Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook review

Until now, Windows fans have had precious few alternatives to the MacBook Air. Sure, there's Samsung's Series 9, but just like the original Air, it's far from cheap. Since then, of course, Apple has cut the Air's starting price to $999, while the Windows options -- now marketed as Ultrabooks -- are about to mushroom in number. And so far, they're all starting in the (more reasonable) neighborhood of a thousand bucks, making these pinch-thin, long-lasting laptops accessible to the budget-conscious masses.

Acer's Aspire S3 was the first to hit the market here in the States, and with an entry price of $899, it's currently the least expensive. That it's skinny (just 13mm thick, to be exact), should be a given, but it also claims to wake from sleep in two seconds flat and reconnect to known networks in two and a half. But, as the least pricey Ultrabook on the shelf, it also forgoes some specs you might have liked to see -- namely, all-flash storage and USB 3.0. But does that matter much when you're potentially saving hundreds of dollars? Let's find out.
Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook review

Look and feel


The S3 has something of a split personality: understated elegance on the outside, something more pedestrian when you lift the lid. At first glance, it's refined (but never ostentatious) thanks to a cool-to-the-touch brushed aluminum lid that doesn't seem to pick up fingerprints. Make no mistake: this thing makes a strong impression.

Its slender frame doesn't hurt, either. At three pounds flat (1.4kg) and half an inch thick, it's on par with the 13-inch MacBook Air (2.96 pounds / 1.35kg) and the 2.9-pound (1.32kg) ASUS Zenbook UX31. If you've handled a MacBook Air before, its skinny silhouette might not impress you but if (like yours truly) you're used to schlepping a six-pound 15-incher, the difference will feel refreshing, and the ounces separating it from the competition will seem irrelevant. While we're on the subject of comparisons, by the way, we're digging the S3's rounded edges and corners. One thing we dislike about the MacBook Air (or any Mac, really) is that although those sharp edges make for a bold design, resting your wrists on them or pressing your palms into them can make for a none-too-comfortable ergonomic experience. The S3 is softer in this regard, and it works.

The S3 also has a softer aesthetic under the lid, and that's where the design starts to seem a bit cobbled-together. For one, the display has a habit of wobbling even when you set the machine down, which chipped away at our confidence in the build quality. Also, because the keys, deck, palm rest and bottom side are made of plastic, they seem mismatched against that striking metal lid. We'll spend two paragraphs on the keyboard in just a moment, but for now, suffice to say the problem isn't that plastic keys are uncomfortable to type on; it's just that an all-metal keyboard (à la the ASUS UX21 / UX31) would have gone a long way in pulling together what's otherwise a slick design.


Above the keyboard, a black, rubbery strip interrupts the beige deck. There, you'll find a pair of LED lights along with a metal power button that peeks out even when the lid is closed. Like other Acer laptops, this one features Dolby sound, along with two prominently placed logos to match: Dolby's Home Theater branding on one side of the keyboard, and its "Professionally Tuned" slogan. The bottom of the machine, meanwhile, is studded with four rubber feet -- a homely sight, but not something you'll notice when you're using the machine.

Taking a tour of all the ports and openings, you'll find that the front edge is completely blank, as are the left and right sides, save for a headphone / mic socket and SD slot, respectively. There's also your requisite 1.3 megapixel webcam tucked in the bezel. Really, though, most of the action's to be found on the back edge, where the vent, two USB 2.0 ports, HDMI-out and the AC socket sit in a row. For comparison's sake, the Air has two USB 2.0 ports and a Thunderbolt socket, whereas the UX31 has two USB 2.0 ports and one of the 3.0 persuasion. Meanwhile, Toshiba's forthcoming Portege Z830 will have USB 3.0, HDMI and an Ethernet jack, while the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s will also have USB 3.0 and HDMI. Even the UX31, which has mini-HDMI and mini-VGA ports, at least comes bundled with USB-to-Ethernet and mini-VGA-to-VGA adapters.

Keyboard and trackpad


You might think that if you've seen one chiclet keyboard you've seen 'em all, but the S3's reminds us that some are more (or, in this case, less) tactile than others. Starting with some kind words, the keys have a pleasant, ever-so slightly textured finish, and the panel is rigid enough that it stood firm even as we pounded out stories on deadline. The problem is, there's not much travel here, which left us craning our hands over the keys, typing deliberately to make sure our presses registered. As we said when we reviewed the current VAIO Z, typing on shallow keys is not unlike trekking around in flip-flops: you know how your toes roll into a claw, pressing into the rubber in an attempt to compensate for the fact that your feet aren't well supported? Well, in the case of the S3, we found ourselves digging into the keys with concerted effort since there's otherwise not much to latch onto. All told, the MacBook Air's keyboard is the cushier of the two. (Then again, if we're talking ergonomics, the Air is no ThinkPad either.)

For what it's worth, though, we were able to type the brunt of this review on the S3 with only the occasional spelling error -- and that's despite the fact that all of the major keys (Enter, Tab, Caps Lock, Backspace and right and left Shift) are shrunken. The arrow keys are especially miniature here, so if you're like us and regularly use them to highlight text, you'll find yourself pining for a keyboard that's a little less crowded. What's more, the brightness and volume controls are located on those arrow keys, which means even if you don't use them for anything else, they're still unavoidable.


Even when we first saw the S3 back in August, one of the first things to make an impression was that spacious trackpad. Even after spending more time with it, the integrated button still feels stiff -- a flaw we were willing to chalk up to pre-production kinks when we got hands-on at IFA. Similar to the keys, the touchpad has a slightly textured finish, and while it sometimes made for a frictionless experience, it more often slowed us down, even as we tried to do something rudimentary like drag the cursor across the desktop. We also noticed that this giant clickable pad sometimes mistook our left clicks for right ones -- a quirk we've noticed in other laptops whose trackpads have integrated buttons. At least this is something that can be remedied with a software update.

Despite all this, two-fingered scrolling generally works as promised -- a pleasant surprise considering the grief multi-touch trackpads can cause when executed poorly. It's not perfect, though: although pinch-to-zoom works reliably, you'll have to concentrate a bit (and apply some pressure) to make text resize to the exact scale.

Display and sound


The S3's 13.3-inch display has 1366 x 768 resolution, which is common for laptops this size. In fact, the Portege Z830 and IdeaPad U300s will tap out with the same pixel count. Still, the 13-inch Air sports a 1400 x 900 panel, while the UX31 steps up to 1600 x 900 resolution. When we were using just one program at full screen, the S3's low-res panel was more than adequate for reading documents and scrolling through web pages, but we felt the squeeze keenly when we used Windows 7's Snap feature to view two pages side by side.

For what it's worth, high-def videos looked plenty crisp on that display, and we enjoyed decent viewing angles from the sides once we dimmed the lights. We didn't have as much luck head-on, though; even when we dipped the display forward slightly, the picture appeared washed out. Not good news when the person sitting in front of you on the plane decides to lean all the way back.

And how's the sound, you ask? Not bad -- depending on the sort of music you're into. Pop songs, such as Lady Gaga's "The Edge of Glory" sounded more or less as we'd expect them to, though the system's limitations became obvious when rap tracks like "Hypnotize" took on a distinctly metallic quality.

Performance and graphics

Right now, there's one configuration of the S3 available in the States, and it has an ultra low voltage 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M CPU, 4GB of RAM and a hybrid drive that combines a 320GB HDD for accessing files and a 20GB SSD for storing the operating system. If you can wait until year's end to pull the trigger, Acer will release additional models with Core i3 and i7 processors and expanded storage capacity.

So how does the performance stack up? Well, that depends on what metric you use. If we go by benchmark scores, it falls short, frankly. Particularly when it comes to overall power, the current MacBook Air trounces it, thanks to all-solid-state storage, equal RAM and a similar 1.7GHz Core i5 processor. In PCMark Vantage, the most general of the performance tests we run, it notched 5,367, while the Air managed 9,484 in Bootcamp. In 3DMark06, we expected the two systems' graphics performance to be similar, as both machines rely on an integrated Intel graphics card. Indeed, the gulf was smaller, but still significant: the S3 scored 3,221; the Air, 4,223.

Right now, our ability to judge by the numbers is limited: the S3 is the first Ultrabook to hit the market, and so we don't yet have scores from the ASUS UX21 / UX31, the IdeaPad U300s or the Portege Z830. We'll flesh out our performance chart in due time, but for now, the only fair comparison is with the MacBook Air, not just because it's arguably the inspiration behind the S3 and others, but because it's the only other machine you can buy that's comparably priced with a pinch-thin design and ultra-low voltage innards.


   
PCMarkVantage
   
3DMark06
   
Battery Life
Acer Aspire Ultrabook S3     5,367     3,221     4:11
13-inch, 2011 MacBook Air (1.7 GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)     9,484     4,223
    5:32 (Mac OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)
Samsung Series 9 (1.7 GHz Core i5-2537M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)     7,582     2,240     4:20
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 (2.5 GHz Core i5-2520M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)     7,787     3,726     3:31 / 6:57 (slice battery)
Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.

Instant-on and real-world performance

Still, as far as real-world performance goes, the S3 deserves more credit than that. Say what you will about its benchmark scores, but we freely went about our everyday business, jumping between at least half a dozen tabs in Chrome, checking email and Facebook, chatting over Google Talk, loading YouTube videos and downloading and installing apps. It also boots up in a more-than-respectable time of 45 seconds. Through it all, that vent 'round back did a fine job of expelling heat -- the laptop always felt cool to the touch. We did notice the occasional hang, though -- for instance, while we were installing a program, the machine took its sweet time opening Windows' advanced power settings.

This also might be a good time to tackle the S3's two key claims: that it automatically connects to stored WiFi networks in 2.5 seconds, and that it resumes from sleep in two seconds -- provided the machine hasn't been asleep for more than half an hour. After all, these are things that can immeasurably improve your daily grind with the thing, and that won't be reflected in pat, four-digit benchmark scores. Indeed, without fail, the machine consistently resumed from sleep in two seconds (less, actually, according to our stopwatch). That's a faster showing than we saw when the S3 debuted at IFA, and it's perfectly conceivable the company has ironed out a few kinks since then with final software.


As for connectivity, we tested Acer's 2.5-second claim by turning off WiFi and then timing how long the computer took to reconnect once we flipped the radio back on. Indeed, two Mississippis passed, though the scenario we created is, admittedly, an unrealistic one. After all, how often do you really disable WiFi? We were also curious to see how long the computer took to latch onto our home network at start-up, and found that time was more in the neighborhood of 35 seconds. No different from our experience with other notebooks; just don't expect that Acer's technology will let you bypass that routine delay.

Battery life

The S3's three-cell, 3,280mAh battery is rated for six hours of active use, or 50 days of standby time. In our standard rundown test, which involves looping the same movie with WiFi on and the brightness fixed at 65 percent, it lasted four hours and eleven minutes. Now it's true, you can eke out more than that if you just bum around online and refrain from playing a movie off the hard drive, but let's not forget that in that same video playback test, the current MacBook Air lasted five hours and thirty-two minutes in its native OS X (in Bootcamp with Windows 7 installed, it managed just four hours and twelve minutes). Again, we'll be in a better position to grandstand about battery life once we've reviewed competing models by ASUS, Lenovo and Toshiba, but for now, that gap in runtime doesn't exactly bode well.

Software

The S3 comes with a fair share of pre-installed software, including your requisite security software (McAfee Internet Security), Microsoft Office 2010 and Windows Live Essentials. Less typical, though, are additions like the Times Reader, Skype 5.3, newsXpresso, Nook for PC and an eBay desktop shortcut. You'll also find a good deal of Acer-branded apps, including clear.fi for sharing files media over WiFi and utilities for tweaking power management and sleep settings. To be fair, even after we removed Bing Bar, Office, Norton Online Backup, Skype, newsXpresso, Nook for PC, Times Reader and that annoying eBay shortcut, our boot-up time held steady at about 45 seconds.


Wrap-up

We wanted to love the Acer Aspire S3, the same way we're rooting for all of these reasonably priced, impossibly skinny, long-lasting laptops that have the potential to give the MacBook Air a run for its money. Indeed, it's priced aggressively -- $200 less than the UX31 and $400 off the 13-inch Air. It performs well enough for everyday use, stays cool throughout and keeps its promise to resume from sleep in two seconds. You'll have a mostly enjoyable experience if you pounce, and we'd sympathize if you ended up going with the least expensive option.

But now that we've spent some time with it, we're not sure it should be the poster child for Team Windows. What's more, something tells us the best Ultrabook is yet to come. Whether or not you agree that the S3 isn't quite the looker that the Air or ASUS Zenbook is, the fact remains that it relies on hybrid HDD-flash storage and, as a result, trails the MacBook Air in both battery life and all-around performance. Though we haven't tested them yet, we wouldn't be surprised if ASUS' Zenbooks have a similar advantage given that they, too, use all-flash storage. Stick around for more Ultrabooks and you'll also see multiple options with USB 3.0. If you absolutely must buy a laptop of this ilk right now, you'll get better performance and longer battery life from the MacBook Air and possibly one of the Zenbooks, but if you're more comfortable with Windows or are simply platform-agnostic, we highly suggest you sit tight and survey what's likely to be an ample field of contenders

Facebook Tightens Security with New Tools

Facebook is countering reports about scams affecting its users—and a rising user perception of insecurity—with new security tweaks and the release of statistics suggesting that most of its 800 million active users experience few problems.

The company is also announcing two new features. One generates passwords for your Facebook apps to protect your main account; another deals with a side effect of security—the lockdown of compromised accounts—by enabling your Facebook friends to help you recover an account.

While Facebook employs some of the highest-tech tools in the business, it is also one of the Web's most attractive targets by dint of its size.

"I feel pretty strongly that Facebook is the safest place for users to have their information on the Internet, without question," Tao Stein, Facebook's software engineer for site integrity, said in an interview.
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The first feature the social network is announcing today is app passwords, which provides a separate layer of password security for Facebook apps. In part this is meant to improve an existing login security feature called two-factor authentication, which sends a text message to your mobile phone bearing a unique code that must be entered to complete the login.

While this can effectively block hackers who've gotten hold of your password, it also has a downside: if you use the feature, you have to repeat the process each time you want to use an app.

The second feature, called "trusted friends," will make it easier to recover your account if it is shut down or if you lose your password.  If you can't access your e-mail account to retrieve a new password, Facebook will send codes to a preselected group of friends so that they can pass the codes to you.

"Facebook seems to be introducing some sensible new controls; time will tell whether they are effective and strike the right balance," says Maxim Weinstein, director of Stopbadware, a nonprofit antimalware organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that helps legitimate websites rid themselves of malware infections, among other things.

Facebook also released a detailed graphic with statistics on security problems. The company said 4 percent of links shared on Facebook are spam; only one in 200 users experience spam on any given day; and .06 percent of a billion daily logins each day are compromised. "We wanted to show the immense scale at which we operate and the immense challenge to secure three quarters of a billion users and to be smart about how we do it," says Jake Brill, product manager for site integrity at Facebook.

However, all this comes amid a drumbeat of reports about scams on the network. And Facebook's own data suggest that large numbers of people are exposed to some scams over time—and that the site does experience 600,000 compromised logins daily. Each compromised login can mean a hacker or criminal might be sending attacks to a user's contacts under his or her name.

These messages could be phishing schemes that try to trick people into revealing passwords for bank accounts or other services. Others could contain links that try to defraud users by flashing phony warnings of infection and prompting them to pay for phony antivirus software. These messages may include links to malicious sites that make attempts to download viruses to steal data or hijack the computer for cyber-attacks.

In the past year or two, Facebook and other websites have seen a rising number of malicious Web addresses that lead to attacks like these. So over the past year Facebook has enlisted two outside firms—Web of Trust and Websense—to help the site block known malicious links. The targets are gathered from security companies, law enforcement, and even actual users who report suspicious links.

The problem with this method is that there's a time lag before many such links are detected. Often, they are further hidden by link-shortening services such as Bit.ly. Earlier this year, the Web security firm Symantec reported that in 2010, malicious links made up two-thirds of all such short links on social networks. The company added that almost 90 percent of them had been clicked by users at least once.

Users are perceiving rising problems. In July, for example, the security firm Sophos reported that 81 percent of survey respondents saw Facebook as the "biggest risk" online—up from 60 percent in 2010.

In addition to the tweaks announced today, a remarkable real-time fight is escalating. Facebook actively looks for patterns of viral propagation and other behavior that seems malicious. Machine-learning algorithms update every 30 minutes to find and squelch the source of such attacks, says Stein.


"One of the most important things that Facebook can be doing is looking for new threats in real time," Weinstein says. "You can stay ahead of that by detecting new patterns of malicious activity and stopping them before you've determined malware is present."

A crucial security feature that Facebook has not yet fully implemented, Weinstein points out, is default encryption (as denoted by Web addresses starting with "https" rather than "http"). The latter, older system leaves someone logging in via Wi-Fi at a Starbucks, for example, at much greater risk of having his or her unencrypted information intercepted.

Last year Gmail moved to https as the default setting.  But Facebook currently offers it only as an option. This is problematic, says Weinstein, because "the people who are most likely to need the feature are the least likely to know they need to turn it on."

In an e-mail statement, Facebook said it is "making progress daily" toward default encryption. "We continue to work towards making this setting a default feature as soon as possible," the statement said, but it noted that this requires ironing out site stability and speed issues. Facebook is also working with app developers so that encryption works across the site.

But Bruce Schneier, a cryptologist and security expert with BT Counterpane, points out that Facebook's ultimate product is your data, which it uses to sell advertisements. "I think the biggest danger of putting things on Facebook is Facebook," he says. "Facebook knows all of your stuff, and they sell it. It's like handing your money to a thief who says 'Nobody else will get your money.' If you want Facebook security, don't be on Facebook."

Light-Based Therapy Destroys Cancer Cells

For more than two decades, researchers have tried to develop a light-activated cancer therapy that could replace standard chemotherapy, which is effective but causes serious negative side effects. Despite those efforts, they've struggled to come up with a light-activated approach that would target only cancer cells.

Now scientists at the National Cancer Institute have developed a possible solution that involves pairing cancer-specific antibodies with a heat-sensitive fluorescent dye. The dye is nontoxic on its own, but when it comes into contact with near-infrared light, it heats up and essentially burns a small hole in the cell membrane it has attached to, killing the cell.

To target the tumor cells, the researchers used antibodies that bind to proteins that are overexpressed in cancer cells. "Normal cells may have a hundred copies of these antibodies, but cancer cells have millions of copies. That's a big difference," says Hisataka Kobayashi, a molecular imaging researcher at the National Cancer Institute and the lead author of the new study, published this week in Nature Medicine. The result is that only cancer cells are vulnerable to the light-activated cascade.

The researchers tested the new treatment in mice and found that it reduced tumor growth and prolonged survival.
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There are a few kinks to work out before the system can be adapted for humans, though. For instance, the researchers couldn't test the treatment's effect on large tumors, since killing off too many cells at once caused cardiovascular problems in the mice. Finding the right cancer-cell markers to pair with the dye may also prove difficult. For example, HER-2, one of the proteins targeted in the study, is only expressed in 40 percent of breast-cancer cells in humans.

Still, the lack of toxicity associated with the treatment is a huge advantage, says Karen Brewer, a chemist at Virginia Tech who also works on light-activated cancer therapies. "What's interesting about this study is that they're applying a traditional method of targeting cancer cells to a light-activated treatment," she says. "This is really where the field is headed."

The dye used in the study offers another bonus because it lights up—allowing clinicians to track the treatment's progress with fluorescence imaging. In the mice, the fluorescence visibly declined in tumor cells a day after administration of the near-infrared light. Kobayashi suspects the approach could also prove valuable as a secondary therapy by helping surgeons label cancer cells that may remain after a tumor has been excised. "It could help clean up the tumor cells that are harder for surgeons to get to," he says.

A Social Network that Pays You

For all the differences among them, the juggernauts of social media rely on a common business model: create free services, then sell ads against users' information. In a dramatic departure, a new social network plans to give its users a 50 percent commission—or even let them sell their own ads and keep all the revenue.

Chime.in is built around users' interests—think photography, politics, or travel—as opposed to friends, professional contacts, or news. The site's founders hope that by creating pages around those interests, the users will attract people with similar affinities, an attractive combination for targeted advertising.

"Because social is going to be so powerful, I feel that the people who are creating the engaging social content should have some stake," says Bill Gross, the serial entrepreneur who is the CEO of both Idealab, a startup incubator, and Ubermedia, a social media developer that launched Chime.in. "Right now that's sort of a heresy—but I almost like it that people think it's heresy. It gives me more of a lead."

Gross is no stranger to creating disruptive business models. The pay-per-click concept for advertising in search listings was born in 1998 at his startup Goto.com, a search engine that was later renamed Overture and sold to Yahoo in 2003 for $1.6 billion. "It took five years [to go from calling Overture] heresy to 'We want to own it,' " Gross recalls.
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Chime.in launched last month in beta; the site will officially launch at the end of this year, with the advertising model kicking into gear in 2012.

In terms of technology, Chime.in is a highly derivative platform. It most resembles Facebook, with a string of posts and comments beneath them. Like Twitter, the content is public by default, and users can follow anyone (no friending required), but posts can be longer: 2,000 characters. Users can vote on content, much as they do on Digg.

But the emphasis is on users' interests; after joining already existing groups or creating their own, users can sort content by those interests. Chime.in says the site is now home to 5,000 interest-based groups that have so far shared more than 25 million "chimes."

Report: HP looking into selling off webOS division

HP is researching the possibility of selling off the webOS division. Sources close to the matter say that several companies are interested in buying webOS for its patents.

It seems as though we have a new HP and webOS rumor every month,  this month’s rumor has a slightly different spin than past rumors. Rueters is reporting that HP is seriously looking into selling the mobile operating system, but for quite a bit less than it originally paid for it.

Usually we hear about a rumor of a company that might want to buy webOS from HP instead of HP trying to unload webOS. This is actually the first time that we have heard that HP might be taking steps to sell webOS. Sources are saying that HP is being advised by Bank of America Merrill Lynch on the matter of selling off its 2010 purchase.

Sources close to the subject say that several companies have expressed interest in buying the webOS division. The only company named in this latest report is Oracle, which is said to be interested in the webOS patents. If webOS was to be sold it would only fetch a few hundred million dollars instead of the original $1.2 billion 2010 purchase price of Palm.

For a quick timeline of the history of webOS and HP it all starts in 2010 when HP bought Palm for $1.2 billion. After releasing only one webOS phone and tablet HP decided to discontinue webOS development on August 18. In September HP laid off a large amount of webOS employees.

Sadly if webOS is purchased just for the patents that would mean that we might not see any new webOS devices or laid off employees getting their jobs back. Much like the rumors of Samsung buying webOS nothing in this report is set in stone, so stay tuned for more updates.

Best T-Mobile Phones

HTC Amaze 4G
   
Screen: 4.3 inches, 540×960 pixels
Specs: 1.5GHz dual-core processor, 1GB RAM, 16GB storage
OS: Android 2.3 with HTC Sense 3.0
Camera: 8MP rear (LED flash, 1080p rec), 2MP front
Price: $260 with two-year contract

Description: We haven’t spent a lot of time with the new Amaze, but from what we’ve seen, it may be the best overall HTC Android phone on the market. Its HTC Sense 3.0 interface is among the best looking and most customizable Android interfaces and HTC isn’t known to skip on build or camera quality. T-Mobile is claiming the Amaze has the best camera on the market (aside from the iPhone 4S, this may be correct). Best of all, the Amaze clocks in as one of the fastest phones on the market. Read our hands-on impressions.


T-Mobile MyTouch 4G Slide
   
Screen: 3.7 inches, 480×800 pixels
Specs: 1.2GHz dual-core, 768MB RAM, 9GB storage
OS: Android 2.3 with HTC Sense 3.0
Camera: 8MP rear (LED flash, 1080p rec), 0.3MP VGA front
Price: $200 with two-year contract

Description: If you prefer a QWERTY keyboard, you’ll find no better option than the 4G Slide, which packs almost as powerful a punch as the Amaze 4G. We’ve reviewed this phone and found it to be one of the best phones on T-Mobile. The touchpad is useful as well, though we didn’t use T-Mobile’s MyTouch button very much. Read our full review.


Samsung Galaxy S II
   
Screen: 4.5-inch Super AMOLED Plus, 480×800
Specs: 1.5GHz dual-core processor, 1GB RAM, 16GB storage
OS: Android 2.3 with Samsung TouchWiz 4.0
Camera: 8MP rear (LED flash, 1080p rec), 2MP front
Price: $230 with two-year contract

Description: The Galaxy S II took its sweet time coming to North America, but it was worth the wait. It doesn’t disappoint in any one area, though its plastic construction may turn off some, though we like how light it is. Samsung’s TouchWiz 4.0 interface rivals HTC’s Sense as does Samsung’s cameras. The only problem with the Galaxy S II on T-Mobile is its size, which may be too large for some, and its price, which exceeds $200. Read our full review.


LG T-Mobile G2x (BEST DEAL)
   
Screen: 4.0-inch LCD, 480×800 pixels
Specs: 1GHz dual-core processor, 512MB RAM, 8GB storage
OS: Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), pure Android
Camera: 8MP rear (LED flash, 720p rec), 1.3MP front
Price: $100 with two-year contract

Description: LG doesn’t mess around with Google’s Android interface much and for $100, the G2x offers specs comparable to the $230 Galaxy S II. The LG G2x is one of the best phones on the market, but it’s been a sleeper and hasn’t made waves. It may ship with Android 2.2, but an update is available from LG, which brings the phone up to par with any of these devices. Read our hands-on impressions.


HTC HD7
   
Screen: 4.3-inch LCD, 480×800 pixels
Specs: 1GHz processor, 576MB RAM, 16GB storage
OS: Windows Phone 7.5
Camera: 5MP rear (LED flash, 720p rec), no front camera
Price: $200 with two-year contract

Description: The HD7 is a great option for those looking at large-screened Android devices. We recommend everybody spend some time with Windows Phone. The device will be getting Windows 7.5 in the coming weeks and we’re very impressed with Microsoft’s new OS. If there isn’t anything tying you to iOS or Android, give the HD7 a try. The WP7 app library is getting larger and its media player (based on Zune) is fantastic. Xbox Live integration and games are good too. Check out our Best Windows Phone 7 Apps article for a guide to some of the software available.


Honorable mention

HTC Sensation 4G: If you want an HTC Amaze, but cannot afford the price tag, the Sensation is $60 cheaper and comes with a dual-core processor and most other features you’d expect in a high-end phone.

LG Thrill 4G Review

Review: The LG Thrill 4G draws buyers in with a unique glasses-free 3D display, but its solid specs and low price help give it staying power long after the novelty of the screen has faded.

The LG Thrill 4G has been on AT&T shelves since early summer, when it arrived with one thing that almost no other phone has: glasses-free 3D. Yes, like the Nintendo 3DS, this phone can display 3D images without any need for those pesky glasses. Although the screen turns out to be a bit of a gimmick, a dual-core processor and other solid specs allow the phone to mostly hold up to the competition, especially with its low price $100 price tag on AT&T.
lg-thrill-right-angleDesign and feel

Like the G2x and LG Revolution, the LG Thrill feels like a premium handset when you hold it. All the guts are packed in tight enough to give it that little bit of heft you want in a top-rate handset, and it even manages to fool you into thinking it has metal accents. It doesn’t, but it’s quite sturdy nonetheless. The phone has a black finish and a nice rubberized backplate that removes to show the battery, microSD card, and SIM card.

That’s not to say there aren’t downsides. Because of the big focus on a 3D camera — the Thrill has two 5-megapixel cameras on its rear, laid out along the length of the phone — this is not exactly a thin phone. If you want to get precise, it’s about half an inch thick, or 11.9mm. There was a time when 11.9mm would have made you a super thin smartphone, but not anymore. Recently Motorola unveiled a new Razr that measures just 7.1mm thick. The iPhone 4S is 9.1mm thick.

The phone’s screen measures 4.3 inches, which has become the standard size for Android phones, though some now have screens exceeding 5 inches. We think 4.3 is plenty, and may actually be too big for some, so make sure to try it out before you buy. In our experience with the Thrill, it was quite comfortable to hold and we didn’t have trouble reaching the volume rocker or power button.

As far as ports go, the Thrill has a micro USB port and a micro HDMI port, as well as your standard audio jack. As a bonus, LG includes an HDMI-to-micro-HDMI converter in the box, so the Thrill can connect to a standard HDTV without buying any additional adapters.
3D

Two glasses-free 3D phones hit the market this summer: the Thrill 4G (AT&T) and the HTC EVO 3D (Sprint). Since they’re on different carriers, there shouldn’t be much of a conflict here, but both phones are fairly evenly matched. HTC’s device has the edge when it comes to user interface (as HTC phones usually do), but the Thrill comes with better 3D software. The Thrill has a 3D button where the camera button should be. Pressing this brings up a 3D menu that lets you select from different apps and games, all 3D ready. After using the phone for an extended period of time, we’ve come to the conclusion that no one is going to use 3D very much. It’s a gimmick, but it can be a fun one. Who doesn’t want to whip out their phone and show their friends a 3D game of Nova or Asphalt 6?

lg-thrill-display-screen-3d-games

3D is a great way to impress somebody real quick, but that’s all it is. It’s a bit of wow. After a few minutes, the 3D effect will start to hurt your eyes, and it only works if you’re looking directly at the phone. If you or the phone move, the 3D effect breaks. It also cuts your resolution in half. Games and apps that use 3D are dimmer and look like those ribbed plastic 3D images we used to see on book covers and annoying posters. You know, the ones that change as you look at them from different angles, but never really look very good from any angle?

To read more about how the EVO 3D and Thrill 4G compare, check out our comparison article from CTIA.
Power and specs

The 3D is a gimmick, but luckily it doesn’t come at the cost of processing power. The Thrill runs on a 1GHz dual-core TI OMAP 4 processor, has 8GB of built-in storage, and comes with an 8GB microSD card. The only thing disappointing about its specs is the RAM. With only 512MB of RAM, it has half that of most new dual-core devices, and does tend to hiccup here and there, slowing down when things get rough or when opening certain apps. It’s nothing too bad, but it’s noticeable. As for the screen, when it’s not displaying 3D images, its resolution is 480 x 800.
Operating system

Sadly, though LG has promised an update to 2.3, our review unit is still running Android 2.2.2 (Froyo). Many of the issues we have (hiccups, battery life) can be attributed to this elderly OS still running on it. Android 2.2 isn’t able to manage its applications as well as later versions and lacks a lot of the gloss we’ve begun to get used to in Android 2.3 (Gingerbread). LG does modify the Android interface. It’s modifications mostly revolve around separating apps into folders in the app screen and displaying 3D. Most of the visual modifications look eerily similar to earlier versions of Samsung’s colorful, toy-like TouchWiz interface. The UI isn’t bad, but it’s nothing impressive. LG, please update this phone! Android Gingerbread came out a year ago. If the Gingerbread update doesn’t come soon, LG might as well wait and just update it to Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) as that will be out in a few weeks.

lg-thrill-display-screen-android

The Thrill doesn’t come preloaded with much in the way of interesting apps. There are maybe a half-dozen AT&T apps on the phone and 10 apps and games built specifically for 3D. The default browser appears to be Google’s Android 2.2 browser, which gets the job done well enough, but other browsers like the Dolphin browser can be found on the Android Market.
Camera

The Thrill has two 5-megapixel rear cameras with an LED flash and one front-facing VGA (0.3-megapixel) camera. You can take 3D pictures and video with the device, but neither looks that great, and there are no decent standards for 3D video yet anyway, so it’s hard to say if your pictures will be accessible or usable in the future. As a 2D recording device, it works pretty well. Thanks to an update, it can record 1080p video like every other dual-core phone and LG’s camera holds up fairly well. We wish that the 3D button doubled as a shutter button, but it doesn’t.

lg-thrill-camera-software

There are issues. The camera snapshot speed is slow. Not as slow as a Motorola camera, but slow. And though the autofocus works, you can’t focus on other areas of the picture besides the middle. This is a common feature on Motorola, Samsung, and HTC Android devices. Focusing on the fly is also not possible here. Still, the pictures usually come out with a decent amount of color, though we had some grainy issues in low-light conditions. Don’t buy this one for the camera. In a pinch though, it should get the job done.
Call quality and data speed

We made several calls on the LG Thrill and took a call or two as well. Voices on the other end of the phone were as crisp as they come on a cell phone and no one had any complaints about my voice (well, there were plenty of complaints, but none related to the call quality). We didn’t have any issues with reception either. As a phone, the Thrill is solid.

Data speed on AT&T’s HSPA+ 3G network (the carrier calls its network “4G” but it’s not comparable to WiMax or LTE) was typical. In Manhattan, New York, we got an average of 1.5Mbps to 2.5Mbps download speeds and about 1Mbps to 1.5Mbps upload speeds. This is faster than ordinary 3G, but far slower than Verizon’s 4G LTE network, which exceeds 10Mbps in every test.
Battery life

We really hope that LG updates this phone to Gingerbread, because Android 2.2 doesn’t manage battery life well. On factory settings, we’ve found that the phone drains its battery within three to four days while sitting idle. There’s no good excuse for this, as it should last about two weeks if not being used. Experienced users will be able to tinker with settings and turn off bad apps (maybe), but those who don’t want to mess with all that junk will feel compelled to charge their phone every day even if they don’t use it much. Gingerbread would help fix this, we think.

lg-thrill-camera-back
Conclusion

The LG Thrill 4G does not thrill on many accounts outside of its pretty 3D display. Having said that, no other phone beside the HTC EVO 3D can even claim to have glasses-free 3D, so it’s a plus. This is a good dual-core phone that holds up in most areas beside battery life. We’re hoping LG issues an Android 2.3 update soon. If it did, the battery life may improve quite a bit. Overall, for the $100 price, this is a far better phone than some that AT&T offers. If you want a dual-core device (you do), but don’t want to pay the $200 price tag of other phones, try the Thrill. It will do the job.
Highs:

    3D display is novel
    Has some fun games installed
    Solid construction
    Dual-core processor
    4.3-inch display
    16GB storage (8GB internal, 8GB SD)

Lows:

    Poor battery life on idle
    Runs Android 2.2
    Camera is slow, poor in low light
    3D button doesn’t work as camera button
    3D camera adds bulk to phone

BlackBerry Torch 9810 Review

Review: The BlackBerry Torch 9810 offers both a touchscreen and QWERTY keyboard, but the hybrid design makes sacrifices on both ends and suffers from RIM’s outdated BlackBerry OS.

Armed with both an improved multi-touch display and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, the Torch 9810 builds on the design of the original Torch 9800 from 2010 with some much-needed upgrades in the hardware department. This includes “4G” HSPA+ connectivity, a 5-megapixel camera and BlackBerry’s updated OS 7 operating system – all for just $50 with a two-year contract. But even at that low cost, is it worth it?
Design and feel

In an era when touchscreens over 4 inches are quickly becoming the norm, the 3.2-inch Torch 9810 slider looks almost prehistoric. Especially considering that the design of the 9810 is all but identical to last year’s Torch 9800, which makes this phone quite literally a blast from the past. But that’s not to say the device is entirely out of date.

Construction of the 9810 is solid, and the phone feels nice and heavy in the hand. That means those of you who are looking for the lightest device possible should go elsewhere. (Official weight is 161g, more than most devices out there these days, like the 140-gram iPhone 4S.) At 0.57-inches thick, we could definitely tell when this sucker was in our pocket, though it didn’t feel much more cumbersome than the lighter and thinner iPhone 4S.

blackberry-torch-9810-silver-thickness

Despite the hefty feel, however, the (mostly) plastic casing likely won’t withstand years of carelessness particularly well. Seeing as we have to send this device back to BlackBerry in good condition, we didn’t put it through the full drop test, but our instinct tells us users will need to err on the side of caution.

As mentioned, RIM decided to change very little in terms of external design from the original Torch. The primary difference to the overall look is the removable back plate, which used to be black, but is now a polished metal (we’re guessing aluminum) with a grip-friendly checkerboard design pressed in.

In terms of buttons and ports, you’ve got the usual micro USB port on the left side; lock and mute buttons on top; 3.5mm headphone port, volume buttons and camera button on the right side. On the front, directly below the touchscreen, are the menu, back, power buttons and an optical trackpad.

When listed like that, it sounds like a veritable smorgasbord of buttons, but RIM has done a great job making the buttons appear unobtrusive in terms of total design. The lock and mute buttons are easy to access and intuitively placed, as are the volume buttons and a shortcut button that also acts as a shutter button for the camera. Anyone who’s familiar with other BlackBerry models will pick up on the other button functionality instantly.
Display and keyboard

Of course, the most notable design feature of the 9810 is the sliding screen, which reveals a full QWERTY keyboard when pushed upwards. The screen snaps into place, both up and down, with satisfying finality. Unfortunately, one of the first things we noticed about the 9810 was how top-heavy the phone feels when using the physical keyboard. And, as with the plastic casing, the addition of moving parts makes the 9810 feel slightly less sturdy than devices without that feature.

RIM has done an excellent job of making the 9810′s keyboard functional, despite its relatively small size, by adding strategically placed indentations into each button. All the buttons are responsive and well-placed, and back-lighting makes typing in the dark an easy task. Even for those of us accustomed to the touchscreen of the iPhone, we were typing at almost-normal speed in no time.

blackberry-torch-9810-silver-front

Part of us wishes RIM had opted for a landscape slider, rather than a vertical slide design, just to give a bit more room for the ol’ fingers. Had they done that, however, the Torch 9810 wouldn’t look like the design of any other BlackBerry, which would have likely upset long-time users.

Another thing RIM got right with the 9810 is the multi-touch display. With a 640 x 480 resolution, it’s a marked improvement over the 360 x 480 resolution of the original Torch, which was anything but impressive. Still, the 3.2-inch screen isn’t quite as spectacular as the 2.8-inch display of the Bold 9930, which has the same resolution.

The touch sensitivity of the 9810′s display is fantastic – quick, accurate and responsive. Another exceptional characteristic is its brightness, which makes it easy to see what’s on the screen, even in noon-time sunlight.

blackberry-torch-9810-silver-back-sky

For some foolish reason, RIM tried to offer the best of both worlds with the Torch 9810 – one of the phone’s biggest downfalls – by including a software-based on-screen keyboard in addition to the physical one. It doesn’t work well. The on-screen keyboard is somehow too small to use easily, with poor predictive functionality, but still manages to take up too much of the screen. The problem is even worse in landscape mode, where most of the screen is keyboard. Anybody who doesn’t specifically want a physical keyboard should go with one of the many superior touchscreen-only options out there.

Overall, the touchscreen works well, though its small size certainly cramps things together a bit much. Customers looking for some multi-touch goodness with the added benefits of a physical keyboard will likely be happy with both. Still, we can’t help but feel the hybrid design is something of a dying breed, as it requires sacrifices from both ends of the usability spectrum.
Power and specs

The Torch 9810 originally launched in August 2011, when dual-core processors were just starting to creep into smartphones. Now, however, every new, self-respecting device has dual-core. And yet, the 1.2GHz CPU and 768MB of RAM packed into the 9810 still gives the device a quick and powerful functionality. Add in the improved graphics processor (RIM calls it “Liquid Graphics,” the same GPU included in the gaming-centric Sony Xperia Play) and you have quite the zippy device in your hands. RIM has also upped the internal storage from 4GB in the original Torch to 8GB in the 9810, and it can take up to a 32GB microSD card.

In short, anyone who switches to the 9810 from an older device will be pleased with how quickly everything works. But it still can’t compete with the newer generation of devices, like the Samsung Galaxy S II or the iPhone 4S.
Operating system

One of the biggest drawbacks to the 9810 – and to BlackBerry in general, at least for the time being – is its operating system. BlackBerry OS 7 was supposed to be a step forward for RIM. But the UI still feels antiquated and overly complicated when used next to basically any other current OS, like Android 2.3 Gingerbread, Windows Phone 7.5 Mango and especially Apple’s newly released iOS 5.

That’s not to say OS 7 isn’t an improvement, in both speed and polish, over OS 6 – it is. Where this change is most noticeable is with the new WebKit browser, which is very fast, even when compared to dual-core devices. Support for HTML 5 comes standard, and the pinch-to-zoom works seamlessly. We must point out that, like Apple’s handsets, the BlackBerry 7 browser doesn’t support Flash, which will certainly be a downside for anyone thinking of transferring over from Android.

Another quality feature is OS 7′s Twitter integration. The app comes pre-loaded, and tweets can be posted from a number of places in the phone, including from the email app. BlackBerry Messenger is, thankfully, as solid as ever.

blackberry-torch-9810-silver-screen-grass

The notification system of OS 7 isn’t bad – alerts appear at the top of the screen, much like Android or iOS 5. But you can’t simply tap the banner alert to access the message, and no notification appears if you’re anywhere in the device other than the home screen. This means an annoying red notification light will be going off suddenly, and you’ll have no idea why until you exit an app.

If you can’t tell, we’re not fans of RIM’s OS design. It feels woefully outdated, which is likely one of the primary reasons why BlackBerry is struggling to compete against Apple’s iPhone and the rising tide of Android devices. The only thing worse than OS 7 is…
Apps and features

We can barely talk about this without getting visibly upset. BlackBerry App World is, how do you say, embarrassing. Category organization is a mess. Functionality is clunky. And selection is pitiful; not only is the place filled with Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja rip-offs, we could barely find an app that we genuinely wanted to try. That’s likely because there are only about 5,000 of them, total. This means many of the apps Android and iOS users take for granted, even things like Google apps, are nowhere to be found. And many of the ones that have made it on there are poorly-concocted replicas of their Android and iOS counterparts.



One glimmer of hope is the Social Feed app, which comes pre-loaded on the 9810. This handy app shows all your incoming tweets, Facebook News Feed items and messages, as well as BlackBerry Messenger, Google Talk, Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger messages, all in one place. You can even respond straight from the app.

Like BlackBerrys of yore, the OS 7-powered Torch 9810 handles email spectacularly, far better than any other device we’ve ever used. Support for Microsoft Office documents comes standard, something enterprise users will appreciate. Data security remains a major selling point for RIM. But nothing really stands out about the 9810 for enterprise users over other BlackBerry handsets.

In other words, RIM is still winning in the areas it has historically excelled: email and security. Elsewhere – well, let’s just move on before we say something nasty, shall we?
Camera

While more modern handsets, like the Motorola Droid Razr, Samsung Galaxy S II and iPhone 4S, now sport 8-megapixel cameras that rival dedicated point-and-shoots, the 5-megapixel camera of the 9810 still manages to pump out clear, crisp and vibrant photos – most of the time, at least.

RIM has built in a number of scene modes, like landscape, party, close-up and auto mode, which can add some mild improvements to your pictures.

The LED flash and autofocus worked reasonably well. And the quick-access camera button on the right side of the device is an excellent feature that makes snapping a quick shot simple and easy. In low-light scenarios, the 9810′s camera struggles, and the flash makes photos taken in low light look a bit over-exposed. Strangely, in particularly bright settings, it was difficult not to shoot a photo that didn’t look as though the lens had light leak issues. This, of course, is impossible, as true light leak can only happen with detachable lenses that aren’t seated properly. But the effect was, sadly, the same, making some photos look washed out.

BlackBerry-Torch-9810-sample-image

The 9810 can also capture 720p high-definition video, which looks solid. When shooting video, we found that the autofocus had trouble in high-movement situations, but that was only a minor qualm. Our main complaint about the video feature is that it is entirely separate from the still image camera functionality, something we found counter-intuitive and mildly frustrating.

That said, the image stabilization is definitely useful, as is the ability to turn on the LED for low-light shooting. We also liked the ability to name your video files as soon as you created them, which makes it far easier to remember which clips to keep and which to discard when you’re sorting through them later.
Call quality and data speed

As a phone, the Torch 9810 is fantastic. Every call we made was crystal clear, and never dropped, despite some instances of sub-standard AT&T signal strength. Which brings us to the issue of AT&T’s “4G” HSPA+ connection. While the 9810 is marketed as a 4G device, anyone who has used Verizon’s LTE network is going to be disappointed, as AT&T’s HSPA+ speeds are a fraction of what Verizon offers, and slower than either T-Mobile’s enhanced HSPA+ or Sprint’s WiMax connection.

Despite this, we were still pleased with how well the 9810 crunched through the data. It was still faster than our iPhone 4 on Verizon’s 3G network when in a well-covered area like New York City. The 9810 is advertised as having a maximum download speed of 14.4Mbps. In our tests, we achieved an average download speed of about 5Mbps, with a full HSPA+ signal, which isn’t bad for AT&T’s network.

Seeing as 4G LTE is still a developing technology – or, at least, the networks are still developing – the 9810 offers respectable usability in the data speed department, especially for users moving up from standard 3G. But that’s unlikely to still be the case two years from now, when a new AT&T contract would expire.
blackberry-torch-9810-batteryBattery life

According to RIM, the 1270mAh battery of the 9810 is supposed to pump out about 6 hours of talk time on 3G and around 295 hours of standby time – not great, but not the worst, either. While we didn’t try to talk on the phone for 6 hours straight, of course, we did test the limits through a combination of calls, Twitter usage, email, average to light web browsing and shooting some pictures and video. After all that, the phone still had around 30 percent battery at the end of the night.

Over the course of a few days, we found that the 9810 more or less drained after about a day’s usage, on average. What we did find surprising, however, was the terrible standby time. Left sitting on our desk, the 9810 went dead after less than two days, consistently – nowhere close to the supposed 295 hours RIM claims. Oddly enough, it seemed to hold up better when we actually used the thing. Not that the battery actually lasted longer, but the drainage seemed disproportionate to usage (or lack thereof). All-in-all, the battery was OK, but certainly not a main selling point.
Conclusion

Casual BlackBerry users will likely find the Torch 9810 pleasantly fast, quirky and a little bit charming. Those who love physical keyboards will adore that of the 9810 – but it’s not any better than the keyboards on other BlackBerry handsets. The touchscreen, while bright and responsive, is a bit too small to really be taken advantage of. Call functionality is excellent, and data speeds on AT&T’s HSPA+ are better than 3G, but far slower than other carriers’ 4G options.

In general, we felt that the slider form factor simply tries to do too much; rather than do one thing exceptionally well, it does two things just OK. But the real downside to the 9810 is the already-outdated BlackBerry OS 7, and the near-complete lack of quality apps available through App World. This alone would make us opt for nearly any other brand of handset.

To be fair, the Torch 9810 only costs $50 with the signing of a two-year contract from AT&T. Problem is, with AT&T rolling out its LTE network as we speak, is anyone really going to want to be stuck with August’s technology for the next two years? We know we don’t.
Highs

    Bright, responsive display
    Full QWERTY keyboard
    Fast browser
    Inexpensive

Lows

    Small touchscreen
    Far outdated OS
    Terrible app selection
    Plastic construction, fragile moving parts
    Short battery life

Samsung Vibrant Review

We review the Samsung Vibrant for T-Mobile, part of Samsung's new line of Galaxy S phones that feature Android and outstanding AMOLED screens.
Introduction

While the Samsung Galaxy S Captivate wages a potentially fruitless war versus the iPhone 4 over at AT&T, in many ways, its sibling, the Galaxy S Vibrant, faces a more crowded Android field at T-Mobile. But in a feature-by-feature comparison, the Vibrant prevails with little problem. Its only real competition, feature-wise, is the otherwise inferior Windows-based HTC HD2, and the Android Motorola Cliq XT. Almost by default, the Vibrant becomes T-Mobile’s most impressive Android phone, albeit with some quirks and omissions that leave room for improvement, and some hard dollars-to-features choices for T-Mobile Android customers.
Features

Like its Galaxy S siblings, Vibrant offers nearly all the modern cell Android 2.1 amenities – 7.2 Mbps 3G connectivity, Wi-Fi, a speedy 1GHz Hummingbird processor, 5-megapixel camera and HD (720p resolution, 30 frames per second) video recorder, Bluetooth 3.0, six-axis sensor for enhanced gaming, 16GB internal memory, and SWYPE text input, as well as Samsung’s “Social Hub,” which aggregate updates from your Facebook, Twitter and MySpace accounts.
Design

With its front silver frame, the smooth, rounded Vibrant bears a resemblance to the first iPhone, and its predictable lines make it much more elegant than the angular Captivate. The Vibrant’s only physical anomaly is a hump at the bottom rear, presumably for the antenna array. While surprisingly light, the Vibrant doesn’t feel cheap or fragile. In fact, it’s essentially the same weight (4.2 oz.) as the smaller Motorola Cliq XT.

Like all the Galaxy S phones, the Vibrant’s calling card is its 4-inch super AMOLED screen, which is brighter and displays more accurate colors than any other T-Mobile Android phone. Oddly, the Vibrant’s display also presents truer colors than the Galaxy S Captivate. This difference is especially notable on Web pages with a white background, which tend toward the blue on Captivate.
Layout and Interface

On the left is a smooth volume toggle with no separation, and no raised dots or dashes to distinguish between up and down. On the right is the power button, which doubles as a lock key in certain apps. This power button is located closer to the center of the right spine than on the Captivate, and can easily be confused as the camera shutter release, which it is decidedly not.

Like the Captivate, the microbus jack is at the top next to the headphone jack, which makes it less awkward to use the phone when it’s plugged into a PC for charging and syncing.
Multimedia

T-Mobile doesn’t have its own video store, so included viewing options are limited to YouTube and the subscription-based MobiTV. As with the Captivate, the low-res offerings from these services don’t exactly challenge the super AMOLED screen.

You’ll want to use earphones to listen to your videos. The Vibrant’s only speaker is the earpiece, which produces only tinny sound, and barely enough volume for private listening in a quiet room.

The Vibrant includes Samsung’s AllShare app, which lets you play a file from your phone on another media player, play a file from a server on the phone, or play a file from a server onto another player, using the phone as a remote – all requiring Wi-Fi and DLNA.
Sound Quality

You’ll get plenty of volume for conversation, but the earpiece sounds just as tinny with voices as it does for music, even if words are easily distinguishable.

Rumor: The HTC Edge might be the world’s first Quad-core phone

Images and specs of an unannounced quad-core HTC Android phone have surfaced. The HTC Edge is rumored to house a quad-core 1.5GHz Nvidia 3 processor, and all of the other bells and whistles.

Just when you thought it was safe to buy a dual-core Android phone, rumors of an upcoming quad-core phone surface. Pocketnow has some information about a yet unannounced HTC device that is rumored to be powered by an Nvidia quad-core processor. The Tegra 3 powered phone is being called the HTC Edge, and as of right now is expected to be released in the first half of 2012.

Besides the four 1.5GHz cores under the hood, the Edge has some pretty impressive stats. Most noticeably would be the massive 4.7 inch screen with 720p HD resolution. The camera is a backlit 8-megapixel sensor with f/2.2 lens. It is also rumored that the Edge will have 1GB of ram, and 32GB of storage built in. There was no information about if the Edge would come in an LTE flavor, but there was information about a 21Mbps HSDPA radio. All of this will be packed into a 10-millimeter-thick package.

One bit of information that was unclear is what operating system will be loaded onto the device. With HTC recently announcing several current model devices getting Ice Cream Sandwich in early 2012, we are hoping that the Edge will come preloaded with the frozen treat. The fact that the device pictured above has the physical Android buttons makes us worried that it will come with Gingerbread (which requires buttons), and be updated at a later date.

While we have seen tablets like the Asus Transformer Prime have quad-core processor, this is the first phone we’ve seen with a quad-core processor. Mobile technology is improving at an amazing rate, the first dual-core devices were announced earlier this year, and we are already being teased with quad-core phones. Now everyone who was thinking about upgrading to the Galaxy Nexus might be a little worried when signing that two year contract.

1TB hard drive prices skyrocket 180 percent due to Thailand floods

With devastating flood waters still covering much of Thailand's key industrial districts, the price of hard drives has already risen as much as 180 percent, according to some observations.

As predicted, the price of hard drives has soared a staggering 180 percent, in some cases, due to widespread, long-term flooding in Thailand. According to computer engineer Marc Bevand, who has observed the soaring price tags, 1TB drives have experienced the most notable jump.

The literal breaking point, writes Bevand on his blog, Zorinaq, came after the flood waters seeped into the Bang Pa-In Industrial Park, the Navanakorn Industrial Park and the Bangkadi Industrial Park. These three industrial parks, located in Pathum Thani province near Bangkok, house all the manufacturing facilities in Thailand for both Western Digital and Toshiba. And, according to Bevand, “all of them have been rendered inoperable,” something Western Digital had feared would happen.

According to some estimates, roughly 60 percent of Western Digital’s total hard drive production takes place in Thailand, as does 50 percent of Toshiba’s. The Western Digital factory in the Bang Pa-In industrial park produced 25 percent of all the world’s “sliders,” which are a vital component of traditional hard drives. As The New York Times reports, workers attempted to salvage what they could of the factory’s inventory. But much was lost at the production plant as, “[t]he ground floor resembled an aquarium and the loading bays were home to jumping fish.”

The tenacious floodwaters engulfing Thailand are the worst the country has seen in 50 years. So far, more than 1,000 factories across the country have had to shut down due to the water.

The flood waters, which have displaced more than 120,000 people, are not expected to recede until mid-December, and disruptions to the world’s hard drive production could last well into next year.

Subaru to unveil Advanced Tourer Concept at 2011 Tokyo Motor Show

Take a peek at the latest from Japanese automaker Subaru and its Advanced Tourer Concept car, rumored to be an impressive re-design of the popular Subaru Legacy.

Subaru has auto enthusiasts excited for the upcoming Tokyo Motor Show; not only will they draw back the curtain on the new BRZ coupe, but the annual Japanese auto show will also serve as a debut for Subaru’s Advanced Tourer Concept car.

If the press release and photos are anything to go off of, the new Advanced Tourer Concept will certainly exhibit some aggressive and luxurious design features that the current Subaru Legacy – of which the Advanced Tourer Concept is rumored to be a part of – does not.

With a focus on luxury and technological flair, the Subaru ATC features a host of impressive advancements around the car, like brushed aluminum trim, a panoramic sunroof, and an information/entertainment screen mounted onto the steering wheel.

In addition, the ATC has a new crash-avoidance system with two rear-view mirror mounted cameras, as well as a hybrid drivetrain that fuses an electric motor to a 1.6-liter turbo boxer four, essentially allowing the ATC to deliver the same output as a 2.0 or 2.5-liter but with increased fuel economy, powering all wheels through the world’s first longitudinally-mounted chain drive CVT.

No word yet on whether the Advanced Tourer Concept will make it to production, but here is hoping for some positive reaction to Subaru’s more aggressive design later this month when it makes its

Adidas suspends websites following sophisticated cyber attack

Adidas has suffered a serious cyber-attack causing the sports company to suspend access to many of its websites. The company believes consumers' personal data is safe.

Sportswear giant Adidas has suffered what it described as “a sophisticated, criminal cyber-attack.”

It learned of the attack on Thursday last week although following a preliminary investigation it believes no personal data belonging to consumers has been stolen.

A statement released by the German company on Sunday said it had taken down several of the affected sites, including adidas.com, reebok.com, miCoach.com, adidas-group.com, while it continues with its investigation.

Adidas also said that as soon as it discovered the cyber-attack, it implemented a number of measures to bolster security.

“Nothing is more important to us than the privacy and security of our consumers’ personal data. We appreciate your understanding and patience during this time,” the statement said.

At the time of writing, the adidas.com and miCoach.com websites were both still down, although information about the situation had been posted. “At this stage we are targeting to have the site up and running again by the end of day (US Eastern Time) Tuesday 8th November,” the miCoach.com website said. The adidas.com site pointed users to its e-commerces sites, though no doubt many online shoppers will be keen to hear more details about the recent security breach before giving their credit card details to the sportswear company.

At this stage there is still little information regarding the precise nature of the attack or who might be responsible.

The incident comes in a year that has seen many high profile online security breaches, including those suffered by Sony, Citibank and the Pentagon.

Arcade on the go: iControlPad offers old-school controls with new-school tech

Old school gaming on your mobile device just got better thanks to to the iControlPad Bluetooth gaming controller.

Not a fan of the iPhone’s accelerometer, gyroscope, or touch controls when playing games? Well, now you can finally enjoy some old-school controlling action thanks to the iControlPad.

The iControlPad is a fully functioning gaming controller that adds two rear buttons, a D-pad, dual analog sticks, and six face buttons – all on your smartphone. What’s more, old school control isn’t just limited to the iPhone; in fact , the iControlPad will also work with most Android phones, iPads, PCs, and Macs, so long as it has a Bluetooth chip inside. There is even a universal clamp that allows you to securely attach the iControlPad to your device of choice.

The iControlPad is available for $74.99

PlugBug charger gives you a simple charging solution for all your Apple devices

Check out the PlugBug from Twelve South, a delightfully compact and efficient USB charger for all your Apple devices.

In what is probably one of the more common annoyances we go through on daily basis; the availability — or lack thereof, of power outlets can be a real nuisance. Perhaps exacerbating the problem is Apple’s plethora of ubiquitous devices, whether it’s an iPod, iPhone, iPad or Macbook, they all need to be charged. But what are you to do when your devices outnumber your power supply?

Enter the simple, yet elegantly designed PlugBug from Twelve South, an all-in-one USB charger that can plug into your Macbook or wall outlet. Twelve South’s PlugBug essentially acts as an all-you-can-eat electrical buffet for your power-hungry Apple devices, charging multiple devices at the same time in one compact device. What’s more, given that an iPad requires more than twice the power of your typical USB device, the PlugBug will actually charge faster than a standard USB, with the PlugBug providing a full 10 watts and 2.1 amps of power for quick charging – perfect for those of you traveling or on the go.

For $35 at Twelve South online, the PlugBug is a must have for Apple users; it’s compact, charges multiple devices, and is more efficient than your standard USB plug.

LomoKino 35mm analog movie camera

Point, shoot, and create with the LomoKino 35 mm analog movie camera.

With all the focus on digital and high definition images these days, it’s nice to see cool new analog camera enter the fray and represent the colorful, unique, and sometimes blurry world of Lomographic photography.

The LomoKino ($80) is an analogue movie camera that shoots 144 frames on a single roll of 35mm film. It’s a nifty little movie-making device that will not only capture the moment, but your creativity as well. With the LomoKino, you can give your films a sense  of style, all the while escaping the megapixel-obsessed society we live in today. You can even pair it with the LomoKinoScope so you can watch and enjoy the movies you’ve created.

Battlefield 3 still lagging behind two Call of Duty games on Xbox Live

Despite huge sales figures, Battlefield 3 still sits behind Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops on the most recent Xbox Live usage rankings.

Here’s an interesting blip on the Xbox 360 radar. The most recent online play rankings for Xbox Live put Battlefield 3 behind not one, but two Call of Duty games: Black Ops and 2009′s Modern Warfare 2. Electronic Arts threw a lot of words around about Battlefield‘s dominance in the months leading up to the DICE shooter’s release and even though the game has sold 5 million copies and currently leads 2011 in sales, it is now chowing down on some well-deserve humble pie.

There are a few factors working against the EA game here. For one, Battlefield 3 has been fraught with online play issues since it launched, particularly on the Xbox Live front. What’s more, it was recently revealed that Duty players could look forward to in-game rewards in next week’s Modern Warfare 3 for each previous game in the series that they’d gone Prestige (ie maxed out and reset their multiplayer progression progress) in.

The rankings are really just further proof that Battlefield 3 has suffered from a rocky launch. The multiplayer will probably gel once DICE gets a few more updates out the door and the server issues are worked out. I don’t think anyone ever really expected Battlefield to completely dominate the Xbox Live rankings, but it’s a little surprising to see it falling behind a pair of one- and two-year-old games.

Android hardware failure rate higher than iPhone and Blackberry

Of the four leading smartphone operating systems Google's Android has the highest rate of hardware failure, and costs cell phone carriers $2 billion a year in repairs and returns.

Not all smartphones are created equal, and now WDS has proven that not all Android phones are created equal. During a year-long study of customer service support calls it was discovered that more Android phones suffered from hardware failures than iOS, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone 7. Android phones also cost carriers $2 billion dollars a year in replacement costs.

Tim Deluca-Smith, WDS VP of marketing, points out that it is now an issue with the Android OS, but instead it is an issue with the physical devices. The problem seems to be the fact that so many companies are coming out with low cost Android devices, and it is these low cost devices not the best ones that are increasing the total failure rate. Deluca-Smith says that Android’s, “openness has enabled the ecosystem to grow to a phenomenal size, at a phenomenal rate, and it’s this success that is proving challenging.”

The study lasted 12 months, and tracked 600,000 tech support calls handled by WDS. Of all the technical support calls for Android phones 14 percent of the calls were due to hardware failure. In a close second is Windows Phone with 11 percent of calls, Apple’s iOS had seven percent, and RIM’s BlackBerry had the least with only six percent. It should be noted that the operating systems with the highest failure rate are also the ones that do not make hardware.

Android is the most popular OS of the four compared, so it is no surprise that it cost the carrier the highest total amount due to hardware issues. The study did not provide any numbers for the cost of repairing or refunding any other devices. As a consumer do not take this as a warning against buying Android phones, but it should make you think about the quality of the phone you are buying before you enter into a two year contract.

Leaked documents reveal Nook Tablet coming Nov 16 for $249

According to leaked documents, Barnes & Noble will unveil the Nook Tablet on Monday. The 7-inch touchscreen device will sell for $249 and has 16GB of internal memory, double that of Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet.

Some interesting details have emerged about Barnes & Noble’s “very special announcement” scheduled for Monday in New York.

According to documents obtained by Engadget, it appears that speculation about Barnes & Noble unveiling a new tablet next week has turned out to be correct.

The website claims that the book giant will introduce the Nook Tablet, set to go on sale on November 16 for $249, $50 more than its direct competitor, Amazon’s Kindle Fire.

Engadget, which called the new tablet “a dead-ringer for the Nook Color,” reports that the Nook Tablet will sport a 7-inch VividView IPS color touchpanel with a 1024 x 600 screen resolution.

It’ll be powered by a 1.2GHz dual-core OMAP4 processor, have 1GB of RAM and 16GB of in-built storage (expandable thanks to a microSD slot).

The report claims the new tablet will be 0.48 inches thick, which is a fraction thicker than the Kindle Fire at 0.45 inches, although at 14.1 ounces (400g) the Nook will weigh slightly less than the Fire, which tips the scales at 14.6 ounces (414g).

Battery life is thought to be around eight hours with Wi-Fi turned off, though this’ll drop to four hours if video is running. There’s no mention of the OS but it should be a version of Android.

So will consumers on the hunt for a competitively priced tablet be prepared to fork out an extra $50 for the Nook Tablet, or go instead for the $199 Kindle Fire?

For the extra $50 consumers will get double the RAM, double the internal storage, and a memory expansion slot.

Two other factors will likely sway consumers. First, they’ll be keen to get hold of the devices to see how each one functions and feels in the hand. And second, they’ll want to take a close look at what each tablet offers in terms of content and extras. On Wednesday, for example, Amazon launched the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library which allows owners of its e-readers and Fire tablet to borrow a book a month for free if they join Amazon Prime for $79 a year. The deal also gives members access to around 13,000 movies and TV shows. As for Barnes & Noble’s tablet, from the obtained documents it looks as if it’ll be loaded with Netflix, Hulu and Pandora apps.

Of course, it’s quite possible consumers will shun both devices and opt for Kobo’s $199 Vox tablet instead.

Next Kindle Fire may have an 8.9-inch screen

The Kindle Fire isn't out yet, but there are already rumors that the next Fire will have an 8.9-inch screen.

The rumor mill is turning again. Before its first tablet has even hit shelves, Amazon is rumored to be prepping its next Kindle Fire, which will have an 8.9-inch screen. The first Kindle Fire has a 7-inch screen and is being sold for $200, which is either at cost or losing Amazon money with each unit sold. We imagine that a large screen would mean even higher costs, but it’s hard to know what the online retailer has planned. The Kindle Fire is seen as a loss leader. Amazon may lose money on the hardware, but it plans to make it back by selling apps, games, music, books and other media on the device.

DigiTimes reports that Amazon’s current 7-inch screen suppliers, Chunghwa Picture Tubes (CPT) and LG Display (LGD) have begun preparations to manufacture 8.9-inch displays for a future tablet device. The site also says that after Amazon launches its 8.9-inch tablet, the company may move to a 9.7- or 10.1-inch model in 2012.

Honestly, from our experience with tablets so far, 8.9 inches may be the perfect tablet size, as we noted in our Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 review. It’s small enough to hold and thumb type on, but not so small that it feels like an oversized smartphone. You get the benefit of a full-screen experience without the bulk that comes with larger screens.

If this rumor is true, it would mean that Amazon may announce an 8.9-inch tablet fairly early in 2012. This seems odd as the company usually sticks to a yearly product lifecycle for its Kindle e-reader products. The tablet market is moving quickly, however, so it’s hard to say what will happen come CES in January. 

Best Buy offering free HTC smartphone with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 purchase

Call of Duty fans can snag a free HTC smartphone from either Sprint, Verizon, or AT&T, at Best Buy next week when they pick up a copy of Modern Warfare 3.

Talk about a good deal: Best Buy announced today that it will offer customers who purchase Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which hits stores on this coming Tuesday, the option of receiving a free HTC smarphone with the signing of a two-year contract (of course).

The phones Best Buy is giving away are the HTC EVO 4G for Sprint, the Droid Incredible 2 for Verizon and the Inspire 4G for AT&T. Not a bad selection at all, especially when you can get it for free (plus contract price), which will save you between $100 and $150, depending on which device you choose. We recommend the EVO 4G, assuming you’re on Sprint. It is the best overall device.

According to CNet, the free smartphone offering is part of Best Buy’s strategy to build customer awareness about its variety of wireless offerings.

Best Buy has become an increasingly prevalent retailer in the smartphone game. The big box store became the first non-Apple outlet to offer the iPhone, and a growing number of new Android devices, like the HTC Rezound, which was unveiled on Thursday.

Whether or not Best Buy can lure in hoards of Modern Warfare 3 customers remains to be seen. But if you’re planning to start up a new wireless contract and pick up a copy of Modern Warfare 3 next week, then we literally can’t think of a better place to get both of these things than Best Buy. Smooth move, Best Buy. Smooth…

Samsung Focus S hands-on impressions

Our hands-on impressions of the Samsung Focus S, a great new Windows Phone 7.5 device with a thin profile.

It’s a year old, but the Samsung Focus remains one of our favorite smartphones on the market. Samsung’s Super AMOLED Plus screens really show off the best qualities of Microsoft’s young smartphone operating system. Though Windows Phone hasn’t quite taken off yet for a number of reasons, its user interface is no longer one of them. The Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) update has put the OS on a more level playing field with iOS and Android and the new Focus S takes advantage. We got a chance to spend some time with both of Samsung’s Focus phones. Though they are single core, we couldn’t help but walk away impressed.

While the shape of the Focus S is a lot more generic than its predecessor–a square frame with rounded edges–it manages to pack in a larger screen at 4.3 inches (Focus was 4.0 inches) and measures 8.5 mm thick–thin enough to start competing with the Droid Razr and that whole crowd. The processor clocks in at 1.4GHz and is noticeably faster than previous Windows Phones, but still hiccups a bit when performing complex tasks. The Windows Phone OS does seem a lot better at managing resources than Android and iOS though, so a single-core processor seems to go a bit further. When it comes to intense games, however, Android and iOS now have a leg up.

Samsung Focus S side

The Focus S has an 8MP rear camera with LED flash and a 1.3MP front camera. Both appear to be a bit of an upgrade from the original Focus, but not by a ton. Luckily, the Focus had a pretty good camera to begin with. Pictures usually come out clear and vibrant. The shutter speed and autofocus aren’t quite as fast as some of the newest HTC phones, or the iPhone 4S, but the picture quality appears to be up there. 

Samsung Focus S back

There is one other downside to the phone. It appears that it will only have 16GB of internal storage and the screen resolution is only 480×800. We could not verify either of these claims, but several outlets have reported on them. Also, it would be great if Windows Phone better adapted itself to larger screens. With 4.3 inches of space, it would be cool to have a third row of Live Tiles to work with, or maybe a slightly smaller keyboard that shows more of the screen you’re typing on. Hopefully Microsoft will improve WP7′s flexibility in time. And that includes LTE. This AT&T device supports HSPA+ 21, which is the best AT&T has to offer, but we hope Microsoft and Samsung will keep up with the times as AT&T upgrades its network. 

Overall, we like the phone a lot. At $200, it’s a bit pricey, but we’re growing more and more fond of Microsoft’s operating system. The only unfortunate trait of Windows Phone is that it takes a trial period to really start to appreciate the new type of UI Microsoft has introduced. If you are feeling adventurous, give it a go. We don’t think you’ll regret it.

Social media aggregation comes to Occupy Wall Street

With the fragmented nature of the Occupy Wall Street movement making it difficult to track beyond coverage from news organizations, a Web design company has infused social media into an aggregation of all OWS updates.

Since the launch of the leaderless Occupy Wall Street movement approximately seven weeks ago, tracking ongoing events in New York City has been difficult due to the limited media coverage as well as the massive size of the protest. The events on Wall Street have also spawned additional protests in several major U.S. cities including Denver, Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis and San Diego. Keeping tabs on the latest development has now become simpler with the launch of Occupationalist, a social media aggregator that combines constantly updated content from Tumblr, Twitter, Google Video, Meetup.com and Foursquare into a single page.

occupy-tweetsThe Twitter feeds are organized by hashtags specific to the overall movement and various cities. For instance, tweets with the #OWS hashtag are shown on the left side of the page and tweets using hashtags with specific city names, like #OCCUPYBALTIMORE or #OCCUPYLA, are shown down the middle of the page. Videos from Google’s Picasa Web are displayed along the right side of the page. At the top of the page, users will find a collection of pictures from Tumblr of people holding up explanations about being part of the “99%”. Below that section, visitors can find a visual map of FourSquare check-ins at each specific protest as well as a Bing map that displays Meetup.com locations for people to organize protests in smaller cities.

The site was constructed by members of a program called Boulder Digital Works which appears to be affiliated with the University of Colorado. The accelerated program involves graduate studies around entrepreneurship, Web technology and creative skills in relation to media and business design. The 60-week program offers courses in interactive design on platforms like tablets and smartphones and the cost of the entire program is $25,000 for tuition.