The Vita Launch from the Eyes of a Japanese Developer

Sony's new gaming handheld, the PS Vita, is now available in Japan and while the full North American launch is not until February 22, the Japanese release gives us an early glimpse into the hardware, its games, its technology, and even its early issues. We asked Q Entertainment's James Mielke to give his perspective on where mobile gaming is at in Japan , some early impressions of the Vita, and his perspective on the Vita as a developer.



The Vita Hardware

The Vita sticks to the widescreen dimensions of the PSP, although it is a little bigger. For people who would complain about its bigger-than-PSP size, I implore you to recall the Game Gear or Nomad, and let us not forget how big the iPad is now (even though it's not a dedicated gaming device). In other words, the Vita is still a very portable device.

So how do I feel about the Vita now that I have one in my hands? Well, for starters, despite the preorder madness for Wi-Fi Vitas in Japan, I was able to walk into a Bic Camera (which is a large electronics chain in Japan) and simply buy one. Still, the Bic I went to in Shin-Yokohama had fewer than 10 of the Wi-Fi models left. I wanted to buy a 32GB memory card--which is exorbitantly priced at over $150--but those are impossible to find unless you preordered one months ago. So I settled for a 16GB card, which came out to approximately $95 to $100. I know these memory cards add a lot to the base price of the Vita, but at least the Vita is region-free, so you don't have to buy one for North American games and one for Japanese games. Speaking of games, I bought two: Everybody's Golf 6 and Shinobido 2. My friends asked me, "Why didn't you buy Uncharted?!" to which my answer is that I will, but I'm waiting for the North American version.
Everybody's Golf 6 is one of those games that I can play forever. It's relaxing, bright, and colorful, and it's easy to play. Clap Hanz has kept the ship that Camelot started sailing smoothly for a long while now, and although it feels like a typical launch title (and a tad sluggish at 30fps), it's still good fun. Since I operate on a dad's budget, I could afford to get only one other game, so I chose Shinobido 2, a Tenchu clone.
Shinobido 2 is definitely not in the same visual league that Uncharted for the Vita is. Though it runs at a high frame rate and is fun to play, it looks more like a high-resolution PlayStation 2 game. Still, it's more Shinobido, so I'm happy about that. This is not an import-friendly game, though; it is menu-heavy, and the menus are completely in Japanese. If you're interested in this game, wait for the English version being published by Namco Bandai as Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen.
At a recent Vita event for the media, held by Sony in New York City, I had a chance to try two games that I'll definitely be picking up soon: FIFA and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Both games look absolutely beautiful on the Vita's large high-def screen, but they play as well as their console counterparts. You can thank the two analog sticks in the case of FIFA. For UMVC3, I was conditioned to think of handheld versions as the bastard ports of the console versions. But after trying the Vita version of Capcom's fighter, I think this is the version (for me at least) to get. Since I don't really get to play games with my friends, I never sit down and devote lots of time to fighting games in front of my TV anymore. If I'm playing at home, it's usually something like Dark Souls or Skyrim.

And that's an important aspect of the Vita. The reason the Vita is so cool is that I could imagine a portable Dark Souls or Skyrim running on this thing. Play at home, do a little "transfarring" (transferring cloud saves) to the Vita, play during lunch, and then resume your progress at home. Or just play on the Vita completely.
In terms of hardware, the Vita is pretty much the perfect gaming console for me. It's a powerful machine--one look at it running a high-end game should convince any gaming enthusiast to want one. The screen is big and beautiful. If you're not excited for this piece of hardware, it's because you haven't seen one in person. I appreciate what this system does simply because I'm old enough to remember when we couldn't even imagine a machine with high-definition visuals like this. Technology is amazing, and the Vita is the peak of handheld gaming tech.
The Vita's two analog sticks are a necessity, in my opinion, because I've suffered long enough with the PSP's sole analog nub. I don't believe that touch screen controls will ever satisfy me as much as sticks and buttons do, but it's nice having the best of both worlds on the Vita. I think to myself, "Wow, I can play a real first-person shooter on this." It's also nice not having to fumble around for peripherals, like a stylus. The Vita's face buttons (X, square, circle, and triangle) are a bit smaller than the PSP's, but they're much "clickier," so the response is more satisfying. Their placement is a little cramp-worthy for bigger hands, though, in particular the thumbsticks. Also less than optimal are the L and R shoulder buttons, which feel "soft" when pressed and don't have a satisfying click to let you know you've pressed them as far as they will go.
"If you're not excited for this piece of hardware, it's because you haven't seen one in person."If you're thinking about picking up an import Vita, I'm glad to say--at least in regard to the Wi-Fi version-- that there's nothing that should hold you back if you can't wait. I have no idea if the 3G models will be compatible with carriers in the States, but you can switch all of the language and menu options to English, read official Sony English documentation in the Vita's Web browser (yes, the English language links are already live), and register your North American and, presumably, your European PSN accounts with the system. I have both Japanese and North American PSN accounts, but I registered the Japanese account since there's nothing on the North American PSN store relevant to the Vita just yet. I then registered my Vita to my PlayStation 3 and transferred PSP games like Monster Hunter Portable 3rd, and my game saves (conveniently stored there from my time with Monster Hunter Portable 3rd HD), from my PS3 to my Vita.
Since it was nice and sunny in the house the morning after I bought the system, I took some photos of my daughter and me with the Vita's built-in camera. The pics ended up being around 67KB in terms of file size, and they were passable, iPhone-quality shots. You won't be replacing your DSLR anytime soon with your Vita camera, but it's sufficient for taking snapshots and for gaming applications that make use of augmented reality. One thing you'll definitely want to invest in if you haven't already is a good pair of headphones. The Vita's built-in speakers aren't bad for what they are, but having firsthand experience developing a game in which the audio experience is key, I can tell you that what the Vita may lack in external audio punch, it more than makes up for with its in-headset audio. The Vita also sounds a bit louder than the PSP did, which is good because the PSP always sounded too low.
One thing I really like in the Vita's features department is the Near functionality. I didn't think I'd care about it much, but now that I've tried it, it's actually quite addictive and shares some characteristics with the 3DS's StreetPass feature. Near shows me who else is playing within my vicinity, and when my vicinity is Tokyo, that turns out to be a lot. One day after the Vita went on sale, I saw more than 30 people in my neighborhood via Near, and I live in a high, mountainous area filled with old people and families with young kids (as opposed to a more densely populated urban area like Shibuya). It's fun to see what those people are playing, especially when they're playing the same things I am, and I'm going to check out how many people I can connect with in central Tokyo soon.
The other big connectivity plus is how the Vita suddenly makes your PSN friends list infinitely more useful and enjoyable. Compared to Xbox Live's well-designed friends list, my PSN friends list on the PS3 was much less meaningful. Although I could see what they were doing online--at least those who live in the same time zone--I never played online with them, and the amount of information PSN shared with me about my friends always seemed more of a hassle. For instance, why is the act of loading trophies always so slow? The friends tab in the Near feature on the Vita suddenly transforms my almost pointless PSN friends list into a live feed of what my pals are up to, which is exponentially more interesting, and I'm guessing it will only improve with time as Sony refines the firmware. One other thing I like about the Vita over the PSP is that you can now update the firmware as long as your Vita is plugged in. No more waiting for your battery to charge to full before you can update it.
One thing that I hope will improve over time is the overall Vita interface. I don't have any real, sincere issues with it, but I get the feeling that Sony was going out of its way to avoid replicating an iOS, Windows Phone, and Android block-based icon style--to its detriment. As a result, Sony designed something that was possibly--if I may romanticize it for a moment--designed to simulate the game pieces of the classic Chinese game Go. But in reality, they look like Mentos. [Editor's note: Ah yes, the Freshmaker.] Now, I like Mentos' minty charm as much as the next dude, but using spheres as opposed to rectangles gives you about 25 percent less space to communicate your game or app's identity on the Vita's screen. It also makes the menus look more haphazard than organized (although you can rearrange icon order and page color as you wish). I also think that the Vita's Mentos icons could use some polishing. Right now they look a little unfinished, if not quite jaggy. The ironic thing is that Sony practically pioneered square, grid-based icons with its original PlayStation memory cards. Maybe Sony just wanted to break from the standard, but I think the Mentos icons have room for improvement.
One other annoyance worth mentioning is the new PC-based data manager, creatively titled Content Manager Assistant. I still have bad memories of Sony's switch from its PSP Media Manager to the clunky MediaGo (to accommodate the PSP Go). I don't mind the Content Manager Assistant as much, but it annoys me that it's only on PC. That's probably because much of Japan still uses Internet Explorer and Windows XP, but come on--is it too much trouble to get a Mac version?
"The other big connectivity plus is how the Vita suddenly makes your PSN friends list infinitely more useful and enjoyable."A few other random tidbits: LiveTweet for the Vita--a free, day-one launch app on the PSN Store--is one of the nicest Twitter apps I've seen, and it's fun to use. Second, although it is not as nice-looking as the HD version on the PS3, Monster Hunter Portable 3rd looks great running on my Vita. I'm looking forward to taking it for a spin with the other Vita Monster Hunter junkies at work to see if the right analog stick makes a huge difference. Third, the new peel interface (in which you press the PS Home button to exit an app and peel the page down to close it) is very nice and is intuitive to use. The D-pad is also a nice improvement over the PSP's, which felt stiff. I attribute this to the fact that the entire Vita D-pad is exposed, so your thumb doesn't feel like it's fighting with the surface of the device, which plagued the PSP's D-pad. It's also less likely to get gummed up as a result of heavy use, hopefully.
The power cord on the Vita debug units I have at work feature a conventional plug, similar to the PSP's power cord. But the retail Vita units have a proprietary two-part power cord; one end fits into your AC outlet, while the other half--which plugs into your Vita--has a unique connector, which is roughly the same size as a mini-HDMI jack. The opposite end of this cable is a standard-size USB connector, which fits into the AC plug to recharge, and it also doubles as a connector to your PS3 (which, based on menu options, can also recharge your Vita via USB power).
The pricey memory unit came packaged in a tiny plastic blister pack, within a disproportionately large cardboard sleeve. The memory unit is so small and so tough to get out of the plastic enclosure that I was sure I'd unintentionally launch this thing across the room, never to find my $100 investment again. Luckily that didn't happen, and I was able to slot it into its tiny compartment at the bottom of the Vita. The game cartridges go into a compartment at the top of the system, under a small attached compartment cover. The cover keeps dust out and maintains a nice look to the unit overall, but I wonder if it will hold up to repeated openings over the years. After all, no Nintendo portable device has ever needed a cartridge cover, so I wonder why Sony felt the need to cover these slots.
Picking up some extra goods.
Speaking of cartridges, I'm personally glad that the Vita uses either cartridges or digital downloads to deliver its games and not leftover MiniDiscs doing double duty as UMDs. In theory, this reduces loading times (although loading times still do definitely exist on the Vita), but more importantly, it reduces the number of moving parts in the system, which makes Vitas more durable and subject to less wear and tear as well as fewer breakable parts. That trapdoor for UMDs on the PSP always seemed so fragile, and if I was playing a game in bed in the middle of the night, the whirring of the disc drive always annoyed my sleeping wife. Carts come in standard sizes of 2GB and 4GB, which should be plenty for any game created for the Vita. I can't imagine that a game that would require a double-cartridge set would ever be profitable.
One of the smart things Sony is doing is making sure that all retail games have digital download versions. This offers consumers convenience if they want a game quickly and don't care about packaged goods. It keeps titles available long after the physical print run has dried up, and whether you agree with this sentiment or not, it helps offset the losses created by piracy and the used-game market--both of which hurt the industry. As a result, you can expect to see lots of North American game publishers--like Xseed--bringing over some cool, niche Japanese titles as digital downloads with no physical versions, to cut down on manufacturing costs. I don't know how long it will be until physical cart- or disc-based games go away completely, but we're heading in that direction.
Ultimately, I bought a Vita because I still value high-quality games that I can control with buttons and sticks, as well as touch screens. It has a beautiful screen, and while it does all the social networking things, I like that it's designed as a game system and not as a smartphone. Maybe few people care about this distinction, but I'm one of the holdouts.

Don’t call Windows 8 ‘largely irrelevant’ until you actually use it

Analysts from IDC, Forrester, and Gartner are predicting that Windows 8 will be "irrelevant" because it's too late to the tablet game and businesses might not want to upgrade, but the real success of Microsoft's new OS will depend on how intuitive and easy to use it is.

We haven’t yet seen a beta version of Windows 8, but analysts are already claiming it is doomed. Analysts from IDC, Gartner, and Forrester are predicting that the new OS will face an uphill battle in the PC and tablet markets for a number of reasons, but none of those reasons seem particularly relevant to the OS itself or the experience of using it. Microsoft has released an extremely limited Developer Preview of Windows 8, but the OS is still a ways from completion.

IDC’s predicts Windows 8 will be “largely irrelevant”

Yesterday, the IDC released a 17-page paper for $3,500 that gives its top 10 predictions for 2012. The 10th prediction: “Windows 8 will launch with split success.”

According to IDC, “Windows 8 will be largely irrelevant to the users of traditional PCs, and we expect effectively no upgrade activity from Windows 7 to Windows 8 in that form factor.”

In an interview with Computerworld Monday, Al Gillen, an IDC research vice president, elaborated on what that means: ”Customers will be asking ‘What value does Windows 8 bring to my desktops and laptops?’ and the only real benefit I can see is that it provides access to the Windows app store,” said Gillen, who also cited application compatibility issues as a big problem. ”Windows 2000 Pro required developers to upgrade their applications, but they didn’t do it. So Microsoft was forced to release Windows XP, with better application compatibility. Then Vista came along, and ditto, it was short on application compatibility. Windows 7 improved [application compatibility] because Microsoft had to.”

This isn’t true

Windows 8 on Intel will be fully compatible with Windows 7 apps and be fully capable of running x86 applications (older software for XP and before), according to Microsoft. Developers will likely want to upgrade their apps to the Metro-style UI, because it will better fit with the look of Windows 8 and better take advantage of the new operating system’s strengths, but older apps will be able to run on a classic desktop. There is no mandate to update. Microsoft has been going out of its way to include backward compatibility in Windows 8. So much so that it was our number one complaint when we tested the developer preview.

Windows 8 machines running on ARM processors (mostly tablets) will not be compatible with older software, according to recent reports, but the ball is in Microsoft’s court to explain the difference between the tablet ARM version of Windows 8 and the Intel version, which has years of compatibility and history baked into it. Windows Weekly co-host Mary Jo Foley addressed some of these issues in a recent piece on ZDNet.

From everything we’ve heard about Windows 8, the IDC’s predictions are not true for the mass market. Maybe businesses won’t upgrade at first, but like every version of Windows, it will be fueled by new PC adoption. As people buy new PCs, they’ll get the new OS. Business Insider reports that with Windows 7, 75 percent of its launch sales came from new PCs, and that number has only risen. This happened even with Vista, despite its clunky launch. If Windows 8 isn’t a total bomb on usability, it will be adopted by users. It’s only challenge may be Android, but that OS is only beginning to gear up for its expansion into PCs. It will be a year or two (or longer) before Android is a credible threat as a full PC replacement.

More half-baked predictions

Other research companies have come out with similar conclusions. Representatives from Gartner claim that many businesses will suffer from “migration fatigue” after recently upgrading to Windows 7, hampering the potential success of Windows 8.

Last week, Forrester Research predicted on its blog that the OS would have a tough time in the tablet market: “For tablets, though, Windows really isn’t a fast follower,” said JP Gownder of Forrester. “Rather it’s (at best) a fifth-mover after iPad, Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, HP’s now-defunct webOS tablet, and the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. While Windows’ product strategists can learn from these products, other players have come a long way in executing and refining their products — Apple, Samsung, and others have already launched second-generation products and will likely be into their third generation by the time Windows 8 launches.”

Earlier this year, IDC also predicted that Windows Phone 7 would become the number two smartphone OS by 2015 with a “20.9″ percent market share. The company’s reasoning seems to be almost entirely fueled by confidence in the partnership between Nokia and Microsoft. While anything is possible, and we are fans of Windows Phone, the OS has a long way to go to become the second most-popular smartphone operating system. Since March, WP7 market share has actually dropped to about five percent (or less) of the market. We expect it will rise, but currently it sits as a distant fourth, with no signs of upward movement.

Windows 8 success depends on how well it works

Strangely, these Windows 8 predictions don’t seem to take into account anything Microsoft has control over. They claim that the OS may be too late to enter the tablet race, or that businesses won’t be ready to upgrade, or falsely accuse the OS of having poor backward compatibility, but none of them seem to address what will actually make or break Windows 8: how well it works.

Microsoft does not appear to be aiming at the business market with Windows 8. Yes, it wants to make sure that market remains happy, but the major visual and structural upgrades made to Windows were to make it a lot more touch friendly and improve its usability on lower-end machines and consumer-oriented devices like tablets and netbooks. It has big fonts, big Live Tile icon widgets, and a colorful new interface. A business-oriented product would not emphasize these sorts of features and design elements. Windows 8 is deliberately aiming to win back the mindshare of users who are beginning to warm to the idea of moving to iOS, Mac OS X Lion, and Android because they’re easier to use. Most of the innovations in Windows 8 come from Windows Phone 7, which is a part of the smartphone revolution that has been fueled almost entirely by regular people, not businesses. If businesses were still in control of the smartphone market, RIM wouldn’t be struggling so much with its BlackBerry brand. Times are changing.

Windows 8 will have its fair share of obstacles, but almost every version of Windows has had a rough or slow start. The key to its success will be how well Microsoft makes this new interface work. The number one priority in Redmond should be figuring out how to integrate old apps into the new Windows 8 experience more fluidly and consistently. If people really like using Windows 8 and for once, non-techie people can figure out how to use it as easily as they are picking up and using iPads, then Microsoft will have a damn good shot at success.

Until we actually see a beta version of Windows 8 (rumored to be coming in February), take what these analysts say with a grain of salt.

Verizon to block Google Wallet on the Galaxy Nexus

Verizon has decided to remove Google Wallet from the Galaxy Nexus, likely in favor of its own mobile payment system backed by ISIS. T-Mobile and AT&T may follow.

If you were excited to try out Google Wallet on the Galaxy Nexus, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Verizon has decided to block Google’s mobile payments solution from the phone. Google representatives have confirmed with multiple sources that it was Verizon’s decision to block the product.

“Verizon asked us not to include this functionality in the product,” a Google representative told CNET.

No official reason has been given, but it’s known that Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile are working with ISIS to concoct another mobile payment system. The three carriers have invested at least $100 million in the company this year. It’s likely that AT&T and T-Mobile will block the app as well. You may wonder why there can’t be two or more competing systems, since the US is a country built on the idea of competition, but wireless carriers have been known to repeatedly restrict functionality on phones and devices for their own gain. Mobile hotspots and tethering are two recent examples, but even running app stores used to be a carrier-led function. Luckily, smartphones have changed that. It’s likely that whatever system ISIS develops will give carriers some form of monetary return. Google’s service does not give a kickback to carriers, as far as we know.

Sprint is currently the only US carrier that supports Google Wallet. Community hacks to allow NFC-enabled phones to run Google Wallet will likely pour out, though with data as sensitive as our credit card numbers, we really wish a hack wouldn’t be necessary to try out Google’s service. For now, the Galaxy Nexus

Launching the Galaxy Nexus–which is supposed to be an open Google phone–on Verizon continues to be a challenge for Google and Samsung. Though its Droid brand helped catapult Android into the mainstream, Verizon is used to highly restricting and modifying the phones on its network. Earlier this year, Verizon went so far as to remove vital Google apps like Maps and put Bing on the LG Revolution, almost entirely removing the main reasons people buy an Android handset. The carrier, like others, also controls the entire launch process for devices. Just yesterday, Samsung employees at a showcase shop in New York were forced to pull the Galaxy Nexus from shelves. We cataloged that whole debacle here.

We have heard rumors that the Galaxy Nexus may finally hit shelves on Friday, but Verizon has yet to give an actual release date.

Update: Bloomberg has obtained a quote from a Verizon representative, claiming that the app has been removed due to security concerns. Jeffrey Nelson, a Verizon spokesperson said that Verizon wants to have “the best security and user experience” and that it will unblock Google Wallet “when those goals are achieved.” What, exactly, that means is unclear. Will Google have to somehow integrate ISIS’s system to be approved?

Starbucks mobile apps account for 26 million transactions over 2011

While mobile payment technology is slowing starting to seep into retail establishments around the country, coffee company Starbucks is reporting massive growth with mobile payments at the register.

Launched during January 2011, Starbucks Mobile Pay allows customers of the coffee chain to make purchases with an iPhone, Android phone or BlackBerry using a mobile application. The initial launch allows customers to make mobile payments at approximately 6,800 Starbucks locations as well as 1,000 Target locations. However, this number has climbed to 10,000 locations over the past eleven months by adding Safeway Starbucks stores and locations in Canada. Nine weeks after the company initially launched the apps, Starbucks processed three million mobile payments. In the past nine weeks, the company has processed approximately six million mobile payments, double the volume of the initial nine weeks. In total, the company has processed 26 million transactions since launch.

While Starbucks won’t divulge how many people have downloaded the mobile application across the various smartphone platforms, Adam Brotman, senior vice president and general manager of Starbucks digital ventures, did say that over 90 percent of the people that downloaded the app have used it at least once. Cities with the highest percentage of people using a smartphone at the register include Chicago, San Francisco, New York, San Jose and Seattle. Brotman also mentioned that mobile devices make up 10 percent of digital gift card purchases. Customers are also using the mobile app to reload physical gift cards and have added over $100 million to the cards in the past eleven months.

The mobile payment program is expanding in January 2012 and will roll out at 700 locations in the United Kingdom. Starbucks doesn’t have any current plans for an application on Windows phones, but is watching the development of that application store as well as the growth of the Kindle Fire for potential areas of expansion. Starbucks is planning to update the application in the coming weeks across all three platforms.

SkyLight adapter connects smartphones to any microscope

SkyLight, a Kickstarter project, is an adapter that connects any smartphone to any microscope.

A smartphone accessory named SkyLight, aims to be a low-cost bridge between old and new technology. SkyLight is an adapter for smartphones that supposedly connects to any microscope, and gives the scientific device a digital upgrade using the phone’s camera. The project is currently pursuing funding through Kickstarter.

The SkyLight team consist of Oakland-based engineerAndy and Geologist Tess. Andy came up with the concept for SkyLight while working on a low-cost microscope for countries in need. He decided that, not only was technology scarce in developing countries but so was availability to trained healthcare workers. A noble sentiment shared we’ve seen shared by UC Davis’ Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu and his ball lens tweak for the iPhone.

However, the SkyLight team points out the singularity of their idea, saying the device “is the first of its kind, as there is no other available device that attaches any smarthpone to any microscope.”

The adapter is light, weighing 4.9 ounces, and is made of various plastics. The SkyLight claims it will snuggle onto any eyepiece between 1.00” and 1.75” and lock in place. The smarthpone, fitted between the adapter’s two clips, is in charge of fine focus using its autofocus. Once calibrated, the smartphone camera can capture photos as well as video which can then be uploaded to the web, or viewed via video-conference software.

The team gave an example of the benefit of this device to, say, health workers in Malawi, Africa using old microscopes from the 80s, who could send send diagnostic images to a doctor hundreds of miles away. Andy says he even used the adapter with a 1960s microscope being used in Costa Rica. The device could also be beneficial in classrooms as a refreshing digital makeover for old government funded microscopes.

The Skylight Kickstarter page is aiming for $15,000 by January 2 of next year, and they have more $11,000 so far. The adapter can be owned starting at a pledge of $60, and for every five SkyLight devices sold one will be donated for global health or education.

Flipboard comes to iPhone with new design features

The oh-so-popular Flipboard news and social media app for iPad is now available for iPhone.

Since Flipboard launched in 2010, it has become one of the most popular apps for the iPad, making it easy for users to find new Web content in an aesthetically pleasing layout. And as of today, iPhone users can get in on the content sharing goodness with the newly designed Flipboard app made specifically for the smaller screen.

“The iPad is an amazing device that challenged us to rethink how people discover and share social news,” said Mike McCue, chief executive of Flipboard, in a statement. “With the iPhone we redesigned Flipboard for a new use case, where people want to find the things they care about even faster and multiple times every day. Flipboard for iPhone puts all the power of Flipboard in your pocket.”

For those of you unfamiliar with Flipboard, the app essentially pulls in content from around the web, including from social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, and repackages it to look like a high-end magazine. True to its name, Flipboard is navigated by flipping (rather than scrolling) through content.

New features for the iPhone app include Cover Stories, which automatically pulls in your most recent photo uploads and up-to-the-minute articles and other Web content. (This feature will be coming to the iPad version soon, the company says.) Unlike the iPad app, only one article appears on the screen at a time (a good thing), and they’ve made it possible to flip through articles and photos more quickly. Lastly, they’ve also added Flipboard Accounts, which makes it possible to sync content between the iPad and iPhone versions of the app.

Archos shows Ice Cream Sandwich running on its G9 tablet

Archos has released a video showing its G9 tablet running Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), which appears to have increased the performance of the tablet.
Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) has been released by Google, but through the holidays we won’t see many new smartphones or tablets shipping with it, since most of them were designed before Google released the code in November. As such, we still haven’t seen much of the new operating system. Yesterday, Archos sent us a video if its G9 tablet running Android 4.0 and it looks pretty nice, if a bit similar to Android 3.0 (Honeycomb). 
The video is embedded below, but we must say that the G9 in the video is definitely running smoother than the G9 tablet we’ve been reviewing here at the office. It looks like the tablet may ship with some new widgets as well. The Android Power Control widget is on the desktop in this video, which has been available on phones for years, but was not a part of the Honeycomb release. 
If Ice Cream Sandwich can speed up the Archos G9 this much, it may actually improve performance on a lot of older phones and tablets. The G9 will officially get its Android 4.0 update in early 2012, representatives tell us. 

Motorola unveils Droid Xyboard tablets and a white Droid Razr

Motorola has officially unveiled two Droid Xyboard tablets and a new, white version of the Droid Razr. Pictures and info inside.
Motorola has officially unveiled its Droid Xyboard tablets. As we suspected, they are rebranded Xoom 2 tablets, which were announced last month. If you care to look at that post, you’ll see the same specs we’re about to explain again. The move from the Xoom brand to “Droid Xyboard” was likely made due to lackluster sales of the original Motorola Xoom, which, like all Android tablets outside of the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet, hasn’t topped any charts. 
If tablets aren’t on your mind, we’ve also snagged some pictures of the new white Droid Razr. 
The Droid Xyboards
There are two Droid Xyboard models: an 8.2-inch version and a 10.1-inch version, and both are spiritual sequels to the original Xoom, but this time with 4G LTE built in from the get go. Both versions feature Android Honeycomb (upgrade coming soon), a 1280×800 display, a 1.2GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage, a 5MP rear camera, a 1.3MP front camera, gorilla glass screens with a splashguard, and 4G LTE, of course. 
Pricing is still a bit expensive. The Droid Xyboard 10.1 will cost $530 for 16GB of storage, $630 for 32GB of storage, and $730 for 64GB of storage. The Droid Xyboard 8.2 follows the same pattern, costing $430 for 16GB and $530 for 32GB. Both models will be released in December. 
Droid Razr in white
Have you heard? White is the new gray. Every phone will probably start coming with a white option because it’s the hip thing to do. The Droid Razr is not one to get left behind on trends. The world’s thinnest smartphone is now the world’s least-white…white phone. The white on the new Razr seems to be more of an accent color than anything else. The Kevlar back, mirrored camera protrusion, side groove, and screen of the phone are all gray and black. Still, if you like a bit of white, the Droid Razr will now accommodate. The white version should be available soon. 

Microsoft releases Xbox apps for Windows and iOS devices

Microsoft releases not only a Windows Phone Xbox app but iOS along with its Xbox Live dashboard update this week.

Coinciding with the Xbox Live dashboard update, Microsoft has released two new apps for smartphone users. While we knew about the Windows Phone’s Xbox Companion App, the iOS app was a bit of a surprise.

The official Xbox Live iOS app, dubbed My Xbox Live, is free and designed for both the iPhone and iPad. Not surprisingly, My Xbox Live is a slimmed down version of the Windows phone Companion app. Apple device owners will have a limited ability to modify your 3D avatar’s appearance, read and send messages to friends, edit profile, add new friends to the list and view achievements.

Interestingly, the iOS app has an interface similar to the Windows Phone Xbox Companion app, replicating that horizontal bar populated with circular icons at the bottom of the screen. Microsoft probably wouldn’t feel bad if it lured defectors over to its OS.

PC World points out that one of the major features the official Xbox Live iOS app is missing is the ability to support notifications; no notifications for new messages or game invites and the app seems to be a ghost in the iOS settings.

Xbox Companion for Windows Phone connects to your console and functions as a sort of remote control. Most noteably, users can use the apps Bing-powered search to trawl through the Xbox catalog for TV shows, games, music, movies and apps, and can then use the Windows Phone to launch a selected search result on your console. Using the app on your phone to navigate the Xbox desktop, purchase content and even control the playback of media on your console. Your smartphone will also give you details about whatever you’re playing, as well as showing you what your friends have recently played. Just like the iOS app, the Windows Phone app is free.

Macro Cell Lens Band gives your iPhone or Android an even better camera

Get sharp macro shots with your smartphone with the addition of this slim rubber band with a built-in macro lens.

Smartphone cameras are getting better and better, and we’re close to throwing out our slim point-and-shoots altogether with the new and improved camera on the iPhone 4S, but there are still a few things that phone cameras just can’t compete on. We won’t go into the list, but one of those things is taking close-up macro shots. Most point-and-shoots have a special macro setting that will let you focus on something when your camera is only an inch or so away from it (say a bug or a flower petal), but trying to get the same effect with just your smartphone is pretty hopeless. We have also seen many different add-ons and attachments for the iPhone or other smartphone cameras, but they are usually bulky and not anything that you would carry around on a daily basis. Well, we can now kill two birds with one stone with the Macro Cell Lens Band ($15) from our friends over at the Photojojo store.

This sturdy rubber band has a small built-in macro lens that will easily slide over the lens on any phone with a camera. We are seriously impressed with the sample photos using the tiny lens — it lets you get extra-close to subjects and will give you great detail in the process. Your Instagram photos will be even more impressive and artsy with the addition of this little rubber band to your repertoire. We are even more impressed with the fact that we might actually always carry this around with us. The band comes with a credit-card-sized card that you can put the band around to store in your wallet, but you could just as easily have it on your wrist or in a pocket should a macro-photography opportunity arise. Did we mention it’s only $15?

OnLive brings streaming console games to tablets and smartphones

OnLive has announced that it's bringing its full array of console games to tablets and smartphones, and we had the chance to get our hands on one and try it out.

OnLive has revealed its plans to bring its streaming video game service to tablets and smartphones. “500 million” iOS and Android devices will now have access to the roughly 200 console games that OnLive console players have had for a year and a half now. In addition, 25 games (including L.A. Noire) have been adapted to fully utilize touch controls. Games can be played over 3G, 4G LTE, or Wi-Fi.

Last week, we had a chance to check out the new OnLive streaming apps running on a myriad of devices including the HTC Rezound, Amazon Kindle Fire, Apple iPad 2, HTC Flyer, Motorola Xoom, iPhone 4S, iPod Touch, and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Though the latency was somewhat inconsistent in the office we were in, most of the games worked surprisingly well.

There are a few ways to play:

Five or so games, including L.A. Noire and Defense Grid Gold, will be launching with completely revamped, touch-based controls. These games won’t require a controller or anything extra, and you can just start playing them on your phone or tablet. OnLive CEO Steve Perlman showed off Defense Grid Gold running touch-based controls, which are quite natural for a top-down strategy game of its type. When you play these games, you’re facing OnLive players that could be on consoles, smartphones, or maybe a PC. World of Goo is another completely touch-based game.
OnLive has worked with publishers to add a touch option to 20 or so more console-level games, including Assassin’s Creed Revelations. These games can be played via touch with on-screen button controls, mimicking a controller.

Finally, if you want to play Batman: Arkham City or other more complicated games, you can use the new OnLive Universal Wireless Controller, which has all the buttons you’d see on an Xbox 360 or PS3 controller. We played Unreal Tournament on an iPad using a controller and it was pretty good, save for a bit of lag. It was shocking to see it running at all, honestly.
Up to four controllers can hook up, providing the game or tablet allows it. The controllers have an adaptive wireless technology that lets them automatically find an optimal wireless connection for a given tablet, smartphone, PC, Mac, TV, or Blu-ray player we’re told.

Like Netflix, any progress you make on your smartphone will be instantly saved to the cloud, allowing you to resume from any device exactly where you left off. And because everything is streamed, the graphics you see on OnLive are often better than other consoles, though a slow connection will downgrade the quality, much like Netflix gets choppy around 8pm each night when everyone is watching.

We weren’t able to play L.A. Noire, but the game seems perfect for touch-based controls. It would make sense for it to work similarly to an old point-and-click PC adventure games, like Sam & Max.

“The thing about L.A. Noire is that it’s a very very high performance game,” said Perlman while explaining how the system works. “It’s got incredibly realistic faces. It works well on consoles and if you have a PC, you pretty much want a brand new one if you want to run it at 60 frames per second–anything less than a state of the art one is going to be less than ideal. But the thing about the kind of game it is. it’s actually one that appeals to a broad, casual audience….My parents would be into it, but they’d never pick up a controller with ABXY buttons and joysticks, and they’re certainly not going to buy a high-end PC, so this bridges into that audience with a game that is terrific for casual gamers.”

OnLive wants to be the Netflix of video games. With today’s announcement, it comes pretty close. No release date has been given, but the OnLive apps should start appearing on the Android Market, Kindle Fire Appstore, and Apple App Store soon. No Windows Phone support was announced, but Perlman said that if users demand a platform, they’ll build for it.

As for pricing, the OnLive home console and controller bundle is $100 and extra controllers are $50 a piece. You can fully purchase games at $20-$50 or rent many titles for much less. The company also has an all-you-can-eat, Netflix-style “PlayPack” plan for $10 a month, which includes access to more than 100 games including Batman: Arkham City. Presumably, you could simply download the app on a tablet and play touch-based OnLive games without purchasing a console or controller at all now. We’ll be testing out the entire OnLive service in the weeks ahead.

Nokia prepares to sell luxury brand Vertu

The streamlining of Finnish mobile company Nokia is set to continue with the sale of Vertu, their low-tech/high-bling luxury device division.

Following recent reports of factory closures and redundancies, Nokia is now reportedly preparing to put its luxury handset brand, Vertu, up for sale. The move is part of the beleaguered mobile giant’s attempts to streamline its operations in an effort to compete with the likes of HTC, Apple and Samsung.

For those  of you not familiar with the name, Vertu is Nokia’s high-end mobile phone division, which has been around since 1998. Vertu offers handsets built using fancy materials and adorned with glittering jewels, most of which come at an astronomical price.  Strangely, Vertu has never been about the technology, and only last month launched its first touchscreen phone, the Constellation.

While handmade phones covered in alligator skin and diamonds, featuring exclusive ringtones recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, may not attract the geeks, they’re very popular with those who can afford to splash out anywhere from $5,000 to $200,000 on a Symbian-based phone. The recent Constellation launch party in London was attended by actors James Franco and Michael Fassbender, just to give you an idea of their clientele.

Now though, the Financial Times reports that Goldman Sachs has been appointed to oversee the sale of Vertu, from which Nokia can expect to raise between $268 million and $402 million, according to Goldman’s estimates. The newspaper’s sources say private equity groups have already expressed interest, but they expect other luxury goods companies to step in too, as Vertu shares a similar customer base.

Vertu has been financially outperforming Nokia recently, but with little crossover between the brands and the Finnish firm’s desire to make its Windows Phone 7 devices a success around the world, so saying goodbye to Vertu could be prudent.

Sony Ericsson Xperia Play : PlayStation Phone Review

Before you pop the cork for us, do bear in mind that what we're seeing here is subject to changes, so don't be alarmed by any missing features or exposed cables in our preview. When you're ready, head right past the break to find out what Sony Ericsson's cooking up.

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play (PlayStation Phone) preview

Hardware

In case you haven't been keeping your eyes peeled open for news about this intriguing device, here's a little roundup of what we know so far: various screenshots have revealed the codenames "Zeus" plus "R800i," and it's now clear that this HSDPA phone with Gingerbread will be marketed under the Xperia brand, with a hint of PlayStation here and there. In terms of specs, we can confirm that the Xperia Play has a 4-inch multitouch 854 x 480 LCD, which is what the X10 has as well. In fact, the LCDs on both phones have similarly good color performance and viewing angles, but upon closer inspection we noticed that the Xperia Play's LCD is brought closer to the glass, which may be why it produces a slightly darker black. Rumor from the Far East also has it that, like the Xperia Arc, the Xperia Play's screen is powered by a Bravia engine for improved video playback.

Even though we have the actual device with us, we're still unable to verify our original tipster's claim that it's powered by a Qualcomm MSM8655 chipset; even the Chinese teardown struggled to get past the chip's shield cage to check its ID. Anyhow, both Quadrant and Android System Info indicate that there's a single-core processor inside that clocks from 122.88MHz to 1GHz (and note that the MSM8655 can even go up to 1.2GHz), and it's coupled with an Adreno 205 GPU. This combo, along with Gingerbread and the generous 512MB of RAM, scored a chart-topping 1,689 on Quadrant and an impressive 59fps on Neocore. Other benchmark scores include: about 35 MFLOPS on Linpack, and around 43fps on NenaMark (tying with the Tegra 2-packing LG Star).

Sadly, these numbers fail to reflect one major flaw on our Xperia Play: WiFi doesn't work. Hopefully this is simply to do with a faulty driver for the Broadcom BCM4329 wireless chip (capable of 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR, and FM receiver plus transmitter) rather than the prototype being physically faulty. Touch wood.

Before revealing the gamepad underneath the screen, you'd probably first notice the four shiny Android soft keys below the screen. Yep, all four of them -- back, menu, home, and search -- are there, although for some reason the middle two buttons are swapped around in the OS. It could well be a last minute firmware change that occurred after the device was manufactured, or maybe SE is still toying with the layout. Speaking of which, the label in the battery bay indicates that this device was manufactured in the third week of 2011, but turns out this is all fake -- even the FCC ID on the back label actually led us to a filing for the X10, so there's no telling how recent this prototype is.

The remaining physical buttons on the outside include the tiny power button at the top right corner, and the volume rocker right between the two gamepad triggers on the right. Both buttons will take some getting used to: the former being a tad too small, and the latter being in an awkward location for our right thumb or left index and middle fingers, depending on which hand you hold the phone with. Also, if you're not careful when snapping shut the battery door, a slight dislocation may cause the power button to recess. We had a little panic when that happened to us yesterday, but the problem disappeared after we put the door back on properly. Users will just have to watch the small tolerance there, but hey, this might get fixed before launch so who knows.

Despite the aforementioned design flaw, the only other real build quality issue lies on the glossy battery door itself -- it's very flimsy, so removal requires popping up one end of the door, and then running our fingernail along the seam. This certainly isn't a problem on the X10, as its matte gray door simply pops out in its entirety when you lift it up from its bottom slit. On a less serious but potentially annoying matter, after just a few days of careful usage we're already seeing a lot of light scratches on the outside of the door, and it'll only get worse since the back is curved -- good for your hand, but also good money for case makers.

Putting the battery door aside, what you see underneath is a compartment for the phone's 1500mAh battery (interchangeable with the X10), which can provide a full day's worth of relatively active 3G connection and plenty of snapshots. Further up you get the slots for your SIM card and microSD card, meaning you can change them without taking out the battery. You'll also notice that the camera lens pokes out of the battery door to avoid an overlay that could potentially distort images, as we've seen on the Dell Venue recently -- we'll come back to the camera later.

What caught our attention is the little hole that's labeled as "2nd mic" above the LED flash -- it could very well be for noise cancellation à la Nexus One, but it didn't seem to be enabled in our noise test. Still, call quality is decent on both ends of the line, although the stereo loudspeakers on the USB port side could use a little boost for phone calls -- they're definitely louder when playing music. You can, of course, just plug in your earphones to actually enjoy the music, although strangely all of our iPhone-compatible handsfree kits failed to work as even just earphones on the Xperia Play; it's the same with the X10 series handsets, so be warned.

It's time to cut into the meat. Push the screen upwards to about half way and the spring mechanism will take over, thus uncovering the PlayStation DualShock-style gamepad, except there is only one pair of shoulder buttons instead of two, plus we've yet to see if the touchpads can substitute the DualShock mechanical sticks -- they are no doubt reserved for games that are made specifically for the Xperia Play. We should point out that the D-pad also works on Android natively, which is good news for those who are accustomed to optical trackpads or trackballs.

Since we have little experience with the PSP Go, we asked a good friend of ours to compare his experience on our Xperia Play with his 50 to 100 hours of play time on his PSP Go. Interestingly, one of his first reactions was that the phone is less well balanced than the bottom-heavy PSP Go, and then he noted that the shoulder buttons could do with more depth, but this would obviously require a thicker body. That said, we both agree that the Xperia Play is still comfortable to hold, and also it has a better build quality than the PSP Go. We also noticed that the screen can be wiggled gently when closed (such phenomenon is commonly known as the "oreo effect" amongst Palm Pre users), but it's nothing major.

Software

We've been using this Xperia Play as our main phone for a few days now, and to our surprise, it's been very snappy and fairly stable for the majority of the time -- we've only seen one reboot max per day, and removing the resource-intensive Timescape widget certainly helps, too. On a similar note, Mediascape is no longer an app; instead, it's been split into several widgets -- music player, gallery browser, and media shortcuts -- that can prompt their corresponding multimedia apps.

Considering what a nightmare the X10 is, this prototype's performance is a big surprise yet also looking promising. As with the Nexus S, our Xperia Play also got the same bunch of Gingerbread goodies, notably the good old mobile WiFi hotspot, new status icons, new text selection tool, and glowing visual aid when you hit the top or bottom of scroll menus. No major change for the keyboard -- it appears to be the same as the X10's but with sharper graphics. The stock music app is replaced by SE's own version, whereas the stock gallery app is good to stay. We tested the latter for video playback capability and turns out the phone can easily handle 720p H.264 video clips, provided that their AVC profiles don't exceed level 3.1 (you can use a free desktop utility called MediaInfo to check your video files' AVC profiles). Sadly, AVI or MKV files are not natively recognised.

Having learned from its painful lesson from the X10, SE's shifted its focus from just adding apps to actually improving Android's usability. For the Xperia Play as well as the Xperia Arc, SE's added a homescreen feature that's very similar to HTC Leap but more cunning: pinch anywhere on any homescreen and the phone will bring all the widgets onto one screen; tap on a widget and you'll be taken to its corresponding homescreen. Pretty nifty, huh? Except right now it can get rather laggy even with the Timescape widget removed, so hopefully we'll see something slicker at MWC.

Another nice SE feature is the sort filter in the horizontal-scrolling apps menu, which allows custom sorting, sort by alphabets, sort by usage frequency, and sort by installation time. There's also a quick release button at the bottom right of the menu that floats your icons, so that you can drag them around to rearrange the list (very much like how you move icons in iOS). Of course, we didn't have many interesting apps to fiddle with earlier on -- the only interesting app preloaded is the mysterious PlayStation Pocket, which appears to be a simple managing tool for downloaded games. And where would one obtain such games? We're guessing there'll be a separate market app for that, a bit like how the X10 has the PlayNow store that no one uses.

To quench our gaming thirst, we went ahead and installed a couple of emulators: one for the original PlayStation, and one for GameBoy Advance (oh, the irony). Discounting the touchpads, we were able to map all of the gamepad controls in both apps, and guess what? The handful of games we tried -- Ridge Racer Revolution, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, Gundam Battle Assault 2, and Super Mario Bros. 4 -- all ran pretty well. Have a look in the video above, but do excuse our rusty gaming skills.

University of Washington developing computer-like contact lenses

Washington University researchers are looking to develop contact lenses that would allow you to check your email, surf the web, and more , all with the blink of an eye.

The line between technology and human biology has become increasingly blurred over the years. We have come to rely on technology to augment or supplement our bodies own natural functions in many different ways, often to great success. You need not look further than the hearing aid, pacemaker, or laser eye surgery to see examples of technology intimately interfacing with our everyday lives and improving on it. In this digital age, even today’s smartphones perform functions we were resigned to doing on larger computers and devices no more than ten years ago.

With computers and smart devices decreasing in size and increasing in function, it seems that researchers at the University Washington are taking that concept even further. A team from the University has recently completed trials on a new generation of Terminator-like contact lenses that would allow wearers of the next-gen lenses to receive emails directly to their eyes and even supplement their vision with various information from the internet.

While the contact lenses are small, the circuitry within is even smaller. The lenses feature layers of metal measuring barely a few nanometers thick and LED diodes measuring one-third of a millimeter across.

Of course, there are risk factors inherent with any technology that seeks to integrate so intimately with the human body, and these computerized lenses are no different. Right now, the prototype lenses can only be powered while close (centimeters) to a wireless battery, which brings into question not only practicality concerns, but questions and concerns as to how the human eye and body would react to such long-term exposure of electrical circuits on the surface of the eye.

The team at Washington University has currently finished with animal trials and is attempting to explore the possibility of complex holographic imagery and consumer applications such as price comparisons through the lenses. There is also the hope that the technology can be expanded for uses within the medical field as well as home entertainment. One can only imagine that with streaming video beamed directly into your eyes it would give a whole new meaning to the term “sitting too close to the TV”.

Regardless of whether you approve of biology and technology overlapping, the reality would suggest that further integration between man and machine will not subside any time soon.

Europe’s largest IT company bans email

Atos is taking the plunge and not looking back: the international IT organization will ban email and look to chat clients for office communication.

Atos is an international IT company that employs roughly 75,000 people and rakes in billions of dollars a year. It’s also the official IT integrator for the Olympic games. To put it simply, Atos is a rather large company. Which is why it comes as a surprise that the corporation is banning email.

According to The Telegraph, CEO Thierry Breton has enforced a “zero email” policy that will go into effect within the next 18-months. “It is not normal that some of our fellow employees spend hours in the evening dealing with their emails,” he says. “The email is no longer the appropriate [communication] tool.”

Bretton says instant messaging services and a social-communication tool will replace the apparently archaic email message. The CEO also says that young hires will take more easily to this Facebook-like way of inter-office communication.

“Companies must prepare for the new wave of usage and behavior,” Bretton explains. “If people want to talk to me, they can come and visit me, call or send me a text message. Emails cannot replace the spoken word.” The CEO says he has not sent a work email in three years.

So is Bretton just ahead of the curve or is his anti-email inspiration bound for failure? There’ plenty of “email is dead” fodder to go around, but cut through all that noise and studies show most of us still rely on it. A Pew study this past summer found that email remains one of the most popular online activities: “Among online adults, 92-percent use email, with 61-percent using it on an average day.” And a variety of surveys have revealed that the smartphone revolution has driven users to accessing their email even more, via mobile apps.

But to Bretton’s credit, the deluge of spam we’re subjected to on a daily basis has made the work email client difficult to wade through. And Atos has tools like the Atos Wiki and an office chat program that allow for project collaboration and communication. Still, cutting out email seems like something of a drastic step, and that there might be some stepping stones Atos is skipping in the evolution of email.

There are a variety of services trying to make email more efficient and meaningful, and they are probably part of the process of getting from where we are now to where Atos is already trying to be.

Of course, if you’ve hit your limit with email, in or out of the office, there are a few ways to try and improve the experience:

Three.sentenc.es: Three.sentenc.es is more of a personal mantra than anything else (there are also “two,” “four,” and “five” versions of this policy) that encourages users to keep things to the point.
AwayFind: AwayFind makes email truly mobile. Instead of pulling up an app to obsessively check out your inbox, this app acts like your personal assistant and notifies you of urgent messages only.
Shortmail: Sweet and to the point, Shortmail has a Twitter-like interface and adopts the idea of limited characters (500 only). No attachments, no spam, just quick, succinct, meaningful communication.