Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini Review And Giveaway

With the iPhone excitement slowly cooling down, it’s time to take a look at the other side of the fence. Release cycles being as they are, the Samsung Galaxy S4 seems old to us already, despite being released a mere 6 months ago. But did you know about the S4’s little brother?

Released back in July, the Galaxy S4 Mini is Samsung’s newest major release, and claims to pack most of the goodies you know from the regular S4 into a smaller, lighter, and more affordable package. For half the price of the Galaxy S4, you get a shrunken version of the phone, which nonetheless looks almost identical. Is this the bargain everyone’s been missing, or do they just look alike?

I’ve been using the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini as my primary phone for the past week, and I have some answers. What’s more, one of you will be lucky enough to win this $400 Galaxy S4 Mini for free!

Galaxy S4 Mini vs. Galaxy S4 vs. Galaxy S3 Mini

There are tons of Android devices out there, but if you’ve decided to go with Samsung, you’re probably curious how the Galaxy S4 Mini shapes up next to its siblings, the Galaxy S4 and the older Galaxy S3 Mini. Without getting too technical, we’ll go over several major features, and look at some prominent differences between these three devices.

Display: The Galaxy S4 Mini features a 4.3-inch Super AMOLED screen with a 540×960 resolution and a pixel density of around 256 ppi. This is considerably better than the Galaxy S3 Mini with its 4-inch 480×800 pixel display, but is obviously inferior to the Galaxy S4’s 5-inch 1080×1920 display. On paper, the Galaxy S4 Mini’s resolution is not very impressive, and falls far behind that of the iPhone 5, which has a similar sized screen.

Camera: The S4 Mini’s camera is 8 megapixels, with a 1.9 MP front-facing camera to boot. It comes with a LED flash, produces images up to 3264×2448 pixels in size, and can shoot 1080p HD videos. The Galaxy S4’s camera is only somewhat better at 13 MP with a 2 MP front-facing camera, but includes several software features such as smile recognition and dual-shoot that the S4 Mini doesn’t. The S3 Mini features a pretty weak 5 MP camera, and an even weaker 0.3 MP front-facing camera. It can only shoot 720p videos.

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Memory and CPU: The Galaxy S4 Mini comes in a 8 GB version only, but includes a microSD slot which supports up to 64 GB. It comes with 1.5 GB of RAM, and runs a dual-core 1.7 GHz CPU. In this too, it sits between the Galaxy S4’s 16-64 GB storage, 2 GB of RAM and quad-core CPU, and the S3 Mini’s 1 GB of RAM and 1 GHz dual-core CPU. Unlike the S4 Mini, though, you can buy the S3 Mini with 16 GB of storage, but you can only use a 32 GB or less microSD card in it.

Price: When deciding on a smartphone, price is one of the most important aspects most people consider. It’s obvious that the S3 Mini is a far less powerful device that the S4 Mini, but at $230 it’s a very affordable option with adequate features. The Galaxy S4 is not very affordable, but for $600 you get a very competent device with almost anything you can ask for. The S4 Mini comes in two versions: a 4G LTE-enabled model (which we’re reviewing today), and a regular, non-4G model. The price for these ranges from $370-$400.

These are the technical details. They make a difference, but at the end of the day, numbers only tell half a story, and you’re probably curious how the device fairs in everyday use. So let’s dive in and see what the Galaxy S4 Mini is all about.

What’s In The Box

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The Galaxy S4 Mini comes in the regular fake wood Samsung box, and with every basic accessory you could possible need for it. These include a wall charger, a USB cable, earphones with interchangeable earbuds, and an instruction booklet.

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Unlike other smartphones in the market which are not made by Samsung, the Galaxy S4 Mini comes with another exciting accessory: a battery! The back of the S4 Mini comes off easily, so you can remove and change batteries in seconds. This is also where you’ll find both SIM and microSD card slots.

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The S4 Mini runs Android 4.2.2 out of the box, with Samsung’s TouchWiz UI on top. This model comes with NFC, but the I9190 model of the same device (non-LTE) does not.

Note: the device is rooted, and came so out of the box.

Getting To Know The Galaxy S4 Mini

If the Galaxy S4 Mini looks uncannily like the Galaxy S4 in these pictures, it’s because it truly is very similar. In fact, you can’t help but wonder if the only difference is in size, despite knowing better.

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Like all Samsung phones, the Galaxy S4 Mini sports a plastic back that doesn’t give you that “premium” feel you get from the Nexus 4, HTC One, or the iPhone. It doesn’t feel bad to hold, but it is incredibly slippery. Together with the smaller size, the S4 Mini has a tendency to slip out of your hand at the worst moments.

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On the back, you can see the camera lens and the LED flash, as well as the device’s speaker. Yes, the speaker is on the back, but unlike the Nexus 4, you still get really good sound even when the phone is lying on its back.

Like all modern Samsung phones, the Galaxy S4 Mini includes a micro-USB port for charging. While it seems usual enough, I found it extremely difficult to plug the phone into any charger. It may be an issue with my unit, but I actually had to use force to get the connector to plug in. This happened every single time I wanted to charge the phone.

In front, you’ll find the front-facing camera along with some sensors, and the signature squished home button.

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Two glowing capacitive buttons finish the job with “back” and “menu” options.

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What you won’t find here is a notification LED, so there’s no way to see if there are missed calls or messages waiting at glance. You’re going to have to turn on your screen for that. This is a sorely missing feature, and it’s hard to understand why Samsung decided not to include it here.

As you can see, the Galaxy S4 Mini comes with a tiny screen bezel. This leaves lots of room for a bigger screen on a small device. This combination gives us a small device that’s very easy to use with one hand, but that nonetheless has a nice sized screen.

There’s a downside to this, however. The small bezel means there’s not a whole lot of room to hold the device while reading, browsing or texting. Many times, I found myself fumbling with my fingers to find a good grip, accidentally pressing the capacitive buttons on the way.

Display and Sound

The S4 Mini may be small, it may be less powerful than other premium devices, but when it comes to display and sound this little phone packs a surprising punch.

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From the moment I started using it, I was highly impressed with the display. I hadn’t expected it, but using the Galaxy S4 Mini made my Nexus 4’s display feel faded and colorless. This may be due to the difference between LCD and Super AMOLED screens, but the colors on the S4 Mini just seem to pop. The display is sharp and clear, and even simple apps such as Instagram look fantastic.

Sound-wise, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Galaxy S4 Mini is quite the audio animal. While it’s not great sound for audiophiles, it’s definitely loud, and you won’t have any trouble watching videos or holding audio chats and hearing every word. It’s loud enough to have it play music and enjoy it throughout the room.

The phone managed to run every app I threw at it, including complex and resource-heavy 3D games such as Real Racing. Here’s what it looks and sounds like:

Camera

Don’t get discouraged by the 8 MP specification. The S4 Mini’s camera is actually excellent, and unless you’re habitually shooting high-definition photos, you’re going to be very satisfied with what it can produce. The camera interface is the usual Samsung fare, with 10 shooting modes to choose from, including panorama, night, and HDR.

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It also comes with flash controls, automatic sharing, a timer, and voice commands. If you choose to enable these, you can use the words “smile”, “cheese”, “capture” or “shoot” to take a picture without touching your phone, or “record video” to start recording a video.

The camera produces great photos in everyday use, and manages to perform well even with low light condition (in Night mode). It even managed to take great shots of my cat while he was constantly moving.

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While the camera doesn’t come with Macro mode, you can still use it to good results, even up close and personal.

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Software

This may rub some people the wrong way, but to me, the worst feature of this phone is the TouchWiz UI. No, it’s not slow or unresponsive. Quite the opposite: it feels great to use, it’s very responsive, and finding your way around is easy. If you like Samsung’s TouchWiz, you’re going to love it. If, like me, you can’t stand it, you’re in for quite a ride.

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The S4 Mini comes with a watered down list of Samsung apps (compared to the Galaxy S4), but you’ll still find a surprising number of apps you’ve never asked for, will probably never use, and can’t really get rid of using conventional methods. These include:

  • ChatON: Duplicates WhatsApp, Viber, and just plain text messages.
  • Group Play: For playing games, and sharing photos and documents with other devices.
  • S Memo: Duplicates Google Keep.
  • S Planner: Duplicates Google Calendar.
  • S Translator: Duplicates Google Translate.
  • S Voice: Duplicates Google Now.
  • Samsung Apps: Duplicates Google Play.
  • Samsung Hub: A content store for videos, games, music, and learning.
  • Samsung Link: For streaming content to a TV, tablet, or computer.
  • Story Album: Organizes your photos and creates album based on specific events. You can then order physical copies of those albums.
  • WatchON: For watching on-demand video. If this sounds confusingly similar to Samsung Link, that’s because it is.

On top of these, apps such as Dropbox, Flipboard and TripAdvisor came pre-installed, as well as multiple Google apps such as Google Search, Google+, Google Maps, Gmail, YouTube, Google Play Music, Google Talk, and more.

It also comes with some built-in voice commands that make themselves apparent in the right moment. For example, every time your phone rings, you’ll see a message telling you that you can answer the call hands-free by saying “answer”. The call will be answered on speaker when you do this.

Aside from the usual Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth toggles, you’ll find many other useful toggles right at your fingertips, accessible by swiping down with one or two fingers.

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From here, you can quickly enable or disable modes such as Smart stay (screen shouldn’t turn off while you’re looking at it, doesn’t work well in low light), Blocking mode (only certain notifications get through), Driving mode (for hands free calling and texting), and more. You can customize which buttons appear on top of the notification panel, and change their order as you wish.

Living With The Galaxy S4 Mini

Going into this, I had no special expectations of the S4 Mini. Turns out this is not only a capable and affordable phone, it’s in some ways better than what I was used to. To start, the smaller size is somewhat a relief. Texting and browsing with one hand is a breeze, and you can barely feel it in your pocket. I’ve become so accustomed to huge phones, spending a week with a smaller one felt a little like going back to the “good old days”.

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The battery life on this device is also very good. I managed to go more than 48 hours without charging, and even then the battery wasn’t completely drained. This wasn’t under heavy use, but I did use the phone for short navigations, browsing, Facebook, texts and some calls during this time.

Despite the phone’s weaker specs, I couldn’t get it to fail on anything I tried, and it’s AnTuTu benchmark score of over 20,000 is better than many of its bigger competitors. If it weren’t for TouchWiz, I would be having a hard time going back to my Nexus 4.

Should You Buy The Galaxy S4 Mini?

This a great phone for a great price. If you have no special cravings for huge screens, and can stand TouchWiz (or alternatively, are willing to flash a new ROM) the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini is a great buy.

MakeUseOf recommends: Buy it.

How do I win the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini?

You may enter by submitting your name and email address. You’ll receive one entry simply by doing so.

After that, you’ll also be offered various methods to earn additional entries. They range from sharing a link to this giveaway on social networks; to commenting or visiting a specific page. The more you participate, the higher your chances of winning! You will receive 5 additional entries into the giveaway for every successful referral via your shared links.

This giveaway begins now and ends Friday, October 18. The winner will be selected at random and informed via email.

The Winner

Congratulations, Rachel Beltz! You would have received an email from jackson@makeuseof.com. Please respond before October 28 to claim your prize. Enquires beyond this date will not be entertained.

Send your products to be reviewed. Contact Jackson Chung for further details.

Optoma Gt750 3d Gaming Projector Review And Giveaway

Optoma GT750 3D Gaming Projector Review and Giveaway optoma gt750 3d gaming projector reviewI love projectors; I have fond memories of nights spent in front of the projector with all my housemates, as we snuggled under the kotatsu (a Japanese heated table thing) and settled in to watch the latest episode of Heroes. Anything done on a big screen is better – movies and gaming become a surreal experience – even compared to a 50-inch TV screen. Sure, the clarity isn’t quite as good as those LED pixels or a Plasma TV, but the sheer size leads to a far more immersive experience.

Today, I’m taking an in-depth look at a mid-range projector, the Optoma GT750, designed especially for gaming; and we’ll be giving this one away to one lucky reader.

Check out the other giveaways we’ve organised this Gaming Month!

The Optoma GT750 (the GT stands for Gaming Time, apparently), retails at around $750 and includes a pair of 3D glasses. There’s a similar model (in fact, they’re identical), the GT750E, which is $150 cheaper but doesn’t include the glasses. We tested the GT750 with a pair of ZD201 Active Shutter 3D glasses, which we’re also giving away.

  • Size and weight: 324 x 234 x 97mm, 2.9 kg
  • Resolution: Native WXGA (1280 x 800)
  • Max resolution: VGA: UXGA (1600 x 1200), HDMI: 1080p
  • Brightness and lamp: 3500 ANSI Lumens, 4000 hours
  • Contrast: 3000:1
  • Throw ratio: 0.72:1
  • Image Size (Diagonal): 32.2″ to 322.4″ (0.82 to 8.19m)
  • Inputs: 2 x HDMI, 1 VGA (with component adapter), S-Video, Composite, RCA stereo audio in.

Similar products to consider include: Optoma HD20 for $700, designed for home theatre and with only half the lumens value but capable of 1080p; Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 710 for $650, 720P with 2800 lumens output; and ViewSonic PJD5533W 3D 2800 lumens, $530 on sale at Amazon.

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Unpacking and contents

After unboxing the relatively underwhelming yet huge Amazon box it arrived in, the Optoma GT750 unit itself was nicely packaged up with thick air cushions plus a carrying case. There were also two power cables provided for both American/European, and UK plugs (this is a UK unit).

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Batteries are supplied for the remote, and there’s an component to VGA adapter for older devices. A printed quick guide is supplied, but like most purchases nowadays, an actual manual is only available on disc.

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For testing purposes, we’ve bought a pair of ZD201 Active Shutter 3D glasses. The glasses were supplied with a nose adjustment rubber bit, and battery (CR2032); and are designed to work with a new standard of active 3D called DLP-Link, so if you have any devices which conform to that standard, check if they’re compatible before purchasing new ones. Suffice to say, my Samsung 3D TV glasses weren’t compatible.

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At the rear, you’ll find two HDMI sockets – both input, so no passthrough is available – as well as VGA, S-Video, analog composite video and audio in.

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Although I had no problems getting 3D through HDMI from any devices, a manual sync socket is also provided for analog 3D devices. I should add that there’s a built-in 10W speaker, but it’s understandably atrocious, so let us never speak of it again.

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The lens cap has a very shallow lip which it fits over the rim of the lens – it feels like it should fall off any moment, but it doesn’t. Placing the cap back on can be awkward though, as it has to be aligned perfectly.

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The design of the Optoma GT750 is nothing to write home about; it doesn’t look particularly out of place in a living room setting, but neither does it scream out for attention as some industrial designs can. The only complaint I have is the gloss black plastic – it’s the kind of surface that loves to pick up dust and really highlights greasy fingerprints. A matte finish would have more appreciated, but I’m nitpicking at this point.

optoma gt750 3d gaming projector review

Operation and Setup

Upon first boot, you’ll be asked to select a language. That’s it; the unit will then then go off in search of a video source, scanning until it finds something suitable. The only setting you really need to care about is the image MODE button – this allows to switch between bright, vibrant gaming settings and more subdued movie mode, for example. If you’ve placed the projector such that it’s angled, you’ll also need to perform some further adjustments; however, I strongly recommend you don’t do that to avoid any loss of quality, and instead physically move the device until it’s perfect.

On top, you’ll find a set of basic controls for power, menu, source selection, and keystone adjustment. In practice, I only ever used the power button. To turn off the device, you need to press power twice. There’s a short delay of about 5 seconds during power-down, accompanied by a heavy fan noise as it cools the bulb slowly.

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There’s also a blue backlit remote supplied for quick access to other settings; I used this mostly to select the input source, change between picture modes, or activate 3D.

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Given the amount of heat produced by the bulb, there is an audible fan noise during normal operation. In most gaming situations, you’re not going to notice this, but for quiet movie scenes it could be annoying. With two computers in the living room anyway, I can’t say it bothered me much.

3D

A lot of you will be put off by the fact it does 3D and might stop reading at this point – with any luck, no one will enter, and I can keep this projector for myself! Before you dismiss the 3D functionality, know that not all 3D is made equal, and the Optoma GT750 gaming projector uses the “good quality” 3D method – with active shutter glasses. You don’t get the same darkened picture that you do with passive displays, and it certainly isn’t one of those atrocious glasses-free implementations. Operation is simple; a long press on the on/off button activates the glasses, While within a 20m range of the projector, the infra-red detector at the front of the glasses will receive a signal, and the glasses will be operational.

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It is a full-HD, bright 3D image – and having now watched a couple of 3D test movies on it, the effect is similar to a cinema 3D experience. It works with the 3D output of the Xbox 360 and Playstation (where games are compatible, the PS3 has far more than the Xbox), but I find the lag this introduces on limited console hardware to be quite detrimental to gameplay.

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The Optoma GT750 accepts a variety of 3D formats, from SBS to interlaced, so there are no worries about compatiblity on that front. If you have a high-powered gaming PC, it’s compatible with Tri-Def custom drivers, proprietary NVidia or ATI 3D systems (Not sure what that means? Read Can my laptop or computer do 3D?).

Additional glasses cost around $50 each, so it’s quite a considerable additional investment if you’re purchasing for the whole family. They also require a single CR2032 battery, and use industry standard DLP-link technology – my existing Samsung TV glasses (which I already own two pairs for) were not compatible. If you’re not into 3D though, don’t worry because the Optoma GT750 still a top quality projector regardless.

Throw distance, image size and pixellation

Having owned a fair few projectors before, I can tell you that the number one limiting factor has always been how far away you can place the projector from the wall. In the case of the Optoma, I pointed it toward the largest wall in my living room – admittedly, not that large at all, but there you go – optimistic that I could get a reasonably large image from a table about 2m away. It turned out that actually, my wall was too small.

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The projected image is huge – I actually had to move the projector closer to the wall to get it to fit. This is technically termed as “ultra short throw distance”, and the secret appears to be in the lens shape and some clever optics.

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According to the specifications, the maximum distance from the projection surface is 16 feet. Therefore, using the projector’s throw ratio of 0.72:1, the projection image you’re going to have at that distance is a whopping 22 feet wide. My mind can’t even fathom owning a house with a wall big enough to project that onto.

The image projected is 720P HD, however at this size, you are going to get some pixellation.

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This problem isn’t limited to this particular projector model of course – it is simply the nature of having an image that large with that few pixels – but it does illustrate that HD just isn’t enough anymore. Pixellation is most obvious when using the projector as a secondary monitor output; but with gaming and movies you aren’t truthfully going to notice it. Here’s a sample of the text pixellation, zoomed in on a game menu screen – which is about the only situation you’ll be really conscious of it.

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Like most projectors, there are keystone adjustments to change the shape of the image, but for the best use of pixels you want to avoid those – same goes for reducing image size, as you’re actually just chopping off pixels.

Brightness and picture quality

In the past, I’ve limited projector screenings to evenings or only with blackout curtains and all the lights off; the Optoma GT750 has 3500 lumens, which translates to “quite ridiculously bright”. Some users have even complained that it’s “too bright” for use in completely dark room, but you can adjust lamp brightness in the menu settings if that’s the case.

optoma gt750 3d gaming projector review

While a specialized projection screen is obviously going to give the best possible image reproduction, a plain, matt magnolia wall was more than good enough for me, with fantastic color reproduction in movies and games. There was no moire, no delays and no discernible lag.

optoma gt750 3d gaming projector review

Lamp hours and replacement

The only downside to owning a projector is the bulb – they wear out eventually, must be replaced, and are incredibly expensive. The official replacement for this GT750 can be purchased directly from Optoma for around $250, though you can find suitable alternatives on Amazon for around $150.

On the plus side, the bulb is rated for 3000 hours at standard brightness, or 4000 in “eco” mode; assuming 2 hours of gaming or movies per day, that’s going to last about 4 years before it needs replacing. The device will warn you when a replacement is due, thanks to its internal counter.

Should you buy the Optoma GT750 3D Gaming Projector?

If you thought your TV was big, think again – nothing beats a projector for the true home cinema and immersive 3D gaming experience. Not just for gaming, this devices works great for general TV watching and movies in 2D or 3D, though you will need to adjust the brightness as it can be a little blinding with all the lights off.

optoma gt750 3d gaming projector review

Our verdict of the Optoma GT750:
Buy it, because I’m certainly not giving you this one!
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Seriously though, we’re giving away this review unit, so join the contest!

How do I win the Optoma GT750 3D Gaming Projector?

The giveaway is over. Congratulations, Andrew Bath! You would have received an email from jackson@makeuseof.com. Please respond before May 22 to claim your prize. Enquires beyond this date will not be entertained.

Surfeasy Private Browser: Portable Usb Vpn-enabled Browser On A Card [giveaway]

Email, social networks, banking: many of the things we do online require some level of security. This is relatively secure on your own devices, but what if you need to use these services on a public computer? It’s a good idea to avoid doing so at all, but sometimes that’s not practical.

And that, my friends, is where SurfEasy’s Private Browser comes in. This credit card-sized USB device works on PCs and Macs, and offers you a portable browser that connects you to an encrypted VPN. Even better: your browsing session is saved, meaning you can bring your tabs and bookmarks with you from one public computer to another, quickly. Even your passwords are saved, meaning you don’t need to enter them on sketchy computers.

If the name ‘SurfEasy’ sounds familiar, that’s because Joel wrote about their Android app not long ago. The SurfEasy Private Browser currently sells for $69.99, and comes with the VPN service – there’s no recurring fee. We’re giving five away, so be sure to enter our contest after reading this review!

The Concept

Travelers know what a lifeline an Internet connection can be, but sometimes a data plan isn’t financially or technically feasible. Happily, in most places, public computers exist to connect you with the outside world. Most hotels, libraries and web cafes offer free Internet connectivity, but should you trust them?

The only real answer is “you don’t know”, but there’s nothing less comfortable than entering your username and password into a computer you don’t quite trust (Windows XP with IE 5? Really?). This is exactly where the SurfEasy Private Browser comes in handy.

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This portable flash drive, which fits handily into your wallet thanks to its card enclosure, offers you a secured version of Firefox that connects directly to SurfEasy’s secure VPN. Connect to secure services, knowing your traffic is effectively invisible to everyone else on the network. Concerned about keyloggers? Enter your passwords using an on-screen keyboard beyond their reach.

The idea is a browser, on a portable USB stick, that secures your browsing when you’re using a public computer. How does it stack up? Let’s take a look.

The Card

The SurfEasy Private Browser is packaged quite well for what is essentially a USB stick. Sure, the box looks a bit like a pack of smokes, but it’s a good looking pack of smokes.

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Open the box and you’ll see your card – some simple instructions come below it.

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The card is the same size as a credit card, important if you want to slip it into your wallet.

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Be warned: it’s thin for a USB drive, but a little thicker than most of your other credit cards. If your wallet is tight as-is you may need to remove a few things to fit this – it takes up the space of two standard cards easily. Still, once it finds a home in your wallet, you’re likely to forget it’s there.

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The actual USB stick slides right out of its card, directly exposing the metal connectors to the outside world. It’s a little weird if you’ve never used a stick like it, but it’s thin and that’s what matters here.

Experience

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So we’ve established that the device is portable, but how’s the software on it? Here’s what to expect. You’ll need to set up an account the first time you use it – after that, you’ll need only enter your password each time you plug in the device.

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Note that SurfEasy provides both a Windows and a Mac browser, and both load quickly (depending on the system you’re using, of course). Your session from one computer, regardless of operating system, will be resumed on the next device you use – meaning your open tabs, bookmarks and saved passwords follow you.

Anyway, the browser. It’s based on Firefox 14 as of this writing (updates are automated), so it will look familiar to you.

surfeasy-browser

Firefox extensions are compatible, but expect to see a warning. This service is, after all, about security.

It’s for this reason that all of your traffic is routed through SurfEasy’s encrypted VPN service – meaning no one on the networks you’re using can monitor your web usage. The Toronto-based company claims traffic through this browser is secured with the same level of security that banks use, and also says it keeps no logs of user traffic whatsoever on its own servers.

Another nifty touch: SurfEasy lets online services know which city you’re in without revealing your IP address. This means you’ll get local results from Google without letting them know your precise location.

You can pick which servers you use for the service:

surfeasy-servers

Stick to something local for best speeds. Of course, everything is going through a VPN – speeds will not be as fast as usual, depending on your connection. But privacy does have its costs.

Another feature, mentioned previously, is the on-screen keyboard. While annoying, using this to type all or at least part of a password is a great way to avoid the risk of keyloggers recording it.

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It’s a nice touch to a browser clearly designed for security.

Conclusion

It’s probably possible to build something similar using any flash drive, combining the portable version of Firefox and a reliable VPN service. SurfEasy’s Private Browser, however, is unquestionably an easier way to go – and comes on a perfect flash drive for putting in your wallet until you need it. Plus, you’d need access to a paid VPN for that to be reliable – and most would eat into the $69.99 cost of SurfEasy pretty quickly.

So if you travel a lot, or otherwise need to use unreliable computers to do secure things, SurfEasy is probably perfect for you. I’ll be keeping it in my wallet while abroad.

How do I win the SurfEasy Private Browser?

You may enter by submitting your name and email address. You’ll receive one entry simply by doing so.

After that, you’ll also be offered various methods to earn additional entries. They range from sharing a link to this giveaway on social networks; to commenting or visiting a specific page. The more you participate, the higher your chances of winning! You will receive 5 additional entries into the giveaway for every successful referral via your shared links.

This giveaway begins now and ends Friday, September 6. The winners will be selected at random and informed via email.

The Winners

Congratulations, Carole Stoddard, Nero Tran, Andrew Wheelock, Jenny House, and Wendy Wallach-Zephier! You would have received an email from jackson@makeuseof.com. Please respond before September 12 to claim your prizes. Enquires beyond this date will not be entertained.

Send your products to be reviewed. Contact Jackson Chung for further details.

Livescribe 3 Smartpen Review And Giveaway

Who doesn’t want a Livescribe smartpen? Whether you’re a student, a journalist, attend meetings a lot, or just need to easily record writing and audio, you can make good use of a smartpen. Livescribe is the most famous maker of smartpens, and its former models — the Livescribe Echo and Livescribe Sky — are still a brilliant way to pair audio and notes and transfer them onto your computer.

The newest iteration of these smartpens — the $150 Livescribe 3 — looks like a shiny new model, and promises to “turn your words into action”. Just like with any new release, we expected this new pen to be richer and better than older models, especially as the Pro 2GB version of the Livescribe 3 sells for $200 — as much as a 4GB Livescribe Sky. But does the Livescribe 3 deliver?

To find out, and to have a chance at winning this $150 smartpen for free, just keep reading!

Livescribe 3 — New Features, Weaker Pen

If you want to know about some other smartpens on the market, head over to our Livescribe Echo and Livescribe Sky reviews for an overview. Focusing on Livescribe smartpens, it’s important to understand the differences between the models and the goal of each one if you ever hope to understand which one you should buy.

The oldest one of the bunch currently available is the Livescribe Echo. Arguably the most flexible one of the bunch, a 2GB version of the Echo can be had for $120 on the Livescribe website, or a bit less than that on Amazon. The Echo connects to your computer via USB cable, and can record and play audio all by itself. It uses the Livescribe Desktop software to sync your notes, where you can easily view them as pencasts — a combined version of your notes and audio. The software is available for Windows and Mac.

Like all Livescribe pens, the Echo needs dot paper in order to work, but can also be used as a standalone recorder (if you don’t want to write), and can do all sorts of neat tricks like translations, calculations, and more.

echo

Moving on to the newer model, the Livescribe Sky was released 2 years after the Echo, and added an exciting new feature — Wi-Fi! Finally, you no longer needed to connect your pen to your computer in order to sync audio and notes. All you have to do with the Sky is connect it to your Wi-Fi network, and it syncs all by itself. The downside? Livescribe Sky can sync only with Evernote, so you lose the freedom you had with the Echo, but gain a pen that’s more cross-platform. It still sports its own screen, and can record and playback audio just like the Echo, as well as perform all the same neat tricks.

You can get the Livescribe Sky for $170 for a 2GB model or $200 for a 4GB model. You can even get a Propack 8GB version for $250, which comes with a 1-year subscription to Evernote Premium. You can find better prices for these on Amazon, especially for the 2GB and 4GB models.

sky[5]

We now get to the newest kid on the block — the Livescribe 3. If the Livescribe Sky sacrificed flexibility in order to become cross-platform, the Livescribe 3 does away with both. In fact, the Livescribe 3 is a somewhat crippled version of the older pens, and doesn’t have its own screen or headphone jack. It can’t record audio. It can’t even sync with anything that’s not running iOS. Yes, you heard right.

While its inability to record audio means that you will never need a pen with over 2GB of storage, you will still pay $150 for the regular Livescribe 3 version, and $200 for the Pro version, which comes with more dot paper, a fancy case, and 1-year Evernote Premium subscription. However, the Livescribe 3 can’t sync directly with Evernote anymore, so don’t be confused by the offer.

The Livescribe 3 is by no means useless, however. If you happen to own an iPhone 4S or newer, or an iPad 3 or newer, it might be the right choice for you out of all the smartpens. Let’s see why.

What Does The Livescribe 3 Offer?

livescribe-3-box

The Livescribe 3 is a completely new take on the smartpen concept. As mentioned above, it does away with features such as the built-in screen and recorder, but the pen does boast several new elements. The first one is the stylus tip. Unlike former pens, the Livescribe 3 is meant to work hand in hand with mobile devices (currently only iOS), and therefore includes a nice stylus tip for navigating around your device. If you don’t already own a stylus, or even if you do, it’s nice to flip the Livescribe 3 over and use it for navigation, typing, etc.

livescribe-3-tip

The stylus tip comes off to reveal a micro-USB charging port. The Livescribe 3 comes with a lithium-ion battery that’s supposed to last up to 14 hours of use. Since the pen doesn’t really do much, you get longer battery life than previous smartpens.

While it’s nice to have the port hidden from view when not using it, it’s way too easy to misplace the stylus tip while you are using the port, so watch out.

livescribe-tip-remove

On the other side of the pen, you’ll find another new feature — the retractable ink tip. The Livescribe 3 turns on when you rotate it, and by doing that, you’re also extending the pen tip. When you turn the pen off, the tip retracts into the pen, so you don’t need a cap to protect it.

This is all nice and dandy, but it also means that the pen has distinct on and off positions. If you leave it on, it will stay on. Even after forgetting and leaving it on for almost an hour, the pen still didn’t turn itself off, which might not be the most efficient thing battery-wise.

livescribe-3-pen

The pen itself is pretty slick, and while it’s still thick for a pen (it still has to house the battery and infrared camera), it’s a bit easier to hold than former models. The writing experience is nice and smooth. Since there’s no screen, there are no adjustments to be made whether you’re a righty or a lefty.

The Livescribe 3 sports a multi-color LED that indicates what your pen is doing. For example, when the LED is flashing green, the pen is in pairing mode. Solid blue light means its paired, and solid red light means it’s in recording mode.

livescribe-3-led

The Livescribe 3 connects to your iOS device via Bluetooth. In order to use it, you need to download the free Livescribe+ app from iTunes. The pairing is automatic and quick, although you might have to update the pen’s firmware before first use. This process is not very long, but don’t let your device go to sleep in the middle of it, as it will stop the update.

licescribe-3-update

We now get to the best part of the Livescribe 3: immediate syncing. Once paired, you can start writing notes on your dot paper, and these will immediately appear on your iOS device. If you want to create a pencast like you could with he older versions, you’ll have to resort to audio recording through your iOS device. The Pencasts work the same way they always did, but if you find that your iOS device is not the best method to record a lecture, you’re pretty much stuck. In addition, I did find that audio and text were not synced properly at times, and one time, no audio was recorded at all.

pencast

If you’ve ever used the Echo or Sky smartpens, or even read about them, you know all about dot paper tricks. Dot paper is the special paper all Livescribe pens need in order to work, and former models came with all kinds of features and functions to play with. These made use of the pen’s inner speaker as well as the infrared camera. You could write stuff, tap it, and get answers. This is no more.

The Livescribe 3 comes with a feature-less dot paper notebook. The only things you can do is start, pause and stop a recording (this activates the recorder in your iOS device via Bluetooth), and star, tag or flag items on your page. The latter feature is somewhat useful, but not always very efficient. Sometimes, if you’re too quick about it, it won’t let you star one item and then flag another while writing — the second one will be both flagged and starred. This is not always the case, though.

dot buttons

Each notebook page also includes three additional buttons bearing numbers. These are meant to serve as shortcuts, and were really useful with the Livescribe Sky. Here, they do nothing. This is a “coming soon” feature. Disappointing.

This about sums up everything you can do with the Livescribe 3 smartpen. Fortunately, the Livescribe+ app offers some additional features.

The Livescribe+ App

Available only for iOS at this time (other platforms coming “soon”), Livescribe+ is where all your notes appear magically as you write them using the Livescribe 3. Each page of your dot-paper notebook is represented as a page in the app, and you can view these through the “Pages” tab. Any text that has audio accompanying it will appear in green, and tapping anywhere on it will send you to the “Pencast” tab where you can listen to the audio recorded at the time of the writing.

pencast[5]

The “Feed” tab is where things get interesting. The Livescribe+ app tries to separate your writing by line. Each line gets its own little compartment, and some actions you can perform on it. Swipe from left to right, and your written notes turn to digital text. As long as you don’t try this on drawings and keep your handwriting fairly legible, it works quite well. You can also swipe from right to left to delete a segment.

ocr-livescribe[5]

Once in digital text, you can type in additional text into the cell or fix text that was not recognized correctly. You can also perform some other actions such as sharing, adding to reminders, and more. If you’d like to write in a different language and have the app transcript it, you can download some more languages through the preferences menu. These include French, Spanish, Italian, German and Chinese.

Sometimes, your notes turn into links when you convert them into digital text. This happens when the text is a date, but it sometimes happens regardless of what you write. On paper, you’re supposed to be able to tap these links and get some additional actions, but this is next to impossible. I was able to do this once with a date, and got the option to open the date in my calendar or add an event on this date. This is quite useful, but as I said, almost impossible to do. Endless tapping on the link simply selects and de-selects the segment.

impossible-link-tap

If you want to share entire pages from Livescribe+, you can export them as PDFs which anyone can open anywhere. If, however, you want to share pencasts, this becomes more of a challenge, as PDF readers can’t actually play these. At the moment, you can either open pencast PDFs on Livescribe+ itself or on a Beta online app called Livescribe Player. This player completely refused to work on Firefox, and while it went through all the motions on Chrome, it didn’t work there either, at least for me.

player

Living With The Livescribe 3

Were this the first iteration of Livesrcibe smartpens to hit the market, I would have probably loved it. After all, the way your notes are immediately transferred onto your iOS device is pretty awesome, and having your device record audio on top of them is quite neat. That is, if you’ve never seen a smartpen before.

As it stands, the Livescribe 3 is so crippled when compared to previous models, I can’t help but be disappointed. The most crucial issue is the iOS-only compatibility, and the smartpen’s complete reliance on Bluetooth. Admittedly, seeing a Livescribe+ app released for Android, Windows and Mac would be great, but even then, you’re going to need Bluetooth in order to sync, which not all computers have.

livescribe-3-pen[3]

The pen’s inability to record audio on its own is also a big problem, as you always need another device lying next to you if you want to create pencasts. In my case, the only iOS device I own is an iPad, which I barely take out of the house. If I want to record a lecture with the Livescribe 3, I now have to lug my iPad around and place it in a good spot to record the lecture. Not sure it’s worth the hassle.

Should you Buy The Livescribe 3 Smartpen?

The Livescribe 3 is a good-looking pen with some nice features, and it really does simplify the process of converting written notes to digital format. However, it feels more gimmicky than useful most of the time. The use case for it is very specific, and if you happen to need exactly these features, and happen to own an iOS device which you take everywhere anyway, you’ll enjoy it.

Otherwise, you may find that you made a useless $150 purchase, and that you’re better off with the more complex and feature-rich Sky, or even with the Echo, which is still a solid buy, and a more affordable one.

Our verdict of the Livescribe 3:
MakeUseOf recommends: Skip it.
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The Winner

Congratulations, Jake Bray! You would have received an email from jackson@makeuseof.com. Please respond before May 22 to claim your prize. Enquires beyond this date will not be entertained.

Send your products to be reviewed. Contact Jackson Chung for further details.

Amazon Kindle Fire Hdx Review And Giveaway

Quite recently, Amazon released their latest Kindle product — the Kindle Fire HDX. The company’s new tablet offering provides a handful of upgrades compared to the various Kindle products we’ve already reviewed, including the Kindle Fire, Kindle Touch, and Kindle Paperwhite. However, is the Kindle Fire HDX worth owning if you haven’t owned a Kindle before, and is it a worthwhile upgrade for current Kindle owners?

To find out, we purchased a 16 GB Kindle Fire HDX 7″ (Wi-Fi) without special offers for $244, and we’re giving it away to one lucky MakeUseOf reader!

Kindle Progression

The Kindle family of products has spread out into a few branches, where the two main branches are the e-ink products like the Kindle and Kindle Paperwhite, which are extremely energy efficient and emulate the look and feel of real paper; and the Kindle Fire series which is based off your common Android tablet. The Kindle Fire HDX is an upgrade to the Kindle Fire HD, and the main selling point over its predecessor is upgraded hardware.

kindle fire hdx review

Competitors

Just about any product describing itself as a tablet or eReader can be considered as a competitor. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.2, the Nexus 10, the iPad, the Kobo Aura H, the Kobo Arc, and many more are all competitors that offer vastly different features, hardware, and prices.

The $244 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX (without special offers) can be considered as a somewhat cheaper tablet, or a more expensive eReader, depending on how you wish to see it. As you’ll see, however, there are some important differences between the Kindle Fire HDX and its competitors so it can’t quite be compared that easily.

In addition to a 16 GB variant, Amazon also offers the 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX in 32 and 64 GB models for $40 and $80 extra respectively, as well as options to pay just $229 to receive the version with special offers; and LTE connectivity for an extra $100. Not to complicate things, but there’s also an 8.9-inch version starting at $379; the same storage and connectivity options apply.

Packaging

Amazon has places extra emphasis on its packaging of the Kindle Fire HDX, calling it “frustration-free packaging”. The outer packaging just looks like it’s a single piece of cardboard that’s been folded around to somehow hold the Kindle Fire HDX. However, upon further inspection, it’s still solidly covered and glued together. There’s a tab which you can pull (with a decent amount of force, but not too much) to open it. The box for the Kindle Fire HDX itself is covered by some plastic and a sleeve — just remove the plastic, take off the sleeve, and pull another tab to unseal the box.

kindle fire hdx review

Inside the box, you’ll find some very simple packaging. Front and center is the Kindle itself, with some instructions for turning it on, found under the device. Above it in a small box with flaps, you’ll find the charger and corresponding microUSB cable. Unlike most other products, you won’t find any thick booklets with guides or warranty information. Simplicity is the focus, and it’s rather nice.

kindle fire hdx

Specifications

We’re reviewing the 16 GB Wi-Fi only model of the Kindle Fire HDX. Here are its specifications:

  • 2.2 GHz quad-core processor
  • Adreno 330 graphics processor
  • 2 GB RAM
  • Android-based FireOS 3
  • 7″ tablet with 1920 x 1080 resolution; 8.9″ tablet with 2560 x 1600 resolution
  • 720p HD front-facing camera
  • 8.9″ only: 8MP rear-facing camera
  • Wi-Fi capabilities (802.11b/g/n)
  • Optional LTE with AT&T and Verizon (US only)
  • Battery life: 11 hrs mixed use on WiFi/17 hrs reading for 7″; 12 hrs mixed use on WiFi/18 hrs reading for 8.9″
  • 303-311 grams for 7″; 374-384 grams for 8.9″
  • 9 mm thin for 7″; 7.8 mm thin for 8.9″
  • Starts at $229 for 7″; starts at $379 for 8.9″

Design

The Kindle Fire HDX has a very elegant design — it has rounded corners, a front-facing camera on the left side when holding the device in portrait orientation, and a rubber back. The power button and volume rocker are found on the back, on either sides of the device. There are no other buttons on the device — the rest of them will be software buttons shown on the screen.

kindle fire hdx

You’ll also only find two ports on the device — a microUSB port for charging and connectivity, and a 3.5 mm headphone jack so that you can consume media without disturbing others.

Software Experience

The software that’s on the Kindle Fire HDX is what makes it so different from any other regular eReader or tablet. It’s apparent that this Kindle Fire HDX runs on a modified version of Android, but Amazon has made plenty of tweaks to it so that it won’t even mention Android anywhere. Therefore, it’s impossible to know what version of Android the software is based on.

amazon kindle fire hdx

Amazon also removed any traces of Google services in its operating system. You won’t see Chrome or the Play Store — instead, this Kindle comes with the Silk Browser and the Amazon App Store. The browser doesn’t seem to be replaceable, but it is a pretty functional browser which can display YouTube videos just fine as there’s no official YouTube app for the Kindle. The Amazon App Store is similar to the Play Store, but it doesn’t offer nearly as many apps. You will find a lot of common favorites, however, such as Angry Birds and Flow.

Amazon also made their own launcher which shows your most recently used apps in huge icons at the top, and all of your other apps when you scroll down. It doesn’t use common concepts such as an app drawer, but it’s fine. Again, simplicity is the idea here, and all you need to do is swipe up or down. That’s it.

amazon kindle fire hdx

Of course, you get an assortment of various Amazon services, including music, videos, and most importantly books. All of these work exceptionally well. In the case of books, the screen brightness changes to a very comfortable level. However, because the Kindle uses a glass screen like any other tablet, expect to see some amount of glare if you’re outside or in other well-lit areas. The Kindle does try its best to negate this by turning up its own brightness, but it’s not entirely eliminated. Because of the Kindle’s high resolution, you’re in for a great reading experience. The text is very crisp and easy on the eyes — it’s certainly better than older tablets or even paper books.

Mayday

One of the cooler features of the Kindle Fire HDX (after it has performed a system update) is the Mayday feature. If you ever have any questions, you can use the Mayday feature to be connected to a customer service representative “within 15 seconds” and via both video and audio when the internet connection allows it. The service representative can also see your Kindle’s screen and draw on it in order to show you certain buttons or features. It’s a really cool idea that definitely makes getting help much more interactive and effective. The Kindle Fire HDX is already pretty darn easy to use, but this really makes sure that you’re taken care of.

Performance and Battery Life

Thanks to the quad-core processor that the Kindle Fire HDX sports, it is very snappy. Everything loads within a second or two, YouTube videos play without stuttering, and scrolling is very smooth. It can definitely handle everything you can throw at it.

amazon kindle fire hdx review

The battery life is also excellent, and fairly close to what is advertised. Realistically, maybe take an hour or two away from the estimated battery life, and that’s what your real-world experience will approximately be. Like I said, the Kindle Fire HDX readjusts the brightness while reading so that it saves battery and makes it comfortable on the eyes. The Kindle Fire HDX is still a eReader first, and then a tablet.

amazon kindle fire hdx review

Should you buy the Kindle Fire HDX?

So there’s no doubt that the Kindle Fire HDX is a great piece of hardware, but is it really worth getting? Not necessarily. If you’re a current Kindle owner and are completely happy with its features, performance, battery life, and resolution, then there’s no reason for you to upgrade.

amazon kindle fire hdx review

If you’re not a current Kindle owner, I might advise that you look at a regular Android tablet instead, especially if you’re considering the 7″ version. For example, you can get a second-generation Nexus 7 for about the same price, same performance, better resolution, the option for LTE capabilities for all American carriers, and it runs on a vanilla Android OS, letting you run anything that’s available from the Google Play Store, including the Amazon Kindle app and the Amazon App Store.

There might be more reason to buy the 8.9″ Kindle Fire HDX because the Nexus 10 isn’t quite as advanced — however, the Nexus 10 is due for an update any day now.

Our verdict of the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX:
Don’t buy unless your Kindle needs an upgrade.
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Inateck 3-port Usb Hub And Km Switch Review And Giveaway

USB hubs aren’t the most exciting of tech products. I mean, they’re USB hubs, right? They do one job. They add an extra few USB ports to what you’ve got already. Boring. Right? Not necessarily. Meet the Inateck 3-port USB3 Hub with Magic Port. It’s rare you see an interesting take on something so utilitarian and tedious as a USB port, but somehow they managed to do it.

The Inateck 3-port hub is more than just a USB hub, though. Costing just $24.99 on Amazon, it allows you to share files between computers, without having to use an external hard drive or Dropbox. It allows you to share a keyboard and mouse between two computers, much like a KVM switch does. Oh, and it even works well with Android.

But does this device over-promise and under-deliver? I spent a week putting it through its paces, exploring how it can connect the myriad of technological devices I use on a daily basis, and where it falls short.

Look And Feel

It’s almost rodent-like in its appearance. The ‘body’ contains three USB expansion ports, with one tacked on at the end to connect another computer. The ‘tail’ is just a plain, male USB 3.0 connector that fits into any standard USB port.

plugs-640

It’s not terribly stylish. With its rounded corners, gray chassis, and blocky aesthetic, it’s not going to be winning any beauty competitions any time soon.

Also included in the package is a male-to-male USB connector, used to link two computers together, and a micro-USB adaptor, used to connect the device with tablets and phones.

little widget thing

Build quality is impressive. The tail USB cable is sufficiently thick that it’s almost impossible to tangle. Whilst somewhat bulky and heavy in the palm, the body is made out of thick, rigid plastic that could easily withstand an accidental drop.

The Inateck hub’s footprint is minimal. Measuring just 10 centimeters by 3 centimeters, this diminutive piece of kit takes up almost no space. Moreover, once finished with it, you can just wrap up the device with the cable, and stow it away for later usage.

How It Works

I wanted to see how well this particular piece of kit copes with a variety of devices, in a variety of use-cases.

Firstly, I tested core functionality – being a USB hub – before throwing any more challenging tasks at it.

I connected it to my HP Stream 7 – one of the more affordable Windows 8.1 tablets available on the market right now – using the included micro-USB adaptor, and my tablet’s USB-OTG functionality.

plugged-in-closeup

It’s fascinating. Tablets have well and truly cannibalized sales of PCs. They killed the Netbook. Apple makes billions from the sale of their iPads. But despite that, they’re not very useful, are they?

I mean, have you ever tried to get some serious work done on a tablet? Sure, tablets can do much what PCs can. You can write a document on a tablet, or build a web-app, but can you do it without incurring massive frustration? Not really.

Tablets are awful productivity machines, and are best reserved for binge-watching episodes of Seinfeld on Netflix, than any actual busy-work. For that, you can blame the inherently restrictive natures of iOS and Android, the diminutive screen sizes of most tablets, and the sheer awfulness of typing anything lengthy on a virtual keyboard.

But despite that, the Inateck USB hub made it possible for me to actually get some work done on a device that’s usually gathering dust in a closet, than being used for anything important. Once I’d propped it up, plugged in the Inateck device, and connected a standard Logitech keyboard, I was writing articles and responding to emails at a normal speed.

plugged-in

The only flaw I found was with the micro-USB connector, which was flimsy and constantly falling out.

Initially, I was worried about the relative shortage of USB ports available. But despite my initial fears, I soon realized three is more than enough for most use-cases. Each of the ports spaced sufficiently wide enough to accommodate even the chunkiest of USB devices.

spacing

Input and File Sharing

As previously mentioned, the Inateck hub works as a KVM switch. Well, kind of.

The acronym “KVM” stands for “keyboard, mouse, video”. Standard KVM switches allow you to share input devices and monitors with multiple computers, switching between them as required. The Inateck hub only allows you to share a keyboard and mouse. Therefore, it’s not true KVM. But it’s still a useful thing to have.

device-setup

Perhaps one of the most impressive features is that it allows you to share the keyboard and trackpad from one computer, with another. So, for example, if you’ve got one Mac laptop and one Android tablet, you could quite easily control the Android tablet from your Macbook Pro’s keyboard and trackpad.

That in itself is quite interesting, but in practice, it’s a lot more fiddly than that. I found it can be quite hard to position the secondary tablet in a way that’s actually useful.

The coup-de-grace of the Inateck hub is the ability to make a direct link between two computers, and transfer files from PC to PC, PC to Mac, or Mac to PC. This, in theory, would make the humble USB hard-drive and Dropbox utterly redundant. But how does it pan out in practice?

Well, it’s somewhat of a mixed bag.

Let’s start with the good: when it does work, copying files is merely a matter of dragging and dropping from one computer to another. The connection is made over USB 3.0, which results in blazingly-fast file sharing, and a sizable HD movie can be copied over in a matter of minutes.

It’s never been easier to transfer files from PC to PC, Mac to PC, or even PC to Mac. But, it’s a fiddly beast, often taking multiple tries to actually get working. Connections can drop and falter.

The manufacturers insist that both this, and the keyboard and mouse sharing, is done without installing any third party drivers. Whilst that’s true, it’s also quite deceptive, as this functionality is contingent on using a third-party application. The Mac app is called MacKMLink, and although basic, is rather clunky and often requires a bit of poking to actually work.

mackmlink

Troubleshooting it can be hard, as it routinely produces unhelpful and confusing error messages.

error-msg

Alternatives

The Inateck 3-port USB hub does the job of multiple, wildly different devices. It’s fair to say it’s the Swiss Army Knife of USB hubs. Consequently, it’s hard to make a direct comparison between other devices on the market, because there simply aren’t any that exactly match what this piece of kit does.

You could get a dedicated KVM switch. Whilst the Inateck hub only supports keyboard and mouse sharing, a dedicated KVM switch can share input, audio and video between multiple computers. They’re deceptively cheap, too. You can get a solid KVM switch, like the IOGEAR GCS72U, on Amazon for $22.

If you wanted to get a dedicated, hardware-based file sharing solution, you could just get a generic computer-to-computer link. These cost as little as $20 on Amazon, like the Belkin Easy File Transfer Cable.

Alternatively, you can always use a software solution. File sharing can be easily done with the likes of Dropbox or BitTorrent Sync, both of whom have compelling free options, as well as premium paid ones.

bittorrentsync

There are even a plethora of free, software-based KVM switches. Perhaps the most notable is Synergy, which we have previously featured.

Should You Get It?

For its versatility, the Inateck USB3 hub can’t really be rivaled. I just wish it was a bit more polished, and less frustrating to use. Despite the absence of any finesse, it wins on value. It does the job of multiple, expensive peripherals, at a fraction of the cost. Moreover, it wins on flexibility. The Inateck device is truly cross-platform. No matter whether you prefer: Android, OS X or Windows; this piece of kit can work with whatever you’ve got.

Our verdict of the Inateck 3-port USB Hub and KM Switch:
Buy it. Despite its warts and flaws, this powerful piece of kit should be in the tool-belt of any self-respecting geek.
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Inateck 3-port USB3 Hub with Smart Port

Send your products to be reviewed. Contact James Bruce for further details.

Atco Budget Hd Projector With Built-in Android Review And Giveaway

I’ve always raved about how much better it is to watch movies on a big projected screen, but there’s a small problem: projectors are prohibitively expensive. Though you can get a half-decent 40-inch HDTV now for less than $500, even a budget projector will set you back at least $750 for 720p quality – and remember, any pixellation is infinitely more noticeable once it’s being blown up to typical projection size, so standard definition just isn’t an option anymore.

We’ve purchased a budget LED projector to see if you can get that same big screen experience from something half the price. It cost just less than $400, purchased directly from the manufacturer ATCO in China – including delivery. Not only does it offer an admirable 3800 lumens of brightness, but it also comes with Android built-in for media player capabilities. This is the cheapest projector you’ll find that does HD at a good brightness – you can buy “Pico” projectors for less, but those may as well be powered by a flash light.

First Impressions

atco budget projector review

The box it arrives in is the product box; nothing is wasted by fitting boxes within boxes. Unbranded, no fancy packaging – this is it. That’s $20 worth of packaging materials and design – you’re not wasting money on for a start. It’s a heavy package: 6.5 kilograms total, though only 4.5 kilograms of that is the projector.

atco budget projector review

Inside, it’s packed full of cables and adapters. Here’s what we got:

  • 1 meter VGA cable
  • 1.8 meter HDMI cable
  • Composite cable
  • Remote control
  • Wireless mouse
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Spare fuses and screws
  • Two pairs of red/blue 3D glasses
  • Mini-CD with manual and software

atco budget projector review

The specifications

  • 1.5GHz ARM Cortex Dual-core A9
  • Android 4.2.2 pre-installed
  • 1 gigabyte of RAM
  • 802.11b/g wireless
  • 1280×800 pixel resolution
  • 8 gigabytes of internal flash storage/li>
  • 50,000 hour LED life

The projector itself was well-packaged in the usual expanded plastic foam. The only form of branding on the otherwise shiny black plastic device is the letters HD on the top; it hardly seems worth the printing effort. There seems to be a space for a logo or badge to be glued on the front, but none is supplied with our model.

atco budget projector review

Connectivity

Around the back, there’s no shortage of sockets and ports, with all the standard component, S-VIDEO, VGA, as well as dual HDMI inputs and even an analog TV aerial socket. I don’t have an aerial on the house to test this, but I wouldn’t expect it to work with modern digital services anyway.

There are two USB ports and an SD card slot too: remember, this has Android built-in so you should be able to play media directly on it without the need for yet another little box.

atco budget projector review

There’s a 2W built-in speaker – and while it’s nothing worthy of high praise, it’s not particularly bad either, certainly better than some cheap laptops. Component audio ports are provided for audio output directly from the projector.

Picture Quality and Brightness

This is really what this review is all about: can you get a decent size and quality of picture, at a reasonable brightness? I’m not expecting to be able to use it in the daytime, but I don’t expect to need blackout curtains either. I’m also expecting a little pixellation from a 720p device given I’ll be aiming to project on a fairly large wall, but not so much pixellation that it really detracts from the experience. Big screen fun, basically – not cinema buff quality.

The diagonal projected image size it achieves is about 195cm (76 inches) at 250cm (8.2 foot) distance from the wall. Extrapolating that to a throw to screen-size ratio gives about 0.8, so you should be able to calculate how large your image will be. It certainly isn’t an ultra-short throw like the Optoma gaming projector we reviewed: that thing could project onto an entire living room wall while sitting right in front of it on a coffee table. This device will do best in a large room, mounted on the ceiling or a shelving at the back. At smaller sizes, I couldn’t quite get the focus perfect though: when the middle area of the screen was in focus, the edges seemed to blur slightly. At larger sizes, this wasn’t an issue.

(Note: the ripples seen in this test shot are my fault for projecting onto a shower curtain, the actual projection is fine, so do watch the video for subsequent test output onto a plain white wall.)

atco budget projector review

The total light output is claimed at 3800 lumens. This is actually on the upper end of projector brightnesses, and would give you a decent screen up to about 150 inches even with a little ambient light – impressive, considering the LED technology rather traditional halogen bulb. The quoted LED life is 50,000 hours – though clearly this would be hard for us to test fully. It’s non-replaceable, but before you get your knickers in a twist, a quick calculation shows that at 3 hours per day, every day, it should last about 45 years. The fans will break well before then, and you’ll probably need to upgrade to a holographic 3D projector by that time anyway.

atco budget projector review

Focus adjustment is done by laboriously turning the lens, while a flimsy slider round the back adjusts the screen tilt – this is the only part of the build quality that felt a little sketchy to me.

atco budget projector review

Android

The introduction paragraph was a fair way back there, so you’re forgiven for forgetting the fact that this projector comes with Android built-in. Not only are you getting a half-decent budget projector, but a built-in Android TV stick too. You can use your USB peripherals, play media from an SD card or USB storage device, stream using Netflix or run whatever apps you like: it’s Android. And you know what? It’s actually not half bad. It’s running stock 4.2.2 and is surprisingly responsive. Compared to the Android karaoke player that I reviewed last month, this thing flies along beautifully.

Antutu reports similarly, placing the identified “MBX dongle board” with a performance score of 9417, roughly in line with a Samsung Galaxy S2. In real terms, it just feels responsive: XBMC was able to smoothly stream from services, and YouTube handled HD videos just fine.

The supplied wireless mouse helped too – rather than rely on a hybrid remote control that does neither job well enough, the mouse just lets you get on and use the system. You could easily plug in a keyboard as well given there are two USB ports – but for entering passwords, usernames, or searching YouTube, the mouse and on-screen keyboard certainly didn’t feel like a chore.

Summary

atco budget projector review

I’ll be honest, I’m really pleasantly surprised. Not only is it a budget-priced projector with very competitive brightness, but it has a genuinely responsive Android system built-in, providing media playback without the need of yet another device. You will need a good distance to project from for the best results, but come on – it’s only $400!

Our verdict of the ATCO HD Projector:
If you’ve been looking for a big screen experience but been put off by the cost of entry, look no further. Value for money and added features make this a steal!
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Buying Your Next Sports Watch: What You Need To Know

Ever tried running a marathon with your iPhone strapped to your arm? Or tried to check tide charts on your Android phone while boating in rough water? I’ll bet it wasn’t such a great experience. Today’s sports watches are so much more diverse and useful in function than even just a decade ago. You might be shocked at the things a good sports watch can do now. Perhaps it’s time to buy yourself a new one.

But how do you figure out what’s the best sports watch for you? What do you need to know about today’s models? How can you get the best sports watch for your hard-earned money? That’s what we’ll figure out together.

See the Need

Like anything else you buy, you should figure out what you need first. Need is the key word here. For an example of how to figure out your needs, check out the spreadsheet below showing what you might want if you run, fish, and climb. The features highlighted green are ones that are common to two or more of the sports chosen. The features that have white backgrounds are pretty specialized to the sport. By listing the features in this way, you can identify which ones must be in your watch, if you’re buying only one watch. If you can find a watch with a few of the more specialized needs as well, that’s even better. Off to the side are the nice-t0-have features. You might be willing to spend a few dollars more, if you can find a watch that includes those as well.

buy-sports-watch-spreadsheet

In this example, you might need to look at buying two watches; one for your running and climbing, and one for your fishing. The features found in fishing watches are pretty particular to fishing or hunting watches.

Water Resistance

A special note about water resistance (WR) – somewhere on the watch it might say something like WR 3 ATM. ATM stands for atmospheres. It’s a measure of water depth. An atmosphere is equal to an almost 33 foot tall tube, full of water, with your watch at the bottom. The point of that is to show you how much water pressure it would take to get water past the seals of the watch.

Here’s how common water resistance ratings breakdown:

  • 3 ATM/30 meters/100 feet: Good for everyday use where you might get rained on or spill something on it.
  • 5 ATM/50 meters/165 feet: Don’t panic if you accidentally wear it in the shower.
  • 10 ATM/100 meters/330 feet: Swimmers and snorkelers should get a watch with at least this rating.
  • 20 ATM/200 meters/660 feet: You’re Jacques Cousteau and do a LOT on open water or diving.

Water resistance ratings do not take into account any chemicals that might be in the water. If the water has corrosive or acidic stuff in it, the water could break down the seals at any depth. Seals also just break down over time, so do some maintenance and have a certified watch repairer change them once in awhile.

Feed the Need

Get Quality

You might find the sports watch that meets your needs but it’s made by a company you’ve never heard of. It could still be a good watch, so do some research on the Web. Read ratings reports and opinions of people who have bought one. See what kind of warranty the manufacturer or seller will give you. A good sports watch can cost hundreds, even thousands!

You most likely know the names of many watch makers that have been around awhile; Casio, Timex, and Seiko are a few. Yet there are a few others you might not have heard of, which have solid reputations too; Garmin, Suunto, Adidas, Polar, and Nike all come to mind. Of course, there are also smart watches with strong sports features, yet they’re a little outside the scope of this article.

watch-logos

If you’re buying online, be on the look out for counterfeit watches. Today, an entry level sports watch with a few features could be made for as little as $5, if you cut corners. The temptation is there for shifty manufacturers to try to pass them off as brand name watches that can sell for $50 or more. It’s an easy way for them to make an astronomical profit, while you get stuck with an inferior watch and no warranty. There are plenty of resources and videos out there on how to tell a fake from the real deal. Educate yourself.

Get Shopping

Searching out sellers and manufacturers to see what you can get and for how much is one of the beautiful things about the Internet. You don’t have to leave your home. (Yes, I see the irony in buying a sports watch without moving much.)

shopping

You would do well to find a few makes and models that interest you, then find a retailer near you that sells them. Go try them on. Find out if it’s comfortable. Try out the features and see how to make them work.

Talking to the salesperson and asking them questions can really help in your decision making. Ask questions like:

  • Are there any accessories you might not know about? Heart rate belts, chargers, or foot pods come to mind.
  • Do they service the watches here or send them somewhere to be fixed?
  • Are there any little tricks to this watch that you should know about?
  • What things can you do to make this watch work well for years to come?
  • If the warranty covers replacement, is it over the counter or do you have to wait for the manufacturer to send you one?
  • Does the store have their own guarantee as well? What are the details?
  • What is their return policy?

You’re going to be wearing this watch for a few years, maybe decades. You need to be completely happy with it. By going to a retailer, you might find the watch is slightly more expensive, but you also might find you’ve got a good shop in town that will give you service you just can’t get over the Internet. If you do plan on buying your watch online, there are some interesting ways to save money when shopping on the Web.

Time for Suggestions

To get the ball rolling, here are some recommendations for sports watches in three price categories: Lower (Under $100), Medium ($100 – $1000), and Higher (Over $1000).

Lower Priced

The multifunction Casio Sports STB1000-1 is a clear choice for any athlete. With it’s fashionable G-Shock styling, Bluetooth capabilities, and compatibility with Wahoo Fitness apps for iOS and Android, and Abvio fitness apps for iOS, it should do everything you need. At $99.95 it comes in just under our $100 limit. If you really wish you could also keep track of your running information, you can enter data from your run into a site like RunKeeper.

Honourable Mention: Timex Health Touch Plus Heart Rate Sensor & Walk Sensor  $95 USD.

Medium Priced

Once you go above that $100 mark, options open up vastly. You’ll get the most for your money out of the Garmin Forerunner 920XT with HRM-Run option for $500 USD. The Forerunner is a multisport watch that can help you with your running, swimming, and cycling performance with many advanced training features than could be mentioned here.

Being from Garmin, it also has excellent GPS capabilities, of course. You can also download software to work with your watch for your Windows, Mac, iPhone, or Android phone. If you want your info available to you anywhere, Garmin also has the GarminConnect website with a suite of features, again for free.

Honourable Mention: Suunto Quest GPS Pack, $249 USD.

High Priced

If you’ve got the money, a LOT of people have the time. With a budget in excess of $1000, you could get a digital watch with all the functions you could ever want. Yet once you get past the $1,000 mark, you should probably be looking for a sports watch that is also an investment. As a rule, digital watches don’t hold value while mechanical watches do hold, or even increase, in value. Let’s look at the mechanical sports watch world then.

Omega has been the official chronometer of the Olympics since 1932. You cannot be any more of a prestige sports watch than that. For the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Omega has produced the stunning Speedmaster Mark II Rio 2016. You better act quick with your $6,500 USD, because there will only be 2016 of them.

Honourable Mention: Rolex Yacht-Master II $19,895 USD.

Time to Go

You are armed with information, questions, a budget and some great watches against which you can measure your choices. Go forth and finish first in the race for your perfect sports watch.

What’s your favourite sports watch? Have you seen any with really interesting or obscure features? Let us know in the comments, that’s how we all learn.

Image Credits: Casio STB1000-1 via Casio, Garmin Forerunner 920XT via Aerogeeks, Speedmaster Mark II Rio 2016 via Omega, Man and Woman Jogging, Couple Shopping via Shutterstock, Suunto Logo via Dosede Trail, Garmin Logo via Pulse2 Polar Logo via 243tcr, Suunto Logo, Nike+ Logo, Adidas Logo via Wikipedia.

Garmin Forerunner 405cx Review And Giveaway

Garmin Forerunner 405CX Review and Giveaway garmin forerunner 405cxPersonal fitness tracking is a huge industry these days, and it really does work. Tracking your heart rate, speed, distance, and other vital metrics is a fantastic way to stay motivated, keep working out, and get to ever higher levels of performance, fitness, and wellness. After all, few things are more motivating than watching your own speed improve on tangible graphs and charts.

Today, I will be reviewing the Garmin Forerunner 405CX: a heart-rate monitor with a built-in GPS. The 405CX tracks your running or cycling in minute detail, then wirelessly connects to your computer and uploads your workout data to Garmin’s website, where you can peruse it at your leisure.

We bought this $270 Garmin Forerunner 405CX, so you can expect an honest, unbiased review. And of course, the cherry on top is that one lucky reader will win this review unit – participate in the giveaway at the end, and you too will have a chance to win it!

The Personal Fitness Monitoring Arena

garmin forerunner 405cx

To understand the Garmin Forerunner 405CX, or 405CX as I will be referring to it from now, we need to view it in the wider context of the personal fitness monitoring market. There’s a spectrum here: At the very first level, in terms of price, are smartphone apps like RunKeeper and Adidas miCoach. These apps do require a smartphone, but a smartphone is a versatile device which can be used for much more than just fitness tracking, and besides, you may already have one. These sit on the free to $10 range, and are a fantastic way to keep track of your fitness performance, as can be evidenced by their popularity. What these apps track essentially is time, distance, and speed, using your smartphone’s sensors (GPS and clock, really). Just knowing your elevation, path, and average pace, can make a huge difference in running and motivation – not to mention the social aspects of sharing exercise data and goals with friends.

Those who wish to give these apps a bit more oomph would need to move up into the next level in the spectrum: Accessories such as the $75 Zephyr HxM and $90 Polar WearLink+ Bluetooth transmitter. These are both heart-rate monitors which strap onto your body, wirelessly connect to your smartphone, and provide your fitness app with one more data stream – the all-important heart rate. In theory, with one of these, your smartphone is the ultimate fitness tracking instrument. But one problem remains: Checking how you’re doing mid-run. Pulling out your huge smartphone might be awkward, as will be running with it strapped to your wrist. You can always run with headphones and listen to audio cues, but not all apps have them, and they may not be as effective as just keeping an eye on your stats.

And this brings us to the next and final level in our spectrum: Full-blown personal heart rate monitors, such as the $210 Polar FT60 and the $270 Garmin Forerunner 405CX. These look like bulky wrist watches, but connect to a heart rate monitor and provide you with an ongoing data feed and training guidance which you can see at a glance mid-stride, without having to fumble with your phone. But if you already have a smartphone, should you really shell out $270 for the Garmin Forerunner 405CX? Let’s find out.

What’s In The Box?

garmin forerunner 405cx

The 405CX ships with an impressive bundle of accessories. In the middle column of this image, you can see the large plastic HRM (heart rate monitor) sensor strap, two alternative watch straps, the user’s manual, the charging dock, and the Garmin ANT+ wireless communicator (the bit that looks like a disk-on-key at the bottom). On the left, you can see included tools, as well as the international charger with its three interchangeable wall plugs. And last but not least, on the right is the CX450 itself – a rather bulky device.

Design and Aesthetics

garmin forerunner 405cx

The Garmin Forerunner 405CX is a bulky watch, even compared to the large FT60. Above you can see the men’s FT60 (left), the 405CX, and then a badly-scuffed ladies’ FT60. The FT60 doesn’t contain a built-in GPS, which explains why it’s so much smaller than the 405CX.

garmin forerunner 405cx

It’s also significantly thicker, as you can see above.

garmin forerunner 405cx

Unlike the FT60, the 405CX does not contain a user-replaceable battery. Instead, the battery is rechargeable via two tiny contacts, shown above, which the included charger clips onto. Another major difference is that the FT60 battery lasts up to a year of normal use, while the 405CX is rated for two weeks in power-save mode. That’s quite a difference, and again, it can be attributed to the 405CX’s built-in GPS and its sophisticated touch interface, which we’ll soon look at.

Another area in which the 405CX is noticeably bulkier is the HRM strap itself:

garmin forerunner 405cx

Below you can see a standard Polar WearLink strap (front) contrasted with the 405CX strap. The Polar strap is very thin and flexible, and its HRM sensor part clips on and off. With the Garmin, the sensor is built right into the strap, which is largely made of plastic and is much more massive.

garmin forerunner 405cx

Here, you can also see the WearLink sensor itself, which is noticeably smaller than the Garmin’s sensor part. The only advantage I could find for the Garmin’s strap is that you don’t need to wet it before using it: You simply strap it on, and it finds your pulse. With the Polar, you must put the strap under a cold water tap and then strap it on when it’s wet – not a fun way to start a training session, really.

Charging The Garmin Forerunner 405CX

garmin forerunner 405cx review

The 405CX ships with a proprietary charger clip which looks a bit like a pulse oximeter (you know, the ones they strap onto your finger at the hospital). At its other end is a USB cable which you plug into the charger, and then you just latch the clip onto the watch so that its two tiny “teeth” bite into the contacts on the back of the watch:

garmin forerunner 405cx review

A full charge takes around 2-3 hours.

The Touch Interface

garmin forerunner 405cx review

Above you can see me configuring the watch – I am not just holding it by the bezel. The bezel itself is touch-sensitive, even though it is made of plastic. In fact, it is even multi-touch: Touch it with two fingers, and the 405CX’s blue backlight turns on. The touch interface sounds great on paper, but was really quite annoying to use. You scroll through menus by running your finger around the bezel and confirm by tapping the bezel once, but many of my gestures were not correctly identified. While the interface doesn’t work well for lengthy configuration sessions, it is well-suited for use while running, when you don’t have time to fumble with the buttons.

Training With The Garmin Forerunner 405CX

garmin forerunner 405cx review

To test the 405CX, I strapped it on and took it for a light stroll. Once outside, I had to pause for a moment while the watch got its bearings and tracked down enough GPS satellites. This took less than a minute, and was illustrated with a simple progress bar. I then started walking (I didn’t actually run this time), and walked for a few minutes before realizing I never actually linked the 405CX with the HRM strap. I paused, navigated the menus for a few moments, and that was it: The watch identified the HRM and instantly connected, and heart rate data started transferring. That’s when I took the picture you see above.

garmin forerunner 405cx review

One of the ways the 405CX tries to motivate you is by providing you with a virtual workout buddy you can jog with. Here you see that I’m lagging behind my imaginary friend by a whopping 23:53 minutes – it went running ahead and didn’t stop to see why I’m not moving. That’s what you get for having imaginary friends, I guess.

garmin forerunner 405cx review

As you train, you can touch each of the bezel’s four main areas (top, bottom, left, right) to get information about different aspects of the session. Touching the bezel’s left side, for example, pops open the GPS menu. Using this menu you can verify that the GPS is indeed on, and monitor your current accuracy. This is a very cool display, and the Garmin had absolutely no trouble tracking me down to five meters, even though I was walking in narrow streets surrounded by tall buildings.

garmin forerunner 405cx review

The 405CX features several training-mode displays, and they are fully customizable.You can have up to 3 personal screens, and get to decide how many metrics (1-3) to show on each screen, as well as what those metrics would be. To me, this shows Garmin really gets that the primary reason to use a watch HRM these days is to see data at a glance. By providing absolute customization, Garmin guarantees that you will have the exact display that’s useful for your training style. This is one of the most impressive parts of the 405CX experience.

Computer Connectivity

garmin forerunner 405cx review

Once you are done with your training session, it is time to upload your data to the Web and see how you did. This is done using the included USB ANT Stick: You set up Garmin’s software, plug in the stick, and it then recognizes the watch is nearby and asks to pair with it:

garmin forerunner 405cx review

Once you confirm, it asks for your free Garmin Connect account credentials so it knows where to upload your training data:

garmin forerunner 405cx review

It then crunches along for a few moments, transferring data. This was pretty slow: Transferring just a single session took around four minutes.

garmin forerunner 405cx review

Once that’s done, you can log on to Garmin Connect and see your session:

garmin forerunner 405cx review

And of course, drill into the session for the nitty gritty details:

garmin forerunner 405cx review

There is also a map (minimized above for obvious reasons). I compared the 405CX’s built-in GPS to my Galaxy S II GPS by tracking the same session with RunKeeper, and the maps came out basically identical, so GPS tracking is at least as good as on the Galaxy S II (which means it is very good). You also get a nice summary of your session, as well as time and elevation charts.

Should You Buy The Garmin Forerunner 405CX?

This time, there is no simple answer to this question. If you are just starting out with personal fitness monitoring, then probably not. Try out a few of the free and inexpensive apps and see how it goes first. The Garmin Forerunner 405CX is at the very end of the spectrum, so I would say you should buy it only if you know you will really use an HRM, know that an HRM that connects to your phone isn’t good for what you need, and are sure you really need the Garmin’s built-in GPS and can’t go with the cheaper, less bulky FT60 because it doesn’t contain an HRM. If all of these are true, then sure – the Garmin is an excellent device for what it does, and provides a solid fitness tracking experience.

As with most MakeUseOf reviews, we’re giving this review unit away to one lucky reader.

How do I win the Garmin Forerunner 405CX?

It’s simple, just follow the instructions. Please note that we’ve included a new entry method which utilises your MakeUseOf points.

Step 1: Fill in the giveaway form

Please fill in the form with your real name and email address so that we can get in touch if you are chosen as a winner. Click here if you can’t view the form.

The giveaway code required to activate the form is available from our Facebook page, our Twitter stream and Google+ page.

Garmin Forerunner 405CX Review and Giveaway giveawaycodes

The giveaway is over. Congratulations, Tony Bradshaw!

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Moto G4 Plus Review

Motorola has been the leader of the budget phone realm ever since they came out with their Moto G line, but the new Moto G4 Plus has taken things to the next level. Whereas past generations of the Moto G made some pretty significant compromises to come in at a low price point, the G4 Plus manages to blow other phones out of the water at only $300.

So is it the phone for you? Let’s find out.

 

Specifications

  • Price: $300 ($250 version available)
  • Chipset: Octa-core 1.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor with 550MHz Adreno 405 GPU
  • RAM: 4GB (2GB version available)
  • Storage: 64GB (16GB version available)
  • Cameras: 16MP rear-facing, 5MP front-facing
  • Size: 153mm x 76.6mm x 9.8mm (6.02in x 3.02in x 0.39in)
  • Weight: 155g (5.46oz)
  • Screen: 5.5″ LCD 1920px by 1080px display
  • Expansion: microSD card slot up to 128GB
  • Battery: 3,000mAh with TurboCharge
  • Operating System: Android 6.0 Marshmallow
  • Extra Features: Fingerprint scanner, removeable back

Hardware

If there’s one aspect of this phone that feels cheap, it’s the plastic body. This comes with its own pros and cons, though. For example, the textured plastic has more grip than an aluminum phone, and it can easily be popped off to give you access to the SIM card and MicroSD card slots (the battery however is still not removable).

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But, it does look and feel cheaper. The plastic can be a little creaky in places, but for the most part, it feels solidly built. Strangely enough, the curved design is extremely reminiscent of the Samsung Galaxy S3.

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The power button and volume rocker are along the right side, the left side is bare, the bottom has the Micro-USB port, and the headphone jack is at the top. Because it does still use Micro-USB, all your old cables should work for it, but be aware that the industry is moving towards the reversible Type-C plug, and in a year or two, you might feel a little left behind.

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Just below the screen, there’s a square fingerprint scanner that looks deceitfully like a home button, but it’s not (the phone uses software keys instead). Honestly, the scanner is beyond impressive. Rest your finger lightly on it, and the phone unlocks instantly, even without hitting the power button first to wake it up. I was genuinely shocked by how fast and reliable the fingerprint scanner was, and I continued to use it for the whole time I was testing the device.

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The screen is a pretty standard 5.5″ 1080p LCD display, but it looks great and is bright enough in direct sunlight.

Camera

While the resolution of both the cameras isn’t bad (16MP front-facing and 5MP rear-facing), they quality is lacking, especially in low-light. Photos in daylight were fine, but as soon as you go indoors, photos become grainy and blurry. The worst part was probably the slow shutter speed. There’s a good chunk of time after hitting the button before it actually takes the photo, which means you won’t be taking photos in quick succession.

There is a burst mode, but photos are even more blurry in that. You’ll also find a Professional Mode for manual camera controls, a panorama mode, and slow-motion video. But that’s it. Maybe the best part about it is the simplicity; other manufacturers pack their camera apps with so many unnecessary features that it becomes confusing.

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I felt like the front-facing camera left me with especially washed-out and under-saturated selfies. Photos are definitely not the strong point of this phone. But that being said, they’re not terrible. For a $300 phone, it’s actually just as good if not better than other phones in its price range. I don’t think it was even intended to compete with $700 phone cameras.

Speaker

The speaker on the Moto G4 Plus is actually built right into the earpiece. That means that you get the sound pointed directly at you, not coming out of the back or the bottom of the device. It’s not an extremely loud speaker, but it’s definitely above average.

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Front-facing speakers have become a rarity on smartphones. HTC is known for their dual-front facing speakers, but even they moved to an earpiece-speaker combo in their latest flagship HTC 10. So seeing that feature on a budget device is a pleasant surprise.

Performance

You might think that with the Snapdragon 617 powering this little phone, it would be noticeably slow — but I haven’t found that to be true at all. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s running nearly stock Android; maybe Motorola (or Lenovo, the company that owns Motorola) has made some tweaks behind the scenes. But whatever it is, this phone is not slow. I’ve only run into lag a couple times, but that was when I was really pushing the phone by charging it, playing Pokemon GO, keeping the screen brightness on high, using it in warm weather, navigating with GPS, and checking Twitter.

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But in normal use cases, the G4 Plus is plenty fast. 4G of RAM is more than enough, and getting that much for only $300 is incredible. I promise you, when you’re using this device, it does not feel like a cheap Android phone hindered by lag and bugs.

Software

While most manufacturers change Android pretty drastically, Motorola has basically left it alone — and that’s great. People tend to find manufacturer changes to be unnecessary bloat, and you get none of that here. There’s just plain old stock Android.

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Motorola has added a couple little features via a single app called Moto. Here you can adjust the screen light-up during battery-saving mode for notifications, and you can control the gestures like “Chop Twice” for Flashlight. I personally found the gestures to not be very helpful, but the notification display is infinitely useful (especially since the G4 Plus doesn’t have an LED notification light).

Otherwise, there’s not much to the software. But that’s extremely good news for software updates. Lenovo has already promised to upgrade the G4 Plus to Android 7.0 Nougat by the end of this year, though only time will tell if they continue to upgrade it past that point.

Battery Life

With a 3,000mAh battery, battery life on the G4 Plus is really quite good. I wouldn’t say that it’s a standout feature, but it’s certainly better than most other smartphones. I never ran out of juice before the end of the day (unless I spent the day playing Pokemon GO, but then I had a portable charger).

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In the screenshots above, you can see that after having 4 hours of screen on time, I still had 31% battery left. Most phones die before 4 hours, but the the G4 Plus just kept going.

Price

There are two models of the G4 Plus. The one we tested had 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, and cost $300. The other model is only $250 and has 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. But that extra $50 is definitely worth it for all of that.

We’ve covered before why 16GB just isn’t enough storage for a modern smartphone, and you’ll certainly feel the performance difference going from 2GB of RAM to 4GB. Considering most manufacturers charge an extra $100 just to up the storage from 16GB to 64GB, you’re getting quite the deal here.

But even at $300, the Moto G4 Plus is still substantially cheaper than basically every flagship smartphone. The base model 32GB iPhone 7 retails for $650; the cheapest 32GB Samsung Galaxy S7 can cost anywhere from $550 to $700 depending on where you buy it; the new Google Pixel costs $650 for the cheapest 32GB model.

For any of the faults that this phone has, it’s a bit easier to forgive them when you realize that you’re saving $300-$400.

Should You Buy It?

The Moto G4 Plus is not perfect, but it manages to pack a lot into a $300 package. The fingerprint scanner is quick, the screen is gorgeous, the software is clean, and it has expandable storage.

But on the other hand, the cameras are mediocre, it has a cheap build quality, and it still uses the now-dated micro-USB port.

Our verdict of the Moto G4 Plus:
If you can get past its few flaws, the Moto G4 Plus is probably the best smartphone in its price range. But if you absolutely need a better camera or want a metal phone, you might have to look at slightly more expensive phones.
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