Chrome Beta for Android phones and tablets was launched just last week by Google. Unfortunately, it’s restricted to Android 4.0 and beyond, which means in all likelihood, only about 1% of you currently have access to it. Although the default Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich browser is Chrome-like in many ways, the Chrome Beta brings the Chrome aesthetic to the Android platform along with an emphasis on synchronization and a big boost to web-standards compatibility.
In addition to syncing your bookmarks from desktop to mobile and back, Chrome for Android also lets you open tabs on your phone or tablet that are currently open on your computer. Unfortunately, this isn’t a two way street (you can’t access tabs currently on your phone/tablet from the desktop browser). You can also command pages to open on your phone using the Chrome to Mobile Beta extension, although this feature has always been possible with the older Chrome to Phone extension which only requires Android 2.2+ to use.
With Chrome for Android, your familiar omnibox comes with you as well. If you frequently visit a site through Chrome on your desktop, your omnibox will pick up on those queues on your mobile as well, helping you get to the site you want more quickly. There’s also incognito browsing on Chrome for Android, but this feature is present in the default browser as well, so it won’t be anything new if you’re already on Android 4.0+.
Chrome for Android actually makes perhaps its biggest stride in a mostly invisible, but utterly important area: web compatibility. Just the other week I published a story showing which mobile browser had the best compatibility with the still-evolving HTML5 standard. At the time, RIM’s in-development browser was at the top of the list with a score of 329 from HTML5test.com, while the highest scoring currently-released browser was mobile Firefox (available for multiple versions of Android) with a score of 313. Although Chrome for desktop has long led or been consistently among the top most compatible HTML5 browsers, the default browser on Android was actually far behind the curve with a score of only 256 for the Android 4.0 ICS version of the browser, and just 182 for the Android 2.2/2.3 version of the browser which the vast majority of smartphones are running.
With the release of Chrome for Android, Google has make a significant improvement to HTML5 compatibility over the default browser, improving by 87 points over the Android 4.0 ICS browser and a whopping 161 points over the Android 2.2/2.3 version. At 343 points, Chrome for Android now stands as the #1 most compatible HTML5 browser. This isn’t quite as high a score as the desktop counterpart, which currently scores 373 in the test, but it’s a good sign of things to come.
Chrome for Android uses the same rendering engine as the default Android browser as far as I can tell, so you likely won’t see any major performance gains (although I am noting a ~200ms improvement in Sundspider between the default browser and Chrome). However, the user interface is more interactive and offers many improvements over the default browser (especially if you’re using the pre-ICS browser). Another new feature is a link preview box which automatically pops up when Chrome is unsure which link you’ve clicked (where there are many links close together). You’ll see a little box pop up which magnifies the links and makes them easier to click. This is handy, but half the time I can’t even get it to come up on purpose which makes me question how well they are able to detect when it will be needed.
I’ve got the Galaxy Nexus on hand and I’ve been trying Chrome for Android since it came out. While I’ve got issues with a few user-interface inconsistencies and a stalling omnibox (hopefully to be fixed post-beta), it’s undeniable that Chrome for Android can provides a much richer and more ‘hands-on’ experience thanks to a rethought UI.
As you can see, it looks very much like Chrome on the desktop. This is a great thing because it really extends the Chrome browser experience across multiple platforms; not just in terms of synced bookmarks, but also in look and feel. Imagine how close to a desktop experience you’d get if you were running Chrome for Android on a tablet hooked up for use as a desktop computer!
One thing I wish Chrome for Android would do is sync your ‘Most Viewed’ sites that are shown when you open a new tab. At the moment, the ‘Most Viewed’ section exists on Chrome for Android, but it only considers sites that you’ve viewed on your phone, not those on the desktop as well. This may be intentional (as one might browse differently when on desktop or mobile), but it also might be attributable to the ‘Beta’ tag currently adorning this initial release of Chrome for Android. Also not currently functioning in the browser is Flash. Again, this might be a beta thing, or perhaps Google is putting the final nail in the coffin.
It’s unclear if Google intends to eventually turn Chrome into the default browser for Android, but I think you’ll agree with me in saying that it would make a lot of sense. The boring default browser has long lacked any thoughtful tab management or much of a user interface; Chrome for Android feels like a big (overdue) step in the right direction. It would be odd if Google maintained two separate mobile browsers for Android, but it isn’t outside the realm of possibility – it likely depends upon the organization and cooperation of the Android team and the Chrome team within Google.
If Google treats the Chrome Beta like most products they’ve ever labeled with ‘beta’, be prepared to see that beta tag for years to come!
As a long time UMPC (Ultra Mobile PC) user, having a single device that could function as a mobile companion and a desktop computer has been a long time dream. For years I used Sony’s excellent UX180 UMPC to facilitate this sort of usage, but cramming a full desktop OS into a handheld package was not a solution that could work for the mainstream. Trying to scale from big to small proved to be difficult for battery life and control schemes. In the end the UMPC never reached out of the niche category. The dream, however, has lived on.
Could Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich be the OS that not only bridges the gap between smartphone and tablet, but also extends to the desktop?
It seems that scaling from small to large may be a better approach for the computer-as-a-desktop paradigm, as is evident from this video demonstrating such usage with a Galaxy Nexus hooked up to a large monitor, wireless keyboard and trackpad:
If the demonstration above isn’t a compelling look at where the future of mobile computing could lead, I don’t know what is!
Seeing this really reawakens that dream of having a single device that can scale gracefully across multiple use-cases. Chippy calls this sort of multiple-scenario functionality ‘High Dynamic Range Computing‘ (HDRC); among other challenges, he warns that the industry may resist supporting HDRC because they want us to continue to purchase multiple devices instead of just one.
The author of the video makes a great point — this is already a pretty good experience, but it’s rarely even touted as a feature of the platform (maybe that’s some of the resistance coming into play).
We’ve seen similar multi-scenario computing with Android devices before. The Motorola Atrix has an optional ‘lapdock’ which gives the user a large screen and full keyboard, and even a full build of Linux Firefox to use. Alternatively, the Atrix could be hooked up to a dock with HDMI output for use with a full monitor. Though less broad in scope, Asus is leading the way with the ‘smartbooks’ form-factor by offering detachable keyboards to their line of Transformer tablets.
If Google started to push this sort of usage, they could give all Android users HDRC functionality which would provide a productive environment when the device is hooked up to the right peripherals. It seems like all of the core functionality is already built into Android. Google could get an important upper-hand on Apple with this strategy as Apple would likely shy away from this sort of power-user feature.
What’s your take on HDRC with Android devices? Is this something you’d like to see further developed, or would you rather keep your productivity and your smartphone consumption separate?
I’ve been following a disturbing trend over the last few years as the Android platform (and now WP7 as well) matures. Smartphone screen sizes just keep growing and growing, and they don’t seem to want to stop. I have a number of issues with smartphones that have overly-large screens. It pains me to see that, while Android is known for giving users many choices, it’s nearly impossible to get a reasonably-sized flagship phone. For me, for a smartphone to be a ‘smartphone’ at all, and not a tablet, it has to be easily usable with one hand. Of course then the definition of smartphone/tablet will change from person to person, because our hands are not all the same size, however, there is certainly a finite limit for everyone where a phone will become too big to be comfortably used with one hand.
I’m currently testing the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. So far it’s been a rather wonderful phone, and I recently wrote this on Google Plus:
I’ve been using the iPhone for 3 generations. Right now I’m testing a Galaxy Nexus. If they made the same exact phone in a size that’s actually comfortable for one-hand use, I might call myself an Android convert. Curse you 4″+ screens and the awful fad that you are!
For me, the 4.65″ screen on the Galaxy Nexus is just too big. I constantly have to shuffle the phone around in my hand because Android places the two most frequently used aspects of the interface (the menu buttons and the notification drawer) at opposite ends of the phone. The size of the phone and the required shuffling means that I’ve got a poor grip on it, and I’ve been rather worried about dropping it during use. Again, those with larger hands will not have the same issue at 4.65″, but at some point they will run into the same problem.
Android Handset Screen Size Over Time
To show the trends of Android smartphone screen sizes over time, I compiled screen size and release date data from 155 smartphones from five major manufacturers (Motorola, Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG). I’d like to thank PDADB.net for their comprehensive release date info. (click to enlarge graphs)
As you can see, since the introduction of the 3.2″ HTC Dream / G1, screen sizes have consistently increased. Today we’re seeing 4″, 4.5″, 4.7″, 5″, and even 5.3″ smartphones! A simple projection (seen on the main chart) suggests that before 2013 is out, many handsets will have 5″ screens, while the flagship phones of that time may have even larger screens (if this trend continues) of 5.5″ or perhaps 6″.
With a slope of 0.0016, LG is increasing its Android smartphone screen sizes the most rapidly of these five manufactures. Despite pioneering some of the largest phones on the market at certain points in the timeline, Motorola is actually showing the slowest rate of increase in Android smartphone screen size with a slope of 0.0009, but of course this isn’t very far off from the leader!
Why is This Happening?
A good question to ask is what’s prompting the growth in screen size. It seems natural for manufacturers to have experimented with screen sizes as the platform grew legs. Different screen sizes are a point of differentiation for an Android phone manufacturer — a way to stand out in a sea of similar options. Bigger screens were also an easy way for companies to try to beat out the iPhone on features, even if the ‘bigger is better’ argument doesn’t hold much water in this case. Now it seems to have turned into a snowball effect whereby manufacturers are trying to one-up each other to have the biggest screen in town (all the while, Apple has stuck with 3.5″ since the introduction of their handsets). You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve heard the phrase “biggest and baddest” when marketers are referring to a new Android phone. They use this phrase as though bigger is always better, but I must say — when it comes to comfortable one-handed smartphone use — it is not.
Where Does It Stop?
My question is this: where do we draw the line? As I mentioned, despite variations in hand sizes, everyone reaches a limit of comfortable one-hand usability at some point. I don’t have the raw data to back it up, but I believe that Android smartphone screen sizes are rapidly surpassing the maximum size for comfortable one-handed use by the average Android customer. None of this is to say there aren’t advantages to having a larger screen (particularly when it comes to media viewing), but given that people much more frequently use their smartphones for apps rather than media viewing, the argument for surpassing a users one-handed comfort zone to provide a better media experience is a poor one.
It’s not so much that screen-sizes are increasing (the chart clearly shows that other sizes are still available), but the bothersome fact is that it’s near-impossible to get a flagship phone unless you’re willing to buy one of the massive phones on the market. If you want a phone that comes in a size that’s comfortable for one-handed use, you have to be willing to settle as a second-class Android citizen — the only options available to you will likely have slower processors, less RAM (and may be based on an older platform) than the newest and biggest flagship phone currently on the market.
No matter how fast your tablet or smartphone is, without proper web-standards support, you may run into roadblocks while trying to do various online tasks. It’s hard to pin down one single instance where lack of standards support is going to hurt you, but for me what it really comes down to is confidence in one’s browser. By this I mean: when I leave the house and have only my smartphone with me, I might need to do something through the browser that I’ve never done before (and thus don’t know whether or not it will work correctly); I should have confidence that my phone will be able to handle it.
I’ll give you one example: several years ago I was standing in a long line to buy lift tickets at a ski resort. Only after we’d been standing in line did we come to know that you could get a discount if you pre-purchased the tickets online. Smartphone-in-hand, we went to the resort’s website and pre-purchased lift tickets for the group while waiting in line. Had my smartphone not had sufficient browser standards support, it’s very likely that I wouldn’t have been able to properly interact with the resort’s website — whether it be a drop down list, radio button, or form-entry mechanics, which just might not have worked quite right, preventing me from completing the task at hand. Having the confidence that you’ll be able to do nearly anything through the browser of your smartphone/tablet that you could do from your desktop is an important factor in anyone who is serious about mobile productivity. And while my example above obviously wasn’t a very big deal; imagine yourself in a business situation where some vital task needs to be accomplished in a pinch, and you’ve got only your smartphone with you. Screw it up and miss the deadline and you’ve lost the big account — only because you weren’t able to do what you thought you could through your mobile browser.
HTML5 represents the latest version of standardized web language. A browser that fully supports HTML5 and a website written properly with HTML5 means that there should be perfect parity between the functionality of the website and the ability of the browser to interpret that website — and allow you to do pretty much anything from your smartphone/tablet that you could do from your desktop browser. With this in mind, you may be interested, as I am, in seeing which mobile browsers have the best HTML5 support to date. Be sure to note that HTML5 is still under development, so ‘full compatibility’ is a moving goal post at this point, and scores are being improved with every browser/OS update. Before you look at the results, why don’t you guess which platform/browser will have the best HTML5 support. Go on, guess!
HTML5 Test Mobile Browser Scores
I mostly kept the most modern version of each operating system’s browser on the chart, except I kept Android 2.2/2.3 and 3.0/3.1/3.2 because the vast majority of Android smartphones are still running 2.2/2.3 while most Android tablets are running 3.0/3.1/3.2.
Unlike what I would have expected, even as of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the default Android browser is not leading the pack of HTML5 compatible browsers. Actually, currently in the lead is the second version of RIM’s tablet OS which scores an impressive 329. Of course, this is still in development and even when it’s released, it won’t be running on all that many devices (burn! sorry, RIM). In that case, the real winner at the moment is actually Firefox Mobile 9, which sort of puts Android in the lead by a loophole (their platform allows such apps to exist!). Firefox Mobile 9 scores 313 which is doubly good because it can run on any Android device with 2.0 or beyond. After Firefox Mobile 9 is Safari on iOS 5 which trails not far behind with a score of 305.
So what does one take away from this? Well, if you’re on Android (even if you’re using the very latest version), it might be in your best interest to have a copy of Firefox installed for those times when you absolutely need a website to work. It’s fortunate for Android that Firefox is stepping up the game with HTML5 compatibility as the current most popular Android installs have relatively weak compatibility, and even the very latest build isn’t in the top 5.
And Then There’s Internet Explorer…
Oh, Internet Explorer. What a reputation you’ve earned for yourself. I’m so glad the world is no longer oppressed by your reign of terror; now we’ve got excellent alternatives like Chrome, Firefox, and others. It seems like Microsoft is doomed to have an inferior browser — even their new mobile offering, Windows Mobile 7, can’t escape the curse.
Though I still cringe when I see the IE icon on the Windows Phone 7 start screen, the browser actually works pretty well. It’s unobtrusive and quite responsive. When it comes to compatibility however, it doesn’t impress. When I first tested Windows Mobile 7, Internet Explorer scored a paltry 17 on the HTML5 test! The most modern mobile incarnation of Internet Explorer, found with WP 7.5 (Mango), still finds itself at the very bottom of the charts, scoring only 141 points.
The saddest part about this is that Windows Phone needs browser compatibility more than any of the others. Why? Because the platform is having a hard time attracting triple-A app developers. For users, this means that they may need to fall back to web-apps to make use of their favorite services. Without good compatibility support in the browser, web-apps aren’t guaranteed to work, even if they were designed to be multi-platform. The whole point of HTML5 as a standardized language is that being able to build one website that is fully functional, regardless of which device or browser is being used, is advantageous to both web developers and users. Because WP7 is one of the less adopted mobile platforms currently on the market, it’s unlikely that web developers are going to have custom-made web-apps created to function with the proprietary nature of IE on WP7. Instead, they’re going to make a web-standards compatible site that can work across multiple devices (especially considering that the most widespread platforms [Android and iOS] are among those with the best browser compatibility).
When I tested an Intel Menlow-based MID in July 2008 and saw the PC architecture streaming music into a browser-player running at 2.8W I knew Intel were on the right track. Two years later with their next-gen architecture, Moorestown, they tackled the standby power drain and managed to get it into a phone. I had exclusive hands-on and although the device was hot and eventually deemed uncompetitive, it was clear to see where this was heading. This week at CES I put my hand on the back of an Intel Medfield-based smartphone and felt nothing. No heat! On the front, I saw a quick user experience and when I tested Sunspider I saw an impressive result of 1290ms, with Android 2.x.
Over at AnandTech, meanwhile, Anand has been discussing more details about the performance and energy consumption figures. Not only are we seeing good performance but Intel are telling us that the efficiency is in the leading class too. The most impressive figure on the article? 1W browsing. That’s with screen-on and 3G-on. 1 WATT! Intel are now able to control a ‘PC’ to the point where everything turns off except the parts required. That doesn’t mean that Intel will be competitive in all areas though. Like Ultrabooks, the platform is likely to have a high ‘dynamic range’ and probably a higher system thermal design characteristic but if the work that Intel have done on Android is solid, that may not be a problem.
What a shame though that Meego wasn’t around to benefit from Medfield. I’m sure there are Meego devices in the Intel labs working just fine and I’m sure that Tizen is likely to re-surface too (My bet – Samsung + Intel + Tizen make an announcement at MWC) but it would have been nice to see Intel’s Meego work result in a product. I wonder how Nokia are feeling at this point? With the N9 having been a success and the figures on Medfield/Android looking good, Intel may get sweet revenge!
What Intel need now are product partners and platform advantages. Being competitive isn’t going to be enough to make the best product in the market so this is where 1080p hardware encoding, hardware-based image processing, Wireless-Display, McAfee and other technologies come into play. Intel Insider (for securely streaming first-run movies) and integrated radios, hardware encryption and of course, Intel’s silicon process advantage. if you consider how far Intel have come in the last 4 years, look at their technology portfolio and think about what’s going to happen in the next two years there should be no doubt that Intel will be playing, and possibly leading in the years to come.
I won’t discount Cortex A15 and similar ARM architectures and we must not forget that ARMv8 is going to be feeding in after a few years but Intel’s position with Medfield now enables it to go and court some of its biggest customers for phones, tablets, set-top boxes and more and that partner ecosystem could be the real advantage for Intel.
I was taken completely by surprise this morning when I was told that the Intel Medfield-based tablet running Android ICS at the Intel booth today is in fact the Lenovo Ideatab K2210 due later this year. Wow! Is it finally going to happen?
If you have been following any of my musings on gaming (over on my personal blog or via my Twitter feed), you know that the past year has presented me with a challenge in keeping up with the latest and greatest. With little time left for gaming after attending to classwork and my day job, I have found a good deal of solace in the availability of A-Class titles that are now present in the Android Market. At the start of 2011, Android was not, in my opinion, a viable gaming proposition. There were few titles, and the market was plagued with problems due to the variance in hardware that the mobile developers were faced with.
As 2011 approached an end, that tide turned. There are many titles availbale in the market that will keep an avid gamer busy, and enough variation that gamers are not forced to play genres that normally do not interest them just so that they have something to play. Below are some of my thoughts and philosophical perspectives on gaming on Android as one of my primary gaming platforms, as well as a list of my ten current favorite titles.
Just so you have a sense of my gaming background before I run through this list of titles, I have been gaming for 35 years. I started when my father brought home the Magnavox Odyssey, a Pong-system that was the first TV video game system that sold at retail in North America. I “grew up” on Pong, KC Munchkin, Space Harrier, Vectorman, Panzer Dragoon, Soul Caliber, Tekken Tag Tournament, Halo, Project Gotham Racing 3, and Resistance: Fall of Man. In between jaunts on a lot of consoles, I have also done a lot of PC Gaming, including the likes of Falcon 4.0, The Sims, Half-Life 2, Unreal Tournament, Baldur’s Gate 2, Icewind Dale, Homeworld, and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. The point being, my tastes run a fair gamut and are not satisfied by a diet of casual games only.
I am sure that some readers will pshaw the thought of gaming on a tablet or other mobile device. They might vehemently declare that any gaming on these platforms is significantly beneath any gaming that you could do on a console or PC. And I might even partially agree with them. I, too, used to believe that gaming in a mobile OS was only worthwhile if you were stuck standing in line somewhere. This strong support of mobile OS gaming that I am now feeling is based on its convenience. My life is compressed for time, as I am sure everyone’s is.
Gaming on a tablet means that I can game during a study break in my home office and not take the time to go downstairs to the media room or the basement home theatre to fire up the PS3, or bring up a PC. Even if one of those systems were in my home office where I study, there are too few titles that I can get into and out of in 30 minutes without being worried about being sucked in for more time than I can afford.
Through plumbing some of the depth that there is available in gaming on Android, I have discovered titles that I can play for 5 to 15 minutes and get out of, as well as titles that can offer an hour or two in a single sitting when that time is available. The key for me is that those titles do not have to go for that hour or two if that is time I do not have, because most of the titles that I am playing have short levels or very well designed save points. It actually greatly surprises me that Android games often have better save points than some of the ones that I see in full console retail games.
With that being said, here are my current top ten favorite Android games:
Apparatus [$2.45 / Free (Lite)] – As an Engineer, I find immense joy in trying to figure out these mechanical and physics-based puzzles. The first few levels just require an understanding of geometry. From there the game quickly progresses you to a point where you need to intuitively understand inertia, relative motion, and gravity. Nothing in my undergrad Statics class prepared me for some of the challenges presented by this tinkerer’s dream.
Battle Group [$0.99] — I spent my time at sea, and was really surprised to see how well this game’s basic gameplay maps to the tactical paradigms that I was trained to embrace. Defense-in-depth, fields of fire, and other tenets of air defense come to play in this replica of air warfare at sea. The game cradles you a bit by leaving you to not have to worry about maneuvering your Battle Group, but most players will have enough to focus on in trying to defeat the waves of maneuvering aircraft, sea-skimming missiles, and low-slow flyers.
Can Knockdown 2 [$0.99] — This is a pretty simplistic physics-based game and definitely falls into the casual category. Still, there is a golf-like elation akin to hitting a great drive when you tag a can popped up from a pipe on its way back down. There are a few different challenge modes, including stationary cans, pop-up cans that are analogous to shooting skeet, and a timed-mode. I cannot say that you will get a ton of time out of this one. Once you set your initial all-time records, it is unlikely that you will make significant threshold changes in score, but it is still fun trying to eke out that one or two extra points over your old high-score.
Fieldrunners HD [$2.99] — You can check out my mini-review over on my personal blog. Simply put, this is one of my two favorite Android Tower Defense games (the second is also in this list).
Great Little War Game [$2.99] — When I downloaded this, I thought that it would be a challenge that I would quickly surmount. Not so. While not quite as deep as a PC turn-based strategy game, a game of GLWG can take a couple of hours for some of the more challenging maps. There are many maps that have control points that will change hands many times, and mounting a combined arms offensive (or defensive) with the maps’ limited resources is no small feat. Be prepared to be forced to consider how to sacrifice certain resources and units for the greater overall strategic effort in order to grind through this game’s skirmishes.
Guerilla Bob THD [$3.99 / Free (Lite)] – if you played bottoms-up scrolling shooters from the past, then this title will tickle your fancy. Big explosions and cheesy one-liners will take you back to the 80s, but with a little more visual flair. The sound on this title is also no slouch. You can check out a vid of the gameplay over on my YouTube channel (the video has audio problems, but at least you can see the game running on a 23″ monitor).
MiniSquadron Special [$2.99] – The gameplay in this title is almost so simple that I questioned posting it to my top-ten list. But again, this list is a good bit about titles that are quick to get into, have some determinisitic fun, and get out.
Riptide GP [$2.99] — Like a lot of stunt driving games, part of the joy in this title is that you never really know exactly what stunts you are going to try and pull off, how they are going to look, and how they are going to turn out. I have quickly soured on games that only offer tilt controls without offering a touch-screen control scheme as an option, but for some reason I give Riptide a pass on this element. Truth is, in this title, being forced to tilt adds to the randomness inherent in how a race turns out, and I do not feel that tilting the screen constantly removes my ability to appreciate the game’s visuals, which is typically my problem with tilt-control games.
Robo Defense [$2.99 / Free (Lite)] — I say that this is my second-favorite Android Tower Defense title, and that may not quite be fair. The truth is that the eye-candy and audio in Field Runners is more refined than it is in Robo Defense, and that counts for some points with me. Field Runners is more fun to sit and watch once you have your death-trap maze established. But I will admit hat Robo Defense is deeper, with the equivalent of achievements that you can earn to upgrade the capability of your towers. There are also some deeper branches that you can implement in various towers, such as turning machine-gun towers into Flame-thrower towers or AA-gun Towers.
X Construction [$1.49 / Free (Lite)] – Another engineer’s joy; you have to figure out how to rig the components that you are given to support a train crossing a given obstacle. Many is the time that I thought I understood how my static construct would react to forces imparted from a mass moving across it to find out…not so much. Even when you screw one of the levels up, though, you are learning something, so the title returns some enjoyment pretty much all of the time. I cannot say the same about every console title I have played in the past year.
So that’s the list of ten. I mentioned a term above, deterministic fun, that is pertinent to my feelings on Android gaming. Regardless of grammatical correctness, this a term I started applying last year to define the gaming experience that I was looking for. What I mean by it is the knowledge that I am definitely going to have fun with a title when I fire it up and commit to playing it for 30 minutes. It also means that I know, or at least strongly feel, that there is a very good chance that I will have progressed somewhat in the game after that 30 minutes of time. The requirement for this characteristic to exist for any given title that I was going to play while classes were in session is what led to me playing a lot more Need for Speed Hot Pursuit than Uncharted or Battlefield Bad Company, for instance, on my consoles. In the latter two, more story-driven titles, there is less of a chance that I am going to definitively have fun and make some measurable progress in a single 30 minute session. I recognize the difference in value-judgements that I am making; this characteristic is not an overall value metric that I place on a title. In other words, I am not saying that quick, episodic gaming experiences are more valuable overall than story-driven, thread oriented or acr-driven, gaming titles, and I hope to get back to games where there is more risk involved for potentially greater reward in terms of time invested. Once school is over.
Right now, if I am going to play something over a 30 minute study-break, I need to be damned sure that that time is going to yield more fun than just frustration. More than anything, that is maybe the reason I have been spending more and more of the limited gaming time that I have available in Android than on my PS3, PSP, or my gaming PCs. The big thing is that gaming for me is a permanent hobby that I never want to leave. But unless I find some means to stay hooked into it on some platform then I am liable to leave it behind and it will be a struggle to get back to it. My main point in this article is that, a year ago, Android would not have been able to provide that outlet. If you have not dipped your toe into Android gaming because you feel it cannot hold your attention as effectively as a console or PC title, I would recommend you give one or two titles another go. Also, keep in mind that these are the titles that offer me the outlet to get in and get out in 30 minutes or less. I have about 35 titles in Android gaming, and some of them, like NOVA 2, Dungeon Defenders, and DGunners SP, go deeper and offer lengthier gaming experiences. There is a lot that Android offers now for gamers, and even if it just for gaming on the go or while on travel, there might be something out there that can hold your attention for a bit.
At the beginning of the year, if you would have told me that, by the summer, there would be a dozen different Android tablets available for order from reliable, first tier manufacturers, I would have told you to get outta town. We were likely all desensitized to the constant stream of news that seemingly had the same message: “Company X announced the Y Tablet today. It features blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. No information was released on a launch date or pricing.” It had gotten to the point that I immediately went to the bottom of any announcement of a tablet-device, and if it had the standard blurb about no launch date or word on pricing, I did not read the article.
Flash-forward to the present. That standard blurb I mentioned above is something that we are seeing several times a day now. The difference is that with each instance of an announcement, there is a level of confidence that we are actually reading a press statement about a device that will be delivered to the market and will not just become vaporware. A year ago, this was not the case. I regarded almost every announcement of an Android tablet as a veritable Chupacabra that I would never actually see. Now, launch events for tablets and the equally interesting Android OS updates are major media events, commanding the undivided attention of the journalists in attendance, and the readers reading the live-blogs in real time or catching up on the ensuing hands-on later in the day. Keeping up with the state of the tablet market is now almost a hobby in and of itself.
As we head into the closing month of this watershed year in the tablet industry, with still more compelling Android tablets promised to hit retail before we turn the corner into 2012, I have been reflecting on the past year and pondering what is yet to come. I have a few ideas of what the recent past has meant, and what the future might hold. Not convinced that there is any way that I could possibly have all of the answers, I engaged my fellow editors and contributors from Carrypad in a dialogue on the topic. We each took a shot at answering three key questions that we felt were critical things to consider and might very well define the picture of the Android tablet market today. Each writer answered the questions in-the-blind, unaware of the answers from the others. Please join us in this dialogue and post your thoughts on our perspectives, as well as your own original thoughts on this subject in the comments below.
Many pundits talk about the belief that there is no tablet market, there is just an iPad market, and the other manufacturers are just flailing, trying to tread water in a marketplace that does not exist. Are they right? If not, what do Google and its hardware partners need to do in order to compete for consumer dollars and a place as the the second or third screen in users’ personal computing kits?
Ben: Apple definitely created an iPad market, not a tablet market. You can see this easily with many of the capacitive-only Windows slates that are trying to pull a “me too” move, but are absolutely failing when it comes to user adoption. Trying to shoe-horn a touch (finger only) keyboardless experience onto a Windows machine is just silly. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for Android, but at the moment, Google has a product for geeks, while Apple has a product for everyone (including geeks). I often look at it this way: iOS and Android are comparable, but Android needs heavy customization out of the box to be brought up to the level of iOS usability. Because of this, the iPad dominates the mainstream (probably more so in the US than other places). There’s also something to be said about app-quality and system stability. The competition between the iPad and Android tablets is absolutely healthy for consumers, and it’s great to see the wide range of computing-styles that are offered by Android devices. If the iPad was the only game in town, they’d stagnate (in some regards they have), but thanks to Android, Apple has to be ever vigilant, and vice-versa.
Damian: There has been a tablet market, although small, for many years before the iPad. Many of the readers of Carrypad will have had windows tablets since the old days of Windows XP Tablet Edition, which was officially released in 2001. The tablet market then was mostly a business or enterprise market and you’d have to credit the iPad with launching the mass scale consumer tablet market for an easy to use consumption device. The iPad dominates the consumer consumption market but Android tablets are gaining ground. Both still can’t quite make it as an enterprise device and the first one that cracks that will have an advantage. With rumours of Microsoft Office being developed for the consumer tablet OS’s this might be the tipping point. I think adding a stylus that works well changes the equation considerably and a well implemented, pen driven solution (ideally running Office) that allows users to create, in a common, accessible format, will boost the Android tablet market share.
Jerry: I don’t think these guys (the pundits) are right. There are some 6 million plus Android tablet devices in operation, and that constitutes a market to me. It took a long time for Android to gain traction in the smartphone market, with the G1 being just interesting, but things really started taking off with the arrival of the original Droid on Verizon. For Google and its partners to push more adoption, I am not sure if the saturation tactic that was has worked in the smartphone market is going to work for tablets. I think general consumers will be compelled by more content. Android has a great hook with its one-source approach to aggregating access to all content mediums via your single Google account. But they need a better library in Google books, a music source for procuring music (Blast it! I drafted this before the Google Music launch), and further integration with Google TV. It would be a huge plus if I could be watching an episode of a show on my tablet, and then have my stopping place synced with a GoogleTV device to continue watching the content from the same place… and for there to be worthwhile, current TV content.
Chippy: In terms of tablets there really is only an iPad market at the moment. Android tablets remain a niche, rather geeky option. The reason has nothing to do with hardware design or OS, it’s to do with the apps. There simply aren’t enough devices out there to justify any serious large-screen/fragments-enabled quality developement work. By my estimate there are between 10 and 15 million Android tablet devices out there. Some 5″, some 7″ and some 10″ devices, some running Android 2.x and some 3.x. The effort required to make a quality app across this fragmented product base is too big for the potential returns. For this to change, the number of fragments-enabled devices out there needs to grow considerably. ICS will help slowly during 2012 but for Android to stimulate major development work, soon, it needs a breakthrough product. The Kindle Fire could have been that product but with its 2.x OS it won’t stimulate the important use of fragments. 2012 looks like another difficult year for Android tablet apps.
The pundits also say that fragmentation of the Android OS is a key detractor from the product category gaining ground, not only in the tablet market but across smartphones as well. How do you define fragmentation, or do you feel it does not really exist? There is also a discussion of ecosystems and its criticality in the mobile market. How do you define a mobile ecosystem, or do you think this factor does not exist, or is not as relevant as some suggest.
Ben: “Fragmentation” is not an issue inherent to Adroid, but rather a desire of Android device manufacturers. Apple only markets one line of phones and one line of tablets, and at any given time, there is only one model that is considered the flagship device. For Android, any number of phone/tablet makers may have comparable devices, so how can they ‘differenatiate’ (aka fragment) their devices to appeal to customers over their competitor’s devices? The answer often comes in adding custom skins, pre-baking in selected applications and services (some of which may be unique to a given device). This means that the specific experience between tablets is somewhat different. Depending upon the hardware, you might not be able to see the same applications in the Android Market because not all applications are supported on all Android tablet hardware. If a non-techie user buys an Android tablet and enjoys using a specific application that comes with it, they may be surprised to find that when they get a new tablet, that application is not available for it. The only way to avoid this issue is for the user to understand the way this ecosystem works, but that can’t be expected of non-techie users. When it comes to the iPad, you can expect the latest iPad to be capable of running every iPad app (and iPhone app for that matter) that’s ever been made. Furthermore, because all apps are made with the top-end hardware in mind, you can expect any app available to run well if you have the current generation of iPad or iPhone.
Damian: I think fragmentation, which I define as multiple hardware manufacturers making different spec’d devices and different implementations of the same OS, is a major factor in consumer uptake of Android tablets, not smartphones. The Android phones need to act as a phone first, then web consumption device, then app using, game playing devices. They usually don’t tend to be used as a consumer of complex media or producer of enterprise content. The phones have different hardware for sure but the manufacturers seem to be doing a good job of making sure their hardware works in most scenarios, i.e. plays all the media formats it needs to, opens pdf’s and documents when attached to email, renders different websites, etc. The tablet space is more complex and the fragmentation hurts it more. Some devices have full sized USB, some devices have SD card slots, some devices have docks, some devices play all of the video formats and some don’t. This is where the split of the manufacturers seems to hurt most. It’s frustrating when one video plays well on your android phone but not on your tablet. Aren’t they both Android? A website looks great on your Android tablet but when you send the link to anther Android tablet it breaks. Sure you can download a new browser which is one of Android’s strengths but it’s also a hassle. If you see something on one iPad it will work on another iPad – that’s the advantage of controlling the whole ecosystem, both hardware and software.
Jerry: I do not think fragmentation exists in the way that I hear a lot of other journalists discuss it. I do not agree that that skinning Android is a form of fragmentation, and the discussion about any difference from the baseline version of Android being fragmentation seems to be a very conservative view. I do not think these perspectives are so close to the reality, and I do not classify mods like HTC Sense or skins like TouchWiz as examples of fragmentation. Where we were as recent as a year ago, there were many new phones being sold that were already whole baselines behind. In other words, tablets and phones were being released with Android 1.6 when Froyo was already out: that’s an example of fragmentation. More so when those devices were immediately abandoned and never saw updates to a 2.x version of Android, that was also an example of fragmentation. It is the analog to Windows XP laptops being sold when Windows 7 was already out, and then those laptops not supporting a path forward to Windows 7. Android is open source, and variety in deployments should be expected, just the same as we expect it with LINUX. Yes, ecosystems are important. I define ecosystems as a collection of hardware, connectivity, and services, without which, the hardware as a standalone device would offer very little value. They are obviously important for smartphones, and they are perhaps even more important for tablets. The tablet by itself represents very little functionality. It is only in combination with its network connection, app store or market, and back-end cloud services (email, contacts management, plug-ins to social networks, content availability, and online profiles) that a tablet becomes useful. Amazon’s Kindle Fire has a better fighting chance of being a viable competitor than the Nook Tablet because it brings a kitchen sink of content availability via its ecosystem and consolidation of that content in one repository channel. The Nook Tablet will have to be configured with several accounts to have access to the same volume of content, and then the content will be available via a spread across multiple channels.
Chippy: Fragmentation is a real issue when it comes to developing apps which, in turn, affect the value of the whole Android product range. ICS is the right step, almost a first step, in removing some of the fragmentation but we must not forget that screen sizes, processing capabilities, and sensors all cost development and testing time and are part of the fragmentation problem. ICS development will remain focused on handsets first until the numbers rise significantly. The screen-size/platform fragmentation will remain in the Android ecosystem so Google has to make it as easy as possible to develop. That means fast, quality dev tools and emulators.
What are your current Android devices of choice (tablets and smartphones)? What is your projected next Android acquisition and why? What are your thoughts on Android Tablets as media consumption devices versus their utility for productivity?
Ben: I haven’t yet found an Android smartphone or tablet that has quite cut it for me, but I also feel like I have no need for a tablet at the moment, it is too redundant between my smartphone and laptop. It’s quite possible to get done work on tablets, regardless of the platform, but it really comes down to the applications and how well they run on the hardware.
Damian: The Asus Eee Pad Transformer with keyboard dock is my current tablet but I am in the market to pick up for an Asus Eee Pad Slider. I don’t need the extra battery life the keyboard dock gives me and I don’t want the extra weight either but I love having the ability to use a full keyboard. What I’d like is a touch screen with a full keyboard when I need it without having to carry around a dock or external keyboard and this is what the Slider gives me. I’m also relatively happy with the build quality and Android implementation that Asus did. The Slider has a full sized USB port – killer feature on a tablet. If you want to provide a level of productivity capability at any volume and have a chance in the enterprise market, manufacturers need to make tablets with a keyboard and possibly a stylus – there I’ve said it start the flames :). I run a Motorola Atrix 4G for business and personal use and it is the best phone I have had to date. I sold an iPhone for the Nokia N900 and the Nokia for the Atrix and I have never looked back. Fantastic hardware coupled with a great implementation of Android and cool, very functional accessories make this a very productive and useful phone. I have yet to defeat the phone with any media format or file type and I credit Motorola with doing a great job of implementing Android and a fantastic out of the box Android experience.
Jerry: My current kit includes an HTC Evo 3D as my primary smartphone and a Samsung Nexus S 4G as my secondary, both on Sprint. My tablet kit consists of the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 16GB, the Acer Iconia Tab A500 16GB, and the Motorola Xoom 3G. The two phones break even as far as the one of choice. I like the stock Android load on the Nexus, and I prefer the display over the one on the Evo 3D. But I like the Evo for its faster processor and speed, and the availability of the 3D camera. Amongst the tablets, while I like them all, my ThinkPad is the device I carry with me every day and I love the utility of digital inking on it over using a capacitive stylus with the Xoom or Iconia. When I originally drafted this, I thought my next acquisition was going to be a Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9. I mainly wanted it to replace my iPad, which recently died, with a smaller form-factor option for increased portability. Instead I grabbed a Kindle Fire. It is a lot easier to grab and carry than some of my 10″ devices. I have access to the right amount of my cloud services and content that it makes sense for me to grab it as I head out the door probably about 50% of the time. My initial hour after waking in the AM is spent using the Kindle Fire to read content, communicate with friends, colleagues, and co-workers, and plan out events for the day.
Chippy: 15 minutes before writing this sentence I was given an iPad 2. Let’s see what happens in the following weeks but I’m currently writing this text on the Galaxy Tab 7 and I suspect that my mobile productivity will remain in this 7″ space due to size and ease of thumb-typing. Currently that means an Android-based solution. I don’t use an Android phone because of short battery life and poor cameras. Yes, I was locked-in by a test of a Nokia N8 which I still think is a fantastic cam/phone. I’m currently looking at the Galaxy Tab 7 Plus and Galaxy Tab 7.7 as a future upgrade possibility but I may wait for proven Ice Cream Sandwich products first as, to be honest, the Galaxy Tab 7 is still working well for me as a productivity, media consumption, reading and social networking device, despite still running a 2.x build of Android.
I have only had my Amazon Kindle Fire for about four days. I have admittedly spent a lot of that time in my Amazon account on a PC setting up my account to access more services and content channels than I have been using in the past. I have also not had much time to put a lot of these apps through their paces on the Fire, but my initial checkouts indicate that they are as useful as they are on my other Android devices, so we wanted to make sure that other users or potential Kindle Fire buyers know that they are out there.
A bit of preamble as to why I have this thing in the first place. After a brief recovery, my iPad’s critical display fault resurfaced, rendering it useless. There are a few options out there for replacing it for $299 and up; mine is a 1st generation 64GB 3G + WiFi model. In order to replace it at the same level of capability, the options move to the higher end of the price spectrum. Truth is, I felt like right now was a bad time to replace it with either a refurbished 1st gen iPad or an iPad 2, with a potential iPad 3 within six months of announcement. Perhaps more importantly, as I surveyed the other gadgets at my disposal, I questioned whether I needed another 10″ tablet in any flavor of mobile OS. The Kindle Fire was an inexpensive choice, and I had already fallen in gadget-love with my Kindle 3 that I had picked up over the summer. At $199, the Kindle Fire is just outside the impulse buy window. Picking one up meant not giving up much in terms of any future purchase opportunities.
For initial setup, I used a method that I typically employ in using another device already in my mobile kit as a reference configuration. In this case, I used my Spring HTC Evo 3D, and spent a couple of night after work plumbing the Amazon App Market for all of my Android Apps or suitable substitutes. I could have tracked down the .apk’s for each app, but I do not know that doing so would have been any less time-consuming than searching for them on Amazon. And while side loading the apps would have been a good way to exercise my freedom, I wanted to at least make an attempt at using the device as Amazon envisioned. If I can use it with the vendors constraints, than general consumers should be fine with it, and enthusiasts can determine how much they will have to go over in order to tailor it to their needs.
I have 56 apps loaded on the Kindle Fire right now. Here the top productivity and utility apps that I felt were essential to have onboard. Where pricing information is indicated, it is always in reference to pricing on Amazon:
13 Kindle Fire Productivity Apps
AK NotePad [free] - AK NotePad does not do much other than act as a no-muss, no-fuss text editor. I do a lot of writing in this app, anywhere from starting my blog posts to simple notes on home maintenance projects and sysadmin projects. I use this app on every Android device that I own, and was quite happy to find it available on Amazon for the Kindle Fire.
Battery Percentage Status Icon Alert [$0.99] - I always insist on being able to see my battery percentage without having to drill all the way down into the Settings menu on an Android device. This app does not implement the status view as optimally as I would like. In my other Android apps, the percentage is visible in the alert area of the display. On the Kindle Fire, you have to open the Alerts menu in order to see it. Still, that is a single drill-down versus the 3-step process to get to it via the stock Android method.
CalenGoo [$2.99] - In the wake of making my decision to procure the Fire, I have been on a few boards and seen comments on debating the value of the Kindle Fire. One of the big ones is the Blackberry Playbook versus the Kindle Fire argument, and I have seen Fire proponents claim the Fire’s advantage of having native email, calendar, contacts, and notes. Well, for calendar and notes, I do not know what native apps were supposed to be on my Kindle Fire, but I did not find them before I decided to just get CalenGoo. The app syncs with my Google Calendar and even syncs with my Calendar Task list. It also displays both my personal calendar as well as the one my wife and I share. In fact, it has several display options that the stock Android Calendar apps (both the Gingerbread version and the Honeycomb version) do not provide. I will likely be switching all my Android devices over to this app for my Google Calendar needs.
Colornote [free] – I suspect that just about every Android user is familiar with this app, as it comes pre-installed on many Android devices. Of particular note is that the recent updates have added a calendar view for your notes so that you can make them specific to a date. The big advantage of that feature is to then make a date specific widget on your homepage, but, admittedly, the Kindle Fire does not allow widgets on the homescreen. Still, this is a great app for making checklists and taking general notes.
Documents-to-Go Full – There are a couple of reasons why you will need an office suite on your Kindle Fire if you are going to use it for document editing on the go. The main reason is, well, so that you can do document editing on the go, if you feel that is a use-case you need the Fire to fulfill. The other reason is because Google Docs and DropBox do not exist in the Amazon App Store. So I put Documents-to-Go Full on my Fire, as I do on every Android device. I needed it anyway to meet the first need I mentioned. But I also use it if I need to access my Google Docs from the device. (the Main App which only allows you view documents is free; $14.99 for the full version, and I could not find a way to use my registry key that I have for the license that I purchased from the Android Marketplace to use on the Kindle Fire, although I did not spend a lot of time trying and I reckon that there’s some way).
ES File Explorer [free] – Surprisingly, it is compatible with the Kindle Fire and appears to work the same as it would on any other Android device. I half expected that Amazon would not want you to have visibility on the Fire’s folder structures, but that is thankfully not the case. ES File Explorer is an essential utility if you want to store files in areas other than the defaults that other apps select for you.
Evernote [free] – I have not signed into my account on the Fire yet, but this app was available on Amazon, and indicates that it is compatible with the Fire. I tend to keep my online research notes in here, article ideas, thoughts on tech and any forum posts I write that I think might be good content for a later article.
Note Everything [free / $3.99 for Pro] - I do not know that we will ever see anything like the desktop version of Microsoft’s OneNote for Android, but in its absence, Note Everything does a decent job of allowing you to organize notes and encapsulate them in different folders to reduce your in-app clutter. (Free for the baseline app; $3.99 for the Pro version; I normally run the Pro version, but I am not certain what the differences are between it and the base version I am running on the Kindle Fire yet)
Office Calculator [free / $1.69 for Pro] - Another thing that the Fire is missing is a built-in Calculator. This one does the trick. (Free – I am running this version; $1.69 for the Pro version)
QuickOffice PRO [included / $9.99 for Pro] – The non-pro version comes per-installed on the Fire. The Pro version can be used to access your DropBox account. (Free or $9.99 for the Pro version)
Read It Later [$1.49] – A Kindle Fire client for accessing your Read it Later account.
SpringPad [free] – As important to me as Evernote; possibly more so. I primarily use this for some of the same duties that I mentioned I use Evernote for. But sometimes, Springpad is faster, and so there are some notes and files that I retain there.
The Weather Channel and AccuWeather - I counted this as one for purposes of the title, because I am pretty sure that one of them was pre-installed on the Fire when I bought it. There is nothing much to say about either of these apps, other than that they both do what they need to, which is admittedly not much!
So that is the quick and dirty…grab these apps if you plan on doing anything more on your Kindle Fire than just consuming content. I will admit that not being able to attach an external keyboard puts a dent in my gadget M.O. of trying to see how much productivity I can achieve out of any device. I will also admit that my current assessment is that the Kindle Fire, for me, will be an uber-eReader or uber-PDA, falling short of full tablet utility. Without being able to attach keyboards, mice, and external monitors, the Fire will be the center of my reading experience, but only short duration productivity stints. I would not take off on travel like I did for the Thanksgiving break carrying the Kindle Fire as my productivity device; the lowest end I will go to for that would be something like my Acer Iconia Tab A500, which is what I took along with a USB keyboard and wireless mouse. However, I am completely confident walking out of the house for a day trip or with a laptop stuffed in a bag knowing that I can work and read from the Kindle Fire while in transit and leave the laptop to rest until I get to my destination.
Let me close out with a few words on a couple of the controversies surrounding the Kindle Fire. On the debate of Kindle Fire versus the Nook Tablet, I was driven by my poor experiences with the Barnes and Noble website service layer and its linkages to the Nook, a component of that term that everyone keeps using…ecosystem. During the time that I owned my Nook, I was locked out of my account 3 times, and in each instance, I received no indication from the website that the reason I could not log in or make a purchase was because my account had been locked. When this happened for the third time (and when I was on travel to-boot) I lost my patience for it. It will be a long time before I am ready to tether myself back to my Barnes and Noble account and a corresponding device. On the choice between Playbook versus the Kindle Fire; I was very interested in the productivity I could get out of the Playbook. However, I was not confident in the level of app support and being able to find everything I needed. I was also not confident in the degree of support RIM will be able to provide at all. Spending an extra $100 to get a Playbook (my local stores are out of the 16GB for $199 model), that may or may not ever see the 2.0 OS update or BBX, was a sketchy proposition. As a long-term investment, I felt confident that Amazon was not going to cast aside the Kindle Fire and remove support for it any time soon.
For my other thoughts on other debates surrounding the Kindle Fire, I am attaching my comment post to a Boy Genius Report article that ran near the end of last week. The article reports on a study conducted by a market analysis firm, which tracked ad impression counts for the Kindle Fire during the weeks covering its launch through the week ending after the Thanksgiving holiday. Because the number of ad hits dropped off during the days following Thanksgiving, the firm drew the conclusion that most buyers of the tablet had become unenthusiastic about the device after the initial purchase window. The analyst further goes on to say that, because the Kindle Fire does not have all of the same features as the iPad, that it cannot compete in the tablet market, and that consumers want devices that have the same feature-set as Apple’s tablet. My response frames a lot of how I perceive the utility of the Kindle Fire, and what type of user I think the device is good for.
“A very questionable study with conclusions drawn based on very limited data points. And what else besides price-point would “fall inline with consumer demand”? If it was features or specs, then it would seem that a lot more Android devices would be getting sold. I believe that tablet vendors have tried to compete with the iPad by going toe-to-toe on features and specs, or by even trying to clearly exceed the iPad on features and specs, and have encountered very little success. As one commenter indicated below, this a classic case of drawing a conclusion from a single metric and then extrapolating its relevance as if it was conclusive evidence of a definitive trend.
In the first few days with a Kindle Fire, I have spent all of my time in apps and pulling down content locally to the device and consuming it there. I have not spent anytime in the browser, yet I have essentially used no other mobile OS devices but the Kindle Fire. So I have expended many hours of usage, none of which would have contributed to this metric.
My belief is that users are employing the Kindle Fire as a device that receives all of its content through Amazon and in-app data streams. I believe users are more likely to buy digital magazines or newspapers than go to those publications’ websites via the Silk browser. This allows them to consume that content on the go, in an entirely encapsulated experience, without continuing dependency on connectivity once the download is complete. I also believe that Kindle Fire users are using the devices to do very specific things in very specific apps, and are not plunking down on a couch and engaging in general web surfing sessions for extended periods of time. A 7″ display would seem to lend itself to relatively brief surfing sessions of somewhat constrained and previously bookmarked websites.
I do not believe that ad impressions is the right metric to estimate Kindle Fire usage. It is designed to meet a different overall CONOP than other tablets. Just because it is in a Slate form-factor does not mean that its degree of attraction to consumers can be measured using the same metrics and subjective assessments that can be applied to other slate form-factor devices. I do not believe that trying to compare the Kindle Fire to the iPad is an apples-to-apples comparison (no pun intended); a perspective that a surprisingly large portion of the tech analysis and tech media population seem to not be considering.
A more effective metric I think would be to look at the amount of content being purchased from Amazon either directly from Kindle Fire units, and/or the amount of sales growth in the Amazon App store, regardless of point-of-purchase (I have selected a lot of apps for the Kindle Fire via my PC, and then sync’d and installed those purchases to the Kindle Fire).
And I think the original analysts ending conclusion is just way off. Amazon is not trying to “truly compete in the tablet market”; at least not in the way it has been defined so far this year. And basing the win-lose assessment on what perceived consumer demand is…I do not know how anyone could assume to define this effectively. There was little to no concrete demand for a slate-style, media consumption device before the iPad’s arrival. There were a very small number of us who used TabletPCs and UMPCs, and the rest of the world who looked at us and the slate form-factor in general like we were crazy. Most consumers bought the iPad in droves without being able to effectively articulate how they were even planning on using it, or what use-cases they thought its capabilities would satisfy. What I think the Kindle Fire is trying to do is to provide a low-cost device, that has above crap-tablet level specs, and provides a 1-stop, integrated, homogeneous consumption channel for content. I can do pretty much everything that my Kindle Fire can do on my iPad, Xoom, Iconia A500, or ThinkPad Tablet. But in order to do it I have to have several different accounts, launch multiple apps from different vendors that get updated in different increments…you get the point…those experiences are very non-cohesive. And once I start moving, many of them become dependent on continuous connectivity.
I have an iPad, my wife has one, and our friends have them. But the way I use mine is vastly different than the minimal use-cases they employ theirs for. I believe that 80 – 90% of the use-cases that the average consumer would use an iPad for, can be met with a device like the Kindle Fire that provides that 1-stop shopping experience, that is highly reliable, and provides support and reach-back if you make a purchase and encounter problems, and can act as a single trusted-agent. Metrics that define those experiences are the ones that I think would be more relevant to look at than ad hits. You cannot make sweeping, broad, all encompassing assessments based off of singular data points.
I think if analysts are going to assess the indicators of Kindle Fire purchases and their impact, maybe one angle that needs to be looked at is how many consumers will see the $200 Kindle Fire as meeting their minimum need and preventing the need to step up to a $500 iPad? Certainly an argument can be made that the $500 iPad is more capable, but the more relevant question seems to be whether or not consumers perceive that they need that extra $300 worth of capability, or if the $200 package will be good enough. My regrets for voicing an opposing opinion.
Thanks to Al Sutton of Funky Android at Droidcon NL in Holland this week I got a lot of hands-on time with a retail version of the Sony Tablet P that has just arrived on the shelves in the UK. It’s the Psion 5-like dual-screen Android clamshell that I found quite exciting at IFA in Sept. It may look strange but there’s some nice mobile usability features tucked inside. Sony have done a reasonable job of optimizing Sony apps and gaming capabilities for the screen but there are some issues with standard apps and text input which mean the Sony Tablet P may only be interesting for people wanting the Sony media and gaming experience.
Obviously the clamshell form factor brings a natural screen protector into play which improves ruggedness. There’s also an interesting 12wh removable battery, a fantastic screen, a fast processor, Honeycomb build (with possible, not promised, upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich) and a useful 5-row on screen keyboard.
In terms of size and weight it feels a little bit dense but it’s about the same weight as a Samsung Galaxy Tab. It fits into most pockets for short term transport but it’s very thick indeed. Its design certainly doesn’t shout ‘manly’ either.
Although there’s a gap between the screens I found myself ignoring it when reading content. It was great to see a full readable version of Carrypad across the screens and the Tablet P could make an interesting page-per-view reading device. The split screens bring a little issue when dragging across two screens. When the contact is lost the dragged item gets dropped.
Thumbing is possible in portrait or landscape but I didn’t find it as easy as the Galaxy Tab in portrait mode and the sharp corners dig into your hand. Angling the screen closer to 90 degrees allows a level of table-toppecking but there’s no haptics and its a little hit-and-miss. You certainly won’t enjoy inputting large amounts of text in this way. Again, I find a 7″ portaint-mode Thumbing experience to be much more comfortable.
I tested a number of apps and was impressed with the amounts of content being presented to me but many apps default into a single screen view. Using Honeycomb’s stretch feature apps are encouraged to spread across with screens. This isn’t always successful though. Google Reader refused to expand and crashed at every attempt. I saw other apps doing this too. This is a critical problem.
Having a removeable battery is a real advantage to the ultra-mobile user. Battery life looked, after a few hours of testing, very similar to that of the Galaxy Tab 7 – 6hrs screen-on usage over an active period of 12 hrs. It’s not quite all-day capable if you’re relying on this for some productivity.
The Sony Tablet P is not phone-capable but 3G version (4Gb storage) is just under 500 UK pounds
Speaker quality is very poor
Brightness and viewing angles on screen are excellent
No games tested – this is a key feature of the device.
Content catalogue not available from on this UK model tested in NL – This is another key feature of the device.
The Sony Tablet P is an interesting mobile device with some unique and useful features but text input was a little clumsy due to an uncomfortable thumbing grip and lack of haptics. Desktop-pecking is possible, but not efficient. It seems that gaming could be the only serious unique feature here and I haven’t tested it. If that part of the device works well it’s the entertainment user that is the only type of user that really needs to take a close look at the Sony Tablet P. The reading experience was good and the Tablet P is easy to hold but the weight needs to come down a bit to match some of the best reader-capable tablets. Others looking for a more mobile all-round Android experience may find more pleasure in the Samsung Galaxy Note or 7″ Android slates.
You don’t normally get Ice Cream Sandwiches in Europe but for this week in Amsterdam i’ll be taking in more Ice Cream Sandwich than you can shake Hagelslag at.
I’m on the train to Droidcon NL where I know ICS will be a hot topic. I’ll get my first hands-on with it and will definitely be meeting developers that have already worked on it.
Will the re-convergence of the two Android strains be enough to, finally, bring app development for tablets to the fore? Until now I don’t think anyone can say the Honeycomb was a huge success at doing that. HD apps exist in the market but what’s needed is for development teams to be looking at 200 million Android smartphones, tens of millions of Android tablets and see that momentum as a sign to take Ice Cream Sandwich and develop for Android first, not second.
I’ll be asking developers to voice their opinions about tablets, about new features in ICS, about hardware (including Intel), about the potential migration to smartbooks (like the Asus Transformer) and the threat from Ultrabooks in this area.
Keep an eye out this week on Carrypad.com and the Carrypad Twitter account and Facebook account (your choice!) for:
- News from Medion about their Android Tablet
- Hands on with the Galaxy Nexus
- Short podcasts with developers
- A summary of my thoughts on ICS in the tablet and smartbook/notebook/Ultrabook space.
- Lots more news as it happens
Thanks to the Droidcon NL organisation for allowing me access to report from Droidcon. If you’re at Droidcon and would like to tell me about you projects, software, ideas, ping me in the comments below, on Twitter @chippy or in person at the event. I’ll be wearing a Galaxy Tab and a Nokia N8!
You can follow Droidcon NL updates @Droidconnl (Twitter)
The HTC Rhyme is an attempt to incorporate a little feminine charm into a product that runs an operating system that is typically represented in products that are completely black, have sharp edges, and seem to shout, “THIS PHONE IS FOR GUYS!” Is a feminine touch enough to appeal to different demographics? Read on to find out.
You’ve heard us say it before, and it’s about to be said again. HTC makes beautiful hardware. The Rhyme is no exception. Even though it is smooth and svelte, it’s also solid and lean. Materials feel high quality and the HTC Rhyme is nearly as thin as the iPhone 4S. The back of the phone is matte so you won’t often need to wipe it clean of fingerprints unlike some other glossy devices.
The back is indeed removable but the battery is not. Popping the trunk only offers you access to the MicroSD card slot which comes pre-installed with an 8GB card. The back casing of my review unit didn’t seem to go on quite right (you can see this in the first photo of the Hardware Tour), but I do believe this was a unit-specific issue.
The lock/power button could have a bit more click to it for my taste, but it is raised sufficiently so it’s easy to find. The volume-rocker actually has the opposite problem — it’s a bit flat so it can be hard to feel, but it clicks sufficiently.
For me, the size of the phone is very nice. The 3.7″ screen of the HTC Rhyme sits in the hand easily and can be operated sufficiently with just one hand without a bunch of shuffling, as required by many of the 4″+ screens on the market. Aside from the color, I wouldn’t say that there is anything outwardly “feminine” about the HTC Rhyme. The shape and design otherwise seems to be a perfectly neutral. Slap a different color on it, and I think plenty of men would be just as happy to use the phone as women. In fact, I did see some press photos of a champagne and light blue version of the Rhyme, but I’ve not seen those colors actually available for sale anywhere:
Right: Volume rocker
Top: 3.5mm headphone jack, mic, lock/power button
Left: MicroUSB slot (covered)
The HTC Rhyme’s 3.7″ screen is pleasantly vibrant and crisp. It’s rocking an 800×480 resolution, which doesn’t put it up there with some of the other insanely pixel-dense devices on the market, but the 3.7″ screen doesn’t quite necessitate it.
Viewing angles are top notch all the way around the screen, and auto-brightness does a good job of keeping the display at appropriate levels. Black-levels are typical for an LCD display, which means they’re pretty awful compared to AMOLED displays. Unless you regularly watch high quality movies on your phone, or you’re a photo buff, you probably won’t notice the poor black-levels.
The HTC Rhyme comes installed with Android 2.3.4; HTC hasn’t yet said whether or not the phone will receive an update to Ice Cream Sandwich.
On top of Android is HTC Sense, a set of custom graphics and widgets that run throughout the system. Some people have grown fond of HTC Sense, but I’m sure there are an equal number of people who, like me, would rather not use Sense. Unfortunately, Sense cannot be disabled.
While Sense does add some widgets and other functionality to the HTC Rhyme, the proprietary nature of the skin means that you’ll end up waiting longer for Android updates, and might miss out on features until HTC decides to update Sense. For instance, let’s say that you like to go into your contacts page to see a friend’s Facebook status updates. Hypothetical: All is working well until one day Facebook adds some new feature that allows people to add short audio clips to their status updates — because that feature didn’t exist when your version of Sense shipped, the phone has no idea how to handle it, thus you cannot access the content (or post your own audio clips from Sense’s proprietary Facebook integration).
With the pace of updates and changes to our various social networks and other online services, trying to use software that is built into the firmware of the phone is just a pain, especially given the update track record of various Android phone manufacturers. Another example: even with the latest HTC Sense twitter client (which doesn’t exist as an app on your home screen but can be launched from a widget — totally confusing) still doesn’t support lists. Lists were added to twitter back in 2009.
One of my biggest pet peeves for Android skins is when they waste space in the notification menu. When I pull down the notification menu, I want to be able to see as many of my notifications as possible, not scroll through them one by one. The more space wasted in the menu, the less notifications I can see without scrolling.
On the HTC Rhyme’s notification menu, there is the obligatory carrier branding at the very top which takes up at least one notification slot. Below that is a scrollable list of recently used applications which takes up at least one and a half notification slots; more annoying still because the user can pull up a list of recently used applications by simply holding the Home button. Why is redundant functionality wasting space in the notification menu? Further down, there are two tabs, one for notifications and one for “Quick Settings” which you can access to quickly toggle things like airplane mode, bluetooth, mobile hotspot, WiFi, and more (but annoyingly, not brightness). These tabs take up another half a notification slot, but at least they are useful.
After all that wasted space, you can only see four notifications instead of seven or so. I’d rather they trim all of this unnecessary fat from the notification menu and slap the Quick Settings options in the native recently-used applications menu (hold Home) which has ample free space.
Also, prepare to be badgered by your phone constantly as HTC Sense tries to link all of your contacts into unified contact cards. Any time you get a new Facebook, Twitter, or Email contact (and maybe a few other services), you’ll get a notification that HTC wants to link the service for that user to a contact card (this is done based on name matching apparently). So this way you can have one contact card for your friend John Smith and it’ll know what his Twitter and Facebook profiles are as well. The functionality would be appreciated by the power user, if implemented non-intrusively, but I can tell you that my father, brother, mother, sister, and the majority of my friends would absolutely not understand what all this “linking” business is, because HTC Sense does a terrible job of explaining exactly what it’s doing.
Even so, contact linking should happen in the background and be managed by the user when they see fit, rather than popping up a new notification every few days. As far as I’ve been able to find, there is no way to disable notifications about contact linking.
That’s not to say that Sense is all bad, there are a few nifty bits like the ability to see weather on your lock screen, but as far as I can tell, there is nothing added that couldn’t be added from the Android market; tying these ‘improvements’ to the firmware just brings along unnecessary disadvantages. The user should really not be locked into HTC Sense, the option to switch to vanilla Android would be a perfect compromise for both sides.
The HTC Rhyme’s 1GHz Qualcomm MSM8655 ought to be able to handle Android just fine, but Sense seems to bog the system down. List scrolling is surprisingly clunky and could definitely stand to be more smooth.
As with other HTC devices that I’ve tested, the HTC Rhyme’s Sense keyboard feels a bit bloated, but they have trimmed down on the space-wasting word suggestion pop-ups. More annoyingly, if you are a fast touchscreen typist, you can tap fast enough that the haptic feedback (vibration) won’t be able to keep up. From time to time you’ll get one vibration for two taps and it feels as though the keyboard isn’t keeping up when it actually is.
Minecraft Pocket Edition plays on the HTC Rhyme on fancy settings with no issues and no apparent lag.
I’ve run the usual tests, and while the HTC Rhyme doesn’t appear to lag drastically behind similarly speced phones, I can tell you that it feels much slower because of how clunky Sense is. Between the browser and list scrolling (two things you are sure to be doing a lot of on a smartphone), there is much improvement to be desired.
The ‘Charm’ that comes included with the HTC Rhyme is actually a very unique accessory. It is a little cube with an LED inside that lights up to give you alerts. The cube is about 1cm squared, plugs into the headphone jack, and glows purple.
Apparently, HTC sees women (or men, I suppose) dangling the charm out of their purse or handbag so that when their phone is buried deep inside they won’t miss calls or other events. While I don’t personally fancy a tote bag, I’ve spoken to two friends about the idea and they said they could absolutely see it being useful when it comes to wearing dresses without pockets and jeans that as so tight that they may as well not even have any.
Really neat idea, kudos to HTC for that, but the execution is poor. The only events that will make the cube glow are messages (SMS), incoming calls, and missed calls. Beyond this, the Charm may as well not exist.
Why they didn’t simply make the Charm an extension of the HTC Rhyme’s built-in notification LED, which can respond to a wider array of events (and is extendable), is beyond me. For this to be a seriously useful accessory, HTC needs to make the Charm’s triggers much more customizable. And why not offer some different options for how the Charm glows so that you can tell a missed phone call from a text message? Actually, saying that the charm ‘glows’ is misleading, it’s more of a sharp flash which is supposed to get your attention, but might get the attention of others as well.
Also standard with the HTC Rhyme is a compact black dock. There are no ports on it except for a microUSB plug so that you can plug the unit into a charger. Once plugged in, you can drop in the HTC Rhyme to connect to the docks speakers, and there is some simple dock based functionality.
The dock will charge the phone thanks to three contact points that match up with those little circles on the back of the phone. The HTC Rhyme is held into the dock with magnets, but the process of actually putting the phone into the dock could be more satisfying. Instead of the magnets grabbing the phone and pulling it right into place, you have to put the phone down then slide it around to get it to fit in. If used as a simple charging dock at your bedside, the dock is a thoughtful inclusion.
However, HTC missed an opportunity by not kicking the dock up to the next level. First, the speakers are extremely weak. They aren’t much better than the HTC Rhyme’s built-in speakers; they are just a bit louder. If your only usage is an alarm, this shouldn’t be an issue, but for anyone who likes to listen to music as they sleep, or perhaps wake up to a podcast in the morning, a bit more oomph would have been appreciated.
Then there’s the actual software part of the dock’s functionality. When you put the HTC Rhyme in place, the dock will be detected, and you’ll get a simple ‘dock mode’, but the actual usefulness of the functions provided therein is very weak. You can see more detail about this in the video at the end of the review (start at 14:58 for dock functionality).
According to HTC, the 5MP camera on the HTC Rhyme is “best in class”; to some extent, I’m inclined to agree. I was impressed with its low-light performance. Most smartphone cameras tend to be lacking in the low-light-sensitivity department, so it is nice to see the HTC Rhyme perform about as well as the iPhone 4:
Macro shots were also quite impressive:
Despite the decent appearance of these photos, there’s an odd grainess to them as soon as you get up close (click to enlarge):
The grain is likely the result of aggressive photo optimization on the part of the phone. When snapping photos with the HTC Rhyme, you’ll notice that ‘what you see is what you get’. As soon as you press the capture button, the image will be captured exactly as it is on the screen. For a device that is destined to be used primarily as a point-and-shoot, this is exactly what you want, and it works well. For quick photos for social networks (even in somewhat low light), the HTC Rhyme’s camera should perform very well. However, due to the graininess, print quality photos these are not.
By default, the HTC Rhyme snaps photos with a 16:9 aspect ratio which is a bit weird considering that the standard is pretty much 4:3. Weirder still, this shape is achieved by reducing the resolution from 2592×1952 (4:3) to 2592×1552 (16:9). Why the default photos would be set to less than maximum resolution and a non-standard shape is, once again, beyond me.
The HTC Rhyme comes with a pair of in-ear headphones that are designed to look like they might be of a similar quality to some other name-brand in-ear headphones (more on that in just a moment). The headphones have an inline control on their flat cable that lets you pause, fast forward, rewind, and change tracks. Despite the + and – icon on the buttons, I was unable to change the volume from the inline control.
These are truly in-ear headphones. Be sure to understand the difference between in-ear and earbud headphones. Earbud headphones (like those included with the iPhone) rest in the pinna (external) part of your ear. In-ear headphones stay in your ear by being crammed into your ear canal. Some people don’t seem to have issue with such headphones. Personally, I’ve never found in-ear headphones to be comfortable, nor do they seem to stay in my ears very well — with iPhone earbuds, I can quite literally dangle an attached iPhone from my ears with the headphones — with the headphones included with the HTC Rhyme, it seems like the slightest tug on the cord will pull the headphones free.
Three sizes of ear pieces are included with the headphones and I had to switch to the smallest pair get them to stay without falling out all together. Once the headphones are in, it seems hard to get them to both be in your ear an equal amount, which causes annoying uneven pressure on your ears. Just imagine stuffing ear plugs into your ears, it’s just like that.
In terms of quality, these are some of the worst headphones I’ve used. Don’t get me wrong, there are probably plenty of other horrible headphones out there that cost $0.99 to manufacturer that are far worse, but if we’re talking about headphones that are actually intended to be used for honest to goodness music listening, this pair is pretty bad. One of the problems with small headphones (earbuds and in-ear) is that it’s hard to create bass with such small speakers. HTC seems to have completely overcompensated for this — the headphones are actually quite bassy, but this comes at the cost of quality.
To my ears, it sounds like much of the midtones are unfaithfully recreated, and are instead throw into the bass spectrum. You might be able to toy with an equalizer to get them to sound better, but it seems like all the sounds are getting lumped toward the treble or bass end of the tonal spectrum, with little fidelity on the remaining mid tones. I found the same issue through both my computer and the HTC Rhyme itself. Even though Apple earbuds have significantly less bass, I would prefer them over the Rhyme’s headphones because they do a better job of representing all of the audio information. If you aren’t an audio person, let me use a metaphor: this is like the difference between being able to see your favorite painting with very vivid reds and violets, but all the colors in between are black and white, or being able to see the painting with all of the colors in tact, even if slightly less vibrant.
As seems to be the case with all HTC phones, the HTC Rhyme has impressive build-quality. The phone is sturdy and sleek. Unfortunately, coloring a phone purple and including a few neat but flawed accessories does not cut it if HTC is really hoping to attract a more feminine demographic. The issue actually lies less with the color or the accessories, but more with the phone’s software.
The changes HTC has made with Sense don’t make the phone any easier to use — just different. Not to say that there aren’t tech savvy women out there, but I think we can agree that they are less common than tech savvy men. If HTC really wants to appeal to that demographic, the phone is going to need to offer a smoother and easier user experience — something non-techies from both genders would benefit from.
Nokia has only been relevant for me once in my smartphone life, and that was when I was overseas. Since returning stateside, I have not given Nokia news more than a miniscule glance as I pore over the day’s tech reports. In fact, I have not honestly cared about a Nokia phone release since the mid-90s, when they were one of the top name brands in the US. Until this year that is. Nokia has become relevant again, although not quite in the way that you might think. And while their partnership with Microsoft may be doing a little-bit to correct their sky-diving financial position, I question whether Redmond is doing the best thing overall for increased adoption of Windows Phone.
Before we continue on with the editorial, let’s hit some of the facts of the last week’s announcements. At Nokia World 2011, Nokia introduced two phones that are expected to eventually make their way to US carriers. They are the Nokia Lumia 800 and 710. The latter has a 3.7” display with a resolution of 480×800, a 5MP camera that can shoot 720p video, weighs in at 4.4 ounces, has 8GB of flash storage, 512MB of RAM, runs on the Qualcomm MSM8255 chip, which is a 1.4GHz single-core CPU, and communicates on GSM bands.
The Lumia 800 also has a 3.7” display, a high resolution 8MP camera, weighs in at 5 ounces, has the same 480×800 resolution on an AMOLED display with Gorilla Glass, 16GB of storage and 512MB of RAM, and an identical processor…in fact, much between the two phones is identical.
Back to the editorial. There are a few things I see as positive about Nokia-Soft’s announcements. Kudos to them for getting the product out on time. We did not need another smartphone-delay storyline to track across months of PR apologies. And the big thing? People are talking about Nokia again, and not only in negative terms. At least not entirely.
Nokia needed to hit one of the park last week at Nokia World, but there are a few areas where these announcements fall well short of that. The announcement of these two phones, to me, is more like a “we’re still hanging in there” level of effort. It feels very analogous to the Palm Pre release, which offered some compelling potential. But from the announcement of the Pre through the first several months up to release, I felt like I was watching a once great boxer taking jabs in the ring, wobbling, unable to put his hands up and protect himself, but still able to remain standing and even dodging a jab from time to time. But I knew that the other guy was eventually going to land a haymaker that the former champ would just not be able to take.
I get the same sense from the Nokia announcements last week. Maybe the better analogy would be watching a once great boxer through the last few bouts of their career. They keep losing, but in each bout there is a round or a few moments when you think they are on the road back, before they finally succumb each time. While the Lumia product line shows promise, and seems to offer a steady, work-horse level device, neither of the two devices are game-changers. Nokia is in the same position that Android tablet-makers are. They cannot afford to bring a device or devices that are within arm’s reach of the current benchmark products, and offer them at the same price. While there is no pricing information on either of the Lumia devices, I cannot see them being offered at less than $199 and $149 price points for the 800 and the 710 respectively. I believe this based on the pricing of Nokia’s handsets in the past within North America, and the fact that, for some reason, they have struggled to land on carriers with subsidized prices. The Nokia Astound debuted back in April on T-Mobile at one of the most affordable release prices for a Nokia smartphone in North America ever — $79.99. But I do not see Nokia being able to match that pricing for either one of these phones. If they come out at or near the same $199 price point as many premium Android handsets or the $199 iPhone 4S model, when the Nokia phones do not have front-facing cameras or equally high resolution screens, their ability to compete will be sorely lacking.
If Nokia can get the Lumia 710 down to a $99 price point, and slug it out against low-end Android phones, then maybe this maneuver has a chance of gaining traction. As for the Lumia 800, I expect it to come out at $199, and likely on T-Mobile as I do not see AT&T having a lot of interest in this device. So it will go to the smallest of the big four US carriers. But it will also be on the one carrier that does not have the iPhone, so for its current customers who enter the market for a new phone, it could very well be a viable choice. I was on an HTC HD7 on T-Mobile at the beginning of the year and was very happy with that selection. But right now, the only thing Microsoft seems to be touting as the differentiating, breakout feature of Windows Phone is Xbox Live integration [ed. note: that integration is majorly lacking and painfully bolted-on]. This was a nice hook at the beginning of the year, but the Xbox is six years old now, and even as a gaming platform, its pre-eminence as being a new place to go is not as shiny as it once was. As for hardware, Nokia phones have always been appealing to photo buffs for their excellent cameras. But great photos and Xbox Live are not enough to bring Nokia back to relevance in the US.
Overall, this does not feel like the mass offensive that it needed to be. Nothing out of this announcement was anything that was not entirely predictable. At the end of the day, it feels like less than what Nokia needed to do to right its burning platform. These are not devices that will save Nokia’s bacon. Nor is it indicative of a strategy that shows a glimmer of things to come that will make sweeping changes in Nokia’s business position within the market. Nokia seems to have generated much more buzz about their one-off Meego phone, the Nokia N9, than their just-announced Lumina series (though it may still be too early to call).
While falling short of what is needed, I also felt like Microsoft and Nokia weakened Microsoft’s position with its other hardware partners. If I were HTC or Samsung, I would have had sharp words the following day over the use of statements that proclaimed the Lumia line as the “first real Windows Phone(s)”. The hardware manufacturers that stepped out with Microsoft for the launch of Windows Phone, at very high risk to their own earnings, should not have suffered the suggestion that their efforts and their hardware designs were of little value. While not all CEO’s make decisions out of spite, I think the Microsoft and Nokia statements would have at least caused me to ask my CFO for the most recent accounting statements on my Windows Phone product line to evaluate how much value-adding it was really providing.
Microsoft took a risk when it migrated its smartphone strategy away from an Enterprise-focus to a consumer-centric one. Without the old corporate in-roads to lean on, they now have to compete in the same arena with the same rule-set as the iPhone and Android products. I do not see the Lumia has being a huge crowbar in that battle. I like Windows Phone, and would not have a problem selecting it as one my next devices. But I still do not see the operating system, the ecosystem, or the new Nokia devices as converging recommendations that I would give to non-techy customers looking for advice on their next smartphone, or first-time smartphone buyers. It is not clear to me where Microsoft and Nokia are heading in terms of starting an offensive that will lead to all of this increased market-share that so many analysts are claiming Windows Phone will achieve in 2014/2015.
The Lumia devices appear to be beautiful hardware, and I thoroughly enjoy Windows Phone 7 when I use it. But this is about what Microsoft and Nokia are doing to convince the consumer population that is not already on their side that the Nokia devices are viable and competitive alternatives to the iPhone and premium Android devices. Based on last week’s event, I am having a hard time convincing myself that the two companies have done enough. This smells very much like the Palm Pre launch (except for fact that Nokia’s phones appear to be arriving on time as promised). Microsoft and Nokia will need to come in at lower price points than the competition, and quickly get to offering compelling, differentiated features and offer unique service partnerships to compete against Apple and Google. Seeing as how it appears that they have missed those targets within this window of opportunity, I am not sure when they can pull this trifecta off before suffering that aforementioned haymaker that could be in the works. An iPhone 5 announcement in the spring, or arrival en masse of Ice Cream Sandwich phones could quickly push Nokia off the stage of relevance if they and Microsoft cannot push some major offensive in the interim. Oh, yeah, and after scoffing at everyone else’s Windows Phone devices, I would not expect help to arrive from the camps of HTC and Samsung anytime soon.
I managed to get a Huawei Mediapad for a few weeks to trial. I only managed to get a few hours in with the device today and snap off a couple of low res pictures from my phone but I’ll follow up with an in-depth overview and some high quality photos in a few days. In the meantime if you have any tests you want me to run on the Huawei Mediapad leave a comment and I’ll see what I can do.
I compared it to an iPad 2 and like the Galaxy Tab found it to be roughly half the size of the Apple unit. The unit is pocketable, just, but cargo pant-pocketable none the less.
The screen is great — sharp, bright, and very responsive. The device itself is nicely built and feels solid in the hand. The Huawei MediaPad is heavier than the Galaxy Tab but it feels like the same form factor so if you are happy with the size and feel of the Galaxy Tab you’ll likely be happy with the MediaPad too.
I don’t have a lot of apps installed yet and not a lot of media on it to slow it down but I was pleasantly surprised by how fast it is. Everything is snappy and very responsive. Apps open fast, media plays almost instantly and overall the processor doesn’t seem to struggle with anything.
If the pricing comes in at the right level, I think this device will sell very well.
Chippy is also looking forward to the Huawei MediaPad, and is actually considering trading up his much-used and loved Galaxy Tab for it. Though the tab has treated him well for over a year, Chippy says that he’s overdue for the benefits of Honeycomb in a 7″ form-factor. The upcoming dual-core Galaxy Tab Plus is likely to be a potent competitor to the Huawei MediaPad, especially when it comes to availability.
No doubt you’ve already heard of Siri, the voice control software that Apple is launching with the iPhone 4S. If you are late to the part, recap here.
Apple is billing Siri not as “voice-control” but as a personal assistant that will perform tasks for you. The press is already lauding its impressive functionality. But how has Apple managed to make such a big splash over a feature that Android has had for some time now?
To start, marketing has a lot to do with it. While Android bills voice-control (VC)l as just that — a way to control your phone with your voice — Apple promotes Siri as an entity that will help you get things done. Apple has given their iOS voice control a person’s name. Simply by calling it “Siri” (notice how Apple — and thus the press — always spell it as though it’s a proper noun), Apple has immediately made it more personal and more human — you’ll see the word ‘assistant’ thrown around a lot in stories about Siri (not excluding this one). Even if the abilities of Siri and Android’s VC were identical, Siri would become the colloquialism for voice-control on a phone, the same way that mainstreamers, who don’t know the difference, call any digital audio player an iPod.
That’s if the abilities of Siri and Android’s VC were the same. At a base level, there’s no fundamental difference between Siri and Android VC, both convert sound into meaning and perform some function based on what you’ve said. But Siri feels more human because of the breadth of its understanding. [See there I go, talking about Siri as if it were an entity and not a thing. Touché, Apple]. Siri will see high usage because the user doesn’t need to look through a list of things they are allowed to say, or pay attention to the order that they need to be said. Apple has ensured that Siri can understand such a range of input that there’s no need to think first about what you are asking it. Again, this makes Siri far more human than Android VC; you speak to Siri like a person, with no need to pause to formulate your question in a special computer-readable way. This means that there is a highly likelyhood that anyone who hasn’t used Siri before could ask it a question and get a good response, making it inherently more intuitive than Android VC. That’s the goal anyway.
Once Apple frees Siri from it’s iPhone 4S jail (either on to older, or newer devices), expect it to become a household name, and expect lots of existing voice-control software to be ‘reborn’ with human names.
HTC kindly offered to lend us the HTC Status to have a look at and I was happy for the opportunity because it’s giving me some time to step back and look at Android on the lower-end of the phone spectrum. We tend to focus on the bleeding edge devices, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that not every person (in fact, the majority of people) don’t want to drop $299 on the latest phone every year. The HTC Status runs a cool $49 on contract which blows me away because this phone is pretty damn gorgeous.
The HTC Status is running Android 2.3 on a 2.6″ 480×320 (3:2) screen which is curious because this is the exact same resolution that the very first Android phone, the HTC G1 (AKA Dream), used. If you’ve read my analysis of the ergonomics of Android, you shouldn’t be surprised to find that, from an ergonomic standpoint, HTC is way easier to use with one hand. Instead of stretching and shuffling to read between the navigation buttons and the notification bar, it’s all right there, easily within reach.
The unfortunate fact is that almost all of today’s Android applications are designed with the assumption that the phone they will be used on is primarily portrait and with much more screen real estate. Despite how it may seem, I was actually really impressed with Android’s ability to scale everything down to the smaller landscape resolution of the HTC Status. Things are no doubt cramped at times, but the ability to adapt the entire interface, from something like the massive 5.3″ 1280×800 screen of the Samsung Galaxy Note to the relatively tiny 2.6″ 480×320 screen of the Status, is rather amazing.
HTC has never disappointed in the hardware department. Even though the Status will only run you $49 on contract, this hasn’t made any impact on the attention paid to the hardware. The Status feels great and I love the styling — it’s clean and sharp. The keys on the keyboard are firm and have near-perfect feedback when clicked.
There’s certainly more to be tested, but for the time being, have a look at this beautiful phone.