MemTest86+ Tests Memory for Free

/* Posted June 3rd, 2011 at 2:49am [Comments: none]    */
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I’ve been using Memtest86 and its successor Memtest86+ for so long now, it’s hard to remember when I started; a decade ago to be sure. Memtest86+, as you might guess from the moniker, is a memory checking program that runs a battery of memory tests including random numbers, moving inversions, bulk writes, etc. What you might not guess is that it’s free/donationware.

Memtest86+ screenshotCharacter-based Memtest86+ isn’t beautiful–until it spots that memory error your PC’s diagnostics couldn’t.Memtest86+ boots and runs automatically. It continues running until you stop it, so it’s highly useful for CPU and memory burn-ins, as well as spotting memory problems that only show up after a system has heated up. The interface, if it could be called such (you don’t interface with it except to quit, and you may end it by simply turning off your PC) is character-based (DOS-like) and tells you everything you need to know. If you see red, your memory has problems; otherwise your memory is fine.

I’ve used Memtest86+ on literally hundreds of PCs, both for memory and CPU burn-in and tracking down memory issues (which generally present themselves mysteriously as blue screens and random lockups). It’s never failed to find a memory problem. It even shows you the problem addresses so you can determine which module is at fault.

Memtest86+ downloads as a 70KB zip file that expands to about a 2MB .iso and no, that’s not a typo–it’s lightweight and then some. Burn it to CD, boot it, watch it, and that’s it. There’s also a version for floppy and one that will install on a USB thumb drive–both equally as small.

Memtest86+ is so useful, it’s even included on the Parted Magic and Slax Linux boot discs to troubleshoot what might appear to be installation issues. It’s an absolute must-have for any PC toolbox. The team accepts donations so throw a couple of bucks their way if you get a chance.

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SlimCleaner’s Crowd in the Cloud Helps Tidy Your PC

/* Posted June 1st, 2011 at 8:49am [Comments: none]    */
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Who do you listen to about cleaning your PC, checking it for malware, and making it run all-around faster? Free utility SlimCleaner is powered in part by the cloud and community intelligence. This software from Slimware Utilities (makers of SlimComputer and SlimDrivers) includes a variety of modules that will clean your PC, uninstall software, help you decide whether to remove certain programs from running on startup, and more.

SlimCleaner screenshotOne of SlimCleaner’s features provides advice on which programs you shouldn’t run on startup.SlimCleaner’s Cleaner module works much like the popular, free CCleaner. It looks at a wide variety of unnecessary files created by Windows, browsers, and applications, then deletes them, freeing up hard disk space, and protecting your privacy when you browse the Web. It’s straightforward to use, and doesn’t use the cloud or community intelligence.

The Optimize module is where the cloud-and-crowd aspect of SlimCleaner comes in. This module helps you decide what programs run on startup. Each program that runs on startup receives a community rating that is a compilation of others who have used it, so that you can decide whether any is necessary. The rankings run from Unnecessary to Good, and the ones I encountered appeared accurate.

In addition, each application is rated by SlimCleaner’s “Cloud AV” (anti-virus) as being safe or not. If SlimCleaner recognizes a program that it has checked for viruses and is safe, it puts a Good next to it; it also rates those that may not be safe. SlimCleaner doesn’t actually scan the file itself. Instead, it uses the cloud to run a handful of anti-virus scanners on it. If SlimCleaner hasn’t yet checked the program for viruses, click Upload, and the file gets uploaded, the anti-virus software is run on it in the cloud, and you see results.

The Uninstaller module similarly uses community ratings;- it ranks each piece of software from unwanted to Good. When you uninstall software, though, the Windows uninstaller launches; SlimCleaner is essentially a front-end to the Windows uninstaller.

SlimCleaner’s Windows Tools section is useful, although not earth-shaking. It’s basically a simple-to-use front end to many of Windows’ management tools, such as for system information, registry editing, security, and more. So, for example, click Registry Editor, and the built-in Windows Registry Editor launches, not a Registry cleaner. The same holds true with other icons; click User Accounts to get to Windows’ normal User Accounts management screen. Still, it’s a well-organized way to see all of Windows’ system tools in a single location.

Anyone who wants to keep their PC in tip-top shape could benefit from SlimCleaner. It offers some tools that CCleaner doesn’t, such as removing programs that run on startup, but it also doesn’t include a Registry Cleaner, which CCleaner does. As for helping with startup, it’s not quite as sophisticated as fellow freebie Soluto, because it won’t let you have programs delay launch on startup, rather than banning them altogether. So mix and match among the three tools–I encountered no problems running them simultaneously–until you get the right balance for your system. You can’t go wrong with these free programs.

HTC Trophy Review: Windows Phone 7 Comes to Verizon

/* Posted May 31st, 2011 at 8:49pm [Comments: none]    */
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The HTC Trophy ($150 with a new two-year contract) is the first Windows Phone 7 device on Verizon, and it does a pretty good job of showing off what the platform is all about. The Trophy is great for handling multimedia, but the phone feels dated next to other current-generation smartphones.

Solid Design

HTC TrophyThe Trophy is a very well-built phone. Its ergonomic shape allows it to rest comfortably in your hand, and its slim profile makes it easy to slide into your pocket or bag. At 4.67 by 2.42 by 0.47 inches, the Trophy is smaller than many of the “superphones” we have been seeing lately. Regardless, the phone never felt cramped to navigate, and the 3.8-inch capacitive WVGA display was a joy to behold.

Much like HTC’s other phones, the Trophy has a minimalist design. The front of the Trophy has the standard Back, Menu, and Search buttons found on all WP7 phones, while the back sports a 5-megapixel camera with flash (more on that later). The volume rocker and charging port reside on the left edge of the device, while the camera key sits on the right. Up on top is where you’ll find the power button and the 3.5mm headphone jack.

Software

Microsoft doesn’t allow phone makers or carriers to mess with its mobile operating system too much. As such, the Trophy is free from the bloatware that plagues Verizon’s Android offerings.

The Trophy runs the latest version of Windows Phone 7, and the OS works well with many of Microsoft’s other services. You can view and edit Office documents in the Office Mobile hub, and rack up your gamerscore on the go by signing in with your Xbox Live account. Although I would not want to prepare a budget report in Excel on my phone, having that option available is a nice bonus. The upcoming Mango update looks to add even more functionality; be sure to see our full hands-on with Mango for more information.

Performance

The HTC Trophy is extremely responsive. Scrolling through menus and navigating the device was a breeze. The 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor keeps the phone speedy and ready to handle whatever you can throw at it. I was able to hammer out a long text message with ease, and the few games I played on the device all ran smoothly.

Reception on the Trophy was excellent, even in places where other Verizon phones struggled to get a signal. Calls that I made on the Trophy sounded clear with no hiss, and the microphone did an admirable job of blocking out extra noises. Data speeds, on the other hand, were all over the place: A Website could take 3 minutes to load with full 3G coverage, and take only 1 minute in an area with poor reception.

Much like the Droid Pro and Droid 2 Global, the HTC Trophy is global-ready and can be used in more than 200 countries.

Multimedia

HTC Trophy smartphone camera test photoThe 5-megapixel camera on the Trophy is nothing to write home about. In my picture-taking trials, colors looked washed out, and photos could have been sharper. Videos fared better when I cranked the recording resolution up to 720p, but were still not as sharp as I would have liked them to be.

Windows Phone 7 seems to have been built with media in mind. All WP7 handsets come preloaded with Xbox Live, Zune, and Netflix apps. The Zune app was designed to be a one-stop shop for movies and music. If you have the Zune desktop client on your PC, you can easily import your own media files onto the phone’s 16GB internal memory. Unfortunately, movie playback in the Netflix app was sorely lacking–even with great reception, videos appeared heavily pixelated. If you plan on watching a lot of movies on the Trophy, I recommend either loading your own or buying them off the Zune Marketplace to avoid having to deal with network issues.

Conclusion

As much as I like the Trophy, it is difficult to recommend mainly due to the fact that nothing about the phone makes it stand out from the competition. Even though it is a good WP7 phone, in comparison with other smartphones currently available the Trophy is lacking where it counts. If you bought a Zune, own an Xbox 360, or are married to Office, the Trophy will fit into your life just fine. For those who don’t like Bing or don’t have a Live account, I suggest skipping the Trophy and looking at Verizon’s other offerings, such as the HTC ThunderBolt or the Samsung Charge.

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Screensaver LazySave Backs Up While Your PC Is Idle

/* Posted May 30th, 2011 at 8:49am [Comments: none]    */
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In the world of modern computing, few things are as important as backing up, and few experiences are as jarring as realizing you’ve just lost a vast amount of work due to a hardware or software malfunction. But backing up can be time-consuming, and you may forget to do it. Even worse, you may set up an automated solution and find out at the moment of truth that it didn’t work right–you thought your files were being backed up, but they weren’t. With LazySave ($24, seven-day free trial), this will never happen.

LazySave screenshotLazySave backs up your files and folders while the computer is idle.LazySave is built around a brilliant idea: Combine a screensaver with a backup application. As soon as you leave your computer unattended for a few moments, the screen goes blank and LazySave’s backup dialog appears, constantly moving around to protect your screen while safeguarding your files. This way you always know it is running and what files are being backed up, but never have to think about it or remember to activate it.

Unfortunately, LazySave’s execution is not as brilliant. The application lacks an installer, and instead ships with a TXT file containing ten lines of instructions. That’s all the technical documentation you’re going to get.

Configuration is accessed via Windows’ Screen Saver Settings dialog. After configuring LazySave, I clicked the Preview button to see it in action. It ran well, but would not stop: Moving the mouse or tapping the keyboard did nothing to exit LazySave, and I ended up having to kill the process manually. This was apparently due to handling some large files in my backup set. LazySave’s developer is aware of this issue and plans to fix it in the next release.

As for backup, LazySave can filter the file types it copies, but does not create compressed archives. It can create a new backup folder for each day, and delete backup folders older than a few days. Every daily folder contains all data, not just the changes. If you’re backing up 100MB of material and keep seven daily folders, you’ll be using up 700MB of disk space. You can also configure LazySave to copy files from multiple sources to multiple destinations across your system, and temporarily disable backup profiles.

When it comes down to it, LazySave is too costly for what it provides. For a few dollars more, you could get a copy of Altaro’s $37 Oops!Backup, a “time machine” clone for Windows which is significantly more robust, and just as automated.

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Xtravo Web Browser Not Extravagantly Interesting

/* Posted May 28th, 2011 at 2:48am [Comments: none]    */
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Jawoco’s Xtravo Web Browser 4.0 (free) is one of many alternative browsers. While competition is always good, and a wide range of choices is never a bad thing, it’s hard to find a specific niche Xtravo fills which the others do not.

Xtravo Web Browser screenshotXtravo Web Browser provides a minimalist interface, maximizing your screen real estate.Formerly Xtravo Explorer, Xtravo Web Browser makes two major claims to fame. First, speed. It is quite responsive, in general, though it looks like the engine sometimes tries too hard to render everything at once and pauses while it collects data. Otherwise, though, it is quite fast, even on image-heavy pages with complex formatting. Second, Xtravo is integrated with Jawoco Instant Search (though this site works in any browser), which will populate search results as you type. It does so with fairly impressive speed, even on image or video searches, but limits you to a single page of results, which makes it less useful.

Xtravo Web Browser has a Chrome-like sparseness, which is a feature users with smaller screens may appreciate. It also has a built-in “boss key”–click a button, and Xtravo vanishes from your taskbar and desktop until you hit Ctrl-E to restore it. Anyone who doesn’t see the utility of that has never been a bored cubicle drone.

Some other features of Xtravo deserve positive mention: The image sniffer will download all image links on a page, very useful if you’re harvesting pictures from a site. The code browser goes well beyond the typical “show source,” to provide a useful, detailed, and syntax-highlighted look at the underlying HTML of a page. Last, it has a built-in cookie viewer, which is a nice tool for seeing just what kind of information is being logged.

Beyond that, though… it’s a browser. Xtravo doesn’t have specialized features for particular types of users, or unique functions like Opera’s Unite. Since I do have horizontal screen space to spare, I would have liked some kind of sidebar or docking functionality.

Xtravo Web Browser’s limited documentation and support are in somewhat fractured English, and it seems that the main audience is Middle Eastern, not American. It is quite possible I am overlooking features which may be welcome outside the U.S.

Other than some under-the-hood modifications to the rendering engine, there are not a lot of changes from the prior version, and it still has some of the same flaws, such as changing the default search engine in Explorer. It actually has removed some things, like the pre-defined list of suspicious sites, though the filtering is still present. The earliest version of Xtravo I reviewed included a prototype web-based OS; this was removed from later versions. With each iteration, Xtravo seems to cut back on unique features to focus on core browser functionality. This is not necessarily a bad thing, except that there are already several very strong “just surfs the Web” browsers out there, and the only reason to use another is if it has niche functionality.

In summation, there’s nothing noticeably wrong with Xtravo Web Broswer, and if the image grabbing, code viewing, or boss hiding functions are at the top of your list or needs, it will cruise the Web about as well as anything else. If not, there isn’t a compelling reason to add it to your browser collection.

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MadCatz Marvel vs. Capcom 3 FightStick TE Controller Review: Pricey but Powerful

/* Posted May 26th, 2011 at 2:48am [Comments: none]    */
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Fighting games are enjoying a renaissance in the console gaming world, and discerning players know that they need an arcade stick controller (along with a roll of quarters and a few sticky Slurpee spills) to properly re-create the full arcade experience. Some will settle for an inexpensive $50 set; others will spend a bit extra for the $70 MadCatz FightStick SE. But a serious player has to be willing to shell out the dough for a top-notch stick–and the $160 MSRP MVC3 FightStick Tournament Edition is a particularly appealing option.

Why Spend $160 to Play a $60 Game?

Flight-sim devotees won’t play with a mouse; racing game enthusiasts need a steering wheel; and If you play a lot of fighting games, a proper arcade stick is an integral tool of your trade. A good input device offers unparalleled responsiveness and precision–good luck getting that from your console’s gamepad. And if you’ve ever flung a controller at your friend in frustration (and had to buy a new one as a result), you can justify the cost of the FightStick TE on the grounds that it’s too pretty to throw at anyone, no matter how hard you’re raging.

If you aren’t already the kind of person who would spend this much money on an arcade stick, the MVC3 FightStick TE probably won’t change your mind. If you are in the market for a good stick for $150 or so, this review is for you.

High-Quality Parts and Build

Any serious conversation about arcade sticks starts with the parts involved. There are only a few major arcade button and stick manufacturers, and the differences between them can make or break a stick–literally. The MVC3 FightStick TE is blessed in this regard: It uses all Sanwa-branded parts, a high-quality standard straight from the official Capcom Street Fighter IV arcade machines in Japan.

When compared to lesser controllers, the superiority of the MVC3 FightStick is immediately apparent. The buttons are sensitive enough to react to a slight press, but not so sensitive that they might cause you to hit the wrong button accidentally. The stick itself is a Japanese-style Sanwa ball-top device shaped like a lollipop (as opposed to the classic American-style stick, which is shaped like a baseball bat). It’s responsive and easy to move, though it doesn’t snap back to neutral by itself all that quickly. If you’re used to Japanese-style sticks, it’ll feel like second nature, but if you’re used to older American-style sticks, you might be accustomed to a stronger spring, in which case the MVC3 FightStick’s may take some time to adapt to. Also, the stick is in an octagonal gate, which makes it easy to hit the directions you’re looking for–a competitive standard not always found in low-end sticks.

The whole controller is large and in charge–6.5 pounds, 16 by 10 by 5 inches. That sturdiness comes in handy when you’re playing–the unit won’t move around on a table, on the floor, or in your lap–but not so handy when you’re carrying it around. If you want a stick that you plan to carry with you everywhere like a true World Warrior, you should probably opt for something lighter, or invest in a set of rolling luggage. On the plus side, MVC3 FightStick’s sturdy construction means that it should be able to withstand any mashing-heavy beatdowns you’ll deliver. And the Marvel vs. Capcom 3-themed art on the faceplate looks cool, albeit rather reserved compared to some of the previous FightStick TE designs.

One quirk: The button layout for the Xbox version places the X, Y, RB, LB buttons on the top, and A, B, RT, LT buttons on the bottom. This doesn’t immediately map into the default Marvel vs. Capcom 3 button configuration, but it is one of the available presets, meaning that you might have to remap your buttons each time you start a session on someone else’s Xbox. But at least you don’t have to assign those functions manually, as you might with a custom stick. This can be a bit annoying at times–especially if you’re rotating several sticks in and out during a tournament or a big gaming session–but for your home gaming sessions it’s not a problem, as you can save your configuration once and forget about it. The stick is designed to work well for all fighting games, not just MVC3, but it’s a little strange that it requires this extra step for the game it highlights on its faceplate.

Note that the MVC3 FightStick uses the same chassis found in previous iterations of the FightStick TE, not the newer TE-S used in select models with a slightly smaller size and different shape. The two stick designs aren’t drastically different, but the TE-S sticks (the Chun-Li-themed and Super Street Fighter IV-themed models are both TE-S devices, for example) are a bit easier to fit in a bag.

Well-Thought-Out Features

The MVC3 FightStick TE has a few features standard to the FightStick TE line that set it apart from the other competitors in the field. You can configure auto-fire for any of the eight face buttons on the arcade stick, and you can toggle the stick’s operation mode so that it functions as your left/right analog stick or directional pad, ensuring that it’ll work with the games you’re playing.

One of the most useful features is undoubtedly the lock switch, which prevents you from accidentally hitting your pause button, or the Xbox 360′s Dashboard button/PS3 Home button–all of which are no-no’s in competitive play. Another handy addition is the cord compartment stashed in the rear end of the stick, so you can safely hide the 13-foot USB cable between gaming sessions. Having lost multiple controller cables to curious cats, I think that the cord compartment alone could justify the price of admission.

It’s worth pointing out that even though the MVC3 FightStick TE meets or exceeds the standards set by the other high-end competitive arcade sticks in the market, it lacks a handful of features that you might like in an arcade stick. For example, each modern game console uses a wireless gamepad, and a handful of wireless arcade sticks today enable you not to have to worry about tripping over wires. But this is called the “Tournament Edition” FightStick for a reason–wireless connections are more finicky than wired connections, and when you’re playing in a tournament room with dozens of Xboxes and hundreds of hungry competitors, you don’t want your $160 stick to lose the wireless signal in the middle of a match.

Likewise, some arcade sticks support multiple platforms, so you can use your arcade stick on an Xbox or PS3 rather than buy a different stick for each console. But in that case you’ll have to locate a custom stick manufacturer, who likely won’t be able to provide you with a warranty at all, much less one that matches MadCatz’s five-year warranty. (And if you plan on modifying your stick, know that your warranty is void.)

Testing the FightStick TE

Of course, specs and parts don’t tell the whole story. The FightStick TE handles like a dream in MVC3, so if you find yourself dropping combos or other complex moves, you have only yourself to blame. I’ve played with sticks where my hands would get disoriented in the middle of a game (hitting down-back when I wanted down, for example), or I could feel the stick itself grinding against the edges of the chassis. There was none of that here.

The FightStick TE also fared quite nicely for most other fighting games or other arcade games (shoot-’em-ups and old-school brawling games come to mind). Some games don’t lend themselves quite so well to the button layout, however–Mortal Kombat, for example, is designed for a different layout, so it might take you a while to adjust. And though it’s not an officially supported feature, you can get the FightStick TE to work as a PC peripheral, too–which makes it perfect for some emulated Metal Slug sessions. (Read our “How To Use Your Console Gamepad With Your PC” for more details.)

If you’re looking for an arcade stick that will step up your game, or if you’re an old-school gaming fan who wants some arcade-perfect hardware, the Marvel vs. Capcom 3 FightStick TE is an excellent controller with some very thoughtful features. On the other hand, if $160 is simply too much for you to pay for a gaming controller, this stick won’t change your mind.

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Google Cloud Connect for Microsoft Office Unites Office With Google Docs

/* Posted May 25th, 2011 at 8:47am [Comments: none]    */
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Wouldn’t it be great if you could combine the best of Microsoft Office and Google Docs? Imagine the feature set and usability of Office with the ability of Google Docs to store documents in the cloud and share them. With Google Cloud Connect for Microsoft Office, that’s exactly what you get. This free add-in for Microsoft Office, which hails from Google, lets you save your Office documents to Google Docs, where you can use them as you would normally.

Google Cloud Connect for Microsoft Office screenshotGoogle Cloud Connect for Microsoft Office lets you save Office documents directly to Google DocsAfter you install the software, it runs as its own toolbar at the top of Office. When you want to save a document to Google Docs, simply click Sync, and it saves the file, and then syncs it automatically every time you save. If you want, you can change that syncing behavior, and having Google Cloud Connect sync only when you manually tell it to.

You can also use the Google Cloud Connect toolbar to share a document that you’ve saved to Google Docs. Click the Share button and a dialog box opens that lets you share your document. You can use Google Cloud Connect with multiple Google Doc accounts; simply switch from one to the other. There are a few limitations, though. You can’t use multiple accounts simultaneously, and you can’t open a document stored on Google Docs from directly within Office.

There’s no simpler way to combine the power of Microsoft Office and Google Docs than Google Cloud Connect for Microsoft Office–and you can get it for free.

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FileBrowser for IPad

/* Posted May 24th, 2011 at 8:47am [Comments: none]    */
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Since the iPad’s release, wirelessly sharing files between the tablet and Mac and Windows computers has become easier. For the most part, this is because many apps enable you to link and sync to cloud storage services such as MobileMe, Google Docs, and Dropbox. And dedicated apps like the $30 LogMeIn Ignition enable you to not only share files, but to actually control remote machines via your iPad or iPhone.

FileBrowser resides in the middle ground between these categories: it’s a standalone app, like LogMeIn Ignition. And while Stratospherix’s $4 app doesn’t provide the same level of control (or access) as LogMeIn, it’s a while lot cheaper. Unlike apps that rely on cloud storage, you can set up your Windows or Mac machine to allow FileBrowser to browse, view, and copy to your iPad all files on your main computer (or computers) without using a storage service, either via Wi-Fi or the Internet.

But FileBrowser is not as easy to use as either LogMeIn Ignition or most cloud storage services. For example, you’ll have to set up your computer to allow for SMB file sharing, which isn’t technically difficult but does require mucking about in the file sharing preference pane. After you have enabled SMB file sharing, you may encounter (as I did) some difficulties getting to folders on your Mac that you haven’t been granted “permission” to access. These problems can be solved on the Mac by changing permissions; this is the way the system is supposed to work, and the process will be familiar even to those who only manage small networks. The process should be similar for Windows machines.

Once you’ve got your permissions set up the way you want, though, FileBrowser could be a real timesaver-and a convenience. It enables you to view files that reside on remote computers, including images, text, PDFs, videos-if the iPad or an iPad app supports a file type, FileBrowser can help you view it, either from within the app or by handing it off (via the “Open in” command) to another app. You can also copy files from your Mac or PC.

While testing the app I looked at old photos on the Mac as a slideshow on my iPad, viewed several video podcasts I hadn’t transferred over using iTunes, and browsed and imported many types of documents. The app enables you to e-mail, open, view, print, rename, copy, and delete files, most of the time with a single tap on a drop-down menu.

You can set up your own file system within FileBrowser, but moving files from remote computers and within the file system you create is not an elegant process, requiring the use of copy and paste commands. It’s awkward and requires practice, even if you are comfortable using the Mac’s Terminal program or old enough to remember moving DOS files in a similar fashion.

As it is now, FileBrowser is a very useful utility program. But it could be much more powerful-and a “must have” for all iPad users-if its interface were more iPad-like.

Jeff Merron is a freelance writer and editor living in North Carolina.

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Sony Ericsson Xperia Play Review: Smartphone Represents a Step Forward in Mobile Gaming

/* Posted May 23rd, 2011 at 2:47pm [Comments: none]    */
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Sony Ericsson is looking to take mobile gaming to the next level with the Xperia Play Android smartphone ($200 with a new two-year contract on Verizon; price as of May 20, 2011). The Xperia Play features a slide-out gamepad for gamers who want more than touchscreen-only controls.

A Bulky but Unique Design

I have to hand it to Sony for trying to add some class to the Play. The piano black finish and chrome trim make the phone shine–until you pick it up and get fingerprints all over it. The phone’s look and feel are very reminiscent of the PSP Go, and the Play’s 4-inch capacitive touchscreen does a good job of displaying colors and text. At 4.7 inches by 2.4 inches by 0.6 inch, the Play is a bit bulky, though no more so than other phones we’ve seen that come with slide-out full QWERTY keyboards. The Play weighs 6.2 ounces, so it feels heavy but sturdy in hand.

The phone’s power button and notification light sit at the top of the device; along the left spine are the headphone and charging ports. The volume rocker and gamepad shoulder buttons occupy the right spine, and on the back of the Play is a 5-megapixel camera. On the face of the device you’ll find the four standard Android buttons (Back, Home, Menu, and Search), as well as a VGA front-facing camera for video chat.

The Gamepad

The slide-out gamepad on the Xperia Play is definitely the phone’s coolest feature. Though not as good as gamepads on dedicated portable gaming systems, the Play’s worked reasonably well with several games I downloaded from the Android Market. The gamepad is set up much like Sony’s DualShock controllers, albeit with a few differences. For starters, two touchpads are set up in the place where you’d find the analog sticks on the DualShock. I couldn’t find many games in the Android Market that use touchpads, which in any case were not sensitive enough for most twitch-based first-person shooters. Both the D-pad and the face buttons (X, Square, Triangle, and O) were very responsive, but they felt stiff and a bit too sunken in, making them hard to press. The Start and Select buttons are awkwardly placed below the face buttons, and there’s a Menu button under the D-pad as well. More often than not, when I tried to quickly pause the game I was playing, I ended up pressing the Select button instead. Also, the shoulder buttons were too spongy and flimsy for my taste; I wish that they had had a little more resistance.

Android 2.3, aka Gingerbread (Finally!)

The Xperia Play is the first Verizon phone to ship with Gingerbread (Android 2.3). In a display of regrettably rare restraint, Sony Ericsson and Verizon didn’t mess with the OS too much. The phone comes with some preloaded software–including the whole Verizon suite of apps (VZ Navigator, Visual Voicemail, My Verizon Mobile, Backup Assistant, and the V Cast App Store) and a handful of games to show off the Play’s game-playing prowess–but nothing I would classify as bloatware. The seven preloaded games are Madden NFL 11, Bruce Lee Dragon Warrior, Tetris, The Sims 3, Star Battalion, Crash Bandicoot, and Asphalt 6: Adrenaline. These are all the full versions, and (with the exception of Tetris) they’ve all been optimized for use with the Xperia Play’s slide-out gamepad.

Oddly, though the Play runs Gingerbread and has a front-facing camera, our review unit didn’t include the latest version of Google Talk. As a result, the phone lacks a native video calling app, but I hope that Verizon will push out the up-to-date version of Google Talk for the Play in the near future.

Performance

Unfortunately, the Xperia Play carries some rather outdated specifications. It is a 3G-only phone in a world that increasingly embraces 4G and LTE-enabled devices; and it has only about 400MB of internal storage, which severely limits the number of apps and games you can download and store. The Play compensates for this deficiency by including an 8GB MicroSD card, but the limited onboard memory is still disappointing.

The 1GHz Snapdragon processor does an admirable job of keeping the phone and games running smoothly. Even high-definition games like Cordy played without a hitch. A dual-core processor would have been nice for game performance, but its adverse effect on battery life might have been severe). The screen was nice and responsive, and the UI felt fluid as I swiped around the homescreen and navigated through the phone.

Call quality was reasonably good. Voices came through clearly, and I didn’t notice any static or hissing. The Xperia Play managed to last almost an entire day of phone use on a single charge, though playing games on the device will significantly deplete the battery. After an hour of playing Crash Bandicoot, I saw that my battery had dropped from 75 percent charge to 50 percent. If you plan on using this device as your primary gaming handheld, you would do well to carry a charger with you.

Games, Games, Games

When it comes to playing games, the Xperia Play is without equal among smartphones. Having a physical gamepad instead of a virtual one gives the user much better control when playing games. And because the Play is PlayStation Certified, you can download and play classic PlayStation games from the Android Market; the Play is also the official mobile handset of Major League Gaming.

All of the preloaded games made good use of the slide-out touchpad, though not all were fun to play. Madden NFL 11 looked terrible and wouldn’t let me use the touchpad to select plays or navigate some of the menus. Bruce Lee Dragon Warrior was another disappointment, due to a significant lag between when I input a command and when my fighter actually performed the instruction. Asphalt 6: Adrenaline and Crash Bandicoot were the games I ended up playing the most because they took full advantage of the hardware. Asphalt 6 is a great-looking racing game with responsive controls and a wide variety of game modes. Crash Bandicoot was just the way I remember the original version on the first PlayStation, and it played buttery smooth.

Camera

The rest of the phone, unfortunately, is lackluster on the multimedia front. The 5-megapixel camera on the rear of the device does an average job at capturing images and uses the stock (and somewhat underwhelming) Android camera software. Images weren’t especially sharp, and colors were slightly darker than they appeared in real life. Videos looked better but were a bit on the quiet side.

The Play’s sound quality was weak. The external speaker popped at higher volumes, and bass-heavy songs lacked emphatic sound.

Conclusion

The Xperia Play will appeal to mobile gamers who are sick of poor touchscreen controls and are looking for a more fulfilling gaming experience on their phone. Currently, only a handful of games are optimized for use with the gamepad, but more game developers may support it in the future, since the APIs for physical game controls are included in the Android 2.3 SDK. Users who aren’t big into gaming, however, should look elsewhere. The Play’s relatively outdated hardware, microscopic memory, and lack of 4G support are enough to keep most smartphone buyers away.

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Free Outlook Add-In PocketKnife Peek Reveals Hidden Info

/* Posted May 23rd, 2011 at 2:47am [Comments: none]    */
/* Filed under News    */

Worried that dangers may be lurking in an HTML e-mail you’ve received in Microsoft Outlook? The free PocketKnife Peek lets you see that e-mail in plain text, without any potential HTML dangers such as malicious scripts. And you can use the program to examine other parts of the e-mail as well.

PocketKnife Peek screenshotPocketKnife Peek’s tabbed interface lets you easily read only the text of HTML e-mail in Outlook.PocketKnife Peek integrates directly into Outlook, so when you get a potentially dangerous e-mail, highlight it and click the Peek button. You’ll see four tabs: Plain Text, HTML Source, Internet Header, and Attachments. Click the Plain Text tab, and you’ll see the text of the message, without any associated HTML. The HTML source shows you the actual HTML used to create the e-mail. Internet Header shows all the normal header information, such as sender, recipient, content type, servers, and so on. And the Attachments tab lists all the attachments. Although Outlook lets you see Internet header information and attachments without the use of this program, it’s useful to have all those features in a single location, as it is in PocketKnife Peek.

View the message in plain text and you’ll get the information in the message, without the messiness and potential dangers of HTML. Any HTML jockey will appreciate being able to examine an e-mails to show what scripts are being run, and other information. Those who are knowledgeable about Internet routing will want to examine the Internet Header. Examining routing information can possibly show if the e-mail has been unnecessarily routed to hide its origin. Note that in order to get PocketKnife Peek to work you’ll need to first shut down Outlook, then install PocketKnife Peek, then restart Outlook. You’ll then find the program on the far right of the standard toolbar in Outlook 2000 through 2007, or else on the Add-In Tab on the Ribbon in Outlook 2010.

PocketKnife Peek isn’t a groundbreaking utility. But it’s free and convenient, and simple to use, so it’s a worthy addition to your Outlook installation.

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