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Archive for the ‘Armand Emamdjomeh’ Category

Motorola Droid Xyboard 10.1 tablet review [Video]

posted by Technology @ 6:59 PM
Saturday, January 28, 2012


Motorola’s Xyboard tablet line is just about everything I wished the Motorola Xoom had been when it was released not even a year ago.

The Xoom, Motorola’s first attempt to build an iPad-competing tablet, was critically acclaimed when it launched last February. It even won the Best of Show award at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

But the Xoom, which sported a 10.1-inch screen, was a bit too heavy (1.6 pounds) and much too expensive (launching with an $800 price tag), and the 3G and 4G models were available only through Verizon. The 4G capabilities were also delayed about seven months, and when they did arrive, Xoom owners had to mail in their tablets to get a 4G hardware upgrade.

Thankfully, in the Xyboard, it seems Motorola has made up for most (but not all) of its missteps with the Xoom.

For one thing, the Xyboard prices are more acceptable.

The Wi-Fi-only version of the Xyboard starts at $399.99 for the 8.2-inch model and at $499.99 for the 10.1-inch model. The Verizon-exclusive 4G version, known as the Droid Xyboard, starts at $429.99 for the 8.2-inch model and at $529.99 for the 10.1-inch model — that is, as long as you sign a two-year data plan along with the tablet. (All four of the prices named are for tablets with 16 gigabytes of storage.)

Both the 8.2-inch and 10.1-inch Xyboards have touch screens with a resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels.

The Motorola Droid Xybaord 10.1, left, next to the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the Apple iPad 2.

The Xyboard 10.1 is thin and light, and physically felt much more competitive with Apple’s iPad and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1, the two high-end tablets against which I think the Xyboard 10.1 will be competing most for consumer dollars. The Asus Transformer Prime tablet, a tablet I haven’t yet tried, is likely be in this category as well.

In my time testing the 4G-equipped Droid Xyboard 10.1, it was clear more than just the pricing strategy was different with Motorola’s new tablets.

Inside, the Xyboard 10.1 is fitted with a 1.2-gigahertz dual core processor and 1 gigabyte of RAM, which powers the tablet to speedy performance that lived up to its price tag.

In the front and rear are 5-megapixel cameras, which shoot detailed photos and 720p video out back too. They aren’t as sharp as some 5-megapixel cameras I’ve seen on smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Apple iPhone 4 and Nokia Lumia 710, but they’re far better than the lackluster cameras in the iPad 2 and the Galaxy Tab.

The Xyboard 10.1 is just 0.35 inches thick and weighs 1.32 pounds, making the inclusion of such high-resolution cameras and a rear LEG flash all the more impressive. It also has dual stereo speakers in the back, which sound good for a tablet (better than speakers on the iPad and the Galaxy Tab 10.1) but don’t replace a good set of headphones.

The displays on the Xyboard 10.1 were another high point, responding to touch input quickly and rendering websites, apps and videos sharply, clearly and brightly. Unlike the iPad or the Galaxy Tab 10.1, the Xyboard has a mini-HDMI port built in, so it’s easy to hook the tablet up to a TV set.

The Xyboard 10.1 is also compatible with a stylus (sold separately) that works well for taking notes and simple sketching. Motorola has preloaded the tablet with is own Floating Note and Evernote apps, which both work well.

I do have a major complaint with the Xyboard’s inability to let a user rest his or her palm on the tablet while using the stylus. Anyone who draws regularly knows that your hand often rests on the surface you’re drawing on. The need to raise your hand above the screen makes the Xyboard basically unusable as a drawing tool for long periods of time. The Xyboard isn’t going to replace artist tablets such as Wacom’s products.

The Xyboard 10.1 is covered in a water-resistant nano coating. For the sake of testing, I poured liquids on the tablet and easily whipped the device on, and it worked with no problems. I still wouldn’t recommend dropping the Xyboard into a bucket of water to see how it holds up, but the water resistance makes a lot of sense. I would love to see this feature on more tablets and hopefully phones too.

The edges of the Xyboard 10.1 and 8.2 are coated in a grippy rubberized material that is comfortable to hold while surfing the Web, watching videos or reading an ebook for a long period of time.

But this thoughtfulness of design didn’t carry over to the power and volume buttons, which are on the back of the tablet and nearly flush with the surface. The result: I frequently flipped around the Xyboard to see the buttons I wanted to use. After a while, I did get somewhat used to this, but the buttons are among the least convenient I’ve found on a tablet. This was a problem on the Xoom as well.

I averaged about seven to eight hours of battery life out of the Xyboard 10.1, which is good for a 4G tablet. But charging from an almost depleted battery took about three or four hours, which is much longer than I would like. 

Verizon’s 4G service was fast, but unless you plan to use the Xyboard outside with no nearby Wi-Fi signal, opting for the Wi-Fi-only version makes a lot more sense to me, and it would save you from having to pay at least $30 a month in data-plan charges for the next two years.

All in all, the Xyboard has some quirks and some forward-thinking features that, in my opinion, place it ahead of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 as a daily-use tablet running Google’s Android Honeycomb operating system. THe Xyboard is due for an upgrade to Android Ice Cream Sandwich, which I’m excited about. But for now, Honeycomb is a solid OS for a tablet.

If I had to choose an Android tablet to own, I’d choose the Xyboard 10.1 over the Galaxy Tab 10.1, which is a fine piece of hardware in its own right. The Xyboard 10.1 feels as though it’s made with better materials — the Galaxy Tab has a plasticky feel, and the Xyboard’s speakers and cameras are higher quality as well.

What really prevents the Xyboard from topping the iPad 2 as my favorite tablet is the app selection found on Android. This isn’t Motorola’s fault — it seems to be a side effect of Android tablet sales being much smaller than iPad sales. With low Android tablet sales across the board (in the last three months of last year, Motorola sold 200,000 tablets while Apple sold 15.43 million iPads), developers largely have not designed apps specifically for Android tablets.

It’s a shame because even apps that could be considered essential, such as Twitter’s own Twitter app, don’t work as well on Android tablets as on iPads. On the Xyboard and the Galaxy Tab, the Twitter app is simply a stretched-out version of the Android phone app. The experience is far from ideal and it sure isn’t pretty.

Other apps designed for the large screen, such as news reading app Pulse and Amazon’s Kindle reading app, look and work great on Android tablets, but these experiences are few and far between.

Until developers start treating Android with the same attention and care that they do iOS, great hardware like the Xyboard 10.1 will be hamstrung by inadequate apps.

  • Motorola's Droid Xyboard 10.1, left, next to a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and an Apple iPad 2. {Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • A stack of tablets with the Motorola Droid Xyboard 10.1 on top, the Apple iPad 2 in the middle and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 on bottom. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The volume rocker and power buttons on the back of the Motorola Droid Xyboard 10.1 tablet. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Motorola Xyboard 8.2 tablet on top of the Droid Xyboard 10.1. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Motorola Xyboard 8.2 tablet on top of the Droid Xyboard 10.1. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The back of the Motorola Droid Xyboard 10.1, left, and the Xyboard 8.2 tablets. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Motorola Xyboard 8.2 tablet on top of the Droid Xyboard 10.1. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The 5-megapixel, 720p camera on the back of the Motorola Droid Xyboard 10.1 tablet. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • Yes, the Motorola Droid Xyboard 10.1 is water resistant. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
Screen Shot 2012-01-28 at 4.56.42 PM

ALSO:

Amazon Kindle Fire review [Video]

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Galaxy Nexus, on Android Ice Cream Sandwich, review [Video]

– Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+

Twitter.com/nateog

Photo: Pouring water on the water-resistant Motorola Droid Xyboard 10.1 tablet. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh / Los Angeles Times

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Sony PlayStation Vita hands-on [Video]

posted by Technology @ 3:42 PM
Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sony's PlayStation Vita has got me intrigued.

As much of the gaming world has moved toward smartphones and tablets, I've wondered if consumers (or myself as a gamer) would take to new handheld consoles the way they did with the Vita's predecessor, the PlayStation Portable.

But after spending a few minutes with the Vita in my hands at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, my interest has piqued.

If you've played video games on the PlayStation Portable, which affectionately became known to most as the PSP, then the Vita will look very familiar at first glance. Joysticks and buttons are placed to the left or right of a nice, wide display and the graphics produced by the system are detailed and sharp.

But unlike the PSP, there are many features of the Vita that better equip Sony's handheld formula for competition in a smartphone-riddled future. On the front of the Vita is a 5-inch OLED touchscreen and a similarly sized touch panel can be found on the back of the device.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss on the Sony PlayStation Vita

I played a bit of Uncharted: Golden Abyss, one of the titles that will launch with the Vita during its U.S. release on Feb. 22, and the game used traditional controls and the touchscreen. And switching between the different control options was intuitive and easy.

The Vita can also be used as a controller for Sony's PlayStation 3 home console, which could bring touch controls to even more games if developers embrace this feature. Though I didn't get to spend a long time with Uncharted or the Vita, the potential for some really creative game-play options was obvious. 

The Vita will also run a number of smartphone-like apps, including apps for the photo-sharing site Flickr and video-streaming service Netflix, local-discovery app FourSquare and social networks Facebook and Twitter.

There are also two cameras on the Vita, one on the front and one on the back, and in the few test shots I snapped on the CES showroom floor, I have to say I was a bit disappointed. Photos didn't seem to be high quality and colors were washed out and not sharp. Sony wouldn't say what the resolution of the cameras would be for the U.S. release of the Vita, but the Japanese version (which went on sale on Dec. 17) featured VGA-quality cameras in front and back with a resolution of 640-by-480 pixels, which is about the same as an Apple iPad 2. 

We'll be getting a review unit of the Vita in a few weeks, and I'll reserve final judgement for then, but after my hands-on time with the system, there's a lot to like and a few things that I'm not so excited about (aside from the camera). One of them is the pricing of Vita's new proprietary memory cards. 

The Vita will sell for either $249 in a Wi-Fi-only version or $299 for a 3G/Wi-Fi model that runs on AT&T's network. AT&T is offering no-contract data plans for the Vita of $14.99 for 250 megabytes of data per month, or three gigabytes for $30. Games (on a new card format and not the UMDs found in the PSP) will sell for about $9.99 to $49.99, according to Sony. All of that seems to be pretty fair pricing in my opinion.

However, memory cards for the Vita — which you will definitely need if you want to store any apps, downloadable games, movies, music, photos or any other content on the Vita — are sold separately.

A four-gigabyte memory card will sell for $19.99. Not bad. An eight-gigabyte card will sell for $29.99 and a 16-gigabyte card will sell for $59.99. Getting a bit higher. And, a 32-gigabyte card will sell for a whopping $99.99.

It seems a bit painful to think you may end up spending an extra $100 after plunking down as much as $300 for a Vita, but this is the current reality, depending on how much stuff you'd like to store in the device. Ouch. 

RELATED:

Nintendo's Wii U and Zelda in HD, hands-on [Video]

Hands-on with Alan Wake's American Nightmare on Xbox 360 [Video] 

Nintendo's Fils-Aime on declining Wii sales, prepping for Wii U [Video]

– Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+

Twitter.com/nateog

Photo: The game Uncharted: Golden Abyss on the Sony PlayStation Vita. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh / Los Angeles Times

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The future of video games is increasingly shifting from discs to downloads over Internet-connected consoles, phones, tablets and PCs.

Microsoft Corp. is aware of this trend as much as any other player in the gaming industry and rolls out multiple promotions a year to bring attention to games available for download through its Xbox Live Arcade storefront on the Xbox 360 console. And next up for Microsoft is the Xbox Live Arcade House Party, which starts Feb. 15 and includes the launch of one game a week for four weeks. 

At the Consumer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas, I went hands-on with Alan Wake's American Nightmare, which will be the first game to roll out in the month-long promotion.

AW American Nightmare - Arcade Cemetary

Alan Wake's American Nightmare is a sequel to the on-disc game Alan Wake, which was released in 2010 to critical acclaim for story-driven game play that mixed a psychological thriller plotline with the action of a third-person shooter.

The game, which focused on a fictional fiction writer named Alan Wake and his quest to solve the mystery of his wife's disappearance in a small Washington town, was also praised for its inventive use of lighting, with Wake spending a lot of time running around in dark forests at night with a flashlight and a gun.

In Alan Wake's American Nightmare, the game's hero finds himself in the deserts of Arizona. The impressive lighting effects are back and shooting mechanics are solid. I tried my hand at the new title's Fight 'til Dawn survival mode, which pits players in a 10-minute scene with wave after wave of enemies attacking. (You can check out our hands-on with the new game above.)

The game play was intense and challenging, and it should be a satisfying experience for fans of the original Alan Wake game as well as those of shooting games such as Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil and the Call of Duty series' zombie modes.

Alan Wake's American Nightmare will also have a campaign of about four to five hours, depending on how much time a player spends exploring and digging into the game's story, said Oskari Hakinnen, a spokesman for Remedy Entertainment Ltd., the developer of the series.

For those who haven't played the original Alan Wake, there's no need to fret. Hakinnen said that the sequel will pick up where the first title left off story-wise, but it was written in a way that won't confuse those who are new to the world of Alan Wake. Pricing for the game hasn't yet been disclosed.

The other three titles coming out in this year's Xbox Live Arcade House Party are Warp, a new puzzle game from Electronic Arts; arena-based first-person shooter Nexuiz from THQ; and the eagerly anticipated I Am Alive, from Ubisoft, which follows a man searching for his wife and daughter a year after a worldwide disaster killed most humans on the planet.

  • Alan Wake's American Nightmare Box Art. (Credit: Remedy Entertainment)
  • A screenshot from the Alan Wake's American Nightmare video game. (Credit: Remedy Entertainment)
  • A screenshot from the Alan Wake's American Nightmare video game. (Credit: Remedy Entertainment)
  • A screenshot from the Alan Wake's American Nightmare video game. (Credit: Remedy Entertainment)
  • A screenshot from the Alan Wake's American Nightmare video game. (Credit: Remedy Entertainment)
  • A screenshot from the Alan Wake's American Nightmare video game. (Credit: Remedy Entertainment)
  • A screenshot from the Alan Wake's American Nightmare video game. (Credit: Remedy Entertainment)
  • A screenshot from the Alan Wake's American Nightmare video game. (Credit: Remedy Entertainment)
A screenshot from the Alan Wake's American Nightmare video game. (Credit: Remedy Entertainment)

RELATED:

CES 2012: Nintendo's Wii U and Zelda in HD, hands-on [Video]

CES 2012: Nintendo's Fils-Aime on declining Wii sales, prepping for Wii U [Video]

CES 2012: Sesame Street Kinect shows promise of TV voice, gesture control [Video]

– Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+

Twitter.com/nateog

Image: A screen shot from Alan Wake's American Nightmare. Credit: Remedy Entertainment

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CES 2012: Nintendo’s Wii U and Zelda in HD, hands-on [Video]

posted by Technology @ 1:46 PM
Saturday, January 14, 2012

The most interesting and impressive gadget I saw at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show this week was Nintendo's next video game console — the Wii U. It was also one of the riskiest products I saw, outside of Nokia's new Windows Phone handsets.

Despite not offering games with high-definition graphics, Nintendo's Wii home console changed the way people play video games, introducing motion sensing controllers called Wii remotes and a then-new level of casual games that appealed to millions of people who in the past didn't consider buying a gaming system. But since the Wii's launch in 2006, the gaming landscape changed as well.

Microsoft's Xbox has controller-free motion gaming with its Kinect technology. Sony has motion-sensing controllers with its PlayStation Move controllers for the PlayStation 3 console. Casual gaming is increasingly taking place on smartphones and not home consoles.

The Wii U intends to have an answer to all of its rivals, Nintendo of America's President Reggie Fils-Aime told me this week in an interview and hands-on demo of the new system in Las Vegas (you can see a video of our hands-on above). The demos we played were the same demos Nintendo showed off at the E3 gaming expo in Los Angeles last year.

The most obvious feature that separates the Wii U from rival hardware is the system's new tablet-like controller. Traditional buttons, triggers and joysticks are found in the Wii U controller, as is a 6.2-inch touchscreen in the middle of the unit that can be used by hand or with a stylus. The controller was 5.3 inches tall, 9 inches long and about 1 inch deep. There's also a built-in accelerometer and gyroscope, with a front-facing camera, microphone, speakers and a motion-sensing strip to interact with the remotes introduced on the Wii.

So what can this new controller actually do? One gaming demo, called Chase Mii, was essentially video-game hide and seek. My character in the game was the one being chased and, with the Wii U controller's screen, I saw an entirely different view of the game then those I was playing against with an included map of the terrain I was using to hide from my chasers.

In another demo, Fils-Aime and Nintendo spokesman J.C. Rodrigo showed me a recording of a car driving around a street in Japan. The same image that was on the HDTV that the Wii U console was connected to showed up on the Wii U controller in my hands, but when I moved the controller to either side or above my head, the view changed. I could see the street in 360-degrees; the sky, the cars passing by, a rear view, all just by moving the controller around.

The potential that this sort of technology offers video game developers is hugely exciting if you love playing video games, as I do. The military shooter genre is hugely popular right now — how about the ability to see a digital battlefield in 360 degrees while not disrupting the view on your TV? Maps and menus on the Wii U's controller are an obvious choice as well.

The most important feature of the Wii U for video game developers, however, might be that it can handle high-definition gaming, up to 1080p in resolution. This can allow for developers to more easily develop games for Nintendo's new hardware alongside high-definition titles being made for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Image: Zelda in HD on the Wii U. Credit: Nintendo

We'll have to see whether or not Nintendo can actually get developers on board en masse to bring major titles to the Wii U, but adding HD gaming should make this option more attractive.

I saw a demo of a Legend of Zelda game in HD and it looked outstanding. The main character of the game, Link, had texture details in the fabric of his clothing that simply weren't possible on the Wii's lower-powered hardware. I was able to change major environmental details, such as being able to switch the scene from night to day and back, with just a tap on the Wii U controller's touchscreen.

The touchscreen also seemed to me to be a play to court developers who are building for smartphones and tablets. The Wii U's hardware will enable it to be a console that (if enough games are made) can offer something for the hardcore gaming crowd and something for the smartphone set. Angry Brids or Cut the Rope on a Wii U controller? Yeah, I'd love to see that and I'm sure Nintendo would too.

The Wii U controller's second screen can also act as the only screen for gameplay too. For example, if you're playing a game, and your roommate or partner wants to watch the latest episode of their favorite TV show, the Wii U can stream the game to the controller so you can keep gaming. Despite looking like a tablet, the Wii U controller isn't a tablet and isn't usable without the Wii U nearby.

But as impressive as the demo was, Fils-Aime and Nintendo didn't show up to CES with much new information about the Wii U. We still don't have a price for the system, launch titles haven't been announced and hardware specs are few and far between. The Wii U will play downloadable games and games on-disc. It will also be backwards compatible with Wii games. It will also have some undetermined amount of internal flash storage, four USB ports and at least one SD card slot will also be included for expanded storage. IBM is supplying a multi-core processor and AMD is supplying a graphics processor as well.

Fils-Aime also wouldn't say whether or not the Wii U will be able to support multiple Wii U controllers or not. This, in my opinion, is a huge question for an otherwise solid-looking piece of hardware. If the Wii U only supports one Wii U controller, I think Nintendo will be making a mistake. Unlike the Wii Remotes, the Wii U offers the experience of a traditional controller. Some games are better played by pushing buttons and using joysticks rather than flailing your arms. For example, with fighting games and shooters, many gamers prefer the precision and speed that a regular-old controller can offer. If only one person can use a Wii U controller at a time, playing the sorts of games with friends on the couch won't be as fun. Hopefully the new console will support multiple Wii U controllers and give gamers the ability to choose the gameplay set-up they prefer.

Nintendo still also hasn't offed any details on what it will offer in terms of online multiplayer. In my opnion, Microsoft's Xbox Live service is the best in console gaming and allows gamers to play with their friends online and talk in real time as they play in their respective homes. Online multiplayer has been something that so far Nintendo has flatly failed to include in a compelling or easy-to-use way with its home consoles. For that reason most games for the Wii are single-player games. I believe Nintendo has to get online gameplay right in order for the Wii U to succeed.

So, when will our questions be answered? Hopefully at E3 2012 in June, which will be the next time Nintendo makes a big push before the press with the Wii U.

RELATED:

CES 2012: Nintendo's Fils-Aime on declining Wii sales, prepping for Wii U

E3 2011: Nintendo unveils Wii U console with tablet-sized touch-screen controller

CES 2012: Sesame Street Kinect shows promise of TV voice, gesture control [Video]

– Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+

Twitter.com/nateog

Image: Zelda in HD on the Nintendo Wii U console. Credit: Nintendo

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Nintendo is set to launch the Wii U, a new video game console, later this year. And while there is a lot of excitement around the Wii U, there are also a lot of questions hovering around the Japanese company, which seems to have its back against the wall despite a history of innovation and success in an industry it has helped define.

The company's current home gaming system, the Wii, is on the decline, selling about 4.5 million units in the U.S. in 2011, down from about 7 million sold in 2010.

Meanwhile, the 3DS, Nintendo's new hand-held console, started out selling slowly when it launched in March. But by the end of 2011, the system sold about 4 million units in the U.S., hitting that mark faster than the Wii when it first launched in 2006.

Nintendo's new Wii U controller

With all that in mind, I sat down with Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America, at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week. You can see parts of our interview in the video above, but as expected, Fils-Aime said he didn't see sliding Wii sales as a negative but a positive leading into the release of the Wii U.

"The Wii is now approaching 40 million homes here in the United States, so from a penetration standpoint we're beginning to top out in terms of the total number of systems sold, and that's why it makes so much sense to prepare for the launch of the Wii U," he said. 

The Wii U will still use the motion-sensing controller system introduced in the Wii, but will add to the mix a new tablet-like controller with a built-in 6-inch touch screen. Some have said that, so far, the Wii U's new controller is a winning idea, while others have questioned if it's already destined to fail.

Fils-Aime said Nintendo is on the path to breaking new ground again, just as it did when it added a joystick to a controller for the first time or when it was first to add motion and rumble feedback to controllers as well.

"The big innovation with the Wii U is the controller and the ability to have an interactive experience that leverages all of your traditional input buttons as well as a screen built right into the controller," Fils-Aime said. "Yes, the system is HD capable; it'll generate the most gorgeous pictures. But for us that's not enough.

"We need to continue pushing the overall experience forward. We need to bring new types of entertainment. New types of gaming and the combination of a big first screen — your home TV — coupled with a second screen in your hands, in our view, is going to bring gaming to a whole new experience and to continue driving the industry."

Fils-Aime offered little new information about the Wii U — we still don't know much about specs and Nintendo isn't announcing launch titles, pricing or release dates yet.

But for now, the Nintendo executive said hardware horsepower isn't the point as much as what the Wii U and its new controller will be able to do that rival gaming platforms — the Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3 and even Apple's iPhone and iPad — can't.

"The system is capable to do the most complicated, the most HD-intensive types of games. But plus, now with a touch screen in your hands, all types of other gaming possibilities exist. So we want the full experience," Fils-Aime said, later adding, "One of the things that we think makes us different from all of the other companies here at CES is that we leverage technology for people to have fun."

Stay tuned to the Technology blog for more on the Wii U from CES. I also got to go hands-on with the Wii U, and on Saturday I'll offer my take on just how much fun the new system is.

ALSO:

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Nintendo brings life-size Mario karts to L.A. Auto Show

Nintendo mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto isn't ready for 'game over'

– Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+

Twitter.com/nateog

Image: Nintendo's new Wii U controller. Credit: Nintendo

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CES 2012: Television makers push Google TV in Las Vegas

posted by Technology @ 8:44 PM
Friday, January 13, 2012

Vizio Google TV

When Google TV first launched a little more than a year ago, it had few hardware partners and failed to resonate with a wide consumer market. But the technology was back at the Consumer Electronics Show this year, with major tech companies promoting the software and saying its time had come. 

"You've got to reorient customers to look at TVs as an actual smart device, as a device just like a tablet or a PC or a phone," said Matthew McRae, chief technology officer at Vizio, during an interview with The Times. "It takes a little bit of time, but I think that bridge has been crossed."

At CES in Las Vegas this week, Vizio was showcasing its 65-inch, 55-inch and 47-inch V.I.A. Plus HDTVs with Theater 3D; the VBR430 Blu-ray player; and the VAP430 stream player — all of which incorporate Google TV's 2.0 platform. V.I.A. stands for Vizio Internet Apps.

The V.I.A. Plus experience features an app-centric interface on every device, "making it easy for consumers to understand and navigate as they move between devices," the company said in a news release. Users can also access thousands of apps from the Android Market.

McRae said the company was encouraged by the advances in the second generation of Google TV, saying the earlier version of the software "missed on the simplicity front."

"When people sit down at a TV, it's got to be intuitive, it's got to be a few button clicks to whatever you're looking for," McRae said. "If you make it any more complex than that, they'll just give up…. So the user interface I think is actually more challenging to get right on a TV than it is on a tablet or PC."

The prospects for Google TV — which combines traditional television, the Internet, apps and search capabilities — are growing rapidly among developers, who are rolling out thousands of apps built specifically for televisions. 

Vizio was especially excited to show off its new VAP430 stream player with Google TV, a media player that turns any HDTV into an enhanced V.I.A. Plus smart TV. Vizio's stream player, a small black box about the size of a wallet, features built-in HDMI ports that let users connect existing components like gaming consoles or set-top boxes for unified access to all media sources through the V.I.A. Plus touchpad remote. It also supports 3-D content and 3-D streaming. Vizio stream player

Vizio officials said the stream player was expected to be released in the first half of the year, but declined to say how much the device would cost. Sales of stream players are poised to pass Blu-ray players in unit volume sales by 2013, Vizio said, making the devices the "perfect solution" for media multitaskers. 

LG is also showing off sets with Google TV software that will launch in the U.S. in the first half of 2012 and later for the rest of the world. Among LG's Google TV offerings will be a 55-inch model, and each Google TV set from LG will include a "magic remote" with a built-in keyboard.

Google TV will run on LG's TVs alongside its Smart TV platform unveiled last year. Since last year's CES, LG said it had added more than 1,200 apps to its Smart TV offerings.

Sony too heavily hyped its Google TV products at CES and said it was expanding its line of devices that included the software. 

The tech giant said it was rolling out two new set-top boxes powered by Google TV — one connected Blu-ray disc player and one Network Media Player. Enhanced features include access to the Android Market as well as a redesigned remote control for improved functionality, new linkage with the Sony Entertainment Network platform and a new mobile device interface that allows consumers to use smartphones and tablets as a content source. 

"As a result more consumers will be able to enjoy multiple content sources from broadcast to streaming video and various apps through one easy-to-use seamless interface by connecting to any HDTV," Sony executive Kaz Hirai said during the company's CES news conference.

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– Andrea Chang in Las Vegas

Upper photo: A Vizio HDTV shows off Google TV software, with live television and a panel of apps sharing space on the screen. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh / Los Angeles Times

Lower photo: Vizio's VAP430 stream player with Google TV, a media player that turns any HDTV into an enhanced smart TV. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh / Los Angeles Times

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As General Motors introduced its first efforts to bring apps from your smartphone into your dashboard at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, Ford expanded its Sync AppLink system — which does just that and launched about a year ago.

Ford Sync Destinations

When AppLink made its debut, Pandora was the only app a Sync user could operate via in-dash touch screen. Later, Stitcher radio gained Sync compatibility, which includes voice control as well.

Ford announced at CES in Las Vegas this week that apps for iPhones, BlackBerrys and phones that Google's Android would be added to the AppLink-friendly list, including NPR News, Slacker Radio, iHeartRadio, TuneIn Radio and Ford's own Sync Destinations turn-by-turn navigation app.

To see NPR News and Slacker Radio in action in a new Ford Mustang GT, check out our video from CES above.

Ford says that more apps that work with Sync's voice recogniton software are on the way. Oddly enough, Sync (which was developed through a partnership between Ford and Microsoft) has no AppLink compatibility with Windows Phone apps.

Just as with GM's in-car-app systems — Chevrolet MyLink and Cadillac CUE — AppLink can use apps only if it’s connected to a smartphone with the app installed, and it accesses data through the phone. Ford isn't selling any AppLink data plans.

For now, AppLink is available only in Sync-equipped Fiestas, Mustangs, Fusions, F-150s and Econoline vans, but the U.S. automaker is considering pushing AppLink out to other Ford brands, such as Lincoln, as well as to vehicles running older versions of Sync.

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– Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+

Twitter.com/nateog

Image: A screen shot of Ford's Sync Destinations app. Credit: Ford

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Vizio previews new 10-inch tablet at CES

posted by Technology @ 9:19 PM
Thursday, January 12, 2012

New televisions, laptops, all-in-one desktops and a "Stream Player" set-top box that can add Google TV software to any HDMI-equipped television set — Vizio had a lot of announcements to make at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show.

A bit more quietly, the Irvine company also previewed a new tablet that it says will launch this year as a follow-up to the 8-inch Vizio Tablet that launched late last year.

Vizio 10-inch tablet

Vizio let us get a few minutes of hands-on time with its new tablet, but details on what the device would be made up of were few and far between.

VIDEOS: 2012 Consumer Electronics Show

The new tablet sports a 10-inch touch screen and front and rear cameras, and it felt a bit lighter than the current 8-inch model.

Rob Kermode, a senior product manager at Vizio, said the company was declining to say anything about the tablet's price or release dates or about what processor, how much RAM, how much storage or what screen resolution the tablet would be.

In my short time using the tablet, I felt a step up in performance compared with its 8-inch predecessor. The device reacted faster to my touch, launched apps more quickly and seemed not to stutter as much when it handled simple tasks such as playing animations Vizio has programmed into the operating system.

The prototype tablet was running Google's Android Honeycomb software with Vizio's VIA Plus user interface over the top of it, which looks very similar to the version of Android Gingerbread found on the 8-inch tablet. Kermode said Vizio was looking into Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest version of Android, but wouldn't promise that the new tablet would ship running that OS.

To see the new tablet in action, check out our video from CES in Las Vegas above.

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– Nathan Olivarez-Giles in Las Vegas

Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+

Twitter.com/nateog

Photo: Vizio's 10-inch tablet. Credit: Vizio

Vizio's 10-inch tablet. Credit: Vizio

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Ion Guitar Apprentice turns aspiring guitar heroes into students

posted by Technology @ 8:14 PM
Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pick. Thrash. Wail. Let out your inner Jimmy Page, Jack White or Yngwie Malmsteen — with an iPad.

The Guitar Apprentice app and controller from Ion Audio, which we looked at during the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, aims to help students learn the basics of playing guitar before they drop some cash on a full guitar and amp setup. Although playing iPad guitar isn't as sexy as the real thing, this might reduce the number of Squier Strats and practice amps languishing in the closets of frustrated students who never pegged down barre chords.

The Guitar Appretice controller has a fret board.

The most obvious comparison is with the popular Guitar Hero and Rock Band video games, but Guitar Apprentice offers a more complex setup than the video game controllers, with buttons simulating the six strings on each of 14 frets on the neck, in a body similar to the classic Gibson SG. LEDs on the frets light up to show basic note or chord patterns, and students strum or pick simulated strings on the iPad screen. Effects such as delay, reverb and flanger are also available to customize distortion effects.

VIDEOS: 2012 Consumer Electronics Show

Guitar Apprentice is one in a series of music learning app-and-controller sets from Ion Audio, which also includes Piano Apprentice and Drum Apprentice, as well as Drum Master, which comes with a full-size electric drum kit. The plastic instruments connect to the iPad, and each shows students where or how to play, lighting up frets, piano keys or drum pads as appropriate. Teachers also appear on the apps to present basic lessons to users.

Apps are Core MIDI, which enables integration with other music apps such as GarageBand. The app and controller, when released, are to have a retail price of $99.

Just keep in mind: Although the frets on the controller are designed to simulate fretting real guitar strings, it doesn't look like the app will alleviate the sore fingers students will have if they ever move up to a real guitar.

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– Armand Emamdjomeh

Twitter.com/emamd

Photo: The fret board on the Ion Guitar Appretice. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh / Los Angeles Times

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At the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, we saw a bit of a scramble by TV makers such as Samsung and LG to show off what they working on or releasing in the coming year that would allow us to control our TVs using voice, gesture and facial recognition.

Many technology pundits and analysts have said these sorts of announcements, which also took place at last year's CES, are in response to rumors that Apple is working on an "iTV" that will offer a new way of controlling a TV and maybe even how we pay for or watch channels and TV shows.

But as many video-game lovers out there know, TV voice recognition, gesture controls and facial recognition are already here in the form of Microsoft's Kinect motion-sensing camera, which is an accessory to the Xbox 360 home gaming console.

However, Kinect is just getting started, and currently has a small number of apps. And it's still a device that sells for about $150 and requires an Xbox 360, which starts at $200. Make no mistake, there will be a cost of entry to the future of TV.

At the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show TV makers such as Samsung and LG showed off TVs with voice, gesture and facial-recognition control, but such controls are already here in the form of Microsoft's Kinect motion-sensing cameraAt CES 2012, Microsoft showed off a bit of what the future may hold for Kinect, the Xbox and TV with demonstrations of its latest Kinect-enabled app for the Xbox, called Sesame Street Kinect (you can see our demonstration of the app in a video atop this article).

Sesame Street Kinect is what it sounds like, episodes of the long-running children's program tailored to use the Kinect camera. And what Kinect can do is really impressive.

Since 1969, children around the world have sat in front of TVs repeating back the alphabet, colors, words and numbers to characters on Sesame Street (I did it when I was a child). Until Sesame Street Kinect, which is set to release later this year at an unannounced price, the characters on the screen couldn't respond to the viewer's actions. Now, to a limited extent, they can.

The demonstration we saw featured the Grover, Elmo and Cookie Monster characters prompting viewers to interact by either saying certain words or moving in certain ways.

For example, we took part in a demonstration in which Grover drops a box of coconuts and asks that the viewer pick them up and throw them back to him.

I At the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show TV makers such as Samsung and LG showed off TVs with voice, gesture and facial-recognition control, but such controls are already here in the form of Microsoft's Kinect motion-sensing cameraf the viewer stands up and moves in the way that they would throw an imaginary coconut (don't throw a real coconut unless your trying to break your TV) then Grover catches each one in his box, even reacting to how hard the Kinect interprets the viewer's throw to be.

The experience was a lot of fun for a room of four adults, and I imagine kids will enjoy this sort of thing too. Jose Pinero, am Xbox spokesman, said a similarly interactive app from National Geographic is coming this year as well.

Although Microsoft has sold more than 66 million Xbox consoles and more than 18 million Kinect cameras, the tech giant realizes it has something bigger than just video games on its hands with Kinect.

Both Kinect and Xbox Live are headed to Windows 8 later this year. Hopefully, that will mean more interactive "two-way TV" apps like Sesame Street Kinect, and more apps related to media outlets such as ESPN and National Geographic.

There are also rumors that the company is working to get Kinect built directly into TVs, which would very likely place Xbox Live and Kinect in direct competition with Google TV and Apple's expected entry into the TV market. That's a living-room showdown I'd like to see.

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– Nathan Olivarez-Giles in Las Vegas

Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+

Twitter.com/nateog

Photos: Sesame Street Kinect in action. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh / Los Angeles Times

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Nokia and Microsoft's first flagship smartphone for the U.S., the Lumia 900, made its official debut at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The new Windows Phone handset was first unveiled Monday by Nokia, and later that night Microsoft brought the new phone on stage in what was the final CES keynote speech from the tech giant best known for the powerhouse Windows PC operating system.

Photo: The Nokia Lumia 900 in the foreground, with the Lumia 800 in the middle and an Apple iPhone 4S in the rear. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles TimesThe Lumia 900 so far has been confirmed as running only on AT&T's 4G LTE network and picks up stylistically where the Lumia 800 left off, with an attractive rounded polycarbonate body and a flat, sliced-off-looking top and bottom.

However, the Lumia 900 will have a larger screen than the Lumia 800 — up to 4.3 inches from 3.7 inches. The resolution of the display will remain 480 by 800 pixels, as is standard for all Windows Phone handsets.

The new Nokia will be offered from AT&T in either cyan or matte black and feature a 1.4-gigahertz Qualcomm processor, 512 megabytes of RAM, 16 gigabytes of built-in storage, an 8-megapixel rear camera that can shoot up to 720p video and a 1.3-megapixel front facing camera for video chatting.

The Lumia 900 will be thinner than T-Mobile's Lumia 710, a 0.45-inches-thick 4G phone I reviewed last weekend.

Nokia officials also told me at CES that the Lumia 800 is finally going to get a U.S. launch as well, but it will be sold only as an unlocked phone. That means the Lumia 800 will sell without part of the cost of the phone being eaten up by a wireless carrier's subsidy, which may put it in the $500-range, though Nokia declined to specify.

Microsoft and Nokia also had no details to offer on pricing or a release date for the Lumia 900. As soon as we can, we'll get the phone in our hands for a full review. In the meantime, check out our hands-on video from CES with both the Nokia Lumia 900 above; and photos and of the Lumia 900 and Lumia 800 after the jump.

  • A cyan Nokia Lumia 900, standing in front of a Lumia 800. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Nokia Lumia 800, left, next to the Lumia 900. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Nokia Lumia 800, left, next to the Lumia 900. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • Apple's iPhone 4S, next to the Nokia Lumia 800, center, and the Lumia 900. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Nokia Lumia 900 in the foreground, with the Lumia 800 in the center and the Apple iPhone 4S in the background. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • Apple's iPhone 4S, next to the Nokia Lumia 800, center, and the Lumia 900. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
Nokia_lumia-1

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– Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+

Twitter.com/nateog

Photo: The Nokia Lumia 900 in the foreground, with the Lumia 800 in the middle and an Apple iPhone 4S in the rear. Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times

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General Motors is at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in a major way, showing of its new infotainment systems for Chevrolets and Cadillacs.

Both systems — Chevy's MyLink and Cadillac's CUE — will debut this year, and each brings touch screens and in-car apps like Pandora and Stitcher to GM's automobiles. For many cars, MyLink and CUE replace in the dashboard a big radio and CD player.

After getting some hands-on time with CUE and MyLink, I couldn't help but think that systems like these are yet another nail in the coffin of CDs and physical media in general.

VIDEOS: 2012 Consumer Electronics Show

And why not? It seems that for years CD sales and even DVD sales have been on the decline. With the rise of MP3 players and smartphones, many people are now plugging their digital devices into their dashboards to listen to music. Even GPS units have been replaced by navigation apps found in smartphones for many.

So what's GM doing about this change in consumer behavior? MyLink and CUE are aided by users who have smartphones. For example, both systems offer a Pandora app for listening to music streamed from the Web, but that app is unusable in the dashboard unless you have a smartphone with a Pandora app of its own.

When you're using Pandora with MyLink or CUE, you're consuming data on your smartphone's data plan as well. And MyLink and CUE can play music, video and even photos loaded on a smartphone, MP3 player or even a thumb drive.

Although the systems use the smartphone, they don't by any means replace the smartphone's role in a car. Instead, MyLink and CUE build off of this growing relationship between consumers and their phones.

Of course, MyLink and CUE are usable without the aid of a smartphone, for things like operating a car's air-conditioning system, tuning the ol' AM/FM radio or getting turn-by-turn navigation through OnStar (with an OnStar subscription of course).

Chevrolet MyLinkChevy's MyLink also comes in two flavors, so to speak. There is a lower-end version, built and supplied by LG, that will be found in the 2013 Sonic and Spark, Chevrolet's entry-level autos. In these models, MyLink will be devoid of a built-in CD player.

However, a different version of MyLink built by Panasonic for higher-end Chevrolets such as the Volt and the Equinox can be ordered with a CD player as an option. With Cadillac Cue, owners can get a CD player in their glove box as an option.

The two variations of MyLink perform the same actions but offer different user interfaces and perform tasks a bit differently. For example, although both can handle voice recognition for hands-free calling, LG's version uses voice recognition software found in a connected smartphone, and the Panasonic version has this feature built in.

GM has promised software upgrades and some more apps for MyLink and CUE after customers offer some feedback on what sort of apps they want.

To see CUE in action, check out our hands-on video above. For MyLink, check out the video from GM below.

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– Nathan Olivarez-Giles in Las Vegas

Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+

Twitter.com/nateog

Photo: Chevrolet's MyLink infotainment system. Credit: General Motors

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Lumia 710, Nokia’s first U.S. Windows Phone — review

posted by Technology @ 1:04 PM
Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Nokia Lumia 710 is a small, low-cost smartphone with some big, high-cost bets riding on its success.

The Lumia 710 is Nokia's first phone to hit the U.S. running Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system — more specifically, Windows Phone 7.5 Mango. It's also the first tangible product to hit store shelves, in this case T-Mobile stores, as a result of a deal between Nokia and Microsoft announced in February and signed in April that's reportedly worth billions of dollars.

So is the Lumia 710 a good smartphone or not? Simply put, it is. It's a simple, low-end phone, but it's a solid little phone worth your consideration if you're new to smartphones or looking for an affordable Windows Phone handset. The Lumia 710 runs $49.99 on a 2-year contract with T-Mobile starting Jan. 11.

The specifications match-up with most entry-level Windows Phone handsets — namely the Samsung Focus Flash and the HTC Radar 4G.

Nokia Lumia 710The Lumia 710 isn't thin by today's smartphone standards, coming in at 0.49-inch thick, but it doesn't feel bloated by any means, weighing 4.4 ounces.

A 3.7-inch touch screen is featured on the new Nokia, which looks good but results, disappointingly, in a bit of color distortion at extreme angles. The resolution of the screen, which is responsive and very fingerprint prone in the black colorway I tested, is 800 x 480 pixels. Video playback, apps, photos and websites all looked great on the Lumia 710.

The phone is powered by a single-core 1.4-gigahertz Snapdragon processor from Qualcomm, and 512 megabytes of RAM and 8 gigabytes of built-in storage are included. There is no microSD card slot for storage expansion and there is no front-facing camera for video chatting — which falls in line with the lower-end expectations the Lumia 710's price reflects. Though it should be noted that the HTC Radar 4G, which sells for the same price from T-Mobile, does include a front-facing camera.

On the back is a 5-megapixel camera with a single LED flash, which takes clear, detailed photos and can also shoot 720p video. The camera can't match the 8-megapixel shooters found on higher end smartphones, but again, the Lumia 710 isn't a high-end $200 or $300 smartphone.

The Lumia 710 was fast and performed well. I won't go too deep into Windows Phone Mango (for more on that, check out my October review of Mango), but while it isn't the most complicated or power-demanding operating system out there, the Lumia 710 handled everything I threw at it. In about two weeks of testing, I never had an app freeze or crash on me. Call quality was good with voices sounding clear and no dropped calls experienced. T-Mobile's 4G network offered up fast downloads and uploads on the Lumia 710. Battery life was also great: I consistently got a day's worth of charge, no problem.

Stylistically, the Lumia 710 is a bit plain, though not at all unattractive. The curved back plate on the phone is coated in a rubberized plastic that is grippy and comfortable to hold in the hand no matter what you're doing on the phone. The back plate is removable and Nokia is selling different colors — cyan, magenta, yellow, black and white — which thankfully can help add a bit of style.

Below the phone's display is a single piece of plastic which rises out of the face of the Lumia 710 to house three buttons: back, home and search. Many Windows Phone handsets have opted for touch-capacitive buttons and not a large physical button, but that's the way Nokia went this time around and it's unique. You may or may not like the large button, but it is an original look and one I didn't mind at all. The right side of the Lumia 710 is a volume rocker above a dedicated camera button, which responded fast when clicked. Up top is the phone's power button, headphone jack and, in another departure, USB port.

The top of the phone is a bit of a strange place for a USB port, but I actually liked this decision simply because I hadn't really seen it before. Nokia's phones will need to stand out and feel genuinely different from Samsung, HTC and others that make Windows Phone handsets.

Nokia Lumia 710This phone, while overall a standard and not at all groundbreaking phone, still feels different than others I've seen at this price range and I think that's a good thing. It's small choices, like the removable colored back plates, the large button on the front, and the USB port up top that give the Lumia 710 some personality.

Build quality is solid and the Lumia 710 feels like it could take some abuse and survive over the life of a two-year contract with no problems.

The Lumia 710 also has a couple of unique features on the software side, with a different color option for Windows Phone's app tiles called Nokia Blue, which looks a bit more royal than the standard blue  like the Tar Heel blue worn by the University of North Carolina. Nokia apps are also another differentiator for the Lumia 710 and future Nokia Windows Phones.

The best of the included Noika apps was Nokia Drive, a turn-by-turn voice navigation app that delivered GPS directions in a clear, understandable manner. Nokia Drive also re-calibrated quickly when I went against its suggested routes.

There's also an app, if you can really call it that, called Nokia Cares, which is simply a slide that states that yes, Nokia cares and "respects your privacy. We collect information about your phone and your use of services to improve Nokia products and to provide you more relevant content." But, the app says, Nokia doesn't share your data with third-party companies without your consent. There's also an included link to Nokia's service terms and privacy policy.

All in all, the Nokia Lumia 710 was a phone I enjoyed using. It didn't make me want to give up my Apple iPhone 4S or the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. But unlike the Nokia Lumia 800 on sale in Europe and Asia, the Lumia 710 wasn't designed to do that. Nokia will need to release such a phone in the U.S. to justify its multibillion-dollar partnership with Microsoft.

But while there aren't a ton of bells and whistles here, this straightforward, well-built, speedy little smartphone looks like a good starting point for Nokia and Microsoft.

  • The Nokia Lumia 710. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Nokia Lumia 710 (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Nokia Lumia 710 (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Nokia Lumia 710, in its box. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Nokia Lumia 710 with its back plate removed. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Nokia Lumia 710 with its back plate and battery removed. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The back of the Nokia Lumia 710. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The HTC Radar 4G, left, next to the Nokia Lumia 710, center, and the Apple iPhone 4S. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The HTC Radar 4G, left, next to the Nokia Lumia 710, center, and the Apple iPhone 4S. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The HTC Radar 4G, left, next to the Nokia Lumia 710, center, and the Apple iPhone 4S. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The HTC Radar 4G, left, next to the Nokia Lumia 710, center, and the Apple iPhone 4S. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
Nokia_lumia-12

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– Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+

Twitter.com/nateog

Photos: The Nokia Lumia 710. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times

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Galaxy Nexus, on Android Ice Cream Sandwich, review [Video]

posted by Technology @ 3:51 PM
Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is one of the best smartphones on the market and in my opinion, it's the best all-around Android phone out there.

Just about everything you could want from a smartphone, the Galaxy Nexus has — and that's a really good thing considering that the phone is selling in the U.S. for $299 on a two-year 4G LTE data plan from Verizon.

Hardware

The phone, which Google and Samsung teamed up on to design, is just .37-inches thick, which is about the same thickness as Apple's iPhone. Inside, the Galaxy Nexus is packed with a 1.2-gigahertz dual-core processor, 1-gigabyte of RAM, 32-gigabytes of built-in storage and near field communications technology.

On the outside, you'll find a gigantic 4.65-inch touchscreen, which may be a bit too large for some. But, in use, the screen doesn't feel as massive as it is thanks to a thin bezel around the display.

Samsung Galaxy NexusThe resolution of that screen is an impressive 1,280-by-720 pixels, which is high enough to be classified as high-definition. This provides a big, beautiful, bright canvas on which to watch videos, browse websites and read e-books.

The display is one of the best I've seen on just about any smartphone. It's a pentile display, which can lead to some pixelization from time to time, but the high resolution of the screen allows for smoother images than I've seen on low-resolution pentile screens.

Battery life on the Galaxy Nexus is pretty good for a 4G phone with such a large display. Over about a week and a half of testing, I regularly found that I could make it through an entire workday before I had to recharge the phone. Of course, the more you use the phone, the faster the battery life goes, and 3G phones still have better battery life. But as far as 4G phones go, the Galaxy Nexus is among the best I've used battery wise.

Phone calls were clear and reception on the Galaxy Nexus was also solid with Verizon's 4G service being fast and plentiful around Los Angeles during my testing.

Cameras

The Galaxy Nexus sports a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera above the display, which works well for video chatting in a Google+ Hangout or with other video calling services. On the back is a 5-megapixel camera that can shoot up to 1080p video, paired with an LED flash.

Video shot on the phone looks good, but in the rear camera's still photos is where I found one of my few complaints with the Galaxy Nexus. By no means is 5-megapixels a weak camera, but the sharpness and color reproduction of photos I shot on the Galaxy Nexus wasn't at the level of 8-megapixel shooters I've seen on other top handsets such as the iPhone, the Motorola Droid Bionic and Razr and the Samsung Galaxy S II.

One huge plus on the Galaxy Nexus for still photos is the ability to take photos with almost no shutter lag at all. Snapping a picture is nearly instantaneous and while this results in taking some blurry photos from time to time, it should also allow Galaxy Nexus owners to miss fewer moments with their phones than with many other handsets.

Design

The look of the Galaxy Nexus is clean and simple. If you've seen the Galaxy S II, then you won't be too surprised style-wise with the Galaxy Nexus. It's thin and even has a slight bump at the bottom, housing a speaker and microphone, just as the Galaxy S II does.

Samsung's Galaxy Nexus (left) and Galaxy S IIThe front of the phone is thankfully devoid of any Samsung, Google or Verizon logos, which is something I'd like to see from more smartphones. On the right side, toward the top is a power button that also wakes the phone or puts it to sleep. On the left is a volume rocker. A mini-USB port for charging the phone is on the bottom, as is a headphone jack.

The whole of the device, except for the screen, is covered in a dark gray plastic which offers an understated look. The back of the Galaxy Nexus has a removable plastic cover, which conceals the SIM-card slot and battery. Unfortunately, this panel has a thin, flimsy feel to it that is also reminiscent of the Galaxy S II.

You won't find any premium materials on the Galaxy Nexus as you may find on other rival high-end handsets. But while the phone doesn't feel luxurious, it's still durable and well-built.

Android Ice Cream Sandwich

Though the hardware offered is mighty by current standards, the best part of the Galaxy Nexus is undoubtedly its software — Google's Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

The Galaxy Nexus is the first device on the market to run Ice Cream Sandwich, which is the biggest overhaul of Android since its debut in 2008. Ice Cream Sandwich is also the first version of Android designed to run on phones and tablets.

Ice Cream Sandwich feels like a turning point for Android. Sure it's the most widely used mobile operating system in the world, but Android has never felt as polished, easy to use, fast or efficient as Apple's iOS. It lacked the design cohesiveness seen in both iOS and Microsoft's Windows Phone too.

Things now are a bit different thanks to Ice Cream Sandwich. Nearly everything has been redesigned and given a new look. This is the first version of Android that I truly enjoyed using — every tap, touch, pinch and swipe. And that can be attributed to its clean style and the fact that Ice Cream Sandwich is simpler and easier to use than any Android before it.

Gone are the four physical buttons built into the front of Android phones. In Ice Cream Sandwich, all the buttons used for the OS and apps are on-screen and can appear or disappear as needed. The OS makes use of three buttons instead of four: a back button, to get you out of whatever you're doing at the time; a home button, which takes you to your default home screen, and a recent apps button for easy efficient multitasking.

Hit the recent apps button, and a column of screenshots of recent apps will show up (similar to multitasking in Android Honeycomb, the previous version of Android built specifically for tablets). But now, closing down an app running in the background is much easier to do. To close an app, just swipe it to the right or left and it will smoothly roll off screen and out of your queue.

In the pull-down notification center, to discard a notification, just swipe it left or right. If you're in Ice Cream Sandwich's Gmail app, reading an newer or older email requires a left or right swipe as well. This repeated gesture feels like one more example of a new level of thoughtfulness brought to Android in Ice Cream Sandwich.

Other improvements include a contacts app that pulls in contact information from Facebook, Twitter and Google+. For Google+ users, contacts can be viewed by circles of friends, co-workers or whatever groups you set up. The Google search bar now follows you as you swipe across the five home screens of Android.

Face unlock on the Samsung Galaxy NexusVirtual buttons rotate to different sides of the screen as you rotate the phone from portrait to landscape orientation. And now, finally, Android has app folders — just move one app icon onto another to create a folder, it's that simple.

A new font designed for Ice Cream Sandwich called Roboto is used throughout the new OS, adding to the feeling that Android finally has an identifiable style, which it previously lacked.

Google also built tools into Ice Cream Sandwich's settings menu that detail how much data has been consumed by your phone toward the 2.0-gigabyte cap Verizon puts on its users. You can also view how much data is used by each specific app and set a data usage limit to keep from using so much data that overage charges rack up.

Of course, there are some downsides as not all apps are optimized for Ice Cream Sandwich or the Galaxy Nexus' huge screen and iOS still has a superior app selection.

Also, Ice Cream Sandwich offers users the option of a "Face Unlock" feature that uses facial recognition technology to open the phone from its lock screen. It works fast and is an alternative to not locking the phone, or locking it with a passcode or gesture. But the phone doesn't just recognize actual faces, it also recognizes picutures of faces. With Face Unlock turned on, I was able to unlock the Galaxy Nexus with an iPhone displaying a photo of myself — not exactly the most secure option.

The bottom line

Android Ice Cream Sandwich is without question the best version of Android thus far. When combined with such fantastic hardware, its hard not to pick the Galaxy Nexus as the best overall Android phone on the market.

  • The Samsung Galaxy Nexus running Android Ice Cream Sandwich. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The back of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Samsung Galaxy Nexus in front of its box. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Ice Cream Sandwich's keypad. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • Taking a photo with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Samsung Galaxy Nexus. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • Android Ice Cream Sandwich on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • Face Unlock on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • Face Unlock on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • Gesture Unlock on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • Face Unlock on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The 5-megapixel camera on the back of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Samsung Galaxy Nexus. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Samsung Galaxy Nexus, left, and the Samsung Galaxy S II. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Samsung Galaxy Nexus, left, and the Samsung Galaxy S II. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Samsung Galaxy Nexus, left, and the Samsung Galaxy S II. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Samsung Galaxy S II, left, the Galaxy Nexus, center, and the Apple iPhone 4S. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
  • The Samsung Galaxy S II, left, the Galaxy Nexus, center, and the Apple iPhone 4S. (Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times)
21

RELATED:

LG Nitro HD, from AT&T, review [Video]

Motorola Droid Razr, from Verizon, review [Video]

Samsung Galaxy S II, Android on Sprint review [Video]

– Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+

Twitter.com/nateog

Photo: Armand Emamdjomeh / Los Angeles Times

Twitter.com/emamd

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Kobo Vox tablet review [Video]

posted by Technology @ 3:53 PM
Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Kobo Vox tablet feels like a missed opportunity.

Over the last year, the scrappy Canadian e-reading company has released the impressive Kobo Touch eInk eReader and polished its Kobo Reading Life apps into worthy rivals to Amazon’s Kindle apps and Barnes & Noble’s Nook apps on tablets and smart phones.

The company is in the process of being purchased by Japan’s equivalent to Amazon, the massive online retailer Rakuten. Despite Kobo’s largest U.S. retail partner, Borders, closing its doors, it seemed that Kobo was akin to a promising, aspiring prizefighter on the brink of being ready to challenge the heavyweight champs of e-reading, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

The Kobo Vox, on top of a Amazon Kindle Fire and a Barnes & Noble Nook TabletAnd then I used the Vox — Kobo’s answer to Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble’s one-two punch of the Nook Color and Nook Tablet.

With the Vox, Kobo has taken a step back, delivering a product that doesn’t come close to its rivals and one that doesn’t match up to the quality I expected given how much I like the Kobo Touch and Kobo reading apps on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS devices.

On paper, the Vox looked like a smart move, selling for $199.99 and featuring a seven-inch touch-screen with eight gigabytes of built-in storage — that’s the same included storage and price as the Fire and the same as the Nook Color (the Nook Tablet sells for $249). Just as the Nook Color and Nook Tablet do, the Vox features with a MicroSD card slot, which can accommodate a card of up to 32-gigabytes in size, if you don’t mind buying one.

Like the Fire and the Nook, the Vox runs a modified version of the Android Gingerbread operating system, designed by Google with phones, not tablets in mind.

But unlike those two others, Kobo has only made minimal changes to Gingerbread, most noticeably pinning reading-related functions to the bottom of the Vox’s Android home screens.

I was hopeful Kobo would deliver a competitive product, but instead I found myself disappointed at just about every turn in using the Vox.

The hardware, from the outside, isn’t bad looking. The back of the Vox is great to hold on to, with Kobo’s signature quilted pattern rendered in a soft and grippy plastic. On the review unit I tested, a light-blue rim of plastic sat between the back of the Kobo and its 1020 x 600 pixel resolution display.

It’s nice to see a company take a bit of risk design-wise, especially when compared with the boring looks of the Kindle Fire. The Vox is also offered with lime-green, pink and black rims.

But once I turned on the device, it was mostly downhill.

The Vox starts up slow, and I failed to ever reach the seven-hour battery life Kobo claims for the Vox. I usually got about four or five hours of battery life, but there were about four times in my week of testing that the device would shut itself off when falling below an 80% charge (a couple of those delays struck when we were shooting the above video).

When the Vox was up and running, it did so sluggishly. Loading apps, menus, Web pages; checking email; opening e-books; turning pages in e-books — everything took place slowly. It felt as though the Vox was always a step, or a second or two, behind my touch input. The display also fails to match the clarity, brightness, color range or viewing angles of the Fire and the Nook Tablet.

Snappy, speedy, responsive — these are not words I would use to describe the Vox. Too often I found myself staring at a rotating gray circle waiting for something to load. This complaint can partly be attributed to lower-end internal specs, such as an 800-megahertz processor and 512-megabytes of RAM, but if tuned enough with the right software, such hardware shouldn’t be so slow.

Kobo has a solid selection of books available for sale, more than 2.3 million titles. Major new releases are often available at a price that meets or beats those of Amazon or Barnes & Noble. But unlike Amazon and Barnes & Noble, Kobo has no app store — instead directing users to purchase apps from the independent online app store GetJar.

Like Barnes & Noble, but very much unlike Amazon, Kobo has no storefront for music, movies or TV shows, either.

Although I like the hardware of the Nook Color and Nook Table, and I like the software and Web services of the Fire, I can’t say that I’m happy with either the hardware or software offered by the Vox. At the same price as the Fire and the Nook Color, the Vox seems overpriced and more in line with tablets that sold for about $130 to $150 a year ago.

I wanted to like the Vox, but I didn’t. Instead, the Vox feels like a prototype, not a fully finished product ready for the masses. And that left me flatly disappointed.

  • Photo: The Kobo Vox tablet, on its box. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times
  • Photo: The Kobo Vox tablet, on its box. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times
  • Photo: The Kobo Vox tablet, on its box. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times
  • Photo: Kobo Vox power adapter. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times
  • Photo: The Kobo Vox tablet. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times
  • Photo: The Kobo Vox's single speaker. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times
  • Photo: The back of the Kobo Vox tablet. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times
  • Photo: The back of the Kobo Vox tablet. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times
  • Photo: The back of the Kobo Vox tablet. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times
  • Photo: The back of the Kobo Vox tablet. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times
Kobo_vox-40

RELATED:

Amazon Kindle Fire review [Video]

Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet review [Video]

Vizio Tablet: Mixes high and low-end features, but can it compete? [Video]

– Nathan Olivarez-Giles
Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+
Twitter.com/nateog

Photo: The Kobo Vox tablet, on top of an Amazon Kindle Fire and a Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times
Twitter.com/emamd

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