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Rhapsody Music Service for Unlimited Tunes on the Go

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In evaluating whether music subscription service Rhapsody is right for you, are you a renter or a buyer? Would you rather have access to a million songs at any time, or own a small fraction of that because you’ve purchased each song or album?

As a guy with shelves and shelves of CDs in the living room and another hundred or two albums in digital form, it’s kind of hard for me to get my mind around Rhapsody. You don’t buy music from them, but if you pay $10 a month for one device, or $15 a month for three, you can download whatever the heck you want. Or stream it all day long without listening to any ads.

Call it the library model, or the borrowing model, but with no expiration date. As long as you keep paying, the music keeps playing. If you stop, it goes up in a puff of smoke. (It lives on the Rhapsody app, not in your actual MP3 collection.) Instead of buying that new album you really want for ten bucks, you just download it—and go find 15 more you want and get those too.

Rhapsody doesn’t claim they have everything, but with 16 million songs on tap, there’s a pretty good chance they have what you’re looking for. I’m 15 for 16 so far on albums (no Led Zeppelin on any of these services) and have found a whole slew of individual songs I wanted. My daughter found everything she was looking for too. Heck, with no prices to worry about, you can download a whole box set from the Rolling Stones or David Bowie if you want. Or get every song there is from Mumford & Sons.

I’ve been trying this out on three different devices: a laptop, an Android smart phone, and a Windows Mobile phone. For the laptop I just signed up online, for the other two I downloaded an app and then signed in. When I added something to my library on the PC, it showed up on all three devices, where I could listen to the songs whether connected or not. The Windows phone one didn’t allow downloads when I first started, but on a recent update they got it to that point. Naturally it works on Apple devices too and even Blackberry.

The interface is simple and intuitive, offering a search box that works well and browsing options by genre, what’s new, and artists. Unlike with many services you buy music from, here you can stream everything in full to decide which songs you want to add to your collection permanently. Then you can create playlists or just store whole albums as is.

It’s a hard task getting people to switch from what they’re used to, but to me the Rhapsody service is a big step up from spending the same amount of money buying songs from iTunes, Amazon, or eMusic. It’s also got a big advantage over Pandora or Spotify free versions in that you never listen to a single ad.

streaming radio no ads

Spotify premium is the obvious comparison to Rhapsody, however, as it doesn’t have ads if you pay up. The services do many of the same things, though Rhapsody does have a slight edge on the number of songs in its library and a huge advantage in terms of usability. It also has more radio stations if you just want to stream ad-free music in a certain genre. Spotify is more socially oriented if you want to tell everyone on Facebook what you’re listening to and discover what your friends are listening to. Most of my friends have lousy taste in music though, so I don’t care about that feature in the slightest.

Overall, I’ve been happily surprised with the Rhapsody service and am getting a thrill out of reading about an album somewhere and immediately having access to it, or hearing a song on the radio I like and adding it to my library without paying 99 cents for it (or stealing it through a file sharing site.)

There seem to be fewer digital rights hassles with this service than you find with iTunes or eMusic abroad. If you’re in another country you can still stream music or listen to what’s been downloaded on your mobile device. You’ll run into the sticky international copyright hurdles though on your laptop (like you will with Pandora), so load up before you go unless you have a proxy server set up.

If you live through your phone or mostly listen to music on your computer, you can get a one-device plan for $10 a month (a tad less on the annual plan) or $15 for the 3-device plan. Considering even the latter will only get you 15 songs or maybe two on-sale albums from the purchasing services, it’s a good value. There are a variety of free trial deals and a half-price for three months deal running now to give Rhapsody a real spin. Get all the details here and then next time you go traveling, you can load up your player with anything and everything you want to hear.

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A Windows Smart Phone Worth Buying: Samsung Focus 2

This downright great new Windows phone can duke it out with Apple and Google and in some respects is better than the latest iPhone or Android alternative. At $50 (or sometimes less) with a 2-year contract from AT&T, the Samsung Focus 2 is  also quite windows phonea bargain.

Microsoft often doesn’t get it right the first time, or even the 10th time, but their formidable war chest of cash allows them to keep at it long after most others would have to admit defeat. So while Palm faded away, Nokia went on the ropes, and RIM’s Blackberry started on its path to irrelevance, the Windows operating system for mobile kept getting better. This Samsung Focus 2 phone loaded with the latest Windows mobile operating system is slick and—a description you don’t hear very much for anything Microsoft—cool.

Windows Mobile Software

The old clunkiness and redundant menu commands the Windows OS had a reputation for are gone and only once did I have to consult a manual to figure out how to use something. (To shoot video, you need to hold down the camera button.) Everything was intuitive and relatively easy. The testers using this the past six weeks have been twofold: me the dad and my tween daughter. Both of us managed to set up what we needed and get things done without working at it. That alone is reason enough to recommend this Focus 2 with Windows: no hurdles or hoops to jump through.

So what does it do better? Besides the great features-to-dollars ratio, the main difference in the software is the tiled display on the home page. This is visually more pleasing than what you get with Android or Apple, with the idea being you put the ones you use the most there and then the rest on the second page you flick to. There’s one for Facebook, for weather, e-mail, search (yes, you can put Google on it, not just Bing), etc. One especially cool feature is the Daily Briefing tile, which contains home city weather—you can see the current temperature without opening it—news headlines, stocks, and currency exchange rates. There’s also a compass. Really!

Plus this Windows phone has two advantages over the iPhone: it displays Flash websites fine and it has Windows mobile built in. As in you can edit that Word doc, Powerpoint, or Excel spreadsheet without a bunch of 3rd-party workarounds. And see every website.

My review version came loaded with some travel apps to show how well this would work on the road: Yelp, GasBuddy, TripAdvisor, and TripIt. No blips with any of those.

If there’s a clear weak point with the Windows OS for mobile, this is it though. All the big apps are here, but there just aren’t as many choices as you’ll find with the operating systems that have a larger base. If this catches on, that could change, but for now there’s a clear limit. The exception to this is games. Because of the Xbox Live platform, there’s a wide game selection and you can try most of them out before buying. That has been a big hit with my daughter. She got some new games in Vietnam even over Wi-Fi and had some new ones to play on two long train rides.

It was easy to pull over my music collection and whatever videos and photos I wanted—easier than with my Motorola Atrix Android phone—but it required downloading the Zune software first. The Zune player never caught on, but the software lives. Apart from this taking up 100MB on my laptop though, no biggie. It works.

Samsung Focus 2 Design

So what about the phone itself? Putting the software aside, this smart phone is a good piece of machinery. Phone calls were crisp and noise-free, you can use a Bluetooth headset, the texting worked fine, and it feels nice in the hand. It’s got a 5mp camera that takes terrific daytime shots and video, fair low-light photos. There is a built-in flash though. I’d put the picture quality a tad below an iPhone or my Motorola Atrix for when the light’s not perfect, but better than some actual cameras I’ve used, including the Nikon L120 camera I ditched for a superior Fuji one. Here’s an example of what a typical photo looks like, unaltered, from a sunny day.

samsung Focus 2 camera

There is also a front-facing HD camera for video or chat and the quality of this was better than I expected. My daughter made about 20 videos of herself using this and they look better than what she does with an old Flip camera.

I was also surprised by the quality of the speaker. Sure, it’s still a tinny phone speaker, but this is the first time I’ve played music on a phone and haven’t wanted to shut it off 10 seconds later because the sound was so bad. You can actually hear some bass coming out of it and it didn’t get badly distorted. Sure, attach a travel speaker and it sounds a whole lot better, but listenable at least.

The biggest shortcoming of this Samsung Focus phone is something quite basic: storage. It only has 8GB of storage and as with the iPhone, there’s no slot for an SD card. This seems like an odd omission that wouldn’t have added much to the manufacturing cost, but hey, I guess they had to cut somewhere to be able to offer it for $50 with a contract.

The Bottom Line

Focus 2 phoneOverall, this is a much better smartphone than I expected it to be and after reading bad reviews of Windows phones for so long, it was gratifying to see they’ve fixed most of the problems of the past. You know Samsung makes good phones, now you don’t have to take a big step down if it’s loaded with Windows. There are more features on here (like voice commands) I haven’t even tried yet. I’ve been very happy with how this Focus 2 performed in my tests and it’s a great phone for travel: you can take decent photos and videos and keep up with your social networks without having anything else along.

Now that I’m done with this review, my daughter wants the phone back so she can do all the fun things she’s been doing on it. If you are looking at a phone for your own kid, this is a solid AT&T choice that won’t cost you the hundreds you’ll pay for an iPhone. If you’re looking to re-up with AT&T and aren’t tied to Apple, this is a great one for both work and play. Price it out here as a new or renewing customer.

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Telestial International Cell Phone for No-Roaming Calls

international cell phoneUnless  you’ve been living under a rock or never read financial or travel advice, you should know by now that using your regular cell phone overseas can cost you a small fortune. Some unlucky travelers have found their data bill to be even more than their vacation cost them. Even with data turned off, making a quick “I made it” phone call home can cost you $3-$4. Try to take care of business or close a deal over several days and voice calls alone can cost you $100+ before you know it.

There are three general ways around this (besides going off the grid): using Skype, buying a sim card locally, or using a service like Telestial.

The advantage of the latter is that you don’t need to be in a Wi-Fi hotspot (as you do for Skype or similar services) and you don’t need to arrange a new sim card every time you cross a border. I tried Telestial’s service on a recent trip to Eastern Europe, a trip where I was hitting Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary in the space of three weeks. Each country has its own telecom system and I would have had to buy four sim cards to keep talking and be reachable in each place.

As it was, I carried one phone that Telestial provided, with their one sim card inserted, and people could reach me on the same European number no matter where I was. I was impressed how the phone figured out where I was each time. Only once did I have to turn it off and back on again when it didn’t recognized I’d crossed into a new country. The other times it seamlessly switched over from one service to another.

The way the service works is, you sign up for a specific period and they sell you a phone to use (as little as $19) or you just get the sim card for your unlocked phone that will work where you’re going—in much of the world that’s GSM band, but a tri- or quad-band phone is a safe bet anywhere. The sim card has a specific number for you to use. Mine was a (44) country code Isle of Man number, but your rates vary by where you’re going, not where your number is.

Your incoming calls are free for the period of the service, so loved ones can ring you up with their international plan, their pre-paid calling card, or using their SkypeOut account and it’ll be cheap. When you dial out, either to a local number or to someone in your home country, you’ll get charged at the rate specified for that country. Where I was, it ranged from 11 to 29 cents a minute for a land line call, 14 to 69 cents for calls to a mobile phone. You’ll get a credit for some of these calls up front depending on which sim card package you buy, then after that you get charged for the rest.

There is one oddball twist to this arrangement. If you’re getting a multi-country card, it generally comes with a callback system whereby you make the phone call, hang up, and then answer when it rings you back. When you do that, it connects you to the number. Unless you’re in a huge hurry though, it’s a minor inconvenience and this arrangement enables these far-lower rates. I rarely had any trouble connecting and when I did it was because of the same dropped call issues you would have with any cell phone in regions with spotty local coverage.

All in all, I was happy with this service and would use it again if traveling to a country where Telestial is more cost-effective, which is most GSM-band parts of the world outside the Americas. The company can set you up with one country so you can hit the ground running with no language barrier issues upon sign-up. Or they can set you up with a multi-country solution so one phone/one card can work anywhere.

And yes, you can get a smart phone (or use an unlocked one you bought on eBay or abroad) and get a much cheaper data plan through them as well. For 25 countries, the rate is just 39 cents per MB—a fraction of what AT&T or Verizon is going to charge you unless you’re lucky enough to have one of those grandfathered international plans for a Blackberry that were $20 a month.

See their getting started section for answers to how it all works and see prices for the different plans on their site.

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Motorola Atrix Smart Phone: Small Cost, Big Features

When I finally broke down and got a smart phone upon returning from living in Mexico for a year, two of my traits made me get this Motorola Atrix Android phone instead of an iPhone.

1) I’m a value shopper at heart and 2) I’ve always rebelled against doing something just because it’s the popular thing to do. I didn’t want to be one of the iSheep.

I’ve got an iPod Touch and except for the horrible battery life, I like it. So I’m able to do a reasonably fair comparison. I’m totally digging this Atrix phone and here’s why.

The Price is Right

Without any special discounts, you can usually get the Motorola Atrix for $79 to $99 with an AT&T contract. I paid $49 because of a promotion running. So I essentially got a 4G, dual-core smartphone that does everything an iPhone does, with 16GB of storage to start with and the ability to add 32GB more any time, for 1/4 the price of an 16GB iPhone. I can also pull up Flash websites with ease—a huge plus. The music player can handle Apple files AND regular MP3 or WMA files.

Features Galore

For that $49 I got a smartphone with front and back 5 megapixel camera that shoots HD video. I’ve got Wi-Fi, 4G,  and access to all my different e-mail accounts. It uses micro USB to connect to the charger and computer, which is not proprietary. (The phone comes with a USB cord and a charger attachment, plus an HDMI cable to connect to hi-def TVs.) There’s a speaker phone that works great in the car and Bluetooth connection ability of course. I can make any song a ringtone by just selecting “make this my ringtone.” Nice and easy.

Every important regular-usage app I have on my iPod Touch I’ve been able to get for this from the Android store. So I’m a ready traveler with dictionaries, currency converters, maps, flight searches, and all that. For those who want to document their life as it happens, you can put on Facebook, Twitter, Hootsuite, Foursquare, and whatever flavor of the month is bubbling up. Shazaam, Yelp, Evernote, and all the other cool apps that can make this a real multitasker. With the Skype app on here, calls that come to my Skype subscription number ring on this phone, wherever I am, with a different ring tone.

The screen is gorgeous and the interface works well. I find it a little easier to type on this than my Touch, probably because it’s a tad bigger and there is a vibration for each letter typed. It offers word suggestions you can click on, but doesn’t automatically do text correction—thankfully. There’s a fingerprint recognition function built in to turn it on, but I haven’t used that because sometimes my wife needs to answer my phone for me if I’m in the other room or in the shower. Speaking of using the phone, the dailpad is turned off when you’re talking, but a sensor can tell when you’ve removed the phone from your ear and need to punch the dialpad or hang up. Almost like magic.

Perhaps the most important advantage this has over the iPhone for many people will be a battery life that’s far superior. Without any significant conservation commands in place, I generally get two days out of this phone before I have to charge it. The worst I’ve gotten is 16 hours after playing a bunch of games for a stretch and pulling up a map while I was driving. That’s a huge improvement.

What’s the downside?

Even the most staunch Apple haters have to admit that the company is tops when it comes to ease of use. The Android interface may be logical, but it isn’t nearly as intuitive. There are surely ways to customize it to have what I use most front and center, but I need to look at a manual to figure out how. The Motoblur function overdoes it when importing your contacts and throws your Twitter and Facebook ones in with your phone contacts and e-mail ones, creating a big overwhelming mess of people. Getting rid of them is not so easy. There are some functions I haven’t figured out yet and others I’ve stumbled upon by accident.

There are a few games and destination apps that are not available for Andriod, which could matter to some people. Most will just find an alternative though. You’re not integrated with your iTunes collection with this phone, but it’s very easy to import from there.

Overall, I consider this Motorola Atrix to be about the best bargain I’ve gotten all year. I was going to sign up for a new 2-year plan anyway, so getting a smart phone with this much power and this many features for this price is fantastic. Sorry Apple—advantage Android on this deal, by a wide margin.

See the long list of features and specs at the Motorola site.

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Pelican i1015 Smart Phone Case

It wasn’t until my friend dropped her phone into Lake Union that I came up with a great use case for Pelican’s i1015 iPhone case. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the case, nope, it’s sturdy, waterproof box with a headphone jack, a carabiner, and slots that I suppose you could run a belt through. You put your phone in voice control mode, plug in your headphones, and seal the case around the phone. Now, your phone is protected from weather, falls, being smashed in your pack, whatever. All good. I was just having a crisis of imagination around what scenario I would need this level of protection for my phone. Then my friend dropped her phone into the lake. “Oh, that’s it!”

The Pelican i1015 Smart Phone case offers serious protection for your phone when you’re worried about the elements. If you’re doing a dusty road trip or going boating for the day or you’re heading to the beach, this will keep your phone clean, dry, and from getting trampled on by beach volleyball hotties. My headsets have a “activate voice control” button on them, so I was able to use the phone without taking it out of the case — but just so it’s clear, no, you can’t access the touch screen controls (controls of any kind that aren’t voice activated) when the phone is in the case.

A couple of possibilities… you’re a mad snowboarder who takes some falls. The case will keep your phone from getting crushed in your pack or pocket. You’re going boating and you need to have your phone on deck but there’s spray and you want to keep it dry. You’ve got your tunes while horseback riding. (Cue America’s “Horse with No Name.) Actually, it might be kind of cool if you’re doing voice memos of your crazy outdoor adventure… you’ve got your headsets on and you’re recording, meanwhile, you’re in a squall. You’re soaked but your phone is totally dry.

I’m curious. You tell me, why don’t you? What are you doing that needs mad protection for your phone? And if you’re that person, you can get your Pelican i1015 Smart Phone Case either from Pelican or from Amazon for just over 20 USD. Or check prices at Backcountry.com

Turns out John put this thing to the Ultimate Torture Test. See the results here.

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