Verizon 4G LTE: Pantech USB Modem and Samsung Mobile Hotspot

Samsung 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot SCH-LC11I haven't written a post in a while, so I'm combining my reviews of two devices that both use Verizon's 4G LTE service, the Pantech 4G LTE USB Modem UML290 and the Samsung Mobile Hotspot SCH-LC11.

First, the good news: if you haven't already heard, Verizon's 4G LTE service is fast--wicked fast. It's faster than any 3G service and even faster than Sprint's/CLEAR's 4G WiMAX by two to six times depending on the conditions. Streaming video or playing online games will present no problems for this service which is probably faster than most people's home Internet.

Now for the bad news: the mobile hotspot is not as fast as the USB modem. Using the Pantech USB modem, I was able to achieve Speedtest.net scores such as 26.72 Mbps down and 10.09 Mbps up rather consistently (and I've seen reports of others getting even higher scores). When I switched to the Samsung hotspot, my scores dropped by about 40% in each direction. This isn't surprising--I would not expect the Wi-Fi hotspot to be as fast as the USB 2.0 modem for the same reasons that an ethernet cable transmits faster than Wi-Fi. In all honesty though, only die-hards like me will ever notice the difference.

Another downside of both devices is their software. The VZ Access Manager that controls the USB modem is functional and easy-to-use, but clunky in it's design and obtrusive in the way that it tries to manage the Verizon modem and the Wi-Fi connections at the same time. The Samsung hotspot has the worst firmware I've ever seen on a routing device. Other hotspots that I have used try to emulate the layout of home routers on their configuation screens, usually offering a large subset of that functionality. The Samsung SCH-LC11 has such Spartan screens that it's almost pitiful. Fortunately, the device works pretty well out of the box, because if you wanted to do anything more complex than open a couple of ports, you would be out of luck. I can't even tell if there's a way to update the firmware.

Again though, those are nits to be picked only by the most advanced users. Most people will pull it out, turn it on, set a network name and a couple of passwords and be off and running within minutes. Sprint/CLEAR still gets the nod for heavy use since they offer unlimited 4G data, but between Verizon's 4G speed and 3G coverage, there's no way I can't heartily recommend this service.

Epic Citadel for iOS

Any gamer worth his salt will recognize the name Epic Games.  Not only are they famous for creating the wildly successful Unreal and Gears of War franchises, but they created the Unreal Engine, a library of code that forms the basis of many other grade A games.  So naturally when I came across Epic Citadel in the iTunes App Store, I was intrigued.  And now I have seen it in action, I'm downright excited.

Epic Citadel is not a game, it's a technology demo.  The Unreal Engine 3 (UE3) typically runs on high-powered hardware (think PC, XBOX 360, or PlayStation 3) to create the high-fidelity needed for nearly photorealistic games.  But it seems that the engineers at Epic have ported UE3 to iOS devices.  Epic Citadel allows you to stoll around a virtual medieval town and bazaar.  And it looks stunning.

I've seen writers compare games on the iPhone/iPod to those on the DS or the PSP and often wondered what the heck they were thinking.  Despite having a higher resolution screen, games on iOS devices have seldom had the complexity or fluidity of games on dedicated handheld systems.  But UE3 on iOS may change that.  Not only is the animation smooth and fluid, but the sharpness and detail are beyond the capabilities of the PSP, especially on the high-resolution screens of the iPad and iPhone 4.  It's like looking at something off an XBOX 360 on a handheld screen.

These high-end graphics don't come without a cost however.  Epic Citadel only runs on later devices.  That means that the iPhone and iPhone 3G and corresponding iPods won't be able to run them.  I guess that's the threshold at which Epic decided that UE3 was worth porting.

Even with those restrictions, I remain excited about the prospects that UE3 will bring to iOS gaming.  Epic Citadel was just designed to whet the appetite.  It will be interesting to see what games developers can bring to the portable using Epic's latest tech.

MLB.TV and MLB At Bat 2010

I really like baseball. I try to watch as many games as I can, but I like to follow some out-of-market teams/players that don't get broadcast on my local cable network. So when the 2010 Major League Baseball season started, I decided to subscribe to their MLB.TV service.  I haven't regretted it.

For $100 or $120 (depending on the package you choose) you get access to the entire season of baseball. That's 2,430 featuring all 30 teams in all 30 ballparks. Unfortunately, games are still subject to rights-holder blackout restrictions based on your location. That basically means that if a game is being broadcast on television in the area in which you're located, then you will be restricted to listening to the audio-only (e.g. radio) broadcast of the game, even if that channel is one that you don't receive. Obviously, this can make it difficult to follow your home team, but it's a great way to follow out-of-market teams and players.

Despite the blackout restrictions, all games eventually get archived and compressed. Archived games are basically full-length affairs complete with commercial breaks but not the commercials themselves. Fortunately, you can skip directly to either half of a particular inning. Compressed games are just that--the "good parts only" of a game that contain notable offensive or defensive developments. A typical game with a full-length of three hours can be compressed into a 15-20 minute affair. The archived games are usually up within 12 hours of the end of a game with compressed games coming within a day.

If this were all there were to MLB.TV, it would still be years ahead of the offerings from other professional sports leagues, but the mobile offerings may be even more impressive. Using the MLB At Bat 2010 app for the iPhone/iPod or the iPad (two separate versions, $14.99 each) you can keep up with games in progress down to a pitch-by-pitch tracking of each at bat. You can pull up previous games' box scores, see the schedule for any team, or get up-to-date stats for any player. You can listen to the live radio broadcast for either team, and if you are an MLB.TV subscriber, you can even watch live games over a Wi-Fi or 3G network! Each day the MLB will offer one or two complimentary games that can be watched live without a subscription. Naturally blackout rules still apply to all televised broadcasts. Though I have never used the iPad version of the app, it makes use of the bigger screen to show more information, and I have first-hand reports that indicate that it is every bit as impressive as its iPhone/iPod counterpart.

The latest jewel in the crown of MLB Advanced Media is the PlayStation 3 app that allows streaming of live and archived television games to Sony's gaming console. This new app arrived like a response to a wish for the ability to bring the wealth of MLB.TV to the best screen in the house. Interestingly, unlike the apps for Apple devices, the PS3 app is a free download from the PlayStation Store. To be fair, other than a calendar with each team's schedule, the PS3 app does only one thing--streaming TV broadcasts--and it does it very well. Broadcasts are in HD and look just shy of what I get from my cable provider. Scene transitions tend to show compression as do large patches of similar color like the grass or an outfield wall, but other than that, it's perfectly watchable HD. The PS3 app does not contain the standings, player stats, or any of the other information that you can find in the iPhone app, nor does it allow the split-screen or picture-in-picture viewing that's possible using a computer running Adobe Flash, but it does allow you to kick back comfortably on your sofa and watch games without running down your batteries.

If you are a hardcore baseball fan, I wholeheartedly recommend a subscription to MLB.TV. If you're a moderate baseball fan with an iPhone, iPod, or iPad, then I recommend the MLB At Bat 2010 app. And the combination of those two has represented the best way for me to get my baseball fix. Now if only there were an app to improve my teams' situational hitting...

Google Voice Web App for iPhone

After the dustup between AT&T, Apple, and Google over the rejection of an official Google Voice app for the iPhone, there was little reason to hope that such an app would ever appear on the iPhone. Even an investigation by the FCC didn't change Apple's position, and it even led them to remove all the unofficial Google Voice apps from the app store. So what did an undeterred Google do? They wrote a web app.

Ironically, before Apple created an SDK an officially allowed applications to run on their iPhone and iPod, they tried to convince developers that the way to get their content on the iPhone was through the web browser. Needless to say, back in 2007 that idea flew about as high as a lead balloon, but Google returned to that approach to create their Google Voice client for the iPhone. As a result, there was no submission needed and nothing for Apple or AT&T to reject.

The "app" in this case is accessed by directing the Safari mobile web browser to the appropriate web site.  At this point, Google's HTML 5 code takes over and presents a screen that is virtually indistinguishable from an app running natively on the system.  It is intuitive and responsive, and save for the Safari toolbar at the bottom, it occupies the whole screen.  If you pull down on the screen, you will see the browser URL bar at the top, but other than that, the illusion is nigh flawless.

Google Voice has all the features you've come to know and love with sections for your Inbox, your contact list, your text messages, and your calls.  Interestingly, the calls are handled differently from the way they are when using GV on a computer.  Instead of having GV ring a designated phone number and then connect you to the party you requested, you will receive a prompt asking for permission to have your phone dial a Google designated number.  Say yes, and your phone will dial and from there you will be connected to the requested party.  Some people have complained about having Google's numbers appearing in their call log or on their phone bills, but it isn't a problem from my perspective.  In fact, some people may even appreciate the added privacy.

Google's solution to this problem works so well that it begs the question of whether Apple wasn't right to suggest that web apps were the way to go. And for those companies who have had apps rejected, is HTML 5 the solution? I suspect that while there may be some apps that could find improved life as web apps, that approach presents its own hurdles.  First, it requires the expertise to write such an app using web techniques. After an investment in learning Objective-C, this might be prohibitive. Then it needs to be hosted somewhere, meaning bandwidth will be a cost. Finally, it will probably be harder to monetize. Sure you can present advertisements, but you probably won't be able to collect an up-front payment as easily as selling through the App Store. These obstacles might be easy enough for a behemoth like Google to overcome, but they could be prohibitive for a smaller developer. And I doubt that apps like games would translate very well to a web format, but a proficient coder could prove me wrong there.

In the meantime, I have not only bookmarked the Google Voice web page, but I have added an icon for the bookmark to my home screen.  So now not only does the web app feel like a native app, but it gets executed like one too. I can't recommend this one highly enough.

The Cellular Phone Outlook

I have been in the market for a cellular phone for a while now, and even though I'm not yet ready to pull the trigger on the mobile device that I'll be stuck with for the next two years, I have made a few observations about the different types of phones available from the Big Four now.

Smartphones--phones that incorporate some PDA functionality in excess of what's required a normal phone--are increasing in popularity these days, and are thus the phones that the cellular companies push most heavily in their advertising.  Right now there are four major smartphone operating systems being sold today.  They each have their own benefits and drawbacks, and they each have a different outlook for the future.

iPhone. This is still the one to beat. Even though it doesn't have the largest market share, it's growing at such an impressive rate that its more mature rivals in the smartphone market have stood up and taken notice. The iPhone is very accessible to newbies, handles media very easily, and adding new apps is a breeze. It's not a perfect phone due to some arcane restrictions on the types of apps/mods that Apple approves, and it's rather light on PDA features, something that may keep the business crowd from embracing the phone wholeheartedly. But for mainstream consumers, there's a lot to like. It's a competent, easy-to-use phone with enough entertainment features to make it your go-to device.

There will be continued growth for the iPhone platform in the near future regardless of whether it moves to other carriers or what its competitors do.

Blackberry. The stronghold for RIM has always been in business thanks to good integration with corporate email. Despite a few assaults on their territory, the Blackberry is still the device that businesses trust most. But RIM has seen opportunities to broaden their base by going after casual users with more "fun" multimedia features, the same kind that has catapulted the iPhone to cell phone stardom. Not only has it introduced a touch screen device, but it launched an ad campaign targeted squarely at young hipsters who want to use their phones to record videos, listen to music, and fall in love. Their expansion into this market has been modest, but it's not uncommon now to see people with Blackberry phones that are not being used for business purposes.

Blackberry may make slow inroads into the consumer market, but the business crowd is still its bread and butter, and it will continue to defend that territory through the coming onslaught from competitors.

Palm. Palm has seen better days. Once the number one maker of smartphones, Palm has watched market share erode as its PalmOS stagnated and got overtaken by younger competitors.  Palm reemerged this year with the Pre and Pixie running its new WebOS. But despite critical acclaim from reviewers, the new devices haven't grabbed enough traction to change analyst predictions about Palm's dismal future. Some point to the lack of apps as a hindrance. Others say that being tied to Sprint is the problem. Whatever the case, Palm's fortunes are not as good as it's competitors. It needs a hit to stay in the fight.

Palm will look to broaden the base for its WebOS phones, either with new handsets or agreements with other carriers.  If it doesn't strike oil in the next year or so, look for the vultures to start circling.

Windows. Where did they go? Microsoft, one of the pioneers or modern mobile computing, has failed to innovate or update it's aging Windows Mobile OS. Granted, it has been rebranded many times, and thanks to manufacturers like HTC, we continue to see attractive phones running Windows Mobile. But the core OS looks eerily similar to what it looked like back in 2000. That made it easy for new entrants to the market to leapfrog it with more modern interfaces. The core WinMo OS is still solid, but it is in tremendous need of a facelift and updates to its core/included applications to stay competitive.

Look for Windows Mobile to try to recreate itself with version 7 due out next year. If that should fall short, Windows Phones will continue to lose market share until Microsoft rights the ship.

Android. Google's new open source OS is currently the hottest thing in mobile outside the iPhone. Despite a sluggish start last year, lots of manufacturers are throwing their weight behind the new OS in the hopes of taking on Apple. Though no iPhone killer has emerged from the Android camp so far (sorry, Droid) the phones have shown tremendous improvement with each new release, quickly closing the gap with the iPhone. And manufacturers love that the OS has no license fees and source code that allows them to tweak it perfectly for their devices.

Android should continue to see improved market share as newer, hotter devices hit the market. But the iPhone isn't standing still, so whether it can catch up to the iPhone remains to be seen.

Symbian. Symbian isn't doing bad worldwide, but they haven't had a buzz-worthy phone in the US for a couple years now. And that doesn't look set to change soon. I haven't heard of anything noteworthy from that camp in a while.

I expect to see Symbian's market share continue to decline.

So that's the market as I see it right now. Which phone will I get? I don't know yet. I have a long history with Windows Mobile and lots of applications for it, but Microsoft hasn't done much to keep me excited about their smartphones lately. Still, I would hate to jump off the bandwagon just before something amazing (Windows Mobile 7) hits.

My Problem With Cellular Providers

Remember when the typical cellular phone advertisement showed a woman with a small child near a broken down car on a dark highway?  Cell phone in hand, she would call a tow truck and be on her way.  The message--don't let this be you or your wife/mother stuck out here on the road without a cell phone for emergencies.

Back in that time, expansion was easy for the cellular providers.  All they had to do was set up a few kiosks in the mall or a local retailer and wait for people to approach and sign up for new service.  Contracts were typically one year long, and growth was simply made by adding new subscribers.

Fast forward to today, and the situation couldn't be more different.  The two-year contract is the new industry standard.  Today's cellular phone advertisements often tout the GPS or data access capabilities of modern smartphones.  Many seem to have little to do with the cellular phone at all.  But now that the market for cellular phone subscribers has been saturated, the way to expansion has been to add more services.  The big four cellular providers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile) all offer a bevy of services outside of traditional voice communications--email, web browsing, GPS, apps, and more.  In the US, text messaging has taken off driven largely by a young audience who use it as a cheaper, unlimited alternative to the constraints created by the limits on voice minutes in most plans.  The reaction of the cell companies to the popularity of text messaging?  They increased the average cost of text messages fourfold over two years.

Today's cellular phone plans are a complex mishmash of rate plans and options that are too complicated for most consumers to understand.  And the cell companies are in no rush to change that since it creates a good chance that you'll end up spending more on your service than necessary.  To add insult to injury, certain changes will automatically trigger increases to your plan, but the reverse is not true.  For example, if you go from a feature phone to a smartphone, your provider will automatically add a data option to your rate plan with no intervention required on your part.  Trade from that smartphone back to a feature phone, however, and there will be no decrease in your plan unless you request to have the data option removed.

Several years ago, the transition from digital cell phones to GSM was supposed to change the way we managed information on our phones.  Rather than losing our contacts and calendars every time we changed phones, we would store that information on SIM cards that switched between phones.  We would be able to switch phones without switching numbers, a common problem at that time.  But the cellular companies locked their phones to their networks, rendering them useless with SIM cards from another provider.  The claim was that they did it to enforce the contracts on the subsidized phones that were sold well below cost.  But even after the contract terms have been fulfilled, the Big Three still will not provide the codes required to unlock the phone, nor do they reduce the monthly service rates which are supposed to include the cost of the subsidy after the phone has been paid.  It was only after the threat of government intervention that they put the fee for early contract termination on a sliding scale; previously it cost just as much to end your contract after one month as it did after twenty-three months.

Finally, the rate plans themselves have crept up over the years, and when the prices haven't increased, the number of minutes allowed with each plans has decreased.  As indicated earlier, text messaging has gone up from five cents to twenty or more.  And other options like data, GPS, or calling circles can easily add $20 or $30 a pop to the base plan.  But more insidious than the increases in the rate plans are the increases to the supplementary fees that all providers charge.  For example, every cellular service provider has a rate plan of $59.99.  But after government-mandated taxes and provider-instituted fees, such a plan would probably cost well over $70 in practice.  In a four-way horse race for subscribers, nobody wants to step out of line and advertise a plan costing $62.49 when everyone else's is $59.99, so they hold the base rate the same and add the increase to the "regulatory fees" that are only revealed after the consumer receives a bill.

The cellular service providers should be made to abide by the following rules:

  • They should be required to provide the unlock codes for any phone that is not under contract.
  • They should discount the rate plan for those who are not under contract to reflect the end of the "subsidy."
  • There should be no additional fees in the bill besides those required by the government.  Any provider-generated fees should be folded in to the main rate plan.
  • They should automatically remove options that are not applicable to a particular user's situation.
Of course, I know that this is all a long shot (particularly that last point).  Cellular providers continue to lobby against any additional regulation, and the FCC has been slow to intervene for fear of triggering even higher costs to consumers.  Still, a guy can dream, right?

CLEAR 4G Wireless Internet

Atlanta is one of a handful of cities with 4G wireless service already available.  This first salvo in the race to 4G is an implementation of WiMAX, which claims speeds comparable to Wi-Fi over much larger areas.  I have been using 4G service for about two months now, and on the whole I'm impressed with it, but there are certainly some gotchas in comparison to using 3G cellular data service.

The WiMAX network was developed by Sprint and Clearwire with funding from industry heavy-hitters like Intel, Comcast, and Google.  As such, there are several different vendors for WiMAX service, but they're all using the same network.  I'm using Clearwire's CLEAR service, but as far as I know, there shouldn't be any performance difference between it and Sprint's 3G/4G service or Comcast's High-Speed 2Go.

So how does the service work?  The short answer is that it works very well.  It seems to work in all the areas advertised, and even gets good reception in large buildings.  The falloff outside the working areas is very sharp though, so there's less of a chance to catch a weak signal as you could with a 3G card and hope to get marginal performance.  There are marginal areas on the periphery of the coverage map, but they are very narrow zones.  Go outside of them by even a quarter-mile and you'll probably find that you don't have any service at all.

As far as the performance goes, it easily beats 3G service in the same area.  I use AT&T for 3G service, and my wife uses Verizon.  Comparisons between their coverage areas aside, they seem to be what-and-what as far as speed goes when they both have 3G service.  But CLEAR beats them both easily.  Web pages and email messages download noticeably faster than on the 3G networks.  That difference becomes more apparent when you're using multiple bandwidth-hogging applications at the same time.  With a CLEAR Spot Wi-Fi adapter, multiple computers/devices can be on the same connection without a huge performance hit.  And since the data use is unlimited, you don't have to be as timid about your use as you do with the 5 GB monthly cap on the 3G services.

Since CLEAR is advertised for use in the home, it's fair to ask how it compares to DSL or cable Internet service. In comparison to home Internet, however, CLEAR's service comes up short of cable or fast DSL.  I would probably compare it to the middle tier of DSL speeds.  Streaming hi-definition video isn't without some hiccups, but it's impressive to me that you can even do it over a wireless connection.  With a 5 GB cap and slower performance, I certainly wouldn't try it over 3G.

When it comes to lowest cost, CLEAR is the winner hands down.  CLEAR is cheaper than both Sprint and Comcast, but there's a catch.  With CLEAR and Comcast, it is possible to get a cheaper 4G-only plan.  That means that if you're outside the 4G zone, your device will not work at all, but a combination 3G+4G device will still work by switching to the slower 3G network.  That additional 3G coverage is about $20 premium on top of the regular 4G-only prices, and it comes with the same 5 GB per month data limitation.

4G WiMAX is a service that I heartily recommend if most of your use will occur within a covered area.  My biggest frustration with the service is that my home in southwest Atlanta is about three miles outside the coverage zone, which is all the more confusing given that there are small towns 20 miles from downtown Atlanta that are covered.  Also, CLEAR's driver for Mac OS X is still in beta and only supports Leopard.  That means that Mac users running Tiger or Snow Leopard are out of luck for now.  Sprint and Comcast claim that their adapters are Mac and Linux compatible, but I cannot verify that.  There seem to be no driver issues for anyone running Windows.

If most of your mobile Internet use is in within a covered service area, 4G WiMAX service is definitely worth the price.  It will be interesting to see how the market shapes up as AT&T and Verizon (and maybe even T-Mobile) bring their 4G LTE services to market.  Whether WiMAX can stay competitive against LTE remains to be seen.  But as the only 4G game in town, WiMAX wireless Internet can't be beat.

Mobile TV Standard Approved

The Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) has approved a standard for mobile digital broadcasts.  This comes after some bickering between factions promoting different standards finally agreed on a unified standard to promote.  Adoption by the ATSC allows hardware manufacturers to start making devices that conform to the standard and broadcasters to start sending out the additional signals required by those devices, which will likely range from cellular phones and MP3 players to laptops.

The larger cellular service providers in the U.S.--Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint--already have television-style offerings among their services, but this new development will allow them to bring live, local television to consumers' handsets rather than just the pre-packaged or slightly delayed cable-channel broadcasts.  It's still too early to speculate about when this technology might be available for general consumption, and any excitement over the prospect of seeing your local affiliates broadcasting directly to your handset has to be tempered with fear over the types of prices that cellular companies will set for these new services.  Despite widespread adoption in many other countries, there has been little success in turning radio or television broadcasts into a new revenue stream on mobile devices.  There's no doubt that the cellcos will try to squeeze out every last nickel from their consumers for this new technology, even though it shouldn't cost much to provide.  Still, it's exciting stuff, so stay tuned.