Google Introduces Free SMS in Gmail

Gmail almost singlehandedly redefined the entire webmail segment after its launch in 2004. Since then, Google has steadily expanded the scope of its webmail service. It started off by integrating Google Chat with Gmail, and later added support for video chat, and recently integrated video conferencing through Google Plus Hangouts. Today, Google added another dimension to its mail service. You can now send free SMS to users around the world right from Gmail.

To be honest, this isn’t strictly a new feature. SMS in Gmail Chat has been available as a Labs feature for several years. Google is simply graduating this feature from Labs. To send an SMS to a contact who is offline, simply type his name in the chat window, and you will get the option to send an SMS from the “More options” section in the floating box that appears to the right of your contact. Of course, this will only work if you have your contact’s phone number.

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SMS in Gmail Chat supports all operators in the United States, and most prominent operators in more than 50 countries. In India, it supports Aircel, IDEA, Loop Mobile, MTS, Reliance, Tata DoCoMo, Tata Indicom, Vodafone (Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Gujarat, A.P, Bihar, W.B. & A & N, Assam, N.E. circles only). The two big names that are missing from the list are Airtel and BSNL.

SMS in Gmail Chat is free; however, it does have some restrictions to prevent abuse. Initially, you will have a credit of 50 messages. Every time you send an SMS through chat, your credit will decrease by one, and every time you receive an SMS in Chat, your credit will increase by five. If your credit hits zero, you won’t be able to send a message. In such cases you have two options. You can either wait as the credit will increase back up to one 24 hours later. Or you can send an SMS to your own phone, and then reply to that message multiple times. Every time you send a reply message, your SMS credit is increased by five. Effectively, you will be buying more messages by paying your phone company for these outgoing messages.

Sony’s 2013 Android Lineup Spotted; Odin to Be the Next Xperia Flagship

AndroidSony has been pretty active this year, releasing new handsets every few weeks. Some might argue that Sony would perhaps be better served by focusing on releasing a handful of stellar performers, rather than confusing customers with dozens of different choices. However, Sony’s strategy of moving fast is definitely more preferable over its previous habit of mostly sitting and watching. It appears to be finally capable of releasing smartphones with both hardware and software that are current generation. The Japanese giant’s hard work seems to be paying off as reports suggest that Sony is now selling more devices in Europe than Nokia and Research in Motion. Of course, that isn’t really saying much, but it’s still progress.

2013 will hopefully see Sony continue its march in the right direction. While Sony has understandably been tight lipped about its next-gen devices, proof has emerged of the existence of at least three devices belonging to the 2013 lineup. The first device, which goes by the codename ‘Odin’ and sports a model number C650X, will be next year’s flagship. Unfortunately, the only thing that we know about the device at the moment is that it is running Jelly Bean (Android 4.1.1).

The other two devices that have been spotted are C150X and C160X. A Nenamark2 benchmark for the C160X suggests that the handset will be an entry level offering powered by a 1.0GHz single-core Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM7227A chipset with Adreno 200 graphics. It will most likely feature a small display (less than 4 inch) with a resolution of 320 x 480 pixels. No info is currently available for the C150X, but the model number suggests that it will possibly be an even cheaper variant of the C160X.

Android 4.2 will Feature Improved Battery Life Thanks to Project Roadrunner

Android-4-2Android 4.2 is expected to be announced sometime next month, along with the next Nexus device, which will be manufactured by LG. Google has managed to retain the veil of secrecy around the next version of Android. However, as we approach the official launch date, we will almost surely start seeing blurry cams and leaked information from “anonymous” tipsters. Kicking things off is Android and Me with a set of fresh rumors about the star attractions of the next iteration of Android.

Android 4.1 or Jelly Bean introduced a host of under the hood changes as a part of ‘Project Butter’, which increased the responsiveness of the Android user interface. Similarly, Google engineers have been working on something called ‘Project Roadrunner’ for Android 4.2. Project Roadrunner is going to deliver core improvements that will improve battery life.

Android 4.2 will also deliver several more visible improvements. The biggest of them revolving around the new ‘Customization Center’, which will act as a hub from where users will be able to change ringtones, language packs, background, launchers, and so on. Third-party Android apps will also be able to integrate themselves with the Customization Center. While the Customization Center will not sport anything too fancy in its first outing, it will support some form of icon packs and skins.

Google Play will be improved to support personalized search, optional promotional campaigns with notification center integration, more billing options, and easier in-app micro-transactions. Google Now will be able to answer basic system related questions like “Where can I activate Bluetooth?” that will help out new Android users. Finally, the video player will be revamped and provide more API hooks for third-party services.

Google will also reportedly change its Nexus program. Until now, Google has been releasing one Nexus device to showcase each major Android OS update. Google picked the Android OEM (original equipment manufacturer) for each Nexus device. It started off with HTC for the Nexus One, but has since used Samsung. Rumors suggest that LG is manufacturing a Nexus device for Android 4.2. However, LG might not be the only manufacturer to be working on a Nexus device. According to Android and Me’s source, Google is going to open up the Nexus program so that any manufacturer can launch a Nexus device. Currently, each manufacturer must meet some basic requirements to be able to use the Play store. Similarly, they will have to meet some additional requirements to be able to use the Nexus tag. For example, Nexus certification will have stipulations that will force manufacturers to use stock Android build and support Google Wallet. In other words, Nexus will simply become a certification program in the feature. Any device carrying the Nexus tag will offer an Android experience that will be in line with what Google wants.

LG Optimus 4X HD P880 Review

The LG Optimus 4X HD has a lot riding on its shoulders. Until the Optimus G arrives, the 4X will have to bear the responsibility of keeping LG’s head high in front of giants like the Galaxy SIII, the One X, and the iPhone 5. Thankfully, at least on paper, the Optimus 4X HD looks well equipped to go head to head against the latest and greatest smartphones from its competitors. Let us find out if the actual product lives up to its specifications.

Appearance

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The LG Optimus 4X uses a lot of plastic, but doesn’t feel cheap and flimsy in the way the Galaxy SIII does. LG has eschewed the conventional smooth curves in favor of a design with sharp corners that exude boldness. Its prism-edged design with intricately patterned back cover and a double rimmed frame lends it a more premium feel, besides making the phone easier to grip. The One X is still the winner in terms of comfort factor, and also would have won hands down in the looks department, if not for the frog-eyed lens. However, as things stand now, I find the Optimus 4X HD to be more appealing than both the One X and the Galaxy SIII.

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Unfortunately, the Optimus 4X has one major design issue. There is absolutely no buffer space between the display and the capacitive buttons – in other words, the buttons begin as soon as the screen ends. This can lead to some extremely frustrating experiences. If even the tiniest portion of your finger touches the Home button while you are trying to tap the space bar, you will be instantly taken out of whichever application you were using and to your launcher’s home screen. After using the 4X HD for a couple of weeks, I sort of trained myself to steer clear of the capacitive buttons while typing, but I am sure that LG has accelerated my balding process.

Display

The LG Optimus 4X has a 4.7-inch True HD-IPS LCD capacitive touchscreen with a resolution of 720 x 1280 pixels (312 ppi). Any display with a pixel density greater than 300 should be stunning, and the Optimus 4X doesn’t disappoint. It uses RGB display matrix, which should (at least in theory) lend it an advantage over the Galaxy SIII, which has a pentile matrix. However, I couldn’t distinguish individual pixels in either of the displays. The Optimus 4X HD display is bright – I mean really bright. It has excellent outdoor visibility, and the viewing angles are quite good. However, the extra bright IPS display has its own disadvantage. LG’s display lacks contrast as a result of which images appear slightly washed out. The blacks of AMOLED displays are worth dying for, and LCDs still can’t get anywhere near.

Hardware

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The Optimus 4X features an Nvidia Tegra 3 chip, which boasts of a Quad-core (plus an additional power saving fifth core) 1.5 GHz Cortex-A9 CPU and a ULP GeForce GPU. This is precisely what the international version of HTC One X also uses; hence, theoretically both of them should be able to deliver similar performance. I benchmarked the Optimus 4X against Galaxy SIII and One X. Samsung’s flagship was the clear winner, while LG managed to beat HTC in AnTuTu, but trailed in Quadrant.

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To be fair to LG, the difference between the Optimus 4X and other Android flagships isn’t particularly huge. The 4X HD feels zippy and smooth whether I am flinging through my pictures in the Gallery or playing an HD video. However, I did notice occasional frame rate drops while playing games like Temple Run, which was somewhat surprising.

Software

The Optimus 4X HD ships with Android 4.0, which is better known as Ice Cream Sandwich. This was perfectly fine when the 4X HD was announced. However, it has already been three months since Jelly Bean (Android 4.1) was unveiled by Google. Samsung has already started updating Galaxy SIII handsets to Jelly Bean, while HTC has committed to delivering Jelly Bean to One X owners in October. LG on the other hand is yet to even commit to rolling out Jelly Bean to its existing line of products. LG has a pretty poor track record when it comes to delivering updates, and it is clear that they haven’t learned anything from their past mistakes. It’s unforgivable that LG has failed to clarify their position on Jelly Bean update for their premium smartphone a full quarter after its release.

As far as ICS is concerned, LG has put in substantial amount of effort to distinguish its baby from the other smartphones in the market. As expected, the 4X runs the Optimus UI 3.0 on top of ICS. Skinning ICS is not the easiest task, simply because Google did an excellent job at creating a refined and aesthetically pleasing interface. Most smartphone manufacturers – Samsung and HTC included, simply fall into the trap of ignoring all ICS design conventions and slapping on a bright, colorful interface in the name of differentiation. LG is no different, but because it retains a sizable chunk of default ICS design elements, it comes off looking better than Samsung. Sony is among the few manufacturers who have managed to get the balancing act largely right by making tasteful design modification to the ICS user interface.

The strong point of the Optimus UI is its customizability. You can change everything from home screen transition effects to application icons. Even the lock screen is pretty customizable. You get to choose everything from how the clock looks to which apps appear in the lock screen dock. And, oh yeah, LG’s lock screen unlock animation is definitely the coolest that I have seen on Android. In spite of heavy customizability, LG’s Optimus UI feels slightly less intuitive than TouchWiz and Sense. Sense is packed to the brim with eye-candy, while TouchWiz uses a lot of clever gestures to enhance productivity.

As I mentioned earlier, LG has gone the extra mile to make the 4X HD stand out from the crowd. Many of the enhancements concern multimedia aspects of the 4X and will be touched upon later in this article. There are a couple of non-multimedia enhancements that I will briefly discuss right now. For a more in-depth look at the features unique to LG’s flagship, check out my earlier write-up on the USPs (unique selling points) of the 4X.

The first major enhancement is QuickMemo. It is essentially an enhanced note taking app that permeates through the Optimus UI. Just tap the QuickMemo button present in the notification bar, and whatever was happening on-screen will be frozen. You can annotate the screen capture and save it for later reference or share it with your friends. You can annotate presentations, documents, webpages, and just about anything.

The other major software enhancement concerns the mail client. The Optimus 4x ships with its own mail client called Smart Mail that offers a desktop-client like two pane view in landscape mode, and enhances discoverability of previous conversations through its smart email-sorting feature.

Multimedia

The Optimus 4X features an 8-megapixel rear cam and an 1.3 megapixel front cam. LG’s camera UI is simplistic, but still offers lots of configurability through the settings menu. Still photography provides four basic modes – normal, panorama, HDR, and continuous shot – all of which are standard features in current generation smartphones. However, the 4X does have one unique trick up its sleeve that gives it an edge over its competition. It is called “Time Catch Shot”. When you enable this feature, the 4X captures five shots in a quick succession, including shots from moments before you clicked on the shoot button, from which you can select and keep the best shot. With Time Catch, even if you are too late or too early with the shoot button, you can still capture the moment you wanted.

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Shot taken at dusk
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Shot taken at dusk in HDR mode

In terms of picture quality, the Optimus 4X really shines outdoors. It takes detailed, vibrant yet natural images with minimal noise. The HDR mode also works particularly well and is a great way to capture images of stationary objects under low light. However, one area where the 4X fumbles is normal low light photography. Both the One X and the S3 shoots better pictures under poor artificial lighting.

The 4X shoots 1080p videos at 30 fps. Once again, the poor low-light performance holds it back, but under proper conditions, LG’s flagship is a competent performer. The videos recorded have good color reproduction and low noise, but goes overboard with the sharpness that adds some artifacts. The continuous auto-focus works quite well, and unless you are trying to capture really close objects, the focus readjustment happens quite quickly and smartly. You also get the option to capture images while shooting videos.

As I mentioned earlier, LG has done a lot to enhance the multimedia experience. Most of its efforts show up in the video player. Optimus 4X HD’s video player has four nifty tricks up its sleeve that gives it a clear advantage over its competition. They are –

  • Fingertip seek, which shows a YouTube like preview of the frame you are about to jump to while seeking.
  • Speed controller, which allows you to slow down or speed up the video on the fly.
  • Split-Screen view, which allows you to quickly browse through your library.
  • Pinch-to-zoom, which allows you to zoom into any video you are watching. While this is not something that you will use regularly, it is a nice to have enhancement.

Others

A particularly thorny issue with modern smartphones is battery life. While we have briskly moved onto massive screens and quad-cores with frequencies in gigahertzs, the battery technology has been struggling to keep up. The 4X ships with the most firepower. It has a 2150 mAh battery, while the S3 and the One X have 2100 mAH and 1800 mAh batteries respectively. Unfortunately, in real world, 4X doesn’t perform so well. I didn’t benchmark LG’s battery performance; however, Samsung’s Galaxy S3 undoubtedly lasts quite a few hours more than the Optimus 4X HD. The 4X has a good standby time; however, surfing or watching videos kills the battery really quickly.

While purchasing a new smartphone the thing that often has the least impact on the buyer’s decision is the device’s capabilities as a phone. However, a smartphone that can seamlessly stream HD videos, but can’t be used for making calls in crowded places due to poor noise isolation is hardly a smart buy. Thankfully, the Optimus 4X suffers from no such flaws. Call quality is crisp and the speaker is loud enough to allow conversations even in noisy environments.

Connectivity options in the Optimus 4X HD include DLNA, Wi-Fi Direct, Bluetooth 4.0, and NFC. LG is also taking a page out of Sony’s book and introducing NFC smart tags. They are calling this LG Tag+. The NFC tags can be used for changing profiles, launching apps, altering phone settings and more with a tap. The Optimus 4X will ship with two tags.

Conclusion

The Optimus 4X is a great phone, there is no doubt about it. It looks and feels like a flagship device, and for the most part, performs like a premium device. The mixed benchmark scores and shorter battery life indicates that the software is not perhaps as optimized as it could have been. However, in real life, you are unlikely to notice the performance difference. The Optimus 4X is fast and fluid, and is capable of running games like Nova 3 smoothly. The user interface is highly customizable and there are numerous unique features to boot. LG’s latest flagship might not manage to beat the Galaxy or the One X on the whole, but it is extremely competent and can stand proudly next to the best of the best devices. The best part is that the Optimus 4X is a fair bit cheaper than most of its competition. Both the One X and the Galaxy S3 are currently available for around Rs. 35,000, while the Optimus 4X HD is retailing for around Rs. 32,000. Regardless, of which of the three you pick, you will end up with a great smartphone. The Galaxy S3 remains the best device that money can buy. However, if those three thousand bucks really matter to you, go for the 4X HD. It has its own share of strengths to justify its billing as a flagship. If LG can manage to get the cost down a bit more, then the 4X might even eat into the sales of previous generation super powers like the Galaxy SII.

Microsoft’s Developer Marathon in India Sets Guinness World Record

Microsoft’s Windows AppFest held at KTPO, Bangalore, has set the Guinness World Record for “Most Participants in a Software Development Marathon in One Location”. A little more than two and a half thousand (2567 to be precise) developers poured their heart and soul for eighteen hours to design, build, and test new Windows 8 apps.

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Microsoft has been holding developer events across the world in an attempt to energize the developer ecosystem for Windows 8 ahead of its launch. Windows 8 features an entirely new class of touch-screen friendly apps that leverage web technologies. While Windows 8 makes developing Windows apps easier than ever before, it also eschews backward compatibility. Old apps will still run on desktops, but only in the classic mode, and in ARM tablets, they won’t run at all. Microsoft is making a bold move by redefining what we mean by Windows Apps, and its success hinges on developer participation.

AppFest is an initiative to get developers familiarized and involved with Windows 8, as well as to raise awareness about the opportunities offered by Windows 8. The Bangalore event was filled with activities throughout the day and night including performances from DJRink, rock band Swarathma and morning yoga sessions. Bhaskar Pramanik, Chairman, Microsoft India, remarked “The spectacle of thousands of developers toiling through the night has demonstrated great commitment to their work.”

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[ Photos courtesy of Abhishek Baxi and Microsoft ]

Opera Mini for Android Updated with Smart Page

Opera Software is promising to make your Android smartphone even smarter with Opera Mini 7.5 for Android. The new Opera Mini for Android introduces ‘Smart Page’, which we had seen earlier in Opera Mini for J2ME, S60, and BlackBerry.

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Smart Page acts as a new personalized home page, which gives you a birds-eye view of what’s happening. “There are just too many social networks, and I’m a busy man! Now, thanks to the Smart Page I can get all the updates at a glance, even from my favorite Danish newspapers. This is a real time saver!” remarked Lars Boilesen, CEO, Opera Software. Smart Page features three main categories of content:

  • Social tab: This section allows you to get a glimpse of your Facebook, Twitter, and vKontakte streams at one place, without having to visit several webpages.
  • My News: This section highlights latest news pulled from different sources. Opera Software claims that Opera Mini learns your preferences and interests from your browsing habits and showcases news that it believes you will be interested in.
  • Suggested links: This section features a list of relevant links based on the region your Android phone is located. Some of the suggested links can be sponsored links from Opera’s partners.

Opera Mini’s initial claim to fame was its ability to compress webpages to reduce bandwidth bills and improve surfing speed on slower networks. Opera Mini 7.5 stays true to its tradition and is both light and fast. After using Chrome for Android, I can’t help but wish that Opera ditched its practice of having a consistent interface across platforms, and instead went with a more native appearance. However, Opera Mini is still one app that I will always have on my phone, simply because it can be a huge time and money saver when you are travelling or don’t have access to fast internet.

ZTE to Launch Firefox Mobile OS Powered Smartphone within a Few Months

Word emerged a couple of months back that Mozilla was partnering with Alcatel and ZTE for its Firefox Mobile OS project. Now, Reuters is reporting that work on Mozilla’s smartphone operating system is further along than most people might have anticipated. ZTE is gearing up to release a Firefox powered phone either this year or early next year.

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Firefox Mobile OS, which was previously known as Boot to Gecko, is a bold and ambitious project by Mozilla to provide a web-technology based smartphone operating system. ZTE currently manufactures a host of Android smartphones whose primary selling point is competent hardware at an attractive price point. It also has several Windows Phone devices under the Tania brand name. The surprising move to collaborate with Mozilla to introduce another smartphone operating system is simply an attempt to diversify. “We are trying to increase our efforts in coming up with our own operating system, while introducing products based on Android,” said ZTE spokesman David Dai Shu.”It’s all part of our wider plans to create a better balance of products using various operating systems. We won’t just rely on Android or Windows.”

It’s hard not to be skeptical of Mozilla’s attempts given the current hyper-competitive state of smartphone ecosystems. Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android were the early movers, and they have managed to build a flourishing ecosystem that Microsoft, even with its deep pocket and close partnership with A-league manufacturers like Nokia, is struggling with compete against. Mozilla neither has a deep pocket, nor pre-existing relationships with device manufacturers, carriers, and developers. I will be following the development of Firefox Mobile OS closely, but I will be more than surprised if it actually succeeds.

Blackberry London Gets Photographed, to Be Released in January

The writing is on the wall for RIM. The Canadian smartphone giant was caught napping as iOS and Android stole its thunder. Not only was RIM too late to realize the potential of new-age, touch-first smartphones, its first few attempts to compete with Google and Apple were abysmal failures. Now, as Samsung continues to ship millions of Android smartphones, Apple books millions of pre-orders for its new baby, and Nokia inches towards releasing a promising alternative for the holiday season, Research in Motion is left without a flagship that can reverse its fortunes. In a meek attempt to regain investor and consumer confidence, RIM demoed the half-baked BlackBerry 10 as far back as May 2012. However, the first BB 10 devices won’t show up before January ’13.

BlackBerry 10 devices will mainly fall in two categories – the full-touch L series, and the hardware QWERTY sporting N series. RIM is yet to disclose any information about its new line of smartphones. However, BGR has spotted a couple of pictures of a full-touch Blackberry that goes by the codename London. London doesn’t appear to have any standout design features like the iPhone 5 or the Lumia 920; however, it looks pretty decent.

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RIM has its task cut out as London and Nevada (its first N-series device) can’t afford to be anything short of stunning for BlackBerry to be able to offer even a semblance of competition to Android and iOS, both of which have a mature platform and a flourishing app ecosystem.

New Critical 0-day Internet Explorer Vulnerability Being Used to Deliver Poison Ivy Trojan

If you are still using Internet Explorer 9 or below, here is one more reason to upgrade to Internet Explorer 10, or perhaps take a look at one of the many excellent free alternatives. A critical zero-day vulnerability has been uncovered in Internet Explorer that could allow a remote hacker to execute arbitrary code on your system even if you simply browse to an infected page. The vulnerability is already being actively exploited in the wild. Affected versions include Internet Explorer 6, 7, 8, and 9.

Eric Romang was the first to report the vulnerability, which has since been confirmed by Microsoft. The exploit has four main components: the Exploit.html file which acts as the starting point, the Moh2010.swf flash file that is responsible for spraying the heap with the payload that will be executed, the Protect.html file that is the actual trigger for the vulnerability, and additional malicious components that are downloaded and executed on the compromised system by the payload. The payload being dropped by the flash file has been identified to be the infamous Poison Ivy trojan.

If Internet Explorer 10 is not supported on your system and you don’t want to move to an alternate browser, Microsoft is recommending that you add Internet Explorer to the Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit, or set Internet and Local intranet security zone settings to “High” to block ActiveX Controls and Active Scripting. Detailed workaround instructions are available in Microsoft’s Security Advisory.

HTC Droid Incredible X Leaked; Will Go Heads-On Against Samsung Note 2

I am not a big fan of the phone-tablet hybrid segment that Samsung has been pushing with its Galaxy Note series of products. These devices, which are often referred to by the awkward sounding moniker phablet, are too large to be used comfortably as a phone and are too small to realize the benefits of a tablet. However, I must be in the minority as the Note has been doing pretty well.

If rumors are to be believed then HTC is also preparing to join Samsung. HTC Source has learnt from a tipster that the HTC hybrid device bears a codename DIx (which might stand for Droid Incredible X), and will sport a Qualcomm S4 Pro chip with four Krait cores. Other rumored specs include a 5-inch display with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. This actually amounts to a pixel density of 440 ppi; however, somewhat confusingly, the source believes that the DIx will have a pixel density of 480 ppi.

The DIx will offer 1.5 GB RAM, and 16 GB internal storage. Unfortunately, no expansion slot will be provided. The battery is also said to be non-removable.

As always, take these rumors with a pinch of salt, but we do have a leaked snap of the device in question, which is embedded below.

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