ABC News Breakfast, 1 December 2011

5 12 2011

This ongoing Australian legal battle between Apple and Samsung is becoming maddening for consumers who want to purchase a Galaxy Tab 10.1 from a local retailer, but even more so for analysts trying to predict the twists and turns of the courts in various jurisdictions around the world.

Last week I was invited to speak with Virginia Trioli and Michael Rowland on ABC News Breakfast and try to explain the situation for their audience. Here is a clip.

Video can be viewed here:





Ten things about the BlackBerry PlayBook

31 08 2011

The PlayBook shows potential, but has a few weaknesses. (Image taken by me).

Wow, it’s been over 18 months since I last wrote anything here! Must’ve been busy! My brain space has been mostly dedicated to learning some new coverage areas, and moving my life halfway around the world. I’ve also been toying with changing the way I approach this blog, but in the mean time here’s something utterly conventional.

I recently attended a RIM analyst event in Sydney, where they gave attendees a PlayBook to evaluate. I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks, so here are some thoughts. Generally I quite like it, but I hope the next version is  better. It just feels rushed, and I think it will take RIM a couple of iterations to get it right, but the platform certainly has a lot of potential. There are “big trend” issues raised by the PlayBook related to the role of tablets in the enterprise, the “consumerization of IT”, whether tablets will “kill” this or that category, and all of those buzzwords, along with RIM’s market position and strategy. I’m deliberately not going to address them here – that stuff is for paying clients of my employer. This is just some tips about what it’s like to use the PlayBook as an ordinary person.

Five good things about the PlayBook

  1. The hardware is pretty good. It feels solid in the hand, the screen is bright and sharp, and it feels fast enough. The design is functional, not aesthetically triumphant, but definitely no eyesore. The touch-sensitive bezel gives it an uncluttered look and works well with the OS design. The speakers are loud enough and clear. It’s a good piece of kit.
  2. The QNX operating system seems like a platform with a lot of potential. The UI is simple and intuitive (*ahem* especially if you’ve used WebOS) but the real screamer is that it feels fast. QNX must be incredibly efficient, because the PlayBook can multi-task better than any comparable device I’ve used, and its dual-core 1GHz chipset is nothing special compared to the top-end competition. I tried playing Need for Speed Undercover (preloaded on the PlayBook), with a 720p video playing, a browser window with three tabs open, and the Photo Browser showing some of my holiday snaps, and the PlayBook didn’t drop a single frame. Even when flipping between apps, it’s smooth as silk. RIM made a very sensible acquisition when it ingested QNX.
  3. The web browser is excellent, and renders pages as if you were using a laptop. Including Flash content, which is handy, although sometimes Flash sites get confused by the screen resolution.
  4. It’s the right size to carry around and it even fits in some of my pockets. But the screen is still big enough for browsing, reading and watching video. Tablet size is about personal preference, though.
  5. HDMI out. This should be on every tablet and smartphone.

Five  things about the PlayBook that need to improve

  1. No native email app. This is the surly elephant in the PlayBook’s dining room. Just because I can check my web-based email in the browser, doesn’t mean I should have to. If RIM couldn’t build an email client to support BES/BIS servers in time for launch, it should have at least included a decent standards-based email app. Sure, if you have a BlackBerry phone you can pair it up via Bridge, and then you get calendar and email and contacts, and it’s more secure etc etc… I’ve heard those arguments and I think they’re inadequate. Those applications are part of the core experience on every other tablet and smartphone for a reason.
  2. App World has tumbleweeds rolling through it. The tardiness of the native SDK probably hasn’t helped, but there should be plenty of developers out there capable of building apps in Adobe AIR or WebWorks. However, most of the action is happening on iOS and Android. There is a real risk for RIM that what remains of its developer community, forced to re-tool to support QNX on the PlayBook and (in the not-too-distant future) on BlackBerry handsets, will decide they’re more likely to make a living on the more popular platforms. At the moment there are a few good apps scattered around App World, but it’s pretty sparse compared to Android, and especially the iPad. Apparently there’s an Android Player coming soon, which will allow Android apps to run on the PlayBook. If this feat of technical wizardry is accomplished (and I confess I am sceptical) it should improve things for users in the short term, but I worry that it will leave the PlayBook’s native SDK to the role of “unpopular kid who is clever but has no friends”.
  3. The initial set-up process was horrible. It forced me to complete a mandatory software upgrade, which required a 361MB download and couldn’t be skipped. It failed multiple times and re-started from the beginning. I had the same experience while setting up a colleague’s PlayBook. It was a pain in the arse. It took me over 24 hours to get my PlayBook up and running. This is not the user experience you’re looking for – indeed it’s a great way to harsh what should be the buzz of a new purchase.
  4. The BlackBerry Desktop software needs a major upgrade. It really is a poor man’s iTunes, and I don’t like iTunes. Media management is really clunky (it doesn’t let you copy albums!), it only seems to recognise my PlayBook some of the time, and it’s ugly – in fact it feels like travelling back in time to 2002. You can transfer media without using it, so I recommend you do that.
  5. No MicroSD slot makes it less valuable as a media player. This is less of a problem than some of the other negatives, but I like having the ability to load up a memory card with movies and music, especially when I travel. I miss it. It means the PlayBook  (I have a 16GB version) can’t replace my ancient iPod on trips away. Although the sound quality through the headphone jack would also need a boost for that to happen – it’s definitely not an audiophile device. Video codec support is only “OK” as well (H.264 and some DivX/Xvid files seem to work, but the MKV container is not supported). All in all it’s an adequate media tablet, with some weaknesses.

So, this is in no way meant to be an exhaustive review, but it highlights some of the salient traits, positive and negative, of this device. Some carriers are bundling the PlayBook with a BlackBerry handset and pricing quite aggressively, so given the PlayBook’s reliance on the BB handset for various important functions, that’s probably the way to play it if you’re considering a purchase.

N.B These comments are based on the PlayBook running version 1.0.7.2942 which was the latest update at the time of writing.





HTC HD2 review

25 02 2010

What: HTC HD2

How much: around £500 (unlocked, SIM-free) at various online retailers.

The good: Amazing 4.3 inch (800×480) screen, very fast Snapdragon chipset and generally high hardware specifications, excellent implementation of HTC Sense UI; the greatest weather widget ever seen.

The bad: Windows Mobile 6.5 shows its ugly side every now and again; it’s a big beast and not exactly pocket-friendly; lack of developer momentum behind WinMo means it lacks the quirky apps from iPhone and Android; firmware version on the test unit was a bit buggy, required daily resets and crashed occasionally.

Buy it if: You want the best Windows Mobile handset available; you need the business functions of Windows Mobile but want a multimedia and web browsing powerhouse; you want a huge screen.

Don’t buy it if: You can’t tolerate Windows Mobile; you wear skinny jeans; you’re skint; you want to wait for this hardware to run Android.

Summary: This was the best piece of mobile phone hardware I’d seen until HTC announced its new handsets at MWC 2010. It has an enormous high resolution touchscreen and a blazing fast processor in a slim, minimalist body. HTC has done an excellent job of hiding Windows Mobile’s flaws behind its own Sense UI (a slightly different implementation than on the Hero, and I actually prefer it) and using the phone day to day is fairly pleasant, with the interface controlled by plenty of sweeping touch gestures. The screen is a great asset to usability, the sheer amount of space available means the onscreen keyboard is accurate and easy to use, Google Maps looks fantastic, viewing photos and videos is excellent, and the extra grunt from the Snapdragon chipset means the phone runs smoothly even while displaying some lovely graphical effects and transitions. The software on the unit I tested got a big laggy after a day or so in use, requiring a reset, and it’s not without its bugs. Nevertheless, I really like the HD2 despite its flaws.

Software

Generally, I’m not a fan of Windows Mobile. Admittedly powerful for office workers, it’s now looking bloated and clunky. Version 6.5 is a mild improvement, but it still lags behind the leading smartphone OSes in terms of looks, usability and fun factor, and the Windows Marketplace app cupboard looks depressingly bare. Luckily, HTC has put in the hard yards and designed its own Sense user interface, which does a surprisingly good job of hiding the WinMo bits  – most of the time. Sense looks and feels great, with a graphically rich, customisable home screen, it puts all of the most important functions within easy reach. It also offers plenty of customisation, so you can add your most-used apps and people to shortcuts on the home screen.

Now, I have to mention the weather widget first: it’s insane. It shows a huge and awesome animation of your current location’s weather across the whole home screen, and you can easily flick to other favourite cities and check out the weather there. It’s amazing. I can’t believe I’m this excited about a weather widget, but it’s freaking awesome.

The HD2 comes with both Internet Explorer and Opera 9.7 installed, with Opera as the default. I think it’s an excellent choice, and it does a very good job of rendering web pages, resizing the text columns to fit the width of the screen. It also supports multitouch pinch-to-zoom, which is useful. Let’s face it, having a huge screen makes mobile browsing significantly easier, and the HD2 does a very good job of it.

The built-in Twitter app is very good and has most of the functionality of third-party Twitter clients on other platforms. The Facebook app is less impressive. It works, but it looks suspiciously like a shortcut to a mobile web version of Facebook. Sense merges your Facebook contacts into your phone contacts, which I like, but it could still be smarter – it missed a few of my contacts.

Text entry is excellent. Having a screen the size of the Great Sandy Desert makes entering text ridiculously easy because the virtual keys are enormous. I even found myself using it in portrait orientation rather than doing my usual trick of rotating it into landscape mode. It’s perfectly usable in portrait, in fact better than most handsets can manage in landscape. I’m becoming a convert to this huge screen thing!

The YouTube app on the HD2 also deserves a mention, as it uses the whole screen and plays videos perfectly with no stuttering (over WiFi at least). This thing is made to watch video on, but it’s a shame the default video player doesn’t have fantastic codec support, and is limited to the formats that the built in Media Player supports. Nevertheless there are several good third-party alternatives for Windows Mobile that should cover the gaps for fans of Divx/Xvid/H.264.

The email app didn’t seem to collect my mail consistently, but I have a feeling that my BlackBerry was snaffling it before it ever got a chance to reach the HD2, so I won’t assume the worst.

All in all, I was surprised how much I didn’t hate the software. It did get a bit laggy and require a restart every day or so, but apart from that there were very few moments where I wanted to throw the HD2 at the wall.

Hardware

The first time I ever saw the HD2 it was in the hands of HTC’s CEO Peter Chou, at an analyst briefing in London. He was clearly proud of what HTC has achieved with the HD2, and rightly so. It’s a lovely bit of hardware, in fact I think it’s the best mobile phone hardware I’ve seen.

The screen. It’s amazing. Massive area, high resolution, great brightness and colour, and very responsive. Best screen I’ve seen on a handset, and it had everyone in the office gawping and rubbing it. Top marks.

The processor. Probably the equal fastest currently available in a phone (there are other Snapdragon handsets out there, but most are underclocked well below the HD2’s 1GHz). The latest generation of cutting-edge Android devices from HTC (Desire, Nexus One) use the same hardware platform. It makes the notoriously sluggish Windows Mobile run like melted butter on Teflon-coated silk, and everything is very responsive. Top marks.

The body. The huge screen means this is a big phone, but the bezel around the screen adds hardly any extra bulk, and it’s slim. I found it fitted in my pockets without too much hassle. The build quality is mostly excellent, and I really like the metal shell. There’s a bit of wobble in the keys at the base of the screen on the review unit I was lent, but it didn’t seem to affect performance.

The camera. Five megapixels, with a dual LED “flash” which makes it more useful than the Hero’s camera. Images are mediocre in this class, despite the relatively plentiful camera controls. Meh.

The ports. HTC has finally ditched the annoying ext-USB port from the Magic, and swapped in a standard micro-USB port which means you can use the same charger with other handsets (it’s coming in as a standard across the industry) and syncing data requires a standard micro-USB cable. They’ve also added a 3.5mm headphone jack, which pumps out good quality sound. With a good-sized microSD card, the HD2 could be a decent music player.

Storage. It doesn’t have much on-board, so you’ll need to bring your own microSD card.

HSDPA, WiFi, GPS. Yes to all, and all good.

Battery life. You would think the price of a massive screen and huge engine would be high power consumption and poor battery life. And you’d be absolutely correct. I was charging the HD2 more than once a day. I’m sure you could wring a fair bit more out of it with 3G, WiFi and GPS turned off, but this thing is more Usain Bolt than Haile Gebrselassie.

Anyway, I suppose I’ve written enough, lest I sound like HTC has paid me to write this (they definitely haven’t). But it is a very nice piece of kit, and it shows what the people at HTC can do. I do wish it wasn’t running Windows Mobile, but it’s pretty much as good as Windows Mobile gets. If you’re forced to use a WinMo phone to fit into a corporate network (or maybe you just love Windows Mobile) you really can’t do better.





Again with the Twitter

11 01 2010

eaten

Diary of a Twitter-addicted analyst

This post is really just a few thoughts about my relationship with social media – specifically blogs and Twitter – as a technology industry analyst. Although some high-profile analysts have enjoyed great success using social media to build their profile (and that of their company), and some analyst firms are actively encouraging their analysts to blog, I still see a few issues here and I don’t think they’re easily resolved.

Some of our competitors have adopted analyst blogs and use of social media whole-heartedly, but the company I work for has been much more cautious. Some of my colleagues have experimented with blogs, as I obviously have, but this activity isn’t officially sanctioned. I deliberately blog only the sort of material that I would never publish through company channels (lately I tend to limit myself to reviewing devices, mainly for the benefit of my friends, and all written in my own time). I enjoy writing about technology and I do it for interest. Nevertheless, I am conscious of not giving too much away.

Personality and trust in a serious world

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have noticed that I recently decided to make my feed private. In the process I removed just over 300 followers, including a lot of random spammers, inactive accounts and internet marketers. I also removed a lot of people who are following me purely for professional reasons (including tech PRs, analyst relations people, people who work for clients, vendors, journalists and so on).

The Naked Pheasant wondered what the reasoning was behind an analyst taking Twitter private, noting that it seems to inhibit Twitter’s raison d’etre: open communication. I completely agree. It was not a decision I was initially happy to take, and it goes against my own natural instincts towards openness and honesty (I’m a Gen-Y, so I can’t help it, right?).

I took this decision because, as an analyst, Twitter carries a high degree of risk. There is a tension between the way many people (myself included) use Twitter – for open and immediate communication with some personality – and the high value that others place on my comments, by virtue of where I work.

I take the view that Twitter is at its best when it contains some personality. When I follow someone I like to hear what they’re watching, which football team they support, what their hobbies are. I like to express myself, and tell my friends what I’m doing, but my friends really don’t care about our latest forecast for global smartphone shipments in 2014. They might care about the bike components I’ve bought, whether I’m racing at Rollapaluza, what I’ve been reading, which politician or newspaper columnist I’m angry at, or which new beer or band I’ve discovered. If there’s sport (especially cricket or cycling) on, you’ll hear my opinions on it! A lot of my followers like hearing about the latest phones, or new gadgets and tech, and they value my opinion on that stuff, but they are interested because I’m a person, not an RSS feed. On the other hand, I’m sure plenty of people were following me expecting insight into the global telecoms market, and ended up hearing all about the quality of Ricky Ponting’s captaincy. Sorry guys!

Twitter is brilliant for its immediacy and directness, and for injecting some personality into communications. It can be excellent for building relationships with people you deal with in a business context, and some of the PR/AR people I work with have used it well for quick back-channel communication. There are a (very small) handful of industry people who I still allow to follow me for this reason.

But when Twitter becomes a serious business tool, this personality gets squeezed out by the need to moderate every comment, neutralise controversy and stay on message.

Openness requires trust

Honesty and openness online require a level of trust. Twitter is an extreme case: you trust that people will interpret your statements charitably, understanding that 140 characters is not enough to express things as articulately as you might. People who know me personally know that I have a mischievous sense of humour, and that I love to make deliberately outrageous statements just to test the response, but people who’ve only met me online may take every comment seriously.

On Twitter you have to trust that people will not (deliberately or accidentally) distort what you’ve said to make mischief. As your circle of followers grows, familiarity is diluted and this trust becomes harder to maintain. It is seductively easy to assume that people on Twitter understand this implicit pact, when in fact it’s not the case. It is easy to be stitched up, and the consequences of a loose comment could be career-defining.

Ultimately I reached the point where I can no longer trust people to take my tweets in the spirit they are shared. The risk is too high. I had to decide whether to tweet only about work, or to continue to show some personality, but with a selected audience. So I made the decision that I would rather be a Person on Twitter than an Analyst on Twitter.

Locking my twitter feed is a way of narrowing my circle of trusted followers. It’s a way of reclaiming Twitter as a personal medium built around relationships, still being cautious, but not being paralysed by fear of having an inarticulate or rushed comment retweeted and decontextualised through the echo chamber. There has been some collateral damage – I have been forced to block some people who don’t deserve to be blocked. Locking my feed is a very blunt tool, and it definitely limits my enjoyment of Twitter and its usefulness, but I see it as the lesser of two evils.

Since I locked my feed I have been tweeting a lot less about work, except in conversations with other analysts and friends, or just to say what I’m doing. There is now almost nothing of commercial value in my twitterstream, for competitors or clients.

A brief comment on Twitter rankings

A few weeks ago Jonny Bentwood of Edelman and the IIAR launched TweetLevel, a tool that ranks Twitter users’ influence based on criteria including number of followers, level of engagement and trust. It’s not just for ranking analysts, but obviously given Jonny’s AR focus he has designed it with analysts in mind.

Being ranked as an influencer is part of being an analyst. Vendors and research buyers alike want to know that they’re briefing the right people, and that the research they are buying is written by respected analysts. It’s part of the business, and I’m perfectly happy with that.

But I don’t want to be ranked on my Twitter use. I don’t use Twitter to deliberately influence people, I’m not interested in racking up huge numbers of followers (hell, I just blocked 60% of them and I reject almost all the requests that come in) and locking my feed has basically shot my Twitter influence right out of the sky in big billowing plumes of smoke. I don’t mind, I’d much prefer to use Twitter on a more informal basis and as a research tool. I suspect that many of my colleagues feel the same way, and many of the most influential of my colleagues don’t use Twitter at all. Influence on Twitter is something that I am completely uninterested in.

In all honesty, I’m just not comfortable with being ranked, measured and monitored when I’m talking about day-to-day stuff. I could start a separate professional Twitter profile, but to be honest it’s just too much work for not enough reward, especially given that our management is still (justifiably) nervous about analysts using Twitter. Perhaps they believe that the company brand is being impacted (positively or negatively) in a channel they can’t control, which carries too much risk (I don’t know). They have been looking into a corporate policy for social media. Analysts may soon come under pressure to conform to strict company policies (which would kill the appeal stone dead for many) or stop tweeting altogether (less likely). I haven’t seen the policy so I have no way of knowing what it may contain, but I think it’s a sound idea to have one.

Regardless, I think my personal brand and real-world influence can be built much more effectively through traditional means: by producing good reports, doing good engagements, speaking to people at events and conferences, and getting exposure through the media and trade press.

Anyway, blocking my feed is my way of putting this discussion on ice for a while. In the mean time, there’s nothing stopping anyone from contacting me using the traditional corporate channels.

If you want to arrange a briefing, email or call me at work. I’m only a Google away.





Samsung bada: navigating the ocean

15 12 2009

This is an opinion piece that I co-wrote with Adam Leach, looking into Samsung’s strategy for Bada. It was syndicated on Telecoms Europe.

http://www.telecomseurope.net/content/samsung-bada-navigating-samsungs-ocean?page=0%2C0





Some thoughts on BBC iPlayer and Virgin Media

13 05 2009

I’ve been thinking admiring thoughts about BBC iPlayer quite a lot lately, and pondering a bit about how the BBC deploys it to all the various devices it supports. The BBC has an excellent blog about iPlayer which I highly recommend you read for some background.

Yesterday my friend Andrew Pascoe wrote a great blog post exploring the terms under which Virgin Media offers BBC iPlayer content to its pay-TV subscribers. I suggest you head over and read what Pascoe has to say, but he triggered a few little thoughts which I emailed him and he suggested I write them up properly.

Conspiracy, or technical reasons?

Pascoe asks some interesting questions about why Virgin is the only pay-TV provider that has direct access to the iPlayer service, given the BBC’s remit to distribute its content as widely as possible. Where some might be tempted to smell a conspiracy, I started thinking about some of the technical barriers that might inhibit other providers from deploying iPlayer. Take these suggestions with a grain of salt, they are my guesses only and I haven’t had a chance to confirm these with anyone at the BBC or any of the ISPs mentioned.

  • The BBC supports about 14 different video formats for iPlayer, according to this interview with ZDNet, including MPEG-2 and h.264 in various wrappers.
  • Virgin probably gets its iPlayer in an MPEG-2 stream, which is the native format of its set-top box and the same as Virgin uses to deliver its standard TV and VoD content over its cable network.
  • MPEG-2 requires relatively high bandwidth (standard definition video typically requires something around 4Mbps).
  • Virgin has a big cable pipe into customers’ homes, which can deliver HD video, multi-stream SD video or 50Mbps Internet, but other ISPs that rely on ADSL to deliver data don’t really have enough bandwidth to guarantee a good quality MPEG-2 stream to a wide enough audience.
  • The next option for streaming video in bandwidth-constrained situations is really using h.264 encoding, which compresses video more efficiently than the older MPEG-2 codec.
  • BT Vision uses Microsoft Mediaroom to deliver IPTV, using h.264 but wrapped in a proprietary format. I don’t know a huge amount about the Mediaroom platform, but I suspect that it packages its video in specific DRM and content management stuff, which would require a significant amount of tweaking for the BBC to support. BT Vision does have some BBC content available in its catch-up TV service, but it is not the full iPlayer service.
  • Sky does not have a true IPTV solution, and I doubt that the Sky set-top boxes actually support h.264 (perhaps the newer ones do but not across the whole customer base). Sky prefers to deliver video over satellite, naturally.
  • The BBC does format most of its iPlayer content in some flavour of h.264 depending on the intended destination device, but usually wrapped in Flash, WMV or 3GP containers, which the BT Vision box probably can’t play because it’s built around proprietary Mediaroom software.

Nope, it’s not a conspiracy

What this boils down to is that the other big video-centric ISPs in the UK probably just don’t have the ability to support iPlayer (in its current form) on their STBs, through a combination of not enough bandwidth and not supporting the right video codecs. Customers of these ISPs can still access iPlayer content through a standard web browser or other device (iPhone, games console etc) where codec support is not a problem and they can take advantage of lower-bitrate streams.

The BBC may judge that reformatting its content to suit the BT Vision platform would take too much effort given the size of BT Vision’s customer base. The BBC doesn’t have the resources to support every platform instantly, and must prioritise where it can easily reach the maximum audience – pick the low-hanging fruit, if you will. The BBC is probably happy to give them iPlayer, but there isn’t a cost-effective way to do it.

Of course, the other ISPs may not want to deploy iPlayer for their own commercial or strategic reasons, such as avoiding cannibalising their own VoD revenues by offering too much free content too easily. That’s for others to discuss.





HTC Magic review

29 04 2009

The HTC Magic is the second phone to be released with Google’s Android mobile OS, and I was lucky enough to have a few days to play with one just before its launch, supplied by Vodafone UK. The Magic uses the latest version of Android (1.5) which adds support for an onscreen keyboard, better video handling and a bunch of other tweaks and improvements. There is plenty of interest in Android, both from geeky consumers and from industry people. This is partly because anything Google does is pretty interesting (and potentially game-changing and scary) and partly because it looks like a genuine challenger to the iPhone, but with a more open philosophy. I found the Magic to be a real joy to use, and I think it does a great job of showing Android’s potential as a consumer mobile OS.

Slimmer and prettier than the BlackBerry Storm

Slimmer and prettier than the BlackBerry Storm

What: HTC Magic
How much: Vodafone UK is initially offering it for “free” on a two-year, £35 a month contract (including data), with a variety of other more expensive options available. It is also on other European carriers at launch, including in France, Spain, Italy and Germany, so check your local market.
The good: Awesome integration with Google applications; easy set-up; great user interface is very fast and intuitive; web browser is the best I’ve seen on a mobile; form factor is slim and feels good in the hand.
The bad: Lacks a 3.5mm stereo jack (requires a separate adaptor); camera pretty much sucks.
Buy it if: you’re a Google fan and already use Google apps; you want a web-centric phone with plenty of third-party apps; you want a touchscreen phone that isn’t an iPhone but offers a comparable user experience.
Don’t buy it if: you think Google is evil; the thought of carrying a headphone adaptor fills you with rage; you’re using it for corporate stuff.
Summary: I liked the Magic more than any phone I’ve used lately, and I think that Android is really exciting from a consumer point of view. The Magic is the best Android phone currently available, but you might want to wait until Samsung launches its first Android device in June 2009 (it has a headphone jack AND a 5MP camera!) for comparison. Apple will also have a new version of the iPhone out, probably around July (educated guess, not inside information). The Magic goes to the top of my “most wanted” list… for now.

Software

Home screen is pretty basic, but effective

Home screen is pretty basic, but effective

Android 1.5 is pretty awesome to use, especially if all your stuff is already on Google. I use Gmail, Calendar and use Google Sync to sync my contacts so they are all already in Google’s system (being able to sync contacts to the web is pretty handy when you change phones as often as I do). I use Google Maps most days (GPS + gmaps = cycling around London without getting lost). So being able to type in my Google password and have the phone automatically sync all my information with a couple of button presses is, well, ace. This is nothing new to Android users and those who have been paying attention, but for the people up the back it’s worth pointing out that it really is very, very easy to set up.

Using it is also a breeze, flicking through menus is intuitive and applications all launch fast. This is the easiest phone I’ve used for ages, possibly ever (I don’t have an iPhone). I had fun playing with it, and found myself using it for things that are awkward and off-putting on other phones. I wanted to use the web, to send email, to check the weather… all of these things that “smartphones” are supposed to enable are executed really well in Android 1.5.

The web browser is stonkingly good – I would say it is the best mobile web browser I have seen, because it renders pages perfectly and really quickly, scrolls around like butter on greased teflon, and doesn’t actually feel much like a mobile browser at all, more like a desktop browser on a really tiny screen.

The Gmail application is similarly impressive, rendering full html email beautifully. It actually made me want to send emails.

The media player looks nice, and works well

The media player looks nice, and works well

The media player is good, if not as pretty as Apple’s version, and apart from the headphone jack thing (not the software’s fault) the Magic is a competent music player. It picked up all the album art, and seems to support playlists (but I ran out of time to test this properly). It does support AD2P stereo Bluetooth, so if you have a set of Bluetooth headphones you may not care about the audio jack (in case you haven’t noticed, I do care).

The Android Market is picking up momentum and there are plenty of cool apps available on it (also plenty of crap, but that’s not exclusively Android’s problem). I particularly liked the Shazam app, but I didn’t have time to download and test a huge range of apps.

Android will continue to improve as the development team chips away at adding features and polishing the UI, but with this release it has gone from an impressive novelty to being a genuine alternative for many people. Of course, owners of the G1/Dream will also reap the benefits of Android 1.5 when the software upgrade is pushed out to them, but the Magic is a much prettier and smaller phone, so I’m sure it will prove popular.

Hardware

Yep, I even switched it on!

Yep, I even switched it on!

The critical change that HTC has made to its line of Android devices is the lack of the physical keyboard on the Magic, which makes it slimmer and sleeker than the G1. Version 1.5 of the Android OS is the reason, as it has support for a soft onscreen keyboard. So the form factor of the Magic is really the main reason to favour a Magic over the G1 (which will receive the 1.5 software update and have all the same software features as the Magic).

The onscreen keyboard, luckily, is damn good. It is accurate and provides haptic feedback (vibrates) when you press it, and it works in portrait or landscape view (although landscape is much easier to type on). I like physical keyboards, and after using a BlackBerry Bold swore that I would always prefer real buttons over virtual ones (the Bold is a great device, btw). The Magic nearly changes my mind – it really is excellent.

You might ask why a touchscreen device needs a trackball as well. The answer is because some things really benefit from the extra precision a trackball provides – things like hitting small links in web pages not designed for a mobile screen and touchscreen interface, and editing typing errors (RIM, are you listening? The next Storm should have a trackball, we both know you do trackballs well).

Err... where do I plug my headphones?

Err... where do I plug my headphones?

The only port on the device is the proprietary HTC extUSB jack on the bottom, which combines all the normal things that a mini-USB jack is used for, but makes it a slightly different shape (although you can still plug a standard mini-USB cable into it) and adds a couple of pins for audio output. To use headphones with the Magic you need to purchase a special adaptor that plugs into the extUSB jack, and then plug your headphones into the adaptor (for the sake of argument I’ve ignored the bundled headphones, as bundled headphones are generally not worth the effort of unwrapping them). I think it’s a terrible omission to not have a standard audio jack, and if HTC is going to insist on doing it then the box really should include an adaptor.

The camera, well the less said the better, but it’s pretty ordinary. It has autofocus, but the images are soft and noisy. There are no real options for adjusting settings like white balance or night mode, and there is not even an LED flash. The good news is Android 1.5 supports video recording, but if you really want a phone with a half-decent camera, get a Nokia N-Series.

So that’s about it. As you can probably tell I’m a big fan of the HTC Magic, and I would probably buy one if I wasn’t allergic to long contracts. Thanks for reading, and please ask any questions in the comments.