IRL: HTC One S, Columbia GPS Pal and the Eton Rukus Solar

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.

IRL HTC One S, Columbia GPS Pal and the Eton Rukus Solar

This week in IRL, Jon Fingas takes what could be an unpopular stance, making a case for the HTC One S over the bigger, more lavishly specced One X. Meanwhile, Darren and Dan test some summer-appropriate tech, including a GPS app for outdoor sports and a solar-powered speaker dock.

IRL HTC One S, Columbia GPS Pal and the Eton Ruckus Solar

The One S is the middle child of HTC's family, and we often treat it that way. It doesn't get much love next to the superstar One X, and it doesn't have the One V's price edge. And yet, after getting the chance to use a One S on Bell for several weeks, it seems to me it's very nearly the champion of the trio.

It's all in the shape. As much as the One X earns its stripes, it can be more than a bit unwieldy to use one-handed. The One S is a minor miracle in that regard: it's one of the few "big" phones where a thumb can still reach every important part of the display without some hand acrobatics. It's a cliché of phone reviews to say a device feels "good in the hand," but I'm just being honest here.

In North America, where the One S and One X have to share the same processor, the One S isn't even a step back in performance -- it's still brisk, and HSPA+ data is plenty speedy. Sense 4.0 continues to be a favorite non-stock Android interface through its tendency to let Google's built-in features shine while improving those areas that really need it, like the apps for the camera and regular e-mail. Occasional focusing quirks aside, the 8-megapixel rear camera in question remains a champion for its low-light abilities and its raw speed.

About the only thing keeping the One S from being an absolute hero is, you guessed it, that AMOLED display. It's not as bad as some would have you think; if you were told that all other phones had vanished from the face of the Earth, you'd probably be very content to use HTC's mid-range model. Still, it's clear that HTC's race to make the One S as thin as possible came at a price. The Droid Incredible 4G LTE actually has an advantage in using an LCD that's already sharp combined with a smaller screen that better serves the 960 x 540 resolution. If HTC could improve this one component without hurting anything else, the One S would be nigh-on ideal.

-- Jon Fingas

Columbia GPS Pal
IRL iPod shuffle, Columbia GPS Pal and the Eton Ruckus Solar

It sort of feels as if tracking apps are a dime a dozen -- particularly in Apple's App Store -- but Columbia's GPS Pal just wouldn't get out of my thoughts. For starters, it's a company I've been happy with over the years, and secondly, the UI immediately struck me as one that was way too nicely done to be coming from a clothing company. The real question, naturally, is this: can a company that makes outdoor gear also program apps?

GPS Pal is free on iOS and Android, and is meant to track runs, hikes, kayaking excursions and any other outdoor adventure. So long as you have a GPS signal (a cellular data connection doesn't hurt, though!), you can track your movements and elevation changes. It also keeps tabs on a few other vital factors, including overall time, distance traveled and speed -- just what you'd expect from a "Portable Activity Log." Unlike My Tracks for Android -- which, as a Google-made app, probably won't see an iOS port in the near future -- this one doesn't map out your elevation change over time. If you aren't a hardcore statistics nerd, it probably won't bother you much.

What I really love about the app is the ability to easily take a photo or video mid-journey, and that it will geotag my media and then beautifully assemble a pinned map. Furthermore, it allows you to easily flip through your newly assembled slideshow, and you can even sync it with the company's website so you never lose trip data. Naturally, you'll be able to share trips on Facebook or Twitter, and the presentation there is equally nice. After 200-plus ratings in the App Store, it's sitting at over 4 stars; that's impressive. Battery drain was minimal on my kayaking trip in Fairbanks and honestly, you'll be hard-pressed to beat it for free. And hey, if you have both an Android phone and an iPhone, you'll be able to enjoy the same UI on both. Kudos, Columbia.

-- Darren Murph

Eton Rukus Solar
IRL iPod shuffle, Columbia GPS Pal and the Eton Ruckus Solar

If you're out in the summer and want to inflict your musical tastes on the neighbors without too much fuss, then Eton's Rukus Solar might be for you. A hefty photovoltaic panel sits across a pair of tube speakers that'll happily slurp down power to juice a battery rated for eight hours. Connecting over Bluetooth or 3.5mm audio jack, it'll fill a decently sized back garden (or small hall), while a USB port on the underside will let you refill your phone / tablet with nought but Superman's power source. That said, it didn't take too kindly to the traditional ("wet") English summer, only charging when in direct sunlight

My wife and I used the speakers to discreetly practice our wedding dance in a variety of acoustically unfriendly locations, and each time the speakers came through. While not the most bass-heavy device you'll ever experience, it does a reasonable job with the variety of genres (and gadget-related TV shows) I watched with it. It's also sturdily built and that e-ink screen remains visible in both evening dim and under the summer sun. My only trouble is that I'd feel too ashamed to subject other beach-goers to my musical selections -- so perhaps I'll just use it in the garden.

-- Dan Cooper