Archive for November 6, 2009

Droid vs. iPhone: A 10-round bout

motorola verizon droid vs apple iphone

The Motorola Droid, available today from Verizon for $200 after rebates, is the latest in series of phones, including the Blackberry Storm, T-Mobile G1, and Palm Pre, to be floated as a potential threat to Apple’s iPhone, the undefeated champion of the smart-phone world. Other media who’ve weighed in on the showdown include Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, Gizmodo, and Engadget.

I liked what I saw when I put a press sample of the Droid through its paces. Now, as our testers complete their extensive tests on the Droid, here’s my 10-round preliminary take on how the new Verizon smart phone fares against the iPhone 3G S, which remains—at least for now—the highest-rated smart phone in our Ratings (available to subscribers).

Ding ding:

Round 1. Touch screen. Advantage: iPhone. Both phones have highly responsive touch screens. But the iPhone's is multitouch for all functions, allowing you to zoom in and out of photos and Web pages by pinching or spreading your fingers. The Droid has such multitouch functionality only when running certain applications, according to Engadget.

Round 2. Interface. Advantage: Droid. A tough call, since both phones have a terrific icon-based interface that makes finding and launching their many features a snap. However the Droid, which employs the latest 2.0 version of Google’s Android operating system, allows a higher degree of personalization via widgets and other tools, and you put all of your e-mails from different accounts (except Gmail) under one view.

Round 3. Display. Tossup. The Droid’s 3.7-in. display is the largest we’ve seen on any phone, and appears to be very sharp and bright, with higher pixel density (240 dpi) than the iPhone (163 dpi). But the iPhone’s display is the best of any phone we’ve tested to date.

Round 4. Keyboard. Advantage: Droid. Both phones have responsive virtual keyboards, though the iPhone’s seems noticeably better. But the Droid adds a real QWERTY keyboard, one that’s responsive, well-spaced, and backlit for dark environments.

Round 5. Searches. Advantage: iPhone. Both phone's search features are very similar. Just start typing a term, and they scour you contacts, music, and documents for that term. But iPhone digs deeper, searching your calendars and e-mails as well.

Round 6. Speed. Tossup. I found the Droid and the iPhone 3GS to be equally, and impressively, fast when switching apps and when downloading Web pages—provided there’s a strong 3G or Wi-Fi signal, of course. They also respond quickly if you need to abort a mistake, such as launching the wrong application.

Round 7. Choice of apps. Advantage: iPhone. Not even close. Apple's App store currently stocks 100,000 apps, while the latecoming Android Marketplace has a mere 10,000.

Round 8. Phone network. Advantage: Droid. Sorry iPhone, no contest. Verizon has consistently trumped other carriers, including AT&T, in our surveys for dropped calls, messaging, Web e-mail, and customer support.

Round 9. Camera. Advantage: iPhone. Droid's 5-megapixel camera is well-equipped, and makes it easy to share your pics via Facebook, e-mail, SMS, Picasa, or Bluetooth data. But iPhone's 3.2-megapixel camera is more fun, with its tap-to-focus and macro (closeup) features, and its on-phone video editing.

Round 10. Auto Navigation. Advantage: iPhone. The Droid’s the first phone to offer the “free” beta version of Google Maps Navigation, but early feedback from our Cars colleagues suggests it’s an underwhelming performer.

The final count in rounds? Five to the iPhone 3G S, three to the Droid, two rounds a tossup. The bottom line? Neither phone scored a knockout, but the Droid may indeed be the most promising contender yet to Apple’s smart phone.

The bout will have to be decided on points—as in the Overall Score our ringside judges test engineers will tally for the Droid in our labs. We’ll compare that score to the stellar one for the iPhone 3G S, and render a decision soon. —Mike Gikas

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Olympus unveils the E-P2, its second SLR-like digital camera

olympus pen ep2 digital camera micro four thirds

Olympus Pen E-P2

For a little over a year, Olympus and Panasonic have attempted to popularize a new type of compact digital camera that has the image quality of an SLR. Panasonic already has three models—the Lumix G1, GH1, and GF1. Yesterday, Olympus introduced its second SLR-like (or micro four-thirds) camera, the 12-megapixel Pen E-P2.

In many ways, it has many of the same specs as the E-P1 such as body-based image stabilization, the ability to shoot HD-resolution video, a 3-inch liveview LCD and a compact retro camera-body design (although it will only be offered in black). Both are also available as kits with either of two lenses: the 14-42mm zoom or 17mm prime.

So what’s new on the E-P2? The biggest change is a bundled electronic viewfinder. With the EP-1, you had to pay separately for an optional, glass viewfinder. The new viewfinder plugs into a new port on the camera body and slides into the hot shoe. The new port accepts other optional accessories, such as the new external microphone jack for using external microphones, that you’ll have to pay extra for. However, just like the E-P1, there’s still no built-in flash, which is disappointing, since you’ll have to buy an external flash. Plus, you’ll have to choose between using an external flash or viewfinder; the hot shoe can only accommodate one of these at a time.

The E-P2 includes some other features borrowed from high-end Olympus cameras, including art filters mode, found on the E-30 and other E-series SLRs. On the E-P2 you can apply these filters to video, which you can’t do with the SLRs.

The new Pen series camera will be available December for about $1100 with either kit lens and the electronic viewfinder.

In addition to the camera body, Olympus has also announced that it’s expanding its lens offerings for the micro four-thirds cameras, with a 9-18mm f/4.0-5.6 wide-angle lens and a 14-150mm f/4.0-5.6 wide-angle lens. Pricing was not yet available, but the lenses should ship in the first-half of 2010. —Terry Sullivan

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4 Tips for Taking Great Parade Pics

There are lots of opportunities coming up for photographing seasonal parades, from tomorrow’s World Series victory parade to Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s.

Here are some ways to prepare to capture those special images:

Bring the right gear. To capture both close-ups and wider shots, you need a zoom lens with a fairly wide range. The typical 3x zoom of a point-and-shoot camera (Ratings available to subscribers) is barely adequate. A zoom of 5x or greater is better. Before the event, fully charge your camera’s battery and bring a fully charged spare battery. A lens cloth and an extra memory card are also helpful. If you’re using an SLR (SLR Ratings available to subscribers), bring a hood for the lens, which helps prevent flare and keep out stray light.

Plan ahead. Check the weather forecast. If it’s cold, bring gloves. If rain is likely, bring a plastic cover to shield your camera. Arrive well ahead of the parade start time, so you can photograph any interesting pre-parade activities and stake out a good position.

Get a good view. To avoid having heads and arms in the crowd from ruining your shot work your way to the front of the crowd. If you’re not sure you can do that, bring a small, lightweight folding stool to stand on. Or get to an elevated location, on a hill or on at a window above street level in a nearby building.

Make it interesting. Vary the types of shots, mixing close-ups of interesting people or props in the parade with wider shots of a float or the crowd. Shoot portraits of children or other interesting people using a wide aperture (f/2 to f/4) to blur the background and make their face “pop” If your camera has a burst mode (which all SLRs and some point-and-shoots do), use it to capture briskly moving subjects, such as baton twirlers.

If you’ve got more tips to share, post them below. —Jeff Fox

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Verizon’s fee hike: A surprising slap to its best customers

Verizon Wireless early termination fee

By choosing to boost its early-termination fees (ETFs) to as much as $350 for its smart phones, like the Blackberry Storm2 and the hot new Motorola Droid, Verizon Wireless has chosen to (literally) penalize some of its best customers.

The hike is a slap to Verizon’s “advanced device” owners, which are every carrier’s biggest prize because they tend to buy more services than most customers—voice minutes plus lots of data downloads. Indeed, Verizon itself told us last year that Blackberry-type customers drop twice as much revenue into the till as traditional voice-only cell users. “Those customers generate about $100 in revenue per month whereas the average customer is only $50,” Lowell McAdams, President and CEO of Verizon Wireless told us last year in an in-depth interview.

Yet Verizon is doubling the fees for these big spenders while keeping the current $175 maximum ETF for owners with less-sophisticated standard and feature phones and modems.

It’s true that the $350 ETF will be reduced by more each month that you stick with your one- or two-year contract than is the 175 tariff. The higher fee will drop by $10 each month, while the $175 ETF will continue to pro-rate at $5 per month. But that’s still small consolation to smart phone owners.

The move is surprising from a carrier that’s received high marks for customer service and overall satisfaction from Consumer Reports readers in our cell service Ratings (available to subscribers). Paradoxically, Verizon has also often been an industry leader in softening or eliminating unpleasant plan terms and conditions. For example, Verizon was first to pro-rate early termination fees, way back in 2006, while the last to do so was Sprint in late 2008.

Tom Pica, a Verizon spokesman, downplayed the importance of the higher ETF. “It applies to a very small percentage of customers,” he told me, referring to the fact that only one percent of Verizon customers quit the top-rated service in any given quarter, so the overwhelming majority of Verizon “advanced device” buyers will never actually have reason to pay the fee.

Perhaps so, but we still find the fee to be objectionable. We’d urge buyers of the Droid, which goes on sale tomorrow, to voice their objections when they buy the device—or maybe even instead of buying it, if you feel strongly about the hike.

If you are planning to buy a Droid, or any other Verizon smart phone or netbook (which also qualify for the higher fee) consider doing so before November 14, after which the higher ETF kicks in on new purchases of those “advanced devices.” —Jeff Blyskal

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