Posts Tagged ‘gadgets’

It seems to be my lot to review tech only months after it hits end of life overseas, but at least it makes it not too old in the South African context, considering how far behind the curve we usually are! That said, I wasn’t looking for anything too current in any event when we finally succumbed to my eldest son’s pleading for a cellphone so I was delighted to find something that fitted the bill perfectly: the HTC Chacha.

A few words on the requirements first. My son was adamant that the phone should have a hardware keyboard and in was equally adamant (being of good technological taste) that it should not be a Blackberry. I also didn’t want to spend a fortune – ok, as little as possible – but was also keen to see t as close to a smartphone experience as possible, given the increasingly important role in think they’ll play. After much hunting around I was delighted to find the HTC Chacha on a contract for just R39 a month with R50 worth of airtime thrown in. Yes, MTN are basically paying me to own this phone. Does this mean it’s so bad they can’t even give it away? Read on, dearly beloved…

The Chacha is a candybar styled phone running the Android operating system and sporting a hardware keyboard set under a 2.6″ touchscreen of 320×480 resolution. The last point is important because it means that, not only does everything on the display look better, but it is also more compatible with all the great majority of the apps in Androids Play Store – all 500,000 of them. It also has 3G, WiFi, GPS and an FM radio. For a detailed look at the specs, follow this link. All in all, though, it’s very well specced for the price and certainly does better than something like the Blackberry 8520 or Nokia 303.

What’s it like to use? Well, understanding that my usage is based on the limited time I’ve had when furtively sneaking it away from my son, the overall experience is pretty good. The size is comfortable in the hand and the main selling point, the keyboard, is well constructed with the keys having good travel and a responsive feel. I personally prefer soft keyboards, but this seems like a good option for those who like hardware based ones. I also really like the fact that it runs Android, as it’s a flexible operating system with access to more apps than you can shake a stick at in the Play Store. There’s literally one for any need you can think of and, though the constant landscape orientation of the screen can feel awkward at times, HTC has generally made sure that usability remains high at all times. Love the fact that it’s so fully featured too – GPS is a bonus because it means my son, who sometimes has the sense of direction of James May from Top Gear, need not worry about getting lost; with the right app, we can even track each other’s location!

What’s not to like? On this particular model, the battery. It’ll get you through the day on light use, but any extended use means you’ll be looking for a charger before nightfall. Any kind of gaming sees the battery going down faster than a homesick mole. This can be a pain to manage if you use the phone for lots of different tasks (and why wouldn’t you?) but I guess if you’re mainly using it for messages and calls with some email it will general work for you. The other thing that would be irritating for me – although, again, not for the casual user – is the fact that it has relatively little memory, thus limiting the number of apps you can practically install. Lastly, it has a dedicated Facebook button to enable quick access of all sorts to the social networking site but I thought it rather pointless (unless you’re an absolute FB addict) and we soon remapped the button to toggle silent mode.

Since it is my son’s phone, I also asked him his opinion from a young user’s perspective. Being his first phone, he’s pretty enamoured with it and lives being able to get in touch with all of his friends, especially those far away. He likes the keyboard a lot, enjoys having a touch screen as well and particularly mentioned as a highlight the fact that Android had so many free apps to download. He was bugged by the fact that he got several errors when using Opera Mini (though I don’t think that’s peculiar to the Chacha) and also mentioned the short battery life as being irritating because it interfered with his ability to play a lot of games on the device. From a parenting point of view, that last issue may just be a plus!

All in all, this was a good purchase. I’d score it a solid seven out of ten – would have been an eight but for the battery life. It’s a good starter smartphone with a strong emphasis on messaging.

New tech! The Asus UL30A

Posted: June 2, 2010 in Uncategorized
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So the second quarter of the year has found me in a new job, a new city and a new province. And, as if there was ever really any need to wonder, all these changes have been accompanied by some new tech – my computer has now been upgraded and I’ve finally acquired a relatively new model, the Asus UL30A.

I was given a range of choices when taking up my new post but for practical considerations my primary concern was that my laptop should be small and light, which led me to look at the class of computers called ultraportables – and, because resources are not unlimited, the low cost variants of these. After much happy hunting, I settled on the UL30A and I have to say I’ve been extremely happy with it so far.

The spec is (with one exception, which I’ll get to later), not bleeding edge, but does the job fine for me. The processor is only clocked at 1.3ghz, but it is a dual core processor and in practical terms I notice little difference when working with Office and in Windows 7 from machines that are clocked at 2ghz. Sure, I won’t be playing any modern 3D games on it – was that a deliberate ploy by my new boss? – but that’s not high on my requirements list these days and you have to get tech suited to your actual lifestyle if you’re going to enjoy it. It also doesn’t come with a DVD drive built in, but I got an amazingly small and light external unit which is perfectly sufficient for those odd occasions when I genuinely need it and I’m happy to use that given the effect of keeping the weight down to about 1.7kg, only marginally heavier than a netbook. Other things I’m enjoying are the 13.3″ widescreen – what a pleasure to eliminate all the sideways scrolling I was doing with my old computer – and the many new features of Windows 7 over XP. I thankfully skipped the Vista debacle and I have to say that 7 is effective, stable and fun to use.

The list of gripes is small and minor at this stage. The integrated graphics card doesn’t provide scintillating performance – truth be told, it doesn’t affect my everyday working, but it would be nice to have the option of more. Also, the setup was done for me and there are some things I’d have done differently, but that’s just the control freak in me. And, err, well…perhaps I’ll revisit the gripes section when the honeymoon finally ends.

The UL30A does have one killer feature that I will boast about and leave you on: it’s battery life lasts me over 10 hours on a charge. Yes, people, that’s 10 hours real life usage, not some optimal/standby/everything-off/dim-screen scenario. The worst case is about 6 hours if I’m running the USB powered DVD drive flat out watching movies and the best case (dim screen, no wifi) would get me close to about 15 hours, I reckon. That means I get to use the computer as I would like, literally all day, without worrying about hunting for a power outlet or running out of juice half way through something critical. On that score, I now have serious bragging rights and get to end this off somewhat smugly sitting on 92% battery and and estimated 10 hours still left…

So I updated to the new 3.0 operating system on my iPod Touch and thought I’d note how it went.

As a Windows Mobile user, I’ve updated the operating systems on my devices many, many times. While not a particularly risky procedure if carefully done, it is quite labour intensive. First one needs to download the new OS file and then install it; this means that your entire device is wiped clean, so you generally then have to reinstall all your apps and data from scratch. The process (excluding the time taken to download the file) generally takes a couple of hours at least.

Things couldn’t have been more different this time round. I started the download of the file – a huge 260mb file as opposed to the 60mb files I was accustomed to – as soon as it was available, but traffic issues made it crash the first couple of times. Or maybe it was that I was trying to hijack my wife’s computer session! Anyway, eventually I gave up and left it to download overnight, figuring I’d continue the process in the morning.

When I got to the computer the next day, my iPod was lying there synced as if nothing had happened – but when I checked, the upgrade was complete. There was nothing that I had to do, nothing. The OS had been upgraded and all apps reinstalled with all data intact, no hint of problems in sight. For a seasoned WM user, not having to go through a laborious upgrade process was pretty special.

Has the $9.99 been worth it? Undoubtedly. For me, just the addition of Bluetooth has been worth it because I can pair my phone and iPod to the same device and have both available at once. Sigh, have to take all those calls in the car again. In true Apple fashion the implementation is lacking – no AVCRP (remote control) – but that gives then something to push out in the next upgrade. Other things like the system wide copy and paste and increased availability of landscape mode make the device a lot more practical as a PDA but also make you realize they should really have been there from the beginning. Lastly, many of the apps I’ve installed have been updated to take advantage of 3.0 (Docs to Go, for example) and they’ve also become more useful as a consequence – another happy surprise.

All in all, apart from the size of the download which is only a concern in this bandwidth backward country, this was a good upgrading experience. Just as well, because Apple’s crippling policies suggest there may be several more to come.

— Post From My iPod

As much as I have enjoyed my iPod Touch (just ask my family), I’ve also found a few things to be really irritating. The most frustrating thing is that they don’t really seem to be limitations on the hardware, because there are indications of workarounds, but rather on Apple’s obsession with locking things down and having them done only their way (image from here).

apple-worm2

The first, and greatest, of these frustrations relates to connectivity. The Touch can connect to computers via wifi or USB cable – Bluetooth exists but is locked out for now (come on OS 3.0!) – but the actual connection is not as simple or useful as you’d think. The “default” connection to iTunes is nowhere nearly as useful as Windows Mobile and Activesync, and that’s saying a lot because Activesync is pretty limited itself. The iTunes connection is fine for transferring songs or movies or applications, or even doing a backup, but that’s about it. Want to copy the notes you’ve made? Nope. Want to transfer files? Nope. Want to use it to synchronise with other apps? Nope. All of these things are standard for WM and make the process of trying to convert your use from one device to another very frustrating.

It’s possible within most apps to connect via wifi and use files on your PC that way, but it involves jumping through far too many hoops. You have to set up a peer to peer wireless network (how many people even know what this is?) and get the computer and Touch to see each other and then transfer files that way, but wireless issues and firewall issues often come into play. Even then, other apps can’t see the files you’ve transferred – the dreaded sandbox approach, which may enhance stability but is severely limiting. What makes me want to pull my hair out is that it’s technically possible to do all this over USB (found one app that does it), it’s just a case of Apple not allowing it. For a company hell bent on making the device as easy to use as possible, this is a glaring exception to the experience. Perhaps it’s easier on a Mac but, hey, I do represent the other 90% of the computing world

The second frustration has to do with the applications themselves. Again, they’re easy to use and work well most of the time, but are actually often limited in their capabilities compare to WM counterparts – the diary, for example, has no week view. While I know built in WM apps have limitations, third party apps overcome this but the policy is obviously different at Apple: one of my favourite diary programs, Pocket Informant, is woefully limited on the Touch compared to WM because Apple won’t let it have access to the built in diary to synchronise information. The music player on the Touch (and, from what I can see, third party apps) can’t compare to something like Pocket Player for WM, which will let me make playlists that play without gaps in the music. Finance apps are pretty, but don’t compare in functionality to SPB Finance. The list goes on and on – can’t save attachments, can’t download files…

And lastly, if I’m really going to use it as a PDA replacement, why can’t I change the home screen to display something other than shortcuts? Having all the information I need in one easy to see screen when I turn the device on is hugely practical and convenient. But, no, the story is the same as elsewhere: you get what you get and you don’t fiddle with it.

That said, I have high hopes for version 3.0 of the software, due out on the 17th. A good friend’s clever comment (thanks, Don!) was that it should be like getting a brain transplant for my beautiful model; even if it doesn’t go quite that far I am hoping for a move from standard to higher grade and an ease in many of the frustrations. We’ll see soon enough and it will at least give me more distractions from limitations. Otherwise the hunt for the perfect all in one will continue…

Apple iPod Shuffle 1GB

Posted: January 21, 2009 in Uncategorized
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Right. I’ve now got to the stage where I’m raiding my eldest son’s cupboard for stuff to write about – that scraping sound you hear is me exploring the bottom of the barrel. Apple clearly isn’t listening!

That said, Matt was the proud recipient this Christmas, via his really generous godparents, of an Apple iPod Shuffle 1GB. Like any good father (naturally!) I took a little time to check it out so that I could help him use it properly.

specs_external20080909

As it turns out, I need hardly have bothered. The most striking thing about this little device is its simplicity and ease of use. As you can see, there’s no screen and a very basic control set: just one large button (for full technical specs, see Apple’s website). It has two basic settings, shuffle or sequential, which means you can either let the player throw the songs out at random or you can move through the items you’ve put on one by one (in the order that they were transferred). Matt has a couple of audio books on the iPod, which effectively negates the possibility of using the shuffle option (unless you want a really weird storytelling experience, random chapters mixed with songs!). At least it remembers the position you were last listening at, otherwise getting to your last point would be a chore every time. As it is, you just stop listening where you need to and pick up off from the same point the next time you turn it on.

The player seems to go a good 12 hours or so on a single charge, which is just as well because you can only charge off a computer unless you buy the wall charger accessory. Sound quality seems okay, though it’s hard to tell with only the stock earphones to use: the lack of any kind of equaliser means that my Sennheisers are just too bassy for my liking. The maximum volume can be set on the computer using iTunes, which is a useful feature for parents worrying about their kids’ hearing. One gig holds a reasonable number of songs when you consider the most likely uses to which the Shuffle would be put, but does mean you’re going to be deleting and transferring songs quite regularly if you like a wide selection of music.

This is one Apple product I wouldn’t buy for myself (the lack of a screen and other options would frustrate me endlessly), but it’s perfect for Matt. The lack of options means that it’s very simple to use and he never gets stuck wondering what to do – go back or forward, play or pause, volume up and down and that’s it. I guess the moral of the story is that the player is intended for a specific audience or setting (simple use, workouts etc), and if you fall into that niche it should work well for you. If not, look around…

Eish. Bass!

cx_300_black_4102

The improvement in audio experience offered by my DS980 headset as compared to the stock earphones supplied with my Nokia N78 prompted me to look for something similar in a wired headset. A brief tour of various websites reminded me that, when it comes to audio equipment, the sky’s the limit in terms of pricing. You can get whatever you want but you sure do pay for it. After some investigation, I settled on these as likely to provide decent sound at not too exorbitant a price (around R400, though I see they are going for as low as around $25 on Amazon – that’s a bargain).

The earphones are of the in-ear variety and came packaged in one of those hard, clear moulded plastic containers. My usual dislike for these containers increased tenfold when trying to open this one – far too much sweat, patience and use of sharp implements required. I was a little paranoid at reading of the many fakes that were shipped worldwide but went through all the comparison points and am pretty satisfied that these are the real thing. They don’t come with any kind of case, but there are three sizes of the rubber tips available – very important this, because getting a proper seal with in-ear earphones is critical to getting the full depth of the audio range. I know that opinions vary as to whether or not earphones need to be “burnt in” or not, but I must say that they do seem better and more settled after 10 or so hours of use.

My immediate impression on plugging these in was that of bass being heavily emphasised. This might have been the more so because the DS980 headset I was using is a little light on bass, but it felt like the CX-300s went all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum. Though the clarity is good, balance is less so – the standard settings mean that the mid range is a little lost in the face of the low end emphasis. However, I changed the EQ settings on my Nokia to “Jazz”, which ups the mid range, and the effect is much better. The emphasis on bass is still there, providing quite a heft to the sound, but you can now hear other instruments much more clearly, and the voices come through very nicely. On any kind of track that is bass driven (most rock and pop, for example) the experience is pretty satisfying – listening to “Unbreakable” by Fireflight, it’s almost like feeling the thump of a subwoofer and makes the song very powerful. Spacing feels like it could be better on tracks with full instrumentation (back to the balance issue?) but where there is inherently a more sparse approach they work very well – I enjoyed Ultravox’s “Vienna” on a whole new level with these.

In comparison to the DS980s, which is better? Difficult question, to be honest. They’re not far apart in terms of sound quality and it probably relates more to what kind of music you prefer. If you are more into rock, pop and dance/hip hop, the CX-300s would be your choice, whereas listening to jazz or classics might see you preferring the DS980s For myself, it sometimes comes down to choice of individual track, though I’ve been using the CX-300 headset more because of my recent listening choices and the fact that it’s so much kinder on the battery of my N78 (no Bluetooth radio being driven). Of course, I nearly went and spoilt my experience of both headsets by listening for a while on a Bose Triport IE headset: you can again clearly hear an improvement over both, with full bass present but also mid and upper range clarity – great balance, almost like getting the best of both my headsets. But, hey, they retail for more than three times the price of the CX-300s, so it’s a case of getting what you pay for. And, as I said earlier, you can go a lot higher in paying for your audio but I do have budget constraints.

Upgrading your headphones/earphones is probably the single biggest improvement you can make to the sound quality from your MP3 player, no matter what it is. Almost invariably, the packaged headphones are no more than adequate and you will be amazed at how your enjoyment of the music increases when you do this upgrade; in fact, I’d advise people to spend more on this aspect than on worrying about differences in the players themselves. The CX-300s work very well from this perspective and I’m pretty happy with the purchase. Again, a Steve’s Satisfaction Score of 8.

On a final note, this was a difficult review to write for one reason only – I’m running out of gadgets to review! Apple, are you listening?

shoX mini speaker

Posted: December 19, 2008 in Uncategorized
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I have Eskom to thank for this one! We ran a marriage course at our church earlier this year in the middle of all the power outages and load shedding that the kindly power utility forced on us and we were concerned that we wouldn’t have a way to play the background music that was needed for the times when husbands and wives engaged in conversation with each other. We could use my trusty X7500 to play the music but its speakers were nowhere loud enough to make it heard sufficiently. Resisting my temptation to get something way out of proportion to our needs, we eventually came across this great little piece of engineering.

shox-mini-speaker1

The portable speaker is really small – even expanded it’s no more than 52mm x 65mm and it weighs only about 50g; you can also fold it up by twisting it and it’s dead simple to toss it in your pocket or any other conveniently small bag. Great solution for being on the go. You simply plug the 3.5mm jack into your media player (iPod, cellphone or X7500!) and you’re good to go for about 3-4 hours depending on the volume at which you play it. It’s internal battery charges via a USB cable, so most commonly using your computer although you can get USB wall chargers as well.

What makes this an impressive solution for something so portable is the enhanced bass that you get when the gadget is extended, as in the photo. Although you’re not going to be replacing the subwoofer in your lounge with this anytime soon, it blows away the internal speakers built in to the media players themselves. The total output of 2.4 watts doesn’t sound like a lot, but it can fill a medium sized room more than adequately, making it a really nice background music solution. And did I mention it’s really portable?

Oregon Scientific RGR126

Posted: December 17, 2008 in Uncategorized
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Ah, gotta love technology… One of my many weaknesses is a fascination with weather statistics, so I couldn’t resist the chance to by this little gadget: the Oregon Scientific RGR126 Wireless Rain Gauge with Indoor and Outdoor Thermometer.

rgr126p

The rain gauge is the large cylindrical unit and it has a clever little rocking mechanism inside to measure the rainfall. It has holders on each side of the mechanism that fill with rainwater and then tilt to empty themselves once full; the unit measures the number of times it tilts from one side to the other and thus calculates the amount of rain (in mm). The temperature gauges are twofold: one in the main unit to display inside temperature and the other in the portable unit to measure outside temperature.

It took a little while to set everything up correctly (the range isn’t nearly what’s claimed) but it works very nicely once that has been done. I had a slight adventure with the rain gauge when what I thought was a malfunction turned out to be a spider that built a web inside it and I also had to place the temperature gauge in a good spot (not direct sunlight – it doesn’t really get up to 42 degrees in Jhb in the winter!) but I’ve now settled on good spots and all readings seem accurate.

I love the fact that everything is wireless and that I don’t have to empty the gauge or go outside to check temperatures. It’s been fun to measure this year’s rainfall against averages (we’re 40mm up so far) and I now understand why we haven’t been able to show the boys how leaving water outside in winter makes it freeze up – it hasn’t dropped below 3 degrees Celcius. The batteries are doing a good job of lasting – haven’t replaced them in about 9 months – and the gadget is a fun talking point when people notice it.

I may be getting behind in the “he who dies with the most gadgets wins” race, but at least I can boast a good spread of them…