4G is now a mainstream technology in the UK, meaning network operators can chase more frugal consumers with low-cost, own-brand handsets. It's unlikely O2 and Three will get involved in this race to the bottom; they simply don't have the experience EE (through its sub-brands Orange and T-Mobile) and Vodafone do in self-made handsets. EE was the first to make a move with the £99 Kestrel, and Vodafone recently launched its rebuttal: a pair of smartphones in the Smart 4 turbo and Smart 4 power. I've already commented on their price tags (£135 and £175, respectively), which are high enough to make you wince considering their competition. And, after spending a little quality time with the higher-end Smart 4 power, I can't say I feel any different.
Vodafone Smart 4 power
Vodafone's Smart 4 power screams "I'm an OEM handset." Made by the same Chinese group that counts Alcatel as its consumer-facing business, the device lacks any stand-out aesthetic features to separate it from a sea of other Android reference designs. There's a hearty serving of bezel above and below the display, where the earpiece, front-facing camera and standard capacitive Android keys sit, with the earphone jack, micro-USB port and power button/volume rocker in their normal positions. The back of the device adds a small amount of personality to the otherwise generic composition; not only because the white plastic contrasts against the black of the rest of the device, but also because of the metal detailing around the primary camera, the neat silver Vodafone logo and slit-style loudspeaker grille. Being white does mean it's easily dirtied, however.
Build quality is nice and solid, with all the plastic components fitting together snuggly. You'd expect a phone with a 5-inch display to have an above-average footprint, but the power's is a little too grand for my liking. At 141 x 71 x 9.5mm, it's tall, wide, thick and in my opinion, a little uncomfortable to use. Some of this is also down to its weight: 162g isn't particularly kind to the pocket or wrist. I wasn't as offended by the 960 x 540 resolution screen as I thought I'd be. App icons look bloated and cartoony at such a low pixel density (220 ppi) and video/gaming quality suffers, but it's not as much as a turn-off as the spec sheet might suggest. Color temperature is pretty good, but viewing angles and sunlight readability? Not so much.
Having been spoilt of late by low-cost phones with the superb quad-core Snapdragon 400 chipset -- significantly cheaper than the Smart 4 power, I might add -- I wasn't expecting a comparable experience with the power's quad-core 1.3GHz Mediatek processor. I'm pleasantly surprised, then, to report no noticeable lag when whipping through the Android homescreen and app carousels. The simple, relatively unencumbered Android 4.4 build almost certainly deserves some credit for that. A few races on Asphalt 8: Airborne with the graphics settings maxed-out confirmed the handset's no slouch in the performance department, though I'd be interested to see whether the processor would cope as well paired with a higher-resolution display.
The Smart 4 power also packs an adequate 1GB of RAM, a 5-megapixel main camera and VGA front-facer. One of the more frightening specs you should be aware of is the less than 2GB of available on-board storage, which games like Asphalt 8 can basically consume on their own. This makes a microSD card almost a compulsory accessory. The real issue I have with the power is not the chunky design, low-res screen, basic camera options or lack of storage; it's the price. You simply can't ask people to pay £175 for a pay-as-you-go handset of this calibre when the Xperia SP is cheaper on the same network -- not to mention the superb Moto G (4G edition) is less expensive unlocked, and EE's Kestrel, while not perfect, costs a two-figure sum.
If you're a Vodafone contract customer who's thinking about upgrading to a 4G tariff, and is being incentivized towards the Smart 4 power, it's not like you won't survive. If you have any choice in the matter whatsoever, though, it's one to avoid.
Samsung's plan to launch its own "premium" portable audio line was unveiled long before Apple nabbed Beats. I must admit I did an eye roll reading the announcement, given the names of the products in the Level line: On, Over, In and Box. The group offers options for all listening preferences, with appropriately named on-ear, over-ear, in-ear and Bluetooth speaker options at prices that certainly rank at the higher end. After two weeks with the lot, I'm not ready to part with my Beats Pill XL or BO H6s for Sammy's new kit. Here's why.
IRL: Samsung Level portable audio series
Level Over Headphones
Let's start at the top with the $350 Level Over Bluetooth headphones. While mostly plastic, these cans do have some nice faux-leather ear cups and a stitched headband. There are some silver accents, too. In fact, I'd argue the entire line keeps up the premium appearance a lot better than some of Samsung's other devices, which, rightly or wrongly, have earned a reputation for feeling chintzy. That's not the case here, though.
The Level Over has the usual bulkiness you'd expect from wireless over-ears, but once I got used to the weight (my usual pair isn't nearly as heavy), they're actually quite comfy. They don't feel like they're pinching my head, and the ear cups and headband are both nicely padded. What about the audio? Well, I actually prefer the Level On to these. The Level Over headphones, while far from the best I've heard, provide clear tones and are capable of a blistering volume (if you can handle it) without distorting when plugged in. Those who scoff at Beats' bass-heavy tuning will find solace here, but I tend to prefer a bit more bump than the Over has to offer. Treble and the mid-range are instead favored, and it's particularly noticeable when streaming hip-hop tracks, like the last Kendrick Lamar LP, for example.
Pairing the headphones with a MacBook Air, iPhone 5s and Moto X didn't produce a max volume that I'd think some would favor -- it's somewhere close to the middle when the unit is plugged in. Connecting via NFC is an option too, with a properly outfitted device (same goes for the Level Box). If you're after the Bluetooth chops, there are much better options that will provide better sound. There's a touchpad on the right ear cup for on-board volume control, but even with that cranked all the way up, I could've used a few more decibels than Spotify on my Motorola handset could muster. After about a day and a half, I was looking for an outlet to recharge -- a process that takes a couple of hours to complete.
Of course, there's the Samsung Level app for tweaking the EQ on mobile devices, but it makes modest improvements to the audio experience, so I tended to skip it entirely. It also requires the cans to be connected via Bluetooth to make adjustments -- as does that volume slider. The same can be said for the built-in microphone: while it works just fine, I prefer to make calls the old-fashioned way.
Level On Headphones
These were actually my favorite of the bunch. The Level On headphones share the same dapper stylings as the Level Over (save for the headband stitching) and wear really comfortably. I recently used the new Beats Solo2 set for a couple weeks only to find my head feeling pinched about 15 minutes into each session. That's far from what I found here; the On is relatively light and doesn't feel like it's clamping down in-use, despite taking some small aesthetic cues from Dr. Dre's recent offering. What can I say? The fit is just really nice.
In terms of sound, I prefer these are my top pick here. Having the volume dial fixed halfway from my laptop or phone was the sweet spot, offering a smidge more bass that its pricier stablemate. Unfortunately, cranking it up further makes for a treble-heavy mess that's a little painful to endure. So long as you're not looking to blast out your eardrums, the audio is actually pretty solid. I did find that the in-line remote here (and on the Level Over) wasn't of any use to adjust volume on my Moto X or MacBook. But if I'm honest, I don't tend to use that feature while seated at my desk or traveling. That gripe aside, the $180 price seems fair.
Level In Headphones
If I were you, I'd skip these entirely. The Level In headphones have a rather bland silver and black exterior to them, but that's really the only good thing I have to say. The buds are quite large and, given that bulk, didn't stay in my ears well if I was doing anything other than sitting still. I put on bigger plastic tips to no avail, and trying to wear these on a run turned out to be quite frustrating. I'd be willing to overlook that major issue if the sound quality were respectable, but it's not. There are loads of options for half the price (or less) that handle tones much better than the Level In. Actually, I have a pair of $50 UE in-ears that put these to shame. Samsung's Level In headphones do have the usual in-line remote you'd expect from a set of $150 earbuds, if you're still considering making the leap.
Level Box Speaker
Finally we arrive at the Level Box, Samsung's compact new Bluetooth speaker. At $170, it's more expensive than the similarly sized (and infinitely customizable) Jawbone Jambox and the UE Mini Boom. The Box does have a solid aluminum top that certainly contributes to the high-end look, but as I found with the Level Over, looks can be deceiving. The unit pairs quickly and easily and features accessible top-mounted controls, but once I started listening in, it didn't take long to go back to the super-sized Beats Pill. I'd compare the sound quality here to Jawbone's popular speaker: It's serviceable, but that's about it. And you certainly won't have to contend with too much bass.
While it's a convenient device to pack for a day trip, the audio just isn't good enough to make it a desktop or bookshelf staple. I did find the 15 hours of promised battery life to be accurate; I could always get through at least a full day before needing a charge. As I've already mentioned, there are other wireless speakers I prefer -- of course, the one I use most is $130 more -- and for an extra 30 bucks, the regular UE Boom is a solid alternative. For those looking for a capable gadget, though, the Box may do just fine, but folks seeking quality audio will need to look elsewhere. And yes, you can use it to wrangle those speakerphone calls too.
After two weeks with the entire group, I can honestly say that none of the options are must-haves. While I do like the Level On headphones the best, on account of their comfort and overall sound quality, they don't make a strong enough case for me to ditch my trusty BOs. As for the other items in the set, there are far better choices for the same or a little less money. Frankly, the in-ears are way overpriced and the Bluetooth speaker is average at best. And at $300, I'd expect a lot more out of a set of wireless over-ear headphones than what's offered here, even if the touch controls are quite handy. I will say this, though: I'm curious to see how the next round of "premium" audio devices from Samsung develops. The company's done a respectable job on the design here (aside from the Level In), but I'd like to see audio improvements next time around.
In addition to the $999 Intel Core i5-equipped Surface Pro 3, Core i3 and Core i7 options are now on sale in the US and Canada. Starting at $799, selecting the i3 nets you 64GB of storage while devices outfitted with an i7 processor tout either 256GB or 512GB of space at $1,549 and $1,949 respectively. Of course, that significant investment nets you a 12-inch display, Windows 8.1 and the ability to tack on Type Cover or Pen to further boost productivity.
Let's face it: options for outfitting the Nexus line with covers and cases have been rather limited (and pricey) coming directly from Mountain View. That could be about to change though, as Android Police reports that a new option could offer a major boost in custom accessories. The so-called Google Workshop will allow you to create your own case for the Nexus 5 based on either a location map or an uploaded photo of your choice. A live wallpaper is said to accompany that latter option too, so you can keep a consistent theme for every customizable spot on that handset. Right now, it appears that the fifth Nexus phone is the only device privy to the treatment, so we'll have to wait and see if that popular 7-inch tablet gets its own new digs. Unfortunately, there's no indication as to when the Workshop will go live inside Google Play or how much the cases will cost.
In Japan, Space Expo 2014 has begun. It's a collaboration between the country's Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NASA, offering a chance for the public to see over 500 pieces of space exploration-themed realia. This includes shuttle replicas, for-real space food samples and a whole lot of rockets -- which is one of JAXA's specialties. In the middle of the exhibition, which lasts through September 2014, the Space Expo tells the story of the not-so-humble spacesuit.
The cat's out of the bag, it seems. Just days after we received leaked details of HTC's One (M8) for Windows, Verizon has posted a picture on its web servers (still available as I write) that confirms the smartphone's existence. The device is largely what we expected; it's a straightforward adaptation of the Android-based One for Windows Phone 8.1, complete with custom camera features and TV remote control. There aren't many other clues, although WPCentral has heard that Verizon will carry the handset on August 21st following an already announced HTC event on August 19th. That makes sense, especially since the image not-so-coincidentally shows Friday the 22nd on the calendar -- a day after the rumored release.
The "Swiss Army knife of electronics." That's the best way Sprint can define the LivePro, a touchscreen projector/Android hotspot made by Chinese manufacturer ZTE. The device, which goes for $300 with a two-year contract, is the first in a brand-new hybrid category -- and depending on how successful it is, it may well be the last. Although the LivePro has a wide range of capabilities that make it useful on many different fronts, its demand will be incredibly niche. What kind of person needs such a unique device, and is it good enough to even attract them?
Sprint LivePro review
The Sprint LivePro is a one-of-its-kind device that comes with a pico projector, Sprint hotspot and Android in one device. Its niche appeal is limited to traveling professionals and families on road trips, and battery life, low specs and high price will drive potential buyers away.
The LivePro is an awkward-looking box, but then again, it's clearly not trying to win any beauty contests -- what do you expect from an Android-powered hotspot with a built-in projector and 4-inch display? It's portability and utility that buyers will crave the most; this odd little thing will spend most of its time dragged around by a suit in a briefcase, purse or roller bag en route to endless meetings. Sprint customers won't buy the LivePro to show off at parties.
For the sake of comparison, it looks in some ways like a larger (4.7 inches square) and fatter (1.1 inch) version of the Apple TV with a screen and buttons fashioned onto the top and a few ridges and curves on each side. That's still a stretch, though: Despite a few commonalities, you're unlikely to mistake the two devices. (Come to think of it, you probably won't mistake it for anything else, either.) The LivePro weighs in at 14.1 ounces (0.88 pound), in large part due to the projector and fan that sit inside. Not only that, but you'll also need to take your charger along with you if you plan to use the projector (more on that later), so you'll need more packing room as a result.
The LivePro has several job descriptions, including a projector, mobile hotspot, media player, smart device and external battery charger for other devices. It's a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, but that was likely ZTE's objective in the first place: Bundle all the things together so it's ideal for road warriors and families who want to consume media during a long road trip.
The 4-inch WVGA display on top is disappointing. Not only because its 800 x 480 resolution produces a below-average experience and viewing angles are quite bad, but also because of how the screen is laid out. The most comfortable way to hold the device is in landscape mode, but you're given very little space to work with; whenever I needed to send an email, the keyboard blocked out the entire text field, so I had to minimize it anytime I wanted to see what I was typing. It's possible to switch to portrait mode, but it's even more awkward to hold the LivePro this way, because the screen is situated on the right side of the device. Simply put, you won't want to use the LivePro as an Android device unless you're turning on the hotspot or finding something to watch on the projector.
Adding to the awkwardness is the spread of buttons below the display. In addition to three capacitive navigation buttons (back, home and menu), there's also a key to fire up the projector, another to turn the display on and off and separate controls for adjusting the volume. A couple buttons line the left side of the box: One is a standard power button and the other one turns the power bank on and off. Additionally, there's a dial to adjust the focus for your projector and a hidden tab covering the micro-SIM and microSD card slots. (The latter can support up to 32GB cards, a bit low compared to most Android devices on the market today.)
On the bottom of the device sits connector ports for 12V power input, USB, HDMI and 3.5mm headphone jacks. You can put away all of the micro-USB cables you have, though, because you won't find any such port here. At least the LivePro comes with USB and HDMI cables in the box, so you don't have to dig through boxes of old cords to find some that work. Miracast support is also included in the device for wireless mirroring, and you'll get Bluetooth 4.0 throw in as well.
You won't be able to take the LivePro on a trip around the world, because it only comes with support for Sprint's frequencies (bands 25, 26 and 41) and CDMA.
Your purchase of the LivePro hinges on how often you plan to use the projector. Why else would you want to get a high-priced device that takes up precious space in your backpack or purse? If all you need is an Android-powered hotspot, there are plenty of smartphones, tablets and other devices out there that will take care of you (and they'll likely be much smaller, too!). By adding a projector into the mix, Sprint is targeting specific demographics: Professionals who are always traveling and giving presentations, and parents looking for new ways to entertain their kids when they're away from a TV (but close to a power outlet).
With a 100-lumen DLP bulb, the LivePro features a standard projector compared to most in its price range. (The best I've seen is a $350 Viewsonic model with a 3,000-lumen bulb, but that's an extreme outlier; most comparable devices are around $300 and sport 85 to 100 lumens.) Of course, this isn't an apples-to-apples comparison, since the LivePro is subsidized under a service agreement ($300, or $450 off-contract) and ZTE tacked on a full Android device; a brighter bulb would've increased the cost of manufacturing. The resulting picture is still respectable, and it's a massive improvement over older devices like the 15-lumen Samsung Galaxy Beam, which simply was a waste of a phone altogether.
In case you get any crazy ideas, don't even think about using the LivePro for your home cinema. You'll definitely need something larger, brighter and more expensive. It's fine in a pinch, as you get a reasonable amount of color in a dark room, but it's meant to help you temporarily rather than be a permanent fix. However, presentations, documents, shared-app demos -- the LivePro is more than ideal for any of those. It features a native resolution of 854 x 480 and can project up to a 120-inch display on the wall or ceiling, so you won't get a very high-quality viewing experience, and it's pretty tough to see anything when you're in a well-lit room. You'll also want to place the LivePro between 10 inches and 10 feet from the surface you're projecting onto.
The other problem you'll run into is the audio. The device is actually pretty loud, but the built-in fan is even louder, which makes it incredibly difficult to get a good experience when you're watching a quiet movie or on the far side of a long conference room. It's not bad if you're close to the LivePro, but the farther away you are, the more you'll be straining your ears. In this case, you'll need to add a Bluetooth speaker to your list of things to pack around with you.
While you're rounding up extra stuff to take along with you, add a small tripod to your list. There's a small kickstand to prop up the LivePro if needed, but the device comes with a tripod mount if you need to adjust the projection height and angle (this will happen more often than you think).
The LivePro comes with a mostly stock version of Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, which is nearly two years old. I've grown so accustomed to using devices with KitKat that using the LivePro felt like going back in time. Of course, there are a few differences: As you'd expect, you won't find any phone-related features here, nor is there a camera. Sprint's also added a File Manager and Lookout security, but otherwise the carrier kept bloatware to a minimum. In fact, you won't even find Hangouts, Calendar or Google+ pre-installed on the device. You can still download them, but since the LivePro comes with less than 2GB available storage (4GB total internal space), it was smart of Sprint to cut down on the number of preloaded apps.
There are a few minor tweaks to the UI. The lock screen and notification bar are both ZTE creations, and a homemade hotspot widget occupies a large chunk of real estate on the front screen. (You can move it or get rid of it if you'd like, but you're going to need it if you plan to connect other devices via HDMI or WiFi Direct). Aside from these, you won't find many significant changes; just an old operating system with few software features or limited internal storage.
Performance and battery life
An hour and a half. That's how much battery life I got when the projector played a 720p movie (the display was turned off during this time). It's barely long enough to get through a Disney princess movie, and it definitely won't get you through most standard films, either. A 5,000mAh battery may sound large, but it's nowhere close to what's required to run a small projector. If you're planning to use the projector, a charger will be mandatory regardless of where you go.
The battery can be used to power other electronic devices, but look elsewhere if this is on your list of top LivePro features. There are plenty of external battery chargers on the market at a much lower cost, and they'll still provide ample power for your devices without taking up as much room. When I used the power bank, the LivePro lasted for around four hours from full to empty.
The LivePro comes with a 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 chipset, which is even older than the OS it's powering up, and 1GB RAM. Specifically, this device uses the same MSM8930 processor found in the HTC One VX and SV, both of which were mid-range smartphones when they came out in early 2013. I'll cut ZTE a little bit of slack for this since the user experience is focused more on using the device as a media player and mobile hotspot, so the processor isn't meant to be taxed with intensive tasks. Few people will find it easy, pleasurable or necessary to use this like a tablet.
This is one of those rare instances in which I was less interested in what I could do on the device's display (the low specs and subpar screen certainly don't help) and more interested in other things I could potentially do with the product. For instance, I was able to project my Xbox One via HDMI. I played a few rounds of Titanfall, but as I expected, the gaming experience wasn't anywhere close to my 1080p TV. I couldn't see enough details; I barely could differentiate who was on which team; and darker maps were ridiculously hard to see. But at least in terms of performance, everything was just as smooth here as it is on my television. Any HDMI or WiFi Display device is compatible with the LivePro, so there are quite a few potential uses for it outside of just playing Netflix -- just don't expect the LivePro to outshine HDTVs and larger projectors.
Lastly, because Sprint is Sprint, the hotspot performance will depend primarily on where you're at. The carrier's Spark network is still only located in a handful of cities (oddly, San Francisco isn't covered yet, but Oakland is), while the remainder of Sprint's network is comprised of inconsistent EVDO and LTE service. I'm located in an area with moderate LTE and have averaged around 2 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up, but Spark will likely be much faster.
The LivePro is the best product of its kind... because it's the only product of its kind. To ZTE's credit, it came up with a crazily unique device that nobody's ever seen before. Most consumers won't find much interest in it, but Sprint likes it because it adds variety to its existing lineup and introduces a product category that none of the other carriers have explored. Unfortunately, the few who might find the LivePro useful may be turned off by its short battery life, high price and aging specs. It's a device that could catch the attention of the corporate world -- if it's done correctly.
You may have put a lot of thought into your carefully constructed status update, but have you considered how, exactly, that update socially ties you to your peers? Probably not -- but researches from Yahoo Labs, the University of Torino and Stanford University have. The small research team is trying to work out the "grammar of society" by categorizing types of social interactions and mapping out how conversations flow on different social networks. Using concepts sourced from theoretical computer science, the team tried to frame culture as a computational concept -- using Flickr and aNobii (a community for book lovers) as models for uncovering the "source-code" of social interactions.
The data itself is an overwhelming analysis of online conversation divided into three categories: social status (an acknowledgement of a social tie like a 'follow'), social support (affection) and messages exchanging knowledge. The group found that social status based messages were most common in short conversations, but also prefaced longer discussions that often developed into more complex mixtures of knowledge exchange and social support.
It's a very granular look at how our social interactions and culture shape the world we live in -- but there are bigger pictures to consider, too. A different group of researchers recently set a different kind of data in a computational frame: the birthplace and deathbeds of 120,000 notable human lives. Historians at the University of Texas at Dallas used these lifespans to map mankind's development and expansion over a 2,600 year period, discovering how the cultural centers of the world evolved from small towns to international meccas and finding out that not all roads "lead to Rome" after all. Check out the in-depth analysis of social networking at the source link below, or just scroll down to see how significant world travel really is.
After getting the approval of both the House and the Senate, the US cellphone unlocking bill needed just one more signature to remove the carrier-swapping restriction. Today, President Obama signed the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act into law, making it once again legal for smartphone owners to unlock their device without direct permission from the carrier it's locked to. If you'll recall, the effort began as a petition, and is what the White House is calling "an example of democracy at its best." Should you be in need of refresher on the finer points, we explain the whole thing right here.
[Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]
The trusty Google Now launcher that debuted on the Nexus 5 had already made its way to the rest of that family and Play Edition devices. Now, folks wielding any handset running Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) and later can grab the feature, even if it's absent one of the aforementioned monikers. The software add-on makes Google's card-based repository accessible by swiping to the right of the home screen or speaking an "OK Google" voice command from that main UI. Gadgets that weren't officially stamped by Google hadn't been privy to the functionality, but now even if OEMs drape the OS with their own look and features (looking at you, Samsung), you can still get a taste of stock Android.
- Android (@Android) August 1, 2014