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IRL: Google Voice, FastMac's U Socket and returning the iPhone 4S


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.

Hi there, folks. Happy almost-four-day-weekend to you too. As you'd expect, we're not the types to waste an opportunity to tie IRL into a national eating orgy, so this week's edition is appropriately about giving thanks. Terrence appreciates Google Voice, even if it slips some incomprehensible one-liners into his transcriptions. Zach, meanwhile, is mighty happy about his U Socket purchase (because wall-mounted USB ports are a beautiful, beautiful thing). And Joe -- actually, he's none too grateful for the two iPhone 4S' he returned, though he is glad Google hurried up and released Ice Cream Sandwich. What's his problem, anyway? Meet us after the break to find out.

All power outlets should have USB

I have six USB ports permanently mounted in the walls of my apartment, and I can't imagine living without them -- it's not uncommon for me to be using all of them at any given time. FastMac's U-Socket is the ultimate no-compromise solution for powering your smartphones, tablets and any other gadget that sources power from USB, adding a pair of power-only USB ports to each wall mounted outlet. There's 12 watts of 2.4A power available to both ports, and I've had no issues charging up a tablet and a smartphone simultaneously.

At $25, the U-Socket is quite a bit pricier than a generic outlet, but considering it'll live forever in your wall, the initial expense is worthwhile. It's available in almond and ivory colors, with a variety of faceplates and two different plug styles: standard, which is a bit more rounded, and decor, which will likely be the best fit for modern homes. Both versions have a footprint similar to a standard outlet, but the U-Socket takes up significantly more space behind the wall, so it may not fit for everyone (mine did, but without a centimeter to spare).

If you use USB-powered devices and live in North America (international sockets aren't available), you can't go wrong tossing these into your wall. Just make sure you buy enough to keep everyone juiced up.

-- Zach Honig

The only number I give out

I signed up way back when it was still called GrandCentral, almost a year before Google snatched it up. During those early days it went largely unused. As interesting as the concept was, it simply lacked too many features, and things only got worse after the Mountain View acquisition. Then, somebody turned the lights back on in 2009. Google Voice was born and my life has never been the same.

Let's be honest: having a single repository of all your incoming and outgoing calls, text messages and voice mails available to you on any phone, tablet or computer is something out of a sci-fi movie. And knocking out texts from the comfort of a laptop makes me wonder how I ever survived the T9 days. But, as great as the basic features are, it's some of the more advanced tools that have really proven indispensable -- especially considering my line of work. Now, when I do a phone interview, I no longer have to bother with speaker phone or convoluted recording devices; I simply press "4" and the audio of my call is saved online. Google will even transcribe the conversation, though it does an admittedly hit-or-miss job. When it comes time to review a handset, I don't give out the number to select people -- I just connect it to my Voice account and treat it as my primary device for a few days. I can also set my home phone to ring when I don't go in to the office so I don't miss any important calls. Sure, there have been a few hiccups along the way and the occasional outage, but it's reliable enough that my Google Voice number is the only one I give out anymore. And at this point, I can't imagine it any other way.

-- Terrence O'Brien

Returning the iPhone 4S

If you've been following along, you may know that I have a love-hate relationship with Apple. That pretty well describes my brief time with the iPhone 4S, which I returned thanks to a few glaring issues. The forums have been abuzz with folks facing various problems, and you can count me as one of them, though somehow, I was spared any battery life woes. Upon receiving the unit, it was clear that the new screen had a yellower tint than the cold blue of my 3GS. While a warmer hue could have been good news, this seemed a bit too yellow, making for a sickly, washed-out look that I noticed every time I moved to my iPad 2 and 3GS (it's not as if you can calibrate these iDevice screens).

Strike two: those ever-so tiny pockets of light leaking through the top of the screen. Yes, this is a fairly minor gripe, but those slight blotches became a nuisance, particularly when I tried to read emails in landscape mode. I could also get into how tapping the bottom of the device made for a slight bounce-back (seemingly from its linear oscillating vibration motor) or how the camera element rattled like a pack of Tic Tacs whenever I set it down, but that would be nit-picking -- even by my standards.

Of all things, the deal-breaker was the phone 4S' supposedly improved antenna, which gave me interference during voice calls. While someone was talking, a faint, but audible zzZzzZ emanated from the top antenna, creeping up near the earpiece. Upon further investigation, I confirmed that placing a finger on the top antenna would kill the noise. Odd. I contacted Apple Care for a new unit, but alas, the issue reared its head during my first call on this "re-serialized replacement device" (fancy-talk for refurbished). Worse yet, the earpiece on this unit had terribly low volume, even when cranked all the way up. Look, the iPhone 4S has a lot going for it in many ways, but suffice it to say, a handset that can't properly handle a voice call isn't the device for me. So, I'm back to my 3GS and am happy to wait for a Galaxy Nexus-branded Ice Cream Sandwich -- just don't get me started on the hellish return process and SIM swap AT&T put me through.

-- Joe Pollicino

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