Quick Charge 2.0 won’t lead to a standards war

In my recent column for CNET, I discussed Quick Charge 2.0, the proposed standard from Qualcomm (a client of Reticle Research) that promises to dramatically improve charging time for smartphones and tablets. Quick Charge is pretty exciting for people who find themselves fighting for a few precious minutes of juice at a spare outlet throughout the day or who want to avoid having to keep a power stick awkwardly connected to their phone for too long.

As I mention in the column, greater power via the USB connector is also coming via the USB Implementer Forums’ Power Delivery (PD) initiative and has the potential to finally standardize connectors across virtually all devices within the home. But there are some drawbacks. PD adapters require new USB cables and could be larger depending on how much power they deliver.

A blessing and burden of being so close to the center of the mobile universe as Qualcomm is that it must often consider or even support competing standards even as it advocates its own. The company has shown this with its support of multiple wireless charging standards and there’s no reason we couldn’t see similar coexistence with both technologies operating over the same charging accessories.

Where will it all shake out? One likely scenario is to think of Quick Charge as being focused on devices that use USB connectors now (mostly smartphones and tablets) and PD as bringing larger devices into the USB connector fold. We saw some excitement around this with the HP Chromebook that Google promoted last year.

With more devices supporting both standards, consumers can one day look forward to bringing one charger and cable with them that will work with everything from their smartphone to their laptop . But until that day, there’s no need to hold back getting more juice to the mobile devices that need it most urgently today.

Samsung’s Pro tablets go big, leave home, have consumer relevance

Mobile World Congress will soon be upon us and will surely bring with it news of tablets that was mostly missing from CES despite such products continuing to be among the hottest categories in consumer electronics. One exception to the dearth of CES announcements was the Samsung 12″ Galaxy Tab Pro and Galaxy Note Pro. The Pro” sub-subbrand takes over from the “Note” subbrand as Samsung’s most premium denotation, leaving Note to just represent pen input. To contrast, pen input is part of what differentiates Microsoft’s Surface Pro, but of course has nothing to do with the MacBook Pro.

The Pro line will also mark the debut of Samsung’s first Android tablets to break the 12″ barrier. In 2012, Toshiba reached well beyond that barrier with the 13.3″ Excite, but the pricey product vanished soon after it was released. The Samsung device is not only smaller, but thinner and lighter — a key advantage when dealing with a larger tablet.

The big Pro tablets are Samsung’s Android play to eat into a bit of the market for Windows and Chrome notebooks for on-the-go productivity. The company highlights the extended comfortable soft keyboard on the big screen. It also seeks to position the big tablet as supporting multiple open Android applications, a multitasking feature that allows Android tablets to better answer the functions of Windows. Paradoxically, this occurs as Windows is moving toward reducing the number of apps that can be on the screen at one time, at least in its Modern interface.

But the larger screen should yield content consumption benefits as well, particularly for applications such as playing games and movies, reading magazines and sheet music. It’s doubtful it will do much to stem the glut of 7″ devices that have democratized the Android tablet. But it could help push Android into a screen size where there have been few altenratives for those valuing screen size over portability.

Taking wireless charge at Apple

Wireless power accessory maker WiQiQi is offering an adapter for the iPhone that enables it to work with Qi wireless chargers. Unlike many such adapter cases that extend the bottom of the iPhone in order to , it slips unobtrusively into the Lightning connector and bends to the back of the iPhone so that you’d hardly know it was there if you had the iPhone in a slim opaque case — that is, unless, you tried plugging something into the Lightning port, which can accommodate only one connector at a time.

From a usability standpoint, Apple’s not down with Qi for reasons that are likely similar to its aversion to NFC, that is, having to keep the phone in one place. In Qi’s case, the argument goes, if you’re going to lay it resting somewhere, you may as well plug it in. Also, as with NFC, the phone has to be in a specific orientation for the charging to work. Of course, we are all holding out for true  ubiquitous wireless electricity.

Indulging in a bit of sci-fi, the company could achieve a coup if it could develop some way that the entire surface and sides of, say, an iPhone or iPad could be accept a charge. This would allow it to charge by placing it on an easel-like stand the way the TouchPad was able to, or charge by being in a clamshell-type case like one for the Brydge iPad keyboard. In addition, if small bits of data could be transferred this way, it would allow Apple to outdo Surface. You could snap on a keyboard cover to either side or attach the power cable to virtually any part of the device. Ladies and gentlemen, start your patent applications.

Surface off a surface: better but still not great

With its signature keyboard cover detached, it was easy to use the original Surface RT in your lap. However, actually trying to type with the device while it was positioned there could end with your Surface hitting the lowest surface in the immediate vicinity, often the one at your feet. It was simply too easy for the weight of the device to overwhelm the high center of gravity that the Surface had when resting on its kickstand, particularly on an uneven sloping landscape, e.g., one’s lap.

It’s a bit surprising that Microsoft would implement a second kickstand position that extends its already larger-than-laptop footprint when the keyboard cover is extended. However, it has done just this in the name of better stability, particularly when used in that common scenario that gives that laptop its name. The result has been an improvement when used in the lap as the lower center of gravity helps with stability.

However, it’s still not as stable an experience as a laptop. The keyboard cover’s connection to the tablet does not cover the device’s width and its rubbery texture allows for a lot of give. As a result, there’s a good chance you’ll notice the screen to tilt to a slight angle off from where you’re typing. Customers may not find this so distracting, but it drives home the point that there continue to be some things that the trusty old clamshell form factor handles better than the type cover.

That said, newer designs like those on the Dell Venue Pro 11 and Nokia Lumia 2520 rely on a type cover on which the entire tablet rests and where there is no gap in terms of the footprint as there is with the Surface’s kickstand, so lap stability may be better.

Speed bumps in binging on This American Life

I’ve been on the hunt for more audio content lately so I picked up the This American Life Android app, which enables easy access to every episode — 500+ hours — of the public radio programming  dating back to 1995. (In the second episode, a new color Macintosh portable is referenced.) Assuming you like the show, it’s a great value — less than 3/5 of a cent per episode and dropping as new ones become available.

The app can automatically download the latest episode of the show, which makes sense for those current with the program, but otherwise limits you to one other downloaded episode. This isn’t a great option for those new to the show and listening to the episodes in chronological order. (Speaking of which, an episode sorting feature would be nice.)

Admittedly, it might be impractical to download the entire library, but one episode isn’t enough to cover some commutes, much less many short flights. I can’t imagine what technical limitation there might be to enabling one to download, say, three to five episodes at a time. Hopefully, the developers aren’t thinking about saving this feature for some in-app purchase.

HP’s 11″ Chromebook: a short story

HP’s new 11″ Chromebook is such a departure from the company’s first “mega-Chromebook” in many ways, including that it’s not even really an HP product. As with the Nexus products on the Android side of Google, it has taken a central role in the presentation , marketing and branding of Chromebooks. The new HP Chromebook marks a return to the value end of Chromebooks after the Pixel diversion. But that wasn’t so long ago that Google or others should have forgotten about the Samsung 11″ Chromebook.

Compared to that product, there seems to be little to differentiate the new oHP offering. Yes, it comes in a choice of colorful trims, is built more sturdily, and can charge from a standard USB connector. The latter is a welcome trend that we can expect to increasingly appear on notebooks as their power needs continue to shrink. Beyond that, though, it has similar specs to the thinner Samsung device at a higher price. Despite Google’s involvement, some of the differentiation may be in the HP brand itself, which is far more strongly identified with PCs than the Samsung brand.

Yoga and weight loss

Fear not, dear readers. Techspressive has not become a fitness blog.

They say that we don’t see many big announcements at CES anymore, but that hasn’t been true for Lenovo, which has shown off a string of interesting form-factor PCs at the last several shows that captured attendee attention. These include, in reverse chronological order, the Horizon table PC, in 2013, the Yoga in 2012 (since discontinued but followed by Intel-based successors), and the U1 Hybrid in 2010 that never shipped.

The Yoga in particular was arguably the first PC of the Windows 8 era that got people thinking about new form factors and kindled a fascination with PC hinge design. It’s nice to see Lenovo apparently ready to give it a spin with the IdeaPad A10, which appears as if it will sell for about $250 — or about half of what HP is charging for the Tegra 4-bearing Slatebook X2 detachable. But where is it written that all Android clamshells much be detachable? And while an exposed keyboard might have been a bit uncomfortable in a Windows convertible, who cares at this price point?

Recent Chromebooks such as the 11″ HP model continue to claim the netbook legacy. While they are simple, consistent devices when used in a Wi-Fi area, offline app implementation continues to be varied, inconsistent and confusing. Android hybrids may be limited ot a niche market for the foreseeable future, but they’re highly functional and Android apps know how to seamlessly work offline.

A pit stop in the Android tablet race to the bottom

Leaving the Surface RT in Microsoft’s shiny new Surface 2 lineup lets Microsoft offer a product that is closer to the price range of the iPad 2 and iPad mini. It also helps the company save a bit of face after the RT’s dramatic price decline in the wake of flagging sales. What it doesn’t do, though, is enable Microsoft’s first-party tablet efforts to play in the fastest-growing segment of the tablet market, products that are small (7″) and cheap (sub-$200). Apple isn’t playing in each of those subsegments, either, but it’s closer than Microsoft in both. I’ve written before about how the breakneck price compression in the small Android tablet market has forced manufacturers such as HP and HiSense to cut prices at or shortly after introduction. The latter’s Sero 7 LT is now available for well under $100 at Walmart while the Tegra 3-equipped Sero 7 Pro has hovered close to a double-digit price tag on sale. But two announcements last week hit pause on the 7″ price avalanche.

Monster, which knows a thing or two about competing in — and even begetting — oversaturated categories, introduced its own M7 7″ tablet in eight different colors with a rounded top right corner that, in a bit of inside baseball, resembles the left half of Monster’s logo. It becomes yet another exclusive for Walmart, which has shown a voracious appetite for inexpensive 7″ Android devices. Not surprisingly, Monster really hopes to differentiate based on the quality of its audio output,. This is a proposition that, at a basic level, hasn’t enabled HP to command much of a pricing premium with its Beats-enabled tablet. Monster will follow up with a 10″ tablet.

Speaking of HP, its second Android tablet, the Slatebook X2, has been early to support NVIDIA’s Tegra 4. But it will soon see some speedy competition from a number of smaller, mostly regional, distributors selling NVIDIA’s Tegra 4-equipped 7″ Tegra Note distributed via NVIDIA’s GeForce card brand companies. The tablet supports NVIDIA’s DirectStylus technology for improving passive stylus performance but — here again — stylus support hasn’t translated into strong market performance for tablets such as the Surface Pro and Galaxy Note tablets.

The M7 has debuted at $149 while the Tegra Notes are coming in at $199 . The way things have been going, though, they may be priced considerably less before long.

Substandard Wi-Fi in the subway

In stark contrast to the thriving wildlife one sees in the tunnels (and occasionally platforms) of the New York City subway system, they have historically been dead zomes when it comes to wireless access and thus a prime candidate for Wi-Fi installations. We’ve now started to see just that happen via the involvement of Boingo, and with a free option even. It sounds like a winning idea, but the implementation leaves a lot to be desired.

Bear in mind that consumers often don’t have a lot of time waiting on the subway platform. They probably just want to catch a last e-mail or send off a last text before before being consigned to 15 to 60 minutes of engaging in the saga of crushed candy. But the free Boingo option requires the user to engage in a task such as watching a video (good luck hearing it without headphones if a train passes by). The last time I tried it, it asked me to download an app I already had and no amount of switching into it could convince Boingo that I wasn’t trying to cheat my way into two precious minutes of Wi-Fi access before the train arrived. Dismiss this as a local rant, but it’s a case study in poor user experience design.

Ideally, it would be great to see a system where you pay for Wi-Fi access when you buy the MetroCard that offers you access to the trains. You would pay a premium on top of the normal fare rate and the MetroCard would include some passcode or QR code — maybe even NFC if we were getting fancy — that grants access. But the MetroCard dispensers would have to be upgraded and I dare not fathom the billing work that would need to happen in the background. It just makes a New Yorker even less patient for the arrival of cellular access.

The local hotspot has suddenly become crowded

In the early days, the three main battery-powered local wireless drives with integrated hotspots were from AirStash, Kingston (WiDrive) and Seagate (the Wireless Plus, nee GoFlex Satellite). And they all nicely fit a market requirement. The AirStash had the flexibility of using SD cards, the WiDrive had integrated flash, and the Seagate product used, unsurprisingly, hard drives for the largest capacity.

Now, however, it seems everyone is jumping in. SanDisk launched a pair of products as did Macally (including one that can accommodate a 2.5″ hard drive or SSD). Kingston introduced a companion to the WiDrive with the pretty obscure name MobileLite. And we recently saw Escort — yes, the radar detector guys — just released its own SD-based model called the MediaFlair complete with a stylized logo that highlights the “air” in the name.

One interesting aspect of these products is that, like their portable cousins, mobile hotspots, they should be able to be handled by a phone app. Of course, phones are often thought of as clients for these kinds of products, but then again some of them (from AirStash, MacAlly and SanDisk) utilize memory cards, and so can phones. The key would be making what’s on those cards more easily shareable, perhaps by making a folder optionally shareable through the personal hotspot feature..