3D is just one part of the Nintendo 3DS experience

It would seem that the 3D capabilities are the most important part of Nintendo’s 3DS. After all, it’s right there in the name. However, after getting some hands-on time with the system this week, it’s important to remember that 3D is by no means the only critical part of Nintendo’s latest foray in portable consoles just as the dual screens — or even touch capabilities — told the whole story of the original Nintendo DS.

A great example of this is Steel Diver, a prototype of which appeared around the launch of the DS. Taking advantage of the 3DS’ sensors, you can use the 3DS like a periscope, rotating your person to see a 360° view of a sea and the various targets. The lower touch screen control the speed of the sub’s engines and when and how deeply it dives. Playing it brought back fond memories of playing the arcade game Sea Wolf.

Yes, it’s also in 3D, and as with most of the 3DS games I’ve tried, it enhances the experience, at least initially, even though moving about with the handheld risks exiting the sweet spot that can cause a shift in the display. However, in contrast to the game-defining mechanic, Steel Diver’s 3D effects can be reduced or turned off completely, just as they can be for any 3DS game.

Nintendo may have scooped just about everyone else on a portable autostereoscopic display. and that is clearly the showstopper feature, but the "DS" part of the 3DS is at least as important as the "3D" part; it’s success will be determined in large part by the way Nintendo has integrated 3D, not just that they have implemented it.

Entering the Atrix

By itself, the Atrix was but one of the dozen or so large-screened Android smartphones that invaded CES 2011, but what really set it apart was its lapdock accessory. This clamshell combination of a full-sized keyboard, screen and battery allow the Atrix to function more like a Linux smartbook.

Extending the processing and connectivity of a smartphone to notebook proportions is, of course, not a new idea. The pre-Elevation Palm sort of tried it with the Foleo, which was a mostly independent device and in some ways a closer ancestor to the BlackBerry Playbook. Celio implemented it with the Redfly, although that product was tied to the unpopular Windows Mobile OS and later BlackBerry, where it was poorly integrated. Rather than a dock, both solutions were able to use bandwidth-constrained Bluetooth to pair the input and output enhancement to the phone. In the case of the Redfly, a cable could also be used.

The Atrix 4G lapdock solution seems like it will work better than those approaches, but in the excitement over a smartphone that can apparently transform into a laptop, I think we’ve been too quick to overlook the lapdock’s strange design, in which the Atrix is docked behind the screen. This allows for easy connection and disconnection of the smartphone, but it doesn’t allow for use of both screens simultaneously. More importantly, it doesn’t allow you to easily transport the docked Atrix within the lapdock. I’d be surprised if a competitor taking a crack at this didn’t make it so that the phone is inserted securely inside the clamshell, allowing for sufficient ventilation, of course.

When there’s an app for that… hardware

I recently had an interesting discussion with a company hat is planning un releasing a useful iPhoneiPad accessory at CES that works with, of course, an app. The company was wondering whether it should charge for the app. Certainly, while most apps  — particularly first-party ones – that work with iPhone-related devices have been free, e.g.,, the Sonos Controller, the Monsoon Multimedia Vukano app, and the Peel application – some have charged separately. A good example of the latter approach is the outlandishly priced Sling Remote app. Logitech also mysteriously has left Squeezebox control to two strong third-party apps.

This company, though, wasn’t looking to gouge. Rather, it was concerned that if it made the app free, that those who didn’t purchase the hardware would be scratching their heads and give it a low rating. This raises some interesting questions. For example, should Apple enforce those who rate an app that requires hardware to have purchased that hardware? I’d argue yes. Alternatively, manufacturers should have the option to make iPhone apps available only with a code that is obtained with the purchase of the product and is then linked to their Apple ID.

Cricket’s Muve Music is pre-paid, not pre-pain

image

Smartphones put Pandora on the mainstream map and is also helping the fortunes of paid music services such as Rhapsody and Rdio, which has created an iPhone music app that is a viable alternative to purchasing music a la carte with iTunes. Indeed, a subscription music offering is also integrated into Windows Phone 7 with Zune.

But what about the rest of consumers, particularly the millions who use prepaid handset services and feature phones, and pay their monthly cell phone bill in cash? Cricket has developed an intriguing music service for its customers called Muve Music. The basic proposition of Muve is similar to those of other music renal services. One can download all the DRM songs one wants for a monthly fee. Stop paying the fee and the access to the music goes away.

But rather than dealing with a PC and sideloading, Muve downloads music right to the handset over 3G, saving time and bandwidth by heavily compressing audio with a new “good enough” Dolby encoding method. The service will launch on a single Samsung feature phone with more to come, including smartphone implementations.

Cricket has addressed concerns about navigating such a large music library on a handset by offering a Web portal into the service that allows customers to pick songs and designate them to be sent right to the handset. And while it is a relatively focused service, it has also integrated automatic playlist creation and song identification.

Muve Music also lets customers use any available track as their ringtone or ringback tone. It’s about a $10 premium on top of the bill, or about what a monthly subscription to Rhapsody or Napster would cost that allows unlimited downloading. However, it is simply another part of the bill rather than paid to a third-party music provider.

The service is the best effort to date to tie music access into the carrier offering mix, which is the best shot of them becoming mainstream. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Sprint, for example, could roll the service as is into a Simply Everything plan. More post-paid customers would care more about music access on the PC itself, and there could be issues around discounts for family plans. Cricket has leveraged the simplicity of its phone service to deliver a simple on-demand music service for a customer base that it describes as passionate about music and flustered as to the best way to access it on what is their primary music-capable digital device.

Accessory Sunday: Mophie Juice Pack for iPhone 4

imageThe Mophie Juice Pack Air was an accessory that received praise for the iPhone 3G and 3GS. And while the iPhone 4 has good battery life in general, there are always those who will want more, particularly since – for all the nice, extra access touches for things such as screen orientation lock that we’ve seen in iOS 4.2 – it’s still a hassle to turn off features that drain the battery such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

I was a bit disappointed when I checked out Mophie’s new Juice Pack  Reserve and Boost for iPod and iPhone. They felt cheaply made, particularly the dock interface extension which sometimes would stick. butt the company has returned to form with its flagship iPhone charging case. The Juice Pack Air complements and can charge the iPhone 4 from a standard microUSB connector. It also includes a four-LED battery meter.

I still have a few quibbles. I’d like to see the cutouts for the buttons at more of an angle to make them easier to press even though this might sacrifice a bit of protection. Also, the top part of the enclosure can come loose if you are trying to grab it out of a tight pocket. Still, the Juice Pack Air is a great option to provide abbot 70 percent more battery life to he iPhone 4 and a great choice for those who are willing to trade its svelte profile for going the extra mile.

Kno sees big interest in big screens

In my recent two-part column about the forthcoming Kno tablet – as well as the follow-up regarding the Acer Iconia, I mentioned the heft of dealing with a single 14” tablet, expressing concerns about how potentially awkward it might be for two. Kno, however, noted that members of its preview beta program were more than twice as likely to say that they wanted the dual-screen version of the Kno tablet versus the single-screen version

Kno recently followed up to let me know that, according to its pre-sales data, customers are choosing the larger, heavier Kno versus the single-screened version by a 2.5 to 1 ratio. I suppose it’s not too surprising given that these are the earliest of Kno’s early adopters, and most likely to embrace the more expensive, richest experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them already have an iPad as a lighter alternative.

Of course, that will change over time. The larger (or is that smaller?) point expressed in the column still holds true, though. Kno will be operating in a world of tablets of many different screen sizes. If the company follows its stated model for success as a software play, there will likely be a lot more Kno’ing going on on smaller screens barring dramatic display advances.

Accessory Sunday: ZAGGmate with Keyboard

Since the iPad was released, there’s been much excitement about add-on keyboards using either Bluetooth or its dock connector. (So far, only Apple’s Keyboard Dock has taken the latter approach, and it’s not a particularly travel-friendly item.) The iPad helped inspire me to write an ode to to the old Stowaway keyboard originally developed by ThinkOutside.

So far, variations of most keyboard-case combos have met with pretty poor reviews due to the mushiness and membrane-like quality of the keyboard. The ZAGGmate, though, offers individual keys. They would also be mushy enough to earn the ire of any reviewer if they were on a notebook, but they’re an improvement over most of what’s out there as well as, of course, the existing screen-based keyboard . While I’ve seen some people sail along on its smooth surface, I find myself making at least as many errors as I do on the iPhone’s keyboard. Perhaps that is due to less frequent use.

The ZAGGmate allows the iPad can be stored  inside its aluminum housing to protect the screen. However, this leaves the back of the device unprotected. ZAGG, of course, will be happy to sell you an Invisible Shield to fix that problem, but you can also throw the combination in a standard 8” netbook slipcase for further protection. The makers of the ClamCase have updated their site to note that its product will be shipping soon. At least until then, though, the ZAGGmate is a great companion for the iPad, which I have taken to use at conferences due to its long battery life and variety of note-taking applications.

Scrabble Flash is giftable, not yet Siftables.

SCRABBLE Flash GameThere’s the flash Apple supports and the Flash Apple doesn’t. But regardless of where you stand on the dispute between the once famously-friendly companies,you may well enjoy Scrabble Flash if you are enjoy word composition games. Even though the game is branded Scrabble Flash, the game mechanics are more akin to Boggle minus the 16-letter grid. Indeed, it is branded Boggle Flash in the UK.

Indeed, in contrast to Scrabble, Scrabble Flash isn’t played on a board at all. Rather, it consists of five chubby battery-powered tiles with monochrome displays. There are three main modes of play but all involve arranging the tiles to form words within a short amount of allotted time. It’s fun, at least for a while, and even includes a neat plastic travel box.

Perhaps more significantly for technologists, however, is that Scrabble Flash looks like an early implementation of technology in development by MIT Media Lab spinout Sifteo. It is dubbed Siftables, which the company calls the future of play. Unlike the Scrabble Flash tiles, the Sifteo prototypes have color screens and USB ports and are capable of working together in far more sophisticated ways, but there’s a big gap between what goes on in the halls of academia versus the aisles of Toys R Us. Until that time, Scrabble Flash can provide a fun taste of the future of physical interfaces.

For more on Siftables, check out this page on developer David Merrill. It includes a video of his presentation at TED.

Whither WUSB? (was Warpia)

There’s been a lot of doom and gloom around Wireless USB. Certainly from a video perspective, it seems that there are more robust choices entering the market although the folks at Veebeam seem to have gotten Ultra Wideband working cross-platform doing 1080p for less than a Benjamin.

Still, I haven’t had a lot of luck trying out the Warpia EasyDock, a WUSB-based solution. When I tried it a few weeks ago with a Core 2 Duo PC, I saw lags in the video performance that was supposed to be set to a relatively low resolution anyway. Trying it this week with a beefy Core i7 laptop, I got blue screens. Some of this may be Warpia’s support. When directed to download the latest driver, I saw two choices that looked like the product I was trying, but the model numbers didn’t match either of them, and there was a stern warning about using the wrong driver potentially causing damage. Oh, just forget it.

I look forward to catching up with the USB Implementers Forum at CES Unveiled next month to hear more abut what’s on tap for WUSB, an approach I still think is interesting for certain kinds of peripherals such as printers (although these, too, are now being addressed with standards such as Wi-Fi Direct) 2011 should be the year for USB 3.0, but failing a dramatic change, it could be the last gasp for Wireless USB.

Google wants to have its Gingerbread and eat it, too

image As it did with Eclair (Android 2.1), Google has taken the occasion of a new version of Android dubbed Gingerbread (Android 2.3) to bring out a new handset offering a “pure Android experience.”  This time around, that purity is brought to you by Samsung rather than HTC, which produced the original Nexus One, a handset that stole some thunder (but few sales) from the Motorola Droid juggernaut.

Google has used the Nexus handsets for experimenting with distribution outside the carrier channel, even if it made the original Nexus somewhat of a sacrificial lamb. The superior distribution of Best Buy should certainly help with the push of the device.

However, the improvements in Android 2.3 may not do much to drive consumers to the Google-branded handset, at least for a while. Unlike recent Android enhancements that brought improvements such as more home screens, dramatically faster operation, and mobile hotspot capability, .most of Gingerbread’s improvements are under the hood. The marquee feature, NFC, could yield some compelling new applications, but the one most popularly considered – enabling payments – is hardly a magnet.

The “S” serving as the device’s surname refers to the Samsung Galaxy S family that is the foundation for not only the Nexus S design, but defines many of the key hardware characteristics for the Samsung Focus, which many consider “the Windows Phone to get.” With the Galaxy S, Samsung has pursued a strategy of ubiquity versus exclusivity, and so the Nexus S will compete with similarly priced and specced siblings at all four major carriers, including the Vibrant (as well as the faster G2 and MyTouch 4G) on T-Mobile’s own portfolio. Even though the Nexus S is an unlocked device, its (partial) optimization for T-Mobile’s network all but assures that it will be most appealing to customers using the smallest of the national facilities-based carriers.

The Nexus S may be less “a Nexus to perplex us,” but Google’s vanity handsets still seem like a bug in its diversification strategy, one that must be generating considerable head-scratching among Android licensees, particularly those that are not anointed to build a Nexus in a given cycle.. Google is still staying clear of going head to head with OEMs at major carriers, but while it is providing more serious competition this time around, the carriers are better armed as well.