Tag Archive | "smartphone"

With Medfield and Android, Intel Prove They’re Ready to Play

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Intel_Smartphone_Reference_Design_front_575pxWhen 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!

P1010989 (800x600)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.

Intel Smartphone Hands-On. Video, Perf Test

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The Intel Smartphone is here at CES and we’ve just had hands-on. It’s running a Medfield-based platform (Intel Atom Z2460 – 1.6Ghz with Hyperthreading) with Android 2.x


The design is a certified reference design connected to the AT&T network here and the Android build includes all the Google goodness too. We tested a few apps and responsiveness was good. The phone comes with micro-USB and micro-HDMI ports and the video is hardware accelerated. The 4” 1024×600 screen doesn’t make the design at all bulky.

As for performance, we’re getting the idea that this could be a scorcher. A Sunspider test here resulted in 1290ms – and remember that’s with Android 2.x. We saw some video and game demos too and they were all smooth. Scroll down for a video hands-on with the Intel Smartphone.



Hands On Video

Everything You Need to Know About the Windows Phone 7.5 Mango Update

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Windows Phone 7.5 (AKA Mango) has been previewed by Microsoft for months now. Numerous bloggers have been given access to early builds of it, and it’s been pretty much revealed from head to toe… or so we thought.

Today, Microsoft is officially announcing the rollout of Windows Phone 7.5. Along with that announcement comes the reveal of tethering functionality and a browser-based version of the application store which will offer an easy way to peruse the application store on a computer, much like https://market.android.com/.

Microsoft tells us that Mango updates began this morning around 10AM PST. The process is beginning gradually and will slowly ramp up — they hope to have the update available to most existing customers within 4 weeks. The update is being deployed globally, across all carriers and phones. They say that 98% of existing Windows Phone 7 devices will have access to the update when all is said and done. Kudos to Microsoft for getting the update to nearly all devices, rather than just to a specific carrier or specific phone before everyone else (*cough*Google/Android*cough*).

If you want to find out where your update is, Microsoft has a page which will give you some detail as to the status of the update for your particular carrier. If you’re on a US carrier, you’ll want to check here. International folks should give this link a try for Windows Phone 7.5 Mango update status. You’ll receive a message on your phone when the update is ready, and you’ll need to plug it into your computer for the update to commence. If you don’t already have the Zune software, or Windows Phone 7 Connector (OSX) installed, you’ll want to do that as they are required for update instillation.

If you’re looking for a final list of what will be included in the Mango update, Microsoft has a fairly extensive list of features that you’ll find in Windows Phone 7.5. If you’re a new customer and considering a Windows Phone 7.5 device, take a look at Engadget’s exhaustive review.

As mentioned, previously not revealed facets of Windows Phone 7.5 include tethering functionality and a web version of the App Marketplace. Reports indicate that tethering will only be coming to new phones with Mango installed; it’s unclear whether or not this is a software or hardware problem (my vote is on the former). The web Marketplace is already available for browsing and is part for the course — offering ratings, screenshots, top app lists, and the ability to download apps to your phone wirelessly, thanks to your phone’s association with your Windows Live account.

A Critical Look at the Interface and Ergonomic Issues of Android

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In this article, it is my intention to take a critical look at the Android user interface. Some people may read this as though I’m lambasting Android, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. I quite respect Android as an excellent mobile operating system, but I also believe that looking critically at anything can be a healthy way to see what can be improved.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. In fact, I mapped the whole thing out almost a year ago, but it fell down my priority list and hid away for quite some time. After blowing the virtual dust off of my original organizational diagram for this article, I can see there isn’t much that needs changing. Many of the issues of the Android interface that I highlighted have not improved, or have even worsened.

I should clearly specify that this article is about the phone version of Android (ie: anything in the 1.x or 2.x range).

Another important part of this analysis is the belief that a good mobile phone interface is one that allows the phone to be held and operated with a single hand (ie: with your thumb). Smartphones go with us wherever we do and there are many times where we need to quickly reference something on them and don’t have two hands available to do it (or shouldn’t need to dedicate both of our hands to operating the device). There are definitely times where you’ll use both hands with your phone, but that’s often with you’re sitting down and focusing directly on it. One-handed use is the primary way we should be able to use our phones while on the go. Leave it to the larger tablets to require both of our hands for effective use.

The reason for the worsening issues is that Android phones are going through an unnecessarily-large-screen fad (at least, I can only hope it’s a fad). Increasing the screen size on a mobile phone, which should be able to be effectively used with one hand, makes a number of the problems worse than they would be with a smaller screened device.

I should also say that I’m not a GUI designer by trade, but I do spend a lot of time using and thinking about the devices and the interfaces that I interact with every day.

Well then, let’s get started.


It’s important first to look back at how it all started. Before I begin talking about screen ratio and sizes, let’s look at the very first Android device, the HTC G1 (AKA Dream). The G1 was the very first Android phone ever released, and the phone was made specifically to fit Android the way it was originally designed. So how was Android originally intended to be shaped and sized? The G1 had a 3.2″ screen with a 3:2 [1.5:1] aspect ratio. Today, all the new latest and greatest smartphones are 4.3″ with a 16:9 [1.78:1] aspect ratio.

Screen Ratio

Based on the number of Android smartphones on the market that use a 16:9 [1.78:1]  aspect ratio (960×540, 854×480) or something very close (800×480 [1.67:1]), you might think that 16:9 is some sort of holy ratio. Actually, it’s not so great for one-handed mobile use, and here’s why.

At its most basic, we can think of the range of thumb as a stick on the end of a pivot. When holding a phone in our hand in an orientation to use it with our thumb, the thumb hesitates to go any further down than about parallel with the ground. From this point, its range of motion is aprox. 90 degrees, up to a position where it is perpendicular to the ground. As soon as the ratio of the screen is increased beyond 1:1 (meaning for every unit of width, there is an equal unit of height {ie: 1:1 = square, 1:2 = rectangle}) you are decreasing the amount of the screen that the thumb can reach without “shuffling”.

Shuffling is the word I’m using the describe the act of moving the phone up or down within your hand to be able to reach parts of the screen. Here is a visual that my buddy @bendrexl whipped up to help me explain:

This is the issue with widescreen aspect ratios on phones. The further you push the aspect ratio, the more screen real-estate exists outside of the range of the thumb. In general, the more square the screen and resulting interface, the more area the thumb will be able to effectively utilize it without uncomfortable shuffling.

It might be interesting for some to note that Apple’s iPhone has been using an odd 3:2 [1.5:1] since the first generation of the device, which is aprox. 16% ‘more square’, if you will, than the 16:9 [1.78:1] aspect ratio that’s commonly found on Android smartphones. As mentioned above, the original Android device, the G1, used the same 3:2 [1.5:1] aspect ratio as the iPhone, and an even smaller screen. The more square shape of 3:2 [1.5:1] means less shuffling than 16:9 [1.78:1] screens of the same size. The iPad uses an even more square 4:3 [1.33:1] shape.

Having a very rectangular ratio is also a pain for landscape app use. If you pull up the keyboard in landscape mode, the entire screen becomes dedicated to whatever text field you’re trying to type in and you can’t even see the context of where you’re typing.

Phone makers are going with 16:9 screens so that they can claim that their devices are great for watching movies, but honestly, how often are people sitting down to watch full length movies on their phones? Most phone screens still leave a lot to be desired over a real TV (not to mention, real speakers!). I’d much rather have a phone with a screen shape that is designed to be as easy to use as possible (because that benefits me every single time I use the phone) rather than shaping the screen for one particular activity which I rarely ever do on a smartphone.

Screen Size

Screen size also plays a very important part in how effectively our thumbs are able to reach the entirety of the screen. The 16:9 aspect ratio wouldn’t be as much of a problem if it was smaller, because a smaller 16:9 screen would be completely within the range of the thumb.

Unfortunately, phone manufacturers as of late are insisting that when it comes to screens, bigger is better. As an industry observer, I see this screen size push as a result of two things. 1) An attempt to ‘outdo’ the iPhone wherever possible, which has been using a 3.5” screen since the first generation of the device. 2) Compensation for the impreciseness of Android touch input, which is a somewhat worse, in my experiences, than iOS; a larger screen means it’s easier to hit the buttons you want.

We’ve seen phones like the original Motorola Droid ship with a 3.7”, which was quickly trumped by 4” screens on phones like the Samsung Fascinate and Sony Ericsson X10. Then came the 4.3” giants like the HTC Evo 4G, Motorola Droid X, and HTC HD2. [Before you say I forgot about the 4.8″ Dell Streak — that was designed to be used in landscape, which means two thumbs which cover much more of the screen]

And that’s where we are today. 4.3” is the defacto mega-screen-standard for new Android phones. Don’t believe me? See the Droid Bionic, Droid X2, Motorola Atrix, Motorola Photon, HTC Thunderbolt, LG Revolution, HTC Sensation, and plenty of other already released and upcoming phones. Across the board, phone manufacturers believe that 4.3” is actually a reasonable size for a phone screen, but pushing the screen size up to 4.3” has major implications for the ergonomics of any phone, especially an Android phone, because of the interface (more on that later).

I’ve seen numerous commercials, advertisements, and press releases for these devices which tell us how “awesome” the “huge” and/or “gorgeous” 4.3” display is (and presumably how it blows the 3.5” screen of the iPhone out of the water), but when I see these ads I just cringe. Here’s why:

The screen size increases, but the size of our thumbs does not. The range of our thumbs does not increase either. See the diagram to the left which shows two phones with approximately the same aspect ratio. One has a huge screen which leaves a large portion of the screen unreachable to the thumb without that atrocious shuffling, and the other smaller screen which is almost completely in range of the thumb.

The diagram obviously shows an exaggerated example, but phone manufacturers seem to be completely ignorant of the fact that our thumb reach does not increase as the size of their screens do. Huge screens mean more shuffling!

Look at this photo of someone wielding the upcoming Droid Bionic (4.3”, 16:9). Notice how they’re using two hands! [photo via Android Central]

droid bionic


Interface Design Compounds Screen Ratio and Size Issues

Screen size and screen ratio wouldn’t be a problem if the interface was designed in a way that clusters all of the important buttons and components in the area that your thumb easily reaches, reserving the harder to reach places for data and information that only needs to be seen, not interacted with (or at least not frequently interacted with).

Unfortunately, the design of Android’s interface does exactly the opposite of this. The most important/most used parts of an interface should be the easiest to reach. Let’s think about the most important parts of operating an Android phone:

The most important and persistent parts are the four Android buttons along the bottom of the screen and the status bar at the top, which pulls down to reveal notifications and sometimes other stuff like a wireless radio toggle.

Both the buttons (which I’ll call the ‘Android buttons’), and the status bar, are always persistent, no matter where you are in the OS. You have to constantly use the Android buttons to navigate through apps and the home screen, and you have to pull the status bar down with your thumb to access any notification that comes through to the device. The core functionality of the device involves reaching your thumb from even further below the bottom of the screen to hit the buttons, then all the way to the very top of the screen to pull the notifications menu down.

Can you see the issue here? The people responsible for the Android UI have placed the two most persistent and used parts of the interface on opposite ends of the phone, which, when it comes to large phones with eccentric aspect ratios, requires constant shuffling of the phone to go back and forth between them!

droid chargeSome phones make this even worse by placing their Android buttons further down from the screen than most. Look at the Samsung Droid Charge on the left; they put a freaking logo between the screen and the Android buttons, pushing them even further away from the rest of the screen, requiring even more stretching and shuffling!

There’s a simple software fix that could help alleviate some of this shuffling, and that’s to simply put the status bar at the bottom of the screen so that you can flick it up with your thumb without shuffling to the top of the phone to pull it down, then shuffling back down the phone to flick it back up! Putting the status bar at the bottom would put all of the important and persistent parts of the interface right in one convenient, easy to reach, location.

As far as I have found, no one has developed such a tweak yet, though I wish they would.

Inconsistency and Legacy

Inconsistency really irks me. It’s a huge no no in the interface world and yet some of the core interactions that happen every time you use an Android phone leave you not knowing exactly what will happen when you press certain buttons, or where you should be looking for certain buttons in apps.

The Back Button

Let’s start with the worst offender, the back button. The back button is one of the four Android buttons and you’re supposed to use within pretty much every app. When I press the back button on a phone I’m using, half the time it will not do what I expect it to do, and that’s because it can do so many different things. It isn’t always up to the user as to what it does, it depends on the situation (ie: it’s inconsistent).

Some questions that can be asked before you press the back button:

  • How far back will it take me (back to the last webpage maybe? or maybe all the way out of the app?)
  • Will it drop the keyboard?
  • Will it close a menu?
  • Will it take me back to another screen with the app I’m using?
  • Will it take me back to the homescreen?
  • Will it take me back to another app?

Unless the user is expected to track all of their prior actions and know what sort of back button usage every app has programmed into it, there’s absolutely no way for the user to know which one of these scenarios is going to happen, and sometimes when you just wanted to get rid of the keyboard, you’ll exit the app instead. Sometimes when you just want to go back within the app, it’ll take you back to another app that you might have come from previously. There’s no sure way to know.

Long Press ~ Right-click

Android sometimes favors the ‘long press’ that is: hold your finger down on something to get additional options.

I see the long press function as a legacy right-click. There’s a huge problem though. Think of a standard mouse. There’s two buttons on it, right? Naturally, you can see this and you will press both buttons because there are two there.

The long press, however, does not have a physical incarnation. There’s not button for the user to see and say ‘”hey, I’ll try this one”. I’m sure there are many novice Android users out there who have no idea that the long press even exists, and I’m sure they’ve been digging through applications looking for some button and have been unable to find it because they don’t know how to long press (and I don’t blame them, there’s nothing that would make them think that a long press exists, unless they diligently read their manual, or carefully read all instructional app pop-ups {which I can safely assure you, few people do}).

Inconsistent App Paradigms

One thing Apple has going for its strict app guidelines is consistency. All iOS apps work on quite similar concepts by presenting everything within the interface (instead of relegating the back or search buttons to hardware buttons). There’s very rarely any long-pressing (in fact, I think Apple might actively discourage it).

I’ve sat and watched my 84 year old great-aunt, who has never owned a computer, operate an iPad with no problem. Part of this is because once she learned the basics, most everything else is very consistent and works on the same concepts, meaning that an entire new app is intuitive to use because it navigates and operates more or less the same way as other apps.

When it comes to apps on Android, inconstancy flourishes. Part of this is actually the fault of the popularity of iOS:

Google sets the example of how it thinks Android apps should operate by making its own apps. Take Gmail for instance, which uses a strict Android app paradigm. In Gmail, all of the navigational buttons are kept hidden away in the menu button, while most item-specific actions are kept to long presses.

Foursquare for Android, on the other hand, uses an iOS app paradigm which presents much or all of the navigational buttons directly on the screen. See here:

foursquare vs gmail

Because of the popularity of iOS, there are inconsistent app paradigms used across apps in the Android Market. Some use the Android paradigm, some use the iOS paradigm, and others yet use a confusing combination of the two where you’re unsure whether or not you should be looking on-screen, in the menu button, or in the long press menu to find what you’re looking for.

Because Google doesn’t enforce app design guidelines, you may end up with two apps on your device that work completely different. Neither paradigm is outright, better, but for the sake of the user, things should be consistent to encourage intuitiveness across apps.

I really hope that the mega-screen fad is just that… a fad. Perhaps the responsible companies will come to their senses eventually and realize that greater usability across the board is far more important than having a screen that’s slightly more enjoyable to watch movies on because of the shape and slightly larger size. When I use my phone, I want to be able to use it effectively, on the go, with one hand, rather than dedicated my full attention and both hands to its use. Furthermore, I’d love to see better consistency in app designs in the Market to make things intuitive, and not have to guess what the back button is going to do.

For $15 You Can Always Have a Charge/Sync Cable for Your Smartphone with You Thanks to This Excellent Accessory

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scosche 2When it comes to technology gifts, I generally tell people not to get them for me. Not that I don’t appreciate the thought, but having a non-techie try to find a good tech gift for a tech-geek is like an atheist shopping for the Pope.

Somehow, this last holiday season, my mother actually managed to get me an awesome tech related gift which I’ve been making great use of. Check it out:

scoscheThis is the Scosche FlipSNYC USB iPhone adapter (fear not, they make Micro/Mini USB version as well!) which is incredibly compact, enough so that you can easily throw it on your keychain. I was impressed by the smart design which manages to keep it so compact, even in lieu of Apple’s relatively massive connector. This isn’t one of those “you can totally put it on your keychain!” ordeals that you might find see on a TV infomercial, where in reality the thing is so bulky that you’d never actually want to put it on your keys — it’s actually small enough to go on your keychain and not attract any unwanted attention.

I’ve always got my keys with me, so even if I run out of the house without thinking I might need to charge or sync my phone, I don’t have to worry about it; if the time comes, out come my keys and this useful little bit of kit.

I’ve been using mine regularly for about 8 months and it shows no sign of breakage or wear.

Scosche sells these things for $15, and even though mine was a gift, I’ve easily justified the price with the amount of use I’ve gotten from it. It’s so handy to be able to plug into any USB port to get your charge on in a pinch and I’d definitely recommend one to any serious smartphone user.

scosche 3Fortunately, Scoche makes the aforementioned iPhone/iPod Touch version, and they’ve also got one for the same price that has both Micro and Mini USB plugs on it, which means that pretty much the entire modern smartphone world is covered.

The iPhone/iPod Touch version is also sold in red or white, just in case you’re too stylish for plain old black.

Scosche is also selling a second version of these called the FlipSYNC II, but they cost $5 more and the only differences seem to be a USB plug with full metal casing (rather than a ‘half’ plug) and the key loop is slightly larger. You can find those here (iPhone version) and here (Micro/Mini USB version), if you’d like to see for yourself.

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