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Review: 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG

The Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG is an Olympic decathlete wearing a hand-tailored tuxedo – its well-rounded performance is every bit as impressive as its physical appearance. Such talent and charm is often acknowledged by the automotive press, but such accolades don’t always guarantee a winning combination in the showroom.

But Mercedes-Benz knows its AMG customers, understands what stirs them and realizes how to pry open their checkbooks. The automaker is aware that its affluent clientele don’t purchase objectively. Rather, they gaze at the styling, take a deep whiff of the leather interior, grasp and hold the thick steering wheel and absorb the raucous note of the exhaust. A sale isn’t far behind.

The sound of signed checks fluttering to the table may be common at the Mercedes-Benz dealership, but how does the CLS63 AMG perform out in the real world? What separates it from its CLS550sibling? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Most importantly, what makes this iconic seven-year-old four-door coupe unique? We recently spent a week with the CLS63 AMG to figure it out.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG side view
2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG front view2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG rear view

With the Performance Package, the factory claims that 60 mph falls in 4.3 seconds and the top speed governor is raised to 186 mph.

Launched in 2004 as an E-Class (W211) platform knock-off, the first-generation CLS-Class (W219) is credited with starting the whole “four-door coupe” segment. The second-generation model (W218) was launched in 2010, still sharing the same platform but with a slew of upgrades and a fresh new appearance. While there are many engine choices worldwide, in the States we are offered just two variants: CLS550 and CLS63 AMG.

The CLS550 is fitted with a twin-turbocharged 4.6-liter V8 rated at 402 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque. The four-door features a seven-speed automatic transmission sending power to the two rear wheels (the automaker’s 4Matic all-wheel-drive system is offered as an option). Hardly a slouch, the standard CLS will sprint to 60 miles per hour in just 5.1 seconds with a top speed governed at 130 mph. However, and despite its valid reputation as a true driver’s car, the CLS550 lost out to an Audi A7 3.0T in our comparison last year – blame its age, despite its refresh.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG engine

The CLS63 AMG turns things up significantly. Under the hood is a twin-turbocharged 5.5-liter V8 rated at 518 horsepower and 519 pound-feet of torque in standard trim, or 550 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque when optioned with the AMG Performance Package (as our test car was). To handle the additional torque, and deliver a sporty driving feel, the traditional automatic is replaced by an AMG Speedshift seven-speed MCT gearbox with launch control. The standard CLS63 AMG will hit 60 mph in 4.4 seconds with a governed top speed of 155 mph. With the Performance Package, the factory claims that 60 mph falls in 4.3 seconds and the top speed governor is raised to 186 mph. (Consider those numbers conservative as Car and Driverrecently tested the 2012 CLS63 AMG at 3.8 seconds with a quarter mile of 12.0 seconds at 121 mph. Motor Trend got 3.9 seconds.)

Despite the mechanical upgrades, its curb weight is less than 100 pounds greater than the CLS550.

But there is much more to the AMG model than just a powertrain upgrade. The standard CLS550’s independent Airmatic suspension is replaced with an AMG Adaptive Suspension with electronically controlled gas-filled struts up front, Airmatic electronically controlled damping in the rear, and the electro-hydraulic steering rack is replaced with an AMG-tuned unit. Braking capacity is increased with the fitment of six-piston calipers in the front and four-piston calipers in the rear (both are 14.2-inches, internally ventilated, drilled and slotted discs, but the fronts are thicker) – carbon-ceramic brakes are optional. Wheels grow from 18- to 19-inch units, now wearing 255/35R19 tires in the front and 285/30R19 in the back. Despite the mechanical upgrades, its curb weight of 4,277 pounds is less than 100 pounds greater than the CLS550.The CLS63 AMG cabin is also enhanced for its performance role. In addition to the premium leather, the primary instrument cluster receives an AMG face, complete with performance-specific gauges, and its color is reversed (now white on black). The electronic transmission lever moves from the tree down to the center console (PRND, but with C, S, S+ and M modes) and there is new switchgear. Wood trim gives way to other sporty finishes, and AMG sport bucket seats replace the stock units. Our tester was also optioned with a simply gorgeous thick-rimmed flat-bottomed steering wheel with proper paddle shifters.
2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG interior
2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG trunk2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG front seats2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG rear seats

Regardless of who the CLS63 AMG is competing against, it will most likely win.

Speaking specifically about our test vehicle, the 2012 CLS63 AMG with black over black premium leather carried a base MSRP of $94,900 (plus $875 destination and delivery). It was configured with the P01 Package for $3,690 (iPod/MP3 interface, rearview camera, heated and active front seats, active multicontour driver seat, adaptive highbeam assist, full LED headlamps, electronic trunk closer and Keyless Go), Driver Assist Package for $2,950 (Distronic plus with Pre-Safe braking, active blind spot assist and active Lane Keep assist), AMG Performance package for $6,990 (carbon fiber trunk lid spoiler, carbon fiber engine cover red brake calipers, increased top speed, AMG performance steering wheel, sport suspension and power boost), Parktronic for $970, rear side airbags for $420 and forged 19-inch AMG twin five-spoke alloy wheels for $1,790. Add it up, and the bottom line on our car was $115,435.It is difficult to put a finger on the CLS’s competition, especially at that price. The new Audi S7 ($78,800) seems like a natural enemy, but it is significantly down on power when compared to the torque-heavy AMG. The Porsche Panamera GTS ($111,000) is also an interesting foe, but one needs to step up to the Panamera Turbo ($138,650) to match the AMG’s straight-line performance. Will shoppers also consider the Maserati Quattroporte Sport GTS (base price $135,200), or will it also be dismissed as a second-string athlete too? Regardless of who the CLS63 AMG is competing against, it will most likely win.
2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG grille2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG wheel detail
2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG taillight2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG exhaust tips

With the gearshift in “D” and the selector on “Sport +”, it is in full attack setting.

We spent one full week with the well-toned four-door, driving it so much that its engine never completely cooled. Few vehicles in our garage warrant this much affection. Rather than gush over the engine, brakes and handling in traditional linear manner, it is best to recall a few significant excursions.

On its second day in our garage, we went for an extended evening cruise on a deserted stretch of local real estate. It took all of five minutes to discover that there’s no shortage of power under the hood. Punch the accelerator and the twin-turbo 5.5-liter V8 spools up with near imperceptible lag. With the gearshift in “D” and the selector on “Sport +” (we preferred this configuration over manual mode), it is in full attack setting. The AMG Speedshift MCT seven-speed transmission did an impressive job sending the power to the rear wheels (the gearbox uses a wet clutch pack, instead of a torque converter, to deliver both smooth and rapid-fire shifts). Gear changes were dual-clutch quick, and the electronics were uncanny in their ability to anticipate our next move. We mentioned earlier that some publications are reporting sub-four second sprints to 60 mph. We can happily report that this AMG felt every bit that fast all the time. Check off another near-perfect relationship between engine and transmission.

The only time the sleek coupe seemed to hesitate was when the corners became really tight and its size and weight got in the way.

On its third day under our watch, we headed up the famed Mulholland highway. Cruising through the canyons at a very good clip, the CLS63 AMG handled the corners effortlessly. The tires stuck tenaciously and the stock iron brakes never gave up an inch to fade (ceramics are optional, but we didn’t ever get close to needing them). It was a real hoot to drive spiritedly, hearing the deep exhaust boom off the canyon walls, and we opened the sunroof and dropped the windows in celebration. The only time the sleek coupe seemed to hesitate was when the corners became really tight (on windy Decker Canyon Road) and its size and weight (4,275 pounds) got in the way. Drive it really hard – too hard – and the four-door won’t let you forget that it has a very comfortable second row of seats behind you.

On its fifth day in our possession, we pointed the four-passenger Benz towards California Speedway. We figured the 200-mile jaunt would afford us some meaningful highway time. Despite a very firm suspension, which never bothered us but did raise more than a few of our passenger’s eyebrows, we found it to be an excellent long-distance sled. The CLS63 tracked like an arrow at high speed, there was always plenty of power on tap, and the automaker’s Distronic Plus cruise control worked miracles in steady and stop-and-go traffic. We’ve come to regard it as the best autonomous cruise control on the market (unfortunately, its extended-wave radar operating at 77 GHz and 24 GHz does very annoying things to radar detectors). We arrived at the event (a Porsche Owners Club race), parked up front, and had to wipe dozens of fingerprints off the glass. The big coupe was a big hit.

 

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG rear 3/4 view

The day of reckoning always comes at the end of the week, just before a car is picked up. It’s the time when we pull out the window sticker, take a second look at a few of the small details, and then try to figure out who its primary competitor is. While that last part isn’t usually difficult, this particular CLS had us a bit stumped. After a bit of chin rubbing, we settled on the Porsche Panamera S.

The CLS63 AMG is worth every penny of its $115,000 sticker price, and that isn’t something we say very often.

Our guess is that the engineering team at Mercedes-Benz never envisioned that its CLS-Class would be compared to a Porsche (the Panamera didn’t arrive until 2009, five years later), but the correlation is a solid compliment to both parties. Some will argue that the Porsche is underpowered compared to the burly Benz, and it is. But this isn’t so much about power as it is about driving dynamics. More specifically, rear-wheel-drive vehicle dynamics. Unlike the many all-wheel-drive competitors, delivering all-season grip at the expense of driving pleasure, the Panamera S and CLS63 may be tossed and caught with the throttle on all types of pavement. They are both fabulous, and thoroughly engaging, drivers’ cars – and there is no clear gold medalist.

As you have figured out by now, the original high-performance four-door sports coupe has really impressed us. As it does to affluent buyers each day in the showroom, it tickled our enthusiast soul. We won’t suggest that it is a perfect match for all drivers, but we will boldly proclaim that the Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG is worth every penny of its $115,000 sticker price, and that isn’t something we say very often.

 

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review

Product categories come and go, grow and wither, revolutionize the world and then slowly fade into a state of cold, quiet, everlasting obsolescence. It happens all the time, sometimes over the course of just a year or two (see: netbooks) and, while companies have made billions by establishing truly new categories, rarely has anybody rocked the world by splitting the difference between two very closely aligned ones.

That’s exactly what Apple is trying to do here. The company’s MacBook Pro line is one of the most respected in the industry for those who need an ostensibly professional laptop. Meanwhile, the MacBook Air is among the best (if not conclusively the best) thin-and-light laptops on the market. Now, a new player enters the fray: the MacBook Pro with Retina display. It cleanly slides in between these two top-shelf products, while trying to be simultaneously serious and fast, yet slim and light. Is this, then, a laptop that’s all things to all people, the “best Mac ever” as it was called repeatedly in the keynote? Or, is it more of a compromised, misguided attempt at demanding too much from one product? Let’s find out.

When physically placed between the 13-inch MacBook Air and the 15-inch Pro, it’s clear that this new guy (who, for now, is simply called “MacBook Pro with Retina display”) leans far toward the latter when it comes to design. With both closed, at a quick glance you would almost not notice there’s anything different between this new Pro and the also-new-but-yet-old one. Still, it doesn’t take long to spot the thinness — or the lack of the slot-loading optical drive on the right.

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

That thickness measures in at 0.71 inches (1.8cm) while the width is 14.13 inches (35.89cm) and the depth is 9.73 inches (24.71cm). Those figures compare quite favorably to the old 15-incher (at 0.95 inches thick) and it’s very nearly as thin as the Air, which is 0.68 inches at its thickest. Weight? A healthy 4.46 pounds (2.02kg). That’s just over a pound less than the full-sized MacBook Pro and about 1.5 pounds more than the 13-inch Air.

The new Pro feels considerably heavier than the Air and not that much lighter than the old Pro.

That may sound like an even split between the two sister models, but in reality the new Pro feels considerably heavier than the Air and not that much lighter than the old Pro. That said, much of this depends on where you’re coming from. If you’re an Air user, carrying this around is going to feel burdensome. However, if your regular daily driver is a current 15-inch Pro (or, heaven forbid, a 17-incher), the new Pro could feel like a refreshing reduction in curb weight. And, with even more resolution and performance than the outgoing 17 inch model, we think this new model makes for a more than compelling alternative.

In exchange for your pack getting a little lighter, you’re not being asked to give up all that much. Yes, the optical drive is the most obvious omission, the only physical media you’ll be supporting here is the SD slot located conveniently on the right. The lack of ROM support helps this new model be as thin as it is — and provides room for the extra batteries needed to keep that Retina display brightly and brilliantly backlit.

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

Also gone is the Ethernet port, replaced by a Thunderbolt adapter that is not included with the laptop. (It’ll cost you $29.99.) Likewise, the FireWire 800 port has been removed, replaced by a separate Thunderbolt adapter. Leaving all those things behind will be difficult, but stay strong, road warrior, because the new Pro is there to help, supporting your love of modern standards with two USB 3.0 portsand two Thunderbolt ports. (Interestingly, Apple chose not to make the USB ports blue, as they’re both 3.0 and, therefore, there was no need to differentiate.) Inside is an 802.11n radio providing some of the fastest wireless connectivity available, but there’s no option for 3G/LTE broadband. Those who want to roam past the confines of a hotspot will have to bring their own modems.

There’s the now-standard single headphone jack on the left side and the soon-to-be-standard MagSafe 2connector. This new connector is a few millimeters shorter than the old one and a few millimeters wider. Apple says this is needed because of the laptop’s thinner profile and, indeed, the new Airs also make the change to MagSafe 2. But, since the old Airs got by just fine with the slightly chubbier connector, and since there’s still plenty of room for the relatively massive USB ports, we’re just not seeing the need for a redesign right now.

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

Where the last design will grab and hold the end of whatever USB cable you pointed its way, the new MagSafe wants nothing to do with them.

Whatever the reason, all those scratched-up, white, plastic power bricks you’ve accumulated over the years won’t work here — at least, not without a $10 adapter. That’s a bummer, but there is some good news: the new MagSafe is no longer the same size as a USB port. Where the last design would grab and hold the end of whatever USB cable you pointed its way, the new MagSafe wants nothing to do with them. That, at least, is some true progress.

Settled between all these ports and interconnects is the keyboard, which hasn’t really changed from the current Pro. That’s a good thing. Apple has shown itself extremely proficient in crafting fine, island-style keyboards on its portable machines, and neither that layout nor feel has changed with the new Pro. Well-weighted and nicely spaced keys make for a great typing experience — even in the dark, thanks to the backlighting.

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

On either side of the keyboard are the speakers, said to be louder and more effective than those in the previous Pro. We didn’t notice a huge change here, but they’re certainly more than capable of turning your hotel room into an impromptu dance party — albeit one without too much bass. Beneath it all lies the glass trackpad, which feels just like it always has: really good. MacBooks have the best touch experience in the business, hands down, and this latest one is no different.

 

Display

 

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

Sure, it’s a quarter thinner and lighter than before, but the real story with this new laptop has nothing to do with external dimensions and everything to do with internal density. Pixel density, to be specific, a figure measured at 220 ppi. That’s far lower than the 326 ppi the iPhone 4S delivered when it introduced the world to Retina and, indeed, the 264 ppi rating on the new iPad.

The new display is gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.

But, held at the appropriate distance, this new panel is said to meet the mystical requirement to be labeled “Retina” and, while that threshold for pixel-invisibility seems to be slinking lower, we’re not here to be cynics. We just know one thing: the new display is gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. Text is incredibly sharp and clear, 1080p video is amazing and images, of course, look great — when they’re of a high enough resolution to do this 2880 x 1800 panel justice.

Curiously, you can’t actually select that resolution in the OS any longer. Where on other Macs you can explicitly select what display resolution you’d like to use (optionally going lower than the native resolution of the panel), here we have a slider with five positions ranging from “larger text” to “more space.” In the middle sits “best” which presents apps, icons and text in roughly the same size as you’d find them on a non-Retina display — rendered in a higher resolution. It’s perhaps more friendly for novice users, but remember: this is a laptop with the word “Pro” in the name.

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

Let’s not ignore the fact that this new display has much more to offer than just additional pixels. Viewing angles are expanded compared to Apple’s other high-end displays, so the annoying drop in contrast that happens from odd vantage points is all but abolished. Contrast, too, is boosted and, interestingly, glare reduced. Yes, this is still a glossy display and no, there still isn’t an option for matte glass. But, Apple promises a reduction in glare here from previous Pros.

Indeed, this laptop does have less glare than the thicker Pros, but it’s no better than the current Air, which already takes advantage of the new, reflection-reducing construction. You might, then, want to turn off that lamp behind you.

 

Performance and battery life

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display mid2012 review

We tested both the base 2.3GHz and higher-spec 2.6GHz quad-core Ivy Bridge CPUs that are on offer (there’s an even faster 2.7GHz build-to-order model for another $250), and neither disappointed. In fact, you’d have to be a seriously jaded desktop user to want more oomph from your on-the-go machine. The new MacBook Pro handled absolutely everything we could throw at it and did so with aplomb. General productivity tools fly and more… intensive things run impressively well.

The SSD delivered write speeds hovering around 390MB/s and read speeds topping out at 440MB/s. That’s properly fast.

We ran all the major benchmarks and saw some big, big numbers. For the 2.6GHz model, Geekbench gave us an average of 11,591 — that crushes the 9,647 we scored with the last MacBook Pro, which is itself far from sluggish. The new 2.3GHz model wasn’t far behind with a score of 11,082. Xbench was similarly close: 486 for the higher-spec’d model, and 457 for the lower. Finally, the SSD delivered write speeds hovering around 390MB/s and reads topping out at 440MB/s. That’s properly fast.

 

MacBook Pro with Retina display (mid 2012, 2.6GHz Core i7) MacBook Pro with Retina display (mid 2012, 2.3GHz Core i7) MacBook Pro (early 2011, 2.2GHz Core i7) MacBook Pro (early 2010, 2.66GHz Core i7)
Geekbench 11,591 11,082 9,647 5,395
Xbench 486 457 340 228
Battery Life 7:49 Test in progress 7:27 5:18

 

Paired with those quad-core chips is 8GB of 1,600MHz DDR3 RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce GT 650MKepler unit with 1GB of GDDR5 memory. Also on tap is integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics, the hotter of the two GPUs toggle on when the situation demands. To create such a scenario, we installed one of the hottest games of the moment, Diablo III, and cranked it up to full resolution and full graphical details. We did, however, make one exception: anti-aliasing. When you’re running at 2880 x 1800, there’s no real need.

We were quite happily surprised to see the frame rate hovering between 25 and 30 fps as we explored a few towns and crawled a few dungeons — perfectly playable at an obscene resolution. Turning it down to something a little more reasonable, 2048 x 1280, netted 40 to 45 fps and running at a relatively mundane 1280 x 800 delivered frame rates over 70. This, then, is a quite passable gaming machine.

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

Still, it only took a few minutes of hacking and slashing to get the bottom of this unit warm, and then noticeably hot. That, of course, caused the redesigned fan system to pop on, which draws in air from a pair of vents on the left and right sides of the bottom of the chassis and blows it out through the hinge. It’s been optimized to create a less obnoxious sort of whirring noise. Indeed it’s a subtle and unobtrusive white kind of sound, but it’s definitely not silent. In fact, the fan doesn’t sound particularly different than that on the current MacBook Air, though a few decibels less obtrusive. Still, you’ll always know when your system is really cranking.

Despite all that performance, we were still impressed by the battery life. In our standard rundown test, which involves looping a video with WiFi on and the display set at a fixed brightness, we netted an impressive seven hours and 49 minutes on the 2.6GHz model. We’re still testing the 2.3GHz model, and plan to update this review with final results once we have them.

 

Software

 

Right now, the new MacBook Pro is running Lion, but buy yours now, and you’ll find a free upgrade to Mountain Lion in your inbox. We already know quite a bit about Mountain Lion, which is, as of this writing, about a month away from launch. But what we didn’t know was the high-resolution support needed for these Retina displays. As of now, that support is sadly far from pervasive.

Right now, seemingly every third-party app on the Mac looks terrible.

The primary Apple apps — Safari, Mail, the address book, etc. — have all been tweaked to make use of all these wonderful pixels. Sadly, little else has. While we got assurances that third-party apps like Adobe Photoshop and AutoCAD are in the process of being refined, right now, seemingly every third-party app on the Mac looks terrible.

Yes, terrible. Unlike a PC, where getting a higher-res display just means tinier buttons to click on, here OS X is actively scaling things up so that they maintain their size. This means that non-optimized apps, which would otherwise be displayed as tiny things, instead are displayed in their normal physical dimensions with blurry, muddy edges. You do have some control over this scaling, with five separate grades to choose from, but none will make these classic apps look truly good. At least, not until their developers release the updates they’re no doubt frantically working on at this very moment.

Take Google Chrome, for example. You might forgive the buttons and UI elements for being ugly, but even the text rendered on webpages is blurry and distorted. It’s bad enough that you won’t want to use Google’s browser until it’s updated, which will surely leave some cynics wondering if indeed this isn’t a ploy to get folks to spend a little more quality time with Safari. Good thing Safari’s about ready for its own update.

 

Configuration options

 

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

The Retina display MBP starts at a lofty $2,199. For the money, you’ll get a 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB solid-state drive, seven-hour battery and dual graphics — Intel’s integrated HD 4000 and NVIDIA’s Kepler-based GeForce GT650M, paired with 1GB of video memory. Of course, the three-year Apple Care Warranty is sold separately, for $349.

If money is no object, you can select the highest-tier model for $2,799. Though this has the same battery, graphics and 8GB of RAM, it steps up to a 2.6GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, and doubles the storage capacity to 512GB. Not impressed? You can upgrade further to a 2.7GHz CPU for $250 or select 16GB of RAM, to the tune of $200. You can also max out with a 768GB SSD, provided you’re willing to part with an additional $500. For those keeping track at home, that brings the outside cost to $4,098, the extended warranty included.

Disappointingly, you can’t add the higher-capacity SSD to the lower-spec CPU. And, since the storage is proprietary, swapping in your own will not be a particularly easy task. If you want more than 256GB of storage, you’ll just have to step up to the 2.6GHz model.

 

The competition

 

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

You say you’re looking for a laptop with a 15-inch screen, top-notch build quality and a pinch-thin frame? Fortunately for those of you who feel paralyzed by choice, that criteria whittles down your options to two notebooks, tops. The only other contender we can think of is the 15-inch Samsung Series 9, which starts at a more palatable $1,500. At 3.5 pounds and 0.58 inches deep, it’s barely thicker than the 13-inch version, which is saying a lot, since that’s one of the thinnest Ultrabooks in its own right.

The 15-inch Series 9 is far skinnier and lighter than the MacBook Pro, then, but it matches the MBP in build quality, thanks to a rock-solid unibody aluminum chassis and some funky aquamarine keyboard backlights. Ultimately, too, both deserve to be handled with kid gloves: whichever machine you choose, you’ll find the smooth metal finish is quite vulnerable to scratches and greasy fingerprint smudges.

It’s with the display that the MacBook Pro starts to justify its higher starting price. On its own, the Series 9’s matte, 400-nit 1600 x 900 panel is still worlds better than what you’ll find on most laptops. Certainly, it’s a triumph for Ultrabooks, which tend to get saddled with subpar displays, even on higher-end machines. Still, the Series 9’s SuperBright Plus screen can’t compete with the MBP’s tightly woven pixels and wide, wide viewing angles. On the inside, too, the new MacBook Pro offers potentially better specs, with options for twice the RAM and a more spacious 768GB solid-state drive. It’s also offered with multiple Core i7 processor options, whereas the Series 9 is only available with Core i5, and with integrated graphics only.

These unflattering comparisons aside, the 15-inch Series 9 is still one of our favorite Windows machines — heck, one of our favorite laptops, even. It remains a sterling choice for Windows fans, or anyone who’s willing to spend $1,500 on a notebook, but not $2,200-plus. The two are also well matched when it comes to battery life: the difference in runtime is only about 20 minutes. Even so, if the Retina display MBP is aimed at people who demand the very best, it sweeps at least two key categories: specs and display quality.

If it’s discrete graphics you’re really after, we also recommend checking out the HP Envy 15, which starts at $1,350 (not counting promotions) and can be configured with Ivy Bridge Core i5 and i7 CPUs, a 1GB Radeon HD 7750 GPU, up to 16GB of RAM and either an SSD or spinning hard drive (storage options max out at 300GB and 1TB, respectively). Here, too, you’ll find a better display than most laptops have to offer, though the IPS-quality Radiance panel has noted color calibration issues, and the 1080p resolution is still no match for the Retina display.

 

Wrap-up

 

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

Is this the best Mac ever? You can’t ignore the Air as an amazing piece of machinery, especially with the new, higher-powered Ivy Bridge processors and faster SSDs tucked inside its wedge profile. But, this new Pro is on another level of performance. With a quad-core processor and up to 16GB of RAM it’s a proper beast — a proper beast that you can throw in your messenger bag and carry around all day without spending all night complaining about an aching back.

That said, this is not exactly a small machine, heavy enough that those happy Air users who’ve been feeling tempted might want to take a swing by their closest Apple Store and lift one themselves. It’s expensive, too. If you want a machine with enough storage to keep up with all that processing and gaming power you’ll be looking at a price of $2,800 — and that assumes you can resist all the upgrades.

So, then, is this a laptop that’s creating its own new product category? Not exactly. This is a laptop that stands poised to kill an existing one, one that Apple has dominated. The new Pro is good enough to make the old Pro (even the updated version) look and feel obsolete. It pushes and redefines the category, raising the bar higher than even its brethren can jump. If you can afford the premium and aren’t set on a 13-inch model there’s no reason to buy any Pro other than this Pro.

Zach Honig and Dana Wollman contributed to this review.

‘Brave’ Review: Pixar’s Latest Hits The Target, But Struggles Getting There

Pixar’s latest film, Brave, is a beautifully-constructed, entertaining journey with well-developed characters set in an interesting world. That much we’ve come to expect from the company behind Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Up. What we’ve also come to expect are complicated adult themes and situations portrayed in a kid-friendly computer-generated environment. There Brave doesn’t feel like a Pixar movie. The film is filled with ideas and stories that are decidedly more childish than we’ve come to expect. In the end Brave does exactly what it set out to do, but the journey to get there isn’t particularly innovative or compelling. Brave has its moments, but it’s not the movie you think it’s going to be.

Brave is about a young Princess named Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) who lives in ancient Scotland with three brothers, her father King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). The Queen and the Princess rarely see eye to eye, especially on the subject of her imminent marriage. When Merida goes against her mother’s wishes, she runs away, hell-bent on doing something to change her seemingly unavoidable fate.

So far so good. But it’s at this point that Brave changes. We won’t spoil it here because the reveal has so purposefully been left out of all the marketing (though I’m sure it’s been spoiled elsewhere), but the film undergoes such a surprising, drastic shift, it’s almost like it reboots itself.

This, of course, has also happened in other Pixar films. Wall-E leaving Earth was a drastic surprising change. Carl Fredricksen losing his wife was a drastic surprising change and even in Cars 2, Mater being the star was a drastic surprising change. The difference between Brave and those stories, however, are that those plot points evolved the story beyond expectations. Brave does the opposite. Featuring Pixar’s first female lead and visuals that look more realistic than every Pixar film before it, the world of Brave demands something magical but grounded. Think Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings with a Pixar twist. Brave, though, is not that. The film loses a lot of its weight and heart when it takes this unexpectedly comical and childish turn.

After about 10 minutes settling into what feels like Brave 2.0, the trajectory of the story becomes obvious. The metaphor that turn sets up works to drive the film’s themes of forgiveness, acceptance and selflessness. Still, the fact that it’s done in such a goofy way feels like a letdown.

Even so, I liked Brave a lot. Its tragic flaw can be forgiven, as the film offers a ride filled with gorgeous music, goosebump-inducing scenes and funny moments. The film satisfies but, by going the easy route to make its point, loses the gravitas that was created at the beginning. Brave is most certainly a worthy Disney movie; it just struggles to be as good a Pixar movie.

Apple iPad Smart Case

One of the quieter new product releases this week from Apple is the new iPad Smart Case. It’s a sort of extension of the iPad Smart Cover – offering protection for the front, back and sides of the iPad.

It was released on Monday afternoon and I picked one up at my local Apple Store first thing Tuesday morning.

Notes

The new iPad Smart Case is made of polyurethane and comes in a range of six colors – light gray, dark gray, blue, green, pink, and red.

The case’s interior is a soft, color-matched microfiber lining that should help a little in keeping the iPad screen clean.

It’s priced at $49, is compatible with the iPad 2 and new iPad 3, and can be personalized with laser engraving for free.

 

iPad Smart Case Interior

Highlights

– The case is smart looking. I don’t find the polyurethane smart covers as nice looking (or feeling) as the leather versions but these are attractive enough. I got the dark gray model and I’m happy with the look of it.

– The coverage of the back and sides of the iPad is complete – with the only openings being for the dock connector port, the screen lock switch, the camera, and the headphone jack. This is not a rugged case like an Otterbox but it provides a basic level of full-body protection for the iPad.

– All the buttons and ports are still accessible and usable while in the case. The Power/Sleep/Wake button and the Volume up and down buttons are actually covered by the case but it’s designed so they can be used easily with extra rubber buttons over them and they work well. Even the camera works as long as you fold the front cover when using it.

iPad Smart Case flat

– The back of the case sports an Apple logo – so you won’t miss it by covering up the aluminum back of the iPad.

iPad Smart Case back 2

– It’s relatively easy to get the iPad into the case, and the iPad feels very secure in the case.You slot the iPad into the holder at the corners and then just pull the rubber of the case over it on each side.

– In much the same way as Apple’s case for the original iPad, the iPad Smart Case works as a stand in a viewing mode and typing mode. The typing mode works quite nicely.

iPad Smart Case Typing Stand

– The case adds some bulk and weight to the iPad of course, but it’s fairly minimal and still feels more than comfortable to carry around and when using the iPad. I’ve currently got two iPad 3s – so I took a quick shot of one with just a smart cover stacked on top of the other with the new iPad Smart Case:

iPad Smart Case and iPad Smart Cover

Lowlights

– I find it a little less easy to open the smart cover when using this case. It’s not as instant an action as it is with just a smart cover – though perhaps I’ll get more used it and more adept at this as I spend more time using the case.

Overall

If you enjoy using an iPad smart cover but also want some protection for the back and sides of the iPad, the new iPad Smart Case is quite a nice solution. It’s also nicely priced for an Apple accessory and in comparison to some of the other similar 3rd party cases of this type.

You can check these out at a local Apple retail store or see details and place an order at Apple’s online store page for the iPad Smart Case.

Disclosure: This accessory was independently purchased by the post author. For information on our review policies please see our About page.

HTC Desire C hands-on

HTC gave us a quick session to play around with its latest handset, the Desire C. No, it’s not part of the consolidated One series, nor is the company revealing precisely what that “C” stands for — heaven forfend it’s “cheap.” While a humble 320 x 480 touchscreen and 600MHz processor might not set many smartphone obsessives’ hearts a’ racing, it still manages to eke out a HTC Sense-skinned Android 4.0 UI — no mere feat, in our opinion. A 5-megapixel camera and expandable microSD slot are some other welcome specifications and it’s all wrapped up in an attractive matte finish — you can take your pick form black and white in the UK. Catch our quick video run-through of the sub-$300 handset right after the break.

(We mentioned in the video that the phone’s running on a 6Mhz processor — which is clearly madness. Just to reiterate, the Desire C runs on a 600MHz single-core processor.)

The phone felt slightly fuller in the hand compared to the recent glut of sub-10mm devices, measuring in at just under 12mm thick, but like Palm’s HP’s now defunct Pre range, it’s a very comfortable fit in the hand. This was the NFC model and weighed in at precisely 100g (0.22 pounds). The 3.5-inch screen was bright, although noticeably grainier than HTC’s more premium models. While a five-megapixel camera sounded like a boon, we were forewarned that it’s of the fixed-focus variety. Despite that, it came with the same filter effects and dual-capture features seen on the likes of the One S. Despite the weedy processor and 512MB of RAM — specs that echoed the ghosts of smartphone past — it kept up with our swipes and several apps launched without much waiting around. The multitask button is also in attendance, with an interface similar to the One V: that is, more stock Android 4.0, less Sense sparkle. We were pleasantly surprised with the handset and it could strike a chord with phone buyers that fondly recall the larger, original Desire. However, there’s no news just yet on the device making a trip over to the western side of the Atlantic.

 

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 690 review roundup: (usually) worth the one grand

Now that NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 690 is shipping through some vendors, gamers have been wondering if it’s worth the wallet-busting $999 to get those higher frame rates. Surprisingly, the answer is “yes.” As AnandTech notes, the GTX 690 is often almost as fast or faster than a pair of GTX 680s working together in SLI mode, only using less power and running at cooler and quieter power levels through those two 28-nanometer Kepler chips. Across multiple reviewers, though, the GTX 690 was sometimes slower than two Radeon HD 7970 boards using CrossFire. HotHardware and others found that it’s definitely the graphics card of choice for Batman: Arkham City enthusiasts: problems with AMD’s CrossFire mode leave a dual Radeon HD 7970 setup running at just half the frame rate of its NVIDIA-made challenger.

Caveats? There are still some worries beyond the price tag, as the twin Radeon cards are as much as three times faster at general-purpose computing tasks than the latest and greatest GeForce. PC Perspective likewise warns that fans of joining three displays together for some 3D Vision Surroundaction will still take a big frame rate hit when they put the 3D glasses on. Still, the GTX 690 looks to be tops if you’re looking to get the fastest single-card gaming on Earth, and as Legit Reviews adds, thattrivalent chromium-plated aluminum makes it one of the “better looking” cards, to boot.

First Avengers Reviews: Best Superhero Movie Ever?

Don’t get too excited or anything, but the first batch of reviews for The Avengers are out, now that it’s coming out in the U.K. next week. And they’re almost uniformly positive, if not gushing. The bottom line seems to be that this is not just the culmination of all of the Marvel movies’ buildup and anticipation — but it’s also a well-made, craftsmanlike film that keeps things moving and manages to keep the characters and action interesting. And some reviewers go so far as to call it the best superhero movie yet.

Den of Geek just lays it out there. They think this is the best superhero movie yet:

To Whedon’s credit, he pulled it off. He didn’t just make the best superhero action film that has ever been made, he somehow did it while making a Joss Whedon film – smart, funny and dramatic, but with all the trappings of a sci-fi action movie presented fully intact. Imagine if Transformers 3 had a plot, a script, actors you liked and comprehensible special effects: that’s what Avengers feels like. It’s all so very… big.

Variety says:

Crucially, sequences that might have played as laborious buildup are handled in a brisk, straight-ahead manner that quickly focuses attention while methodically elevating the stakes, scene by scene… The battles are excitingly staged, with a sweep and coherence that actually gain something from the 3D conversion, especially when the camera starts to pinball from building to building in a breathless flurry of digital zooms and tracking shots.

Says Screen Daily:

Though overlong and inevitably burdened by the need to juggle so many protagonists – not to mention their different emotional arcs and back stories – this much-anticipated kick-off to summer movie season manages to maintain a playful, crowd-pleasing spirit… The Avengers‘ tart comic timing and plethora of funny quip help keep this nearly two-and-a-half-hour movie as breezy as it is.

The Hollywood Reporter gets tangled up in cooking metaphors:

It’s clamorous, the save-the-world story is one everyone’s seen time and again, and the characters have been around for more than half a century in 500 comic book issues. But Whedon and his cohorts have managed to stir all the personalities and ingredients together so that the resulting dish, however familiar, is irresistibly tasty again.

Popcorn Junkie says it’s not the best superhero movie, because it’s not quite as good as The Dark Knight and Superman: The Movie:

The action is spectacular and every set piece is crafted to make jaws drop. It’s so exciting that some people may shake so hard with excitement during the main sequences that they may spontaneously combust or travel back in time… As a long time comic book fan ‘The Avengers’ is a dream come true and I can honestly say that I am so happy to have witnessed it. My future children will have to compete with the film for my love and attention.

Movie Web is also ecstatic:

Avengers Assemble is by far the most spectacular superhero ever made in terms of a visual extravagance, and is truly something that has been worth waiting for and it’s the Marvel equivalence to Nolan’s Batman. In final words prepare for something that is truly indescribable as your theatres roars in applause… Joss Whedon has officially created every fan boy’s dream.

The Telegraph is also pleased:

Joss Whedon’s lavishly enjoyable, chewily-titled film (the branding’s there to warn British cinema-goers that John Steed will not be making an appearance) is an assemblage of everything that’s good about contemporary popcorn cinema; just as importantly, it’s a rejection of everything that isn’t. Avengers might be short on bright ideas of its own, but co-writer and director Whedon has a magpie’s eye for stealing other people’s, and an enviable knack of improving them.

And Australia’s Telegraph is even more thrilled:

Upcoming US summer blockbusters such as The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man had better be at the peak of their powers to match the absolute blast that is The Avengers. … Overall, The Avengers is a fist-pumping cause for celebration for comic-book hard-liners and action fans alike.

But if you want a dissenting opinion, there’s Box Office Magazine:

The Avengers almost works. It’s funny and it’s physical, but even at two and a half hours, it plays like it’s on fast-forward. Forget character development-there’s not even character explanation. The lesser Avengers are most slighted…. Samuel L. Jackson continues to be the franchise’s weak link as an unconvincing military bureaucrat. Though his co-stars fight in horned helmets or turn green when enraged, he can’t even credibly wear an eye patch.

And now I want to know what goes into eye-patch-wearing credibility. There should be a tutorial or something.

The Daily Mail is also dubious:

The biggest weakness is its premise, which is that the Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is plotting the downfall of the human race, yet we never really know why… The first half contains too much laboured exposition, and even the action-packed second half may not convert every-one who finds superhero movies immature. But this is a superior example of its kind, with sequences on a par with the best Spiderman and Batman movies. And technically, it’s a real marvel.

The Guardian also feels that Loki is the weak link:

The hero-against-hero slugfest that the comics have been trading on for decades is entertaining at first, but the various combinations of Hulk v Thor v Iron Man quickly blow themselves out. Perhaps it would have helped if they had a properly combative adversary. Hiddleston’s Loki, while a gloriously over-boiled caricature of the emotionally crippled boy-man we met in Thor, is backed by a horde of faceless, disposable allies, and it’s hard to see how they put up much of a threat.

Empire is more sanguine, praising the movie’s well-made sensibility:

This might not match the pyrotechnic power or CG clout of, say, the Transformers films. Yet there is something much more valuable – real human interaction and more of a brain on display. Whedon opens up the canvas and offers something that, with so many characters in play, feels epic and yet never loses sight of the real reason we’ve come to enjoy this particular dysfunctional super-family forced to play nicely together for the first time. In a few brief moments, the pace seems to sag, and the exposition needle pushes a little into the red zone once or twice, but even that is usually wrapped up with swift aplomb.

IGN says you’ll have a huge grin on your face and possibly spontaneously applaud during the film:

The Avengers is an utterly unique film – both the payoff to something being set up by five other movies, yet also the launching point for its own series. Yes, with so much to deal with and so many characters, it can get a bit messy. But Whedon does an excellent job of giving nearly everyone their due and mixing and matching these amazing characters in several different ways, bouncing them off each other both physically and mentally and charting just what these heroes have to go through to find their footing as a team.

Total Film feels the need to deny Avengers the title of best superhero movie ever, as well:

With great power comes great banter in writer/director Joss Whedon’s blockbuster multiplier, which isn’t the best superhero movie ever – but might well be the funniest… Perhaps inevitably, there’s never quite enough real drama or danger for our effectively invincible protagonists. But this 142-minute romp between gods, monsters, men and supermen packs so much crowd-pleasing colour and humour that it’s impossible not to walk out grinning.

What Culture also has a few slight reservations, but calls it the purest comic adaptation ever:

Thanks to the talent and immeasurable passion of Joss Whedon, the film not only works, it excels and it is easily one of the most enjoyable and certainly the purest superhero movie ever made. It is not quite a resounding success however, with a number of developmental issues holding it back from being an unblemished masterpiece, including some clunking sections of dialogue that are a little too reminiscent of Michael Bay for comfort and the occasional imbalanced story choices that inspire little more than a slight frown but which gestate quickly and frustratingly offer a picture of what have been.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) review

There’s an age-old saying: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?” We’re tempted to posit that question to Samsung as it clears room in its crowded product portfolio for yet another Galaxy Tab. One month after announcing it at Mobile World Congress, the outfit’s bringing its 7-inch sequel to the masses. As if Sammy’s Galaxy Tab lineup weren’t already overflowing, this guy comes bearing internals that make it near-identical to the OG Galaxy Tab and 7.0 Plus that have come before it.

A few specs, though, have seen downgrades: the front-facing camera now has VGA resolution, and the dual-core TI OMAP processor powering it is clocked at a lower 1GHz. Still, the 1024 x 600 TFT LCD display remains intact, as does the 3-megapixel rear camera, microSD slot and IR blaster. It’s a puzzling hardware refresh ushering in modest tweaks to a proven design, with the biggest change of all being the move to Ice Cream Sandwich (with TouchWiz, of course). Is that software upgrade alone compelling enough to warrant an entirely new piece of hardware in Samsung’s lineup? Maybe, maybe not. It all comes down to price, and at $250 this WiFi-only tablet could give consumers with Kindle Fire ire something to talk about. Follow past the break to see what we mean.

 

Hardware

 

Some family resemblances can be tenuous, causing those in the know to cast suspicious glances towards the figurative OEM milkman, but in the Tab 2’s case, the parental lineage is all too clear. With a build that’s barely indistinguishable from the higher-end 7.0 Plus (now about $420), the tablet tacks on a marginal amount of thickness, measuring in at 10.5mm versus 9.96mm. Still, despite that extra padding it weighs the same as its older sibling: 345 grams, or about 0.76 pounds.

At first blush, it would appear Samsung’s done little, if anything, to set these two devices apart. After a closer, lingering inspection, though, you’ll notice some tell-tale signs of a refresh, like the omission of both a frontward speaker grill and LED flash ’round back. Cosmetically, those are the standout differentiators, but there are more subtle tweaks that make this iteration feel like more of an ergonomic match made in hand. Flip the Tab 2 into landscape orientation and you’ll see that its smooth, gunmetal grey enclosure spills over gently to meet the bezel with more of a pronounced curve. That alteration ultimately makes the tab more pleasant to hold while watching video, browsing one-handed or viewing photos. While it would’ve been nice to see the 7.0 Plus’s classier faux-brushed metal digs make a reappearance, the move to a smooth enclosure shouldn’t ruffle prospective owners; it’s still smudge-free, despite being slightly slippery.

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Schematic variation clearly wasn’t on order when Samsung set its designers loose on the Tab 2. As it was on the Plus, so, too, it goes on the Tab 2 (7.0). The right side is home to hardware keys for power and volume, in addition to an IR blaster, while a proprietary charging dock and dual speakers take up residence at the base. Move to the left and you’ll find a covered microSD slot, with the 3.5mm headphone jack sitting on the nearby top edge. The tab’s backside reveals no superfluous embellishments, save for the unaccompanied 3-megapixel shooter and Samsung’s logo.

The front face is as unadorned as ever, with a VGA camera and ambient sensor shrouded in the thick black bezel that surrounds the 7-inch, 1024 x 600 PLS TFT display. It’s a pity, really, that Samsung isn’t doing more to move beyond that old screen tech, employed as far back as the original Galaxy Tab. While viewing angles appear to hold up well, it still succumbs to extreme-enough lighting. Truly, the Tab 2 (7.0) could almost double as a mirror given its propensity for reflection.

Performance and battery life

 

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Right out of the gate, the Tab 2 (7.0) is hamstrung with lesser specs than its big brother, the 7.0 Plus. Its CPU, fashioned by the folks at Texas Instruments, differs from the Samsung-made Exynos chip used in the Plus. Not to mention, it’s also 200MHz slower. Does that translate into a noticeable difference? Well, yes and no. Using a gamut of performance tests as our guide, Sammy’s refreshed tab takes a solid backseat to its older sibling, losing in every round, save for a infinitesimal Neocore win. In the real world, though, those second best benchmark tests won’t carry much weight, thanks to the tab’s pleasingly fast user experience. Navigation through the carousel of homescreens bumps along at a consistent, fluid pace. Not once did we struggle with the kind of hiccups that plague other skinned Android slates.

Benchmark
Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0)
Galaxy Tab 7.0
Plus
Quadrant 2,840 3,212
Linpack single- and multi-thread (MFLOPS) 37.1 / 61.3 46.3 / 73.7
NenaMark 1 (fps) 57.6 59.3
NenaMark 2 (fps) 30.4 49.4
Vellamo 978 1,191
Neocore (fps) 59.6 59.1
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms, lower scores are better) 2,239.2 1,659.9

The browser on the Tab 2 (7.0) may not be as fast as the Plus’s, but its ability to snappily render full desktop pages in as little as 10 seconds should not leave users wanting. Even pinch-to-zoom feels brisk, although you will notice some white spaces, along with a loss in the integrity of the text.

When it comes to longevity, the company’s once again fallen back on the tried-and-true: a 4,000mAh juicepack. Except where you’d imagine this less demanding, lower-clocked tablet would more slowly sip that allotted power, it actually chugs, going from full to empty after seven hours and 38 minutes of video playback, compared with eight hours and change for the 7.0 Plus. That’s with Twitter set to sync at 15-minute intervals, one push email account active, brightness set to medium, and WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS enabled. Should you require less intense usage, you could probably squeeze a day and half of productivity from a single charge.

Tablet
Battery Life
Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) 7:38
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 12:01
Apple iPad 2 10:26
ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime 10:17
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 9:55
Apple iPad (2012) 9:52 (HSPA) / 9:37 (LTE)
Apple iPad (2010) 9:33
HP TouchPad 8:33
Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet 8:20
Lenovo IdeaPad K1 8:20
Motorola Xoom 8:20
T-Mobile G-Slate 8:18
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus 8:09
Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 8:00
Amazon Kindle Fire 7:42
Archos 101 7:20
Archos 80 G9 7:06
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook 7:01
Acer Iconia Tab A500 6:55
T-Mobile Springboard (Huawei MediaPad) 6:34
Toshiba Thrive 6:25
Samsung Galaxy Tab 6:09
Velocity Micro Cruz T408 5:10
Acer Iconia Tab A100 4:54
Toshiba Thrive 7″ 4:42

 

Software

 

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For better and worse, Samsung’s TouchWiz overcoat looks nothing like Google’s vision of Android 4.0.

Compared to Samsung’s Note products with their suite of S Pen apps, the very vanilla Tab series offers much less in the way of standout features. Still, in a bid to position the Tab 2 (7.0) as a media consumption device, Samsung outfitted it with an IR blaster. Coupled with the pre-installed Peel app (the same one loaded on the 7.0 Plus), the Tab 2 becomes a universal TV remote replete with personalized program recommendations. It’s a welcome value-add that turns what would otherwise be your second browsing screen into a living room accessory. But that’s not the main star of this 7-inch, galactic show: those honors go to its Android Ice Cream Sandwich UI.

For better and worse, Samsung’s TouchWiz overcoat looks nothing like Google’s vision of Android 4.0. It all depends on which you prefer more: the pure vision set forth by Andy Rubin or the user-friendly enhancements brought forth by Samsung. Certainly, a UX of any kind is an acquired taste, and here it manages to stay relatively unobtrusive. You’ll have access to the same suite of GApps, in addition to a heaping helping of bloat — about twenty, in total — some of which can be disabled, not uninstalled. What are the culprits this time ’round? Well, for starters, you have Samsung’s own ChatOn, Media Hub, Memo and S Planner applications joining the likes of Netflix, Polaris Office and Amazon Kindle, just to name a few. Hopefully, if you opt-in for this tablet, you can live with that permanent application load.

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In what’s turning out to be a very pro-consumer trend, Samsung’s bundling the Tab 2 (7.0) with a complimentary, one-year Dropbox account with 50GB of storage, similar to what HTC’s offering with its One devices. That extended cloud storage is intended to complement the built-in 8GB it ships with, and whatever size microSD card you choose to insert (you can go as high as 32GB).

Camera

 

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It goes without saying that tablets aren’t the most reliable, nor for that matter satisfactory replacements for smartphone cameras, much less point-and-shoots. That said, the rear 3-megapixel shooter does a decent job of producing fairly detailed (if slightly oversaturated and noisy) shots. There’s no elegant way to zoom in and out using the on-screen interface, so users will have to awkwardly toggle with the volume rocker for that purpose. There’s also no tap-to-focus here. What you will have access to is a host of customizable in-app settings familiar to most users, like scene modes, resolution and white balance.

Video playback, recorded at 720p resolution, evinced many of the same quirks, like that slight overcompensation for color and fuzzy overall composition. Audio, however, is undeniably poor and, as you’ll hear in the sample recording, comes across extremely muffled and static-y, picking up only the loudest of environmental sounds.

 

The competition

 

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You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better ICS tablet at this price.

So why should Samsung risk further diluting its dominant Android tablet brand with a WiFi-only hardware refresh that takes away much of the performance and construction gloss of the more premium, 21Mbps HSPA+ enabled Plus? Well, positioned at half the price — $250 — the 7-inch Tab 2 is already the more compelling option for budget-minded shoppers. Subtract the need for a monthly data contract, factor in some (mostly) comparable internals and you’ve got a low-cost device that escapes allusions to other budget devices. As a Galaxy Tab alternative, the Tab 2 is a sound purchase.

But there’s another unpretentious 7-incher that’s been sweeping the market with its open arms, Android architecture and deeply integrated ecosystem : the Kindle Fire. That tablet, still running an unrecognizable build of Gingerbread, offers an identical wireless experience and costs $50 less, to boot. Backed by Amazon’s vast e-book, MP3 and on-demand video library, the Fire comes off as the indisputable king of this hill. There’s just no overwhelming reason why consumers would dole out extra money for a media consumption device that does the same duties without the vast content resources. Fanboyism aside, you’ll either want to pony up for a network-connected slate or get the best bang for your buck — and that would be the Kindle Fire.

Wrap-up

 

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At almost half the price of the similar-looking Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, the Tab 2 performs gracefully, comes with ample storage space to harbor your vast trove of media, and generally makes Google’s latest software more accessible. Still, despite its reliable performance, it seems to us that Samsung didn’t do enough to effectively overpower the allure of the Kindle Fire’s tidy ecosystem. Without access to a well-curated content library, the Tab 2 (7.0) doesn’t really stand out amid an ever deepening line of Android 4.0 devices, and it will have to work that much harder to win the hearts of consumers looking for a 7-inch tablet (or just a really inexpensive one). All that said, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better ICS tablet at this price. So if that newly minted OS is what your wallet’s angling for, go ahead: take the plunge and call this media-minded slate your own. Had Samsung chopped off an extra $50 and put this on even ground with the Kindle Fire, though, it might have had an even clearer winner on its hands.

HTC Titan II review

Titan. It’s a ballistic missile and one of Saturn’s moons. The word also plays a huge role in Greek mythology and in normal use refers to something of enormous power and influence. So it’s understandable, then, why HTC seems to prefer it as a name for its phones. So much so, in fact, that the release of the LTE-enabled Titan II on AT&T actually marks not the second, but fourth iteration of the name: if you recall, the company once released two Windows Mobile devices called the TyTn.

We had mixed feelings as we watched the latest Titan get introduced at AT&T’s Developer Summit in January. On the one hand, we were intrigued by the idea of a smartphone with a monstrous 16-megapixel camera, as well as LTE — something the world previously hadn’t seen on a Windows Phone device. But the announcement also took place a mere two months after its predecessor launched on AT&T’s network, which gave us the sinking feeling Ma Bell’s new strategy was to crank out a plethora of refreshed phones boasting only a couple of new features (see: the Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket). So what of this sequel we have before us? Will it come out victorious like Remember the Titans or a disaster like Titanic? Is it worth it to new customers to shun the free Nokia Lumia 900 and shell out $200 for this guy instead? Follow us down the page and we’ll fill you in.

 

Hardware
It’s amazing to witness the contrast in design philosophy between HTC’s Windows Phones and its latest generation of Android devices (i.e., the One series). While one feels fresh, experimental, the other hearkens back to some of the Taiwanese company’s older handsets. And it shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out which one is which.

We suppose it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. After all, HTC likely views its Android phones as its cash cow, which is why it’s invested so heavily in the success of the One X, the One S and their respective variants. The Titan II, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to have received quite the same level of tender lovin’ care from HTC (or AT&T, for that matter), evidenced by its Easter Day launch, and a price at least double that of the Nokia Lumia 900 (depending on what kind of deal you find), its fiercest Windows Phone competitor. Nokia recruited Nicki Minaj to perform at a free concert in Times Square; HTC did… nothing.

Of course, launch details have absolutely zilch to do with how the phone’s features or performance, but we mention it to highlight one important aspect of the business: with the exception of Nokia, phone manufacturers aren’t betting on Windows Phone handsets as a major source of revenue. And perhaps they won’t be until the next generation of devices arrive on the scene, bearing Windows Phone 8 (Apollo). But because of this, these phones aren’t given the same VIP treatment as their Android brethren.

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Stepping off of our soapbox, let’s dive into the ins and outs of the Titan II. It sensibly adds to the spec sheet of its predecessor in a few critical areas, such as connectivity, camera optics and battery life. Unfortunately, improvements like these never seem to have a flattering effect on the weight and size of a device. The phone measures 10.2mm (0.4 inches) at its thinnest point, 0.3mm thicker than the last-gen model. As for its thickest spot — the hump that makes room for that larger camera sensor — we pulled out a ruler and estimated it to be around 13mm (0.5 inches), and that doesn’t even include the fact that the camera protrudes about a millimeter beyond the frame. If you believe the OG Titan’s 9.9mm thickness was borderline acceptable, a 30 percent increase in thickness could be tough to swallow. The phone also tips the scales at 6.1 ounces (173g), a rather significant change from the first version’s 5.64 ounces. Purchasing this phone will most certainly be a matter of compromise: it’s thicker and heavier than the original (and in our opinion, its design is a touch uglier as well), but in return you’re getting a larger battery, LTE connectivity and a 16-megapixel sensor instead of an 8-megapixel one.

You heard it right: newer design doesn’t always equate to better. The older Titan is sleeker, thinner, lighter and more elegant, while its sequel just feels more awkward and chunky in comparison. Despite its bulkier frame, the Titan II is still relatively easy to hold, especially if you’re blessed with larger hands. It’s still not as comfortable in our palms as the One X with its curvaceous, slightly thinner build, but at least the concave back is coated in soft-touch plastic that offers a degree of extra tactility. Still, where the One X was doable for smaller paws, this particular phone may be just a little too unwieldy for anyone with petite hands to fully appreciate it.

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Quickly glancing at the front of the Titan II, you might not see much of a difference between this and the last-gen Titan: they sport the same display, along with three capacitive buttons and a front-facing camera with an Inspire 4G-style recessed speaker grille up top. Look closer, though, and you’ll see the glass curves up slightly once it reaches the navigation keys at the bottom, forming a small chin.

The micro-USB charging port still sits by its lonesome on the left side of the phone, while a volume rocker and two-stage camera shutter button play together on the opposite end. Up top you’ll find the power / lock button, mic and 3.5mm headphone jack, which is actually designed with the signature HTC bump around it. This design flourish wasn’t present on the first Titan and frankly, we preferred it that way; the bump just feels like an interruption of those smooth curves you’ll find on the back side. It’s a similar story around the micro-USB opening, though the effect is far more subtle.

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The back side is where the phone becomes more interesting. Instead of choosing a one-piece removable battery cover that encompasses the entirety of its rear (as it did on the first Titan), the Titan II’s back is separated into three sections, and only one — the cover protecting the SIM card panel near the bottom of the device — is removable. Antennae are printed on the inside of that cover and have matching contacts in the phone’s chassis. But be warned: removing the cover will automatically turn off the handset. A silver microswitch made by ALPS detects that it’s been removed and powers down the device. It can come in handy if your phone freezes and you want to perform a soft reset, but woe to you if you happen to be in the middle of something incredibly important when you want to swap out your SIM. As for the cover itself, it’s the only section of the handset that’s textured in any way, with hundreds of shallow little divots. Despite this design choice, it doesn’t offer much additional traction for your slippery hands, though we found it to be quite helpful when sliding the cover off.

Moving up the back, the middle section emulates the signature HTC unibody style that was prevalent in so many models last year, but it’s interrupted by another piece on the top that covers the camera sensor, dual LED flash and speaker grille. Both sections are non-removable and each uses a different shade of grey, which isn’t an unusual design choice for the Taiwanese company (why, the grey / blue One S takes a similar tack, only the fading colors are arranged inversely to this).

If you’re looking for heaps of storage space, you’re not going to find it here. The Titan II contains 16GB of internal memory and, just like the vast majority of WP7 devices, is lacking in any external storage options. Unless you prefer to stash all of your important files away in the cloud, you’ll have to be rather picky about what goes on your phone at a given time, since you only get 13.5GB of user-accessible storage. This may sound like plenty of room for some of you, but remember that as camera resolutions have increased, image files have grown much larger (roughly 4MB to 5MB per photo), and these super-sized pics are likely to eat up your available space as an appetizer.

In case you’re interested in the full spread of specs, we’ve put together a nice little table to compare the Titan II’s offerings with what you’ll find on the original version as well as the Lumia 900, the phone’s main competition in the Windows Phone sphere, particularly on AT&T.

HTC Titan II HTC Titan Nokia Lumia 900
Dimensions 5.2 x 2.7 x 0.4 inches
(132 x 69 x 10.2mm)
5.18 x 2.78 x 0.39 inches
(131.5 x 70.7 x 9.9 mm)
5.03 x 2.7 x 0.45 inches (127.8 x 68.5 x 11.5mm)
Weight 6.1 oz (173g) 5.64 oz (160g) 5.64 oz (160g)
Screen size 4.7 inches 4.7 inches 4.3 inches
Screen resolution 800 x 480 (199ppi) 800 x 480 (199ppi) 800 x 480 (217ppi)
Screen type S-LCD S-LCD ClearBlack sAMOLED+
Battery 1,730mAh 1,600mAh 1,830mAh
CPU 1.5GHz single-core Qualcomm MSM8255T (Snapdragon S2) 1.5GHz single-core Qualcomm MSM8255T (Snapdragon S2) 1.4GHz single-core Qualcomm APQ8055 (Snapdragon S2)
GPU Adreno 205 Adreno 205 Adreno 205
RAM 512MB 512MB 512MB
Internal storage 16GB 16GB 16GB
External storage None None None
Rear camera 16MP, f/2.6 8 MP, f/2.2 8MP, f/2.2
Front-facing camera 1.3MP 1.3MP 1.0MP
Video capture 720p HD 720p HD 720p HD
NFC No No No
Radios Quadband GSM / EDGE; HSPA+ 850 / 1900 / 2100; LTE 700/1700 Quadband GSM / EDGE; HSPA 850 / 1900 / 2100 Quadband GSM / EDGE / ; HSPA+ 850 / 1900 / 2100; LTE 700 / 1700
Network speeds LTE, HSPA+ HSPA 14.4Mbps LTE, HSPA+ 21.1Mbps
Bluetooth 2.1+EDR 2.1+EDR 2.1+EDR
MHL No No Yes
Internet Sharing Yes Yes Yes
FM Radio Yes Yes Yes
SIM card Standard Standard Micro

 

Display
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We’re not going to dwell much on the Titan II’s display, because it offers absolutely no improvements over the original’s 4.7-inch WVGA (800 x 480) LCD panel. The Microsoft-mandated limits of Windows Phone are to blame for the lack of progress in this area, so we won’t fault HTC or AT&T this time.

But we can’t let the issue go without a fair amount of criticism: now that we’ve come to expect 4.7-inch displays with 720p resolution and pixel densities topping 315ppi, it’s getting more and more difficult to excuse a WVGA model that delivers a subpar 199ppi. However, while the pixelation is painfully evident, we’re at least happy with the superb viewing angles and above-average color saturation. We found we could see the screen well enough in direct sunlight, but only when the brightness was dialed up to its highest setting. Go lower and hardly anything is still readable.

The bottom line is that whether you were satisfied or unimpressed with the OG Titan’s display, you’ll feel exactly the same way now. And if you’re looking to grab a Windows Phone with a sharper screen, your best bet is to either wait for Apollo to come out (at which time, we hope, higher-res displays will be fully supported) or opt for a device with a smaller screen.

Performance and battery life
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The Titan II runs on a 1.5GHz single-core Snapdragon S2 45nm CPU (MSM8255) with an Adreno 205 GPU and 512MB of RAM. This is one of the better processors you can get on a Mango device, but it’s the same exact setup as the original Titan. For better or worse, Windows Phones are utterly predictable in terms of performance; the lack of multi-core support on the platform means that newer devices probably won’t be getting any faster or smoother until Microsoft lifts its restrictions. At the same time, there’s an argument to be made that the OS is already efficient, that a cap on processing power contributes to comparatively long battery life. And don’t forget, if a Kardashian is using a Lumia 900, that must mean it’s good enough for us, right?

In truth, though, while power users will always demand instantaneous response from their phones, the Titan II should be more than sufficient for casual users. Pinch-to-zoom feels smooth, and we love the responsiveness of the touchscreen, though as with other Windows Phones, you might end up waiting an extra second or two for the various animated transitions to run their course before you move on to your next task. We also found that the back of the phone gets warm during CPU-intensive tasks, but not much hotter than other devices. The temperature isn’t so high that the phone becomes uncomfortable to hold, though it’s definitely something you’ll notice with enough use.

Compared to Android, Windows Phone is lacking in benchmarking tools. WP Bench and SunSpider are the main tools available to us for measuring performance, but let’s face it: given that the top-end Mango devices have nearly hit a plateau for processing power, it’s not like the numbers would vary too widely anyway. Nevertheless, we’ve tossed in a few scores for your perusal.

 

HTC Titan II HTC Titan Nokia Lumia 900
WP Bench 94.5 96 92
Battery rundown (CPU-intensive) 2:50 3:00 4:29
SunSpider (ms, lower numbers are better) 6,445 6,500 6,902

The Titan II is powered by a 1,730mAh battery — an improvement over the original’s 1,600mAh offering. Unlike its predecessor, however, this particular model doesn’t come with a user-removable juicepack. It seems that this trend isn’t going away anytime soon, but we’re less concerned with battery life on Windows Phones than any other platform. We found absolutely no reason to be worried about the speed at which the new Titan sucks down power, since our average use (that’s the usual suite of email, Twitter, Facebook, push notifications, messages and other day-to-day activities) gave us nearly a day and a half of life. Naturally, lower usage will likely make it possible to eke out a full two days before requiring a new charge.

In terms of benchmark comparison, our CPU-intensive battery rundown test on WP Bench held out for two hours and 50 minutes before the phone took its last electronic breath — a bit shorter than the original Titan, of course, but understandably so given the addition of an LTE radio. In short, we’ll make this perfectly clear: if battery life is your number one priority on a smartphone, independent of processing power, a Windows Phone is going to be your best option outside of a Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx.

When testing the LTE network, we found the Titan II performed just a smidgeon better than the Lumia 900, grabbing speeds of 21Mbps down and around 14 up during our tests in San Francisco. These tests were performed with four out of five bars of reception, so it’s quite possible that we’re not even hitting the phone’s maximum capacity. Though it’s in line with the AT&T Samsung Galaxy Note’s next-gen tests, it’s not the fastest device we’ve tested on the carrier’s LTE network — it’s still leaps and bounds better than the carrier’s HSPA+ service, however, which netted us around 4Mbps down and 1.5Mbps up.

We love the Titan II’s speakers for making calls and listening to music and podcasts. We placed the phone on a desk backside-up, walked into a room 20 feet away and could still hear everything with crystal-clear clarity. As for call reception and quality, we found the phone holds a strong signal and the mics and internal speakers are some of the loudest we’ve tested in a while. We heard the other callers so well, in fact, that there were several instances in which we had to turn down the volume. If you’re hard of hearing, we doubt you’d have to worry too much, because the device offers a hearing aid compatibility setting in which the in-call volume kicks up a notch.

Cameras
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A 16-megapixel camera with an f/2.6, 28mm lens, backside-illuminated sensor and dual LED flash. On a phone. Such a thought is enough to shatter the mind into smithereens. Without a doubt this is the single most marketable improvement the Titan II has to offer, and essentially the only reason you might consider purchasing this thing above the less-expensive Nokia Lumia 900. So do the extra pixels pack a picturesque punch? Is it worth another Benjamin to go with this particular Windows Phone?

First, one of our absolute favorite features made available on Windows Phones is the inclusion of a dedicated shutter button. This is becoming an incredibly rare find on most new Android devices, and we fear its extinction on the platform is nigh. Not so with Microsoft’s mobile OS: here, the feature is alive and well. The Titan II’s version is double-detent, which means you can hold the button halfway to lock in focus. Curiously, though, you’re still not allowed to lock the exposure, which nearly defeats the whole purpose of this feature. We also noticed that our hands had to be incredibly steady when shooting pictures this way, since there’s so much travel on the button itself that it’s easy to shake the phone and take a blurry shot by accident. If this is the case for you, your best bet is to take advantage of the camera’s image stabilization feature. If you’re not a fan of the shutter button, you can alternatively tap the screen itself to autofocus and take the image. Fortunately, you can also focus anywhere on the viewfinder instead of being confined to the center.

The variety of settings within the UI is also quite promising if you’re willing to do some tweaking to get the perfect shot: ISO, panorama, macro focus, backlight aids, smile capture, face detection, white balance, red eye reduction, image stabilization and flicker adjustment are all on the menu. It improves on the One series by adding the ability to switch metering mode (center, average and spot are all included here), and it still offers adjustment settings for brightness, contrast, sharpness and saturation. The camera also allows for burst shooting, which in this case means being able to snap five shots in a row. It also adds in a full deck of 18 various scene options, complete with auto and “intelligent auto” modes, which proved adept at picking out the best scene for us.

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And now, we’re going to pick a few nits, since our expectations for the camera were so high. Many of the photos we shot in direct sunlight ended up slightly overexposed, which is naturally all too easy with most smartphone cameras. Shots taken indoors, however, turned out great. The cam also fares decently well in low-light scenarios with the flash turned off, but we noticed the autofocus continually struggles in these situations, and we ultimately encountered too much noise for our liking. We would’ve preferred to see HTC throw in a f/2.2 lens to add more light, much like it did with the original Titan.

Aside from these small frustrations, we were impressed with how detailed the vast majority of our shots turned out. When the flash is enabled, it does an incredible job accurately capturing color, and the pair of LED lights is powerful enough to light up an entire room. We also love how well macro focus images came out, no matter the shooting conditions. All told, we captured some amazing shots, but we can’t declare the Titan II the ultimate cameraphone champion of the universe — the Nokia N8 still keeps the crown in this regard, and we weren’t able to tell a large enough difference between it and the Amaze 4G’s camera to even call it the best of HTC’s lineup. It just goes to show that higher megapixel counts doesn’t just inherently make a camera better. With that said, we were still quite pleased with the overall results and would be happy to use this camera on a regular basis.

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The front-facing camera is about what you’d expect for a 1.3-megapixel shooter — it’s definitely nothing to write home about. Heck, it’s barely anything to write about in this review. Self-portraits turned out wildly overexposed; believe us, this editor’s pale face doesn’t need any help in that department. Video taken with the front shooter records at 640 x 480, and you can’t make any adjustments to how it looks. In fact, the settings button is completely greyed out, rendering it completely useless. The movies taken this way actually appear pretty smooth, but our overarching complaints about overexposure remain.

Where the original Titan failed by compressing the JPEG down to a manageable 1.5MB or so per photo, its successor triumphs. The pictures come sized as 4640 x 3480, and as mentioned earlier, our images ended up being anywhere between 3.5MB and 5MB each, depending on the amount of information captured. In comparison, this is about the same size of the pictures we’ve taken with our 16.2-megapixelSony NEX-C3. Oh, and how about vids? On the Titan II, a minute-long video using 720p resolution took up 75MB (similar to the first Titan), whereas the One S hogged a grand total of 37MB, despite recording the same subject, at the same resolution for the same length of time. Speaking of video, how does the Titan II handle its 720p max resolution? It does a pretty good job capturing motion without too many choppy bits, and the audio is crystal-clear, too.

Software
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If you’ve read through the full review to this point, it’s pretty obvious what kind of software to expect: it’s a Windows Phone through and through, running on version 7.5 (Mango). In other words, if you’re a fan of Ballmer’s operating system, you already know exactly what to expect, and you’ll most likely be in love with what the Titan II has to offer — if you’re on Team Android or iOS, however, this phone probably won’t tempt you to switch sides unless you have an intense desire to take the camera for a spin.

With Mango comes a full suite of features, one of which is Internet Sharing — what Microsoft refers to its mobile hotspot capability — and it’s present and accounted for in the Titan II, giving you the opportunity to hook up to an AT&T tethering plan and share that 5GB of download capacity with five other devices.

The Titan II also comes with a few extra settings and apps that you won’t find on every Windows Phone. First, the HTC Hub gives you your own customizable set of panels consisting of stocks, news, weather and featured apps. The Hub’s first panel is the time and weather, and it lets you reminisce by using the stereotypical Sense-style weather widget at the top. Clicking on it takes you into an AccuWeather panel that highlights your local forecasts and other conditions.

Speaking of featured HTC apps, the Marketplace reserves a section specifically for manufacturer-made programs. Here you’ll find a total of 15 apps, such as Tango video chat, Dock Mode, Converter, Connected Media, Locations, Lists, Notes, Flashlight, Compass and more. You’ll also find the Photo Enhancer app pre-loaded on the Titan II (which is uninstallable, if you’d prefer to get rid of it), which lets you choose any picture in your camera roll and add a filter to it — with 14 options available, you have plenty to pick from if you want to experiment a little.

Finally, there’s also the usual litany of AT&T apps that everyone loves or hates: U-Verse Mobile, Navigator, Code Scanner, YPmobile, Radio and myWireless. If that’s not enough carrier love for you, there are a few more available for your downloading on the Marketplace, which leads us to ponder exactly why the included bloatware couldn’t be accessed the exact same way. We suppose we shouldn’t complain too much, however, since every last one of them can be uninstalled by simply long-pressing the selection on the app screen and choosing the correct action in the drop-down menu.

Wrap-up
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Overall, we have very few qualms with the HTC Titan II. Despite its clumsier design, it certainly has more to offer than its predecessor, which was already considered a great phone when it was released on AT&T a scant five months ago (six months if you count the European launch). But is there any reason to fork out $200 for a Windows Phone that has roughly the same feature set as the less expensive Nokia Lumia 900, which is getting subsidized beyond our wildest dreams? Unless you’re a camera enthusiast, we think your money could be put to better use elsewhere.

HTC Sense 4 review

Over the last year, HTC has established a reputation for fragmenting its proprietary Sense UI even within the same version of Android. Why, Gingerbread alone is the foundation for at least three different iterations (2.1, 3.0 and 3.5) of the firmware. The bump to Ice Cream Sandwich is no different, with legacy devices getting an update to Sense 3.6 and the One series (and presumably any future devices) benefiting from version 4.0.

When we previewed Sense 3.6, we were disappointed at its similarity to previous versions and the sloppiness of its integration with key features in ICS. Even though it marked an improvement in functionality and performance, it seemed as if the OS and customized UI were at war with each other.

Sense 4 is a different story. It’s lighter, cleaner and much more visually appealing than older versions of the user interface, and it has the full suite of ICS goodies to go along with it. HTC also throws in its own imaging technology, dubbed ImageSense, to offer some cool new enhancements to the camera. Ultimately, HTC has successfully tweaked Sense’s design in a way that keeps the spirit of stock Android 4.0 alive, while still offering something familiar to loyal HTC fans. The tour is about to begin, so park yourself in your favorite chair and join us.

http://www.viddler.com/simple/c3f7c62f/
The home screen of Sense looks like, well, a slightly modified version of Sense. As silly as that sounds, HTC didn’t break a lot of new ground here. Perhaps the company figured this was a great way to help ease customers into the transition from yesteryear to the new era. Unlike stock ICS as seen on theSamsung Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S, Sense 4 doesn’t feature the non-removable Google search bar at the top of every panel (though it’s offered as a removable widget by default), and it also lacks a virtual row of navigation buttons on the bottom of the display since HTC opted to use three capacitive keys on the One series instead. We can’t just assume that this means the manufacturer will never try the virtual buttons on for size down the road, but it seems rather unlikely at this point.

Even though the virtual buttons aren’t offered on Sense 4, HTC still made sure to throw in an ICS-style launch bar along the bottom of the screen, with app menu access flanked by up to two customizable app shortcuts on either side. You can choose whatever app you want — heck, you can even toss in a folder if that’s what really moves you. The launch bar’s also a tad different here than it is on 3.6, since it’s chopped off on each side and uses only one color tone (in contrast to a two-tone black and grey motif). This means there’s a little extra space in the two bottom corners; it’s not enough real estate to take advantage of, but it lends a greater feeling of minimalism, as well as a cleaner appearance.

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The signature clock / weather widget is still there, eating up the entire top half of the screen, but it has a more modern look to it. The massive dark grey box that serves as the backdrop for the entire widget is gone, which makes it seem less intrusive somehow. And, as always, you can simply remove the widget if it’s taking up too much space. Easy enough. It’s not like you’ll be hurting for clock options, considering HTC spared no expense by throwing in a wide variety of possible widgets to choose from. Good news: the 3D carousel in older versions of Sense that spins your main panels around and around like you’re playing the Wheel of Fortune? Retired.

The 3D carousel in older versions of Sense? Retired.

Another Sense staple that’s sticking around for the long haul is the overview screen, which gives you a card-style view of all seven home panels. It’s still accessible by tapping once on the home capacitive key or using pinch-to-zoom, and once you arrive here you’ll be able to change the panel order and even add or remove unwanted screens. This comes in handy if you’re looking to avoid clutter.

Finally, long presses have changed a bit. For instance, performing this gesture on the capacitive keys no longer do anything. Doing it on one of the home panels, however, takes you into a modified screen with a layout that emulates what you’d see if you did the same thing on a Honeycomb tablet: it pulls up a menu that shows thumbnails of your main panels on the top, tabs for widgets, apps and shortcuts on the bottom and a section in the middle that allows you to choose from a variety of options related to whichever tab you’ve selected. When looking at widgets, for instance, you can use a drop-down menu or do a search to quickly find something specific. This part of Sense seems to take advantage of the ICS design style, but the screen itself is nowhere to be seen on the stock version.

Personalization options

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Also predominant in past versions of Sense has been the personalize menu, which was featured as a non-customizable shortcut on the launch bar. Essentially, this screen was an extension of the settings app, with several options for display, sound and shortcuts. It’s still around (minus the shortcuts option, since you can find that by long-pressing the home panel), but it seems to have lessened in priority now. How can we tell? The only points of access to this screen are in the settings itself and as a shortcut in the app menu that can be added to whatever spot you want it to go. But that’s the key: you can do whatever you want with it. Freedom to choose. No longer is this menu stuck on your home screen without any way of removing it.

Notifications

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When it comes to staying true to stock ICS, the notification bar in Sense 4 may not be a direct copy, but at least it gets much closer to the general idea than 3.6 does. Individual lines take advantage of the original style, and you can swipe each one to the left or right to get rid of them. And just like the pure vanilla version, you can find buttons to clear notifications and access settings on the top, but HTC pushes them over to the top right corner and adds words to each symbol, helping you understand exactly what each one is there for. Instead of going the same route as Sense 3.6, which offers a section for recent apps near the top and a quick settings tab at the bottom, HTC kept only one tie to earlier versions of the UI: it keeps ongoing processes and one-time notifications separate.

The notification bar in Sense 4 does a much better job of exemplifying the spirit of stock Ice Cream Sandwich.

The new version of HTC’s user interface also throws in extra choices for viewing notifications. Not only can you pull down the bar to see the full list without even unlocking the phone — standard for Ice Cream Sandwich — you can also choose a new lock screen style that lets you view a small selection of notifications directly on the lock screen. You can view missed calls, messages, email (from the standard Mail client, but not Gmail) and calendar events this way. What’s more, you’ll be able to pick and choose specifics: display missed calls from Bob only, view calendars A and C but leave out B, show messages from your wife. We have no idea why Bob’s calls would be more important than your spouse’s, but you certainly have that option at your disposal.

Lock screen

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The standard Face Unlock feature is available, as is the standard Sense ring and accompanying quick access shortcuts at the bottom. The apps featured here will ultimately reflect whatever you have hanging out in your launch bar, regardless of what it is. And since you can choose the number of apps you have laying on the bottom of your home panel, this means you can have anywhere from zero to four shortcuts to choose from.

Just as with vanilla ICS, you can pull down the notification bar directly from the lock screen. And if that’s not quick enough access for you, it’s not a bad idea to choose the “productivity” lock screen style mentioned earlier. Calendar events and changes in the weather will also pop up from time to time, and it’s easy enough to simply dismiss them and get those notifications out of your way.

App menu

 

Unlike Sense 3.x, version 4.0 adopts the appearance of Matias Duarte’s horizontal app menu, but you’ll notice one significant difference right off the bat: no widgets. Those can still be accessed by long-pressing the home panel screen, as we discussed earlier, and that’s the only place you can find them. We assume this decision was made to avoid possible confusion when switching back and forth between apps and widgets, but it’s a significant enough departure from the true ICS setup.

In the top right corner you’ll have a search button, Play Store access point and options menu at your disposal. Within the latter you can find the ability to manage, share or sort your apps. There aren’t many options to customize the app menu — you won’t be able to move the icons around to fit your liking, but you at least still have more flexibility with Sense than the vanilla OS. Also, tucked between the icons and tabs is a menu progress indicator that tells you exactly where you are in the potentially vast expanse of app screens.

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HTC has made it possible to edit the tabs lining the bottom of the app menu.

Last but not least, HTC has made it possible to edit the tabs lining the bottom of the app menu. If you’ve played with earlier versions of Sense and couldn’t stand the frequent or download tabs, you can remove them on 4.0 simply by going into the app menu options on the upper right corner of the screen and clicking on “edit tabs.” Boom goes the dynamite. If you like your tabs but hate the order they’re displayed in, you can rearrange them however you’d like. The best part is that this isn’t the only part of Sense that allows this — a plethora of apps within the UI now offer the same ability. Customization FTW.

Multitasking

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The multitasking (or “recent apps,” if you prefer) menu is different. Very different. HTC’s design choice took us completely by surprise, because it opts for a card layout that’s actually closer in function and appearance to webOS and Windows Phone 7.5 than what we see in stock Ice Cream Sandwich. Each open application is presented as a card, and the entire series of apps is displayed in a horizontal setup that looks like it was inspired by Cover Flow. The slide to close feature is still around, but you flick the card up to get rid of it. We can’t help but be reminded of webOS every time we use it.

Multitasking on Sense 4 is much closer to webOS or Windows Phone Mango than Ice Cream Sandwich. It’s by far the biggest departure from Android you’ll find in Sense.

While we enjoyed this method on webOS, seeing HTC adopt it on its Android devices is a bit of a letdown. One of our beefs with previous versions of Sense is that the UI is so involved, so overbearing, that it often takes you away from feeling like you’re even using Android in the first place. HTC has sought to eliminate much of that same concern in its latest firmware and it largely succeeded in doing so by making the interface more closely resemble Matias Duarte’s vision. The multitasking screen, however, is a gargantuan departure to that philosophy. It functions well, but it’s as if we’re using a completely different OS. Here’s where it gets even weirder: Sense 3.6, also considered to be a heavier, more “watered down” version of ICS, uses the stock app switcher.

Browser

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We have a feeling many ICS fanatics will shun the native Sense browser in favor of Google’s own Chrome flavor, but there’s still plenty to like about HTC’s version — and it’s especially beautiful on a high-performance phone like the One X, given how incredibly smooth it works. We had a very difficult time finding any lag, and tiling on the browser was practically non-existent. And just like the Galaxy Nexus, Sense’s version scored a perfect 100 / 100 on the Acid3 test.

The native browser keeps many of the stock settings and adds a few of its own for kicks and giggles. Instead of throwing in extra stuff just for the sake of being different, however, the new features can actually become quite useful: a toggle switch to enable Flash, wireless printing (not new to Sense, but it isn’t on the vanilla ICS browser) and an “add to” option which lets you easily stash your current page on bookmarks, an icon on your home panel or a reading list — Sense’s version of offline reading. Incognito mode is still there, but it takes you one additional step to pull it up; on Sense, it can only be accessed when you go through the action of adding a new tab.

The quick access shortcut menu in the native browser is still there, and HTC has added a couple more options to make it even better.

Also retained in this version of the ICS browser is the clever labs feature in which a semi-circle with quick access shortcuts can appear simply by dragging your finger onto the screen from the left or right bezel. Sense, not satisfied with keeping it precisely the same as what you’d find on vanilla Android 4.0, has added two extra options. In addition to buttons for settings, window toggle and URL bar, it allows you to add a new window and go directly to your bookmarks. They’re not crucially important, of course, but it was pretty handy.

Camera

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HTC has armed the cameras in its Sense 4 devices with a new weapon: ImageSense. This technology is made possible by integrating a custom chip and enhancing several other parts of the camera like the lens, sensor and software in general. While all of these elements are crucial to ensuring ImageSense works as advertised, we’ll focus on the cam’s user interface specifically.

With Sense 4, there are no more specific “modes” in which you need to access a toggle switch to move back and forth between still and video. Instead, both options are available to you together to the right of the viewfinder, the two buttons hanging out together in peace and harmony as one mode. We appreciate this setup because it’s much more convenient when you need to quickly choose one or the other, such as when a precious moment is going on. Switching from still to video (or vice versa) ends up taking a few seconds you just won’t get back, after all. But it’s also structured this way to accommodate one of ImageSense’s biggest features: the ability to take still pictures and videos at the same time.

The ability to do stills and videos at the same time is absolutely stunning, and very few manufacturers have chosen to offer a similar service (Samsung being one of them). Update: it appears that stock ICS has this feature, but it looks as though manufacturers are still able to add it in or take it out of their custom skins — as evidenced by its absence in Sense 3.6. When you’re recording video, the camera shutter button is still available just in case the moment is so memorable that you want to take an image without turning off the camcorder. If you forget to do this, all is well: it’s possible to grab photos in the same manner after the fact. When you’re watching the video in the gallery, the same shutter button hasn’t gone anywhere, still accessible on the right side of the screen.

 

ImageSense’s ability to do stills and videos at the same time is absolutely stunning.

Before we get to the gallery, let’s turn back to the main camera UI. In addition to the pair of shutter buttons to the viewfinder’s right, you’ll also see gallery access on the bottom corner, with a odd blue lens on the top. The blue lens, when pressed, shows you a menu of different effects and modes to take advantage of: depth of field adjust, distortion, dots, vignette, vintage and the usual suite of greyscale, sepia, negative and others are all there. These aren’t anything new to the Sense UI, but you definitely won’t see them in stock ICS.

The opposite side of the screen reveals three options: settings, flash mode and camera scenes. You get the usual HTC smattering of settings, such as resolution, ISO, white balance, exposure / saturation adjustments, face detection, video stabilization and so on. Continuous shooting — which lets you hold down the shutter button to fire off a machine gun-style round of images — is also available as a toggle here. Moving on to camera scenes, there’s plenty to choose from. Panorama, landscape, low light, HDR and slow motion are a few examples of various options here. Also, the bottom of the viewfinder offers a slider for zoom in / out.

 
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A few more words on continuous shooting. One of the biggest feature enhancements in the new Sense is speed: first you’ll notice the 0.7-second startup and a 0.2-second autofocus. Then, by holding down the shutter button, you’ll be able to rapidly fire off a full series of continuous shots for as long as you’d like (though there is a setting in which you can choose to limit the number of captures to twenty). When you’ve completed your series, you’re automatically taken into an album-within-an-album in which you can look at each individual shot that you captured and pick and choose whichever ones don’t fit the bill. Or, you can choose to keep just your favorite shot and delete all the rest.

Now, the gallery. We already mentioned the shutter button that’s available when you’re previewing a video, but what about the rest of the options? On the top right you can adjust volume and brightness. The bottom left reveals a share button, where you can choose to export the video to several possible apps. Along the bottom is the back / forward / pause and play, as well as a slider to fast forward or rewind your current selection. Finally, the bottom right corner offers a “more” button that gives you more choices. You can go here to find a Beats toggle, go into full screen mode, lock controls or trim the video (although anyone looking to do more with their movie can use Sense’s movie editor app).

With Sense, you have the standard photo album view in the gallery, but you can choose to hide certain ones that you don’t want to look at or let someone else see by accident. When going into an album, you’ll first see the full layout of the images along with options to share, delete or even play the whole thing as a slideshow. When you go into an individual image, you can edit the specific picture, set it as your wallpaper, share it or print. And just like previous versions of Sense, if you begin flipping through the album the pictures turn into smaller thumbnails and scrolling between each one becomes much faster. This comes in handy if you have a plethora of photos to scan through and want to save extra time.

 

Miscellaneous

 

NFC/Android Beam: Naturally, this little bit will only apply to HTC devices that offer NFC functionality, but Sense 4 does indeed support Android Beam — and on the One X, it works flawlessly. We were able to share URLs, directions, apps, contacts and even YouTube videos with our Galaxy Nexus without incident. We were also able to download Google Wallet directly from the Play Store, but carrier restrictions still apply.
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Keyboard: HTC loves its virtual keyboard so much that the layout remained nearly identical, with the exception of a standard set of arrows on a fresh row at the bottom. This means if you weren’t a fan before, nothing’s going to change your mind now. Of course, part of the beauty of Android is the fact that you can simply download a new keyboard and use it instead, so this really isn’t a make-or-break factor when you’re thinking of purchasing a device. On a positive note, we were quite pleased to see the trace functionality still baked into the Sense keyboard, and it worked brilliantly.

Calendar: Sense’s calendar is colorful and easy to read. You can view multiple calendars and incorporate tasks, contact birthdays, Facebook events and more. The weather for the city of your choosing is spread out across the top of each individual day, but if the daily layout isn’t for you, just touch one of the tabs at the bottom to switch to week, month and agenda views.

Phone: The layout is very much what you’d come to expect from Sense, but a few elements have been tossed around to make room for uniformity with other parts of the UI. For instance, tabs now run across the bottom of the app and the rest of the keypad has shifted up the screen to make room for them. Two of them — groups and call history — can fortunately be removed if necessary. What can’t be taken away, though, are the phone and contacts tabs.

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Beats Integration: HTC must have received a lot of complaints from customers upset that Beats Audio couldn’t be used in third-party apps, because the company added the functionality into Sense 4 and used it as one of the update’s key talking points at Mobile World Congress in February. While only certain legacy devices (such as the Vivid) will get the feature alongside version 3.6, every phone or tablet bearing 4.0 will likely boast this capability. We checked it out on the One X, and was indeed able to take advantage of Beats on several third party apps.

Widgets: Most widgets made available by Sense 4 aren’t all that different from any other HTC device that has come before it. There are a few native Android widgets scattered about, but be prepared to wade through a much larger sea of available options with Sense than you would have on pure ICS.

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Disabling apps: Not every app or process can be disabled in Sense, and there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to which ones are affected. The camera app and bluetooth share can’t be disabled, for instance, but the dialer and contacts apps can. With that said, there are still plenty more options to get rid of stuff on Sense 4 than any Gingerbread-running version.

Dropbox: The One series is lacking in expandable storage, but we’ll give HTC credit for trying to come up with a solid alternative method to make up for it. The Taiwanese company has once again partnered with Dropbox to hook you up with 25GB cloud storage space when you’re rockin’ on a Sense 4 device. This is more than plenty of real estate for many people, and it’s most likely sufficient if you’ve been taking advantage of other cloud services or streaming music options such as Google Music, Spotify or anything else. Our primary concern here isn’t a matter of running out of space; it’s the fact that nearly all of these services end up becoming a huge drain on capped data. If you don’t have unlimited, you’ll want to be incredibly picky about how much you listen to on a regular basis.

As a sidenote, we’re unsure if you can still get the same amount of storage via Dropbox if you port the new Sense firmware onto an older device, but we’d love to find out from any aspiring devs who want to give it a shot.

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Clock: Gone is the desk clock tab, and the world clock has undergone a makeover. While the same clocks are still there, they’ve been restricted to the bottom half. Taking its place on the top section of the screen is a Google Earth-style globe that can be rotated, tilted and zoomed, all the while displaying weather conditions in major cities as you go. Nearly all of the other tabs within the app have barely changed, with only slight variations in style.

Screenshots: Yes, Virginia, screenshots are included in Sense 4. Hold down the power and volume down buttons and kapow — the shot is stored in your gallery, and you can do whatever the heck you want with it.

Easter eggs: Perhaps only a handful of people really give a darn about if their phone comes with hidden easter eggs, and perhaps HTC agrees, because Sense doesn’t come with the typical stock Android gems. There, there, heartbroken reader. You’re a trooper, everything will be okay.

Test menu: For those that like to dig really deep into menus, we combed through the test menu (accessible by dialing *#*#4636#*#* in the phone app) and found it to be identical in setup to stock Ice Cream Sandwich.

Wrap-up

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Ah, Android skins. We’ve vehemently opposed many of them over the years, because each manufacturer chooses to value differentiation and “user experience” more than the nature of the OS itself and completely misses the point. Additionally, a healthy portion of these skins are loaded up with so many extra frills and gimmicks that the performance of the actual device suffers as a consequence. HTC’s proprietary UI is no exception to this, and in the past has been one of the worst offenders.

With the exception of a few questionable nips and tucks, HTC’s latest UI, Sense 4, has avoided this same reputation. Peter Chou’s company has largely succeeded at its goal of bringing a lighter version of its skin to the One series. While it doesn’t look like a copy of vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich, it’s able to maintain its unique personality but still holds on to the spirit of what Matias Duarte has been working hard to accomplish with the Android OS. By this, we mean offering a fresh design, important new features and great performance — all of these being elements that were sorely needed. For the first time in ages, we’re loving the experience of a Sense-powered device.