The Gadgets Page

March 11, 2009

Viva Pinata: Pocket Paradise Fails To Impress Me

Filed under: Reviews,Toys and Games — Laura Moncur @ 5:00 am

Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise at Amazon.comI never played Viva Pinata on the Xbox 360, but I have been looking for something fun to play ever since I finished filling my museum on Animal Crossing: Wild World. Unfortunately, Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise for the Nintendo DS isn’t anything near as inviting as Animal Crossing was for me. Here is a video describing how to play and a general review of the game:

The video clips look great. The tutorial was thorough in teaching me how to play. I was never confused on what I was supposed to do, but I just didn’t find it interesting enough to return. In fact, I’m more tempted to load up Animal Crossing: Wild World and visit my old friends there. I just didn’t feel the need to make my garden great enough to attract rare pinatas because there is no real reward to attracting them. Sure, they get on my list of pinatas and I unlock an achievement, but that wasn’t enough for me.

The reason I wanted a complete catalog in Animal Crossing is because sometimes my little animal friends wanted something. If it was in my catalog, I could order it for them and make them happy by giving it to them. That was a HUGE payoff to me. I wasn’t just checking off every item on a list. The items could be used to make my animal friends like me.

This is an aspect of Viva Pinata that just never materialized for me. WHY do I want to attract pinatas? They aren’t that cute. They don’t talk to me. I can’t even pet them or teach them tricks like I could with Nintendogs. I just didn’t see the point of investing any time in the game and this comes from a girl who played Animal Crossing at least thirty minutes a day every day for two years.

In the end, a game needs to give me a bit of relaxation and a bit of achievement. I got neither from Viva Pinata: Pocket Paradise.

February 10, 2009

The GorillaPod Go-Go Is Perfect For Mobile Devices

Filed under: Misc. Gadgets,Reviews — Thom Allen @ 5:00 am

Joby GP1-A1EN Gorillapod Flexible Tripod at Amazon.comAt the recent Outdoor Retailer show in Salt lake City, Utah, I picked up a GorillaPod Go-Go to review. I was excited to get my hands on one of these babies.

If you don’t know what a GorillaPod is, check them out here:

What you’ll find is a unique tripod with dozens of ball joins, giving you the ability to mount the tripod just about anywhere without making it permanent. Each ball has a rubber ring, and the feet have rubber boots so you’re not going to scratch an surfaces.

The Go-Go version, which is basically the smallest of all the GorillaPods, and is marketed towards the iPhone and point and shoot camera market.

The packaging include the tripod and several pieces that allow you too mount your iPhone or camera.

My first use was to affix the adapter to the back of my iPhone. It has a lever and suction that sticks to you device, but is easily removed and leaves no marks.

What I found useful was getting my iPhone up off the flat desk so I could see my application easier. I like to see the album art on Pandora, my calendar, and even the digital clock.

My next use was screwing on the clip to the bottom of my point and shoot camera. I was able to attach the tripod to all sorts of surfaces and object, like poles, handles, and or course just simply three legs on a flat surface. But as you can see from the photos below, I was able to attach the Go-Go to my iMac so I can shoot simple video and take picture.

This is a must have gadget for anyone who has an MP3 device or small point and shoot camera. You could spend hours trying to find the weirdest places to wrap the Go-Go.

Thom Allen is also the writer of Digital Thom.

February 4, 2009

Review: Corsair Flash Voyager 64GB USB Flash Drive

Filed under: Computers and Peripherals,Reviews — Matthew Strebe @ 5:00 am

Corsair 64GB Flash Voyager USB 2.0 Flash Drive at Amazon.comAt $99 street price at the time of this writing, the Corsair Flash Voyager is bulk flash storage on the cheap. With a read speed of 27MB/sec and a write speed of 11MB/sec, its performance is typical of mid-speed USB drives.

But with this much storage, performance becomes critical. You purchase large capacity drives because you have big files you need to move. I copied a 27GB virtual machine data file to the drive, which took 40 minutes. My A-data 32GB Expresscard drive (through a USB interface), on the other hand, copied the same file in 20 minutes, and a RAID-0 drive of 4 USB flash drives copied the data in 15 minutes (which is essentially the USB bus limit for data transfers).

It’s always disappointing when I plug a drive in and I’m reminded of the difference between what the package says and what the drive is. A 64GB drive really equals 60GB of data, which is the amount that will show up in your operating system when you mount it. Whether or not you’re being ripped off depends on the definition of a gigabyte: To everyone in the computing world except drive manufacturers, a Gigabyte is the binary 2 raised to the 30th power (1,073,741,824). To the drive industry, a gigabyte is the decimal 10 raised to the 9th power (1,000,000,000). In the days of megabyte hard drives, the difference was negligible but in the days of terabyte drives, the difference will hold an entire operating system installation. Drive manufacturer’s say they can’t change or they’ll look bad in comparison. I think it’s an issue the FTC should rule on so that all manufacturers have to change at once. But this is a review, and not a rant on ancient numerical injustices, so I’ll go on.

Like all flash drives, the Corsair Flash Voyager 64GB is highly reliable. However, out of the eight Corsair Flash Voyager drives I’ve owned, one failed suddenly. Despite the promise of a lifetime warranty, the warranty was basically impossible to execute, with the company sending forms back and forth and then basically doing nothing until I gave up on it because it wasn’t worth my time. I wound up returning it to Fry’s Electronics, who happily exchanged it even though it was beyond their return period.

January 12, 2009

Review: StarTech USB Graphic Dock

Filed under: Computers and Peripherals,Reviews — Matthew Strebe @ 5:00 am USB to VGA 4-in-1 Docking Station at Amazon.comI’ve always been skeptical of USB docking stations because USB technology is too slow for video. USB 2 is less than half the bandwidth of a gigabit network adapter, and its speed has to be shared amongst all connected devices. It’s more than fast enough for keyboards, mice, and even network adapters, but video is another matter entirely—video needs a lot of speed.

But I’ve also got a new netbook that desperately needs a docking station, and netbooks don’t come with or support docking stations. And most netbooks only have USB ports, so there’s no option: It’s either a USB docking station or none at all.

StarTech USB Graphic Dock

So with some trepidation I hooked up the StarTech USB 2 Graphic Docking Station and gave it a spin. Installation was simple after copying the drivers to a USB flash drive (because my netbook has no CD-ROM reader)—just run the setup program, tell it to continue three or four times for driver install, reboot as indicated, and plug the dock in. Each of the devices came up in turn: A USB 4-port hub, network adapter, audio adapter, and VGA adapter. My monitor woke up and displayed the blue background of my desktop, and a new tray icon appeared that allowed me to set the monitor to be the primary display. With no trouble at all, I was up on my external keyboard, mouse, display, and wired network connection.

Knowing that bandwidth would be an issue, I immediately set out to test the performance of the dock. I set the resolution to my monitor’s maximum of 1600x1200x32 bits, and started browsing the web. To my surprise, the video was quite usable—yes, dragging windows was choppy, and occassionally the mouse cursor would flicker, but overall there were no usability issues. Annoying motion banner ads were just as annoying as usual, and web flash video ran without any significant degradation. I was surprised by that. So far, so good.

So I hit it with a real test: Netflix streaming video. This would surey tax the USB port because the inbound network data and the outbound video and audio would be going over a single USB connection. Sure enough, it did. Full motion video ran at about two frames per second, which was completely unusable. I was able to get the framerate up by switching to the internal wireless adapter and disabling the dock’s wired network adapter and by moving audio back to the laptop’s internal sound card, but never to the point where it would be consdidered even remotely acceptable. But then, I knew that would be the case.

What really surprised me was how useful the dock was for everything but streaming video and gaming—any typical office task, web, and email will be just fine with this dock—that’s pretty much what Netbooks are good for anyway. If you’ve got a laptop that lacks a dock, and you’re not using it to watch movies or shoot aliens, the StarTech USB 2 Graphic Docking Station will do the job for you with no hassle whatsoever. When you do need to watch video or shoot aliens, just undock it and use the laptop’s own devices.

Disclosure: StarTech was nice enough to send us a docking station for this review.

January 9, 2009

Review: Kodak Easy Share Wireless Picture Frame

Filed under: Misc. Gadgets,Reviews — Matthew Strebe @ 5:00 am

Kodak EasyShare W1020 10-Inch Wireless Digital Frame at Amazon.comI purchased the Kodak Easy Share Wireless Picture Frame with a specific purpose in mind: I wanted to immediately transfer motion sensor triggered photos from my Panasonic network camera at my front door onto a screen up stairs so we could see who was at the door before going downstairs to answer it. Advertised as “being able to receive emails with photo attachments and immediately display them”, it seemed that the Kodak picture frame might be just the ticket, since the camera can immediately send email photos when it senses motion.

I purchased the frame at Best Buy for $219–$50 lower than it’s MSRP of $269. Although its frame is made of plastic. The screen is okay but not great—it’s about middle of the road as LCD displays go. It has a wide angle viewability side to side, but is polarized vertically and so changes colors quickly when you angle it from top to bottom. That’s probably the right choice to make, and for the money I’m not going to dwell on the screen quality—it’s more than adequate. Unfortunately, the electronics protrude about ½” behind the frame, making it unsuitable for directly hanging on the wall. I’m not sure why digital photo frame makers think that it’s okay for the frame to protrude 1” away from the wall—you’d have to cut a large square hole in your wall in order for this frame to sit flush. It’s most appropriately used on a desk.

Kodak EasyShare W1020 10-Inch Wireless Digital Frame at Amazon.comThe frame was pretty easy to setup: Upon power-up, you use the touch-sensitive frame area below and to the right side of the display to move a cursor around and set the WiFi password. After restarting, it was up on my network and displaying default photographs.

Using the frame is trivially simple: Just pop in a photo card from your camera, and the photographs will instantly start showing using default settings. You control the frame using the touch sensors, using a swipe motion to scroll through photos and a touch motion to call up the menu. The menus are very easy to use, allowing you to select photo shows from the card, from online sources, and to set some of the frame’s defaults.

The frame is compatible with three different online services: Flickr, FrameChannel, and Kodak Easy Share online. FrameChannel and the Kodak site are so similar that it’s surprising that they both exist, much less are both supported. FrameChannel does provide an interesting additional service: Ambient information channels such as weather predictions, stock info, and news that appear automatically on the frame. You can’t change the settings for the online services on the frame directly, but you can point your computer’s web browser at the frame’s IP address to call up a website that will allow you to configure it completely.

In the frame’s configuration website, you can establish RSS Photo feed settings for the three directly supported services or for any generic RSS Photo feed site. The setup does require you to have accounts on these services, and it is a little bit of work to figure out exactly how everything should be setup, but I figured it out easily and without cracking the manual.

Of the three services, the Flickr integration is best: You can simply select Flickr on the menu and pretty much instantly your Flickr Photostream will appear as a slide show. You can setup tags to filter photos by as separate slide shows and choose between them, and you can even setup menu items to match tag channels on the main display.

The ability of the frame to map to an arbitrary Photo RSS feed means that you can use it as an ambient information display. For example, if you want to keep track of specific stocks, airline flight information, or network status information you could create a software application that generates those graphs and uses Photo RSS to feed them to the display.

A little hacking on my part showed that the frame complies with the Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) standard for a media browser and a media renderer. This means that future home theater devices will be able to run slideshows directly on the frame, and that other frames can connect to it to display its content. The Kodak software uses UPnP features to control the frame, but UPnP itself is immature and there’s very little third party support for these features at this time.

Unfortunately, the love ended pretty early for this frame. Without fail, the wireless frame detached from my wifi-network after about two hours and stopped displaying anything, refusing to reconnect to the network until it was disconnected from power and restarted. It always reconnected immediately, which indicates that the problem is with the frame, not with the network (none of my other wireless devices have this problem). This problem makes it impossible for me to recommend this wireless frame until a firmware update that correctly addresses reconnecting to the network automatically is available.

Kodak EasyShare W1020 10-Inch Wireless Digital Frame at Amazon.comThe Kodak Easy Share software is utter garbage, doing little more than pointing you back to the frame’s own website in a window. The only reason to install it is to copy photos to the frame directly from your computer, but that’s more easily handled by copying them to a memory card in my opinion. There’s little to no point in installing it at all—the saving grace is that you don’t need it at all. I’m not sure why manufacturers go through all the effort of including poorly written software that is just going to annoy people when it isn’t even remotely necessary.

As for my use case—receiving photos from my network camera automatically and displaying them immediately—the frame is unfortunately not suitable. The first problem is that you can’t actually email photos into the frame. It does not check an email account for photos. Rather, you can configure FrameChannel or Flickr to receive email, and the frame will pull those photos down eventually. The best time I could get was about five minutes from the photos being sent until they arrived on the frame. Also, even if I could get photos onto the frame immediately, there’s no way to get the frame to instantly change to the latest newly arrived photo—rather, it gets to it eventually as it cycles through the slide show.

To make me happy, this frame would need to be configurable to check at email account using an email protocol for new photo mail when I touch the touch-sensor—not just RSS Photo feeds (none of which can be controlled closely enough to show what I want on the frame). It would also be nice if the frame supported common file transfer standards such as FTP, which would allow network cameras to transfer photos to it with no intervening servers and no need for the photos to go out on the Internet. It would also be nice if the frame could be configured to automatically display the most recently downloaded photos.

Kodak EasyShare M1020 10-Inch Digital Frame at Amazon.comAll of these would be forgivable if the wireless connectivity was reliable, but it isn’t. And given that, you’re better off just using its non-networked sibling, the Kodak M1020, which is half the price. A quick look on-line indicates that I’m not the only one having this problem, so I’ll be returning mine to Best Buy.

January 8, 2009

Review: ZAGG Z.buds iPhone Earbuds

Filed under: Audio and Video,Reviews — Thom Allen @ 5:00 am

ZAGG Z.bud EarbudsToday I’m reviewing a product from ZAGG called Z.buds. The product is positioned as an iPhone ear bud replacement, but can be used with any listening device that has a 3.5mm jack.

The first thing I noticed about this product, when I was finally able to remove it from the bullet proof packaging, was the nylon wrap around the wires. At first I didn’t think I was going to like that because it felt strange, but it has definite advantages. For one, the nylon material actually aids in keeping the wires from getting tangled up. Second, it should prevent nicks in the wire as they are used.

There are three adjustable silver beads that can be used to tighten or loosen the cords leading to your ears. I find this to be a winner because when you wear ear buds during physical activity, the split wires get tangled an buds usually fall out. The beads also add some style to the black and silver color scheme.

The ear pieces themselves sit in your ear hole, they don’t hang from your ear like the Apple ear buds. The package also includes 5 different bud covers, two clear rubber sizes, two foam sizes, and a cover that looks like a pawn from a chess game. Having this many options is great. I tried them all, and found the small clear cover to work best for my ear.

One thing you have to get used to with buds that fit in your ear, rather than just hanging, is the tight fit it creates. You really can’t hear much around you once you get the Z.buds fitting correctly in your ear. This adds to the over all listening pleasure. It helps keep all the ambient or passive noise out, and you just hear whats playing on your device. This is fantastic when your in a crowded room or on a noise bus.

The Z.buds also include inline volume control, a very nice feature which I use a lot. The Z.buds also have an inline microphone for use as a hands free headset for your iPhone. I tried the headset with my iPhone and it worked as expected. I also noted that the microphone piece works like the Apple ear buds that come with the iPhone, where the button on the mic will advance music when listening to iTunes. I’m not sure, but I suspect it would work the same on other brands. There is also a small nylon loop in the middle of the cord, presumably for connecting to a shirt or jacket button? I couldn’t find any specific use, but I guess you can be creative.

The only real problem I had, was the inline mic seemed heavy, and kept pulling the ear piece out. I had to move the tightening beads further up to even out the weight.

Overall I found the ZAGG Z.buds to be a very well made, very usable product. The sound was as good as any other headset or ear bud system I’ve reviewed. I tend to max out the volume so I can see how the speakers handle various music types. While the Z.buds performed well with all types of music, I did notice that at times the bass seemed muffled at lower volume settings. Turning up the volume helped, but you can’t always listen at higher levels.

If you are looking for a well priced, well performing ear bud, I don’t think you can wrong with the ZAGG Z.buds.

January 1, 2009

Review: Lenovo IdeaPad S10

Filed under: Laptops,Reviews — Matthew Strebe @ 5:00 am

Lenovo S10 10.2-Inch Ideapad at“Netbooks”—small, lower-powered, and inexpensive laptops with an emphasis on Internet connectivity rather than general purpose computing—are a big new category in computer sales. With entrants such as the Asus EeeePC, MSI Wind,/a>, HP Mini, and Lenovo IdeaPad, most of the major vendors (with the notable exceptions of Apple and Dell) are moving into this market. Netbooks are typically priced within $100 of the $400 mark.

It takes work to get down to $400: Smaller screens, no CD or DVD reader, lower capacity hard disks, and low-cost, slower, mature components. The processor is usually either the Intel Atom or the Via C7-mobile and they universally use low-end integrated graphics and network connectivity chipsets. This means that they can’t really handle 3D games or CAD work, and they’re not suited to high-speed data transfer on a wired network. They also include less memory than today’s typical laptop—either 512MB or 1GB. Having fewer ports—typically two USB ports, a wired network port, and an analog or digital video port, also reduces cost. All have Wireless G, but most do not have Bluetooth. A few have express-card slots that allow for expansion, however. They run Linux, Windows XP Home, or Windows Vista Basic, usually based on whether or not they have enough RAM for Vista. Many are available in editions that use a small amount of flash memory as a solid-state disk and can only run Linux.

The Lenovo IdeaPad has hit most of the compromises perfectly. It uses Windows XP Home (Vista Basic adds literally nothing of value with these older components) and has literally no unnecessary crapware to be removed.

It has a nice, bright screen, loud-enough speakers for one person to watch a movie, and the keyboard is small but not too small (although the placement of the right shift key is annoying), The screen is suitable for movie watching and the computer is capable of streaming Netflix Instant movies wirelessly at full resolution without pausing.

Lenovo IdeaPad S10 at

Most importantly in my opinion, the Lenovo has an ExpressCard slot, which makes it possible to add any port you need. This remedies a lot of the shortcomings of a Netbook and opens them up to use as a general-purpose computer. I use the ExpressCard slot to add a gigabit network port (to compensate for the fact that the built-in wired port is only 10/100) and to install flash memory for backups. Unfortunately, the ExpressCard slot is not full-length: About a half inch of the card will protrude when fully inserted which makes it difficult to leave an adapter in the machine routinely.

The ASUS Eeee PC and MSI Wind Netbooks get a lot of attention online, but only the original HP Mini compares favorably to the Lenovo in my opinion, and it cost nearly twice as much. For the money (and that’s the idea behind the NetBook category), the Lenovo IdeaPad S10 compromises less and delivers more than any other Netbook on the market right now.

November 21, 2008

Review of Animal Crossing: City Folk

Filed under: Animal Crossing,Reviews,Toys and Games — Laura Moncur @ 10:45 am

Animal Crossing City Folk and Wii Speak Microphone Bundle at Amazon.comI have gushed many times about the game, Animal Crossing: Wild World. You can see my entries here:

Almost two years ago, I first heard about Animal Crossing for the Wii:

It has finally arrived and I’m just head over heels happy with it. My favorite part of Animal Crossing were the daily conversations with my little animal friends, but after three years of playing the DS version, I had pretty much memorized the game. The writing for Wild World was spectacular and you can see the quotes I gleaned from that wonderful game here:

My biggest fear for City Folk was that they would recycle the writing. As spectacular as it was, I was a little sick of hearing Elvis tell me the SAME things every day. Fortunately, they have rewritten the entire game. Right down to what Nook says when you are buying a house. Almost all of the writing is new. There is a little bit of recycling here and there, but unless you’re an insane woman who memorizes everything she hears, you probably won’t even notice. They even went to the trouble of inventing new catchphrases every time you catch a fish. And Blathers will tell you about the zoological quirks of fish rather than go on and on about how tasty they are.

I was also worried about how the transfer for the DS would go. I had heard that I could transfer my character from my DS game to City Folk. I worried that it would work like a move. For example, in Wild World, you can move from one city to another, but you lose everything in your bureau, bank account and you arrive with only what you can carry in your pockets. THAT is how I thought the move to City Folk would go. Instead, the only thing that transfers is hair color, eye color, sex, name and my catalog. My character in Wild World is still there and I didn’t lose her when I transferred to the Wii game. It was a huge relief.

I had completed my museum collection in Wild World, so I thought that starting a town with an empty museum would be depressing, but surprisingly, it’s not. It gives me all the reason to fish, dig and hunt for bugs again. By the way, fishing and hunting for bugs can be done just like on the DS and Gamecube versions, but they have added features to let me fish a little more realistically with the Wiimote. Now, I can cast my fishing rod, just like a real rod with the Wii controller. To catch the fish, I pull up, just like I would if I were really fishing. Swinging a net is exactly the same.

There have been lots of talk about visiting the city. Here is a video talking about those features ad infinitum:

For me, I’m just happy to talk to my new little animal friends. The writing for City Folk is looking to be just as enjoyable and witty as the writing was for Wild World, so I’m looking forward to laughing with my imaginary friends for many days this year!

April 28, 2008

CES 2008: Optimus Maximus Keyboard

Filed under: Computers and Peripherals,Reviews — Laura Moncur @ 5:00 am

CES 2008: Optimus Maximus Keyboard by LauraMoncur from Flickr

So much of what we see at CES is just vaporware. It doesn’t exist and it may never exist. In fact, after a healthy dose of CES, everything that IS available starts to look incredibly lame in comparison. The Optimus Maximus keyboard is a good example. Imagine a computer keyboard in which the keys can be WHATEVER you want. Instead of stickers on your keyboard (that would be MY solution), the Optimus Maximus keyboard has a tiny LED screen on each and every screen. You can change the keys based on your language or whatever other scheme you prefer.

CES 2008: Optimus Maximus Keyboard by LauraMoncur from Flickr

When we saw Optimus Maximus at CES this year, we thought it looked cool, but both Mike and I assumed that it would never see the light of day. We had seen this keyboard before and nothing had come of it. We logged it as cool and didn’t report it back then because it just wasn’t available for purchase.

CES 2008: Optimus Maximus Keyboard by LauraMoncur from Flickr

Well, now it is:

Here is a video produced by ThinkGeek showing the abilities of the Optimus Maximus keyboard:

If you’re willing to plunk down over $1.5K, you can have a Optimus Maximus keyboard. Of course, the concept of “available” is a fuzzy one when even ThinkGeek doesn’t have them in stock.

Considering that sticker sheets are sold in packs of 25 for ten bucks, I think I’ll go for the sticker idea.

Via: Optimus keyboard now shipping, bring on the hacks – Boing Boing Gadgets

September 24, 2007

The Tiny Fully Functional PC: Sony UX 390N

Filed under: Laptops,PDAs and Phones,Reviews — Matthew Strebe @ 5:00 am

Sony VAIO VGN-UX390N 4.5I’ve been a fan of tiny full sized computers for a long time, and I’ve had one of just about every generation of hand held computing device that has ever come along. I bought all those devices because I’d hoped that one of them would actually be useful. There’s always a show-stopping problem: The handwriting recognition can’t be relied upon and there is no keyboard, or the computer is too large, or the keyboard is external and a hassle to carry along and hook up. Also, battery life is never sufficient to spend a day on the road.

It only takes one of these problems to make a small form factor computer useless. Unless it reaches the reliability of a cell phone, I can’t risk not having access to my e-mail, calendar, and tasks.

PDAs have never really worked for me because they can’t carry all the information I need, and nobody has ever really truly solved the syncing problem. PDAs don’t have “lite” version of Visio to jot down a quick network diagram, for example. Furthermore, no PIM on the planet comes close to Microsoft Outlook in organizational functionality. My entire “Getting Things Done” methodology is based on customizations I’ve made to Outlook, and in my old age I insist that computers do what they’re for: Make my life, the way I want to live it, easier.

So when I needed a new PC to run my “Getting Things Done” methodology that I’ve implemented with customizations to Microsoft Outlook, I knew that neither a PDA nor Apple’s forthcoming iPhone would actually work for me—I’ve already attempted to get my system working on both Apple’s set of applications and the major open source apps because I don’t like having a PC just for Outlook. Syncing just doesn’t move all the information I use, and terminaling into a desktop PC from the road is too much hassle. I just want to run outlook on a computer that I can break out in a meeting to record my commitments on.

So I’ve had my eye on the Sony UX 390 for a while. I didn’t buy earlier because I couldn’t swallow the enormous price tag and I was worried about hard disk reliability in a unit I was all but certain to drop. But recent experiences have shown me that it costs more to be without my data than a one time $2500 price tag, so I took the plunge—warily, and at Fry’s where I knew I could return it within 15 days if it wasn’t going to do the job.

Out Of the Box Experience – OOBE

Microsoft has defined an “Out Of the Box Experience” manager for Vista that is supposed to make you feel a rush of serotonin and cause you to pair bond to the computer like a duckling to its mother. The initiative is lovingly referred to as “OOBE”. So, since it apparently matters enough to have an initiative and an acronym, I’ll talk about the OOBE for the UX 390.

Firstly, the initial boot and setup on the device takes about 30 minutes. Once completely installed, you are greeted with the Vista OOBE manager, whose job it is to help you get connected to the Internet and then present the wide array of crapware that comes pre-installed on the computer. There are about fifteen overlapping dialog boxes vying for your initial attention, and six or seven notification area cartoon dialogs.

The amount of crapware in the OOBE manager made me suspicious. I checked the size of the C: drive, and astonishingly, 75% (not exaggerating) of the C: drive was full. Furthermore, the C: drive was only 23GB in size, not the 32GB of precious flash memory I was sure I’d paid for. A visit to the logical disk manager confirmed my suspicion: All that pre-installed crapware required a hefty 8GB restore partition.

Normally, you’d just leave a recovery partition in place. What’s 8GB on a 200GB disk anyway, right? Oh, wait. This is a 32GB disk. And it’s a solid-state disk that I paid $600 extra for. The customer literally must take that partition off because there’s really no room for Vista, Sony’s requisite management apps, Office 2007, and anything of yours if you don’t. Leaving it in place isn’t an option irrespective of the cost or waste.

Sony placed that recovery partition there so that they wouldn’t have to spend $1 to include recovery discs. If you do the math, presuming that the Flash disk costs $600 (the price difference between this computer and its HDD based sibling), that’s $160 of your money so that Sony doesn’t have to spend $1. Thanks, Sony!

In sum, it took me 4 hours to burn my own recovery DVDs, remove the recovery partition (1.5GB of it was mandatory, and remains there still), and restore from DVD You can’t de-select any of the crapware during installation either, so you’ll waste time both re-installing it and subsequently removing it.

The initial boot and gauntlet of EULAs, web page redirections to partner sites, etc. takes an hour to slog through, then it took another 3 hours to remove all the crapware, and another 3 hours to patch it up to date an apply the Sony patches for the crap I hadn’t removed. All told, it took me a solid 12 hours before I could do anything with the device.

So on a scale of 1 to 10, the OOBE on this device is about a -5, all thanks to crapware. The only way it could have been worse would be if the device had actually been broken.

If the recovery partition were a reasonable 1.5GB in the first place, I wouldn’t have bothered with any of this. Compare that to the 30 minutes it took from first boot until my MacBook Pro had copied over all my data and applications from my old PowerBook and was up and useful. Its no wonder Apple is schooling Microsoft and Sony.

Beyond the OOBE

So the day after you buy it is when the fun begins. The first cool thing you’ll do is enroll your fingerprints in the fingerprint security manager for logging in. There’s two types of biometric fingerprint security: Actually secure, and Kid Sister secure. Actually secure fingerprint sensors do live finger detection that can’t be fooled by a Jello mold of your finger (this does) and stores your prints in the device firmware, exchanging only salted hashes with the operating system rather than storing the hash of your fingerprints on the hard disk where they can be compromised. Unfortunately, the sensor on the UX 390 doesn’t do that second part. So what this means is that it’ll keep thieves and relatives out of your data, but not the government.

Irrespective, it’s way easier than typing a password for logging on and just as secure, so it’s a big plus on a computer where you want to minimize use of the keyboard. Enrolling fingerprints is easy and smooth. It’s a slick feature, especially for a computer whose keyboard is painfully small by necessity and which won’t always be exposed to accept passwords.

The device has Bluetooth, WiFi, and Cingular EDGE network built in. EDGE is sort of “2.5G” in terms of network speed: Faster than 2G, but nowhere near the speed of the 3G Verizon or Spring EvDO networks. In my tests, the device does between 144 and 200kbps, which is basically 1/3 the speed of my EvDO card. You can call Sony tech support and get them to unlock the device for you so you can put a T-Mobile SmartCard in it to get on their much less expensive EDGE network, which I strongly recommend if you live in an area with good T-Mobile coverage because it’s much cheaper for unlimited data. EDGE seems to do much better with connections while moving than EvDO, however—at full freeway speed it kept up without disconnecting all over Metro San Diego.

Another unfortunate problem is Cingular’s crappy software. While it works just fine, the “Power Manager” provided by Cingular sucks up 15% of the devices CPU power whether the radio is in use or not, keeping the fan running constantly (which I’m sure obviates any benefit derived by the process’s name). Killing the process will let the computer idle down so the fan can stop running. I used Windows Defender to prevent Sony’s garbage from running and just wrote some batch scripts I keep in the start menu to enable the WWAN radio when I need it.

The screen is beautiful, but the resolution of the screen is so high and size so small that people whose presbyopia has set in should not even consider this computer. I love the resolution, but my older friends are unable to see anything on it without reading glasses.

The touch screen is very accurate, and quite useful. Unfortunately, Microsoft hasn’t released the Vista version of Tablet PC, so you have to dig through some configuration panels to enable little niceties like tap-and-hold being used for right-click. Why this feature isn’t built into all versions of Windows is beyond me. Otherwise, the computer works just fine as a pure tablet, and the handwriting recognition is the best I’ve ever seen, interpreting my chicken scratches correctly about 90% of the time (not quite enough, but still the best ever).

Most importantly, the screen slides up to reveal the world’s first entire PC keyboard implemented as a thumb board. It works amazingly well, but you will get hand cramps trying to write the great American Novel on it. It’s for URLs and email replies, which it works perfectly well for that, and the blue backlight makes it useful at night.

The computer’s 1.5GHz Core-Mono CPU isn’t enough power to run Vista in its default configuration. You’ll notice near continuous disk access when you boot, and booting is slow. Disabling Vista’s desktop search service and file transfer compression service eliminates these problems, dramatically increasing the overall speed of the computer. I also disabled Windows Restore to improve performance and free up disk space. Properly tuned, the computer runs Vista just fine.

Docking the UX-390 turns it into a first-class desktop computer. You will want to disable the small screen so you have a bigger desktop (The Intel video adapter is weak, and won’t let you increase the resolution when driving both screens simultaneously). Additional docks are available of the shelf at the Sony store—I put one at the office and at home so I can just carry the computer between locations. The other accessory you’ll want to buy is the six-hour extended battery. With it, you can work all day without worrying about battery life. Without it, the computer will give up on you about mid-afternoon.

Once you’ve slogged through the OOBE, the Sony UX-390 is far and away the best PDA ever built. It’s small enough to wear on your belt if you don’t mind looking geeky. It’s even a reasonable desktop computer when you dock it. It’s expensive, but a worthwhile investment for people who need a real computer with them on the go.

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