me at least, the reduction in usability is not made up for by the gain in portability. After all, unless the computer is the size of a mobile phone you still have to carry a bag to put it into.

The most major advantage of the MobilePro is that it boots instantaneously; it is, after all, running an embedded operating system. In contrast, the Lifebook with its 800MHz Transmeta Crusoe processor used to take nearly five or six minutes to boot up into XP! So my usage patterns of the two devices varied. When I am out and about, but with access to a regular desktop I'd carry the H/PC, but when I was travelling it was the notebook which would go with me.

To be honest, I hardly ever do a cold reboot on my XP systems anyway, preferring to hibernate over shutting down. The Lifebook could just about do it, but a wake up would still take a couple of minutes, so it was still frustrating and nowhere near as convenient as the H/PC. Thankfully, the Wind is running Intel's new Atom processor and has a healthy 1GB of RAM. That means that it does boot up quickly, and it takes a very tolerable 15 seconds to go from hibernate to a useable desktop. The processor and RAM combination means that once you are booted up, there is just so much more you can do.

I like to configure my desktops (one I use for sound/ video editing and website management, and one which I use as an HTPC) with Rocket Dock, Yahoo! Widgets and a Vista-esque skin with transparency, animation and drop shadows. Until now I could never ever dream of doing that with the Lifebook without it being crushed. In contrast, the Wind desktop looks and behaves exactly like my desktop. In itself, this is just eye candy, but it reflects how well the system is able to cope with multitasking and processor intensive activities. Until now, for instance, I would never have been able to reencode a video using Super which simultaneously watching a show on BBC iPlayer on my laptop, but this is handled with aplomb on the Wind.

The main purpose of the MSI Wind is as an internet connected device, and this it handles very well. For one thing, the all-important wireless connections of Bluetooth and WiFi are built-in which means none of the nasty PCMCIA cards/ USB dongles of my former two devices . I’m using Firefox 3, and it handles the Silverlight-based ITV catch up website with no problems at all. Flash videos play as well on the netbook as well as on my HTPC. Better yet, the built-in webcam means that I can Skype/Windows Live Messenger my parents and friends on the other side of the globe wherever I am. This is not, I hasten to add, always a good thing. None of these are things which I could ever do on my MobilePro, and only with great difficulty on my Lifebook. It does not have any GSM/3G technology built-in, but internet connection sharing using my phone is not a problem. This means access to the web is feasible even when I am away from WiFi.

I realize that I am making the MSI Wind sound totally wonderful, and there is no doubt that it has almost supplanted the MobilePro 900c and the Lifebook P2120 as my portable device of choice, but it is not all a bed of roses. My first and most major complaint is the battery life. Now I admit that all those wireless radios do suck up the juice, but I would expect more than 2 hours on a screen at half brightness with wireless off. With wireless on I am barely eking out 90 minutes of uptime. On my Lifebook I was probably doing no better, and in fact the productive time was probably less as I waited for the processor to grind through things, but with the 900c I was easily getting four hours and more on a full charge.

Secondly, unlike the Lifebook, there are no hardware quick launch buttons. I have taken for granted the ability to launch Firefox with a single button press, and while launching a program from the dock is not a huge hassle, it is less convenient.

Thirdly, the MSI Wind has a track pad. I am well aware that users fall into two different groups as far as track pads and pointer nipples go, but I am very much a fan of the nipple (oh ho ho!) as it is implemented on the Lifebook. The Lifebook also has the all important third mouse button which enables opening of links in new tab in the web browser. I’ve still not figured how to do this in a convenient way on the Wind. The 900c is even better in that it has a touch screen and, apart from price, it baffles me as to why this was not incorporated into the Wind.

Fourthly, the built-in speakers are very feeble. I can understand that they decided not to put it under the palm rests. This is an annoyance for me on the Lifebook in that you are always covering the speakers with your hands while typing. But the fact that they are on top means that the sound passes through unobstructed and the Lifebook actually doubles up as a pretty good DVD player. There is no optical drive in the MSI Wind, but to be honest, I rarely used it in the Lifebook, and if I really need it I can use a virtual one with Virtual Daemon Manager, or if pushed, use an actual USB external drive.

Many reviews I have read on-line go on about how wonderful and spacious the keyboard is on the Wind; it certainly is when compared with the EeePC, its closest competitor, but is about the same size as the keyboard on the Lifebook and the 900c. But size really isn’t everything, and the keyboard on the wind has a very solid feel to it, with very good key travel. I can type without problems on it, and it beats the fragile feel of the Lifebook keyboard hands down. With the Lifebook it feels like you could mistype, jab your fingers under a key and pop it off all too easily.

So, all in all, I think I am really enjoying my new gadget. It has finally supplanted my duo of a Handheld PC and a subnotebook, in a convenient, attractive and inexpensive package. I’m very pleased with it!

23 July 2008

A review of the HTC Touch Diamond

It has now been a week since I upgraded my phone to an HTC Touch Diamond. I’m on Orange and have been using its spiritual predecessor, the SPV M700 (HTC Trinity) for quite a while now, so this review is more to do with how the transition went. I’m very sceptical of upgrades because I realise that technology doesn't move all that quickly, and a new case does not a worthwhile upgrade make. Moreover, most of the time I suspect that the mobile phone operators are out to fleece you. This time was different though, because the iPhone 3G has just been released on O2, and it is a powerful bargaining chip with Orange.

Anyway, after speaking to customer retentions I negotiated an 18-month contract which includes 600 minutes of mobile/land line calls, unlimited text messages and 250MB of data, all for £30 a month. Crucially, it also gives me the unlimited home broadband deal (8Mbps ADSL and an Orangebox) for just £5 a month – a great overall saving which, to be truthful, keeps me loyal to them. I also got the HTC Touch Diamond (or as they call it, the ‘HTC Diamond’) for free. This compares well with other flagship phones which I would have had to pay for otherwise.

So what do I think of it after a week of use? Well, from the outside I must say that it is one of the most beautiful phones I have ever had. I really like the angular shape, the flush screen and the faceted back. It certainly compares favourably with my old HTC Trinity – with the leather case on the Diamond is actually still smaller than the Trinity! In fact it is significantly smaller than the iPhone and the N95 8GB, the much touted competitors of this phone. I can slip it into a pair of tight jeans without gouging myself in the groin.

Such minimalism does come with a few caveats though: the first is that there are much fewer hardware buttons on this phone. Although the traditional windows and OK button are missing, they have been replaced by the home and back keys. Significantly absent, however, are the voice command, recorder and camera buttons. The Trinity also had a fantastic scroll wheel and an extra OK button. I never normally use these buttons as they are designed but reassign them to launch specific programs. For instance, in my Trinity the camera button would launch the communications manager - really helpful for turning WiFi on and off.

There are no such hardware shortcuts in the Diamond, and all of these functions have to be launched instead through the touch screen interface. Although the touch wheel on the front of the device is capable of scrolling in certain programs, it is admittedly not as easy to use as the true wheel on the Trinity. Thankfully, the interface is a wonder to behold – TouchFlo 3D is easily the prettiest interface I have ever seen on any of my phones and combined with a VGA resolution (640x480) everything is in sharp technicolour. I was running Windows Mobile 6.1 with loads of interface tweaks on the Trinity, including the old TouchFlo as seen on the HTC Touch, and while it was a breakthrough at the time, this is so much better and it certainly has that wow factor, even after seven days of use. I get bored of interfaces after about a week, so it is doing well!

I notice that people have complained that the screen is unresponsive or sluggish, but I certainly have not found that to be the case at all. However, I must preface that with the confession that I am also one of those people who loves hacking the phone, and even before properly using my Diamond I had already downloaded and installed the tweaks available from xda-developers. This is not to be underestimated as a resource for optimizing and expanding your phone. The two key programs I installed are the TouchFlo 3D configurator and GSen, a program which enables the use of the accelerometer to rotate the screen.

Interestingly, Orange have decided to eschew any form of customization on the Diamond, and the only sign that it came from Orange is the very discreet logo on the battery case. In fact the Diamond thankfully includes a stock version of Windows Live Messenger, without the Orange (pay-for) customizations. Apart from the built-in apps I loaded on my usual set of must-have programs - Mobipocket, Vito Sound Explorer, TomTom 6, JB Piano, and 1-Calc Lite - as well as a half dozen or so games. I’ve also put Core Player on there for .avi video playback. I've also paired it with my ThinkOutside bluetooth keyboard. Everything works as it did on my Trinity, but seems speedier overall in terms of load times, and TomTom even gets a faster fix on the satellites from a cold boot (20s or so versus nearly 2 minutes on my Trinity).

I have also now set up my Google and Yahoo! email accounts so the phone pulls emails off the servers throughout the day. With web-browsing, RSS feed and weather updates as well, it is just as well that I a lot of data is included in my package! One thing I will add though, is that I have turned off 3G most of the time as it is a real battery sapper, the second major caveat of having such a small size and therefore a small battery. With 2G most of the time, apart from 3G for the odd bit of browsing, I am averaging 16-18 hours of battery life each day. Not great, but also not bad for such a tiny device.

In the end I am surprisingly happy with the HTC Touch Diamond. Many reviewers compare it with the iPhone 3G and the N95 8GB, but both of the latter two devices are more expensive and far larger than the Touch Diamond. In the end, in terms of actual useability, portability, functionality and value for money, I do think the HTC Touch Diamond is a winner!