TAT7 iPhone Scuba Case (Video)

The TAT7 iPhone Scuba case is a case for your iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S that will let you use your smartphone underwater, and the case will apparently keep you device waterproof up to 100 feet.

This fun underwater iPhone case and it even comes with some built in buttons so you can access the camera app on your device, although we are not sure if that will work now on thehome screen with the latest version of iOS.

TAT7 iPhone Scuba Case

If you want one,the TAT7 iPhone Scuba case is available for $85 and it is compatible with the iPhone 4and iPhone 4S have a look at the video of it in action below.

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Apogee MiC review

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It’s no secret that a few of us here at Engadget HQ have an affinity for mobile recording tech. Perhaps you could blame some of our fledgling amateur music careers, but at any rate, we love to get our hands on tech that allows us to lay down tracks on-the-go. It’s also no surprise thatApogee would offer up another product that would look to do just that. As a complement to the outfit’s Jam guitar adapter, the Apogee MiC is the latest foray into mobile recording. Much like its guitar specific counterpart, the MiC is both iDevice and Mac compatible and its compact stature won’t take up precious real estate in your travel pack. But, as you may expect, staying mobile comes at a premium. So, is the $249 price tag a deal breaker for the MiC? Is it a small price to pay for adding a solid microphone to your mobile recording setup? Journey on past the break to find out.

 

Hardware

 

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The first thing we noticed about the MiC is how well built this piece of kit is. We were pleasantly surprised to find a durable, all-metal housing instead of a plastic frame like we encountered a few months back with the Jam. The same three-color LED status indicator makes its home on the face of the mic, telling us when the tech was connected but not quite ready, go-to-go or that the input level was too darn high. Aside from that, there weren’t any other discoveries, as the peripheral is pretty straightforward in terms of design. On the microphone’s right side, lies the lone on-board control: a gain dial for monitoring input levels and a feature also present on the guitar tech. While the left side is bare of any added controls, the USB / iOS connector finds its home on the base and is the sole output.
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Naturally, inside the sturdy metal exterior is the real heart of the matter. The MiC is of the studio-grade, cardioid condenser sort and features 24-bit analog-to-digital conversion at 44.1 / 48kHz. It also makes use of a PureDIGITAL connection tech to cut down on unwanted noise when capturing either vocals or acoustic instruments. This ended up being a nice touch, as we never encountered any unwanted sounds in the captured tracks (more on that later). You won’t find a battery compartment either, as the device is powered by either your iPad / iPhone or via the USB of your computer. Yeah, we know. Marathon recording sessions won’t happen with iDevices, since charging-while-tracking isn’t an option. However, you’re sure to get a solid couple of hours in which will be ample time for most tasks.
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While the gain control is definitely a useful feature, we would have loved to see a built-in mute switch as well. Sure, we’re aware that this is a device meant to be as lean as possible without sacrificing audio quality, but the inclusion of a small button for such said purpose wouldn’t have completely thrown a wrench in things. Let’s be honest, the inevitable coughing fit mid-podcast is bound to happen at some point, right?

If you’re worried about toting around a microphone on top of everything else in your bag, that should be the least of your concerns here.

If you’re worried about toting around a microphone on top of everything else in your bag, that should be the least of your concerns here. The Apogee MiC hits the tape at about 1.5 x 4.5 inches (38.1 x 114.3mm) and it’s only about an inch and a half thick but still packs quite a punch. Not too shabby for a well-built mic capable of tracking vocals and your acoustic axe. Included in the box is a small tripod stand for desktop / tabletop use and both iOS and USB compatible cables. None of these items will take up too much space in the ol’ backpack either — honestly, the entire package could fit inside an acoustic guitar case. It rested nicely in ours, anyway.

 

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Think you may need some extra tools to get the job done? Well, the outfit also has a MiC Stand Adapter for use with any stand that you may have lying around. If the 0.5m cables are just too short for your comfort, a duo of 3m cables are available for purchase as well for an extra $20. We made use of both the longer cables and the clip during our tests and found them quite useful in some scenarios — like using a mic stand to record vocals while standing. And if you just have to have a dedicated carrying case for the entire kit, one will soon be available. No exact arrival date or pricing has been announced for the case or the stand adapter as of yet, though. (Update: Apogee has just told us that the clip, longer cables and case will be available as part of a “Pro Kit” for $249, MiC included).

 

Software

As with the Jam, Apogee recommends that you use GarageBand when recording on your iPad or iPhone. We weren’t in too much of a hurry to venture elsewhere, as the plug-and-play (er, record) type setup that we encountered with the guitar adapter was the experience here as well. Sure, GarageBand will work just fine on the desktop (or laptop for that matter) side and that’s what we used for review purposes. However, Apogee promises that Logic Pro, MainStage, Pro Tools (version 9 or higher) or any other Core Audio software will play nice with the MiC. Chances are, if you’re recording in your studio or office, you may already have invested in one or more of these trusty applications. This will of course make the initial investment a bit easier on your piggy bank.

General use and sound quality

 

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Recorded using GarageBand on OS X 10.6.8, with no editing or post-processing.

Like we mentioned before, setup for this bad boy is a breeze. If you have the requisite software already installed, the MiC is ready to capture as soon as you can unbox it and connect the necessary cables. Of course, you’ll have to do some fine-tuning inside the application of choice. However, connecting the microphone and getting it ready to capture those vocal chops or folky guitar licks can be done in just a few moments. For the audio sample above, we positioned the MiC about two feet away from our Washburn acoustic and carefully adjusted the on-board gain dial to insure proper input levels. This was the only adjustment we made, though, and what you hear was tracked with a flat EQ and no editing or tweaks made post-recording.

Immediately, we noticed the clarity of the MiC and picking up exactly what we intended it to. Though the A/C was running in the office we recorded in, the microphone only picked up a smidge of ambient noise that wasn’t coming from our D10SCE guitar. The overall warmth of the instrument was captured nicely and string noise was welcomed while remaining super clear. Speaking of clarity, we never really had an issue with muddy sounds so long as our input level remained at a proper setting. Our only really gripe with the sound quality is the overall range of tones. While treating highs and mids like kings, we would like to hear a tad bit more bass in the raw recordings. Sure, we can adjust those things later on, but for recording instruments while traveling down the highway or minimal podcast setting, we would prefer a bit more low end. Don’t get us wrong, though, the sound quality here is great but bumping up the lows a few ticks would be icing on the cake.

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We captured both vocals (read: someone talking, no Chris Cornell-esque pipes here) and the aforementioned axe with both an iPad to test the Apogee microphone out. As with any recorded track, the tunes will need to be tweaked a bit post-production. But again, we thought that the sound quality was great of the raw recordings — especially for a more mobile-worthy kit. Of course, this is our ideal use for the device but it is well-suited for studio use as well, if you don’t mind the connection options. We also used the MiC for some light podcasting duties with a MacBook Pro and found it to work quite well there too. Its small size would make it useful when traveling and you’re looking to pack as few extras as possible. You know, when you’d rather not pack that Yeti Pro. However, we have to mention here again the lack of a mute switch. Its absence is most noticeable in this sort of live situation where you don’t really have the luxury of a second take.

 

The competition

 

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Here’s where we’ll discuss the real cost of purchasing the Apogee MiC: how hard it’ll hit the ol’ wallet. Priced at $249, this is a pretty steep investment for something that you may only use while on the road. Not only the upfront cost, but if you’re currently rolling without any mobile recording software, you’ll have to drop some extra coin for that as well — perhaps a decent amount if you find that GarageBand doesn’t suit your needs. So let’s take a look at some other options. (Update: Just after we posted this review, Apogee told us that they will sell the MiC for $199 with the desktop stand and regular cables. A $249 “Pro Kit” will come with longer cables, a mic stand adapter and carrying case in addition to the microphone.)

Not only the upfront cost, but if you’re currently rolling without any mobile recording software, you’ll have to drop some extra coin for that as well.

In the USB game, the first name that comes to mind is Blue Microphones. Even though sub-$100 USB mics abound, for the sake of comparison here, we’re going to limit ourselves to the Yeti (note: not the Yeti Pro), Snowball and the upcoming Spark Digital. If you’re mostly desktop / in-studio recording or podcasting, you could opt for the regular Yeti for $149, saving you about $100 over the Apogee MiC — though it is much larger and a few stones heavier. The Yeti only features USB connectivity, so connecting to your Apple slate right out of the box isn’t an option here, but it is both Mac and PC compatible. While the Snowball is iPad compatible, the $100 offering is definitely more suited for your weekly podcast or Skype calls; however, it can be used to capture your best Jack White impersonation should you so choose.

And then there’s the recently announced Spark Digital. Sporting both USB and iPad compatibility, this Blue Mic also offers a studio caliber condenser for both voice and acoustic instrument recording. You’ll find a MiC-esque gain control on the Spark’s exterior as well. But, more than that, a built-in headphone out for monitoring, volume control and instant mute come standard too. This option will set you back $199 and includes a desk stand with built-in shockmount, all the requisite cables and a six month trial of SoundCloud Pro paired with Gobbler access. What’s the hold up here? It’s not on shelves yet and there’s no definite arrival date. Bummer.

Wrap-up

 

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There’s no doubt that the Apogee MiC is a more than capable piece of recording equipment. Its sound quality is great for such a compact tracking peripheral and the ability to connect to an iPad / iPhone or firmly planted desktops are both great features. However, it is expensive. A little too expensive? That really depends on the size of your recording budget and your level of commitment. As for us, we’d like a few more built-in options on the microphone’s exterior to make the ease of use that much better. And, it wouldn’t hurt to throw in some kind of software that can be fired up as soon as the cables are connected, especially after shelling out over two hundred bones. If you’re not in any hurry, you may consider waiting on the Spark Digital. While we can’t speak on its sound quality yet, the lower price tag and additional on-board features should draw some consideration. However, if you’re looking to record while you’re on that excursion this summer via your shiny new Apple slate, the Apogee MiC will serve you well — if you don’t mind parting with $250 for the mic kit alone.

Toshiba AT200 review

Toshiba AT200

This waif of a tablet certainly took its sweet time getting here. We first laid eyes on this lightweight beauty last August and while it still hasn’t landed in the US just yet (under the guise of the Excite 10 LE) we’ve brought in the international version — already in stores in the UK — to test out the hardware, which appears to be identical. On first appearances, it’s an attractive sliver of a slab, due to the magnesium alloy body, of which there isn’t much. Measuring in at just 7.7mm thick, we’re talking RAZR-scale thinness and a 1.18 pound weigh-in that embarrasses 7-inch devices. Despite this, we still have a 1.2GHz dual-core OMAP processor, running Honeycomb 3.2 on a 10.1 inch touchscreen. But surely, sacrifices must have been made, right? Well, it looks like it’s a financial cost that has to be paid. The 16GB version is currently on sale for £399, matching the new iPad in the UK, and likely to arrive in the US at around $530, pricing itself quite a bit above existing, similarly-specced, Android favorites like the Galaxy Tab 10.1. Are you willing to pay a fair chunk of change extra to skim a few millimeters off your tablet profile? Is it worth it? The full story is right after the break.

 

 

Hardware

 

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We’re not sure if it was a struggle to cram the mid-range tablet specification into such a featherweight frame, but it’s almost like it’s bursting at the sides.

Toshiba’s new Honeycomb tablet seems completely at odds with company’s 2011 family. As lame and plain as the Thrive family seemed, the AT200 is cool and sharp in equal but opposite measure. Weighing in at 535 grams, as 10.1-inch tablets go, it’s the most comfortable we’ve found for one-handed use. Augmented by that wee profile, you can just about type in vertical orientation. While it feels incredibly light, it remains solid, with barely any give, presumably due to the metallic backing. However, the build quality is flawed. The outer rim along the back side of the tablet has a nasty sharp edge — we ended up gingerly handling the thing as it walked a fine line between skin-cutting sharpness and discomfort. The magnesium alloy frame excuses minor scuffs, although our review model — presumably mint — arrived with some significant grazes.

 

We’re not sure if it was a struggle to cram the mid-range tablet specification into such a featherweight frame, but it’s almost like it’s bursting at the sides; the top edge has an odd little hole that looks like it should be hidden under the Gorilla Glass-coated screen. It’s as if the tablet needed a little more tightening or a re-press to ensure everything was in the right place before it left the factory.

 

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The sides of the tablet have a metallic piping that both helps make the tablet less anonymous but also help gain purchase when it’s lying on a flat surface. This is interrupted on the right side by a power switch, volume rocker and customizable switch that can mute the tablet or lock the screen orientation. Some other options, like a WiFi switch, or possibly a power-saver mode would have been nice, but at least there’s an option. Connectivity-wise, there’s a hulking power connector on the bottom edge, which satisfyingly connects to the similarly chunky power cord, while the microUSB HDMI output, headphone ports and microSD slot are lined up on the left side.

It’s nice to see some easy-to–access ports here and while the tablet will be available in 16 and 32GB sizes, microSD expansion means there should be more than enough space for anyone looking for a tablet with a media-playing focus. This is augmented by stereo speakers on each side of the power connector — stereo sound remains a feature that doesn’t make it to even thevery latest top-drawer tablets. Located just off the left and right corners, we never seemed to cover them up when we held the tablet. As they’re on the edge, sound isn’t even muffled if you rest the device on a surface. Sound is just about loud enough, if a little light on the bass, although a third-party equalizer app can fix this.

The AT200 has a 1280 x 800 resolution display that matches the likes of the Galaxy Note 10.1 and the Iconia Tab A200. It’s an IPS display which means off-angle viewing shouldn’t trouble the AT200 — and it largely doesn’t. However, whatever technology Toshiba is using for the touchscreen has left a visible tattoo across the 10.1-inch display. It’s especially pronounced when we were in strong lighting or on dark backgrounds.

Cameras

 

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While tablets certainly don’t live and die by their camera performance, it’s always nice to have an extra option — and the opportunity for a video chat. There’s a primary 5-megapixel camera on the rear, while a front-facing 2-megapixel camera gives better self-portraits than the standard VGA modules we’re used to. The main camera offers pretty typical tablet camera results — that is, noisy stills that often lacked the color of their real world counterparts. The camera app is cheerfully stock Honeycomb, meaning it was easy to get to the settings we wanted to change, but a lack of touch-to-focus let it down during our tests.

The camera is also capable of up to 1080p video, which was generally sharp and while colors and light adjustment is pretty good, it’s another tablet lacking when it comes to autofocus.

 

Performance and battery life

While Toshiba promises 12 hours of use, we weren’t able to eke out such heady figures. In our battery rundown, looped video, at 50 percent brightness with WiFi on, the tablet scraped in at just under six and a half hours. More typical use didn’t inspire much confidence either. We found ourselves regularly plugging in for a top-up later in the day. Perhaps in slimming down to this 0.3 inch frame, the device has generated some power management inefficiencies, or more simply; the battery is simply too small.

Tablet
Battery Life
Toshiba AT200 6:25
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 12:01
Apple iPad 2 10:26
ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime 10:17
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 9:55
Apple iPad (2012) 9:52 (HSPA) /
9:37 (LTE)
Apple iPad 9:33
Motorola Xoom 2 8:57
HP TouchPad 8:33
Lenovo IdeaPad K1 8:20
Motorola Xoom 8:20
T-Mobile G-Slate 8:18
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus 8:09
Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 8:00
Archos 101 7:20
Archos 80 G9 7:06
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook 7:01
Acer Iconia Tab A500 6:55
Sony Tablet P 6:50
T-Mobile Springboard (Huawei MediaPad) 6:34
Toshiba Thrive 6:25
Samsung Galaxy Tab 6:09
Motorola Xyboard 8.2 5:25
Velocity Micro Cruz T408 5:10
Acer Iconia Tab A100 4:54
Toshiba Thrive 7″ 4:42

On paper, the tablet flits between beating and getting beaten by rival models. However, this doesn’t tell the full story — the dual-core tablet seemed heavily taxed when we used the camera app, more intensive gaming apps and media playback. While browser performance was respectable, there was often tiling on the web browser and attempting to stream media would often kick us out to the home screen or take a fair bit of time getting to the point where we could watch it.

Toshiba AT200 Acer Iconia Tab A200 Galaxy Tab 10.1 Transformer Prime
Quadrant 1,703 2,053 2,083 3,023
Linpack single-thread (MFLOPS) 37.8 37.2 16.9 43.35
Linpack multi-thread (MFLOPS) 68.7 60.4 36.7 67.05
NenaMark 1 (fps) 45.8 45.6 42.5 60.1
NenaMark 2 (fps) 23.4 20.4 18.6 46.1
Vellamo 947 1,290 886 953
SunSpider 9.1 (ms, lower numbers are better) 2,082 2,251 2,200 1,861

 

Software

 

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Yep, we’re still on Honeycomb. Anyone that’s used its replacement, Android 4.0, knows that it manages to solve and improve on so much of what went wrong. Toshiba’s given us version 3.2 here and it’s largely what you’d expect from the now outdated tablet version. At least it’s the same undiluted stock Honeycomb experience that Google gifted to the Motorola Xoom, aside from a handful of inconsequential apps that were soon sidestepped. The stock Android keyboard is here, as is Swype, which is thoughtfully thrown in gratis. We had no qualms installing our own favorite keyboard once we started using the tablet and as with most 10.1-inch devices, one with a split keyboard worked the best.

Toshiba’s given us Android 3.2 here and it’s largely what you’d expect from the now outdated tablet version. At least it’s an undiluted stock Honeycomb experience.

The user experience is responsive, although as mentioned in the performance section, throw in something a little more complicated than lightweight apps and email and you begin to see the cracks — typically longer load times and repeated kicks back to the home screen, There’s also some larger problems circulating inside this troubled tablet. Trying to get our sample videos and photos out from the AT200 proved to be very difficult, with files seemingly corrupting irrespective of whether we shared through Dropbox or uploaded to our own Google Plus account. We were unable to detect the tablet connecting through the microUSB port. On the software side, Android’s dedicated tablet apps are not exactly bursting out of Google Play and the average quality remain noticeably lower than its Cupertino equivalent.

Wrap-up

 

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The AT200 is a beautiful tablet. With some great build materials and almost unbelievable lightness in the hand, it embarrasses Toshiba’s previous attempts at Android tablets. However, it feels unfinished. Those rough edges, the uneven spacing along the seam; it all adds to a growing dissatisfaction with this final retail model. This is exacerbated by last year’s tablet software — especially when (much cheaper) tablets are arriving with Ice Cream Sandwich right out of the box. Toshiba’s severely misguided pricing not only puts it above the market-leading tablet — which very recently undertook a substantial hardware refresh — but also above technically superior Android rivals, like the quad-core, higher resolution Transformer Prime. Are you willing to pay $30 more for a lesser product with some performance issues? No matter how good it looks, we’re not.

Apple iPad 3rd-Gen ipad 3 , new ipad review

As was widely anticipated, Apple unveiled the third-generation iPad last March 7 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Analysts speculated that we would see the iPad 3 or perhaps the iPad HD but Cupertino defied all in attendance by simply calling it “the new iPad.”

It’s an overly simplistic yet strikingly bold decision that perhaps only a company as confident and charismatic (or maybe cocky) as Apple could pull off. I personally thought it was a lazy choice when I first heard it, but now that it’s had some time to sink in, and considering some of the terrible product names already on the market (the majority of HTC smartphones, for example), it’s more like a breath of fresh air. Steve Jobs himself would be proud, assuming he wasn’t directly responsible for coming up with the name before his untimely passing last year.

 

 

Much like the iPhone 4S announcement roughly five months ago, Apple introduced a tablet that’s best described on paper as an evolutionary update in the product line. The new iPad is nearly identical to the iPad 2 aesthetically and with both units off you’d be hard pressed to spot any visual differences in passing.

There’s a 9.7-inch display, home button and camera on the front, a 30-pin connector on the bottom, power and headphone jack on top, orientation lock switch and volume rocker on the right and an aluminum back, speaker port and camera on the rear. Apple accessories like the Smart Cover are compatible with the new iPad should you want to protect the screen from dust and scratches.

 

 

A closer inspection reveals that the new iPad is 0.03 inches (0.6mm) thicker and is 0.11 lbs (51g) heavier than the iPad 2. This would generally go against Apple’s mantra but it’s a reality for the new iPad, and there are compelling reasons to support the increased girth.

 

 

Apple has packed a 70% larger battery inside the new iPad (42.5-watt-hour versus 25-watt-hour in the iPad 2) that’s required to maintain the same 10 hours of battery life while surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching videos or listening to music and 9 hours of runtime when utilizing a cellular data network.

Three new features of the latest iPad are guilty of chugging more power than previous generations.

The new dual-core A5X SoC isn’t much different from the dual-core A5 CPU-wise, but the quad-core PowerVR SGX 543MP4 graphics subsystem (the same chip used in the Sony PlayStation Vita) surely requires more energy. During their media event, Apple claimed that the GPU is twice as fast as the one found in the iPad 2 and four times faster than Nvidia’s Tegra 3. This didn’t sit well with Nvidia executives, who deemed the claims lifeless without benchmarks to back them up.

 

 

4G LTE connectivity has had a storied past as a battery hog and perhaps is one of the reasons we haven’t yet seen Apple implement it in an iPhone. Users in the US have two options when it comes to 4G LTE connectivity: AT&T or Verizon Wireless. There’s no doubt the tablet will be blazing fast over 4G with theoretical speeds rated at 73Mbps but with two antenna tuned to 12 different bands, there will be plenty of other networks to access should you be out of range of a 4G network. Apple has also paired cellular models with personal hotspot capabilities, carrier permitting of course.

We believe the new Retina display is the main culprit when it comes to battery usage. The rumor mill nailed this feature to a tee. The display on Apple’s latest slate operates at 2,048 x 1,536 pixels — higher than nearly every computer monitor under 30″ and current-generation HDTVs. There are more than 3.1 million pixels in the display — over 1 million more than the iPad 2. It’s the most prominent new feature on the iPad and with good reason. Simply put, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

 

 

The rear camera also received an upgrade. Now referred to as the iSight camera, the 5MP shooter features a larger f/2.4 aperture, backside illumination sensor with a 5-element lens, IR filter and ISP built into the SoC. This puts the camera on par with the one found in the iPhone 4S (although with fewer MP) which is one of the best phone cameras on the market. Oh, and it shoots 1080p HD video with image stabilization as well. The front-facing VGA-quality camera remains unchanged.

Some people expected Apple to include support for Siri, but given the fact that it requires an Internet connection to talk to Apple’s servers, it didn’t make the cut this time around. Instead, we get dictation support. You can click the microphone icon on the keyboard, speak into the device and the iPad will translate what you said on-screen. Apple touts this as a great way to send texts, emails and search the web with only your voice.

This review is based on testing the Wi-Fi only 16GB white model and where applicable, we’ll compare it with a Wi-Fi only 32GB iPad 2.

Software and Performance

The new iPad ships with iOS 5.1, a minor update that doesn’t particularly warrant a full discussion. In short, Apple’s mobile OS has improved audio when watching TV shows and movies on the iPad, a redesigned camera app, updated network indicators for iPhones on AT&T and adds a camera icon on the lock screen of virtually every device except the iPad.

There aren’t too many applications that specifically support the new Retina display as of writing, but the handful of apps that do are pretty impressive. It’s also worth noting that even if an app doesn’t fully support the iPad’s super high-res screen, it might still use assets designed for the iPhone’s Retina display in the meantime.

 

 

 

   

Apple’s robust image editing software iPhoto is available in the App Store for $4.99. The app lets you select a picture from your camera roll or other album and edit it using one of five categories: Crop & Straighten, Exposure, Color, Brushes and Effects. I left the tool tips on in each screenshot to give you a better idea of everything that is possible in this app and as you can see, there are a wealth of different options available to improve your photos.

I used iPhoto to edit some pictures snapped in Las Vegas during CES 2012 and a few others from a recent photo shoot. I experimented with different options in each scene but ultimately discovered I am partial to black and white and tilt shift effects.

iPhoto is one of my new favorite apps for the iPad. Unlike some other basic editors that only have a few effects, iPhoto offers some serious adjustments in a user-friendly interface that anyone can quickly pick up on. I wouldn’t think twice about editing photos in iPhoto if I didn’t have access to Photoshop on my PC. The Retina display lets you load large resolution photos and retain the same level of detail during editing.

 

 

In addition to new apps for the third-generation iPad, several app developers have been updating existing offerings for the new Retina display. The Daily looks better than ever thanks to the crisp text and compelling images. If you haven’t already guessed, it’s virtually impossible to spot pixels or jagged edges on text with this new display. Even when zooming in, there’s nothing but smooth lines. The iPad 2’s low resolution was one of our major complaints about the device.

Apple impressed many onlookers with its Infinity Blade: Dungeons demo during the iPad press event. This Diablo III lookalike seems to really push the slate’s quad-core graphics, but unfortunately the game hasn’t yet been released. Instead, Chair Entertainment has updated the graphics in Infinity Blade 2 to support the Retina display.

 

 

Indeed, the revised graphics do look pretty juicy, but I feel the team could have done a better job. The gameplay is fine but menu items were seemingly untouched and appear very pixelated on the high-res screen. Surely it couldn’t have been too difficult to include higher resolution renderings of these objects too? Without it, the game feels somewhat incomplete, as if it was thrown together at the last minute.

 

 

Real Racing 2 is another title that received a high-res graphics upgrade. I have no complaints here, as everything looks to be solid and fits the screen perfectly. Even non-gaming apps like Pandora have received the Retina treatment and we expect this trend to continue over the coming weeks and months as other developers migrate to Retina display support.

The new iPad is generally very fast and smooth — especially in graphically demanding apps, courtesy of its quad-core GPU — but apps like Mail and iPhoto could use the increased horsepower that two extra processing cores would have delivered (if the A6 processor rumors had been true).

Benchmarks

We ran a handful of benchmark tests comparing processing capabilities of the new iPad versus the iPad 2. Higher numbers is better in all tests.

Benchmark Test iPad 2 iPad (3rd-gen)
GL Benchmark
Fill Test (warm up) 999,393,728 texels/sec 1,978,408,960 texels/sec
GLBenchmark 2.1 Pro (offscreen) 146 fps 249 fps
Rightware Browsermark
Result 101,174 99,963
SunSpider 0.9.1
JavaScript Benchmark 1798.4ms 1823.1ms
Geekbench 2.2.7
Result 765 760
Usage and Conclusion

To test the battery on the new iPad, I set the screen brightness to 70%, disabled auto-brightness and auto-lock, and loaded a 720p rip of Inception for continuous playback until the battery expired. The iPad was good for 9 hours and 38 minutes of usage.

The disclaimer from our iPad 2 review still applies: your mileage will vary depending on how heavily you use the tablet. If you are doing some heavy-duty photo editing in iPhoto, listening to Pandora in the background and have your Twitter and IM apps all open, you can expect this number to decrease significantly.

 

New iPad vs. iPad 2
 

The reworked 5MP camera on the back of the iPad is a significant upgrade. Granted, you still aren’t likely to carry a tablet as your primary photo snapper but it’s nice to have the option if you’re in a pinch. The quality is good enough to rival all but the most recent smartphones in our testing. It’ll likely do just as well as a budget digital camera, although there isn’t a flash. In my experience, camera phone flashes usually make things worse anyway. The front-facing camera is unchanged from the previous model.

1080p content from the iTunes store looks great on the new iPad. Even lesser quality formats like the 720p rip of Inception that was used for our battery test look really nice, albeit with both you will get black bars across the top and bottom of the screen. This is due to the 4:3 aspect ratio on the iPad, a generally uncommon format given the proliferation of widescreen devices available today.

 

Picture samples taken with the new iPad camera
  

 

  

 

  

There’s been a lot of talk regarding how much heat the new iPad generates during use. This is actually one of the first things I noticed when restoring a backup of my iPad 2 from iCloud and updating a large number of apps. Some users claim their iPads have been overheating and entering a mandatory cool-down mode. However, most were playing with their new toy under direct sunlight when this happened. Apple told The Loop earlier this week that the new iPad operates well within their thermal specs.

Meanwhile, Consumer Reports claims the new iPad can’t charge under heavy usage. Their testing showed that while playing Infinity Blade 2 for 45 minutes straight (when plugged into the charging cable), the iPad was unable to charge and in fact, the battery drained ever so slightly. I can verify this.

I plugged the charger into the iPad at 68% battery life then fired up Infinity Blade 2 for roughly 20-25 minutes of gaming. Upon exiting to the home screen, I found the battery capacity dropped to 67%. It’s not significant, but it’s concerning that the iPad is using more power than the charger can supply.

In terms of audio quality, I can’t discern a difference between the new iPad and the iPad 2. The single mono speaker on the back of the iPad appears unchanged. I’d like to see a stereo speaker implemented in a future revision, perhaps even on the front. It’ll likely never happen but we can dream, right?

Closing Thoughts

With the original iPad, many questioned whether there was a place in the market for such a device. Netbooks were surging, notebooks were getting faster and thinner, and smartphones finally reached a point where they were effective mobile Internet tools. With the iPad 2 and countless other clones, it started becoming clear that consumers were indeed attracted to the new tablet format. With the iPad 3 and current generation slates, there’s no doubt that tablets are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

 

 

Critics hoping for a totally revamped device were likely disappointed with the new iPad and it seems the fanfare isn’t as intense as previous releases, but the numbers don’t lie. Apple sold three million units on the new iPad’s opening weekend, making it the most successful tablet launch in history.

New features like quad-core graphics, 4G LTE support and the iSight camera are all nice additions, and yet the new iPad could be summarized in only two words: Retina display. It’s the key feature and with good reason — you simply have to see it to truly appreciate it. Apple has once again set the benchmark others will be striving for in 2012.

Critics will point to the lack of connectivity and expansion ports (USB, SD memory card, native HDMI, etc.) and there’s really no getting around it: the iPad has none of these. Apple’s iCloud is about as close as you can get to storage expansion. Flash support was once an ace in the hole for Android tablets though it’s quickly becoming irrelevant.

Pricing, however, remains a strong point for Apple. The new iPad starts at the same $499 for a 16GB Wi-Fi only model — the same price as last year’s model and the one before it.

But, should you buy a new iPad? As always, there’s really no clear-cut answer here and it all depends on what you have (or don’t have) now. If you own the original iPad or similar first generation tablet, there is enough ‘new’ in the latest iPad to warrant an upgrade in our opinion. Unless you classify yourself as someone that needs the latest and greatest, iPad 2 (and similar) owners can likely sit tight and wait for the next generation of slates before upgrading. If you’re just entering the tablet market, Apple’s new iPad is, in our opinion, the best choice available today.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some great Android tablets available right now. Asus’s Transformer Primewould be our next choice, but it’s a tough sell given the new iPad’s Retina display and the sheer size of Apple’s app ecosystem.

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Pros: Retina display resolution is unmatched. Great performance. Solid operating system and software ecosystem. 4G support. Same price.

Cons: The iPad remains a closed device on many levels and that’s something you must live with once you enter Apple’s world.

LaCie 2big Thunderbolt series external HDD review

ImageWe’ve already seen what Thunderbolt’s capable of when it’s used in conjunction with a couple of high performance SSDs, but not everyone needs NAND to meet their external storage requirements. What many do deem essential, however, is a ton of room for system backups and multimedia, and Thunderbolt’s ability to transfer bits and bytes in the blink of an eye makes it an alluring alternative to other connections. If you find yourself among those desiring such a solution, let us introduce you to LaCie’s 2big Thunderbolt series external HDD. The 2big packs dual 3TB spinners on the inside for a grand total of 6TB, and comes from the factory in a software RAID 0 configuration to take full advantage of Thunderbolt’s considerable capabilities. This aluminum desktop behemoth has a price to match its name and stature ($799), so we figured we’d put the 2big through its paces to let you know what kind of performance you’ll be getting in return for all that cash. So, as the great Rod Roddy would say, come on down (after the break) and let’s get to it.

 

Hardware and setup

 

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Pull the 2big out of its packaging and you immediately notice just how heavy this thing is — at a shade under six pounds, it easily outweighs the 15-inch MacBook Pro we were testing it with. This isn’t an issue, just an observation, as the weight lends the drive a bombproof feel, and of course, the 2big’s not meant to be portable storage. Even still, we were surprised at just how… substantial it is, even though a sizable chunk of that heft comes from its twin Seagate Barracuda 3TB, 7200RPM drives. Access to the twin HDDs is quite easy, as you simply turn the latch using pocket change or a large flathead screwdriver and pull out the drive sled should you need to get at them. The 2big also comes with multiple power plugs, so should you be inclined to lug it with you around the world, you’ll be able to plug it in most places you go.

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As for the exterior, well, anyone in love with LaCie’s design language will be similarly affected by the 2big. It’s an aluminum block ribbed on the sides so the whole thing serves as a heat sink, while you’ll find the familiar globe-shaped button on the front. It still radiates an azure glow and serves as both a power LED and power button (as it does on the Little Big Disk), but the 2big’s orb is embossed with the LaCie company name and we found it wasn’t seated as securely as we’d like — there’s some play in the button before it registers a press. Round the back, you’ll find dual Thunderbolt ports (for daisy chaining drives or connecting DisplayPort or Thunderbolt monitors), the two drive bay drawers and the power plug. The Hal 9000 look has its detractors, but sorry, Dave, we’re a fan of the LaCie’s functional and clean aesthetics.

Connecting the thing couldn’t be much easier, assuming you’ve got room for its 3.5 x 6.7 x 7.8-inch footprint and an appropriate cable on hand. That’s right… you pay 800 bucks for a drive that only has Thunderbolt connections, but you’re responsible for rustling up a compatible cable — which will result in another $50 disappearing from your bank account. What’s irritating about this isn’t the extra $50, it’s that LaCie didn’t just up the 2big’s price by half a hundred and include a cable to save its customers some trouble. Anyway, cable in hand, it’s simply a matter of connecting it into your Mac, plugging it into a wall outlet and pressing the power button. Bingo, you’ve got action.

Speed tests

 

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LaCie claims that the 2big’s transfer rates max out at an average of 327MB/s reads and 320MB/s writes, and we actually got better results using Blackmagic’s Disk Speed Test. We routinely saw writes in excess of 350 MB/s and reads north of 370 MB/s. In our real-world testing, a 1GB file transfer took 12 seconds, 5GB took just under a minute, and a 10GB file flew from our desktop to the 2big in a little less than two minutes. We also put it through its paces using Xbench, and found the 2big did sequential 4KB writes at 295 MB/s and reads at 30 MB/s, while random 4KB writes were 2.71 MB/s and reads were 1.78 MB/s. Sequential 256KB writes were 243 MB/s and reads were 271 MB/s, while random 256KB writes were 228 MB/s and reads were 43.27 MB/s. To give those numbers some perspective, performance of the 7200RPM Hitachi Travelstar HDD in our MacBook Pro was much slower — sequential writes topped out at 68 MB/s, as did reads at 70 MB/s, while random writes hit 28 MB/s and reads maxed at 19 MB/s.

Naturally, a drive this capacious is likely to be used as a repository for backups, and the 2big performed admirably in that respect. Using Time Machine, the 2big duplicated 117GB of data in 48 minutes, and we created a 143GB bootable backup in an hour and 21 minutes, with an average speed of 35 MB/s using the included Intego Backup Manager Pro software. During these backups, you can hear the drives and cooling fan whirring on occasion, but the 2big is awfully quiet most of the time — a far cry from its diminutive cousin, the Little Big Disk, which was deafening by comparison. Additionally, we only felt the drive get slightly warm under load, so its finned skin and quiet fan clearly have no problems dissipating whatever heat the drive generates.

Wrap-up

 

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In summary, LaCie’s latest offering for Thunderbolt users should prove to be a tempting option. Its robust build, massive capacity, quiet operation and, of course, blazing transfer rates all make for quite an attractive package for use as a media and backup repository. Despite those merits, the 2big’s premium price is likely to be a turn-off for many. Plus, with Thunderbolt set to become ubiquitous once it starts showing up in PCs, cheaper Tbolt external drive options are sure to proliferate in the not-too-distant future. That said, if you’re in need of external storage right now and have the means, you won’t be disappointed having the 2big on your desk.

SMS Audio SYNC by 50 wireless headphones review

ImageAh, celebrity-endorsed headphones — whether it’s Beats by Dre or Soul by Ludacris, you’ve always gotta wonder whether their actual sound-reproduction chops will match up with the steep price tags and fashion-focused designs. Oftentimes, shocker of shockers, the answer is a resounding “no.” One of the newest entrants into this game is SYNC by 50, stemming from a long collaboration between Sleek AudioSMS Audio and none other than Curtis James Jackson III — 50 Cent, of course. Unlike the partners’ $250 Street offering, these headphones have the unique selling point of offering both wireless and wired operation, a convenience for which you’ll pay a staggering $400. Although they don’t offer active noise-cancellation like competing models, these headphones are banking on Kleer’s tried-and-true wireless audio technology, which touts 16-bit CD-quality resolution. We spent several weeks testing these spendy sound-blasters, so continue on to our full review to learn whether they live up to the hype or could us to a second trip back to the studio for remastering.

 

Hardware

 

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As far as headphones go, the SYNCs arrive in a particularly massive package. During our unboxing, we were greeted by a semi-hardshell black zippered case with blue trim. Interestingly, it can stand upright thanks to four plastic feet, and the top section is conveniently molded into the shape of a handle. Unzipping the case gave us access to the real star of the show, the headphones and their unpleasantly odorous materials. Thankfully, a few days of use quelled the odd stench. Nestled in between the ‘phones, you’ll find a wireless 2.4GHz Kleer 3.5mm audio dongle, along with a USB wall adapter for charging. On the opposite side of the case there’s a mesh pocket, which holds a micro-fiber cloth, a blue 3.5mm audio cable with a one-button inline remote / mic, USB-to-mini-USB cable, an airliner adapter and some product booklets.

The build quality is much like what we’ve come to expect from Samsung’s mobile phones: cheap-feeling plastic that’s actually rather durable.

The basic design elements of the SYNCs unsurprisingly nod to other established brands on the market. Remove the buttons and chromed plastic trim, and you have a near replica of the Beats Studios. Then there’s the blue-backlit “S” on each earcup that’s similar to Signeo’s Soul by Ludacris cans. That said, the folks over at SMS Audio have crafted a robust offering with some notably differentiating design choices. While the plastic doesn’t look or feel very high-end, it’s ridiculously flexible, which bodes well for their durability over time. Absent are any folding hinges, a design choice that SMS claims to offer more rigidity (albeit at the expense of portability). We bent and twisted the headphones many ways and were left with nary a sign of any stress. The headrail adjusters also click smoothly along their tracks and stayed locked in position while we were out and about. Overall, the build quality is much like what we’ve come to expect from Samsung’s mobile phones: cheap-feeling plastic that’s actually rather durable.

Speaking of the trim and finish, you’ll have a choice between the white seen here or black, both featuring light blue and chrome trimmings. Although we normally love gizmos that get the unicorn color treatment, our review sample’s ear cushions had blue stains from the carry case and quickly began collecting grime after only a few weeks of use. If you’re the type who obsesses over keeping your gadgets pristine, we’d advise picking it up in black to save yourself the headache.

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Let’s move on to specifics. On the left earcup’s side, you’ll find a power button and another for bass boost / SYNCing (more on that later), while its underside houses a 3.5mm cable input and micro-USB port for charging. Along the right, there’s a cluster of playback controls: advance, rewind and volume. Each button is crowned with raised markings that match up with these symbols (say, volume up), making them easy to find just by feeling around. The buttons make a satisfying click, too, though there’s no audio feedback confirming you’ve just adjusted a setting. We should also point out that all of the controls won’t work out of the box (details later).

The included cable plugs snugly into the headphones and its right-angle jack on the opposite end works well if you plan on keeping your PMP in your pocket. We’re happy to report that cable noise is pretty minimal, and that the single control-button / mic work across a range of Android and iOS devices. Aside from the blue color, though, it’s essentially standard fare and we would have liked for another cable or two to be included at this price — just as you’ll find with almost any pair of headphones like this. By the way, if you’re hoping for a remote with volume controls, like Control-Talk for iOS devices, nothing of the sort is currently available.

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Of course, the headphones are wireless, so let’s discuss the dongle for a moment. Starting with build quality, the consistency of the materials is more of the same; however, it ends up seeming flimsier once you notice the wiggly connection at the audio jack. Other than this minor niggle, we didn’t run into any actual problems with its materials. On its top is a power slider, along a with a micro-USB port for charging. Using its 2.4GHz wireless signal, the dongle can work up to 50 feet from the headphones, but in practice we rarely made it past 20 or so before our audio would begin to cut out. Oddly enough, the dongle only enables independent volume control with the headphones, meaning those forward and rewind buttons will remain useless. You will have some options to enable these with add-ons, which we’ll detail further below. On a more positive note, you can connect up to four of the headphones to one wireless dongle. We’re not exactly sure of the appeal for this beyond speakers, but if your buddies happen to own their own pair you could have an odd sort of listening party, we guess.

Notably, pairing the headphones and transmitter is very simple, as their very name would suggest. After holding down the SYNC button on the dongle for three seconds, you’ll do the same for the headphones. While in progress, the LEDs blink in rapidly, eventually matching up at slower pace to let you know that everything got… synced. SMS notes the process takes about 20 seconds, which sounds about right, by our clock. If you’re worried about disturbing others with those flashing lights, the blinkers turn off if you hold the rewind button down for three seconds. Take note, though: as far as we’ve surmised, the dongle’s blinker will remain on unless powered down. Sigh.

Pairing the headphones and transmitter is very simple, as their very name would suggest.

The headphones will work passively with the included cable, but as a fail-safe to keep the batteries from draining by accident, they’ll power off if no sound gets transferred for about a minute. Sadly, there’s no way to bypass this feature, which turned out to be a nuisance since we constantly needed to re-pair the devices while using the headphones out and about throughout the day. Speaking of battery life, we were able to get about 16 and a half hours of continuous use (SMS rates them for 17) but annoyingly, the dongle only lasts a bit more than half of that. Frustratingly enough, although SMS had the foresight to include a USB wall charger, it has just a single input. This means you’ll have to charge one unit at a time unless you want to hook one into, say, your computer. So, you might wonder, why not just opt for Bluetooth, sparing the need for a dongle? One of the major selling points on these cans is Kleer — this wireless technology offers 16-bit CD-quality lossless audio. Despite the claimed high-resolution, these are not aimed at audiophiles, per se, as the headphones expectedly feature a pre-tuned EQ. (We’ll save the details for the sound section later on.)

Comfort

 

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When it comes to fit, the SYNCs perform good in the comfort department. The earcups do have an ample amount of padding, but we would’ve appreciated a secondary set of cloth pads to avoid swampy ears on hotter days. Sadly, the drivers aren’t set very deep, which causes the headphones to fit a bit like supra-aurals despite the over-ear design. Similar to the Klipsch Mode M40s, this means a hard driver plate may rest against your ears, negating the affects the memory-foam padding — we certainly experienced some mild cartilage cramping. Still, the headphones are very lightweight, with a loose fit that’s just snug enough for them to stay on your head without any serious clamping. Although the cans will remain on your head, that doesn’t mean they’ll stay in place. The headband is slippery, causing the headphones to slide forward whenever you’re walking about. These stand as small quibbles on their own, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that many headphones costing far less come out ahead in many of these real-world tests.

Sound

Alright, let’s get to the key part of any headphone review: audio quality. To begin, it’s worth noting that while the headphones are loosely marketed as noise-cancelling, they are actually of the passive noise-isolating variety — if that. The headphones do an abysmal job of blocking out external sound, and in some cases the world felt louder with them on, as if we were in a tunnel. It’s disappointing given how large the headphones are, but we imagine the comfortably care-free fit isn’t exactly conducive to a pristine listening experience.

The headphones do an abysmal job of blocking out external noise, and in some cases the world sounded louder with them on.

As long as we were in a quiet environment, we generally liked the headphones’ voicing, albeit with some caveats. As you’d expect, they’re bass-pushers first and foremost, but they’re fairly big sounding closed-back cans compared to other high-end options we’ve tested. We found ourselves engulfed by the spacious soundstage and clarity that the 50mm drivers provided. It’s not all good, though. We wouldn’t say the mids and highs are tinny, but without EQ guitars always ended up lacking thickness. It becomes especially noticeable once a full band kicks in, as very often the guitars end up fighting with the cymbals for sonic real estate. The lower end is exceptionally smooth, but we did perceive a lack of presence.

For example, with Jimmy Eat World, the bass guitar loses some of its usual top-end bite, and the initial whack of a bass drum winds up buried under its thump. On a related note, you’ll be able use a bass booster, dubbed Thumpp, whenever you use the cans wirelessly. The processing gets done using Kleer’s tech, which is a partial shame since cord-lovers are left out of the fun. Sadly, bass heads’ might want to sit down for this next note — the bass boost consistently did more harm than good, usually causing some mild, but audible, distortion. Despite the headphones’ inherent bass kick, that lacking presence meant that, with genre’s like dubstep and hip hop, the low-end was more audible, albeit compressed. When it comes running these wireless, nothing sounded drastically different our ears, which is a good thing considering its supposed to supply lossless quality. Overall, the headphones sound pretty good, but they’ll likely seem a bit airy sounding. That said, when you then realize you paid $400 for the headphones, they’re considerably less impressive — especially up against the thickly voiced M40s. On a positive note, the cable’s inline microphone faithfully carried our voice during phone calls without any complaints from those on the other line.

Optional accessories

 

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As we mentioned earlier, all of the controls on the SYNCs don’t work out of the box with any device. While there isn’t a magic accessory to quell this curious design choice, SMS would be happy to offer you one of two more dongles for an extra fee. Computer users will benefit from SMS’ Kleer USB dongle, which, unlike the audio jack-purposed one included, allows all of the headphones’ controls to work. While we’re glad the option is there, the dongle is huge compared to the average flash drive and it costs a whopping $80 dollars.

According to the included manual, a 30-pin iDevice version of the headphone jack dongle is also on the way. There’s no specific word on a price or release date, but it’ll likely set you back another 50 dollars or so. Of course, this dongle would enable the playback controls, which remain functionless otherwise.

Wrap-up

 

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When it comes down to it, SMS Audio’s SYNC by 50 wireless headphones are simply too expensive for what you get. Sure, they’re stylish with a decent fit and good sound, but the experience is justmessy. The 16-bit lossless audio via Kleer wireless is an intriguing prospect, but fussing with dongles is always a hard pill to swallow. Furthermore, the whole implementation feels half-baked once you factor in the mixed compatibility between features. Thumpp bass boost will only work with the dongles due to the sound processing. You only have the option for a microphone when using a cable. The one dongle that does makes all of the headphones’ on-board features work isn’t included in this already exceptionally expensive package. The list goes on, but you’ve likely gotten the gist by now. All that said, we’re always suckers for gadgets stuffed with bells and whistles, so here’s to a more seamless experience — and some more reasonable pricing — in version 2.0. That is, if there ever is a second generation.

Review: Asus Zenbook UX31 ultrabook

The Ultrabook category of computers is still relatively new, but many companies are putting the best foot forward to try and stake their claim in the market. The Asus Zenbook UX31 is the top of Asus’ Ultrabook lineup, so we decided to see how it compares to other devices on the market.

Like all Ultrabooks, the UX31 is insanely thin. At the thickest point, this machine is only slightly bigger than the two USB ports they managed to sneak onto the sides. The case is made of what Asus calls “hairline” aluminum, which feels incredibly solid. There’s no flexing in any part of the casing or the screen. The hinge even feels more solid than most laptops made today. Sure, you need to apply some force to open or move the screen, but once it starts to move it glides very smoothly. The keys on the keyboard are plastic, coated in a material that makes the keys look just like the rest of the casing. Just above the keys are the Bang and Olufsen ICEpower speakers, which are attached to the screen.

Every part of this Ultrabook feels solid, but still stays under three pounds. The sides host to a micro Display Port, microHDMI, and an SD card slot, in addition to those USB slots. Like most of the devices in this category, the Zenbook can have either an i5 or an i7 with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. The integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics card drives the Ultrabooks 1280×800 screen. Even under heavy use, the UX31 still stays cool. The vents that line the back of the laptop with matching vents under the speakers create enough air flow without making a lot of noise. The only downside to the hardware design is that the entirely of the exterior is a gigantic fingerprint magnet.

When looking for an Ultrabook, the key components for one to be successful is a sturdy design and good battery life. One of the biggest features Asus totes about the Ultrabook is the ability to suspend the battery for days, even weeks. Asus includes a battery widget on the homescreen of the laptop that tells you how long the device can hibernate for before the battery is dead. On a full charge, the widget claims the device can hibernate for 12 days.

Leaving the Ultrabook off the charger over a weekend, I returned to that widget telling me the laptop would stay hibernated for 7 days. Nevertheless, the laptop then proceeded to deliver 6 hours of battery life. On a full charge, the laptop would typically deliver 9.5 hours. The hibernate software from Asus is impressive compared to other laptops, but it seems the math is slightly off for just how useful it is.

Unfortunately, the Zenbook is not perfect. As a consequence of being so thin, the microphone in the bezel of the screen is downright unusable. It picks up every touch of the keyboard, the air that passes by the Ultrabook, and any time you shift the computer. The touchpad is great for all of the single touch uses you could have, but the multi-touch control on the ultrabook is lacking. The touchpad is far more responsive with left to right controls than it is with up to down controls, and there’s no real way to control the sensitivity of the scrolling with the built in software.

As an added perk to the normal Windows 7 OS, the UX31 includes a facial unlocking tool that can be activated. The software allows you to save various images of your face, and uses the webcam when the lockscreen is on to try and match your face to the images that have been stored. Unfortunately, the software is incredibly slow, making it so you need to hold your face still for upwards of 30 seconds before a lock is achieved. I found that I needed to store more that 20 pictures in order for the unlock experience to be even remotely fluid. IF you are willing to put the time into it, the Asus face unlock would be a nice addition.

Aside from the microphone and the lack of sensitivity controls on the touchpad, the only thing I would say needs to be fixed on the Asus Zenbook is a backlit keyboard. Being an extremely mobile device, Ultrabook users routinely find themselves in a place where a backlit keyboard would be a huge benefit.

The i5 version of the UX31, which was tested for this review is available for just under $1,000 which makes it on-par with the rest of the Ultrabook realm. When compared to the 13″ Macbook Air, the Zenbook is $300 cheaper, but given the lack of backlit keys, lower quality microphone and touchpad, and the core i5 processor over the Air’s core i7, the decrease in price is matched by the decrease in quality.

HP TouchSmart 520 All-In-One Review

“What’s the first thing you noticed when unboxing the system?” asked an HP representative during a briefing call regarding the TouchSmart 520 all-in-one PC I’d received for evaluation a week or so earlier. I told the rep that the system was extremely heavy which prompted a discussion regarding the weighted aluminum base, freestanding configuration and more.

Bill Gates unveiled the first HP TouchSmart at CES in 2007 and we’ve seen a number of updates throughout the years since. The latest rendition sports some serious hardware and a slightly revised design but had it not been for some corporate restructuring at HP, the unit likely would never have seen the light of day; but I digress.

HP supplied us with their TouchSmart model 520-1070 which they described as the star of their current all-in-one lineup that features a lighter, thinner design and an upgraded version of HP’s Magic Canvas software.

 

 

The 23-inch multi-touch AIO is powered by a 2nd generation Intel Core i7-2600S processorclocked at 2.8GHz, 8GB of DDR3 system memory, a 2TB Western Digital Caviar Green hard drive, Radeon HD 6450A graphics and Beats Audio. Additional perks include a built-in TV tuner and HDMI-in, essentially transforming the 520 into a venerable entertainment / gaming station.

Despite the heavy multi-touch focus, HP knows that most users won’t rely strictly on physical interaction with the interface. As such, they’ve also included a wireless keyboard, wireless mouse and media remote control for wire-free control. There’s also a power cord, power adapter with a relatively large ‘brick’, IR blaster cable and some various documentation that round out the bundle. Our price as configured here today is $1,399.

 

  

Aesthetically, HP has a great looking system on their hands. The dual-purpose aluminum base keeps the system firmly planted on the ground even when adjusting the angle of the display. It also serves as a keyboard shelf should you need more space on your desktop or when you go into touch-only mode.

Across the bottom of the display is a sound bar powered by Beats Audio. We’ve seen Beats branding on HP notebooks in the past but results are typically best achieved when listening with a pair of headphones. After all, one can only ask so much from a pair of laptop speakers. HP certainly has the room to add a decent set of speakers here; let’s hope they did just that.

The 23-inch backlit LED display features a native resolution of 1920 x 1080, 250 nits brightness, 1000:1 contrast ratio and a 5ms response time. The non-glossy black bezel houses an HD webcam with built-in microphone just above the screen.

 

 

On the left side of the computer we find storage and card reader LED indicators, a 6-in-1 card reader, two USB 3.0 ports, a microphone jack and a headphone jack. The rear I/O panel features four USB 2.0 ports, line-out and subwoofer-out jacks, a Gigabit Ethernet jack, power jack, IR blaster jack and the TV tuner coaxial jack.

HP has installed a slot-loading SuperMulti Blu-ray Burner on the right edge of the system just above four buttons used to manipulate on-screen display options. Finally there is an HDMI-in port, allowing you to use the display as a secondary screen for your notebook or even better, a primary display for your gaming console.

Out of the Box, Performance

Setting up the TouchSmart PC couldn’t be easier – just plug in the power cable and go. Since the keyboard and mouse are wireless and there’s built-in Wi-Fi, you only need to plug in the single power cable to operate the computer. Or at least that should be how it works.

In the case of our evaluation unit, I ran into a problem right from the get-go. When I turned on the computer for the first time, I was greeted with a hard drive error similar to what you might get if you’re trying to boot from a USB or flash drive. I checked the BIOS but nothing appeared out of the ordinary. My next step was to run the HP diagnostics program which told me the hard drive was disconnected or not installed.

 

  

Instead of calling HP, I decided to take matters into my own hand. I wanted to check and see if: A) there was a hard drive installed and B) if it was connected or not. I was able to remove the rear panel of the system by popping off a plastic cover and unscrewing a handful of screws. Once open I could somewhat see where the back plane for the hard drive might not be making a solid connection. I removed a screw, took the drive out and then reinstalled it as firmly as I could. Putting everything back together, the system booted right into Windows without incident. My only guess here is that the drive got bumped loose during shipping and we can only hope it’s an isolated event.

All versions of the TouchSmart ship with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. The first thing I checked with this system was the boot time, recorded from when I press the power button until the system is in Windows and ready to go. For the 520, this measured out to be 1 minute and 8 seconds. This number didn’t change after I uninstalled various bloatware.

 

 

Speaking of bloatware, there’s no kind way to put it – this system is filled to the brim with it. I removed a full two dozen programs from the Add/Remove Programs list prior to running any tests on this system. It’s not uncommon for me to remove several programs from a OEM test system, but HP went overboard here. After all, do you really need more than one e-reader application and multiple search toolbars?

Additionally I found 28 TouchSmart-specific programs, all related to the multi-touch interface. I decided to leave these intact as one would presume the average consumer would take advantage of some of these.

 

  

One other quibble I had with the system was the default color profile. The display had a heavy ‘cool’ tone that made everything overly blue. Fortunately, this was an easy fix using the ‘HP My Display’ application which had presets for Movie, Text and Gaming modes. I ultimately chose Movie which most resembled what a normal monitor should look like.

HP’s Magic Canvas got a facelift earlier this year and is your one-stop shop for all things touch. The UI is in its fifth iteration and now resembles something you’d find on a tablet or Android smartphone. Users can flick from side to side in the software, revealing new sections of the page as they go – sort of like a giant carousel. There are plenty of touch-specific apps to work with but more importantly, users can now access the start menu and taskbar from within the UI. Working with the software is pretty cool but there was a bit of noticeable lag which surprised me given the Core i7 processor under the hood.

Benchmarks Results

 

Synthetic Tests TouchSmart 520 IdeaCentre K330 Envy 14 (2011)
3DMark 06
3DMark Score 4095 3DMarks 21840 3DMarks 7486 3DMarks
PCMark Vantage
PCMark Suite 9105 PCMarks 10904 PCMarks 5734 PCMarks

 

 

Application Tests TouchSmart 520 IdeaCentre K330 Envy 14 (2011)
iTunes Encoding Test 01 min 1 sec 01 min 2 sec
File Transfer Test
Small files 1 min 28 sec 1 min 4 sec 1 min 21 sec
Large file 52 sec 38 sec 52 sec

 

The iTunes encoding tests consist of converting 14 MP3s (119MB) to 128Kbps ACC files and measuring the operation’s duration in seconds. For the file transfer test, we measure how long it takes to copy two sets of files from one location to another on the same hard drive. On the small files test we transfer 557 MP3s, totaling 2.56GB. For the large file, these same MP3s were zipped into a single file measuring 2.52GB.

 

Gaming Performance TouchSmart 520 IdeaCentre K330 Envy 14 (2011)
Far Cry 2
1024×768 Medium Quality 24.0 fps 41.8 fps
1920×1080 Resolution, High Quality 13.6 fps 58.9 fps
StarCraft 2
1024×768 Medium Quality 39.0 fps 67.5 fps
1920×1080, High Quality 23.1 fps 60.8 fps

 

HP TouchSmart 520 All-In-One Specs

 

 

  • 23″ multi-touch 1920 x 1080 display
  • Intel Core i7-2600S (2.8GHz, quad-core)
  • 8GB DDR3-1333 RAM
  • Radeon HD 6450A graphics
  • 2TB WD Caviar Green 5400 RPM hard drive
  • SuperMulti Blu-ray Burner
  • Built-in TV tuner, HDMI-in
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit

 

 

 

  • Intel Core i7-2600 (3.4GHz, quad-core)
  • 12GB Samsung DDR3-1333 RAM
  • OEM microATX motherboard
  • Nvidia GeForce GTX 460
  • 2TB Hitachi 7200 RPM hard drive
  • Blu-ray / DVD Combo
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit

 

 

 

  • 14.5″ HD BrightView Infinity LED 1366 x 768 display
  • Intel Core i5-2430M (2.4GHz – 3GHz, 3MB L3 cache)
  • 6GB DDR3 SDRAM
  • AMD Radeon HD 6630M
  • Western Digital 750GB hard drive
  • Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
  • Usage, Audio, Touch & Conclusion

    I measured the power draw of the TouchSmart 520 using a Kill A Watt power consumption meter. At Idle, the system fluctuated between 60-65 watts. I used a combination of Prime 95 and OCCT’s PSU stress tool to generate a full load on the system of 132 watts. The system remained virtually silent throughout stress testing.

    I had high hopes for the Beats Audio on this system given the ample space for sizable speakers and HP didn’t disappoint. While still not aftermarket desktop speaker quality, the integrated speakers were more than powerful enough to fill an entire room with good-sounding music without having to crank the volume to the max. The size of the speakers allow for a good bit of bass as well. I made a note to ask HP if there were any plans to bundle Beats Audio headphones with future systems and was told it wasn’t in the mix.

    Gaming performance from the AMD Radeon HD 6450A graphics was pretty decent. You can get by playing some mainstream titles at moderate resolutions and graphics settings, but you shouldn’t expect much more than that. Additionally, given the system’s all-in-one configuration and limited power supply capacity, upgrading the graphics isn’t really an option either.

     

     

    HD videos and the like, however, are all fair game. Our informal YouTube 4K resolution video test taxed the CPU to around 33 percent – far less than we have seen on recent notebooks with lesser processors.

    The 1,920 x 1,080 display was very impressive. After changing the color tone using HP’s My Display software, color reproduction seemed very accurate and everything was nice and vibrant. Being a touch panel, I half expected the display to look pretty terrible but that certainly wasn’t the case.

    Windows 7 wasn’t exactly designed with touch interfaces in mind – that will come with Windows 8– but HP has done a pretty good job with the foundation they have to work with at present. The Magic Canvas software was a bit laggy for my taste, but it does demonstrate what is possible and where touch is headed. I’m still not entirely sold on the concept of a touch screen desktop but it is a nice novelty and as a family system, I could see where kids would get hours of enjoyment from it. As an enthusiast, however, it seems that touch is best left for tablets and smartphones. Maybe Windows 8 will change my thinking, but it’s doubtful.

    Editor’s side note: As part of our testing, we upgraded the TouchSmart 520 to Windows 8 Consumer Preview to see how it performed with the Metro UI. Unfortunately though, HP drivers are not working with the new operating system. We contacted HP for a solution but for now they are not offering support for the beta OS, which is a shame.

     

     

    HP did a great job with the connectivity options on this system. There are plenty of USB ports (even USB 3.0 support) and the HDMI-in allows users to utilize the screen as a display for a gaming system. The integrated TV tuner could effectively replace a television in a cramped environment like a college dorm. An included remote allows easy control over media functions without having to fiddle with the keyboard and mouse.

    Speaking of, the bundled wireless keyboard and mouse didn’t give me any trouble during evaluation. The mouse even tracked just fine the surface of a white folding table, something that more expensive mice have had issue with.

    In the end, my two major complaints about this system: first is the sheer and unnecessary amount of bloatware that HP loaded onto the machine. Second, while I appreciate the gobs of storage afforded by the 2TB hard drive, the 5400 RPM drive seriously slows down the entire system. I realize that solid state storage still isn’t at a point price-wise to where big name manufacturers will install them as a stock option, but I’d gladly trade the extra space for enhanced performance any day.

    Overall, the HP TouchSmart 520 is a really nice all-in-one and probably one of the best I’ve spent time with thus far, with a classy design and a powerful processor that ensures it will remain relevant for several years. A system like this would likely work best as a family PC, an office replacement where mid-level content creation happens or a college dorm room where space is extremely limited. At $1,399, it’s a little on the steep side, but if you configure it a bit differently, with a slightly slower processor you can get it closer to $1,000.

    75

    Pros: Great looking all-in-one. Good performance, great display with touch control and audio output.

    Cons: Touch is not as smooth as it should be. Bloatware detracts from the experience.


Alienware Area-51 m15x notebook review

When we think of elaborate high-end gaming computers, there is one name that always comes to mind, inevitably it has to be Alienware.

For years Alienware has been producing machines that cater to gamers and enthusiasts desires, coupling some of the industry’s most radical designs with top of the line PC hardware. You could easily spend thousands of dollars in one of these machines, an idea which has not always appealed to the enthusiast crowd, but as a prove of how viable Alienware’s business is, it was acquired by PC manufacturing behemoth Dell in 2006, about ten years after its foundation.

We have been fortunate enough to test some of these computers over the past few years. Back in 2005 we tested the Aurora ALX desktop which prominently carried its Athlon X2 badge, at the time one of the fastest desktop processors on earth. Then in August 2006 we checked out theAurora m9700 gaming notebook, the first notebook to ever use Nvidia’s SLI technology.

Unfortunately as impressive as this looked on paper, the Aurora’s SLI implementation that relied on two GeForce 7900GS graphics cards was crippled by an underpowered processor. At the time the 2.4GHz AMD Turion64 processor was simply not fast enough to push FPS near the level of a desktop system.

 

Since then little has changed on the notebook gaming front, as we are yet to see a product that can deliver an outstanding level of performance, or at least enough to match a moderately powerful gaming desktop PC.

Then there is the issue of heat, which affects all notebook computers, but particularly those intended for gaming. And we have tested quite a few that suffer from stability issues for that reason.

When Alienware introduced the Area-51 m15x we were obviously keen to check it out, while remaining skeptical at the same time. Like past Alienware products the Area-51 m15x specifications are impressive, really impressive, making us even more eager to see how it performs.

Our review sample came configured with the new Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000 “Penryn XE” mobile processor and a GeForce 8800M GTX (512MB) graphics card.

In short, this is the combination of the fastest possible mobile CPU and the fastest mobile GPU out there. Of course, this won’t come cheap as the retail value of our review sample was $4770, but as we found when reviewing the Aurora m9700, there is much more to the Area-51 m15x than just impressive specifications (as a side note, Alienware quotes $1,499 as the base configuration price for the Area-51 m15x).

The build quality of a laptop is just as important and this is typically an area where we typically haven’t seen Alienware products falling short. Furthermore, there are details on the inner and exterior design that a product in this price range better have. Having that said, let’s take a closer look…

xternal design
The Alienware Area-51 m15x is an extremely slick looking notebook thanks to the glossy silver paint job. Though the silver “Ripley” lid design is actually quite bland, we still liked it.There is a small alien head on the lid that lights up when powered on, so that’s a nice touch.

Compared to the design of the much older Aurora m9700, it’s clear the direction Alienware has taken with the Area-51 m15x which is more subtle and has less of that “extreme gamer” feel.

Actually there are two available lid designs for the user to choose from. Our sample featured the Ripley design, while the Skullcap design is more like what we saw with the Aurora m9700.

 

 

Unlike many other notebooks that use a glossy surface, the Area-51 m15x doesn’t appear to be a finger mark magnet. The notebook weighs in at just seven pounds and measures 14.55” long, 10.73” wide and 1.30” tall, making it quite compact for a powerful mobile gaming solution.

The lid does not use a latch to keep the laptop locked down, rather the hinges that it is fitted to are very stiff, ensuring that it stays closed. While there is no real problem with this type of design, when opening the lid it was necessary to hold onto the laptop for extra leverage. We also noticed that when opening the lid the Area-51 m15x does tend to make quite a lot of creaking and groaning noises.

At the front of the Area-51 m15x there are no ports or connectors, which is not entirely uncommon for a notebook computer. Now, what had us really puzzled was that when moving around to the rear there were again no ports or connectors! All that we found was the battery and two air-vents on either side of it.

 

Obviously we had to find something on the sides. Moving to the right we found a 7-in-1 card reader and an Express Card port. Further down there is a single HDMI port, which also supports DVI via an optional dongle, along with a single USB 2.0 and Firewire B port.

 

Turning the Area-51 m15x around to the left hand side we have a few more ports along with what Alienware calls the smart bay. The smart bay can be used to mount a number of external devices which include a second battery, an additional hard drive, or an optical drive. There are also two audio ports (headphones and microphones), along with two more USB 2.0 ports, a single Gigabit LAN port, and the power connector.

 

 

 

Flipping the Area-51 m15x over exposes the underbelly where a number of air vents can be found. This notebook also features four large rubber feet that keep it mounted high off the desk to allow sufficient air-flow to pass under it. There is also a cool little plaque that states who the notebook was built for, which is a nice touch, particularly when spending in excess of $1500.

 

The Area-51 m15x comes configured with either a 15.4″ WideUXGA (1920×1200) or 15.4-inch Widescreen 15.4″ WXGA+ (1440×900) LCD supporting Clearview technology. Our sample featured the 1920×1200 screen and this kind of resolution on a 15.4” screen makes using Windows difficult without increasing the text size. However, given this is strictly a gaming notebook, the 1920×1200 resolution will work nicely, particularly when powered by a GeForce 8800M GTX graphics card.

 

This notebook features Alienware’s “AlienFX System Lighting”, part of this is the illuminated keyboard. The AlienFX System Lighting supports several colors, with blue being the default. The configurable lighting zones include the alien head logo on the lid, the Alienware name below the LCD screen, the keyboard, touchpad, QuickTouch controls, and the power button.

 

The keyboard has been nicely set up, we found the keys to be slightly larger than standard as this is a full size keyboard, which made the Area-51 m15x painless to use. The touchpad also looks good, and while it works like any other, we have no complaints about its use either. The screen seemed to be well protected when the lid was closed and avoided being marked by the keyboard, for example.

 

Above the keyboard users will find the power button which is of course a small alien head, the QuickTouch controls for Bluetooth, Wireless, Command Center and Stealth Mode Battery Control. There is also the QuickTouch Volume Control along with a number of indication lights. A 2.0MP web camera has been positioned just above the LCD which blends in nicely.

Internal design
The internal workings of the Alienware Area-51 m15x are fairly typical for that of a 15.4” notebook, though they have managed to make everything fit rather well.The GPU and CPU are cooled separately, though the latter shares its cooler with the Intel GM965 chipset.

The Area-51 m15x can be configured with a number of different CPUs and GPUs, but as previously mentioned our sample came equipped with the fastest possible configuration, which means we get to test in full how well this gaming laptop can perform, and how well does its cooling can keep up, too.

 

Turning the Area-51 m15x upside down, and removing the back plate shows two blower-type fans that are designed to draw cool air in from under the notebook, push it over the heatsinks, where it then exits from the rear.

The fan on the left cools the heatsink that is connected to the CPU and chipset via a single copper heatpipe. The fan on the right side is dedicated to cooling the heatsink covering the GPU, again using a single copper heatpipe.

 

 

Sitting snug between the chipset and GPU are two dedicated SO-DIMM slots for dual-channel DDR2 memory. These memory slots are very easy to access making the installation of additional memory painless. Below the SO-DIMM slots is an internal Intel PRO Wireless 4965 b/g/n mini-card with integrated Bluetooth 2.0 which is part of the standard configuration.

Although the Area-51 m15x is not designed for users to make their own upgrades, we found it quite easy to remove the CPU and GPU. The hard drive, which is located at the front of the notebook, is also easy to remove should you want to upgrade it.

Technically the Area-51 m15x only supports a single internal hard drive, while a second removable drive can be installed into the Smart Bay. Keep in mind that the Smart Bay Swappable hard drive is an optional extra and a 320GB drive will cost an extra $300 from the manufacturer.

 

Finally, in the top right corner of the Area-51 m15x is a removable CMOS battery, along with a rather interesting card.

This little card is called “Intel Turbo Cache Memory” and if you are willing to spend an additional $50 this 1GB memory card is designed to accelerate data transfer speeds. Our fully-equipped sample also carried this card, though we are not entirely convinced that it is necessary. Also to keep in mind, this feature is only supported by Windows Vista.

Standard and optional configurations
The Alienware Area-51 m15x is special in the sense that it is the first and currently the only product to support the GeForce 8800M GTX graphics card and Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000 processor in a 15.4-inch notebook.Due to the obvious thermal issues involved when pairing such high-end hardware together, no other manufacturer has attempted to pull this one off in such a confined space.

Our test system featured Intel’s flagship mobile CPU, the new 45nm Core 2 Extreme X9000 processor, which operates at 2.8GHz, 6MB Cache and 800MHz FSB. However, there are cheaper options to choose from. After all, the Core 2 Extreme X9000 costs an additional $900 over the base processor which is a Core 2 Duo T8100 processor operating at 2.1GHz with a 3MB Cache.

For just $150 it is possible to upgrade this to a Core 2 Duo T8300 processor that works at 2.4GHz. Other options include the Core 2 Duo T9300 at 2.5GHz for $250, or the Core 2 Duo T9500 at 2.6GHz for $525.

Perhaps the next if not the most important component in a gaming laptop is the GPU. The most expensive (and best performing option) is the Nvidia GeForce 8800M GTX 512MB graphics card which sets you back ~$500. However, for $350 less it is possible to downgrade to the 8700M GT, while the base model is the 8600M GT, which is the typical GPU offered on powerful yet non-gaming oriented desktop replacement laptops.

 

The default memory configuration is two DDR2-667 512MB modules, for a total of just 1GB. For gaming we wouldn’t recommend anything below 2GB, which will cost $150 extra, while 4GB of memory will cost an incredible $350 more. As mentioned before, for an additional $50 there is also the option to include the Intel Turbo Memory (1GB) card for those running Windows Vista.

There are a myriad of possible storage configuration on the Area-51 m15x, from the base 120GB SATA hard drive that spins at 7200RPM, all the way up to a 500GB drive that gets slowed down to 5400RPM. The largest drive that spins at 7200RPM weighs in at 320GB, featuring a 16MB cache and an extra $275 price tag. There is also a SSD option available, which basically means you get the works as far as configuration goes, no other manufacturer gives you these many options.

Those that wish to include a second removable drive can do so using the Smart Bay feature. There are five possible capacities to choose from a 120GB drive ($150) up to a 500GB ($400) hard drive.

It should be noted however that the Smart Bay comes loaded by default by an 8x dual layer burner in the base configuration. You can upgrade this to a LightScribe drive for a small fee, or exchange it for a dual layer Blu-ray disc reader for $300, or a 2x dual layer Blu-ray burner for $400 extra.

On board there is a 7.1/5.1 digital high-definition integrated audio solution that drives two internal speakers, which were surprisingly good when compared to the average notebook speakers. Still, most gamers are probably going to plug a powerful set of headphones into the Area-51 m15x. That being the case, if the integrated audio does not cut it for you, then spending another $100 on an external Creative X-Fi Xtreme audio card might be the go.

The AlienFX Illuminated keyboard, which we have to say looks very cool, is unfortunately an optional extra for which gamers are required to fork out another $50 (still not too bad).

The standard 15.4” LCD supports a 1440×900 resolution (720p) which may be the best way to go if you want to keep things sane about Windows font settings and overall usage outside gaming. For an extra $150 you can get the higher res panel that provides a native WideUXGA 1920×1200 resolution (1200p) as featured on our review sample.

Notable accessories that you can buy as extras include the HDMI to DVI-D adapter for those wanting to use DVI ($20), and a secondary Smart Bay 6-cell battery that will cost $150.

Test system specs
Anticipating what could be a controversial topic on how we tested and compared the Alienware Area-51 m15x, the fact is there are only a handful of products that come close to the specs offered by this notebook.Having the most powerful mobile CPU and GPU on-board is quite the statement, and given the price range for this product, our reasoning was that the benchmark is no longer to beat other lesser and less expensive notebooks, but see how it compares to desktop PCs carrying up to date processors and a powerful enough graphics cards.

We built three desktop systems for comparison. The first one basically resembles our PC Buying Guide’s recommendation for a budget PC costing ~$800 (Core 2 Duo E7200 & GeForce 9600 GT), while the other two are more powerful quad-core systems that use a GeForce 9800 GTX, and still cost a fraction of the Area-51.

You can see fully detailed specs below, including those of the Alienware system…

 

Alienware Area-51 m15x Notebook PC
– Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000 (2.80GHz) LGA775
– 4GB Dual-Channel DDR2 SO-DIMM at 667MHz
– Intel Turbo Memory (1GB)
– 15.4″ WideUXGA 1920 x 1200 LCD (1200p)
– Dual Layer Blu-ray Disc Reader (BD-ROM, DVD±RW, CD-RW)
– Samsung 250GB 7,200RPM (8MB Cache)
– Samsung 320GB 7200 RPM (16MB Cache) Smart Bay
– Nvidia GeForce 8800M GTX (512MB)
– AlienFX Illuminated Keyboard – Exclusive Design
Software
– Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate SP1 (32-bit)
– Nvidia Forceware (174.74)
– Intel System Drivers (9.0.0.1)

 

Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 Desktop PC
– Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 (2.53GHz) LGA775
– x2 Kingston HyperX 2GB PC2-8500 Module(s)
– Asus P5Q Deluxe (Intel P45)
– OCZ GameXStream (700 watt)
– Seagate 500GB 7200RPM (Serial ATA II)
– Asus GeForce 9600 GT (512MB)
Software
– Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate (64-bit)
– Nvidia Forceware (174.74)
– Intel System Drivers (9.0.0.1)

 

Intel Core 2 Quad Q9450 Desktop PC
– Intel Core 2 Quad Q9450 (2.66GHz) LGA775
– x2 Kingston HyperX 2GB PC2-8500 Module(s)
– Asus P5Q Deluxe (Intel P45)
– OCZ GameXStream (700 watt)
– Seagate 500GB 7200RPM (Serial ATA II)
– Asus GeForce 9800 GTX (512MB)
Software
– Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate (64-bit)
– Nvidia Forceware (174.74)
– Intel System Drivers (9.0.0.1)

 

AMD Phenom X4 9850 Desktop PC
– AMD Phenom X4 9850 (2.50GHz) AM2+
– x2 Kingston HyperX 2GB PC2-8500 Module(s)
– Asus M3A32-MVP Deluxe (AMD 790FX)
– OCZ GameXStream (700 watt)
– Seagate 500GB 7200RPM (Serial ATA II)
– Asus GeForce 9800 GTX (512MB)
Software
– Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate (64-bit)
– Nvidia Forceware (174.74)

Final thoughts
Almost two years after reviewing a flagship notebook like Alienware’s own Aurora m9700 SLI, it seems little has changed in the notebook world if you are a gamer. Although the Area-51 m15x is considerably more powerful than the Aurora, it still suffers from many of the same problems we complained about back then.The performance of the Alienware Area-51 m15x is impressive for a notebook, we will give it that much. However, when compared to a budget desktop gaming system, it did not fair all that well and for the most part it was slightly slower.

As noted before, there are obvious implications on why we shouldn’t be comparing a notebook to a desktop system, but having that said, we feel that the comparison needs to be made.

As we see it, the Area-51 m15x is intended to be a desktop replacement for LAN goers. Rather than packing up your desktop case, LCD screen, keyboard, mouse, and cables, it is much easier and nicer to simply unfold a notebook and get it on.

Unfortunately for gamers this has become a bit of a pipe dream, as most notebooks are grossly underpowered, and those that come close, like the Area-51 m15x, cost a small fortune. This leaves gamers with the obvious choice of an expensive mobile notebook, or an affordable less convenient desktop, and this is a choice you will have to make.

 

Considering that our Core 2 Duo E7200 desktop system costs about $800, I could personally put up with the minor inconvenience of having to carry a bit more hardware to my next LAN.

Since the Area-51 m15x is designed exclusively for gaming, there is something that has me a little baffled. At 15.4” the LCD screen makes reading text a serious chore with the 1920×1200 resolution, and without any tweaks the Windows Vista start button measures just 6mm wide.

This makes me wonder why anyone would want such a powerful 15.4″ notebook. Using the high-performance profile, the notebook drains a single 6-cell battery in under 30 minutes. This is about long enough to boot up the computer, load Unreal Tournament 3, join a game and maybe get in a few kills. Obviously the Area-51 m15x is smaller and lighter than the Area-51 m17x, but at three pounds more are you really going to sacrifice the extra LCD real estate? Another way to go would be keeping the 15.4″ screen but choosing the less expensive WideXGA+ 1440×900 LCD.

The other problem that this smaller design presents affects the cooling as we found the Area-51 m15x to be quite a hot little unit. When at idle the CPU would sit at 51 degrees, the GPU 56 degrees and the HDD 38 degrees. Then when stressed the CPU reached 93 degrees, the GPU 88 degrees and the HDD managed to hit 47 degrees.

Reaching a maximum temperature of 93 degrees for the Core 2 Extreme X9000 processor is not good, and over long periods could potentially damage either the CPU or the motherboard. Although we did not suffer from any problems during the few weeks our testing lasted, this is where a good warranty may have to kick in eventually. Alienware offers a 1-year limited warranty with on-site and 24/7 phone support with the notebook, then a 2 or 3-year extension for an added cost of $200 or $300, respectively.

Battery life is not great, though this is to be expected for any gaming-oriented notebook. Using two 6-cell batteries we got about 55 minutes of gameplay using the high-performance profile, and just under two hours (1:50 minutes) using the not preferred balanced profile – a single battery would last half as long. Also with a single battery installed, the Area-51 m15x lasted about 2 hours and 15 minutes when sitting at the Windows Vista desktop.

Alienware is generally known for their excellent build quality, though we found the Area-51 m15x to be a little flimsy for our taste. The LCD screen would flex far more than we would have liked when opening the Area-51 m15x and to make matters worse it sounded like an old wooden ship. Furthermore, our sample had a crack under the webcam, which was no doubt caused by the flexing of the LCD when opening the lid. The rest of the notebook seemed quite solid, with the only apparent weakness being the lid.

Of course, one of the hardest things to look past is the price tag, as our sample configuration cost $4770, and at this price it does not include a carry case or even a mouse. However, a more sensible configuration will cost roughly $2600 by our estimations. This includes the 1920×1200 resolution LCD, Core 2 Duo T8300 processor, GeForce 8800M GTX graphics card, 2GB of DDR2 memory, 160GB 7200 RPM hard drive, and a copy of Windows Vista Ultimate edition.

Overall the Alienware Area-51 m15x is a good gaming notebook, and for those wanting the most compact gaming solution possible, it’s probably one of the best out there. But as we have mentioned, the Area-51 m15x is far from perfect, and while it manages to cram a lot of powerful hardware into a limited space, it does nothing to correct the numerous issues that plague gaming notebooks.

HP EliteBook 8460p Notebook Review

A few months ago we posted our review of the HP ProBook 6360b, the latest addition to HP’s “b” series notebooks and their first in a 13.3″ form factor. Today we’ll be looking at another business-class notebook from HP, the EliteBook 8460p. As its name suggests, this system is a step above the standard business-minded 6360b and as such, it’s billed as a Large Enterprise Business product. The “professional” EliteBook retails for about $300 more than the ProBook, but is that premium worthwhile?

 

Our review unit is armed with an Intel Core i5-2520M operating at 2.50GHz (3.2GHz Turbo Boost), 4GB of 1333 MHz DDR3 memory, a 320GB 7200RPM hard drive, Intel Centrino 802.11 a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, a removable 6-cell (62WHr) Li-Ion battery, a DVD +/-RW SuperMulti DL optical drive with LightScribe and a 14.0″ LED-backlit HD anti-glare display with a native resolution of 1366 x 768. Graphics are processed using an AMD Radeon HD 6470M with 1GB of dedicated DDR3 memory.

As configured today, our sample machine retails for $1,061.99 at Newegg.

 

The system measures 13.31″ x 9.11″ x 1.25″ (W/D/H) and weighs 4.56lbs, making it slightly thinner than the 6360b but at the same time, nearly half a pound heavier. Even with the decreased thickness, the system is still a little bit fatter than most other recent notebooks we’ve looked at.

At first glance the two business notebooks appear very similar, but there are some pretty obvious differences. Much like the ProBook, the EliteBook features an HP DuraFinish smudge, wear and scratch-resistant coating on the outer shell that will keep the system looking newer for longer.

The color is different as the EliteBook features a platinum paint scheme while the ProBook had a tungsten tint. The same stylized HP logo can be found on the lid. This unit featured an enhanced HP DuraCase which is designed to meet military standards (MIL-STD 810G for drop, vibration, dust, temperature, shock, altitude and high temperature).

On the front of the EliteBook is a push-button style lid latch on the bottom base. The left side has four pin-hole sized LED activity indicators. From left to right: wireless, power, charging and disk activity.

 

 The right side has accommodations for headphones and a microphone, an eSATA/USB combo port, powered USB port, a DisplayPort connector, cooling vents and a Kensington lock slot. On the back of the notebook is a modem jack, VGA-out and a network jack. The aluminum hinge and removable battery are also easily viewable from this vantage point.

The left side shows the power connector, 1394a connector, two USB 3.0 connectors, an SD/MMC card reader, a 54mm ExpressCard slot and the optical drive.

The bottom of the notebook is nearly identical to what we saw on the ProBook, which was pleasing. There are several rubber feet that provide stability and lift, a docking port and secondary battery connector. This notebook also uses the same quick-release access panel, making it easy to get inside for maintenance or upgrades.

 

Under the access panel, we find that there is an additional RAM expansion bay and it looks like the optical drive can be taken out by removing a screw.

We found the speaker placement a bit odd. This EliteBook uses two speakers: one is left of the lid latch near the front of the system while the other is further left of this, near the side of the system by the optical drive tray. We will explore the effects of this later in the review.

 

The six-row chiclet-style keyboard is virtually identical to what’s used on the ProBook. Again, this is a good thing as we really liked the layout and feel of that board. There is no backlight, although HP has included a tiny pop-out keyboard light beside the webcam at the top of the display. It’s a nice gesture but virtually useless.

 

  One key difference, however, is that HP has included a Pointstick and two pick buttons — very similar to Lenovo’s TrackPoint pointing device. Additionally, the touchpad is 0.5″ wider than the ProBook’s and the mouse click buttons retain the same great feel.

In a conference call to discuss the notebook’s features, HP claimed the touchpad was constructed of chemically strengthened glass, but when I pressed for more details, the HP team declined to comment further on the type of chemical or anything else about it.

 

  A fingerprint reader is situated on the right side of the palm rest just under the arrow keys. The 14.0″ LED-backlit HD anti-glare display is surrounded by a black bezel that looks fitting. An integrated webcam is centered above the display with dual microphones on either side of the lens. While we weren’t sent one for testing, there are optional external batteries available that attach to the bottom of the ProBook for extended battery life, including the BB09 Ultra Extended Life battery that claims up to 32 hours of runtime.

Bundled Software and Performance
Our EliteBook shipped with Windows 7 Professional 64-bit, although you have the option of selecting lower-level Windows installs during configuration. HP has done a respectable job of not congesting the machine with third-party bloatware. Microsoft Office 2010 comes loaded on the system and users have the option to activate the full version or use Office Starter (you’ll probably want to uninstall the Bing Bar). Roxio burning software is also included, as is PDF Complete Special Edition.Although the ProBook is mostly clear of third-party applications, HP bundles a ton of its own software. I counted no less than 24 HP-specific programs of which HP ProtectTools is the most important. The security suite is meant to be used by enterprises when deploying notebooks to employees, among other things it centralizes security management and aids in the event of password loss or if the machine is stolen.

 

Another software feature, HP QuickWeb allows you access to the Internet, email, contacts and calendar at the touch of a button without having to wait for Windows to load up. This is similar to what we have seen on desktop motherboards for a while now. HP Power Assistant is similar to Lenovo’s Power Manager 3 in that it lets you configure profiles and view power data about the laptop’s usage and battery.

 

  The system takes 1 minute and 2 seconds to boot completely into Windows from a fully powered down state.

We have run our standard suite of benchmark tests on the EliteBook 8460p to give you an idea of how the system performs under load. It’s worth noting that Intel’s Turbo Boost 2 is enabled during testing. Found in second-gen Core series processor, the feature is designed to better manage workloads by dynamically adjusting individual core speeds depending on the processing power is needed.

 

HP EliteBook 8460p System Specs

 

  • 14.0″ LED-backlit HD anti-glare 1366 x 768 display
  • Intel Core i5-2520M (2.5GHz – 3.2GHz, 3MB L3 cache)
  • 4GB of 1333MHz DDR3 memory
  • 1GB AMD Radeon HD 6470M
  • 320GB 7200RPM hard drive
  • Microsoft Windows 7 Professional (64-bit)

 

HP ProBook 6360b System Specs

 

  • 13.3″ HD AG LED SVA 1366 x 768 display
  • Intel Core i5-2410M (2.3GHz – 2.9GHz, 3MB L3 cache)
  • 4GB DDR3 SDRAM
  • Intel HD 3000 Graphics (650MHz – 1.3GHz)
  • Hitachi 320GB 7200RPM hard drive
  • Microsoft Windows 7 Professional (64-bit)

 

 

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 System Specs

 

  • 13.4″ TFT 1366 x 768 display (covered with Corning Gorilla glass)
  • Intel Core i5-2520M (2.5GHz – 3.2GHz, 3MB L3 cache)
  • 4GB DDR3 SDRAM
  • Intel HD 3000 Graphics (650MHz – 1.3GHz)
  • Hitachi 320GB 7200RPM hard drive
  • Microsoft Windows 7 Professional (64-bit)

 

HP Envy 14 (2010) System Specs

 

  • 14.5″ HP Radiance 1600 x 900 display
  • Intel Core i5-450M (2.4GHz – 2.66GHz, 3MB L3 cache)
  • 4GB DDR3 system memory
  • 1GB ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5650
  • Seagate Momentus 500GB 7200RPM
  • Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)

 

Benchmark Results

 

Synthetic Tests EliteBook 8460p ProBook 6360b ThinkPad X1 Envy 14
3DMark 06
3DMark Score 5029 3DMarks 3951 3DMarks 3750 3DMarks 6866 3DMarks
PCMark Vantage
PCMark Suite 7408 PCMarks 5859 PCMarks 7607 PCMarks 6840 PCMarks

 

Application Tests EliteBook 8460p ProBook 6360b ThinkPad X1 Envy 14
iTunes Encoding Test 01 min 12 sec 01 min 23 sec 01 min 15 sec 01 min 34 sec
File Transfer Test
Small files 1 min 23 sec 1 min 18 sec 1 min 23 sec 01 min 20 sec
Large file 1 min 5 sec 55 sec 1 min 2 sec 1 min 14 sec

The iTunes encoding tests consist of converting 14 MP3s (119MB) to 128Kbps ACC files and measuring the operation’s duration in seconds. For the file transfer test, we measure how long it takes to copy two sets of files from one location to another on the same hard drive. On the small files test we transfer 557 MP3s, totaling 2.56GB. For the large file, these same MP3s were zipped into a single file measuring 2.52GB.

 

Gaming Performance EliteBook 8460p ProBook 6360b ThinkPad X1 Envy 14
Far Cry 2
1024×768 Medium Quality 27.05 FPS 26.23 FPS 26.59 FPS
Native Resolution, High Quality 22.28 FPS 17.95 FPS 17.94 FPS
StarCraft 2
1024×768 Medium Quality 44.70 FPS 14.90 FPS 15.23 FPS
Native Resolution, High Quality 27.78 FPS 10.90 FPS 10.42 FPS
Impressions and Conclusion
In a nutshell, the EliteBook 8460p is a classier, slightly thinner, and faster version of theProBook 6360b that we recently reviewed. At 1.25″ thick, this notebook does not adhere to ultraportable standards, but that means you also get an optical drive and a 54mm ExpressCard slot. Additionally, the system also features two USB 3.0 ports, something we haven’t seen on most notebooks thus far.Our informal YouTube 1080p full screen video test taxed the CPU around 17%. The 4k resolution video test pushed the CPU to around the 80% range. The video feed was smooth at this point, unlike the ProBook’s i5-2410M, which showed a little lag.

Thickness and weight aside, the HP DuraCase chassis looks extremely professional. The 14″ LED-backlit HD anti-glare display is nice if you plan to use the notebook in brightly lit environments. It’s not quite as vibrant as the IPS display we found on Lenovo’s ThinkPad X220, but it’s adequate.

 

The keyboard is virtually identical to the one on the ProBook which I really liked. Backlit keys would have been nice but the chiclet-style keyboard and thoughtful layout are very good. Fans of Lenovo’s TrackPoint will appreciate HP’s version, called Pointstick. The separate touchpad and mouse click buttons are among the best I have used. As a friend that tried the system said, “the touchpad is buttery smooth.”

I conducted our standard notebook battery tests on the EliteBook. Our video playback test consists of looping a 720p rip of one of my favorite movies (Inception) in Windows Media Player at full screen with max brightness and Wi-Fi disabled. This is a taxing test that resulted in 4 hours and 57 minutes of usage — a decent result.

Our endurance test is run with five Firefox windows open with the “Reload Every” add-on refreshing each page every five minutes to simulate real-world browsing. Max screen brightness is used and Wi-Fi is enabled. This test resulted in 4 hours and 37 minutes of life.

These results are about half an hour or so lower than what we saw on the ProBook but factor in the faster processor and it’s right on target.

As with the ProBook, I really liked the tool-less access panel on the bottom of the notebook. This simple feature lets you upgrade your system much quicker and you don’t run the risk of stripping one the zillion screws that other notebooks require you to remove in order to access the same expansion bays.

 

Unlike the ProBook, however, the audio system on the EliteBook is pretty bad. As noted earlier, there are two speakers on the bottom of the notebook. One is on the very bottom left of the system and the other is positioned at a 45-degree angle near where the left mouse button is, meaning it’s still technically on the left side of the system. Having both speakers on one side completely ruins any sense of immersion or stereo sound. Furthermore, the far left speaker is either heavily underpowered or possibly damaged as it barely made any noise.

The EliteBook offers some very nice connectivity options, including two USB 3.0 ports, a DisplayPort connection, 54mm ExpressCard slot, docking station and an optical drive.

The system is quiet during normal usage. It’s only when you put a lot of stress on the CPU that you hear and feel it come to life. It’s not very loud nor does it get hot, but both elements are slightly higher than the ProBook due to the faster processor.

It’s difficult to come away from this review without simply saying that this is a slightly more refined version of the ProBook 6360b. For $300 more, the EliteBook 8460p gives you a faster processor, discrete graphics, a slightly thinner (yet a bit heavier) chassis that looks better, a Pointstick and a great touchpad, two USB 3.0 ports and forgettable speakers.