Sunday, March 16, 2014

Verizon fan program recap

Several months ago, I was approached with the opportunity to participate in the Verizon Fans Voices program. The conditions were pretty simple: receive a Droid Maxx smart phone, plus another device (which turned out to be a Samsung Tab 2 (7.0) tablet), and six months of service, in exchange for my honest opinions about the products.

Along the way, I've had to opportunity to give away some cool products, and also had the chance to try out some other products along the way: notably, the Fitbit® Force™, and the BlackBerry Mini Stereo speaker. 

I've had the Droid Maxx phone the longest; I wrote about it previously on this blog. After six months of constant usage, I still feel mostly pretty happy about the phone. If I had to pick out one complaint about the phone, it's the built-in camera. When compared to other current smart phones (most notably, iPhones), the Maxx's camera isn't quite as sharp as some competitors, although it has improved over previous versions of the Maxx (including the Razr Maxx, my previous phone). 

The camera does best in well-lit conditions, whether it is artificial or natural lighting; with good lighting, both scenic and close-up pictures can be quite good.

Droid Maxx photo: Coors Light Stadium Series, in snowstorm, at Soldier Field, Chicago

Droid Maxx photo: floral close-up in full light

However, I have noticed that when taking "selfies" - that is, using the camera on the face of the phone, versus the usual lens on the back - that the quality of shots degrades faster the lower the light gets. In full light, it does just fine, as shown by the picture below, taken at the Winter Classic in snowy conditions:

Droid Maxx selfie... apparently, I really enjoy sitting around in the snow, watching hockey games

Although I would like higher-quality/better resolution photography out of the phone (stats list it at 10 megapixels, but in lower light, picture quality gets grainy), one of my favorite features about the Maxx is directly related to the phone: you can turn it on by just flicking your wrist a couple times. This makes it easy to take pictures when you need a quick reaction time. I've gotten so used to this feature that when I use my old Razr Maxx, I find myself automatically shaking the phone to turn on the camera! Additionally, you can touch anywhere on the screen to take a picture, making it easier to pick what you want the camera to focus upon.

I also bought the NETGEAR Push2TV - a device smaller than a pack of cards - from my local Verizon store. This little device is easy to set up, and allows you to project anything from your phone to your TV. Want to show off a photo slide show, watch a streaming video, or even just read your mail on a bigger screen? Push2TV lets you do that. 

I've found the phone's speed to be excellent; the 4G is faster and more reliable than my home DSL - for example, I have had relatively little lag streaming videos or watching games via NHL GameCenter. One of my favorite features about the phone is its outstanding battery life. While I haven't been able to get the advertised "up to 2 full days" of heavy usage, I can generally go a full day of solid use before needing to plug it in for a charge. The Maxx also can be charged wirelessly, but I have not had an opportunity to try out a wireless charger.

Overall, I've really enjoyed having the Droid Maxx, and find it to be a fun phone.

* * *

Midway through the program, we received Fitbit Force, billed as a "Wireless activity and sleep band". (Note: Fitbit has recently discontinued/issued a recall for the Force, due to people having allergic reactions to the wristband.) The Force retailed for about $129, and is designed to motivate you to exercise by tracking your exercise and progress. You can use either the Fitbit website or their phone app to plug additional information into your Force, including water intake. 

Overall, I liked the Force and found that yes, it motivated me - and continues to motivate me. I think it's cool that I can look at the app and see I've logged half a million steps since I received the Force! I also found that the ability to set up to 8 silent (vibrating) alarms on the Force is very helpful, whether it's to keep yourself on pace during a workout, or whatever other purpose you might need to have for alarms. If you're a light sleeper, you might find the vibrations to be enough to act as an alarm clock. I didn't use the sleep monitor feature much, but it did give me a sense of my sleep patterns, at least.

On the other hand, for the suggested retail price, I think the Force could do a lot more - specifically, I think it should have a heart rate monitor. It's possible to buy pedometers and wrist-based heart rate monitors for as little as $30; so for $129, I would expect the Force - and frankly, any of its competitors at a similar price point or higher - to contain both. The wristband also has a clasp that snaps together, which is not the easiest thing to put on your wrist, and easy to snag off your wrist. If Fitbit adds a heart monitor and redesigns the wristband, I'd rate it as pretty awesome. 

We had a bit of competition between the various bloggers participating in the program, and I won a BlackBerry Mini Stereo speaker. This wireless speaker is about the size of a deck of cards, and can be used to boost the volume of a call on speakerphone or when you're playing music or streaming video. The sound is pretty decent, and it's very portable and easy to set up. As I don't have a stereo, I've found it's useful to play music off my phone.

* * *

I received the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) a few weeks ago. I'm not used to having a tablet, so I've been trying to use the tablet for when I would usually use my phone (streaming video, playing games, etc). I bought a stylus (pictured above, red) for use with the tablet; it's been very helpful when trying to negotiate screens with small text. It charges relatively quickly, and the battery life is around 11 hours with use (up to 190+ on standby mode). I also bought a Belkin leather protective cover, which is also designed to allow you to prop up the tablet for easy viewing. 

In terms of size, the Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) has been the perfect size for me - it measures 7.63" tall x 4.82" wide, and less than half an inch thick, making it small enough to easily stick in my purse or my camera bag when on the go. It's about the size of my older model Kindle, but I can do a lot more with the Kindle app on my tablet than I can do with my actual Kindle. (No wonder the tablet easily usurped my Kindle in my tech library.)

The picture quality is very good, whether it is browsing web pages or streaming video. It takes decent enough pictures, but I haven't used it in enough lighting conditions to know how overall good or bad it is when it comes to its camera. Below are a couple of screen shots from the NBC Sports Live Extra app during Olympic coverage; as you can see, the video quality is pretty sharp and you can pick out plenty of details.

As mentioned, I've streamed a lot of video on the Tab 2: NHL GameCenter, HBOGO, DirecTV, Olympic coverage, and more. I finally set up my home DSL service for its wireless modem; I hadn't had a need for it prior to getting a tablet - and most of the time, Verizon's 4G service ran faster/more smoothly than keeping the tablet connected to my in-home WiFi! (Of course, streaming video is very data-intensive, so it's smart to run WiFi when streaming video or other heavy data-usage apps, when you can.)

There's some neat features to the Galaxy Tab 2. You can use the Peel Smart Remote feature to control your TV, DVR, and surround sound; it can even make personalized TV recommendations based on your usage. The Media Hub allows you to stream movies and TV shows (mostly for a fee). Google Chromecast ($34.99) allows you to stream content from your tablet to your HDTV. I did not purchase one of these, so cannot speak for how smoothly it might work; but it works similar to the Push2TV device I mentioned in relation to my Droid Maxx.

I'm looking forward to figuring out more of what the tablet can do, as this is my first tablet. Although it comes pre-loaded with several useful apps, I'm still discovering apps to increase its usability and to find news uses for it beyond using it as a phone, Skyping, playing games, streaming video, and reading books via the Kindle app. Overall, I like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0).

* * *

I'd like to thank Verizon for making me a part of its Fan Voices program. I've been a Verizon customer for many years prior to participating, but with newer devices, I was able to see how smooth Verizon's 4G coverage can be. I traveled a number of times over the years I've had Verizon, and the company's extensive nationwide network has probably been the top reason for sticking with them as a carrier. It has been fun to be a part of the #VZWvoices program, and I'm glad to have gotten the chance to check out the newest devices.

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