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IRL: Voltaic Spark, LG Optimus One and the Galaxy Nexus

IRL: Voltaic Spark, LG Optimus One and the Galaxy Nexus
Engadget|@engadget|February 2, 2012 4:00 PM
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.

Want to read about Facebook's inflated valuation? A (debunked) rumor that Snooki is pregnant? Neither do we. So, let's do what we do best, and talk gadgets instead. This week, Engadget editor Don Melanson defends his phone of choice, James takes the Voltaic Spark for a spin in Spain and Mat talks about bonding with the Galaxy Nexus at CES. (Sadly, this fling, like others before it, stayed in Vegas.) How's it all working out for them? As always, we've got your quick takes tucked after the break.

Voltaic Spark

In London, sunny days are a summertime-only treat, so owning a solar-powered charger / bag requires a bit of optimism. Spain, however, is a different story. A recent drive to the east coast of the peninsula seemed like a good excuse to put one to the test. The Spark is primarily a tablet case, but I found it capacious enough to hold not only my iPad, but my Kindle, travel documents and a few cables, etc. with plenty of room to spare. The bag has a hard outer shell, which keeps your gadgets safe, and there's a convenient (though sadly unpadded) strap for lugging it about.

The battery inside comes pre-charged and is good for a few tablet top-ups, but it was the recharging out in the "field" that interested me. Valencia in December is far from tropical, but skies are clear and blue, and temperatures still reach the twenties (C) / seventies (F), so it was still a great chance to test the solar panels. Walking around the city meant a mix of periods spent in the sun and shade. Predictably, the charging lights kicked in comfortably when exposed to direct sunlight; in the shade -- not so much. One side effect I noted: this thing is eye-catching. My companion and I were accosted several times by intrigued shop-keepers, asking what was in the bag, and it constantly received curious glances as we walked around.

Spending a few hours out in Iberian daylight added enough power for a small charge, but it definitely needs to be banked up a little more if you want to get a full cycle out of it. The battery has two USB ports, one for six-volt output, and the other for more power hungry 12-volt devices, but it means you can cover your most important items -- e.g., your phone and tablet. As we were doing a lot of driving on the trip, I found leaving it in the back window (not while parked, obviously) was another good way to squeeze some cheeky sunlight into it while on the move. I have to say, there is something indescribably pleasing, almost liberating, about having a portable -- and, more importantly, free -- power source with you at all times. A shame, then, that I live in London, but it's an ideal holiday accessory nonetheless. I guess it goes without saying that this is no replacement for your dedicated power supply, but if you're looking for a case / bag anyway, and want the added bonus of on-the-fly power boosts, then this will certainly do that, for a price.
-- James Trew
Galaxy Nexus

While you've already heard we were totting all sorts of mobile devices at CES last month, European draftees like myself were slightly more constricted. Simple: switch around SIMs, right? Yeah, we do this a lot on in the UK, but trans-Atlantic switch-arounds often don't work out unless you know exactly what radios you're handling. I fortunately still had my hands on a Galaxy Nexus review sample -- and that pentaband radio meant I was able to keep my phone settings and cat wallpapers and simply swap in an AT&T SIM. HSPA+ data speeds were mine -- when I wasn't swimming in EDGE or juggling WiFi.

The Galaxy Nexus did exactly what I hoped it would. Sure, the camera wasn't going to see much professional use -- we had Engadget-issued NEX-C3s for that -- and there was no S-Pen to make notes on the fly, but its multitasking chops made light work of switching between the convention center's Google Map schematics, my show floor notes, and Engadget's mobile site. Now, if only there was LTE reception on this European model...
-- Mat Smith

LG Optimus One

This may come as a bit of a surprise considering the publication I write for, but I don't always feel an urgent need to upgrade to the latest and greatest devices. My main computer is a non-unibody MacBook Pro that's still going strong (it's the last model before Apple switched to the current design, and its keyboard still trumps any performance needs), and my phone is a decidedly not-high-end LG Optimus One (mostly identical to the Optimus T in the US).

I bought it over a year ago because at $150, it was one of the best reasonably priced options to be had off-contract; here in Canada, smartphones are generally sold with agreements lasting three years, not two, which has caused me to studiously avoid contracts altogether. I also figured it'd be a relatively short-term solution to tide me over until something swayed me enough to take the plunge into contract-land, or shell out for a pricier off-contract option.

Since then, I've come to like the Optimus One quite a bit. It's small (something I still consider a plus), solid and its performance remains surprisingly good for most basic tasks. It also finally received a Gingerbread update not too long ago, which provided a welcome improvement (albeit at a slight expense to battery life). Of course, there are some considerable downsides. The camera is lackluster, and the low resolution 3.2-inch screen is fast becoming a deal-breaker as more and more apps become tailored to higher-res displays (not to mention the many games that are simply incompatible). But for a $150 phone (now available for even less) it's hard to complain, even though I can't quite give it the same recommendation I would have a year ago.
-- Donald Melanson