IRL: Logitech UE 900 headphones, Nokia Lumia 900 and the Galaxy Note II

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: Logitech UE 900 headphones, Nokia Lumia 900 and the Galaxy Note II

This week Darren is back, test-driving a $400 pair of Ultimate Ears headphones, while Steve tells us about his new Galaxy Note II. Rounding things out, Jon takes a trip to the bargain basement and picks up a discounted Lumia 900. Read on to find out how much the gang likes their new loot.

Logitech UE 900 earphones

IRL Logitech UE 900 headphones, Nokia Lumia 900 and the Galaxy Note II

When it comes to big-stage sound, a few names shine bright above the others. Westone and Ultimate Ears are most certainly up there, with each outfit boasting a shocking amount of artist support. UE, in particular, has pitched itself as a high-end consumer brand thanks to a tie-up with Logitech, and the UE 900 earphones are amongst the nicest it offers short of any custom options. At $400, it's clear from the get-go that these aren't aimed as casual listeners, and the hardshell container bundled in the box speaks volumes about how the company hopes you'll protect such an investment.

The drivers themselves boast four-armature speakers and a three-way crossover -- impressive from a technical standpoint. The stock blue cable is remarkably seductive, and frankly, it's pretty tough to keep your hands from fiddling with it. Aside from looking good and being almost ludicrously tough, it's also equipped with a right-angle headphone jack (huzzah!) and swiveling ear tips on the other end. Unfortunately, the company chose to cram the bantam mic / button stick way up on the cable connected to the right earbud instead of at the "v" a bit lower. As it stands, you're reaching up to your cheek to pause or fast-forward things. Moreover, the awkward "memory cabling" that wraps around one's ear is completely awkward. It took at least 10 seconds to get each earbud situated, and I never was entirely thrilled with the fit. Stage artists may be okay with it, but consumers won't be.

Oddly, Logitech also throws in a black braided cable that lacks the mic / button remote, but it doesn't provide any tonal differences. Many higher-end companies offer two different cables that cross things over a pinch differently, but there seems to be no actual benefit to this bonus cable. Perhaps most disappointingly, the vast collection of included ear tips are all circular. As in, they aren't ovals. Granted, Klipsch has that oval shape all sorts of locked down, but once you've used an ear tip that's actually engineered to fit in one's ear (hint: ear holes aren't perfect circles), you'll have a hard time using anything else. Indeed, even the foam tips here didn't perfectly seal around this editor's ears, letting more outside noise seep in compared to Klipsch's far cheaper Image S4i. It's a shame: regardless of how technically superior these are, the delivery is flawed due to circular ear tips; if you can't hear the benefits, what are you really buying?

Bottom line? Save your money and opt for Klipsch's Image X10i at $270. They fit better, sound better and don't require a planning session just to get 'em inserted.

-- Darren Murph

Nokia Lumia 900 with Windows Phone 7.5

IRL Logitech UE 900 headphones, Nokia Lumia 900 and the Galaxy Note II

We're at the crossroads with the Nokia Lumia 900. It's getter ever closer to a Windows Phone 7.8 upgrade, though it's lost its flagship status to the Windows Phone 8-toting Lumia 920. But what are Windows fans to do if they want something at a discount? I had the opportunity to use a Lumia 900 running Windows Phone 7.5 for a few weeks to see what it's like now that the phone is entirely in budget territory -- is it worth the outlay at less than $1 on a contract when its future is limited?

Tentatively, I'd say yes. The Windows Phone ecosystem's problems are still very much here: you'll still have to go without major apps like Instagram and forego some of Google's services. And the camera, while relatively well done, doesn't hold up as well in an era where Apple's iPhone 4S and HTC's Droid Incredible 4G LTE are now closer to the entry level. Even so, it's still true that Windows Phone is one of the easier smartphone platforms to pick up if you're new to the concept. Those big, live icons make the experience simple and fun, and Nokia Drive offers solid turn-by-turn navigation. It's also tough to dispute the value of getting both LTE data and that iconic, unibody design at this price.

The real challenge? Budget Windows Phone 8 devices. As the Lumia 820 and its variants start dropping even lower than $100 on-contract (the AT&T version is already $50), it might not make much sense to buy the Lumia 900 -- saving the cost of a nice dinner won't matter much when the extra money will provide a much faster processor and a smartphone OS that will last for longer. Should there still be a wide-enough gap in your part of the world, though, the Lumia 900 may be viable or even ideal for those who need the basics, and not much more.

-- Jon Fingas

Samsung Galaxy Note II

IRL Logitech UE 900 headphones, Nokia Lumia 900 and the Galaxy Note II

Not to gloat, but while buyers in the US were cooling their heels for the Samsung Galaxy Note II, customers abroad like yours truly were already phablet-ing away about a month early. I'd been ogling the 5.5-inch quad-core brute since it was first announced, and having squeezed all the usability out of my geriatric Galaxy S, I decided to make the 649 leap to a simless N7100 once it popped up on Amazon France (yes, we Engadget editors have to pay for our own devices, and no, we don't get a discount).

So, what's it like to use this outsized smartphone? For me, anyway, this is not a pocketable phone. I carry it around in my shoulder bag, and consider it to be a tablet as far portability goes. Once I have the device in hand, though, the size becomes a plus. With the optional factory flip case, the phone is only slightly heavier than my encased S, and its slim, curved profile fits my medium-sized hands very well. The huge screen makes it easy to browse most content, even full websites or digital magazines like Distro. On top of that, I never feel like a freak (not much, anyway) when I'm taking calls or photos, as you might with a Nexus 7, for instance.

Having worked as a compositor and 3D artist, the S Pen was a key attraction for me, particularly since the digitizer is made by none other than Wacom. It works smoothly and quickly, no doubt aided by its quad-core Exynos CPU, and the screen is just big enough to do real work on. The only drawback so far is a dearth of apps that support its 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity, which can give finer control over line and paint stroke widths. Programs that do support that feature, like Drawing Pad, provide an amazingly addictive sketching experience. Finally, I could do without TouchWiz, the Samsung skin that seems to transform lovely-looking stock Jelly Bean into dumpy Froyo (ahem, CyanogenMod?). Overall, though, the Galaxy Note II performs all my smartphone duties with aplomb, while still letting me peruse and create content, footloose and tablet-free.

-- Steve Dent