Electricpig » Reviews http://www.electricpig.co.uk The only tech you need Thu, 22 Nov 2012 12:13:35 +0000 en hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.2.1 iLuv Workstation review: The return of the Amstrad E-m@iler? http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2012/08/17/iluv-workstation-review-the-return-of-the-amstrad-e-miler/ http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2012/08/17/iluv-workstation-review-the-return-of-the-amstrad-e-miler/#comments Fri, 17 Aug 2012 10:43:09 +0000 Adam Bunker http://www.electricpig.co.uk/?p=348680

It’s a question that’s been thrust at the iPad since day one: is it a proper computer? Certainly, one of the Apple tab’s biggest bugbears is that typing anything of length is akin to miming War & Peace: laborious. But can a keyboard, and a place to keep the iPad upright, change that? We’ve been using the iLuv Workstation to see if it can turn Apple’s pride and joy into a proper PC.

Build and design

Remember the Amstrad E-m@iler? It was, shall we say, a bit ahead of its time. The phone-come-computer tried to bridge the gap between the two, at a time when nobody was really ready for it. But that’s exactly what the iPad is, so when it’s housed in a device with a keyboard, it’s little surprise that the E-m@iler immediately springs to mind.

But let’s be kind: it’s not as ugly. If you’re designing a product that needs to hold an iPad, conceal a keyboard and face it predominantly with a speaker, your design options are going to be fairly limited.

The Workstation isn’t a centre piece for your room. It’s not a B&W speaker. It’s made of plastic. But it’s by no means hideous, and it’s reassuringly heavy. Add to that the fact that the grip holds an iPad snugly, and can by tilted back and forth, as well as between portrait and landscape, and overall it’s a nice bit of engineering. It’s neither astounding nor cheap, but you do get a remote control with it, which is a nice touch.

Sound

The speaker on the Workstation is pretty hefty, and has no problems filling a room. This is impressively over-achieving, given that the idea of the Workstation is to have you sit right in front of it. As it is, there’s ample bass and the sound doesn’t buzz when you turn it all the way up.

There are better sounding docks out there, but not by a huge margin at this price ($150, £129.99).

Keyboard

Let’s get to the meat: the keyboard is the only reason you’d buy the Workstation over any other dedicated speaker dock. Concealed and released by a satisfying spring-loaded mechanism at the Workstation’s foot, the keyboard’s designed to make life easier when you’re using an iPad at a desk. And does it?

Well, it certainly works without any qualms. The dock insists that it needs an app to work, but it actually doesn’t – just plug your iPad or iPhone in and type away. Wherever the onscreen keyboard would pop up, it now won’t. On top of that, there are some shortcuts for ‘home’ and volume, etc.

iPad 3 review: Fulfilling the tablet’s destiny?

But it’s by no means perfect. The width of the dock dictates the width of the keyboard, which is unfortunately a wedge narrower than the keyboard found on the 11-inch MacBook Air – which would have been perfect here.

As such, the keyboard’s a little cramped. It’s got fine travel and, despite being plasticky, isn’t flimsy, but it is cramped. You can get used to any keyboard size and shape, but some quicker than others – this is just a little bit too small for our liking. Also, it’d be nice if the keyboard were wireless and could fully leave its housing, but that would undoubtedly drive the cost up.

Verdict

So if the keyboard’s cramped, is it really worth the asking price? That very much depends on what you expect to be able to do on an iPad. If you want to write novels, we’d still say you’d be better off with a laptop. But if you want to have somewhere to station your iPad – as a secondary device – and fire off emails, this is one of the best options going.

Apple’s device is only really as limited as your tolerance or patience in this sense. Dreams of using the iPad as your primary computer can come true, but only if you really don’t expect to be doing much on a primary computer.

But, if you’re just looking for something that, say, makes it easier to comment on Facebook or to search for a song on Spotify, the iLuv Workstation dock is your best option. It’s appeal over other docks is very niche, but there is an appeal all the same.

Link: iLuv

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Atomic Floyd SuperDarts review: Time you bought some proper earphones? http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2012/07/27/atomic-floyd-superdarts-review-time-you-bought-some-proper-earphones/ http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2012/07/27/atomic-floyd-superdarts-review-time-you-bought-some-proper-earphones/#comments Fri, 27 Jul 2012 11:42:59 +0000 Adam Bunker http://www.electricpig.co.uk/?p=310887

Buying earphones is a right minefield. You start out your music-listening career with whatever came with your player of choice, then graduate to something a bit more noise-cancelly, then you start buying buds that cost around £30-£60. Then these inevitably break so you buy a similar pair and so on and so forth until, at some point, you ask yourself if, this time, it’d worth spending a serious amount of cash on their replacement.

Well, is it? I’ve been using the £199 Atomic Floyd SuperDarts + Remote to try and find out.

The above has been my exact journey. Having somehow destroyed several pairs of mid-range earphones (simply by using them), I’ve been questioning how wise it would be to go all out on the next pair. And the Floyds are just that: pricey, premium and red all over. How do they fare?

Looks

Once you’ve managed to break your way into the Floyd’s astronaut-grade packaging, you’ll notice one thing: these don’t look like the sort of earphones you get for the mid range price mark. And to be fair, when you’re paying £199, you don’t expect to see an abundance of black plastic. What you get instead is stainless steel. The buds are hewn of the stuff, and shaped like plane turbines.

Atomic Floyd TwistJax review

This emphasis on better materials extends to the cord, too. The SuperDarts bright red tail is covered in kevlar. It makes them feel a bit more rugged, but I’m not all that sure they live up to their ‘anti-tangle’ promise. Not that they would: making headphones that genuinely don’t tangle in your pocket is probably a job for the boys at CERN.

Long story short: they’re a unique-looking pair of lug-fillers. Maybe a little too different. The actual buds are slightly larger than your average ones due to their extra innards (more on that in a bit), which means that they do stick out of your head quite a bit.

If you don’t have long hair, this has the potential to look a bit like you’ve got two Frankenstein bolts coming out of your temples. In my experience, wearing the SuperDarts definitely turns heads, but whether you think that’s a good thing or not arguably depends on how much of a wallflower you are. They’re not insane looking, but they do stick out a bit.

Sound quality

I know what sounds good, but I’m not about to sit down with anyone and argue the merits of having an extra 7 Hz or 3 decibels. That said, in the same way that most able-eared humans can tell the difference between ‘tinny’ and ‘bassy’, I can hear that the Atomic Floyds are noticeably better than any pair of earphones I’ve tried to date.

That’ll be due to the dual drivers – giving the SuperDarts double the amount of speakers as standard buds. That’s why they’re slightly on the large side, but it’s also why I genuinely noticed parts of songs that I’d not heard before. The sound quality (and especially the noise cancellation) is good. I’d hesitate to say if that alone is £199′s worth of good, but then you’re paying for the whole package here.

Remote

That whole package includes an inline remote – a feature that presumably costs untold amounts and endless man-hours to include, as you never seem to get one with headphones that cost any less than £60. It’s a nice touch and does what you’d expect – skips and pauses tracks, as well as adjusting the volume. There’s also a microphone for making handsfree calls. So far so good, but there’s a problem…

Beats headphones go solo

The SuperDarts’ remote doesn’t seem to like Android all that much. The pausing and skipping functions work, but the volume function doesn’t. Or at least, it doesn’t when paired with a Samsung Galaxy S3. Something to consider if you’ve got a library of songs ripped at different volumes.

Jogging

Whilst we’re on the subject of downfalls, there is a drawback to using such premium materials: they’re not light. This isn’t a problem when you’re walking about, but it makes the SuperDarts uneasy jogging partners. I’ve not had them fall out of my ears, but the weight of the cord and the stainless steel inline remote means that bouncing up and down tugs on your ears in a slightly uncomfortable way. Enough to say that I wouldn’t wear them for any more than a 45 minute jog.

Having said that, I did a run with the SuperDarts in one of the worst storms since the Noah’s arc debacle, and they remained completely unaffected by the deluge. Kudos.

Verdict

If you’re anything like me, the biggest worry in spending a lot of money on earphones isn’t about sound quality – it’s that earphones always break. It’s a genuine concern that spending a lot of money on something that most people treat very badly, and that you know will be replaced at some point in the future, might not be all that wise.

Klipsch S4A Android headphones review

Having only tested the Atomic Floyd SuperDarts for a couple of weeks, I can’t really tell you how long they’re going to last. I can, however, attest to their sound prowess. And I can say that they feel more hardy and durable than any pair I’ve had before.

Will they eventually break? Everything does, but there’s something in my bones that says I’d have probably bought six pairs of £30 headphones before they do finally give up on me.

Link: Atomic Floyd

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How Netflix works: The adaptive magic behind movie streaming from the cloud http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2012/03/02/how-netflix-works-the-adaptive-magic-behind-movie-streaming-from-the-cloud/ http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2012/03/02/how-netflix-works-the-adaptive-magic-behind-movie-streaming-from-the-cloud/#comments Fri, 02 Mar 2012 15:35:21 +0000 Adam Bunker http://www.electricpig.co.uk/?p=229160

Netflix is growing in popularity in the UK. If the company is to be believed, the movie streaming service has seen a promising uptake on these shores since its launch in January. Electricpig’s been chatting to the people behind the streaming to figure out exactly how your movies get from the cloud to your screen.

Netflix’s cloud architect Adrian Cockroft and its corporate communications director Joris Evers were in town this week to discuss the magic that makes the service possible. Electricpig grilled them into dishing it out in terms real humans can understand, as well as the various problems in bringing content to different areas and devices all at once.

 

How do Netflix movies get to our screens?

Adrian:Netlflix has two main systems. One of them is all the control required to set everything up, and the other is the bits that make up the movie. Most of what we think of as ‘cloud architecture’ is under our control, so that’s where our software lives.

“The movie bits themselves are delivered using three content delivery networks. That’s like using the post office to deliver DVDs. They’re companies that we do all the work for – we decide which movies go where and all the addressing and all that stuff, then we give them a virtual envelope.

“We have three suppliers that can deliver bits to you. When you fire up your device, it registers itself with the back end with a series of APIs. It says who you are. Then we do the personalisation stuff that figures out who you are and delivers your choice of movies, based on region.

Netflix slags of Lovefilm

“Those get delivered to the user interface and then you start browsing around. This is all interacting with the APIs at the back end. There’s a separate API for each Netflix device: the Xbox 360, the PS3, the iPad, etc.

“Then when you click ‘play’, it moves onto a slightly different part of the API, which does some DRM key exchanges (so we can handle all the security required to authenticate you to play that movie), then we hand the player a bunch of URLs that one of our three suppliers recognise.”

 

Why use three suppliers?

Joris: “Sometimes UPS is faster than FedEx!”

Adrian: “Part of the problem is that, from the last number I saw, we accounted for about 40 per cent of the total US bandwidth being delivered – to get that much traffic requires more than one company to handle it. We need at least two to support the traffic – we need three so that if something goes wrong we can still run on the other two.

“So it’s partly as failsafe, partly because these are the three terabit suppliers; they supply in numbers measured in terabits per second. We’re a customer that needs many terabits to run. So we need them for capacity and space.

Lovefilm to Netflix: Bring it

“Some of them function slightly better in some parts of the world as well. All three operate everywhere in the world, but some might have better coverage in Europe, for example. It’s about shifting the percentages of traffic around.”

 

Why move into the cloud? 

Adrian: “We got into the cloud earlier than most people. We hit a point where we decided that we needed to do something, and didn’t want to build costly data centres around the world. The cloud was a new idea being used by startups but we needed it because we knew we were going to be big. We trialled it and went for it a year or two ahead of most other companies. That’s part of the culture at Netflix; we try to get a competitive advantage out of doing things earlier.

“We’re not unusual in the way we’re doing stuff – we’re just ahead of the market by a year or two. Other companies will be working the way we are in two or three years’ time, but we’ve got ahead of the curve a bit.

“The way we run in the cloud is something that we want to be generic – we want more people using it because the more people are using it, the better it works for everyone. If you’ve got one person using a power station and they don’t want to use power that day, what’s the power station going to do? You need a large number of customers, where one customer becomes a tiny percentage.

Netflix launches a whole series in one day

“The cloud is a utility model – if I’m not using it one day someone else is. Averaged out, that gives a very predictable amount of load – where no one customer can actually drive traffic in any strange way.”

 

Is a reliance on streaming services like Netflix going to cause bandwidth issues?

Adrian: “There is always one bandwidth issue for any particular consumer: you may have too many people in your neighbourhood going through one point, but in general bandwidth is increasing rapidly everywhere. The money we’re spending on the content delivery networks is being used to improve their ability to provide bandwidth. A lot of the money we’re putting into the internet is going to build out that capacity.”

Joris: “When you want to watch a movie in London, it’s not as if your device is reaching out to our office in the US and streaming from there to here via public internet. There’s too much data and over 23 million people on the Netflix line – it wouldn’t work. That’s why cloud architecture works better – it gets us as close to you as possible through content delivery networks. You’re getting your movie from a system probably very close to you with a copy of Netflix on it.”

Adrian: “Lets say you’re with Virgin Media; that ISP will have a relationship with our three suppliers to deliver content to you, or might have machines actually inside Virgin Media. They work very closely with ISPs.

“What we did for Europe was quite interesting because we realised that running out of the same date centre that we use for the Americas and Canada would cause too much latency in crossing the Atlantic – the experience would be slow.

BBC comes to Netflix

“So we set up with AWS in the cloud in Ireland, which runs between Ireland and the US, but is big enough to run the UK and Ireland should the US system go down. We just keep adding machines to that.

“If for some reason the US site’s not working, it will still work here. There are many possible ways that these things could break, but we’ve built a very resilient system that can survive all sort of outages. Even when it’s broken we’ve made it so it’s hard to tell – you just get slightly different movie choices, for example.”

 

How different is it streaming to mobile? Is it more difficult?

Adrian: “It’s the same infrastructure. The mobile clients talk to the same back end as the games consoles. We treat them the same way, but we’ve added some extra low bandwidth streams that we wouldn’t otherwise have included, so that you can stream even if you’re on a low signal.

If you can receive enough signal to push bits through, you can stream Netflix. Because the screen is so small you can get away with a low resolution signal. The iPad tends to want a higher quality, but small screens don’t need high bandwidth. It’s adaptive.”

 

What’s the uptake been like on mobile devices?

Joris: “Most of Netflix streaming happens on a TV through a games console. Those are by far the three most popular platforms. PC comes after that. Then we see a lot of other devices.”

Adrian: “With mobile, actual viewing hours are quite low, but in terms of activity it’s quite high. What you see is that in a given week, people will use mobile relatively often but for short periods of time, and not that intensively. That uses lower bandwidths so it’s less load for us. But mobile drives the business. People want to have it on these devices.”

Should we be wary of subscription streaming?

Joris: “We don’t split it up in terms of percentages, but a lot of people are firing Netflix up on mobiles and tablet devices and trying it out. It’s still a very small percentage, but it’s growing. It’s still a very small percentage of Netflix viewing.”

Adrian: “We saw a jump in Netflix being fired up on a tablet after the Christmas holidays on the iPad and the Kindle Fire. Android bumped up quite a bit with the Kindle Fire. Tablets are being used more than phones, in general.

“You can assume that Netflix will be on anything from any major vendor from now on. If anyone launches without Netflix it would be strange. You don’t have to ask ‘will we be there’ – the question is what will it look like and how will it be integrated?”

Joris: “We want to be on every relevant screen.”

 

How has Netflix’ UK uptake been?

Joris: “It’s great – better than expected. we release numbers quarterly – the next batch will be in April – but we’re very pleased by the reception we’ve had. We had 23+ million streaming customers globally as of the end of December 2011.”

 

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Amazon Kindle Fire 2 landing April 2012 http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2011/11/14/amazon-kindle-fire-2-landing-april-2012/ http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2011/11/14/amazon-kindle-fire-2-landing-april-2012/#comments Mon, 14 Nov 2011 10:00:03 +0000 Joe Minihane http://www.electricpig.co.uk/?p=155566

The Amazon Kindle Fire hasn’t even been given a UK release date yet, and our US gadget-loving brethren don’t get their hands on it until tomorrow. But news has emerged from the Far East of plans for a follow-up. Read on to see just what’s planned for the Amazon Kindle Fire 2.

It seems Taiwan’s Quanta Computer has landed the order to produce the Amazon Kindle Fire 2, according to a report in Apple Daily. The new version of the bargain bucket tablet will be released in the second quarter of next year, which starts in April.

Sadly, specs and price plans remain thin on the ground, but perhaps the Kindle Fire 2 will come with a skinned version of Android Ice Cream Sandwich. Either way, you can expect it to offer more grunt, but with the same peerless access to Amazon’s myriad services.

Are you planning on snagging a Kindle Fire when it launches in the UK? Or are you happy to wait until its successor is officially revealed? Tell us in the comments now.

Via Digitimes

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Orange Monte Carlo review: Diddly price, massive phone http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2011/08/26/orange-monte-carlo-review/ http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2011/08/26/orange-monte-carlo-review/#comments Fri, 26 Aug 2011 10:30:10 +0000 Ben Sillis http://www.electricpig.co.uk/?p=148702 The Orange Monte Carlo – also known as the ZTE Skate – has been on our radar ever since Mobile World Congress in February. As the follow up to the spectacular Orange San Francisco, 2010′s bargain bin phone of the year, we were expecting great things at next to no cost: it’s the same size as the HTC Sensation or the Samsung Galaxy S 2 – but it costs a mere third of the price of either.

So does this phone live up to expectations? Almost.

You see, while someone at manufacturer ZTE has clearly made a Faustian pact with the devil in order to procure components, put them together and then sell them on at such a low price and still make a profit, the sheer size of the handset creates assumptions about what you should get from a smartphone of that size – and it doesn’t quite fulfil all of them. Let’s take a look.

Build

You are going to have to get used to the fact that the Orange Monte Carlo looks every bit as cheap as it is. What do you expect? At some point, years down the line, an executive at ZTE is going to get a tap on the shoulder to find Lucifer himself grinning down at him, knife in hand to take his pound of soul.

Anyway, from a distance the 10.4×125.9×67.8mm phone could pass for a HTC Desire HD – it shares its 4.3-inch screen size, as well as that curved top edge flush with speaker grille.

Up close though, it’s a plasticky mess. The three buttons below the screen (no search key, sadly) are physical buttons that clack down, requiring a real prod, and the back panel is a sheer fingerprint magnet blemished with an Orange logo. face down, it looks like a piece of Duplo.

But you know what? That’s OK. It has most of the ports you need – micro USB on the side, 3.5mm audio on the top, though no means of TV-out, sadly – and weighs just 120g, and feels capable of taking lots of drops, because obviously Pay As You Go owners are more clumsy.

Oh, and because it costs one hundred and fifty bleeding pounds. That’s the best deal this side of an HP Pre 3.

Display

Part of the reason the first batch of Orange San Francisco handsets were so impressive was the fact that their capacitive touch screens were AMOLED rather than boring old LCD-TFT, which is much more vivid, and the Samsung Galaxy S 2 phone’s secret sauce.

AMOLED screens are however extremely hard to come by these days – just ask HTC. Samsung basically uses every single one it makes, and it’s only really Nokia that’s still capable of getting dibs on any.

What we have here with the Orange Monte Carlo is a TFT screen that’s just as responsive, and much larger, with 800×480 pixels stuffed into a 4.3-inch display. Considering the price, it’s frankly superb – we’d take it over the bobbins display on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play anyway, and viewing angles are impressive, even if colours don’t burst.

If you’ve ever used an iPhone 4 or a smartphone with an AMOLED screen, you won’t want to downgrade, but for everyone else, it’s a fine display for watching videos on the go. Take this with you next time you’re on a long haul flight – it beats staring at those cruddy screens built into the headrests.

Software

Android 2.3 itself is excellent. We know this, hopefully you do by now as well. “Gingerbread” is powerful and feature packed, and the best thing outside of iOS, with hundreds of thousands of apps to download.

Our problem with the Orange Monte Carlo however is the network’s nasty bloatware that comes pre-installed. Its email client isn’t as good as Gmail. Its contact backup option is superfluous because ANDROID DOES THIS ANYWAY. Those games that come pre-loaded? Just downloads to trials of them.

And then there’s the nasty Orange launcher. Orange makes a big deal of this, jazzing it up with custom live wallpapers and whatnot, but bottom line is that it’s far too slow. Hit the home button and you can sometimes have a several second wait for it to appear. Don’t bother: download the free LauncherPro ASAP for a much smoother experience, as well as a new keyboard too.

In fact, we’d go so far as to say Orange has loaded the Monte Carlo with malware. It’s true that you don’t have to use any of these services if you don’t want to, but Orange is doing customers a disservice nonetheless. Not everyone will know that you can download different home screens or keyboard, or that Google Maps is vastly superior to its crummy offering with exactly the same name.

Stop it, Orange, and concentrate on selling phones at stupidly cheap prices other operators can’t match. Like you’re already doing.

Performance

It’s here where the Orange Monte Carlo loses a star. The 800MHz processor inside, paired with 512MB of RAM is fast enough for most apps, (so long as you remove Orange’s garbage). In our benchmarking, the Monte Carlo regularly clocked just shy of 800 on Quadrant Standard, putting it slightly below last year’s Samsung Galaxy S model – which is still an impressive performer. The 1400mAh battery easily cleared a day’s use with sync and all connections on too.

But don’t go in expecting Flash on this – while technically lower power ARMv6 processors like the one used here can run it, ZTE hasn’t brokered a deal with Adobe to get it here. As such, you can’t watch some online video phones such as the Desire HD or Samsung Galaxy S series models can.

That large screen will also trick you into thinking you can indulge in all the latest games. Some, but not all. While we managed to get both Pocket Legends and Dungeon Defenders up and running, other more intensive games, such as Gun Bros, crashed, while others simply aren’t available for download on the Android Market – because of its lower specifications.

The thing is, this horsepower bottleneck means there’s not a great deal more you can do with a Monte Carlo as you can with the even cheaper San Francisco. That also means it’s for more undemanding users, and as such, the smaller San Francisco is still seriously worth considering.

Camera

Nothing much to see here. The five megapixel camera on the back of the Orange Monte Carlo is the sort of five megapixel camera that will make your friends on Facebook hate you for repeatedly posting blurry pics of people with their arms round each other in nightclubs.

Want a good camera phone? Go get the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc.

Verdict

Let’s be clear: the Orange Monte Carlo is an absolutely stunning deal. For £149.99 upfront on Pay As You Go, you can’t get anything as powerful, with as large a screen and as a large eco-system.

But last year’s San Francisco, running at just 200MHz slower, will still be enough for many users. And a quick search online shows it selling now for just £75. Pocket money.

Let’s hope the extremely enterprising Android hacker community can change that pronto. We can’t wait to see what undercutting insanity ZTE comes up with next.

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Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini Pro review: Where’s it hiding all the horsepower? http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2011/08/24/sony-ericsson-xperia-mini-pro-review/ http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2011/08/24/sony-ericsson-xperia-mini-pro-review/#comments Wed, 24 Aug 2011 16:10:10 +0000 Ben Sillis http://www.electricpig.co.uk/?p=148441 The Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini Pro may look like a bit of a rehash – the original X10 Mini Pro launched more than a year ago – but don’t be fooled. This itsy bitsy, teeny weeny smartphone mops the floor with BlackBerry’s messaging rivals.

Build

With a 3-inch screen and a 92x53x18mm profile, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini Pro is a wee bit bigger than its predecessor, but it’s all for the better. In your hand, you don’t notice the difference, and it’s not too heavy at 13g. Everything seems reasonably placed, from the headphone jack and micro USB port on the top to the volume rocker and camera shutter button on the right hand side.

It’s not going to win any wards for design anytime soon (it still reminds us ever so slightly of a stubby toe), but we’re big fans of the fingerprint resistant rubber backing, and it’s nice to see an LED notification on the front, alongside a front facing camera for video chats.

Our one real gripe? There’s no search button below the screen, and the home button in the middle isn’t capacitive like the menu and back keys, which creates some tactile confusion. We’ll live, and we think you will too.

Keyboard

Pop that slider open though, and you’re presented with a full, four line keyboard which hasn’t changed much since the X10 Mini Pro – to be honest, it didn’t need to. While landscape keyboards are traditionally slower than portrait ones on mobile for typing with two thumbs, the Mini Pro is small enough to make this a non-issue, and the buttons are well defined, with a nice give.

It could still be better though. That dedicated language change button by the cursor keys seems like a waste of space, and would have been better put to use had it acted as a search key or shortcut button instead. Sony Ericsson’s auto-correct software isn’t quite up to scratch either: where as a BlackBerry will automatically insert apostrophes correctly for you in most words, it won’t. For grammar obsessives, it’s a minor annoyance, but HTC ChaCha aside, this is the best Android keyboard we’ve used yet regardless.

Screen

On the one hand, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini Pro’s 320×480 resolution 3-inch capacitive touchscreen is a blessed relief. Its predecessor, the X10 Mini Pro, was largely undone by its 320×240 resolution, which many Android apps didn’t support. The HVGA resolution now means almost everything works just fine – save for high-end games, which really are hit and miss (Gun Bros for instance gets as far as the level load screen before crashing.) It’s sharp enough on 3-inch screen to make reading long web articles near enough to pleasant too.

But as with the Xperia Play, the quality of the screen really is disappointing. This is no “Reality Display”: even with brightness cranked to the max, it’s really dim, and whites are closer to beige than anything. It’s visible in daylight, just, but it leaves something to be desired compared against the best Samsung and even LG have to offer.

Android 2.3

At its core, there really aren’t too many surprises here: to all intents and purposes, Android 2.3.3 on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini offers the same feature set as it does on the Xperia Arc and Neo – the helpful Facebook photo gallery syncing, the not so helpful Timescape widget and media curation app. In other words, you’ve got countless apps to tuck into, and plenty of flexibility with Android. If iOS doesn’t float your boat, it is the best thing out there today, period.

Instead, we’re focusing here on the changes to Android required by the small screen and lower resolution.

By default, the Xperia Mini Pro’s home screen is a bit unusual: you get a 9×9 grid for shortcuts and widgets, with four persistent corner pockets that can hold up to four icons in a tray. This is rather convenient, but the trade off is that tiny grid only really allows for one widget per home screen, in practice.

When the keyboard is shut meanwhile, the on-screen QWERTY that pops up is a slightly frustrating 0-9 predictive numberpad, as Sony Ericsson thinks this screen size is too small for a full QWERTY. Having tried out a few, we disagree.

The good news is that you can get rid of almost all of this if you don’t like it though: installing LauncherPro gives you back a normal 4×4 grid homescreen, and you can pick and choose virtual keyboards from the Android Market. The only real issue we suffered with Android on a small screen is that Gmail really isn’t optimised for it: you can’t see much of a message at one time, which may lead you to try out the other Email client that comes preloaded instead.

That aside, we have no real gripes with the software on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini Pro: for once this is a tiny Android phone with few compromises.

Camera

Ho hum five megapixel shots – if a decent mobile snapper is what you’re after, you’d be better off with the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc instead. More surprising is the pleasant 720p HD video it grabs – we’re pretty sure this makes it the world’s smallest HD phone, until the Xperia Mini comes along in a few weeks anyway.

Speed and peformance

1300 score in Quadrant? Smooth Flash video performance? Damn. The Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini Pro truly is first in class for a phone of its size. The 1GHz processor paired with Adreno graphics might not be cutting edge on a phone the size of the Xperia Play, but powering a small 480×360 screen, it’s more than enough. Every console emulator we’ve managed to get up and running on a powerful Google Nexus S works almost as well here, including *gasp* PlayStation emulators. If you know where to look, it’s a proper little retro games machine, only really inhibited by high-end Android games’ lack of support for the HVGA resolution, rather than anything else.

Call quality was reasonable, but battery life naturally wasn’t quite as impressive as that of some Android rivals running Qualcomm’s 7227 600MHz processor, such as the INQ Cloud Touch. It will still get you through a day of use with syncing on, however, and for most, that should be just fine.

Verdict

In the absence of a new iPhone so far in 2011, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini Pro is quite possibly our second favourite smartphone of the year so far (after the Samsung Galaxy S 2). This is a corking little messaging phone, with powerful innards that put most other mid-range Android phones to shame. If you’re not fussed about playing the latest HD Gameloft titles, snap this up pronto.

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HTC Evo 3D review: A Sensation by another name isn’t so sweet http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2011/08/11/htc-evo-3d-review/ http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2011/08/11/htc-evo-3d-review/#comments Thu, 11 Aug 2011 08:08:03 +0000 Ben Sillis http://electricpig.co.uk/?p=147359 The HTC Evo 3D might have dallied a bit too long in the USA before making its way across the pond to Britain. In the time since launch, LG has released a rival stereoscopic phone that’s not half bad in 2D too, and well, everybody appears to have stopped buying the Nintendo 3DS. So does this phone have a place anymore? Let’s take a look in our HTC Evo 3D review, shall we?

Build

The HTC Evo 3D falls into that unusual category of “the occasional HTC phone which doesn’t look like a bloody HD2″, along with the excellent HTC Incredible S.

Like that strange eco-skeleton smartphone, this goes for a curious plastic back cover, which will definitely prove divisive: we like its ridged diagonal lines and smudge resistance, and while the twin sensors of the 3D camera bulge out, they’re placed right in the middle so the phone doesn’t rock when placed down on a flat surface. The circular capacitive buttons on the front of the phone are subjective too: they work, but they look, well, different.

We’re definitely not however, fans of the fingernail thin lock/power button on the top of the phone, or the massive camera button on the side of the HTC Evo 3D, complete with 2D/3D toggle which requires a serious shove. It’s a bit superfluous, since you can toggle this on the screen whenever you launch the camera app.

As for the build and weight – it’s tough, and its 170g weight and 11.3mm depth won’t be for everyone, but those with larger hands will appreciate it still.

Display

In 2D terms, the 4.3-inch display on the HTC Evo 3D is identical to that of the mighty HTC Sensation. It’s an LCD, pixel-packed 960×540 capacitive number, that’s crisp, and stuffs tons on screen at once. It’s a joy to be able to see more emails in your Gmail at one time (Yes, we’re geeks, we know).

Most people will be satisfied with this crispness and colour quality, but once it’s again, for purists, it’s still not on the same level as Samsung’s insane Super AMOLED Plus screen on the Galaxy S 2. Purple, bright blacks are still its undoing, and visibility outdoors in sunlight is pretty poor still. But it’s still a top screen, and video viewers will enjoy the 16:9 aspect ratio.

3D or not 3D

Of course, the twist with the HTC Evo 3D is that it is, you know 3D. Sensibly, HTC hasn’t made the home screen interface 3D just for the sake of it – you’ll only see the parallax barrier kick in when you fire up the camera or 3D video and images in the gallery.

There’s still that unfortunate graininess in 3D mode, an inevitable side effect of current auto-stereoscopic technology, but the picture quality is slightly better than that of the LG Optimus 3D, the handset’s main rival. There’s a crisp edge to objects in 3D, giving you a slightly greater sense of depth – if you’ve got a 3D screen to hand, you can see for yourself in the clips below.

HTC Evo 3D video

LG Optimus 3D video

So far, so reasonable, but there are a few major problems. While you can adjust the alignment of left and right images after taking a still 3D photo, you can’t change the resolution of 3D videos at all. Which is odd.

Worse, you can only take 3D images in landscape (the sensors actually stop the shutter from working if held vertically), which wouldn’t be so bad, were it not for the fact that the 3D images are then only displayed in portrait mode, resulting in massive black bars across the screen. Zoom in, and the 3D effect is lost. Thus, unless you’re looking at 3D pictures on another display, taking them with the HTC Evo 3D is next to pointless.

Videos looks rather good, but essentially, you’re left with the ones you film as the only means of 3D entertainment. HTC Watch does not appear to have any 3D films yet (though HTC says these are coming), and there are no pre-loaded games, as the LG Optimus 3D offers.

If 3D really is a selling point for you (and we don’t think it should be – it’s still a gimmick lacking content, if a cute one), we’d still plump for LG’s effort, despite its out of date OS.

Android Gingerbread

As we were the first to report earlier this year, the British version of the HTC Evo 3D actually comes with a slightly newer software build – Android 2.3.4, which allows for video chat via the Google Talk app. Otherwise, the smartphone experience is almost identical to the HTC Sensation – you’ve got the same whizzy effects when you flick between home screens, and the same bespoke HTC apps.

As ever, these are hit and miss. We just don’t understand the appeal of Stocks, but we love the lock screen, which you can auto-launch various apps from, the Facebook/Twitter contact connecting and HTC Locations will get you out of a GPS jam when you’re outside of a 3G connection and Google Maps has failed you. HTC Watch, too, is a great option to have, though we’re a few months in now, and we’d hoped to see more TV series available (only 10 shows, at the time of writing, and some are a few seasons behind).

Our other usual reservations apply: the HTC keyboard isn’t very intelligent or responsive (download another here) and HTC’s DLNA media streaming app, Connected media, isn’t very intuitive. We still struggle to connect it to our PS3, where Samsung and Sony Ericsson Android phones have no problems.

Android itself isn’t in question at this point however. It’s firmly established itself as one of, if not the defacto best smartphone operating systems, with countless apps and games to prove that claim. If you wanted to know more about the intricacies of Android 2.3 itself, check out our Google Nexus S review here. In short though, you’re in for a treat, so long as you aren’t tired of HTC’s Sense interface already.

Speed and performance

So here’s a puzzler. The HTC Evo 3D uses the same dual-core 1.2GHz processor as the HTC Sensation, and packs in more memory (1GB of RAM as opposed to 768MB). Yet it consistently turns in lower scores on Quadrant Standard than the Sensation – around 1,600, rather than 2,000. Technically, it’s slower.

Truth be told though, you’re not going to notice the difference – it’s still bloody fast, and will run any power-hungry game you care to throw at it. It’ll easily last a day of heavy use too, thanks to a capacious 1730mAh battery (HTC, could you use these more often please?). We had no problems with call quality, and speakerphone quality proved to be of a more reasonable standard than the disappointing HTC 7 Pro.

Camera

Just the five megapixel camera here, not the 8MP sensor on the HTC Sensation. As usual with HTC, it’s not very interesting. Mediocre shots ensue in 2D, with mottling and a distinct lack of clarity. The front camera is actually sharper than the Sensation’s, at 1.3MP, but really, that’s still not enough for anything other than blurry peep shows with your other half.

HD video isn’t the full 1080p of the Sensation, but 720p – though that’s not a bad thing by any means, and it looks just grand.

Verdict

There’s certainly something to be said for picking up a HTC Evo 3D as a slightly more rugged Sensation. But as a 3D phone? It’s not as compelling a proposition as the LG Optimus 3D, and even then that’s relative: the Optimus isn’t compelling either.

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New MacBook Air review: This is what Lion was built for http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2011/08/01/macbook-air-review-2/ http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2011/08/01/macbook-air-review-2/#comments Mon, 01 Aug 2011 11:20:05 +0000 Ben Sillis http://electricpig.co.uk/?p=146552

The white plastic MacBook didn’t die. Turns out it was just an ugly duckling, then one day it lost its bum fluff and woke up with a beautiful plumage of unibody aluminium, a better processor, and a waif like profile. In other words, as the new MacBook Air.

As smooth as the very first MacBook Air “envelope opening” was, Apple’s answer to a netbook was for a very long time the butt of jokes. It was overpriced, it was underpowered, Apple has washed its hands of it. Then last year, it hit back with a beautiful new version, packing a respectable Core 2 Duo processor. This time round, it’s back with Sandy Bridge silicon, and it is glorious.

Design and build

The design hasn’t changed much since the 2010 revamp bar the odd port switch: in other words, it’s beautiful. It tapers down from 1.7cm to just 0.3cm, with beautiful curved edges. It’s hard to believe since the smaller model still weighs in at 1.08kg, but it actually feels more portable than the unbelievably thin iPad 2. That’s right: we’d be happier taking this OS X machine out of the house than a tablet.

Our review unit was the 11.6-inch model (which sadly lacks an SD card slot, unlike the larger 13-inch model), which perches delicately balanced on the cusp of portability. At this size, touch typing on the solid chiclet keyboard is no slower than on full size machines, where the boards on 10-inch netbooks are just a bit too cramped. This time though, the keyboard is backlit too. Hooray!

Turning to the sides, things are kept to a bare minimum: on the left is the charging port, a USB slot and a 3.5mm audio jack, while the right hand side houses another USB port (Giving you as many as a MacBook Pro, we might add) and a Thunderbolt socket. The latter, which deals out high speed data transfer, sounds a bit like overkill at first for something so small – as fast as this is this obviously isn’t a replacement for a Mac Pro – but it has its uses. It’s a useful means of connecting your MacBook Air to an external monitor, and it also provides a workaround to the machine’s biggest failing: no Ethernet.

You see, it’s not just the speed difference between Gigabit Ethernet and ropey Wi-Fi (Although this is often huge), it’s the lack of an option on occasion that can leave the MacBook Air looking like a sexy paperweight, and a useless one at that since it’s so damn light.

We took our MacBook Air on a road trip abroad recently and ended up slightly burned as we struggled to find a way to connect in a sparsely equipped press room with no Wi-Fi.

The good news though is that this time around, Thunderbolt will solve this problem. With an adaptor, you can simply plug that Cat5 cable straight into it. Of course, the only slight hitch is that such adaptors aren’t actually on sale yet, but they should be in the next few months, so fingers crossed this problem fixes itself sharpish. It’s the only thing holding back the MacBook Air from greatness – and in the meantime you can always buy a USB to Ethernet adaptor straight from Apple.

Display

The 1366×768 LED backlit screen on the 11.6-inch new MacBook Air is a marvel, and we doubt the higher-rez 1440×900 number on the larger model is any different. It’s bright, crisp and rich in colour. It isn’t an edge-to-edge job as on the MacBook Pro, with a glass overlay, but then that hasn’t always been the best aspect of Apple’s workhorse laptops, bringing as it does plenty of glare. We’ll take that for slightly better visibility in sunlight – this is a work outdoors laptop after all.

Performance

The first MacBook Air wasn’t quite up to the intensive tasks you might require only five percent of the time – which for many was a deal breaker. For everyone but professional video editors, last year’s MacBook Air was. This model does everything without breaking a sweat.

Our test unit packs a second generation 1.8GHz Core i7 processor with 4GB of DDR3 RAM, though the baseline models use a slightly slower Core i5 chip clocked at 1.6GHz. Based on what we found though, it’ll almost certainly deliver blistering performance. We opened as many full screen apps as we could and whizzed through them at speed. We played games with respectable settings and no slowdown. Hell, we even plugged in a DVD drive and encoded a video with Handbrake quicker than we can on our 2009 MacBook Pro. Not bad, considering there’s only Intel’s dedicated graphics inside.

The solid state drive only serves to speed everything up compared to slower (though admittedly higher capacity) mechanical hard drives on other Macs. This machine is absolutely perfect for Photoshop and iMovie use, and dare we say it, even light Final Cut in a pinch.

Our only trip up was with Flash video. Never especially smooth on Macs, it outright doesn’t work on the new MacBook Air – that’s only because OS X is a brand new OS however, and Adobe says it’s already on the case so expect a patch soon.

As for battery life? It’s on a par with your typical MacBook Pro, lasting a solid four hours of use with Wi-Fi on and screen brightness at around eighty percent. Granted, it’s not up there with some of Asus’ Eee PC netbooks for longevity, but that’s to be expected when the processor inside is vastly superior.

And could grumble about the battery not being replaceable, but Apple made its views on this clear a long time ago. If you’re going to make a bed out of a MacBook laptop, you’d best lie in it. It does at least look pretty.

OS X Lion

We wouldn’t normally spend much time on the software in a MacBook review – OS X is OS X right? Except in the case of the new version, Lion, and on a MacBook Air, it really isn’t.

On an 11.6-inch MacBook Air, almost every new feature (Bar the LaunchPad, that’s still pointless) feels perfectly crafted for the form factor. On a chassis with so few ports, Airdrop is a supremely convenient means of file transfer. On a 27-inch iMac, fullscreen apps might seem absurd, but here, they’re utterly essential – and rolling through them all with a four finger swipe is a thing of beauty. Try this, and you won’t settle for Windows or even Snow Leopard navigation ever again.

Viewed in this light, Lion actually feels like a little but of a snub to all the Thunderbolt port-less Mac Pro users with their multiple Photoshop windows and legacy applications. Get portable or die, Cupertino seems to be saying.

Verdict

Over the years we’ve tirelessly sought after the ultimate marriage of portability and power. Apple’s first MacBook Air was just too weedy and too expensive. Asus never quite managed to deliver with its low price, tiny Eee PCs, in truth because Intel’s Atom processors were just a false economy. MSI’s X-Slim range were as flimsy as they were thin. The closest thing we’ve seen so far is Toshiba excellent Portege R700 and R830 series of 13-inch laptops.

But while the silicon is the same, they’re no match for this: the new MacBook Air’s mix of hardware oomph, design aesthetic and wonderful operating system just can’t be beaten. Where the MacBook Air was a niche product before, it’s now suitable for all but niche audiences (video editors, gamers who still haven’t realised that gaming laptops are the most pointless things in the universe).

But not only that, this is the new MacBook, the new lowest price Apple laptop, the Mac for casual use. It just happens to be even faster, look even better, and for possibly the first time with an Apple product, it’s almost value for money as well. That’s enough for us. Best laptop. Evah.

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Nokia E6 review: An E72 for the modern age still isn’t enough http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2011/07/26/nokia-e6-review/ http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2011/07/26/nokia-e6-review/#comments Tue, 26 Jul 2011 09:07:58 +0000 Ben Sillis http://electricpig.co.uk/?p=146038 The Nokia E6 has been two years in the in the waiting, if not the making. It’s taken Nokia since 2009 to replace its flagship portrait QWERTY phone, the Nokia E72, and it’s only now, as the company dumps Symbian for Windows Phone, that it’s finally refreshed the form factor.

Can Symbian’s touted Anna update and a sharper screen help it stand out for the crowd in 2011? We take a look in our Nokia E6 review.

Build

We’re not going to lie. Nokia’s phoned this one in: you’re looking at an almost identical model to the Nokia E72, bar a few superficial tweaks, right down to the VGA front camera on the front. A few keys have been moved about, and the home, calendar, messages and contacts buttons have been pushed inside the call and reject buttons (but are still easy to trigger). It’s reasonably thin at 10.6mm deep, but doesn’t feel remotely brittle thanks to a solid metal backplate.

On the plus side, the screen has been given a much needed refresh, and we have no complains here. The 2.46-inch display is super sharp at 640×480 resolution – to put it in persepctive, that’s almost twice as many dots as RIM has squeezed inside the much bigger BlackBerry Torch. It’s also bright and visible in daylight, and the Gorilla Glass overlay will shrug off scratches.

Did we mention it’s touchscreen too? Hello smooth pinch to zoom web browsing. Make no mistake, this is a class-leading display. The upcoming BlackBerry Bold 9900 might be able to match it, but otherwise there’s no other portrait QWERTY phone that can touch it.

‘Board

The keyboard layout is a standard Nokia has used for some time now, with the same rows of buttons and individual key shapes as the QWERTY pads found on the cut-price Nokia C3 dumbphone. That in itself is no bad thing: we’re quite happy that most punctuation marks have their own dedicated button, and the space bar has been “embiggened” from the tiny key on the E72.

Unfortunately, Nokia’s usual robust quality control has slipped here: this keyboard is inferior to ones we’ve previously used from Nokia. While the keys are all neatly outlined and defined, the material and support underneath have a nasty habit of dumping your thumbs onto adjacent keys unless you hit them in the exact centre – a particular problem with the large space bar.

Don’t get us wrong: you can still hit a typing speed unachievable on any touchscreen-only phone (especially Symbian ones). But when a QWERTY keyboard is a phone’s USP, then there’s a problem. If you need to send properly formatted emails at speed, and it’s this or a BlackBerry, we choose RIM.

Symbian

It’s the mediocre keyboard combined with the software that lops two whole stars off the Nokia E6′s review score. Symbian Anna is a reasonable improvement on the original Symbian (Formerly Symbian 3) software on other recent Nokia phones, such as the Nokia N8 and E7 (And indeed, we look forward to the update arriving on these handsets in the UK).

But that’s working from a bad starting point. Symbian is a mess, with a baffling user interface that still feels 2007-clunky. Could we stop calling Wi-Fi WLAN guys so that regular joes know what the hell you’re talking about? Could we make it more obvious to turn it on? Could we make the Ovi Store less awful?

The answer, of course, is no. Nokia’s washing its hands of Symbian updates pronto, so you’ll have to make do with what you have here.

That’s hardly all bad news of course. Holding down the home button allows you to easily multitask, while Nokia’s phonebook does a good job of joining up usernames on social networks with your contacts. Nokia Maps keeps it classy as ever (free satnav, hello), while the pre-loaded JoikuSpot lets you turn your phone into a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot for nada.

And the good news is that beyond the pretty icons, Symbian Anna does add one really useful feature: an overhauled browser. This is a massive improvement on the browser on the Nokia E71/E72, lightning fast and responsive to pinch-to-zoom gestures.

But looking further afield than rival business phones, when there are Android phones around the corner with QWERTY keyboards, 1GHz processors, similar sized screens and even Flash support (Hello Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini Pro), there’s a problem. Nokia still lags far behind the front runners when it comes to smooth, sensible and savvy smartphone software. The trouble is of course, its main competitor in this area, RIM, does too.

There’s not much of an incentive to pull your finger out if nobody is trying, so it’s perhaps not a surprise. We do wonder though just what Nokia could do with this if Microsoft ever allowed a Windows Phone 7 chassis of this design. Use your “special relationship”, guys, and make it happen.

Camera skills

Nokia’s always come through with solid cameras, and the Nokia E6′s eight megapixel on the back doesn’t disappoint. In fact, compared to the shooters on rival BlackBerry models, it’s in another league, grabbing sharp, detail packed stills. The only issue is the fixed focus – as with the Nokia C7 (It’s possible it is in fact the exact same sensor), get too close and things goes awry. Macro is a no go. On the plus side, there are plenty of editing options for you to fiddle with in ‘post.

HD video meanwhile is a delight: 720p video is just not something we’re used to on a phone of this size. Sadly the effect of this is largely lost unless you dump it on a computer: there’s no HDMI connection, only TV-out by Nokia’s old-school AV connector.

Battery life and call quality

Nokia’s always been proud to make phones that, you know, let you talk to other people. With that in mind, the Nokia E6 runs like the clappers. You can easily get three days use out of the phone with brightness cranked up to max and all systems go. Call quality too is impeccable – a little raspy on speakerphone calls perhaps, but we’d expect that from a tinny little contraption like this.

Verdict

The Nokia E6 might be a great phone when judged by the criteria of talking to people through the medium of sound, but it’s hard to consider it when business folk are as much in need of a portable computer in their pocket as a telephone – especially when there are just so many stunning phones on sale these days. If you’re an avid emailer you’d be far better off with a BlackBerry or a HTC 7 Pro, and even if you must have a Nokia E7, it should be the E7. This phone should have happened a year ago, not now.

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Mac OS X Lion review: A new beginning, but a bargain too http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2011/07/25/mac-os-x-lion-review/ http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2011/07/25/mac-os-x-lion-review/#comments Mon, 25 Jul 2011 16:20:19 +0000 Mic Wright http://electricpig.co.uk/?p=146003 The last time Apple launched a new version of Mac OS X into the world, we were living in a time before the iPad and it was somewhat humble about its efforts advertising Snow Leopard as “the world’s most advanced operating system. Finely tuned”.

This time, it’s very different. Mac OS X Lion is stuffed full of user-facing features, and promoted by Apple as “the power of Mac OS X. The magic of the iPad” and across the operating system features from the tablet have taken root. For unabashed iPad fans that’s likely to be a cause for celebration but for long time OS X users, there could be a steep learning curve. Does the iOS world with its grids of icons and rampant use of gestures work well now it’s migrated back to the Mac? Let’s find out…

Installation

The Mac OS X Lion installation process is incredibly simple. As long as you have an up-to-date version of Snow Leopard on your machine, you simply head for the Mac App Store, hit buy and watch the download jump into the dock. Once the 3.74GB file has downloaded, you’re greeted by a very minimal installer app. And it really is minimal, the only option open to you is choosing the disk location. Lion’s licence covers all the Macs in your home but if you want to avoid having to download the installer for each one, make sure you copy it to a USB drive before you open it as the file self-destructs after use.

Scrolling

The first thing you notice when starting Mac OS X Lion is a message from Apple that scrolling has changed. Inverted scrolling is now the default which means pushing up scrolls down and vice versa. The move has caused lots of debate and moaning online but actually it does make sense. Rather than moving the scroll bar, you’re now moving the content in the window just as you do on the iPhone and iPad. That doesn’t mean it feels right straight away though. On a touchscreen device where you are interacting directly with the screen, the scrolling method immediately makes sense but with a trackpad and screen it can take some time to get used to, especially since you can still see the scroll bar moving the other direction. You can change back to the traditional scrolling method in settings but give it time before you retreat to your comfort zone – we think Apple has made the right move here, especially since so many OS X machines are laptops with built-in trackpads. Speaking of which:

Gestures

The range of multitouch gestures deployed in Mac OS X is quite baffling. The horizontal three-finger-swipe – previously used to flick through pages in lots of apps – moves through desktop spaces and full-screen apps, a vertical three-finger-swipe activates the new Mission Control feature while LaunchPad is accessible via an awkward pinch using three fingers and your thumb. A spreading gesture with your thumb and three fingers still clears the screen to reveal the desktop below. On a built-in trackpad or the Magic Trackpad, they’re relatively easy to execute but attempting most of them on a Magic Mouse is a recipe for RSI. If you’re buying an iMac anytime soon, for pity’s sake choose the trackpad as your bundled accessory.

Mission Control

In Mac OS X Lion, Exposé and Spaces have hooked up to give birth to Mission Control. A bird’s eye view of all the windows on your current desktop grouped by application, it also shows a list of additional desktops and full-screen applications. Adding new desktops is as simple as dragging an application window to the top of the screen. Desktops and full-screen apps shuffle in with each other so you can flick through them with a three-finger horizontal swipe. It’s great for inveterate multitaskers but if you weren’t already using Spaces, you probably won’t find yourself relying on Mission Control any time soon.

LaunchPad

LaunchPad is the most direct lift from iOS in the whole of Mac OS X Lion. It takes over the screen presenting your applications in the same grid format used by an iOS homescreen. You can then flick through pages and group apps in folders in exactly the same way as on an iPhone or iPad. That’s brilliant if you’ve got a reasonably small amount of programmes and buy most of them from the Mac App Store but if you’ve got a lots on your machine it becomes a lot less useful. It gets tiring having to page through screens to find the app you’re after and organising a lot of icons is tiresome. You can only remove apps directly from the LaunchPad if you bought them from the Mac App Store. Apps you purchase from there automatically pop up in LaunchPad. Based on a few days use, LaunchPad really does feel like a gimmick at the moment rather than a transformative way to access your applications. If you’re used to pressing command+space and then pressing a letter or two to quickly launch an application, you’ll never use it.

Full-screen apps

Application windows work differently in OS X Lion. There are small tweaks (the trio of close/minimise/maximise buttons are a lot smaller) and major ones (scroll bars only show up when you scroll or hover over the right edge of a window or scroll on your trackpad). The loss of a permanent scroll bar can feel slightly odd in some applications, particularly text editors and iTunes. Meanwhile the ability to manually resize windows by dragging at any edge is very welcome and incredibly overdue. Biggest of all the changes though is the arrival of fullscreen apps. Windows users may scoff that it has included that feature for eons but in the case of Mac OS X Lion, fullscreen means a little more.

In Lion-optimised apps, a new button in the top right hand corner activates full-screen mode. At a basic level it hides the dock and menu bar allowing the app to encompass the whole screen but results vary depending on what programme you’re using. In iCal, the changes are minimal but iPhoto and GarageBand both rearrange the layout of the whole app. It’s visually appealing and definitely helps you focus on whatever you’re working on but it can feel a little odd having to hunt around to find the rearranged controls. When you’re running a full-screen app, it acts as a space in its own right so you can flip between it, any other full-screen app and your open desktops.

iMac or Cinema Display users may scoff at this, and to be frank, for heavy Photoshop editing with multiple windows it’s useless, but after testing OS X Lion on a new 11-inch MacBook Air, we’re sold on it. More casual users will love being able to swipe through a small handful of applications (Mail and Safari, say) this way.

Finder

Apple loves messing around with the Finder to see how stripped back it can make it. This time that means the row of icons in the left hand menu have been turned monochrome, following in the footsteps of iTunes 10 which first introduced the desaturated approach. As with the jukebox app, the change has simply made the menu harder to navigate at a glance. It’s one of those aesthetic decisions by Apple that really doesn’t make very much sense.

The other big change to Finder is the new default view, All My Files, which sorts your files into Cover Flow-style rows. Apple appears to be attempting to encourage you to see your files as one big soup of information to sifted through rather than a stack of folders. If the new view doesn’t appeal to you, and for us, with our thousands of word docs, it does not, it’s easy to navigate through the Finder in other more familiar ways.

The search function in Finder has also had a significant upgrade. Type a word and it suggests a search category to apply to it, making it far easier to quickly drill down to the item you’re after. It’s smart too: if you type in a date or file format it will recognise the type of information you’re giving it. The same kind of intelligence has been applied to the Quick Look function which now allows you to preview videos and audio directly in Finder as well as letting you take a close a look at them and other files using the Quick Look button. The ability to add frequent file searches as well as locations to the left hand menu is also a great new addition.

Spotlight

Like Finder, Spotlight has been tweaked in Mac OS X Lion. You can now drag and drop files straight from the Spotlight drop down menu and Quick Look has migrated there too. That’s really handy for quickly finding an image or music file you’re after and it even includes websites as the search now extends beyond what’s just on your system.

Resume, Versions and AutoSave

Resume, Versions and AutoSave are three of the quietest but potentially most revolutionary new features in Lion but they’re not without their issues. Resume means that the OS remembers its state, so that when you restart or turn on your machine again you’ll find the applications that were previously open ready to use just as they were before. That’s a familiar experience from modern browsers like Chrome and Firefox but with your whole desktop in play, it can feel slightly claustrophobic after being used to a clean slate when you first switch on your machine. If you’re concerned web pages you’d rather the world didn’t see will automatically be restored, don’t worry – Restore respects private mode in web browsers and can be switched off entirely in settings. Whew.

Versions takes the Time Machine concept of being able to roll back your hard drive to a previous state and applies it to individual files, even using a version of the same UI. Rather than saving over the previous incarnation of a file when you hit Command-S, you’re now saving a version of it. You can then go back and review previous versions and even revert to them. The feature is only present in a few applications at the moment (notably Preview, Pages and TextEdit) but third-party developers will be able to easily add it using Apple’s SDK. Versions will become really useful when iCloud launches making it easy to keep track of editing you’ve done across different devices. One slight concern is the way versions multiply in the Finder, quickly cluttering up the list view.

AutoSave is the third part of Apple’s new approach to saving files in Mac OS X Lion. In addition to manually-saved versions of files, OS X periodically saves a version of documents you’re editing. In applications that support AutoSave, that means the slow death of the Save dialog. Instead, if you close an app that includes AutoSave, it will just shut down, keeping the active document as you left it.

Safari

Home advantage makes Safari the best browser on Mac OS X Lion, for now. While other options including Firefox and Chrome have lost gestures they previously used to allow you to whip around the web, Safari has gained pinch-to-zoom and double tap-to-zoom plus the ability to navigate between website with a two-finger swipe – moving back a page has never been so seamless. It’s also had a speed boost and is more stable thanks to sandboxing which separates the processes at work in a particular tab from the application as a whole. Hopefully though, rival browsers will gain the same gesture support in their next updates.
One side note: Flash, which Adobe readily admits is only in beta for OS X Lion, barely works at all right now. We’ve only got one YouTube video to load so far – but you can bet Adobe will be patching this up sharpish.

Mail, iCal, Address Book

Mail and iCal both take their cues from their cousins on the iPad. The updated version of Mail now dedicates the entire left hand side of the screen to a message listing with two-line previews (which can be extended via system preferences). Emails are now grouped together in conversations and search has been powered up just as in Spotlight and Finder. Curiously with Address Book and iCal, Apple has decided to continue its taste for celebrating dying analogue formats. By default iCal goes for the tear sheet design first shown on the iPad and Address Book is literally an address book though the addition of iPhoto importing and the ability to make FaceTime calls straight from the app makes it a lot more useful.

Account management

Along with tweaking Mail, Apple has also brought account management into the heart of the system. Head to System Preferences and you’ll find a dedicated menu for adding in your Gmail, Exchange, MobileMe, Yahoo! and AOL accounts. This will also eventually be home to your iCloud account and allow you manage all your syncing and remote storage from one place.

AirDrop

One of our favourite features in Mac Os X Lion is AirDrop. It’s an incredibly simple way to swap files between Macs which doesn’t need you to be on the same network to do its stuff. Rather than using a Wi-Fi network as a middle man, AirDrop makes a peer-to-peer Wi-Fi connection between Airports. Clicking AirDrop in Finder activates a search for Macs running Lion within 30ft which it identifies with the owner’s Apple ID. To share a file you simply drag it onto the other user’s icon and they’ll receive a message asking if they want to accept the file. If they do, an animated image of the file you’re sharing leaps straight into their Downloads folder. The transfers are encrypted and very speedy according to our tests with a 53MB file making the leap in just under a minute.

Hidden gems and odd additions

Apple has trumpeted 250 new features in Mac OS X Lion and there are plenty you’ll just stumble upon. It took us a few days to realise that the forthcoming iOS 5 Twitter integration has already been presaged by the option to tweet any text you select and the new low-power wake mode that allows you to remotely access files without switching on your Mac’s screen is a welcome addition. The craziest new feature we stumbled upon though was in Preview which now allows you to add a signature straight into a PDF using the iSight camera. Open a PDF, click the annotations button then the signature button and you’ll be greeted with a window encouraging you to sign your name on a piece of white paper and hold it up to the camera. Bingo! A reusable digital signature. Microsoft, you need to steal this.

The addition of system-wide AutoCorrect may seem a little less welcome. The bane of many an iPhone user’s life and star of its own internet meme, Damn You AutoCorrect, has graduated to the Mac and while it’s not as wild as its mobile cousin, you might want to switch it off. It doesn’t capitalise the first word in every sentence or randomly decide that a reference “reading” must mean the city of Reading but does make small corrections automatically. Netbooks are netbacks. What the hell is a netback? It does highlight corrections with a blue underline and offer up suggestions for alternatives but if you still have nightmares about being lectured by Clippy back in the day, it’s another feature that can be switched off in settings.

Compatibility

Installing onto a clean system worked like a dream but on our 13-inch MacBook Air, which had previously had the contents of an old MacBook Pro migrated to it, we did notice some issues. The main one was multiple versions of Apple apps clogging up LaunchPad. It seems if you’ve squirrelled away applications in folders of your own choosing the Lion installer can get a little confused. Beyond that the only obvious compatibility issue is the death of Rosetta and with it the end to support for PowerPC applications. If you still need to rely on them you’ll have to stick with Snow Leopard for the time being.

Conclusion

At £20.99, upgrading to Mac OS X Lion makes sense but with its many new features and changes, it feels like things start to get complicated once that ultra-easy installation process is over. If Snow Leopard was Apple grooming an established product to get the best from it, Lion often feels like it’s been thrown into a room full of funhouse mirrors. You have to rewire your brain to get used to the new approach and may even need to switch off some of its most jarring features. Ultimately though, this is still an excellent OS with lots to recommend it. AirDrop and Versions are worth upgrading for alone and Apple is bound to smooth off some of the rough edges with its next update.

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