Welcome to IRL, an ongoing feature where we talk about the gadgets, apps and toys we're using in real life and take a second look at products that already got the formal review treatment.
We swear we didn't plan it this way, but it looks like we've got a little trifecta this week, with write-ups pertaining to Apple, Google and, last but not least, Microsoft. On the pessimistic end of the spectrum, Dana would rather have the third-generation iPod shuffle than the model she's using. Terrence is hooked on Google Now and Jon likes the HTC 8X -- just not as much as the Lumia 920.
What's this? Another Windows Phone 8 test? Yes, while I was trying the Lumia 920 and before I reviewed the ATIV S, I felt it was only fair to give the third flagship of the platform, HTC's Windows Phone 8X, a proper shakedown. I spent a few weeks with one to gauge the differences and came back with the impression that HTC has a worthy flagship -- but not necessarily the one I'd choose for myself.
If you talk solely about ergonomics, the 8X is undoubtedly my first pick. It's much lighter and grippier than the Lumia 920, and the smaller screen makes it easier to reach every corner with one hand than the ATIV S. About the only reservations I have are that hard-to-press power button and the relatively sharp edges. The stand-out appearance can't help but sway me, too. If you get the phone in one of the bolder colors (read: not black), it's simply iconic. No one will mistake an 8X for another phone, while both the ATIV S and Lumia 920 have familiar-looking peers.
Yet there are a few ingredients missing that make it hard to call HTC's creation my perfect Windows Phone 8 device. Simply speaking, the camera just isn't as good as it needs to be in early 2013. While the 8X is sometimes a better pick for up-close photography than the Lumia 920, it falls apart in low-light situations where the Lumia is a champ. Apps matter, as well. Nokia Drive and Nokia Maps aren't vital, but I missed their navigation when I switched devices. And I'll have to admit that being Canadian skews my preferences towards the Nokia phone's glove-friendly screen: it's great to avoid the binary choice of making a phone call versus preserving my fingers. While I'd be inclined to choose the 8X over the ATIV S as long as storage wasn't a priority, I would still give Nokia the ultimate nod as the most relevant to real-world use.
-- Jon Fingas
Pretty much from the moment I first launched Google Now it changed the way I interacted with my phone. I've used Siri and toyed with S Voice, but Now is the only virtual assistant that seems like more than an occasionally useful gimmick. Truth is, at this point I unlock directly into it almost as often as I go to the home screen. Sure, in the early days its functionality was fairly limited (and still is), but there was enough information presented by default to keep me coming back. When Gmail was added to its repository of information, the app became a true game-changer for me. While other "assistant" apps are little more than voice commands with personality, Now actually helps track information for you and presents it at valuable times. I don't have to ask what the weather is like or how long it'll take me to get to my next appointment -- it just tells me without prompting.
Of course, things aren't perfect. Now still has a lot of rough edges to work out. For one, the mobile boarding pass feature has yet to work as advertised for me, though, its flight tracking feature turns out to be quicker and more accurate than United's own app. It also stumbles a bit on tracking packages. I like that it recognizes tracking numbers and presents them to me with a quick link, but Now doesn't actually do any tracking itself. Instead it simply shows the card to you for a predetermined amount of time. That's fine if you're enjoying free two-day shipping thanks to Amazon Prime, but if your delivery takes more than a couple of days the card disappears before the box hits your doorstep. It also has an unfortunate habit of presenting me directions to a "new place" almost any time I perform a web search. Oh, and some higher-res icons for the sports score cards would be greatly appreciated.
None of that is enough to ruin the experience, however. If I need to know when my bus is coming, what the temperature is, if my flight is on time or even how many steps I took this month I simply swipe up on my Nexus lock screen and let Google do the work for me. What's more, things can only get better as the company improves its algorithms, opens up new sources of data and, hopefully, develops an API to let other apps tap into the power of Now.
-- Terrence O'Brien
iPod shuffle (fourth generation)
We runners are a superstitious bunch. In my training group, "Nothing new on race day" is our mantra, and it's one to which I've adhered earnestly. It goes without saying that new shoes, running shorts and Snozberry-flavored energy gels are out of the question, but I even get antsy about wearing my Spibelt around my waist instead of my hips. Yeah, I'm neurotic, but running 26.2 miles is scary, yo.
So I was none too pleased when I had a gadget emergency the week before the 2011 New York City Marathon. I'd been training with the Sansa Clip Zip for two months when it abruptly began having mood swings. It started repeating songs, even when I had set my library to shuffle. Sometimes, if it encountered a song it didn't like, it just froze. On a good day, I could side-step the issue by selecting a different artist or song. At its worst, the only way to revive it was to perform a hard reset.
Obviously, that wasn't going to cut it for my epic run, so I did what any desperate person would do: I went to Best Buy and spent $50 on an iPod shuffle. Truly, I would have preferred something like the nano, which would have let me choose specific songs, but I wasn't about to drop $149 on what was essentially an impulse buy. Fifty bucks was about as much as I was willing to spend without having had the opportunity to hem and haw over my purchase.
So I used it. And it was okay. The clip doesn't feel as strong as on the third-generation model. Also, it came with regular headphones (i.e., ones without inline controls), which meant I had to press the player on the device to pause the music and skip tracks. To this day, I find the keys a bit too small, and I often hit the wrong one, mistaking pause for fast-forward, etc. Fortunately, I've since subbed in a pair with an inline remote, which means I barely have to touch the device anymore (except, perhaps, to reposition it in a place where the clip will stay put). Battery life was initially awesome -- I got through that nearly six-hour marathon (oof) with plenty of juice to spare. It's since seen better days, though, to the point where I now have to recharge it several times a week. Faint praise, if ever you've heard it, but at least it doesn't force me to listen to the same Madonna song over and over. That would just be cruel.