Saturday, August 17, 2013

Time for a Technology Upgrade

I've reached the point where all of my electronic devices are reaching their expiration date.  My Dell Inspiron 1120 laptop's three years old, and my iPhone 4S smartphone is two years old.  Even my watch, a Timex Expedition, is beginning to show its age, and the analog watch hands keep losing time. So it's time to start upgrading my technology, which I've begun to do.

The first thing I bought was a new laptop.  My old laptop was tiny, with an 11 inch screen, and I wanted something a little bit bigger.  The problem, though, was that a "little" bigger was hard to find, as everyone seems to prefer tablets and convertibles in the 11-12" range.  I was trying not to spend too much on the laptop--less than a $1,000 if I could manage it.  One option was the Lenovo Thinkpad X230, which at 12.5" was about the right size, and the price was only around $773.  The problem was that the nearly $800 bought a highly stripped down version, without a lot of the options I would need ( camera, faster processor, more memory, Microsoft Office), not to mention a lot of the options I would want (Adobe Acrobat, Bluetooth, Solid State Drive).  By the time I had a configuration I was happy with, I was up around $1,200.  So I went to Dell, where I could get a cheaper, inexpensive laptop.  Which is what I found, for only $800.  I had to pay a little extra to get Windows 7 instead of Windows 8, which I'm avoiding like a plague, but I was able to get all the need options, and most of the want options, for two-thirds the price.  Except . . . it was much bigger.  The mid-size ones, in the 12"-14" range, either weren't available with Windows 7, didn't have all the options I wanted, or only offered those options at a considerable premium.  So I ended up buying the Inspiron 15R.  It's not a bad computer, by any means, but it's bigger than I anticipated.  I had known that it was a 15.5" screen, but it's one thing to know that, it's another to carry it around. That said, it's really not much heavier than my last computer, and while it's probably too large to use comfortably on a plane, it's fine for what I use it for--mainly work and writing.  So I'm getting used to it, though I'm thinking that I should be more willing to pay a premium for a smaller computer next time.

Now that I have a laptop, the question is what phone should I upgrade to.  I'm on AT&T, so that limits the available phones some.  As I complained the last time I blogged about phones, smartphone manufacturers seem to think that bigger is better, and all the top-tier phones seem to have 4.7-5" screens. Fortunately, this year is the year of the Mini.  HTC, Motorola, Samsung, and maybe even Apple are introducing stripped down versions of their flagship phones, with smaller screens and lower specs and a lower price.  So there's the HTC One Mini, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini, the Motorola Droid Mini, and the rumored Apple iPhone 5C.  Of these, the HTC One Mini is beating the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini in reviews, while the Droid Mini and iPhone 5C aren't out yet.  And, as of now, AT&T doesn't seem to have plans to carry any of them (except perhaps the iPhone).  That's not necessarily a deal-breaker, but I would prefer to stick with the same carrier, not least because my wife doesn't like the idea of changing.

So that leaves the following possibilities:

  • Samsung Galaxy S4 - The current king-of-the-hill, with the largest screen (5" AMOLED 1920x1080), expandable memory, a great camera, and a fast quad-core Snapdragon S600 processor. But I consider the first to be a turn-off.  One of my co-workers has the phone, and though he has slightly larger hands than I do, he still finds it difficult to use it one-handed. He also finds the battery life too short.
  • HTC One - The camera's not quite as good, and the memory isn't expandable (though it comes with twice as much to start), and the 1.7 GHz quad-core processor is slightly slower than the S4's 1.9 GHz, but the HTC One's pretty much a match for the Samsung Galaxy S4.  The screen is slightly smaller at 4.7" and has the same resolution, which I consider a plus, but it's an LCD, where I prefer an AMOLED.  Besides, HTC provides the Android Home and Back buttons external to the screen, so the touch interface really isn't any smaller.  [Update (8/25/2013): I realized later that the S4 also has external capacitive buttons, so it's still the king of the oversized touch interface.] And the reviews indicate that the battery life isn't any longer.
  • Apple iPhone 5S - The most likely name for the new Apple phone, but nothing has been announced or shown yet, so all we have are rumors and leaks.  The phone's probably about the same dimensions as the iPhone 5, which means that the screen's the same 4", with an external Home button.  It should be much more manageable one handed than the others.  Not much is known about whether the resolution is improved (it was 1136x640), or whether the technology is improved.  The processor's probably better than last year's A6 (which was a 1.3 GHz dual core), and the battery life is supposed to be better (the original iPhone 5's was pretty bad).
  • Motorola Moto X - At first glance, the specs for this phone are not impressive when compared to the S4 or One.  It has a dual-core, rather than quad-core, processor, and it has non-expandable 16 GB of memory, and a 1280x720 4.7" AMOLED screen.  Yet, this is still my top choice, for a number of reasons. I don't expect the lower resolution to make much difference--I really don't need the same resolution at 5" that my 40" television has.  And I'm not sure how effectively Android uses two processors, much less four, so I don't expect the pure horsepower to make that much difference day-to-day. Plus, there are a couple of things that really stand out about the Moto X. First, it's smaller. The handset's height and width are significantly smaller than the S4 and the One, and much more comfortable to use one-handed. It's width is smaller than the two of them by about .1-.2", and it's shorter by about .3". (The overall touch interface is smaller too, since it doesn't have external buttons like the HTC One, and it has a smaller screen than the S4.)  It's still bigger than the iPhone 5, about a quarter inch in height and width, but it has a much larger screen.  It also has less bloatware than HTC One or the Galaxy S4, not having the skin that they do, so it's almost a pure Android experience. There are just a few extras, and they sound pretty good--context awareness, always-on speech activation, and taking advantage of the AMOLED to do low power notifications whenever you want them.  And, perhaps most importantly, the Moto X has better battery life than the HTC One or Galaxy S4.  It's possible that Apple will come out with something great this year, or that the HTC One Mini will become available on AT&T, but barring either of those, I'll most likely get a Moto X for both my wife and myself.
So now that I've decided on what smartphone I'll probably get, the next question is what watch to get.  I think I'd like to get a smart watch this year.  What's a smart watch?  Well, it's a watch that interfaces with your phone, sending notifications to your wrist, and depending on the watch, allowing you to view them, read your e-mail, and possibly control your phone to some extent.  I thought it sounded silly at first, until I started looking into it.  I'm not sure whether any of the current and upcoming crop of smart watches really appeals to me, but I am seriously considering them.
  • Pebble - This was one of the most successful Kickstarters ever.  The watch it produced looks pretty nice, but I don't think it's quite right for me.  It's monochrome, it has buttons rather than a touchscreen, and it's pretty limited in the type of notifications it can receive and how you can interact with them.  That said, $150 isn't that different from the price of a nice watch.
  • Sony Smartwatch 2 - Sony's on its third generation of Smartwatch.  Unfortunately, the first two generations were dismal failures, both technologically and commercially.  The new one sounds pretty good, and maybe it will be a success.  It uses a transflective LCD, like old-style digital watches, so it should be clearly readable without backlighting (even in sunlight)  which should help with battery life, and allow it to display a watchface at all times (something the last Smartwatch couldn't do).  It also has a color display (for which it probably does need backlighting), for interacting with the phone.  Overall, this probably has the best combination of features and style for me, but it remains to be seen whether the implementation will be better than Sony's last couple of tries.
  • Samsung Galaxy Gear - Right now there are only rumors about this one, but it sure looks like overkill to me.  The early rumors described a screen that wraps around your wrist, and when unwound, is basically a narrow and tall smartphone, but it looks like Samsung's not ready for that yet. It does sound like it is supposed to operate without the smartphone, on WiFi or cellphone networks. This looks more like a replacement for a phone, than a companion for one.
  • Apple iWatch - Right now, there's only rumors that this even exists.  Much less when it will come out.  But we'll see if Apple announces something new when the new iPhones and iPads come out.
So, from what I know so far, the Smartwatch 2 looks like it will probably be the best, but I'll have to wait and see what comes of it and the other possible announcements.

Update (8/19/2013): It looks like I spoke too soon. Apparently, AT&T will be carrying the HTC One Mini. With that on the table, I think I'll need to get into a store and see how each phone feels in my hand.

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