Samsung Galaxy S4: Size matters, but isn’t everything

The Samsung Galaxy S4′s tagline — “The next big thing is here” – is a telling pitch. The Galaxy is the world’s second best-selling phone, behind the iPhone.  And the latest version unabashedly claims that bigger is better. But considering the S4 in a different light, maybe we shouldn’t think of it as a big phone. Maybe we should treat it like a very small tablet and leave our real tablet home.

While narrower than Samsung’s Galaxy Note by about a half-inch, the S4 strongly evokes a miniature but very serviceable tablet. And since making calls is one of the things we seem to do least with our phones, marketing a connected device like the S4 as a very small tablet that also makes calls might not be a bad idea.

As a “tablet,” the S4 delivers. Screen resolution is amazing.. It runs fast and smooth, which is not a given when you don’t own both the hardware and software. The S4 runs the latest version of Google’s Android mobile operating system, Jellybean 4.2.

The S4 has a larger screen — 4.99 inches versus 4.8 for the S III. The case is narrower by .03 inches. But that push to increase screen size without increasing the footprint makes it a more sensitive device. The context menu and “back” below the screen are just too easily tapped inadvertently while merely holding the phone while doing a task, like typing. These buttons were vexing in another, smaller way as well: They light up whenever you touch the screen.

The S4 also prompts reflection on the range of devices and how they’ve positioned themselves five years into the smartphone revolution. One of the biggest dividing lines is whether a mobile device is optimized for consumption or production — whether it’s a good working tool or a media hub.

Blackberry Q10: The key is the keyboard

Not so long ago Blackberry made phones that set the bar. They were avatars of serious cool among the power set, a visible token that you had arrived. Then came the iPhone, and there went Blackberry’s cachet.

Now Blackberry is back with a two smartphone phones running a new operating system — both the phones and the OS are dubbed “10.” The rebooted line is a gambit — some think Blackberry’s last — to recapture the cool.

The Z10, released in the United States in March, was an attempt to join ‘em: it’s a full screen, multi-touch rectangle with a pop-up, software keyboard — sound familiar? But the Q10, due in the U.S. at the end of May, is a spit-in-your-eye attempt to beat ‘em: An unapologetic central feature is a physical keyboard, and this defining Blackberry touch makes the device an  intentional outlier in the smartphone world.

Pebble: This smart watch is a rock star

When Alvin Toffler popularized the term “information overload” in 1970, even that legendary futurist could not have predicted the flood of data that drowns today’s road warrior. E-mails from multiple accounts, instant messages, texts, iMessage and Google Voice — and, oh yeah, phone calls — all clamor for attention from our smartphones.

Enter a new solution: The smart watch. Pebble, a Kickstarter project now being delivered to its first backers, uses the power of your smartphone instead of competing with it. Pebble is still in development and a little rough around the edges, but it is the first to get the smart watch formula right. It could become a big deal. It’s easily the most important thing I’ve added to my go bag since the tablet.

Pebble is an e-paper* wristwatch that displays messages and caller ID on a crisp display that is always an arm’s length away. This allows you to leave your phone in your pocket or across the room instead of constantly reaching for it or leaving it face up at arms’ reach (Eliminating this custom at every conference and restaurant table would alone earn Pebble a place in heaven). It is a one-way device: you still have to use your phone to answer messages, or talk on the phone.

Go Bag grab bag: SXSW survival sundries


Attending a multiple-day event that covers a lot of ground, like South By Southwest, makes your go bag even more indispensable. Whether you’re on your way to SXSW or already running around downtown Austin, you need to take extra precautions that your bag is properly stocked. All the basic rules apply (you’ll find those external batteries to be a godsend), but here are my recommendations for that 20 percent buffer in your go bag.

These simple sundries could help you survive SXSW: You’ll need some sort of food item in your bag for that moment you realize you’ve been panel hopping for 16 hours straight without a barbecue break. Both Pure Protein and Clif Builder’s have 20 grams of protein, which provides great slow-release energy and fewer empty calories. Builder’s is closer to candy; 20 grams of sugar to Pure’s 2g. It’s also bigger: 64g to 50g. For more fat, quicker energy and carbs, I go with Kind. Most other bars I’ve tried or looked at seems to be candy masquerading as health food, or inedible heath substances masquerading as food. I love having fruit available, but it bruises easily. The best portables are clementine oranges: They are small, seedless and can take plenty of punishment. They are also messy, so you’ll need … A MSR PackTowl. Cleaner, smaller, more environmentally friendly than tissues or paper towels. Could make you a hero in the event that a keyboard has an unfortunate meeting with a margarita. Launder it in your hotel sink and it’ll be dry by morning. Gum and/or mints. They help stave off hunger in the morning and keep people from recoiling from that taco you wolfed down after lunch. Packs of gum will weather any go bag abuse. I prefer rolls of Newman’s Wintergreen to mints in metal or plastic containers because the packaging disappears along with the contents. And you don’t rattle. A refillable water bottle. One of the smartest is the Clean Bottle, which unscrews top and bottom to make it easier to clean. I carry a Platypus collapsable because it’s flat and — like that roll of mints — takes up less space as you use the contents. Eating utensils. Plastic utensils are terrible, and a terrible waste. The placesetting-to-go market has gone from bulky camping item to slick accessory, like Sigg’s Folding Clip Cutlery Set, so there is plenty to choose from these days. My personal choice is a little eccentric: Snow Peak travel chopsticks. They are made with excellent materials and are beautifully designed, down to the squared-off top half which prevents them from rolling around. A collapsible bag for all the SWAG you’ll pick up. My choice is a MiniSax. It folds as small as my pack towel, opens to 8 x 9 inches and can carry more than 20 pounds. Comfortable shoes for when you have to hoof it back to the Convention Center from way across the river. Consider a pair of unisex Timberland Radler Trail Camps, which slip on and off quickly and zip up into virtual nothingness. For heel-wearers looking for a more stylish option, I’ve heard foldable flats work well. There’s an easy trick to carrying around extra outerwear — wear as much as you can, and carry as little as possible. Layer! The three-shirt rule — t-shirt, overshirt, outershirt —  keeps your bag emptier. Based on the last few Austin deluges, you might want to throw a foldable plastic poncho. My pick is the Sierra Designs Microlight, which packs up into it’s own sack. Don’t forget your paper business cards – they were all the rage at TED. They are still the coin of the business meet-up realm — a physical reminder of having encountered you that Bump cannot match. It’s a quick, easy way to communicate your information when the decibel level in the room is too high to hear. And, “Here’s my card, let’s connect after SXSW” is quite possibly the best way to conclude a dragging conversation and hop on over to the next party.

None of these items will add much to your burden, but any one might just save the day.


Photo credit: REUTERS/Adrees Latif 

Chromebook Pixel: A netbook to challenge the notebooks

Google unleashed a snarkfest when it introduced the Chromebook Pixel. The reaction was swift and mostly merciless. “Sorry, but there’s no defense for the Chromebook Pixel” claimed BGR. “Bizarre, pointless,”said Bruce Berls. The Wirecutter declared: “The Chromebook Pixel is not for you.” In one of the most positive receptions ZDNet’s Matt Baxter-Reynolds calls it “deliberately bad” — and then goes on to give three reasons why Google was smart to release something that was “entirely illogical and unsellable.”

So, naturally, I had to see for myself. After using it for four days, I’m not convinced this product is ready for mass adoption. That isn’t because the Chromebook Pixel is a joke, or a toy; it’s as solid a performer as any full-featured computer I’ve used. But it’s going to take a few generations to make this netbook a true contender in a notebook world. At $1,300 or more, this Pixel is clearly an early adopter’s plaything with a price point to prove it.


Go Bag grab bag: Analog accessories

Go Bag LogoBeing a successful road warrior isn’t just about electronics. There are a host of small items that aren’t flashy, but make mobile life easier. Here are a few useful things to help you can get more work done while on the go.
Winter presents a unique challenge. When it’s cold outside you have to risk frostbite or wear special gloves to operate your smartphone and tablet, whose multi-touch screens respond only to your fingertips and materials that mimic them. I’ve tried a few different gloves, and the pair in my go bag is a recent acquisition: North Face e-tips.

These gloves work seamlessly with touchscreens; I type as well (or poorly) as I do without them. They are cinched at the cuff and long enough to stay tucked under a coat sleeve. The small rubberized dots on the palm and three fingers make it easier to keep a firm grip on your electronics (and good for driving). They keep my hands warm in the bitter cold.

I would recommend going down a size, as I did, so that they are skin tight. This allows for better accuracy and makes them akin to glove liners; you can wear a heavier pair of winter gloves over them during the coldest treks and still be protected as you tap away.

Apple 11″ Macbook Air: No compromise

For years I’ve used a 13″ MacBook Air as my primary computer. Before that, a 15″ MacBook Pro. Before that, larger, heavier WinTel machines. It’s a truism that tech tends to shrink and become ever more powerful, an extrapolation of the famous 1965 prediction by Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore that chip performance would double every couple of years. But because I can do so many things now with a smartphone or tablet that only used to be possible with a “real” computer, the threshold question comes down to this: What is the least laptop I can get by with, no regrets?

By “least” I don’t mean going as cheap as I can, or foregoing features that I need. I do mean taking stock of what I actually need, or could use. Most of us probably live by an inflated notion of “must-have”; the new $250 Samsung Chromebook that I reviewed is the prototype for this idea of a stripped-down, bare essential machine, but it still lacks necessary utilities.

To find the sweet spot, you need to use a full-service machine, and the MacBook Air makes a strong case that it is worth the 4-5x premium over the Chromebook. (more…)

BlackBerry Z10: The empire strikes back

There’s a lot to like about BlackBerry’s new Z10 smartphone, which makes its serious shortcomings all the more disappointing.

BlackBerry, formerly known as Research In Motion, has clearly paid very close attention to how other smartphone makers have thrived over the past few years as it floundered. It has spent two long years preparing for this bet-the-farm moment — and is so desperate for the new traction that could come from a fresh start that it pre-announced a phone it cannot sell in the United States until March.

First, the good news: In look and feel this is a mature smartphone. It is both businesslike and fun to use and easy to imagine as the choice for road warriors and consumers alike. It is sleek and light; it fills the hand properly and can convincingly be operated with one hand most of the time. At 4.2 inches the screen is larger than the iPhone 5 but smaller than the Samsung Galaxy S III. Resolution is greater than on both: 1,280 x 768, matching HTC’s Windows 8X and One X.

Google’s silvery Samsung Chromebook could be gold

You won’t mistake the new Samsung Chromebook for Apple’s rockstar MacBooks or any other full-powered laptop.  But, it’s far more useful than your average netbook, and, at its $249 price, it might be the best value out there. So while it may not be the only computer you own, depending on your needs, it certainly could be the only one you carry.

Even though there are two current Samsung models, plus one from Acer, all Chromebooks are really a physical platform for Google’s cloud ecosystem. They are designed to enable Gmail, Drive, Play, YouTube, Calendar, Maps, Google+, etc, to all work together seamlessly and interactively.

The look of my test Samsung Chromebook — the midrange model — very intentionally mimics the Apple design ethic. It has a plasticky brushed silver case. The bottom of the case tapers slightly, though not nearly as dramatically as the MacBook Air. It is 5 mm thicker than a MacBook Air’s thinnest point, about two inches narrower and an inch shorter than the 13-inch equivalent, and, at 2.43 pounds, is ½ pound lighter.

Touchfire: All keyed up and ready to go

Go Bag LogoApple’s iPad could be the perfect device for a road warrior, but it has one glaring shortcoming — the lack of the perfect keyboard. The built-in onscreen keyboard is workable, but no tactile feedback means that you look at your fingers as you type, instead of the words on the screen. That makes typing on a tablet slower than on a laptop, and that means you avoid your iPad for typing-intensive tasks, even though in every other respect it might be the perfect choice for communicating on the road.

Touchfire solves this problem in a novel way: It’s an extremely thin, clear plastic overlay with raised keys that rests on top of the onboard keyboard, mapping to each onscreen key. Unlike other aftermarket keyboards, it doesn’t add weight, bulkiness, or require batteries to recharge. This little piece of plastic doesn’t look like it would make much of a difference, but it does. (more…)