Techphyre Review: LG G2 Smartphone

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Samsung has enjoyed dominance in the Android smartphone space for quite some time now, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that LG has fallen into a rut as a constant #2. Although the company is still in the ‘fast follow’ mode, entering nearly every nice as second to Samsung – the company looks to be throwing more research dollars into developing phone functions that set it apart. Enter the LG G2…

Hardware: The G2, by every measure is a flagship smartphone. It has been on the market now for a half year, and is shipping on all of the Big 4 carriers in the US – a major win for LG. With the recent announcement of the LG G Pro 2 phablet, the older G2 is again of interest for those not quite ready for a larger than life smartphone.

The main attraction of the LG G2 is a 5.2” 1080p panel. This particular unit is hailed as using extremely small bezels in implementation. A closer look however will reveal a buffer space at the edge of the display that is a couple pixels wide, this would normally be covered by plastic bezel – so nothing groundbreaking here, just a different implementation.  As part of the smaller bezels, LG made the choice to made the choice to move the power and volume keys to the back of the device. The new placement was ergonomic and easy to get used to in practice. Not a gimmick, but a legitimate alternative for the standard smartphone ergonomics.

Other hardware bits include a Snapdragon 800 CPU at 2.2Ghz, 2GB RAM, and 32GB storage my T-Mobile model. No SD card, or removeable battery is available in the G2. In operation, the high-end hardware all worked well together, the device benchmarks slightly higher than the Nexus 5 smartphone that shares similar internals and Snapdragon CPU.

Software: Since most modern smartphone falls into predictable categories of low-end, midrange, and high-end, manufacturers – most notoriously, LG and Samsung, have relied on heavily modified Android software to differentiate their handsets. LG’s implementation of Android carrier very cartoony UI styling, with very bright coloring. It performs better than Samsung Touchwiz, but is just as intrusive. LG has also implemented a number of conflicting software options, such as LG Cloud storage that overa with services offered by Google. Overall, the software is middle of the road, rating behind that of stock Android, and lighter skinnings such as those from Sony – but above the heavier Samsung interface. Notable enhancements that came with the additional bloat, include “Knock-On”, which allows the phone to be waken, or placed in sleep with two taps. Other features such as slide-aside are not as useful, again conflicting with built-in Android multi-tasking.

Camera: A special mention is needed for the camera on the LG G2. At 13MP, it is not competing on numbers with Nokia or Sony, which have higher specs sensors. It does however include optical image stabilization which help churn out great images consistently. The camera has more lag than most any other phone I have tested – but in stock form offered 9-point auto focus, which while nice – was likely slowing it down.

Conclusion: The LG is a very good high-end Android device. It can be had for as little as $99 from a number of carriers. It packs high-end specs, including plenty RAM and a good camera. Perhaps most importantly, it delivered on excellent battery life, allowing users to be truly mobile. In the current crop of high-end handsets, the LG earns top marks – and also happens to be my current “daily driver”.

Rating: 8 of 10

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Motorola Moto G Review

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It wasn’t a surprise when Google announced that they put in a bid to buy Motorola Mobility. It’s Android operating system was rapidly expanding and under threat of patent litigation from rivals. Google itself had no history in telecom and did not have the patents to defend itself. This is, until it bought Motorola.

Two years after the acquisition, Motorola has burned through it’s line of second-rate smartphone offerings, and starting with the acclaimed Moto X, is now producing product fully under the tutilage of its parent company Google. Moto G is the second product of this formula – aimed squarely at the low end of the Android market.

Hardware: Moto G retail prices start at $179 for an 8BG model, and $199 for a 16GB unit. Outside of the storage allotment, all Moto G models ship with a 5MP rear camera, 1.2MP from shooter, 1GB RAM, and quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor clocked at 1.2Ghz. A very well rounded package. Prior to Android 4.4, 1GB of RAM would have been a concern – but performance of the Android 4.4 operating system has been mostly smooth in testing. Photos taken on the other hand were average to poor out of the 5MP rear camera. It’s video recording specifically is limited to only 720p and it noticeably less sharp that most any other android device that have all standardized on 1080p.

On top of the internals is a nice 4.5” guerrilla glass 3 display at 720p. Even at 720p, the display has pixel density in the range of iPhone 5 and was a pleasure to use. Motorola chose wisely in not skimping too much on the display. It is not made using AMOLED technology, but instead is a cheaper LCD panel – but performs well overall. Rounding out the hardware is a rear-facing speaker that plays loud but lack any richness when compared to current champs HTC One and iPhone 5.

My favorite function of the device overall may be the replaceable back covers, the covers are sold direct from Motorola, and come in multiple colors. My current back is an electric lime green. The Moto G is sure to be favored by a younger audience that wants a custom look – that can be changed with their mood. The flexibility of swapping the candy colored back may be the only advantage it holds over the more expensive Moto X.

Software: Motorola did well in sticking with a stock android experience on the Moto G. I wondered how the lower-end hardware would have coped with laters of bloat or skinning. Other than the base 4.4 built, Motorola does include a few Motorola specific aplications, such as Moto assist – but these can be easily disabled from the application menu.

Although 1GB RAM runs android 4.4 well – the phone did begin to slow once 20 or more applications were installed. Even is closing all apps, the additional installation required more services when the phone booted – leaving less memory for Android processes. This phone is not for power users. The lack of RAM was most apparent when multitasking between multiple application windows. Opening and closing the apps would begin to slow and transitions stutter for more visually heavy applications. 90% however would never reach such load to create this scenario.

Conclusion: The Moto G is a polished and well rounded smartphone, it cuts back in places that are not too obvious while providing all the functions a user expects. The processor, RAM, and screen combination works well together with Android 4.4. The swappable back covers make the devices also visually unique. At $179, the device is not for power users – but it is a value that is not matched by anything else in its class.

Score: 9 of 10

First Look: Logitech Z600 Bluetooth Speakers

Image Credit: iLounge

Now that just about everything is connecting over bluetooth, including fitness gadgets and countless portable speakers. Logitech has released the Z600 – a wall powered set of USB speakers that connect over bluetooth to PC’s smartphones and other gadgets supporting USB.

Hardware: THe Z600 speaker set is well made, shipping in a minimalistic box. The speakers themselves are white cones with a grill that wraps roughly 75% of the cone. Each speaker has a cable coming from its back to connect to each other, with the connecting block going to wall power. One of the two speakers houses touch volume on the top of the cone, an aux port, as well as the bluetooth pairing button. The speakers currently retail for roughly $130 in the US.

The Z600 set can pair with up to 3 devices. Pairing with my PC and smartphone was without issue and the Z600 is able to stay connecting simultaneously – meaning that is you hit pause on one source and play on the other, there is no delay. The polish there was much appreciated.

Sound Quality: Sound quality is a downside for the Z600 set. Although most sources are going to be piped over bluetooth and through streaming services, the Z600 set seemed to flatten everything it played. There was little to no high-end treble, no sparkle to classical or vocal heavy tracks. The speakers cones each have 3 drives, two in the tower facing forward, and one down-firing speaker for low-range notes. Bass on the pair was respectable with a system not including a subwoofer. Folks stepping up from most bluetooth speakers will be pleased. Anyone moving from a traditional desktop speaker pairing will be disappointed – I look squarely at the Klipsch Promedia 2.1 and Creative T40 sets that can be had for the same price (but are harder to find at retail.

Conclusion: At the price, the Z600 set offer a reasonable value, the sound quality is simply too flat to recommend however. The system plays plenty loud with reasonable bass, but does not actually sound better than many higher-end bluetooth portable speaker such as the Monster iClarity, Beats Pill, and Logitechs own UE BOOM. Unless room-filling bluetooth audio on a tight budget is your only requirement, the recommendation is to stick with the more crystal sounding Logitech UE Boom.

Score: 6 of 10

First Look: HP Haswell Chromebook 14

Image Courtesy of Tech Radar

What if you used Gmail for email, and also loved Googled Docs? Did you know that Google has music, shopping, and video stores? Then maybe you should work from a Chromebook. Or at least, that’s Googles hope. Two years after the first Chromebook prototype launched, Google has arranged an ecosystems of vendors producing varying models of Chromebook hardware, including HP’s second generation Chromebook 14.

Hardware: In a word, excellent. At a $299 price point, the HP Chromebook 14 is perhaps the best hardware you will find for the price. It is offered in a variety of colors, all with rubberized coatings. If purchasing at a retail location such as Best Buy or Office Depot – you will be limited to the white model. The frame of the device is solid, the body being completely sealed so as to not allow upgrades. Inside the chassis lies 2GB RAM and 16GB HDD which are both soldered to the system board. The screen up top is a bright 1366×768 non-touch panel.

At the heart of the system is a 1.4ghz Intel Celeron processor, based on the newer Haswell core. Having the new core means the laptop lasts roughly 8hrs on battery power. I had no issue using it on the day of marathon use. On the connectivity front, the system has a HDMI, SD Card, 2 USB 3, and 1 USB 2 ports.

Software: Although the hardware build quality is solid, the majority of the story is told with Chrome OS. With such lightweight specs, the system had no issue with pushing the chrome browser with multiple tabs. All Google services are front and center, Google Music, Google Docs, and others. The Chrome web store however still proved to be lacking when compared to Windows and Mac offerings.

Conclusion: After owning 2 previous chromebook models, it was sad to see how little had changed with the application choice and robustness of apps in the Chrome web store. Giving up my personal chromebook a few months ago in favor of a Windows 8 machine, it was jarring the lack of interface polish for the apps running within the Chrome web browser. Most Windows 8 applications as actually based on web HTML 5 – it is puzzling why UI and design parity has not made it to Chrome web apps.

Although initially adoring the idea of the Chromebook 14, with its polished build and extra long battery life, it is hard to recommend this model, or any model chromebook for users who need anything other than a secondary machine, or first computer device. At least for me, the initial amusement with Chrome as an OS has started to wane.

Rating: 6 of 10

Review: Mophie Juicepack Air

Image Credit: Mophie (Juicepack Air)Have a smartphone? Does it’s battery life suck? Then you may have looked at a battery pack from Mophie or another company. By far the most common brand of battery pack, Mophie battery packs are now carried directly at retailers like Verizon and AT&T.

While poor battery like a fairly univeral issue with currently smartphones, I purchased that Juicepack Air model for iPhone 5.

Hardware: The Juicepack Air comes in multiple colors and is compatible with iPhone 5 and 5s. Juicepack Air sits in the middle of Mophie’s current lineup, falling in between the Juicepack Helium and original Juicepack models. Packaging on the Juicepack Air claims to improve the iPhone battery life 100%, which would place its capacity at roughly 1500mAh.

Inserting the phone into the pack, the device fits firmly – removing the battery pack is a bit of a chore, the expectation is that the battery goes on and is a permanent installation. Once installed, the roughly doubles the size of the phone and feels much chunkier in hand. Mophie does a good job of tapering the appearance of the pack by including a band around the outside of the pack, which gives the cross-section a slimmer look. The chassis of the battery case also has physical buttons covers that look less jarring that the large cutout on other models of battery case.

After using the battery case for a week, the eventual drop occurred. The battery case handles the drop well and provided excellent protection for the phone – but left the seam of the case slightly ajar. Battery performance was indeed a reliable 100% charge every time and charged the phone quickly – similar to a rapid charge wall charger. Charging the Juicepack Air itself occurs over micro USB. A sequence of lights show a the remaining battery capacity once pressed.

Conclusion: The Mophie Juicepack Air is a simple proposition. Would you like better battery life? Yes? Then the deciding questions is: Are you willing to use a large phone to make use of a battery case – this will decide if the Juicepack Air is right for you. In comparison to other third party and generic cases, not many cases will approach the build quality and design attention as the Juicepack Air. After using the Juicepack Air for a week – I appreciated the peace of mind that came with everlasting battery life, I could not under normal use kill the battery within a day. So, again, are you willing to carry a fatter phone to accommodate a battery case? If so, get Juicepack Air.

Score: 8 of 10

First Look: Lenovo S400

Lenovo Ideapad s400 (credit: notebookspec.com)

If you are in the shopping mood, but want to avoid Black Friday hysteria, Lenovo is hoping you will take a look its way with the newly introduced Ideapad s400 being sold at Best Buy this holiday season. At $399 retail, the unit falls fully into budget laptop territory. Below are my initial impressions of the device.

Hardware: Before purchasing the Ideapad, I played with the retail display model at Best Buy, not once, or twice – but three times. The unit from all angles looked well styled and a screaming bargain – but the moment I lifted the device, the amount of keyboard flex was enough to scare myself away, even at such an impulsive price.

Starting with the screen, the Ideapad dons a bright 1366×768 14” LED backlit touch-panel. Although an IPS display will be had nowhere near this price category, the screen on the Ideapad is above average for the budget class with good color and brightness. Viewing angles however remain poor however. Another highlight of the device is the keyboard, which uses Lenovo’s current curved key design. The keys are well spaced and provide good feedback – a class above its other components. The trackpad on the other hand was one of the worst I have used. I did not understand fully what it meant to have a ‘bad’ trackpad until I used the one on the Ideapad and witnessed it jump across the screen during scrolling.

The Best Buy retail version of the S400 ships with a 1.8Ghz Core i3, 4GB RAM, and a 500GB HDD. It also included the requisite built in webcam, which provided very poor video and image quality. It is rated at 720p.

Along the outside of the device are 3 USB ports ( 1 USB 3), HDMI, ethernet, and SD card slot. At roughly 4 lbs, the device is lightweight for a 14” budget laptop. Special mention should be given to upgradability on the device. RAM and HDD were easy to swap, being replaced with an existing SSD and 8GB RAM stick that was on-hand. It should be noted however that the laptop only has 1 RAM slot and cannot have its budget WiFi card upgraded due to vendor restrictions imposed by the BIOS. The included WiFi card is a dog, supporting only single band 2.4 Ghz N-wireless. No 5 Ghz support, no Bluetooth radio, no dual-band …no frills. Battery life comes in at a paltry 1.5 hrs in performance mode, but an acceptable 3 hrs when using the power saver mode within Windows 8.

Software: Software on the device is standard Windows 8 fair. It was remarkable how little bloatware was included. These additional sponsored trials usually help subsidize the pricing of cheaper retail models. At the time of writing, the device ships with Windows 8, and not the newer 8.1 release. Performance in Windows 8 was snappy, but lagged if putting the device into battery saver mode in the power settings. I turned this saver mode off, as the difference was noticeable. No additional full release software is included, outside of Lenovo branded apps for support and web cam. Given the devices lower screen resolution,

I expected to be bothered with pixelation, but sitting at typing distance, Windows 8 still seemed to be stuck in a time where icons, graphics, and other visual elements were intended to be viewed on a screen with this pixel scale. Items ranging from the Windows task bar, to the Google Chrome tile icon were suddenly in focus and sized correctly – in a way that was missing on the 1080p screen-ed Acer R7.

Conclusion: I like the Lenovo S400. After pouring over the many vices of a laptop built with a touchscreen at a $399 price, I am typing the review on the machine and still find using the device a good experience. Mostly this is due to the aesthetic of the chassis, as well as the above average keyboard and screen. I could sit and use the machine for a few hours, without feeling punished of severely compromised. In an age where so much computing is taking place on mobile phones and tablets – it can feel wasteful to spend $1000 for a premium laptop that will be used in turn to surf the web. For any student, or any person on a budget, the Ideapad S400 can be recommended, flaws and all. Users just shouldn’t expect miracles – or batch editing files in photoshop.

Score: 7 of 10

Acer R7 Review: Better as a Desktop

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What would happen if you combined a laptop, desktop, tablet, and television into one device? I’m not quite sure, at least I wasn’t until I started using the Acer R7, a concept hybrid devices that takes things just 1 stop too far.

Design: Positioned as a premium device, the Acer R7 dons an industrial design that is rather sleek, given the complicated purpose it serves. It is not common to be stopped and asked about a laptop, but that’s what happens with the R7. Ranging from “whoa. what is that”, to “I hate it”. At the top of the device, is a 15” screen with 1080p resolution. It sits on a monster of a hinge that allow it to be flipped 180 degrees in reverse and also position almost flat, into a tablet mode. In most everyday use, I found myself sliding the screen just slightly forward, into what gave the laptop a pseudo desktop stance.

The bottom half of the device is standard ultrabook fare, with the exception of the track pad that sits behind the keyboard, instead of in front. Because the screen serves additional functions in its many positions, the trackpad ends up becoming secondary to the touch display. Acer is counting on consumers making more use of the touch display going forward. For the most part, this proved true – but has a jarring learning curve for the first few hours of use. It is the most polarizing part of the device. You either love it – or hate it.

Performance: On the performance front, Acer equipped it’s R7 with mid range laptop specs. An Intel Core i5 processor and 6GB of RAM. Intel onboard HD 4000 graphics push pixels to the display. Although the internals are nothing special, the display and speakers deserve extra attention. In total, the device has four speakers and Dolby surround processing. The effect in movies and games is quite good. Volume is good as well as the virtual surround and enhancements effects from the software DSP from Dolby. The screen, with it’s 1080p resolution is vivid and bright, it is an IPS panel with excellent viewing angles. IPS technology is still a rarity outside of tablets and does make other displays look dull in comparison. With a glossy coating for its touch panel, the display does exhibit a lot of reflection, which is a nuisance in direct sunlight, a shame given the devices media consumption leaning.

Conclusion: In real world use, the R7 ends up being a confused device. Playing Asphalt 8 on with the touch panel in tablet mode was a joy. Movies on the large 15” panel were a joy. Typing with the keyboard/touchpad combo were less a joy. The keyboard on the device in particular repeatedly failing to register key inputs, even though the key press is there, the space bar being the worst offender. This turned out to be something well known after searching forums. Don’t expect this to be fixed in software, as the device was tested months after release.

The Acer R7 when released was, and continues to be a Best Buy exclusive in the US. Although a very niche product, the company received enough sales that it revised the device with new Intel Haswell processors and small bumps in RAM and hard drive space. Can the R7 be recommended …no. Even though the concept hybrid is a novel feat of engineering – it can only be an optimal experience for those using the device ‘desktop’ mode, on a desk, with a mouse.

Rating: 6/10

Chromecast: Bare Minimum, Better than Google TV

ChromecastWithin minutes of announcement, my order was placed for Google’s $35 Chromecast streaming stick. Lucky thing, because within minutes of launch – the device was sold out. Google intentionally avoided direct comparison between the new Chromecast and its much maligned Google TV, but so far, that all anyone has been able to talk about…

Design: The Chromecast ships in Google’s trademark minimal white packaging. The package ships devoid of lengthy instruction manuals or foreign language translations. At launch, the device is only available in Google’s home market of the United States. The device itself only slightly larger than a USB thumb drive. Although the advertising never shows it connected to power – it does required an external power source to function. If your TV has an empty USB slot as mine did, this is enough to run the low power device.

Software: Once connected to the TV, the Chromecast displays on the TV a link to the setup URL for the device. At the setup page, you enter the wireless network and give the device a name – that’s about it. From this point any Chromecast enabled application can beam video to the stick with a single click …dead simple, and totally opposite Google TV.

Simplicity is the gem of Chromecast. Today, it only supports Netflix, Youtube, and Google Chrome web browser. The browser support allows streaming entire web pages, including streaming sites like Hulu and HBO – but it should be noted that this function worked very poorly. Streaming the chrome browser tab literally uploads you stream from the PC – uploading anything among congested WiFi network is usually a wash, this is true of Apple TV streaming and equally disappointing on Chromecast. Next up, was streaming from the YouTube mobile app. This functions worked much better, much, much better. In this use, the stick is simply opening its own stream from the internet, allowing it to play the same quality as if it was on your PC.

Conclusion: After using the Chromecast on a couple occasions, it was a joy, the simplicity of hitting the cast button from YouTube on the phone, and seeing the same HD stream flawlessly play on the TV. At launch, the stick doesn’t have large app support. It also doesn’t pretend to function as a full media center as with Apple TV. Google hasn’t fully explained its intentions with Chromecast, given that it also has Google TV. It is clear from using the device however, that for most users, simple is better – simple has always been better. At $35 the Chromecast is an unfinished product, but worth it for the wireless beaming of YouTube alone.

BONUS: Already own a Chromecast? Check out CNET’s helpful tips and tricks for the device:

Rating: 9 of 10