Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Motorola Rokr E8 Music Phone

The Rokr E8 excels at music playback, but usability issues plague it in other areas.

The Motorola Rokr E8 looks vaguely like an iPod: glassy, slim, and dark, except for a thin circular metal strip in its middle. The resemblance is probably not coincidental, given that the device is a cell phone intended for music lovers. The 0.4-inch-thick candy bar phone boasts good looks--and isn't half-bad as an MP3 player--but its usability shortcomings in other areas disappoint.

The E8's sexiest attribute is its touch-sensitive surface's ability to change interfaces depending on what you use it for. When you power it on by sliding a silvery hardware button on its right edge, a virtual phone keypad lights up below the metal circle; when you switch to music player mode (by pressing the musical notes above the green dial control), a few simple MP3 controls replace the virtual keypad.

Regardless of which way you use the phone, a two-inch LCD occupies the upper half of the unit. Tiny raised glass dots and haptics feedback (vibrations) help confirm your fingertip touches, and the silvery metal strip acts as a touch-sensitive navigation wheel for scrolling and clicking through menu options using your thumb.

Unfortunately, I found the wheel difficult to control. All too often I overshot or undershot my target as I scrolled through the rather long main menu, or even through a short list of contacts. And the menu structure itself, especially for adjusting settings, wasn't intuitive: I waded through several levels of options before giving up on finding the evaluation unit's phone number. In addition, the glass-covered touch controls required fairly firm touching-with no way to adjust touch sensitivity.

Voice quality on my T-Mobile test unit was fine. We haven't lab-tested the phone's talk-time battery life yet. Check back for test results--and the PCW Rating--for the Rokr E8 once we do.

The phone defeated all my efforts to use the carrier's Web-based contact manager to import my Outlook contacts in order to sync them onto the E8. (The alternative is to spend $35 on Motorola's Phone Tools 5.0, a desktop app that includes contact syncing.)

Though the Rokr E8 provides predictive text entry support, using its touch keypad would be even more annoying than using a mechanical phone keypad to compose a lot of text. And the small screen is not optimal for Web browsing, which in my shipping unit proceeded rather slowly on T-Mobile's EDGE network.

T-Mobile sells the Rokr E8 for $150 (with a two-year contract). The phone makes most sense for customers seeking a stylish handset that excels at music, and not much interested messaging or Web applications.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Six-Core Chip Is Set for Release

Intel Corp. is expected to release its six-core Xeon 7400 chip Monday, just as VMware Inc.'s big annual show begins in Las Vegas. And the timing is no coincidence.

Intel's chip is aimed at users seeking a consolidation and virtualization server platform, analysts said. Moving multiple virtual machines (VMs) to a six-core chip will improve management of virtual as well as physical systems. Consolidating physical servers to a single, presumably energy efficient system, may help users tight on data center space.

Intel isn't alone in picking VMware's conference to release its chip. Over the next week, vendors will be making numerous hardware announcements all designed with virtualization in mind. As virtualization use expands in data centers, so does the need for server hardware with added processing capability, memory and networking connections.

Vendors will announce over the next week products tuned for virtualization, integration with virtualization platforms and new services to support deployment.

Dell Inc., for instance, announced new PowerEdge blade servers today, including the M905 four-socket, dual- or quad-core chips from Advance Micro Devices Inc. it says can support 66 virtual machines. The system can support Citrix XenServer, VMware and Microsoft's Hyper-V. The company announced new storage and services as well.

In describing Intel's six-core chip, code-named Dunnington, at the Intel Developers Forum last month, Pat Gelsinger, Intel executive vice president, cited a number of workloads for it, including database, ERP, Java-based and virtualization.

AMD is also working on a six-core chip, code-named Istanbul, which is due out in the second half of next year.

Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64 in Saratoga, Calif., said the six-core system is a niche product intended for large applications such as transaction-oriented workloads and databases that already use multithreaded environments and virtualization.

The six-core Xeon was built on a single piece of silicon, unlike Intel's quad-core chips that are built from two dual-core chips. As a result of the improvements in Dunnington, Brookwood said it handles caching much better, improving performance. He called it "the best multiple core chip that Intel has introduced to date."

With six cores, Brookwood said users can consolidate more VMs in one physical server, and being able to do so improves the management of the VMs. The risk is that if that physical server should fail for any reason, it can affect lots of people, Brookwood said.

The increased number of cores not only lend themselves to managing more workloads, but six-core systems will also take up less space in a data center and use less power, said Rich Partridge, an analyst at Ideas International Ltd. in Rye Brook, N.Y. For some users, "having a consolidated server that is more efficiently managed is very attractive," he said.

Partridge also said Intel is seeking to appeal to users who have typically turned to Unix and RISC-based systems to operate large workloads. But he also said the target audience for this server isn't users who want to run one workload across six cores, but those who want to manage multiple apps across a hypervisor.

iTunes 8 Media Player

Apple earlier today unleashed iTunes 8, the newest version of its media player application. iTunes 8 gives you a fresh way to browse your music, improved accessibility for the vision-impaired, and a new automatic playlist-generation feature dubbed Genius. Judging from my test-drive of iTunes 8, the new features are useful, but none are particularly groundbreaking, must-have additions.

One of the big enhancements is the Grid view, which displays your collection's album covers visually in a grid. Within Grid view, you can sort your music by album, artist, genre, or composer. As you mouse over an album's cover-art tile, a Play button appears. Skim your mouse over tiles when sorting by Artist, Genre, or Composer, and the tile will quickly flash the album art for items sorted under each category. Click on the tile to play all songs or videos in the tile. Double-click the tile to view everything categorized under that tile.

In my experience, this arrangement made locating music quickly somewhat easier--if you want to listen to a certain album, you can use the tile-based view to find it visually, instead of doing a search for it. But this feature won't drastically change the way you organize and find your music.

In addition to the new Grid view, iTunes continues to let you browse your music by List view, in which you can see details about your music and videos, and by Cover Flow view, in which you can flip through album covers as if you were using a jukebox.

ITunes 8's marquee new feature is Genius, which automatically suggests songs based on your selection of a baseline. Genius has two parts: the Genius sidebar and the Genius Playlist tool. If you're familiar with iTunes, you may notice some similarities between Genius and both the iTunes Mini Store and Just For You features from iTunes 7 and earlier. You will need to turn on Genius before using it; iTunes will collect information on your iTunes library, submit it to Apple, and then start feeding you Genius sidebar results. When you activate Genius, iTunes compares your songs, playlists, and iTunes purchase history against what Apple offers on iTunes and library information from other users to give you the most relevant recommendations.

Some users may be a little concerned about the fact that you are sending information about your library to Apple--and for good reason. For its part, Apple says that it collects information "such as track names, play counts, and ratings," but notes that your iTunes library data "will be stored with an anonymous Genius ID and not linked to your iTunes account."

To use the Genius sidebar, select a song. iTunes will give you Genius sidebar results tailored to your selection. The Genius sidebar consists of four parts: the top albums from the selected song's artist, the top songs you don't yet have in your library from that artist, relevant iTunes Essentials collections, and other recommendations based on your selection. This is a welcome feature to me, since I already enjoy using iTunes to find music from artists I'm not familiar with; the Genius sidebar will make that even easier for me to do.

The other half of Genius is the Genius playlists function. To create one, select a song and click the Genius button in the lower-right corner of the iTunes window (indicated by an atom icon). iTunes will then generate a playlist containing songs in your library similar to the song you selected. By default iTunes limits these playlists to 25 songs, though you can create Genius playlists up to 100 songs. I found that Genius generates some pretty accurate playlists. And as Apple notes, Genius should become more accurate as additional playlist information becomes available, though as my colleague Tim Moynihan discovered, it is possible to confuse the iTunes Genius.

Incidentally, Microsoft announced a similar feature today for its Zune line, known as Mixview. The two companies seem to be thinking along the same lines. Perhaps both used Pandora as inspiration?

In its eighth iteration, ITunes remains solid, although it still has both its benefits and its quirks as a media organizer, player, and jukebox. None of the new features are what I would characterize as a must-have update, however. Genius is a useful--and generally well-done--addition, and Grid view may make finding music easier. Aside from that, though, nothing about iTunes 8 is, as noted, really groundbreaking.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Free Browser "Google Chrome"

The new Web browser that Google released Tuesday is designed to expand its huge lead in the Internet search market and reduce Microsoft's imprint on personal computers.

The free browser, called "Chrome," is being promoted as a sleeker, faster and more secure alternative to Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which has been the leading vehicle for surfing the Web for the past decade. Despite recent inroads by Mozilla Foundation's Firefox, Internet Explorer is still used by roughly three-fourths of the world's Web surfers.

Google have announced plans to take on Microsoft and Firefox with their own open-source browser, codenamed Chrome, by releasing a specially drawn comic by Scott McCloud explaining the app. Based on the existing Webkit rendering engine, Chrome will integrate not only tab-based browsing but Google Gears and a newly integrated search and address system called Omnibox.

Omnibox will replace the individual address and search boxes and offer search suggestions, popular pages and history pages. It will also automatically replicate a webpage’s own search box, allowing site and query strings to be entered simultaneously. An Amazon search, for instance, could be triggered by entering “amazon”, pressing tab and then the search term.

Chrome will also include some of the more popular features from existing rivals. It will have a homepage of nine instant-access shortcut thumbnails, as found in Opera 9, with a sidebar of recent searches and tabs. The tabs themselves will be switched to above the window, not below it as on Firefox, and there’ll be a privacy option similar to Internet Explorer’s recently announced InPrivate mode, in which no record of sites or searches will be stored. A malware and phishing protection system will be integrated and constantly updated, with Chrome automatically downloading a list of dangerous sites in the background.