Wednesday, April 2, 2008

CTIA WIRELESS: A Handful of Handsets

Investigating "cool" new handsets at a show like CTIA is somewhat difficult for a Canadian company simply because we often don't know which models will be coming to the Canadian market, let alone when. Despite this minor roadblock, there were plenty of neat handset designs to see.

Before I get into the handsets, it's worth noting some consumer-friendly improvements that Microsoft has made to its Windows Mobile operating system, which is included in many smartphones. In fact, a Microsoft rep told us that this year, there will be 20 million Windows Mobile devices on the market! Although the majority of Microsoft's emphasis was placed on enterprise-level upgrades, Windows Mobile v. 6.1 provides some handy improvements for consumers that help simplify the user experience. The most notable improvement is such a small, yet appreciated feature: automatic Bluetooth pairing, which will not only turn Bluetooth on and search for nearby devices upon one-button activation, but will also enter the required four-digit pairing code (in Canada, it's typically "0000") for you! The rep noted that the adjustment was made based on consumer feedback. In a test group, he claimed that the change resulted in a 100% success rate for Bluetooth pairing, compared to the previous method, with was a bit more time consuming, and potentially confusing for the non tech-savvy individual. Future versions of the Bluetooth standard will likely do away with the four-digit pairing code altogether, but for now, this is certainly a handy feature for smartphone users.

Other Windows Mobile improvements include an e-mail wizard that contains a database of e-mail ISPs from all around the world that can automatically enter your incoming and outgoing server to save you the trouble. There's also support for e-mail services like Yahoo! Mail and Gmail. The Internet browser has also been optimized to improve Website rendering; and WiFi support has been ramped up.

Now, what about the handsets?

I was pleasantly surprised at the HTC booth. Recently, I reviewed the HTC Touch for here's how! magazine, and noted that what this touch-screen phone really needed was a slide-out keyboard. Lo and behold, situated right beside the HTC Touch in the company's booth was the new HTC Touch Dual, which is virtually identical but for a, you guessed it, slide-out keyboard. It's not a full QWERTY, but rather includes two-letters per key, so there's 20 function keys in all. HTC Senior Account Manager Brent Stephenson also confirmed that the TouchFLO technology, which I found a bit finicky in the original version, is continually improving. The Touch Dual operates on the GSM network, which means that should it come to Canada, it will be available through Rogers or Fido. Although Stephenson couldn't confirm Canadian information, he told me that the Touch Dual will be available in the U.S. in May, and will sell unlocked through Best Buy stores. Is this unlocked, direct-to-the-customer strategy an indication of a new direction for the wireless market? Something to think about....

Two other neat "touch" type phone (which is apparently all the rage these days) are LG's Venus and Vu, which officially launched into the Canadian market just prior to the show. I'm not a fan of dedicated touch-screen models, but after playing around with these two models for a few minutes, I found them really easy to manipulate. A slight vibration emits as soon as you activate a function with your finger, which I found oddly comforting. The Vu will automatically rotate the screen to fit a full QWERTY keyboard when typing, which is pretty neat. These are definitely two handsets worth keeping an eye on.

There were several new phone introductions from Samsung, but one of the most notable was the miCoach phone. As the product of a collaboration with sporting goods manufacturer adidas, the miCoach is designed for sports enthusiasts. In addition to doubling as music player while you're working out, it also provides personal training features, including a stride sensor and heart rate monitor, and can track data like time, distance, speed and calories burned. All you need is the adidas sensor, which can actually be attached to pretty much any running shoe on the market. Once connected, your virtual "coach" will motivate you to get in shape, letting you know audibly when you need to increase speed, or slow things down. The miCoach is currently only available in Europe, while pricing details and availability dates for North America have not been announced. The Instinct, which many are calling Samsung's "answer to the iPhone" also caused a stir at the show, even though it wasn't even on display. Available exclusively in the U.S. through Sprint, the phone includes features like touch-screen functionality with tactile feedback, a "favourites" menu for your most-often used functions, Visual Voicemail that lets you listen to messages in the order that you wish, and fast operation using the EVDO Rev A network.

From a Canadian perspective, there really wasn't anything new in the BlackBerry arena (bummer), but the company did highlight some neat, new applications for the device via third-party company partnerships. The one that seemed to garner a lot at attention was the ability to play the popular video game Guitar Hero on the phone. Now that is cool!

Finally, I must have popped into the Sony Ericsson booth about five times trying to get a look at the Xperia X1 in the flesh, which is the company's first Windows Mobile device. The Xperia X1 initially launched at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, and it won't be available in Canada until Q3 or Q4, nor in the U.S. until Q2. Given this, there were only a few demo units available, and I could never catch up with the one guy who had them! However, I was able to see the slick-looking device under glass, so I can speak to its attractiveness as an objet.

That's just a small cross-section of the phones on display at the show. Stay tuned to the April issue of Marketnews Magazine for more information on these, and other models specific to the Canadian market.
[Photo: LG Vu].

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