Digital Life: Do Androids dream of Ice Cream Sandwiches?
Crash, bang, wallop -- the giants of the mobile phone world are at war and we the consumers are the winners. Never has the battle for our wallets and hearts been more fiercely contested by the likes of Apple, Google and Microsoft.
Every month brings a new phone or innovation. This week, Google gives us both in one package, with a little help from Samsung. When Google first developed Android it realised it needed a flagship handset to show off its new mobile phone software and the Nexus series was born.
The launch of each Nexus has coincided with a major leap forward for Android. So when Google wanted to showcase Android 4.0 (also known as Ice Cream Sandwich because, cutely, each revision is named after a dessert), the Samsung Galaxy Nexus was born.
Available only on Vodafone so far, the Galaxy Nexus can legitimately claim to be the best Android phone ever. Its sleek, curved design lends a desirability not far off the iPhone 4S and is only slightly marred by its plastic back cover.
Dominated by an immense screen -- 4.6 inches, super high-res and bright as an X Factor contestant's teeth -- the Galaxy Nexus still manages to be feather-light and pocketable. It's fast too -- like greased lightning, in fact -- and about the only disappointing specification is the five-megapixel camera, which is not a patch on rivals such as Sony Ericsson's Xperia Arc or the iPhone 4S.
Hardware-wise, then, the Galaxy Nexus has got the chops to see off most challengers. But it's Google's Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) that sweetens the deal.
Some existing Android phones (and tablets) will get the ICS update for free within a few months but -- due to the fragmented messiness of Android-land in general -- many won't.
That leaves the Nexus as the only game in town for now with all of the goodies ICS has to offer. The Android menu system has been completely revamped with a more sophisticated look and even if it's still occasionally inconsistent it notably improves the experience, from email to messaging to social networking.
Then there are gimmicks such as face unlock, which uses the camera to recognise your mug and unlock the phone (sadly, it's easily fooled and doesn't work half the time).
The camera app itself has acquired a clever panorama mode, a host of useful editing tools and creditably high-def video recording.
Perhaps next month another phone will come along to topple the Galaxy Nexus but for now all hail the king of the Androids.
It costs €200 on the cheapest Vodafone contract.
LEGEND OF ZELDA: SKYWARD SWORD
Familiarity has never yet bred contempt for Nintendo’s masterpiece Zelda series. Throughout its 25-year history, the designers — including the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto — have evolved the gameplay from its humble beginnings but the core of exploration, puzzles and platforms has been constant.
Skyward Sword sustains that grand tradition. It’s a swansong for Zelda on the Wii that’s as comfortable as a favourite chair while adapting to new technology, in this case the Wii Motion Plus controller.
The increased accuracy of the controller — note that the original Wiimote isn’t compatible — enables Nintendo’s designers to fashion fresh puzzles and challenges based on subtle movements of the wrist. From swordplay to flying beetle servants, no idea is left untouched.
And yet as delightful and wilfully daft as much of Skyward Sword feels, the slightly crude visuals and well-worn tropes of temples and fields hark to another time. No one will be disappointed by Skyward Sword but Zelda is showing her age.
Strictly for under-10s, DA successfully recreates Disney’s Californian theme park, offering kids the chance to explore the rides and sights, egged on by minigames.
DA requires the Kinect camera but makes clever use of its motion tracking to captivate the young ’uns. They’ll be too busy having fun with Mickey, Goofy and co to notice the occasionally temperamental nature of Kinect’s tracking. Older children may sigh and plead boredom but the nippers will adore it.
NEED FOR SPEED: THE RUN
Last year’s Need For Speed outing wrenched the racing series out of the dead end it was pursuing. Sadly, The Run takes another wrong turn with a lacklustre version of the Cannonball Run, a high-speed race across the back roads of America.
Pleasant to look at and superficially entertaining, it quickly settles into a monotonous series of challenges — pass this many rivals, beat this time, etc. Fail one and you can’t progress. The germ of a great idea is there but the execution is not.
SKYLANDERS: SPYRO’S ADVENTURE
On one hand, Skylanders is the most horrific of concepts — a marketing-driven game designed to sell your child shedloads of expensive toy figures at €9 a pop.
On the other, its gimmicky shtick of bundling a little scanner to recognise which figure you want to use in the game had my two boys mesmerised for a while.
But even they realised eventually that behind it all is a fairly bog-standard platformer that misses no opportunity to lure you down to the shops for more merchandise.
Bits and Bytes
• SatNav specialist TomTom has released a free app for Android phones called TomTom Places to help you locate your nearest ATM, carpark, café, whatever.
It's a hotly contested field and despite TomTom touting its database of 10 million points of interest around the world, not enough of them are in Ireland.
Find the Places app at the Android Market.
• Light Up a Light is an unusual fundraiser for Our Lady's Hospice in Dublin.
For a small donation of €5 you can create an online tribute to a loved one who has passed away.
This collection of words and photographs can then be shared with friends and family via email.