Monthly Archives: February, 2013

HTC One: The Software/Hardware Divide, and the Birth of the Non-Android Android Flagship

HTC unveiled their new flagship smartphone today. The HTC One (not to be confused with the One X, One V, or One VX – good luck on that) appears to raise the bar yet again for Android phones. With a 1080p display, all-metal encasing, and an entirely re-skinned HTC Sense on top of Android Jelly Bean, the One looks set to battle with Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S4 for dominance of the non-Nexus, highly commoditized Android market.

The One’s industrial design is sleek if uninspired, if such a thing is even possible. With chamfered edges and a preference for metal over glass and/or plastic, the One draws more than a few lessons from the iPhone 5. The Beats Audio branding and new speaker setup give it some cool hardware flair.

But I’m more concerned about how HTC has approached software with the One, more specifically how it has integrated Jelly Bean with its new hardware. If the iPhonesque body weren’t enough of a hint, then the software experience evines that HTC is really trying to create a non-Android Android flagship device. The word “Android” itself wasn’t mentioned, and instead HTC trumpeted the “New Sense,” the fifth version of its Android skin. Particular attention was given to New Sense features like a new hub/live feed called BlinkFeed and a default dock of Gingerbread-esque icons backed up by two capacitive buttons: home and back, with the multitasking key strangely axed.

The tiles in BlinkFeed may recall Windows 8 or Flipboard, but they’re really closest in spirit to the Android 4.2x Google Currents Daydream – a “Daydream” is the screensaver-like feature that is by default activated when you charge your Nexus device without firsts hitting the power button. The Currents Daydream creates a beautiful cascade of stories from your Currents subscriptions, and lets you tap stories as they go by to open them individually in the Currents app. My take is that this feature is cool, but not the type of huge “wow” innovation that market stragglers really need in order to overtake their betters. 

But let’s get back to that business about capacitive buttons in particular. The lack of a multitasking key is baffling – if there’s one thing that Android unequivocally does better than iOS or Windows Phone, it’s multitasking. HTC has opted to hide multitasking behind a double-tap of the home button. Meanwhile, Google Now, one of the hallmark features of Jelly Bean, is buried beneath a long-tap of the home button. John Gruber astutely notes that both long-tap-for-voice and double-tap-to-multitask are iPhone hallmarks, and I think that they feed the narrative of HTC trying to make a non-Android Android blockbuster. But I think that they are depriving users of some of the best features of Jelly Bean.

During a Twitter exchange with The Verge’s Chris Ziegler, another person and I agreed that we basically had forsworn most non-Nexus Android devices. But I think it’s not just because we want timely updates (something that HTC has struggled with, as evinced by the HTC Thunderbolt only now getting ICS); it’s because Google has gotten astonishingly good at design, such that the stock Android experience has far outstripped what any OEM can do with their custom skins.

HTC thrived back when Sense filled in the gaping holes in Android 1.x and even 2.x, when it was barely a proper OS and need real character. We may be getting to the point at which Google is so confident in its design chops, and so intent on selling things directly to customers via a long-touch retail experience, that its stock Holo vision of Android becomes more and more distanced from whatever the likes of HTC and Samsung want to do with their flagships. They’ll either have to diverge from Google’s brand to keep their own brands alive, or adopt Google’s Nexus-like take on Android for the sake of unity (the latter doesn’t seem commercially viable at this point, however).

-The ScreenGrab Team

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Nexus 4 Wireless Charging Orb Review

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The Nexus 4 supports wireless charging via the Qi standard. But until this week, LG’s official charging orb – a sci-fi worthy trinket that looks like a Palm Touchstone or the better half of the ill-fated Nexus Q – had remained vaporware. No more: for a cool $60 USD, you can win the envy of every techie around you and free your phone from microUSB charging.

The orb’s sleek, futuristic design is a proclamation of Google’s (via LG) growing attention to form as much as function. It’s light, smooth, and yet premium-feeling, not unlike an iPhone 5. But make no mistake, this orb is mainly about style. It must be plugged into a power source via the microUSB cable and travel adapter (US/Canada only) while it charges your Nexus 4 or other Qi-compatible phone (just for reference, I was able to charge a Nokia Lumia 920 using this orb, too).

For either phone, charging via Qi is not necessarily an upgrade over standard cabled charging: it takes longer (about four hours for the Nexus 4, if it’s totally drained) and requires more hardware, too. Mostly, it just looks cool. But it does have one major perk which I can see improving one’s experience with their phone: its doubling as a dock.

The phone can be charged successfully at either horizontal or vertical orientations, but I preferred vertical, which puts the phone at a nice viewing angle for reading, checking email, or other one-handed/-fingered tasks. In this way, the orb became a surprisingly well-integrated part of my workstation, and even when I wasn’t interacting with it, it served as a passive news source, since I had set up Google Currents as the default Daydream (a feature of Android 4.2.x which is akin to a screensaver displayed while your Nexus device charges). The 4.2.2 update also brings a special notification sound reserved only for indicating that wireless charging has begun.

This orb is mostly style, but some substance, too. Its usefulness as a dock underscores the benefits of having a larger-screened phone with plenty of real estate for reading or typing. In that sense, it’s reaffirms everything that’s good about the Nexus 4. Highly recommended to completists, geeks, and productivity nuts, but perhaps just a novelty or unnecessary toy for the casual Android fan.

-The ScreenGrab Team

PicMonkey

Extension: PicMonkey

Developer: picmonkey.com

PicMonkeyLogo

PicMonkey Logo

PicMonkey is an extension that grants on the fly access to the excellent PicMonkey photo editor app for Chrome. For desktop users, PicMonkey is a lightweight way to manipulate and share photos from Chrome, but on Chrome OS it’s one of the platform’s most efficient ways to perform theoretically resource-intense photo editing tasks. That is, it’s no Photoshop, but it gets the job done – almost like an Instagram you can stick in toolbar. It has filters, as well as the abilities to crop, rotate, and alter color saturation, to name a few.

PicMonkey Extension

The PicMonkey Extension in action

If used on its own, the PicMonkey app for Chrome prompts you to import photos from your your computer, but the extension gives you a nice, context-specific alternative: it scans the current webpage for usable images, and lets you grab whichever one(s) suit you and open it in the editor. So it’s handy for snapping up favorite images as you find them.

PicMonkey on Chrome OS

PicMonkey app for Chrome OS

Recommended: Yes, definitely. I generally recommend PicMonkey for any Chrome OS/Chromebook user, and I regard it even as a nice tool for Chrome on Mac/Windows, too. This extension enriches the app’s ability and gives it more use cases, simply by putting its button on the toolbar.

-The ScreenGrab Team

TLDR

Extension: TLDR

Developer: tldrstuff.com

Screenshot 2013-02-13 at 8.09.00 PM

“TL;DR is one of the glibbest Internet acronyms, often employed as a reflexive rejoinder to overlong forum posts on sites like Reddit. Sometimes, it’s merited as a needed takedown against posters who think that length makes strength, while at others it’s a sad indication of the Internet’s short attention span. The TLDR extension from tldrstuff.com occupies a similar range of usefulness and appropriateness.

TLDR offers both an extensions button in the toolbar and right-click button, both of which condense the current page into a much shorter summary. It’s surprisingly good at scanning the page’s contents to find key points. For obsessive completists who may feel like they’re missing out on key content, the extension also offers medium and long versions of the same page. Perhaps most usefully, the app also lets you quickly search for similar pages via Google.

Recommended?: Yes, if only for novelty’s sake. But in all seriousness, the extension can speed up your browsing and reading a lot more than yesterday’s extension could, while also adding a nice dollop of humor to your browsing

-The ScreenGrab Team

Fastest Chrome

Extension: Fastest Chrome

Developer: fastestfox.com

Unlike yesterday’s extension, this extension runs in the background only and has no in-browser button. Fastest Chrome is theoretically a means of turbocharging your Web browsing. Its key features include:

-Endless pages: it automatically does away with anachronisms like separate pages in Google Search results or articles, loading the next page automatically as you scroll.

-Dictionary: highlight any word to gets it definition

-DuckDuckGo/supplementary search results: quick/summarized search results from DuckDuckGo may appear above your normal stream of Google Search results.

Recommend?: Maybe. I like the endless scrolling pages, but the extension at times seemed to gum up how Chrome was running on Mac (tho I had no issues with it on Chrome OS/Chromebook) – there were more dropped searches and some apparent issues with how Chrome tried to navigate some content management/bug-tracking systems and sites, as well as Facebook apps and games. I like the dictionary feature, tho it isn’t terribly different from the Google Dictionary extension, which I’ll review soon. The supplementary search results felt slightly spam-y.

-The ScreenGrab Team