Digital Thingamajigs
Get the scoop on the latest mobile and handheld devices, high-tech gadgets, phones, gaming devices and more as well as computer-related tips and tricks. Keep up with tech trends, gaming software and check out some of the newest innovations that are turning heads in the electronics industry.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Kindle Fire: Impressive, but flawed

The Kindle Fire weighs in at 7 inches and packs a dual 1GHz punch.

You gotta give Amazon credit.

Since the original iPad hit the market, every tech company from Palo Alto to Timbuktu entered the handheld tablet race, trying to pass Apple and create the "iPad killer." There were some noble efforts and there were some clunkers, some hot rods and some lemons and some winners and some losers. And even with the few winners, such as Samsung's Galaxy Tab and the Motorola Xoom, they still couldn't do the one thing that Amazon has done with the Kindle Fire: Make it cheap.

Enter the Kindle Fire. Since the day it was announced, it was hyped as the iPad killer. The $199 Android-style tablet, released on Nov. 15 just in time for Christmas, is the perfect tablet for those who feel a little uneasy shelling out 500 to 800 bucks for a tablet computer. And while Amazon got the price right — at a cost that must be losing them money — the rush to market leaves us with a product not quite ready for prime time.

Don't get me wrong, I'm impressed with the Kindle Fire. Considering what you get for $199, it's a great value. Compare this with the iPod Touch, which is also $199, and it's easy to see why it's such a bargain. However, I do believe there are some kinks to work out before I can truly say the Fire lives up to all the hype.

The Fire fits nicely in your pocket.
The first thing I noticed when unboxing my Kindle Fire was the size. I knew it was going to have a 7-inch screen, but you really don't get an idea of just how small this is until you hold it in your hand. After using Apple's iPad for several months, the Fire looks and feels tiny in comparison. 

Although it is small, the size does have its advantages. First of all, the 1024 X 600 resolution looks very sharp on the tiny screen. The pixels are tightly packed and this makes for some impressive-looking graphics and video. Another advantage of the small size is convenience. The first time I slid the Kindle Fire in my pocket, I was amazed. Try sticking the iPad in your pocket and you'll be in the market for some new pants. By being able to slide it in and out of your pocket very easily, it makes it very convenient to take on trips, to a restaurant or to a friend's house.

The Kindle Fire also has built-in stereo speakers, which sound surprisingly nice for their compactness. Other than that, the Fire has a headphone jack and a small power switch on the bottom. The back of the Kindle Fire is made of a durable rubber, which helps you grip the device and also keeps the back from getting scratched up like the iPad.

It's what is missing from the Kindle Fire that is most noticeable. There is no 3G option available, which means you must be in a WiFi hot spot to get Internet access. And trust me, you can't do anything without Web access. When I first fired up the device, I was without WiFi, and all I could do was scroll through a few icons and turn the device off and on. A message kept popping up telling me to find a hot spot so that I could register the Fire with Amazon.

Another missing feature is a volume control. The Fire does not have a rocker or slider on the unit to control the volume, which forces you to use a software-based volume slider in every application you use. That may sound petty, but it took some of my co-workers and me several minutes to find a way to turn the volume down while watching a Hulu video.

On paper, the Kindle Fire looks rather impressive with its dual-core 1 GHz processor and 512 MB of RAM, which is on par with the iPad 2 and other Android tablets currently on the market. However, the performance didn't seem to match the specs: The system seemed sluggish to me, and the new Amazon Silk Web browser crashed twice in the first hour that I used it — something that never happened in the six-plus months that I've used Safari on the iPad.

The Fire also comes with 8 GB of built-in flash storage, which is closer to 6 or 7 GB once you actually start using it. There also is no place to expand your storage. A micro-SD slot would have been nice; however, Amazon is betting on users taking advantage of its cloud storage for music and video playback. But again, this forces you to stay within WiFi range to take full advantage of the device. And with the absence of 3G, the Fire starts becoming less of a portable tablet since you're really limited in what you can do without Web access.

In addition to the sluggish performance of the tablet and the Web browser crashing a few times, my Kindle Fire also froze while I was trying to play a song and I had to do a cold boot of the device by holding down the power switch for a few seconds and restarting it.

The app store has a long way to catch
up with Apple's App store.
When you fire up the Fire, you're immediately introduced to a hybrid operating system, based on Android, that features several levels of shelves on which your apps or shortcuts sit. There's also a file menu floating at the top of the screen for quick access to Web, video, music, apps, docs and e-books. I'm not sure why, but Amazon left photos off the list of shortcuts on the home screen. And its absence is disappointing. 

Getting documents on your system is not an easy chore. When you first disconnect the device from your PC or Mac, a message appears on the screen informing you that it's now possible to copy files onto the Fire. An icon then appears on your desktop, which allows you to drag and drop files into the Fire. Well, you know what happens when you drop something "in the Fire"? It disappears … which is exactly what happened to documents I tried to copy. They just weren't there. 

Another way to get documents into the tablet is by a convenient email address that is created based on the first part of your Amazon username. For example, if your Amazon username is, your new email address becomes With this new address, you can send documents and get them into the Fire. However, the first time I tried this, a message was sent back telling me it failed. Amazon requires you to set up a list of acceptable email addresses before you can successfully send documents in this way.

The one thing that really impressed me about the Kindle Fire is how it seamlessly integrates your cloud storage. I was amazed when the first time I logged onto the Web and went to my music, all of the artists and songs that I had copied over to Amazon's cloud storage months earlier magically appeared on my Kindle. Amazon provides 5GB of free cloud storage, and I had taken advantage of every bit of it months earlier. If you take advantage of the Amazon Cloud, your Kindle will automatically link up with all of your uploaded media files. You can also increase the amount of storage by paying an annual fee.
In addition to music and video, you can choose from a wide selection of newspapers and magazines.

Overall impressions
In a nutshell, the Kindle Fire is an impressive piece of machinery that has some kinks to work out. The specs don't quite match that of the iPad 2, but that is to be expected considering the price is $300 cheaper. And for what you do get for $199, it's very impressive. However, it's hard to stay impressed when your apps crash several times and run sluggishly overall. Still, these bugs can be — and I'm sure will be — worked out eventually. 

Amazon is a highly reputable corporation and one of my favorite companies to do business with. I'm sure some of the Kindle Fire's kinks will be worked out eventually; but in the meantime, we'll survive. And overall, I would have to say that I highly recommend the Kindle Fire to anyone looking to jump into the tablet market or looking to buy a gift for their youngster, but don't want to fork out the $500 for an iPad or Galaxy Tab. And if you take advantage of Amazon's Cloud service and have constant access to WiFi hot spots, then I'm sure the Fire will put a smile on your face as wide as the Amazon itself.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Samsung Stratosphere reviewed

The Samsung Stratosphere features 4G speeds and a slide-out keypad.

I recently had a chance to get my hands on a nice piece of technology this past week, and I must say I’m rather smitten.

To say the smartphone market is flooded would be an understatement. The number of Android-based phones out there is huge and growing. So, to find a phone that truly stands out in the crowd can be rare.

One of Samsung’s latest smartphone entries, the Stratosphere, truly rises above the mediocrity that’s beginning to saturate the phone market. With some of the best features on the market, the Stratosphere is in a league of its own.

The one area this phone excels is features. The Samsung Stratosphere has a little bit of everything you would expect to find in a top-of-the-line smartphone today.

The OLED screen is capable
of producing brighter hues
than LCD screens.
The first thing I noticed after pulling the Stratosphere out of the box was the very sharp and colorful OLED display. OLED technology may sound like jargon, but in layman’s terms it means a damn good-looking screen. The 480 X 800 pixel OLED display is able to produce much brighter hues than normal LCD screens, which typically grace smartphones today. The greens and reds are much more saturated and lifelike than what you would find in many other smartphones.

Another nice thing about the Stratosphere is how compact it is, despite the fact it’s sporting a very roomy slide-out keyboard under its belly. The keyboard is much larger than LG’s Enlighten I reviewed last week and feels much more natural when you’re typing — especially with large fingers. The physical feedback you receive from typing on the keyboard feels much better than typing on the glass virtual keyboard of many other phones.

One of the selling points of the Stratosphere is that it’s Samsung’s first 4G phone with a slide-out keyboard. And while testing the 4G speed of the phone in Charleston, I was able to pull between 5 and 6 Mbps downloads, which is much faster than 3G speeds, and makes for some lightning quick downloads.

Under the hood of the Stratosphere lies a 1 GHz single-core ARM processor with 512 MB of RAM and 4 GB of built-in storage with a micro-SD expansion slot. The phone also comes with Bluetooth, WiFi and a micro-USB connector. Absent on the Stratosphere is an HDMI output for high-resolution graphics.

The Stratosphere also comes with a 5 megapixel rear-facing camera with camcorder capabilities and a 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera for video chats. The camera is actually nothing special. As a matter of fact, I found the auto-focus feature a bit slow to adjust and in turn some of the photos I took with it ended up out of focus. However, the photos that did turn out right looked quite sharp.

The phone comes with Android 2.3 and is fairly easy to use. As usual, I was able to set up my email and download Netflix and other apps quickly. And despite being only a single core 1 GHz processor, all of the apps I downloaded (including Netflix, a racing game, solitaire and SpeedTest) seemed to run quickly.

Overall impression
While only using the phone for a few days, I’m hooked. All other things being somewhat equal, the beautiful colors of the OLED screen and the nice, roomy keyboard were enough to lure me in and make me a believer. If you’re in the market for a new (or your first) Android phone, you should give some serious consideration to the Samsung Stratosphere. With great features like this, it would be difficult to be disappointed.

Friday, November 11, 2011

LG Enlighten reviewed

I’ve been a fan of LG electronics since the day I bought my first flip phone about 10 years ago as a Sprint Customer. The look, quality, feel, design and features of that phone instantly won me over. Since then, I’ve always admired LG’s products and hold them in the same regard that I do with companies such as Apple or Google.

So recently, I got a chance to review LG’s Enlighten smartphone, which was released sometime in September.

The LG Enlighten, which runs Android version 2.3.4, is simple enough to use. The form factor is very compact. It fits nicely in the palm of your hand and takes up very little real estate in your coat or pants pocket, which is nice in a world where everything in our lives is in gadget form.

The Enlighten is your typical Android-style phone, with a power button on top, volume controls and USB/charge port on the side and four context buttons along the bottom: menu, home, back and search. Missing from the Enlighten, however, was an HDMI port, which is used to output high-resolution video and graphics to a television or computer monitor. While HDMI is a bit of a luxury feature, it’s slowly becoming standard on most Android phones.

The Enlighten's slide-out
keyboard is a nice perk.
Underneath the phone lies what is the selling point of the device for me: the slide-out keyboard. Now, the Enlighten is not the first – nor will it be the last – smartphone to feature a physical slide-out keypad, but it’s a nice perk in a time where most phones only offer the virtual keyboard, which gives no feedback and can be a bit tricky to get used to.

While the keyboard is a nice feature, there is definitely a learning curve involved as it takes some adjustment to find your way around the key placement. For example, the shift key is replaced with a function key and the space bar is wedged between the “V” and “B” keys on the bottom row. It can also be a bit tricky to hit the right keys if you have sausage fingers like me. That said, if you have the patience to get used to the keyboard, it’s a definite advantage over typing with the virtual keypad. I found myself typing about twice as fast as on my iPhone – or even the much larger iPad.

The LG Enlighten is definitely an entry-level smartphone. Under the hood lies an 800 MHz single-core processor with only 150 MB of built-in storage. The display is rather tiny at 3.2 inches and has a resolution of only 320 X 480 pixels — rather small by today’s standards. It comes with a 1540 mAh battery, which equals out to about 6-8 hours of talk time on average.

At 3.2 megapixels, the built-in camera is somewhat weak compared to most phones, but unless you’re a professional photographer, that resolution should suffice for a day at the amusement park or a stroll through the hood with your homies. The Enlighten also comes standard with the usual built-in WiFi (b,g,n), Bluetooth, a micro-SD expansion slot and accelerometer; oh, and don’t forget the built-in slide-out keyboard.  

The Enlighten comes loaded with Android version 2.3.4 (Gingerbread) and runs quite well, despite its entry-level specs. Loading your favorite apps or setting up Google Mail was a breeze, and playing a TV show on Netflix loaded quickly. However, the audio was delayed slightly from the video, making for an awkward watching experience.

Unlike the iPhone, the Enlighten does have Flash built-in, which allows games and many videos to work natively in the Web browser. It also comes with the standard calendar, alarm, email app and document viewer.

Overall impression
While it’s not packed with a lot of punch, the Enlighten does have some nice features — such as the slide-out keyboard and compact size — that make it great for people looking to buy their first smartphone or wanting to scale down from a monster phone, such as the LG Revolution.

Overall, it’s a solid phone with average features. However, with an asking price of $269, you’d better bundle this with a Verizon activation or contract extension — when you can get the phone much cheaper or even for free. Otherwise, it's hard to endorse a phone with these specs at that price.