IT Pro: Toshiba's Android netbook

If any Android netbook is going to succeed, it will be the AC100 but there’s still a question of whether Android is ready for the netbook form factor or whether Windows 7 will hold its own the way Windows XP did against the original Linux netbooks.
Read my first take at IT Pro whether I think Android is going to oust Windows 7 from ultraportables

Phones, facebook and cookies

AP Exclusive: Alarming network glitch makes the Internet lose track of who is who on Facebook

A Georgia mother and her two daughters logged onto Facebook from mobile phones last weekend and wound up in a startling place: strangers' accounts with full access to troves of private information.

It's hard to tell from the AP writeup what's going wrong in the AT&T->Facebook routing; it looks like a combination of IP addresses being wrongly assigned and cookies being cached and proxied. As mobile Web use grows, that's rather a worrying thought - Internet security isn't a primary skill of most mobile carriers yet (if I'm feeling snarky I could say Internet access isn't a primary skill of most mobile carriers either)...
 

I've fallen a bit out of love with Windows Mobile this week, ever since my shiny Samsung Blackjack II refused to - in order - 1 connect to my PC, 2 connect to email and then (to address 1 and 2) 3 boot. It's sitting there, with lots of unsynched photos and OneNote notes (thanks to 1) that will not survive a hard reset, which seems to be the only option. What a good week for a box of handsets to turn up: shall I defect to the BlackBerry Bold or the Storm or the G1 or the iPhone (2G only, so probably not)? The thing is, I want the best browser I can get, and I like to be able to file messages into Outlook folders, and flag them, and create appointments and invite people to them and search my email on the server - and a bunch of other things I know I can do on Windows Mobile.

Decent browsing hasn't been on that list before with Windows Mobile; not without paying for Opera Mobile and even then, it's the usual what about Flash/Silverlight/a decent data speed question. What is the answer for the mobile Web? Cram the best part of a desktop OS onto the phone? Force us to use text pages or transcoded slice-and-dice versions of pages? Do it all on a big server somewhere? I haven't been a fan of the latter approach in the past - and how much of that it because Opera Mini is written in Java and combines an irritating user interface with an irritating security model, I don't know, but I'm a now bit of a convert.

Not to Opera Mini; to Skyfire. It's not perfect, it's not out of beta and every now and then it jumps back to the page I was trying to leave. But the rest of the time it shows real Web pages, Flash and all, Ajax and all, JavaScript and all. No more desparately looking for a coffee shop with free Wi-Fi to get online to check in; if I can change my seat on a Virgin flight in Skyfire, I'll be able to check in. I even found myself watching Merlin on the BBC iPlayer through Skyfire and I hate the idea of gormless boy Merlin, but the video quality was just so nice... And a small phone screen is just the right match for the quality of most videos on YouTube. For a more considered approach, check out my review of Skyfire on TechRadar

OQO model e2 with HSDPA

My review of this is up at Tom's Hardware.The latest ultramobile PC from OQO really is ultramobile rather than just ultraportable. Not only does it pack a decent processor, 1GB of memory, an 80 or 120GB hard drive and a 5” screen into a 1 pound form factor, the OQO model e2 also has built-in HSDPA connectivity as well as 802.11a, b and g versions of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Differences in HSDPA - and the difficulty of getting devices approved for connection to U.S. cellular networks - means the e2 is only available in Europe and Asia at the moment. Yet, the device offers a tantalizing hint of mobile PCs to come.

In short, pricey but nice if you need the portability. There are some questions on the review page and I can't seem to post a reply there at the moment, so here are some extra details for those readers. Also, the final edit suggests the e2 is smaller than an HTC TyTan - that should read "half as big again as a chunky Windows Mobile device like the HTC TyTan" or 1 e2 = 1.5 TyTans.

There were questions about how the e2 and Eee PC compare. I'm answering those, but I'll also explain why they're not comparable - and it's not just price.

I've looked at both the OQO model 2e and the Asus Eee PC and the e2's performance, screen quality and usability when surfing are all far superior to the Eee PC. As I said in the review, the screen quality is superb. Vista performance is no problem with enough memory in* and this machine was able to deliver enough power for image editing plus running five or six business applications at the same time without noticing any slowdown at all. Watching video with Sling or decoding DiVX video files are both quite demanding and the e2 performed excellently at both. That's about the limit of what it would be useful to do on a machine with a screen this size; you wouldn't spend this much money on a device for playing games and I don't think many people would be doing video encoding or other more demanding tasks on this size of screen. For what it's sensible to do on a machine this size, performance is impressive.

I'm impressed by the keyboard compared to anything except a real notebook keyboard - and if you want to type without a table a real notebook keyboard doesn't always prove the best thing anyway. It's the secondary keys that matter as much as the QWERTY keys. The @ key is needed so much these days that OQO promotes it to a function on the apostrophe key (next to P). The euro, yen, backslash and similar symbols are functions on the other keys, along with volume and brightness controls and the keyboard light. Not everything is where you expect it to be - but it all makes sense where it is.

Not everyone wants a tablet and a thumb-sized keyboard - but not everyone wants a miniature notebook form factor either. That means I was looking at the e2 compared to the whole range of ultraportable devices I've evaluated, not just the Eee PC - they are quite different beasts and not only because of the price tag. I don't think that they're equivalent or that the same person would want both.

Do I think the e2 is expensive? Yes.
Are there people for whom it will be good value anyway? Yes.
Are you one of them? Not if you're going to say the Eee PC is better value and you're happy with the compromises it makes. (I'm not implying you are wrong about the Eee PC; I am implying the e2 is wrong for you)
Am I one of them? Borderline - but since the Motion LS800 which I consider the closest alternative is no longer available and I want to be able to write on screen on something that fits next to my plate at lunch, the e2 is attractive. For me personally the HSDPA connection is a luxury anyway, but a very convenient one. Like the vast majority of cars and consumer electronics, not everyone needs luxury but a lot of people want it.

Time to get online depends on the method you use to connect more than the PC. Over wi-fi, the e2 is pretty much the same as the Eee with Windows XP or Linux, allowing for the fact that the e2 is a more responsive machine. I didn't test the Eee PC with HSDPA because it doesn't come with connectivity built in and it doesn't have a PC Card or Express Card slot for my HSDPA cards, but again, the speed limitation is down to the available bandwidth in the network more than the PC you use - if the network has sufficient backhaul and the cell isn't full of other users, you get a DSL-like experience. HSDPA has a connection time longer than most wi-fi hotspots but that doesn't vary much between devices; I did mention that the HSDPA software on the e2 is also the best I've tried - better than the equivalents from Vodafone or Toshiba, for instance.

Screen size and surfing; again, the higher screen resolution of the e2 and the better screen give a better experience. I talk in the review about how you can scroll down with the finger-touch capacitive scrollbars without opening the keyboard - the Eee PC doesn't have the tablet format so you can't as easily hold it in your hands, you don't see as much of a Web page on screen and the screen quality of the Eee PC is nowhere near as good as the e2 (or an ultraportable Sony for that matter). With either machine you have a full PC browser so there are none of the compromises you make on a smartphone.

One reader comment asked why this got a good review - or rather suggested that my review wasn't entirely independent. I trust I don't need to say to anyone who knows me that my opinions are independent and have been for the nearly 18 years I've been writing about technology. This isn't a positive review because of the opinions of the supplier; this is a positive review because if you need something this portable and you have the budget for the e2, you'll have a good experience using it. Hope that answers some of the reader questions.

* I'm happy to discuss Vista performance. I'll discuss it with people who have used Vista and who can provide the specification on the machine they used and the figures for the performance they're not happy with. I'll agree with anyone who says Vista file copying and related operations are absurdly slow; in a couple of days I'll have an opinion on whether SP2 fixes that. I'll agree that Vista needs a lot of RAM; I use 2 or 3Gb on my machines and get excellent performance - memory is cheap enough that I'd not consider that an extreme amount. A 4200RPM hard drive is also a bottleneck and I plan to replace that on my Toshiba R400 ASAP to improve performance. I'll agree that 2007 Office is slower than it should be. Other than that, I find no problems with Vista performance personally.

WiMAX news: good for two reasons

I'm not really a news writer; I have too many opinions and I don't always have an industry expert to quote to put my opinion across. News is reporting, not reportage - the writer should be even less in the way of the story than usual. But when I have an interesting story and really juicy quotes, I like writing it up. The story - Nortel creates an alliance to bid against mobile operators for UK WiMAX - is good because it's a service that understands that the most important word in 'mobile Internet' is not mobile. Make me pick between a toy service now and the real thing on my PC and I'll complain about your service and go home. And the quotes were great - I have lots more snark on the subject of wireless broadband than I could fit in the piece ;-)

Plus I was pleased that the story hardly got edited at all, and that was for euphony rather than structure. Go me!

If you keep an eye on my upcoming features I have just updated the list on www.marybranscombe.com - next stage is flipping it to a scraped list rather than a static div. What's the Web equivalent of dead tree media - dead bit div's?

FT: Technology learns to lend an ear

Feel like shouting at your PC? Or your mobile phone? Like the Nationwide helpline that lets you say what you want rather than pressing buttons? Wish you could phone up Google? I've taken a look at the current range of voice recognition services and where they're going for FT Digital Business...

Services make smartphones

Last year I went to the Motorola analysts conference and got previews of just about everything they've announced since, like the new RAZRs, the professional version of the Q and follow-me TV. The most interesting discussion was around the services that make smartphones more than mobile phones with big colourful screens and I have a piece in IT Pro on the subject. Ed Zander practically runs Motorola from his Q...with services like enterprise Google search.

Phone home? Not at those roaming prices

The EU's interest in mobile tariffs for roaming charges is pushing the industry along faster than competition. Telewest may have acknowledged that it's not that much more expensive to call somewhere 5,000 miles of fibre away than it is to call 500 miles of fibre away, but most phone operators would rather give you a confusing basket of text minutes and differential pricing than a flat rate. Picking  a mobile phone tariff is so confusing researchers use it as a test when they want to observe the brain dealing with confusing decisions (Source: Radio 4, All in the Mind, week of 3rd July 2006). And roaming charges are Prisoner's Dilemma in action; why should you care if travellers from my network get cheaper prices in your country when what you care about is looking good for your own customers? Enter the EU and some heavy-handed moves, and suddenly the dirty little secret of roaming charges (where 1MB of data can cost eight to 20 times more than at home) is getting publicity. Operators are at the mercy of what other operators charge them for roaming; you're at the mercy of the strongest signal if your phone isn't set up to prioritise partner networks when you travel. You can always pick the partner network by hand, as long as you know who it is, know how to do it and care enough to bother. Knowing what difference it makes to your bill is an incentive, and even if the EU doesn't force prices down, making people aware in advance that they need to think about the network they roam to and change it is necessary should save people some money. In the long run, if everyone roams to the cheaper networks, there's an incentive to the pricey operators to reduce their roaming charges. Despite what operators claim about responding to the market, this doesn't happen without the kind of kick in the pants the EU is delivering and the publicity it brings.

So if you're planning to travel and you think it's good to talk, http://www.roaming.gsmeurope.org/ shows prices by individual operator for a two-minute peak-time call to a fixed line in your home country, prices for receiving a two minute peak-time call from home (a handy reminder to turn the phone off if you don't fancy the extra charge) and the cost of sending and receiving text messages when travelling within Europe. No data charges yet, but that should be the next argument.

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