Monday, June 17, 2013

New Technology for the Nomad

A tablet-computing device has been in my sights for over a year. I've ordered and tried two lower cost 7" tablets. I was disappointed with both units and returned them. In the interim my trusty ASUS netbook threw a shoe and I had to put it down. And, right on cue, my older HP dv6 laptop gave up the ghost. The HP was too old to economically revive. The ASUS netbook could have been revived with a new hard drive (and I still may to have it as a back-up), but it was time to move forward.

So, I did some shopping and found a good deal on a larger format Dell ultra book computer with Windows 7 and an upgrade path to Windows 8. I reluctantly gave up my trusty Windows XP (no longer supported by the "Mother Ship" in Redmond, Washington). I am still getting acclimated to Windows 7. I have a brand new sealed version of Windows 8 that I don't have any intention of using anytime in the immediate future.

So, I have a smartphone that I reported about in an earlier post. I have a current model ultra book with a fast processor. It cost me one-third what my HP dv6 laptop cost six or seven years ago and is faster, has three times more RAM and more that twice as much hard drive, plus USB 3.0. But, I still hadn't found a 7" tablet-computing device to bridge the gap between the smartphone and the ultra book.

Introducing the Sero 7 Pro

May 24th, I received an email from a van dweller friend, Marshall, telling me about a new tablet being introduced to the market that day. It was the Hisense Sero 7 Pro. If the brand name Hisense doesn't strike an immediate chord that's because the Sero 7 series of tablets is their first entry in a very competitive market. The major players are HP with their Slate 7 tablet, Google with their Nexus 7 made by ASUS, ASUS with their own version of the Nexus, Acer, Amazon with their Fire HD and the Apple iPad Mini, their 7" entry in the tablet market. My friend has two Nexus 7 tablets. He sent me a CNet prerelease review of this new, unknown tablet. He suggested that the Sero 7 Pro, operating on the latest Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) operating system, looks like it's going to give the Nexus 7 a run for its money for $50 to $70 less. Now, here's the kicker. The Hisense Sero 7 Pro and its lighter sister tablet, the Sero 7 LT, are only available from Wal-Mart.

It turns out that Hisense is a Chinese flat screen TV manufacturer. Wal-Mart is their major outlet in the U.S. From what I've learned, the Hisense TV's are a good buy and are very popular and appear to be reliable. Here's the link to the review that my friend Marshall sent me about the Sero 7 series of tablets: CNet Sero 7 Pre- review   

So, I went to a Wal-Mart a couple days later and looked for a display of Sero 7 tablets. I didn't find one. I asked the woman at the electronics counter if she had any. She did and they were locked up under the counter. I read the box and still felt a bit apprehensive about buying a Wal-Mart exclusive brand computing device. I left and thought about it until the following weekend. I went back and bought one. And that was the beginning of my enlightenment. It appears that I had finally ended my quest for a nominally priced, 7" tablet.

It's now two full weeks since I bought the Hisense Sero 7 Pro tablet and as of right now, I am a happy camper. I found a tablet computer that meets my requirements and my expectations and only costs $149.99 at a Wal-Mart near you. But, I might add that from what I'm reading, the word is getting around fast and it may be a little more difficult finding a Sero 7 Pro tablet then when I bought mine two weeks ago. They are being bought in lots of two or three at a time.

You can read all the specs on the tablet here: Hisense Press Release with Sero 7 Specs   

Here are some photos of my Sero 7 Pro:

This is the package the Hisense Sero 7 Pro comes in. It's well packaged and should prevent any pre-sale damage. The package is also sealed, so you'll know if it's been opened before you received it.

This is the vertical view of the 7" tablet. The actual usable screen size is 7" diagonally (as all computer and TV screens are measured. The screen as you see it above is only had half brightness, which is adequate in most light environments and conserves on battery power. The desktop is easy to customize. It has space for 36 standard app icons or, as you can see, you can ad widgets like the one I have for time and weather and controlling various power, wifi, refreshing and display brightness functions. There are five desktop pages so you can set them up for specific functions like personal and social media, business, utility, travel and so on. The bottom row of icons (a seventh row with space for seven icons) remains constant on all five desktop pages. Six of the seven icons are user selected. The center icon is permanent and takes the user to the catalog of apps that are currently on the tablet. It's a very flexible and user friendly interface. There is also a front facing 2 MP camera for stills or video that's designed for video chats and Skype. The On-Off-Sleep switch and the Audio Volume up and down controls are on the upper right side of the tablet. On the top there is a micro USB port, a mini-HDMI port to feed an HD large screen monitor or TV, a stereo headphone jack and a covered slot for up to a 32GB SDCH memory card. 

Like all capacitive touch-screen displays, the screen orientation can be changed from vertical to horizontal by simply turning the tablet to the desired orientation. You can see how it realigns the widgets and icons. The front facing camera is more noticeable at the top left in this photo. 

The back of the tablet has a softer, textured feel to make grasping and holding it comfortable and secure. The Hisense brand logo is debossed on the back cover. You'll note the 5 MP still and video camera lens with the LED flash element next to it at the upper left corner on the back. I'm not sure how many people use their tablets for taking photos or videos, but it's a nice added feature that some of the other tablets in this price category do not offer. At the bottom you'll notice that it sports stereo speakers. Another nice feature. And frankly, as an audio guy, these speakers wouldn't be my choice for monitor speakers, but they actually sound pretty darn good and certainly fulfill the purpose they are there for. 

This is a close-up shot of the lower part of the back side of the tablet. Again, you see the stereo speaker slits. However, above the left speaker you'll note an area with just barely discernible dashed lines forming a square with some text, an illustration and the letters NFC. If you've seen the Samsung Galaxy S3 or S4 smartphone commercials, you've probably seen where two people with the same phones just touch them back to back and transfer music, pictures and other files. Well, that same function is included in the $149.99 Sero 7 tablets. I believe you can use this touch transfer capability with any devices that include the NFC technology. By the way, all the printing you see there is on an easy peel off plastic label.

The Sero 7 Pro is an excellent e-book reader. Here you're looking at a page from a Kindle book I'm reading. It took only a few moments to download the free Kindle for Android app and sync my entire Kindle library. I've been reading my books on my Motorola Atrix 2 with its 4" screen. But, this is so much more like reading a book, especially since the entire tablet is little smaller than a 5 1/2" x 8 1/2" trade paperback book. As you can see the screen is very easy to read. And, since it's a backlit screen you can easily read it in low light or no light. 

The screen is great for looking at detailed still photos and high definition videos. The above photo is taken from a PowerPoint presentation.

This is the same photo taken as a macro close-up with my older generation digital still camera. My camera doesn't do the sharpness and detail of this photo justice. But, you get the idea, I'm sure.
These are not the best photos in the world, but I didn't have ideal conditions to take these and I'm finding that my digital photography capability is also beginning to lag behind. Sigh! This compact, through the lens, electronic viewfinder camera was state-of-the-art when I purchased it about eight years ago, but technology presses forward. I guess I'll have to upgrade in this technology category in the future, too. But, I digress. Back to the subject at hand.

So, it appears, for me, that I've found the bridge between my Motorola Atrix 2 smartphone and my Dell ultra book computer. I have only scratched the surface with this tablet and learning all the things I can do with it. I've already been using it for email, surfing the Web, reading my Kindle books, reading the news, tracking the weather, GPS, calculating, taking notes, keeping my "To Do" list and several other functions. I've used it while parked in the car, at a McDonald's wifi hot spot, in my doctor's office, while on a client project at the Grand Hyatt at Dulles International Airport. I have found it to be amazingly fast. It has a great screen with HD detail. I'm sure I'll find something at some point that it won't do or won't do very well, but I haven't found anything, yet. Oh, and I should mention that it fits in the pocket of my cargo pants and cargo shorts.

The next additions will include a cover a vehicle mount, a 32GB micro SDHC card and a bluetooth keyboard. There will probably be others as I learn new uses for this handy device and more accessories become available.

Here is another review from Laptop Magazine that is more current and actually compares and scores the leading 7" tablets in the same category and price range as the Sero 7 Pro (the Apple iPad Mini is not included since it is in a completely different price range): More Current Sero 7 Review 

Some Sound Advice

This next little item is something I've been looking for to use in the van. I recently added a hands free, bluetooth speakerphone from Motorola. It has really made driving safer and it works great with the voice command capability of the Atrix 2 smart phone. But, I've also been using the Atrix 2 as my GPS. I still keep my Magellan stand alone GPS near at hand, however. It has some functions not available (at least to my knowledge) in my Google Navigation app on the Atrix 2 like satellite tracked speed of the vehicle, a compass and an altimeter to mention a few. I find these functions handy while I'm on a trip. But, back to the Atrix 2. The volume from the speaker on the Atrix 2 is not loud enough to override NPR or whatever station I happen to have on the radio, so I can't always hear directions when they are announced. And for some reason, while the phone function works perfectly with the bluetooth speakerphone, the GPS audio does not transfer to the Motorola speakerphone. I will probably use the Sero 7 Pro tablet for GPS once I have a car mount for it, but I suspect it also may not have enough volume to always override the radio audio.

Enter the Altec InMotion portable speaker.

The Altec Lansing InMotion portable speaker. Altec Lansing is an old professional audio brand dating back to 1936. It's been bought and sold many times since 1936 and is only a shadow of the company it once was. However, this small Chinese made speaker bearing the Altec-Lansing name is very good for what it is. 

There are no controls on the InMotion speaker other than the small, recessed on-off button (in the on position as indicated by the green LED (which turns red when the batteries are getting low). All volume control is provided by whatever the speaker is plugged into like a smartphone, mp3 player or iPod, tablet device, laptop or netbook computer or similar audio devices. That keeps it all very simple. But, as noted in the text, the connecting cord from the speaker to the earphone jack of any of the devices previously mentioned is very short. The actual dimensions are 3 3/8" in diameter and 2" deep. It weighs just 6.5 oz with three AAA batteries onboard. 
This is a great sounding little portable speaker that plugs directly into the headphone jack of my Atrix 2 smartphone or the Sero 7 Pro tablet. It is only a monaural speaker, but it makes the female GPS voice crisp, clean and sexy. But, most important, I can hear it over the radio without it being intrusive or overbearing. As you can see from the photo, it comes with a handy-dandy case, so it can be packed away or carried around with you.

The two disadvantages I've found, so far, are: #1, it uses three AAA batteries to power it and there is no external power port and #2, the cable from the speaker that terminates in a 3.5mm stereo phone plug is very short.

Three AAA batteries are just about 5.1 volts with fresh batteries. That's not too much different than the 5.3 volts typically delivered by a powered USB port. So, I'm going to see if I can make a modification to feed it from one of the USB ports I'll have available at the van dashboard. If I can accomplish that, I'll never have to be concerned about turning the unit on and off or carrying fresh AAA batteries.

The short cable is an easy fix; I'll simply buy or make a short extension cable to increase the length of the cable to reach either the Atrix 2 smart phone or the Sero7 Pro tablet. Problem solved!

I bought the Altec InMotion speaker from Rakuten.com (also known as Buy.com). The price was $19.99 with free shipping. It arrived about three or four days after I placed the on line order. One more purchase from Rakuten.com. I'm still (always) a happy customer.

In The Future

One thing that drives me crazy is receiving reliable and strong radio signals when I'm driving around the country. I'm an NPR and talk radio junkie. I virtually never listen to commercial music radio stations anymore. I've been interested in adding Sirius/XM satellite radio to the van, but I really didn't like their packages. The last time I had looked over a year ago they wanted something like $14.99 per month for this massive selection of stations, most of which I'd never listen to (similar to cable and satellite TV). I wasn't willing to pay that much for stations I'd never listen to. But, I checked their Web site recently and they now offer a $7.99 monthly package that included up to 50 stations of the subscriber's choice. Now, we're talking. I don't know that I'll be able to pick out 50 stations that I really want, but I know I can probably get the top six or ten and maybe another ten or fifteen that I'd listen to occasionally. The rest I'll probably just throw a dart and the list and take whatever comes up, within reason. To have the stations I want I'm willing to pay the $7.99 a month.

I'm going to replace the current (19 year old) van radio and get a new, up to date radio with remote controls I can mount on or near the steering wheel. The new vehicle radios all seem to have auxiliary inputs allowing one to plug in an mp3 player or other sound producing devices including a satellite radio receiver.

So, this is a project and tech addition I'll be planning to add before the fall so I have it for when I'm on the road again. I don't want to deal with radio stations dropping in and out and losing information programs in midstream and never hearing the end or picking up programs midstream and never hearing he beginning. I find that very frustrating and distracting. I want my "cockpit" to be ergonomic and user friendly causing the least amount of stress possible.


More to come. 

3 comments:

Rob said...

That was a really nice review of the tablet & leaves me with just one question.
As an E-reader, does it work in daylight?

Ed Helvey - Professional Nomad said...

Thanks, Rob --

Excellent question. Actually, I just updated the article a little by noting that it uses the latest 4.2 (Jelly Bean) Android O/S.

Regarding e-book reading in daylight. The answer is yes, with reservations. It's a bright overcast day here today - gray sky instead of blue. I took the Sero 7 Pro outside and opened up one of my Kindle books. I still had the display set for half brightness. Yes! I could read the book with no problem and it was even better when I brought it up to full brightness, which might be necessary on an extremely bright, sunny day. The reservation is, like any glossy screen, it's highly reflective (mirror like). So, I just had to position myself and the tablet where I experienced the least amount of reflection. Obviously, this isn't a problem with a paper/ink book. It's been a while since I've had the basic Kindle e-reader in my hands (haven't owned one) with their "electronic ink" technology that supposedly makes it more like reading a paper/ink book and is supposed to benefit from more light.

I have used it in my van, however, I have not had it set up on a tablet mount yet, like I have for my Atrix 2 phone. I suspect, with the glossy screen, I may experience some challenges, however, I don't know if those challenges will be any better or worse than with other tablets. And it appears to be considerably better than my Atrix 2 phone in direct outdoor light.

As for myself, especially because I'm fair skinned (born a natural blonde, blue-eyed kid from my Germanic genes) and sport the shaved head style, I wear hats and seek shade as much as possible when I'm not walking or hiking or doing other outdoor activities. I doubt I would find myself sitting in the sun reading very often. So, I don't think direct outdoor sunlight or brightness is going to present any issues for me.

Hope this helps.

Ed

Rob said...

It was a help, thanks Ed!