Cool Random Tech Stuff

Random ramblings of a tech enthusiast

Monthly Archives: February 2011

Competition Brings Innovation: Bing Bar

My first impressions of the new Bing Bar (v7) for Internet Explorer are positive. I know that it is 2011 but there are just some things that browsers don’t do well at or that not everyone needs. One way to address these shortcomings have been toolbars that usually slow down the browser. This Bing Bar seems faster than other toolbars and is fairly minimal with IE9.

Some things available for the Bing Bar are Facebook integration of news feed, messages, and notifications. It also has integration with Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, and Gmail with multiple accounts for each type available. Check the weather at a glance from the toolbar. I think it’s worth a shot, especially for those not already using an alternative browser such as Firefox, Chrome, or Opera.

Try now for IE7+ http://www.discoverbing.com/toolbar/

Now to my thoughts on why this is a good move for everyone. Competition gets companies to get away from a comfortable environment and change the way they think. Microsoft was, and in most ways still is, the leader in browser usage. They stopped advancing their browser and focused on other core features to Windows. As other browsers such as Firefox and then Chrome started taking market share, it forced Microsoft to analyze what was missing from their browser (mostly, it was extremely slow). Internet Explorer 9 is close to release and improves speed substantially.

This Bing Bar is another product of competition where Microsoft wants to gain some market in search while offering a compelling reason for computer users to switch to Bing. It provides functionality in a different format than other browsers provide. Chrome does has notifications for Gmail messages, but it done through Gmail settings. Microsoft taking a step to include other companies’ mail services indicates to me that they realize that they aren’t the choice of everything for everyone, but maybe they can be the key to integrating everything.
A note on the Bing stealing results from Google: the Bing Bar is probably the cause for this but is something you agree to when you say “make my experience better.” If it bothers you then make sure to uncheck that option. This goes for everything including Google.

What 4G Means to You (Besides more money)

You may be wondering what 4G wireless means. All four of the major U.S. wireless carriers are marketing a 4G service. 4G simply means “fourth generation,” which is the next generation after 3G.

As the Best Buy Buy Back Program Super Bowl ad with Justin Bieber and Ozzy Osbourne points out, these terms can be very confusing with technology moving quickly. Hopefully after reading this article you will have a better understanding as to what they mean. (This article is intended to be a general overview; links to more in-depth reading are at the end of the article)

Summary

All 4G services will be an improvement on 3G services of the past. You will need a new phone or tablet to use these services. These devices will need to be approved to work on your 4G network of choice. Be careful of service pricing as most carriers add on fees for the advanced 4G networks.

My personal rankings of 4G services based on average speeds, combined with the roadmap of 4G services.
1. Verizon (LTE)
2. T-Mobile (HSPA+)
3. Sprint (WiMax)
4. AT&T (HSPA+) [I recommend waiting for LTE on AT&T]

The most important factor when choosing a 4G service is the coverage in your area. It won’t matter how good the network is if you don’t have the coverage in your home or work.

Theoretical Definition

There is an agency of the United Nations called The International Telecommunications Union that helps define certain technologies. They have come out and said that no wireless network operates a 4G network today. Part of the standard set out in the past was that 4G networks would have speeds of 100 Mbps. In comparison, most cable internet providers have somewhere between 5-20 Mbps to your home. That being said, carriers such as T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon all have services that they brand as 4G. Here’s why.

Most of the 4G services offered by carriers today are going to be much faster than the 3G services of the past. A 4G service by the old definition of the ITU is trivial and only affects the engineering back-end of things.

Carrier Implementation

Sprint has offered a 4G service for some time now. It is actually ClearWire’s WiMax service. It provides fast data, where available. Sprint’s 4G service has average download speeds of 3-6 Mbps where their 3G service has average speeds of 600 Kbps-1.4Mbps. That means their 4G is about 5 times the speed of their 3G service. Sprint does post a theoretical maximum speed of 10 Mbps, but this is not expected for extended periods. Sprint will likely be moving to LTE in the long-term scope of things, but not in the near future.

T-Mobile is currently branding their HSPA+ service as 4G. HSPA is a 3G service and HSPA+ is based on that technology with improvements on speed. This service should be incredibly fast, where available. T-Mobile’s 4G service will be slightly faster than Sprint’s offering. They post a theoretical maximum speed of 21 Mbps, which is more than Sprint’s service. T-Mobile has not announced an upgrade path to LTE, but these speeds will likely suffice for a while.

AT&T now also brands their HSPA+ service as 4G. It previously marketed it as a 3G service, but were forced to market it as 4G when T-Mobile started to. AT&T says that their HSPA+ networks are seeing a maximum of 6 Mbps. This is only the maximum and not the average speeds. These speeds are notably slower than T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network. AT&T has not spent the same investments in upgrading to HSPA+ as T-Mobile because they are going to be rolling out LTE networks beginning in June of this year (2011).

Verizon is the last of the four major networks with a 4G service. They are also the closest to a true 4G service that we have. Verizon’s 4G network uses LTE, which simply stands for Long Term Evolution; creative, huh? Verizon says that LTE will get about 5-12 Mbps average when on a loaded system. Current testers are experiencing numbers in the 20 Mbps, with a maximum peak of 50 Mbps. These speeds are pretty good.

Closing Thoughts

If I were to be buying a 4G device this year, I would choose one that runs on LTE. The protocol is designed to handle network traffic better; yes, this means all that smartphone data. It also provides the best signal with distance from a cell tower. It is also the standard that most international entities are going with.

More Reading

Why I think the Apple iPhone first became popular (and why Android OS has taken over market share)

This article is intended to be a commentary of my personal opinions on the market success of smart phones. My opinion and knowledge comes from following industry news over the last couple of years as well as talking with every day people. I realize I leave out a worldwide favorite Nokia, but I am not familiar with their phones.

Summary

In this opinion piece I talk about Apple’s consistent user experience and a break from carrier tie-ins as the reason for its success. I also talk about user choice and US iPhone exclusivity as a reason why Android OS was able to grow in market share. A healthy level of competition is needed to keep these phone makers innovative, which will typically benefit the consumer.

Full Opinion


The iPhone came out and had one of the biggest changes in hardware seen on a phone. Before it, you had your BlackBerry and Windows Mobile of the world in the smart phone market. The BlackBerry market was, and in most part still is, around because of enterprise needs. It is the best phone for data encryption and remote wipe as well as corporate email. As soon as an email is received at a company it is on the BlackBerry device. BlackBerry also had BBM, which is still very popular amongst BlackBerry users. Windows Mobile was a simple smart phone OS that primarily used keyboard and a stylus to interact with it. You could also open up office documents on your phone on the go and get email sent to the phone. [The successor to Windows Mobile was the re-branded Windows Phone 7, which was completely re-designed and engineered.]

The theme that I see with smart phones prior to the iPhone was business functionality. When the iPhone came along, it brought with it a different way to interact with phones: the touchscreen. A touchscreen was not a brand new idea but Apple left out the need for a stylus and left out the physical keyboard. This new approach to the user interaction was part of the appeal of the original iPhone.

The iPhone also brought with it a new idea of removing all carrier-branding. Previously, carriers would brand the hardware that you bought as well as loading software that they got paid to preload on your phones. They would also impose hardware requirements and rules for phones, i.e. no Wi-Fi on a non- smart phone. When the iPhone came around, Apple wanted complete control of its platform, which included no carrier branding or bloat-ware on the iPhone. That means you didn’t have to see AT&T’s logo on your brand new phone and no Need for Speed demo game preloaded on the phone.

The reason Apple’s iPhone then expanded and took off as a mass-market phone was because of the App Store, which wasn’t launched until a year after the original iPhone. The iTunes stronghold also helped the phone in sales, as well as the simplicity of syncing your phone to iTunes. The iPhone took off as a casual gaming device when companies developed the easy to use gaming applications only for iPhone. It provided a consistent experience across all of their iPhone devices, as the different generations are basically similar with slight improvements from year-to-year.

The success of the iPhone made carriers realize that they cannot strictly control the high-end handsets anymore and still be a leader in the industry. This was particularly a wakeup for Verizon. They had the opportunity to have the exclusive iPhone contract but turned it down because Apple demanded such freedom from the carrier. After they saw the success of the iPhone on AT&T, they opened up to pushing Google’s Android OS. Initially, they spent over $100 million on the Droid Does ad campaign that targeted the weaknesses of the iPhone OS. This ad campaign combined with the AT&T exclusivity agreement for the iPhone helped Android OS take off on other carriers.

Android then took off because it provided a good user experience with the touchscreen interface. Handset makers also have the option to differentiate between models by changing the hardware. Some models have physical keyboards while others only have touchscreen. You can get different screen sizes on your device. The front-facing camera came out on the HTC EVO 4G before it was available on the iPhone 4, and someone else doesn’t need another Apple product to video chat with.

Some critics call this fragmentation, but it is similar to the PC market. There is freedom of choice from hardware makers to implement the software in unique ways. It provides the ability of the end user to decide what is right for them, where as Apple creates an entirely closed ecosystem where they control the user experience to the fullest; well, besides the mass complaints of AT&T service in highly populated areas that Apple can’t control.

Android has its own problems, too. The music experience can vary on different devices and there is no easy iTunes-like syncing software from Google. Some features are hidden in the operating system and can be tricky to find. They can definitely improve the user experience in Android. This is something they are trying to address with Honeycomb where they hired former Palm VP Matias Duarte. I will admit that the Honeycomb tablet demos looked very promising.

These are different philosophies from the two most popular smart phone OS makers in the United States. Apple has a closed system that has one of the best and consistent experiences across its platforms while Google has a more open system where handset makers provide choice to consumers. There are some other possible contenders in the long run of the game (Palm/HP and Windows Phone) but they have yet to prove that US consumers are interested.

In the end, I think competition is natural and good to have. I don’t know when Apple would have implemented multi-tasking in iPhone OS (now called iOS) if it weren’t for the constant barrage of Droid commercials touting that specific feature. There is plenty of room for improvements in both iOS and Android OS, which will hopefully benefit the consumer in the end.

Super Bowl Ads – 2011

Besides the big game involving the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers, millions of people look forward to, or at least somewhat enjoy, the advertisements. As the Super Bowl kickoff approaches with just a mere two days away, there are some “sneak peaks” at this year’s ads.

We have Motorola’s Teaser Ad that says “2011 LOOKS A LOT LIKE 1984,” a clear reference to Apple’s 1984 Macintosh commercial. You can get a sneak peak at the official Xoom Tablet commercial here. (I’m really excited for the Xoom Tablet; it looks pretty cool)

You can even check out some of the Ads already on YouTube. Does this take some of the excitement out of Super Bowl ads? I think somewhat but companies are trying to spread their expensive Super Bowl ad dollars as far as they can in this tough economy.

I’m sure most people will enjoy some of the commercials, time with friends, and the football game, too.

Cr-48 – Chrome OS Review

From Cr-48

[Edited 2/4/2011 to add printing comments]


One of the most exciting parts of new technologies is the ability to imagine how it can be useful in the future and not just at this moment in time. That os one of the reasons why I jumped to sign up for the Cr-48 netbook from Google. I was one of the lucky few (okay, about 1 of 60,000) to receive a Chrome OS netbook in December. The following will be my review of this computer.




Summary
Great for everyday use if you don’t need local media storage; try streaming music instead of storing it locally. Not a good primary computer for power users. Printer is difficult to set up unless you have a new cloud printer; you must have another computer running with the Chrome browser on it. Boot up is super fast.

Specs
12.1 inch LCD screen
WiFi 802.11n
3G Modem (Works on Verizon network)
Webcam
QWERTY keyboard
Mouse touchpad

The specs for this Chrome OS device seem pretty standard for netbooks except for the notable small size of storage, which is inaccessible to the user. I particularly liked the chicklet keyboard style (similar to MacBook keys) used on this model. This is only a pilot program that Google has set up for Chrome OS and manufacturers will be creating their own hardware variations when and if this operating systems launches in retail.

Review
I think that the Cr-48 would be a great device for most common users. Most people today use an Internet browser for most tasks at home. This includes social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogging as well as streaming media services such as YouTube, Pandora, Netflix, and Hulu. Most of this can be accomplished with the Chrome OS netbook. 


I was not able to view Netflix videos on the Chrome OS netbook. Netflix videos stream with Silverlight and is not supported in Chrome OS. YouTube videos and Pandora had both worked seamlessly, as well as a new streaming music service I found called Grooveshark.

The biggest thing left out that I can see for a “common user” would be lack of local media storage. This device does have a wireless data connection (Verizon 3G) built in with 100 MB of data free per month for two years. However, if you are constantly traveling and you run out of the free data, there is no way to listen to your music while on the road without paying for more data. 


It is quite difficult for common users to print on this device. You must have another conventional computer on with the Chrome browser running to print from your Cr-48. This defeats the purpose of having a light laptop with fast boot times. You can print easier with new cloud-based printers, but I doubt most people have them.

Common User Recommendation
The netbook is very light, portable and boots fast. This setup is ideal for a lot of users that may not be interested in a tablet in the future. I feel that my dad who would not like a fully touchscreen device could use the Cr-48 as a primary device. It would also serve as a great portable device for a person living on connected devices.

Power User Recommendation
This device could not be a primary device for a power user. Heavy video editing? Forget it. Lots of Windows applications? Forget it. Local media storage? Nope. 

That being said, I think this could make for a great portable device. Great for traveling with a light device with full size keyboard that boots and awakes from sleep in under 10 seconds.

Hello World!

The purpose of this blog is to post opinions on Cool Random Tech Stuff. This basically is intended to post thoughts on cutting edge technology and gadgets and hopefully review some.

I will try to be objective and compare technology to what is currently on the market at the time of writing. I have a background in Electrical and Computer Engineering but I will try to keep this blog relevant to non-technical people as well as technical people.