A month ago, we were hot on LinkNYC's free gigabit WiFi hotspots when they kicked off beta testing. Today, the organization is officially launching its payphone replacement hotspots (or Links, for short) --- and with that, it's turning on their integrated tablets for the first time. That means you'll be able to do a lot more than just tap into blazing fast WiFi from the Links. You can also browse the web, get directions with Google Maps, and make free VoIP calls to anywhere in America. After testing out one of the tablets briefly, I can say one thing for sure: New Yorkers won't miss their dirty old payphones at all.
On the surface, the Link's tablet doesn't appear much different than your average Android slate. It features a customized home screen with clearly labeled options: "Internet" opens up a web browser; "Free Calls" launches the dialer; "311" sends you right to NYC's services website (it's also the number New Yorkers dial for city help); and "Maps" does exactly what you'd expect (it even uses the standard Google Maps icon).
All of the apps worked without issue, and the performance felt like a typical mid-range tablet. That is to say, they're functional, but not exactly zippy. Interacting with the touch screen also takes more effort than usual, since the Links use two thick layers of glass to protect its hardware. Still, I can't imagine anyone would complain when it's free (LinkNYC makes money from ads displayed on screens on both sides of the hotspots).
The front of the Links are designed specifically to avoid the accumulation of city grime. It's pretty much a flat surface -- there's no space for people to rest their food or drinks (thereby avoiding spills). Below the tablet there's a big read 911 button, a nostalgically designed dial pad, and two USB ports for charging your phone. (You'll have to bring your own charging cables, though.) LinkNYC's reps say their designers have experience creating military products, and that's evident in the Link's tough and utilitarian look. As part of their testing, they even crashed cars into the Links to make sure they wouldn't harm pedestrians.
Eventually, LinkNYC plans to add even more tablet apps and signage capabilities. Links could make people aware of local events, or give updates on when nearby trains are arriving, for example. Since the tablets are based on Android, it wouldn't be too difficult for the organization to add more features (and perhaps even open the door for local developers to feature their apps). More than a dozen Links will be going live today along Third Avenue in Manhattan, and LinkNYC says it plans to have 500 up by July.
As for LinkNYC's most compelling feature -- gigabit WiFi! -- I noticed that speeds were much slower than my previous test. Instead of around 300 megabits per second upload and download speeds, I saw around 70 Mbps down and 150 Mbps up. That's still damn impressive for free WiFi, especially compared to what most Americans have at home, but it'll be interesting to see if speeds fall any further as more people are connected to a single Link.