Monday, September 27, 2010

tablet PCs anyone?

Following the launch of the Apple iPad, there have been a slew of tablets either launched or announced by different manufacturers. As different from ebook readers, the tablets are more netbook like in their functionality, while some of them double up as smartphones. Here are two of the latest and the coolest that I have been drooling over:

1. Dell Streak

I forget which ad says 'kabhi mobile, kabhi computer' but the Dell Streak is like that. It's a smartphone with a 5 inch screen - sized more like a PMP or a PSP than a phone, but smaller than an iPad. At a pinch, it can still be pocketed, but not comfortably. However, it's a delicious looking piece of hardware. It is currently running Android 1.6 but a promised update to 2.2 is in the works. You can buy it on ebay India for approximately Rs. 30,000.

Here are some pictures from Engadget


2) Nokia N900

Built on the Maemo Linux platform that will power Nokia's future handheld devices and hopefully their premium smartphones, the N900 has been described across tech reviews as a tablet with phone functionality. With a QWERTY keyboard and a touchscreen, the appeal of the N900 is due to its OS and its fabulous internet experience. The OS excites not only because of what it can do today, but due to what it is capable of. The hackable and programmable Linux core makes this a favorite with the geeks who gave up on Symbian some while ago.

Here are some images of the N900 from FoneArena





Sharp has just announced the Galapagos range of ebook readers (with 5.5 and 10.8 inch screens respectively) running on Android. Motorola is tipped to come out with an Android tablet eventually. And Blackberry is said to be on the verge of announcing the BlackPad which will be running a brand new OS. The long awaited HP Slate got delayed when HP acquired Palm, but we expect some pretty cool stuff to come out of the merger eventually.

While it's good to have so many new tablets coming out, I am still a bit stumped by this category, which falls between the portability of the phone and the convenience of a 10 inch screen. However, the form factor will surely find its die-hard supporters!

ABX testing - how sensitive are your ears to music quality?

Being a self proclaimed audiophile, I have always ripped my music to lossless or high bit rate formats without really bothering to ask whether my ears were sensitive to the quality difference between different codecs. I did not have to worry as long as I had a 20 GB HDD on my MP3 player. But when I bought my 8 GB Cowon D2 and started buying SD cards to load additional music, I was forced to do a trade off. I could load lesser, and high quality songs on my player, or I could have more songs at a lower bitrate. Would my ears notice the difference or not? I decided  to do an ABX Test.

To put it simply, an ABX test is a blind test using the same song, encoded at two different bitrates.

This post on The Mistic River forums is the simplest description and procedure for ABX testing that I have ever found.

I will summarise the steps here:

1) Get the Foobar player
To do ABX testing you need to download the Foobar 2000 player. Also you need to install the ABX testing software which is a third party module.  You can find it here on the Foobar site. You will have to download the file (it's a .dll file extension) and then install it manually into the Components folder of Foobar.

2) Choose the song
Choose a song which you want to test (the Mistic River post gives some useful tips). Rip it from CD to different bitrates (for starters you can rip it to 128, 192 and 256). Load any two rips into the Foobar player, right click on both and select Utilities/ ABX two tracks as shown below


The player will prepare the test and present you with this window;


The interface is self explanatory. The software shuffles the two options and presents each one to you twice - as A, B, X and Y. You have to listen to all 4 and then guess if A is X or Y, and if B is X or Y. You repeat the test multiple times to eliminate randomness and luck. If you correctly match the song clips, say more than 10 times out of 15, you are really hearing the difference. Note that in this test, you are never asked to guess which is the higher bitrate, you are merely matching the song clips after listening to them.

The set-up of the test is a little time consuming but once you have it all installed, it's a fun test for you and your friends and family to take. Want to know my results? I can tell the difference between 128, 192 and 256! So I guess it makes sense for me to encode at higher bitrates!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Not so cutting edge phones :)

You know, it's all very well for me to post (second hand) about top-end phones that catch my fancy. In the real world, most people I know, including me, are not buying them.

What are your options today if you're on a budget and want reliable substance, good specs, but not the BEST and most expensive? Here are some of my thoughts (Tip : some of these phones are also good for older users, so you can consider them for your mom or dad!)

This is the common feature set that I would recommend on any budget:
1. 3G:
While the 3G launch has been delayed, its still round the corner and you MUST have a phone that can access it. And there is no longer any excuse to have a phone that is not GPRS enabled

2. Push Mail : 
Even if you are not a corporate power user, email on your phone is addictive. If your parents at all access their email, get them a phone with push mail and see how much they come to rely on it. Till we get 3G and even beyond that, push mail will have an edge over web-based mail.

3. QWERTY keypad : 
The keys may be small and cramped, but if you are going to use email or even SMS, it makes sense to have a full keyboard (either virtual or real).

4. Compatability with apps and software :

Even if you are not an Android or an iPhone user, there are thousands of free and paid apps out there that could work with your phone. It's important to have a phone that is easily compatible with the latest apps, so that without spending a bomb on your phone, you can still do a lot of things on it.

So here goes with the reccos. I have kept a budget range of Rs. 8000-20000. Bear in mind, these are not the latest, greatest and best, but they are the tried and tested :)

1) Under Rs. 10000

Close your eyes and pick up the Nokia E63, at the newly reduced price. I don't even want to recommend any other phone in this price point. One word of caution. This phone is prone to hanging and freezing unless the latest firmware is installed. Do yourself a favor and get the latest update installed BEFORE you load all your data onto it. You have to backup the data before you reinstall the firmware and trust me, you will be too lazy to do it later. Bite the bullet when you buy it and all will be well.


(image from dailymobile.se galleries)
Do note that Nokia currently offers its Exchange Mail service free in India, so you can have the same push email that you enjoy on your Blackberry. You can choose any operator who will give you a good GPRS data package (I have a 2 GB package for Rs. 99 per month from Airtel)

2) Rs.10,000-15,000
 
Nokia E71 is now in this range and still remains a fantastic phone at the price. To put it simply, E71 is very similar to the E63. It is sleeker, lighter and has a higher powered camera and HSDPA (high speed internet access) capability.  Choose the one that appeals to you between the two.


(Image from Tech 2 In)

The Blackberry Curve 8520 falls in this price segment. This entry level Blackberry phone faces tough competition from both Nokia and its more expensive BB siblings, but then Blackberry users swear by the e-mail interface and the messenger, so if you are one of those people, this is an affordable Blackberry handset for you. If you are new to the BB interface, it is recommended to spend some time checking it out before you spring for it.

 (Image  from techdigest.tv)

3) Rs. 15-20,000

In this price range, we begin to have fun. Interestingly, a new set of brands fall in this price bracket. While there's a lot of scope for experimenting with new models and operating systems, I'm gonna play it safe here and give you the most reliable options, even though some of them are older ones.

My first pick in this price range is Samsung Wave. For Rs.19000, it offers you the same hardware as the top-of-the-line smartphones from Apple, Motorola and HTC, which all currently cost Rs.30,000 plus. Samsung has also launched and will promote its own app store. The Wave runs Samsung's proprietary BADA OS, which has received positive reviews. It should be more stable than the constantly updated Android OS and that makes it a good choice for me. And it looks pretty gorgeous too - that never hurts!


(Image from Slashgear.com)
In this price range, you can also look at the Sony Xperia 10 mini (or mini Pro, which is a slider with full QWERTY Keyboard). With a promised upgrade to Android 2.1 in the near future, theX10 Mini is definitely one of the the most affordable Android phones in the Indian market right now. There are some stores where you can get the X10 Mini for less than Rs. 15000 too.






(Image from Eurodroid.com)






(image from the Themobileblog.co.uk)



Then there  is the HTC Wildfire. Although it has been overshadowed by its more glamorous and expensive siblings (notably the Evo, Desire and Legend) it is still a feature packed budget handset running Android 2.1 (note that the X10 Mini is still running Android 1.6).


 (Image from hitechreview.com)
The Blackberry Pearl 3G just makes it into this price range but it is not getting a thumbs up from me. I would like to see a BB running OS 6 to compete with the other offerings in this price segment. The same goes for Nokia. A few months earlier, I would have recommended the Nokia E72.. The faster processor, better battery life and specs would have made it a logical choice. But it is upstaged on both hardware and software by other brands in this price bracket.

Coming up is an exclusive post on low cost handsets (in the Rs.5000 range) which are marketed by Indian companies like MicroMax, Spice and Wyncomm.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

replacement desktop

So, it's finally time for me to replace my desktop. And as I expected, I have opted for a second laptop instead of a desktop this time round.

The key reasons are
1) Space, space, space : It has been such a relief to see a clean desk surface once I got rid of my old PC. I am fed up of seeing a clutter of wires and daily cleaning the LCD monitor and CPU which are  such gigantic dust magnets!

2) While laptop prices have really crashed, PC prices have not. And the options are far fewer. I have been doing my shopping around for the following specs - iCore 3/ 4 GB RAM/320-500 GB HDD, and I find barely Rs. 5000-7000 difference in PC and laptop prices. For the small premium, I would rather get the portability of a laptop which can also be used as a backup in an emergency in case my primary laptop fails.


3) Servicing a PC is a nightmare. You need to negotiate with the engineer to come at a time which suits you (and my Dad takes his CPU to the service centre, on their demand). With a laptop, a three year cover will take care of  onsite service for the life of the laptop.

Also I noted that bulky is expensive nowadays :) a 16 or 17 inch laptop touted as a desktop replacement goes upto Rs. 60000-70000. Of course it would also come fully loaded with dedicated GPU, extra RAM etc. But it's the 14 inch or 15 inch laptops which hit the sweet spot in terms of price now, varying from Rs.28000-350000. This is a very respectable and serious performance alternative to a PC.

Dell Reseller vs. Dell online store

It's been more than a month since my last post and I think I have been having withdrawal symptoms :)
No real reason for not posting since so long. First I got 'flu and then there was too much work - the usual suspects.

Anyway to get back to business, this post was about my comparison of buying from the Dell re-seller vs. Dell online. I was chatting with the Dell re-seller at Croma in Mumbai and gathered the following information.

1) The Dell reseller will sell to you at the exact price quoted on the website, plus delivery charges. If you order directly from Dell, VAT/CST and Octroi will be added to the price, depending on where in India you're at.

2) The Dell re-seller is not authorised to give any additional discounts on this price, whereas Dell online representatives may do so (if you pressurise them cleverly enough). This includes discounts on the laptop/PC, waiving of Octroi charges as well as accessories like batteries and additional services like Complete Cover and extended warranty, that you might purchase from Dell.

3) Resellers are  only authorised to sell certain models, some of them exclusive to resellers and others, which are available both with the re-seller and online. The Inspiron series, Dell Mini (netbook) and the Studio XPS ranges are available through re-sellers.

4) Once you order from a re-seller, the process is identical to ordering from Dell. Even the order is placed through Dell and credit card payments are through their IVR system. Delivery time is also the same. You do not get any EMI scheme/ financing from a re-seller, not even through Croma.

So what is my verdict? Go to a re-seller to experience the model (especially keyboard and touchpad comfort). And take a quotation from both re-seller and the Dell online site before you decide.  If you are keen on getting the best price. Dell still offers the best specs at the lowest price and it's worth the trouble to compare before buying!