Mobile Phone Review Archive

Sony Ericsson Xperia X10

The Xperia X10 is Sony Ericsson’s first foray into the Android phone market and wow, what a way to kick things off! The X10′s specially-skinned Android software runs smoothly on the 1Ghz Snapdragon processor, and looks great on the phones huge 4 inch screen. A screen that looks a LOT bigger than it really is – looking especially massive next to the iPhone screen I’ve been more accustomed to.

The rest of the phone looks the part too. A shiny, black, angular affair. With the majority of the X10′s footprint given to the massive screen, the phone has a very minimalist look too. The only buttons present on the front of the phone are ‘menu’, ‘home’ and ‘back’ – although my one gripe is that the functions of buttons, apart from the back button, are not clearly delineated. Perhaps Sony Ericsson should rethink their icon design?

The rest of the X10 is pretty button free – with only camera and volume buttons on the side and on/off-come-lock button on the top. The top of the phone also features the standard 3.5mm headphone jack and a micro-usb port hidden under a typical dust cover. Other than that, the phone is clutter free… The X10 features a curved, supposedly more ergonomic back – which also houses the camera lens and flash, which I admit does feel comfortable in the palm of your hand.

Enough about the looks, what about the software? I hear you ask…

Well the downside to the Xperia X10 is that it comes with Android 1.6 installed – not the most up-to-date version of Android I admit, but Sony Ericsson have already stated that they will be rolling out 2.1 updates later this year. The plus side is the addition of the new Timescape overlay – this adds numerous features to the Android experience, the biggest of which is Sony Ericsson’s new ‘Splines’ system. Essentially a stack of tiles (or ‘splines’ as Sony Ericsson have dubbed them), with each spline representing an activity or action – be it a Twitter or Facebook update, a text message received, or a photo taken. You can set your homescreen to display the splines and scroll through them at your leisure – you can also just display splines for a certain function e.g. only show Twitter updates.

The spline feature is a pretty good idea let down only by two things – one, if you have a very active Twitter feed, viewing it via splines can make it impossible to keep up to date; and two (and this is my biggest qualm), each spline uses a really lo-res image, making what is a really a cutting edge design of phone look rather… low-tech. But hey, if you don’t like the spline feature you can always stick with a more traditional Android homescreen, even if it has had a little of Sony Ericsson’s sheen put on it.

But this is a phone right? So what about your typical phone features?

Well the phonebook is a mixed bag. Sony Ericsson have added a little of their own flair to the menu system, and it feels a lot like Apple’s contact menu, with the ability to scroll through your list of friends, or use the alphabet down the right hand side of the phone to get to the right name. But here’s where it gets tricky. You see Sony Ericsson have decided that your contacts page should be more about text messaging and their Facebook status rather than actually CALLING them! With my fat fingers I had trouble hitting the small area given over to my contacts phone number to make a call.

So I made some calls, what did I find? Well for starters the sound volume was ridiculously low, I mean really low. So low in fact that I had to mute the TV to hear a call indoors, and out in traffic I felt totally deaf! And, as you would when a call is quiet, I pushed the phone closer to my ear to hear – OW! The sleek angular design of the Xperia X10 becomes the first major downside to the phone when it stabs you in the ear!

As for texting… Wow, just wow. The X10′s on-screen keyboard is terrible. Whilst it works on the same principal as the on-screen keyboard on the iPhone, I found huge issues with getting the keys at the edge of the screen to register at all in portrait mode, and they were only slightly more responsive in landscape mode. The second major downside to the X10 methinks!

So how does the rest of the phone stack-up?

The Xperia X10 connects easily to any PC or Mac, I freely shared content via bluetooth from my Mac, and by the USB cable from my bluetooth-less PC with zero hassles – to both the micro SD card and the phones internal memory, meaning I could easily transfer files and photos to and from the phone. Speaking of which…

The camera on the X10 is a remarkable 8 mega-pixels and the results are stunning, especially when I’m more used to the iPhone’s terrible 3mp camera. I tested the camera out both indoors and outdoors and I was genuinely amazed at how good the final photos were – even when I set the camera to automatic.

The built-in Android browser is one of the best browsers I’ve used on a mobile device of this size, especially the auto-reflow of text on websites, meaning the text always fills the screen no matter how zoomed in or out you are. I will admit there are some faults, although with a few tweaks – namely making it easier to click on links without having to zoom in it could be THE best browser available on a phone (though I think it has more to do with the Android software rather than being exclusive to the X10). There’s also a huge variety of browsers available on the Android marketplace if you prefer something different.

So what about apps?

First up, a word of warning: the Xperia X10 doesn’t come with a built-in task manager, meaning you could end up with one hell of a sluggish phone with all those apps running in the background. The first thing you should when getting the X10 is download the Advanced Task Killer app from the Android marketplace!

Besides the Moxier suite, Google Talk, Facebook and Youtube, the Xperia X10 doesn’t really come with any decent apps built-in, so like all good Android users I hit the marketplace to find the all important killer apps. Besides the aforementioned ATK, another necessity for me was a Twitter app – yes the phone has a built in Twitter facility in the ‘splines’ feature, but I wanted a pure Twitter app, and Twidroid provided the answer. Another essential app for a comic geek like me is a comic viewer, of which I found ACV (Android Comic Viewer) to be the best – I loaded comics (legal comics mind you) onto the SD card and I was ready to go. The app isn’t as good at displaying comics as those on the iPhone, but at least I could access some less ‘legitimate’ content such as back issues of Ritz videostore magazine… And you don’t get that in the Comixology app do you!

As for games, sadly this was the third major let down of the Xperia X10. I downloaded a number of games in the hopes of whiling away the hours with my head buried in a good game. Just one hitch, a LOT of the games that I downloaded required multi-touch, which the X10 doesn’t support. I tried a few emulators too… Again no multi-touch, no play. Hopefully Sony Ericsson can update the X10 for multi-touch support when it pushes out the Android 2.1 upgrade… We’ll have to wait and see.

CONCLUSION

Whilst the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 has it’s problems – lack of multi-touch, poor call quality, unresponsive on-screen keyboard – it is still an excellent mobile device. If you can forgive it’s flaws, there’s a lot to like about the X10. Whilst I wasn’t particularly enamoured of the splines feature, a LOT of the people I showed the X10 to thought it was a brilliant addition to the phone. But hey, I might be biased. As a long time iPhone user I have yet to find any device that can replace it, although the Xperia X10 does come close, especially when Sony Ericsson roll out the Android 2.1 upgrade…

Nokia X3

The Nokia X3 is the smaller brother of the X6 touchscreen X-series music phone for the more economically minded mobile user. It features the now-standard music player controls down the side of the screen (coming in bright red or blue) and comes with a 2GB MicroSD memory card in-box, a standard 3.5mm headphone socket, in-ear earphones and an FM radio. As it leans more towards the bargain end of the phone market, the Nokia X3 is pretty much your “standard” (some may say old-school) mobile phone, with no 3G, Wi-Fi, or GPS and the on board camera is a measly 3.2 megapixels.

Design-wise, the X3 is a little… square, albeit a well proportioned square – the 2.2 inch QVGA screen fills the majority of the face of the phone, with the traditional D-pad, call, hangup and menu select buttons situated at the base of the handset. The keyboard is hidden away under the phones slide function, and as expected the keypad is of the type I, as one of the larger fingered members of the UK population, dislike – flat, with ridges in between the keys. At least the keypad looks nice with its brushed metal finish. If you’ve ever used a Nokia music phone before you’ll know what to expect from the music controls down the side of the screen – play/pause, forward, back – personally I found the controls somewhat unresponsive, with a definite lag between press the key and the phone reacting.

The X3 runs Nokia’s Series 40 software rather than Series 60 to which many are more accustomed these days, but there’s a feeling of familiarity and almost a ‘retro’ quality to the S40 interface that took me back to my pre-iPhone days – not that I’d particularly want to go back to those days, but for a budget phone what do you expect?

Text messaging and email are pretty much the defacto standard, although the X3 has some nice touches such as threaded messaging, putting your texts into conversations. For email the phone uses Nokia’s Messaging Mail client which comes with built in settings for GMail, Yahoo Mail and Hotmail, or you can sign up for Nokia’s own Ovi Mail. Its a bit more tricky to set up other email accounts – but if you have access to all the settings it is do-able, it just takes some time. There’s also instant messaging support – either Ovi IM or Windows Live; and there’s a choice of two browsers – Nokia’s own or the much more user-friendly and overall more compatible Opera. Sadly which ever browser you choose you’ll still be surfing at GPRS speeds…

The camera is merely OK, with stills coming out pretty reasonable in good light, but in overcast conditions the camera can produce murky images with flat tones and a sometimes washed out appearance. As for video? No, just no. The X3 records video at a maximum 320 x 240 pixels at a (frankly terrible) 8 frames per second or at a still under-par 176 x 144, at 15 frames per second. It’s a major letdown, but not the X3′s worst…

The big letdowns of the Nokia X3 are the two most important – call quality and battery life. Calls on our review sample X3 sounded muffled and I found myself constantly turning up the volume, even in more quieter areas! But thankfully the volume can be turned up VERY loud. As for battery life, again I don’t know if it’s our handset but the battery, unlike the stats given by Nokia (up to 7.5 hours of talktime or up to 380 hours of standby time), didn’t last half as long as the Nokia 6700 we also have here for review, with a mere 4 days (96 hours) standby and that’s without ANY use. When in use, for both calls and especially music, the battery seemed to drain ridiculously fast – and when you consider the Nokia X3 is touted as a music phone that’s not a good sign.

Overall the Nokia X3 is a real disappointment. There are much better Nokia phones out there, including the 6700 Slide which we will have a review of very soon…

Nokia 6700 Slide

The Nokia 6700 Slide is the next iteration of the 6700 Classic, measuring a tiny 95 x 46 x 16mm and features a 2.2-inch, 320 x 240 pixel screen – don’t let that put you off, despite the low resolution, the screen is crisp, bright and clear. Sadly there’s a lack of wifi and touchscreen capabilities, but what the Nokia 6700 Slide lacks in features, it makes up for in style…

With its metallic body the phone feel very solid, and this is matched by a slide mechanism that has a solid click and feels like it could keep on sliding well past the life of the owner. The front of the body features a large D-pad with the Home and Clear buttons to the left and right of said pad, whilst the Call/Hang-up and the left and right menu buttons are typical of Nokia phones, but unlike a lot of the smaller handsets the buttons on the Nokia 6700 Slide are well spaced – even for the largest of fingers and thumbs!

The phone runs Symbian S60 3rd Edition with Feature Pack 2, has HSDPA with download speeds up to 10.2Mbps and uploads to 2Mbps and a superb 5MP camera with Carl Zeiss optics and a dual-LED flash, which also captures video at 640 x 480 at 15 frames p/sec. or 320 x 240 at 30 frames per second… Both stills and video are of good quality, and especially shine in nartural light conditions.

The big surprise of the Nokia 6700 Slide? A front VGA camera, running at 640 x 480 pixels, for two-way video calling!

Despite the phones small 2.2 inch screen, Nokia have managed to cram the homescreen with everything you need without making it look too cramped, and its all easily navigated using the D-pad. Like a lot of the more high-end phones on the market today, the Nokia 6700‘s homescreen is completely customisable, with as little or as many icons and shortcuts as you want – both horisontally and vertically.

Call quality was of Nokia’s typically good standard, as was the battery life – think of both calls and battery life of the Nokia 6700 Slide as the antithesis of the X3 I reviewed previously. My only gripe with the handset is the keypad – it’s hidden away under the phones slide function, and is the type of keypad I, as one of the UK population with larger fingers, dislike – completely flat with ridges in between the keys.

When all’s said and done the Nokia 6700 Slide is a well designed, decent, good looking handset that works well despite its small form factor; and with a few of the functions typically found in smartphones, the 6700 is great choice for those that just want a traditional mobile phone.

HTC HD2

The HTC HD2 has been touted as the latest “iPhone killer” but with its combination of Windows Mobile 6.5 and HTC’s Sense UI can it really stand up to Apple’s behemoth? Actually it can!

The first thing that strikes you about the HD2 is it’s size. Not much bigger than an iPhone, yet slimmer than the 3GS model, the phone packs an enormous 4.3 inch screen that covers 95% of the face of the phone, leaving only enough room for a small row of keys at the base of the phone and, of course, the speaker at the top. Overall it’s a very minimalist design – the only other button on the HD2 is the volume rocker on the left hand side of the phone, and there’s only the micro USB (for charging and PC/Mac connection) and 3.5mm headphone jack on the base. On the rear sits, in typical fashion, the 5 mega pixel camera (which slightly protrudes from the phone) – and surprisingly, a dual flash. You have to credit HTC, despite the size of the screen, the HD2 doesn’t feel too large in the palm of your hand, in fact it felt just right in my (admittedly oversized) hands…

The HD2‘s great design is matched by the Sense UI – which does it damnedest to hide the typically-hated Windows Mobile interface as much as possible. WinMo is there, just lurking under the surface, but the Sense interface means a typical phone user wouldn’t even know this was a Windows phone – well, apart from the huge Windows logo on startup! The home screen is one of the best around – I particularly loved having important calendar dates sat under the huge clock – as someone who relies on his phone’s calendar to keep track of appointments etc. I thought it was invaluable. The rest of the widgets on the HD2 are completely customisable – you can choose any contact, application or even bookmark to sit in one of the 9 ‘favourite’ slots (3 on the home screen, 6 on a second screen that you access by flick the home screen upwards).

Call quality is up to HTC’s usual standards, occasionally the call volume does seem a little quiet if you’re in a louder environment, but nothing I haven’t experienced before. However it’s messaging – both text and email where the HD2 shines. The phone gathers together all your messages into one place for easy quick viewing, and with the ability to combine up to 10 email accounts onto the same device – this can be through Exchange, POP3, IMAP – the HD2 seriously rivals the Blackberry as a business phone. One of the more interesting aspects of the phone’s text messaging software is the ability to call the contact you’re texting from within a text… Handy if someone texts you and needs an urgent response!

Camera-wise the the phone packs a 5 megapixel lens with dual flash which really helps in low light conditions – trust me when I say you can take a photo in total darkness with this phone, and provided you have the flash on your photo will look like it was taken in daylight! Interestingly there’s no camera button on the phone, instead you have to tap the screen to take a photo. Now that may seem strange, but when you realise the HD2 comes with touch focus you’ll know why this was the best option. What is touch focus? Basically it means you can press a part of the screen on the subject you want to focus on and the phone will focus in on it and take the photo for you… It’s a superb “touch” and once you use the touch focus option it’s hard to go back to anything else.

Internet access on the HD2 is provided by, initially Internet Explorer or Opera, with the option to download Firefox Mobile if you so wish. IE runs the smoothest on the phone, and has support for flash – but on the other hand, IE does seem to load web pages a lot slower the Opera, even using wi-fi. Opera is the default browser, and immediately you notice that it’s a more basic browsing experience than IE – but to it’s advantage: pages load faster, scrolling through large pages is quicker, and you can save pages offline for later viewing.

Overall the HTC HD2 is a powerhouse of a phone – with a more customisable interface than the iPhone and a much larger screen it makes for a more satisfying experience; and whilst it still suffers from being built around Windows Mobile 6.5, HTC have done a lot to make this the best Windows Mobile on the market today… And if I didn’t have my iPhone this may well be my phone of choice.

Sony Ericsson Zylo

The Sony Ericcson Zylo is the latest in Sony’s long line of Walkman phones. With a 2.6-inch QVGA (240 x 320) screen, a 3.2-megapixel camera, Sony’s PlayNow download service and YouTube integration, this phone is a media-philes dream. The phone also features HSPA 3G mobile internet and bluetooth, but sadly no Wi-Fi; and like many a smartphone, the Zylo features threaded SMS and a built in email client.

The first thing that struck me after taking the Zylo out of the box was just how nice it felt in my hand. The ergonomic engineers must have been working overtime on this model, with the back contoured perfectly to fit into my (admittedly large) hands. The majority of the front of the phone is given over to the screen, and beneath that lie the call and hang-up buttons and a large multi-function select/play/pause button which feels satisfying to the touch. Below that is a cancel button and the often-found-on-Walkman-phones shortcut key. Sliding the phone up reveals the keyboard with a strong satisfying click. A click which is matched by the click of the keys – which unlike other slide phones are slightly curved upwards which certainly aids texting speeds and typing in general on the Zylo. The sides of the phone house the traditional Sony Ericsson connector port and volume controls – along with a button the doubles up as quick access to the phones Walkman functions and the shutter button in camera mode.

Software-wise the Zylo runs a slightly modified version of Sony Ericsson’s usual Walkman phone software – with the new addition of widgets on the home screen for Twitter, Facebook, Media and more… If you’ve ever used a Sony Ericsson phone during the last 5 years you’ll know EXACTLY what to expect from the rest of the phones interface, it’s very much a case of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”.

Call quality is up to the usual mid-range phone quality, it’s nothing special but nothing to complain about either. The only disappointing aspect of of making calls on the Zylo is that the phone doesn’t hang up when you close the slider! That’s one to watch out for if you don’t want to be inundated with huge phone bills. Again, SMS on the phone is a case of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” – only Sony Ericsson have fixed it, and done so in a way that updates the interface to allow easy access to Facebook updates and as mentioned previously adds the now-typical threaded conversations.

Whilst there’s a lot to praise about the Sony Ericsson Zylo, there are some flaws – mobile internet is typically disappointing on such a small screen even with the new Smart-Fit function; and the camera is a measly 3.2 megapixels, with pretty poor video recording quality – even compared to other phones that record at the same 640 x 480 resolution. But really the Zylo is all about the media… and with an interface that takes its lead from Sony’s XMB found on other Sony products such as the PS3 and PSP, you can easily access photos, music, videos, games and even RSS feeds all from one handy place.

Overall, the Sony Ericsson Zylo is a feature-packed mid-range phone that is hard to fault for the price. It’s just a shame that despite this being a Walkman phone Sony Ericsson didn’t see fit to include a MicroSD card or USB transfer cable in the box.

Sony Vivaz Pro

The Sony Ericsson Vivaz Pro is the smarter, more powerful, big brother of the original Vivaz, packing an all-new slide out QWERTY keyboard and a HD camera – in a phone that is sleekly designed and feels really good in your hand.

The first thing that strikes you about the Vivaz Pro is it’s appearance, the phone is thin – really thin when you consider its packing a QWERTY keyboard. Like many touchscreen phones the front of the Vivaz Pro is taken up by a 3.3 inch resistive screen, with only the usual call/terminate and “home” buttons taking up the bottom of the phone. The rest of the handset follows a similar minimalist design – the right side of the phone features two buttons: one for the stills camera and one for video; there’s also the standard rocker button for both increasing volume and zooming in and out in camera mode. Down the left hand side there’s the USB port, with the typical rubberised cover, and the 3.5mm headphone jack – unlike most mobiles the jack is on the side of the phone due to the “curved to fit your hand better” nature of the Vivaz Pro’s design. In what I found to be the oddest move, Sony Ericsson have placed the power/phone lock button on the back of the handset just above the camera – for me it turned out to be a very awkward position to reach with just one hand. It’s a minor niggle in what is in reality a pretty flawless design.

Fair enough, the Vivaz Pro looks good on the outside, but what about the inside? Yes I’m talking the QWERTY keyboard. Well to get to the keyboard you perform you turn the phone sideways and slide the screen upwards. But what a slide motion! Using two hands it feels really good performing the slide action – there’s a feeling of resistance as you slide up the screen that I found felt really good in my hand, and there’s a satisfying click as the slide out keyboard locks into place.

Despite the great appearance and feel to the Sony Ericsson Vivaz Pro, once you get into the phone software it’s a different story – the Vivaz Pro sadly runs on the tried and tested Symbian S60 OS, which in this day and age, in my opinion, is starting to feel a little tired. That’s not to say Sony Ericsson haven’t made an effort to jazz up the interface to appeal to today’s market – for a start, like the Saito, the Vivaz Pro has five home screens you can swipe through, each with different functions such as Twitter, photos, contacts etc; there’s also completely plain screen for those that like the more minimal clean look. You can also bring up a quick access menu on any home screen, by merely pressing the end call button, that contains music controls and shortcuts to key applications like messages, media etc. But at the end of the day the Vivaz Pro is still running Symbian S60, and whilst it was a perfectly fine OS for traditional phones it does have some issues when it comes to touchscreen – some applications require a tap to launch, some two taps, scrolling is done with a flick in some apps, and via a traditional scroll bar in others… It ends up somewhat confusing and isn’t very user-friendly.

As for the traditional phone functions – calls, internet, messaging, etc – the Sony Ericsson Vivaz Pro is pretty much standard across the board, there’s nothing that screams innovation or has a real wow factor. It’s almost workman-like in its averageness… Well apart from the slide-out keyboard which offers a full four-line QWERTY layout with plenty of space inbetween the keys, even for the fattest fingers. The keys are also raised just enough to allow for a great tactile experience. For some strange reason the Vivaz Pro also features an on-screen keyboard – which is quite fiddly to use and doesn’t have predictive text, so stick to the physical one!

Where the Sony Ericsson Vivaz Pro really shines is in its media capabilities. As with any Sony Ericsson phone the Vivaz Pro features the standard Walkman interface for pictures, video and music – and what a difference the Walkman software makes! Perfectly suited to the phone resistive screen, the Walkman interface is large, clear and bold making it easy to find what you want without being frustrated with tiny on-screen icons and clunky interfaces – it’s a slick, smooth and thoroughly pleasant experience. Audio is fantastic, video is superb thanks to the near-HD resolution screen (even if the screen is a little small to watch a two-hour movie on – although for TV, especially animation it’s perfect!). There’s also links to iPlayer and YouTube built in for streaming all the media you could possibly want – well almost. Creating your own content is easy thanks to the quick access buttons on the side of the phone for photo and video – both of which are superb quality, especially considering the camera is a mere 5 megapixels. Best of all, its a mere on-touch operation to upload your content to places like Facebook and Picasa – in these days of social media it’s a genius move on Sony Ericsson’s part and one that I’d like to see implemented across other phones ASAP.

Overall the Sony Ericsson Vivaz Pro is a game of two halves – great design, great media capabilities,and great keyboard, but hampered by the clunky Symbian S60 software…

HTC Desire HD

The HTC Desire HD is the latest volley from HTC into the iPhone-esque smartphone market, combining the styling of the HTC HD2, the HTC Sense UI and Google’s Android software and all that it entails – apps, marketplace etc.

Like the HD2, the HTC Desire HD is not much bigger than an iPhone, yet slimmer than the 3GS model, and packs an enormous 4.3 inch screen that covers the face of the phone, leaving only enough room for a small row of touch sensitive keys at the base of the phone and, of course, the speaker at the top. Overall it’s a very minimalist design – the only other button on the Desire HD is the volume rocker on the left hand side of the phone, and there’s only the micro USB (for charging and PC/Mac connection) and 3.5mm headphone jack on the base. On the rear sits, in typical fashion, the whopping 8 mega pixel camera (which slightly protrudes from the phone) and the now defacto dual flash.

The HTC Desire HD, available from Three, is made from a solid piece of aluminum with a superfast 1GHZ CPU with a crisp and vibrant 4.3″ display and fantastic Dolby Digital Mobile 5.1 surround. The 8 megapixel camera can also record video in 720P HD and everything runs on the latest Google Android 2.2 (Froyo) software. Turn on the Desire HD and the first thing that hits you is HTC’s now familiar Sense UI which the more I use it the more I like. For me the Sense home screen is one of the best around – the familiar huge clock and weather – and the fully customisable widget interface are a joy to behold… and to use. The apps that come as standard will get any phone user up and running within seconds, be it email, Twitter, Facebook, calendars, etc. And with the huge Android marketplace there’s plenty more apps and widgets to go at. Sadly the one thing that lets the UI down is the inability to multi-task as smoothly as other UI’s – whilst apps will run in the background they cannot be switched between as quickly or easily as Apple’s iOS.

Call quality is up to HTC’s usual great standards, as is the messaging – text messages are handled in easy to read conversations; and like other smartphones the HTC Desire HD has the ability to combine numerous email accounts onto the same device (using Exchange, POP3, IMAP), meaning the phone rivals the Blackberry as a business phone. Camera-wise the the Desire HD packs a superb 8 megapixel camera with dual flash which really helps in low light conditions. Again, like the HD2, there’s no camera button on the phone, instead you have to tap the screen to change options and take a photo – even focusing can be done by touch. The 720p video looks superb and so do the 8mp stills – although there can be some grain in low light conditions and you really need to let the phone focus fully before taking a picture otherwise the final result will look a little soft. But like any camera, with some practice you can acheive amazing results.

Overall the HTC Desire HD is a superb phone – with a more customisable interface than the iPhone and a much larger screen it makes for a more satisfying experience than previous phones from HTC and can truly be considered THE iPhone killer… If you’re thinking of upgrading your phone in the near future, you can’t go wrong with the HTC Desire HD. Heartily recommended.

Nokia N8

It’s an interesting time to be reviewing a Nokia phone, that’s for sure… Just in case you’re unaware of current mobile events, I’ll recap: after much rumour and speculation on the 11th of February 2011, Nokia and Microsoft announced a partnership to bring the latter’s mobile operating system Windows Phone 7 to the former’s smartphone hardware. Nokia’s CEO Stephen Elop (an ex-Microsoft exec, it’s worth noting) issued a fascinating memo a few days prior to this, in which he described Nokia as being “on a burning platform”.

That platform? Symbian. Long favoured by Nokia and probably the world’s first smartphone operating system, it’s now dead in the water and soon to be replaced by Microsoft’s offering.

Which brings us to the Nokia N8. What operating system beats at the heart of this device? Why, the same one as Nokia’s other smartphones, that’s what: Symbian. Not a promising sign for Nokia’s flagship mobile, is it?

First things first, the hardware. I’ll be completely honest with you, my first impression of the device upon taking it out of the box was “nice!’. It’s a solid, weighty handset, that feels built to last. Apple get praised for their build quality a lot, but the N8 is engineered better than Apple’s iphone 3G/3GS devices. It’s perhaps not quite on a par with the iPhone 4, but in all honesty it feels more robust. You’d be less worried about it shattering if you dropped it. Sure, it’ll scuff and dent, but you really feel like this is hardware that would be battle scarred and world weary and keep on ticking.

Notable physical specs include HDMI output, a curious little slider button the phone’s side, external ports for both the sim card and the memory card, a front-bottom physical button (more on that later), a noticeable protruding back for the phone’s impressive high spec 12mp camera, and the addition of a physical shutter button to go along with it. The N8 sports the highest resolution camera of any current mobile device, so you can forgive a slight physical deformity to achieve it. More on the camera later too.

External sources suggest the screen is made of Gorilla Glass, fast becoming famous for boosting the durability of this sort of device’s screen. I didn’t attack it during my time with the phone, but it certainly felt solid (although you can’t really argue that regular glass feels anything other than solid!).

After the initial delight at the build of the device, and the annoyance at the same old Nokia hand holding animation and annoying theme tune, I noticed a couple of other things. The first was the use of the slider button on the side of the device to unlock it. It’s a spongey, old-fashioned feeling thumb slide that offer no tactile feedback at all. It works well enough, and does its job with no major problems, but it feels incredibly strange in use.

The second was the device’s front button placement. It’s on the bottom left of the front of the device, and it’s awkward. Single handed use with your right hand is out, unless you have a freakishly large thumb on that hand. There’s just no comfortable way to reach across the phone’s chin and hit it. Left handed is still slightly awkward as you’ve got to curl your thumb in to hit the target. More often than not, you’ll find yourself using two hands to return to the home screen. And I can’t help but wonder why?!? There seems to be no sensible reason to put the button on one side of the phone when ergonomically speaking it should be slap bang in the middle.

And so to the device’s camera. Despite increasingly higher megapixel counts on modern digital cameras, megapixels aren’t everything. Cheap internal components combined with a high megapixel sensor can produce worse photos than excellent components and a more conservative sensor. The N8 produces lovely photos, don’t get me wrong. In optimum conditions it takes a better photo than most of my (admittedly ageing) regular digital cameras. However, I found it to undesirably noisy in low light, with or without the flash, and the software is cluttered and at times awkward. The physical shutter button is a superb touch, offering a half-way point that sets focus and exposure. There’s no tap to focus on the screen. All that said, after comparing the photos from the N8 with photos from my iPhone 4, I can’t say I’m blown away by the difference. The N8 has a slight edge at times, but the iPhone seems to win in others. Maybe it’s just because I’m more familiar shooting with my iPhone than the N8. Regardless of the quality of still photography, I definitely found the N8 to take worse video than the iPhone 4. Video seemed slightly choppier on the N8, and I found the sound quality captured by the iPhone to be slightly better.

All that said, the N8 is an impressive piece of hardware both in terms of build, camera, and screen. But what about the software?

There’s a reason Stephen Elop wrote that memo. There’s a reason Nokia have aligned themselves with Microsoft for their future smartphones. And that reason has never been more apparent than with the N8. An impressive, if slightly eccentric piece of hardware, is totally let down by the mediocre operating system it’s running.

The software selection available in Nokia’s Ovi store is fairly limited. I found it to be better than RIM’s Blackberry App World, but in comparison with Apple, Google, and to a certain extent Microsoft it’s not a vast selection. I found no trace of Evernote, Dropbox, Simplenote, Remember The Milk, or Amazon’s Kindle app. Spotify came preinstalled, but wouldn’t run on the device as it wanted an update, and wouldn’t automatically update when it told me it would.

Whenever you come to enter text on the device, you’re switched to a hideously jarring full screen text entry view. There’s no full QWERTY keyboard in portrait, only an old school T9 text entry setup. Turning the phone to landscape offers a full keyboard, but only a sliver of the text you’re typing is visible. In T9 mode, to switch between predictive text and multi-tap, you have to press the hash key. This is a modern, touch screen operating system on a flagship device, and you’re using the same mechanism to toggle text entry as Nokia phones from 2002?

It’s clunky elements like this that constantly remind you that the software you’re using is an evolution of something that started a long time ago. Where Microsoft acknowledged they needed to retire their mobile operating system and come up with something new for today’s market, Nokia have continued to flog a horse that died a long time ago. Everything about the software experience feels like it’s had its day. It’s an outdated platform.

Nokia had a decent browser on their phones back when the N95 launched. As an N95 owner myself, many was the time I’d load up things on there that my Windows Mobile toting colleagues could not. That same browser appears to be running on the N8 and while it’s perhaps the most modern software element on the device, it feels slow. The touch screen doesn’t feel as responsive as other phones I’ve used recently, and complicated page loads take longer than they should on a device of this class.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

Were I writing this prior to Nokia’s change of direction, I’d probably end on a negative note as many have done in the past. Today, knowing what the plans are for the future, I’m genuinely optimistic. A Nokia N8 with a truly capable modern operating system would be a force to be reckoned with. Load this thing up with Android, WinPho7, iOS, or even RIM’s Blackberry OS and you’d have a piece of hardware people that competed.

As it is, the N8 marks the end of a road that started with the Nokia 7650 nine years ago. I owned, and adored, that device, and I’m optimistic that Nokia and Microsoft can produce something equally compelling in today’s mobile market.

Samsung Galaxy Tab

Immediately unboxing the Tab I was struck by the solid feel of the device and just how damn good it actually feels in your hand as you use it – which is the most surprising aspect of the Galaxy Tab. The 7? screen makes the device easy to hold in one hand, yet large enough to tap out quick texts or Twitter updates with both thumbs. The screen itself is crisp and super bright and looks remarkably pleasing to the eye.

So far I’ve downloaded what are for me the essential apps from Android Marketplace – Dropbox, Twitter, Facebook, eBay, Amazon MP3, BBC iPlayer, Skype and Shazam. These are the main apps I use on my iPad and iPhone, so it’s only fair – for comparison reasons – that I try them out on the Samsung Galaxy Tab too. So far it’s a thumbs up for all the apps! All work as well, if not better, at least in the case of the Amazon app, than their iOS counterparts.

I’ve also crammed the micro SD card in the device with plenty of music (both from my Mac and downloaded via Amazon’s MP3 app) and teamed with the V-Moda Crossfade LP headphones I’m also currently reviewing the sound reproduction is suberb – with a wide, clear, audio range and, as is my preference, a deep heavy bass. The audio output is definitely one area in which the Tab outdoes Apple’s iPhone…

All of the above still stands, only now, with more time spent with the Tab I’ve found even more to like about the 7″ wonder (as I’ve dubbed it).

Firstly, the screen. The Tab has a 7″ WSVGA TFT screen with a resolution of 1024×600, and in layman’s terms that means the Tab is a joy to look at, with a bright screen and icons that look crisp and clear – I’d say it rivals Apple “retina-display” for quality. What that also means is that media, be it movies, music videos or photos, look stunning – even more so if you load up a Divx HD movie file (with which the Tab is out-of-the-box compatible), I guarantee you’ll be blown away.

Secondly, that the Tab is DLNA compatible. What does that mean? I hear you ask. Well check this out – I fancied watching one of the many movies that I had stored on my Samsung Galaxy Tab, but I wanted to watch it on my 40″ TV. So what to do? Well I could have taken out the micro SD card on which the film was stored, placed it in an SD card adapter and slotted it into my PS3. Simple enough right? Well thanks to the DLNA support it was even simpler… Switch on my 40″ Samsung TV, connect to the Tab via DLNA, watch the film. Easy.

Thirdly, and key to my enjoyment it seems, the built-in HSDPA/HSUPA. Little did I know when I bought my wi-fi only iPad that having a 3G (and better) signal would make SUCH a difference in my use of a tablet device. It does, and it did. For the brief time I have had the Samsung Galaxy Tab I’ve taken it out of the house more than I’ve ever took my iPad and mi-fi combination. Marry the cracking built-in 3G/HSDPA with Three’s superb 3G network – and where I live it’s the ONLY 3G network (yes, I’ve been living sans 3G signal at home thanks to my O2 contract) – and you have a perfect portable device. To be honest I don’t know what impressed me more – the built-in 3G or Three 3G service!

It’s not all been smooth-sailing however, there were a couple of occasions where the Tab faltered under pressure, and at one point even fell over and died! It was at the point when it died that I almost had a heart-attack and nearly swore off Tab use forever – after all it was only a review unit and I was expected to return it afterwards. How the hell could I return a broken unit? It turns out the fault – not powering back on after being in standby – it actually a more common occurrence than I thought (at least judging by all the internet posts about it). But the cure was simple – a forced reset, and haven’t we all done that to one our devices every now and again?

As for the Samsung Galaxy Tab faltering – well it seems the device occasionally struggles when running CPU and memory heavy apps, so no running the Music app, Twitter app and Browser at the same time for me! But a quick “end task” on one or more of the running apps (and I may add via the BUILT-IN task-killer, no downloading ATK from the Android Marketplace here) and it was back to smooth multi-tasking. I have to state for the record I had NO problems with any other combination of apps, just the aforementioned three apps – perhaps the installation of an alternative browser would solve the problem as it was usually the browser that was more often than not the culprit – thanks in part to script-heavy websites.

So it’s almost been a month with the Tab and I’m still in awe of how good it is. Sure it’s no iPad (1 or 2) but as an alternative to Apple’s device the Samsung Galaxy Tab will take some beating – definitely in this reviewers opinion the best of the Android tablets on the market today.

Sony Ericsson Xperia arc

Whether you like it or not, whether you’re a die hard iPhone owner, or an advocate of Windows Phone 7, there’s no denying that Android is here, it’s big, and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon. Carphone Warehouse now have a specific Android section in store, people are aware of what it is (a non-technical friend the other day told me she’d “got an android”, I’m assuming she meant her phone), and more and more handsets are being launched with the beating heart of Google’s mobile operating system at their core.

Enter Sony Ericsson’s latest handset, the Xperia arc (yes, with no capitals, that’s how they spell it). On paper, the arc is Yet Another Android Handset (YAAH!) sporting a fairly conventional 1ghz processor, 512mb of ram, 1gb of rom, a microSD slot, HDMI out, a 4.2 inch 854 x 480 LCD screen, and powered by the Gingerbread version of Android (2.3 fact fans).

This being Sony Ericsson though, there are several things that make the arc stand out from the YAAH crowd. Yes, it’s not Super AMOLED Plus Extra HD Humungous Edition (or whatever Samsung are calling their screen tech these days), but it does feature a really nice LCD display, and Sony’s Mobile Bravia engine. And it doesn’t just have a camera, it has a 8.1 megapixel Sony Exmor R mobile CMOS sensor. Which means “it’s a bit good”, but more on that later.

Another thing worth mentioning is the arc‘s build quality. My first impressions when taking it out of the box were that it feels simultaneously large and streamlined. It’s well made, and feels robust even if it is entirely made of shiny plastic. At 117g it’s not too heavy either. There are no creaks in the plastic, and the curved (arced, see?) back makes it nice and comfy to hold.

There are one or two physical niggles though: both the headphone port and usb posts are side mounted. The supplied headphones (the canalphone kind) and USB cable are thoughtfully provided with connectors that have 90 degree angled heads, but trying to use the arc in your pocket, with standard straight connecting headphones could be annoying. It’s an odd choice for a device partly made by a manufacturer synonymous with mobile music.

The power button is also pretty awkward to get at, sitting in a recessed little notch on the top of the device. Thankfully it’s not something you’re likely to be pressing all the time. The camera shutter button, a really welcome addition, is also quite small and awkward to properly press. It’s something that you get the hang of though, unlike the power button.

As far as using the device goes, if you’re familiar with Android you’ll instantly see what Sony Ericsson have done here. Rather than try to hide away the inner workings of the OS, they’ve instead taken a far less aggressive approach to customisation, and have added their own set of widgets, their own launcher (the system used for finding and starting applications), and their own choice of colours, icons, and fonts. It works, and what’s more it’s recognisably Sony Ericsson in appearance. It may not be for everyone, the combination of blues and silvers might be considered girly by some, but it’s elegant and pleasing to the eye, especially on the arc‘s screen.

Everything runs well, multi tasking causes no apparent lag or hiccup most of the time, and at no time during the device’s use did I consider it to be overly slow or sluggish. That said, there’s still a single core 1ghz cpu under the hood, and there are much bigger, more powerful slabs of silicon coming very, very soon. In the case of Samsung’s Galaxy S 2, they’re already here. I also came across a few websites that the stock browser struggled with (due to excessive images or javascript use I suppose) but the arc performed better than a similarly equipped Nexus S.

HDMI output works really well, and could come in handy for showing off photos and video. It’s also a reasonably capable way of browsing the web and playing games, at a push, and it’s interesting to consider that eventually the phones we carry around might be as capable as our current generation games consoles.

Phone calls worked perfectly well, signal strength was acceptable and calls were clear and acceptably loud. The built in speakerphone isn’t the best I’ve heard though. Battery is also acceptable for this kind of device, and with a little nursing you should manage to get through a day’s use. As always with these kinds of devices, the more you use it, and especially with Android the more applications you have updating themselves at regular intervals, the less time it’s going to last. There’s the option of carrying a spare battery though (you can easily pop the back off and drop in a fully charged battery), which is something certain phones make impossible.

There are other nice touches, such as the way you can determine what app launches when certain peripherals are connected, be it headphones, a mains charger or others. Sony Ericsson’s Timescape system works well too, sucking in any services that you’ve added from a reasonably rich selection (including email and texts), but may have limited utility for some people who prefer going directly to the apps themselves. And the previously mentioned Launcher helpfully lets you sort your applications how you’d like, something easily overlooked, but most welcome.

On top of all that, Sony Ericsson are open to allowing custom roms to be installed on their device, even going so far as to set up a website to explain how to do it. The usual caveats apply, but it’s nice to see manufacturers embracing this sort of community focused approach with their devices. To a certain extent, it takes the heat off them to support their device in the future, but it also gives the more technically proficient customer some confidence that if there’s a problem or annoyance with the device, someone’s likely to release a fixed piece of software for it.

Finally then, the device’s biggest selling point. The built in 8.1 megapixel autofocus camera does a great job, and is probably the best Android camera I’ve used. The Exmor sensor works well in both ideal and low light situations, and the included flash can step in when things get really dark. Photos and videos look great and while there’s no 1080p recording, the 720p setting looks good. There seem to be a few automatically applied enhancements at the software level as part of the Bravia engine which may upset some purists, but on the whole they work as intended. The built in smile detection is nifty, and works as advertised. The only downside is there’s no front facing camera for video calling. On the whole, I don’t think anyone will find much to dislike in terms of the camera setup.

Ultimately, if you like the aesthetic and build, both in terms of the physical characteristics and what Sony Ericsson have done to Android itself, then this is well worth a look. But with two dual core heavyweights just around the corner (Samsung’s Galaxy S 2, and HTC’s Sensation), the Xperia arc is in danger of being knocked into obscurity due to its relative lack of power. Which would be a shame. This is easily one of my favourite Android handsets, and the best phone Sony Ericsson have produced so far.

Sony Ericsson Xperia PLAY

Sony Ericsson’s flagship Xperia range has been going from strength to strength with every new handset released on the market and with the Xperia PLAY I think Sony may have reached, at least for me, their pinnacle with this combination of Android mobile phone and Sony Playstation games machine, dubbed the Playstation Pocket… Yes, the Xperia PLAY crams the very first generation of Playstation into a phone that is actually only just slightly larger than two Playstation memory cards!

Design-wise the Xperia PLAY is incredibly similar to the Sony Ericsson Vivaz Pro – from the large, almost full-face, screen to the minimalist and sleek curved design, to, and this is the most important part – the satisfyingly sprung slide motion. However unlike the Vivaz Pro, this slide mechanism doesn’t cover a QWERTY keyboard, oh no, this hides a gamepad, complete with Sony’s iconic triangle, square, X and circle keys, start/select buttons, and what no game system could be without, of course, a d-pad. The PLAY also has a pair of L and R buttons on the right hand side of the phone, that when turned into the gaming position are perfectly placed to recreate the same feel and functionality as those found on every Playstation console. Down the opposite side of the handset lie a mini USB port and headphone jack – both of which are placed perfectly so as to still be useable at all times, but not to get in the way when using the Xperia PLAY for gaming.

Under the hood the Xperia PLAY is powered by a 1GHz Qualcomm MSM8255 Snapdragon chip, with an Adreno 205 GPU, and 512Mb of RAM running Android 2.3.2 (aka Gingerbread) with Sony Ericsson’s now-typical Timescape overlay – which adds numerous features to the Android experience, the biggest of which is the companies ‘Splines’ system – allowing quick and easy access to Twitter and Facebook, allowing you to instantly see and scroll through social media updates if you set the splines as your homescreen – sadly, like a lot of Sony Ericsson’s handsets all the bells and whistles added by Timescape also have a tremendous drain on the handsets battery life. Couple that with the excessive gaming you’ll do (if you’re anything like me) on the Xperia PLAY and a typical full charge will probably not see the day through!

Besides the built in Playstation Pocket software there’s nothing much to differentiate the Xperia PLAY from a myriad other Android-based handsets on the market but if you’re buying an Xperia PLAY you’re not looking for just a phone – you’re buying this for it’s portable gaming abilities surely?

What’s interesting about the Xperia PLAY‘s gaming functions is that, besides the PS One game compatibility, the phone also has a whole range of Android Marketplace games that are optimised for, and compatible with, the built-in d-pad controls. Sliding open the phone instantly launches the Xperia PLAY App which lists both all the games you’ve already downloaded and gives instant access to more games available for purchase. Our review unit came with a number of pre-loaded games, including the classic original (and still the best) PS One title Crash Bandicoot, along with two Marketplace games: Star Batallion and Bruce Lee.

Crash Bandicoot is a perfect recreation of the PS One original, from the graphics to the sound, to the gameplay; meanwhile Star Batallion is a 3D shoot ‘em-up that is reminiscent of Starfox 64. But of the three games I found myself absolutely adoring Bruce Lee – which is your typical 3D fighter that sees you (obviously given the title) take on the role of Bruce Lee as he battles his way through various adversaries in a very Tekken-esque fighting style. It’s a very stereotypical game, but thanks to some great graphics, a good story and the superb controls of the Xperia PLAY I found myself having TONS of fun – in fact the MOST fun I’ve had playing a fighting game on a handheld device since playing Darkstalkers on the PSP. Seriously, give me a d-apd and buttons over just a touchscreen any day – there’s a lot more control over the game and, best of all, you don’t give over half the screen real estate to your fingers!

I will admit that when picking up the Xperia PLAY for the first time I had my resrvations about it as a gaming machine – obviously I knew what to expect from it as a phone given my experience of other Sony Ericsson Android-based mobiles – but after spending a couple of weeks with the device and I now consider it a serious contender to Apple’s domination of the mobile handheld market… Now if they’d just do something about the battery life (and perhaps the PS One game prices) and Sony Ericsson could be on to a serious winner.

Three’s Premium HSPA+ Mobile Broadband Dongle

I’ve long been a fan of Three’s mobile broadband dongles – as a blogger I often end up in hotels or at events that are sans wi-fi and needing to blog on the road means a mobile broadband dongle is essential. I used Three’s original USB mobile broadband dongle for years before finally upgrading recently to a Mi-fi so that I could use my iPad on the road too. Well as seems to always be the case when I buy new gadgets, Three have released a new USB dongle which they’ve dubbed their Premium Mobile Broadband Dongle.

The Premium dongle, actually a Huawei E367, supports the Evolved High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA) standard, also known as HSPA+. Connecting at faster speeds than previous models, the dongle achieves this thanks to both network upgrades and new technologies within the dongle itself.

Whereas other non-HSPA+ dongle connect at rates of 3.4Mbit/s or 7.2Mbit/s, Three rates its HSPA+ speeds at a whopping 21Mbit/s and even if your local Three mast hasn’t yet been upgraded to HSPA+, you’ll see a distinct performance improvement using the E367 dongle even in traditional 3G areas. Plus, and this is a huge plus, thanks to the premium dongles use of multiple antennas you’ll also see a stabler connection to the Three network, with less drop-out and less connectivity issues.

One of my major gripes with mobile broadband dongles is the aforementioned connectivity issues… Taking a 3-hour train trip to London means I often have to do work on the train, now with previous dongles – even Three’s other models – I’ve always suffered from lost connection(s) as we pass through mast sites. So, having a Premium Mobile Broadband Dongle to review and a trip to London on the cards (for last weekends London Film and Comic Con) of course I had to test it out. And, baring a long trek through open countryside, I had ZERO drop out on my connection and it stayed rock-solidly at HSPA speeds according to Three’s connectivity monitor. Colour me impressed.

I’ve used the premium dongle with both the sim card provided in the review unit and my own Three pay as you go sim and the dongle has worked like a charm. And with download speeds registering at around 4Mbit/s in my tests, I found the Premium Mobile Broadband Dongle to be almost as fast as my home broadband during peak hours and I easily streamed, without stuttering, HD video, including plenty of those found on YouTube and the like.

If I had one issue with the dongle (and this is a really minor design issue) it’s that the signal indicator light on the dongle faces away from you at all times – I found myself checking to see I was (still) connected by holding my hand up to the dongle and looking for the glow of the light in my palm. Like I said, a small issue in an otherwise excellent product.

Three’s Web Cube

Three have always been at the forefront of mobile broadband technology thanks to their relationship with manufacturers Huawei. We’ve tested, reviewed and used many of Three’s mobile broadband products – from their original USB dongle to the Mifi and their latest Wi-fi hub – and now we have our hands on Three’s new Web Cube, which unlike it’s moblie broadband brethren is specifically made to bring mobile broadband into the home, replacing traditional wired services in homes which can’t get a high speed landline connection, or for those who don’t want to be tied into long-term contracts.

Three’s Web Cube is essentially an AC-powered mobile broadband router that, whilst not as portable as Three’s other mobile broadband products, can be positioned wherever it’s needed, such as a student digs or a hotel room and yes folks, if you read any of my Glasgow Frightfest coverage during the event that was (mostly) down to the Web Cube which we took along on the trip so as to not have to pay the extortionate hotel wi-fi fees and to get a much better signal!

Appearance-wise the Web Cube is a stunning-looking piece of kit. Measuring 10cm x 10cm x 10cm, the cube is an all-white affair, white glossy white top and base plates and a frosted white middle which shows an inner pillar (much like the appearance of the centre of a speaker).Best of all? The Web Cube is fitted with a myriad of blue LED lights which glow when a device is connected to it and the 3G signal strength is shown via blue LEDs on the top panel. The cube isn’t overload with buttons and controls, coming as it does with just one button on the top which both powers the cube on and off and pairs it with other devices. Around the top edges of the cube are three covered ports – one for the SIM card, covering the reset button and an external antenna port, and the last houses a microUSB port – which is used to update the firmware only as far as we’re aware (such a shame you can’t connect an external USB HDD and use it as network storage).

Of course no matter how pretty the hardware it’s what’s inside that counts and Three’s Web Cube supports HSPA+ up to 21.6 Mbit/s downloads and up to 5.76 Mbit/s uploads, depending on the network and area, and supports up to five devices at once over B/G/N wi-fi connections.

Setup is superbly simple – it’s all a matter of plug and play – open the SIM tray, insert SIM, plug Web Cube into mains and switch it on. Done. Then it’s a case of finding the cube on your device and connecting, which is easy as both the SSID and the WPA2 are pre-configured and printed on the base! It’s a matter of seconds to connect to the cube and then get online. It really couldn’t be quicker or easier. As with most routers there is a browser-based admin interface which allows you to configure the Web Cube to your requirements – including configuring DHCP, static IP addresses, MAC filters etc., but as it works straight out of the box 99% of users will probably never see this side of the device. One thing I will say though about the admin interface is that it allows you to turn off the blue LED connection light, which is ideal if you schedule updates and downloads for overnight – no annoying blue glow in the room stopping you from going to sleep (that’s if you have it in your bedroom or hotel room of course).

In our simple tests, the wi-fi strength was over and above that of our other mobile devices including that of Three’s HSPA+ Mifi, which meant we could leave the Web Cube in an area with the best 3G signal strength and happily walk about the house with a rock-solid connection. Taking it on the road to Glasgow was also a breeze – it wouldn’t reach down a floor, but I was still connected throughout the hotel room and in the hallway on the way to the elevator! The strength of the signal is possibly the cube’s greatest strength (pardon the pun) over other mobile broadband devices – not only was the 3G signal stronger, so was the wi-fi connection. Which for a blogger on the road is a godsend.

Three offers two options for Web Cube data packages: 15GB data p/month on a two year £15.99 contract, with the Web Cube thrown in for free or 10GB of data on a £15 p/month rolling monthly contract, paying £59.99 for the Web Cube. Three are soft-launching the Web Cube in a few key cities across the UK before taking it nationwide; so those in Leeds, Glasgow and Edinburgh will be able to enjoy the device before the rest of the UK.

Possibly only a niche product – ideal for students and those (like my mother) who want to enjoy all that the internet brings without committing to a contract with an ISP. It’s also ideal for bloggers on the road who spend a lot of time in hotel rooms or as a back-up for your home broadband in case it goes down – the Web Cube is still another fantastic piece of kit from Three and is a great addition to their mobile broadband range.

Check out my unboxing video of Three’s Web Cube right here.

Nokia Lumia 800

I was recently privileged to be picked to take part in the new Windows Into program, which saw Windows hand out thousands of handsets to writers, bloggers and other influential folk in the hope of spreading the word about Windows Mobile and its integration with social media platforms. The mobile of choice was the brand new and heavily advertised Nokia Lumia 800, the first Nokia phone to feature the Windows Mobile operating system rather than Nokia’s more traditional Symbian OS.

We’ve had our Nokia’s for a week now and have had plenty of time to get used to both the phone and the OS, so here’s my thoughts on what some are (wrongly) calling the iPhone beater:

The Good

  • The Lumia 800 is the best looking phone Nokia has ever brought out even beating my favourite Nokia 5800
  • You can change the colours of the tiles to match your mood.
  • Facebook and Twitter can be viewed in one stream
  • You’re able to switch between Facebook Chat and Texts within a conversation
  • Able to see all notification on the “me” button
  • Xbox integration via the Gamer Tag which can be sync’d with your Xbox
  • The ability to transfer contacts via Bluetooth if they are saved onto your SD card rather than sim.
  • It has an 8 megapixel camera
  • The OS looks different to any other on the market

The Bad

  • The phone crashes if you press the back button too many times
  • If you are deleting a lot of texts, the phone lags and you can end up deleting more than you wanted
  • The OS isn’t that customisable or user friendly you can’t really change much, and feels like something is missing
  • I own a HTC Desire and one thing I love about it is the scroll button it is something I couldn’t live without. I find it annoying when I you make a spelling mistake, instead of scrolling to the error I seem to be playing tag by holding down on the word and guessing where the cursor will appear. i often ended up deleting the entire word just for one letter
  • No internet tethering – with travelling a lot it is an essential part of my day-to-day phone use
  • You can’t remove T9 or predictive text (at least I couldn’t find out how too – if you can let us know)
  • With the body being one piece there’s hardly any room for addtional ports, which means there’s no SD card
  • The icon layout seems out-moded and outdated, why have a long list of apps and not be able to show them in grid view?
  • The 8 megapixel camera has particularly bad low-light levels and a terrible digital zoom
  • The camera records video in a very low-resolution
  • The mic seems to cut off the top and bottom end of your voice pitch – which makes it difficult for people you’re calling to actually understand you. Talking in monotone works fine though!

Sony Xperia P

The wheels of the Android handset machine roll ever onwards. It seems like every other week there are new handsets from one manufacturer or another. Samsung, HTC, Acer, Asus, LG, Motorola; the list seems to grow with each new release of the Android operating system.

But there’s one name that’s no longer on the list of handset manufacturers: Ericsson. Since the very early days of mobile phones, and certainly the advent of smartphones, Sony Ericsson have been a constant presence. But now, their partnership is over, and Sony are going it alone with a range of Sony branded Android handsets. Part of the first wave of these, dubbed the Xperia NXT series, is the Xperia P. Which is in itself a little confusing; the Xperia range existed before Sony decided to go it alone, so you’d think they’d perhaps fancy a clean break with this new generation. Or perhaps the Xperia brand carries sufficient weight to be worth keeping around.

The Xperia P is the middle sibling next to bigger brother the Xperia S, and smaller sister the Xperia U. If bought directly from Sony, the Xperia U will set you back £189, the P £329, and the S £349. We’ll have a review of the S in the coming days, but for now we’ll concentrate on the middle tier Xperia P.

Tech specs on the P are pretty unremarkable these days: it sports an 8 mega-pixel camera, equipped with Sony’s Exmor R sensor for improved shooting in low light conditions. Under the bonnet is a dual-core 1GHz processor, 16GB of internal storage, and 1GB of internal RAM. It’s worth noting that the Xperia P has no removal storage of any kind, so you’re going to have to make do with what’s built in.

The externals of the phone are a bit of a mixed bag. The casing is “precision crafted” from aluminium, which gives the phone a solid feel but keeps it surprisingly light. There are no plasticy creaks or weak points, but the phone feels lighter in the hand than an iPhone 4S or similar device. Unfortunately, the case has some very square edges, and has a tendency to dig into the palm uncomfortably after a while. It’s just not pleasant to hold.

Another oddity is the placing of a transparent strip along the bottom of the device. This houses the phone’s three capacitive buttons (back, home, and menu) and looks incredibly tacky. There buttons light up as needed, but without the back light are pretty much invisible in certain conditions. There’s a large gap between the bottom of the screen and the transparent strip, which reduces accidental button presses, but feels a little too large in use. Below the transparent strip is another chunk of plastic, rather than the aluminium that the rest of the case is made of, and given that there’s no apparent link between the transparency and the bottom plastic chunk (there are no visible connections in the gap) one wonders what the point of this tacky looking bottom panel is.

Had the phone been one nicely engineered unibody aluminium slab, it would have stood out and felt like a seriously premium device. As it is, any points it wins for the metal construction are lost thanks to the tacky bottom section. Points are also knocked off for the presence of lots of seams on the device. There’s a double seem around the screen, and a strange looking plastic seam that runs from the camera flash to the camera lens.

Also worth mentioning is the fact that the device uses a micro sim instead of the larger sized sims, and the battery is non removable. I guess that’s the trade off with this sort of slimline precision crafted device. Finally, the back of the device is slightly curved which makes it feel slightly more comfortable in the hand than had it been flat, but also means the phone doesn’t sit flat on a table or desk.

Moving beyond the physical construction, the screen on the Xperia P is lovely. Sony have included their WhiteMagic technology – which adds an additional white sub-pixel to the screen’s panel – and the result is a bright, energy efficient display that really pops when you turn it on. I’m a bit fussy when it comes to visible pixels on a device, and the Xperia P‘s 4 inch 960×540 screen is pretty much free from visible pixels. It has a slighter lower PPI than the iPhone 4S (Apple’s device has 326, the Xperia has 275) but the difference isn’t all that noticeable in use.

Sony have picked a great colour scheme for their default setup too, giving the device a cool blue swirling live wallpaper that really shows off the screen.

Coupled with the great screen is a similarly great camera. Shooting at 8 mega-pixels still, and 1080p video, it does a very similar job to the much praised camera on the iPhone 4S. Sony’s camera software offers far more flexibility than Apple’s point and shoot approach, which may or may not be a good thing. If you’re a user that’s felt restricted by Apple’s camera software, the Xperia P might be worth a look.

Sadly, a great screen and a great camera cannot change the fact that the Xperia P is running on seriously outdated software. Shipping with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, which has now been superseded by not just Android 4 Ice Cream Sandwich, but now Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, the Xperia P‘s software is looking pretty long in the tooth. Sony have promised an update sometime in Q2 of 2012, but last time I looked we’d crept into Q3 and there’s still no sign of it. I can naturally forgive Sony for not shipping a device with an operating system that was only announced months after the device itself shipped, but I cannot cut them slack for a new flagship range of phones with such an outdated version of the software. When they do finally release their ICS update, it will already be out of date.

In fairness to Sony, this isn’t a problem that’s uniquely theirs. Most Android handset manufacturers are having this problem, and the only way to guarantee any kind of upgrade path is to “Go Google” and buy a Nexus branded device like the Galaxy Nexus. And there’s the rub: as more consumers become aware of the upgrade situation with Android, how many will gravitate towards Nexus type devices in order to remain current. That said, maybe it doesn’t matter: maybe Android customers aren’t interested in having cutting edge software on their devices.

The bottom line is this: the Xperia P feels like a letdown thanks to an uncomfortable piece of design, some tacky trimmings, and outdated software. A delightful screen and great camera can’t make up for the fact that this doesn’t feel like much of a step up from the Sony Ericsson branded handsets of old. Yes, at some point in the future the device will get an Android OS upgrade, and that might well make it worth considering if you’re a) absolutely set on a Sony device, and b) not put off by the hardware design. But with so many other options, at very similar price points, it’s hard to recommend the Xperia P.

Given the number of tasty pies that Sony has fingers in, they’re well placed to put together a truly delicious dessert. Take a dollop of PlayStation gaming, a soupcon of Bravia television tech, a sprinkle of music, TV, and video pixie dust, and a healthy glug of camera tech and you should theoretically have a device that’s unmatchable by the other players in the space. There is no other handset manufacturer who, on paper, has the breadth of expertise that Sony has. And yet, they’re lagging behind at least Apple and Samsung, and possibly more of the major handset players. I would really like to see them make the most of their available resources, and release a truly exceptional handset.

HTC One V

HTC’s new One line is the mobile companies new flagship line of phones, featuring three different models: the One X, One S and the One V. Styled after the Nexus One (and the HTC Legend), the One V is another Android-based device from HTC – this one features an aluminium unibody case and is running both Android 4.0, aka Ice Cream Sandwich and HTC’s proprietary Sense UI, again this is v 4.0.

The phone itself has a 3.7 inch display (made from Gorilla Glass no less), measures 9.2mm thick, and weighs an iPhone beating 115g. It’s also packed with features, including Beats Audio logo; a 5MP camera which supports 720p video capture, simultaneous photo and video capture and slow motion filming; microUSB port; a microSD slot; 4GB of storage; 512MB of RAM and a 1GHz Snapdragon processor.

If you’ve ever used or had a play with a HTC Legend then you’ll know what to expect from the One V – the design and button layout is very similar to HTC’s previous model… What surprises about HTC’s mid-range model however is the screen. A gorilla glass screen running at a resolution of 480 x 800 pixels doesn’t sound that great on paper but in reality it rivals screens running a much higher resolution – the text is super-crisp and graphics look stunning, both in terms of clarity and colour; and the viewing angle isn’t to be sniffed at either!

The big draw in terms of just why you should buy the HTC One V is the OS. Unlike some mobile companies (cough, Sony, cough) HTC are shipping the phone with Android 4.0.3, the best Android OS on the market today (better than 4.1 in my opinion, as it’s compatible with more of the current-gen mobiles and apps), which means the One V can run Google Chrome beta and the new Gmail app. Thanks to Android 4.0 and the 1GHz processor it also runs a lot of games with a smoothness and ease I have not seen in recent Android devices. Marry the smoothness of the gameplay with with crisp screen and the One V is a mobile gamers heaven!

I have read complaints that the HTC One V‘s single core processor and mere 512kb of RAM is not powerful enough for today’s multi-tasking demands of the consumer, however in my (brief) experience with the handset for this review I found no such issues, the One V performed admirably in everyday tasks and in processor heavy gaming…

Of course performance is nothing with out battery life and yet again the HTC One V does not disappoint. Used on a day-to-day basis to check emails, Twitter, Facebook, more emails, a couple of phone calls (of around 5-10 minutes) and a 15 minute blast of gaming to and from work on the train, the battery in the One V out-performed my iPhone 4S, lasting a day and a half without charge – compared to a day on my iPhone. It may not seem like much but those extra few hours of battery life could very well come in handy in an emergency.

Overall the HTC One V is, based on my recent review experiences, one of the better Android mobiles available today; it even tempted my other half away from her long-loved and trusty HTC Desire – and believe me it takes a lot to do that!

Samsung Galaxy Note II

The Galaxy Note II is the latest powerhouse mobile (as some might say, possible iPhone killer) from Samsung and features mighty 1.6GHz Quad-Core processor and HSPA Plus or 4G LTE connectivity (network dependant) which gives the phone lightning-fast response and browsing performance, as well as app start-ups with minimal lag times. With a 5.55” (141mm) HD Super AMOLED display providing brilliant visual clarity, its 16:9 screen ratio is perfect for watching movies on the go – especially those in HD; plus the larger screen allows you to see content clearly and vividly, which enhances readability. The Samsung Galaxy Note II comes complete with Android 4.1 (JellyBean), bringing upgraded Google Now services, including new features such as contextual search. Our review handset was a 16Gb model, but the device also comes in 32Gb and 64Gb models and all three feature expandable memory via the micro SD memory slot.

A fantastic feature of the Samsung Galaxy Note II are the new S Pen enabled features: Air View allows you to hover with the S Pen over an email, S Note, S Planner, image galleries, or videos to preview the content without having to open it. This gives you quick access to search and view more information in detail without screen transitions; and the device’s new gesture pad feature called Quick Command lets you use to the S Pen to take shortcuts. The S Pen’s advanced features also provide the capability to combine handwriting with any digital content directly on the screen. By simply pressing the dedicated S Pen button, it recognises that you want to clip or edit the selected content on the screen. This action allows you to instantly crop the screen or its contents in any shape required—ready to save, share or paste—and you can also edit Web or digital images instantly with colouring, shading, or your own personal handwriting. It is as quick and easy as pen and paper.

Whether you’re watching a video, texting a friend or sketching an idea, the Galaxy Note II makes multitasking seamless and intuitive with three new “Pop Up” features:

  • Popup Note lets you open an S Note instantly as a pop-up window anywhere on the screen. For example, you might watch a soccer game on the display while looking up a player’s statistics at the same time. Or you can take notes on S Note while your friend gives you directions over the phone, or even sketch the directions as a map during the conversation. Whatever the task, Galaxy Note II has the right tools to keep you active while on-the-go.
  • Another new multitasking feature is Popup Web. You can now open a web browser anywhere on the screen and open a web link without having to switch between screens.
  • A feature called Popup Video extends the concept of ‘Pop up play.’ While watching a video, with the touch of a button, the video will become a floating window on your display. The video will continue to play and it can be repositioned to any part of the screen, leaving you free to load other applications beneath it.

The Galaxy Note II provides everything users have expected from Samsung’s latest smartphone offerings: it comes with an 8 megapixel rear-facing and 1.9 megapixel front-facing cameras with HD video recording; with all-new features such as Buddy Photo Share, Burst Shot and Best Photo, which were introduced on the Galaxy S III earlier this year. In addition, the phone features a unique camera function called Best Faces which allows users to choose the most preferred face or pose of each person from group portrait photos. Plus the Note II features Smart Stay, first introduced on the Galaxy S III, which uses the camera to prevent the device from going into standby mode when it detects a user in front of the device.

Best of all, with AllShare Play users can connect the Galaxy Note II to Samsung HD TVs, phones, mobile tablets, laptops, and other consumer electronic devices on the same network – meaning you can download the latest movie to your phone on the way home and watch it on your TV when you get in!

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