In the spirit of my New Year’s Resolution to keep these posts “shorter”, I’m going to begin with a fast “first impressions” of the new Consumer Gear VR. I owned the “Innovator Edition” Gear VR briefly last Summer. This model was intended for developers and tech geeks like me. It was heavy, it was buggy, and the damn thing overheated so fast, it made it worthless for me. So I sent it back, and waiting patiently to see if they could resolve the issues with the “Consumer Edition”. Just before Thanksgiving I got my chance to find out.
Improvements abound! The new Gear VR is lighter on the head, has improved straps both on the side and over the top of the head (which is optional). The track pad now has indentation to assist in use (whereas before it was basically a tiny mouse pad on the side). The Consumer Edition also fits every current Samsung Galaxy smartphone (Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 Edge, Galaxy Note5, and Galaxy Edge +). You simply toggle a switch to fit the larger phones. While the issues of lens fogging and overheating are not gone entirely, there is significant improvement (though I still run a fan in my face when doing long sessions to eliminate fogging and heat issues entirely).
The model continues to have the focus dial in the middle, which works nicely, and the plug to charge the phone while in use (though I haven’t had time to test this much). You an even wear glasses inside the headset! The device feels like a consumer product now, as it should.
The Cup Half Full
The best new thing to come to the Gear VR, in my opinion, is the inclusion of Netflix. Not only can you watch Netflix in the VR, but the software places you in a mountain chalet, sitting on a red couch in front of a massive TV screen. Look to your left and you can see the lights of the distant ski slopes. Super cool.
The other things I’m loving about the new Gear VR are increased 360 photo library in the “Oculus 360 Photos” feature. Thousands of photos from around the world are provided. I missed getting to the top of Rockefeller Center when I was in New York recently, but with 360 photos I got to see the views, both during the day and at night. The Oculus Videos feature is also vastly enhanced with videos from Vimeo and even video rentals (though $24 is kinda steep for “The Martian in 3D” – that’s a purchase not a rental).
More games and experiences are being added at a fast pace, and I’ve even dropped some coin for a few games that have quickly become show pieces when I have people check out the VR. Be sure to check out Eve: Gunjack and Smash Hit!
The Cup Half Empty
Fogging and overheating issues do remain. That continues to be my main issue with the Gear VR. I’ve been told there are some scuba diving mask tricks to eliminate fogging in the lenses, I just haven’t tried that yet. A fan will fix the heat issue, but that kinda kills the “mobile” element. Now you’re strapped to the fan just like an Oculus Rift is strapped to a super-computer. Until I can watch a two hour movie on a plane without fogging and overheating, there’s work to do. But considering the processing power required to create these immersive 3D environments with a killer refresh rate, such heat is understandable. But I still get to complain! If you have issues with dizziness, you might want to test these out at your local electronic store before you pony up the dough. I find that I can stare at Netflix for hours, but if I play an immersive 3D game, I last about 20 minutes before I get sick to my stomach. It’s still super cool, but only in small doses.
Gizmag has a great article about improving the user experience. It was written for the Gear VR for Note 4, but all of the tips apply to the Consumer Gear VR as well.
I guess we should also add that only the four Samsung phones work with it. So if you are an iPhone user, you’re out of luck for now. Though you could always check out Google Cardboard if you want to check out a little Virtual Reality.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
I saved the best for last. Price. I paid $200 for my lackluster Innovator Edition Gear VR last JULY. Now one of these headsets will only set you back $99. That’s a great price, considering the amount of tech you’re getting. There are so many things to check out, and currently a lot of content is still free. If you have a current high end Samsung smartphone (see my list above) and a spare hundred bucks, I’d say this is a no-brainer. And if you do get the Gear VR, make sure you don’t keep it all to yourself. I’ve placed my headset on roughly 50 people so far, and I have to say I almost get more enjoyment watching people experience it than actually doing it myself. There’s a moment where everyone looks around and starts smiling like an idiot. My friend recently strapped on the Gear VR after I told her about the “idiot smile” thing. She was skeptical. The tech would have to prove itself. Less then two minutes into the Jurassic World dinosaur experience, she broke into a huge grin, and she says to me “I’m doing it aren’t I? The idiot smile thing.” Yes, yes she was. So get on board, and you’ll soon be smiling too.
Here are a few additional reviews to consider:
We are officially in upgrade season! I am well aware of the daunting task of sorting through all of the different options for smartphones. There are just so many players in the game it can get overwhelming quickly.
What follows is a simple breakdown of my TOP FIVE favorites phones. I’m including a few links to other reviews for each phone, to give you a well-rounded opinion of each device. To keep things simple here, I’m focusing on a few key features of each phone, which I’ve found to be important to the majority of consumers, from the tech-savvy to the casual user. So here we go!
Disclaimer #1: This list is not in order of preference. I’m not awarding medals here, just giving a shorter list than you’ll find with the carriers.
Disclaimer #2: I’m sticking strictly with the high-end smartphones. If you are upgrading, you can usually get a good deal regarding up-front cost, and the monthly cost will be consistent to what you’re used to. As a general rule, upgrading at least every two years is the best way to make sure you have a smooth experience with your phone. Things just change too quickly! If you want to stick with a Mid-Tier phone, definitely try to get your hands on the MOTO G, which is an amazing phone for $180!
On with the list:
Moto X (2nd or 3rd generation)
Motorola has been making great phones for the past three years, with the “Moto X” line. These phones are defined by high
quality build, simple operating system, and small physical size (when compared to the actual screen size). The 3rd Gen Moto X was just announced in August. This phone is HUGE. 5.7 inches makes it a “phablet” and those who want the smaller handset should steer clear. The 2nd generation is still a very good phone, and smaller, so you’ve got options. The 3rd Gen Moto X did vastly improve the camera though, so if that’s important, bear it in mind (though it still is not as good as Samsung and iPhone).
iPhone 6S/iPhone 6S Plus
I had the iPhone 6 for a while, and I thought it was a perfect phone. Great size (4.7 inch screen). Great camera. Decent battery life. If you like Apple, the iPhone 6 is a great choice. I am currently using an iPhone 6 Plus, but that 5.5 inch screen is just too big for me! Apple announced their new iPhones on September 9th. As with all “S” models, the form factor has not changed. This phone looks the same as the previous models. They have vastly improved the camera with 12MP, and optical image stabilization (helps shaky hands take clear pics). They’ve added a 5MP front camera, and are using the screen itself to make a “flash” for selfies. the screen itself has been improved with the use of “3D Touch” which makes it so you can do different things when you press the screen versus just tap the screen (this tech is based on the Apple Watch screen). Overall it’s a good “off-year” for the iPhone, but if you want major changes, wait another year for iPhone 7.
This has been my primary phone for the past six months. Samsung made a beautiful phone with the Galaxy S6. Metal and glass construction, it feels incredibly similar to the iPhone (almost too similar). With a 5.1 screen, it’s big but not too big. The operating system is intuitive, and camera is great. I particularly like the “wide-screen selfie” feature and that you can snap a photo by tapping the flash on the back of the phone (less cumbersome than finding the button on the screen. The Samsung Galaxy S6 also offers turbo charge (15min gets you 40% battery) and wireless charging, which is pretty cool. If you aren’t into Apple, the Galaxy S6 is definitely the way to go at the moment.
If you want something different, Samsung is also offering the Galaxy S6 Edge, which has curved edges. My experience with that device proved to me that the edges look cool but offer little in enhancement, and only make it harder to hold. If you want something really big, the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge PLUS just release, with a 5.5 screen size. Again it looks really cool, but for me is a pain to use, especially with the huge size.
I hated the LG G3, so I wasn’t even going to include it, but a buddy let me play around with the G4 the other week, and my opinion suddenly changed. The LG G4 is a very different type of phone. It features a 5.5 inch screen, but the phone size is pretty small, all things considered. LG definitely took a card out of Motorola’s deck, in terms of making sure big screens doesn’t mean gigantic phones. The LG G4 features a leather back, in varying textures and colors. It feels great! The other odd thing about LG is that they moved the power and volume buttons to the back of the phone. It seems like an odd choice, but I am starting to see the logic of it, and it makes those edges super thin. All they need is a fingerprint scanner on the back, but that’s not here yet (maybe G5 next year!)
Finally we come to HTC. I used the HTC One (M8) for six months last year (that’s pretty much the longest I use a device). I loved the feel of the phone (all metal). The screen was brilliantly bright, and the device was lightning fast. But my big beef was related to the extra space used for the company logo on the front (my opinions can be seen here). You’d think they’d finally fix that with the M9, but that was not the case.
The HTC One (M9) is a minor improvement over the previous model. The camera was switched from 4 ultra pixels (which no one ever understood, including me), to 16 mega pixels. But lots of pixels doesn’t mean a better camera, and HTC has lost it’s way a bit here. Still, when compared to ANY mid-tier smartphone the HTC One (M9) and (M8) are heads are shoulders above in terms of picture quality. So as I knock on the camera, it still has a place among these top-tier phones. The HTC One (M9) also updated their operating system to adapt based on your current location. This functionality can be achieved through “launcher applications” like “Everything Me“, but HTC has it built it, which is actually a pretty cool thing. I imagine other smartphone makers will be looking at options like this in future models.
Oh those giant smartphones!! The line between phone and phablet is roughly 5.5 inches. You have a few options. We’ve already talked about the iPhone 6S Plus, Galaxy S6 Edge Plus, and LG G4. Another popular phablet worth considering, if you’re in the market for a big phone is the recently release Galaxy Note 5. They took the materials that built the Galaxy S6 line of phones (metal and glass) and blasted it to 5.7 inches. As always with the Note line, there is a stylus. This time around they have focused as much on the stylus as the phone, and my experience with it was great. In my opinion, any phone over 5.5 inches should have a stylus, so Samsung is leading the pack there.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
If you’re in the market for a new smartphone, you’ve got tons of options. Hopefully this list is helpful in sorting through what makes these high-tier models different from each other. In the end, there’s no right answer for everyone. Some live and die for iPhone; while others believe Android is the only way to go. Some say 5.5 inch Phablets are ridiculously large, but at the same time, I know many people who wouldn’t want any other size. So head to your nearest carrier and get these phones in your hands before you drop the coin, and I’m sure you’ll find something that works great for you!
Happy Smartphone Shopping!
If you aren’t a tech geek like me you probably had no idea that an annual conference is held ever year in Barcelona, Spain. And at this conference many tech companies roll out their new gadgets. Well that event is called the Mobile World Congress (MWC), and it started March 1st. Two major smartphone companies announced devices on the first day: Sasmung and HTC. Today we’ll look at the new Samsung phones, the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy Edge. We’ll focus on the S6 model, as the Edge is pretty much the same phone with the addition of having a screen that wraps around, you guessed it, the edge!
Samsung has long been known for putting out high-end phones in cheap looking cases. The tendancy to focus on plastic has been the chief argument by their competitors that they are not good phones. The Galaxy S5 last year found itself in those cross-hairs like never before because while the software was pumped up with new features (fingerprint ID, heart rate monitor, improved camera), the hardware itself still felt cheap; pic below – S6 (left) S5 (right). The tech industry knew that Samsung had to change that approach with the Galaxy S6 and they did exactly that. One review I read called the S6 the “love child of the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 6” and that’s pretty accurate. The phone is now entirely metal and glass. The metal edges look almost identical to the iPhone 6, and the glass back harkens back to the iPhone 4 and 4S. Though Samsung is using much stronger glass, so the scratching issues that plagued those iPhones should be avoided. This phone looks great! It looks like the high-end phone that this line has always been. Does it still look a lot like the previous models? Yep. The dimensions are even the same as the S5. The camera is the same (with improved optics). The three buttons at the bottom (including those two that disappear when not in use) are still there. But it’s an improvement, no doubt. It’s evolutionary, not revolutionary, but after 4 models that looked virtually the same (little bigger each time), I think evolutionary is good enough for this year. Let’s briefly breakdown what the new features are and what features are gone for good.
Last year to use this feature you had to swipe your finger/thumb across the home button (making it useless, based on my experience with it). Now it works just like the iPhone button. Rest your finger on the button and you are unlocked. The fingerprint will also pair for payments using Samsung Pay.
Improved Screen and Speaker
The screen is brighter and the speaker is louder. Since the phone size didn’t change, those updates should be pretty noticable.
While the 16MP back camera is the same, they’ve added “optical image stabilization” which means your pics will look better, as it helps handle shaky shots (the iPhone 6 Plus uses this tech as well). The forward facing camera is now 5MP, which means those selfies will be crystal clear! You also can access the camera much quicker, with a double tap of the home button (they say less than a second).
Battery Charging – This one is a mixed bag for hardcore Samsung users. The battery is no longer replaceable (like most high-end phones these days), but they’ve added tech to the device that makes charging lightening fast (10 minutes of charge gets you 4 hours of battery!). They’ve also made it possible for wireless charging with any of the many charging mats on the market.
While this means extra batteries are a thing of the past, you do get a slimmer phone in the process. And rapid charge is a huge move forward, making all those extra batteries rather redundant.
No more expandable memory for the Galaxy S Line. Samsung has adjusted the memory tiers from 16/32/64 to 32/64/128 (those would be Gigabytes). Most people would have to try and use 32 GB unless they are loading lots of videos or never cleaning out their camera roll. This is just another example of the movement towards cloud storage.
The S5 was one of the few high-end smartphones that was waterproof (meaning you could drop it in the toilet). That no longer is the case. So either get a LifeProof case for the phone, or be more careful when you’re at the beach this summer (not to mention those pesky toilets!)
The Edge – it’s trying really hard to be super cool
The other phone Samsung introduced this week is the Galaxy Edge. Last year the Note Edge was released, which featured a third screen along the edge of the right side of the phablet. Now the edge is on both sides, but it doesn’t act like a third screen. It just stretches the screen over the side. There is still a “clock mode” so you can see the time on the phone’s edge when it’s laid flat. The Edge definitely looks cool. Its guts are no different from the Galaxy S6 though, so we’ll have to see how pricing works out, and if the “cool factor” is worth the cost.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
I like the Samsung Galaxy S6 and Galaxy Edge. Samsung has always made decent phones that came in cheap packages. It’s great that the argument about the hardware can be put to rest (of course the lawsuits from Apple might start a whole new argument). Now you have some clear choices regarding SOFTWARE. Do you like Android or Apple? Do you like the interface that Samsung puts on top of the Android system (it’s called TouchWiz)? Do you like the grid design of Apple’s iOS 8? It’s really all about preference. All of these phones are premium hardware. Metal and Glass. They have similar cameras (though Apple remains the king for the moment at least there). They do the same things. They play the same games. Support the same apps. So head to the store when these phones come out and get them in your hands, and see what you think. I tend to jump between Apple and Android every six months (thank you T-Mobile Jump program). I love the iPhone 6. I think it’s the perfect phone, in terms of size, and functionality. But the S6 has me tempted. If it’s not too expensive the Galaxy Edge has me tempted too. But I have till May to sort it out. If you want either Samsung smartphone, your first chance will be April 10th.
Who knew that Samsung and Apple were cousins all along!?!
It is a great time to be in the market for a new smartphone! Two of the Smartphone Titans are a week away from announcing new devices on March 1st. So patience is called for!
Here’s the the two things to make sure you keep in mind when you are getting a new phone right around a refresh.
- New devices will generally cost the same amount as the old line (or very close), but they will have many new features AND will address many of the problems on the previous model. So you can avoid some headaches by waiting for the new device, at no real extra cost. Why buy a year old device now, when you can get a brand new device in a month for the same price?
- Once the new devices are on the market their previous models gets a discount. Sometimes a major discount. So if the new smartphone isn’t that much different from the old one, you might want to save some coin and just pick up the previous year’s model.
So here are the two (possibly three) devices, set to be announced on March 1st.
Samsung Galaxy S6 and Samsung Galaxy Edge
It’s make or break time for Samsung. Not a lot has changed since the Galaxy S2 (in 2011!). Each year the company puts out another Galaxy phone that is a little bigger and a little faster. The Galaxy S5 made an attempt to incorporate a ton of features (heart rate monitor, fingerprint scanner, etc), but in the end it was just another “Galaxy S” that was a little faster and a little bigger.
The Galaxy S6 is expected to be different. Gone is the plastic build, replaced by some form of metal (aluminum most likely). The device should look much different than the phones that came before it. It needs to, because for the first time in a long time, Samsung is losing market share to Apple. People have been ditching Samsung for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus in droves. The market seems to indicate that everyone was just waiting for Apple to build a big phone. Samsung used to be the big phone of choice, but now they must offer something more in terms of functionality and build quality to compete. All signs point to them delivering, but we won’t know till March 1st.
In addition to the Galaxy S6, Samsung is rumored to be introducing a smaller version of the Note Edge. This was a new device introduced just last year. The phablet device had a “third screen” of sorts, in the form of a touch screen located along the right hand edge of the device. This “edge screen” would show things typically found in the dock of your phone. It was definitely seen as more of a gimmick than a phone that tons of people would want. It seems Samsung is thinking if the phone was a bit smaller, perhaps it will be adopted by a larger audience. So we might be seeing the introduction of the Samsung Galaxy Edge.
HTC One (M9)
The other big player introducing a phone on March 1st is HTC. I owned the HTC One (M8) for six months last year. I liked the phone a lot in terms of build quality, and the operating system. I never bought into the camera approach, which used “ultrapixels” instead of “megapixels”. Also the phone just seemed too big for a 5 inch screen, and that was mainly due to the half inch of real estate taken up on the front of the phone for the “HTC” logo. Well the next iteration of the HTC One is coming, perhaps called the “M9”, and did HTC fix that real estate problem? No they did not.
The new phone looks really good. In a strange move, the rumors are that it will have the same size screen, at 5 inches, AND they are still wasting valuable screen space on the front of the device on an unnecessary logo (it says HTC on the back too). They’ve ditched the ultrapixel camera for a 20MP camera on the back (yeah!). Beyond that screen size and camera the new phone is ramping up all the specs. A faster processor will make mobile games easier, and web browsing like lightening. The build appears to continue the use of aluminum, which has a great look, but is pretty slick in the hand (so a case is a good investment – and they make clear ones to still show the metal off). All in all, the HTC One (M9) won’t be the radical change we will probably see in the Samsung line, but it’s definitely a decent upgrade.
Patience Pays Off
In terms of technology March is certainly going to come in like a lion. We are certainly going to see several new phones from some of the biggest companies in the industry. This will give consumers new options, but will also impact the existing phone market, so if you are patient you will have choices, and you’re certain to find something that will get you through a couple more years. And you might find that the old versions aren’t so bad after all (see below).
Stay tuned to Two Lumps of Tech on March 2nd, for a high-level review of the devices, once we get to see what they actually are, versus speculating on what we hope they are.