The Droid X is large and holds a decent charge

While Apple commanded the attention of the media this week by offering a bumper crop of cases free to iPhone customers as a goodwill gesture, the Android camp was not resting at all. Verizon Wireless continued its Droid assault by releasing the Droid X, the big-screened rival to Sprint’s HTC EVO 4G. Motorola has matched many of the specs of HTC’s largest Android device, but the Droid X lacks the EVO’s front-facing camera, kickstand, and of course WiMAX radio compatibility. And for all those looking to get more than their starting basketball lineup using their phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot, the EVO 4G can accommodate eight devices to the Droid X’s five.

At today’s Apple’s press conference, Steve Jobs weighed in on his thoughts regarding devices with 4’” or larger screens. I acknowledged their disadvantages while being somewhat more positive about their long-term prospects in my most recent (and last for this rotation) RCR Wireless Analyst Angle column. The larger screen makes it one of the more comfortable Android devices for typing in portrait orientation.

I’ve been using the Droid X since its announcement on a daily basis and like the device. I’ve found that the battery life — a concern on the EVO 4G — has been good enough to last into the evening with moderate usage. This was about what I was seeing with the iPhone 3GS, but the iPhone 4 has trounced that by a significant margin. Of course, the Droid X — like most other handsets — has a removable battery. Among my favorite software features have been the Mobile Hotspot app and the DLNA capabilities, both unsupported features in iOS (although there are several third-party DLNA apps). I also liked Motorola’s suite of widgets (the new, more understated MOTOBLUR).

But the Droid X has its weaknesses. The bottom row of buttons are quite narrow and a bit stiff and the camera button is a bit inconsistent and mushy. The device’s display led me to dread traversing the display’s length for the ever-necessary Back button, which I preferred to the far left as on the original Droid (and not just because of the convenience when using the slide-out keyboard).  The Droid X pays an unwelcome homage to the RAZR by including a camera-hosting hump behind the top of the phone that resembles the infamous “chin” of Motorola’s once best-selling feature phone.

As I noted in my RCR Wireless column, the 4” display of the imminent Verizon Fascinate — based on the Galaxy S platform — will be a more agreeable compromise between screen size (and its screen is indeed extremely impressive) and portability. But the Fascinate will lack a few key specs that the Droid X can claim, including HDMI out and — more curiously — an LED flash. Speaking of which, despite having a higher megapixel count than the iPhone 4, Apple’s handset produces brighter photos with more saturated colors.

The Droid X is certainly a handful, but it’s fairly manageable, at least when you get used to it, at least for those with larger hands.

Nitro-burning PDFs

image The most significant and enduring product I ever reviewed for MacWEEK in the early to mid-Ô90s was the first version of Adobe Acrobat (sorry, Samir and Dave). It was far from my favorite, though. (That would probably be Attain’s In Control, succeeded very well by today’s OmniOutliner. Other favorites included the still-kicking QuicKeys and its once fellow CE Software property Arrange, first offered by Common Knowledge.) At the time, there were a number of products vying to become the lingua franca for document exchange and I actually preferred a competitor called Common Ground, which was eventually buried by Hummingbird, now part of Open Text.

At launch, Acrobat lacked the ability to embed fonts whereas Common Ground could create a 300 dpi bitmap of a document. That of course was unacceptable for pro use, but I liked the concept for consumers. What’s more, the Mac version of Common Ground could generate a Windows executable with the document embedded. That was a pretty slick trick in the day, but one that would be unworkable today with all the fear regarding virus and malware.

Nowadays, the competition among formats has been replaced somewhat with the competition for readers and editors for PDF. I’ve been using Foxit Reader on machines where Acrobat Reader is either too slow or has been buggy (and yes, Acrobat Reader has gotten better.) There’s a promising new entrant, though, and that’s Nitro PDF Reader. Like the Foxit reader, Nitro’s reader is available only under Windows, but it looks and feels more like a modern Windows program, taking full advantage of Aero conventions and blending right in visually with Office. For fellow Evernote users, Nitro Software signed up as a partner for Trunk, an in-app app store that will offer products that can flow all kinds of content into the multi-platform multimedia note repository.

Uniquely among free Windows PDF readers, Nitro’s PDF Reader includes a print driver to generate PDFs, something that is of course built into Mac OS X and is handled well under Windows by free products such as PrimoPDF and CutePDF Writer, but it’s nice to have the option of one-stop shopping. Alas, if you’d like to combine multiple PDFs into one document, though, you must step up to Nitro Software’s full, professional package. Still, if you’re a Windows user, it’s worth considering as your main PDF reader.

Bringrr tackles phone separation anxiety

image In the past year or so, I’ve seen several Bluetooth products that sound an alarm if they are separated from the device with which they are paired. The idea is to alert you in case your phone becomes misplaced or stole. But at the CEA Line Shows last week, a company called Bringrr (which gets a few points for ending its name with my initials) is taking a different approach.

The Bringrr device sits in your cigarette lighter and checks to see if your phone is nearby when you start the car. While the means are similar to those employed forget-me-not phone devices such as the versatile Zomm, the purpose is to notify you when you’ve forgotten to bring your phone rather than that you’ve left it behind. Bringrr also comes in a version that includes a USB charger for said phone or other device.

I have left my phone behind when I’ve meant to bring it in the vehicle on occasion, but it’s been a pretty rare occurrence, perhaps even less often than when I’ve left hone on foot. That said, car trips tend to be longer, of course, making it more of a hassle to hurry back for your personal radio-infused computer, and there aren’t a lot of pay phones on the open road.

Modlet makes light bulbs go off

imageIt takes a lot to out-cute Doxie, the socially savvy sheet-fed scanner strewn with pink hearts, but the Flash animation on ThinkEco’s site for its Modlet product may have one-upped “her.” One of the products I saw at the CEA Line Shows last week, Modlet plays on the interest in green electronics. It consists of a simple pair of electrical outlets which turn on and off based on a schedule that is set in advance. Modlets communicate with PCs using the Zigbee protocol via a small USB dongle; it seems like an inexpensive and .

Whenever I see products like the Modlet, I get to thinking about lighting and why it has been so difficult to get that part of the amorphous home automation market to take off. A huge part of it is, of course, the difficulty in doing retrofit installations. However, Zigbee radios are small. Isn’t there a way to embed them in the base of light bulbs themselves? If heat is an issue, I would think compact fluorescents or certainly LED lighting would alleviate that. While LED bulbs may be expensive, they are a pittance compared to the labor cost for an electrician to come in and install Zigbee controls in every wall switch.

My guide to the stars of the Galaxy S

This week, Samsung, which noted that it has the highest market share in the U.S. for cell phones overall according to “several analyst firms” (ahem), gave notice that it is now getting into the smartphone market for real with the launch of the Galaxy S. Samsung is indeed making a big splash with this device. Unlike similarly specced devices that are exclusive to one carrier, different flavors of the Galaxy S will launch on all four major U.S. carriers. This should work to Samsung’s favor when it comes to gaining smartphone market share, but may also reflect the phone’s arrival date, coming in after Sprint and Verizon are making big bets with their 4.3” Android devices in a bid to fend off the iPhone.

But the branding of the deices will go beyond the model numbers used for the BlackBerry Curve on multiple carriers. Rather, they will each have distinct names and, in most cases, distinct industrial designs. On the verb camp are the Verizon Fascinate and AT&T Captivate while Sprint and T-Mobile have adopted adjective names with the Vibrant and Epic 4G. Yet they are all identified as Galaxy S smartphones.

Having checked out the phones for a bit earlier this week, I have a few early thoughts. First, the screens are very bright and do well in direct sunlight, although they are not significantly brighter than that of the iPhone 4. That said, the extra resolution and screen size of the Galaxy S’s screen enables it to  display more of a Web page without striking one as overwhelming the way the Droid X and HTC EVO 4G do.

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iPhone 4: First impressions

Black and white iPhone 4 models at 30-degree angles.Apple says that the iPhone 4 is much more than just an incremental tweak from previous iPhone. And while it can defend that claim, the arrival of the iPhone 4 reminds me quite a bit of the arrival of the iPhone 3GS in many ways. First, a large part of the value lies in the release of new software, in this case the newly renamed iOS 4. Second, much as the iPhone 3GS ushered in video capture to the platform, iPhone 4 has added video (and stills) capability to the front of the device, providing the key hardware for the FaceTime videoconferencing.

Software

The three most significant new features in iOS 4 are multitasking (albeit Apple’s limited flavor of it), folders, and the universal threaded e-mail discussions, and they all improve the efficiency of working with the iPhone.Multitasking is particularly helpful when you need to switch among more than two apps and especially if those apps were located on different home screens (a scenario that folders also ameliorates). Apple’s approach has its drawbacks. For example, when you return to the e-mail client or a Twitter client, those apps will only then connect to the network and start downloading new messages. So if, for example, you haven’t remembered to switch to that app before entering a place with no coverage, you won’t have access to the latest updates. The upside to limitations like this is enhanced battery life, which I’ll discuss later.

In a release that has done much to alleviate the repeated swiping to move among home screens and e-mail inboxes, the task switcher seems like a throwback. While swiping to the left to access media controls is a good idea, Apple need not have so many screens of recently opened apps, and removing them from the selection row takes too much time and is potentially confusing. Also, it’s not clear why Apple preserves so much of the screen to the near-useless space of the active app when you are in task switching mode. These could all be addressed with simple fixes – devite, say, half or even 3/4 of the screen to task switching and implement WebOS-style flicking away of icons (or, even better, preview screens) to remove them from the app switcher.

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Where to put your headset when it’s not set on your head

In looking at some headsets recently, I had a great conversation with Travis Bogard, executive director of product management and strategy at Aliph, makers of the excellent Jawbone line of headsets. Travis shared that Aliph views the evolution of the headset into something that wil become such an everyday wearable aid that it will be a constant audio companion even when

Today, however, there’s still significant backlash against wearing your headset all the time. That leads me to question where people who use headsets put them when they are not wearing them. Manufacturers take great pains to design a headset around the shape of an ear, but that makes them somewhat awkward to store anywhere else.

Sure, a breast pocket is a safe bet but other clothes cavities don’t work as well. They bulge in shirt pockets and could take a lot of abuse in pants pockets. Few headsets come with their own protective cases; the high-tech charging one of the Plantronics Discovery 975 is an exception among current products. I recently tried a $6 generic case I bought of eBay to store a headset. While the case accommodated the headset fine it adds quite a bit of bulk. Ideally, I’d like to see cell phone cases redesigned to include a small add-on for the Bluetooth headset or a design tha could clip securely t a belt. Those would probably be the best alternatives to the unique design of the LG Decoy.

No apparent game change for audio add-ons to 3DTV

At the Newbay 3DTV2010 event yesterday, I participated on a panel on consumer acceptance moderated by TWICE executive editor Greg Tarr. Among the interesting discussions turns that the panel took was regarding audio, and whether 3D changes the game. Certainly there is opportunity – there is always opportunity. But the line about retailers needing to step up their audio pitches is an old one, and certainly one of the many parallels between HD and 3D.

Panasonic SVP Bob Perry noted that while HDTV is really the only choice available in retailers, that is not the case in terms of your audio output choice. Indeed, the audio component attach rate is challenged in the living room and more so in bedrooms where the placement of multiple speakers is tricky. Furthermore, the positioning of the television may be less conducive to creating an immersive audio experience and consumers may be consuming different content in the living room as well.

Still, here’s an interesting contrast. When you buy a top-of-the-line digital SLR, it comes without the mediocre popup flash, assuming you’ll invest in a better external one. However, even top-of-the-line televisions still come with mediocre speakers.

The HTC Evo 4G arrives at Sprint’s starting line

Capping off a week that saw the introduction of the Garminphone and the non-Droid-branded LG Ally to the growing stable of Android devices on T-Mobile and Verizon, Sprint provided more details on the most impressive Android device announced to date – the HTC Evo 4G. First shown at CTIA, the Evo 4G is thinner than I remember it looking, and includes a similar scarlet interior to the Droid incredible (which I thought that was done just for Verizon).

The event also included a pre-screening of Disney’s forthcoming Prince of Persia. The movie really has no tie-in to the device, unless the Evo has a heretofore unannounced time rewinding feature (which I would gladly pay a premium for only to go back in time and no longer need it). Sprint will offer the sleek superphone – with its large screen HDMI out, dual cameras (including one 8 GB one)  and HD video capture features — for $199 with a two-year contract starting June 4th, a few days before Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference where the company has released new iPhone models in the past.

There’s been a fair amount of discussion regarding Sprint’s data plan for the device, which I’ll refer to as “Simply Most Things”. The Evo 4G will require a $10 per month surcharge for uncapped 4G (and 3G).  You’ll also pay handsomely for its vaunted eight-device hotspot feature which is a $30 per month add-on. In contrast, Verizon throws in mobile hotspot functionality on the Pre Plus for free.

All told, on top of Sprint’s relatively low prices for other services it’s not a bad deal although the hotspot premium is excessive. At the event, I heard someone note that the hotspot pricing is designed to appeal to those replacing their home broadband with WiMax, but I doubt many Evo 4G buyers will use the device that way. I’d rather see a $20 per month 4G surcharge that included mobile hotspot features.

One of my main concerns regarding the Evo 4G, was battery life, particularly after encountering disappointing results with Sprint’s Overdrive hotspot in 4G coverage areas. A Sprint represented said that if you’re streaming video, you’ll get about two hours, but more typical voice and light Web access will yield eight to ten hours. I still don’t think we’ll see even that, but even the seven hour range would put it within reach of other recent Android devices.