January 27, 2012

Smartphones eat up 5.9 percent of the electronic gadget market

By Daniel Eran Dilger

Published: 03:20 PM EST (12:20 PM PST)
Sales of general purpose smartphones are causing the market for standalone gadgets such as cameras, camcorders and GPS devices to shrink, falling 5.9 percent overall during the holiday season in the US.

According to market research firm NPD Group, sales of all electronics reached $ 9.5 billion in the five weeks ending December 24. The year’s decline was not quite as bad as last year, which was down 6.2 percent compared to the same period in 2009.

Sales of camcorders dropped by 43 percent, digital picture frames by 38 percent, GPS navigation devices by 33 percent and both MP3 players and “point and shoot” cameras were down 21 percent, all apparent casualties of the general purpose smartphone.

Sales of electronic devices that don’t directly overlap in functionality with the smartphone fared better, with PC and TV sales down just 4 percent.

Desktop PCs were down 2 percent overall, while notebook sales were down 5 percent. Average Selling Prices of PCs actually inched upward $ 9 to hit $ 575, continuing last year’s trend among PC makers of increasing prices for the holidays, NPD reported.

Sales of HDTVs larger than 50 inches helped reverse the decline among TVs, where sales of home theater systems increased by 10 percent and sales of stand-alone streaming devices (which appear to be led by Apple TV) jumped by 65 percent.

In contrast, Blu-ray players were down 17 percent after growing 3.8 percent last year, an endorsement of Apple’s exclusive digital downloads strategy for media playback.

“The accelerated rate of decline in older technology categories such as DVD, GPS and MP3 players put a ceiling on how well the industry could perform during the holiday,” wrote NPD’s vice president of industry analysis Stephen Baker.

A report by Canaccord Genuity predicts that Apple will report sales of 30.1 million iPhones for the holiday quarter, a jump of 31 percent over Apple’s sales in the third calendar quarter. The firm says companies selling Android products will report shipments of an estimated 68.9 milllion devices, representing growth of 17.3 percent over the previous quarter.

AppleInsider

Zeo Sleep Manager Mobile: It’s a Scale — But For Sleep, Not Weight [Review, Fitness Special]

Zeo Sleep Manager Mobile: It’s a Scale — But For Sleep, Not Weight [Review, Fitness Special]

The idea behind the Zeo Sleep Manager Mobile ($ 99) is that the quality of your sleep affects your health in a bigger way than we generally recognize, and that measuring the amount of time we sleep and its quality — then quantifying that sleep with a number on a 100-point scale — will give us the information we need to improve our sleep, and ultimately our health.

The Zeo works by measuring the different sleep stages throughout your sleep cycle via a headband, which sends the information to a receiver unit via Bluetooth. The whole thing is controlled via an iOS app that also displays the data in a well-designed, easy-to-read interface.

The Good:

The system was remarkably simple to use. Pairing is easy; I simply popped the headband onto my forehead when I was reay to go to sleep, launched the app and went to sleep. In the morning, a bat graph appeared displaying how many minutes I spent in light, deep and REM sleep, and also how many minutes I spent awake. The bar graphs are color-coded to represent the different modes of sleep. As important is what Zeo calls the “ZQ Sleep Score,” a quantified rating of how well you slept last night. That score is the easiest way to measure how lifestyle changes affect the quality of your sleep. For example, by measuring caffeine intake against ZQ Score will not just tell you if the former affects the latter (duh), but how much it’s affected.

Zeo Sleep Manager Mobile: It’s a Scale — But For Sleep, Not Weight [Review, Fitness Special]

Journalists don’t sleep very well…

Everything is laid out clearly and colorfully, and the readout couldn’t be any easier to understand.

The whole thing — headband and receiver — are small enough to pack in a corner of an overnight bag. The system comes with a charger, but the power input is a mini-USB port, which makes finding alternatives easy if you misplace the cable.

Multiple nights of sleep data can be stored on the device used to record it, then uploaded at any time to your Zeo account, at which point the data can be downloaded to any device with the free Zeo app logged in to your account.

Just like any good web-based health service, data from your Zeo account can be shared and plugged in to other services: RunKeeper and DailyBurn both integrate the ZQ Sleep Score to give an idea of how well you’ve recovered from a workout.

The Bad:

The SmartWake alarm — intended to wake you at the optimum point in your sleep cycle, when sleep is shifting from REM to light, after you set a rough target time  — never really worked for me. I tended to actually wake up before it went off; when I did wake up from the alarm, I didn’t really feel better or worse than had I used a standard “dumb” alarm.

Zeo recommends replacing the sensor pad every three months, as body oils an degrade the padded contacts to the point where they can’t pick up data. The good news is that the pad snaps off easily; the bad news is that replacements are $ 20 a pop (or $ 50 for three).

Then there’s the headband itself. beside the fact that the tight band could be a little uncomfortable at times, it was simply a hassle to put on every night. Erratic sleep patterns, falling asleep before intending to contribute to lack of use. The iDevice receiving the info also needs to be plugged in before it’ll receive data; although this isn’t much of a detractor, because you’re probably plugging in the device at night anyway.

The big issue is the ease with which the info collected can be used — and right now, it’s just not all that easy. The consensus among the medical community seems to be that how we sleep is an important factor to health, and has a big impact in our daily lives. But despite DailyBurn and RunKeeper, there aren’t many fitness or health systems integrating the Zeo’s information just yet.

Verdict:

For some, the Zeo should prove a useful tool; for others, not so much. While the system works well, neither the data collected nor the method used to collect it is as easy to apply as we’d like. At least, not yet.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Zeo Sleep Manager Mobile: It’s a Scale — But For Sleep, Not Weight [Review, Fitness Special]

The sensor attaches to the headband and sensor pads via snaps.

Zeo Sleep Manager Mobile: It’s a Scale — But For Sleep, Not Weight [Review, Fitness Special]

Replaceable sensor pad.

Zeo Sleep Manager Mobile: It’s a Scale — But For Sleep, Not Weight [Review, Fitness Special]

In the box: travel-ready charger, strap and sensor pads (in the foil packet), receiver, sensor, not-very-useful interactive chart.

Cult of Mac

Microsoft exec admits Windows Phone was response to Apple’s iPhone

By Josh Ong

Published: 09:44 PM EST (06:44 PM PST)
Microsoft’s head of software design for Windows Phone has admitted that the company completely redesigned its mobile operating system platform as a response to Apple’s iPhone and the “sea change” it created in the industry.

Joe Belfiore, one of the first engineers brought to the new Windows Phone team when it was formed, made the comments in an interview with The New York Times.

“Apple created a sea change in the industry in terms of the kinds of things they did that were unique and highly appealing to consumers,” he said. “We wanted to respond with something that would be competitive, but not the same.”

According to the report, “once the iPhone exploded into the marketplace, Microsoft executives knew that their software, as designed, could never compete.” In December 2008, Microsoft’s then head of mobile engineering called a meeting to decide the fate of its aging Windows Mobile software. Seven hours later, Myerson and his team decided to scrap the OS and start again from scratch.

“We had hit bottom,” said Myerson, who recently replaced Andy Lees as head of the Windows Phone division, adding that doing so gave the company “the freedom to try new things, build a new team and set a new path.”

Former Microsoft manager Charlie Kindel compared the decision to start over to mountain climber Aron Ralston’s now famous accident where a boulder fell on his arm and he was forced to amputate it.

“This boulder comprised of Apple and Blackberry rolled on our arm,” he said. “Microsoft sat there for three or four years struggling to get out.”

While designing the new operating system, Microsoft deciding to strike a balance between Apple’s highly-controlled approach and Android’s more permissive strategy. It upset handset makers by instituting strict rules on the level of technical specifications required for Windows Phone devices in an attempt to avoid the fragmentation and performance issues that had plagued Windows Mobile and, to some extent, Android.

“It’s not just about software,” Albert Shum, general manager of the design studio for Windows Phone, told the Times. “It’s about the whole end-to-end experience.”

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer experienced “some hesitancy” after his first look at an early version of Windows Phone, according to Myerson, but the team made revisions to address his concerns.

The decision to start over was costly, as the two years that it took the software giant to create Windows Phone left iOS and Android with a huge opportunity in the smartphone market. Android held 25 percent of the worldwide smartphone market and iOS 16.6 percent in the third quarter of 2010, while Windows Mobile had dwindled to 2.7 percent. Windows Phone’s first year on the market failed to reverse the trend, with Android holding 52.5 percent share an iOS claiming 15 percent, while Microsoft’s portion slid to 1.5 percent in the third quarter of 2011.

The first reviews of the platform praised Windows Phone for its unique tile interface when it arrived in fall 2010, but they also noted that the operating system was several years behind Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Sales of Windows Phone devices since then have failed to gain significant momentum.

Myerson himself admits that the platform has faced an uphill climb because of the time it lost. “Entering the market so late with this experience has created some special challenges for us,” he said. “I think if we were there earlier it would be different.”

The mobile OS will have a second chance in the U.S. market early this year when the first Windows Phone-based Nokia devices arrive. Nearly a year ago, the Finnish handset maker announced that it was abandoning its Symbian OS in favor of a close partnership with Microsoft, but the first phones resulting from the deal have yet to arrive in the U.S..

The two companies are reportedly set to unveil the flagship Nokia Ace smartphone at the Consumer Electronics Show next week. The handset is also rumored to receive a $ 100 million marketing push from Microsoft, AT&T and Nokia, but even AT&T’s own executives have confessed their belief that Windows Phone will see “a lot of challenges” in going up against its more-established competitors.

AppleInsider

Able Planet Clear Harmony headphones deliver top quality sound at a premium price

One of the more widely-used accessories for iPhone, iPad, iPod touch and Mac is a set of headphones. Whether you’re using that little headset that came with your iPhone or iPod touch, or you have moved up to another type of headphone, you know how important it is to be able to listen to your music or movies clearly. I recently had an opportunity to test a pair of Clear Harmony NC1100B noise canceling headphones (US$ 299.99, but be sure to look for the NC1100BA option that includes an 8 GB iPod touch at no extra cost) from Able Planet and found that they’re outstanding for enjoying sound from any of your Apple devices.

Design

As you might expect from the name, Able Planet builds audio products for people with all levels of hearing. According to the Able Planet website, their patented Linx Audio technology “creates high frequency harmonics that enhance sound quality and speech clarity of difficult to hear words or notes, and increase the perception of loudness without increasing volume.” In layman’s terms, you don’t necessarily have to “turn the knob to 11″ to be able to hear music or speech the way you want to. The company has won a bunch of awards at CES over the past five years for this technology, and it should be interesting to see if they continue that string of wins this week.

When you open the box that these headphones come in, the first thing you see is a nice cloth-covered and zippered carrying case. Opening that case, you see the headphones, the cable, and adapters. The NC1100B comes with both 1/4″ and 1/8″ plugs for use with a variety of devices, and the plugs are all gold-plated. There’s also a dual 1/4″ adapter that works with most airline sound systems.

The NC1100B headphones use an over-the-ear design that totally covers your ears. I’m partial to this type of headphone design, since earbuds have a tendency to fall out with movement and I can’t stand the feel of in-the-ear designs. The padded headphones are quite comfortable, perfect for those long flights where you might want to watch a few movies and listen to some tunes.

Noise canceling headphones require power, so the cap on the right ear “cup” slides off easily to accept two AAA batteries. The headphones weigh about 8.2 ounces with the batteries inserted, which is surprisingly less than the pair of custom V-Moda Crossfade headphones I usually use (9.6 ounces).

Functionality

I’ll be the first to admit that I am usually a skeptic when it comes to claims of sound quality with high-end headphones. That’s why I’m totally surprised with just how good these headphones sound. I listened to a wide cross-section of music in my iTunes library, from classic rock to classical, and for each selection I listened not only on the NC1100B ‘phones, but also the V-Moda Crossfades.

The NC1100B headphones also did a surprising job in getting rid of hiss and background noise in a number of older recordings that are in my collection (a lot of my tunes are older recordings — hey, I’m an older person!). When I listened to music with the V-Moda Crossfades after listening to the same tune with the Able Planet headphones, the music just sounded muddy with a surprising amount of hiss. The NC1100B headphones made everything sound much cleaner, crisper and more “real” than any other headphones I’ve ever used.

The noise cancellation capabilities are also impressive. In my office, I have a DroboPro that is constantly adding a level of white noise to the ambient sound. Turning the headphones on and off while sitting at my desk really showed me just how loud that noise is. As with other noise canceling headphones, the NC1100Bs don’t totally eliminate background noise, but they do temper it to a tolerable level. My test here was to listen to music from my iPhone while standing next to a running washing machine and dryer, turning noise cancellation on and off. Again, I could still hear the background noise a bit with noise cancellation turned on, but the noise was largely filtered out.

Since many TUAW readers may use headphones to listen to movies, I also watched several movies on my iPad while listening to the soundtrack with the NC1100B headphones. Once again, the sound quality was outstanding, especially in situations where there was a mixture of dialogue with background noises or music.

One final note: years of listening to music has caused me to have a moderate level of tinnitus in my left ear which seems to be getting worse as I get older. With most headphones, I have to turn down the volume in order to listen without discomfort. The NC1100Bs are so distortion-free that I can listen to tunes at a lower volume while still picking up all the nuances of the music.

Conclusion

Considering the number of headphones I’ve tested over the years, I was totally surprised — in a good way — with the Able Planet Clear Harmony NC1100B headphones. As with all of the items that we review here at TUAW, these headphones will be given away to a reader at one of our meetups, but this is one situation where I’m going to personally spend my own money to pick up a pair. The sound quality is that good.

While Able Planet certainly doesn’t have the name recognition of Bose, V-Moda, Beats by Dr. Dre, or Skull Candy, the company should. The Able Planet Clear Harmony NC1100B headphones are my new gold standard for comparison to any other headphones on the market.



TUAW – The Unofficial Apple Weblog

Disney reports 40% jump in iOS downloads from holiday 2010

Disney is the latest company to announce some crazy numbers from last year’s holiday season (with Rovio having announced big numbers earlier this week, and the App Store overall seeing a big boost in sales over the holiday). The biggest title in the company’s catalog was Where’s My Water, which saw more than 6 million downloads over the holiday week, across both iOS and Android. And Disney Mobile saw a 40% increase in iOS downloads overall, as compared to the same period last year.

TUAW previously spoke with the creator of Where’s My Water, who started out as a QA tester at Disney and moved up the ranks to create hit iPhone games. This time around, we heard from Bart Decrem, Disney Mobile GM (and former CEO of Tapulous, the company that Disney acquired a few years ago). He says that “freemium” is the current word in mobile gaming: “2012 will see freemium models around many types of gameplay — as is already being shown by the success of Temple Run.”

Temple Run isn’t a Disney Mobile game — it’s created by a two person husband and wife team at Imangi Studios, and despite its relatively humble origins, it recently landed on the top grossing pile over this past holiday season. So if Decrem is right, we’ll see more titles like it; games that intelligently combine solid gameplay with a very lucrative in-app purchase system. Disney itself says more updates are planned for Where’s My Water and its other titles, and we’ll have to wait and see what else the House of Mouse has up its sleeve for iOS this coming year.



TUAW – The Unofficial Apple Weblog