Western Digital My Book VelociRaptor Duo Review: An Expensive Drive That Makes Good Use Of Thunderbolt

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Short version: Western Digital finally has released a new Thunderbolt external hard drive to justify the existence of the Thunderbolt port on your laptop. The My Book VelociRaptor Duo is a desktop external hard drive, which uses two 3.5-inch 1 TB VelociRaptor hard drives. These disks spin at 10,000 RPM and are a good compromise between speed and storage inside a desktop computer. Yet, using them in an external enclosure comes with a major drawback: a hefty price of $ 899.

Features:

  • Two 1 TB 10,000 RPM WD VelociRaptor drives
  • Two Thunderbolt ports for daisy-chaining
  • A Thunderbolt cable in the box — a $ 50 value
  • Drives can be replaced
  • RAID 0 or RAID 1 options to have a 2 TB drive (RAID 0) or two 1 TB drives always in sync (RAID 1)
  • Western Digital Product Page

Pros:

  • It’s fast
  • Daisy-chaining with Thunderbolt
  • You can replace a faulty drive

Cons:

  • MSRP: $ 899
  • Noisier than a MacBook Pro 13″
  • No USB3

Long version:

Before diving into some read/write tests, let’s talk about the external features of the VelociRaptor Duo. It is a heavy and bulky desktop hard drive that will sit on your desk in a corner and never move again.

At the same time, due to its speed and limited capacity compared to some desktop external hard drives — you can easily get a slower but comparably sized 6 TB drive for the same price — you will have to find a special use for it aside from storing backups of your computer. An entry-level NAS is another alternative that could be considered at that price.

For example, it would be a good addition to a current-generation MacBook Air limited by its 128 GB or 256 GB SSD. But SSD prices will certainly drop in the coming years.

The exterior of the VelociRaptor Duo is made entirely of plastic. It looks fine when sitting on your desk, but feels cheap when you are moving the drive around. A discreet LED indicates that the device is plugged correctly. The drive is also noisier than the MacBook Pro used to write this review, even when not reading or copying files.

It gets warm, but that’s not very important for a desktop external drive. You can change the hard drives quite easily without using a screwdriver. Even though VelociRaptor drives are standard 3.5-inch SATA drives, there is a sticker that says “Only use VelociRaptor drives.” It remains to be seen if it is a serious claim as for the European patent-protected Nespresso coffee machine or only marketing advice. Finally, a Thunderbolt cable is in the box, a $ 50 value.

Daisy-chaining multiple Thunderbolt devices is a convenient feature when using a laptop. For example, the VelociRaptor Duo is currently plugged to a MacBook Pro and a display is plugged to the VelociRaptor using a DVI to Mini DisplayPort adapter. Only one port is necessary on the laptop to use those two devices.

When it comes to performances, the VelociRaptor duo is a nice surprise. In Raid 0, we could measure 352.3 MB/s and 374.1 MB/s respectively for writing and reading large files. Yet, dealing with a lot of small files was much slower with 13.2 MB/s for random writing. That is the disadvantage of mechanical hard drives, but the VelociRaptor Duo appeared faster than the Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt. Clearly, the bottleneck is not the connectivity but the drive.

In real-world use, copying a folder from the MacBook Pro to the VelociRaptor Duo would not be relevant because of the 5,400 RPM hard drive found in that Mac. That is why we copied a 69 GB folder containing small and big files already on the VelociRaptor Duo. It took 13’02″, at an approximate speed of 89 MB/s. The same test would have been many times slower using a USB2 drive.

The VelociRaptor Duo is a particular drive filling a particular need for those that feel cramped using a small SSD as their main drive. It is expensive but makes good use of the Thunderbolt interface. Yet, it is very hard to recommend the drive because of the price. As SSD capacities will increase a lot in future laptops, a cheaper desktop external drive with Thunderbolt might be good enough. The rest of the money could be saved to buy your next laptop with a bigger SSD.


TechCrunch » Gadgets

Review: The Archos Gen10 101 XS Android Tablet

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Short Version: Want the Microsoft Surface without the Microsoft? Archos may have the device for you. This unique tablet/keyboard combo turns itself from traditional slate into an Android-powered ultralight in a few simple steps. Best of all, it’s going to get Jelly Bean in Q4 2012 so your investment, at least for a few months, will be sound.

The cons? It’s a little chintzy, a little underpowered, and the screen tops out at 1280 x 800 pixels. But can Archos, a stolid and staid tablet maker, create a breakaway hit?

Features:

  • Built-in keyboard
  • 10-inch LCD screen
  • OMAP 4470 CPU with PowerVR SGX544 GPU
  • 16GB Storage/MicroSD Slot
  • MSRP: $ 399

Pros:

  • Interesting, usable form factor
  • Inexpensive laptop replacement
  • Slim even with keyboard cover

Cons:

  • Doesn’t support Jelly Bean (Android 4.1) yet
  • Underpowered for many apps
  • Potentially fragile stand mechanism

You’re at your coffee purveyor of choice. You pull out what looks like a white slab of plastic and pull it apart. A few quick movements and you’ve placed one half of the slab on the table and pulled up a small stand. You fit the other half of the slab into an indentation and it connects automatically with powerful magnets. You begin typing as if you were on a real laptop and the customers sitting around you eye you admiringly and a little bit lasciviously. You are the hero of the cafe.

This life could be yours if you pick up the Archos Gen10 101 XS, a $ 400 tablet from Archos that doubles as a real ultralight laptop. In general, the 101 XS is a run-of-the-mill Android tablet with a twist. The XS joins the Asus Transformer as one of the first tablets to ship with a fully-fledged keyboard that turns the slate into an ultralight notebook in seconds. The question, then, is whether that is a good thing.

In my time with this tablet I’ve come to appreciate the 101 XS in theory if not in practice. Archos has done a great job of integrating the keyboard with this tablet and making it clear that you’re supposed to use this thing in ultralight mode. Powerful magnets hold the keyboard on the screen until you pull them apart and prepare them for docking. You then lift a little leg up out of the keyboard and drop the screen into a groove that is also magnetically active. At this point, the screen is pretty much stuck there until you decide to pull the whole thing apart. You can lift it, swing it around, and even pull it forward. The system will hold.

It is important to note that you must orient the tablet in landscape mode to attach it to the keyboard. You simply can’t stand this up in portrait mode because the edges are slightly rounded and the power and volume buttons are on the right side.

The build quality on the prototype model I tested was very good. The entire thing is clad in white plastic with metal inserts and the entire package fits together seamlessly. I honestly wouldn’t recommend carrying the device without the keyboard as it doesn’t take up much room and it acts as a screen protector when closed. The tablet weighs 21 ounces and is 0.31 inches thick.

The device has an HDMI out as well as microUSB on the side next to a microSD card slot. The keyboard can charge the tablet via a microUSB cable although it does not contain a built-in external battery.

The keyboard itself comes in the standard Chiclet-style that will be familiar to those already using tablet keyboards. There’s not much key travel and all of the keys except for shift, caps lock, enter, space, and tab are the same size. It has a very standard front-facing webcam that is so uninteresting that they don’t even describe its specs. It’s good for video chatting and that’s about it.


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The tablet runs a completely stock version of Ice Cream Sandwich and Archos promises upgradability to Jelly Bean at the end of the year. Given the hardware, the system is perfectly serviceable as a text editing and social media machine. Try to do anything else and you’re going to run into problems.

The tablet scored 1379 in Geekbench, which is fairly solid for an Android tablet. Considering the Nexus 7 maxes out at 1600, a score of 1379 should be just fine. Unfortunately, titles like Asphalt 6 HD stuttered during gameplay and the device lagged once you began opening and closing applications.

That’s fine, however, because the package includes OfficeSuite 6.1 Pro, a fairly capable office app that’s compatible with Word and Excel. Here is where the entire thing shines. Coupled with the keyboard you literally have a small word processing machine coupled with a spreadsheet and presentation editor. If you bought this to, say, play HD games, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. If you bought it to do work on the road, you could invest in worse.

The Good

The battery on the 101 XS is good, topping out at about one and a half days of mixed use. This drops precipitously when playing games or watching video but expect a good 5 hours of video time and about a day of regular use as a laptop/slate reader. Archos says they hit about 10 hours of regular web browsing although I saw about 12.

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Because the software is bog standard, what we’re really looking at is the hardware and I’m pleased to say the docking system is quite clever and very usable. As an ultralight laptop this thing is more than acceptable for basic office tasks and could replace a very low-end laptop in your bag.

It’s a clever, cool convertible tablet that attests to Archos’ willingness to experiment in the space.

The Bad

Archos is really good at making solid, boring devices. For years they made PMPs (until that market fell through) and now they make tablets. The 101 XS is clearly a flagship device this year but I worry that folks looking at other tablets – including the iPad – will find less to love in this one. First the screen is acceptable, but is built at such a low resolution that any other tablet looks amazing in comparison. Sure, there are plenty of 1280 x 800 pixel screens out there and at the price it’s still a good deal. However, if I’m going to be staring at a screen for hours editing and writing, I’d prefer a bit higher resolution.

Availability will also anger many. The device will be available in Europe in mid-September and then North America in November. By that time this thing will be an also-ran. Considering the planned Jelly Bean upgrade won’t happen until Q4 holidays I suspect Asus, HTC, and Samsung will run circles around this device, not to mention the Microsoft Surface which lands in October.

The 101 XS, then, feels like an experiment. It’s a successful one, to be clear, but its rarely wise to invest in a company’s trial balloon. I have a feeling that Surface-style devices will be the Next Big Thing™ in CE and this is just the beginning.

The model I used exhibited a few problems. For one, the metal skin scratched quite easily. A varnish will be applied to final versions to prevent this, but it was pretty egregious. The build quality is solid but nothing special. It’s not going to fall apart on you, but it’s not going to win any beauty contests.

You can also recreate this device with an iPad quite easily with a Keyboard cover. Although Archos will argue that you pay more to outfit an iPad like this, you also get more. The screen is better and the iWork apps are notably superior. Similar keyboards can be had for almost any Android tablet out there, including the Nexus 7. Arguably this case/tablet combo exists in a contiguous whole, so that’s a benefit.

The Bottom Line

It almost feels as if any overt recommendation would be moot in this case as the tablet will be facing stiff competition in the U.S. next quarter. However, if you’re in Europe feel free to check it out and compare it to similar offerings from other tablet manufacturers. It’s a bit underpowered but the price – a low $ 399 – and size make it a very interesting alternative to even an ultralight laptop with similar processor firepower.

The experiment here is a success. It’s up to you to decide whether this form factor is something you’re looking for in a tablet, especially considering upcoming alternatives in the space. I could definitely see myself using it on a short weekend trip if I had some Word work to do but beyond documents, presentations, and some spreadsheets, you may want to look elsewhere.


TechCrunch » Gadgets

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 Review: So Close To Greatness

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Short Version

Months ago, deep in the heart of Barcelona’s Fira Montjuic exhibition center, I played with Samsung’s 10.1-inch Galaxy Note tablet for the first time. Booth attendants were quick to note that the units me and thousands of other geeks were playing with weren’t quite final, but that didn’t stop me from offering up some kind words for the tablet in training.

Now, nearly six months after that beautiful day in Spain, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is finally ready to take the stage here in the United States. Samsung’s Galaxy Note phablet became a surprise hit shortly after it launched last year, and Samsung is clearly hoping that the Note formula will propel this new tablet into the big leagues. Thankfully, the tablet that goes on sale tomorrow isn’t exactly the same as the one that nearly every member of the tech press played with in February — it’s definitely better — and if it weren’t for a few shortcomings, the Galaxy Note 10.1 may well have been the Android tablet to beat.

Features:

  • 10.1-inch LCD display running at 1280 by 720
  • Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich with Samsung’s custom UI (Jelly Bean coming later this year)
  • 1.4GHz quad-core Samsung Exynos processor
  • 2GB of RAM
  • 16 or 32GB of internal storage, accepts microSD cards as large as 64GB
  • 5MP rear camera, 1.9MP front-facing camera
  • Wi-Fi only
  • MSRP: $ 499 for the 16GB model, $ 549 for the 32GB model, available on August 16

Pros:

  • The S-Pen is a joy to use on a big screen
  • Strong spec sheet means great performance
  • Split-screen multitasking!

Cons:

  • Build quality doesn’t inspire confidence
  • The cameras are underwhelming
  • Samsung’s UI can be a bit overbearing

Long Version

Hardware & Design

Aesthetically speaking, Samsung wasn’t keen on taking risks when it came to the Galaxy Note 10.1 — it doesn’t stray far from some of the company’s other recent Android tablets, especially the 10.1-inch Galaxy Tab 2. The Note’s 10.1-inch PLS LCD panel is bounded by a considerable bezel, which itself is encircled by rim of metallic-looking plastic that also houses the tablet’s two speakers.

Meanwhile, the headphone jack, IR blaster, and microSD slot are all easily accessible from the top edge of the Note 10.1’s frame, and the now-standard Samsung dock connector rests along the Note’s bottom. Turning the tab over reveals a nondescript back with the same finish seen on the Galaxy S III, with a bright faux-metal strip containing the 5-megapixel camera running along the top. That the Note looks an awful lot like its predecessor isn’t much of a problem (they’re both rather handsome devices), I couldn’t help but wish that Samsung had gone a slightly more adventurous route when it came to design.

Hell, I would’ve settled for a mild switch-up. As you could probably tell by the placement of the two speakers and the front-facing camera, the Note 10.1 is a tablet that’s meant to be held horizontally. Normally, this wouldn’t be much of an issue, but using the Galaxy Note as, well, a notepad often feels more comfortable when holding the Note 10.1 vertically.

Bulid quality is typical Samsung — that is to say slim (8.89mm), light (1.31 lb.) and plasticky. When crafting the new Note tablet, Samsung was concerned about keeping its weight down so as not to make it too unwieldy when being held with one hand. They succeeded (as the usually do) on that front, but the decision isn’t without it’s drawbacks. There’s a bit of audible creaking to be heard if you apply a bit of pressure to the edges and there’s a considerable amount of give felt when pressing down on the (handsomely finished) back panel. Hardly the most confidence-inspiring construction you’ll ever come across in a tablet, but that’s just the price you’ll have to pay.

Samsung’s included S-Pen has also gone under the knife since last I saw it — gone is the capacitive “eraser” nub that used to live opposite the pen’s tip. On the upside though, Samsung finally managed to carve out a bit space in the Note 10.1’s rear end so there’s finally a place for the S-Pen to rest when not in use. It seemed like a downright damning omission six months ago, and thankfully Samsung made the right decision when it came time for a proper release.

Software

As usual, Samsung has gone to great lengths to cover up any semblance of stock Android 4.0.4 with its own custom UI. Longtime readers may know that I’m an avowed lover of untouched Android, but I’ve played around with enough Samsung devices that I’ve grown accustomed to its many quirks.

Seasoned Android users won’t have much trouble figuring out where all the usual bits and pieces are, but the Note 10.1’s UI has plenty of little touches that can be easily missed. Tapping the clock in the bottom right corner opens a window full of radio toggles, with brightness controls and notifications nestled neatly under them. Touching that little white arrow smack in the middle of Android’s black navigation bar will display a slew of oft-used apps, and long-pressing the homescreen lets users add widgets without having to fire up the app launcher first.

Most of this isn’t particularly new but the Note has a few even neater tricks up its metaphorical sleeve. Some of them are pretty minor — removing the S-Pen from its holster brings up a customizable list of apps for quick access, and Galaxy S III’s picture-in-picture video viewer make an appearance — but one feature in particular stands above the rest. Samsung has been adamant about playing up the Note 10.1’s productivity angle, so the Korean company implemented one of the best features I’ve ever seen in any tablet: split-screen multitasking.

When you find yourself poking around inside of the few supported apps (in this case, S Note, Polaris Office, and the stock web browser, gallery, email, and video player apps), a “Multiscreen option” appears in the top right corner of the screen. Tap on that to select a secondary app to fire up, and voila — each app takes up half of the screen, allowing users to get even more work done (or get distracted much faster) in one sitting. Even better, users can drag and drop content from within one pane to another as needed. This, in short, is damned awesome.

Since this version of the Galaxy Note doesn’t play well with 3G or 4G networks, there’s no carrier bloatware to be found here — just Samsung’s suite of preloaded apps and services. The pen-optimized S Note (with its formula match and shape match features in tow) comes along for the ride, as is Samsung’s S Suggest recommendation service, which highlights apps that Samsung has confirmed will play nice with the hardware in question. Productivity buffs will be happy to know Polaris Office returns to the fold as well and who could forget about ChatON, Samsung’s mobile messaging service? (I almost did.)

The Note 10.1 also ships with a handful of third party apps meant to give the hardware a chance to shine. The Peel remote control app is also back to put that integrated IR blaster to good use, while apps like Photoshop Touch, Kno Textbooks and Crayon Physics all sport S-Pen support for when the urge to doodle or take notes suddenly strikes.

Performance and The S-Pen

Let’s get a few things out of the way first — the Galaxy Note 10.1 is a real heavy-hitter, thanks mainly to its 1.4GHz quad-core Exynos processor and 2GB of RAM. To put a numerical point on things, the Note 10.1’s average of five Quadrant scores breaks down to 5251, while its predecessor the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 usually managed scores between 2600 and 2800.

Even with all that horsepower, there’s a noticeable bit of visual lag when swiping back and forth through different homescreens because of all the widgets Samsung has crammed into them by default. That’s easily remedied by deleting all those widgets and exercising sound judgment when it comes to adding new ones, but it’s mildly irritating that you have to worry about it at all. That said, the Note 10.1 handled my usual test games (Grand Theft Auto III, Minecraft Pocket Edition) and test videos with hardly any trouble at all.

But let’s be honest — that’s not exactly the sort of performance you want to hear about. Well fine friends, let’s talk about the S-Pen for a bit.

First things first, it definitely works as advertised and it seems much more accurate than in its last big outing. Thanks to the integrated Wacom digitizer (plus the additional tips that come in the box) I was able to exercise precision control while sketching and writing, as well as use the S-Pen to effectively mouse-over elements on a webpage by holding it over the screen. I’ll admit I didn’t spend too much time with original Galaxy Note, but using an S-Pen on a larger screen just seems so much more natural on a larger display. I spent a few solid hours this past weekend just drawing faces and robots like in S Note like I did when I was a kid — there’s something sort of magical about this pen/display size combination.

One major improvement came about because of the Note 10.1’s larger screen — it hard to avoid resting one’s wrist on that sizable display while writing or doodling, and thankfully the tab’s palm detection functionality works like a charm… most of the time. It’s the sort of issue that depends on the app being used at that particular moment, and some of them just aren’t are smart as others. Samsung’s own pen-friendly apps (S Memo) never seems to struggle with ignoring a user’s hand, but apps like the pre-loaded Photoshop Touch often left me wondering why my sketches weren’t taking shape until I physically lifted my hand off the screen. Thankfully, incidents like that were few and far between.

There are, of course, a few issues to be aware of. Take app compatibility for instance — avid mobile sketchers with preferred apps will probably find that full S-Pen support is tough to come by. Make no mistake, using the S-Pen with apps like Autodesk Sketchbook is still a far cry from using a dumb capacitive stylus, but it lacks the oomph that makes sketching in Photoshop Touch and S Note such a treat. Samsung has said that it’s working with developers to broaden the S-Pen’s abilities, but there’s no telling how long it’ll be before the next solid S-Pen apps see the light of day.

Text input via handwriting is another mixed bag. It’s generally very solid if you’ve got clear, distinct, easy to parse handwriting for the Note to recognize, but your mileage is going to vary if your penmanship skews toward the sloppy end of things. The temptation to try and go all-in with the S-Pen can be awfully strong, but the standard on-screen keyboard has some distinct advantages, not least of which is sheer speed.

Display, Camera, & Battery

There’s nothing outright wrong with the Galaxy Note’s 10.1-inch display, but there’s not a whole lot worth writing home about either. The panel (like most of the ones you’ll see pop up in Android tabs) runs at 1280 by 800, which works out to a pixel density of 149.45 ppi — respectable for a tablet of this size, but it’s rather unsatisfying after laying eyes on the Apple’s newest iPad. Even companies like Acer are going big with their tablet displays, so it’s sort of a bummer to see Samsung stay conservative here.

That groaning aside, colors were bright and vivid (there’s a setting to switch between viewing modes, in case you’re feeling picky) even as I spun the Note around looking for bum viewing angles (there weren’t any).

This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but both Galaxy Note 10.1’s 5-megapixel rear camera and 1.9-megapixel front-facer leave quite a bit to be desired. It’s possible to get coax some generally decent shots out of the Note’s camera, but the results are all too often grainy and washed out.

Then again, you really shouldn’t be using this thing to take photos in the first place when there’s a strong chance that your phone could do a much better job at it. That said, the fact that the camera sucks still sort of stings — it’s awfully fun to take pictures of people and Photoshop their eyes out, but you’d be hard-pressed to create a stunning finishing product when the source image is iffy.

Feel free to record video too, so long as your expectations are properly tempered. The rear camera is capable of recording 720p video, but the resulting footage is similarly unsatisfying. The cameras will certainly do in a pinch, but nine times out of ten you’re better off reaching for something else to snap shots with.

When it came time to perform our standard battery stress test (for the uninitiated: screen brightness is set to 50%, and when not directly being used, the device runs through an endless series of Google image searches), the tab managed to hang in there for just under nine hours and 20 minutes. Not too shabby at all, especially considering how slim the darned thing is.

It’s hard to translate that number into days of actual use since most people won’t be sitting around glued to a tablet nonstop, in my experience that equates to nearly three days of on-again-off-again use before the battery finally went belly up. As always, your mileage is going to vary, but I suspect you won’t need to run to a power outlet too often.

Conclusion

And now we come to the most important question of all: is it worth buying one of these things? I’d wager very few people would consider buying a niche device like the Galaxy Note 10.1 solely because its got a nifty processor, or because it’s slim and light. In the end, the deciding factor is going to be the S-Pen. If you’re a fan of the gimmick (or just a general Android fan), then the Galaxy Note 10.1 is definitely worth your consideration.

That said, devices like this don’t exist in a vacuum. Its $ 499 base price tag puts it right alongside the new 16GB iPad, which is sure to be a contender for any potential tablet customer. Considering the iPad’s strong developer support and truly excellent display, it still seems like the more worthwhile purchase right now. I wish that weren’t the case (I’m head-over-heels when it comes to this S-Pen business) but it’s a sad truth — since Samsung is trying something different with the Note 10.1, there just aren’t many apps that really take full advantage of the S-Pen yet.

If we consider strictly Android tablets, there are any number of tweaks that would make the Galaxy Note 10.1 the device to own — a higher resolution screen, more S-Pen-compatible apps, and sturdier construction all come to mind. If Samsung took any two of those issues and addressed them, the Note 10.1 would be a must-buy. As it stands though, the Galaxy Note is a very good Android tablet that just barely missed crossing the threshold into greatness.














TechCrunch » android

Review: Cerevellum Hindsight 35 Rearview Biking Computer

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We’re very lucky that the creator of the Cerevellum is even alive. Evan Solida was a competitive cyclist until a major accident in 2007 left him unable to ride. After years of plastic surgery and physical therapy, he was able to get back onto his bike and now builds unique cycle designs, does contract work, and just released his first product, the Hindsight 35.

This unique device is essentially a rear view monitor and race computer for cyclists. It connects to various sensors using ANT+ wireless technology and a small lens and light combo on the back of the bike gives you a full view of what’s coming up behind you in brilliant color. The device also records the scene in five minute bursts and stops recording when you (or your bike) are suddenly interrupted by a collision. In short, it’s a way for cyclists to find out what’s behind them and, if they run into a spot of bad luck, see who’s responsible.

The device itself is essentially a 3.5-inch screen mounted to your handlebar with a cable that connects to the camera. An optional heart rate monitor and speed sensor allows for on-the-fly measurements that appear on screen as you ride.

To be clear, the Hindsight 35 is a shipping product but is more of a beta product. Because Solida designed, built, and manufactured this product himself, it’s definitely not fully-featured just yet. Luckily, the device is fully upgradable and future systems will include a GPS chip – there’s a place on the circuit board but it’s not yet installed.

A bundle with heart rate monitor and speed sensor costs $ 363.50 and the device itself costs $ 299. It also lets you record rides – albeit in rear view – with the press of a button.

I tried the Hindsight in the crowded streets of Brooklyn and I’m happy to report that it really works and it makes me feel just a bit safer. Riding down 65th Street near my house is always a wild experience but this let me see who was about to pass me and where I was in relation to other cars. Sadly, the transflective display is great in sunlight but nearly disappears when you’re wearing polarized glasses so you either have to look around your shades or eschew them altogether. Regular shades work fine.

Cerevellum is a true hardware startup built by a guy who knows his stuff. His story – and his hardware – is inspiring and his rearview is well worth the price, especially for biking gearheads like me.












Product Page


TechCrunch » Gadgets

Motorola Atrix HD Review: Runs Like A Dream, But Doesn’t Look Like One

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Short Version

Motorola made plenty of waves when it introduced the Droid RAZR for Verizon last year, and somehow I doubt AT&T was very pleased with that move. With that one launch, Motorola instantly made AT&T’s high-end line of Android-powered Atrix smartphones look chunky and downright un-sexy in comparison

Now with the Atrix HD AT&T has its own vaguely RAZR-esque device to push to the masses, but how does it stack up against its forebears? Or, better yet, how does it compare to the devices that occupy the top tiers of AT&T’s smartphone portfolio? As it turns out, the answer is “pretty damned well.”

Features:

  • 4.5-inch 720p LCD display with ColorBoost
  • Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich with Motorola’s custom UI
  • 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon MSM8960 processor
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 8GB of internal storage, expandable with microSD cards
  • 8MP rear camera, 1.3MP front-facing camera
  • Runs on AT&T’s LTE network
  • MSRP: $ 99 with two-year contract, available as of July 15

Pros:

  • Motorola didn’t screw with Ice Cream Sandwich too much
  • Excellent display
  • Surprisingly strong spec sheet

Cons:

  • Uninspired design
  • The camera is generally pretty lousy
  • Battery life isn’t the greatest

Long Version

Hardware/Design

I’m a sucker for a handsome phone, and to put it plainly, the Atrix HD isn’t much of a looker. It’s not ugly by any stretch (it’s far too inoffensive for that) but it seems like a considerable step backward from the progress Motorola made with devices like the Droid RAZR.

That said, the Droid RAZR’s influence is undeniable — if one of those svelte, angular devices suddenly got chubbier and softer around the edges, you would have an Atrix HD.

But let’s put those gripes aside for a moment, because there’s another one to dig into. The Atrix’s impressive 4.5-inch LCD display (ensconced in a protective layer of Corning Gorilla Glass) takes up most of the device’s face, but it seems a hair smaller than it actually is because it’s bounded by a pretty substantial bezel. In a way though, that bezel is something of a trademark of the Atrix family — the very first one had quite a bezel on it too, as did the Atrix 2.

A notification LED and the 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera sit to the left and right of the Atrix’s earpiece respectively, while a Motorola logo squeezes between those components and the top of the display. Centered just below the display is an AT&T logo, which happens to look an awful lot like a capacitive button — after years of using iPhones, my thumb instinctively reached for it a few times before I managed to get it accustomed to its surroundings.

Nestled at the very top of the device are ports aplenty since Motorola opted to stick the headphone, microUSB and microHDMI ports up there. The microSIM and microSD card slots are nestled under a pull-out plastic tab along the Atrix’s bottom left edge. Meanwhile, the volume rocker and the infuriating sleep-wake button sit high on the device’s right edge; I say infuriating because pressing either too high or too low along the button’s ribbed edge won’t bring the Atrix to life.

Fortunately, the Atrix’s rear end is far less problematic — unless of course you’re not a fan of the patterned Kevlar that takes up a majority of the space. Save for a thin and chintzy-feeling layer of plastic that runs around the rear’s outer edges, the only other thing not covered in the scratch-resistant material is a gently sloping plateau containing the 8-megapixel camera pod, LED flash, and rear speaker.

While the Atrix HD looks downright plump in comparison to its Verizon cousin, that doesn’t mean it has the weight to go with it. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite — at 4.9 ounces (the same as the iPhone 4/4S) the Atrix feels almost disconcertingly light given its curvy physique. I know, it’s a tough job to strike a comfortable balance between size and weight, but the device’s overall feel doesn’t do much to inspire confidence.

Software

After seeing Motorola clutter up its Android devices with its overbearing custom UIs for years, playing with the Atrix’s tweaked spin on Ice Cream Sandwich is like being able to breathe easy for the first time. It’s certainly not stock ICS, but Motorola has apparently decided to leave most of Google’s handiwork well enough alone — frankly, good on them.

Even more surprising is that what Motorola added to the mix is either generally unobtrusive or genuinely useful. Take for instance the small pair of arrows that now live next to certain apps like the phone dialer or the stock web browser. They’re there as a little visual hint, as swiping up or down on those icons allows users to jump into a quick view of information related to that app — for the dialer, a swipe brings up a list of favorite contacts, while a swipe on the browser icon displays the user’s bookmarks. Sure, they’re mostly things that users can set a widget for, but adding a subtle way to easily access and hide that kind of information is terribly thoughtful.

Also — and this may be a remarkably dorky admission — but Motorola’s default Circles widget is a mighty nice touch. The widget’s three circles display time, weather, and remaining battery life respectively, but as with those app icons, swiping up and down on individual circles lets users switch between different bits of pertinent data. Prefer a digital time readout over an analog one? Swipe away. Want to switch from a battery meter to a data usage tracker? You know what to do.

Motorola also transplanted SmartActions to Ice Cream Sandwich, which (if you haven’t yet heard) allows the device to execute certain user-defined actions when triggered by information like time or location. I’ve always fancied myself as more a “go with the flow” kind of guy, so I admittedly don’t rely on the automation feature much, but it’s simple enough to create an action for every stop or random event in your day.

Still, It should be known that there’s a peculiar sense of fun to be had in cobbling together new Actions, just because of the sheer flexibility afforded to the app’s users. Be on the lookout for SmartActions notifications though, as the app will keep suggesting new possibilities to you whether you like them or not until you pop into its settings and prevent it from doing so.

Perhaps the only truly clumsy part of Motorola’s UI is how users add new homescreen pages. You see, the Atrix HD has two of them set up out of the gate, and swiping to the right from the main page brings the options of adding a blank one or choosing from a series of homescreen templates to fire up. The problem here is that the transaction is noticeably jerky, especially considering that navigating through menus and apps is otherwise incredibly smooth. There are arguably cleaner ways to handle this process — a spin on HTC’s classic “hold down the home button” approach comes to mind — but it’s a minor gripe at best.










Add some redesigned icons, and you’ve got Motorola’s take on Ice Cream Sandwich in a nutshell. Apologies if I’m gushing a bit — I’ve never tried to hide the fact that I don’t like what manufacturers usually do to stock Android, so its little surprise that I’ve quickly grown to like Motorola’s “make minor, thoughtful improvements” approach.

As with every other smartphone AT&T has sunk its metaphorical teeth into, the Atrix HD comes with its fair share of bloatware. Most of those pesky apps can be uninstalled without issue (hallelujah!), and the rest can be disabled and hidden without too much effort. Sure, it’s not quite as good (or as satisfying) as removing them outright, but the little victories are better than none at all.

Camera

The Atrix HD has some great things going for it, but top-notch camera functionality just isn’t one of them. Don’t get me wrong — the camera will do in a pinch when you absolutely have to snap a photo, but its performance is ultimately underwhelming.

The issues here are numerous. Autofocus was a bit on the screwy side, for one — when left in full auto mode, the camera easily homes in on nearby objects but struggles to produce a sharp image when trying to focus on something farther away. White balance too seemed off, which sometimes led to predominantly white shots taking on a blue cast. Low light performance was similarly disappointing, with a fair amount of grain visible once light dims below optimal levels.

In fairness, it’s not all bad — like with other Ice Cream Sandwich devices snapping shots is incredibly quick, and videos recorded in 1080p don’t come out half-bad all things considered. On the off chance you think that a good camera is the single most important feature a smartphone can have, you’d do well to steer clear of the Atrix HD. Otherwise, the weak-put-passable camera is a notable sore spot in an otherwise solid device.

Display

While I’m more than happy to knock the bezel that runs around it, I can’t do the same for the Atrix HD’s 4.5-inch 720p display — it’s yet another pleasant surprise in a phone that seems designed to confound expectations.

As usual for TFT LCD panels, the Atrix HD’s display lacks the deep, sumptuous blacks seen in AMOLED displays, but white levels were consistently bright. On top of that, the display’s combination of size and resolution means everything is nice and crisp. To be more specific, the display features a pixel density of 326 ppi — handily beating powerhouses like the Galaxy S III (306 ppi) and matching handsets like the iPhone 4/4S.

Then there’s the color situation. Everything is nice and vivid (especially the tweaked app icons the Atrix is laden with), and colors remained bright as I bounced from viewing angle to viewing angle. Motorola also saw fit to throw in their new Colorboost functionality, which pumps up color saturation for more vivid images.

The Atrix is far from the first handset to try something like this — Sony’s Xperia ion tried the same thing with its Mobile Bravia engine but it pushed saturation to nearly lurid levels. Motorola’s Colorboost enhancements thankfully didn’t push things quite that far so users can expect and images visuals to pop instead of going outright nuclear. That said, not everyone may enjoy that additional visual flair and there’s no way to disable it, so it’s definitely worth taking a look at in person before taking the plunge.

Performance

Well now — the Atrix HD may not look like much of a contender, but there’s some real horsepower packed inside that unassuming frame.

Motorola wasn’t very forthcoming with processor details when the device first popped up on their website on one fateful July evening, but AT&T later confirmed that the Atrix HD runs on the same dual-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon MSM8960 chipset as seen in heavyweights like the HTC One X and the Galaxy S III.

That’s quite a catch for the budget-conscious handset, as it regularly puts up Quadrant scores just north of 5000 (the average of five trials was 5084) — not shabby at all, especially compared to the One X’s five trial average of 4995 and the U.S. Galaxy S III’s average of 5063.

That said, there was virtually no lag to be found while navigating between through menus and swiping through multiple pages of apps. Firing up and playing through some Grand Theft Auto III and Minecraft Pocket Edition was similarly smooth, as were my usual test videos (i.e. old episodes of Doctor Who). Suffice it to say, the Atrix should have no trouble keeping up with even the most demanding daily grinds.

As far as the Atrix HD’s network performance goes, I found little to complain about. It’s always sort of a crapshoot testing from my particular corner of New Jersey (especially because AT&T hasn’t yet seen fit to bring LTE online around here), but the Atrix HD managed to pull down an average of about 9.6 Mbps down and a strangely slow 859 Kbps up. Call quality too offered few disappointments — calls were generally very clear for people on both ends, though there tended to be a bit of audible buzz from time to time. Maximum call volume could have been a little higher though, but on the whole I had no trouble nearing people on the line, and vice versa.

I’m a bit of a stickler for nice speakers on smartphones, and the three-hole speaker embedded into the Atrix HD’s rear is decidedly above-average. It’s far from perfect (audio tended to be a tad on the echoey side) but it’s plenty loud enough or a little grooving on the go — something that plenty of other handsets have trouble with.

Battery

Though not as disappointing as the camera, the Atrix HD’s battery did skew toward the underwhelming side of things. Like its slim Verizon-bound cousin, the Atrix sports a sealed 1780 mAh battery underneath that Kevlar black plate. That battery gave Jordan some trouble when she reviewed the Droid RAZR way back when, but the situation isn’t quite as rough this time around.

The Atrix HD managed to plug along for 5 hours and 10 minutes of our usual stress test — an automated series of Google Image Searches with the display set to 50% brightness. Meanwhile the Atrix HD only lasted just under five hours in our video stress test, in which the device loops a 720p video at 50% screen brightness and with volume cranked all the way up.

When it came to getting me through a normal day of calling, web browsing, checking emails, and sending obnoxious text messages, the Atrix managed to hang in there for just under eleven hours of on-again-off-again use before finally going dark. As always, your experience is going to differ from mine — that ten hours was enough to see me through most days but if you’re the type to unplug your phone and start your day when the roosters crow, you’ll almost definitely have to reach for that charger before day’s end.

Really, the most frustrating thing about the battery is that Motorola could easily have gone for something bigger without sacrificing too much in size. With its 8.4mm waistline, the Atrix HD is just over half a millimeter thinner than the Droid RAZR Maxx. Some concessions probably had to be made for the updated hardware that went into the thing, but would it have killed Motorola to pop in a slightly more substantial battery?

Conclusion

Let’s touch briefly for a moment on what the Atrix HD isn’t. It’s not the kind of that phone will turn heads as you walk down the street. It’s not the most solid feeling device you’ll ever pick up. It’s not a terribly great camera, either.

It is, however, a hell of a phone for just $ 100. What the Atrix HD lacks in style (and it lacks a lot in style) it makes up for with plenty of substance — a mostly untouched flavor of Ice Cream Sandwich, a surprisingly strong spec sheet, and a great display make it a wallet-friendly dark horse that stacks up favorably to the carrier’s heavyweights. While an extra $ 100 will afford you a device that combines striking looks and some serious horsepower, the Atrix HD is an excellent choice for those who couldn’t care less about style.











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