Digital Life: Latest Facebook phone is cheap and cheerful -- but smart it ain't
After years of explosive growth, Facebook's incredible popularity is showing signs of levelling out.
In fact, the numbers of users in the US and the UK actually fell slightly this summer even as the overall Facebook population inched towards 700 million.
The next phase of expansion is grounded in the falling prices of smartphones, which connect to Facebook any time, anywhere.
Eyeing this market is the new Vodafone 555 Blue handset, which aims squarely at Facebook addicts unwilling to pay big bucks for a full smartphone.
For just €60 on prepay, the 555 promises swift access to social-network nirvana. Facebook widgets bring you the latest updates automatically and the QWERTY keyboard makes short work of posting status updates or comments.
But the Vodafone newcomer can't call itself a smartphone, coming up short on specs and app expandability. Thus it faces stiff competition from its similarly priced stablemate, the Vodafone Smart, or the Samsung Galaxy Europa, from Three. Both of these rivals are budget Android smartphones with a host of extras.
So the 555 has a bit of a mountain to climb. Few will be impressed with its crappy camera, sluggish download speeds, lack of WiFi and the awkward landscape shape of the screen.
The phone's true value lies in the usability of the full keyboard coupled with the tight integration of Facebook. For some users, that may be enough, especially at this price.
Anyone else with more cash to spend and looking to scratch a serious Facebook itch should check out the HTC ChaCha, currently €260 on O2 prepay.
Two into one won't go, the mathematical sages always insist. Clearly, they haven't met the Samsung Champ Duos, one phone with two SIM cards. Instead of carrying around a brace of handsets -- say one for work, one for home, or one for the girlfriend, the other for the wife -- here's a half-decent phone where your two lives can happily co-exist.
The two numbers are always available for incoming calls and if you want to dial someone, you can easily choose which SIM to use. Standby battery life runs to several days -- far better than many phones with just one SIM -- and the inclusion of WiFi is a nice little bonus.
True, Samsung's touchscreen system feels prehistoric these days (a stylus; hello?!) and the camera is a shameful one megapixel.
But for €100 on pre-pay from Irish company Maxroam, the Champ Duos solves the work/life equation handsomely.
Toy Soldiers: Cold War
Every little boy spent countless hours setting up intricately detailed wars between plastic figures. Sure, you have to supply your own sound effects and engage your imagination in high gear but the payback is limitless fun.
TS:CW taps into that vibe with an elaborate twist on the tower-defence genre. It mixes the playfulness of the Toy Story movie with the relentless action of advancing forces attacking your base.
Unlike the austere World War I setting of the first Toy Soldiers game, Cold War isn't afraid to get cheeky in this new era, giving a Rambo-like character a cameo role to help blast the invading Ruskies back into their foxholes.
Like the original, the basic premise remains a strategic game of building gun emplacements to repel attacks. But it has been reinforced with many new tactics and extra weaponry (battery-powered helicopters, aerial barrages, etc).
Nicely diverse locations (Egypt and Paris among others) and a stack of extra game modes help temper the fleeting nature of campaign mode. For a cheap download, TS:CW packs a lot of firepower.
Rugby World Cup 2011
IF only rugby's big shindig had been taking place in 2012. Perhaps then the makers of the video game tie-in would have had time to finish fleshing out the package. Perhaps we're being too harsh to judge RWC2011 by the megabucks standards of, say, FIFA 11.
At a basic level, it's all there -- allowing you to compete with one of 20 national teams for the Webb Ellis Cup in a knockabout approximation of the game played by men with oddly shaped balls.
But you never feel fully in control, with both team and opponent AI a bit suspect.
Then there's the lack of player likenesses (without even stalwarts such as O'Gara) and in some nations not even the real player names. Factor in the paucity of extra modes beyond the World Cup itself and RCW2011 stamps itself strictly a rental-only.
ONCE upon a time, the Sinclair Spectrum hosted a beautiful strategy game called The Sentinel. You had to manoeuvre your character around a mountainous landscape while avoiding the gaze of the lookout on high -- find your way to the top and you could move to the next level.
CapitaHD shamelessly rips off the idea on the iPad without fully recreating its charm. Still, 10,000 levels and a brilliant concept can't be ignored.
Bits and Bytes
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> The upfront cost of a smartphone is only a small chunk of what you'll pay over a typical 18-month contract.
Two new pricing plans help bring smartphones into the realms of the affordable.
Choose the all-you-can-eat data option from Three for €25 a month with a free phone. Or consider eMobile's €24pm option with much less data.
> If you thought HP was late to the tablet game with the TouchPad, Sony trumps them all with the belated debut of its two iPad wannabes.
The Tablet S and Tablet P both run on Android and are expected to hit stores later this month (the iPad-alike S) and in November (the weirder, folding P). But priced roughly the same as the iPad, Sony will have an incredibly difficult time making up lost ground.