Tag Archives: review

The new Apple TV: compact, stylish, and riddled with issues

I really want to love my tiny, stylish new Apple TV box, but I’m finding it rather difficult.

For those that don’t know, the Apple TV is a streaming media device. It connects to your TV via an HDMI cable and allows you to buy and play content from Apples iTunes store and a few third-party providers. It also lets you play shared iTunes content held on other computers on your network, and use AirPlay to mirror your Mac, iPhone or iPad onto your TV.

Or at least that’s the theory.

First impressions were good. The Apple TV’s packaging is typically minimalist and stylish and the unit itself is surprisingly compact. The initial setup was straightforward, requiring me to connect HDMI, optical audio and power. Upon start-up, the unit requested my Wi-Fi details and my iTunes username and password.

The basic menu is attractive in high-definition, and looks like something between iOS and the iTunes store. From the initial switch-on, you can see all the latest movies available for rental and purchase, and obtaining something is a simple matter of a few clicks on the diminutive silver remote.

The Apple TV
The Apple TV

So far, so good. Or at least it was until we decided to rent an HD movie. After taking our money quickly and efficiently, our Apple TV told us we had to wait 50 minutes until our movie was ready to watch. The device advised us that we could reduce the waiting time by selecting a lower resolution – but doing this actually increased our waiting time.

Sadly, this delay has occurred on more than one occasion, and it only takes a quick Google search to find that the problem has affected hundreds of unhappy people. Before anyone blames our download speed: we have a perfectly fast home Internet connection, and one that buffers other HD content almost instantly. This is an Apple TV or iTunes problem. Sometimes it doesn’t occur at all – but when it does, it always seems to be when the popcorn is warm and a group of people is waiting – not good.

Unfortunately, our problems don’t end there. One of the main attractions of the Apple TV is AirPlay, which gives you the ability to echo your Mac screen straight to the television. While the screen echo usually works, the audio output transfers to the TV perhaps one in four times. Sometimes it works, other times we must restart the Apple TV or sometimes the Mac’s Web browser. There’s no consistent pattern (and believe me, I’ve read and worked through the forum suggestions).

The outcome of this is that often there’s more fiddling around involved in watching a streamed TV show via the Apple TV than there used to be when we dragged an HDMI cable across the room. So much for progress. Since I’ve had the Apple TV, my meal is often getting cold before my chosen TV show starts.

It’s all a terrible shame, because some of the time the Apple TV works exactly as it’s designed to – and when it does, it’s great. But it’s all not quite good enough.

Aside from Netflix (which is not available where I live), Apple TV ties you firmly into Apple’s media ecosystem. By purchasing one, you are committing to buy a significant quantity of media from the iTunes store, where it often costs more than it would elsewhere.

I was prepared to make this commitment, but the Apple TV simply doesn’t live up to the quality of the other Apple products that have won my heart. It’s not on my “things for eBay” pile just yet, but it’s on seriously thin ice.

Review: RHA MA-350 aluminum noise isolating in-ear earphones

I was recently offered a pair of RHA MA-350 in-ear headphones for review. I brought them with me on a business trip to China, so I had plenty of time on the long flight to try them out and see how they felt after extended wear.

Before I get started, I should mention a few things about myself: I enjoy listening to music, but I’m definitely not an audio expert. When I’m planning on purchasing headphones, my main concerns are comfort, general sound quality, and durability.

Product Details

Average Price: $39.95 USD (via Amazon)
Available Colors: Black with silver accents

Technical Details:

  • Drivers – 10mm mylar
  • Frequency range – 16-22,000Hz
  • Impedance – 16ohms
  • Rated/max power – 3010mW
  • Sensitivity – 103dB
  • Cable – 1.2m Fabric Braided
  • Connections – 3.5mm Gold Plated

Materials, construction, and durability

The first thing that grabbed my attention about these earphones was that they were made from solid aluminum. My previous name-brand $40 pair of in-ear headphones were made of plastic coated in a thin rubber sheath, so I was impressed right away with RHA’s use of a durable material.

Aside from being more durable than plastic (and having a satisfying “click!” when knocked together), the extra weight wasn’t really noticeable when listening to music. The aluminum construction increased my perceived value of the product, and when I showed the MA-350’s to others, it was the first thing they noticed.

These earphones also feature a braided fabric cord which helps reduce cord tangling. The downside is that the braided cord is thicker and a little less flexible than the normal plastic/rubbery stuff, but that did not affect my usage of the earphones. Again, I appreciated the use of higher quality material in these earphones.

The cord is a standard “Y” format, where both earpieces have equal lengths of cord which forks from the main connector. My previous pair of headphones featured a behind-the-ear style cord which I preferred, but mainly for the fact that the cords were easier to keep out of my way while working.

The only strange decision regarding the construction of these earphones was the way they differentiate between the right and left earphones. A tiny letter is extruded on the rubberized part of the earphones which is pretty hard to see without looking closely.

The MA-350 earphones included three sets of interchangeable earpieces: small, medium, and large.

Audio Quality

I’ve listened to music for many hours using the RHA MA-350 earphones, and I’ve found that the sound they produce is extremely clear, crisp, and accurate. I had previously grown accustomed to the bland, muffled sound of typical lower-end headphones, so the MA-350’s presented a stark contrast which, at first, sounded almost unnatural because of its clarity.

The MA-350’s excelled at producing clear treble tones, and offered tight-but-surprisingly-full bass for their size.

For most of my testing, I listened to music that presented a wide variety of audio conditions, such as Deadmau5, Regina Spektor, and the wonderfully eclectic Bastion soundtrack (side note: Bastion is a fantastic game). With these samples, the MA-350’s excelled at producing clear treble tones, and offered tight-but-surprisingly-full bass for their size.

One of the best features of these earphones is that they provide solid noise isolation. The earphones fit snugly in my ear using the default size earpiece, and I could keep my music at a much lower volume than with my previous pair of earphones because of the improved isolation. This might not be a big deal when sitting in a quiet office listening to music, but it’s a lifesaver when sitting on a long international flight.

Extended Wear

The MA-350’s came with a nice carrying pouch.

I wore these earphones in bursts of about 1-2 hours at a time during my flight, mainly listening to music and playing Bastion for iPad. Overall, they were very comfortable, although for long sessions I’d usually prefer to wear over-ear headphones (which RHA also makes).

The MA-350’s in-ear earpieces are very solid, and compared to my previous pair (which were nearly gelatinous), the RHA earphones caused a little more “ear fatigue” than I was used to.

Conclusion

Overall, I’ve been extremely impressed with the RHA MA-350 earphones. I carry them with me at all times in my laptop bag, and I keep them within reach whenever I’m working on my laptop. My expectations for in-ear headphones are typically lower because of the limitations of the form factor, but the MA-350’s definitely stand above earphones I’ve previously used for the same price.

In addition to the black earphones I sampled, you can also upgrade to the MA-450i series which include an inline volume control and microphone (and are also available in white). The MA-450i includes 7 different earpieces, offering much more customization than the MA-350’s.

You can buy RHA earphones directly from Amazon, and you can now purchase them from Apple either online or in their retail stores.

Game review: Hero Academy

If you know me, you know I’m a picky gamer. I don’t play a lot of games, but that’s not because I don’t like gaming — I just can never find a game that I enjoy long enough to stick with it. Hero Academy, a turn-based strategy game on iOS and Windows, just made its way to Steam, and it’s got me hooked. Let’s dive in together to see what makes this game so great.

Gameplay

Hero Academy is sort of like chess, in the sense that you have different “chess pieces” that do different things, and there’s a certain kind of strategy that you have to keep in mind that’s similar to how you would strategize in chess. Hero Academy consists of five different characters (or “units”) and a wealth of different items like shields, swords, and helmets that you can use to upgrade your units, as well as one-time-use items like health potions, fireballs, and boosts.

You get 25 of a mixture of units and items per game, but only have access to five at a time. When you use them up, you get new units/items to replace the ones you used until all 25 are used up. Look at it as a deck of cards with a five-card hand.

Each player gets five moves per turn, and you can use those moves however you like. You can do a mixture of moving and attacking, or spend a turn simply building up your army for a major attack later in the game. You can even spend a move swapping an item in your hand for something else that’s waiting in the queue, in case you’re dealt a crappy hand.

The goal of the game is to either destroy all of your opponents’ units or destroy their jewel — whichever comes first. The game board includes special squares that give you certain boosts when one of your units lands on them. These include different types of increased attack power and defense strength.

Misc. features

All users receive the Council “starter” team when they begin playing Hero Academy. You can buy different teams (Dark Elves, Dwarves, Tribe, and the Team Fortress 2 team) for a few bucks per team. All the teams are relatively balanced, so there’s no real big advantage to using the paid teams other than having different characters besides the default ones — every team has roughly the same type of units that do the same thing with the same amount of power. Some units on the paid teams do things that other teams can’t, but there’s usually a trade-off  for those units.

Availability and pricing

Hero Academy is available on Steam for $4.99 and on iOS as a free, ad-supported download. When you buy the Steam version, you get the Team Fortress 2 team for free, along with the Council starter team. Sadly, the TF2 team isn’t available to purchase on iOS, but you can still buy the other teams for $1.99 each (removing the game’s ads while you do so) and get different avatar packs ($0.99 each) as well.

Conclusion

In a word, Hero Academy is addictive. Any game that allows you to play against your friends usually has a great lasting appeal, and Hero Academy has that and much more. The chess-like strategy mixed with the different attack items makes the game a unique title that a lot of casual gamers will enjoy.

iPhone app review: Checkmark

iOS’s built-in Reminders app is pretty good, but not great. The location-based reminders are a bit time-consuming to set up and the whole app is pretty basic and doesn’t offer up a whole lot of features. Checkmark, on the other hand, is an extremely intuitive reminders app that takes location-based reminders to a completely new level.

First off, it’s extremely easy to set up any kind of reminder in Checkmark, and there’s two kinds of reminders you can set for yourself: “When” and “Where.” When, for time-based reminders, and Where, for location-based reminders. You switch between the two using When and Where buttons at the bottom of the screen.

For “Where” reminders (location-based), you just add your most visited locations on the home screen, like work, home, the grocery store, your parents’ house, the bank, etc. You can add a location multiple different ways: By using your current location, searching for a point of interest, importing an address from your Contacts, or manually entering an address. You can also choose a radius of a location, so that notifications will alert you within a certain distance that you specify. I found the radius feature to be extremely helpful, since I was able to know far in advance that I needed to pick up a few things from the grocery store before I got near it.

After you add a location, tap on it to add a location-based reminder for that specific place. The next time you arrive there or pass by, you’ll get a notification reminding you of the task you need to get done at that specific location. Any location you add will automatically be saved to the app’s homescreen for future use.

“When” reminders are a little more basic. When creating a reminder, you simply enter in a title (and some notes about the reminder if you wish) and choose the day and time that you want to be alerted. When it’s time for the reminder to be delivered, you get a notification.

There are also other small features that can be really handy for a lot of users. You can sort your location-based reminders by distance, and even delay notifications until after you’ve been at a location for a certain amount of time.

The only downside that I see with Checkmark is its lack of integration with iOS and OS X. Checkmark is only available on the iPhone, so there’s no syncing between multiple devices. Checkmark also doesn’t integrate with Siri, so you can’t just quickly add a reminder in Checkmark using Apple’s virtual assistant.

However, Checkmark’s location-based reminder system is leaps and bounds above Apple’s offering, and I’ll gladly take that over any kind of integration with Apple’s ecosystem.

Checkmark is available in the iTunes App Store for $2.99.

Review: Sonos Play:3, the Wireless Hi-Fi Stereo System

The term high fidelity (or hi-fi) can be traced back to the dawn of music recording, and in general defined a system that could reproduce music with the sharpest and most fulfilling audio quality.  And as the generations moved from turntables to boomboxes to walkmans to portable music players, so too did the continual desire to purchase high-end, hi-fi systems to blast the tunes.  Although today one can still get bulky hi-fi stereo systems with 400W of power, a CD tray, an iPod dock, and a remote control, it just doesn’t seem to be as trendy and up-to-date as it did in 1996.  Fortunately, that’s where Sonos comes in.

Sonos is taking back the term “hi-fi” and giving it some flair.  It is a compact, modular, wireless stereo system that can be set up in any (or every) room in the house with just two components:  A speaker and a local area network with internet connectivity.  And because it is wireless, it can stream just about everything you can think of.

The Sonos Hi-Fi Stereo System

For this article, two Play:3 network speakers (the smaller of the two speaker offerings at $299 each) and a Sonos network bridge ($49) were used.  The Bridge is the extra add-on that makes the Sonos system go wireless, and if one is going to deck their rooms with speakers it is a must.

Besides speakers and network hubs, a Sonos stereo system can also be paired with an amplifier ($499), an iPod docking station ($119), or a connection hub ($349) that converts an existing home stereo system for music streaming (all of which are available on the Sonos website or Amazon).  As one can deduce by the prices, though, these components can add up quickly so be mindful that one does not need absolutely everything to get a Sonos stereo system set up in their home.

Included in each box with the speakers/Bridge is a power cable, a network cable, an install CD, and a manual.  Once all the packaging has been set aside, it is time to set the system up.

Physical Setup

If the Bridge wireless gateway was purchased, that should be set up first.

The Bridge (which is the box that makes the whole system wireless) plugs directly into your router/wireless modem via Ethernet and automatically connects to your local network.  Because it is a wired connection, no passwords or other setup configurations are necessary.

Once the Bridge is in place, one can set the Play Speakers in any room of the house (within wireless distance) and supply them power.  If the Bridge was not purchased, then simply add an Ethernet cable to the Play speakers and connect them to your router to get them integrated into your network.

Controller Software Setup

The Sonos Controller Software (Personal Computer Edition)

The software comes included in the box as an install CD, but it also can be found here if needed. The controller software is available for Windows (XPSP3 and up), Mac OS X (10.6 or 10.7), Android (which is evaluated in the next section) and iPhone/iPad.  For this installation, a networked Windows 7 machine was used.  The first step is to run through the Sonos Controller installer on the machine and grant it firewall access.

Once installed, the “Sonos Setup Assistant” kicks in so that all the speakers can be networked and connected to the controller software.

When connecting, the software will ask you to physically push a few buttons on the Bridge or Play speaker to get it to sync with your local network.  If communication goes well, the software will give you a confirmation and ask if you want to connect other Sonos devices.  This is the time to add the speakers as well.

What the heck is a Foyer?

When the Play speakers are connected, the Assistant software prompts for a location so that if more than one exists on the network, they can be differentiated by the room they are in.  The drop down menu is filled with various homely (and unique) options to segregate which speakers are where and should be used appropriately if one wants the full Sonos experience in their house (which will be explained later).

Finally, after all the Sonos components have been linked the main Controller program opens and asks for you to register and update your new stereo system.

As long as the speakers and Bridge have been configured to the network properly, they will update automatically.

The Sonos Controller Software (Mobile Platform Edition)

If your networked computer is not portable enough, than maybe the mobile software is the right option instead.  As mentioned before, it is available for Android, iPhone, and iPad from their respective app marketplaces (or again at the Sonos website).  Note that the phone/pad/mobile device must be connected to the same wireless local area network or else the Bridge and Play:3 speakers will not be controllable.  For this article, a standard Android phone was used to demonstrate the mobile controller interface.

Mobile setup, mobile Bridge connect, mobile Play speakers

Like the Windows PC setup, the Android app asks for you to manually push the button on the Bridge wi-fi controller to connect to your sound system.  If the Play speakers have been set up already with the Bridge, no further connections are necessary and the mobile app is ready to be in control.

The Controller Interface

After all the installing, connecting, and updating has been successfully maneuvered, your Sonos system should look like the picture above.  On the left should be every Play speaker that has been connected (grouped by their room), on the far right is all the options Sonos has for streaming and music listening (and it is a lot of options).  For now, let’s focus on the right side and all the streaming options Sonos has to offer.

Playing Radio

If one is interested in listening to a radio station, all Sonos needs is a ZIP code or a major city and it automatically finds a plethora of channels for one to select and play.  As one can see, once a radio station is selected, the highlighted Play speaker on the left will automatically start playing and the “Now Playing” section in the middle will be updated to show artist/song title and radio show information.

Playing from a Streaming Site

If one wants to enable some tunes from their own personal online streaming account (or create a new one), Sonos is more than ready for the task.  As seen in the picture above, Sonos allows for numerous popular streaming options and services that can be accessed and played on the system.  Just log in or register, pick a playlist or song, and Sonos does the rest.

Playing from your Music Library

Besides channeling other sources and streams, Sonos also allows one to channel personal music libraries as well.  To get music onto Sonos, one must first allow the folder to be shared on the network (For Windows 7, this is done by right clicking on the folder and selecting “Share With” and then a “Homegroup” option).  If this step is not done, much confusion can arise as the music will not be available for Sonos to access.

Once the sharing is enabled, return to Sonos and go to “Manage” -> “Music Library Settings” -> “Add” to browse for the folder in question.  [Note: Besides adding media, this settings menu also serves to update the media library, add/remove speakers, manage the streaming accounts that were added, and mess with music equalizers for each speaker.]

The system will then add all the music in the library and display them on the right side.  From there one can create playlists, add songs to the queue in the middle, and push music to any speaker on the left

Again, it is important to note that for this music to be accessed, the location of the files needs to be active and on the network (i.e. the device in question storing the music files must be on and networked).

Playing from the Mobile App

Mobile main options, mobile radio, mobile playing radio
Mobile streaming, mobile media, mobile playing music library

Like the other sections mentioned above, the mobile controller also allows for streaming, radio, and access to your local media library as well.  As long as the bridge is connected to the same network as the mobile app, the devices will talk to each other and push changes in music selections.

Having Fun with your Play Speakers

Now that a majority of the streaming or listening options have been surveyed, let’s return to the far left of the Controller interface and display the full potential of the Sonos wireless hi-fi system.  Up until now, the music options presented have been shown playing on just one speaker.

But in reality, one can play something different on each speaker, hence why it was important to label the Play speakers based on where they are going to be situated.  So essentially, every room with a Sonos speaker in it could be playing something different, meaning that there should be no contention between siblings/roommates/significant others as to what the audio system should be set to.

Mobile grouping is just as easy

Furthermore, not only can one use the speakers individually for music but as a group as well.  Just click the “Group” button, select the speakers to group, and listen for the sound of acoustic harmony.  Now the beauty of Sonos has been revealed: because it is wireless and easy to manipulate in the Controller interface, it is completely and utterly configurable to suit any room, event, personality, or venue.  Just pick a tune, pick a speaker configuration, and let the jams flow.

Conclusion

Sonos is definitely not your stereotypical hi-fi stereo system.  It is modular, fully networked, completely configurable, and open enough to access just about every genre, single, album, or artist that exists out there to stream. After a solid month of usage, even the two Play:3 speaker with a wireless Bridge system used for this article proved its usefulness in every situation it was presented: house parties with a dozen conversations filling the air, quiet nights on the couch with a book, and even those underwear air guitar jam sessions at 3:00 in the morning.

To be honest, the main limiting factor to the full Sonos experience is the prices on the components themselves; the system is worth the cost, but if those prices were reduced a bit or tiered it is certain that Sonos would be in every household in no time at all.  For now, though, the system should have no problem satisfying audio enthusiasts and home theater experts alike.

The age-old glory of hi-fi stereo has returned, and Sonos is leading the charge.

Review: Logitech Gaming Mouse G300

When it comes to mice that work well for both right-handers and left-handers, there’s not many options out there. Sure, there’s a lot of cheap and crappy ambidextrous mice that come packaged with most OEM computers, but there’s never been a really good gaming mouse that’s truly ambidextrous. However, Logitech has finally filled that lonesome void with the Gaming Mouse G300.

Since I’ve been an experienced left-hander for over 22 years, I figure I’m the perfect specimen for testing out such a rodent.

The G300’s shape certainly does not discriminate. It offers the same feel and features for both righties and lefties — no more and no less for either use. Both sides curve in and have a rubbery, soft texture that looks and feels very similar to Logitech’s other offerings.

However, if you’re a big thumb-button junkie, you’ll be sad to hear that this mouse doesn’t have such features. And unlike most of Logitech’s newer mice, the G300 has an optical sensor rather than a laser. Other than that, the mouse features a max DPI of 2500, nine programmable buttons and a 1ms response time.

The most unique feature, though, is the support for up to three gaming profiles that are stored in the mouse’s internal memory. So if you’re currently juggling three different games or have multiple gamers that use the same computer, you can easily switch between DPI settings and macros without any problems. And since the gaming profiles are stored right on the G300’s internal memory, you can use the mouse on other PCs without leaving your tuned-in settings behind. What’s even better is the 7-color LED lighting system, in which you can assign each gaming profile its own color, that way you can know exactly what profile you’re using without having to open up the settings to look.

The G300 is a tad smaller than most normal mice. While it’s not advertised as such, it could be classified as a portable laptop mouse, although the roughly six-and-a-half foot long cord pretty much negates that fact, since most –if not all– laptop mice are cordless. But if you have fairly large hands, just be aware that the G300 might be a bit to small for you.

What I like most about the G300 is not just its ambidexterity, but that it’s just a simpler gaming mouse aimed at those who fire up the occasional shooter and want just a tad more than what their current pointer offers. It certainly doesn’t sport the big features that most hardcore FPS gun slingers yearn for, but you certainly can’t argue with the $40 price tag.

My biggest gripe, however, is that the scroll wheel isn’t as smooth and fluid as Logitech’s higher-end offerings. It takes a lot of pressure to scroll and click the middle mouse button. I’m sure this is just something that I can get used to, but I do miss the quality scroll wheel on my M705.

Overall, the nine programmable buttons, 2500 DPI sensor, on-board storage of gaming profiles, and a 1ms response time are all certainly respectable for only $40. And if you’re a left-handed casual gamer that is dying for a good mouse that you can actually use, the G300 might be your best bet.

Review: Asus K53E-A1 Laptop Review – 15.6″ Brown Beauty

Asus makes all kinds of laptops. Sometimes it’s hard to even know which model is what with the number-based naming scheme. But, I believe that I am using a laptop that is noteworthy in its design and usability, the Asus K53E-A1. The more I use this laptop, the more I enjoy it.

Running Chrome, playing Minecraft, streaming Netflix, and watching YouTube are all great and flawless experiences on the K53E. As a browsing and media-consuming laptop, the Asus K53E is great. Just don’t plan on going unplugged for long, as the battery life is about 3-4 hours.

Asus seems to love the new brown look. Many of the newer laptops by Asus, the Transformer tablet with Android, and now the K53E-A1 laptop all have options in this color. The brown is a great color and a fresh take on the usual “black” electronics. The aluminum on the upper side of the body is also a great touch and gives the laptop a richer feel.

 

As a “daily driver” work laptop, I am very happy with the K53E. The keyboard is Asus’s chiclet style, which I love. It is easy and responsive to type with, and it even fits in a nice number pad. I use Google Docs as much as possible, using all the features including Google Draw, which I find exceptionally pleasing because of the incredible Asus touch-pad. Multi-touch functions work great, scrolling is smooth even horizontally. It’s great to finally start seeing touch-pads that compete with Apple’s.

This model includes the Intel CORE i3 processor running at 2.10Ghz,  a 500Gb hard drive, 4Gb of ram, a 15.6″ HD screen, and a full size keyboard with num pad. Even with all these features, this laptop sells for just under $600 on Amazon. It comes with Windows 7 Home Premium and the usual Asus software including Asus Web Storage which can be very useful if you store a huge amount of data at home and want to take it anywhere with this laptop.

If you are a student looking to get a great laptop for school, someone looking for a good browsing laptop for a good price, or a business person looking to have a comfortably sized laptop, the Asus K53E is a great choice. Just be prepared to have an extra battery on those long trips.

Android Game: Paper War for 2 Players

Paper War for 2 Players is a brand new game for those of you using an Android device for all of your mobile needs. It’s the perfect game for passing time between you and a friend, assuming that you have those. Exclusively designed for two players (obviously), Paper War features a simplistic hand-drawn aesthetic which is perfected through its pen doodle visuals scribbled onto crumpled sketch paper. The games are obviously geared towards the popular pick-up-and-play mentality, providing the type of gaming that you can squeeze into 5 minute commutes or particularly long line ups.

Paper War

In Paper War you have the choice of three different gaming modes that all offer different controls and goals with the familiar red and blue pen-drawn animations.

Anti-Aircraft

Anti-Aircraft

In Anti-Aircraft, the goal is to shoot your opponent’s color of aircraft by pulling back with a finger on your gun to score points and ultimately win the battle. But beware of striking aircraft of your own color as the punishment is a momentary stun that may turn the tide of battle, and trust me, you are going to want to win.

Plane Smasher

Plane Smasher

In “Plane Smasher”, you tap various aircraft of your opponent’s on the screen to see them destroyed and gain more of those precious points. Can’t get much easier than that.

Cannon Battle

Cannon Battle

In “Cannon Battle”, you will take aim and fire upon your opponent’s cannon to destroy it for the win. If you are extra talented and a real sharp shooter, you can even blast your opponent’s missiles out of the air with one of your own to render them useless. It’s a welcome addition to an otherwise strategy-free game.

All in all, Paper War feels a little too simple for my liking, but it is enjoyable enough to play for smaller chunks of boredom that would otherwise be filled with mindless chatter about the weather and anything that can spare me from small talk is a winner in my books.

Britannica Concise Encyclopedia for Android Review

Written by about 100 full-time editors and more than 4,000 expert contributors, the Britannica Encyclopedia is regarded as the most scholarly of encyclopedias (it even beats out Wikipedia!).  This incredible gift to society has become mobile,  hitting the Android Market in a full and trial version.

Using the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia for Android for the last week and a half, I have to tell you, it is an amazing information tool to hold in the palm of your hand. Back in the day, you had to carry the whole mass of some 20 volumes of books in order to hold the knowledge you can now hold on your phone. Thanks to the developers at the Paragon Software Group, the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia for Android is one of the most useful phone applications I have ever had.

Sitting around the table, chatting with friends has given me multiple opportunities to utilize the Britannica Encyclopedia. A friend would ask what a certain group of people believed spiritually and I would offer my knowledge gained from the encyclopedia application. I was even able to do these searches in places where a data connection was not available because the entire application is stored offline right on my phone.

One of the greatest features in the application is the ability to not only search for whatever you are interested in, but it allows you to do even further research by allowing you to click on words that are used to explain what you are searching, and dig deeper into those words and their descriptions as well.

The only complaint I have is the search button on my phone was not bound to the search feature of the Britannica application. If it were, this would allow for quicker and easier searches instead of having to reach up to the top left and press the search button.

There isn’t a lot to say about the application aside from how incredibly useful it is. In the time that I was able to spend with the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, I found it quick, easy, and powerful. Never once did the application force close. If you are in search of knowledge about the human endeavor, a know-it-all and wanting to improve, or love to research, the $19.99 price tag on the Android market should not stop you. For everyone else, there is a free trial out there so give it a try!

Chrome OS: Even your mom will like it

Last week after work, I came home to find a package slip from UPS stuck to my door.  This was a bit odd because I wasn’t expecting any deliveries. Always one to take advantage of a misdelivered box of goodies, I headed to the UPS shipping center to check things out.

The serviceman came out of the back room with a box with my name on it. So far so good. It was pretty heavy, but what was in this mysterious package from Kentucky?

Fully accepting the possibility of anthrax, I ripped into the package and I’m sure the moments after were something straight out of a movie: camera on me as a golden light emits from the box as I sit there spellbound, a crazy smile curling onto my face.

Holy guacamole. I was selected for Google Chrome OS pilot program.

I do want to emphasize the surprise factor here. I had applied for its program very early into the registration period and heard absolutely nothing from Google since. Fast forward several weeks, and this nearly no-strings-attached netbook lands at my front door.

At any rate, thanks, Google. I’ll disperse my initial impressions….now.

First Contact: Hardware and Appearance

Ok, I know the whole point of the Pilot Program isn’t to analyze the computer itself, but I have to acknowledge that the hardware and OS combine into one fancy little unit. For starters, the netbook features a sharp and bright 12.1” display and embedded microphone and web-cam. Under the hood, you have a 1.66 GHz Intel Atom processor (which I’ve heard will be upgraded in later models). The unit also features standard wi-fi and not-so-standard 3G built in.

Before even turning this thing on, I was impressed by the general layout and understated look of this device. All black and relatively featureless, this netbook is chic enough to get some puzzled looks. I’ve been asked by complete strangers on three separate occasions, “What kind of netbook is that?” by people who could see no discerning logos or decals. Two people thought it was a tiny MacBook because of the keyboard layout and large touch-pad (that’s right, it’s one giant button).

I was getting a good vibe from the Cr-48 before I even turned it on.

Chrome OS: Features and Usability

Before I say anything else, I should point out that I’ve been using Chrome OS for a week now and it is very hard to tell that it is part of a pilot program. It’s a very polished, simple OS that appears to operate just as Google intended. The operating system is a very direct interpretation of the Chrome browser, and because I’ve been using Chrome for my web activity for several months already, there was zero learning curve from the moment I opened the lid on this baby.

Login and Setup

User log-in is streamlined in that all of your Chrome OS activity is through your existing Google Account. I logged in without a problem, and bam, I was presented with a blank tab of a fresh browser and positively nothing else. My bookmarks and extensions synced automatically and I was impressed by the turn-key mechanism of it all.

Wi-fi vs. Verizon 3G

After my login, my connection to the Internet through my wi-fi router was a little wonky. There were brief connectivity interruptions, and then my University’s authentication system seemed to be incompatible at times with Chrome OS — the authentication web page would spit out a bunch of garbage rather than its usual log-in screen. This sort of problem seems to be isolated only to users that are forced to log-in through SafeConnect (as my University requires) because I experienced no wireless connectivity problems at my local coffee shop.

Until I received this netbook, I had never dealt with a 3G device that wasn’t a smart-phone. I didn’t pay much attention to the 3G card inside until a few days ago when I was stuck in a medical school late at night with a malfunctioning wireless network. I decided to check out the details for the Verizon Wireless connection and was surprised to find a FREE option. This option allows you 100 MB per month of data, which is nothing amazing (I used mine in a few days), but certainly a good safety net in the event you’re stranded in the woods and need to tell people on Facebook that “Forests are lame [sadface]”.

User Experience

My first week with Chrome OS has been free of both headaches and frills. Google has polished this OS to be a spittin’ image of the browser, and that’s a good thing if you just want to surf the internet, do some simple business tricks, and get on with your life. For those that like to delve into customizing and optimizing their configuration, this may be a bit frustrating. Your configuration options are limited to touch-pad sensitivity, language, privacy, and a few other odds and ends.

Very, very basic configurable system settings.

All of the basics of web surfing operate exactly as you’d expect with Chrome OS. Tabs function just as they do in the Chrome browser, and there are very few surprises when it comes to e-application functionality. There are a few hiccups with Adobe Flash, as some websites utilizing the web-cam don’t function correctly (Facebook and Cameroid).

Perhaps the biggest adjustment I had to make in using this netbook was with the file system. Google is de-emphasizing local storage, so it isn’t surprising that the file space is as simple as a single folder. This isn’t a bad thing for most people, as many Windows configurations can confuse casual users when they can’t effectively navigate through the folder arrangement of their PC.

That tiny window is the entire file manager.

Another perk I’ve noticed with Chrome OS is how snappy things are. When you turn it on, a few seconds later you’re at the login page. You close the lid, it’s instantly asleep, and just as quickly it wakes. You plug in a USB mouse and there is no dialog about drivers — it just works! That seems to be the major theme with this OS.

The keyboard possesses some different features that make for a more user-friendly experience. There is no caps-lock; instead, there is a “search” button that when pressed brings up a fresh tab for your query. In addition, the keyboard has a “full screen” button to quickly rid yourself of distracting tabs at the top of the screen and increase your viewing area. Finally, there is a “change window” button that lets you quickly change between different sets of tabs. For example, if you open a boat load of tabs, many will be loaded outside of the viewable screen. Simply press the “change window” button to view them.

See the magnifying glass? Press it for a new search window.

Conclusion

After using Chrome OS, I can honestly say I’m surprised by how well everything works. I expected to be reporting bugs to the Google team every day, and I’ve only reported two so far (a flickering screen at login and problems that are probably the fault of my University). I enjoy the streamlined experience that Chrome OS offers for mobile computing. There isn’t much to fiddle around with, so I find myself much more efficient with my time on this netbook. Heck, I’ve even started using Google Docs with great success despite not being much of a fan until now.

If I had to state my biggest problem with Chrome OS, I would say that it is not yet capable of streaming movies from Netflix. I suspect this has something to do with Silverlight, a Microsoft technology similar to Adobe Flash, but Netflix is ensuring all Chrome OS users that the problem will be short-lived by saying:

We’re working with Google to ensure that Chrome Notebook users can instantly watch TV shows and movies from Netflix.”

Yeah, Netflix…but what do I do in the meantime? I don’t think you’ve heard yet that we, as a generation, have come to expect certain things.

WHAT?! *cries* Netflix does not work with Chrome notebooks....yet.

Overall, the Chrome OS has been a joy to use. The operating system of a computer should provide a platform for your software without intrusion, and that is just what Google has accomplished. The transition for Windows-based Chrome browsing to Chrome OS has been easy as pie, and I’ve seriously considered giving this netbook to my completely computer illiterate mother when I’ve finished thoroughly testing it. There simply isn’t anything here that can confuse her or any other infrequent computer user.

Time will tell, but I think Google will burst onto the scene with great reviews when Chrome OS is released later this year. It’s not for heavy computing, but that really isn’t the point. People that use Chrome OS for the lightweight internet platform that it is intended to be will be impressed.