The AT&T HomeManager is an interesting convergence device...one which marries the utilities of a cordless home phone, a voicemail system with visual identification and address book, online news access, weather reports, email and a digital photo frame all into one 7" Samsung touchscreen device. Sounds pretty enticing, doesn't it, especially for those of us who could use a secondary (or even third option) digital device in a bedroom or kitchen for online access. In reality, the HomeManager is primarily aimed at family households, where the device would be used to give children/teens monitored access while also providing adults with snack bites of information at an arm's reach. We're not a family household, but we gave the device a fair shake the last few weeks, using the AT&T HomeManager in our small studio apartment. Our thoughts, praise and criticisms below...
The AT&T HomeManager's centerpiece is the 7" Samsung touch screen, partnered with a cordless handset with colour screen and a broadband-enabled base station where you plug-in your internet connection and phone line into so the device can work its magic. Setup was extremely elementary and well designed, with a walk-thru mode that just about anyone could manage, making this an ideal luddite gift in our eyes. On a superficial note, the whole system was well packaged and presented also, with components organized and labeled for very quick setup out of the box; a small detail, but one we appreciate considering some of the packaging travesties we've had to endure with much more expensive products. After inputting your relevant personal information and location, the device is good to go, with the whole process taking no more than 10 minutes out of the box.
In the hand, the touchscreen unit weighs in with a solid heft. Not uncomfortably heavy, but certainly a device designed to be used with both hands and for short periods, unlike a laptop or even an iPod/iPhone. The screen itself is bright, clear and invites users to immediately begin navigating in combination with a funny little dial "ball" on the right side; personally, after becoming so comfortable with flick-touch navigating with other touchscreen products, we'd prefer if the additional ball input was ditched altogether. It works, but is a bit awkward.
So what can you do with the HomeManager? The UI is comprised by colour-coded horizontal bars, listing features such as a Call Log, Voice Mail, Address Book, Yellow Pages, Weather, News/Sports/Movies, and Email. Touch one of the colour coded bars and the screen changes over to a dedicated screen for that particular feature. Unlike the iPhone, the large 7" screen makes navigation mistakes a less common occurrence, and we were quickly checking out all the features with a quick tap here and there. The touch screen can operate as a phone, though we have yet to use it in this fashion due to the comfort of the additional hand held unit (we love the ring tones that come pre-installed with the phone; as noted by our better half, they're noticeable enough to be heard, but pleasant enough to the ears not to be annoying as some modern ringers are). The visual voice mail feature takes advantage of the unit's large screen to display a photo of whose call you missed or whom you're about to speak to (or not).
Our favourite information feature by far was the Weather section. We kid you not, you'll be checking weather not only in your area, but everywhere else because of the information rich interface. The unit proved especially useful in unusual weather conditions, such as the case the weeks prior while enduring a rash of horrible fires and wind conditions here in Southern California, offering advisory warnings. As an information device the HomeManager is most useful in giving us relevant but small tidbits of info such as the time, news headlines, sports scores and forecasts (lottery result, horoscopes, stock info and recipes are also available). We loved having the visual Doppler radar graphics and multi-day weather forecasts bedside to review before bed or upon waking up. We also synced our unit to our Gmail account so we could read and send emails, making last minute messaging convenient.
Features that require character input brings up a graphical touchscreen keyboard which performed fairly well, but occasionally lagged when we typed at the speed we're used to; Mom and Dad will likely find the speed "just right" unless they're IM/SMS junkies. Another convergence feature we appreciated was the ability to synchronize mobile phone contacts with the handset and touchscreen handsets, unifying your home and mobile devices into one, another nod to the HomeManager's intended family demographic.
An obvious feature considering the unit's shape and footprint while cradled is the ability to use the touchscreen display as a digital picture frame. Photos or videos can be uploaded via SD memory card, USB device or email to be used as a slide show or screensaver; photo files supported include: JPG (24bit) - 3000x3000 , PNG (256 color) - 1600x960, GIF (256 color) - 1600x1200 and BMP (24bit) - 1600x1200 with 256MB of internal memory. We plugged in an iPod Shuffle and transferred images without a hitch.
So now we come to the HomeManager's shortcomings, with the caveat we're not truly the intended audience for this device. We wished the device offered a more open online experience, perhaps with optional access to a bare bones browser and normal online content not filtered through the HomeManager's interface, which sometimes felt like sipping ice cream through a straw for anyone used to accessing online content through normal avenues. In many ways, accessing the internet through this device felt like a step back to the early days of AOL, and that could never be considered a good thing regardless of the benefits of monitoring content. But as explained by Tyler Wallis, AVP, Converged Devices, the HomeManager's controlled content interface was intentional designed to be limiting, making it a safe choice for parents who want to limit unattended online access. So while Jr. can watched movie trailers and follow sports scores on the handset, he won't be able to acquaint himself with some of the shadier corners of the online world (unless you count the trailer for Twilight). Universal remote and home automation system control integration could strengthen this device's utility in our own home especially in light of the progress being made with other handheld devices that are seeping into home life.
Other top wish list items which we feel could improve everyday use of this device: a customizable interface, a la widgets. We love being able to use the HomeManager as our bedside clock, weather report and news/email device. But getting to each section separately is often tedious, and we can't but help wishing we could specifically pick and choose what bits of news are shown on our default screen; only one feature can be displayed at a time (clock, weather, etc) sabotaging the device's utility as a quick glance, bedside alarm clock on steroids. Oh, and the fact the unit lacks an alarm feature. But we've been assured a software update in the near future will bring not only an alarm clock option, but also image integration with Flickr and some additional features they remained mum about. From all indications, AT&T seems to be committed to upgrading and adding additional features in the same way Apple has steadily modified the iPhone since launch. Good news, since the HomeManager is on the cusp of being the sort of device geeks everywhere could assuredly get their non-geek parents or grandparents to use and keep using without a hitch...a good start, but we're hoping for more soon.
The AT&T HomeManager is available to new and existing AT&T High Speed Internet and residential wire line customers, including AT&T U-verse TV and Voice customers, but currently only in select AT&T retail locations in Chicago, Atlanta, Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas,San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles, The system costs $299.00, but requires a two-year AT&T High Speed Internet term commitment or sign up for AT&T U-verse TV, High Speed Internet and Voice services, a price and policy we hope changes in the near future (as a few friends noted, they loved the device and what it offered...until they heard the price and contract commitment). We're going to be keeping an eye out on the AT&T HomeManager with its planned software upgrades, and see if it evolves into a sum greater than all its current parts, as there is undoubtedly a lot of possibilities in the casual online appliance segment that this device can grow into. Now pardon us, as we go check our 10 day forecast and satellite image!