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Sunday, 21 August 2011

Wiki-Review: The Motorola (Google?) Atrix



An object from the future.

That was my first thought when I saw the videos of the Motorola Atrix from the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), where it won the Best of CES award.

It was a spark that lit a flame of unabashed gadget lust.

Not only was it the most powerful Android phone to date, the first to sport a dual-core processor, it is also the heart of an ecosystem of modular accessories that extended its functionality beyond that of a mere smartphone, enabled by a host of modifications that Motorola has made to the Android operating system - it speaks to the promise of innovation that Google expounded when they launched Android.


The most exciting of these accessories is the Lapdock (pictured above). The dock itself is essentially a large battery wrapped in a sleek dark grey aluminum package housing a full-sized keyboard, generous trackpad and crisp 11.6", 1330x768 resolution screen and weighing in at just over 1kg it resembles nothing so much as a competitor to Apple's Macbook Air. Except that the Lapdock doesn't do anything until you insert the handset into a hinged dock behind the screen and that's when the magic starts: a glowing red Motorola logo pops up on the screen and within about 20 seconds you're in what's dubbed the Webtop environment.



Basically this a custom shell and graphic user interface (GUI) built on top of a lightweight instance of the Linux operating system. The phone continues to run live in a window that allows you to access all of the phone's functions, including voice calls, SMS and apps. A bar along the top of the screen has notifications and status indicators and along the bottom of the screen there are shortcuts to important phone apps such as the dialer, contacts, file system and most importantly a full blown, desktop version (v 3.6) of Mozilla's Firefox web browser - which is where things get really interesting. Having a desktop grade browser, running flash, means that you can access pretty much any website or web application as you would from a traditional computer including cloud based productivity suites such Google Docs and Microsoft Office Live, as well as video sites like YouTube and Vimeo.

The HD dock allows one to bring the same experience to the desktop.

Narain's Atrix set-up with all the accessories connected.

Bluetooth and native Linux drivers make for easy interface with a wireless mouse and keyboard.

So was that gadget lust justified?

I've had the Atrix for a month now and have been using it both as my primary phone and laptop.

Undoubtedly it is a paradigm shifting device, one that challenges conventional notions of what a computer is.

However, in order to get the most out of it one either already has to have a cloud based workflow (which I do) or be ready to move to one and be ready to accept some compromises.

From a hardware point of view the phone itself is fairly anonymous, but it feels well constructed and solid - the, crisp, bright 4" 960x540 screen is covered with a sheet of Corning's scratch and shatter resistant Gorilla Glass. It has both a 5mp rear facing camera and 2mp front facing camera for video chats and checking your hair. The removable battery panel has a faux carbon fiber look to it, handsome but without any tactile texture, making it a bit of the slippery side though I have yet to drop it. The power button is unique in both design and placement, with an integrated fingerprint reader, positioned at the top center of the back panel.

While it presently runs Android Froyo (2.2), not the latest version Gingerbread (2.3) - this is due not just to Motorola's customizations associated with Webtop but also with the tweaks its made to Android itself dubbed Motoblur. Many reviewers have criticized Motoblur but personally I find it an enhances Android from both aesthetic and functional points of view making for a slick and unobtrusive package with hands-down the best Android email client for non-Gmail accounts. You can feel both Motorola's experience at phone making and the thinking they've put into making the device enterprise ready come to bear in Motoblur, not just in the email client but also contacts, calendar and other core functions.

As already mentioned the Lapdock is beautifully designed, thin, light, sturdy and delivers up to 8 hours over battery life while simultaneously charging the phone - it does have it's downsides though, namely in the form of small keys and slightly poor accuracy on the trackpad (which also doesn't allow for even the most basic gesture based input). Also, while there are a variety of keyboard shortcuts available for Android functions, such as the CTRL key bringing up the Android menu, there are no indications of this on the keyboard itself so it's a bit of a treasure hunt when it comes to figuring them out.

But the bigger question is: Does a phone, even a dual-core 1GHz one, have enough horsepower to run a desktop grade browser?

The answer is linked to one's expectations - the reality is that it will not deliver performance anywhere near the current generation of Intel Core i3 laptops. It is more akin to Atom powered netbooks - not sluggish (unless one has many, many browser tabs open) but there is discernible lag. Which means that while multi-tasking isn't impossible, one is probably better off focusing on one or top tasks at a time (in some ways not a bad thing) - this applies primarily to browser based applications, one can quite happily have multiple Android applications running in the background (like a music player) and still have a good browsing experience.

Also, the phone chokes on HD video greater than 720p though the forthcoming upgrade to 2.3 allegedly solves this issues for video stored on the device, but not for streaming web video.

Battery life is on par with other high-end phones but using it in conjunction with the Lapdock significantly extends it.

So, who is this phone for?

If you're looking for the latest, greatest standalone Android powered smartphone and are happy to accept a heavy manufacturer's custom skin then you're probably better off with Samsung's flagship Galaxy II S or HTC's Sensation.

On the other hand, if your workflow is cloud based, you regularly tether your phone and laptop because you need internet access on the go and you are looking to minimize the number and weight of the gadgets you're carrying on a daily basis then the Atrix is certainly worthy of your consideration.

And remember, you're buying a piece of the future. Today.

My set-up is as follows:

Motorola Atrix - AED. 2,399
Lapdock - AED. 400
HD Dock - AED. 400
16GB MicroSD Card - AED. 120
Logitech DiNovo Edge Bluetooth Keyboard - AED. 350
Logitech Anywhere MX Mouse - AED. 325
LG 23" LED Monitor - AED. 695

Posted By: Narain Jashanmal, General Manager, Jashanmalbooks.com 
Narain posted this as a guest reviewer for us. He is a graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts where he majored in Screenwriting and has had a lifelong affair with technology since he got his first computer at the age of 4.  If you're on Twitter, you can follow Narain on his twitter handle (@njashanmal)

Friday, 19 August 2011

HP & the Industry's Obsession with Las Vegas

"Please fasten your seat belt.  The captain has announced of turbulence up ahead on the approach to Las Vegas."

This seems to describe the smartphone and IT industry in general this week.

It started off this week with Google saying they were getting engaged to Motorola and hoping their marriage could be concluded as soon as legally possible.  It ended with HP saying they don't want the step children they adopted last year (Palm / WebOS / tablets / smartphones ) and that they're also considering a divorce from their PC business unit.

Las Vegas has always been known for rather infamously for its overnight marriages that many can barely recall when they wake up in the morning.  The question now is what other quickie engagements, marriages, divorces, deaths and adoptions can we expect to see?  

Keeping with the Vegas theme, HP's CFO even went as far as saying that continuing with their tablet and smartphone business would've meant they were gambling with their Q4 results (click here for details).

Samsung, HTC, RIM, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, LG, Sony Ericsson, Lenovo, Nokia, Acer, Asus, Toshiba and Dell have all been reasonably quiet this week except for their politically correct statements saying they embrace change positively.  We all know that they'd all be sleeping with a bit unease until they can figure out what happens next but until then it may be worth watching a movie like Casino, Oceans Eleven, The Hangover or any other movie that was based in Las Vegas (click here for a list of movies based in Las Vegas) because a lot seems to be happening and it's all got a Vegas feel to it.

Posted By: Ashish Panjabi, Chief Operating Officer, Jacky's Electronics

Monday, 15 August 2011

What happens to Samsung, LG & HTC after Google acquisition of Motorola?

About an hour ago from the time this post was written, news came emerged that Google had agreed to acquire Motorola Mobility for USD 12.5 billion.

While this is huge news, it draws the bigger question as to what it means for the other brands that have championed Android as their platform of choice.

As it stands right now, Apple has got their own hardware and OS platform, as do the like of RIM (BlackBerry OS / QNX) and HP (WebOS).  Nokia of course will also be partnered with Windows Phone OS early in the new year.  If the Google Android tie up with a Motorola hardware offering is exclusive, then it may leave the likes of Samsung, LG and HTC out in the dark.

Samsung has Bada as a back-up OS but I'm not sure if they intended for this to ever replace Android.  This may also mean we see more alliances or acquisitions as the likes of HP with WebOS is still struggling and may find partnering with Samsung or HTC is the way forward.  RIM also has been under pressure and may find HTC, LG or Samsung as a possible partner in challenging the dominance of Apple and Google.

Microsoft may also react with a move of their own.  They clearly don't want to be left behind and what they do going forward could determine the future of the smartphone industry just as much as Google and Apple.

Of course at this stage, there is nothing official as Google hasn't said much yet and this is all speculation but it'll be one to watch for sure.

Posted By: Ashish Panjabi, Chief Operating Officer, Jacky's Electronics


Wednesday, 10 August 2011

2012: A New Lease of Life (for the PlayBook)

For most manufacturers of notebook computers and smartphones, 2011 has been the year of launching their first foray into tablets.  We've seen various players come in this year whether it be Motorola, Acer, ViewSonic, HTC, HP and BlackBerry.

Most brands have been playing catch up to Apple and most are still well behind (at Jacky's, Apple still has a 85% share in tablet category).

The main challenge most tablets have faced is that they don't run on iOS, which has been till today, probably the best tablet-based operating system.  Google has been promising a lot on Android and most manufacturers have been trying to bank on this but none has made the sort of inroads that Apple made initially.  The user experience doesn't quite compare to that of iOS and the biggest driver for a tablet is Apps, which are still sadly missing on Android's tablet-optimized OS called Honeycomb.

What are the alternatives then?  HP launched their WebOS based tablets in the US last month but have struggled.  Microsoft has been promising Windows based tablets but those will only come in 2012 when Windows 8 is out.  RIM has had their BlackBerry PlayBook out which works on a wonderfully designed QNX-based operating system but has struggled to gain overall acceptance due to the dearth of Apps and lack of an e-mail client.

Hopefully 2012 means boom not gloom
for RIM's QNX-based devices.
There was therefore good news this week for BlackBerry fans when rumours emerged of a QNX-based BlackBerry smartphone that could be out in 2012 (click here for more info).  Why is this good news?  Well, it means RIM could put their hat back in the tablet race and do a credible job this time around.  They've got a fantastic product (as was reviewed by us earlier - click here for the review), but it's struggled because it didn't have the Apps.  For Apps to be exist, an App developer has to justify it financially and from a resource perspective.  If the audience for a particular OS grows, then it means there are more opportunities for it to gain a critical mass and become more interesting for an App developer.  The scenario could change in 2012 for RIM with QNX-based tablets and smartphones.

Right now, the PlayBook misses out because it doesn't have basic Apps yet like a native Twitter client or a game like Angry Birds (though this has been promised by RIM).  Hopefully, the stories of a QNX-based smartphone are true and hopefully we see Apple facing some real competition next year because honestly, it's about time someone else started challenging them.

Posted By: Ashish Panjabi, Chief Operating Officer, Jacky's Electronics

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

How Bold is the BlackBerry Bold 9900?

RIM, the company behind the BlackBerry brand has been at the firing end of late when it comes to press coverage with a lot of stories circulating about whether the company has a future.

Therefore, it's with no surprise RIM fired back this week and decided to let their products do the talking.  The first of this is the new BlackBerry Bold 9900 which is due for launch in UAE towards the end of August.

The BlackBerry Bold has had its fourth iteration since the series began and I've fortunately been the owner of all four devices.  I had actually seen the Bold 9900 for the first time in May this year when I was at BlackBerry World in Orlando which is when RIM had made the announcement of what was eagerly awaited as the next in the ever popular series of BlackBerry Bold handsets.  I had had the opportunity to actually play with the Bold 9900 at that time but in the last one week, the local office of RIM sent me a handset to use and I must say I've been impressed.

A picture of a pre-release version of the
BlackBerry Bold 9900 I took when at
BlackBerry World in May 2011.


 As with any device, there are going to be some things you like and some things you don't like.  In this case, I've probably got to say, I liked more things overall.

The Keyboard

New vs. Old. The Bold 9900 (Left) and Bold 9870 (Right).
The keyboard has been the talking point as RIM has always been acknowledged for having one of the best keyboards out there and they haven't disappointed us this time.  The keyboard is the largest that RIM has ever had on any of their devices and even if you've got fat thumbs, it's easy enough to use.

Touch & Type Functionality

What I've loved the most has been the Touch & Type functionality.  The screen on the Bold 9900 can be used as a touch screen so if you want to check a message quickly, browse through Facebook or just open a menu, you tap on the screen.  You still have the trackpad to do all of that for you if you want.  However, there is no onscreen keyboard so everything has to be typed through the physical keyboard.  I actually don't mind this.  It is liberating to know you can swipe through pictures on your phone or zoom in without having to rely on a touchpad, especially since that is what most touch-only devices do best.  Touch & Type is not new, RIM has had it on the Torch 9800 but I prefer a candy-bar phone design instead of a slider so this for me is a winner.

New Operating System

To make sure this touch and type functionality came into place, RIM has released a new version of their BlackBerry OS and this runs on OS7.  Honestly, apart from a few graphical changes, OS7 is very similar to OS6 that runs on the previous generation of BlackBerry Bold 9870 and Torch 9800.  The operating system has been smooth so far and its very rare you get a buggy operating system out of RIM.  They've always been robust and the same is the case here.

Memory

The new Bold 9900 also comes with 8GB on-board flash memory plus the option of adding a memory card.  8GB is plenty for most people unless you plan on carrying your music or movies around which is where I can see a memory card still being useful.

Screen / Resolution

RIM has been talking about the fact that they've improved their graphics resolution on this device.  This may be the case but what I found more evident is that they've given you the freedom to use the screen as you wish.  With a bigger screen on this device as compared to the Bold 9780, you can use the whole screen if you want without anything else appearing in the way by hiding all menus and notification screens.

The bigger screen's advantage can be seen in the Bold 9900 (right) vs. the Bold 9870 (left)


Speed

The Bold 9900 is noticeably quicker.  As an owner of a Samsung Galaxy SII, I've seen how quick phones an be and the Bold 9900 is using a new faster 1.2GHz chipset.  How do you know how quick the Bold 9900 is?  Try re-booting it.  On the previous Bold 9870, re-booting the phone could mean five minutes down time.  On the Bold 9900, it takes about a minute.

Network Speed

Now this is something that miffed me.  This phone is supposedly able to connect to HSPA+ mobile networks which means speeds superior to that of a regular 3G connection that we're so used to.  I use HSPA+ on my Samsung Galaxy SII and it is mind-boggling quick.  On the BlackBerry Bold 9900 though, the fastest I could connect was on 3G.  I would give RIM the benefit of the doubt here though as the problem could be with me and the data plans I have.  My Galaxy SII is running on a data plan through one mobile operator and my BlackBerry package is on a rival mobile operators network.  It could just be that the mobile operator I'm using for my BlackBerry hasn't yet completed their network upgrade and this could be something that becomes live soon enough.

What's stayed the same... 

With all of this said, some things have remained the same in the Bold 9900.  For example, if you had the Bold 9870, you won't notice a major change in the camera functionality of this device.  

Battery life also seems to be similar to that on all other BlackBerry devices.  I'm yet to come across a problem with any device I've used from RIM where the battery has been drained out before the end of the day or where it can't be used for more than a day on a single charge.  The same isn't necessarily the case with various other brands of smartphones.

BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), which has probably been the biggest driver of RIM's success in this region still works just as well and is in fact using the new version of BBM which was launched recently on BlackBerry AppWorld.  Most other Apps I used to use on my previous BlackBerry, seem to work just as well.

Convenience Key

What you do miss out though on is the fact that the Bold 9900 has only one convenience key button on the right side of the device whereas the Bold 9870 had one on each side.  This means you've got one less key to use a shortcut and can take some getting used to.  With the touch screen though, it is quicker and easier to open up Apps though.

Size 

The biggest adjustment though is getting used to the size of the Bold 9900.  For those who used to use the old Bold 9000, they'd be used to design and layout of this device but my guess is, most people have transitioned on from that to the Bold 9700 / 9780, which was a form factor more similar to RIM's Curve series of smartphones.  The Bold 9900 is wider, bigger and takes more space in the pocket, though RIM have tried to make up for this by making the unit slimmer.  To get a bigger screen and keyboard, something had to give and this is evident in the physical dimensions of the device.

Future of the Operating System?

As with any smartphone purchase these days, the life of the devices can't be expected to extend beyond 12 - 18 months.  Apple has proven this with a new family of iPhone's out literally every year for the last four years and RIM has released this device nearly a year after the Torch 9800 came out.  Most smartphone buyers know this but most of them also know that when buying a smartphone, you hope the operating system will last longer than the life of the smartphone.  In this case, with OS7, RIM is using an upgraded version of their previous operating systems but all of this is due to undergo a drastic change as RIM will be adopting a completely different operating system in future.  This new operating system will be based on QNX architecture that RIM acquired and which is being used currently on the BlackBerry PlayBook.  The QNX architecture may be fantastic use but it isn't compatible with current versions of RIM's operating systems and this means that most Apps that you're currently using won't work on the new devices that come out in 2012.  This also means that if you've bought a device today, there is no real upgrade path from an operating system point of view unless RIM manages to surprise us somehow with an interface that works on both systems.

The fact is, the operating system market has been getting very competitive with each platform raising their game, whether it be Apple's iOS, Google's Android, Microsoft's Windows 8 (due next year), HP's WebOS or indeed BlackBerry's own OS.  If the operating systems don't move forward, then the companies that have hardware for those OS's can't expect to move forward either.  This does mean that hardware manufacturers are left with touch choices and RIM has clearly decided to make one here.

Concluding Remarks

There will be some out there who are going to be critical of the fact that BlackBerry devices don't offer the same functionality as an Apple or Android device.  I don't think they're intended to necessarily to replicate  everything an Apple or Android does.  Although I always carry around two handsets at any given point of time, the fact remains, I've had a BlackBerry with me always for the last four years.  The other handsets have changed, whether it be a Nokia, HTC, Apple or Samsung device.  I can't afford to be without the BlackBerry and I think this is probably true with many other users.  The Touch & Type interface is the real winner for me in this device as I often found myself touching the screen of by Bold 9870 previously just out of habit and not seeing anything happen.  Nokia has had Touch & Type on some of their devices but if you want to take advantage of the relatively competitively priced BlackBerry data plans that we have int he UAE and use BlackBerry apps, namely BBM, the Bold 9900 is the way to go.


Posted By: Ashish Panjabi, Chief Operating Officer, Jacky's Electronics

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Digital Dilemma: How do you share content?

It's been a few weeks since our last post but we've always felt it's better to say something worthwhile than just to say something for heck of it.

What brought about this post?  Well, it was triggered by an article that I read about cloud computing in a local newspaper that got me thinking about digital content and how we consume it.

In the last couple of years we've seen virtually every sort of content source turn digital whether it be the music we listen to, the movies we watch or the books we read.  While this has been a welcome change for many people, it's brought about a few questions, some of which are yet to be answered by content providers.

Firstly, was the question of how do buy it?  Sadly, in the Middle East the number of online stores for buying music, TV shows, movies or books is limited and in some cases non-existent.  This then only creates an environment where piracy thrives because the publishers haven't found a solution to deliver their content digitally.
Mr. Publisher, please find a way for me to share a newspaper
digitally? (Image from Flickr by Pingu1963) 

The second question that arises is that if you could get the content, what do you if you want it only for a short period of time and have no intention of buying it?  In the normal world, you could always go to a library or rental store and rent the content, whether it be a movie or book.  The likes of Amazon have now said you can't rent textbooks on their e-book reader (the Kindle) and Apple allows you to rent movies and TV shows (click here for a link to Amazon's textbook rental story).

However, there is a third question that arises which has yet to be answered.  How do you lend content to a friend or family member?  Till now if you had a magazine, newspaper, book, video game, movie, song or TV show, you may have shared it within your family, with your friends or passed it around your office for everyone to enjoy.  With an e-book, song, movie or newspaper on your digital device, there is no way to actually share this legally in many cases.  While in many cases, it could be argued that digital content such as books are cheaper in a digital format than it would be in a printed format, the fact is that in many cases, it may be 20-30% cheaper.  This can still be an expensive proposition.
Will Apple's iCloud lead to iPiracy?
(Image from Flickr by zoofythejinx13)

With Apple's iCloud also due to for launch this autumn, it'll be interesting to see if this becomes a haven for piracy as content providers work out a way to find better ways of sharing content.  Whether you call it lending, borrowing, recycling, donating or re-gifting, you can't expect people to stop doing it.

While the advent of digital content has been a positive change, the pace of change in how it is distributed or how it is re-distributed is still lagging sadly, especially so in the Middle East.  With devices like tablets, e-book readers and tablets becoming more mainstream, there is only so long you can hold consumers back before they get impatient.  The result of this impatience can often times mean piracy and hopefully publishers address this before it spirals further out of control.

Posted By: Ashish Panjabi, Chief Operating Officer, Jacky's Electronics