Will the Logitech Harmony Smart Control let me get rid of my pile of remotes?

x596SMRTCTL-F

 

I recently bought the Logitech Harmony Smart Control remote for my entertainment system, and after playing around with its settings for a few weeks, I really like it.

 

My entertainment system consists of 6 components and 5 remotes:  TV, receiver, cable box/DVR, Apple TV, a Blu-ray player, and a remote-less Chromecast.  There was hardly an activity I did with my system that would require less than two remotes, and I have been eager to consolidate my remotes but was having trouble deciding what to do and how much to spend.  I finally decided it was time, did some research and concluded that the Smart Control system was the most forward-thinking and future-proof remote system on the market at my price point, so I gave it a try.

 

The Smart Control system actually consists of three components: a Harmony Hub, a simple remote, and iOS and Android remote apps.  They whole system takes some time, patience, and basic understanding of how entertainment systems work to set up properly, but once that is done it works very well and I find it so nice to only have one remote to deal with.  It can control up to 8 devices and retails at $130 ($100 without the simple remote).

x596SMRTCTL-o_hub

The Harmony Hub:

The Harmony Hub, sitting slightly bigger than an Apple TV, serves as the connection between components, remotes, and the internet.  It has WiFi (to connect with the Harmony component database, the user’s account settings, and the remote apps), IR (to connect with most components), Bluetooth (to connect with PS3, PS4, and Wii), and RF (to connect with the simple remote).

To control the system, you program activities, such as “Watch TV” or “Watch a Blu-ray,” and then when a given activity is selected on a remote, the Hub then cycles through the programmed commands to make that activity happen.  For example, when I press “Watch TV” on a remote, the remote tells the Hub to run the following commands:  1.  power on receiver, 2. power on TV, 3. power on cable box, 4. select “TV” input on receiver, 5. select “HDMI1” input on TV, 6. select “tuner” input on cable box, 7. delay 3 seconds, and then select “standard” audio mode on receiver.  While this may sound complicated, once the activities are programmed (Logitech guides you through the setup for most common commands), it is just a press of one button on the remote and then the Hub does everything else without you even noticing.  It also remembers what components are on, and shuts the unnecessary components off when switching activities, and shuts everything off automatically when turning the system off.

I was very skeptical that the Hub – which is designed to sit on a shelf alongside the components it is to control – could send IR signals away from the entertainment center, have those signals bounce off walls and furniture, and then return to the front of the components, where the IR receivers are housed.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it worked flawlessly.  The system comes with a separate IR blaster in case components are stored in separate cabinets (you can add a second IR blaster if you want), and I set it up on another shelf, even though it seems unnecessary.  My setup has my components on open shelves, but having the capability of storing components in closed cabinets or even in a nearby closet is a really nice feature.

HarmonySmrtCtrl_BTY2_Black_72_dpi

The Simple Remote:

The simple remote works very well and is more than adequate for almost everything I need.  It is thinner and smaller than a traditional remote, and has a soft textured backing that feels good in the hand.  A really cool feature is that since it transmits using RF instead of IR, it does not matter in which direction it is pointed and it works without a line of sight to the Hub.  Two criticisms it has received in reviews is that it only has 6 activities and that the buttons aren’t backlit.  Both are valid criticisms, but I don’t think either seriously detracts from the overall experience.  Logitech clearly tried to keep the remote compact, so they probably did not want to take up space with more activity buttons, and it is said to last a year on a small battery, which wouldn’t be possible if it was backlit.  For $350, you can get this system with a touchscreen remote instead of the simple remote, although I don’t think it’s necessary.

Harmony-Smart-Control-Remote-for-iPad-iPhone-Android-Logitech-2013-06-15-08-15-16

The Harmony App:

The Harmony App for Android works well, though the couple of seconds it takes to load hurts its usefulness.  I have not tried the iOS app.  While I use the simple remote most of the time, I find the app to be convenient for when I’m in the kitchen and want to turn the volume down or if I’m lying on the couch and have my phone on me but not the remote.  Plus I use it to access the seventh activity – the one that can’t fit on the simple remote – and it really came in handy when programming the system for the first time.

My favorite feature of the app is the favorite channel layout with channel logos, which taps into my cable provider’s channel lineup and makes switching channels much easier than entering the channel number.  Overall there is a lot of switching screens in the app though, like between the favorite channels screen to the volume screen, and also it is harder to use the app without looking at it.  Logitech promotes gesture input to address that, but I think most people would get more use out of the simple remote than the app.

* * *

Overall, I am really happy with the Smart Control, find that it works as advertised, and is night and day better than my old setup.  It took me two hours to setup and program the activities, and then I had to go back into the settings several times to adjust activities (like adding three presses of “menu” and two presses of “down” on Apple TV to make sure the “power off” signal was delivered when on the Apple TV home screen, and adjusting the delay on the receiver to make sure commands weren’t given until it had fully powered on).  Once setup it is a real pleasure to use, and I would recommend it to anyone looking to consolidate remotes and who is open to trying something new.

Google announces Android Wear to power wearable devices

Android Wear 3

Today Google threw its hat into the wearables ring and announced Android Wear.  Android Wear is a version of Android specifically designed for wearables, and the first category of devices that will run Android Wear will be smartwatches.  Taking inspiration from Google Now, Google highlighted four areas on which Android Wear will focus:

- “Useful information when you need it most.”  Just like Google Now on Android phones and tablets, Android Wear devices will use cards to display all types of information – like weather, traffic, transit, scores, appointments, emails, nearby movies and restaurants – based on what Google knows about your location, schedule, interests, and more, as well as integrating social media and communication apps.

“Straight answers to spoken questions.”  Also similar to the voice search functions on Android phones and tablets, Android Wear will allow the user to say “OK Google” and ask their device for information, like a weather forecast or nearby restaurants, or to do something, like text a friend that you are running late or set a reminder.

“The ability to better monitor your health and fitness.”  Android Wear can be used to exercise and give statistics, like speed and distance traveled, while running or biking.

- “Your key to a multiscreen world.”  Android Wear lets the user communicate with other devices and do things like control music on a smartphone and play a movie on Chromecast.

Release TImeline

Android Wear will automatically display notifications from apps on a connected device on the Android Wear device.  Today Google released a Developer Preview API (Application Programming Interface) that will allow app developers to customize the way their notifications appear on Android Wear devices, such as allowing a user to reply to a message by voice rather than by opening the messaging app, adding additional pages to a notification to let the user access more information relating to that notification (for example what to bring to a meeting or directions to a meeting), and stacking multiple notifications from the same app (to show, for example, individual messages rather than “3 messages”).

“Later this year” Google will release an Android Wear SDK (Software Development Kit) that will let developers more fully customize the Android Wear experience.  Between now and the SDK Google may give developers more APIs to work with.

Devices

In Google’s announcement, it said that it is “already working with several consumer electronics manufacturers, including Asus, HTC, LG, Motorola and Samsung; chip makers Broadcom, Imagination, Intel, Mediatek and Qualcomm; and fashion brands like the Fossil Group to bring you watches powered by Android Wear later this year.”  And within hours, LG and Motorola each announced Android Wear smartwatches.

Moto360_Macro_alt1_with text

Motorola’s Moto 360 Watch is modeled after a classic round analog watch with a single crown.  It actually looks really nice in an understated way.  It will be available in the US this summer.  No word on pricing.

LG G Watch

LG’s G Watch is square and modern-looking, and that’s about all I can say about it without a press release.  It is expected to be priced to sell and released next quarter.

The Verge has a great collection of Android Wear photos that show off the OS as well as these two devices.

My Thoughts

I have been pretty critical of smartwatches in the past. And I still am, to a degree, but I also think Android Wear, and in particular the Moto 360, looks pretty awesome. I am constantly taking my phone out of my pocket to check messages, change a song, or look up train times, and being able to just look at my wrist would be pretty cool. And while maybe a few years ago it seemed over-the-top to have to always be connected the way a smartwatch would make possible, nowadays being always connected seems much more natural.

I currently wear an automatic mechanical watch, and the technology behind an automatic movement is pretty amazing, and it’s pretty cool to wear a technology with so much history. But that coolness is really hard to quantify since it extends so far beyond practicality. Smartwatch technology, on the other hand, is so new and if smartphone technology is any indication, the technology used in today’s smartwatches will be obsolete in a year. But if I have no qualms getting a phone that will last two years tops before I happily replace it with something else, why wouldn’t I be ok doing the same thing with a smartwatch?  I guess there is just something cool and timeless about an automatic watch.

Regardless, comparing smartwatches to automatic watches is really an unfair comparison because they are in different price ranges.  For the average consumer who wants a watch that tells time and date and looks nice, if priced right I could see them opting for a smartwatch. And for many tech fans I think a smartwatch will be a no brainer.

Now that it seems smartwatches are only going to get more popular, the question is whether Android Wear watches will be a market leader.  There are already several smartwatches on the market, including a few models by Pebble, which had a very successful Kickstarter campaign, and Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, which received lackluster reviews and has since been replaced by a Tizen-powered Gear 2.  Apple is also long-rumoured to be working on an iWatch, which is expected to be released in late 2014.  So far no smartwatch has really made it mainstream the way smartphones have, but I think Android Wear watches will: the interface looks really nice, Google has the data and software to create a new experience that is more than just a way to control a smartphone, many proven product manufacturers have signed on, Android already has a solid market presence, and the Android development community is really strong.  The big questions I have are whether Android Wear will be compatible with iOS and/or free-standing or whether it will only be able to be used as an accessory to an Android phone, and also how many consumers will be willing to add a fourth gadget (after a smartphone, tablet, and laptop).  But from what I’ve seen, if these watches are priced right I think they’ll sell very well.

For more reading, check out Google’s blog post.

 

I bought a Chromebook.

large-1

The Acer C720-2800 to be exact.

My Dell laptop has been showing its age the past year or so, and I’ve been sort of going back and forth on what to get to replace it.  I considered all my options: all-in-ones, desktops, low to midrange laptops, convertible tablets/laptops, Ultrabooks, Macbooks, and Chromebooks.  I ultimately opted for the Chromebook, and so far I am really happy with my choice.

What is a Chromebook?

Chromebook runs Google’s Chrome OS, which is an operating system that consists of a Chrome browser and a file manager.  Just like the Chrome browser on Windows and Macs, the Chrome browser on a Chromebook has access to the Chrome Web Store, where you can download various web apps that work within the Chrome browser.  Some apps are essentially a shortcut to a site and some are specially designed for Chrome.  Some even provide offline access.  Once added to Chrome, these apps can be found on an app list and also pinned to an app launcher, which can go at the bottom, left, or right side of the display.  The Chrome Web Store is not as varied as the app stores found on Android and iOS, but it isn’t a bad selection and it is growing.  It goes without saying that the vast majority of Chrome Web Apps require an internet connection to work.

Chrome OS vs. Windows and OS X

Depending on one’s needs, a Chromebook can be a great device.  But Chromebooks differ from Windows and Macs in several important ways.  First, Chromebooks are designed to use the cloud and rely heavily on having an active internet connect.  Some apps do have offline capabilities; most notably to me is Google Drive, where you can view and edit Documents, Presentations, and Drawings with no connection.  But for anyone who has tried to edit a spreadsheet in Drive while on a wifi-less plane (I have), it can be very frustrating to discover that a connection is required.  This is less of a problem with wifi in more places now, but it is something to consider.  For me, 99.9% of the time I will either have a wifi connection or be able to work on something offline, so this wasn’t a huge issue notwithstanding my frustrating flight experience.  [UPDATE 12/11/13:  Google updated Sheets to include offline editing.]

The second major difference is that you can’t install programs on a Chromebook.  That means no iTunes.  No Office (though there is a web-based version of Office).  No Adobe Photoshop.  This can be a dealbreaker for some.  The lack of iTunes is an issue for me, and if my Windows laptop died I probably would have needed something with iTunes instead of or in addition to my Chromebook.  Most of my music needs can be satisfied with Apple TV, my phone, and Google Play Music, so I can get by with just an occasional iPod sync with iTunes on my old laptop.

Advantages of Chromebook

Despite this, there are many solid reasons to buy a Chromebook.  First and foremost is price.  My Chromebook has an 11.6” display, weighs less than 3 pounds, and has 4 GB of RAM, 16 GB solid state storage, and a Haswell-based Celeron processor (which is more than adequate to power the lightweight Chrome OS).  It cost $250.  There is also a $200 Acer C7 Chromebook that is identical to mine except that it has 2 GB of RAM.  All my research says that 4 GB is worth the extra $50.  All Chromebooks so far have been in the $200 to $300 price range, except the high-end Chromebook Pixel.  Most lightweight Windows PCs and Macbooks cost several times the price of a Chromebook.

In addition to price, Chromebooks also come with other benefits: automatic updates, built-in virus protection, no eventual slow-down than often plagues Windows PCs, battery and resource efficiency, and a boot-up time of less than 10 seconds.  Google also throws in a bunch of freebies, including 2 years of 100 GB Google Drive storage (a $120 value) and 12 gogo in-flight passes.  The Drive space makes using a Chromebook much easier, and while I have enough storage on other cloud services to satisfy my needs, Drive integrates nicely with the file manager and has some great productivity tools.  Another cool feature of a Chromebook is that, because everything is in the cloud and because Chrome OS is exactly the same on all Chromebooks, the experience on one Chromebook is identical to the experience on another, which makes traveling and sharing devices much easier.

Choosing a Chromebook

There are several Chromebooks on the market.  Their operating systems are identical to one another, and the real differentiator is hardware.  Acer is being aggressive with its C7 line.  I went with the Acer C720-2800 because it received great performance reviews (here, here, and here) in terms of speed, power, and battery life.  In fact, it was universally considered the best-performing Chromebook to date (except Chromebook Pixel, below).  The Acer C720-2848 for $50 less and with 2 GB of RAM instead of the 4 GB found in the C720-2800 was also in the picture, but I decided the extra RAM was worth the cost.  Neither of Acer’s C7 Chromebooks are works of art from a design perspective, but I would much rather a computer that performs well than one that looks good but is frustrating to use.  [UPDATE 11/26/13Acer just announced a $300 version of the C7 that features a touchscreen display, 2 GB of RAM, and 32 GB of solid state storage – double the 16 GB found in the other two models of the C7.  While the touchscreen is tempting me to return my Chromebook, I think at the end of the day 4 GB of RAM will have a greater impact on performance when multitasking and dealing with media-heavy websites, and therefore make the device more enjoyable to use, than having a touchscreen.  Still, that’s a great price for a touchscreen laptop.]

Google has put its weight behind the HP Chromebook 11, which a Google design team helped create.  The Chromebook 11 is a similar size to the Acer C7, comes in various colors, and can charge with the same micro USB charger that many phones use (although charging via this method can be very slow).  While the HP Chromebook 11 won on style, reviewers found its performance to be slow.  Plus it is currently not being sold after reports of overheating chargers.  There is also an HP Chromebook 14 with a 14” screen rather than my 11.6” screen.  With that extra screen real estate, the HP Chromebook 14 is 4 pounds; 1.25 pounds heavier than the Acer C7  Another Chromebook that received a lot of press is the Chromebook Pixel, designed by Google with the highest resolution display of any laptop.  At $1,299, it is really a device for enthusiasts and it probably makes more sense to get a nice Ultrabook or Macbook and run the Chrome browser on it at that price point.  There are other Chromebooks out there, but the Acer C7, HP Chromebook 11, and HP Chromebook 14 seem to be the three devices that are leading the pack.

Wrapping up

So far I love my Chromebook, and think it is a great device for me.  I have used so many Google services on a regular basis before buying it, and using Google services and limited other services on a Chromebook is a breeze.  That being said, many people – particularly non-tech savvy people – have their idea of what a computer is ingrained in their minds, and for those people to enjoy a Chromebook they’d really have to be open to changing their way of thinking, and using Google Docs instead of Word, Google Play Music instead of iTunes, and the cloud.  For those people, a Chromebook would still be a nice secondary device for email and web browsing.  For me, it will do almost everything I need it to do in my daily work and social life, and the lighter design, lower price, longer battery life, and Google integration made the Chromebook a smart purchase for my primary computer.

Android manufacturers need to better organize their device unveilings and release schedules

I love the Android platform and want it to be appealing to people of all levels of tech interests. I use stock Android on a Nexus device, and save for the Verizon Galaxy Nexus fiasco, I think Google does a pretty good job communicating info to consumers regarding new Nexus devices and software updates. Unfortunately the same can’t be said about other device manufacturers. I talked about this with regard to Android updates some time ago, and lately I’ve seen major devices have what I have to call botched releases; that is, the device is announced and hyped, receives media attention, but has no official release date. Some customers may be willing to wait around for an uncertain length of time for the device to become available on their carrier, while others will just buy a different device rather than wait indefinitely with no release date in sight. For manufacturers to put together an unveiling, invite the media, and then not cash in on their efforts to the greatest extent possible is doing a real disservice to their brand and Android as a whole.

As a consumer, it is hard for me to point the finger at exactly who is to blame for this. It could be manufacturer, which announces a device before knowing when its production line can ship the necessary quantity or when its software techs can put the final touches on the modified version of Android that will ship with the device. Or maybe it is the carrier’s fault, as they are noncommittal with when they’ll approve a device or be prepared to sell it in stores.  But regardless of who is to blame, this is really a situation that large, organized companies should be able to avoid.  I put together a launch timeline for the three biggest Android devices of 2013 thus far and the length of time between unveiling and the announcement of an official release date, followed by the obligatory Apple comparison:

HTC One:

The HTC One was unveiled on February 19 with availability “beginning in March.”  A month later, on March 22, HTC released a statement explaining that they were facing supply issues and that the device would be available in North America “before the end of April.” AT&T and Sprint announced an April 19 release date on April 2. The T-Mobile version became available online on April 19 and in stores April 24. The release date of the Verizon version was not confirmed until August 16 for an August 22nd release date.

In short, there were 42 days between the device unveiling and the first official news regarding a release date.

Samsung Galaxy S4:

Samsung unveiled the Galaxy S4 on March 14. The timetable for release was beginning in late April. On April 16 – over a month after unveiling – AT&T’s S4 registration page unceremoniously changed to a pre-order page with an April 30 ship date.  On April 22, AT&T announced that the pre-order ship date and in-store sales date would be April 27.  On April 17, T-Mobile and Sprint announced release dates of April 24 and April 27, respectively.  On April 22, AT&T announced an in-store sales date of April 27, On April 24, Verizon then announced an April 25 pre-order date with a May 30 release date that was pushed up to May 23 a few weeks later.

In short, there was just over a month between the unveiling date and any release date information from the four major US Carriers, and then another two weeks after that for actual availability.

Motorola Moto X:

Motorola unveiled the Moto X on August 1, with availability “starting in late August/early September.”  Perhaps the biggest selling point of the Moto X was its highly-customizable physical casing design via “Moto Maker.”  On August 16, AT&T was the first to announce a release date of August 23 with exclusivity on the Moto Maker feature.  On August 26, Verizon announced that the Moto X would be available on August 29, Sprint followed with a September 5 announcement of a September 6 release date, and after some back and forth regarding whether the phone would be sold by T-Mobile, Motorola grabbed the bull by the horns and announced on September 9 that the Moto X for T-Mobile could be purchased on Motorola’s website (but not through T-Mobile).

All told, the time between unveiling and first availability announcement of the Moto X was 16 days, which is considerably less than that of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4.  However, it’s hard to commend Motorola when an availability date of the Moto X’s signature feature, the Moto Maker, on Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile has yet to be announced, nearly two months after the device was unveiled.

Apple iPhone 5S/5C:

Apple is well-known for generating hype with their iPhone unveilings and then following it up with long lines at launch (so much so that Samsung sent researchers to figure out why) and excellent sales following release.  Earlier this month, Apple announced the iPhone 5C and iPhone 5S on September 10 and announced in the keynote the pre-order and on-sale dates (3 days for 5C pre-order and 10 days for both devices to go on sale.  Worth noting is that Apple always is able to announce the release date at the iPhone unveiling (see iPhone 5, iPhone 4S, and iPhone 4).  Apple does not make its customers wait to find out when they can hand over their money for a new iPhone and begin looking forward to doing so; they know right away.  And the launch date on all four major US carriers was the same.

* * *

With Android devices I realize that there may be obstacles that are out of device manufacturers’ hands, and maybe behind closed doors manufacturing execs bemoan how carriers ruin their launches.  But phones and service plans go hand-in hand, so manufacturers and carriers have the same interest here.  Device manufacturers and carriers need to figure out how to better launch devices so that the manufacturer can announce a device, generate a buzz, make us want to buy the device, and then tell us how to buy that device.

Apple Event Preview

sep_2013_event_invite

The days leading up to an Apple event – and in particular an iPhone event – are some of the biggest days of the year in the tech blogosphere, and I have been so busy I haven’t been able to post about it (though I do keep the Twitter widget active at all times). At this point everything that will be leaked has been leaked and all the predictions are in. Rather than re-invent the wheel, The verge and CNET have pretty thorough articles previewing what to expect at tomorrow’s Apple event, being held in Cupertino at 10 AM PT/1 PM ET.

Here are the expected highlights:

Two new iPhones: An updated iPhone (probably iPhone 5S) that will look very similar to the iPhone 5 but will feature a fingerprint sensor on the home button, increased storage capacity, brighter display, dual LED flash, and a gold option, and a new lower budget iPhone (possibly iPhone 5C) with plastic case that will come in many colors.

A completely redesigned iOS 7 that gives iOS a sleeker look and many new features.

iTunes Radio, a Pandora-like service that integrates with iTunes and the iTunes Store.

Apple TV will see a software update to allow a Person A to share content purchased on iTunes on Person B’s Apple TV, as well as the addition of iTunes Radio. Contrary to earlier reports, there will probably not be any new Apple TV hardware unveiled tomorrow.

New iPad or iPad Mini hardware is also unlikely.

To follow the event live, The Verge and CNET both keep good liveblogs, and I’ll try to keep the Twitter widget active.

The Motorola Moto X is here

hero-moto-x-03

Today Motorola announced the highly-anticipated Moto X smartphone. The anticipation was so high because this was the first smartphone designed by Motorola Mobility after it was acquired by Google in May 2012, and the belief was that Google and Motorola joining forces could put out a great device, although Motorola insisted that it is treated the same as any other Android manufacturer. In designing the Moto X, Motorola elected to focus on improving the user experience rather than on top-notch specs. While this approach has left some people in the tech world a little disappointed, I think this phone will appeal well to the mass audience who may not care so much about quad-core processors or 1080p displays and instead judges phones by how they look and feel in the store. Overall, the two common design elements for the Moto X are user customization and reduced physical interaction with the phone.

Here are some of the notable features of the Moto X:

Customizable design:
The highly-customizable design of the Moto X will draw the most attention. There are over 2,000 color and design combinations that a customer can choose from, including the back cover color, design, and signature, front color, trim color, and wallpaper design. And the phone is assembled in the USA – the first smartphone to be assembled here – so the phone is put together according to the customer’s order and delivered to the customer in 4 days. [Note: at launch, color options will be exclusive to AT&T.] Motorola also claims that it did considerable research into how people hold phones and how big people’s hands are, and that the curved back of the Moto X and the 4.7″ display feels very comfortable in hand and is just the right size for one-handed operation.

Always-on Voice Recognition:
The Moto X learns how your voice sounds (by three repetitions of “OK Google Now”) and then will respond to your voice whenever you say “OK Google Now,” even in a noisy room, without having to first trigger an on-screen Google Now or another voice command button. This is intended to to simplify the connection between user and phone, and depending on how well it works, could be a pretty cool feature.

Quick Capture Camera:
The camera on the Moto X can be turned on by two flicks of the wrist so the user can be ready to take pictures more quickly.

Active Display For Notifications:
Rather than having a blinking notification light that requires a user to turn the phone on and check their notifications pull-down menu, the Moto X displays the notification on a small section of the display without waking up the rest of the display. This again reduces the number of times a user has to touch their phone to get to the information they want.

Unimpressive spec sheet:
By today’s smartphone standards, the specs of the Moto X are mid-range. Most notably, it has a dual-core processor, 720p display, and uses less desirable AMOLED display technology. The battery is 2200 mAh, and Motorola claims it can go a full 24 hours between charges, thanks in part to the toned-down specs. The device is lighter and thinner than most of the competition. Finally, it will ship with outdated-by-a-week Android 4.2.2, but hopefully will be easy to update given how close to stock Android its OS is

price and availability:
The Moto X will be available on all four major US carriers beginning later this month for $199 for 16 GB/$249 for 32 GB on a 2-year contract. This price will set the Moto X up against stiff competition in the Galaxy S4, HTC One, and the iPhone 5 (plus the next-gen iPhone that is expected to be available in late September or early October). There will eventually be a Google Play Edition. I’m not sure what the full retail price will be for either version.

Wrapping up:
Overall I like the Moto X. The hardware is unique – and a nice change from the industrial Motorola DROID line – and I’d be willing to sacrifice some specs for ease of use. But that is the big question: will the touch-free features really be more convenient? If so, I think this phone will be a good purchase.

The battery life issue is also a wildcard; if it works as promised that’d be great and would hopefully push other manufacturers to find ways to improve battery life.

On the future-proof aspect, I think Google’s ownership of Motorola Mobility makes the phone likely to see updates down the road, but I would be concerned that the toned-down tech specs by today’s standards will seem ancient in 2015, and that the phone will be unable to handle certain updates. Still, though, I like the phone and I think it’ll do well.

* * *

UPDATE 8/2: After reading a lot about the Moto X on tech blogs and forums, the two common complaints about the Moto X and its likelihood of success are that it is too expensive given its specs and that the color choices are exclusive to AT&T at launch. Both are valid points.

As I said above, $199 puts the Moto X in direct competition with high-end smartphones, including the Galaxy S4, HTC One, and the iPhone. People who will pay for the best technology will probably opt for the specs of the S4 or the One, and those who don’t care will elect to go with a cheaper phone. In other words, the Moto X brings mid-range specs at high-end prices and because of that may have trouble attracting those who want high-end specs and those who want to keep costs down. I think a lot of people (myself included) hoped that Motorola under Google’s ownership would look to become THE Android smartphone of choice, and with this price this phone will be one of many options instead of the dominant choice.

I also think that Motorola made a mistake with agreeing to color choice exclusivity at launch with AT&T. Motorola heavily advertises the customization features on the Moto X website and Motorola went to the effort to set up an assembly plant in Texas in order to make timely customization possible. For Motorola to then only offer a customizable Moto X at launch – the time when a phone generally has the most hype – to AT&T, while leaving customers of Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint to only be able to choose from black or white models – hardly novel options – doesn’t make sense. I still maintain that the phone build quality looks nice and that many customers will buy the phone on look and feel rather than on specs, and that the hands-free features will be a selling point if they work as advertised. But still, to have a real hit on their hands, Motorola would have been wise to lower the price and have color customization available to everyone.

Why I decided to switch from Verizon to T-Mobile

verizon-tmobile

I have been debating what to do when my wife and my Verizon Wireless contracts expire for some time now, and finally decided after 10 years with Verizon, we are going to give T-Mobile a shot.  It was not an easy decision as each company has its strengths and weaknesses, but I think T-Mobile makes more sense for us.  Here’s why:

Price:

Verizon has gotten increasingly expensive.  Right now we are grandfathered into the unlimited data plan at $30 per line, plus $70 total for 700 minutes of talk and unlimited nights and weekends, and then another $5 per line for the cheapest text messaging package of 250 messages sent/received, bringing our total to $140 per month.  If we were to upgrade, we would be able to keep our talk and text plans intact but lose our unlimited data package, and instead have a 2 GB data plan for the same $30 per month.  This would keep our monthly costs at the same $140 per month.  However, if we wanted to go to a more current Share Everything plan with unlimited talk and text, we would pay $80 for two smartphones ($40 per) plus $70 a month for 4 GB of shared data.  So our total then would be $150 a month for both lines.

T-Mobile has a comparable plan that includes unlimited talk and text and 2.5 GB high speed/unlimited low speed data per line for $100 a month for both of our lines.  There are other costs involved in T-Mobile besides the monthly service fees – namely that their devices are unsubsidized and thus more expensive, which I will discuss below – but paying $100 for cell phone service is very enticing and gives us plenty of wiggle room when it comes to paying for device upgrades.

While my decision is based on the cost of a 2-line plan, for those work unsocial plans the prices are $100 for Verizon with 2 GB of data and $60 for T-Mobile with 2.5 GB of high speed data.

No contract and more upgrade flexibility:

Verizon subsidizes phones for people willing to sign a contract, so the Galaxy S4, for example, is $200 if you’re signing a new contract and $650 if you’re not.  Verizon has gradually eliminated various options available to customers who wish to have a shorter contract or upgrade early, and currently offers a subsidized upgrade only once every 24 months.  As someone who closely follows smartphone news and appreciates how rapidly the industry is advancing, I find waiting two full years for a new phone to be a very long time.  And my wife’s past two phones have basically stopped functioning properly as she approached her upgrade date, so it is more than just being spoiled and needing the latest and greatest smartphone.  While we could always upgrade more frequently at full retail price, the more expensive Verizon plans (see above) make doing so very costly.  And out of principle, Verizon’s monthly service rate takes into account the cost to Verizon to subsidize a phone, and if we subsidize a phone on our own we should not have to pay Verizon’s higher monthly subsidy-included rate.

T-Mobile offers no contract plans that let you buy a new phone at full retail or by using T-Mobile’s no-interest financing, or bring your own phone. The phones that T-Mobile offers are slightly less expensive than Verizon’s at full retail price, but it is definitely a tough pill to swallow to pay $600+ upfront for a phone, even though the money saved on the service makes it a better deal in the long-run. T-Mobile also allows customers to put money down for a phone (generally around $100-150) and then pay the balance on the phone in 24 monthly installments (or fewer if you pay more per month) of around $20. While this sounds a lot like a two-year contract, the advantage with this model (as well as paying full retail upfront) is that once the phone is paid off the customer’s monthly costs will go down, whereas with Verizon they will continue to pay the higher monthly charges that include the cost of the subsidy.

A wildcard in the cost-of-device consideration is the Nexus 4, which can be purchased directly from Google for $300 or $350, depending on memory capacity. If Google continues to push the envelope by offering high quality devices at a low cost, then that makes subsidizing one’s own phone much less of a burden and is a definite plus for T-Mobile.

I put some figures together to hopefully shed some light on how T-Mobile’s no contract/no subsidy plans make more sense for us. The figures represent the cost of one phone and the cost of two phones plus service for 24 months. It is a little confusing, but I’ll try my best:

Verizon monthly cost: $150
T-Mobile monthly cost $100

iPhone 16 GB (cost per device/cost of two devices plus two years of service)
Verizon: $200 per device/$4000 total ($200 x 2 + $150 x 24)
T-Mobile: $630 per device/$3660 total ($630 x 2 + $100 x 24)

Galaxy S4 (cost per device/cost of two devices plus two years of service)
Verizon: $200 per device/$4000 total ($200 x 2 + $150 x 24)
T-Mobile: $580 per device/$3560 total ($580 x 2 + $100 x 24)

Nexus 4 (cost per device/cost of two devices plus two years of service)
Verizon: Unavailable
T-Mobile: $350 per device/$3100 total ($350 x 2 + $100 x 24)

So even though paying $600 rather than $200 for a phone seems exorbitant, over the course of 24 months paying the higher device cost is actually less expensive, and the Nexus 4, which is only $150 more than a subsidized Verizon phone, drives the cost significantly down. And the cost increase to upgrade devices every year or year and a half is much less on T-Mobile than with Verizon, which will require an upgrade at full retail without the benefit of the lower monthly service cost.

Device availability:

I have become increasingly frustrated with the way that Verizon has handled device releases and software updates.  It began with the Galaxy Nexus launch. Google announced the device in October 2011, and then it took Verizon two months to commit to a release date, which they ended up announcing on December 14, with a release the following morning. The Nexus program is intended to be a way for Google to showcase “stock” Android that is not modified by any manufacturers or carriers, but Verizon blocked Google Wallet and delayed software updates. The following year, LG and Google released the Nexus 4, which would be compatible with GSM and HSPA+ networks, but not Verizon’s 4G LTE network. The reasons given by Google included battery life issues associated with 4G LTE and that Verizon’s requirement that “firmware pushed to devices over the air must be tested and certified” runs counter to Google’s ideal that Nexus devices receive timely updates.

The next strike for Verizon in my eyes is the HTC One, which was unveiled in February and availability on T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint was immediately confirmed. However, there was no word from Verizon on the availability of this device – which is considered by many to be the best phone hardware ever – and techies were left to interpret tweets and FCC filings to try to figure out whether HTC One would come to Verizon. In early June, after the HTC One had been available on the other three carriers for a month, Verizon confirmed via Twitter that the HTC One would be available on Verizon “later this summer.” That Verizon delayed for so long to announce its plans, and then was still non-committal once it made the announcement, is very annoying to me.

The final straw that made me consider a service that isn’t so restrictive was the announcement of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One Google Editions, available on AT&T and T-Mobile but not Verizon.

T-Mobile, on the other hand, seems to be pretty open about what devices can run on their network, and manufacturers seem willing to make their devices compatible.  I’ll miss the DROID line of phones, but I’d prefer a Nexus or Google Edition any day.

Service:

Verizon consistently earns the highest ratings for its service and coverage, and leaving its coverage is something that we are apprehensive about. But we live in New York City, where T-Mobile coverage is pretty good, and T-Mobile is rapidly-expanding its network, so we figured it was worth taking a chance.

Wrap-up:

In short, despite my complaints about Verizon’s tight grip on its device selection, my wife and I were happy overall with Verizon.  In the end, though, we decided it became too expensive and that we wanted to be able to upgrade on our own schedule rather than once every two years. Besides, since we are losing our unlimited data plans and aren’t signing a contract with T-Mobile, the risk is minimal and we can always return to Verizon. My wife has already made the switch, and I have to wait until my contract ends in December. Hopefully by that time the next Nexus or Moto X will be available and I’ll be able to write glowingly of it on T-Mobile’s network.