About Suzanne Kantra

Suzanne Kantra

Based in New York City, Suzanne Kantra is the founder and editor of Techlicious, which serves the role of that tech-savvy friend who women can count on to share tips and tricks to get the most out of technology. She was formerly the Editor of Popular Science and the Technology Editor of Martha Stewart Living Omnipedia, as well as a Radio Host. She has covered technology products and given tips on network TV stations in the U.S.


Latest Posts by Suzanne Kantra

Penny Pricing Signals Windows Phone 7 Struggling in Its First Week

November 11, 2010 by  

Share:

Less than a week after the first Windows Phone 7 devices went on sale, both of AT&T’s currently available models, the LG Quantum and HTC Surround, have dropped in price to a penny on Amazon Wireless. That’s not good news for Windows Phone 7, especially coming on the heels of reports that only 40,000 devices were sold at launch earlier this week.

By and large, I like Windows Phone 7 and it shows promise, but it’s well behind Apple’s iOS 4 and Google’s Android out of the gate. There are big holes — no cut and paste and no multitasking — plus a dearth of apps.

To be fair to Microsoft, both the LG Quantum and HTC Surround hardware wouldn’t have been competitive in the smartphone market no matter which OS they were running. They’re heavy, have small screens and no features that make them shine. True the HTC has a unique built-in speaker bar, but it delivers the same quality sound you can get from any number of other smartphones on the market.

Combining sub-par phones with an OS that’s not quite baked is not a recipe for success. The more interesting Windows Phone 7 devices, the HTC HD7 (T-Mobile) and Samsung Focus, at least hold their own, for the most part with, with their Android cousins. But they hardly offer a compelling reason to switch to Windows Phone 7.

What Microsoft desperately needs is a class-leading device, along the lines of the iPhone 4 or the HTC myTouch 4G. But that’s not going to happen for the holidays and the stockings are going to be a little light up in Redmond this year.

Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360 Great for Families with Tweens and Teens

November 4, 2010 by  

Share:

Four years ago, Nintendo changed the way people played video games, with Wii, the first system that lets your body movements control game play. This Fall, Sony followed suit with its Move controller for PlayStation 3. And now, Microsoft joins in with Kinect for Xbox 360.

Microsoft Kinect does away with game controllers entirely. It uses a sensor bar with a pair of cameras that tracks 48 points on your body and an array of four microphones to pick up your voice, so your body becomes the game controller, letting you interact virtually within the game.

I spent much of the last week playing Microsoft Kinect with my kids — ages nine and six — and their friends. My opinion? Kinect is a great purchase for Xbox families with tweens and young teens, and is a lot of fun for the parents, too.

Out of the box
Setting up Kinect is simple. You plug the Kinect sensor into the Kinect port, place the sensor below your TV screen and turn on your system.

Kinect then scans your room to orient itself. When it’s finished, you see a black-and-white image of you and your space in the lower right corner of the main screen.

Navigation
Waving activates motion control and sends you to a screen called Kinect Hub, an area for Kinect-enabled games and services and games, like Zune and ESPN (Xbox features outside the Kinect hub, such as Netflix, require you to use your regular Xbox controller). You can also talk your way through menus by saying “Xbox” and then reading from the list of voice command options that appear onscreen.

Working your way through menu options by pointing at buttons isn’t quite as easy as you may think. To get Kinect to recognize a choice, you have to hover over the button with your hand for a few seconds. For me that was no problem, but for my 6-year-old the wait was a challenge.

Voice commands, not surprisingly, only worked well when it was reasonably quiet. A nice touch is the box at the bottom of the screen that shows that Kinect is listening and which commands are available.

Playing games
While I like playing games, I’m not a huge fan of game controllers and the complicated key combos required for many games, so using Kinect was a welcome change for me and the kids picked it up quickly. Regardless of whether you like controllers or not, for most Kinect games you won’t miss the controller and most benefit from its absence.

Microsoft says to leave a minimum of six feet between you and the Kinect sensor, but I found that even the 8.5 feet that I have was barely enough, especially when my kids, ages 9 and 6, were playing. They were constantly going outside of the play zone, as they vigorously jumped, swung and leaned their way through the games. Kinect is smart enough to compensate for limbs darting outside the box or a person strolling in front of the sensor. You get a warning when you stroll too far, but if you’re outside the box too long your avatar will simply disappear, which was very frustrating for my kids. Apparently young kids pay as little attention to warnings from game systems as they do warnings from their parents…

It’s easy to get carried away while playing a Kinect game because the sensor translates speed into power. Mimicking a powerful spike while playing volleyball in Kinect Sports translates directly into a powerful spike in the game. Comparatively, playing volleyball with Sony’s PlayStation Move in Sports Champions doesn’t require as much movement, though you can still work up a sweat, and Nintendo’s Wii remote can produce powerful effects on screen with just a quick flick of the wrist. Kinect definitely gave me, and my kids, a workout.

Beyond games
Xbox isn’t just about video games, you can also watch movies, play music, view photos, and hang out with friends. For Kinect, that primarily means an easy way to browse through a video catalog, pull up some music tracks and navigate playback controls.

Should you buy it?
If you already own an Xbox 360, there’s no question that this is a great addition. And at $150 with the controller and Kinect Adventures! game packaged together, it’s a pretty good deal.

For those in the market for a new game system, though, the choice isn’t quite as clear.

For casual gamers Kinect is a great option. It offers an intuitive interface plus video chat and easy access to movies and music. So it’s more well-rounded than its main competitor, the Nintendo Wii. It’s my choice for families with tween and young teen children who are looking to do more with their game system. For families with kids under 8-years old, I’d still opt for the Wii.

If you’re a traditional gamer looking for a motion-based controller system, Kinect is not for you. Xbox 360 has great games for this type of gamer, but they’re not built for Kinect. The clear choice here is the PlayStation 3 with Move.

A longer version of this review is cross-posted on Techlicious.com

Torch: Best BlackBerry Ever, But is it Enough?

August 3, 2010 by  

Share:

Today, Research In Motion (RIM) launched the BlackBerry Torch 9800 on AT&T. The BlackBerry Torch is RIM’s first slider smartphone, joining the ranks of the DROID on Verizon and the MyTouch 3G Slide on T-Mobile. But more important than the sliding keyboard, the BlackBerry Torch is RIM’s first phone utilizing the BlackBerry 6 operating system (6 OS), which brings BlackBerry out of the dark ages and adds capabilities more on par with the iPhone and Android operating systems.

In our hands-on with the Torch today, the capacitive touch screen was very responsive and the slide-out QWERTY keyboard was up to the normal BlackBerry standards. The 3.2-inch (360 x 480) display on the Torch is smaller than most of its competitors — the iPhone 4 display is 3.5-inches and the Samsung Vibrant, HTC EVO and DROID X are all 4-inches or larger. So the BlackBerry Torch’s appeal will still probably lie with those who are focused on email and security over multimedia and browsing.

One drawback to the slideout keyboard is weight. Even with its relatively small 3.2-inch screen, the BlackBerry Torch is slightly heavier than the much larger DROID X and a full 1.5 ounces heavier than the Samsung Vibrant.

The BlackBerry Torch sports a 5 MP camera with flash and autofocus, but video recording is only standard definition. Again suggesting that this phone still hasn’t shaken its business focused underpinnings. We won’t be able to evaluate the quality of the camera until review units are available.

Memory-wise, the Torch comes with 4 GB on-board and will support up to a 32 GB microSD card. This should be plenty for most folks, but is still less than the 8-16 GB of on-board memory offered in the DROID X and Samsung Vibrant, respectively.

The new BlackBerry OS 6 is a big step up from what you’d find on previous BlackBerry devices. The web browser handles HTML 5 and provides tabbed layout that lets you easily switch between web pages. The browser also has pinch-to-zoom capabilities, which should come in handy on the 3.2-inch display.

BlackBerry 6 OS also provides the Torch with more social networking tools, allowing you to combine email, Facebook and Twitter updates all in one place. It’s nice to see RIM recognizing that even business people may have lives outside of their corporate email accounts.

In short, the BlackBerry Torch appears to be the best BlackBerry device ever made. But BlackBerry isn’t operating in a vacuum, and most of the updates seem to be bringing it up to where the iPhones and Android devices were months ago. Plus, the BlackBerry App World is still at a significant disadvantage versus the Android Marketplace and Apple iTunes in terms of available apps. So we’re looking forward to a full hands-on where we can evaluate the complete package in more detail.

The BlackBerry Torch will be available on August 12 for $199.99 with a 2-year service agreement and data plan on AT&T, online at www.att.com/blackberrytorch, and at Best Buy, Wal-Mart and RadioShack stores.

Cross-posted from Techlicious.com

Samsung Vibrant Death Grip Shows Dropped Bars Do Not Equal Dropped Calls

July 20, 2010 by  

Share:

With so much hullabaloo around the iPhone 4 “death grip” causing dropped calls, and Apple’s recent claims that all phones suffer from this issues, we decided to do some testing on our own. And what better to test with than the recently launched Android phone, the Samsung Vibrant (Galaxy S) from T-Mobile.

As you can see in our video, it was easy to reduce the bars on the Samsung Vibrant from four to one bar with a relatively normal grip along the bottom of the phone. But the Vibrant still had no difficulty making calls.

So we then went to a spot deep inside the building where I had zero bars and then gripped the phone in the same manner, which would have reduced the signal further. Even with “less than zero” bars, our Samsung Vibrant was still able to complete a call.

What this clearly demonstrates is that looking at “bars” is not the best way to evaluate calling ability. In fact, we were able to replicate a significant reduction of bars on other phone models, including the Blackberry Curve 8520, which we’ve used for nearly a year with no dropped call issues.

A little science about cell phone reception
Any time you wrap you hand around a cell phone, you have the potential of blocking the phone’s antenna, reducing its ability to receive and transmit signal. Visually, you will notice this as fewer bars on your phone’s signal indicator. In areas with a strong signal, interference from your hand won’t affect your ability to make calls. But, if the signal is already very weak, calls may be “dropped” or you may not be able to complete a call at all.

But there is more to it than just signal strength. What also matters is the “signal to noise ratio.” That is, how strong your phone’s signal is relative to all the other signal noise around you (i.e., other people’s phones, signal reflections and other types of interference).

This information is all represented within the “bars” at the top of your phone. However, there are no standards among phone manufacturers or cell providers for how the bars should be calculated. So a signal that appears as five bars on one phone could show up as three on another.

But even when your phone indicates you have a strong signal, you may still be out of luck. Richard Gaywood, who has a Ph.D in wireless network planning techniques from Cardiff University and has created software that helps cellular operators design their networks for optimum performance, tells us why on his website:

“The bars only indicate how well your phone can listen to the cell tower. They don’t tell you anything about how well the tower can receive your phone, but that’s a pretty important part of making a call,” says Gaywood. “Similarly, the phone doesn’t know anything about what’s going on in the cell provider’s network past the tower; if you’re on a really busy cell it might not have any spare outgoing circuits to direct your call to, so even if the radio is working fine, you might still not be able to get through.”

And, what’s even more troubling for owners of smartphones is that signal problems also affect your 3G transmission speed. So your calls may be going through, but you’re not getting the data bandwidth you’re paying for.

What’s different about the iPhone 4
Almost all modern cell phones use an internal antenna that can suffer signal loss from your hand under normal use scenarios. But the iPhone 4 has an external antenna that appears to be sensitive to the conductivity of the sweat on your hand, which decreases the level of signal even more when held.

Conclusion
Apple’s offer of a free bumper to cover the antenna will resolve the issue of signal loss from contact with the iPhone 4′s external antenna, but will not help issues related to “normal” signal loss from gripping the phone or from network congestion and noise.

The fact that so many people are complaining about dropped calls on the iPhone 4 suggests to us that the issue is also with AT&T’s network. Dropped calls over AT&T are certainly not a new complaint for owners of the iPhone. And there’s no reason to believe that this should have changed with the release of the iPhone 4. But it is worth noting that, according to Gaywood, “Placing calls from my office, my home, and my neighbourhood whilst walking my dogs, I’ve had 14 dropped calls in a little over two hours of talk time.” And he is in the United Kingdom, not on AT&T.

This story is cross-posted on Techlicious.com and written by Josh Kirschner.

The Dangers of Facebook Oversharing Come to Outlook

July 14, 2010 by  

Share:

Do you “friend” work colleagues on Facebook? Then you’re now in more danger of oversharing. The culprit: Microsoft Outlook Social Connector.

Social Connector pulls in the latest status updates from your social networking sites — MySpace, LinkedIn, Windows Live and now Facebook — to your emails when your colleagues open them in Outlook 2007 or 2010.

Here’s how it works. You send your colleagues a meeting agenda, and in the window below the message they see your profile picture and status updates from the social network sites where you are “friends.” That Farmville notice from a few minutes ago. There. Party pictures on Facebook from the weekend before. There. And if your LinkedIn account is tied to Twitter, they’ll also see your tweets.

So if you haven’t already, you might want to think about putting all of your work colleagues into one group in Facebook (access by clicking on “Friends” and the then “Create a List”) and then setting your privacy settings as you see fit.

Despite the potential pitfalls, I’ve found Outlook Social Connector to be very helpful. I often like to go back and re-read earlier email threads before replying to a message. And since I don’t always keep up with my various social networking accounts, it provides a quick and easy way to focus on one person’s activities without getting sucked into everyone’s updates.

Outlook Social Connector is integrated into Outlook 2010 and you can download it as a plug-in for Outlook 2007.