Like a lot of people, if I have room for it while working on my laptop, I’d rather use a mouse than the trackpad. Most mobile mice seem to be created approximately equal, but recently Microsoft introduced something new to the field with their BlueTrack technology which claims to work more smoothly on more surfaces than the typical red or infrared laser systems of other mice. Microsoft is using BlueTrack in various products, but it seems to be an especially appropriate fit for a mobile mouse such as the Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 6000.
Looking for another place to discuss your favorite gadgets? Check out our new IRC channel, #gadgeteers on AfterNET! For now it’s just an open channel for the Gadgeteer community, but we will soon be having scheduled chats as well.
If you’re not already an IRC user, the easiest way to join the channel is to go to the AfterNET home page and sign in with the web client using the box in the upper right corner. You’ll need Java enabled in your browser. Just put in your choice of nickname, the channel name (
#gadgeteers), and click.
You can also access our channel using one of the many IRC clients out there – for example, Colloquy for the iPhone or for the Mac or mIRC for Windows. (Look here for even more.) Use
us.afternet.org as the server name if you’re in the USA; otherwise, check the AfterNET website to see if they have a server closer to you.
Whether you’re new to IRC or not, please feel free to join us in #gadgeteers… we hope to see you there!
I’ve wanted something like a netbook for a long time — and I’ve gone through a lot of PDAs, phones, and other portable devices without quite finding it — so when Julie decided to do a team review of the HP Mini 1000 I was excited to give it a try. Read More →
It’s another new netbook, but with a twist: this one isn’t based on the PC architecture, but on a 900 MHz 64-bit MIPS CPU (that means no Windows XP or Vista, ever) and Linux. It also has no internal storage, using form-fitting USB keys preloaded with the operating system instead. It could be ideal for Linux hackers, but does it have a shot at the mass market? Only time will tell. Check out its product page for more specs.
As you may have noticed, there have been a few changes here. We’ve switched to the WordPress blog platform and while we’ve tried to make the change as seamless as possible, you’ll probably notice a lot of upcoming changes as we clean up and add new features. For example, the huge list of categories you might see on the right side of the home page will soon be replaced by a more modern tag cloud. We’ll also be adding some more color to the rather minimal theme we’re starting from.
All of the Gadgeteer’s decade-long history is here, including reviews going back to 1997, all comments, and even most of the posts from the old VBBS forums have been saved. Please stick with us as we head into our second decade!
Also, please note that it is no longer required (or even possible) to log in to post comments. The first time you post here your comment will be held for approval; after that, your comments will appear immediately as long as the filter doesn’t think they’re spam.
It usually isn’t long after the arrival of a new gadget that accessories start to show up. Like many other gadgets, the Amazon Kindle comes with a basic cover to protect it straight out of the box, leaving the creation of more elaborate and fashionable cases to third parties. Recently, Waterfield Designs became one of the first companies to introduce cases for the Kindle, in three different designs.
The simplest of the three is the Slip Case for the Kindle. The Slip Case is a simple sleeve, open at one end, which fits snugly around the Kindle. The lining is a soft fabric that feels a lot like a microfiber cloth, and a plastic sheet is sewn into one side of it to provide extra protection for the screen.
As the Kindle is not equally thick on both sides, this case is also slightly larger along one edge than on the other. You could easily store the Kindle in a more generic sleeve, but one side or the other would not fit snugly. With this case, that isn’t a problem; the Kindle fits perfectly if you slide it in bottom-first with the screen facing the protective plastic sheet.
The outside of the Slip Case is a water-resistant woven material (I think it’s nylon, but it feels softer than typical case fabric), available in blue, black, brown, green (shown in the pictures here), red, or silver. The only exterior feature of this case is a tab at the bottom which can be used as a pen loop or to grasp the case while pulling the Kindle out the other end. The Slip Case for the Kindle is $27 if you buy directly from Waterfield.
Moving up in size and complexity, the next case in the line is the SleeveCase for the Kindle. The SleeveCase is slightly larger than the Slip Case, and has a side flap opening with a velcro closure. Its lining is 4mm neoprene with a plastic protective sheet in its front side. Its interior dimensions are a bit larger than the Slip Case, so the Kindle fits comfortably regardless of which edge you put in first (which will probably depend on whether you are right- or left-handed). The back of the SleeveCase has an open-topped pocket across its entire length. While it’s a bit compact to fit in an AC adapter or other large accessories, it’s just right for a pair of earbuds, USB cable, or small book light.
The outer fabric of the SleeveCase is black ballistic nylon, and the bottom edge is decorated with a gray and black checkerboard pattern. Like the Slip Case, it has a loop on the bottom edge that can be used for leverage when removing the Kindle or for a pen.
An optional shoulder strap for the SleeveCase is available, as is a larger version of the SleeveCase which accommodates the Kindle in its original cover. The SleeveCase for the Kindle is $39 direct from Waterfield, plus $5 if you want the matching shoulder strap.
Finally, we come to the Travel Case for the Kindle. It’s designed to carry a Kindle with a bunch of accessories, and is edging close to “gear bag” size. Externally, the Travel Case is rectangular, made of the same water-resistant material as the Slip Case, with nubbly rubber sides and bottom and a zipper closure on the top edge. Inside, it has one large main compartment with three fabric pockets sewn into the sides.
The largest inner pocket takes up 2/3 of the width of the case, and is meant to hold the Kindle. (It will also hold the Kindle in a Slip Case, but not in the original cover.) Next to that are two smaller pockets for accessories. These are stacked so that the upper one is on one side of the case and the lower one is on the other side, so that when you open the compartment you can easily get to both pockets. On the front of the case, another pocket zips open; inside this pocket are two mesh pouches to put smaller accessories in. A tab in one of the top corners and a sewn-in strap on the other allow connection of an optional shoulder strap.
The Travel Case for the Kindle is $49 direct from Waterfield, and is available in the same six colors as the Slip Case.
All three of these cases are, as is usual for Waterfield products, well constructed and fit the Kindle quite nicely. Which one is “best” depends on what you want to do with your Kindle. The Slip Case is ideal if you want to put the Kindle into a bigger gear bag or purse without taking up more space than is absolutely necessary, while the SleeveCase could fill that role but is also suitable for carrying around separately. The Travel Case is more specialized — I can’t imagine anyone carrying their Kindle around in it on a day-to-day basis, but it is the perfect size to hold the Kindle together with all of the accessories you might want for an extended trip, and it seems like it would work well as a way of organizing Kindle stuff inside a bigger carry-on or suitcase. While my favorite is the SleeveCase — it fits the way I use my Kindle best — I would recommend any of Waterfield’s Kindle cases to anyone looking for something more protective and nicer-looking than the standard cover.
A couple of weeks ago, Amazon made a huge media splash with the introduction of the Kindle, their entry into the field of e-book hardware. With bundled wireless access to its online store, a keyboard for searching, and Amazon’s clout in the publishing industry, the Kindle is not quite like any of the other e-book readers available today. But how does it actually stack up, and will it bring e-books to the masses who have never used them before?
Julie was lucky enough to get an order for the Kindle in on launch day — it’s been sold out more or less continuously since then — and I’ve been putting it through its paces for a couple of weeks. A few months ago I reviewed the Sony PRS-500, so the Kindle has made an interesting comparison.
The Kindle is a second generation e-ink book reader, using the same display as the Sony PRS-505 and Bookeen Cybook Gen3. Its specifications are:
The Kindle is packaged in a book-like box, and includes just a few necessary accessories: AC adapter, USB cable, and protective cover.
Much has been said about Kindle’s design, a lot of it negative. It certainly isn’t typically sexy in the way a lot of gadgets are. It’s light colored, bigger than its competition, thicker on one side than the other and has a big rubber cover on the back.
The Kindle is bigger than the Sony Reader, between pocket and trade paperback book size.
In its case it feels rather like a diary or daily planner.
The front of the Kindle has most of the controls. Along the left and right edge are long clickable buttons to change pages, and a “back” button for navigation.
To the right of the display is the cursor bar and click wheel, which are the primary way to navigate the Kindle’s user interface. It doesn’t come out well in pictures, but the cursor bar is an LCD with reflective silver pixels, a very unique effect I’ve never seen anywhere else. As for the keyboard, it’s functional but I don’t like the space bar only being on the left side. The split in the middle seems kind of odd at first, but I think it’s there so you can reach the whole keyboard with your thumbs.
I’d like to add a few words about the display, for Gadgeteer readers who might not be familiar with electronic ink technology. E-ink is reflective; it’s made up of pigments on a surface. E-ink displays have no backlight, but unlike the LCDs used in most devices today they don’t need one in many cases, since they are readable in lighting conditions similar to ordinary ink on paper. Unfortunately, e-ink displays don’t have as much contrast as paper yet, so you will want to consider a clip-on book light if your reading conditions warrant it. I don’t find it hard to read the Kindle’s display in the same conditions I normally read books in, but I still hope that Amazon finds a way to put in some kind of built-in lighting that you can turn on to read in the dark. Another thing worth mentioning about e-ink displays is that they are slow to refresh, and when turning pages the Kindle, like the Sony I reviewed earlier this year, flashes the entire screen briefly to “reset” the ink and avoid ghost images.
With all of that, you might be wondering what the point of e-ink is. Primarily, it’s about a more comfortable reading experience. Like paper, it’s reflective, so it’s quite usable in full daylight and at just about any angle, and reading for hours on it isn’t like staring into a light bulb. The technology is far from perfect, but it is very comfortable to read on, compared to a backlit PDA.
Near the top of the back of the Kindle are two switches and a speaker. One switch turns the wireless card off, so that you can use the Kindle on a plane or simply save battery power when you aren’t going online. The other is the master power switch, placed in this out of the way position because you aren’t expected to ever turn it off. The back cover is rubberized and is raised above the rest of the case by a millimeter or so, presumably to help you grip the Kindle better. Underneath the cover is the battery (which is replaceable) and SD card slot.
In this picture of the bottom of the Kindle you can see it’s asymmetrical profile, as well as the headphone jack, USB port, power port, and volume controls. The charging port is proprietary, but the Kindle will charge (slowly) over USB as well.
At first, I had mixed feelings about the Kindle’s odd shape, but after using it, I think Amazon did a decent job at making it comfortable — if you’re used to holding books in your left hand, at least. The thicker, triangular left edge feels sort of spine-like, and the rubbery bottom provides a good grip. In its case, it almost feels like a real book. Although I’m still reluctant to say it’s an excellent design, they did seem to put some thought into it, and I find it comfortable to read on.
Before I jump into a detailed description of the Kindle’s on-board software, I’d like to mention that unlike what you might expect, the Kindle has no desktop software. There is no CD in the box, nothing to download to your desktop, nothing to install. You don’t even need a computer, as the Kindle does everything it needs to do over its wireless connection.
I’ll cover the Kindle store below; at this point I’d like to talk about how you read books on the Kindle. Everything starts at the home screen, which you can return to at any time using a button on the keyboard.
The home screen is a straightforward list of content. In this picture, the small dots under each title show how much of it you’ve read so far. If you’ve downloaded a sample chapter of a purchasable book, it will be marked on the left side. There are no subfolders in the content list, but you can change the sort order, and when the list is sorted by title or author you can jump to a specific first letter with the keyboard. One nice detail is that authors are ordered by their last name even if they’re shown with their first name first.
Navigating the Kindle uses the wheel and cursor bar; you just roll it up and down and click when the cursor is next to the book or menu you want to open. The use of the cursor bar is a very nice improvement over the Sony reader (and probably the other e-ink based ones as well) since you can pick things quickly without waiting for the e-ink display to redraw as you navigate up and down.
Books are formatted more or less like they would be in print. This picture shows how Amazon can embed chapter headings like you would find in the paperback. It may be hard to see, but at the top right is a dotted triangle; clicking on this (with the cursor and wheel) turns it into a “dog ear” to bookmark the page. Below the text is a position indicator like the one on the home screen, showing you how far you are into the book. Clicking on it lets you jump around in the book using the number keys and move to your bookmarks:
At the very bottom of the reading screen is a location number. This is Amazon’s replacement for the concept of “pages”. The problem with using page numbers is that they don’t correspond to anything in an e-book; one “page” in an e-book can hold different amounts of text depending on what font size you use. Instead of pages, the Kindle measures files in “locations”, which are fixed positions in the text. One screen can contain more than one location, but the same location always refers to the same spot in the text no matter how it’s being displayed. While this can be a bit confusing at first, it makes sense, although if the Kindle is ever going to become a serious tool for textbooks and references Amazon will have to add some way of translating page numbers from the physical book into locations on the Kindle.
If you click on a line of text, you can add a highlight:
Or add a note:
Or look up the words in the line in the on-board dictionary:
Once you’re looking at the dictionary you can select a word to get the full definition:
All of your notes, bookmarks, and highlights are recorded in a file called “My Clippings” which you can read from the home screen or copy to your computer for later use. In books you have purchased they are also saved on Amazon’s servers so you can retrieve them later if you need to re-download the book, or share it with another Kindle on your account.
One area in which the Kindle is ahead of the other e-ink readers is that on the Kindle, you can search. The Kindle actually indexes its contents, so searching is fairly fast, and you get results like this:
From there you can drill down to see the individual matches inside a book, or launch a search of Wikipedia, the Kindle Store, or the web.
One final note about reading on the Kindle: there is only one font available, but it comes in six sizes ranging from tiny to huge:
I hope they will add more fonts (or better yet, the ability to add your own) later.
When you’re done reading you can put the Kindle to sleep by pressing the ALT and font-size keys on the keyboard. You aren’t supposed to turn it off, since it can receive updates to magazine, newspaper, and blog subscriptions at any time. When you put it to sleep it shows a “screen saver” selected from a number of different pictures, but don’t be alarmed, it isn’t wasting battery power — e-ink displays can hold an unchanging image forever without using any power at all.
The most important part of the Kindle is, arguably, not the device itself but the service that goes along with it. Amazon is trying hard to make the Kindle friendly to people who just want to read without a lot of computer-based hassles, and to that end they’ve tightly integrated it with their online store.
Above, I mentioned that the Kindle has a built in EVDO wireless card; this is the cornerstone of the Kindle’s service, as it allows the reader to be connected to Amazon’s “Whispernet” from almost anywhere. As long as you’ve got a wireless signal you can browse the Kindle store, download books, receive updates to newspapers, magazines, and blogs, and look up topics in Wikipedia, all for free (other than the price of books and other content, of course).
Amazon’s choice of EVDO with Sprint as the carrier is an interesting one, since it effectively limits the Kindle to the USA. I suspect this has more to do with carrier partnerships than anything else. In order for all this to be as seamless as Amazon wants it to be, there can’t be any subscription, activation, or other obstacles in the way of getting every Kindle on the air, and for that they will probably have to forge deals with different carriers in every country they want to sell it in. I don’t doubt that a GSM-based version of the Kindle for the rest of the world is coming, but it isn’t a huge surprise to me that Amazon launched it in their core market first.
At first I was worried that EVDO coverage would be a problem for me, as I live in a Sprint dead zone. But much to my surprise, my Kindle’s wireless works just fine at my home, with three to five bars on the signal strength meter. Since I doubt that Sprint lit up a tower in my little town within the last few months, I suspect the Kindle is roaming. If this is the case, it may be good news for other people in my situation, but since Amazon doesn’t say much if anything about Whispernet coverage it’s hard to tell how well it will work in other rural areas.
The primary use of the Kindle’s wireless is for purchasing content from Amazon and downloading it directly into the device. It’s very easy to do, and works just like I would expect an Amazon store to work. The Kindle store is always available from the main menu of the reader, and the screen below shows what you see when you open it.
Since the Kindle is linked to your Amazon account, the recommendations shown in the Kindle store are based on the same information the ones on Amazon’s home page are, except that the Kindle store only recommends books you can buy for the Kindle.
You can browse books by category, and once you’ve chosen one you can see a listing of books similar to what you’d find on Amazon’s web site. If there are multiple pages, the next page and previous page buttons will flip through them.
As you would expect from Amazon there is a fair amount of detail available for each book, including customer reviews. You can even assign a star rating and write a review directly from the Kindle. I’m not sure how useful the Kindle keyboard would actually be for that, but the fact that the option exists at all is evidence of Amazon’s desire to make the Kindle a complete computer-free experience.
The Kindle doesn’t have a shopping cart. Selecting “Try a Sample” downloads the beginning of the book (usually a chapter or so) immediately, and selecting “Buy” purchases it without further confirmation (although you do get a chance to cancel the purchase, and apparently it is possible to get refunds from Amazon customer service as well). If you have solid EVDO coverage, downloading a book takes only a minute or two, so it will probably be there by the time you finish browsing the store.
For newspapers and magazines, you can buy a single issue or subscribe, and if you’re a new subscriber you get the first 14 days free to try it out. Downloading starts right away with the current issue, and future releases come in automatically without further intervention.
I should mention at this point that there is no indication that tells you when the Kindle is downloading something. It just happens in the background whenever it needs to, and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to screw it up. Putting the Kindle to sleep doesn’t stop it, and if you turn the wireless — or the entire Kindle — off then it will resume downloading the next time it can. It’s all very seamless and easy.
Blogs are sold similarly to newspapers and magazines, except that you can’t buy just one issue of a blog. I’m not entirely convinced that selling blog subscriptions like this will be successful, but Amazon’s model is somewhat different than RSS feeds. Blogs on the Kindle are apparently supposed to be ad-free and contain full post content (two things which cannot be said of all RSS feeds, including ours here at The Gadgeteer), with the lack of advertising revenue compensated somewhat by sharing of subscription fees.
I keep NetNewsWire running on my desktop all day and if I’m away from home I can read my subscriptions on NewsGator Mobile, so I’ll probably never use my Kindle for reading blogs, especially not if I have to pay a couple of dollars a month for each one. But the availability of blog content to Kindle users who might not use a feed reader, or indeed a computer, is a potentially interesting way for bloggers to reach a larger audience.
It is probably not an exaggeration to suggest that any e-book system lives and dies by its content. Also, having a large library of content is not enough, as it has to be priced affordably. On both counts the Kindle seems to be off to a good start, with over 94,000 titles in its library already, including nearly all of the New York Times Best Sellers. Although this is still only a fraction of what is available in print, there is probably something for everyone in the Kindle library. Since tastes differ, it’s hard for me to say how much Kindle content will appeal to anyone in particular; if you’re considering a Kindle I encourage you to browse the Kindle store on Amazon’s website before making your final decision. My own experience so far has been that most of my favorite authors are in the Kindle store, although not all of their books are there.
Best sellers and other current titles are generally priced at $9.99. I think Amazon might have found the sweet spot with this price, as it’s low enough to compare very favorably with the price of a hardcover, but high enough to allow them to make money. While Amazon seems committed to maintaining this standard price for all the books a typical reader might buy, it’s not carved in stone. Older books can be as low as a few dollars, with some classics and short works costing as little as 49 cents. At the other end of the scale, the Kindle library includes a number of textbooks that cost several hundred dollars each — and are still cheaper than the paper version.
You don’t have to buy books from Amazon to use the Kindle (although they’d certainly prefer that you do). Every Kindle has an e-mail address in the
kindle.com domain, and any files you send to it will be wirelessly delivered to your Kindle, with no need for you to hook it to your computer. This service costs 10 cents per file, but if you don’t need the automatic wireless download you can have your files e-mailed back to you instead, for free. The Kindle functions like a removable drive if you plug it into your computer, and you can copy the converted files directly into its memory. (You can also back up your purchased e-books this way, as they show up on the device as normal files, although their content is encrypted.)
Amazon’s conversion service supports text, HTML, Microsoft Word, and various image formats, and it sends you back a Mobipocket file, albeit with an
.azw extension instead of
.prc. Yep, the Kindle’s native format is good old Mobipocket, complete with all its Palm database wrapping. This means that, while the Kindle will not read books purchased (in DRM/encrypted form) from Mobipocket or its dealers, unencrypted Mobipocket files will work on the Kindle. Likewise, any software that creates Mobipocket files can create Kindle-ready books, and this includes Mobipocket’s own converters for Windows.
As Mobipocket’s book format is a superset of PalmDoc, the Kindle can read that format as well. I tried several old PalmDoc files I’ve had kicking around on my hard drive for years, as well as a couple newly converted ones, and they read fine on the Kindle. While I hope that future versions of the Kindle software support more formats natively, having support for these familiar Palm formats is quite nice.
For good or bad, the Kindle is an important device. While many of us regular readers of The Gadgeteer have been aware of e-books for a long while, the average person probably wasn’t until the Kindle made its big media splash a few weeks ago. In comparison to the other e-book devices out there right now, Amazon has taken a big step forward with the tight integration of the Whispernet service and Kindle Store, the ability to search and make annotations, wireless delivery of newspapers and magazines, and pricing that should be attractive to the average reader. The price of the Kindle itself, however, could be a bit offputting, although that doesn’t seem to be stopping it from selling out every time Amazon gets more in stock.
I’m still not sure whether I can find the Kindle’s physical design attractive, but it is functional and ultimately I care what’s on the page, not how pretty the device it’s displayed on is. The Whispernet service is very convenient and having subscriptions delivered automatically is quite nice. The reading experience is better than the Sony PRS-500 I’ve been using, both because of increased screen contrast and a better user interface.
The Kindle has its downsides, of course. If you’re outside the USA you can’t buy one yet, and if you hold books in your right hand the Kindle might be kind of awkward to use. The wireless card eats battery life if you leave it on all the time (and you usually need to). And it can’t read protected books from any store but Amazon, so if you’ve bought e-books before you might have to buy them all over again for the Kindle.
On balance, I like the Kindle. I’m not sure it will do for e-books what the iPod did for music, but it’s the first device I’ve seen where that’s actually possible.
As an avid reader, I’ve long been a fan of e-books. Nothing is quite the same as a paper book, of course, but for convenience it is hard to beat carrying a small library in your pocket. While PDAs are probably the most common e-book reading platforms, there are also a few devices which are dedicated to them. The Sony Reader is one of them, and is the first dedicated e-book reader to appear in mainstream shops. It is also one of the first of a new generation of e-book readers that use “digital ink” displays which attempt to provide a more paper-like viewing experience. Does the Sony Reader do that? Read on to find out.
The Sony Reader neither includes nor requires a bunch of accessories. In the box, you get just the essentials:
The Reader is similar in size to a paperback book, but thinner. Most of its front surface is taken up by its display, with controls along the left and bottom edges.
Rather than a typical slip case, the Reader’s cover is designed to be book-like. It’s slightly stiffer than the cover of a trade paperback and has a microfiber surface on the outside, soft fabric inside, and a faux-leather edge with embedded magnets which stick gently to the Reader to keep it closed. The case attaches with a round plastic clip that attaches firmly to the back of the Reader.
The AC adapter for the Reader is a small brick with detachable wall cord. Although Sony doesn’t acknowledge this officially, it’s the same adapter used for the PSP, so if you’re also a mobile gamer you can use the same charging accessories for both. The Reader also charges while connected to USB, but more slowly than using the brick.
The left side of the Reader has the power switch, volume control (for music playback), and memory card slot. It uses the same slot for both SD and Memory Stick Duo cards; one type goes in face up, the other face down.
The bottom edge of the Reader has the power and USB connectors, headphone jack, a docking connector for use with the optional cradle, and a lanyard hook.
The display is one of the primary selling points of the Sony Reader. Like some other recent and upcoming devices, Sony chose to use “digital ink” rather than a more typical backlit LCD. Digital ink is a passive type of display that shuffles pigment particles around to create grayscale images. It’s similar to the electromechanical signs you see in airports, the ones that flip little panels around to show dark or light “pixels”, but on a smaller scale. The theory is that this sort of reflective display is easier on the eyes for long reading sessions than a glowing LCD would be, and provides a more paper-like experience and better contrast than an unlit LCD. Another advantage of digital ink is that it only uses electricity when it’s changing; while you are looking at an unchanging page, the display is drawing no power at all. (That’s why Sony quotes the battery life in “page turns” — the Reader is never really “on” or “off”, and all the power switch actually does is lock the buttons and blank the screen.) On the downside, digital ink is slow, which is probably why it isn’t used in everything yet.
The first thing you will notice about the Sony Reader’s digital ink display is that it really does look like a printed surface, not like any LCD display you might be used to. Unfortunately, as the technology is still new and is far from perfect, it doesn’t have anywhere near the contrast of a real book, producing an effect that reminds me slightly of a newspaper printed on cheap recycled stock. On the other hand, the display is quite sharp and text looks good on it, so the overall effect is good readability, especially outdoors or in a well-lit room. I don’t find it too difficult to read even in my relatively dimly lit bedroom, although if I’m actually going to read more than a couple of pages I’ll clip on a book light. (The Reader’s display is not illuminated at all.) Another quirk of the display, which should improve in future generations of the technology, is that it is prone to retaining ghost images of previously displayed images; to prevent this, while you’re reading a book the entire screen reverses for a moment to reset the pixels every time you turn a page. It takes some getting used to when you first see it, but doesn’t get in the way of reading.
The Reader’s screen is not touch-sensitive; for navigation, the front panel has a variety of buttons and a menu joystick. The main portion of its user interface is a menu system which shows ten items per page, and you can either scroll through them with the joystick and press it to select one, or just press the corresponding number key. Pressing the ring around the joystick goes back one level in the menu structure.
The rest of the controls on the front of the Reader are used while you are reading a book. There are two sets of pagination controls, one to the right of the display and one in the lower corner. That way, if you rotate the display, one of the sets of page controls should be in a convenient place for your thumb. In addition to those, dedicated buttons are provided for setting bookmarks and changing the display size.
The main menu lets you access books, audio, and pictures; books can be sorted by author or date, and you can create collections using the desktop software to group related books together. Even with all of these options it can get a bit cumbersome to browse a large collection, especially if you’ve got a big memory card. Thankfully, the Reader remembers your place, and puts a “Continue Reading” link right at the top of the main menu so you can continue reading your most recent book.
Once you select a book you can continue from where you left off in it or go directly to the beginning, the end, or a previously saved bookmark. Purchased books and some PDF files can also have a table of contents for more fine-grained navigation.
While reading a book, the entire display except for a small status bar is devoted to the text. The status bar shows the battery level, the currently displayed text size, the current page, and the page count. Text can be displayed in 3 sizes (2 for PDF documents), which you can cycle through by pressing the SIZE button near the lower left of the display. Holding the SIZE button rotates the display between portrait and landscape modes, too. The MARK button sets or removes a bookmark, the presence of which is shown by a “dog ear” in the top right corner of the page.
You can also listen to music and view pictures on the Reader. Viewing pictures seems mostly useless in practice due to the grayscale display, but the music player can be used while you’re reading so it could be marginally useful if you don’t have another source of background music in your favorite reading location.
On the whole, reading books on the Sony Reader is straightforward and easy. The menus are kind of sluggish because of the refresh rate of the digital ink display, but that is avoidable by using the number keys to choose items directly. I don’t know why they didn’t just drop the joystick navigation entirely and put buttons around the sides of the display so you could just press the one next to your choice, rather than having a strip of numbers at the bottom. Of course, most of the time you’ll be flipping through a book, not navigating menus, and that part of the Reader experience is as simple as could be.
At this point, you’re probably wondering how you get e-books onto the Reader. In order to load files onto the Reader you need special desktop software. Sony, of course, only supplies software for Windows. The CONNECT Reader software is similar to iTunes and other media library managers, with a straightforward drag-and-drop interface for managing a library of e-books and copying them to the Reader. Sony’s bookstore is integrated into CONNECT Reader as well, and this is the only way you can currently buy commercial e-books for the Reader. Using CONNECT Reader you can copy any natively supported file format to the reader, including PDF, RTF, text, MP3, and JPEG. The software will also convert Microsoft Word documents to RTF automatically, but that is the only non-native format it supports — if you want to put web pages, CHM help files, or any other format on your Reader you’ll need other software to do it.
Although Sony’s software and store only work on Windows, Mac and Linux users aren’t completely out of luck, thanks to the libprs500 project, which offers tools to convert and copy files onto the Reader. Even without software, you can still copy RTF, PDF, or text files to a memory card and the Reader will be able to use them. (I don’t recommend doing this on the Mac, however, as the Reader sees the various hidden files that Mac OS X stores metadata in, and treats them as separate books.)
One of the problems in the e-book publishing world today is the proliferation of incompatible formats for commercial e-books. Unfortunately, Sony has done nothing to improve this situation with the Reader — not that I expected them to, of course. The only commercial e-book format the Reader can display is BBeB as sold through the Sony CONNECT store, so if you have already purchased books from Palm, Mobipocket, or any other vendor, you won’t be reading them on the Sony Reader. Books purchased from Sony CONNECT are associated with your account and authorized for your computer and your reader; if you’ve ever bought music from iTunes this shouldn’t be too unfamiliar. When I first got the Sony Reader I had some trouble getting it activated; it eventually worked, but the first few times I tried the software simply hung for several minutes before timing out. Once you do manage to buy one, Sony’s commercial books look good on the Reader. The BBeB format supports cover pictures, tables of contents, and internal illustrations, so what you see on the screen is pretty much the same thing you’d see in a paperback.
If BBeB was the only format the Sony Reader could handle I’d consider it nearly useless. But it can also display plain text files, RTF, and PDF. As a PDF reader it isn’t particularly good; it always shows the entire page, which means that PDFs meant for desktop screens or printing will display unreadably small. On the other hand it does much better with PDFs created specifically for a small screen size. If you have a Mac, or some way to print to PDF on Windows, this can be a convenient way to convert almost any document for use on the Reader; just set the page size to around 3.5 by 5 inches and the results should look great on the Sony. The reader’s RTF support is good, and unlike plain text files you can put formatting as well as title and author metadata in an RTF file.
For me, the Sony Reader is both useful and frustratingly imperfect. I’ve been using it as my primary reading tool for most of this year, and I can’t imagine going back to reading e-books on my Palm, not even on the TX with its big display. It has a permanent place in my gear bag, so that I can whip it out and read a couple of pages whenever I have a spare moment.
But for all of that, there are improvements I wish they would make. The screen contrast is disappointing, but I expect that will be fixed naturally as the digital ink technology improves. I’d like it to work better with PDFs that originally came from the desktop, and I’d like to be able to use HTML and CHM e-books on it without going through a conversion process using unofficial software. I also wish they had included some sort of display lighting.
Is the Sony Reader worth the $300 it is going for now? It’s the most viable e-book reader with a digital ink display right now, but whether it is worth buying depends on whether you think $300 for a dedicated e-book device is a good deal, especially given that there are plenty of other devices you can read with, if you’re willing to compromise on the display and battery life.
When you think of satellite radio, you probably think of car audio. But your car isn’t the only place to listen to XM and Sirius. Although portable satellite receivers have been around for a few years, recent models have matured considerably compared to some of their predecessors. In this review, we’ll be covering the Pioneer Inno, XM’s top of the line portable receiver.
The Inno is roughly the same size as other portable music players. It feels quite solid and has a nice heft to it without feeling unusually overweight. The only flaw in the Inno’s construction is that the edges of the brushed metal bezel on the front are sharp, not smoothed down to the level of the surrounding case. At first I thought this only affected my Inno, but I’ve seen it mentioned in other reviews too. All in all, it’s quite portable and I have no qualms about dropping it into a pocket without a case.
The back of the Inno is featureless except for the battery cover and a small bump near the antenna, and a corresponding bump on the other corner which allows the Inno to not be lopsided if you lay it on its back.
The docking connector is on the Inno’s left side. It doesn’t come with any kind of cover, so look out for small objects and dirt if you don’t keep the Inno in a case. The docking connector is the only way to power the Inno externally, so for charging on the go the Inno comes with a short cable adapter that has a docking connector on one end and a power jack on the other. I wonder how much trouble it would have been to include a proper power jack, instead of giving us another small (and probably impossible to buy separately) item to lose?
The Inno’s right side has the volume controls and power switch. You can click the power switch up into the “hold” position to lock the buttons, whether the Inno is on or off.
I’m not sure what these holes on the bottom of the Inno are for — probably to clip into a case.
On top of the Inno, we see the XM antenna protruding from one corner, and beside it the headphone jack and USB port for connecting to a PC.
Unlike most XM radios, the Inno comes with a home docking kit instead of a car kit, probably because they expect you to carry it around and charge the battery at home. The complete list of accessories in the box is:
The car kit is available for around $70 and includes everything you need to set up the Inno in your vehicle, including a cradle, antenna, remote, cassette adapter, 12V power adapter, and mounting hardware.
Here’s a closer look at the Inno’s remote and case. The case design seems a bit unusual to me, with magnetic clasps on both the side and the top.
When you put the Inno in its cradle, the screen and keypad rotate to match. This picture shows the Inno docked on my desk, taken in somewhat dim light to show the blue-green illumination of the keys:
The Inno is very easy to use; even without reading the manual it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to figure out most of its functions. Its bright color screen is a departure from the rest of the XM hardware lineup; instead of monochrome text, the Inno has full color channel logos and background images. Navigating XM’s 170 channels is easy: press the up or down arrow key to scroll through the list of all channels, the left arrow to enter a channel number, or right to see your favorite channels and navigate by category. In all of the channel lists, you can press the DISP button to cycle through channel logos, artist names, and track titles.
From the presence of a play/pause button (above the arrow keys, center) you might expect to be able to pause live XM, but unfortunately you can’t, and pressing that button just mutes the output instead. The Inno does have a 10 minute buffer for live XM, but it is used only for recording.
Instead of the numbered presets most satellite radios have, the Inno has a list of favorite channels which always shows up first when you press the right arrow key. In case your definition of “favorites” includes almost every channel XM has, you can also hide individual channels from the full list.
Like most XM radios, you can “TuneSelect” a particular artist or song. When one of your selected artists or songs is played anywhere on XM, the Inno will beep (an actual beep from the device, not a sound in the headphones) and let you know, and you can switch directly to it. You can also bookmark tracks for later purchase in the XM+Napster software (which I will explain in more detail below). Another common XM feature shared by the Inno is the live sports and stock tickers, which you can configure for your favorite teams and stocks.
Unlike some portable satellite radios, the Inno is entirely self-contained; it does not even require the special antenna headphones that some previous models did. As long as its stubby little antenna is exposed to the southern sky, you should be able to pick up live XM. I’ve been carrying the Inno around for a few weeks now and it works well outdoors as long as I’m holding it in my hand, and only slightly less well if it’s clipped to my belt. It’s even possible to pick up the XM satellite signal a short distance indoors, if there is a south-facing window nearby. I haven’t managed to run the battery down yet, but power consumption on live XM seems like it is in line with the quoted 4-5 hours of listening. Although I’d certainly like it if they could improve on those numbers, it’s hard to consider it a real disadvantage given the current state of the technology.
In most cities, XM operates a network of terrestrial repeaters to provide better coverage indoors and in satellite-unfriendly places like parking garages and between tall buildings. If you are within the repeater coverage area you should be able to use the Inno almost anywhere, indoors or not. Although I spend most of my time outside repeater coverage I tested the Inno in the city and it worked well even while sitting in offices and walking around a mall.
It is, unfortunately, hard to predict how a device like the Inno will work in any particular location until you actually try it. However, I was pleasantly surprised with how sensitive it seems to be, so that I can still listen to XM with few or no dropouts even in places I would have expected to be quite marginal.
One of the Inno’s killer features, or at least one it doesn’t share with most other XM radios, is the ability to record from live XM. The Inno has 1GB of flash memory, and if you dedicate it all to XM it holds up to 50 hours of recorded programming. You can also partition it 50/50 for XM and your own music, so you get 25 hours of XM and 512MB of your own MP3s, WMAs, or Audible books. Unfortunately those are the only two choices — the Inno doesn’t balance memory usage automatically — and changing the allocation wipes out everything in the memory. This is definitely something that needs improvement, although personally I just set my Inno memory partition to entirely XM and forgot about it.
The Inno has several ways to record live XM. The simplest is to click the select button three times in a row (for the “Record Song” menu option) while listening to a song you like, and the Inno will record the song and stop automatically when it’s over. Don’t worry about pressing it right at the beginning of the song, because the Inno has a 10 minute buffer and as long as the beginning of the song is in it, you’ll get the whole thing regardless of when you start recording.
Another quick way to record on the Inno is to select the “Record Channel” menu option, which records the current channel until you tell it to stop (or it runs out of space). When it saves the recording, it even breaks up the tracks for you, based on the title information sent by XM.
The final way to record on the Inno is to set up a timed recording selection. This is more like programming a VCR (remember those?) than a Tivo; you need to specify the time, date, and channel number of each one, as there is no way for the radio to find out what shows are going to air at what time. Unfortunately, timed recording on the Inno seems rather incomplete and seems to be missing a lot of rather obvious features.
One of the biggest annoyances about the Inno’s timed recordings is that you can’t have one repeat only on certain days of the week — you can record the same time every day or on a specific date, and that’s all. For shows that air Monday through Friday you will end up having to delete unwanted weekend recordings, and for weekly shows it’s easier to just reschedule it every week (or put in a month or two at a time).
I also think the scheduling interface needs work. The Inno has a nice XM channel browser, so why should we have to pick channels by number only when setting up a recording? One final quirk in timed recordings is that they will only happen if the Inno is docked in a home dock — not a car dock, not portable with a strong signal and a full battery. Since the Inno has upgradeable firmware, I can only hope they address some of these shortcomings in time.
When playing back recordings, you can browse by artist, title, XM channel, or XM genre. Sessions you recorded with “Record Channel” or a timer are broken up into individual tracks, but you can also browse the sessions and listen to them in their original order or delete them as a unit. Although I find the menu structure to browse recorded music a bit cumbersome (I’d like to see something more iPod-like), I like that the Inno makes good use of the XM track and channel information like this. It even shows the channel logo and background for recorded songs, just like on live XM with the addition of a progress bar at the bottom of the display.
The Inno has a USB port for PC syncing, and comes with a special version of Napster made just for XM. Like regular versions of Napster you will need an account to use it, and can choose either a free account which lets you purchase individual tracks or a Napster monthly subscription. Whichever you choose, the Napster software lets you organize the contents of the Inno, and easily purchase copies of tracks you recorded from XM. It also has convenient access to XM’s Internet streams, so you can listen at the computer too.
Not surprisingly, there is no way to get XM recordings off the Inno. The XM+Napster software will organize them, create playlists, and even set up timed recordings, but it cannot play XM recordings directly from the Inno or copy them to your PC. If you plug the Inno into a PC without the software, you can load MP3s into the portion of the memory set aside for your music, but the XM partition will be completely invisible. (Another restriction on XM recordings is that if you don’t listen to live XM for at least 8 hours a month, they will stop working… so don’t try loading your Inno up and canceling your subscription.)
Unfortunately, XM+Napster is Windows-only; if you have a Mac there is no way to organize your Inno’s XM tracks, although you can still load your own music through USB. A somewhat larger disadvantage to this is that the firmware updaters for the Inno also only run on Windows, so you’ll probably want to set up Parallels or borrow a PC at least once even if you have no need for the full software suite.
Portable satellite radio is a mixed bag of both good and bad, and the Inno is no exception. The Inno is a solid, comfortable device which is for the most part easy to use, and it is probably the best portable XM receiver made to date, but it still suffers from the battery life and reception limitations imposed by the use of satellites. Its recording features are unmatched among XM radios, but inconveniences in timed recording keep the Inno from being all it could be as an XM timeshifting device. Its software support for Windows is excellent, but there is nothing for the Mac.
Overall, I like the Inno and it works quite well as my only XM receiver, doing everything the other models do and more, with an attractive user interface and easy pocketability. Although the lack of Mac software and the limitations on timed recording are disappointing, in my opinion they aren’t enough to keep me from recommending the Inno to anyone interested in XM radio.
The Inno is available from most XM radio dealers for $199 to $249, and new subscribers to XM may be able to get a rebate of some of their purchase.
In this episode I read some of your emails and give an audio review of the HP6945 Mobile Messenger, while Rob Tillotson tells us about gadgets for writers.
Length: 17 minutes 12 seconds
Show notes (sites that were mentioned etc.):
One of the more annoying things about PC gaming is that it is hard to keep up with e-mail, instant messaging, and other background applications while a game is using the entire display. The Pertelian X2040 is an answer to that problem, in the form of an external LCD display that lets you see important information and interact with background applications like your instant messenger and Teamspeak while a full-screen game is running.
The review model of the Pertelian X2040 was shipped in a plain box. (It is only available online at the moment, so presumably a retail package had not yet been developed.) In addition to the LCD itself, the X2040 package included a plastic desk stand, driver CD, and velcro square.
The Pertelian X2040 LCD is a compact brick about 4 inches long, 2.5 inches high, and 3/4 inch thick. It connects to your PC with an integrated USB cable which is long enough to reach the top of a desk if your computer is sitting underneath it. The display itself shows 4 lines of 20 characters and has a bright green backlight which can be toggled on and off. With the backlight off, the display is easily readable in normal room lighting.
The software for the Pertelian LCD includes both a hardware driver for Windows 2000/XP and an
application that manages the display. As it is under active development, you should probably ignore the CD in the package and download a more current version of the software from the Pertelian website. The Pertelian application sits in the system tray, running in the background to collect information and update the LCD. Clicking on the system tray icon opens a configuration panel where you can set up the display to your liking. (You can click on the screenshots below to view them at full size.)
The Pertelian application is a framework with plug-in modules to display various sorts of information on the LCD. Using keyboard shortcuts you can cycle through the available plugins or jump directly to one of them. The application ships with plugins for e-mail, instant messaging,
RSS feeds, system monitoring, Teamspeak, and more.
You operate the application using keyboard hotkeys, fully configurable to avoid potential conflicts.
The initial display shows either a welcome message, or the name of the currently playing track in your media player. (The Pertelian software supports Windows Media Player, iTunes, and Winamp.) Below that, counters show the number of waiting e-mails and instant messages. A separate page lets you tweak both the sound card and media player volume controls.
The Pertelian software includes keyboard shortcuts for media control, in case you don’t have a keyboard with dedicated buttons for that. More useful is its ability to scan a playlist, playing
snippets of each track, and its song search. The latter captures keyboard input (without requiring you to leave the game you’re running) and finds tracks as you type part of the title.
Instant messaging is another major feature of the Pertelian application. When new messages come in the display flashes, and you can read and reply to messages using the LCD and keyboard without leaving your game. When you press the appropriate hotkey, the software captures keyboard input while you type your message. It’s just like typing in a normal message window, except on the LCD, and the message is sent in the background without interrupting your game. The Pertelian software works with the three major IM platforms as well as the GAILM multi-platform client. It will also check your email, if it is on a POP3 server at least, and report new messages.
Other plugins fetch RSS feeds, weather, sports scores, and stock prices. The system information
plugin is especially detailed, with hundreds of statistics available to show.
My favorite Pertelian plugin is the Teamspeak interface. Teamspeak is a popular voice-over-IP conferencing system designed for online gaming. Since the Teamspeak window is normally hidden
while a game is running, it can sometimes be hard to tell who is talking. The Pertelian Teamspeak plugin not only shows who is connected and speaking, but also lets you browse and join channels.
(You can still use Teamspeak’s own shortcuts for this, of course.)
If you are so inclined, you can write your own plugins for the Pertelian software using the .NET framework; the specifications are available on the company’s web site, and the developers are active in their support forum.
In October 2006 Pertelian released a software update for the X2040 with several new plugins, including an IRC client, eBay watcher, and forum watcher.
The forum watcher is actually more of a general purpose web page monitor, in that it watches the URLs you specify, notifies you when they change, and lets you open them in your browser with a keystroke. Unfortunately the wide variety of forum software out there makes it hard for any program to do much more than this; however, if your favorite forum provides per-thread feeds you could use the Pertelian RSS plugin along with this one to see the new content without leaving your game.
I can’t speak from experience about the eBay plugin as I rarely use eBay, but it has a number of features which look useful. In addition to monitoring the details of your chosen auctions on the LCD, it can also alert you with a message and flashing backlight when you are outbid or the auction is nearing its time limit. Other eBay features are apparently in development for future versions of the Pertelian software.
Finally, the IRC client is exactly what it says: it lets you connect to an IRC channel and chat on it just like you would using a Pertelian-compatible IM system. This is a relatively simple IRC client, with support for automatically joining one channel. Given the size of the display I wouldn’t recommend using it with a very active one, but for low intensity chatting this rounds out Pertelian’s messaging support nicely.
The Pertelian software, version 4, is a free update for existing X2040 owners, and is downloadable from pertelian.com.
External LCDs have long been a popular toy for the hardware-inclined enthusiast, but now they are starting to go mainstream. The Pertelian X2040 is not the only external display product aimed at PC gamers, but it is one of the least expensive. Its software is more interactive than most
of the competition; the ability to reply to instant messages and directly search for media with the keyboard is unique in LCD software, as far as I can tell. I also like the openness of the development specs, which should enable the display to be used with other software (and perhaps
non-Windows systems) in the future.
The Pertelian X2040 is $69.99 at ThinkGeek.
If you play PC games, you probably know how important keyboard control is to many of them, especially in the real-time strategy, roleplaying, and shooter genres. But keyboards are designed for two hands, and in most games you’ll always have one hand on the mouse. The Saitek Pro Gamer Command Unit is a USB controller that aims to improve your control of keyboard-driven games with programmable action buttons located directly under your fingertips for quick access, plus a thumb-operated joystick.
The Pro Gamer Command Unit (which I will refer to as the PGCU from now on for the sake of brevity) has a total of twenty-one buttons, an analog stick, and a three-position mode switch. When you rest your hand on it, fourteen of the buttons are under your fingers, with four more on an angled row above. Two more buttons and the analog stick are positioned on an adjustable thumb cradle, and the final button is located on the palm rest under the base of your thumb. The PGCU is designed for use only with the left hand.
The mode switch allows you to select between three profiles (blue, green, and red) and the backlighting of the main keypad changes color to show its position. The keypad isn’t the only part of the PGCU that lights up; a stripe on the hand rest glows blue and a red Saitek logo is projected on the desk below your wrist. (What would a gadget be without a couple of pretty but completely unnecessary lights?)
The heart of the PGCU is its “SST” programming software for Windows 2000 and XP. If you don’t install the software, the PGCU will be recognized as a standard game controller with an analog stick and a lot of buttons. With the software, it becomes a fully programmable keyboard as well. The main programming interface is the profile editor, which lets you define actions for twenty of the buttons (#21, on the palm rest, is hard coded to shift between two sets of programming) and the thumb stick.
The screenshot above (click to see the full size image) shows the main programming view of the editor, which lets you define the unshifted “blue” profile. The “red” and “green” profiles are preloaded with setups for FPS and RTS gaming, so you can get started without having to program everything from scratch. The data view, shown below (click to see the full size image), lets you program actions for all three positions of the mode switch as well as the shifted actions for each.
Programming button actions is very flexible. You can assign any sequence of keystrokes and mouse clicks to a button, with individually adjustable delays between each event. If you program multiple events, you can set them up to fire automatically with a single press or only while you hold the button down. You can also program separate actions for pressing, holding, and releasing a button. Whatever you can think of making a keyboard do, the PGCU software can probably handle it. Finally, if you leave the programming for a key blank, it is passed through to the game as a joystick button. (It’s your choice whether you want to program the PGCU to work with the game’s default controls, or bind the game’s controls to the PGCU.)
The thumbstick is an ordinary 2-axis analog controller, so if your game supports joystick motion you can leave it unprogrammed. But you can also set it — separately for each axis — to send mouse movements or keystrokes. You can even define bands with different actions. For example, if your game has one key for “walk” and another for “run”, you could set the joystick to send the “walk” keystroke when you press it halfway up and the “run” key when you push it all the way.
Once you’ve saved a custom profile, it appears in a system tray menu whenever the PGCU is plugged in. The software does not switch profiles automatically; you have to explicitly load the one you one from the menu when you want to change the PGCU’s programming.
Before I received the PCGU I had used a Nostromo Speedpad N52 for over a year. The N52 is very similar in its overall design but it has a directional pad instead of the thumbstick, a scroll wheel, and five fewer buttons.
I like the PGCU’s layout better for a number of reasons. The analog stick and extra row of keys are, of course, a nice bonus, but in addition to that there are a few design differences I like. One is that the key layout is closer to that of a real keyboard, and in practice is easier to use. The leftmost column, especially, is a big improvement since you can actually reach all three buttons with your pinkie. The staggered main keys are also a bit more natural to use than the N52’s vertical columns.
I also like the PGCU’s shift key better than the equivalent function on the N52. The N52 actually has three shift states, and you can program any key to activate or toggle them. While this seems like it would be more flexible than the PGCU’s single shift and three-way mode switch, in practice I didn’t find it as useful as it might seem. In most games, I couldn’t afford to give up more than one key for shifting. More often than not the only one that made sense was the flat “space bar” under the directional pad, and that made it impossible to move and use a shifted key at the same time.
The PGCU’s programming capabilities are a bit more flexible than those of the N52. I haven’t used the more advanced options of the PGCU (separate press and release actions, for example) yet but it’s nice to know that the option is there. One difference I did notice immediately is that the PGCU’s software allows modifier combinations to be programmed as one key. In the N52’s profiler, if you want to send an Alt, Control, or Shift key combo you have to define a macro which contains the presses and releases of both keys; this has the side effect that there is no way to hold down modified keys programmed on a single button, not to mention being annoying to program for certain games that use a lot of them.
On the other hand, one feature of the N52’s software that I wish the PGCU had is the ability to automatically switch profiles when you start a game. It’s not a huge inconvenience to use the system tray menu to switch profiles, but it would be a nice feature for Saitek to add in the future.
Another feature of the N52 that the PGCU lacks is official Macintosh support; the N52 ships with profiling software for Mac OS X. Mac gamers need not despair, however, since the PGCU (and for that matter, the N52) works with ControllerMate, a $15 shareware application which is far more flexible and powerful than the Saitek or Nostromo profilers. It may also work with other similar software such as GamePad Companion or USB Overdrive, but I haven’t tried those. As such, I don’t consider the lack of Mac drivers for the PGCU to be a significant disadvantage.
I primarily play role-playing games, so I went straight for the profile editor and didn’t bother with the pre-defined FPS and RTS key sets. I am of the opinion that a secondary controller like the PGCU is especially effective for RPGs, because so many of them use the entire top row of the keyboard as an assignable action bar. Using an entire row of keys with one hand is inconvenient at best, especially when you also need to use W, A, S, and D for movement. It’s even worse in some skill-heavy games where it is not uncommon to have multiple action bars using Shift, Control, Alt, and possibly even combinations of those. World of Warcraft is a good example of this; in WoW it isn’t uncommon to have thirty or forty action buttons available, even with assistance from in-game macros and user interface modifications. If you use the PGCU’s thumbstick for movement, you can assign two (or possibly three or four, if you set up the in-game key assignments appropriately) full action bars to the main pad while leaving a few keys free for other things.
The PGCU is useful for RPGs with less-complicated control schemes as well. For example, Guild Wars has only eight action buttons, and it’s possible to define a useful profile for it without even using the shift button. Yet the PGCU still makes it easier to play because everything is right there with minimal finger motion.
I have also been playing EVE Online lately, and it highlights some of the differences between the PGCU and the N52 I used to use. EVE is primarily mouse-driven, and it does not allow assignment of unmodified keys. Other than the function keys (which serve essentially the same purpose as the action bar in more traditional RPGs) every keyboard command in EVE requires a Shift, Alt, or Control combo. This was easier to program on the PGCU, as I described earlier, and there were a couple of keys I couldn’t program at all on the N52 because they must be held down. The PGCU’s analog stick also comes in handy for EVE; I set it to work as a mouse, then defined the buttons next to it as right and left click, so if need be I can poke around the menus one-handed. (I wouldn’t recommend trying this in combat, of course.)
One potential disadvantage of a supplemental controller like PGCU is that you have to take your hand off it to type into a text chat window. But you have to do the same with your mouse hand too, and the overall reduction in movement during normal game play far outweighs this, at least for me and my aching carpal tunnels. Even with only a normal keyboard, text chat can be pretty inconvenient if you’re trying to do other things at the same time.
I quite like the Saitek Pro Gamer Command Unit. I have been using controllers of this type for a couple of years now — first the Microsoft Strategic Commander, then the Belkin Nostromo N52 — so I was already convinced of its general usefulness. I like the PGCU’s design and programming capabilities, even the somewhat oddly-placed shift key. If you’re looking for this type of controller the PGCU is well worth considering, and I think it compares very favorably to the N52.
If you have never used this kind of controller, I would recommend the PGCU with some reservations. It seems to me that this sort of thing is an acquired taste, and may take some getting used to. If you are used to using an ordinary keyboard, the utility of an extra keyboard controller may not be immediately obvious, especially compared to simply replacing your keyboard with one of the gaming-oriented models available now. Still, for an average price of under $40 online, trying the PGCU shouldn’t hurt your wallet too much. If you want to reduce hand motion because of RSI, or if you are sick of how many key combos your favorite game makes you use, I’d recommend giving it a try to see how you like it.
The Saitek Pro Gamer Command Unit is available from many retailers of computer accessories, or direct from Saitek for $39.99.
Today’s portable devices are as nice to look at as they are to
use. But how do you protect them from the nicks and scratches that
are inevitable in everyday use? One possibility is the Invisible
Shield, from ShieldZone
Corporation. The Invisible Shield is an adhesive-backed
protector made of an extremely durable transparent material,
custom-fitted to a particular device. While most of the Invisible
Shield protectors are for small devices (iPods, PDAs, phones, and
the like) there are also laptop-sized ones for the Apple PowerBook,
MacBook, and MacBook Pro.
I tested the Invisible Shield for the 13″ MacBook, not only to
prevent my new toy from scratches and dings but also to try to
avoid the discoloration other owners of white MacBooks have been
The full body Invisible Shield package includes a total of eight
protective sheets: a large one for the case top, three for the case
bottom and battery, and four for the wrist rests, trackpad, and
trackpad button. In addition to the protectors themselves you also
get a small bottle of “application solution” (filtered water, I
think) and a flat plastic blade for smoothing out bubbles.
The Invisible Shield is made of a strong, stretchy clear plastic
with a mild adhesive on one side. Putting it on is easy, provided
you spray it until it is dripping wet on both sides before sticking
it down. The layer of water underneath prevents it from fully
adhering until you have a chance to move it around a little, and
the wetness on top makes it easier to smooth out ripples and
bubbles. At first there will still be some visible imperfections
from liquid under the protector, but they vanish as it dries.
I found applying the smaller pieces – wrist rests, trackpad
button, and bottom panels – to be quite easy. The top sheet,
because of its size, was more tricky. It is big enough to require
two hands, and it wraps around the curved edges of the case. It
took me several tries to get it aligned so that there was no
overhang, and I spent about twenty minutes peeling up the edges and
smoothing them back down. (The material is durable enough to take
quite a bit of stretching and rubbing, and you can re-stick the
adhesive a few times while it is still wet.) I gave up before
getting rid of all of the smaller bubbles, though.
The Invisible Shield isn’t completely invisible, of
course; the wrist rest protectors in particular are easy to see if
the light hits them right, since they are shinier than the matte
finish of the keyboard area. (Note that the touchpad itself is
uncovered in these pictures; the kit included a sheet to protect
it, but I didn’t put it on as I didn’t want to change its
Here is a close-up of the wrist rest, without flash and
deliberately positioned so there is a reflection.
And the bottom, again without flash. There are actually three
separate pieces here: one on the battery, one on the area next to
the battery, and one covering the rest of the case bottom. There
are accurately-positioned cutouts for the screws, rubber feet, and
battery release so that it should not be necessary to remove the
protectors to service the MacBook. It’s hard for me to tell the
protectors are there at all, unless I’m looking closely.
And finally, the top. The bubbles visible in this picture are
hard to see in normal lighting. Although I wish I had done a better
job applying the top protector, I’d rather have a case that looks
like this than one full of scratches (like my old iBook).
The only problem I had with the Invisible Shield was the
difficulty of applying the top sheet perfectly. This isn’t the
fault of the product; it’s just a bit tricky to put on such a large
“sticker” without some imperfections, especially if you’ve never
done it before. The smaller sheets, on the other hand, were easy to
put on without bubbles or wrinkles. The material seems to be
extremely resilient; I didn’t deliberately try to scratch or cut
it, but while putting on the top sheet I did stretch and scrape it
quite a bit and it remained undamaged.
The “standard” Invisible Shield kit for Apple laptops can be
ordered from ShieldZone for
$39.95 and has protective sheets for the case top, wrist rests, and
trackpad area. The full-body package is $54.95 and also includes
the protectors for the bottom of the case. Custom-fitted versions
are available for the MacBook, MacBook Pro, and PowerBook (12″,
15″, and 17″ models).
If you have a Sony PSP, you probably already know that it is designed for video as well as gaming. There are plenty of movies available on UMD, but what if you want to carry around a few TV shows, your favorite DVD, or something you shot with your camcorder? The Neuros MPEG-4 Video Recorder 2 is one way to do that: it’s a “digital VCR” which records from a video source directly onto a Memory Stick Duo or CompactFlash card, in formats compatible with the PSP, video iPod, and other mobile devices.
Neuros makes two versions of their MPEG-4 recorder. The one reviewed here is the second version; the original has a SD slot instead of Memory Stick, different software, and a different recording format which is not PSP compatible.
The Neuros MEPG-4 Video Recorder 2 is a small black box, about the size of two decks of playing cards side by side. On one edge are CompactFlash and Memory Stick slots as well as the window for the remote infrared receiver. The opposite edge has 1/8-inch input and output jacks and the power connector.
The recorder comes with a typical “wall wart” power supply and two audio/video cables, each of which has the usual three RCA plugs (no S-video) at one end and a 1/8-inch connector at the other. A software CD containing media player applications for popular mobile platforms is included. The remote (which is the only way to operate the recorder, so don’t lose it!) is a flat, credit-card-shaped black slab with rubber membrane buttons.
Setting up the recorder is simple: attach the audio/video inputs and outputs, insert a Memory Stick or CompactFlash card, and turn the recorder on using the remote. A live preview is available on the main menu:
Recording is started from the full screen video passthrough. An information overlay shows the recording quality and space available.
Pressing the Menu button from this screen allows you to select the recording quality and timer options.
Once everything is set up to your liking, you can start and stop recording using the remote. Each recording is stored as a separate video file which you can play on the PSP or another mobile device or copy to your computer. Videos are recorded in MPEG-4 format with AAC audio.
You can, of course, play back the videos you record. The video player also supports DivX and Quicktime MPEG-4 files.
You can also use the recorder to display photos and play music from your memory card. The music player supports MP3, AAC, and WMA formats but does not play protected (purchased) music files.
Finally, if you have both supported memory cards, you can use the built in file manager to copy files back and forth. Also shown below is the setup menu. Note that a firmware upgrade option is available, in case Neuros fixes bugs or improves the software.
The Neuros recorder captures video in several different resolutions and quality levels. If you record video to watch on a portable device, you will probably use the QVGA (320×200) resolution. QVGA recordings can be played directly on the PSP and should work without additional conversion on the iPod and most PDAs as well. The PSP’s wide screen is also supported with a WQVGA (368×208) option. Finally, the recorder can capture at VGA (640×480) resolution. The PSP can’t play VGA recording (due to hardware limitations), but they should work well on high-end PDAs.
The recorder has two quality levels for QVGA and WQVGA recording and four for VGA. These affect video quality only; audio is always recorded as 128 kbps AAC. The following table shows the average bit rate of each format, how many megabytes are required per minute of recording, and how much video will fit on a 1GB memory card. All values are based on various test clips I recorded while writing this review, and are estimated conservatively.
|Format||Average Bit Rate (kbps)||MB/minute||1GB Card|
|QVGA or WQVGA Economic||500||4||4 hours|
|QVGA or WQVGA Normal||900||7||2 hours|
|VGA Economic||650||5||3 hours|
|VGA Normal||950||7||2 hours|
|VGA Fine||1200||9||1.5 hours|
|VGA Super Fine||2200||16||1 hour|
The following sample clips (all of the same 30 second scene) show the effects of the recorder’s resolution and quality settings. This particular scene has a lot of movement in it, so it should be a good test of how well the Neuros’ encoder does under pressure.
Viewed on a PSP, there are visible artifacts in the QVGA and WQVGA clips but the “normal” quality is still quite watchable. I wouldn’t recommend the “economic” setting for an action movie like the one the sample clip is from, but it should be adequate for normal television shows.
One thing of note about the WQVGA clip is that the top and bottom are cropped. That resolution is meant to be used only with widescreen video, so the recorder trims off the edges of the input to remove the letterbox bars.
The VGA recordings at “fine” and “super fine” quality are appropriate for TV playback or computer viewing. The “economic” and “normal” settings are probably not worth using at VGA resolution, as they have to cram four times as many pixels into almost the same amount of bandwidth as QVGA mode.
The Neuros MPEG-4 Recorder 2 does exactly what it claims to: it is an easy way to record video to watch on a PSP. But there a lot of small ways in which it falls short of perfection.
The use of 1/8″ mini jacks for input and output is one example. You have to use the provided cables, and there is no way to directly plug into devices (such as game consoles) that don’t have their own A/V jacks. Not having proper A/V jacks on the box isn’t a dealbreaker, but it would be more useful if they were there. Similarly, S-video support would be nice, and its omission seems odd for a device made in 2006.
Another drawback of this product, from my perspective as a gadget lover, is the choice of supported memory formats. I have devices that use both Memory Stick and SD, and I suspect I’m not alone in that. The recorder would be much more useful if it had all three memory formats in one box; perhaps Neuros will do that in the
I also don’t like the user interface. The on screen menus are somewhat ugly and feel clunky to me, especially in combination with the membrane click buttons on the remote. But it gets the job done, and making recordings is simple enough.
On the whole, the Neuros MPEG-4 Video Recorder (both versions) is an interesting first entry in the new product category of “recording for mobile devices,” and there is clearly a lot of room for growth and improvement. In a few years, PVRs and set-top DVD recorders will probably include memory card slots, but until then this product is a convenient way to put video on your PSP or PDA without the complexity of PC video capture. I’m not entirely convinced there is a big market for this product right now, especially since USP video boxes are in the same price range, but it fills its niche well.
The N-Series is a new (in 2005) line of high-end multimedia phones from Nokia. The N90 is targeted at photography and video, with a 2.1 megapixel camera and a design tailored for imaging.
The N90 box is filled with a variety of items:
The N90 does not use the 3.5mm power jack common to most Nokia products, but rather a smaller 2.0mm jack. To plug in a standard Nokia AC adapter or car kit, you will need to use the CA-44 charging adapter. Extras cost about $8, in case you need one for home and one for the car. Alternately, the supplied AC adapter will work with American power if you attach a Euro-to-US plug converter; these cost about $5 at Radio Shack.
The N90’s hardware specifications are worthy of its positioning:
For those of us in North America, the lack of 850 MHz support in the N90 may be a problem. T-Mobile uses 1900 MHz exclusively, so the only thing you might miss out on is a bit of roaming coverage; Cingular, on the other hand, uses 850 MHz in many areas. Perhaps Nokia will eventually release a North American version of the N90 with 850 MHz support, but unless and until that happens I don’t recommend it for Cingular customers.
Likewise, the 2100 MHz band is not currently used in the USA, so the N90’s UMTS support doesn’t work here. EDGE is available from both T-Mobile and Cingular, and may come close to broadband speeds, however.
The first thing I noticed when I took the N90 out of the box is its heft. At over six ounces, it feels more substantial than most phones. Closed, it is large for a phone, though not overly so, and its boxy shape seems deliberately designed to evoke a camera-like feel.
(Left to right: Sony PSP, Nokia 3595, Nokia N-Gage QD, N90)
(Top to bottom: N90, N-Gage QD, 3595)
Although the N90’s design is based on a typical clamshell layout, it has three parts instead of the usual two, with the top and bottom flaps hinged separately to a rotating lens barrel. It opens into three basic configurations: phone, still camera, and video.
When you open it to talk, the N90 is quite long and will reach from the ear to the chin of almost anyone. The presence of the lens barrel feels unusual at first but is not hard to get used to. If you hold the phone in your left hand, it is very easy to accidentally put a thumbprint on the lens, until you get used to avoiding it. (The actual lens is behind a piece of clear plastic, so this is, at worst, a minor annoyance.)
To take still images with the N90, you leave it closed and turn it sideways like a compact camera, twisting the lens barrel outward. In the video configuration, you open it halfway and twist the display, so that you can hold the phone upright with the lens pointing away from you. This is easier to show than to describe, so check out the pictures below to see the various ways to hold the N90.
The following pictures show the controls on the sides of the N90. On the left are the camera lens, charging port, and Pop-Port (under a rubber cover). On the right are the memory card slot (behind the metal door) and camera controls (joystick and shutter button).
The external display on the N90 is almost as big as the main display on some cheaper phones. Not only can it have wallpaper, but you can read incoming text messages and answer calls on it without ever opening the phone.
The stand-out feature of the N90 is its camera. With a Carl Zeiss f/2.9 35mm (equivalent) autofocus lens and 2.1 megapixel (1600×1200) sensor, the N90 is in a photographic class above most other camera phones. Its physical construction and built-in software are designed to make it feel and act more like a real camera than most of the competition.
For still photography, you don’t even have to open the lid. Flip the lens barrel out, hold the N90 sideways, and it looks and feels almost exactly like a compact camera. The camera software activates almost instantly, the cover display becoming an electronic viewfinder, and you can control many of its settings with the tiny joystick next to the shutter button. As on most digital cameras, you can press the shutter halfway to lock exposure and focus, or just press it all the way down to take a quick shot. You can flip the lens, take a picture, and put the N90 back in your pocket in a few seconds.
Opening the N90 and twisting its main display around into the “camcorder” position also starts the camera software quickly and automatically, but with a different user interface tailored to the larger screen. In this configuration you can access all of the camera settings, record stills or video, and view the gallery.
In either configuration, the camera software is intuitive and very much like what you would find on any other digital camera. I don’t have a lot of experience with other camera phones, but I have a hard time imagining that any of them are more convenient than the N90.
The quality of the N90’s images seems to be reasonably good. I took a couple of outdoor test shots, which you can see below along with similar shots taken with a Nikon Coolpix 800 (which is also a 2.1 megapixel camera) immediately afterward. The Nikon images were taken at minimum zoom (roughly equivalent to the fixed focal length of the N90’s lens) with default, automatic settings for white balance and exposure. (Note: click on the images to see the full, unedited versions.)
First, the images from the N90:
And the ones from the Nikon:
The N90’s images are, by comparison, very warm. Interestingly, if I apply iPhoto’s automatic enhancement filter to the Nikon images, the colors become comparable to the N90’s unedited output. The difference may be a matter of preference; I happen to like the Nikon’s “coldness” better, but I suspect accurate color would be somewhere in between the two.
Next, here are a couple of self-portraits taken under normal room lighting by holding the camera at arm’s length while sitting at my desk, the first with flash and the second without. Notice that even the flash shot is somewhat grainy, and shows blurriness due to camera shake.
Although full specifications for the N90’s camera are not provided in its marketing literature, the EXIF data from these images can tell us a few things. The flash self-portrait is ISO 800, 1/8 second shutter—no wonder it’s grainy and a bit blurry. The white LED “flash” simply cannot provide the same amount of light as even a small tube flash. This is a necessary compromise for a camera phone, but it is also a limitation to be aware of.
Based on the EXIF data of all the images, it appears that the N90’s camera has a fixed aperture of f/2.9, sensitivity from at least ISO 250 to 1000, and shutter speeds from at least 1/8 to 1/2500. According to the manufacturer’s specs, it focuses down to 10cm. All things considered, this is an impressive amount of photographic flexibility for a camera phone.
The N90 can record video as well, although only at a relatively low resolution (352×288, 15fps). Three video quality levels are available; the highest uses the MPEG-4 codec, the lower two use 3GPP and are suitable for e-mail or MMS messaging. Here are some short (10 second) videos in all three formats, so you can see the difference:
(Note: The N90 does record sound with its videos; if the samples seem not to have audio, it is because there wasn’t anything but wind noise to record.)
Like many of Nokia’s other models, the N90 is based on the Series 60 (Symbian) platform. Though the Series 60 platform is not quite at the same level as the Palm or Windows Mobile PDA operating systems, it has better-than-average contact management, synchronization, and third-party application support. The N90 comes with an extensive set of software:
The main display of the N90 has twice the resolution in each direction as most other Series 60 phones. Most of the built-in software, including all of the standard Symbian applications, uses the full resolution of the display, and it looks fantastic. Applications that don’t expect a high resolution display will be scaled up, looking somewhat fuzzy but still quite usable. Taking pictures of an LCD rarely does it justice, but here are a couple of comparisons between the N90 and an older Series 60 device (the N-Gage QD, which also happens to have the ugliest color scheme ever inflicted on a phone):
(First and third screens: N90. Second and fourth: N-Gage QD.)
And some more screens from the Symbian OS and software:
The review model also came with Nokia Lifeblog, which tracks all of your photos, calls, and text messages in a unified timeline which can be synchronized to your PC or to the web. It also includes an uploading tool which makes it easy to publish photos to a weblog or Flickr photostream.
Operating the N90 is, in most ways, just like using any other Series 60 phone. Therefore, my comments here will focus on new or interesting features not found in older models.
The first visible change from previous incarnations of the Series 60 system is that the home screen is more PDA-like, with a row of shortcut icons and a listing of upcoming events. Along with the usual two programmable buttons, this makes up to seven applications available without going through the menu, and given how much software the N90 comes with this is a welcome addition.
Another interesting feature of the N90 is its voice dialing, which is not based on prerecorded tags. Instead, it actually tries to recognize the names of your contacts, adapting to your voice the more you use it. While this is a nice idea, I was not able to make it work very well in practice. My impression is that it requires some training and tweaking before it reaches full accuracy, and I haven’t had enough time with the N90 to do that yet.
One surprising omission from the N90 is the lack of a vibrating alert. Why Nokia left out such a fundamental feature is a mystery to me, especially given that the N90 is otherwise very well endowed.
The first thing I did after unboxing the N90 was to try to synchronize it. Pairing it with my PowerMac G5 for Bluetooth communication was as easy as usual, but iSync did not recognize the N90. This is a well-known problem, but since the N90 is a Series 60 device it is possible to poke at the innards of iSync to make it work. (The fix is relatively pain-free, but I don’t recommend it for the faint of heart since it does involve changing files internal to Apple software.) This done, iSync installed its conduit on the N90 and loaded up my Address Book and iCal data without problems. Sending files in both directions with Bluetooth was also flawless, and significantly faster than with the N-Gage QD (also a Series 60 device) I use as my everyday phone.
Since I don’t use Windows, I can’t say much about the PC Suite software, except that it claims to handle synchronization, saving images, loading music, and ripping CDs. The PC Suite works with Bluetooth or USB 2.0 using the included cable.
If you are upgrading from another Series 60 phone, the N90 includes a “Transfer” application which uses Bluetooth to copy your contacts and settings from your old phone. It is far more efficient than using the SIM, because it copies the entire contact database including multiple phone numbers, addresses, and images.
The N90 is capable of playing music, but not really designed for it. The built-in audio player handles MP3 and unprotected AAC formats, but there is no way to control it with the phone closed. A larger obstacle is the lack of a conventional headset jack on the N90; the supplied earbuds connect directly to the Pop-Port on the side, leaving no way to plug in standard headphones. If you want music capability in your phone, the N91 is probably a better choice.
My opinion of the N90 is mixed. There is a lot to love about it: a comparatively excellent camera, nice display, and a good software bundle, just to name a few things. My only complaints about its design are minor: lack of vibrating alert and a headset jack, and the different-than-usual power connector.
The lack of 850 MHz support is potentially a bigger issue, since it cuts out a big chunk of the American GSM market. It’s not surprising that high-end devices like this one are available in European versions first, but I still hope that quad-band, instead of tri-band, will someday become the norm. (The N90 does everything else, after all.)
In addition to the usual GSM phone importers, the N90 is now (as of the 2005 holiday season) available in the USA through CompUSA and Ritz Camera, priced at $600 without contract.