Welcome to IRL, an ongoing feature where we talk about the gadgets, apps and toys we're using in real life and take a second look at products that already got the formal review treatment.
Just call this week's column the something borrowed edition. Rather than do a formal review -- the sort of cookie-cutter project that can be over and done with in a week, frankly -- we asked three staffers to not just test new products, but to live with them. For starters, our very own jet-setting Darren Murph used Verizon Wireless' new Jetpack MiFi 4620L to get work done on the go, while our new editor Jon Fingas traded in his Sony clock radio for an iHome dock that promised to play nice with his non-Apple device. Rounding things out, Sharif took a $4,000 3D projector for a weeks-long spin because, well, why not?
Verizon Jetpack MiFi 4620
I've spent my fair share of time getting close to MiFis. And by "close," I mean "close to crushing them beneath the heel of my foot." As awesome as they are when they work, these things just have a way of... not working. Blame flaky cell towers, or just blame fate, but anyone who has had to rely on a pebble for internet during a crushing work period understands my frustration.
Verizon's LTE-equipped Jetpack MiFi 4620L is an awkwardly-named soul, but it's a brilliant piece of technology. For one, you can charge it through the USB port on your computer; earlier MiFi units would reboot themselves unless powered by a USB connection that didn't lead to a computer. Secondly, the brobdingnagian 3,000mAh battery (optional, but a must-have) makes the stock 1,500mAh cell look puny. That thing keeps my LTE live for hours on end; my laptop actually dies before my MiFi.
The built-in display, while spartan, is awesome. Having glanceable data that shows your current signal strength, how many clients are connected, a battery life indicator, etc. is truly useful. I also found it to be entirely more reliable than my SCH-LC11 LTE hotspot, which tends to reboot itself more than I'd like. Speeds, naturally, are insane, consistently outpacing my middling cable connection when latched onto an LTE tower (8Mbps to 10Mbps in both directions has been easily attainable in repeated speed tests). If you're hankering for an LTE MiFi to call your own, I'd stop hunting: this thing is a road warrior's dream at $50 (or less) on contract.
-- Darren Murph
iHome iC50 FM Stereo Alarm Clock Radio for Android
Android might have the advantage in device variety, but when it comes to accessories, it's still an iOS world. Odds are that, if your device doesn't have an Apple Dock Connector, you'll be relegated to using a generic USB port or line-in jack, if you get anything at all. That's why I was slightly jazzed when I got my hands on the iHome iC50 clock radio. It has a micro-USB docking system that can slide on a track and theoretically accommodate most any Android smartphone -- or at least, those with their micro-USB ports on the bottom, like my Galaxy Nexus.
As a clock radio, the iC50 works quite well: I'm a fan of the compact design, the display won't blind you at night and the controls are simple enough (if not especially deep). Setting the time and other basics are certainly more obvious than on the Sony clock radio dock I've been using for the past few years. The trouble started, however, when I tried to dock that Galaxy Nexus. Even with a toggle switch to change signalling -- that should've been a small warning sign -- the supplied USB adapter cable designed for the sliding dock refused to charge Samsung's Android 4.0 phone. I ended up having to coil the phone's own USB cable in the space provided, which meant that the phone only ever sits loosely in the docking space. Piping audio to the speakers also requires a male-male headphone jack adapter; one of those is included, but it's short enough that it only works for phones with the audio jack on the bottom, like the Nexus. The audio quality is good, but the iC50's integration experience just isn't quite there yet compared to the plug-in-and-you're-done experience of an iPhone dock.
iHome makes an app of its own, iHome Sleep, that's meant to pair up with the iC50 (and other speaker docks). I like the simplicity of setting an alarm, and the convenience of seeing the weather on the splash screen, but it's a little too stripped-down to serve more than the basic needs of waking up on time. You can only pick one local library song or pre-supplied sound for the sleep timer or alarm: if you're not unconscious or out of bed when the sound ends, it repeats... and repeats... and repeats. The app sorely needs options to load a playlist, cue a third-party music app like Spotify or fire up an Internet radio stream. There are third-party apps that will do more, and you're not locked in; I just don't like the idea of having to hunt down something to feel like I got my money's worth from a $60 radio dock.
-- Jon Fingas
Epson EH-TW9000 3D projector
I'm a total convert when it comes to projectors, but unlike most converts I refuse to take my new religion too seriously. My old Optoma D700x came second-hand off eBay for £400 ($650). It throws Blu-rays, games and iPlayer at 720p resolution from my PlayStation 3 onto a 12-foot by 5-foot expanse of wall that just happens to be off-white and empty. It's a casual setup that suits me perfectly, but I needed to know: what would happen if I carried on being non-serious, except with some extremely serious equipment? For someone like me, could an upgrade ever be worth it?
For several weeks, then, I duly borrowed a $4,000 Epson EH-TW9000 -- a huge and sophisticated machine that outclasses my little Optoma on every level. I had it up and running in under 20 minutes and the impact was readily obvious. Thanks to the flexibility of the LCD projection system (as opposed to rough 'n ready DLP technology in my Optoma), I was able to use large amounts of zoom, horizontal lens-shift and keystoning to boost the area of my image by around 30 percent. That made scoped players in Sniper Elite V2 bigger than life-size. The 1080p resolution removed any visible pixelation; Hugo 3D was pretty cool (though I still prefer passive to active); black levels were blacker; there was more brightness for fending off pesky daylight; and, in a word, it was amazing. If I'd gone overboard with a pull-down screen, ceiling mount, calibration and retro airline seats, the amazingness would only have become more refined. In other words, whether you go low-end or high-end, low-effort or finicky, it's arguable that projectors murder even the best TVs when it comes to gaming and movies.
-- Sharif Sakr