The Consumer Electronic Show might not have the clout it used to possess a decade back, but the nearly fifty year old trade show is still capable of throwing up products and prototypes that offer a glimpse of the future. One such product on display in this year’s CES is the Tactus touchscreen.
Unlike most other touchscreen manufacturers of the day, Tactus isn’t attempting to compete on resolution, pixel density, vibrancy, etc. The distinguishing feature of the Tactus touchscreen is its ability to morph into a keyboard. Tactus’ Tactile Layer technology replaces the conventional cover glass of modern displays with a thin, flat, smooth and transparent cover layer varying in thickness from about 0.75mm to 1mm. This cover has multiple-layers. The top layer consists of an optically clear polymer, while the bottom layer consists of a number of channels filled with fluid. The fluid’s refractive index is same as the refractive index of its surrounding components, which makes it fully and evenly transparent when light from the display passes through. There are a number of micro-holes between the top layer and the bottom layer. Increasing the pressure of the fluid layer causes the fluid to push up through the holes and against the top polymer layer, making it expand in pre-defined locations. The state and shape of the buttons can be controlled by the software.
Right now Tactus’ chief value proposition is being able to offer true tactile feedback on touchscreen keyboards. However, the technology can be possibly used for more demanding requirements including gaming. I don’t mind my touchscreen keyboard, since I love Swyping on my phone. However, I would love to have a tactile game controller built right into my touchscreen handset.
Last year, Mozilla promised to rock your World Wide Web with Firefox for Android. While Chrome is still my default browser, mainly due to a preference for its user interface, Firefox Mobile has indeed gone on to garner sizable fan base, with an impressive rating of 4.2 in the Play store.
Mozilla has revealed some of the features that are lined up for Firefox for Android in 2013. The most significant new feature to be disclosed is Private Browsing. Private Browsing has become a standard feature in desktop browsers, and several mobile browsers including Chrome and Dolphin have offered it on mobile phones also for quite some time. Incidentally, Private Browsing in Firefox for desktop is also being rewritten to offer increased flexibility.
The other focus point for Firefox in 2013 will be enhanced customizability. The mobile edition of Firefox will support themes as well as offer a customizable start-page. “No matter how you browse with Firefox for Android — for news, the most useful sites, the funniest pages — we’ll never stop trying to give you the best and fastest experience”, Mozilla promised in its note.
The final revelation concerns increased availability, both in terms of device compatibility and language support. Mozilla didn’t offer a timeline, but promised to make these features available “soooooooon”.
We already have some idea about the phones in Sony’s 2013 Xperia lineup, now details have emerged about what they are going to be called.
The C660X, which was until now known by its codename ‘Yuga‘, is rumored to be the Xperia Z. According to a source on XDA, the Xperia Z will be both water and dust resistant with IP57 certification. It will also sport a 5” 1080p display with OptiContrast technology, which will reduce reflection and glare under sunlight.
Odin, which is the other powerhouse that Sony will be releasing next year, will probably be launched as the Xperia X. It will be identical to the Xperia Z in terms of specifications with a 5” full HD display, Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core chipset, and 13 megapixel camera. However, it will sport a different design.
There are also rumors that the Xperia Z and the Xperia X might be announced in China on January 15 at a price point similar to that of Xperia T. Even if that doesn’t turn out to be true, the phones will almost surely make an appearance at next year’s CES and MWC.
Making it to the top isn’t easy, but staying there is even harder. And, Facebook is finding this out the hard way. Facebook Poke shot to the top of the free apps list in the iTunes App Store within a day of its release. Fast forward a week, and it has not only lost its #1 spot, but has vanished entirely from the top 10. In fact, Facebook Poke is currently languishing at #35.
Facebook Poke’s rise and fall shows that even if you already have a billion users, things don’t necessarily become easier for you. Sure, the massive existing userbase allowed Facebook to climb rapidly to the top of the App Store charts. However, once users discovered that Facebook’s app offers little that isn’t already there in Snapchat, interest waned. In the meanwhile, Snapchat, the service that pioneered the concept of self-destructing messages, climbed to the #4 slot. The fear of having to use real names while sending risqué messages might have also played a role in Poke’s quick fall.
Blindly copying features from other apps hasn’t worked out well for Facebook in the past either. Questions, which was perhaps inspired by the popularity of Quora, was shuttered fairly quickly. The check-in feature has fared comparatively better, but hasn’t managed to come anywhere near dethroning Foursquare, as the original ambition was.
Mobile is Facebook’s biggest challenge, and it won’t be able to conquer the segment by simply copying and iterating. Facebook has some of the smartest engineers in the world. Perhaps its time that it went into another lock-down and brainstormed ideas that can lend Facebook the decisive edge.
Google Search is known to test new features on random unsuspecting users. At any point of time, there are probably several different versions of its search page floating around. The latest feature that has been spotted in the wild is “Quick View” for mobile search results.
Google has been offering the Quick View option for documents (PPT, PDF etc.) for quite some time. Now, it’s toying with the idea of introducing Quick View for websites. Wissam Dandan spotted that Google is displaying a Quick View link in the search results page for Wikipedia pages. Tapping on the link opens up the mobile version of Wikipedia.
Currently this feature seems to be limited only to Wikipedia. However, there’s no reason why Google couldn’t expand this feature to include all webpages. It can either attempt to load the mobile website whenever possible, or load a stripped down version (sort of like Readability mode) of the webpage. Right now this feature doesn’t really make much of a difference; however, I like the concept. Hopefully, Google will expand the feature and roll it out to all mobile users in the future.
Facebook has released yet another app for the iOS platform, and this one was apparently created in just twelve days by Zuckerberg and a small team of coders. The new app is called Facebook Poke, and is essentially a Snapchat clone. The story is that Facebook attempted to buy Snapchat’s tiny team of five, but the team chose to stay independent. So, Facebook decided to simply build its own Snapchat like app.
Facebook Poke is a mobile messaging app which can be used for sending pokes, messages (120 char), photos and videos (up to 10 seconds). However, like in Snapchat, the message self-destructs seconds (1,3,5, or 10 seconds) after the recipient views it. It also has a screenshot alert that notifies the sender if you attempt to screenshot the message.
In less than a day after Poke was launched, it has climbed to the #1 spot among free apps in the App Store, with Snapchat staying at #9 position. Poke is tightly integrated with the Facebook graph, and the Facebook brand name alone is strong enough to drive millions of downloads. However, the are a couple of areas of concern with Poke that might hold users back from jumping ships. Snapchat allows users to use custom usernames. On the other hand, Facebook Poke displays your real name, which is pulled from your Facebook profile. The other concern is related with data retention. Snapchat promises to delete your messages as soon as possible after the message is transmitted. Facebook on the other hand holds onto the message for two days after they have been seen by the last recipient, and after that it deletes the encryption key making the message inaccessible for everyone. However, the encryption key might persist in backups for up to 90 days. This if of course better than the standard Facebook terms of service, which grants the company liberty to store your content for as long as you have an account. But, will it be good enough for an app, which is meant for sharing the intimate photos you don’t want to be committed to record?
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 and Samsung’s Exynos might be the current champions of performance in the mobile arena; however, if leakedslides are to be believed, their reign might not last long. Nvidia’s Tegra 4 will be six times as powerful as the Tegra 3 and feature as many as 72 GPU cores.
Tegra 4, which bears the superhero-themed codename Wayne, will use 28 nanometer process that is already being used by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon and Apple’s A6X. The improved 28nm architecture should lower power consumption, but will require enhanced heat dissipation. Nvidia is also updating its mobile powerhouse to ARM’s Cortex-A15 design. The Tegra 4, will retain the quad-core CPU setup, with an additional power saving core. The chip will be capable of powering displays up to 2,560 x 1600, with 1080p output at 120Hz. The slide also mentions 4K or Ultra-HD (UHD) output. The other exciting development is the inclusion of support for USB 3.0, which should give a bump to read and write speeds.
If the leaked slide is accurate, then Nvidia will again jump to the front of the pack and raise the bar for mobile computing. We will know for sure within a couple of months it is almost certain that Nvidia will show off its newest creation at either the CES or the MWC.
2012 hasn’t exactly turned out to be a great year for Sony Mobile. The Japanese manufacturer has been struggling to simply keep up with the competition. Months after HTC and Samsung released its flagships, Sony is yet to release anything that can compete in pure specs as well as performance. However, 2013 is shaping up to be a much more impressive year for Sony.
Several smartphones from Sony’s 2013 lineup have already been leaked. Odin (C650X) and Yuga (C660X) are likely to be the Sony flagships for next year. While we don’t know much about Odin, last month, we got our first look at Yuga. Now, Eldar Murtazin from Mobile-Review has managed to get his hands on Yuga. As previously reported, the phone boasts of a 5” full HD (1080p) LCD dispay, and is powered by a Snapdragon S4 Pro. Elder was impressed with what he saw, and termed the powerful processor and the large display as a “fabulous combination”. However, he also noted that the device tends to get “warm as a stove”.
Another new device, which currently goes by the codename HuaShan (C5303X) wasspotted on AnTuTu. HuaShan will probably be a budget device sporting a 1.7 GHz dual-core CPU. The other two Sony Mobile smartphones that we know of are unnamed devices bearing the code numbers C150X and C160X. They will be entry level offerings powered by a 1.0GHz single-core Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM7227A chipset with Adreno 200 graphics.
Flexible, wearable phones – stuff from sci-fi flicks that we have all drooled over, might show up in the market as early as next year. Flexible OLED displays have earlier been demoed by several display manufacturers including Samsung, LG, and Sony. Some of them, like Sony, have been researching on bendable displays for nearly a decade; however, none of them have been able to simplify the process to make them suitable for manufacturing in bulk.
Now, reports from BBC and WSJ suggest that Samsung might be in the last phase of development of flexible OLEDS. Devices using these next generation displays will be extremely light and unbreakable, as they will be using plastic instead of glass. Lee Chang-hoon, Vice President of Samsung’s display unit, confirmed that the company is currently sampling the displays with a few customers. A big challenge in creating flexible phones is that the entire assembly, including the display, battery, chipset, and the housing needs to be flexible. Mass producing such units have so far proved to be prohibitively expensive.
Reports suggest that the new flexible phones will be showcased in the first half of 2013. If that pans out, then chances are that Samsung might reveal something exciting in next year’s CES and MWC.
Samsung’s original Note singlehandedly created the segment of smartphones that is commonly referred to as Phablet. These are devices that are larger than most conventional phones, but smaller than tablets. I have never been a big fan of phablets. They are essentially compromise devices – too large to be conveniently used as a phone, yet too small to confer the multimedia benefits of a tablet. I found the original Note to be simply a bloated version of the S2. However, clearly, a large section of the populace didn’t mind the giant screen, as the original Note sold quite well. The recently introduced Note 2 has been doing even better – selling more than three million units in less than a month.
Now, other manufactures are also getting in on the act, and last month, LG introduced its first phablet – the Optimus Vu P895 in India. Soon Kwon – MD of LG India, believes that the Vu has everything that the competition fails to offer. I used the Vu as my primary device for the better half of the past week to find out if it lives up to the promise.
Even though LG’s 2012 series of smartphones have been a bit all over the place in terms of overall quality, one thing they have consistently delivered on is design. The Optimus Vu is no exception. It is exceedingly thin (8.5 mm), and feels solidly constructed. There’s a lot of plastic, but it doesn’t feel cheap and flimsy. I have been a fan of LG’s bold rectangular design principle, and the Vu holds onto much of what I liked about the Optimus 4X. The matte finish of the back cover makes the Vu easier to grip, and the sliding door covering the micro-USB port is a nice touch. However, the most striking feature of the Optimus Vu is just wide it is. At 90.4 mm, the Optimus Vu is about a centimeter wider than the Note 2. The extra width means that unless you have a really big hand, you are going to have a hard time gripping the Vu. I found it extremely uncomfortable (almost painful) to hold the Vu during long conversations. Thankfully, in spite of the bulk, the Vu is fairly light, weighing just 168 grams.
LG has utilized the extra width to pack in a couple of additional buttons. At the top left there is an additional button that triggers the QuickMemo app. At the bottom, there is an additional capacitive button for launching the new Android task switcher. Both of these are non-essential additions, but are nice to have.
LG could have slimmed down the Vu a bit more by shrinking the rather wide bezels. However, the extra bezel space has eliminated the accidental button press problem that I encountered in the Optimus 4X.
The Vu features a 5’’ HD-IPS LCD screen with a resolution of 1024-by-768 pixels. LG claims that the PC-like 4:3 aspect ratio is ‘perfect for multitasking’. I will take a closer look to see if that claim has any substance in the Software section of this review. The screen is bright and offers good outdoor visibility with excellent viewing angles. It’s not as vibrant as the Note 2’s or One X’s display, but doesn’t appear washed out like some of the other LG displays.
The Optimus Vu ships with a 5.5’’ Rubberdium stylus. Vu’s stylus falls somewhere between the original Note’s and the Note 2’s stylus. It’s thicker than most styluses, but not as think as the new S Pen, which can be actually gripped like a pen. Since, the Vu needs to be used with two hands anyway, it’s a smart move to include a stylus. Unfortunately, all the benefits that the stylus could have offered is rendered moot by sheer stupidity. LG has thrown in a stylus, but the phone itself doesn’t have any slot for storing the stylus. Instead, you have to actually carry around the stylus in your pocket. This is of course a major annoyance. I already almost lost the stylus once, and after a couple of days, I simply stopped carrying around the stylus. Samsung on the other hand, not only provides a mechanism to store the stylus, but actually reminds you if you forget to tuck your stylus into the phone before walking away. The second sore point is that the Optimus Vu stylus is not pressure sensitive. The S Pen stylus for the Note 2, on the other hand, can differentiate between 1024 pressure levels. So, the Vu stylus can only be used as a pointing device or for scribbling. Don’t think about drawing or doodling with it. The final and the biggest point of annoyance is that you can actually tap on the capacitive buttons with the stylus. So, while using the stylus, you will have to consistently toggle between using your finger and the stylus. The stylus really seems to be something that LG tucked on to the Vu at the last moment for namesake.
The Optimus Vu ships with Android 4.0.4, and is slated to get Android 4.1 (Jellybean) in first quarter of next year. No word on whether it will receive Android 4.2 or not. There is the customary LG Optimus UX running on top of stock ICS. While some aspects of the Optimus UX – like its overuse of bright colors – are annoying, there are plenty of thoughtful additions. LG has a TouchWiz like scrollable notification bar, but unlike in TouchWiz, it’s completely customizable. In fact, customizability is one of the strongest points of Optimus UX. For example, everything about the lock screen can be changed including how the clock looks or what shortcuts appear in the dock.
LG’s QuickMemo, which we earlier saw in the 4X and the L-series handsets, has made it to the Vu too. It is essentially an enhanced note taking app that is now accessible through its dedicated physical button. You can annotate presentations, documents, webpages, and just about anything with QuickMemo. You can save your memos for later reference or share them with your contacts.
In addition to QuickMemo, LG has added another note taking app called Notebook. In fact, all QuickMemos go into a single folder inside the Notebook. The Notebook allows you to create elaborate notes with images, drawings, and text. Other bundled apps include a backup tool, a news reader, Polaris office, and a video editor called Video Wiz.
One aspect of the Vu where LG has put in a lot of thought and effort is the keyboard. The keyboard has four distinct modes – a classic feature phone layout (that I am sure no one will use), QWERTY layout for tap typing, QWERTY layout for Swype style shape writing, and a handwriting recognition mode. Normally, typing with single hand is impossible on the Vu. However, the keyboard has a special singlehanded typing mode that can be triggered via convenient gestures. When in this mode, the keyboard automatically shrinks and sticks to one edge of the screen (left or right). Although, I found the stylus to be pretty unusable in its current form, I did give handwriting recognition a fair spin and came away impressed. It was able to pick up my shabby handwriting with surprising amount of accuracy. Not only is the recognition engine accurate, but also quite fast. It’s a pity that the stylus is so unusable. The only complaint that I have is that most keyboard settings are buried several levels deep in the Android interface.
LG claims that the 4:3 interface is best for multitasking. After taking the Vu for a spin, I can’t say that I am convinced. LG might be onto something, but the Vu’s software fails to drive that point home. In fact, the Note 2 with its multi-window multi-tasking is a lot more productive. Even, QSlide from Optimus G with added support for streaming videos, would have been quite handy. However, with the standard interface, I don’t see how the Vu is better suited for multitasking than any of the other current generation smartphones. In fact, the 4:3 aspect ratio has a negative impact on the multimedia experience, since almost all video content is in widescreen aspect ratios. Some apps like Subway Surfer also have a problem with the Vu’s resolution and need to be scaled. The only aspect where the Vu really benefits from its resolution is web browsing in portrait mode.
LG Optimus Vu P895 ships with an 8 megapixel camera, which may not be the best mobile camera in the market, but produces good quality images and acceptable videos. Its weakest point is low light capture, where it performs significantly worse than the S3. However, under proper lighting conditions, the Vu takes well balanced, detailed images. The algorithm that LG is using is really smart and manages to get the settings bang on in most cases. In keeping with Optimus UX’s focus on customizability, the camera interface is also adjustable. The usual features including panorama, HDR, and burst modes are present. The Vu lacks an option for macro-focusing. However, don’t let that fool you into thinking that the Vu can’t take close up pics. The auto-mode is really good at figuring out when you want to use macro mode. The camera app’s biggest draw is ‘Time Catch Shot’, which we first saw in the Optimus 4X. When you enable this feature, the Vu 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. Another gimmicky feature called Cheese shot captures the pic when you say ‘cheese’.
The Vu shoots videos at 1080p with 30 frames per second. LG has thrown in a couple of interesting video effects. You can remove the video background and instead use a disco, sunset, or space background. You can also pick a video from your own library to use as a background. Be warned though, in order for this feature to work, your background needs to be stationary and the phone needs to be extremely stable. You also have bunch of face wrap options for playing with your friends.
The video player in Vu boasts of all the excellent enhancements we saw in the Optimus 4X. 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.
LG Optimus Vu features a number of connectivity options including NFC, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA, and Bluetooth 4.0. Like Sony, LG includes a couple of NFC Tags called Tag+, which can be used to automatically change your phone’s settings to a preset mode. These tags can be configured with the companion Android app.
The Optimus Vu includes a 2080 mAh non-user replaceable battery. This can be a real headache, given that the Vu doesn’t really last all that long. I only got about nine hours with moderate usage on 3G. This is unacceptable for a phablet, since its strong point is supposed to be watching videos and surfing the web. The Note 2 on the other hand comes with a 3100 mAh battery.
LG has also opted to not include an expandable memory slot. However, this is unlikely to be a major problem for most users, given that Vu ships with 32 GB of internal storage.
As I mentioned in the beginning, I am not a big fan of phablets, and the Vu did nothing to change that. However, if I keep my preferences aside, then I must admit that the Vu is an interesting device. It certainly has a lot going for itself. It’s fast, well designed, sports a good camera and a feature-packed video player. It also makes a few mistakes. Unfortunately for LG, the Vu’s oversights are really big, and they end up hurting what would have otherwise been an excellent product.
I tried really hard to understand why LG would go for a 4:3 screen, but failed to come up with anything concrete. My takeaway is that with this odd proportion, LG has sacrificed too much to gain too little. The next slipup is with the Stylus. In fact, LG gets the stylus so wrong that you should pretty much ignore it all together. You are unlikely to be using it a lot. And, even if you want to use it, you will probably lose it very quickly. My final grudge is with the battery. If you are going to make the battery non user replaceable, you better make sure that it has enough juice to last a day.
When I began to use the Vu, I really liked the device. Yes, it was too big, but it had a nice display, was really smooth and fast, had a nice speaker, and took great snaps. Unfortunately, the poor battery subconsciously affected how I used the Vu. I started watching YouTube less frequently as I was afraid that I would run out of battery before I reached home. This is a real pity, because the Vu had a lot of promise. It’s sensibly priced and can currently be picked up for Rs. 30,000. Yes, it costs the same as Samsung’s previous generation Note. And, that’s the biggest redeeming factor for the Vu. On the whole, the Vu fails to live up to Mr. Kwon’s promise. It simply can’t compete against the Note 2. However, it’s also significantly cheaper. If you want the best phablet that money can buy, you should get the Note 2. However, if you want something cheaper, take a long and hard look at both the Note and the Vu. If you can live with Vu’s odd proportion, and don’t mind carrying your charger around, it might make sense for you to go for the Vu instead of the Note. It’s hardware is a generation ahead of the Note. Otherwise, the Vu might end up frustrating you.