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!