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.
This week we've got Darren learning a little Spanish through Babbel and Jon, the man of many Canadian phones, testing the Lumia 920 on Rogers' LTE network. And, on a slightly more nostalgic note, Billy delivers a eulogy of sorts for the Epson photo printer that got him through years of graphic design school.
Epson Stylus Photo R1800 printer
Sure, not everyone has a need for a 13 x 19 photo printer. But, when you're proofing a 40-page style guide for a client, you tend to want easy access to the outputs. In order to cut production costs in grad school, I invested $500 in the Epson Stylus Photo R1800, which is capable of borderless prints and can print 13 inches wide by however long I'd like, thanks to paper roll attachments. Like many printers these days, it can also print directly onto CDs so long as you can spare a solid 12 hours of drying time. As you might imagine, anything under Super B / A3 sizing is fair game, with printing all the way to the edge there as well.
I picked up this monster back in '06, and leaned on it pretty hard for a good three years. Since then, it's become strictly a proofing machine since I'm no longer producing class projects on a regular basis (thankfully). On occasion, though, I'll press it to do some heavy lifting on holiday cards and such -- no more than two or three times a year. In the beginning it provided amazing print quality at a level that was sometimes better than the local print shops, which would completely gouge me for the same work.
Now that the R1800 has some years behind it, the wear and tear is beginning to show. Almost every time I use it I have to clean the print heads and nozzles to avoid streaks. While this doesn't take a huge amount of time, it does consume a large amount of ink. At the height of my grad school years I was switching out cartridges once a quarter. Now, I'm doing so a few extra times a year. While I've had a good run with this hoss, it's just about come to and end now that the price has dropped on similar printers, and now that WiFi is a standard option.
-- Billy Steele
Babbel iPad Spanish Learning book
I've felt for some time now that tablets could well be the catalyst for the next major revolution in education. The internet itself just feels like a far superior tool for teaching than just about any book, and a world where children are given access to it at an early age is one I look forward to living in. Recently, my wife and I tried a new Spanish language learning tool from Babbel. To date, the $8.99 guide, which runs some 77 pages, is the company's only one on the iPad. But if you're looking for the basics, it's a fantastic option.
The book itself is extraordinarily well thought-out, with lessons that are both easy and enjoyable to cruise through. You'll also find accompanying material on the web and on iPhone, and these tools have speech recognition so you can practice your pronunciation and get a real time score on your vocabulary. In fact, the only major gripe we had was that the book eventually ends. It's a perfect layout for future titles, and I can only hope that the company expands the series for those looking to tackle more advanced lessons. Perhaps even a subscription model would work, and it'd still be far cheaper than Rosetta Stone. If you're interested in checking out the company's web-based offerings, click here; those looking for the iPad app can visit this link.
-- Darren Murph
Nokia Lumia 920
The Lumia 920 can be a resolutely pragmatic phone. It acknowledges that life doesn't always happen in warm, brightly-lit spaces. With that in mind, I used it as my main phone for a few weeks to see whether a handful of truly unique hardware extras, and the leap to Windows Phone 8, make it a more viable device than predecessors like the Lumia 900 -- not necessarily for a technology news editor, but certainly for anyone trying to call, chat and navigate through a cold season.
Hardware-wise? Nokia's design mostly comes up aces. It's thick and heavy, to be sure, but that high-sensitivity touchscreen is incredibly handy in chilly weather. It's entirely possible to take a call or post a tweet with winter gloves on. Why can't other hardware makers do that? The wireless charging is equally welcome if you happen to have a Qi-friendly pad; there's nothing quite like plunking your phone down after a long day without having to plug in. And the camera is superb. Autofocus sharpness quirks are a real issue without a software fix, but the Lumia 920 can take photos in low light that would leave an iPhone 5 struggling. About the only day-to-day hardware quirk is a somewhat slippery design; HTC's soft-touch Windows Phone 8X is more reassuring.
And yet, software remains a mixed bag. Windows Phone 8's customizable home screen and fast Internet Explorer 10 browser go a long way towards legitimizing the Lumia 920 as a heavy-duty smartphone. It's actually liberating compared to Windows Phone 7's fixed tile sizes and years-old web code. At the risk of flogging the proverbial dead horse, however, there are still some missing key apps. It's not just top-50 apps like Instagram; it's peripheral- and region-specific software that's either absent or has a close-but-not-quite equivalent, such as Sonos' controller or a local mass transit app. Nokia Transit often has gaping holes in coverage. The lack of a notification center, combined with an interface that periodically overwhelms function with form (such as the highly stylized but limited email view), only compounds problems if it's genuinely vital that you spot and deal with an emergency in minutes.
The Lumia 920 consequently feels somewhat like a 900 redux. It's still a handset for those who are either new to smartphones or aren't deeply invested in any one ecosystem, at least in its current state; few will make a clean break from a Galaxy or iPhone, and only some of us could use it as a company workhorse. The difference from before? Provided the apps you need are there and detailed notifications aren't matters of life and death, you can comfortably say you're using a high-end device -- and that speaks volumes about how far Nokia has advanced in just half a year.
-- Jon Fingas