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Holiday Gadgets 2011: Portable and Wireless (11/2011)
by Douglas Dixon
Even in the midst of financial malaise and impending doom -- or maybe because of it -- people are becoming even more enamored with their portable gadgets, and willing to spend for them.
This year was in many ways bookended by Apple and the anticipation for its iDevice announcements. The Apple iPad 2 tablet, announced in April, caused considerable re-thinking of competitive products, and continues to hold an impressive three quarters of the market. Then the iPhone 4S, announced in October, survived the initial frustration of Apple fans who wanted an iPhone 5, and now continuing to produce record sales and shortages in stores.
So can a smartphone really do it all, or are there still too many compromises in cramming all these features into a small handheld device? And is there also a place for tablet-sized devices? Can a clipboard-sized tablet really replace a laptop? Or does it make more sense to have a paperback-sized e-reader with a more focused purpose?
The short answer is "yes." These various devices can be very practical and useful, depending on your needs, and it can make real sense to have different devices for different purposes -- a laptop for heavy writing and computing, a tablet for quick access and sharing, an e-reader for serious reading, and a smartphone for always-there access and entertainment. Plus, they're fun!
So for this year's holiday gadgets review, I'm going to focus on a few leading devices and product lines, in order to show the possibilities of the latest devices. Plus, we'll look at options for enhancing your devices with audio and video accessories to share your media, and developments in storage to manage and access your burgeoning collection of digital data.
Then we'll look forward to next year's crop of new developments, introduced in January at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES www.cesweb.org).
Apple continues to have strong success with its portable products, from iPod to iPhone to iPad. The iOS operating system now runs across the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, providing a common interface; a common platform for running apps and purchasing music, video, books, periodicals, and more; and a common world synced online with iCloud.
Apple's continued dominance across its portable products, is demonstrated by a nice graphic of Apple U.S. Market Share in the Oct. 7 issue of the New York Times. All the Apple products have shown nice growth over the years (except the iPad dropping from 92 percent to "only" 76 percent). But the iPod line has been particularly spectacular, starting at around a 38 percent share after its introduction in 2005, growing to 50 percent in 2006, 60 percent in 2009, and now up to around 76 percent, with a total of 315 million units sold.
You can have it all -- and take it with you. That's the promise of smartphones, which pile on the features -- music and camera and Web and apps -- so that you can be in touch, and entertained, and productive, wherever and whenever.
So how is that connected convergence thing going for you? Cramming all these capabilities into a sleek phone requires some compromises: in terms of voice quality, battery life, image quality, and just the complexity of using and syncing and updating the device. But things are getting better.
The idea of the smartphones has evolved through several phases to get so smart.
Corporate communications: RIM Blackberry - Smartphones also were targeted to corporate use for business communications with the RIM Blackberry, with thumbs madly typing on the tiny keyboard.
Consumer entertainment: Apple iPhone - Apple then blew open the smartphone market as a consumer entertainment device as Steve Jobs introduced the original Apple iPhone in 2007.
This was a courageous foray deep into the consumer electronics business, with a beautiful product that featured an attractive color touch screen and digital camera (but no video), and built on integration with Apple's iPod media player, including the iTunes ecosystem for accessing media.
Apple continued to expand the iTunes store beyond music to podcasts, to television and movies, free and paid and university, and then apps and books -- so that its competitors really still have not matched the selection and convenience. As of October, Apple reported that the iTunes store is the #1 music store in the world, with 16 billion songs downloaded since it opened in 2003, and has the world’s largest catalog, with over 20 million songs, 85,000 TV shows, and 14,000 movies.
Location-based and Cloud services: Google / Android - T-Mobile G1 - Google then focused on the power of integrating location-based and cloud services with the introduction in 2008 of the first Android smartphone, the T-Mobile G1.
With Google Maps, for example, the phone reports its location and orientation using its GPS and positional sensors, and accesses vast online databases to provide not only correctly-oriented maps, but spoken driving directions, street view images, and real-time traffic overlays.
This combination of your locality and Internet databases makes the hand-held smartphone vastly more useful. You can search for near-by gas stations, and also see which ones have the lowest prices. Or you can perform previously astounding tasks, as with Google Translate -- speak a sentence, and have it not only converted to text and translated into another language, but then spoken back to you.
Customizable personal device: Apple App Store - But again it was Apple that broken open the smartphone's full potential as your customizable personal device by opening the App Store in 2008.
While the other phones supported downloading apps, the Apple model of a convenient store accessed through the familiar iTunes software was irresistible to both developers and consumers, feeding the growing base of more than 250 million iOS devices, with not only iPhones, but also the iPod touch and then the iPad tablet.
So if you're impressed with the success of iTunes for music and video downloads, the App Store has surpassed it with 18 billion downloads since it opened in 2008, running at a rate of more than 1 billion a month. Apple reports that the App Store is the #1 store for mobile apps, with more than 500,000 apps, including 140,000 specifically for iPad, and over 100,000 game and entertainment titles. And this is no longer just iBurp and iBubbles; there's real business here, as Apple has paid out $3 billion to app developers (which makes Apple's 30 percent share a tasty $1.3 billion).
This is powerful leverage for Apple, from selling premium devices to serving as the gateway to the content, as Steve Jobs has been very explicit about the monetary value of the iTunes store in his keynote presentations -- as of March, Apple had 200 million accounts with credit card information, ready to ring up even more app and media purchases.
The smartphone market then matured through 2009 and 2010, beefing up the platform with faster processors, higher-res displays as in Apple's "Retina" display on the iPhone 4 in 2010, and HD cameras with LED flash. Last year also saw a broadening of the sophistication of the selection of apps, as smartphones became more focused as App phones. The Android platform has continued to be more open, for better or worse, by not curating the selection of apps as Apple does, resulting in a wider range of apps that evolve more quickly.
Meanwhile, while Android has shipped more units across all manufacturers than the iPhone, and is catching up to the number of available apps, Apple still retains a comfortable and growing niche, reporting that the iPhone is 5 percent of the world overall mobile phone market, with 1.5 billion units. And while market growth for all smartphones is strong at 74 percent year-over-year, Apple's iPhone sales growth is 125 percent.
Smartphone Realization - Apple iPhone 4S
So what's left for the smartphone? It's a communications device for voice and messaging, PDA reference and e-mail communicator, document viewer and e-book reader, media player and camera, Web browser and information searcher, and then even further expandable and customizable with a myriad of downloadable apps.
But we've become so conditioned to amazing new advances that Apple fans were grievously disappointed with Apple's announcement of the iPhone 4S (www.apple.com/iphone) in October, since it could not meet the anticipation for an even more amazing rumored iPhone 5. But the 4S has had great sales, and is still causing shortages in stores, as Apple continues to expand its portion of the smartphone market at around 5 percent, similar to the position of the Mac in the personal computer market.
Apple iPhone 4S - 3.5" ($199 16 GB, + $100 2x)
The iPhone 4S is basically the same design as the iPhone 4, at 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 x 1/3 inches, and weighing just under 5 ounces. It's solid in the hand, made of glass and stainless steel, with a 3.5 inch widescreen multi-touch display at 960 x 640 resolution at 326 ppi (pixels per inch) density.
And the iPhone 4S is priced the same as the previous iPhone -- $199 for 16 GB of internal memory and $299 for 32 GB, and adds a 64 GB model for $399 (like the iPods and iPads, the iPhones have no slots for adding external memory). Following its earlier practice, Apple reduced the price of the previous iPhone 4 to only $99, albeit with only 8 GB of memory. And the earlier iPhone 3GS is now free with a 2-year contract.
The three carriers offer voice and data plans starting at around $54.99 from AT&T for 200 MB of data traffic a month, with a $109.99 plan from Sprint for unlimited voice and data. They also offer mobile hotspot options so your iPhone can serve as a Wi-Fi hotspot for your laptops or other devices, at an additional $29.99 from Verizon for 5 GB a month.
Apple positions the iPhone 4S as the same thin glass and stainless steel design, but "entirely new" on the inside. It is yet another impressive piece of engineering from Apple, cramming significant enhancements into the same, still-sweet design as the iPhone 4.
But while the 4S is not a snazzy new design on the outside, it's what's inside that counts -- What Apple has done is to clean up a lot of the lingering compromises to help the iPhone achieve the promise of a smart phone:
Processor: Smartphones can be sluggish, as they take on the roles of a portable computer, needing to remain responsive to your touch while carrying out multiple tasks and communicating online. So Apple beefed up the CPU to the same dual-core Apple A5 processor that's in the iPad, for two times faster performance and seven times faster graphics.
World phone: Smartphones need to be always accessible, so the 4S now supports multiple frequencies for use overseas, as well as working on the AT&T or Verizon networks, and now Sprint.
Camera: Smartphone cameras can be barely adequate, with sluggish response and tiny lenses resulting in not particularly crisp photos. Apple has significantly enhanced the camera in the new 4S, from 5 to 8 megapixels, and now supporting HD 1080p video recording. The new camera is a big deal -- Apple sees the iPhone 4S as a serious replacement for the need to carry a separate digital camera and video camcorder.
You can see this in the kind of language used to describe it, which sounds more like cameras than smartphones -- with a five-element lens, enhanced CMOS sensor for 73% more light and 33% faster capture, hybrid IR filter for better color accuracy and uniformity, and an Apple-designed Image Signal Processor (ISP) enabling face detection and 26% better auto white balance. The new design also makes the camera more responsive, taking 1.1 seconds to shooting first photo and 0.5 seconds from shot to shot (compared to 2 to 4 seconds for some other smartphones).
iCloud syncing: Another problem with smartphones is the hassle of tethering and syncing them to a computer, which has been Apple's model with the iTunes software. Google has obviously been focused on managing and syncing your life in the cloud, with services including Gmail, Google Calendar and contacts, and Google Docs.
With the iPhone 4S, Apple has re-defined its online services with the iCloud free online services to support wireless access and syncing media, apps, books, documents, contacts, calendar, and more across your computers and mobile devices (www.apple.com/icloud).
This includes iTunes in the Cloud, to store and sync your media, books, and apps, as well as documents, contacts, calendar, and e-mail. There's also Photo Stream to automatically sync a rolling collection of your last 1000 photos across all your devices, and Documents in the Cloud integrated with the Apple iWork apps. iCloud also includes Find My Friends to locate people who have opted to share their location with you, backup of purchased and personal data and settings, and an iTunes Match service to access your entire music collection for $24.99 a year.
The new iPhone also sports the latest release of Apple's iOS 5 mobile operating system (www.apple.com/ios), with over 200 new features. This is an evolutionary upgrade, adding features including an Android-like common mechanism for notifications, a Reminders app for to-do lists, and a Newsstand app to consolidate your magazine and newspaper access for more convenient paid subscriptions. It also finally supports PC Free activation and updating, so you no longer need to tether to iTunes to update your phone.
iOS 5 is an important development for Apple because it integrated the software across the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch lines, so most of these new features (that don't depend on specific hardware) are now available not only across the current products, but also can be upgraded on earlier generations including the original iPod, the previous iPod touch, and all currently available iPhones.
Siri Intelligent Assistant
But there's one more thing about the iPhone 4S -- taking the smartphone beyond looking up information to something that you can interact with. The Siri "intelligent assistant," developed at SRI International, responds to voice commands (www.apple.com/iphone/features/siri.html)..
Just long-press the home button (or simply lift the iPhone to your face), and speak a command. Siri does voice recognition, performs sophisticated understanding of free-form commands, and speaks back to confirm and execute your instructions .
Siri will execute your command in the associated application, in the context of your information (looking up the name in the contacts) and based on the current time:
If necessary, Siri will manage the action through a several step conversation. For example, if you ask to call a name that matches multiple contacts, it will first ask which contact, and then which phone number for that contact.
Other commands can search for information within an appropriate app, again based on context including your location:
For other queries, Siri will look up information using Wolfram Alpha, or simply search the web for more general requests as the default action.
This is impressive stuff, combining natural language processing, conversational commands, and contextual understanding. Plus the developers have had a fun time building in clever responses to off-the-wall requests.
But the magic behind the curtain is still easily exposed with some commands -- Siri fails to recognize common short versions of first names in the contacts, and it matches too readily on keywords (for example, a query about how to "make soup stock" is understood to be about a stock named "make soup," and asking to find turkey soup is understood to be about restaurants in Turkey). It also is limited in how it can interact with your iPhone -- you can start music playing, but not control the volume, and you can search for contacts, but not create new ones.
Along with the voice recognition for Siri, Apple had integrated dictation into the iPhone 4S for other apps -- adding a microphone icon to the standard on-screen keyboard as Google has done with Android.
Apple does describe Siri as beta, and it is currently only available on the iPhone 4S. Like the earlier voice support for text input on the Android, the Apple approach uses cloud services to support the voice processing, so these require an active 3G or Wi-Fi data connection. And, like other Google innovations, Apple has tagged these services as beta. So the limitation to the 4S is something of a red herring, since the heavy lifting for Siri is actually implemented in the cloud on back-end servers, and hopefully it could become more generally available as Apple gains more experience with the processing demands.
Smartphones - Verizon LTE
As with its history with the Macintosh and the iPod, Apple is keeping tight control over the iPhone line, managing the hardware and software, as well as the libraries of media and apps. In comparison, Google's Android platform is designed to be open, with many different hardware designs from different manufacturers, the software customized for specific devices and carriers, and the ability for anyone to write and download apps. The result is a lot more options in choosing a phone and available apps, which can be great or just confusing depending on your needs, but also results in fragmentation of the versions of Android for each device.
Verizon Wireless - Long Term Evolution (4G LTE)
One of the biggest recent developments with Android phones is the deployment by Verizon Wireless of 4G (fourth generation) cellular service called LTE (Long Term Evolution), with up to 10 times faster Internet connections. LTE steps up cellular data rates from DSL-like speeds to more like broadband (with typical speeds of 5 to 12 Mbps downloads and 2 to 5 Mbps uploads, compared to around 600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps downloads and 500 to 800 Kbps uploads with Verizon's current EV-DO rev A service).
The initial Verizon 4G LTE mobile broadband service is available with two monthly data service plans similar to existing 3G plans: $30 with a 2 GB monthly allowance, $50 for 5 GB, or $80 for 10 GB, both with $10 per GB overage charges for additional usage. (Verizon is currently running a promotion offering double the data allotment at the same prices for smartphones.)
However, the carriers really don't want customers to be using their mobile devices for watching TV all day. So while LTE promises wide open access for streaming HD content, the current capped data plans provide a serious reality check. At the LTE 10 Mbps download speed, you can move 4.5 GB of data per hour, so you could blow though the Verizon $50 for 5 GB monthly plan in a little over an hour of continuous downloading. And with the $10 per GB overage pricing, you'll spend $45 for each hour of downloads.
Verizon has a handy data calculator you can use to estimate your monthly needs based on your typical usage for tasks including e-mail, web, music streaming, video, online games -- http://cache.vzw.com/splash_includes/datacalculator.html
In addition, LTE still is being rolled out. Verizon reports that service currently is available in 165 cities and 111 major airports, covering more than 185 million Americans. It targets covering two-thirds of the U.S. population by mid-year 2012, and the entire nationwide 3G footprint by the end of 2013. LTE is generally available in the major cities of the Eastern seaboard, including Philadelphia and New York, but not yet along the corridor through New Jersey.
Verizon - Pantech UML290 - LTE USB Modem ($79)
LTE is particularly interesting for business, with USB cellular modems like the Pantech UML290 USB Modem that plug in to your laptop to deliver hardwired data rates for streaming even HD presentations and uploading large files. The Pantech folds up for storage, and unfolds for use as a cellular antenna when plugged into your laptop. Its full price is $249, or it is available for $79 with a two-year contract.
Verizon - Novatel 4510L MiFi 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot ($49)
You also can get LTE though a mobile hotspot device like the Verizon Novatel MiFi 4510L, a pocket-sized unit that turns its built-in cellular data connection into a Wi-Fi hotspot, supporting up to five devices at a time sharing the LTE connection. In this way, your laptops and your iPads and your iPods can all go online though the same device and the same monthly fee. Its full price is $269, or it is available for $49 with a two-year contract.
Verizon - Motorola Droid Bionic - LTE ($249)
And now LTE has come to Android-based smartphones including the Motorola Droid Bionic ($249 from Verizon with a two-year contract) and the HTC Thunderbolt (currently $149 from Verizon with two-year contract). The Bionic has a 4.3 inch display, with a fast 1 GHz / dual-core processors and 1 GB of internal RAM to help take advantage of the faster data rates, whether you're streaming video or playing interactive online games.
Verizon - Samsung Galaxy Tab - 7" Android - LTE ($199)
LTE also is available on Android tablets including the Samsung Galaxy Tab ($199 from Verizon with two-year contract). The Galaxy Tab is about half the size of the iPad, at 7 1/2 x 4 3/4 x 1/2 inches, but more than half the weight at 13 1/2 ounces, with a 7-inch display at 1024 x 600 resolution.
Even if you're armed with a full-up smartphone, it's still useful to have a device with a larger screen, for enjoying and sharing photos and videos, and when you need to work on e-mail or review documents. You can take a laptop along for these kinds of uses, but Apple's introduction of the original iPad in January of 2010, followed by the even more exquisite iPad 2 early this year, demonstrated a real niche for tablet devices
Again Apple is doing well in this category, reporting that that it has sold some 29 million iPads, and still retains about 75 percent market share, even with developing competition from Android devices. But there's new competition from Android tablets with different configurations, and from E-readers evolving up into tablets.
Apple Tablets - iPod touch and iPad
If you're intrigued by the whole Apple / iTunes world of media and apps, but not ready to convert to an iPhone and don't need a full-size iPad tablet or an e-reader, Apple is still ready to help out with the iPod touch. The touch (yes, it's officially named in lowercase) was originally the original flagship touchscreen iPod, but now is comfortably re-positioned as the mini-iPad tablet.
Apple iPod touch -- Wi-Fi - 3.5", 3.5 oz, 8, 32, 64 GB ($199, + $100 2x)
Beyond being a non-phone or mini-tablet, Apple also has positioned the touch as a handheld game player, leveraging the over 100,000 game and entertainment titles in the App Store. As of last year, Apple described the touch as the #1 portable game player in the world, with over 50 percent market share, and outselling Sony and Nintendo portables combined.
The iPod touch has the same 3.5-inch display as the iPhone, and is slightly smaller and significantly thinner and lighter (1/4 inch thin and 3.56 ounces) without the phone components. Like the iPad, it now has front and back cameras, but does not have GPS.
It's handheld and significantly less expensive, with the 8 GB model dropped to $199 in October, with 32 GB for $299, and 64 GB for $399. It runs the same iOS 5 software as the iPhone and iPad, with all those fun apps, and works the same way with iTunes to buy, download, and synchronize content.
Apple iPad 2 Tablet - 9.7", 1.3 lbs. ($499 / 16 GB + $100 2x GB + $130 3G)
The Apple iPad 2 is fully tablet sized, at 9 1/2 x 7 1/3 x 1/3 inches, and weighs 1 1/3 pounds, so it's comfortable in a lap, but not really for extended one-handed use. It has a full-size 9.7 inch display for better viewing of documents and websites, with 1024 x 768 resolution at 132 pixels per inch. The iPad 2 is 1/3 thinner than the original iPad, and even thinner than the iPhone 4.
The result continues to be a huge success for Apple, holding some 75% of the tablet market even after an avalanche of Android and other competitors, though the Amazon Kindle Fire may change things more this holiday season (see below).
The iPad 2 includes much of an iPhone, except for the phone part, with dual cameras (front and back for video conferencing), GPS and other sensors, with Wi-Fi networking plus optional 3G cellular connectivity from AT&T or Verizon so you can get online anywhere your cell phone gets a signal.
Since the iPad runs the same iOS software as the iPhone and iPod touch, it can be a very comfortable device for Apple aficionados. The big screen is great for viewing photos and videos, of course, and the dual cameras let you video conference with the FaceTime app, and even shoot your own material (albeit somewhat clumsily with the tablet shape). And it's feasible to do some photo enhancements and even video editing with the iMovie app before uploading and sharing your material.
The large screen also works better than the iPhone size for sharing experiences like flying in the Google Earth app, or for your personal reading of magazines and books with the Apple iBooks library, or thought the Amazon Kindle app. And it's great for games from the ubiquitous Angry Birds to interactive racing.
For more official use, you can use the iPad to check e-mail and type messages with the on-screen keyboard (close to full size if you orient the iPad in landscape mode). You can browse the web and see sites as they were designed for desktop display (with the limitation that Apple does not support Adobe Flash for interactive and entertainment sites). You can work on documents, spreadsheets, and presentations with the Apple Pages, Numbers, and Keynote apps, respectively.
The updated iPad 2 is priced the same as the original iPad, starting at $499 for the Wi-Fi version with 16 GB of memory. Then add $100 once or twice to bump up to 32 or 64 GB, and/or add another $132 for a model that supports 3G cellular service, with the choice of AT&T or Verizon. Both carriers offer monthly subscription plans, so you can drop or add them as desired, starting at $14.99 for 250 MB a month of data traffic from AT&T, up to $80 for 10 GB per month from Verizon. These plans are fine for typical e-mail and web browsing, but you'll need to monitor your usage if you like to watch streaming video -- or instead move to a Wi-Fi hotspot for intensive use, where you'll also get faster data rates.
E-Readers - Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble NOOK
You can read periodicals and books on phones and tablets, but intensive readers still find that a more dedicated e-reader devices like the Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble NOOK lines can be more comfortable and more useful. These e-readers are typically smaller and lighter, with 6- or 7-inch displays, so they can be held in one hand for extensive periods. The e-ink displays are not backlit, so they are much more readable in sunlight and other settings, although they do require using a lamp in bed at night. And the e-ink displays use much less power, so these devices can last a month or two without recharging.
In comparison to Apple, which is making its money on the rather pricey iPad device, Amazon has been aggressively and creatively pricing its Kindle line, expecting to be making the real money selling books and subscriptions. Some models even are available at a $30 to $40 discount in Special Offers versions -- i.e. with ads that display on the screensaver and bottom of home screen (but not when reading).
Amazon Kindle Readers - 6", 6 - 9 oz. - E-ink, Wi-Fi (+ 3G) ($99 w/ Ads + $30 w/o + $50 3G)
Amazon has three variants of the classic Kindle with s 6-inch grayscale e-ink display: the updated basic Amazon Kindle at $109 ($79 with ads), the original Kindle with Keyboard at $139 ($99 with ads), and the new Kindle Touch with a touchscreen for the same $139 ($99 with adds). The Kindle Keyboard and Touch models come with Wi-Fi connectivity, or you can buy the 3G versions with cellular data service for $50 more (less with ads). There's also the large-screen Kindle DX with 9.7 inch display for $379.
Barnes & Noble NOOK Readers - Android - Wi-Fi
The competing Barnes & Noble NOOK Simple Touch has a 6-inch display that's touchscreen, and was just reduced to $99, and the NOOK Color has a 7-inch color touchscreen display, just reduced to $199.
Reader Tablets - Amazon Kindle Fire, Barnes and Noble NOOK Tablet
Once you beef up a tablet with a color touchscreen, and start adding interactive capabilities for viewing text and imagery, it's not much more of a step to move from an e-reader to a more general tablet -- especially if the device is already running Android, as with the B&N NOOKs.
Barnes & Noble NOOK Tablet - Android - 7", 14 oz. ($249)
So the Barnes & Noble NOOK Tablet, just announced for shipment in November for $249, is the NOOK Color unleashed for media and apps. It has the same 7-inch color display at 1024 x 600 resolution, and 8 x 5 x 1/2 inch size, and weighs just over 14 ounces, but is beefed up with a twice as fast processor (1 GHz dual-core), twice the memory (1 GB, plus expansion with up to a up to 32 GB microSD card), and a microphone. It plays HD movies, TV shows, and music from popular providers including Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora, does e-mail and Web browsing, and runs (some) Android apps.
Amazon Kindle Fire Tablet - Android - 7", 14 oz. ($199)
Similarly, the new Amazon Kindle Fire tablet also has a 7-inch display at 1024 x 600 resolution, and is slightly smaller at 7 1/2 x 4 3/4 x under 1.2 inch. It has 8 GB of internal storage, enough for 80 apps plus either 10 movies, 800 songs or 6,000 books. It supports Wi-Fi, without any 3G option.
The Fire is aggressively priced at $199, since it's designed to be your one-stop gateway to buying Amazon content. Amazon even pre-registers your Kindle for you when you buy it, so it's all set up and ready for you to start purchasing content as soon as it arrives.
For your own documents, the Fire includes the Adobe Reader for PDF files, and you can transfer documents over USB, or via your Send-to-Kindle e-mail address.
Amazon also leverages its investment in cloud computing services with its Cloud Drive service (www.amazon.com/clouddrive) to store music, videos, photos, and documents on the Amazon servers. Songs purchased from Amazon MP3 do not count toward the storage limit. You can increase the storage to 20 GB for $20 a year, or up to 100 GB for $100. These plans plus unlimited space for music files (.mp3, .aac). You can upload your own music files with the Amazon MP3 Uploader (including via iTunes). You then access these in a browser with the Amazon Cloud Player(www.amazon.com/gp/dmusic/mp3/player).
Further leveraging these online services, the Fire provides the Silk "split" web browser, which off-loads some of the work of assembling the various components of a new web page onto the Amazon servers, delivering the page faster by reducing the work and traffic for your device.
Then Amazon further sweetens the deal for Amazon Prime members ($79 a year), not only with free shipping for physical purchases, but also free streaming of over 11,000 Amazon Instant Video movies and TV shows, and now free "borrowing" of one book a month on any Kindle model.
Amazon Fire runs on Android, like the B&N NOOK line, and runs a selection of Android apps. With the openness of Android comes the ability to customize it for specific hardware (and further to guide it according to the marketing plans of individual vendors), which can cause software incompatibilities across different products. Amazon is addressing this by sending Fire users to its own store.
Some of the limitations to meet the low price:
Supported file types (for USB download):
Media Players - Apple iPods
While the interest in media players like the iPod line has dampened with the success of smartphones and tablets, Apple is still finding a good business. As of October, Apple reported it was holding a 78% market share for portable music players, with sales of another 45 million iPods over the previous twelve months -- and over half of those buyers were buying their first iPod.
Apple iPod Line
The Apple iPod line includes the clip-on tiny iPod shuffle and nano music players, and the iPod touch mini-tablet (see above).
Plus, the iPod classic is still around, although Apple no longer mentions it at product announcement events. It has a bigger 160 GB hard drive for $249. That's significantly more storage for carrying around a major media collection with you -- enough for 40,000 songs, 25,000 photos, or 200 hours of video. But Apple is clearly betting on iCloud and the iTunes Match service to instead store and deliver your collection from the cloud.
Apple iPod shuffle and nano
The iPod shuffle, is a tiny clip-on player with no display, available with 2 GB of storage (for hundreds of songs) for $49 in a variety of vibrant colors.
The almost equally tiny iPod nano adds a small color touchscreen display. It was slightly upgraded this fall, although it's still the same small square with multi-touch screen for playing music and listening to FM radio. (The 16 GB model holds about 4000 songs.)
The new nano adds larger icons on the 1 1/2 inch screen, and more clock face designs (from analog to Mickey Mouse) for wearing as a wrist watch. It also steps up as a fitness device, tracking walking and running, and even providing motivational real-time voice feedback.
The nano price has dropped to $129 for 8 GB, and $149 for 16 GB (was $149 / $179), and it's still available in silver, graphite, blue, green, orange, pink, and (PRODUCT) RED.
There's a lot of wireless happening around your phone or even tablet, with 3G or 4G cellular data for voice and Internet, Wi-Fi network connections to local hotspots, and Bluetooth for wireless audio. But Bluetooth is for more than replacing an audio cable, it connects to phone headsets for calls and phone controls (answer, call information), and to stereo speakers to stream music, again with play controls.
Smart Bluetooth headsets and speakers now can connect to multiple devices (multipoint), and switch automatically between playing music and answering a new incoming phone call. And Bluetooth is not just for phones and other portable devices, as you can connect from computers and laptops with built-in Bluetooth, or by using a USB Bluetooth adapter. Plus, Bluetooth works for devices like mice and keyboards with your computer, and with the Apple Wireless Keyboard for the iPad.
Even Bluetooth headsets have been getting more sophisticated, not only with built-in voice processing and noise reduction, but also adding voice prompts and voice control to make them easier to use, integrating with the iPhone to show the battery level, and even supporting downloadable apps to add new features and options.
Plantronics Voyager PRO HD Bluetooth Headset - Smart Sensor, HD Audio ($99)
For example, the Plantronics Voyager PRO HD Bluetooth headset ($99) is the latest version of this venerable over-ear design, providing a more comfortable fit for extended use. It supports HD streaming audio, provides voice alerts, and has Smart Sensor technology that senses if it is being worn, so it can automatically pick up a call when you place it on the ear, or pause streaming audio when you take it off.
Plantronics Marque M155 - Voice Control ($59)
The compact Plantronics Marque M155 ($59) adds voice control to verbally "answer" or "ignore" an incoming call, and displays a battery level meter on the iPhone.
Both headsets also can extend their functionality much like today's smartphones:
- Downloadable Apps: These support downloadable MyHeadset apps, to change settings and enable features such as streaming audio.
- Cloud services: These also support the Plantronics Vocalyst free integrated voice and text service, which provides services something like Apple's Siri, when you connect and use simple voice commands to listen to news and weather, manage e-mails, and even listen and update to Facebook and Twitter.
Jabra SUPREME Headset - Active Noise Cancellation ($99)
The Jabra SUPREME Headset ($99) steps up the audio processing with Active Noise Cancellation. Many headsets already do noise removal and wind noise reduction for the outgoing side of the call, to help isolate your voice from the surrounding background sounds. Active noise cancellation then also helps in the other direction -- improving the sound of the incoming voice by subtracting out the ambient noise (as in headsets for listening to music on airplanes). The SUPREME also has a clever design with a folding boom arm -- unfold straight to turn it on, and fold back up to turn off.
Jabra SPORT - Corded Pair for Music on Workouts, Rugged ($99)
And since Bluetooth is for stereo music as well as voice, it makes sense to deliver the sound to both ears. The Jabra SPORT is a corded wireless headset, in the sense of having a cord between the two earpieces ($99). It's designed for enjoying music, with bass and virtual surround audio enhancement and a built-in FM radio. And it's designed for sport use, with the behind-the-ear fit and military grade rain, dust and shock protection.
Plus it supports the free Endomondo Sports Tracker fitness tracking app for iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry. As a motivational tool for running it can update speed, distance, and lap time. And you can view past running routes on the smartphone with GPS tracking -- www.endomondo.com.
You can load up your smartphone and tablets with great music, but then you're typically listen on small earphones, or use the small build-in speaker to try to project the sound. To really enjoy the sound you can insert the device into an integrated dock/speaker, or plug in to the audio jack with larger headphones or external speakers.
But this is the era of wireless, so there's no need for cables for sharing audio. Instead, the same Bluetooth connection that lets you talk on the phone using a Bluetooth headset also can be used to transmit high-quality stereo digital audio to wireless speakers.
Logitech Wireless Speaker Z515 - Bluetooth ($79)
The Logitech Wireless Speaker Z515 has dual two-inch drivers in a relatively portable size (10 x 4 1/2 x 2 inch), and runs for 10 hours on the rechargeable battery ($79).
Logitech Wireless Boombox - 8 Drivers ($149)
Separate powered speakers also let you crank up the sound to better fill a room, so the new Logitech Wireless Boombox is even more fun, albeit in a larger boombox size and twice the price ($149). It has eight (yes, 8) drivers to separate the sound frequencies: two 30-inch neodymium drivers for full mid range, two 1/2-inch neodymium tweeters for crisp highs, and two 2-inch passive radiators for deep bass. The result is an impressively clear and clean sound, although not up to the full room-shaking volume levels of a dedicated amplifier.
You then can stream stereo audio wirelessly up to 33 feet over Bluetooth, from a PC, iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, or other devices -- so your system can remote control playback on the speaker. The Wireless Boombox plays for six hours with its removable rechargeable battery, or can run powered using the included AC adapter. It has an auxiliary 3.5 mm input for wired playback and a flip-out stand.
As a Boombox, it is a bit bigger than the Wireless Speaker (approximately 15 x 5 x 2 1/2 inches compared to 10 x 4 1/2 x 2 inches) -- but you'll understand why when you hear the sound from the eight vs. two speakers.
Logitech Tablet Speaker for iPad - Clip on (8/11)
But sometime you need something more portable, like the Logitech Tablet Speaker for iPad, priced at $49. This has a smart rectangular design that clips conveniently on to either side of an iPod (or other tablet) -- landscape or portrait -- where it also can serve as a stand to tip up the tablet.
It connects to your tablet with an old-fashioned audio cable to the headphone jack (there's no Bluetooth wireless). The rechargeable battery plays for 8 hours, and charges through USB.
It puts out good sound for personal listening through the speakers at each end. And it's a nice size for use as a portable speaker for a laptop, at 8 1/2 x 1 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches.
The flexibility of the Bluetooth wireless connection -- carrying and switching between voice conversations and streaming stereo audio, plus providing remote control over the phone connection and audio playback -- raises interesting possibilities for integrated devices.
Logitech Wireless Headset - Music and Voice ($69)
For personal listening, the Logitech Wireless Headset is a nicely designed Bluetooth headset that pairs to up to eight different devices to listen to stereo music., including the iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, and other players, tablets, and smartphones. Plus, it adds a noise-canceling microphone that rotates down from the headband so you can switch between listening to music to talking on the phone -- or on FaceTime video calls
The Wireless Headset has an adjustable headband with soft ear cups for a comfortable fit, and folds up for travel. The noise-canceling microphone rotates up to nest under the headband while listening, and then folds down to position for talking. [Yes, the picture is a visualization -- there aren't four mics...] It charges over USB, and runs for six hours. One earpiece has power, mute, and volume controls.
Native Union - Moshi Moshi 04/04i - Bluetooth Phone / Speaker + iPhone Dock ($179/$199)
The Native Union Moshi Moshi 04/04i is a wireless phone and speaker, with some serious design chops.
As with the Logitech Wireless Headset, wireless connections let us make things more interesting and more useful -- Start with a corded music headset, and then go wireless to work with multiple mobile phones and portable players. And since the headset talks with mobile phones, it only makes sense to add a microphone to work for phone calls as well.
The Moshi Moshi 04/04i Bluetooth Phone / Speaker follows this same kind of progression, but in the opposite order -- and with some serious design styling.
First, convert a telephone handset for use with a mobile phone, as with the Moshi Moshi POP / Retro Handsets, providing the comfort and convenience of a traditional hand-held handset for conversations.
Then go wireless, so you can park your mobile phone by the window or wherever you get the best reception, and then use the handset at your chair or desk, up to 30 feet away.
Then the real clever step -- since Bluetooth supports music as well, enhance the headset with speakers at both ends, so it also serves as a stereo speaker. After all, telephone handsets are typically symmetric at each end, so why not take advantage of the design? (And as a bonus, add an audio jack on the back of the handset to play directly from other devices.)
Finally, take advantage of these features by laying the handset down on a charger / base, where it also can serve as a conference / speaker phone, with the two speakers plus an additional secondary microphone with noise reduction for conference calls.
The resulting Moshi Moshi 04 has a sexy design for the handset plus base, with brushed aluminum face and soft-touch surfaces, available for $179 in taupe and copper or black and silver.
And there's one more step -- the Moshi Moshi 04i extends this design by adding a slide-out iPhone dock/charger in the base.
Video output also can be wireless, from laptops to iPads. More wireless display technologies are becoming available, or you can use a pocket projector that stores the presentations onboard, so you don't need the device.
3M Pocket / Mobile Projectors
Wireless and portability also apply to video with pocket projectors like the 3M line of Pocket and Mobile Projectors. These are a bit blocky at around 6 x 2 1/2 by 1+ inches, and weigh 5 to 10 ounces. They typically support 1280 x 768 resolution, and project a screen size of some 10 to 50 to 80 inches diagonally. The LED light generates 16 to 32 lumens, which can be quite visible in normal lighting, but will be washed out in bright conference rooms. The LED is not designed to be replaced, since it should run some 20,000 hours.
With the right cables, you then can display from a laptop computer, a video player, or from an Apple iDevice. Most of these now also audio connectors for stereo speakers, although you now know you can do better with larger Bluetooth external speakers.
The flagship 3M Pocket Projector MP 180 also includes 4 GB of internal memory, plus expansion with microSD cards. You then can store your documents and presentation onboard, and display it directly from the device, instead of needing to connect up your computer. The MP 180 can display PowerPoint presentations, Office documents and spreadsheets, PDF and text documents, as well as a variety of common image, video, and audio formats.
3M Pocket Projectors
3M - Camcorder and Mobile Projectors
As you can see from all these various portable devices, there's always a desire for more storage, as the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch all expanded to versions with 64 GB of flash memory. Then for our computers, we're moving out of the realm of gigabytes into terabytes of storage, as 1 TB drives drop under $100. But with huge disks comes the realization that we're falling behind in terms of the bandwidth to access all those large files on the disk.
So beyond raw capacity, this has been the year of new and faster interfaces.
With the USB 2.0 interface on your current system, copying gigabytes of data can seem to take forever (at 480 Mbps), while the new USB 3.0 (SuperSpeed) interface promises up to 10 times faster data transfer (at 5 Gbps) -- or more like 4 times in current practice.
So maybe it makes sense to invest in a huge new USB 3.0 drive, plus a PC card adapter for your laptop, so you can run faster now, and feel pretty comfortable that your next Windows system will support USB 3.0. Or you may already have invested in systems with FireWire 800 interfaces, or in eSATA for large external drives.
Plus, there's Thunderbolt, a competing interface from Intel and Apple that combines PCI Express for data and DisplayPort for displays on the same cable, promising 10 Gbps data rates each over two channels.
Kingston - Data Traveler HyperX 3.0 - USB 3.0
As interface speeds get faster, the limiting constraint becomes the spinning magnetic disks in the hard drive. Thus the interest in Solid-State Drives (SSD), particularly to replace hard disks as the internal drive for laptops -- not only for faster start-up and access, but also for ruggedness, lower weight, and lower power usage (albeit still at significantly higher cost).
So USB flash drives (aka thumb drives) seem a natural next step for USB 3.0, since they're already built with solid-state flash memory. For example, check out the new Kingston Data Traveler HyperX 3.0, featuring a USB 3.0 interface that runs 7 1/2 times faster than USB 2.0 drives!
Over a USB 3.0 interface, the HyperX 3.0 sports transfer rates of 225 MB/s for reading and 135 MB/s for writing. Compare that to the USB 2.0 rates of 30 MB/s for both read and write.
But here's the fun comparison -- desktop USB 3.0 hard drives quote bus speed rates of up to 130 MB/s, while this thumb drive with flash memory can go some 1.75 times faster. And since the HyperX 3.0 is available in capacities up to 256 GB, you're looking at a seriously interesting replacement for a portable hard drive that is ridiculously smaller and faster.
The trade-off, of course, is cost, since you can find a basic 64 GB USB 2.0 drive starting at around $65, and $129 will buy you more like 1 TB of hard disk storage.
Seagate GoFlex Storage System
With so many interface options, it would be really unpleasant to invest in a terabyte drive, spend the time filling it and organizing it with data, and then discover that that interface is incompatible with another system that you're trying to share it with, or is no longer compatible when you upgrade.
Seagate address these connection uncertainties with its GoFlex Storage System, which includes desktop and portable drives with interchangeable cables and desktop adapters so the same drive can work with different interfaces. The common interface has been standardized as the SATA Universal Storage Module (USM) specification, which is also designed to interface powered external storage devices with consumer electronic devices.
Seagate GoFlex Desk External Drive (to 4 TB - $205)
For the desktop, or for briefcase-portable storage, the Seagate GoFlex Desk External Drive offers capacities up to a ridiculous 4 TB, in a desktop size (6 1/4 x 4 9/10 x 1 3/4 in., 2 1/3 lbs.). It's available with 1 TB of storage for around $90, 2 TB for $110, 3 TB for $160, and the full 4 TB for $220. The drive features an illuminated capacity gauge and backup software with encryption.
Seagate GoFlex Portable Drive (to 1.5 TB - $169)
For more portable storage, the Seagate GoFlex Portable Drive offers up to a wonderful 1.5 TB of storage for only around $155, in a package that's around 4 1/3 x 3 1/4 x 1/2 inches. With the same GoFlex design, you can use additional adapters to swap it between USB 3.0 / USB 2.0, FireWire 800, and/or powered eSATA.
Seagate GoFlex Turbo Portable Drive - Performance (to 750 GB - $139)
Or if you're looking more to maximize transfer speed over these fast interfaces, rather than maximum storage, the recently-introduced Seagate GoFlex Turbo Portable Drive features a 7200 RPM high performance drive for up to 40 percent faster file transfers than standard 5400 RPM drives. It's available with up to 750 GB for $139. The Turbo drives also bundle SafetyNet Data Recovery Services free for 2 years, to rescue damaged or deleted files, whether by accessing your drive over the Internet, or by shipping it in for service.
Seagate GoFlex Slim Drive - USB 3 (320 GB - $89)
If you're looking for even more portability, the Seagate GoFlex Slim Drive shrinks a fast 7200 RPM drive with a USB 3.0 interface down to roughly width of a pencil, with 320 GB of storage for around $70.
This puppy is not quite 3 x 5 inches, or about the size as a post-it pad -- but less thick. The USB 3.0 port fits on the end (the new port is smaller than a standard USB 2.0 port), and the end is removable with the GoFlex interface, which can plug into the Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Net Media Sharing Device to make the storage on the portable USB drives available over your local network.
Seagate GoFlex Satellite Drive - Mobile Wireless Storage (500 GB - $199)
But why worry about physical interfaces, when today it's all about cutting the cable? Instead, storage can go wireless too -- You can connect to the Seagate GoFlex Satellite Drive via Wi-Fi, so the disk not only works with computers, but also with portable devices including the Apple iPad and iPhone.
With this handheld drive (it's 4.72 x 3.54 x 0.87 in. and 0.59 lbs.), you can bring along additional media clips and documents, and access them from your portable device -- that's 500 more GB for around $179.
The idea is that you first load up the Satellite drive with all your files (yes, by plugging in a physical cable to your computer), and then you can detach and take it on the road as auxiliary storage for stuff you want to enjoy and share.
Note that this is not like adding an external hard drive to your device to allow you to drag and drop masses of files. Instead, the GoFlex Satellite is intended to be an auxiliary stash of media and document files that you can browse and view and stream. You can store some 300 HD movies, 125,000 songs, or 100,000 photos, and access them from up to three computers or portable devices at once.
Of course, when you plug the Satellite directly into your computer it mounts like any other external drive. You then can drag and drop the files that you want to carry on the drive, or use the Seagate Media Sync software for PC or Mac. And with the GoFlex adapters, you can choose between disk interfaces for USB 3.0 / 2.0, FireWire 800, and/or Powered eSATA.
Then when you dismount the drive it switches to operating as Wi-Fi hub. When you turn it on, a network called "GoFlex Satellite" appears in the list of available networks on your computer or device, so you connect to the drive just like any other wireless network.
However, when you connect to the drive instead of your network router, you're no longer connected to the Internet, so how do you actually access the contents of the drive?
One way is to use a web browser -- the drive redirects any web address access to the GoFlex Media interface, which lets you browse and play the disk contents.
Or on portable devices you also can use the free GoFlex Media app for the iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, Android tablets, and smartphones.
Both the app and browser interfaces share the same design -- you can browse your files by type (Videos, Photos, Music, Documents), or by folders on the drive. Then click to display / play the file.
The GoFlex Media interface does support a limited mechanism for downloading individual files from the drive onto your device, though the app mechanism controls playback and manages the downloaded files internally. There also is an upload feature to copy from your device to the drive which is prototyped but not yet implemented.
The Satellite drive has drop sensor protection. It runs on a rechargeable battery for 5 hours of streaming, or 25 hours on standby. It trickle charges through the USB data interface, or has a separate power adapter (though USB) for faster charging.
The good news for powering your various portable devices is that most smaller devices now use standard microUSB and USB interfaces for power as well as data, from tiny Bluetooth headsets to smartphones and tablets. So you can power them from your computer while you're transferring data, or use USB AC wall adapters. Unfortunately, it's not quite that easy, as not all USB power connections are the same -- so you need to use the appropriate more sophisticated adapters for the iPad and other more complex devices.
The last outpost of custom power connectors is laptops, so any universal charging solution still needs to come with a collection of tips for different manufacturers.
Kensington - AbsolutePower - Laptop, Phone, Tablet Charger (6/11)
The Kensington AbsolutePower Laptop, Phone, and Tablet Charger is particularly light and flexible, at 4.3 x 2.75 x 0.73 inches and only 8 ounces. The flexibility comes from the included tips to power laptops from ten different manufacturers. You can also switch between 19 and 16 volts, depending on the needs of your devices.
Plus, it includes two built-in USB power ports, one USB and one microUSB, which supply 2.1 Amps to charge tablets and phones, including the iPad & iPhone. The AbsolutePower unit puts out 100 watts peak, which can support triple charging a (not too demanding) laptop plus two additional USB devices.
Energizer Glas Flameless Candle ($16 / $21)
LED lighting has really taken over, from bright flashlights to Christmas string lights. LED provides bright light without heat, and uses less energy and lasts longer. Or LEDs can be dimmer and flickering, as in the new Energizer Flameless Candle line. These have integrated candle and holder, with 4-inch and 6-inch sizes, in the Glas rounded design and Edge more contemporary square look. These provide a warm glow with a realistic flickering effect -- a gentle flicker, not anything dramatic -- with no flame, no soot, wax, or smoke.
The Flameless Candles are powered by three AA batteries, and last up to 300 hours, although there's an automatic timeout to turn off after 4 hours. The lights are hidden in the base, so these no fake wicks or visible bulbs.
And there's more fun things for your portable devices ...
Logitech Wireless Touchpad - Multi-touch / Gestures (9/11)
The future is in touch -- Both Apple and Microsoft see tablets and touch interfaces as the future for their new desktop operating systems. So you'll scroll by grabbing the page and moving it directly, instead of moving the cursor over to a scroll bar and dragging the box in the opposite direction (cue the arguments on which is more natural)...
Yet while Keyboards are still important for a lot of tasks on PCs, a tablet-like interface can be very intuitive if you're doing a lot of browsing and scrolling and clicking.
So if you'd like to try out the touch experience, see the Logitech Wireless Touchpad, a 5-inch pad that supports multi-touch clicking, scrolling, and swiping with different numbers of fingers:
However, this kind of multi-touch functionality is not (yet) implemented directly in Windows or in the applications; instead it is provided as a virtual mouse interface. This works best by downloading the Logitech SetPoint control panel software and Scroll App for Windows 7 for smoother scrolling in browsers.
The Touchpad also is wireless, using a low-profile Logitech Unifying USB receiver dongle with a 2.4 GHz wireless connection. It runs on two AA batteries, with a life of up to four months.
Logitech Joystick for iPad - Thumb-stick ($19)
here's a simple little accessory -- that even technically qualifies as wireless -- the Logitech Joystick for iPad (and iPad 2).
This is a clever little device that helps gamers better control the motion of an on-screen joystick or d-pad on the iPad, compared to trying to position your hand and thumb precisely at the corner of the screen.
Instead, this thumb-stick style game controller attaches to the corner of the iPad with two small suction cups. The coiled spring design then provides force feedback as you slide to the sides, and guides you back to the center position.
My Holiday Tech Gadget Guides from previous years: