Thursday, December 30, 2010

My ultraportable dilemma

It's time for me to get a new laptop. My Dell XPS M1330 is still running well, though a bit battle scarred. But I like to upgrade well before I see any real trouble - as a self-employed person, I have only one machine and no backup plan to deal with downtime.

Owing to heavy travel and daily commuting, I prefer ultraportables. An ultraportable is defined as a machine which weighs approximately 2kg or less and it usually has a screen size of 11 to 13 inches. However, it needs to have specs of a performance notebook, rather than a netbook ; which in today's terms means, an iCore processor, 3GB or more of RAM and 320-500 GB of Hard Drive space.

These are some of the issues I have faced in selecting an ultraportable.
1) Price : Ultraportables are mostly targeted at business users and carry a steep business tag. At the top end,  Dell Latitude and the Sony Vaio Z series go above Rs. 1 lakh and this pricing makes them more appropriate for corporations than individuals. At the lower end of the price spectrum, Dell Vostro and the Lenovo ThinkPad Edge series are priced from Rs.30,000 onwards, but the lower-priced models tend to carry older, slower processors. The business orientation of ultraportables is reflected in the pricing - you can clearly see the hierarchy from the CEO's laptop, to one that is intended for a travelling sales representative.

2) Feature/spec set trade-offs
If you look at mainstream notebooks (especially those with 15 inch screens), the feature set at a price range tends to be stable across manufacturers. For example, the latest laptops across brands are featuring iCore processor and 3GB of RAM and are priced from Rs.30-40,000. Pay a premium (usually upto Rs.50,000) and you get an iCore 5 processor, perhaps a dedicated graphics card, more storage space. It is easy to understand the pricing structure and then take a decision.

With ultraportables, different manufacturers (and models) tend to trade off different specs for portability and price, making the decision fairly confusing, despite the fact that there are only a handful of true ultraportables.
For instance, the Sony Vaio Z series implements SSD (Solid State Drives) to command the Rs.1 lakh + price, but I would argue that this is not a feature I would pay such a huge premium for. The Lenovo ThinkPad Edge series offers easy prices (under Rs. 50,000) but features a range of older AMD and Core2Duo processors, as do some of the Dell Vostro models. Add to this the fact that some machines have optical drive, and others do not, some have graphic cards, while others do not, and the configuration options tend to be limited. For example, you cannot get a graphics card option on Vostro. Battery life also tends to vary a lot.

3) You cannot see or try before buying.
You will not see ultraportable ranges in large stores - not even in Croma. Mostly, you have to order directly from the manufacturer or through the distributor. While looks are not that important for me, I do like to check the keyboard and screen for myself to ensure a comfortable usage experience. You end up relying on reviews, which are fortunately comprehensive and reliable guides to making a choice.

My verdict after one week of comparing all models within my budget, is that there is currently no perfect ultraportable. Nothing that excites me as much as Dell XPS did 3 years ago. Still, here is my shortlist - I guess I will have to choose one of these.

1) Dell Vostro 3300

In this configuration, Dell India currently offers only iCore 3 or iCore 5 processors, so you won't be short of computing power for business productivity. There is 3 GB of RAM, 320 GB HDD @7200 RPM and an inbuilt optical drive. There is no option for Graphics card (which is fine for me).

Prices range from Rs. 35,000 to Rs. 45,000 exclusive of tax and delivery, so your budget in any case will not exceed Rs.50,000.In terms of pure specs at this price point, this is the most attractive ultraportable on the market right now. Dells support for Vostro is also very good, making this a reliable choice for small business users like me.

But there are some inherent defects with this model. The biggest one is the low battery life of the default 4-cell battery reported in user comments on the Dell site and reviews on CNet Asia and other sites. We are talking an average that's closer to 2 hours. This may not pose a problem if you are always close to a power source, but it's still below par. You can spend extra bucks to buy an 8-cell battery, but that kind of defeats the purpose, increasing the weight, cost and ruining the looks of the machine. I had made an earlier post about this model and it's kinda disappointing for me that they have not worked to improve battery life at all! I really wish that Dell offered a default 6 cell battery on this unit that would at least deliver the mandatory 3-3.5 hours of use that is acceptable for a laptop.

2) Toshiba Portege R700
Toshiba India currently offers two flavors of this laptop - one with iCore 3 processor and 320 GB HDD and the other with iCore 5 processor and 500 GB HDD. Both the models are incredibly light (under 1.5 kg) and both have garnered rave reviews from sites like LaptopMag and even a word of praise in Walt Mossberg's column at WSJ.

The Portege R700 shows Dell the way to do it, offering 6 hours of battery life on a 6 cell battery. The flip side seems to be that this machine heats up a lot (but most laptops with powerful processors unfortunately do that). It also has a very loud fan. But these are small quibbles for me.

I would love to buy this machine, and the only reason it's not No.1 in my list, is that the price is Rs.65,00 for the i3 version and Rs.75,000 for the i5 version. It's not a budget ultraportable, nor is it priced over the moon, but when I can get the same specs on a Dell for Rs.30,000 less, I cannot blindly go for this. Approximately 1/2 kg less weight and 4 extra hours of battery life are a draw, but not at this price premium. The price does  include a 3 year limited warranty, which is better than Dell's default 1 year warranty.

The newest Vostro on the block is displayed on the Dell India website, but price or order information has not yet been put up. According to PC World India, the price will be in the Rs.36,000-45,000 range depending on whether you go with Core i3 or Corei5 option. The Vostro V130 has killer looks, is really light and thin and features the newest range of ULV iCore processors. Where Vostro V130 falters though, is on exactly this aspect - battery life. It delivers even less than 2 hours on average (though it has a six cell battery) which is very poor considering that the entire purpose of the ULV processor is to save power and extend battery life, with a small impact on performance. This machine lacks an optical drive and has a sealed battery unit which cannot be user-replaced. However, it does have an HDMI port which is lacking in the Vostro 3300.
There are some more models that would have been at the top of this shortlist, if only they were available in India. For example, the Asus U45Jc-A1, which is the ultraportable cousin of the 14 inch U45Jc. Or Acer's newest Timeline X series, featuring the same ULV iCore processor as Dell V130, but with more than triple the battery life.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Kindle : the cheapest and best ebook reader?

Bloomberg has reported  that Amazon is likely to sell 8 million Kindles in 2010, which is 60% higher than predicted by analysts. To put this in perspective, Apple has sold 7.4 million iPads since their debut in April. And Amazon sold only 2.4 million Kindles last year. The Kindle sales figures are unofficial and based on industry sources, as Amazon does not share its sales data. But the figures reveal how the ebook reader market is booming despite predictions that tablets will wipe out the category,  and Amazon's extent of leadership over rivals like Sony and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

The latest, 3rd generation Kindle was launched earlier this year and has gotten good reviews from CNet, Engadget and a lot of other sites. Smaller and lighter than the earlier Kindle and priced at USD 139 (around Rs.6000) for the wi-fi only model, this is probably the cheapest and best ebook reader you can get at that price. Throw in a battery that goes on for a month, a rudimentary webkit browser, 4GB of memory that's good for 3500 ebooks and 6 inch screen with higher contrast ratio for clear reading. Isn't that enough reasons to buy one?

(image from ThinkDigit)
You can pay $189 (around Rs.8500) and get one with global 3G but it does not make sense in India unless you're a globe trotter. After all, 3G here is not amounting to much right now. And even if it did, Amazon would charge a whopping 99 cents per MB to transfer your personal documents through their WhisperNet service (it's only 15 cents per MB if you live in the US). Ebooks tend to be very small files, but the MBs add up quickly.

The only catch is that the Kindle does not support epub, the open standard ebook format. However, it does offer enhanced PDF support including zoom, pan, dictionary lookup, notes  and highlights.
My friend Pratap recently told me that he is getting a Kindle from abroad, which led me to research how much of application it will have in India even if you don't choose to download paid stuff in $$s from the Amazon Store (a 3-5% foreign transaction fee is levied by most Indian credit card companies making this a commercially unattractive transaction)

Seems there is a lot I can do on the Kindle even if I don't buy from Amazon. Take a look at the sources of free ebooks  that Amazon claims you can access on the Kindle. From most of these sites, you can download a Kindle format to your PC and transfer it to your device through USB. Or you could use WhisperNet as described above.

I use both Open Library and Project Gutenberg when I have a passion to read classics from my literature student days - books that have stayed in my heart even if I have no room for them anymore in my crowded Mumbai apartment.  Thinking of having thousands of them at my fingertips anywhere is almost enough to make me spring for an ebook reader, here and now. But I know from experience that this desire to carry around  your entire digital life all the time is addictive and I try to resist it. There is no end to it really and in no time at all, I would be into terrabytes and spending a fortune on storage.

There seems no simple way to buy the Kindle in India. You have to order it from Amazon online and pay the hefty shipping fee to India, unless you can get a relative abroad to bring it down with them. Or alternatively you could figure it out with sites like 20North who will charge you in rupees and ship to you from the US. In fact, 20North is currently listing  the Kindle at approximately Rs. 10,000 (or Rs. 9000 sans customs, if you gift it to someone else).

Or you could get the Wink ebook reader from Bangalore based EC Media, which was also launched this year. Wink initially launched with two flavors - a wi-fi only model and a wi-fi + 3G. Now the website also shows a smaller version of the device (5 inch screen)

I see from the website that the prices have been slashed compared to launch : the XTS is now selling at Rs. 8999 compared to the launch price of Rs. 12,000. This seems reasonable given that the device is more like a 2nd generation Kindle in its spec sheet.

I think the Wink merits a post on its own in the future and I will do one. Right now I am off to drool a little more over the Kindle...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Net neutrality : the debate so far

I have embarked on a difficult topic this time. Net neutrality is a subject of academic study with political and business implications. But I have decided to write about it as a layperson who reaps the benefits of a 'free' internet. and I guess this is where most of us are at.

The context of the debate is the FCC Proposal for net neutrality that goes for vote tomorrow and eventually to the US Congress. While the laws that get passed will be applicable to the US, they will definitely set a precedent for other countries.

You can download and read this mammoth-sized document here. The key points are;
1) The proposed legislation will be applicable only to all forms of broadband access (wired and wireless broadband) and will not regulate the actual content of the internet itself (in any case, it's not even possible to control what gets put up on the net). In other words, the regulations will encompass the broadband providers - ISPs and mobile companies - and their services to end consumers. The inclusion of wireless and mobile networks is a big one - till now, FCC has regulated only wired internet. Mobile internet will increasingly become the future of internet access.
2) The proposal will codify four 'principles' of an earlier Internet Policy designed to protect consumer's access to content, services, and applications of their choice, and through devices and service providers of their choice. In short, it is an assurance that competition can exist in the broadband space to ensure that the needs and rights of consumers are protected.
3) The proposal will also codify two new, additional principles of broadband access which apply to broadband providers. Firstly, that they will be required to not discriminate between services, content and applications that are offered to consumers through their own platform. This assumes significance when we consider that today many broadband providers offer both free and paid services and content like video and voice, which could clash with the free or paid products and services offered by other companies. Secondly, the broadband companies would be required to have greater transparency in disclosing information about how they manage their networks and users. As congestion on networks increases, broadband providers have developed sophisticated means of shaping and controlling internet traffic. For instance, some providers block torrents, conduct 'deep packet analysis' to understand the nature of traffic on their networks, and implement 'fair usage' policies that favor greater speed to low-usage end customers compared to those with extremely heavy upload and download. The FCC proposal will not end such practices by broadband companies, but will force them to make clearer disclosures upfront.
4) Finally, the FCC proposal recognises the right of broadband providers to undertaking 'reasonable network management'. To quote, " The draft rules would not prohibit broadband Internet access service providers from taking reasonable action to prevent the transfer of unlawful content, such as the unlawful distribution of copyrighted works." Till now, the proposed regulations were protecting consumer rights - in this clause, the emphasis is on protecting the rights of corporate entities.
5) The FCC has created a separate category for 'specialised' or managed services of the ISPs and is drafting proposals to regulate such services.

What are the implications of the FCC's draft regulations and why are they attracting widespread commentary and criticism within the US?

1) Control over Broadband access is a sensitive issue because it is control over the Internet
This Ars Technica review of 4 books on the subject of the free internet puts the entire issue into perspective. Broadband access itself is a potential 'bottleneck'. The internet may have every type of content on it, but who controls the access point? It is the network operators. It is particularly revealing that the operators have been using the US First Amendment (Freedom of speech) to argue against net neutrality and claim that they can control traffic on 'their' networks. So does the right to freedom protect consumers, the corporations, or both, and how will it do that? Their does not seem to be an easy answer to this question. Unless we are able to restrict network providers to a role only as providers of a 'pipe' (common carriers, in other words) as opposed to cable networks which are closed carriers controlling and producing their own content.

2) Does the net need regulation at all?
It is an undisputed fact that the open internet has been a communication rennaisance, giving a voice to millions of people, and that a neutral net has been a breeding ground of innovation and competition. However, are we fine as we are? A dominant line of thought is that the net has been proven to govern itself - and what we need to protect, if at all, is it's naturally open structure.

Is government intervention needed at all? Will it make things better or worse? And if there is government intervention, should it not be focussed on consumer rights rather than on the consumer-business interface? Do companies' rights and regulations really need government sanction or can we leave market forces to decide? Past history has shown that legislation can force companies into oligarchic structures that protect an industry's profitability, more than consumer interest.

3) Does it benefit the consumer, or are some parties only protecting their own interests?
The FCC lost some ground earlier this year in the net neutrality debate when a US court ruled against their authority under current law to impose regulations on ISPs. Clearly, the proposed legislations put FCC back in the forefront of regulation. And by extending the purview to mobile broadband networks, FCC is sharpening its teeth as well. You can read the Wall Street Journal article by Robert M. McDowell, Republican commissioner of FCC, to get a perspective on this.

For another perspective, read the revised net neutrality proposal submitted to FCC by Google and Verizon earlier this year. Interesting to note that they proposed to entirely exclude mobile broadband services from the scope of the proposal. Does that come from a vested interest of both Google and Verizon in Android-powered devices?

Opponents to the policy also point out, as does David Dayen that the proposals seek to instituionalise a 'pretend net neutrality'; to quote, "You can’t block content, but if you can “manage” it, you can essentially slow it out of existence." Nor does it prevent companies from offering 'paid priority access' to content. In this sense, it does benefit the service providers, rather than consumers. You can read more about opponents to the net neutrality proposal on Marvin Ammori's blog

Any legislation is sensitive, because it sets precedents,offers a benchmark for future laws, and eventually shapes the way industries grow and develop.The debate on the FCC regulations has a wider implication for all of us as users of a free internet. I think it's a worthwhile issue for us to follow and think about in our own context - what is net neutrality, how does it benefit end consumers, and how can it be implemented in a way that is in our best interest

Sunday, December 19, 2010

tablets in 2011 - what to expect

Tablets have just begun to come into their own and the good news is that we are likely to see many more launches in 2011. What can we expect by way of hardware, software and of course, pricing?

1) Hardware
Hardware for tablets will approach top-end parity, as it has done for cellphones. The processor of choice is dual core, and there are several manufacturers in the fray. Samsung has already announced the Orion, with a pair of 1 GHz ARM Cortex A9 cores. The NVidia Tegra  chipset has already been integrated into several tablets and mobile phones including the newly launched LG Optimus 2X, and Notion Ink's Adam tablet. Texas Instruments has so far been powering Motorola phones with a single core chip, and will be debuting the 1.5 GHz OMAP dual core mobile processor next year. The performance will reportedly be faster than the NVidia Tegra. Qualcomm also has 1.2 GHz and 1.5 GHz processors coming up. Hopefully, a lot of these powerhouses will get showcased at CES 2011 in January. For the end user, dual core processors will translate into better hardware acceleration for 3D graphics, gaming and viewing HD video, as well as effortless multi-tasking. This opens up new scope for functionality on tablets.

So much for processor speeds, what about display?  The best displays on the market currently are Apples Retina display (iPhone), Samsung's SAMOLED (Super AMOLED) and Sony's Super LCD. While I would love to see SAMOLED on tablets, this year we have seen that Samsung has been unable to keep up with the global demand for the display. The company has promised to address the issue in 2011, by boosting production, but obviously, alternatives will arise to the much coveted AMOLED display. One such alternative is the low-powered PixelQi hybrid LCD display, which can function like an LCD display and colored EInk display through dimming of the optional backlight. The PixelQi display has been a huge talking point for Notion Ink's Adam tablet and it definitely has potential if the company can get it into mass production, as it can make your tablet double up as a true ebook reader.

2) Software

Software and the UI (user interface) will be the critical factor which will make or break a tablet. Till date, only Apple has a genuine tablet-customised operating system. We have seen a variety of Android tablets, but Google claims that Android is not currently optimised for tablets (displays larger than 5 inches). In effect, the tablets that run on Android today are only offering a blown up smartphone experience.

The way of the future is operating systems that are created specifically for tablets. Notion Ink has designed the Eden UI for its Adam tablet, Blackberry will create a new OS based on QnX for its upcoming PlayBook and Nokia has a very promising candidate for handhelds in the Maemo OS, which currently features on the Nokia N900.  And of course, Android 3 (Honeycomb) will be optimised for tablets.

A dedicated operating system and apps, are what will distinguish tablets from smartphones. We would expect tablets to do what our phones cannot, and to an extent, what our laptops can. With the way hardware is heading, in terms of pure specs, tablets will overtake netbooks, but will also be way more expensive. In order to substitute them, tablets have to make themselves more useful. For instance, I need to tout my laptop around to download and edit work-related attachments, as this is something that cannot be done on my smartphone. If a tablet would let me do this task easily, it could replace my laptop in several scenarios. But for this, the tablet would have to facilitate tasks that I take for granted on my laptop, including such basics as copy and paste.

Pricing is also a critical part of the equation. Tablets are 'in-between' devices. You will definitely need a mobile phone and you will need a laptop or PC, but you do not really need a tablet. The pricing needs to tempt you to buy one, else it will only be a geek's toy. I believe that to succeed, tablets need to pitch their pricing in the same range as notebooks (USD 300-400, or Rs.12,000-15,000). Only then will we see mass adoption of this form factor.

Meanwhile, we can look forward to 2011 as the year when tablets will really come into their own strength.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

More information about Notion Ink's Adam Tablet

A month ago, I had blogged about Notion Ink's Adam Tablet. A lot of action has happened since then, if you've been following Rohan Shravan's blog. The Adam has gone on global pre-order, and basically been a sell out. There have been glitches with the online ordering system, some criticism around the high shipping fees and apprehensions about buying a tablet that no one has yet seen in action. But Notion Ink will finally display the tablet at CES 2010 and that should answer a lot of questions that are currently floating around. The people who have pre-ordered will receive their tablets in the second week of January 2011.

About the pre-order sales, DNA reports Shravan saying that they are split 60-40 between Europe and USA. No one from India has bought this device? That's a shame, considering the starting price is barely Rs. 15,000.

As launch date nears, Shravan has been sharing more and more info about the Adam, and this interview with Android Police answers a lot of questions. Some of the interesting points for me were;

1) The Adam has its own custom UI called Eden, designed by Notion Ink, which Shravan claims will be extremely responsive. Notion Ink will bundle two multi-touch keyboards, which have been tested to produce fewer errors while typing. The UI will also capitalise on the speedy Nvidia Tegra 2 processor to provide smooth multi-tasking.
2) The Adam will not have access to the Android Marketplace (so you can't download either free or paid Android Apps). Shravan claims that the reason for this is that only Android 3 (Honeycomb) will be optimised for tablet displays. Till then, Android and the world of Android apps, will not work on the Adam's 10 inch display.

3) However, the Adam comes pre-loaded with a variety of apps including a complete office suite, email app, browser, e-book reader and several other standard functionalities, presumably all designed by Notion Ink and their partners.

 4) The Adam ships with an option of two displays - the standard LCD display will not run out of stock, but the yet to be mass produced PixelQi display is likely to be in shortage in the future. According to me, PixelQi is one of the cutting edge technologies that makes this device a worthwhile investment.

I am waiting for a video demo which Rohan Shravan promised to post today, to get more dope on the Adam. It is definitely on my 'to buy' list. But as I said in an earlier post, I need to see functionality for a tablet in my life before I shell out cash. I think the Adam is one of the most promising candidates in the tablet space today, and I hope it lives up to my expectations!

My Wi-fi nightmares

Since the past 3 months, I have been facing a problem. I connect to the internet on my laptop through a Linksys wi-fi router, and at least twice a day, I face connectivity issues. Either I just cannot find my wi-fi network, or my laptop automatically disconnects. Using a standard procedure to troubleshoot a wi-fi connection, I tried moving my router closer to the living room where I access the net. And then I tried to change the channel on which my router connects. In order to do this, I downloaded inSSIDer from Metageek. InSSIDer is a software that uses your wi-fi card to scan and display all the wireless networks in your vicinty, and also maps the signal strength of each network. You can use the information to choose a less congested channel for your router.

But I was in for an unpleasant surprise. The picture says it all
First of all, there are no less than 25 APs (access points) or wireless connections. 95% of these are Tikona wireless connections - there is a Tikona wireless access point on top of my building. The Tikona routers show up under the name 'ruckus' - an appropriate name, considering that they are generating all the wi-fi noise and disturbance. And it is these Tikona routers that are hogging literally all the bands from 6 to 11. I switched to 1 after the scan - you can see my router in red (Nisha Linksys) but even 1 is not interference free.

Seems that our wi-fi networks are getting extremely crowded. I now have a choice to either switch back to internet through LAN (not a choice really) or to get a more powerful router. I doubt if my connection can hold its own against the plethora of ruckus-causing Ruckus routers that Tikona has put out in my building.

If you face problems with wi-fi connectivity, do download this tool and run the scan. The results may surprise you.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cowon is back with the X7

I realise that it's been a long time since I have written on my core passion : headphones and DAPs. To be honest, there were not a lot of developments to write about though. I sometimes wonder if DAPs as a category will survive; beyond a niche segment of audiophiles, cellphones dispense your daily dose of music and most of them do a decent job though my ears are not very tolerant of them. People praise the SQ of the Samsung Wave but to me it sounds a tad metallic.

But now I have cause to rejoice as engadget reports that the Cowon X7 is here. This player has a 4.3 " resistive touch screen, a mammoth HDD with 80/120/160 GB options and a killer battery life of 103 hours for audio. And of course, the legendary Cowon SQ. Having owned the Cowon D2, and listened to both the X5 and the S9, I can say that these guys really deliver good sound quality.

Tech2 reports that the D2 is available in India for Rs.18,000.

Like many people, I value the extra hard drive space, which has vanished as most brands shift to solid state drives and expandable memory through SD cards. In March I had posted about the absence of large capacity MP3 players apart from the iPod classic which audiophiles consider to have a sub-optimal audio quality.

I look forward to getting my hands on a review unit. And believe me, I would LOVE to review this one.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tablet manufacturers woo customers with discounts, bundled offers

India has been getting a spotlight on the mobile tablet front. Both Notion Ink's Adam tablet and the Olive Pad are Indian offerings in the poised-to-explode tablet market.

Now it appears that the manufacturers are keen to lure customers to purchase, through discounts and bundled offers.

Olive Telecom is offering the OlivePad at an special online price of Rs.22,990. Available only through the Olive Telecom site, the package includes free shipping with insurance and bundled leather case, 16 GB Memory Card, lifetime subscription to MapMyIndia for GPS and 6 months free subscription to Live TV through Zenga.

Samsung is opting for tie-ups with operators according to Connect India, offering bundled data plans in partnership with Aircel, Airtel, Vodafone, Reliance Mobile and Tata Docomo. The company is also offering free leather case, stereo bluetooth headset, a copy of the movie '3 Idiots' and pre-loaded GPS software from MapMyIndia.

If you want to enjoy 3G connectivity on your tablet though, the news is not so good. The Hindu Business Line reported recently that Airtel, Vodafone and Idea are in talks for collaboration to offer a pan-India 3G network to consumers, given that no single company has a pan India license. However, going by the data packages unveiled by Tata Docomo, the pricing looks to be steep, translating roughly to Re.1 per MB. Other operators are likely to keep prices high - they have to recover what  they paid for the spectrum in the 3G auctions! Unlimited plans are also not on the anvil, given the limited spectrum bandwith allocated to each operator.

So even if you buy that tablet, roaming high-speed data remains an expensive proposition. It still makes better sense to tout around a netbook or notebook with a datacard!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

OS domination in smartphones - thoughts for 2011

The Q3 2010 smartphone market share figures released by Gartner recently reflect the exciting and dynamic picture of the mobile phone market today.

(Image from BGR)

It raises some interesting questions for the future in terms of operating system dominance, and when I look at it from an Indian perspective, the questions reveal that the battle could still swing any way.

1. Nokia, what's next?
Despite the hype surrounding Android, Nokia remains the market leader with 44% share, although that share is eroding. In India, Nokia still has over 50% market share in India even after losing ground to Samsung and Indian manufacturers. Nokia foreshadowed the slide in the smartphone race when they announced in Dec. 2009 that they would halve their smarphone portfolio in 2010 and put their effort behind fewer models. The delay in launching Symbian 3 and the less than enthusiastic response to it, also hurt the company. But India and the emerging low-medium cost market remains critical to Nokia. And here, the company stands in more danger of losing share to affordable handsets from Micromax, Samsung, LG etc - many of which will soon be running Android. I believe that Nokia still has a great opportunity to trump these rivals if they are able to roll out Symbian 3 on affordable handsets. Symbian has huge advantages - the stability and sophistication of the platform and the tools, the large and experienced developer base, and the high level of optimisation to mobile phones (even the N8 offered excellent battery life).

2. Android, what about fragmentation?

Like any open-source platform, Android is prone to customization, iterative improvement and the presence of multiple versions in the market simultaneously. It is not as if Google is not aware of this, and they have taken steps to reduce fragmentation.

However, as Michael Gartenberg pointed out in this article on Engadget, fragmentation is a cause of concern and poses a  serious challenge to the ultimate success of Android. Two issues lead to fragmentation of Android platform

1) Hardware fragmentation :
Newer versions of Android have been running on more powerful hardware - processor and RAM. This leads to lack of support for newer apps and widgets on the older hardware. The current case that is making news is Angry Birds, Roxio's wildly popular iPhone game which has recently been made available for Android devices. Older versions of Android phones are not able to play the game properly - and unfortunately we are talking of phones like Sony XPeria 10 mini and HTC Wildfire, which are still available in the market, and are popular. In contrast, many iPhone users have been quick to point out that Angry Birds does just fine on older iPhones which probably have lower end hardware than some recent Android handsets. Google specifies basic specs for hardware like Bluetooth, touchscreen and GPS, but does not otherwise control hardware. With Indian manufacturers like Spice poised to introduce Android on sub-Rs.10000 phones, I wonder what hardware limitations they might feature.

2) Platform fragmentation

This is a lesser worry as Google has taken basic steps to control the delivery channel viz. the Android Market Place and what is available there to run on the phone. Older versions of the Android OS will see only compatible apps. 

This wikipedia article gives an estimated breakup as of Oct 2010 based on devices accessing the Android marketplace over a 14 day period

Do note that this may not be an accurate assessment of the actual share of different versions, as not every handset would have accessed the Android marketplace in the 14 days during which the survey data was collected.

In India, a variety of Android phones are still sold with older versions of the OS - the Samsung Galaxy i899 on RIM runs Android 1.6, SE is yet to upgrade the SE Xperia 10 mini from 1.6 and the recently launched Dell XCD28 runs Android 2.1.
An older version of the operating system on your phone would not pose a problem if an easy upgrade was possible, either at the user or manufacturer end. Unfortunately, only if you own a Google Nexus One, you can receive direct OTA (Over the Air) updates of Android, as soon as Google makes them available. Otherwise, the update has to be routed through your manufacturer (or carrier in contract-driven markets) and experience has shown that most manufacturers including Dell, HTC, Sony and Samsung, have taken a lot of time to deploy updates. Typically this is because they have tweaked the OS with their own custom interface, adding one more dimension to the fragmentation.

The fragmentation should settle down as updates to Android stabilise and thankfully, that seems to be happening. It appears now that 2.3 (Gingerbread) will become the base for smartphones, with support extending back to 2.2 (FroYo) and maybe 2.1 (Eclair) for lower-end smartphones. The upcoming Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) seems to be optimised for tablets and possible for super phones like gaming phones. It is upto Google to clearly delineate a sensible segmentation across the final versions if they believe there is a future in lower-end Android smartphones.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Push sync or customised sync : which do you use?

I am using Exchange ActiveSync on my Samsung Wave, running BADA OS. I set up my hotmail and gmail accounts without any problem, but over months of usage, I am noticing some differences in the way the two work.

To start with, here are my settings for sync. I get several options in sync schedule, allowing me to tweak the sync settings for peak and off-peak periods.

Enter into the peak schedule menu and I get an option to set the frequency of sync - either push (instant) or with varying degrees of infrequency (5 minutes or less frequently)

I like having these options. As per my understanding, push sync is instant ie. the mail server pushes the mail to my phone as soon as it arrives. When I set a 'sync' option,  my phone checks the server and retrieves my mail, at pre-defined intervals that I can customise. Do note that in both cases, I can sync all settings like contacts, calendar, email etc. It is only the frequency of sync that we are discussing here.

Both options have their merits and de-merits. Push sync means instant delivery, and that is critical when I receive work-related mails, and when I am travelling. However, since I get a huge volume of mails, I have also observed that this can drain the battery life faster. And sometimes, it can distract me from work that I need to concentrate on. You know, the syndrome of constantly checking mail :)

Customised sync intervals give me more flexibility. If I set a sync schedule of 5 minutes, it should mean that delivery is almost as instant as push mail. And if I set a greater interval, mail delivery is less frequent. So for example, at night, I can set an off-peak schedule of 12 hours to sync my mail less frequently, as in any case I won't be checking mail till I get up. I  would do the same when I want to save battery life.

So initially I set up varying sync schedules for both my mail accounts.

But I soon ran into problems. Since the last 3 weeks, I have been travelling a lot. On flights, I obviously have to switch off my phone. And in at least 3 instances I found after switching on the phone again, that gmail would not sync, despite repeated attempts. I had to give up and put it back onto push sync (where it works perfectly). Hotmail on the other hand, syncs perfectly with any settings. Of course, I am able to sync my hotmail only because Microsoft has implemented this feature since August 2010.

So at this stage, I have fixed my problem, but I am unable to identify the reason why I have problems with my gmail account alone. I thought it would be interesting to ask other users of ActiveSync what settings they are using for gmail and for other accounts.

Cellphone radiation : A compilation of facts from the Internet

Recently I started using a bluetooth headset and out of curiosity I began to google the literature available on radiation emission from both cellphones and bluetooth headsets. There is not a lot of conclusive evidence out there. In fact, it is harder to find information on this topic than it is to find the latest specs of any cellphone! I thought of compiling it all in one place in case anyone has the same queries as me:

1. Cellphones emit 'non-ionising' RF (Radio Frequency) electromagnetic radiation. This type of radiation is also emitted by microwaves and is largely considered to be safe compared to the ionising radiation emitted by Gamma Rays or XRays. However, RF radiation can still heat up the tissues over prolonged exposure. Did you know (I didn't) that your eyes are the most likely to get damaged by RF radiation because the blood flow to the eyes is less and the body controls blood flow to dissipate heat from tissues. Luckily, we do not hold our cellphones to our eyes!

2. Given that we use our cellphones often, for long durations, and through our entire life, a lot of concern has been expressed as to whether this will cause damage or put us at higher risk for diseases like cancer. Research so far has been inconclusive on the matter.

The US FDA states in its website that "available scientific evidence—including World Health Organization (WHO) findings4 released May 17, 2010—shows no increased health risk due to radiofrequency (RF) energy, a form of electromagnetic radiation that is emitted by cell phones"

3. Precautions are still advised to avoid excessive exposure to radiation. The best method seems to be to use the speakerphone and always keep the handset far away from the body. RF Radiation can affect any part of your body that the phone touches. Basically, the further the phone is from your body, the less the radiation.

4. Using handsfree or Bluetooth still exposes you to radiation. In the case of bluetooth however, according to the  Office of Information technology , California University, the RF radiation drops dramatically, to near zero levels.

In the case of wired handsfree, radiation can apparently still travel through the cable and metal connectors. An old CNN Health article suggested that a ferrite bead  should be clipped to the cable, dropping the radiation to almost zero. I have never seen that one before, so here's an image from a vendor site,

In any case, it is recommended not to keep a handsfree or bluetooth device on for prolonged periods. Use it only when you need to talk.

5. The level of absorption of cellphone radiation by the body is measured using SAR (Specific Absorption Rate). SAR is expressed as Watts per Kilogram, and the lower the value, the lower the radiation. This CNet article states that according to FCC Regulations in the US, the maximum SAR emitted by a phone should be 1.6 W/Kg. In Europe, the norm is 2 W/Kg. Surprise, we have no regulation for SAR in India as yet. According to Cellpassion, the DoT is contemplating a regulation along the lines of European norms of 2W/Kg. Fortunately, repuable companies publish SAR ratings routinely as part of specs, both online and in product literature.

CNet puts out an updated list of the 20 cellphones in US with highest SAR. While they are at pains to point out that this is not an indication that some phones are more harmful than others, the list is still an eye opener.

I think everyone should check out what their phone's SAR rating is. This is info we ought to know, as much as we know any other phone spec.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Honeycomb and BB Playbook - tablets for 2011

The more I dig, the more reasons I come up with for not rushing into buying a tablet right away. If Notion Ink's soon to be released Adam tablet does not convince you to wait, check out the news that Samsung has downsized their production of the Galaxy Tab based on poor sales - looks like the company will not be hitting the 1 million sales mark that they had forecast when they released the tablet.

Android 2.2 is optimised for mobile screens, not for the larger 10 inch screens of tablets. Mashable reports that the next release of Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) will possibly not address this issue either. Of course, the manufacturer can tweak the operating system as Samsung has done.

Android 3 (Honeycomb) is tipped to be the full fledged tablet-ready version of Android. According to GigaOm, both LG and Lenovo have delayed their Android tablet launch to 2011 to wait for Honeycomb.And this post on Phandroid  suggests that Honeycomb may be out as early as February 2011.

And all the buzz is not just around Android tablets. Check out the BlackBerry PlayBook, dues for release in Q1 2011. This dark horse from RIM might actually be the real iPad killer. The specs include 1 GB RAM, 1 GHz dual core processor, 7 inch screen and a brand new QNX OS which is apparently light years ahead of the BB OS 6. It will offer the BB advantage of sync with BB Enterprise Server for your corporate mail. And Blackberry has announced that at least one model (probably a base level 8 GB) will be available under $500, which is a very competitive price. Frankly, for me, this is one tablet that truly offers a competitive advantage over the iPad (Android is not a competitive advantage, it is merely a choice!)

(image from Gizmodo)
And don't forget that Apple will debut it's next gen iPad next year - probably in July - and will definitely look to create a better product in order to retain their 95% market share in the category. Probably they will include the front facing cam for videoconferencing, a USB port and of course, a processor/ RAM upgrade. It is likely that dual core processor and higher RAM will become a default in tablets next year.

What I am keen to see in tablets however, is stronger functionality. Whether it  is gaming, hybrid e-book reader, or an artists' canvas, the tablet needs to define itself as something more than just a bigger touchscreen.  The more strong functionalities are added, the faster the category will grow.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Adam from Notion Ink : India's foray into cutting-edge tablets

I had blogged in an earlier post that Indian companies are at the forefront of the tablet revolution. Indian based Olive Telecom released the Olive Pad earlier this year, providing us with our first 'affordable' tablet at Rs. 25,990 - this would fall in the same range as a high end smartphone.

Another company that has been making waves in the tablet world is Bangalore based Notion Ink. Over the past year, company founder Rohan Shravan has been sharing updates on his blog about the progress on the Adam tablet which the company hopes to put on pre-order by end of 2010/ early 2011.

(Images from Slashgear and the Notion Ink blog)
So far, the look has been kept under wraps (which adds to the excitement) but the specs have been released and some of them look very exciting.

Firstly, an NVidia Tegra 2 dual core mobile processor powers the Adam.This new-gen processor will feature in upcoming smartphones from Motorola and LG and is designed for larger screens, better graphics and fast multi-tasking.

Secondly, the 10.1 inch screen offers 2 flavors - TFT LCD and an optional Pixel Qi display. Pixel Qi is a 'thinking' LCD technology that can switch to three different modes by controlling the backlight. In regular (transmissive) mode, it functions like a conventional LCD. The transflective mode is enabled by turning down the backlight and allows high visibility even in direct sunlight unlike conventional LCD screens which go black or dark. Turn off the backlight completely and it becomes a reflective greyscale epaper display similar to the EInk displays on ebook readers like the Kindle. The combination of modes allows the screen to save substantial power and battery life (the company claims that in reflective mode, the display saves upto 80% compared to conventional LCD). What this means, is that the Adam can double up as an ebook reader and a tablet. Also, it should offer a way better outdoor usage experience than current products including the iPad.

Other specs on the device include expandable storage, a 3.2 MP auto-focus swivel camera, 2 USB and an HDMI port and a trackpad. It will run FroYo (Android 2.2) on release, with a promised upgrade to 2.3 (Gingerbread). More interesting is Notion Ink's intention to develop a full-fledged UI and custom apps for the device including a custom keyboard that is adapted to the requirements of a tablet.

Adam offers connectivity through 3G+Wi-fi and Wi-fi only options.

Information has leaked out in tantalising installments over the past year (Ok, I'll admit that we are impatient!). But Notion Ink has promised earlier this year that the price of the tablet (in the US) will be $498. Other options (minus PixelQi, minus 3G) will take the price down to $399. as reported by Engadget earlier this year. If Notion Ink offers similar pricing in India, we will have a cutting edge tablet in a Rs.18,000-25,000 range. I know, taxes will add on to that, but it's still pretty exciting.


I prefer QWERTY to touchscreen, what about you?

I waited nearly a month after acquiring a touchscreen phone, to make this post, but now I'm ready to say that for me, a QWERTY is a must and a pure touch phone does not cut it.

I use the Samsung Wave, and some people have told me, iPhone has a better touch screen, a larger display makes a difference, SWYPE on Android is superb etc.

But I find the touchscreen to be responsive and easy to use, so that is not the issue. In fact, I find it way more convenient for some activities like quickly accessing widgets from the homescreen, browsing the net etc. The touchscreen in these cases acts like a mouse, taking me to the portion of the screen that I want to focus my attention on.

The touchscreen irks me when I want to type. When it's an SMS or a mail, I find myself making way more mistakes than I make with a keypad. And it gets worse when I am entering passwords. Maybe I get more butter-fingered because I am concentrating, but what is a simple process with a keyboard, becomes an ordeal on a touch phone. And any typing is rendered more difficult when in a moving vehicle.

The larger sized keyboard, on a landscape orientation solves the problem but only partially. In fact by default, I only use this keyboard as the portrait QWERTY is way too small.

I also miss the tactile feedback of keys. No amount of virtual feedback, either a clicking sound or a vibration, can really compensate for that.

I had blogged earlier about QWERTY phones. Looks like they will be back on my shopping list.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tablets in India

It seems that all the advice I've been giving lately is to wait, but in this case it's justified. The wait is still on for a tablet that can give competition to Apple's iPad. At the rate things are going, Apple will provide its own competition when it upgrades the iPad next year. But only two contendors -  Samsung and Olive have launched devices and as a pleasant change, both have been officially released in India. And with Bangalore based Notion Ink annoucing an upcoming tablet with killer specs, it appears that India is in the thick of the tablet revolution. Only Apple is yet to officially launch the iPad though it sells unofficially through Ebay India for approximately Rs. 40,000 and upwards depending on configuration.

1) The Olive Pad

At  Rs. 25,990, India based Olive Telecom's Olive Pad  was the first to launch and is also the most accessibly priced in India. It's an appealing toy for the price (if you can't source an iPad from abroad) with an ARM 11 600 Mhz chipset, 512 MB RAM expandable storage through MMC and a 7 inch capacitive touch TFT screen. It has a front facing VGA camera for calls and a 3 MP camera on the back. And it accepts a SIM card so it can function as a phone, or offer 3 G connectivity. The website announces that it now runs Froyo (Android 2.2) so it is completely up to date. Currently it is only available direct from the Olive Telecom site - I have not seen it on sale in retail stores. Would be nice if anyone could confirm that. One India reports that it will be hitting Europe soon.

2) Samsung Galaxy Tab

(image from
The Samsung Galaxy Tab, at Rs. 38,000 has been aggressively marketed by Samsung and is priced competitively with Apple's iPad in terms of grey market rates. Of course, you could get both devices cheaper if you sourced them directly from abroad.

The Tab has similar RAM and screen size as the Olive, but it runs Samsung's speedy Cortex A8 1 Ghz Hummingbird processor, which is comparable with the iPad, unlike Olive's slower processor. It does not feature Samsung's SAMOLED screen, which is a disappointment; instead it has a TFT LCD. With both front and back facing camera and built in 3G like the Olive, the Tab provides a few features that the iPad does not. It runs Froyo and yes, it supports multi-tasking. Android Central provides the head-on comparison of specs with the iPad.

Samsung has faced a lot of comparison with the iPad and the reviews can be best described as mixed. PC World has done a round-up of reviews across sites and it appears that the Tab has its share of hiccups (notably that the touted flash capability is patchy, slow browsing experience and less display space than the iPad making usage less enjoyable). However, I did note that users were by and large happy with the product for what it was - a tablet offering the Android experience on a bigger screen, and in a more portable form factor than the iPad. In the US, this also means that non AT&T users get to sample a tablet.

Personally, it is the pricing of the Tab that is an issue for me. Maybe head-on comparisons with the iPad were inevitable, but Samsung also asked for them by pricing head-on with Apple. I would have loved to see flavors of the Tab with different configurations (for example, only Wi-FI) and at a starting price point at least 100 dollars lower than what it currently is. Then, the party would have really taken off. I am sure that Samsung would be able to build the product at a lower price, as they did with the Wave. And if they chose to ship only a limited number of Tabs, a sold-out announcement would not have hurt their image either!

As far as tablet phones go, the 5-inch QWERTY+touch screen Dell Streak is officially available in India since October 2010 though not sold directly by Dell. It retails at approximately Rs.35,000. The soon-to-come upgrade to Android 2.2 (Froyo) sweetens that price a bit, but not a lot.

Next post, I will be blogging about upcoming tablets. There's a lot to write about and it deserves a separate post. As for the two tablets featured here, I will be frank and say that at this point, all tablets seem like expensive toys. Given the form factor, they really cannot substitute a phone. And they need to do a lot more in my book to substitute, say an ultraportable laptop, or even a netbook carried as a backup option to work on. I am not comfortable with full touch screen substituting a keyboard for work. As in, real work. As an add-on gadget, I think they are a great joy to have and play with,  if you can afford that sort of thing. But I cannot see myself purchasing one of these unless the price drops to a range of Rs.15-20,000. And it will STILL be only a toy to me then.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The world of tweets : India is nowhere in the picture

The geek in me loves A world of tweets which I discovered through this techcrunch blog post.

Created by a company called Frog Design, the project visualises tweets, real time on a world map.

Or, in their own words;
"A World of Tweets is all about playing with geography and bits of information. Simply put, A World of Tweets shows you where people are tweeting at from the past hour. The more tweets there are from a specific region, the "hotter" or redder it becomes.

This continuous collection of Twitter statuses also allows for the presentation of other interesting visuals as well as statistical and historical data about the tweeting world we live in. Through the activity of Twitter users it is possible to tailor a new map of the world that evolves during the day according to the timezones and the spreading of mobile technologies."

Here is some interesting historical information from the site. The US is obviously the biggest-tweeting market (38%) but second spot is taken by Indonesia (15%). Incidentally, in Asia, Indonesia accounts for a whopping 65% of tweets, with Japan coming a distant second at 10%. India is nowhere in the map. According to this post on greyreview, the estimated number of twitter users in India is roughly 1 million. Of course, the picture could be different by year end, as the Twitter Blog reports that sign ups in India have increased 100% in 2010, with stars like Sachin Tendulkar, Amitabh Bachchan and Priyanka Chopra getting onto the platform

Does brand loyalty truly exist in an exploding smartphone market?

Barely a month ago, I was a happy Nokia user, till the Samsung Wave lured me into the bada world that I (somewhat reluctantly) inhabit. This year has demonstrated to me that brand loyalty can truly vanish, in a flash. Just 6 months ago, when I was buying my E63, I would not even have considered a Samsung phone. But they produced a beautiful piece of hardware and I ditched the brand I have used for 5 years, without a second thought. It's a similar story for Samsung across the globe. Take a look at sales figures for Galaxy S; Samsung has sold 1 million units (and counting)  in the US, has outsold the iPhone 4 in Japan soon after launch and overall, shipped 5 million phones worldwide, with projected sales of ten million next year. And we are talking of just one phone in Samsung's line up. 2011 promises a Samsung-branded Nexus 2 and a mysterious super phone with a 1.2 gig processor and and a 4.3 inch screen, running Android 2.3 of course. Suddenly, Samsung is at the cutting edge of technology.

HTC has never been in my consideration set till they jumped on the Android bandwagon. This Businessweek article describes the rise of HTC from a commodity unbranded cell phone manufacturer to the largest  seller of Android phones in the world, the fourth largest handset manufacturer and the third largest company in Taiwan.

I have stated before in this blog that I am a budget smartphone buyer, but it was the specs of the flagship models on both HTC and Samsung, that captured my interest. I dig HTC for the Evo 4G, Desire HD and Desire Z. I would have bought an HTC phone had the company priced competitively in India. I loved the Galaxy S and I bought into the same technology at a lower price when I purchased the Wave.

And the funny thing is that I am now entirely brand neutral. My next phone could be from Samsung, HTC, Motorola or even Nokia. I will simply buy the most awesome specs in my budget. It's just that with so many handsets running Android, the bets are high that it will be an Android phone. Actually, the operating system is a bigger decision factor than the brand.

Do I miss Nokia? Yes, I do. I miss the ease and simplicity of the S60 UI that taught me the magic of a smartphone. I miss the attention to detail and thoughtful features that made navigation a snap. I miss the no-fuss Nokia push mail compared to messing around with Active Sync. I still remember how awesome the homescreen customisation options were  and I cuss out the stupidity of the Wave that will not allow any of the menu options to be set on the homescreen. Nokia truly understood how people use their phone and built it to make their life easier. Shifting to any other brand is like asking me to learn my alphabet again, but in a different language.

Yet the excitement that my Wave gives me is of a different order. I have the world's fastest processor (at least till next month) on my phone. I have the fabulous SAMOLED screen. I have widgets and apps with the limited choices of bada, but I do have them. I am tasting true smartphone functionality on a budget. To be precise, at Rs. 15000 post sale of my old Nokia handset. And nothing Nokia offers currently in this price range is remotely near it. Had Symbian 3 been released on a budget handset, it would have stood a chance with me.But it went first to the N8 at Rs. 25,000 - and to be perfectly honest, if I wanted to shell out that kind of money, I would have spent Rs.3000 more and got a Galaxy S.

Excitement is really what I am after now. With constantly upgrading specs, a cellphone has a much lesser life now than it did earlier. So brand equity, trust and reputation have kind of gone out of the window for me. I want a cheap well built device with top-end type specs that will stay moderately top-end and in one piece, for just a year. HTC and Samsung are both ready to give it to me. Motorola had my attention with the Milestone but they need to price lower to get my buy. I hope Sony and Nokia will still surprise me. Either way, I am spoilt for choice and see no personal stake in being brand loyal any more.

What about you - are you brand loyal or are you lured by the variety in the market?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Europe gets bada update, what about India?

Last month, Softpedia reported that Samsung would be rolling out updates of its bada operating system to handsets in Europe. The update named bada 1.0.2, offers several functionalities including an improved T9 text input system called Trace and the ability to browse or use your phone even when it is connected to your PC. It also fixes memory bugs and system errors that plague bada users, and offers a smoother browsing experience. The update allows you to set separate alerts for messages and mails; my Nokia E63 would do that from the start, but Samsung forgot to implement it!

It's impossible to find any communication from Samsung about the bada update, so I have had to fall back on the bada user forums. It appears that as of November 9, most European markets have been able to download the firmware update officially through Kies, the Samsung PC connectivity software. And many people in other parts of the world have successfully flashed the European firmware onto their device and are pleased with the improvements. I would love to do it, but I honestly lack the guts. It was one thing to flash firmwares onto my MP3 players; I had nothing to lose, but a Rs.18,000 phone which seems to be off the market already, is a different matter.

As of now there are no updates in India. This is the current firmware version on my Samsung Wave:

If I go by the alphanumerics, Bada 1.0 JH1 is not the oldest version of the bada OS.People in some parts of the world still have JF2  or JF5. The most recent updates are to bada 1.0.2 come with a bewildering range of different prefixes - 1.0.2 JI3, JH2, JH3, and even JI4 and somewhere just to confuse me more, an XXJ9. It does not help that Samsung maintains a policy of firm silence on firmware updates. Maybe they want to avoid confusing people more?

It's irritating but its part and parcel of dealing with firmware updates from Korean companies. I have lived through this for the last 5 years across iRiver, Cowon and now Samsung. Cutting edge hardware, great performance, a gazillion firmware updates and zero corporate communication. I have seriously contemplated learning Korean just so that I can understand what is going on, because I'm sure users in the country will have way better knowledge than I do.

With all these firmware versions floating around, it's reasonable for me to suppose that I can get an update. I connected to Kies and got the following message.


budget android smartphones in India

Like any enthusiast geek, I drool over the latest hardware, but what I will buy are budget smartphones. By budget phones, I mean something that comes in a Rs.10,000-15,000 range. This represents the limit of what I would spend on a phone because I carry and use my laptop almost everywhere so a phone is almost always a secondary screen. And it's less preferred because of the small size, except when I am on the move. I prefer to use a dedicated camera and DAP/MP3 player, so it will not really swap out either device except on the fly.

But I do find myself using my phone more often to browse at home on wi-fi when I feel too lazy to take out my laptop, in a mall when I suddenly want to check a product review, when I am in a coffee shop and planning a trip and I want to check flight schedules. It's fun to check a weather widget on my phone and see the latest weather forecast for the place I am flying to tomorrow. And it is indispensable to see and answer mail on the fly and to get notifications of updates to my FB/Twitter on my phone's homescreen. For easier access to the Net, apps and a better UI, I think upto Rs. 15,000 is a fair price to pay.

Today what you get in this range are called smart feature-phones (similar to my Samsung Wave running BADA OS). How will these be different from top-end smartphones like Samsung Galaxy S, Nokia N8 or HTC Desire? In two basic ways:

1) Hardware will be less sophisticated. You will not get the fastest latest processor (It will be less than 1 Ghz  as you go down the price ladder). You will get a TFT/ WVGA display of lower resolution and smaller size compared to the top end SLCD or SAMOLED displays. You will get a smaller battery. You will not get HD recording, high megapixel camera and a few other bells and whistles
2) Hardware will also limit you to an earlier version of Android. For instance Android 2.1 or 2.2 but not Gingerbread, the latest Android update that should be live by end of the year. The low-res screen will also create problems with certain apps, and it would be a trial and error to figure out which ones.

None of this should prevent you from getting a great experience from a budget phone, as long as it offers 3G and a wi-fi and a good user interface, and lets you access basic apps and widgets.

1. LG Optimus One P500

(Image from GSMArena)
LG has just launched the Optimus One P500, which is officially only the second phone to run Android 2.2 in India according to this Economic Times Review.  It also comes in at just Rs.13,000, which is a sweet price point. You can head over to GSM Arena for the full spec list and Tech Radar for the full review.

With Android 2.2 ironing out a lot of kinks in the Android OS, it can overcome most of the hardware limitations of the phone. If you mainly plan to use push mail, Google products and browse the net on your phone, you should have a good experience. It also offers the nifty Android 2.2 option to convert your phone into a mobile wi-fi spot so that you can share the internet connection with a PC (that will make more sense when we get 3G)

I also like that this phone offers a capacative touchscreen, and pinch and zoom functionality. It also features a very respectable 800 MHz processor and a 1500 MaH battery with a decent life according to the reviews.

The bad news for me is the 3.2 inch screen. I use a 3.3 inch one and as I have said in an earlier post, smaller touchscreens can suck, especially if you have larger fingers or are clumsy with your hands (I am!) So be sure to try this out before buying.

2.  HTC Wildfire

(Image from GSMArena)
It comes in at Rs.15000 in India and it's not widely available with big retailers, but it's worth taking a look at if you are searching for a budget Android phone. HTC has already confirmed that an update to Android 2.2 (FroYo) is due for the device very soon, and you might want to wait till it is out. But even with the older version of Android 2.1 the Wildfire was rated one of the top 20 phones of 2010 by Tech Radar, comparing favorably as a cheaper sibling of the HTC Desire.

Here is the spec list from GSM Arena. It's broadly similar to the LG Optimus One, except that the Wildfire has a smaller battery and a slightly slower 528 MHz processor.

You can read the full review of the phone on Tech Radar. The USP for the Wildfire is the HTC Sense UI experience, which optimises the performance and user interface, and provides a great stock keyboard. Another bonus is the optical track pad which aids navigation. If you do use a phone camera, this one comes with a flash and some basic image editing software. What you will need to watch out for is a low battery life and overloading that processor.

3. Motorola FlipOut

(Image from GSMArena)
Recently launched in India at a price point of approximately Rs. 16,000, this one caught my eye firstly because of the QWERTY keypad which is rare on most Android handsets and especially low-priced ones. I am not really a fan of the toy-like looks but I have to admit that with the interchangeable colors and the shape, it's a cute looking thing. Maybe someone younger than me will appreciate it more :) And in fact, it is targeted at an under20 demographic like the ill-fated Microsoft Kin

Here are the specs from GSM Arena. A 600MHz processor is OK, but smaller 1130 mAH battery sounds like bad news. Android can be a power hog, to be fair so is constant surfing and twittering over Wi-Fi and so is Angry Birds.

This phone does not get great reviews, the small screen size being the main complaint. 2.8 inches is way too small for a touch screen and restricts the browsing and viewing experience. But for those who want a budget QWERTY Android the only other option is the more expensive Sony Xperia X10 Mini Pro with  2.5 inch touch screen + QWERTY keypad which seems to be priced at Rs. 17,000 plus based on my last check in Croma. Overall, it offers a better, faster user experience than the FlipOut. I do not recommend this phone purely because it is has been running Android 1.6 for ages and the 2.1 update still does not seem to have come to India though it is available through Android developer forums. Also it is priced beyond the budget range in this review and once you cross Rs. 15,000, my benchmark of expectations would include a bigger screen + QWERTY keypad.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The latest and greatest smartphone specs - a checklist

I have blogged recently about how the cellphone industry is in a state of constant flux, with constant hardware and software upgrades making it impossible to buy the 'best' cellphone, as the best is always coming next quarter or even next month.  This is a state of affairs for which I squarely blame Android, with its Google-inspired constant beta innovation curve. Android has brought vibrancy and change into the cellphone space, both through the features of the OS, and through the enthusiastic response from handset manufacturers like Motorola, HTC and Samsung.

While this makes choice difficult for a buyer, some features seem to be stabilising, though slowly. And some have not really changed a lot over time! I thought it would be useful to make a checklist of such features for a prospective buyer to know what is the best - and then decide. This is an OS independant list, and covers purely hardware specs.

1) Display :
Currently the best displays are the Apple iPhone 4G 'Retina Display' and the Super AMOLED display on top-end Samsung phones like Wave, Galaxy S and Focus/ Omnia 7. Engadget compared both displays and called a draw, saying that personal preference would decide preference. This is the low down : theRetina Display has the highest pixel density (more than 300 pixels per inch) and therefore great sharpness, neutrality and clarity (better for text?) The Super AMOLED is brighter, has high color saturation (some complain of over saturation), high contrast ratio and true blacks. This makes it a brilliant screen to showcase colors of photos and movies. Both Apple and Samsung are ahead of competition, espcially TFT and AMOLED screens. Display technology may improve after this but on a mobile screen which rarely exceeds 4 inches, I doubt whether there will be any huge difference, even if we get a full HD display.

2) Display Size
This is the most critical element of the smartphone experience. I have a 3.3 inch screen on my Wave. I have discovered, the hard way, that I need a bigger screen, and I am even willing to shell out more for it. While the iPhone at 3.5 inches is plenty big, there is a lot of joy in the larger 4 inch display of the Samsung Galaxy S. HTC has put out the Evo 4G and the WP7 HD7 with 4.3 inch screens, which some feel are too large and unwieldy for a phone. I personally think 4 inches is the sweet spot for a display. You will value it when you browse the net, read long mails or e-books.

3) QWERTY sliders :
As mobile phone users discover the ease and delight of capacitive touch screens, pinch and zoom and scrolling (thanks to Apple), many of us including me still want our QWERTY keyboards back (blame Blackberry and Nokia). Towards end 2010, we have seen many touchscreen + QWERTY keyboard phones in a slider form factor. Blackberry Torch is an example. The Motorola Droid/ Milestone series has always offered this. Samsung is bringing it in through the Galaxy Q and Epic 4G and the low-end Wave 2 Pro. Even HTC, predominantly a purveyor of full touch Android phones, is acknowledging the needs of this segment through HTC 7 Pro. Dell provides this on the Dell Streak and the WP7 Venue Pro. Look for this option on more of the upcoming phones including Nokia E7-00 and LG Optimus 7.

4) Processor:
On a mobile phone, processor speed vs. battery life is a balancing act. In real life, a smartphone needs to last out at least a working day on a single charge, while performing basic operations like email, browsing, downloading and running multiple apps/ feeds, often on a wi-fi network, and of course, talking and texting. Today, the top-end smartphones across platforms use a 1 Ghz processor, with varying levels of efficiency. I personally believe that 1 Ghz is plenty for a phone and in the future, it's down to the operating systems to optimise and streamline their performance for greater speed. But I am not the decision maker.

Android is driving the specs on processor speed with its increasingly powerful apps and push towards true multi-tasking.. A leak of the specs required for Android 3 (Gingerbread) speculated that a minimum of 1 Ghz would be needed to run the operating system, meaning that the bar will be raised even further. I blogged last month about new, faster Adreno chipsets that will debut on several upcoming  HTC phones including the Desire HD. In simple terms, these chips will offer an incremental boost in speed and hardware acceleration support for Flash. It should make for a smoother user experience. Interesting point here - benchmark tests of the Adreno 205 vs. Samsung's current GPU (in the Wave and Galaxy S) show both running quite close. It will boil down ultimately to the efficiency of the new Android OS.

Dual-core processors will be coming in 2011, from QualComm and NVidia. I frankly don't understand processor talk, so I am just going to link this post to the NVidia Tegra page. To summarise, the dual core CPUs will offer console quality gaming, 1080 HD video playback,3D graphics capability and effortless multi-tasking, while also accommodating larger displays. LG has claimed that NVidia Tegra 2 will be used in its upcoming Optimus range of smartphones.  Motorola has also made similar claims. Judging by the description of the GPUs performance, we should also see applications in gaming phones and tablets.

So where does that leave us on the processor front? For a gaming phone or a tablet, it would make sense to get  the dual core processor. For most of the rest of us, 1 Ghz should suffice, with a more efficient GPU. The processor is the area likely to show maximum flux going ahead.

5) Gorilla Glass
Manufactured by Corning, this chemically strengthened, damage and scratch resistant glass is used on the world's best smartphones including Motorola's Droid/ Milestone, the iPhone 4, Dell Venue Pro and Samsung Galaxy S. AIncidentally, HTC phones do not have gorilla glass. This is another spec I would invest in at a premium if required.. It's not just about bragging rights, it's about protecting them against a few falls and jolts.

Windows Phone 7 arrives finally

Finally after nearly a year long wait, Windows Phone 7 was announced last month, and devices are now available for sale in Europe, Asia Pac (Singapore and Australia) and most recently, US. MS is backing the launch with aggressive advertising and has claimed in Computerworld that the OS is more efficient than either iOS or Android, requiring 20% fewer steps to perform daily tasks.

According to Mashable, the handset partners for Microsoft - LG, Dell, HTC and Samsung - have 9 WP7 handsets between them.All phones for the WP7 platform will all carry a '7' in the model name eg. HD7, which will distinguish them from the often similarly named Android handsets made by the same manufacturers. All of them are GSM handsets; the CDMA handsets are expected to debut only in 2011.

There's a fairly wide and confusing range on offer,across feature sets and price points. I mostly blame HTCs increasingly confusing line up for this, but Microsoft's insistence on certain base specs for all WP7 handsets, does not make differentiation any easier.

1) HTC Trophy 7 is the budget phone in the range and is sold unlocked. It is available only in Europe, but has been discredited by reports of display defects in some user forums.
2) HTC Mozart seems to be geared towards snappers and has an 8MP camera with Xenon Flash (N8 competition?)
3) HTC 7 Surround is positioned as a media phone and has a kickstand, slide out speaker and SRS WOW sound effects
4) The Dell Venue Pro, HTC 7 Pro and LG Quantum are all sliders with QWERTY keyboards. Dell Venue Pro is a portrait slider, and therefore stands out from the rest in design.
5) The Samsung Focus (US)/Omnia 7 (Europe) has very similar specs to the Galaxy S, but with a more premium looking body. It appears from reviews that the Omnia has only 8GB onboard storage and no expansion slot, while the Focus does have a MicroSD slot. The Super AMOLED screen is praised as the best display of the entire bunch.
6) The HTC HD7 has the largest screen (4.3 inches) and similar specs to the Desire HD. It has been reported in reviews that the TFT screen does not do full justice to the large display, especially next to the Super AMOLED Samsung display.

WP7 has entered the market really late, allowing competition, notably Android, a lot of time to settle in. Even Nokia and Blackberry, both of whom take their time in innovation, have launched their OS refreshes already. Microsoft's delay in launch has cost the company, with the MS market share of smartphone shipments down to 3% by Q3 2010 according to Canalys.

The general consensus is that Microsoft has created an OS that is differentiated, smooth to operate and most importantly, fast. It is also praised for being a beautiful looking interface; something that matters when you will be looking at it on a SLCD or Super Amoled screen! And it has serious potential as a music and gaming device, given good integration with the Zune marketplace and XBox Live. 

There has also  been criticism of some of the inherent shortcomings of the OS, notably:

1) It does not support multitasking of third party apps, only the original ones. Reviewers report that this causes some serious problems; when the screen locks, apps shut down and have to be reloaded, as they are not allowed to run in the background.
2) No tethering is allowed; you cannot use your phone as a modem to access net on your laptop, let alone use it as a wi-fi hot spot as people are doing with the Evo 4G and the  Droids of the world
2) It has only one homescreen, meaning that there are limited apps and widgets you can place on your screen and you have to scroll down to find the rest
3) It does not show an integrated mailbox for all accounts; every individual mail account becomes a separate app.
4) It won't let you set custom ringtones (no, really? The teen crowd is going to LOVE that!)

Hopefully, MS should fix at least some of these issues in firmware updates.

No word as yet about the WP7 launch in India, but Samsung and LG at least should be bringing their handsets down soon. Expect the pricing of most of these handsets to be Rs.25,000 +, given the hardware specs.

Gizmodo (list of all the available WP7 handsets)
Mobiletechworld (Specs of all WP7 handsets)
Techradar (Detailed Review of WP7 OS)