Sunday, May 9, 2010

HTC Droid Incredible Lives Up to Its Name

The best of the Droids on Verizon, the Droid Incredible ($200 with a two-year contract from Verizon) impresses with its speedy user interface, gorgeous AMOLED display and fun Sense user interface. Other than some minor design qualms, this smartphone truly lives up to its name.
Design-wise, the Droid Incredible appears fairly similar to the Nexus One, but it is essentially a CDMA version of the HTC Desire, which launched last February in Barcelona, Spain. The Droid Incredible has an 8-megapixel camera (as opposed to the Nexus One and Desire's 5-megapixel shooters). The Droid Incredible also has a strange rubberdized "topographic" battery cover, which I could have done without. While the Incredible is lighter, it doesn't feel as solid as the Nexus One.

While the Nexus One has four touch keys, the Droid Incredible has four physical hardware keys running along the bottom (Home, Menu, Back, Search). I actually prefer the Nexus One's touch keys, though, as it gives the phone a more streamlined look.

Another difference from the Nexus One is that the Droid Incredible has an optical mouse as opposed to a trackball. Like RIM BlackBerrys, HTC seems to be making a shift from trackball to optical (both the HTC Desire and Legend sport an optical mouse).

The Droid Incredible runs Android 2.1 with the revamped Sense interface, which offers some useful new functions for easy navigation. For more information about Android 2.1's features, check out our review of the Google Nexus One.

Impressive 8-Megapixel Camera

While 5-megapixel cameras seems to be the standard for high-end smartphones for right now, expect to see a lot more 8-megapixel camera phones in the near feature. Overall, I was impressed with the Droid Incredible's camera, but I didn't think it was as good as the Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10. You press the haptic mouse to snap pictures, which works okay, but I found myself wishing there was a dedicated camera key on the phone's spine. The phone just didn't feel as steady in my hands and sometimes my pictures looked a bit blurry. Otherwise, I was very impressed with my outdoor shots. Colors appeared bright and natural, details looked sharp. There was also very little shutter lag. My indoor shots looked good as well, though a few had a bit of yellowish tint. The flash also seemed a bit unpredictable as to when it decided to go off, as well. Many of my indoor shots were pretty well lit so when the flash went off, details and colors were blown out. Nighttime snapshots looked good, however-better than most smartphone cameras with flashes.

The Droid Incredible can shoot high resolution video up to 800-by-480, but you can't shoot 720p quality video. The camcorder is fine for quick clips, but I was disappointed by the slight pixelation in my videos.

Multimedia: Just Okay

I do wish that HTC would have updated the Sense media player. It is slightly prettier than the dull-as-dirt Android player, but I prefer iTunes or Palm's webOS player. Audio playback sounded good, though and the player supports a respectable range of audio and video formats.


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Friday, May 7, 2010

The HP EliteBook 2540p Is a Highly Portable Business Machine With Few Sacrifices

A new HP laptop, the EliteBook 2540p assembles zippy components and versatile ports in a nimble case. Though HP's omission of a graphical processor slows the machine down for games and 3D software, this model possesses ample power for nearly any professional application. And the highly portable (3.38 pounds) EliteBook can transform any room into a satellite office.
Priced at $1629 (as of May 5, 2010), the EliteBook 2540p is especially noteworthy for its solid case--a clean, metal-and-plastic design that HP says can withstand 300 pounds of pressure when closed. (If you do run into problems, however, be forewarned that HP ranked last in our most recent reader survey of manufacturer reliability and service.) The laptop feels compact and manages to hold out for a solid 5 hours, 34 minutes on a single battery charge.
A 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-640LM and 4GB RAM provide the laptop's pep, helping it to a score of 102 in our WorldBench 6 test suite. The system feels powerful enough to handle Web browsing, Office apps, and virtually any productivity or content creation software. But lacking a dedicated graphics processor, it limped through our low-quality, 800-by-600-pixel Unreal Tournament 3 benchmark at 14.2 frames per second. Other 3D games are similarly unplayable. Business users might not care, but content creators may occasionally want better graphics performance than this model can deliver; even Photoshop can take advantage of a dedicated GPU.

The keyboard works well. The full layout trims some of the extra width from Tab and several other outlying keys, but the keyboard still handles touch-typing quite comfortably. Initially I disliked the texture, which feels like slate and even gets marked up with fingernail scratches (though those scrapes wipe off easily). After a while, however, I got used to the finish.

The EliteBook includes two pointers: a standard two-button trackpad, and a two-button eraser-head joystick. The trackpad feels responsive, while the ThinkPad-esque rubber pointer gets out-of-control a little too often for my taste. Still, both work, and being able to use the input device you prefer is all to the good. Both sets of mouse buttons left- and right-click independently; unfortunately, both sets felt a little too squishy to me.

The matte, 12.1-inch display is well suited for mobile work. It looked best with a lot of background light and was even readable outside. On the other hand, it lacked brightness, seeming more washed out than competing models and displaying less contrast. Forf these reasons, graphics pros might want to consider a different laptop. At least text always looked sharp, and the display can tilt back beyond 180 degrees for versatile mobile use.

The laptop's audio was certainly adequate, though a wider range of tones would have warmed it up significantly; midrange and high-pitched tones came through clearly, while lower sounds drifted away. As a result, rock music and movie soundtracks never sounded credible, though you could put up with either if were stuck somewhere without headphones.


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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Casio Exilim EX-G1 Is Tough, but Its Images May Look Rough

Casio Exilim EX-G1 ruggedized point-and-shoot cameraSnowboarders, snorkelers, and rock climbers, listen up: The ruggedized Casio Exilim EX-G1 point-and-shoot digital camera is a worthy companion for your next outdoor adventure. That's assuming, of course, you don't snowboard in weather colder than 14 degrees Fahrenheit, you don't snorkel in water over 10 feet deep, you don't climb rocks higher than 7 feet, and you can live with middling image quality while you're on the move.
The key phrase here is "while you're on the move." The 12.1-megapixel Exilim EX-G1 performed extremely well in our lab-based imaging tests, producing very sharp images with good color accuracy and a lack of distortion. In PCWorld Labs' subjective testing, our jury of evaluators rated the EX-G1's image quality as Very Good.
But you'll rarely have a tripod with you on a mountain hike or snowboard trip, and that will have a negative impact on this camera's image quality in the wild. In my hands-on, real-world tests, its still images were, at best, decent. The EX-G1 offers ISO equivalency settings up to ISO 3200, but my images above ISO 400 started showing a lot of noise when zoomed in at 100 percent. Images looked sharp enough when viewed at smaller sizes, but noise, artifacts, and color issues were evident at ISO equivalencies above 800 and at larger sizes. Though the camera offers a Macro mode (in the REC menu under the Auto mode), the EX-G1 had trouble focusing on objects as close as 4 inches away from the lens.

The EX-G1 also has no real image stabilization other than a digital "Anti-Shake" option, which is off by default and disabled automatically when you use a flash. You have to dive into the camera's "REC" menu to turn it on, and it does little to combat shaky hands or darting subjects. Instead, it increases ISO sensitivity--leaving you with, well, a number of artifacts and a somewhat shaky picture.

The Exilim EX-G1 features a 3X-optical-zoom lens (38mm to 114mm), a 2.5-inch LCD screen, and a variety of preset "Best Shot" modes. It's delightfully tiny at just 5.4 ounces and 0.78 inches thick--Casio says it's the slimmest shockproof camera on the market (the upcoming Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX5, which measures less than 0.75 inches thick, might have something to say about that soon). The EX-G1 takes MicroSD and MicroSDHC cards, and it's available in black or red for $300 (as of 5/5/2010).

It is indeed rugged. The camera is shockproof to falls as far as 7 feet, waterproof down to 10 feet (and it does sink, so use that wrist strap), freezeproof down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit (though using the camera at this temperature significantly decreases your battery life), and dustproof. I tested everything except the dust, and the EX-G1 powered through like a champion--though the LCD screen did suffer a scratch or two.


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The Inspiron 14 (model 1464): It’s Just a Dell, Dude

The chips inside the Dell Inspiron 14 (1464) should push this average laptop beyond midrange quality. A 2.13GHz Intel Core i3-330M processor and 4GB of RAM should power any typical home or office workload. A decent, 14-inch display gives room to edit side-by-side documents or to watch videos. Why, then, does the Inspiron 14 end up feeling more low-end in actual use?
Without a dedicated video processor, games and high-performance applications stumble. The 3-hour, 20-minute battery falls short of mobile demands. And the ho-hum, faux-metal case feels a little cheap. Nearly every aspect of this model feels adequate without being impressive.
Shipping for about $680 (as of 5/5/2010), the Inspiron 14 focuses on CPU performance. The system scored a strong 92 in our WorldBench 6 test suite. However, its results in gaming graphics were disappointing, with the system chugging through our Unreal Tournament 3 benchmarks at 28.7 and 22.2 frames per second in low- and high-quality tests, respectively. Those tests were run at a resolution of just 800 by 600 pixels, too.

Real-world performance echoes those benchmarking cues. The Inspiron 14 easily handles Office applications, online tools, and media playback software. High-end software and games falter. You could play less-demanding titles, such as Tropico 3, if you're forgiving. First-person games, such as Splinter Cell: Conviction, are unplayable.

It's a shame because the big screen seems like a match for students who would want to keep up with games. The glossy, 1366-by-768-pixel display looks good enough in many situations. In bright rooms, the sheen can cause excessive glare, and the black border is even worse, reflecting your fingers as they rest on the keyboard. The screen misses the deep contrast and color saturation of other displays. Still, text is sharply defined, and it looks good enough to be satisfactory overall.

The keyboard is responsive even though the plastic keys feel just a little cheap. A few volume and media playback keys share space with the F-keys. The Inspiron 14 has no dedicated extra buttons, but there isn't much reason to want more.

The touchpad matches this aesthetic of averageness. Mouse control feels snappy, and independent buttons left- and right-click. However, the mouse buttons are a little too spongy, instead of letting you distinctly feel each press.

The speakers turn in another adequate performance. Since they're embedded into the base of the laptop, if you're using it literally--on a lap, that is--the sound is muffled and doesn't seem to originate from a specific place. The audio cleans up if you set it on a desk, creating a wide, stereo pattern. The volume can get loud and introduces a little warble at the highest level. But throughout, the speakers strongly favor high tones, dropping midrange and lower sounds. They seem like a typical set of laptop speakers, even if they can get louder than those of many competitors.

A 500GB hard disk and a CD/DVD burner tackle storage duties. Both meet expectations without adding anything beyond the minimum.

Many of the ports fall below that minimum threshold. Sure, you get an HDMI and VGA port. Audio-in and -out appear alongside a 7-format memory-card reader. A Webcam captures video and photos. 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth handle wireless connections. But the Inspiron includes only three USB 2.0 ports and a 10/100 ethernet jack. Additional USB, gigabit ethernet, and even eSATA would have been welcome additions.

All together, the Dell Inspiron 14 (1464) is missing that certain something that would boost its overall quality, and Dell fares poorly in our reliability survey of PCWorld readers. A more-impressive battery--even one running 5 hours--would offset most of the midrange features, but the Inspiron 14's died after 3 hours, 20 minutes in our tests. Better graphical performance, a higher-resolution display, or brighter colors could make a difference. Even excellent sound could propel this laptop above competitors. But all of the features are just adequate, and no single spec can offset this midrange aesthetic. The speedy processor comes closest, but today's great laptops include more than a good CPU.


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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sprint Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot a Win for Laptop Users

If you're like me, you need to be connected to the Internet constantly, on multiple devices, and at the highest speeds possible. Wi-Fi is great for connecting from places like home, work, and local coffee spots. But when I'm on the road, finding usable Wi-Fi hotspots for connecting my wireless devices is a challenge, and I often use (or wish I could use) cellular data service instead.
Sprint’s Overdrive 3G/4G mobile hotspot device (made by Sierra Wireless) connects to Sprint’s cellular network and then forms a miniature Wi-Fi zone for other devices to connect to. The battery-powered Overdrive looks like an unusually thick coffee coaster; it fits easily in your shirt pocket and can share your cellular data connection with up to five Wi-Fi-capable devices.
The Overdrive is the latest in a series of devices that can create mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. Others include Novatel’s popular MiFi, the Cradlepoint PHS300, and some uberphones such as the Pre on Verizon.
Unlike the others, the Overdrive is capable of supercharging its mobile hotspot with 4G WiMax--which claims to offer a tenfold increase in performance over 3G. When the Overdrive can't connect with a 4G network, it automatically reverts to Sprint’s 3G or 2G service, depending on what's available.

Sprint (through its partner Clearwire) has deployed 4G WiMax in 28 cities and will offer the service in at least 56 cities by the end of 2010.

I traveled with an Overdrive through several of Sprint’s 4G and 3G cities, along with a couple of laptops and a gaggle of smart devices--an iPhone 3GS, an iPad, a Motorola Droid, and an HTC Hero. I often stowed the Overdrive conveniently in my coat pocket or in my backpack, and let it work its magic from there.

If you can configure your home Wi-Fi router, you'll find that the Overdrive is a snap to set up by comparison. A simple yet comprehensive browser interface guides you through configuration and setup.

An external LCD on the Overdrive delivers key status messages. If you like, you can make it display your Wi-Fi password. (I tend to forget mine, so I value the quick reminder.)

Unfortunately, the device’s single power/control button was sometimes slow to respond in my hands-on testing, leading to uncertainty as to whether it was responding at all. Another drawback: The Overdrive took a full minute to boot up.

The device comes equipped with GPS to display the unit’s position in Google Maps, and with a microSD card that enables you to share files between Wi-Fi-attached devices. Ultimately, though, the microSD storage isn't as convenient as using a simple USB memory stick to move files.

During my tests in Sprint 4G cities, the Overdrive remained in 4G mode about 80 percent of the time. When I used the Overdrive to connect my laptop near the city centers of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, I saw download speeds of around 3.2 megabits per second, and upload speeds of 400 kilobits per second.

Sprint promises peak 4G download speeds of up to 10 mbps, with average speeds in the range of 3 mbps to 6 mbps. In Novarum’s 13-city wireless broadband performance tests conducted in January 2010, Sprint’s 4G network delivered average download speeds of between 2 mbps and 4 mbps, with occasional higher bursts.

In my tests with the Overdrive, I set the device to switch automatically between 4G and 3G service, with a preference for 4G (the default setting). Moving to 3G from 4G was quick and seamless; but the unit needs between 30 and 60 seconds to jump from 3G service to 4G service.

When the device was stationary, the 3G-to-4G shift didn't pose any special problems (aside from the time); but once when it was in motion aboard the Acela train from Washington, D.C., passing through Baltimore (a Sprint 4G city), the Overdrive couldn't seem to decide between the two wireless modes (possibly because of the speed of the train and changing cell zones) and communications ceased. Only when we passed out of Baltimore’s 4G footprint did the Overdrive settle on 3G service and restore communications.

The Overdrive's performance with my smartphones and iPad was very different from its performance with my laptop. 4G download speeds on the iPhone, iPad, Droid, and Hero were substantially worse than the corresponding speeds on my Overdrive-connected laptop.

In fact, in my tests, the IPhone and iPad registered faster speeds when connected via their internal 3G radios over AT&T’s much-improved 3G network than when connected via the Overdrive to Sprint's 4G network. So using the Overdrive rather than the internal 3G radio to connect those devices seems pointless. (I should note, though, that the latest Overdrive firmware update substantially improved iPhone’s performance over the hotspot.)

For the Droid and the Hero (which normally connect over Verizon's and T-Mobile's somewhat slower 3G networks), the Overdrive boosted performance by about 50 percent. Whether that improvement justifies buying the extra Sprint contract is debatable, and depends entirely on the customer.

In 3G-only cities, performance for all devices drops to Sprint’s reliable but somewhat leisurely 3G speeds, which our 13-city speed tests showed to be marginally slower than Verizon’s and markedly slower than AT&T’s.

Like other mobile hotspot devices, the Overdrive has its own battery, which you can recharge via miniUSB connected either to a PC or to a power outlet using a plug-in adapter. As a traveler I like to keep the number of chargers I carry to a minimum, so I prefer to recharge the Overdrive from my laptop.

The Overdrive seems to use more power when connecting to 4G than it does when connected to 3G. The device's battery life was about 4 hours on 3G and about 3 hours on 4G. Recharging it from a fully discharged state took between 2 and 3 hours using the USB cable, but less than an hour using the plug-in adapter.

The unit has a list price of $350, but Sprint’s current rebates bring the upfront net cost to $99 when tied to a two-year contract with unlimited 4G data but with a 5GB-per-month cap on 3G data for $60 per month. These prices are the same as for single laptop USB network adapters, but at least you can share the bandwidth among several devices.

For power laptop users, the Overdrive is a godsend. In 4G cities, it delivers substantially higher performance (often two or three times higher) than that generally available from hotel or coffee shop Wi-Fi. And for frequent travelers, offsetting hotel Wi-Fi charges easily justifies the cost of the Sprint contract. The Overdrive has a spot in my travel bag for precisely these reasons.


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Lenovo S10-3t: Half-Netbook, Half-Tablet

If you love the idea of a portable tablet PC, but can't really come to grips with the lack of a physical keyboard on such devices, Lenovo's S10-3t is here to help. This convertible tablet netbook features a screen that swivels 180 degrees and lies flat, so you can have the conveniences of both a touchscreen and a physical keyboard.
Our review model, which is black and costs $549, features the 1.66GHz Intel Atom N450, 1GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, and a 10.1-inch LED multitouch screen. It also has a built-in Webcam and 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi. The unit comes with Windows 7 Starter as the operating system.
The Lenovo S10-3t isn't a breathtaking netbook. It has a very shiny (and fingerprint-attracting) cover with a glittery square pattern. Its connections include two USB 2.0 ports, an ethernet port, a VGA-out port, headphone and microphone jacks, and a front-loading SD card slot.
For a 10.1-inch netbook, the S10-3t is pretty slim at just 0.79 inches thick. With the four-cell standard battery, it weighs 2.7 pounds (a larger eight-cell battery raises the weight to 3.3 pounds). This is a good weight for a netbook, but a little on the heavy side for a tablet. Though the larger battery gives you significantly more life than does the standard battery, the battery pack sticks out almost an inch from the back of the netbook and makes holding the device for more than a few minutes awkward and uncomfortable.

I definitely appreciate the full-size physical keyboard--but in tablet mode, you have no virtual keyboard, which can be very annoying if you like to work in that mode. The keys are nice and big, but a little too springy for my taste--they have no weight at all, which makes typing uncomfortable and promotes typos galore.

The trackpad is another story--it's about an inch-and-a-half tall, with two integrated buttons denoted by tiny dots on the lower corners. And it's textured, so there's no mistaking where it is (though, if you blink you might miss it). For what it's worth, the trackpad works nicely. Scrolling is smooth and the buttons are easy to press. It's just so small. Lenovo presumably didn't spend too much time (or real estate) on the trackpad because the good old touchscreen is right in front of you, but still, I would've appreciated something a little larger.

The 1024-by-600-pixel touchscreen is a single-input multitouch display that gives the user a pretty decent experience. It's not the most precise touchscreen we've ever used, but it's good enough to take the place of a trackpad. The IdeaPad has an accelerometer, but it was shaky at best--every time you lay the device flat, it gets confused and picks a random orientation (instead of just sticking with the orientation you had before)--annoying. You also have to wait 3 to 5 seconds as the desktop reorients itself.

No stylus is included, and writing on the screen is pretty much a lost cause. You'll have to find or buy your own stylus if you plan on using the "notes" feature. The screen is also highly glossy--not such an issue if you're using it as a netbook, but a big problem if you're using it as a tablet. The screen is quite reflective, and from some angles you can barely see it at all.

Audio and video are pretty dismal. I couldn't even stream a standard-definition one-minute clip of Family Guy without choppiness and lag, and downloaded video isn't any better. Even the sample preloaded clip (of horses and ducks and other nature things) looks more like a series of still pictures than a video clip. The speakers, located under the screen, are louder than most netbooks but still very flat-sounding. Dolby headphone surround sound gives a much better audio experience--I'd definitely recommend toting headphones around with this netbook.

Because the S10-3t is a half-tablet, Lenovo includes an appropriate amount of touch-friendly software. Along with the requisite 60-day trial of Microsoft Office, you get a suite of apps (dubbed "NaturalTouch") that includes a photo browser, an e-book reader, a notes application, and a media player. And a dedicated button on the lower left corner of the screen will take you straight into NaturalTouch. Lenovo also bundles a number of its own applications, including Lenovo DirectShare, Lenovo VeriFace 3.6, Lenovo VeriTouch, and OneKey Recovery. One app, called BumpTop, displays your desktop as a touch-friendly 3D "desktop."

The Lenovo S10-3t is, at best, decent as a netbook and decent as a tablet. While it's nice to have the functionality of both, I think I'd get better use out of something that was just really good as one or the other--a great netbook or a great tablet would be better than something that's merely.


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