Monday 20 June 2016

HTC EVO 3D: the feature that time forgot

Launched June 2011

Five years ago 3D was all the rage. Avatar had hit the movies a couple of years earlier, stoking interest in 3D entertainment. Although 3D TVs were beginning to appear in the shops, these were both expensive and required special glasses. It was also impossible for people to capture 3D content to display themselves.

The HTC EVO 3D was one of a very small number of devices launched to try to widen the appeal of 3D technologies. The autostereoscopic display didn't need glasses.. although you had to put your head in just the right place to get the full effect and it only worked in landscape mode. There was a 3D camera on the back to make your own 3D videos, at the time YouTube had just launched its 3D service, so the camera was a significant feature in itself.

The 3D display was a 4.3" 540 x 960 pixel panel, which was pretty large for the time. Because producing a 3D image takes a lot of processing power with a dual-core 1.2GHz CPU and 1GB of RAM, which was impressive for the time. Everything else was the familiar territory of a HTC Android 2.3 handset, so it was always going to be a decent everyday device.

However, there were precious few 3D applications available for the EVO 3D and there was little incentive for third parties to develop applications for this platform. Consumer interest in 3D soon began to wane as well, and the expected surge in demand simply didn't happen. It wasn't an expensive device (SIM-free it was about £500 / €600 at launch), but even so it didn't sell very well.

However, if you are looking at capturing 3D images and video then the EVO 3D is still a viable and useful device. Prices for an unlocked EVO 3D are currently around £80 / €100 to £200 / €250 or so. It is unlikely that there will be much interest in 3D from phone manufacturers any time soon.. the latest handsets are concentrating more on 4K video. But perhaps if the technology is perfected, we might see devices of this type again.

Monday 13 June 2016

HTC TyTN and HTC MTeoR (2006)

Announced June 2006

Ten years ago this month, a Taiwanese company called HTC stepped out of the shadows and launched two new handsets under their own brand. Unusually though, HTC wasn't a NEW company but it had been successfully manufacturing devices for several years which always featured somebody else's name on the outside.

HTC started out making laptops in 1997 and then moved to PDAs, notably making iPAQs for Compaq and HP. In 2002 they launched the world's first Windows smartphone, the HTC Wallaby, followed by a range of ever-better Windows devices that became very popular.. and which were highly anticipated by smartphone fans.

So, instead of just branding phones with Qtek, i-mate, Dopod, O2, T-Mobile or whatever it seemed a logical choice for this growing company to sell under its own name. After all, HTC were arguably the most innovative phone manufacturer at the time but you couldn't actually buy an HTC with "HTC" on it.

The first two HTC-branded handsets you could buy were the HTC TyTN and HTC MTeoR. The TyTN looked more like the sort of smartphone we know today, with a 2.8" 240 x 320 pixel touchscreen, Windows Mobile 5.0, 3G and 3.5G support plus WiFi, a 2 megapixel camera plus a video calling camera and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. On the other hand, the MTeoR looked more like a traditional feature phone, but this too ran Windows Mobile 5.0 but with a more traditional 2.2" 240 x 320 pixel non-touch panel. The MTeoR had a basic 1.3 megapixel camera and supported GSM and 3G networks only.

Out of the pair the TyTN was the most successful, and although it may seem obvious today that a "candy bar" smartphone such as the MTeoR would be less appealing, you have to remember that it was competing directly against Nokia's very similar Symbian smartphones which had the same form factor.

These days the TyTN and MTeoR are long-forgotten. But HTC continued to innovate and shape the market, creating the world's first Android device and consistently outperforming most of its competition for a fair chunk of the past decade. And during the next ten years, HTC certainly went on to design some very impressive devices that were far more notable than this pair..

Friday 10 June 2016

Nokia N9 (2011)

Launched June 2011

2011 was a time of turmoil for Nokia. Having announced in February that they were going to switch their smartphone platform to Windows, the writing was on the wall for the those smartphones running on other environments. Symbian was one obvious casualty, but Nokia's MeeGo (formerly Maemo) operating system was another.

The Nokia N9 was the final handset in a series of devices running the Linux-based Maemo OS that had kicked off in 2005 with the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, and ending up with the promising Nokia N900 in 2009. Despite some flaws, the N900 was a pretty decent effort and timely development could well have made a very competitive handset that could have fended off Android and the iPhone. But a disastrous decision to merge Maemo with Intel's Moblin operating system stalled development of any new devices, and the planned follow-up to the N900 never happened.

By 2011 the die had already been cast in favour of Nokia's rivals. Despite this, the nearly two-year gestation period for the N9 was coming to an end and Nokia were too far into the project to cancel it. Just as the N9 was about to be launched, Nokia slashed staff in the MeeGo division and it was clear that whatever was going to be produced was likely to be not only the first, but also the last MeeGo consumer device from Nokia.

Despite being primed to disappoint, the N9 instead created quite a stir. Housed in a brightly-coloured plastic unibody case, the N9 set the design standards that were then picked up by the Lumia range. On the front was a relatively large 3.9" 480 x 854 pixel AMOLED display, on the back was an 8 megapixel camera and inside was a 1GHz processor with 1GB of RAM. The operating system was the main feature though, and MeeGo was different from everything else on the market with a highly polished swipe-based interface that still managed to have a traditional Nokia look and feel. The N9 was beautiful but doomed.

Despite the wait, Nokia fans were keen to get their hands on the device. But Nokia had other ideas, and deliberately didn't make the N9 available in major markets such as the US, UK, Germany, France, Spain or Italy. Instead, the N9 was launched in secondary markets only. Why would they produce such an interesting device and then deny access to it? Well, Nokia were also working on their first Windows device (the Lumia 800) which was physically very similar to the N9, and presumably they wanted to ensure success by not having the N9 to compete. Well, we know how that turned out.

A strange thing happened though - people still wanted the N9, so there was a lively market on eBay with devices selling for €400 or more. Prices have subsided a little since then,  with prices ranging between about €80 to €300 depending on condition. Much rarer is the Nokia N950, a phone given to developers that has a QWERTY keyboard which can command prices of €1000 or even more.

There are perhaps few devices that highlight the failures within Nokia as well as the N9 does. A brilliant device in many ways, it came out far too late and was killed off at birth by a company that had moved on to a different.. and ultimately unsuccessful strategy. Had this launched a year or 18 months earlier then it would have had an easier time up against the somewhat uneven Android platform that was eating Nokia's sales. But as it is, the Nokia N9 is an interesting and rather sad footnote in the tale of the decline of Nokia.