23 May 2013
Following the failure of HP's homegrown webOS operating system back in 2011, many people questioned whether the PC heavyweight would ever make another mobile device. A couple of years on, HP has returned to the fray, releasing a legion of tablet devices. One of the most interesting of these is the HP SlateBook X2 convertible.
Design and build
The SlateBook follows the same design philosophy as Asus' transformer series of devices, bundling the 10in Android tablet with an attachable keyboard dock that turns it into a netbook replacement. The tablet section of the device is made of polycarbonate and features a fairly unassuming, slightly rounded unibody chassis, with power and volume buttons lining the top of its right and left-hand sides. In fact the only noticeable design features on our grey demo unit were its 1080p rear-facing camera and 720p front-facing camera, which had metallic lines encircling their lenses.
Despite being made of polycarbonate, not metal like Asus' Transformer Prime and Infinity convertibles, the SlateBook did feel fairly sturdily built. Unlike many plastic tablets, the SlateBook didn't bend or move when we pressed on its back; it felt fairly solid.
We found the same was true of the SlateBook's keyboard dock. Built with plastic, the dock felt robust. The dock is a nice touch as it offers users a second battery that can be used to charge the tablet section of the device and boosts the SlateBook's connectivity, adding a USB 2.0 port, SD card slot and HDMI port. With the dock's battery, HP claims the tablet will be able to last around 16 hours off one charge, which, if true, will make it a great travel workstation for business users on the move. However one consequence of the dock's second battery is that when put together the SlateBook is fairly bulky and heavy compared to other Android convertibles, measuring in at 212×285×20mm and weighing a hefty 1.4kg.
The SlateBook boasts a 10.1in IPS 1920x1200 display. The display was a little disappointing, with it looking significantly more grainy and washed out compared with other 10in tablets, like the Google Nexus 10 and Sony Xperia Tablet Z. That said it was more than usable during our tests and it did prove to boast decent viewing angles. We'll be interested to see how the SlateBook's screen deals with more difficult outdoor lighting conditions in our full review.
Operating system and software
Unlike its little brother the Slate 7, the SlateBook runs on the latest 4.2.2 Jelly Bean version of Google Android. This is a boon as most other tablets at the moment are still running on the older 4.1.2 version of Android and means the SlateBook features multiple user account support – a key feature missing on the previous version. Additionally we noticed HP has added a few useful productivity apps to the mix. Chief among these are a custom-built file manager and ePrinter app that lets the tablet automatically sync with HP printers without the need to install drivers. Sadly we didn't get time to really test the apps out in this hands-on review, but if they work this could be a key selling point for business users.
The SlateBook runs using Nvidia's brand-spanking new Tegra 4 processor, packing a 1.8GHz quad-core chip that's backed up by the now standard 2GB RAM. The chip was unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year and is meant to be a game changer in the industry, with Nvidia claiming devices powered by it will be twice as fast as other top-end tablets, like the Apple iPad and Google Nexus 10. Running through a few basic tasks like opening webpages and streaming video, the Slatebook was a nippy device; look out for some more thorough speed tests in our full review.
Chances in the market
Set to cost around £400, we're cautiously optimistic regarding the HP SlateBook X2's chances. While the tablet probably won't set the consumer market on fire, it could well capture a significant chunk of the enterprise and bring-your-own-device markets, winning users over with its slew of productivity apps and sturdy design. Check back with V3 later this year for a full review of the HP SlateBook X2.
20 May 2013
ORLANDO: BlackBerry is getting strong support from some developers and customers who have praised the ease with which applications can be built for the firm's BlackBerry 10 platform.
One such customer is online banking firm ING Direct Canada, which has had an online presence for many years and claims to be the only such company with banking apps across every major mobile platform.
This includes Apple's iPhone and iPad, Android phones and tablets, Windows Phone 7 and 8, plus BlackBerry's PlayBook and older smartphones.
ING senior manager for IT Development Vinay Venugopal told V3 at the BlackBerry Live event in Orlando: "Our philosophy is to offer customers a choice. We saw that customers and clients would be using BlackBerry 10 devices, so we had to develop an app for the platform."
Using BlackBerry's software development kit (SDK) tools, ING was able to build a mobile app for BlackBerry 10 devices within just six weeks from conception to completion, according to Venugopal.
"We started in December last year and were able to have it ready in time for the BlackBerry 10 launch," he said.
ING uses a hybrid implementation for its mobile apps, mixing native code with web-based development. On the BlackBerry, this means that the native Cascades APIs are used for user interface navigation and device-specific features such as integration with the BlackBerry Hub and GPS support for the ATM Locator service.
Meanwhile, the core functionality of the apps is coded in HTML5, making it common across all platforms, according to Venugopal, but with a separate style sheet for each platform.
The improvements that BlackBerry has made with BlackBerry 10 make it much speedier and simpler to build apps than with the Java-based development model for older BlackBerry platforms, he said.
16 May 2013
Nokia announced the Lumia 925 on Wednesday, and had no qualms about declaring the handset "the most innovative smartphone in the world today". While the phone is undoubtedly Nokia's best Windows Phone handset to date, we're not entirely convinced.
In terms of design, the Nokia Lumia 925 is a huge improvement on the bulky Nokia Lumia 920. The phone is constructed using a mix of aluminium and polycarbonate, and measures just 8.5mm thick with a weight of just 139g, making the device feel just as light as the firm's Lumia 720 handset.
However, we're not entirely won over by the design of the handset. The majority of the device is moulded polycarbonate, while the edges are made from aluminium. Although it feels great to hold, Nokia has struggled to give the phone a premium feel like the HTC One and iPhone 5, with the plastic backplate still struggling to feel luxurious when held in the hand. We got our hands on the grey model, which was somewhat cheap to look at. We'd have preferred to see a fully aluminium device, especially given that the handset is likely to be expensive.
Speaking of the handset's rear, there's an 8.7MP camera on the back of the phone, which adds a bit of bulk to the otherwise streamlined smartphone. But if Nokia's big claims about the camera are correct, it'll be worth the additional bulk. The quality of images taken with the Lumia 925's camera, even in low lighting, was immediately impressive. Look out for a full test in our Nokia Lumia 925 review.
The handset's 4.5in 1280x768 ClearBlack AMOLED screen proved just as impressive as the one on Nokia's last generation flagship smartphone. The display delivered crisp image quality, deep blacks and vibrant colour reproduction, and we liked the slight curve on the Gorilla Glass front.
In terms of performance, the Nokia Lumia 925 couples a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 1.5GHz processor with Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 mobile operating system. While it lacks a quad-core processor found on many flagship handsets, we noticed no performance issues while using the handset, although we'll test this further in our full review.
Windows Phone 8 is, well, just that. While Nokia has equipped the handset with an onslaught of its own apps including Here Maps, Nokia Music and its new Smart Camera tool, the phone barely feels as if it's been revamped compared to last year's Lumia 920 model.
Microsoft needs to contribute more to help flagship handsets, such as the Nokia Lumia 925, to stand out from the crowd. Whether this should be with some new applications or by enabling manufacturers to add more customisation to the interface we're not sure, but we can't help but think that the operating system is holding this handset back.
Check back soon for our full Nokia Lumia 925 review.
15 May 2013
ORLANDO: BlackBerry's Q5 handset brings BlackBerry 10 to the mid-range smartphone market. The firm said that this will enable it to better target emerging markets such as Southeast Asia and Latin America, where BBM is already popular.
However, given widespread criticism of the high SIM-free pricing of the existing Z10 and Q10 models, the Q5 may also help BlackBerry to boost sales in territories such as the UK.
In specifications, the Q5 is not that dissimilar to the Q10, but BlackBerry has obviously had to make some trade-offs to deliver a lower-cost device.
It has the same dual-core processor for example, but is clocked at a lower speed of 1.2GHz rather than 1.5Ghz on the Q10. It has the same 2GB of memory, but flash storage has been reduced from 16GB to 8GB, and it carries a 5MP rear-facing camera rather than 8MP.
The Q5 also has a standard LCD technology display rather than the Amoled of the Q10, but is the same 3.1in size and the same 720x720 resolution. It doesn't have quite the same brilliance as the screen of one of the premium models, but it is also difficult to find fault with it.
At 120g, the Q5 is lighter than its higher-end siblings, possibly because of the greater use of plastic in its construction, which is another cost-saving measure. It also seems chunkier, but this is deceptive as the actual dimensions (120x66x10.8mm) are almost identical to those of the Q10.
However, this doesn't mean that the Q5 feels cheap or fragile, merely not as polished as the Q10 and Z10. The finish is more matt rather than the glossy black of the high-end models, for example.
The Qwerty keyboard of the Q5 is different from that of the Q10, still with sculpted keys for easy typing, but flatter and with more rounded corners.
One major difference is that the Q5 has a built-in 2,180mAh battery – a first for a BlackBerry smartphone, according to the firm. This has maintenance and serviceability implications for enterprise buyers, but this type of customer is more likely to opt for the Z10 or Q10 in any case.
On the software side, the Q5 runs BlackBerry 10.1, the same software as the Q10, so there is nothing stopping it from being used in an enterprise setting alongside the other BlackBerry devices.
BlackBerry hasn't crippled the device on the connectivity side, with the Q5 supporting LTE or HSPA+ networks, plus 802.11 b/g/n WiFi. However, there is no HDMI display output, as with BlackBerry's other BlackBerry 10 models.
A flap on the side of the case covers the SIM card slot and a microSD card slot for expanding on the built-in storage. Another novelty is that the device is available in a choice of four colours: black, red, the ever-popular white and pink.
On first impressions, the BlackBerry Q5 seems pretty good for a device that has been built to keep costs down. While it may not sway those hankering after a Samsung Galaxy S4, for those who were interested in a BlackBerry 10 device but put off by the premium price of the Q10 and Z10, it is definitely worth taking a look at.
18 Apr 2013
Following on from Samsung's highly popular Galaxy S3 handset, Samsung clearly has big hopes for the S4, having predicted a massive boom in sales and profits come its release in its last quarterly sales forecast. The S4 is doubly interesting as it marks the first serious attempt by Samsung to market one of its Android smartphones to business customers.
Design and build
Samsung has openly said that the S4 is designed to look a lot like its predecessor the Galaxy S3. It features the same rounded, pebble looking polycarbonate case and metal sides as the S3 and measures in at an equivalent 137x70x7.9mm. The Galaxy S3 by comparison measures in at a slightly fatter 137x71x8.6mm.
The only immediately noticeable difference on the black version we tried in Samsung's demo room is that the S4 features a patterned, rather than matte finish. However the pattern is only aesthetic and the S4's finish is still smooth meaning that in hand it feels all but identical to the S3.
This fact is aided by the fact that the two phones are pretty much identical in weight, with the S4 weighing 130g and the S3 133g.
For us this is a good thing as it means the S4 features the same ergonomic design as the S3, making it feel far more comfortable and less unwieldy than most similarly sized devices.
However, the use of polycarbonate did leave us concerned about the S4's build quality. In the past Samsung's Galaxy devices, while looking nice, have proven far more delicate than competing metal HTC and Apple devices, being more susceptible to accidental damage.
Interestingly, despite being slightly smaller than the S3, the S4 actually features a larger display. The S4 packs a 5in full HD super Amoled 1920x1080 display, 441ppi display, that during our opening hands-on tests put the S3's 4.7in, 800x400 resolution display to shame.
Testing the S4 head to head with our S3 we found the new Galaxy's display was brighter, crisper and features astoundingly good colour balance levels. Though we didn't get a chance to test the S4 in more adverse lighting conditions our opening impressions of it are very positive and we're thinking its screen may prove a key selling point.
The S4 runs on the latest Google Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean operating system overlaid with Samsung's own Touchwiz user interface. Like previous Touchwiz versions we weren't immediately enamoured with the S4's UI, with many of the touches at first looking either pointless or detrimental to the Android experience.
Key offenders include the host of custom widgets Samsung's loaded onto the S4 and needless apps and stores like the Samsung Hub, which generally don't offer better services than their inbuilt Google equivalents.
That said we did notice a number of useful features that more than made up for the inclusion of these needless apps and widgets during our time with the device. Key among these were the S4's Smart Pause, Air Gesture, Air View and Eye Scroll services.
Smart Pause is a feature designed to automatically pause videos playing on the screen when the user looks away from the device.
Eye Scroll is a similar feature designed to let the S4 know when its user has finished reading a page and automatically scroll down to the next section of text. Air Gesture lets users navigate the device's menus without touching the S4's display, via swipe gestures.
Testing the features during our hands-on time, we found that in general they were fairly responsive and worked hassle-free once we got the hang of using them.
Our only qualm with the features was that on a few occasions the S4's Air Gesture and Eye Scroll features could take a few seconds to activate and could very occasionally not recognise our commands. However a Samsung spokesperson on hand said that these issues are the result of bugs on the pre-release software used on the demo handsets on show and have been fixed on the production models.
Samsung's Knox security software was also notably absent on the demo unit we were using. Knox is a nifty feature designed to offer business S4 users a similar sandboxing service to BlackBerry Balance, letting them set up separate work and home areas on the phone.
The Korean firm has confirmed Knox will run on the S4, but has remained hazy on the details of when, leaving it ambiguous whether the service will be included on the first run of handsets set for release on 27 April.
Sadly the UK isn't going to get the octa-core version of the Galaxy S4, instead receiving the more modest quad-core model. While this will be disappointing to spec connoisseurs performance-wise we didn't have any issue with the quad-core demo unit we used.
Packing a sizable 1.9GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor, while we didn't get a chance to really put the phone through its paces or properly benchmark it, we found the S4 is very fast.
Running on an overloaded press Wi-Fi, we found the S4 was very slick, loading multiple web pages and streaming multiple videos. Being honest, we never once found the S4 to be lacking power-wise during our opening tests.
The S4 comes loaded with a 13MP rear camera and 2MP front camera. Testing the rear camera we were fairly impressed how well it performed in the brightly lit showroom conditions.
Even with bright lights surrounding us, photos taken on the S4 didn't come out over-exposed and didn't suffer from the noise issues we've seen on certain other 13MP camera phones.
Sadly though we didn't get the chance to test the camera in low light, or try some of its custom camera modes, like dual shot - a nifty option that lets you take simultaneous shots with the front and rear cameras to superimpose yourself in the photo. (Picture on right taken with Galaxy S4)
Chances of success
Overall our impressions of the Samsung Galaxy S4 are positive. While the device doesn't have the wow factor of the HTC One and Nokia Lumia 920, which brought much more in your face innovations to the table, the score of software innovations made by Samsung more than make up for the S4's understated redesign.
Check back with V3 later for a full review of the Samsung Galaxy S4.
04 Apr 2013
Facebook Home was launched by Mark Zuckerberg late on Thursday. Designed to put people before apps the service looks to put Facebook at the forefront of the Android operating system's UI.
V3 managed to get a quick hands on with the device at the London launch event on a Samsung Galaxy S3.
Home effectively works by pushing users Facebook news and updates to the forefront of the Android UI and is designed to let users swipe through news feed stories and updates, akin to the BlinkFeed news feature on the HTC One.
Each swipeable screen updates the background image, pulling either the contacts Facebook profile image or a picture from the image used in the group page post.
The post's text is displayed on the top of the UI while the number of likes is displayed on the bottom right. This means that the UI is very similar to that seen on the current Facebook Android app, meaning existing Facebook users will feel right at home.
Facebook Home also adds a number of custom gesture inputs to Android. These are things like letting you double tap the screen to 'like' the post.
On the S3 we found the gesture inputs were fairly responsive and flipping between screens and liking posts was a seamless chug-free experience, indicating Home won't suffer the same optimisation issues as other custom skins, like Samsung's Touchwiz and HTC's Sense.
Home also features a tracking algorithm that monitors your behaviour on the phone. It does this by tracking which posts you like and how quickly you flip past them, using the data to learn which messages it should push to the forefront of the home screen.
Unfortunately the demo unit we tried had a test account running on it so we didn't get to see how well it worked.
Chat Heads is another key change to the Facebook UI. Chat Heads is designed to further integrate Facebook messenger into the operating system. It does this by displaying any active Facebook contacts and the messages they send to you as little circular icons showing their profile picture at the top of the screen.
The icons, when clicked, automatically opens a chat dialogue with the contact. Unwanted messages can be removed by pulling down on the bottom of the UI.
Chat Heads will reportedly continue to work even when other apps are open. Our one concern with this is that it may make the service fairly power hungry and eat up smartphones battery and memory, potentially causing some performance issues - though to be fair we didn't notice any on the demo unit we were using.
Another key concern with the chat feature at the moment is that it's unclear what security measures the service will boast and whether messages stored on the device will be encrypted as they are on Apple iMessenger.
Nevertheless, we're fairly interested in Facebook Home. The feature is a clear move by Facebook to expand its advertising potential and could potentially be the first stage in a wider expansion by the US firm.
Facebook Home is set to launch on 12 April on the HTC First in the US and be made available to download on key devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S3, Note 2, HTC One X+ and the forthcoming Galaxy S4 and HTC One.
This is just for the US market at present with no set word on UK availability beyond saying in the "coming weeks".
Check back then for our full review.
20 Mar 2013
We posted our HTC One review over a week ago, going through the ins and outs of the handset's inner workings and software features, but felt that its camera deserved a longer look.
The HTC's Ultrapixel camera immediately proved to be one of its most interesting features, and a week on we'd still say this is the case.
Ultrapixel is a technology that HTC claims can capture better quality images by using a smaller number of physically larger pixels in its Cmos image sensor than regular smartphone cameras.
HTC claims this means that the One's 4MP rear camera can capture up to three times more light than most competing smartphone cameras, delivering more vivid, true-to-life images.
The technology also reportedly lets the camera shoot photos, apply filters and share images faster, as the bigger pixels reduce the amount of data the smartphone needs to capture and process when shooting.
After spending a week with the device we have to say there is some merit to HTC's claim. The One was undoubtedly accomplished at taking photos in regular light.
Images taken in well-lit conditions all had decent colour balance and brightness levels and looked fairly crisp.
Taken on the HTC One
That said, when run head to head with top-end camera phones like the Nokia Lumia 920, photos taken on the One do look slightly fuzzy and less vibrant.
We're guessing this is because while the pixels are bigger, there still aren't as many of them, meaning that image quality on blown up photos is still reduced.
Using the camera around the office and at various press meet-and-greets over the week, we found this issue to be a slight annoyance, especially when we tried to use the One's camera for work purposes.
For example, midway through our week-long run, we found ourselves needing to upload some photos taken at a press event to our blog, Facebook page and Twitter account.
On all three of these platforms, we found that the images still had great brightness and colour levels, the blown-up photos universally looked slightly grainy, so much so that we ended up ditching some.
We also found that despite HTC's claims, the One still isn't that great at taking photos in more adverse lighting conditions.
We took the One on a spin around London, shooting our journey home from the office. During our trip the One struggled when faced with dark conditions or multiple light sources.
Taken on the HTC One
In low light, photos looked slightly washed out and at times could be very noisy and slightly pixelated. Photos taken with multiple light sources could at times suffer from colour bleed.
One saving grace for those still wishing to use the camera close up in low light, at a showroom floor or dimly lit party for example, is the One's powerful LED flash.
We used the One at a press drinks event in a subterranean bar and found that with flash turned on, the camera was able to take better photos.
Close up shots taken on the One still looked crisp and came out with decent balance levels. However, this only works for close-up shots and won't aid users looking to snap distant objects in low light.
Taken on the HTC One
Moving on to the phone's camera software features, over the week we found ourselves increasingly using the One's Zoe features.
Zoe is custom camera software that offers users several extra features, including dual-path encoding, such as filming video and doing shutter burst at the same time.
When switched on, Zoe makes the camera automatically shoot burst photos every three seconds when users are recording video on the One. Testing the One's camera we increasingly fell in love with Zoe.
When sitting at a press event we found video taken on the One was of adequate quality for use on the website - which currently uses relatively low resolution footage on all its video features.
This was thanks to a combination of the the One's dedicated image processor, 2,000Hz image and Zoe software.
The processor and stabiliser ensured footage captured on the One was significantly steadier than that shot on most other smartphone cameras, while Zoe ensured that we had a still image ready for our article thumbnail at the end of the video.
Summing up our week with the One and its camera, we have to say we're still enamoured with the device, but not because of its photographic prowess
Images taken on the One are better than those taken on most competing smartphones, but not as good as HTC claims.
This means that while we got by using the One over the week, we really wouldn't want it to be the only camera we have on hand when covering a product launch or keynote address.
Fujitsu Laboratories has touted the latest innovation to come from its labs - the ability to take your pulse via your smartphone, tablet or laptop, using nothing more than its built-in camera.
The firm said it takes just five seconds to carry out the tests and works by measuring the colour of a person's face to detect the flow of blood.
It said that it does this by measuring a characteristic in haemoglobin in blood that can absorb green light which the application uses to take it readings. First it shoots a video of the person's face and calculating the values for red, green and blue colour components of different areas of the face for each frame.
Then it removes the irrelevant data and extracts the waveform of the green colour spectrum. The peaks in this data form the pulse reading.
The firm said it believes such a development could have a wide-range of uses, from the obvious healthcare benefits, to use for security controls by using the pulse measurement to identify ill people or those acting suspiciously.
While the idea behind it is impressive and underlines the value of research and development, the implications of your pulse being measured through devices as everyday as smartphones and tablets, and the security controls it could be used for, are unnerving.
No doubt privacy advocates will be considering the wider societal implications of such a development with interest. The issue of being able to take medical tests without needing to gain patient consent is certainly problematic - even more so if the pulse information was used in something like a lie detector test.
More details on the technology will be presented at the 2013 General Conference of the Institute of Electronics, Information, and Communication Engineers, on 19 March, in Japan.