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Nov 062010
 

Well it’s here! An android slate that is – something I’ve been after for quite a while. And it turns out to be a Toshiba Folio 100. Perhaps not the best picture, but at least it hasn’t been stolen :-

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Hardware Thoughts

Supposedly some people thinks it feels cheap, well I can say it doesn’t. Admittedly there is a fair amount of plastic involved in the case, which is perhaps where the thoughts come from but it’s pretty good plastic. Perhaps it compares a little unfavourably with the Apple iPad or iPhone4, but for a half plastic device it’s not bad at all. The back is textured plastic which is perhaps a slightly dated design feature, but it does mean the slate feels less likely to slip out of your hands – that iPhone experience of the slick metal and glass (for the iPhone4) and slick plastic (for earlier iPhones) feels good out of the box, but most people end up sticking it inside a case and the need to feel it securely in your hands is at least part of the reason for the case.

The back is slightly smaller than the front, which makes it look a tad slimmer than it really is, but the thinner edge makes it easier to hold onto the device. The 25cm screen sits within a larger area leaving a 2cm border around the device. Again a slightly dated design feature, but it does mean that when you hold it with your thumb on the top surface for a more secure grip, you don’t obscure any part of the screen.

The top of the bezel holds the tiny lens for the built-in webcam and a hole for the microphone. The right edge holds in order, a battery/power light, and a series of four touch sensitive buttons which are quite possibly just sensitive areas of the touchscreen – the LCD panel doesn’t extend to the edge of the device, but the glass of the touchscreen does. The top edge holds the only physical buttons – an on/off switch, and a volume control rocker switch. The on/off switch feels a little loose, which isn’t good, but the volume buttons seem to work fine.

Connectors can be found on the right edge and bottom edge with some covered by rubber covers. After having seen so many devices that recharge through a USB connection, it seems oddly old-fashioned that Toshiba have included a conventional powerbrick to plug into an old-style proprietary power-jack. This is one place where being dated is not good – why not use the USB ports for power like everyone else ?

Without commenting on the software (yet!), in use the device works pretty well. The screen is nice and clear; the touchscreen is pretty responsive and accurate although there’s always room for improvement. The only oddity is those touch sensitive buttons on the right – they sometimes seem reluctant to activate. Of course the screen is both reflective and subject to getting greasy fingerprints on it.

The Software

Before I start making any comments, please be aware of two things that may influence my comments :-

  1. I haven’t used an Android device before so I won’t be aware of how this device compares in use to other devices. Plus of course nobody (according to Google) is supposed to be using the current Android builds for tablets!
  2. My home Wifi network is especially flaky so some problems may have been down to this.

The Toshiba may be running Android 2.2 but it isn’t quite the full Google experience – there are no Google applications, and the real Android Marketplace isn’t there. Of course Toshiba has bundled in some applications to get started with, including it’s own Marketplace application, but it would be nice to have a choice. What is missing from the bundled applications is a map viewer (admittedly this would have to be manually driven given the lack of a GPS unit, but even so), and a game or two. It may also be sensible to have a more obvious “widget” on the home screen(s) to lead into a quick overview of the device. And please explain the different power lights in that quick overview!

The Marketplace. Well it looks fine at first glance, but is a little flaky in operation. It is subject to frequent crashes, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot in it – for instance where is the Kindle app? And what there is in there seems to be very haphazardly arranged with some rather startling choices of categories.

Ok, perhaps Toshiba have restricted apps to things that will work well on the Folio which would explain the limited numbers. Well, no. At least two of the apps I downloaded turned out to restrict themselves to a phone-sized display which looks very silly. I could understand that sort of thing on the main Android Marketplace as Android slates are so new, but in Toshiba’s “walled garden” ?

The photo above shows that at least some applications originally written for a phone-sized display work “correctly” on the larger screen of a slate, although perhaps resulting in a somewhat humorous result. Although I can imagine some people would find calculators with such big buttons useful. What Toshiba needs to do is :-

  1. Debug their marketplace app so it doesn’t crash (and doesn’t have so many issues with long lists of apps!).
  2. Restrict apps in their marketplace to those apps that work well on the Folio, and categorise them much more carefully.
  3. Allow the use of the standard Android Marketplace – perhaps with the addition of a quality warning screen. Or indeed with an option in the settings to allow it’s use.

Despite claims that this device supports Flash, the Youtube experience shows that it isn’t quite there yet – you get a screen saying you need to upgrade your version of Flash. There was a slip of paper put into the box telling me to check the Toshiba Multimedia website for a Flash download, which doesn’t seem to be there. But why can’t the Flash update be included into the standard update mechanism ? This all has the feel of a slightly rushed product. In some ways this is fair enough, providing that there are frequent updates online (through the “Toshiba Service Station”).

Over a few days, my initial impression of it being a little rushed have been reinforced – there after frequent crashes of the Toshiba applications, and the system has a habit of slowing down to a crawl from time to time. The only update that has been provided so far has been to the Toshiba Marketplace application – which didn’t come through the “Service Station” app, and that has made things worse. Now there are no applications available at all!

Apparently Dixons have gotten so many returns, that they are effectively refusing to sell any more (see the article from The Register). Toshiba needs to buck up it’s ideas pretty quickly here. Even if it is just an update to :-

  1. Provide the standard Marketplace application.
  2. Provide an option to remove all of the added Toshiba applications.
  3. Provide an explanation that the Toshiba branded applications are being temporarily removed for quality issues.

At the very least they need to send out a message either on the device itself, or via an email to urge customers to apologise, be patient and announce expected dates when updates will be provided.

Final Words

Well, even after the long awaited update the Toshiba software was still sub-standard. The best option for anyone who hasn’t lost patience and returned their Folio is a community-hacked up ROM.

Dec 092008
 

It is probably a little late to write a review of the iPhone that is going to interest too many, but personally I think that too many online reviews cover such things very skimpily. As I have both an original iPhone (8Gbytes) and a new iPhone 3G (16Gbytes), I can also do a little comparison.

Overall, the iPhone is a pretty good smartphone with some peculiar weaknesses but this is allieviated by a superb user interface.

Unpacking the 3G

The iPhone 3G comes in pretty much the same style of box as the original; compact and well styled to give you the impression that you are getting a serious bit of kit. Unfortunately the iPhone dock that was provided with the original is not included here. I guess Apple decided they needed to make us pay extra for it, but the standard iPod cable is included so it is still possible to get connected. Of course it is possible that I got my original with a dock thrown in for free as it wasn’t from a “proper” source.

The new iPhone still feels pretty good. It is slightly curvier than the original which is more noticeable if you look at the back. The colour scheme is also somewhat different, and perhaps somewhat more “plasticy” than the original. But it does not seem to be a cut-price version of the original; it still feels pretty good in the hand. Once minor niggle though – the new one has silvery buttons as opposed to the black buttons of the original, and they can feel ever so slightly sharp or rough to the fingers. Might be worth making the buttons with rounded edges next time Apple.

Holding it gives a feeling of slickness; perhaps a little too much as it feels like it might shoot out of your hands much like a wet bar of soap. For me a case to make it a little stickier is pretty much essential.

One area where the 3G is distinctly poorer than the original is the headphone socket. It may be more compatible (the old one was recessed making standard headphones tricky to attach), but it feels distinctly cheap and nasty.

Putting in the SIM card is just as fiddly as it was with the original. Perhaps AT&T is different and puts the SIM card in for you, but it seems odd that there is not a detailed set of instructions (or perhaps I missed them). Also it would be sensible to include a tool to poke down that hole to get the SIM card drawer open. I would hazard a guess that many older people would have trouble with this; if I had not already done it with my original I would have had to get some reading glasses to be sure I was poking the right place!

Those Peculiar Weaknesses

Most criticisms of the iPhone tend to zero in on the camera as being the weakest point of the iPhone. To an extent that is true, but just how good is any mobile phone camera? The lens is at best rather poorer than average and the sensor is always too small to produce anything approaching the quality of a DSLR. A flash might be useful, but again a mobile phone flash is never going to be much good. If you want a camera, buy a camera, and use the iPhone camera for making visual notes.

On the hardware front, there is no infrared port so this is probably just about the only smartphone to lack one. Which is fair enough on a modern phone where they consider bluetooth to be the replacement (although it makes it kind of hard to have third-party software to control the TV without one!). But the bluetooth stack is also astonishingly crippled! You can just pair the iPhone to a headset, and not an advanced A2DP one!

That means no syncing over bluetooth, no file transfers, and no bluetooth messaging. Why? I mean it would be sort of understandable with a new phone product, but it is time this was sorted out.

And no picture messaging (MMS) ? I know it is supposed to be pretty unpopular in the US, but it has caught on in Europe, so it seems odd not to have it on the iPhone.

As A Phone

The iPhone is probably the best phone I have ever used. The killer feature? Whilst in a call, all of the extra features like speakerphone, mute, hold, keypad (for navigating those machines), adding an extra person to the call are all available on screen as easy to access buttons.

The only downside ? It could do with a slider to lock the screen whilst on the phone … more than once I have terminated a call by accidentally pressing the “end call” button. It is supposed to lock automatically when raised up near the ear, but I usually use it hands-free when the lock is not supposed to operate. Turns out I was missing a feature – hit the power button during a call and the screen will lock., Apple

The “Smart” Bit

The user interface for getting into software “apps” is a simple grid of icons. If you have too many for one screen you can swipe between screens of icons. This is a moderately sensible way of getting to things; no getting lost in a hierarchy of applications, but it may become somewhat clumsy if you install many applications. I find it helpful to have rough categories on separate screens … PIM stuff, Reference, Toys and Games, System and unused.

Most of the builtin applications tend towards the simplistic which isn’t necessarily a bad thing providing that a replacement for an application you use heavily is available. Two “showcase” applications are particularly fun – the Youtube application and the Google Maps application. Some observations of the standard applications :-

  • The calendar application is slightly weak and does not support synchronisation with anything other than Exchange. Other vendors have code ready to go, but Apple doesn’t allow this for some inscrutable reason – a kickback from Microsoft ?
  • The calculator application very cleverly switches to an “advanced” mode with extra functions if you rotate the screen to landscape, but I do wonder why on computer calculators so slavishly emulate stand-alone ones. It would seem worth making a few minor improvements.
  • Who decided that font was a good idea for the Notes application? A “handwriting” font is cute for about 30 seconds before you realise it is difficult to read. At least give us the chance of changing the font!
  • The Safari web browser is surprisingly effective with two fingered zooming allowing you to quickly narrow down to read the smaller bits and to zoom out to give you an overview.

The App Store and Third Party Applications

The app store which is where you “buy” new applications is rather swamped by the number of applications now available. Fortunately there is a search facility that will let you quickly find something that you have found from elsewhere. It is perhaps just a little too easy to spend money in the app store although the prices are generally pretty reasonable and added to your mobile phone bill.

As to the applications themselves, it is as expected, a mixed bag. Some tend towards the gimmicky or totally useless – the beer application comes to mind which allows you to use your iPhone to pretend to drink a glass of beer. Others are pretty good; even fantastic such as Vicinity which will determine from your location nearby bars, restaurants, etc. Having once spent an hour wandering around Birmingham at night looking for a convenience store, I’m a devoted fan of this one!

The odd thing is that Apple seems to have a curious tendency to be a little inconsistent in what applications can make it to the app store. This pushes one in the direction of jailbreaking a little more given that gives you access to all sorts of interesting applications!

Overall, the iPhone deserves to be as popular as it is, but perhaps doesn’t deserve to be worshipped as much as some do. Still it’s an Apple product and as usualy some people will like it more than it deserves.

Sep 092007
 

Rather than look at what is right about the new iPod Touch as everyone else seems to be doing, what about looking at what is wrong with the new device ? There is apparently plenty to like about it, but there are a few problems. Some of which only apply to certain kinds of possible customer of course.

Where Are The Higher Capacity iTouches ?

8Gbytes and 16Gbytes are quite large for a flash-based device, but this is Apple’s flagship media player … compare the price with the iPod classic! So what options are there for something a bit more usable for those who like to carry all (or nearly all) of their music with them ? Obviously making a 32Gb or 128Gb model would require more flash chips than the single-chip based iTouch, and would cost a bit more. But why not give consumers the choice ?

Several years ago I said that the lowest capacity flash-player I would be interested in would be 32Gbytes or more. With an appropriate choice of encoding format I could still fit my full CD collection into a 32Gbyte player; not much chance of getting it into a 16Gbyte player!

What About SDHC Slot(s) ?

Apple seems to concentrate on the market segment who replaces their media player every couple of years, and their products show this … no easily replaceable battery, and no expandable storage. Now there are plenty of people who will buy new iPods as soon as they are announced, but there are also plenty of people who are more inclined to buy a player and stick with it until it breaks. This includes the poor who cannot afford to replace their player every two years.

Adding a bit of ‘future proofing’ to the iTouch is hardly going to stop the gadget freaks from replacing their player regularly, but will make things a bit better for those who do not (or cannot). Why not have a screw fastened case that allows the user to get at 2-4 SDHC slots (perhaps one or two already filled with the standard flash memory) so that they can grow the player themselves ?

Where Are The Audio Codecs?

Apple’s firmware for the iPods (and presumably iTouches) supports a very limited set of audio codecs; just compare with the list of codecs supported by Rockbox (an opensource firmware that runs on many Apple iPod players and many others as well). If a bunch of hackers working part-time can produce software that can support so many audio codecs, why can’t Apple?

Most people do not care (or even know) about audio codecs, but some do. As an example, I usually use the OGG format which is widely believed by audiophiles to offer the best quality at the lowest bitrate. In non-geek terms, that means I can fit more tracks on my iBox (a rockboxed-ipod) without compromising on quality. If I were to switch to an iTouch I would have to re-encode all my audio files to MP3 (or AAC) which would take an age and I would be able to fit even less on the player.

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