Even in the midst of financial malaise and impending doom — or maybe because of it — people are becoming ever more enamored of their portable gadgets, and ever more willing to spend for them.
This year was in many ways bookended by Apple and the anticipation for its iDevice announcements. The Apple iPad 2 tablet, announced in April, caused considerable re-thinking among competitive products, and continues to hold an impressive three-quarters of the market. Then the iPhone 4S, announced in October, survived the initial frustration of Apple fans who wanted an iPhone 5, and is continuing to produce record sales and shortages in stores.
So can a smartphone really do it all, or are there still too many compromises in cramming all these features into a small handheld device? And is there also a place for tablet-sized devices? Can a clipboard-sized tablet really replace a laptop? Or does it make more sense to have a paperback-sized E-reader with a more focused purpose?
The short answer to all three questions is yes. These devices can be practical and useful, depending on your needs, and it can make real sense to have different devices for different purposes — a laptop for heavy writing and computing, a tablet for quick access and sharing, an E-reader for serious reading, and a smartphone for always-there access and entertainment. Plus, they are fun!
So for this year’s holiday gadgets review, I will focus on a few leading devices and product lines. Plus, I will look at options for enhancing your devices with audio and video accessories to share your media, plus developments in storage to manage and access your burgeoning collection of digital data.
You can have it all — and take it with you. That’s the promise of smartphones, which pile on the features — music and camera and Web and apps — so that you can be in touch, entertained, and productive, wherever and whenever.
So how is that connected convergence thing going for you? Cramming all these capabilities into a sleek phone requires some compromises: in terms of voice quality, battery life, image quality, and just the complexity of using, syncing, and updating the device. But things are getting better.
Smartphone Convergence. The idea of the smartphone has evolved through several phases to get so smart. Smartphones started with a business focus as a personal digital assistant, with the integration of calendar and contacts on the Palm PDAs, to sync your digital life from your desktop.
And smartphones were targeted to corporate use for business communications with the RIM Blackberry, with thumbs madly typing on the tiny keyboard.
Apple then blew open the smartphone market as a consumer entertainment device when Steve Jobs introduced the original iPhone in 2007. This was a courageous foray into the consumer electronics business, with a beautiful product that featured an attractive color touch screen and digital camera (but no video), built on integration with Apple’s iPod media player.
Apple continued to expand the iTunes store beyond music to podcasts, to television and movies, and then to apps and books. Its competitors still have not matched the selection and convenience. As of October Apple reported that the iTunes store is the No. 1 music store in the world, with 16 billion songs downloaded since it opened in 2003. It also has the world’s largest catalog, with more than 20 million songs, 85,000 TV shows, and 14,000 movies.
Google then focused on the power of integrating location-based and cloud services with the introduction in 2008 of the first Android smartphone, the T-Mobile G1. With Google Maps, for example, the phone reports its location and orientation using its GPS and positional sensors, and accesses vast online databases to provide not only correctly oriented maps, but spoken driving directions, street view images, and real-time traffic overlays.
This combination of your location and Internet databases makes the hand-held smartphone vastly more useful. You can search for nearby gas stations and also see which ones have the lowest prices. Or you can perform previously astounding tasks, as with Google Translate — speak a sentence, and have it not only converted to text and translated into another language, but then spoken back to you.
But again it was Apple that broke open the smartphone’s full potential as a customizable personal device by opening the App Store in 2008. While the other phones supported downloading apps, the Apple model of a convenient store accessed through the familiar iTunes software was irresistible to developers and consumers, feeding the growing base of more than 250 million iOS devices.
If you are impressed with the success of iTunes for music and video downloads, the App Store has surpassed it with 18 billion downloads since it opened in 2008, running at a rate of more than 1 billion downloads a month. Apple reports that the App Store is the No. 1 store for mobile apps, with more than 500,000 apps, including 140,000 specifically for iPad, and 100,000 game and entertainment titles. And this is no longer just iBurp and iBubbles; there’s real business here, as Apple has paid out $3 billion to app developers (which makes Apple’s 30 percent share a tasty $1.3 billion).
This is powerful leverage for Apple, from selling premium devices to serving as the gateway to the content. Steve Jobs was very explicit about the monetary value of the iTunes store in his keynote presentations — as of March, Apple had 200 million accounts with credit card information, ready to ring up even more app and media purchases.
The smartphone market then matured through 2009 and 2010, beefing up the platform with faster processors, higher-res displays as in Apple’s “Retina” display on the iPhone 4 in 2010, and HD cameras with LED flash. Last year also saw a broadening sophistication of the selection of apps, as smartphones became more focused as App phones. The Android platform has continued to be more open, for better or worse, by not curating the selection of apps as Apple does, resulting in a wider range of apps that evolve more quickly.
Meanwhile, while Android has shipped more units across all manufacturers than the iPhone, and is catching up to the number of available apps, Apple still retains a comfortable and growing niche, reporting that the iPhone is 5 percent of the world’s overall mobile phone market, with 1.5 billion units. And while market growth for all smartphones is strong at 74 percent year-over-year, Apple’s iPhone sales growth is 125 percent.
Smartphone Realization — iPhone 4S. So what’s left for the smartphone? It’s a communications device for voice and messaging, PDA reference and E-mail communicator, document viewer, and E-book reader, media player and camera, web browser and information searcher that is customizable with a myriad of downloadable apps.
But we’ve become so conditioned to amazing new advances that Apple fans were grievously disappointed with Apple’s announcement of the iPhone 4S in October, since it could not meet the anticipation for an even more amazing (and rumored) iPhone 5. But while the 4S is not a snazzy new design on the outside, it’s what’s inside that counts. Apple has cleaned up many of the lingering compromises to help the iPhone achieve the promise of a smartphone.
Smartphones can be sluggish, as they take on the roles of a portable computer, needing to remain responsive to your touch while carrying out multiple tasks and communicating online. So Apple beefed up the CPU to the same dual-core Apple A5 processor that’s in the iPad, for two-times-faster performance and seven-times-faster graphics.
Smartphones need to be always accessible, so the 4S is a now a world phone for use overseas, as well as working on the AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint networks.
Smartphone cameras can be barely adequate, with sluggish response and tiny lenses resulting in not particularly crisp photos. Apple has made a major step with the 4S, designing the camera elements like a serious digital camera, with an 8-megapixel sensor (also for HD 1080p video recording), five-element lens, enhanced CMOS sensor for more light, and a hybrid IR filter for better color accuracy and uniformity.
It also adds an Apple-designed image processor that provides much faster response, enhanced white balance, and features including face detection. This really can replace your separate digital camera and video camcorder for much of your shooting.
Another problem with smartphones is the hassle of tethering and syncing them to a computer, which has been Apple’s model with the iTunes software. Google has been focused on managing and syncing your life in the cloud, with services including Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs. With the iPhone 4S, Apple has redefined its online services with the iCloud free online services to support wireless access and syncing your computers and mobile devices.
This includes iTunes in the Cloud, to store and sync your media, books, and apps, as well as documents, contacts, calendar, and E-mail. There’s also Photo Stream to automatically sync a rolling collection of your last 1,000 photos across all your devices, and Documents in the Cloud integrated with the Apple iWork apps. iCloud also includes Find My Friends to locate people who have opted to share their location with you, backup of purchased and personal data and settings, and an iTunes Match service to access your entire music collection for $24.99 a year.
The new iPhone also sports the latest release of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 5. This is an evolutionary upgrade, adding features including an Android-like common mechanism for notifications, a Reminders app for to-do lists, and a Newsstand app to consolidate your magazine and newspaper access for more convenient paid subscriptions. It also finally supports PC Free activation and updating, so you no longer need to tether to iTunes to update your phone.
iOS 5 was an important development for Apple because it integrated the software across the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch lines, so most of these new features (that don’t depend on specific hardware) are now available not only across the current products, but also can be upgraded on earlier generations.
The iPhone 4S is basically the same design as the iPhone 4. It’s solid in the hand, made of glass and stainless steel, and has a 3.5 inch widescreen multi-touch display at 960×640 resolution at 326 ppi (pixels per inch) density.
And the iPhone 4S is priced the same as the previous iPhone — $199 for 16 GB of internal memory and $299 for 32 GB, and adds a 64 GB model for $399. Apple reduced the price of the previous iPhone 4 to only $99, albeit with only 8 GB of memory. And the earlier iPhone 3GS is now free with a 2-year contract.
The three carriers offer voice and data plans starting at around $54.99 from AT&T for 200 MB of data traffic a month, with a $109.99 plan from Sprint for unlimited voice and data. They also offer mobile hotspot options so your iPhone can serve as a Wi-Fi hotspot for your laptops or other devices, at an additional $29.99 from Verizon for 5 GB a month.
Siri Intelligent Assistant. There’s one more thing about the iPhone 4S — taking the smartphone beyond looking up information to something that you can interact with. The Siri “intelligent assistant,” developed at SRI International at 201 Washington Road, responds to voice commands. Siri does voice recognition, performs sophisticated understanding of free-form commands, and speaks back to confirm and execute your instructions.
You can issue commands like “play a song,” “look up a contact’s address,” “call [a name],” “set up a meeting in the calendar,” “remind me by making a note,” or “E-mail [a name] about a topic.” Siri will execute your command in the associated application, looking up the name in the contacts, and figuring out times in context. If necessary, Siri will manage the action through a several-step conversation.
Other commands can search for information within an appropriate app, including “How do I get somewhere?” or “When’s the next train?” on the Map app and “Will it rain tomorrow?” on the Weather app. Or Siri will simply search the web for more general requests, as the default action.
This is impressive stuff, combining natural language processing, conversational commands, and contextual understanding. Plus the developers have had a fun time building in clever responses to off-the-wall requests.
But the magic behind the curtain is still easily exposed with some commands — Siri fails to recognize common short versions of first names in the contacts, and it matches too readily on keywords (for example, a query about how to “make soup stock” is understood to be about a stock named “make soup,” and asking to find turkey soup is understood to be about restaurants in Turkey). It also is limited in how it can interact with your iPhone — you can start music playing, but not control the volume, and you can search for contacts, but not create new ones.
Along with the voice recognition for Siri, Apple had integrated dictation into the iPhone 4S for other apps — adding a microphone icon to the standard on-screen keyboard as Google has done with Android.
Apple does describe Siri as beta, and it is currently only available on the iPhone 4S. This is something of a red herring, since the heavy lifting for Siri is actually implemented in the cloud on back-end servers, and hopefully it could become more generally available as Apple gains more experience with the processing demands.
Verizon LTE. As with its history with the Macintosh and the iPod, Apple is keeping tight control over the iPhone line, managing the hardware and software, as well as the libraries of media and apps. In comparison, Google’s Android platform is designed to be open, with many different hardware designs from different manufacturers, the software customized for specific devices and carriers, and the ability for anyone to write and download apps. The result is a lot more options in choosing a phone and available apps, which can be great or just confusing depending on your needs. It also results in fragmentation of the versions of Android for each device.
One of the biggest recent developments with Android phones is the deployment by Verizon Wireless of 4G (fourth generation) cellular service called LTE (Long Term Evolution), with Internet connections up to 10 times faster that 3G. LTE steps up cellular data rates from DSL-like speeds to more like broadband.
LTE is particularly interesting for business, with USB cellular modems like the Pantech UML290 USB Modem that plug in to your laptop to deliver hardwired data rates for streaming even HD presentations and uploading large files. The Pantech folds up for storage, and unfolds for use as a cellular antenna when plugged into your laptop. Its full price is $249, or it is available for $79 with a two-year contract.
You also can get LTE though a mobile hotspot device like the Verizon Novatel MiFi 4510L, a pocket-sized unit that turns its built-in cellular data connection into a Wi-Fi hotspot, supporting up to five devices at a time sharing the LTE connection. In this way, your laptops, iPads, and iPods can all go online through the same device and the same monthly fee. Its full price is $269, or it is available for $49 with a two-year contract.
The initial Verizon 4G LTE mobile broadband service is available with two monthly data service plans similar to existing 3G plans: $30 with a 2 GB monthly allowance, $50 for 5 GB, or $80 for 10 GB, both with $10 per GB overage charges for additional usage. (Verizon is currently running a promotion offering double the data allotment at the same prices for smartphones.)
However, the carriers really don’t want customers to be using their mobile devices for watching TV all day. So while LTE promises wide open access for streaming HD content, the current capped data plans provide a serious reality check. At the LTE 10 Mbps download speed, you can move 4.5 GB of data per hour, so you could blow though the Verizon $50 for 5 GB monthly plan in a little over an hour of continuous downloading. And with the $10 per GB overage pricing, you’ll spend $45 for each hour of downloads.
In addition, LTE still is being rolled out. Verizon reports that service currently is available in 165 cities and 111 major airports, covering more than 185 million Americans. It targets covering two-thirds of the U.S. population by mid-year 2012, and the entire nationwide 3G footprint by the end of 2013. LTE is generally available in the major cities of the Eastern seaboard, including Philadelphia and New York, but not yet along the corridor through New Jersey.
And now LTE has come to Android-based smartphones including the Motorola DROID BIONIC ($249 from Verizon with a two-year contract) and the HTC Thunderbolt (currently $149 from Verizon with two-year contract). The BIONIC has a 4.3 inch display, with a 1 GHz, dual-core processor and 1 GB of internal RAM to help take advantage of the faster data rates, whether you’re streaming video or playing interactive online games.
LTE also is available on Android tablets including the Samsung Galaxy Tab ($199 from Verizon with two-year contract). The Galaxy Tab is about half the size of the iPad, but more than half the weight at 13 1/2 ounces, with a 7-inch display at 1024×600 resolution.
Tablets & E-Readers
Even if you’re armed with a full-up smartphone, it’s still useful to have a device with a larger screen for photos and videos, and when you need to work on E-mail or review documents. You can take a laptop along for these kinds of uses, but Apple’s introduction of the original iPad in 2010, followed by the iPad 2 this year, demonstrated a real niche for tablet devices. Again Apple is doing well in this category, reporting that it has sold some 29 million iPads. It still retains a 75 percent market share, even with developing competition from Android devices.
Apple iPad Tablet. The Apple iPad 2 is fully tablet sized, and weighs 1 1/3 pounds, so it’s comfortable in a lap, but not really for extended one-handed use. It has a 9.7-inch display, with 1024×768 resolution at 132 pixels per inch. The iPad 2 is a third thinner than the original iPad, and even thinner than the iPhone 4.
The iPad 2 includes much of an iPhone, except for the phone part, with GPS and other sensors, with Wi-Fi networking plus optional 3G cellular connectivity from AT&T or Verizon so you can get online anywhere your cell phone gets a signal.
Since it runs the same iOS software as the iPhone, the iPad can be a very comfortable device for Apple aficionados. The big screen is great for viewing photos and videos, and the dual cameras let you video conference with the FaceTime app and even shoot your own material (albeit somewhat clumsily with the tablet shape). And it’s feasible to do some photo enhancements and even video editing with the iMovie app before uploading and sharing your material.
The large screen also works better than the iPhone size for sharing experiences like flying in the Google Earth app, or for reading magazines and books with the Apple iBooks library or the Amazon Kindle app. And it’s great for games from the ubiquitous Angry Birds to interactive racing.
For more official use, you can use the iPad to check E-mail and type messages with the on-screen keyboard (close to full size if you orient the iPad in landscape mode). You can browse the web and see sites as they were designed for desktop display (with the limitation that Apple does not support Adobe Flash for interactive and entertainment sites). You can work on documents, spreadsheets, and presentations with the Apple Pages, Numbers, and Keynote apps, respectively.
The updated iPad 2 is priced the same as the original iPad, starting at $499 for the Wi-Fi version with 16 GB of memory. Then add $100 once or twice to bump up to 32 or 64 GB, or add another $132 for a model that supports 3G cellular service, with the choice of AT&T or Verizon. Both carriers offer monthly subscription plans, so you can drop or add them as desired, starting at $14.99 for 250 MB a month of data traffic from AT&T, up to $80 for 10 GB per month from Verizon. These plans are fine for typical E-mail and web browsing, but you’ll need to monitor your usage if you like to watch streaming video — or instead move to a Wi-Fi hotspot for intensive use, where you’ll also get faster data rates.
Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble NOOK. You can read periodicals and books on phones and tablets, but intensive readers still find that more dedicated E-reader devices like the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble NOOK lines can be more comfortable and more useful. These E-readers are typically smaller and lighter, with 6 or 7-inch displays, so they can be held in one hand for extensive periods. The E-ink displays are not backlit, so they are much more readable in sunlight, although they do require a lamp in bed at night. And the E-ink displays use much less power, so these devices can last a month or two without recharging.
In comparison to Apple, which is making its money on the rather pricey iPad device, Amazon has been aggressively and creatively pricing its Kindle line, expecting to be making the real money selling books and subscriptions. Some models are available at a $30 to $40 discount in special offer versions — i.e., with ads that display on the screensaver and bottom of home screen (but not when reading).
Amazon has three variants of the classic Kindle with a 6-inch grayscale E-ink display: the updated basic Amazon Kindle at $109 ($79 with ads), the original Kindle with Keyboard at $139 ($99 with ads), and the new Kindle Touch with a touchscreen for the same $139 ($99 with ads). The Kindle Keyboard and Touch models come with Wi-Fi connectivity, or you can buy the 3G versions with cellular data service for $50 more (less with ads). There’s also the large-screen Kindle DX with 9.7-inch display for $379.
The competing Barnes & Noble NOOK Simple Touch has a 6-inch display that’s touchscreen, and was just reduced to $99. There also is the NOOK Color, which has a 7-inch color touchscreen display, just reduced to $199.
But once you beef up a tablet with a color touchscreen and start adding interactive capabilities for viewing text and imagery, it’s not much more of a step to move from an E-reader to a more general tablet — especially if the device is already running Android, as the NOOK does.
So the Barnes & Noble NOOK Tablet, just announced for shipment in November for $249, is the NOOK Color unleashed for media and apps. It has the same 7-inch color display at 1024×600 resolution, and 8x5x0.5-inch size, and weighs just over 14 ounces, but is beefed up with a twice-as-fast processor (1 GHz dual-core), twice the memory (1 GB, plus expansion with up to a up to 32 GB microSD card), and a microphone. It plays HD movies, TV shows, and music from popular providers including Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora, does E-mail and web browsing, and runs (some) Android apps.
Similarly, the new Amazon Kindle Fire tablet also has a 7-inch display at 1024×600 resolution, and is slightly smaller at 7 1/2×4 inches. It has 8 GB of internal storage, enough for 80 apps plus either 10 movies, 800 songs or 6,000 books. It supports Wi-Fi, without any 3G option.
And the Fire is aggressively priced at $199, since it’s designed to be your one-stop gateway to buying Amazon content, including more than 1 million books and periodicals, 17 million songs on Amazon MP3, and 100,000 movies and TV shows from Amazon Instant Video.
Amazon further sweetens the deal for Amazon Prime members ($79 a year), not only with free shipping for physical purchases, but also free streaming of over 11,000 Amazon Instant Video movies and TV shows, and now free “borrowing” of one book a month on any Kindle model.
Amazon even pre-registers your Kindle when you buy it, so it’s all ready for you to start purchasing content as soon as it arrives.
Amazon Fire runs on Android, like the B&N NOOK line, and runs a selection of Android apps. With the openness of Android comes the ability to customize it for specific hardware (and further to guide it according to the marketing plans of individual vendors), which can cause software incompatibilities across different products. Amazon is addressing this by sending Fire users to its own Amazon AppStore.
Apple iPod. If you’re intrigued by the whole Apple/iTunes world of media and apps, but not ready to convert to an iPhone and don’t need a big tablet or E-reader, Apple is still ready to help out with the iPod touch. The touch (yes, it’s officially named in lowercase) was the original flagship touchscreen iPod, but now is comfortably re-positioned as the mini-iPad.
It’s handheld and significantly less expensive, with the 8 GB model dropped to $199 in October, with 32 GB for $299, and 64 GB for $399. It runs the same iOS 5 software as the iPhone and iPad, with all those fun apps, and works the same way with iTunes to buy, download, and synchronize content.
The iPod touch has the same 3.5-inch display as the iPhone, and is slightly smaller and significantly thinner and lighter (1/4 inch thin and 3.56 ounces) without the phone components. Like the iPad, it now has front and back cameras but does not have GPS.
Beyond being a non-phone or mini-tablet, Apple also has positioned the touch as a handheld game player, leveraging the 100,000-plus game and entertainment titles in the App Store. As of last year Apple described the touch as the No. 1 portable game player in the world, with a 50 percent market share, outselling Sony and Nintendo portables combined.
There’s also still the iPod shuffle, a tiny clip-on player with no display, available with 2 GB of storage (for hundreds of songs) for $49 in a variety of vibrant colors. And the almost equally tiny iPod nano adds a small color touchscreen display. It was slightly upgraded this fall with fitness features to track your walking and running, and lowered to $129 for 8 GB, or $149 with 16 GB.
Plus, the iPod classic is still around, with a 160 GB hard drive for $249. That’s significantly more storage for carrying around a major media collection with you — enough for 40,000 songs, 25,000 photos, or 200 hours of video. But Apple is clearly betting on iCloud and the iTunes Match service to instead store and deliver your collection from the cloud.
Wireless and Portable Media. There’s a lot of wireless happening around your phone or even tablet, with 3G or 4G cellular data for voice and Internet, Wi-Fi network connections to local hotspots, and Bluetooth for wireless audio. But Bluetooth is for more than replacing an audio cable, it connects to phone headsets for calls and phone controls (answer, call information), and to stereo speakers to stream music, again with play controls.
Smart Bluetooth headsets and speakers now can connect to multiple devices (multipoint), and switch automatically between playing music and answering an incoming phone call. And Bluetooth is not just for phones and other portable devices, as you can connect from computers and laptops with built-in Bluetooth, or by using a USB Bluetooth adapter. Plus, Bluetooth works for devices like mice and keyboards with your computer, and with the Apple Wireless Keyboard for the iPad.
Wireless Headsets: Plantronics and Jabra. Meanwhile, even Bluetooth headsets have been getting more sophisticated, not only with built-in voice processing and noise reduction, but also adding voice prompts and voice control to make them easier to use, integrating with the iPhone to show the battery level, and even supporting downloadable apps to add new features and options.
For example, the Plantronics Voyager PRO HD Bluetooth headset ($99) is the latest version of this venerable over-ear design, providing a more comfortable fit for extended use. It supports HD streaming audio, provides voice alerts, and has Smart Sensor technology that senses if it is being worn, so it can automatically pick up a call when you place it on the ear, or pause streaming audio when you take it off.
And the compact Plantronics Marque M155 ($59) adds voice control to verbally “answer” or “ignore” an incoming call, and displays a battery level meter on the iPhone. Both headsets support downloadable MyHeadset apps, to change settings and enable features such as streaming audio. And both support the Plantronics Vocalyst free integrated voice and text service, which provides services something like Apple’s Siri, when you connect and use simple voice commands to listen to news and weather, manage E-mails, and even listen and update to Facebook and Twitter.
The Jabra SUPREME Headset ($99) steps up the audio processing with active noise cancellation. Many headsets already do noise removal and wind noise reduction for the outgoing side of the call. Active noise cancellation then also helps in the other direction — improving the sound of the incoming voice. The SUPREME also has a clever design with a folding boom arm — unfold straight to turn it on, and fold back up to turn off.
And since Bluetooth is for stereo music as well as voice, it makes sense to deliver the sound to both ears. The Jabra SPORT ($99) is a corded wireless headset (it has a cord between the two earpieces). It’s designed for enjoying music, with bass and virtual surround audio enhancement and a built-in FM radio. And it’s designed for sport use, with the behind-the-ear fit and military-grade rain, dust, and shock protection. Plus it supports the free Endomondo Sports Tracker fitness tracking app for iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry. As a motivational tool for running it can update speed, distance, and lap time. And you can view past running routes on the smartphone with GPS tracking.
Wireless Audio: Logitech. You can load up your smartphone and tablets with great music, but then you’re typically listening on small earphones, or using the small built-in speaker to project the sound. To really enjoy the sound you can insert the device into an integrated dock/speaker, or plug in to the audio jack with larger headphones or external speakers.
But this is the era of wireless, so there’s no need for cables for sharing audio. Instead, the same Bluetooth connection that lets you talk on the phone using a Bluetooth headset also can be used to transmit high-quality stereo digital audio to wireless speakers.
For example, the Logitech Wireless Speaker Z515 has dual two-inch drivers in a relatively portable size (10×4.5×2 inches), and runs for 10 hours on the rechargeable battery ($79). And the new Logitech Wireless Boombox is even more impressive, with 8 drivers to separate sound frequencies, albeit in a larger boombox size (15x5x2.5 inches) and twice the price ($149). The result is an impressively clear and clean sound.
For more personal listening, the Logitech Wireless Headset pairs with up to eight different Bluetooth devices to listen to stereo music. Plus, it adds a noise-canceling microphone that rotates down from the headband so you can switch between listening to music to talking on the phone — or on video calls.
This flexibility of the Bluetooth wireless connection raises interesting possibilities for integrated devices. For example, the Native Union Moshi Moshi 04/04i is a wireless phone and speaker, with some serious design chops. It starts with a wireless handset, so you can park your mobile phone wherever you get the best reception, and then use the handset up to 30 feet away. The handset is cleverly enhanced with speakers at both ends, so it also serves as a stereo speaker. And the handset can serve as a conference/speaker phone, with the two speakers plus a secondary microphone with noise reduction.
The Moshi Moshi 04 has a sexy design for the handset plus base, with a brushed aluminum face and soft-touch surfaces ($179). And there’s one more step — the Moshi Moshi 04i extends this design by adding a slide-out iPhone dock/charger in the base ($199).
Portable Video. Wireless and portability also apply to video with pocket projectors like the 3M line of Pocket and Mobile Projectors. These are a bit blocky at around 6×2.5×1 inches, and weigh 5 to 10 ounces. They typically support 1280×768 resolution, and project a screen size between 10 and 80 inches diagonally. The LED light generates 16 to 32 lumens, which will be visible in normal lighting, but will be washed out in bright conference rooms.
With the right cables, you then can display from a laptop computer, a video player, or from an Apple iDevice. Most of these now also offer audio connectors for stereo speakers, although you can do better with larger Bluetooth external speakers.
The flagship 3M Pocket Projector MP 180 ($370) also includes 4 GB of internal memory, plus expansion with microSD cards. You can store your documents and presentations onboard and display them directly from the device, instead of needing to connect to your computer. The MP 180 can display PowerPoint presentations, Office documents and spreadsheets, PDF and text documents, and a variety of common image, video, and audio formats.
As you can see from these various portable devices, there’s always a desire for more storage, as the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch all expanded to versions that have 64 GB of flash memory. Then for our computers, we’re moving out of the realm of gigabytes into terabytes of storage, as 1 TB drives drop to less than $100. But with huge disks comes the realization that we’re falling behind in terms of the bandwidth to access all those large files on the disk.
With the USB 2.0 interface on your current system, copying gigabytes of data can seem to take forever (at 480 Mbps), while the new USB 3.0 interface promises up to 10 times faster data transfer (at 5 Gbps) — or more like 4 times in current practice. You can add USB 3.0 to an existing laptop with a PC card adapter, and can expect it to become more common on Windows systems.
A competing interface from Intel and Apple is Thunderbolt, which promises 10 Gbps data rates each over two channels. Or you may already have invested in systems with FireWire 800 interfaces, or in eSATA for large external drives.
With so many options, it would be unpleasant to invest in a terabyte drive, spend the time filling it and organizing it with data, and then discover that that interface is incompatible with another system that you’re trying to share it with.
Seagate addresses this interface issue with its GoFlex Storage System, which includes desktop and portable drives with interchangeable cables and desktop adapters so the same drive can work with different interfaces. The common interface has been standardized as the SATA Universal Storage Module (USM) specification, which is also designed to interface powered external storage devices with consumer electronic devices.
For the desktop, or for briefcase-portable storage, the Seagate GoFlex Desk External Drive offers capacities up to a ridiculous 4 TB, in a desktop size (6x5x0.75 inches). It’s available with 1 TB of storage for around $90, 2 TB for $110, 3 TB for $160, and the full 4 TB for $220. The drive features an illuminated capacity gauge and backup software with encryption.
For more portable storage, the Seagate GoFlex Portable Drive offers up to a wonderful 1.5 TB of storage for around $155. With the same GoFlex design, you can use additional adapters to swap it between USB 3.0/USB 2.0, FireWire 800, and/or powered eSATA.
Or if you’re looking more to maximize transfer speed over these fast interfaces, rather than maximum storage, the recently introduced Seagate GoFlex Turbo Portable Drive features a 7200 RPM high performance drive for up to 40 percent faster file transfers than standard 5400 RPM drives. It’s available with up to 750 GB for $139. The Turbo drives also bundle SafetyNet Data Recovery Services free for two years.
For ultra-portable storage, the Seagate GoFlex Slim Drive shrinks a fast 7200 RPM drive with a USB 3.0 interface down to roughly width of a pencil, with 320 GB for around $70.
And storage also can go wireless, as with the Seagate GoFlex Satellite Drive, which solves the interface issue by connecting via Wi-Fi. The drive itself is a Wi-Fi hub that you can connect to from a computer or from portable devices like any other wireless network, except that this network has 500 GB of storage for around $179.
You can stream to three devices simultaneously, connecting via web browser, or with the GoFlex Media app for iOS and Android devices to browse, stream, and download media and files. The Satellite Drive has drop sensor protection, and has a rechargeable battery that can run for 5 hours while streaming for 25 hours on standby.
Be warned that monsoon flooding in Thailand has seriously affected hard disk drive production for the major vendors, so plan ahead for shortages and/or price increases.