Beats Electronics and Monster Cable Products, two companies that together defined the current $1-billion headphone industry with the Beats by Dr. Dre line, are parting ways at the end of the year.
But before the two become competitors in a segment of consumer electronics that is just as much about fashion as it is technology, a wave of new Beats by Dr. Dre headphones and boom boxes (built by Monster) will hit store shelves.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, I caught up with Jimmy Iovine, Beats Electronics' chairman and CEO of Interscope Geffen A&M Records, to talk about what products the Beats brand had planned for 2012 (you can see our interview in the video above).
First up will be the new Mixr headphones, designed by Grammy-winning producer and DJ David Guetta. The Mixr is a lightweight and strong design -- I twisted and bent the headband, and it returned to form and never felt week -- that offers the bass-heavy sound Beats is known for. At $279, the Mixr is set to hit U.S. stores in early February in black and white. They're already available in Europe.
February will also see a wireless release of the Solo headphones, also priced at $279. And due in mid-September are the $349 Executive headphones, which bring a sleeker and more understated look with a leather headband and aluminum ear cups.
Iovine was also proud of the new BeatBox, a follow-up to the first-generation (and much less portable) BeatBox, which will sell at a price of $399. A release date hasn't yet been set for the new battery- or AC-powered BeatBox, which plays music from smartphones and MP3 players docked on the speaker setup.
Since launching in 2009, Beats has teamed with Justin Beiber, Lady Gaga and Sean "Diddy" Combs for artist-sponsored headphones. The Mixr is the only artist-specific set of headphones planned for 2012, Iovine said.
But this year we will see more HTC smartphones paired with Beats headphones as a result of HTC purchasing a $300-million stake in the audio company late last year, he said. And Beats speakers will be found not just in the Chrysler 300, as they were in 2011, but also in the Dodge Charger. And, as we saw at CES, Beats speakers are making their way into more HP laptops this year too.
After the Monster manufacturing deal expires at the end of the year, Beats plans to go out on its own, Iovine told my colleague Gerrick D. Kennedy on our sister blog Pop & Hiss. Despite reports to the contrary, Iovine said, the split was always the audio start-up's intention.
"It was always planned. It was always a five-year deal," Iovine said. "It was a manufacturing distribution deal. We were with Monster for headphones and speakers. It was always a plan to turn into a freestanding company."
Apple landed a potentially major victory against HTC on Monday after the U.S. International Trade Commission ruled in its favor and found that some of HTC's Android smartphones and tablets violated one of its patents.
In its ruling on the patent dispute between Apple and HTC, the ITC also handed down a ban on the importing of specific HTC Android devices that goes into affect April 19, 2012.
The HTC phones or tablets banned by the ITC will include any that run on Google's Android 1.6 Donut to 2.2 Froyo mobile operating system, according to Gizmodo.
The decision doesn't specifically call for an import ban on phones running newer versions of Android such as 2.3 Gingerbread, 3.0 Honeycomb or the new 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Most newer HTC phones and tablets run on Android Gingerbread, and some (such as the HTC Rezound) are due for upgrades to Android Ice Cream Sandwich.
In its complaint to the ITC, Apple accused HTC of violating a number of its patents, each of which are older than smartphones themselves.
But the ITC found HTC in violation of only one of Apple's patents -- patent 5,946,647, which Apple was awarded in February 1996 and covers the "system and method for performing an action on a structure in computer-generated data," or basically a patent for handling the actions that take place in the background when you do something as simple as tapping a link in an email to open it in a Web browser.
In an emailed statement, HTC lawyer Grace Lei said that the company was pleased that the ITC found that it wasn't in violation of all the patents Apple accused it of infringing. As for the one patent it was found to be in violation of -- patent 5,946,647 -- HTC said it would alter its use of Android to avoid the problem.
"We are very pleased with the determination and we respect it," Lei said. "However, the 647 patent is a small UI experience and HTC will completely remove it from all of our phones soon."
Apple officials were not available to comment on the commission ruling Monday.
From here, the ruling still has to be approved by the ITC's president, who has 60 days to sign off on the decision or veto it.
If the decision sticks and the import ban comes to fruition, HTC will still be able to sell whatever it has in the U.S. before April 19 of next year. The Taiwanese company also has until Dec. 19, 2013, to import refurbished devices "to be provided to consumers as replacements under warranty or an insurance contract (whether the warranty or contract is offered by HTC, a carrier, or by a third party)," the ITC said in its ruling.
Black Friday isn't here just yet, but Verizon Wireless is already offering some limited-time-only discounts on tablets and smartphones to kick off the holiday shopping season.
One standout is an HTC Droid Incredible 2 smartphone in a loud red, offered free with a 2-year-data plan. The Incredible 2, which launched in May, isn't the newest handset from Verizon to run Google's Android operating system, but it's still one of the nicest phones available from the carrier.
The model features a four-inch touchscreen, an eight-megapixel rear camera with dual-LED flash and 720p video, and a speedy one-gigahertz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. The handset runs on Verizon's 3G network.
One downside is that the phone comes with only eight gigabytes of storage via an included microSD card. (The gigabyte or so of built-in storage is taken up by the Android operating system and preloaded apps). But after paying zero upfront, buying a larger microSD card is pretty reasonable.
Verizon is also offering as part of its Black Friday promotion the Motorola Xoom 4G LTE tablet for $199 with a two-year-contract.
The Xoom, which launched for $600 in February, features a handsome 10.1-inch screen with a high-definition 1280 x 800 resolution, a 2-megapixel front facing camera, and a 5-megapixel rear camera that can shoot 720p video. The Xoom also runs Google's Android Honeycomb operating system designed specifically for tablets, is powered by a one-gigahertz dual-core processor and comes with 32 gigabytes of built-in storage and a microSD card slot for those looking for more.
Other devices on sale include the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play smartphone, free with a 2-year contract, and the Motorola Droid 3 for $149.99 on a 2-year plan.
The HTC Titan is coming to AT&T on Nov. 20, and with a 4.7-inch screen, the new Windows Phone handset will have the largest screen available from the carrier.
The phone will sell for $199.99 with a two-year data plan, according to a post on AT&T's Facebook page. According to a listing for the Titan on Microsoft's website, the phone will run on 4G networks.
The massive screen has a resolution of 480 x 800 pixels, the same as any other Windows Phone handset, and features an 8-megapixel, 720p camera with a dual-LED flash on the rear of the phone and a 1.3-megapixel camera on the front.
The Titan will also run the latest version of Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 operating system, known as Mango.
The phone is powered by a 1.5-gigahertz single core processor with 512-megabytes of random-access memory and 16 gigabytes of built-in storage. The Titan joins the Radar on T-Mobile as HTC's fall Windows Phone Mango lineup.
The new model "doesn’t suffer the reception problem we found in its predecessor in special tests in our labs," said a report released Tuesday by the independent consumer ratings publication. The 4S "did not display the same reception flaw, which involves a loss of signal strength when you touch a spot on the phone’s lower left side while you’re in an area with a weak signal."
The iPhone 4 -- still available to consumers at a discounted price -- still exhibits the problem, the report noted.
Last year, Consumer Reports' indictment of the iPhone 4 set off a wave of consumer (and media) unrest about the apparent flaw in the iPhone 4, which eventually led to a news conference held by Steve Jobs, in which he grudgingly offered a free rubber case to anyone who complained about reception issues.
Though Consumer Reports says the new phone fixes the issue, the group still doesn't give the 4S its top marks. Instead, the leading phones had features that the new iPhone doesn't: a larger display and fast 4G (fourth generation) cellular capability.
The new iPhone runs on so-called HSPA+ networks -- a faster technology than the previous phone, but what Consumer Reports called "the bottom rung of what is considered to be 4G network speed."
Phones that beat the iPhone 4S in the ratings included Samsung's Galaxy S II phones, the Motorola Droid Bionic and the LG Thrill.
The report noted that it was not able to reduce battery issues that some iPhone 4S owners have been reporting, and which Apple has said will be fixed in an upcoming software update.
Google's Android Ice Cream Sandwich is launching on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus later this month, but the announcement of the new operating system last month has left many Android owners with one big question: When will their phones get an Ice Cream Sandwich update?
HTC, on Monday, offered up a few answers on its Facebook page, though not many exact dates as to when an update will arrive.
The Taiwanese smartphone and tablet maker said the new Android OS (the first that Google has designed for both smartphones and tablets) will arrive on eight devices in 2012: the Vivid, Sensation, Sensation XL, Sensation XE, Evo 3D, Evo Design 4G, Amaze 4G and the Rezound.
Could Ice Cream Sandwich arrive for more HTC smartphones and maybe even a tablet or two? That'd be a big maybe, the company said.
"We're continuing to assess our product portfolio, so stay tuned for more updates on device upgrades, timing and other details about HTC and Ice Cream Sandwich," HTC said on Facebook.
The HTC Rezound will be the first phone with Beats Audio to hit the U.S. when it arrives in Verizon stores Nov. 14.
At $300 on a two-year contract, the Rezound will feature a 4.3-inch touchscreen, a 1.5-gigahertz dual-core processor, an 8-megapixel rear camera capable of shooting 1080p video, a dual LED flash on the back, a 2-megapixel front camera and 32 gigabytes of storage (16 gigabytes built in and 16 gigabytes on an included micro SD card).
The Rezound will ship with Google's Android Gingerbread operating system, skinned in the HTC Sense user interface, but will be upgraded to the new Android Ice Cream Sandwich early next year.
The phone will run on Verizon's 4G LTE network and ship with Beats Audio in-ear headphones; black with red cables to match the phone, which will be black with red highlights.
HTC is hoping that Beats Audio will be a differentiator for its smartphones as the competition for high-end handsets grows -- the Motorola Droid Razr and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus are both launching this month on Verizon too.
In order to get Beats Audio's name and technology into its product line, HTC purchased a $300-million stake in the company known mostly for selling high-priced headphones marketed by hip-hop legend Dr. Dre.
HTC has already released smartphones with Beats headphones and speakers, such as the Sensation XE, in markets outside the U.S.
Record mogul Jimmy Iovine, who is chairman of Beats Audio and started the company with Dr. Dre, has pitched Beats as more than just fancy headphones and speakers on HP laptops and in Chrysler sedans. Rather, Iovine preaches Beats as a solution to the music industry's sales decline as digital music files and cheap headphones have degraded the quality of music being sold.
"HTC fully recognizes the destruction to audio caused by the digital revolution," Iovine said in a statement. "They embrace our vision to repair this ecosystem and bring the feeling from the recording studio to the smartphone."
AT&T is launching its 4G LTE network Sunday along with two new 4G LTE smartphones in a bid to catch up with Verizon, which launched its 4G LTE network in December.
The first two AT&T 4G LTE handsets will be the Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket and the HTC Vivid.
The Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket is the AT&T's second Galaxy S II, but there are a couple of differences between the two phones.
The previous Galaxy S II on AT&T had a 4.3-inch screen, ran on the HSPA+ network and sold for $200 on a two-year contract. The Galaxy S II Skyrocket gets the larger 4.5-inch screen found on Sprint and T-Mobile's Galaxy S II variations, and runs on AT&T's LTE network and is priced at $250 with a two-year data plan.
Both versions of the flagship Samsung phone feature Android Gingerbread with a modified user interface, a 1.5-gigahertz dual core processor, an 8-megapixel rear camera that can shoot up to 1080p video, a dual LED flash on the back, a 2-megapixel camera in front and 16-gigabytes of built-in storage.
The HTC Vivid will sell for $200 on a two-year contract and also features a 4.5-inch touch screen but with a screen resolution of 960 x 540 pixels to the Galaxy S II Skyrocket's 800 x 480 pixels.
The Vivid has a 1.2-gigahertz dual core processor, 16 gigabytes of built-in storage, an 8-megapixel camera that can shoot 1080p video, a dual LED flash and a 1.3-megapixel camera in front. The Vivid gets Android Gingerbread skinned with the HTC Sense user interface.
AT&T's 4G LTE data plans will be offered at the same prices as the carrier's 3G and 4G HSPA+ plans. AT&T offers 200 megabytes of data for $15 a month and overage charges of $15 for an extra 200 megabytes of data. Another option is 2 gigabytes of data for $25 per month with an overage fee of $10 for each extra gigabyte of data.
When it launches, AT&T's 4G LTE service will be offered in just five markets: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio, the carrier said in a statement. However, AT&T has said it plans to expand its LTE coverage aggressively and that 4G LTE is where its network is headed.
Verizon has a hefty head start on AT&T and other rivals with its 4G LTE network currently offered in 165 markets.
AT&T has offered 4G phones for months, but its previous handsets ran on the company's HSPA+ network, which offers theoretical top speeds of 42 megabytes per second for downloads and 23 megabytes per second for uploads.
LTE networks, from both AT&T and Verizon, have promised to be as much as 10 times fast than 3G networks, with speeds of theoretical top speeds of 300 megabytes pers second for downloads and 75 megabytes per second for uploads.
Of course, just how fast and how reliable a cellular network varies by city and by carrier. T-Mobile currently uses a HSPA+ 4G network and Sprint uses a technology called WiMax for its 4G service, but both are also looking to eventually switch to LTE networks as well. LTE refers to "long term evolution" and is considered to be the most scalable of the 4G options for telecommunications companies.
The Amaze 4G, HTC's latest flagship Android smartphone, picks up where the HTC Sensation left off and in the process takes a few steps forward and a couple steps back.
The Amaze, available on T-Mobile, carries over the 4.3-inch touchscreen seen on the Sensation and Sensation XE. But a number of specs have been bumped up in the Amaze, taking what the Sensation 4G did right and offering a snappier, more responsive experience overall.
The Sensation offered 768 megabytes of RAM; the Amaze has a healthy 1 gigabyte of RAM.
The Sensation had a VGA-quality camera on the front; the Amaze has an awesome 2-megapixel camera up front for video chats. Both offer fantastic 8-megapixel cameras on the back of the handsets, with dual LED flashes, each capable of shooting video in 1080p high definition.
The Sensation had a 1.2-gigahertz dual-core processor and the Amaze has a 1.5-gigahertz dual-core processor. Both the Sensation and the Amaze run on T-Mobile's 4G network.
In my testing and daily use of the phone, this combination of improved hardware and 4G speeds did result in faster-loading web pages, quicker-loading apps and emails being sent and received. The Amaze does feel faster than many phones. Not quite Galaxy S II or Droid Bionic fast, but faster than previous HTC phones I've tested.
The Amaze also gains the the fantastic camera features first found in the T-Mobile MyTouch 4G Slide (built by HTC), such as a night shooting mode, action mode for photographing fast-moving objects, a ClearShot HDR mode for pictures taken in bright daytime environments without blowing out lighter colors, a macro mode for snapping detailed images at very close range, and a SweepShot which allows for easily snapping panorama shots.
The Amaze also uses premium-feeling materials on the Amaze, as it did on the Sensation. The rear cover of the phone features an aluminum chassis that houses a plastic coated in a material that reminded me of a matte ceramic in both look and touch. It wasn't quite something I had seen on any smartphone before and while it wasn't grippy per se, it wasn't slick either and made the phone quite pleasant to hold.
All of this fits in with HTC's formula of incremental spec upgrades with each new top-end handset release. And smartphone releases for HTC do come often. It feels sometimes as though HTC is releasing a new smartphone or two just about each month.
But there are a few detracting factors here as well. First off is the price. At $259.99 on a two-year contract, I believe the HTC Amaze is about $60 too expensive.
Many of the specs match or are competitive with those found by other high-end rivals such as the Samsung Galaxy S II (also available on T-Mobile), the Motorola Droid Bionic and even the iPhone 4S. However, when many phones the Amaze is lining up against sell at starting prices of about $200, I question why the Amaze costs more.
Granted, $60 is not all that much, and the Bionic launched at a $300 price, the upcoming Droid Razr will do the same as well. Nonetheless, it feels as though phone makers across carriers are doing what they can to up the entry-level price on smartphones and I'm not seeing a lot of new blockbuster features on any of these handsets to justify the price increases we're seeing.
Battery life on the Amaze 4G isn't great. I got a range of about four to five hours with a mix of occasional web, email and app use before I was looking for an outlet. That being said, I haven't seen battery life on any 4G phones from any company on any carrier that I've been satisfied with at this point. For now, taking on a 4G phone means a battery-life trade off.
The Amaze also got a bit thicker and heavier than the Sensation, which might come with the addition of hardware to get it running on HTC's 4G network, but nonetheless the difference is noticeable here as many new phones are continuing to get thinner and lighter.
The Sensation was 0.44 of an inch thick and weighed 5.22 ounces. The Amaze is 0.46 of an inch thick and weighs 6.1 ounces.
There's also HTC Sense -- HTC's user interface skin overlaying Google's Android Gingerbread operating system. HTC Sense is still one of the nicer third-party skins out there. But with the new Android Ice Cream Sandwich operating system on the way from Google, and the improved Gingerbread UI skin seen on the Samsung Galaxy S II, the HTC Sense on the Amaze left me wondering how HTC will improve on what they've already got.
Simply put, HTC Sense isn't as far ahead of competitors as it once was. Yes, the user experience is faster on the Amaze than it was on the Sensation, so many previous HTC phones (I'm looking at you HTC Hero circa 2009) and tablets. With the software experience feeling the same and looking the same, HTC Sense is starting to feel a bit old.
The rivals aren't getting any softer either, with Samsung's Galaxy Nexus running Ice Cream Sandwich and the Droid Razr launching sometime next month. In such a crowded field, the Amaze is a solid smartphone that I believe has a hard time standing out in the crowd.
[Updated Oct. 30 1:45 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the HTC Sensation ran on T-Mobile's 3G Network. The Sensation runs primarily on T-Mobile's 4G and uses the carrier's 3G network when 4G service is unavailable.]
Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Phone operating system has been playing catch-up to Google's Android and Apple's iOS ever since it launched on smartphones about a year ago.
And with Windows Phone 7.5, also known as Mango, being the first major update to Microsoft's mobile OS since its launch, that still hasn't changed. What also hasn't changed is that Windows Phone is one of the easiest-to-use smartphone operating systems on the market and a great entry point for those looking to get their first smartphone.
Mango adds 500 new features to Windows Phone but the look and feel of the software is pretty much exactly the same. The "live tiles" and "Metro" user interface remain in place and for good reason -- the look is an attractive one that even at a year old still feels new.
Yet at this point, despite the Mango update, Windows Phone in my opinion doesn't feel like it will rival Android or iOS for market share anytime soon. Microsoft's rivals continue to add polish and pull further ahead with Apple's iOS 5 being my favorite of the pack currently and the promising Android Ice Cream Sandwich on the way.
But Windows Phone 7.5 is a big improvement over 7.0 and with RIM continuing to struggle with its own BlackBerry mobile platform, it seems Microsoft has an opportunity to snag the No. 3 spot in the smartphone wars -- especially with new Nokia, Samsung and HTC handsets planned.
Some of Mango's most outstanding new features follow in the footsteps of what's been available on other platforms for some time.
Multitasking on Mango is easy and fun.
Windows Phone handsets have three buttons sitting below their touchscreens -- a back button to the left (indicated by a back arrow), a home button (which is a Windows logo) in the center and a search button (a magnifying glass icon) to the right.
Hold down the back button and whatever window you're in shrinks to sit in a row of screenshots of other apps running in the background. You can scroll between the window panes to see what's running and tap on the pane you want to launch into that app.
Want to see what this looks like? Check out our video demonstration below.
The whole scheme is visually appealing and multitasking on Mango achieves the same goal as multitasking in Android or iOS, but the whole thing is pulled off in a unique style. It's refreshing to see Microsoft do this, and many other things, without feeling like it's a copy of its rivals.
Maps gain a feature called Local Scout which, whenever you let the Maps app know your current location, quickly serves up suggestions on what's nearby for eating and drinking, seeing and doing, shopping at and other highlights. Essentially, Local Scout adds a Yelp-like feature to Maps that works well and can aid in discovering new places and things in an unfamiliar location.
Local Scout also offers ratings and even suggests helpful apps that might be related to whatever the location is that you're checking out -- such as Foursquare, Foodspotting or transit-related apps.
The app suggestions, which Microsoft calls App Connect, also show up outside of Local Scout and in other spots such as the phone's built-in Bing search app. When you search in Bing, expected search results are returned, but a list of suggested Apps come up too. For example, if you're searching for something related to a breaking news story, a list of news apps might show up.
Bing search overall is improved as well.
Users can search by voice, text and images such as bar codes, QR codes, or the covers of CDs, DVDs and books. Local Scout is built into Bing and there's also a song-recognition feature too.
Altogether, Bing on Mango offers one of the most satisfying search apps on any smartphone I've tested.
Mango also does a great job of integrating social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn into the OS. This isn't a new idea either -- iOS integrates Twitter, and Android has long done the same for Facebook and Twitter and soon Google+. But again, the way Microsoft does this is impressive.
Inside of Mango's People app (Microsoft likes to call it the "People hub"), users can get an overview of what all of their friends across those social networks are up to in one place -- status updates, shared links, photos and other shared items.
And users can now also create groups inside of the People app, such as friends, family, co-workers, college buddies -- anything you can imagine. And you can call your groups whatever you want -- I called my friends' group "homies."
However, despite all of the fantastic improvements in Mango that will surely make existing Windows Phone users happy, I don't believe Microsoft has a "killer app" or one significant attraction that would pull droves of consumers toward a Mango phone over an Android or an iPhone.
When Windows Phone launched a year ago, Microsoft marketed the software on its ease of use and simple look that the live tiles offered with data being pushed to the tiles without even having to launch an app. And while that is a differentiating factor, Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer has admitted that the company hasn't seen the level of sales it was looking for.
What Microsoft has shown is that it now takes the mobile space seriously and Mango is a big step in becoming more competitive. But Windows Phone has a lot of ground to make up. So, here's an unsolicited thought: Go after mobile gaming with Windows Phone.
Ever since Windows Phone launched, gaming has been disappointing compared to what's available on Android and iOS. Sure, users can see their Xbox Live avatar on the Windows Phone and, yup, Angry Birds and other fun titles are there too. Still, many games aren't up to the impressive standard that the Xbox name brings along.
Here's a testament to Apple's leadership in smartphone gaming: Epic Games, which produces one of the top gaming franchises on Microsoft's Xbox 360 in the Gears of War trilogy, also produces one of iOS's top-selling game series in Infinity Blade. When Apple announced the iPhone 4S, Mike Capps, president of Epic Games, was at the event and introduced a new Infinity Blade game.
We've seen the studies that say gaming is among the most popular category of apps being sold on smartphones. Nokia, Samsung and HTC are all promising to bring better hardware to Windows Phone and game developers are looking to make more mobile games in response to this growing market. All the pieces of the puzzle are there.
If Microsoft really wants to start selling a large number of smartphones, making Xbox Live gaming the "killer app" of Windows Phone might be the answer.