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Author Archive for Rob Tillotson

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Shredder – Guitar-Controlled Synthesizer for iPad

(Disclosure: Yonac Inc. provided a promotional copy of this app.)

The iPad is a great platform for musicians, at least those of the electronic or guitar-playing variety. But what if you fit into both of those categories? Then maybe Shredder by Yonac Inc. is for you. Shredder is a full featured guitar-driven synthesizer, meaning that it tracks what notes you play on the guitar and uses them to drive a modeled analog synth engine. Doing this without an iPad usually involves a special pickup on the guitar plus a synthesizer that works with it, but Shredder does it just by listening to your input.

While this is not a full review, I tried Shredder using an iRig and so far it seems to track well. (No, I am not going to record a demo… I’m not that good of a guitarist yet!) A large number of presets are provided to show off the synth engine’s range or act as a jumping off point for your own tweaks. And if you have another favorite synth you’d like to control, iOS or external, Shredder supports virtual and physical MIDI out. It even has a couple of modeled stompboxes and a way to record and play back your playing.

Apps like this are one of the reasons I recently ditched my Android tablet for an iPad. I’m not the most serious or skilled guitarist out there and there is no way I could justify the hundreds of dollars a typical guitar synth rig would cost, but the iPad can do it for, basically, pocket change? Yes please. (Although we got a promo copy, I am pretty sure I would have bought it anyway.)

Shredder is currently on sale in the App Store for $5.99; after the holidays it will go up to its regular price of $14.99.

Jam With Your iPhone – PRS GuitarBud

The iPhone platform has quite a few apps for musicians, but what about the instrument itself? Now you can connect your electric guitar directly to your iPhone or iPod Touch (2nd gen or later) with the GuitarBud from PRS. It plugs into the iPhone’s audio jack and has connections for headphones and a guitar. To go along with the GuitarBud, PRS also has their own iPhone app, PRS JamAmp, which is an amp simulator and practice aid, but you can use the GuitarBud with any app that supports microphone input. The GuitarBud sells for about $30 at online music retailers; the JamAmp app is $9.99 in the app store.

Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 6000 Review

Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 6000 and USB Receiver

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.

Read More →

Join Us for Gadget Chat on IRC

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!

HP Mini 1000 Netbook – Running Linux

hp_mini_linux_banner

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 →

Spotlight Gadget – EMTEC Gdium Liberty Netbook

Gdium Liberty Netbook from EMTEC

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.

Please Excuse Our Dust

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.

Amazon Kindle Waterfield Cases

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.

Slip Case

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.

Slip Case

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.

Slip Case

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.

SleeveCase

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.

SleeveCase

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.

SleeveCase
SleeveCase

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.

Travel Case

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.

Travel Case Inside

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.

Travel Case Inside

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.

Amazon Kindle

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.

Specifications

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:

  • 6” (diagonal), 600×800 Electronic paper display, 4 gray levels
  • 256MB of internal storage, around 180MB available for content
  • SD card slot
  • EVDO wireless using the Sprint nationwide network (note that the Kindle is not available outside the USA)
  • Replaceable lithium-ion battery; 2 days with wireless on, 1 week with it off
  • USB port for computer connection
  • Formats supported: unprotected Mobipocket, plain text, Kindle e-book, Audible audio book, MP3, other formats via Amazon conversion service

box contents

The Kindle is packaged in a book-like box, and includes just a few necessary accessories: AC adapter, USB cable, and protective cover.

Hardware

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.

kindle and sony
kindle and books

In its case it feels rather like a diary or daily planner.

kindle in case

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.

kindle front

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.

kindle back

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.

kindle bottom

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.

Software

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.

kindle home screen

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.

kindle reading

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:

kindle position bar

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:

kindle highlighted text

Or add a note:

kindle adding a note

Or look up the words in the line in the on-board dictionary:

kindle lookup in dictionary

Once you’re looking at the dictionary you can select a word to get the full definition:

kindle dictionary 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:

kindle search results

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:

kindle small font

kindle big font

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.

Service and Content

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 Kindle Store

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.

kindle store

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.

kindle store categories

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.

kindle store book list

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.

kindle store book detail

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.

kindle store newspaper detail

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.

kindle store blog detail

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.

Content — Theirs

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.

Content — Yours

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.

Conclusions

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.

HTC TyTn II Windows Mobile 6 Professional Smartphone

The HTC TyTn II is the successor to the powerful and popular TyTn Windows Mobile PDA phone (which Julie and I reviewed here last year). While it retains the original’s features, including 3G mobile broadband, WiFi, and a sliding keyboard, it adds new features such as a tiltable display and internal GPS. A customized version of it, called the “Tilt”, has recently been released in the USA by AT&T. Is the TyTn II a worthy successor to the original TyTn? Read on to find out.

Specifications

  • Quad band (US/World) GSM and tri-band (US/World) UMTS
  • EDGE and 3G HSDPA (3.6 mbps) data
  • WiFi 802.11 b/g
  • Bluetooth 2.0
  • Built-in GPS with standalone and A-GPS capability
  • 400 MHz Qualcomm CPU
  • 128 MB RAM, 256 MB flash/ROM
  • microSD (TransFlash) card slot
  • 2.8” 240×320 pixel color touch display with LED backlight
  • Slide-out keyboard and with display flip
  • 3.15 megapixel camera with autofocus
  • VGA camera on front for video conferencing [not on AT&T Tilt]
  • 112 x 59 x 19 mm size
  • 190 g weight
  • Up to 400 hours standby or 6 hours talk time

In the Box

HTC seems to have taken note of packaging trends for high-end gadgets, as the TyTn II comes in a stylish black box with magnetic closure. Like its predecessor, the TyTn II comes with all the accessories you’ll need to get started, including a USB cable, stereo headset which plugs into the device’s special USB/audio port, and a belt holster case. As you can see from the picture, the TyTn II also comes with a copious amount of documentation and software — the manual is as thick as the device! They even threw in a screen protector. One welcome change in accessories is that the TyTn II’s case closes with velcro, while the original TyTn’s case had a magnet, which would often fool the TyTn into thinking the keyboard was open.

tytn2 in box

Ah, a fresh device nestled so peacefully in foam…

tytn2 contents

And here’s what was inside the box. Top row: documents, documents, documents… and a screen protector. Bottom row: AC adapter, belt case, TyTn II, headset, USB cable. And two discs of software.

Physical Design

The physical design of the TyTn II does not deviate much from that of its predecessor, but shows the sort of tweaks and improvements expected in a second-generation product. The most obvious change TyTn users will notice is that the keyboard now opens from the right of the display rather than the left, and once the keyboard is open you can flip the display up to angle it for better viewing. The buttons have been rearranged somewhat, with the two that were above the display now part of the cluster below, while the Comm Manager button has been removed completely. The SIM slot is now more accessible, behind the display instead of under the battery, and the memory slot has moved to the bottom end and gained a rubber cover.

The TyTn II is the same width and length as the TyTn, but is a couple of millimeters thinner. The slide now springs into place when you open or close it, and the combination of that plus subtle changes in the case design give the TyTn II a more solid feel than the original. Also contributing to this more solid feel is the new back; on the TyTn II the entire back slides on and off, rather than having the somewhat flimsy battery cover of the original.

tytn2 front

Here you see the front of the TyTn II (sorry about the dusty screen, it’s in the air at my house). All the buttons are in the cluster at the bottom; it’s hard to see the markings in this picture, but the soft keys are above the Internet Explorer and messaging buttons. The circle up at the top left is the video conferencing camera. Not visible here are two LEDs in the speaker slot at the top; these blink various colors to let you know the status of the phone, WiFi, Bluetooth, and battery charging, just like on the original TyTn.

tytn2 back

The back of the TyTn II is much cleaner than the original. The flat battery door is gone; now the entire back slides on and off, and it stays very firmly in place. The rubber piece near the top left is removable to expose a port for an external GPS antenna.

tytn2 left side

The TyTn II has the same buttons on its left side as the original TyTn, but they’ve been moved around a bit. The leftmost one in this picture activates the voice dialer, the one on the right is an “OK” button (one of several on the device), and in the middle is the clickable jog wheel. The horizontal piece in the middle is the outside edge of the SIM slot, which is accessible when the slide is open.

tytn2 right side

I’d had the TyTn II all of five minutes when I took these pictures, and already got fingerprints on it. They aren’t actually visible in normal light though; they show up rather prominently here because of the camera flash. Anyway, on the right side of the TyTn II are the power button and camera shutter button, which sticks out a bit due to having a half-pressed position for autofocus. If you had an original TyTn, you’ll note the absence of a dedicated Comm Manager button here.

tytn2 bottom

On the bottom of the TyTn II is the USB connector (HTC’s special one that includes audio), lanyard slot, reset hole, and Micro SD slot. The memory card is behind a rubber cover, which is a nice improvement from the original TyTn which just left it sticking out of the side. Note the lack of an infrared port; I actually miss it a little, since I used to occasionally use a Palm IR keyboard with my TyTn.

tytn2 open

Here we see the TyTn II with its slide open and the screen flipped up. As you can see this is much nicer when sitting on a table than the original TyTn was. The keyboard is the same as before, but if you look closely in the upper left corner you can see two LEDs which light up to show what shift state the keyboard is in — another small but nice refinement of the original. The only drawback I can find, compared to the original, is that with the screen flipped up there isn’t a lot of clearance between the display and the soft keys, making them hard to press with my fat thumbs.

GPS

While most of the TyTn IIs new features are upgrades to things the TyTn already had, the addition of a built-in GPS brings it a whole new range of possibilities. It is a true GPS, not an assisted system that requires access to the cell network, so it will work anywhere you could use a standalone GPS, and with any location-aware software that runs on Windows Mobile, including such things as Google Maps, Windows Live Search, and all types of navigation software. Using the TyTn IIs GPS is easy. Some software (Google Maps, for example) will just work, using Windows Mobile’s built-in location services, and for the rest the GPS is available on a COM port just as if it were connected externally.

The TyTn II’s uses the Qualcomm gpsOne chipset, and doesn’t seem to be quite as fast to lock nor as sensitive as the SIRFStar III based Bluetooth GPS I am used to using. But those differences seem to be quite minor, especially compared to the convenience of having it built right into the device. For best performance, you should make sure to use the included “QuickGPS” application to download ephemeris updates every week (it can do this automatically if you have an appropriate data plan), which makes the GPS start fast enough for impromptu Google Maps searches and the like.

Camera

The TyTn II sports a 3 megapixel, fixed focal length, autofocus camera. As with the original TyTn, the camera button is on the lower right side of the device, and the software assumes you’ll hold it sideways. The shutter button on the TyTn II works like the ones found on most digital cameras; pressing it halfway locks the focus and exposure, and pushing it the rest of the way snaps a picture.

The camera application on the TyTn II is very similar to the one on the TyTn. The most visible addition is a finger-tappable pop-up panel which lets you change commonly used settings and activate the self-timer. Another small, but potentially, improvement is the ability to take pictures with the front camera (if you have one).

camera app
camera menu

Unfortunately, I am less than impressed with the quality of the camera in my TyTn II. Frankly, it’s bad enough that I wonder if there is a software bug, or if I just got a bad unit. Pictures from the main camera have some of the worst JPEG artifacting I’ve ever seen, with areas of broad gradual color change — clear skies for example — looking more like basket-weave. At first I thought I was simply expecting too much from a phone camera, but then I compared identical shots taken seconds apart on both the TyTn II and original TyTn, and the ones from the original TyTn are free of artifacts. I’m inclined to believe this is a software bug rather than a hardware issue, so hopefully it will be fixed. I’ve only included one sample picture below, but I think it shows the problem quite well. It doesn’t look too bad here, but if you download the full size version and look at it more closely, the artifacts should be obvious.

Another bug in the TyTn II’s camera application which you will notice right away is that while the software is designed with the intention that you’ll hold the device sideways to use the main camera, it doesn’t rotate the pictures accordingly. This is easy to correct, but slightly annoying. Also, the TyTn II does not have the LED “flash” that the original TyTn had; I’m not sure that was very useful, so I don’t really miss it.

Software and Performance

The TyTn II runs Windows Mobile 6 Professional, compared to the original’s Windows Mobile 5. Despite the bump in version numbers, the difference between the two is not as large as you might expect. For the most part, WM6 is exactly like WM5, and runs the same software. Most of the changes are incremental and not immediately obvious from a user perspective, but some of the ones you might notice include:

  • Updated versions of mobile Office apps
  • HTML support in e-mail
  • Better Javascript and AJAX support in Internet Explorer
  • Windows Live replaces MSN mobile application and messenger
  • Push e-mail with Exchange servers (was also in later versions of WM5)
  • Better searching in built-in PIM
  • More functionality with Exchange 2007 servers (search, etc.)
  • Internet Sharing using Bluetooth PAN
  • Encrypted storage on memory cards
  • Windows Update and customer feedback support (yes, you can disable this)
  • .NET CF 2.0 and SQL built in, no more need to install them for some third party apps
  • Improved Bluetooth stability

There is one negative change in Windows Mobile 6 (and later builds of Windows Mobile 5) that might cause problems for some users, and that is that Microsoft has removed support for Bluetooth dial-up networking (DUN). Although PAN is a far superior way of sharing a mobile Internet connection with a computer, the older DUN method of tethering is still used by a number of external devices including standalone TomTom GPS units and the Nokia 770 and 800 tablets.

The TyTn II has twice as much memory as the original — 256MB storage and 128MB RAM for running programs — which helps a lot with performance. Unfortunately, almost half of the storage is taken up by the OS, but that still leaves around 128MB for your files. The program memory is a much bigger improvement, though, because it means more applications can be open before the system starts to slow down. Furthermore, though the specs still say 400 MHz CPU speed, the TyTn II uses a different chipset than the original, and it seems to be faster — all in all the TyTn II feels quicker than the TyTn, even with Windows Mobile 6.

That isn’t the end of the changes in the TyTn II, however, as HTC has added even more customizations to the base OS than they did in the TyTn. One of the most visible HTC additions is on the home screen as soon as you turn the TyTn II on:

htc home plugin

That’s the HTC home plugin, variants of which they are putting on all of their devices now. It’s meant to be finger-friendly, with tabs for the clock, weather (downloaded from the net), picture contacts, application launching, and turning the ringer on and off.

htc home weather
htc home contacts
htc home launcher
htc home sound

HTC’s attempts to make the TyTn II touchable don’t stop with the home plugin. The dialer and Comm Manager have been updated with larger buttons, and finger scrolling now works in the standard contacts and calendar apps as well as Internet Explorer. Unfortunately, the TyTn II’s support for finger operation doesn’t extend much farther than that; I would have liked a touchable on-screen keyboard as well, but that is easily remedied by adding one of several free third-party add-ons.

htc comm manager
htc dialer

The software bundle on the TyTn II is similar to the TyTn, with several welcome additions. Note that the software described here is what comes on the HTC-branded TyTn II; if you get the AT&T 8925 (or any other carrier-branded version) you might get more, fewer, or simply different bundled applications. The bundled applications include:

  • HTC Audio Manager – touch-friendly music player themed to match the rest of the HTC apps
  • Streaming Media – audio/video streaming player for some formats not supported by WMP
  • Adobe Reader LE – PDF viewer
  • Esmertec Java Midlet Manager
  • Voice Recorder
  • Cyberon Voice Speed Dial
  • ZIP – create and extract .zip archives
  • WorldCard Mobile – take a picture of a business card to scan it into your contacts

One unexpected surprise in the TyTn II box is an applications CD containing a few add-ons that aren’t pre-loaded into the device. In addition to the TomTom “taster” mapping software I talked about above, the application disc also includes free copies of SPB GPRS Monitor and Sprite Backup.

SPB GPRS monitor tracks your data usage and shows a summary on your home screen. Tapping on its home plugin opens an application with all sorts of graphs and reports. You can set up details of your data plan — monthly base cost, overage, per-minute connection charges, and so forth — and it will keep track of how much your browsing habits are costing you, and warn you when you get close to your limit.

Sprite Backup allows you to back up your TyTn II’s internal memory to the storage card, and restore it later. I haven’t tested it extensively, but as near as I can tell the HTC edition of Sprite Backup is fully functional. Since backup tools are often the sort of thing people don’t buy until it’s already too late, having a good one in the box is a nice addition.

Conclusions

The TyTn II is an evolutionary change from the original TyTn, with the latest version of Windows Mobile and many improvements, both small and large. If you already have a TyTn, the question of whether to upgrade might be a tough one — while few of the changes are significant enough to warrant an $800 upgrade all by themselves, taken as a whole the TyTn II seems significantly better than its predecessor. The choice might be somewhat easier if you’re considering the AT&T Tilt, since the contract prices I’ve seen so far are quite good considering what you get. The TyTn II isn’t the perfect Windows Mobile device, but it gets darn close; it’s near the top of the current heap, at least, and I recommend it for anyone wanting a powerful PDA phone.

The price of this phone will vary depending if you purchase it unlocked, locked to a carrier and with or without a contract. The price of $799.95 quoted is the price Julie paid for the phone through Mobile Planet. It was unlocked and without a contract.

Sony Portable Reader System PRS-500

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.

Hardware and Software Specifications

  • Display Technology: E-Ink electronic paper
  • Display Size: approx. 6 inch diagonal (comparable to a paperback book page)
  • Display Resolution: approx. 170 pixels/inch, 4 level gray scale
  • Internal Storage: 64MB
  • Expandable Storage: SD or Memory Stick Duo
  • Connectivity: USB for downloading e-books from PC
  • Battery: Internal lithium-ion, up to 7500 page turns per charge
  • External Power: AC adapter or USB based charging
  • Size: 5.00 x 7.00 x 0.45 (approx.) inches
  • Weight: 11 oz. with cover
  • Media Formats: BBeB (Sony e-book format), PDF, RTF, plain text, Microsoft Word (with desktop conversion software), JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, MP3, AAC

What’s In The Box

The Sony Reader neither includes nor requires a bunch of accessories. In the box, you get just the essentials:

  • Sony Reader
  • Black semi-soft microfiber cover
  • AC adapter and cord
  • USB to mini-USB cable
  • Software CD

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.

Digital Ink Display

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.

Using the Sony Reader

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.

screenshot of main menu
screenshot of books menu

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.

screenshot of single book menu

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.

screenshot reading small text
screenshot reading medium text
screenshot reading large text

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.

screenshot photo viewer
screenshot music player

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.

Desktop Software and Connectivity

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.)

E-Book Formats and the Sony Connect Store

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.

Conclusions

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.

Pioneer inno Portable XM Radio

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.

A Closer Look

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.

What’s In The Box


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:

  • Battery
  • Home docking cradle
  • Infrared remote control
  • AC adapter
  • Home XM antenna
  • Earbuds with extra rubber tips
  • Belt clip carrying case
  • Travel power adapter
  • 1/8-inch to RCA audio cable
  • USB-B to Mini USB cable
  • XM+Napster software CD
  • Users guides in English and Spanish
  • Quick setup guide
  • XM channel guide

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:

Using the Inno

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.


Portability

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.

Recording

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.






PC Connectivity

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.


Conclusions

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.

HTC TyTN Windows Mobile 5.0 Pocket PC Phone

Are you the type of person that wants a great PDA that happens to also have a good phone built into it? Or would you rather have a great phone that just happens to also function as a good PDA? That’s almost always the question you have to ask yourself when you’re in the market for a smartphone. It seems that no matter which brand of phone/PDA that you look at, you can’t find a device that is both an excellent PDA and an excellent phone. Trade offs, gotta luv em…

For that very reason, this review is going to be approached by two different perspectives. I’m the type of person that wants a great phone first, and a great PDA second. Since Rob is the opposite, I thought he’d be the perfect person to help me out with this review. As a result, I got him a TyTN at the same time that I bought mine. So, let’s get this tag team review of HTC’s TyTN rolling!

Julie’s comments are in BLACK, Rob’s are in italicized BLUE.

In case you didn’t already know, HTC is the maker of a lot of phones / PDAs on the market today. From the original Compaq iPAQ to the current Palm Treo 750v, HTC has been around since 1997 and seems to really know what they are doing as far as creating devices with great hardware design. The TyTN is one of their latest Windows Mobile 5.0 Pocket PC phones. With a slide out keyboard, WiFi, Bluetooth and a Quad band GSM radio, this device has a lot going for it.

Hardware Specs

Operating System: Windows Mobile 5.0
Memory: ROM 128MB / RAM 64MB SDRAM
Processor: 400MHz Samsung 2442 processor
Display: 240 X 320 2.8in TFT-LCD 65,536 colors
Radio: GSM/GPRS/EDGE/UMTS radio, GSM bands: 850/900/1800/1900, UMTS bands: 850/1900/2100
Connectivity: Bluetooth 2.0, WiFi 802.11b/g, Infrared (IR)
Expansion: MicroSD card slot
Camera: 2.0 megapixel with 8x digital zoom
Battery: Removable 1350 mAH Lithium-ion
Talk time: up to 4-5 hours GSM / 2-4 hours UMTS, Standby time: 120-250 hours
Power: AC adapter (Input 100-240AC, 50/60Hz 0.2A / Output 5V and 1A)
Size: 112.5 x 58 x 21.95 mm
Weight: 176 grams

One thing not mentioned in the official specs is that the TyTn also has an ATI media accelerator in it. I’m not sure how much it helps in practice, but this should allow video playback to be smoother and more battery-friendly than on PDAs which use the CPU for media decoding. Also worthy of special note is the support for the 850 and 1900 MHz UMTS bands; this is one of the first phones to support UMTS and HSDPA in North America.

Package Contents

HTC TyTN
Leather Belt case
Extra stylus
Li-ion battery
USB sync cable
AC charger with 2 country adapters (US and Asian)
Stereo headset / mic
Getting Started CD
Quick Start Guide
User Manual

Hardware Design
Front

The TyTN is shaped like a little rectangular rounded corner brick. Constructed almost entirely of grey plastic (except for a brushed aluminum inset on the front), this device feels solid and substantial in hand. It had no troubles passing my legendary gadgeteer squeeze test without rattling or flexing.

The 2.8 inch diagonal display is easy to read, with vivid colors and crisp text. But like almost every color PDA/Phone that I’ve tested over the years, the screen is almost unreadable in bright sunlight.

Along the top there are 2 buttons, a status LED bar and a front facing camera. The two buttons are mapped to the messaging application and Pocket IE web browser. The LED bar (you can see it right above the HTC logo in the image above) shows the status for battery charging, radio reception, Bluetooth and WiFi.

Regarding the front facing video camera, I’m not sure what it’s for because I don’t see anything in the software that references it.

I haven’t tried it yet, but apparently CoolCamera by Ateksoft supports it for taking pictures. Also of note is that Cingular’s 8525, their branded version of the TyTn, doesn’t have the front camera at all due to the lack of video calling support on their network.

At the bottom of the front, you will find the main button layout. There are buttons to Start a call, End a call, OK (exit applications), Windows Start Menu, Left softkey, Right softkey, 5-way navigation and the Video Call button.

Video calling doesn’t work in the United States, and probably won’t any time soon. If you’re on a UMTS network elsewhere, you can probably press the Video Call button (which is duplicated on the touch screen user interface) to turn on the front camera and videoconference with the person you’re talking to, provided, of course, that they have a video-capable phone on their end as well.

All of the buttons are flat and sit flush with the casing around it. Even so, they have great tactile feedback and are easy to press. The only issue that I have is trying to feel for a specific button with gloves on.

Since I’m a Treo user, I’ve grown very accustomed to having a thumbboard built into my PDA/Phone. This caused me a bit of frustration when I first started using the HTC. It almost felt like I was trying to use this device with one hand tied behind my back. That might sound strange since the TyTN does have a built in keyboard…

To access the keyboard you have to slide the screen to the right. I usually do this by rotating the device in my hands and then use my thumbs to slide the display up to expose the keyboard. The display will click in place securely and the onscreen image will automatically rotate to match the new orientation. When you slide the display back in place to hide the keyboard, the screen will rotate back into portrait mode automatically.

This reminds me a bit of the HP200LX and other keyboard-based handhelds of its day; landscape mode is nice for web browsing, email, and other text-oriented activities, and the TyTn’s automatic switching is seamless in most modern PocketPC applications.

Holding and using the PDA when the keyboard is exposed feels very comfortable and not awkward at all.

The keyboard itself has a cool blue backlight that is activated when you press one of its 41 keys.

See the spot above the ‘P’ key? That’s a light sensor, so that the backlight will not activate if you are, for example, outdoors in the middle of the day. I wonder if this actually saves battery life, or if it’s just one of those things that sounds cooler than it actually is.

Ha! I’m so glad you mentioned that, because I didn’t know what it was for. I actually tried pressing it with my stylus thinking it was a reset switch!

The keys are large and slightly dome shaped which makes typing for even long periods of time a pleasure. The Left and Right soft keys are even duplicated on the keyboard so that stylus use isn’t necessary.

Back

On the back of the TyTN you will find the camera lens, LED flash and speaker. There is also a little toggle slider switch to change the camera from macro to normal mode. In the very bottom right corner there is a small eyelet for a hand strap.

The built in camera is 2 megapixel, which is a better resolution than the majority of camera phones. I was hoping to be impressed by the camera due to the fact that it has an LED flash and a switch to toggle between macro and normal mode. Unfortunately, I am not impressed at all… The pictures (both macro and normal) are blurry. :o(

Indeed, the TyTn follows in the grand tradition of mediocre-at-best phone cameras. Oh well, I guess it can’t have everything, or else there would be nothing to improve in the next model.


This is the camera interface

There’s also the problem with the side button placement. When you turn the phone in landscape orientation to take a picture, your left thumb naturally rests along the button left edge of the phone where the jog wheel and OK button are located. These buttons are pretty sensitive, so it doesn’t take much effort to accidently activate them while you’re trying to take a picture.



Left to right: macro shot, normal shot. Click on thumbnail to see full size image

Left Side

The left side of the device has a jog dial, OK button, Voice command button and MicroSD slot. The jog dial allows you to scroll through various lists, menus and while in a call, it will allow you to adjust the volume level up and down. If you press the Voice command button, it will launch the Voice Speed Dial application. Pressing and holding the Voice command button will allow you to record a voice note.

On the Cingular version, this button apparently is hard-coded to activate a future Push To Talk service, and can’t be reassigned without additional software.

Regarding Voice Speed dialing… You actually have to set up an entry for each person that you want to dial. You do this by recording a command like “Call Rob’s TyTN”, and then link it to the appropriate contact phone number. It’s not surprising that I like the voice command app on the Treo 750v a lot better than the one on the TyTN. There’s nothing to setup on it. You can just hold the button and say “Call Julie at Home” or “Call Julie at Work” and it will verify what you asked and then if you say Yes, it will dial the number. You can also use it to interact with other applications.

The voice dialing software Julie mentioned is Microsoft Voice Command, which comes bundled with the Treo 750v but can be purchased separately for $40.

Right Side

On the right side of the TyTN you will find the Power button, Communications Manager launcher and Camera button. It’s no surprise that pressing the power button will toggle the power on and off. But, this actually just puts the phone into sleep mode. If you hold the power button for more than 5 seconds, it will completely shut down the device. This means that you will not receive calls or notifications until you turn the phone back on.

Top

There are no buttons or special features located on the top edge of the phone.

Bottom

If you look on the bottom edge of the TyTN, you will see the IR port, Battery cover lock, reset switch, microphone, USB sync / charge port and stylus silo. The USB connector doesn’t appear to be the normal shape for a mini USB plug, but never fear, plugging one in will work just fine. You can either charge using the supplied AC adapter, or via a standard USB mini cable. I use the last method.

If you’ve been paying attention, you might be wondering where the earphone jack is. Well, you have to use the earphone / mic that comes with the phone. It uses the special USB connector. I find this to be a little annoying. Not that I use my phone as a media player that often, but if I did, I’d want to use my own earbuds… even if I had to use a 2.5mm to 3.5mm adapter.

If you’re willing to poke around a bit with a registry editor, it will apparently work with Bluetooth A2DP stereo headsets. Until that is better supported, however, I agree that the lack of a proper headset jack is an annoyance. A lot of recent phones are guilty of this, but that’s no excuse.

Battery life has been pretty good for me. I’m not a heavy user of both the phone or PDA features. I mainly make a couple short calls each day, check email once or twice, look up appointments, text notes, and maybe play a game for a few minutes. With that type of usage, I have been able to get away with charging every other day and sometimes every 3rd day.

I also don’t have any complaints about battery life. I’m pretty diligent about plugging things in every night, or at least once every couple of days and I don’t think I’ve seen the TyTn dip below 50% charge. And that includes some days of heavy WiFi and Bluetooth use, installing and trying out software, and the like.

Let’s talk a little more about the size of the TyTN. In hand it feels a little bulky because it is pretty thick. It doesn’t feel HUGE, but it does feel somewhat unphone-like to me. That said, it does feel way more like a phone than the HP hw6945!

Compared to the Treo 750v, it doesn’t look that much different in overall size does it?

The Treo is a little thinner which does make a big difference in how the device feels in your hand.

You can really see the thickness difference in the picture above…

As far as overall phone experience, this is where the TyTN falls a bit flat for me. As a PDA, I love the screen and built in WiFi. It’s a great little Pocket PC. But as a phone, the lack of the always accessible keyboard has made it feel just a little awkward for me. Although I have gotten used to it in the weeks since I’ve been reviewing this phone, I still find myself really missing the Treo keyboard. The Treo is a great one handed device; the TyTN requires the use of two hands for true text operation.

I was looking for more of a PDA with phone functionality, rather than the other way around, so I’m happy to trade the front keyboard for a rectangular screen. I still haven’t fully conquered my fear of directly touching a PDA display, but the between the finger-sized buttons on the dialer application, the jog wheel, and the front face buttons I don’t find it any harder to use one-handed than any other keyboard-less phone. One thing that helps a little with this is to get a phone pad input method, such as the one HTC provided for some of its other PDA phones, which gives you a thumb-friendly on-screen T9 predictive text input pad that works in all Windows Mobile applications. I don’t know why HTC didn’t include this in the TyTn’s ROM; it can be downloaded from a few places on the web, and while it wasn’t created for the TyTn it works just fine on it.

Besides keyboard use, the TyTN has very good reception. I don’t think I had one dropped call while using this phone. I’ve not had any issues with audio volume on either side of the conversation. The only thing I have noticed is that sometimes I can hear some static in the background of my calls. Have you noticed that Rob?

I can’t honestly say if I’ve noticed static, because I’m used to marginal quality on a lot of my calls regardless of what phone I’m using. I live in a semi-rural area and even the best phone suffers from a lot of audio glitches, if not completely dropped calls, if I try to use it indoors at home. (And that’s on Cingular 850 MHz; T-Mobile 1900 MHz is a lost cause.) The fact that the TyTn works here at all is a sign that it has reasonably good RF performance. I can walk around the house with it without finding any obvious dead spots, which is more than I can say for some phones I’ve tried. When I’m out and about I have had nothing to complain about.

The TyTN runs on a 400MHz processor. I haven’t had any real issues with application speed, but it isn’t unusual to see the little spinning wheel for a second or two when you launch some applications.

Now let’s talk a little bit about the software that powers the TyTN. This particular device uses Windows Mobile 5.0. Below you can see a list of all the applications that are included in ROM.

Software Installed On Device

ActiveSync
Alarm Clock
Bubble Breaker
Calculator
Camera
Communications Manager
Internet Explorer Mobile
File Explorer
Microsoft Office Outlook Mobile
– Email
– Calendar
– Contacts
– Tasks
– Notes
Microsoft Office Mobile
– Word Mobile
– Excel Mobile
– PowerPoint Mobile
Phone
Pictures and Video
ClearVue PDF Viewer
Download Agent
Pocket MSN
SAPSettings
Search
SIM Manager
SMS / MMS Messaging with chat view
Solitaire
Terminal Services Client
Voice Speed Dial
Windows Media Player 10 Mobile
Wireless Modem
Zip

Software on CD

ActiveSync 4.1 (for your desktop)
Outlook 2002 (for your desktop)

As you can see, this device doesn’t come with a typical software bundle that includes extra full and trial applications. I’m wondering what type of bundle the Cingular version (8525) comes with…

From what I understand, the Cingular version doesn’t add a lot to the basic bundle. The main additions are the clients for MobiTV and TeleNav, which take advantage of Cingular’s high speed network, but otherwise the software load is the same.

The TyTN doesn’t come with a bunch of today plug-ins that can slow down the device. However, there are two little additions to the bottom of the today screen. A battery level indicator, and a small icon that you can click on to launch the communications manager.

If you’re handy with a registry editor, you can also enable a hidden today plugin, apparently a standard part of Windows Mobile, which shows the name of your GSM carrier and the status of Bluetooth and WiFi. (You could also get this information by tapping the status icons up top, of course.) Why this isn’t available by default I don’t know.

I don’t really think the tray icons are all that useful. The communication manager has its own hardware button, while the battery icon is easily replaced (and improved upon) by one of the many task managers or today screen plugins out there. You can turn them off, but it requires poking around in the registry.


The communications manager can be accessed by the icon at the bottom of the today screen or by the button on the right side of the device. I like to use to this app to mute the speaker. It will remember the last cursor location, so I just leave it on the little speaker icon so that can easily toggle the status.

You are supposed to be able to use the TyTN as a modem for a PC or Notebook via USB, IR or Bluetooth. I tried this with my Powerbook and although I was able to pair the two devices, the Powerbook kept asking me for a user name, password and phone number. I’m not sure what settings are required to use the existing data plan on the phone though…

Surfing webpages using the phone itself is very comfortable. There are several zoom levels in Pocket Internet Explorer to enable a good chunk of text to be displayed. See some examples below.



Medium zoom setting on left, smallest zoom on right



Landscape mode: medium zoom setting on left, smallest zoom on right

Images in webpages look pretty nice too.

The TyTN would make a great little web surfing device if you happen to live in an area with 3G coverage. Unfortunately for me, I just have Edge right now. Even so, surfing felt relatively snappy. I did use http://text.dslreports.com/mspeed to test my connection a couple of times, and came up with results of:

200k test:

133 kbit/sec, 0.893s latency
159 kbit/sec, 0.916s latency

Not too horrible :o)

I tried the same mobile speed test on my home WiFi network, it came up with a result that was pretty close to the speed of my DSL. I tried copying a large file to the storage card with Total Commander and the results were not as good; while it is nice to have 802.11g in a PDA, the rest of the hardware isn’t really capable of using that much bandwidth. For surfing and streaming, it works well both at home and at public hotspots.


This is the interface for the Voice Speed Dial app.

And last but not least, here is the Zip application that is also included with the TyTN. It’s a simple interface to allow you to zip up files to save storage space.

I have to say that the HTC TyTN is a great little device. With its nice display, Quad band GSM, WiFi, Bluetooth, and keyboard, it’s really hard to find many faults. Of course you know I have to complain about something, so here goes. The camera is less than stellar and for me, the phone experience just isn’t as good as… yes, you know what I’m going to type… the Treo. I can’t help it. I think I’m forever spoiled. Seriously, if you want a device that’s a little bit more PDA than Phone, this one is a great choice. If you’re the other way around then it might not be the perfect device for you. What do you think Rob?

I really like it. As I mentioned earlier, I was interested in something which was a PDA first and foremost. I was a bit wary of switching to the Windows Mobile platform, since I’ve had PocketPCs before and always found myself underwhelmed. But as a Windows PDA, the TyTn lacks for very little; about the only significant thing I could wish for is a bigger screen, and that would be impossible without making it less portable. I’ve switched completely over to the TyTn from my Palm TX, and I don’t think I’m going back.

I can’t yet say the same for myself. I am having a hard time deciding if I want to go back to Palm or stick with Windows Mobile. There are things that I like about both software platforms. As for the hardware, I’m still looking for my perfect Phone/PDA combo. The TyTN is close in some aspects, but not quite the one for me at this point. The quest continues…

Gadgeteer Podcast #2

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.

Podcast #2
Format: .MP3
Length: 17 minutes 12 seconds
Size: 5.95mb

Show notes (sites that were mentioned etc.):

HP iPAQ HW6945 Mobile Messenger
Treo 750v Review
National Novel Writing Month
OpenOffice
Scrivener
Jer’s Novel Writer
CopyWrite
Ulysses
Y Writer
HTC TyTN Smartphone

Pertelian X2040

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.

Package Contents

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 Display

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.

Software

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.

(Updated 10/29/2006)

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.

Conclusions

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.

Saitek Pro Gamer Command Unit

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.

PGCU from above PGCU with 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?)

Programming

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.

SST software 3d view

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.

SST software data view

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.)

SST software advanced programming

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.

SST software axis programming

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.

The Competition

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.

PCGU side by side with N52

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.

In Use

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.

Conclusions

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.

Invisible Shield for MacBook

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
"http://www.tuaw.com/2006/06/13/white-macbooks-turning-yellow/">reporting.
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.

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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
texture.)

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Here is a close-up of the wrist rest, without flash and
deliberately positioned so there is a reflection.

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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.

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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).

CoPilot Live GPS Navigation System

Many new cars come with GPS navigation
systems. But what if you don’t have one? Adding it might not be
practical-perhaps you drive more than one vehicle, travel and rent
often, or just don’t want an expensive piece of electronics
permanently and visibly stuck to your dash. Today’s smartphones and
PDAs are powerful enough to do the same job, with a little help
from software and a pocketable GPS
receiver. CoPilot Live by
ALK Technologies is a complete
GPS navigation system for Bluetooth-ready
handhelds, which provides on-the-go routing with voice prompts.

Package Contents

The CoPilot Live system is available in a variety of different
configurations, with versions tailored for Windows Mobile
Smartphones, Pocket PCs, laptops, and the Treo 700W. The software
is available by itself or with a Bluetooth "caps">GPS receiver, and bundles are available that also
include a 1GB memory card for map storage. The package I evaluated
is the Smartphone version with GPS
receiver; I used it with an iMate SP5m Windows Mobile 5
Smartphone.

The box includes:

  • CoPilot Live software
  • CoPilot Bluetooth GPS receiver
  • 12V car adapter for GPS receiver
  • Power splitter
  • Vent mounting clip for phone

The power splitter is an extension cable which connects to the
12V adapter and provides power to both the "caps">GPS and phone (through a mini-USB plug), so you can
use the system on long trips without running down either device’s
battery.

Software

The CoPilot Live software for handhelds has two parts: an
application for your PDA or smartphone
that handles in-car navigation, and a map downloader for your
Windows desktop. The handheld software is the most important part
of this package, so I’ll cover it first. Please note that I only
reviewed the Windows Mobile Smartphone version; the others should
have the same features but a somewhat different user interface.

The CoPilot smartphone application is a complete navigation
system; the only thing you have to use the desktop for is
downloading maps, and if you have a large enough memory card (1GB
or more) you probably only need to do that once. On a smartphone it
is somewhat cumbersome to enter addresses to search for (it’s much
easier on a Pocket PC, I’m sure) but you can bookmark your favorite
locations and use addresses from your contacts as well. Once you’ve
entered a destination, CoPilot will figure out a route.

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Once you’re on the move, the map display tracks your location.
Both two- and three-dimensional maps are available. In the screens
below, notice the markers on the 3-D view of a highway interchange;
the CoPilot point of interest database is quite extensive and you
can easily search for gas stations, restaurants, and other such
places, or get a voice alert when you get close.

"/assets/copilot-map3d.jpg" alt=""/> "/assets/copilot-poisearch.jpg" alt=""/>

CoPilot’s voice alerts are clear and, providing your smartphone
has a decent speaker, loud. You can choose male or female voices in
a number of different languages, downloading only the one you want
to your memory card.

"/assets/copilot-poioptions.jpg" alt=""/>

I didn’t get a chance to test CoPilot in a truly unfamiliar
place, but in testing it on routes I knew well I found that it did
a good job of figuring out where to go. When I deliberately went
the wrong way, it handled rerouting quickly and accurately, even
when I persistently ignored its suggestions of where to turn.

One notable feature of CoPilot Live is, as the name implies,
live tracking. With live tracking enabled, authorized users can see
your location on a web-based map and send text messages and
location updates while you are driving. There is not, as far as I
can tell, any extra cost for this feature other than whatever you
pay for mobile data. (Click the thumbnail below to see a full size
image of the live tracking web site.)

"/assets/copilot-liveweb-small.jpg" alt=""/>

The Windows desktop software is used primarily to download maps,
points of interest, and voices to the handheld. It can be used to
plan trips as well, but it isn’t required for that; the handheld
software can do that on its own. One thing of note is that maps are
not directly downloaded through ActiveSync; the software writes
them to a directory on disk which you can drag and drop into
ActiveSync’s explorer. You can download maps by region, selected
area, or a radius around a zip code. As you can see from the
screenshots below, a single city map is not very large at all, so
if you don’t drive cross-country and don’t mind downloading a new
map when you travel, you might not even need a memory card. On the
other hand, a 1GB card is big enough to hold maps of the entire
continental USA.

"/assets/copilot-windows1-sm.jpg" alt=""/> "/assets/copilot-windows2.png"> "/assets/copilot-windows2-sm.jpg" alt=""/> "/assets/copilot-windows3.png"> "/assets/copilot-windows3-sm.jpg" alt=""/>

(Click on screens above to see them at full size.)

GPS Receiver

The CoPilot GPS receiver is a compact
black box, about as thick as a deck of cards but somewhat narrower,
which communicates with a PDA,
smartphone, or laptop using Bluetooth. Operating it is simple: turn
it on and put it somewhere with a view of the sky, and run the
CoPilot software on your handheld or laptop. It is completely
wireless, unless you tether it to its 12 volt power adapter or
attach an external antenna.

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The performance of the CoPilot GPS is
quite good. It starts fast and lasts a long time on its internal
battery, and it seems to usually get a better fix than the other
Bluetooth GPS (a Nokia LD-1W) I currently
have to compare it to. (GPS geeks will probably want to know that
it is a 20-channel receiver with WAAS and
uses the SIRFStar III chipset.) It
outputs standard NMEA position
information so you can use it with any "caps">GPS-ready device and application.

Conclusions

I quite like both parts of the CoPilot Live navigation system.
The smartphone software is easy to use, looks nice, and works well.
The GPS receiver has good battery life
and seems to be quite sensitive and accurate. What I like most is
the portability of it. The receiver is much less cumbersome than a
dedicated unit, the software does more than a typical handheld GPS,
and it goes with you in whatever vehicle you’re driving. Also, if
you already have a smartphone or PDA (and
if you’re reading this, you probably do) the price of CoPilot Live
is less than a standalone navigation system. Although the CoPilot
system is good enough to deserve a recommendation just based on its
core performance, the live tracking features add an interesting
dimension which you can’t get from a standalone "caps">GPS navigator.

The CoPilot Live software is available directly from "http://www.alk.com/copilot/">ALK
Technologies
for $199, or bundled with the Bluetooth
GPS receiver for $299.

Neuros MPEG4 Video Recorder 2

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.

Physical Description

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.

Usage

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.


Recording Formats and Quality

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

Sample Clips

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.

[QVGA Economic]
[QVGA Normal]
[WQVGA Normal]
[VGA Economic]
[VGA Normal]
[VGA Fine]
[VGA Super Fine]

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.

Likes and Dislikes

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
next version.

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.

i-mate SP5m

The smartphone designers at HTC recently
introduced their fourth-generation product, code-named “Tornado” and
running the latest Windows Mobile operating system. Like previous
generations, the Tornado is (or at least will be) available under many
different brand names including those of major wireless carriers;
i-mate is among the first to offer it for consumer purchase.

i-mate
markets two versions of the Tornado design which are based on the same
hardware but are packaged differently. The i-mate SP5
is the business-oriented design, while the SP5m reviewed here is
targeted at consumers, with a silver housing and dedicated media player
keys. Other versions of the Tornado (such as should be substantially
similar, but may add or remove software or hardware features. (The
Cingular 2125, for example, lacks WiFi.)

Opening the Box

The SP5m ships with a typical set of accessories:


  • SP5m phone
  • Multi-voltage power adapter with European plug
  • Stereo earbuds with microphone and volume control
  • USB cable
  • Belt clip case (not shown in image above)
  • ActiveSync and Outlook 2002
  • Manuals and documentation

The
review model also included a US power adapter and a 128MB MiniSD card;
retail packaging might differ. The phone will charge through the USB cable, which uses the same mini connector commonly found on cameras.

The supplied case does not fit quite as well as it could, but it holds the phone securely and the belt clip is snug.


Hardware Specifications

The SP5m is comparable to most Windows Mobile smartphones:

  • GSM 850/900/1800/1900 for compatibility with all North American and European GSM networks
  • GPRS (Class 10, 32-48 kbps) and EDGE (up to 236 kbps)
  • Windows Mobile 5 Smartphone Edition operating system
  • 64MB RAM (18MB available for user data and apps)
  • 200 MHz TI OMAP CPU
  • MiniSD memory card slot
  • 240×320, 65k color display
  • USB port
  • Bluetooth v1.2
  • WiFi 802.11b
  • 1.3 megapixel (1280×1024) camera
  • Up to 5 hours talk time, 250 hours standby with included battery

Physical Design

The
SP5m is compact and fits nicely in the hand. Build quality is good with
no creaks or uncomfortable edges, and it has just the right amount of
heft to it. The display takes up more than half of the face, squeezing
seven rows of keys into the area below. The keypad is a bit small;
people with large hands may find it cramped.

(Left to right: iPod 30GB, Nokia N90, SP5m, Nokia 3595)

(Bottom to top: iPod 30GB, Nokia N90, SP5m, Nokia 3595)

As
you can see from the comparison images above, the SP5m is compact,
smaller than even the much less featureful, entry-level Nokia 3595.

Since
the SP5m does not have a touch-sensitive screen, the small joystick nub
just above the number keys is used for navigation, in conjunction with
the home, back, and left and right softkeys found in the row just below
the display. Also present is a row of four round keys which are
hard-wired to start the web browser and control the music player.

The
display is easily one of the best I have seen on a mobile device
recently. Small details are easy to see, the backlighting is bright and
even, and colors are vivid. (The screen shots I took for this review
don’t really do it justice.)

Above the display, two LEDs
flank the speaker. One changes colors to show network and charging
status, and the other blinks when WiFi or Bluetooth are turned on.

On
the right side of the SP5m, near the top, is a button which starts the
camera software and takes a picture. On the left is the volume rocker
and an additional button which opens the Communication Manager
(described more fully below).

The
camera lens is located in a typical position on the back of the SP5m,
along with a self-portrait mirror. Above it, a gray rubber plug covers
an external antenna port.

The power button is located at the top end of the SP5m, next to the infrared port.

The
only external connectors on the SP5m are a headset jack (which does not
accept ordinary stereo headphones without an adapter) and a mini USB port which is used for both synchronization and charging.

The
MiniSD memory card slot is positioned underneath the battery, a
baffling inconvenience considering that the SP5m is positioned as a
music and media phone.

Software

There are two kinds of devices that are commonly called “smartphones”. Some are the combination of a PDA with a full-sized phone; others are phones with advanced software but without the large touch screen of a PDA. The SP5m is in the latter category; if it is a full-featured PDA you are looking for, consider a Treo or HP iPaq instead.

The
SP5m runs the Smartphone edition of Windows Mobile 5, the latest mobile
operating system from Microsoft. The Smartphone edition of Windows
Mobile 5 shares the same code base as the PDA edition, with changes to the user interface to accommodate the lack of a touch screen. The standard software bundle includes:

  • Contacts, Calendar, and Tasks
  • SMS/MMS messaging
  • POP3, IMAP, and Outlook email
  • Voice notes
  • Still and video imaging
  • Picture and video library
  • Mobile Internet Explorer
  • Windows Media Player
  • Speed dial/voice command manager
  • File manager
  • Task manager
  • Pocket MSN
  • MIDlet manager for Java applications
  • ActiveSync
  • Communication Manager
  • Games (Solitaire and Bubble Breaker)

Notably
absent from the usual collection of Windows Mobile software are Pocket
Office and Microsoft Reader, smartphone versions of which do not exist
yet. You could install third-party software to replace them, but if you
need to do that you should probably consider a PDA phone instead.

The home screen is customizable, and the PIM
software is similar to that on Windows Mobile PDAs. The program
launcher uses a 3×3 icon grid so you can select applications from the
keypad.



In
addition to the Outlook-compatible contact manager, the built in
software allows programmable voice tags and will look up contacts as
you key in letters of their name.



A
reasonably full-featured file manager is included, as is a task manager
from which you can stop running tasks to free up memory. (In normal
usage this should not ever be necessary, but if you use a lot of third
party applications it is still possible for the system to slow down if
too much is running in the background.)


Windows
Mobile 5, unlike previous versions, uses the same code base on
smartphones and PDAs. In theory, this should make it much easier for
developers to write one application that supports all devices. Even so,
running PDA-oriented software on a smartphone is still likely to be difficult because of the lack of a touch-sensitive screen.

Performance

I
tested the SP5m on the Cingular and T-Mobile networks in my area. My
home has usable but not great Cingular “Orange” 850 MHz coverage and is
on the fringe of T-Mobile; Cingular also has 1900 MHz coverage in the
city, on the former AT&T (“Blue”) network. The RF performance of
the SP5m is about as good as most other phones I have tried, with no
unexpected dropouts on either network. I was unable to extensively test
data speeds, but the SP5m successfully uses Cingular’s EDGE network, opening pages and downloading files much faster than my other, GPRS-only phones.

The
SP5m’s software performance is good, but seems to rely on leaving
commonly used applications open; opening a program for the first time
can take several seconds. This is likely to be an issue if you run a
lot of add-on software, but for everyday use of standard phone
functionality the built-in memory is sufficient to keep all the
necessary programs running.

Voice quality is good, and the built-in speaker is loud, though not quite as loud as some other phones I have tried.

Using the SP5m

Music and Media

The
SP5m is positioned as a music phone, to the point of having dedicated
media player buttons on its keypad. The built in Windows Media Player
application handles both music and video, and it will synchronize
tracks and playlists with the desktop. The supported formats include MP3, WMA, and AAC (unprotected only) for audio and MPEG-4 and Windows Media for video. Streaming is also supported, and works well over WiFi. If you have a solid EDGE
connection, you should be able to listen to audio streams over the air
as well, but I wouldn’t recommend trying that unless you have an
unlimited data connection.

One thing you will definitely want
to do if you use the SP5m for music is get a better set of headphones.
A set of earbuds (with mic for hands-free calling) are supplied in the
box, but their audio quality leaves a lot to be desired. The audio
connector uses a four-conductor 2.5mm jack, so you’ll need an adapter
to use a standard headset.

Wireless Internet and Bluetooth

Unlike
most phones, “smart” or otherwise, the SP5m includes 802.11b (WiFi)
capability, so you can use it with existing wireless networks. Not only
is this a great way to save money if you don’t have an unlimited data
plan from your wireless carrier, but it will usually be much faster
than the speeds you will get over the air.

Pressing a dedicated button on the left side of the SP5m opens the Connection Manager, shown here:

From
here you can turn WiFi and Bluetooth on and off, activate silent mode,
or start ActiveSync by pressing a numbered key. If WiFi is on, the SP5m
will automatically connect to any of your preferred networks whenever
you are in range. If it finds a new network, you will be prompted
before it connects. If you need to configure WEP or WPA security, an advanced settings panel is available in the phone menus.

The
SP5m’s WiFi works flawlessly on my home network as well as at the
public hotspots I have visited. It doesn’t seem to be much harder on
the battery than a voice call, but I still wouldn’t recommend leaving
it on all the time.

The built-in Internet Explorer web
browser supports many web features and does a passable job at squeezing
full-sized sites into a small display, although you’ll probably want to
use mobile-oriented sites whenever possible.



The SP5m
supports Bluetooth 1.2, which offers improved audio quality and
resistance to interference compared with Bluetooth 1.1. With a
compatible headset (mine is a Plantronics Voyager 510) audio is clear
and voice dialing works well.

I did notice a couple of quirks
in the Bluetooth implementation. One is that there is no way to force
reconnection to a device that is already paired, without pairing it
again. If you use it with a headset that supports multiple devices,
this means that if you turn the headset off after using it with
something else, the SP5m may not find it again later unless you go
through the pairing process again. Another minor issue I noticed is
that if you set the SP5m to be discoverable through Bluetooth, that
setting sometimes doesn’t stick for more than a minute or so. I think
this is probably by design, but since there is no warning about it in
the user interface I can’t be sure.

Synchronization

Like
all Windows Mobile products, the SP5m synchronizes very well with
Windows, and not at all with any other desktop platform. It is supplied
with ActiveSync 4.0 as well as Outlook 2002 (in case you don’t have a
newer version already). Once installed on the desktop, ActiveSync stays
running in the background and keeps the phone’s contacts, calendar, and
tasks up to date continuously as long as it is plugged in. The SP5m
will also use the desktop’s Internet connection as long as it remains
tethered, even if WiFi is available. ActiveSync also provides a browser
for the phone’s file system, so you can easily copy music, pictures,
programs, and other files to it.

Since I normally use a Mac
to manage my personal information, I have only used ActiveSync for
contacts (which I copied over to Outlook as vCards) and copying files.
I was hoping to use Missing Sync or PocketMac, but neither of those
applications support Windows Mobile 5 yet.

I am also somewhat
disappointed that WiFi syncing (or network sync of any kind, for that
matter) is not supported. Microsoft apparently removed network sync in
ActiveSync 4.0, just when WiFi is becoming commonplace in mobile
devices. Bluetooth sync is still supported, though.

Camera

As
with most camera phones, the SP5m’s imaging capabilities are minimal,
useful only for the sake of convenience. Pressing a button on the top
right of the device starts the camera software, and pressing it again
takes a picture. The lens is fixed focus, there is no flash, and the
maximum resolution is 1280×1024. Image quality is typical of most
camera phones: relatively poor.



(Click on the thumbnails above to view the original image taken directly from the phone.)

In
the examples above, I attempted a self-portrait first under normal room
lighting, slightly dim but well within the exposure capabilities of a
typical digital camera. When that didn’t work too well, I tried again
with direct lighting. Finally, the last example is of some trees in my
back yard, to show detail. It should be obvious that the SP5m isn’t
going to replace a dedicated camera any time soon; if you need a camera
phone with decent imaging quality, try something along the lines of a Nokia N90.

The
camera application is basic, offering modes for general photography,
messaging, and contact photos. The only imaging options are digital
zoom (up to 8x at lower resolutions) and an “ambience” setting which
conflates white balance, exposure, and color settings into a single
menu. Images can be saved directly to the memory card and managed with
a separate “Pictures and Video” application.


The SP5m can also record MPEG-4, H.264, or Motion JPEG
video at a maximum resolution of 176×144. Given the general quality of
the camera this is a novelty at best, suitable primarily for impromptu MMS messaging.

Locking and Unlocking

The SP5m under review is unlocked in the usual GSM sense, meaning that it will accept a SIM
from any provider. But, as I found out only hours after I opened the
box, there is another kind of lock to be concerned about in the world
of Windows Mobile.

One of the first pieces of add-on software
I tried to install on the SP5m was the driver for the Brando Smart
Keyboard. This is a folding keyboard which uses Bluetooth, but it is
not a standard HID device and requires a driver to be installed. (The SP5m apparently supports Bluetooth HID
keyboards without a driver, but I don’t have one to test it with.)
After downloading the most current driver and copying the .cab file to
the phone, it refused to install because the driver did not have the
proper digital signature.

Windows Mobile’s security
architecture includes a variety of application locks which are
unrelated to the usual sort of “unlocking” we usually associate with
phones. As I was soon to find out, the SP5m ships with some of these
locks turned on by default, preventing you from installing unsigned
applications or changing certain registry entries and files.

Even
if you never try to install unsigned software, there is a good reason
to unlock the SP5m, and that is to change the mapping of the Internet
Explorer key. In its default configuration, it is hardcoded to go to
the i-mate home page every time it is pressed, even if Internet
Explorer was already open and showing another page. This is highly
annoying, but if you have to pay for your wireless data usage it can
also be expensive, since accidentally touching that button will cause
the phone to connect to GPRS/EDGE and download a rather large and graphic-laden page unless you are very quick to bang on the END button to stop it. Luckily, the extra buttons are mapped to shortcuts that you can edit… if the phone is fully unlocked.

The
procedure for removing the application lock is not hard, and you can
find instructions on the web quite easily. But I wish it wasn’t
necessary in the first place. If you’re buying a device at full price
from a neutral vendor (and that’s the only way to get an SP5m, in the USA at least) you should be able to run any software you like on it.

Customization

One
of the advantages of a smart phone is that, in most cases, they can be
customized extensively with not only ringtones and color themes, but
applications and system tweaks. That is definitely true of the SP5m,
but it also displays some odd choices of what parts of the system are
customizable and what parts are not. (This is probably Microsoft’s
doing, not i-mate’s.)

For example, the order of icons in the
application launcher cannot be directly changed. The first ten or
eleven of them are in a standard order, and the rest are in
alphabetical order. By comparison, on Series 60 phones you can create
folders and rearrange icons to put your favorite programs where you
want them. On a Windows smartphone, this requires editing the registry.

Likewise,
you can’t change the ActiveSync name of the phone. If it decides to
call itself “WM_JoeUser_1” you’re stuck with it unless you break out
the registry editor again. A minor issue, to be sure, but some of us
are picky about what our toys are called.

On the other hand,
Windows Mobile has a very flexible system for making custom themes
which goes beyond simple color changes and wallpaper, so visibly
personalizing the SP5m is easy.

Conclusion

I will
admit that I am probably not the target customer for a device like the
i-mate SP5m, since I use Macintosh on the desktop and carry a Palm PDA.
But for the larger market of Windows users, a phone that syncs to
Outlook and Windows Media Player is probably quite handy. It’s hard to
recommend the SP5m over any other current Windows Mobile smartphone,
since nearly all of them are variations of the same design, and the
choice is likely to come down to bundled features and carrier support.
Still, I like the SP5m and am using it as my primary phone.

The
biggest downside to the SP5m is, in my opinion, the oddly restrictive
application locking that prevents essential customizations like
reorganizing the menus and remapping the hardware buttons. If I hadn’t
found out how to unlock it, I probably would have very quickly smashed
it in frustration after my second or third accidental press of the
Internet Explorer button and its mandatory visit to the i-mate home
page. With that fixed, there are no other big issues with the SP5m that
I can complain about, except perhaps the poor quality of the camera (an
issue the SP5m has in common with a lot of camera phones).

The i-mate SP5m is not sold directly by any carrier, though some carriers do offer their own branded version of the HTC Tornado design; it is available through vendors of unlocked GSM phones for a street price of around $500 to $550.

Nokia N90

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.

Opening The Box

The N90 box is filled with a variety of items:


  • N90 Phone
  • Multi-voltage AC adapter with European plug (AC-4E)
  • Charging adapter CA-44 for use with standard power accessories
  • 64MB RS-MMC memory card and adapter for full size MMC slots
  • Stereo earbuds with microphone
  • USB cable
  • Wrist strap
  • Nokia PC-Suite for Windows 2000/XP
  • Manuals and documentation

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.

Hardware Specifications

The N90’s hardware specifications are worthy of its positioning:

  • EGSM 900/1800/1900, GPRS/EDGE (max 236kbps down, 118kbps up)
  • WCDMA (UMTS) 2100 (max 384kbps down, 128kbps up)
  • Series 60 (Symbian) operating system
  • 31MB internal memory
  • RS-MMC card slot
  • 352×416, 256k color main display
  • 128×128, 4096 color external display
  • USB 2.0 high speed port
  • Bluetooth 1.2
  • Up to 10 days standby
  • Up to 4.5 hours talk time
  • 2 megapixel (1600×1200) camera with LED flash, autofocus, macro, 20x digital zoom
  • Carl Zeiss optics

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.

Physical Design

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.

Imaging and Video

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:

[1.1MB MPEG-4]
[212KB 3GP]
[112KB 3GP]

(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.)

Software

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:

  • Contacts, Calendar, To-Do, Notes
  • Still and video imaging
  • Messaging (SMS, MMS, POP3 and IMAP4 email)
  • Gallery (image, video, and sound clip management)
  • Movie Director (edit movie clips)
  • Kodak Mobile (share and print photos)
  • Voice Recorder
  • Adobe PDF reader
  • QuickOffice (read only access to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents)
  • RealPlayer
  • Image and video editors
  • MP3 and AAC music player
  • Symbian web browser
  • Opera web browser
  • Info Print (printing directly to Bluetooth printers)
  • Nokia PC-Suite for Windows (2000/XP)
  • Adobe Photoshop Album Starter Edition for Windows
  • Adobe Mobile Video Editor for Windows

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.

Using the N90

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.

PC Connectivity and Synchronization

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.

Music

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.

Conclusion and Availability

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.