The Hills Are Greener: You Down With LTE? Google Says No.

The Hills Are Greener: You Down With LTE? Google Says No.

Nov 5, 2012

The Nexus 4 has one glaring omission from its otherwise-impressive list of specs: no LTE. After all, the iPhone 5 has it, so why shouldn’t Google’s flagship Nexus phone have it, especially after the iPhone 5, which arrives fashionably late to cellular network technology, had already made the jump? Well, blame the current state of the carriers in the US.

Thanks to the CDMA and GSM protocols, and the different frequencies that even GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile use, interoperability is difficult to cram into one phone model. LTE makes it even harder with many new frequencies to communicate on for each carrier. There’s no LTE equivalent for something like the iPhone, which supports the 1900 Mhz GSM band, to work on T-Mobile, for example. The best way to get LTE support is to work with the carriers, which Google is largely opposed to after bad experiences with Verizon and Sprint with the LTE-enabled Galaxy Nexus. They want to release new versions of Android immediately; the carriers want them tested and probably don’t even want phones to really be updated for too long, after all, if someone is satisfied with their current phone, what reason will they have to buy a new one?

The US market is just not used to unlocked phones yet, in part because Sprint and Verizon make it difficult to use said phones on their network, and the 2-year-contract model is a stopping point on GSM networks. T-Mobile, however, is likely a big driver of this phone. After all, the beauty of buying a phone unlocked is that it can be used on cheaper pre-paid plans, and T-Mobile has some of the most exhaustive pre-paid options, including the fabled $30 plan that offers only 100 minutes, but unlimited messaging and 5 GB of 4G data. That will likely be a big seller for the Nexus 4.

Of course, they’re selling it as a contracted option as well, at $199 on a 2-year agreement, which is silly considering the phone is $349 unlocked! However, for those looking to buy it with HSPA+ 42 on T-Mobile, that’s the only option, is to go directly through them. Why they’re not selling the phone as a driver for their prepaid plans, the only real reason for T-Mobile to still exist at this point, is unknown.

Now, is the lack of LTE something that Google should get a free pass on? No, it is a lacking feature considering that it’s becoming standard in high-end phones. But Google’s doing something different here. They’re selling a phone directly to consumers for $349, no contract. This is something that hasn’t really been tried with a flagship smartphone. If the market is going to change to be more friendly to unlocked phones, there first needs to be a demand for them, and that appears to be what Google is doing with the Nexus 4. LTE and CDMA appear to be the sacrifices to make this sea change happen.

Amazon Announces New 7″ and 8.9″ Kindle Fire HD

Amazon Announces New 7″ and 8.9″ Kindle Fire HD

Sep 7, 2012

While rumors of a new iPad mini spread, and the Nexus 7 enjoys its sales numbers, Amazon has laid dormant until now with the announcement of new Kindle Fire devices.

The flagship is the Kindle Fire HD. This will come in both an 8.9" variety and a 7" variety; the specs on the 7" are supposed to be the same as the 8.9", but Amazon was more keen to show off this version. It's got a 1920×1200 screen (true HD!) which is 254 ppi (compared to the iPad retina display's 264 ppi), to go along with a Texas Instruments OMAP 4470 processor, which Amazon claims can do 50% more floating point operations as compared to the Tegra 3 processor in the Nexus 7.

The touch screen has a laminated touch sensor, which Amazon claims will offer a better display with less glare. It has 2 wifi antennas, offering faster dual-band wifi performance. It also boasts a front-facing camera, an HDMI port, and Bluetooth. The 7" model with 16 GB of storage will go for $199. The 8.9" model with 16 GB of storage will cost $299. Even the original Kindle Fire has been given a minor update with 1GB of RAM, an upgraded processor, and a new $159 cost.

While the rest of the lineup is still wifi-only, there's one option for those who want network connectivity. The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 will be available with 4G LTE (powered by AT&T) for $499, and for $50 per year, it will come with 250 MB of data and 20 GB cloud storage access. Options to upgrade to 3GB and 5GB data plans will be available directly from the device for AT&T. The device also has 10 bands of cell access, so it can fall back to 3G/4G networks.

Amazon appears to be trying to regain any market space lost to the Nexus 7, and with the 8.9" size, may be getting in to competing with the iPad, thanks to their expansion of app content to go with their media library. It shall be an interesting holiday season for those competing in the tablet market. The 7" devices ship on September 14th. The 8.9" devices ship on November 20th.

The Hills Are Greener: Wifi Devices? Why Not?

The Hills Are Greener: Wifi Devices? Why Not?

Apr 16, 2012

So I’ve been considering something bold recently – ditching my cell phone. For someone who spends a lot of time writing about cell phones and the apps on them, this sounds ludicrous, but hear me out. I mostly use data services. I already use Google Voice for text services along with iMessage on iOS to some people. For phone calls, $3/month for unlimited US/Canada Skype outgoing calls and $30/year for a Skype number (discount with that unlimited calling subscription!) sounds like a good replacement for phone service. I’m no stranger to carrying multiple devices around, so why not just carry a mobile hotspot and a wifi device around, and use that instead of a phone?

Well, two reasons. One is that the pocket wifi device is all but dead. The other is that phone networks are still the heart of calling.

So, what about pocket wifi devices, especially something like the iPod touch? Apple in particular doesn’t seem to care much for the iPod touch. It’s not that it isn’t part of their strategy – it’s designed to draw people to the iPhone by giving them App Store and iTunes access from a device without needing a data plan. While it’s great for kids without phones and/or data plans, and this may be their focus, they haven’t updated the hardware since 2010, when it was underpowered compared to the iPhone, having 256 MB of RAM compared to the iPhone 4’s 512 MB.

But for people who use it as a secondary device – such as Android owners who still want a connection to iOS – the rise of tablets may be preventing this growth from taking root. After all, if a device is going to be secondary, only carried around at particular times, why not have it be a device with a huge screen? Like an iPad? The iPad has sold 39.849 million units entering this past fiscal quarter, and that doesn’t include the 3 million iPad 3rd generation units sold when that device launched, along with any other sales in the first 3 months of 2011.

This may be why the Android iPod touch device never really took off. After all, why not have a 7 or 10″ screen instead of a pocket-size one? Samsung has tried selling pocket-sized media players with the Galaxy Player series, and Archos has released Android-powered media players, but neither has really taken off, especially considering that a 7″ tablet can be had for $199.

This may be part of why Google Play is struggling, though: there is no cheap way for a power user to get in to Google Play with a capable device yet, and the cheap ways in to Android are promoting other marketplaces. Maybe that’s the key to their success where Google is floundering. Maybe a rise of a well-promoted, capable iPod touch counterpart would help a lot. Maybe even market it with texting capabilities, really appeal to that youth crowd. Of course, considering that cell phones, which cost a lot of money out-of-contract, are selling for a lot more than what wifi-only devices are doing.

It may not make sense for the bottom line to sell these devices for Google or any of the hardware manufacturers. Apple might not make much profit off of the low-end iPod touch, but they make up for it in the fact that they expand out their ecosystem. Google doesn’t manufacture hardware themselves so they can’t do it, and they appear to be more interested in the tablet market. The hardware manufacturers are all in it for profiting off of the hardware alone – why sell devices just to break even (possibly even at a loss) just to expand out the ecosystem for someone else’s OS? It makes no sense for them.

The other reason may be that the pocket wifi device is just inconvenient as a phone replacement. First, these wifi devices are few and far between, and are still inferior hardware – the Galaxy Player devices are technically inferior to the Galaxy S2, for example. They practically require headsets to use because of their hardware design. Most importantly, emergency calling services still require an actual phone connection.

Tablets with cellular network access hypothetically can be used as phones, such as this Galaxy Tab with GSM voice capability – but this capability is disabled because the carriers are likely thinking why sell one device with network access when it’s possible to sell a phone and a tablet with data plans? It’s also just inconvenient, especially for men who may find it unacceptable, both socially and practically, to be carrying a bag around with a 7-10 inch device that is their lifeline to the digital world with them constantly. Bluetooth headsets might help.

Now, since voice calling is possible over LTE, and many hotspots use 3G as a fallback, it could be possible to use that LTE hotspot, or maybe even a device connected to an LTE hotspot (possibly over Bluetooth) for voice calls, at least on a theoretical level. Heck, maybe even just build in rudimentary voice or text services into the hotspots, acting as dumbphones with wifi routers built in.

The problem is that the carriers have no interest in this. They want to sell phones where they can profit off of extended service agreements by offering subsidies, along with selling voice and messaging plans. Because if they ever get it going over one pipe, then they may just have difficulty selling those separate plans. So they have no interest in evolution.

That’s what intrigues me about trying to break free of phone plans, though. I have no interest in subsidizing the continued hold that the carriers have on the US market as far as their regressive policies go. They sell a product that they actively dissuade their users from using. If I can find a way to essentially beat them, to say “I will pay for your data plans, but not for everything else you’re trying to screw me on” then I will. It just might not be all that convenient, which is the problem. No one’s making it easier.

Why LTE Phones Will Cause More Headaches for Users Looking to Travel or Switch Carriers

Why LTE Phones Will Cause More Headaches for Users Looking to Travel or Switch Carriers

Dec 13, 2011

Android has had one particular advantage over iOS that can’t be argued: the availability of “4G” and LTE-capable devices that iOS so far has no access to. The faster speeds of these connections serve as a particular benefit to choosing Android phones, along with the bigger screens and advanced capabilities of the Android OS. However, it appears as if the move to LTE is coming with a major drawback: interoperability between LTE frequencies is going to be pracitcally impossible.
 
By way of Engadget, Wireless Intelligence is reporting that there will be over 200 LTE networks by 2015, and they will run on 38 different frequencies. Compare this to the current 3G situation, where in the US, GSM phones that run on AT&T’s 3G band can’t run on T-Mobile’s, and vice versa. It is at least possible for phones to work on multiple bands, but these are not common. These promote vendor lock-in, and prevent users from moving to a new carrier easily. It was hoped that LTE’s standardized elements would allow for this lock-in factor to be lessened, but it appears as if that is not the case.
 
This will prove to be a problem in particular for international travelers, who will not be able to easily use the phone of their choice when traveling abrouad, or at least will not be able to buy prepaid data SIMs to access data while on the go at faster speeds. As well, this will only further vendor lock-in in the US, as with so many LTE bands out there, users may need to buy new phones when they switch their network. This doesn’t even discount the potential environmental impact of basically being forced to throw away older phones when switching networks, just because they don’t support specific bands of LTE.
 
The manufacturers and carriers have little benefit to try to promote standardization, as lock-in helps to keep customers and sells more phones when they do change. It may require regulation, perhaps even self-regulation, in order to help users looking to use their phone wherever they choose to, not where their carrier chooses to.