Sunday, 2 December 2012

Form Factor Monotony

I had to add an extra label for this post; rant. The title above, form factor monotony, should say it all really, but here's some detail.

From the detailed list of Android phones available here in the UK you will see that the last device to not be a touch-only boring rectangle slab was the Motorola Pro Plus in December 2011. Simply put, every single Android phone released in the UK in the last 12 months has been pretty much the same. Maybe that's not fair, there are slight differences in curves around the edges, bezels sizes, materials and colours for example. The basic design of each is the same though; big slab, big pane of glass, increasingly less buttons for things like "home" or the camera shutter and maybe a flap for micro USB or SIM cards.

It's so incredibly boring!

Take a look down the history of Symbian phones. There's some serious variety in there, from phones that twist, flip, slide, have full keyboards, T9 keyboards, the list goes on. There was some serious creativity in there, mostly from Nokia of course being Symbian phones, but this is the best example of a seemingly forgotten art of making something tangibly different, whose physical attributes set it apart 

iPhone hardware is of course very similar through generations too, highly unsurprising given Apple's strategy to keep things simple, and allowing users to upgrade from one iPhone generation to the next without large scale changes and without the need to learn anything new around the hardware. Also different here is Apple controlling the entire device ecosystem, from hardware through operating system to the core software and apps, resulting in a much more uniform experience, which for the most part is a good thing for the average non-geek user.

Windows Phone seems to be following the same path as Android in terms of hardware variety, albeit a year or two behind, much like the operating system itself! The first generation of devices, introduced late 2010, included some small difference in form factors, and we had phones with keyboards, although they all seemed to be sliders and the candy bar qwerty arrangement wasn't taken on by any of the Windows Phone manufacturers. Come late 2012 and Windows Phone 8 hardware has converged on the same touch-only rectangle slab arrangement, from all the manufacturers. Samsung have at least kept a small amount of variety by sticking with a physical Windows button!

RIM's plans for BlackBerry 10 include touch-only and keyboarded devices at least, but with a large cloud surrounding the company's long term future and ability to execute the plan next year, they don't seem too relevant for this current snapshot.

This isn't the only trend in the smartphone hardware world of course. Sealed batteries are close to becoming standard and micro SD card slots are going the way of the Dodo, a trend which could arguably be traced back to Apple's introduction of the iPhone range. There are exceptions, and right up to its latest flagship the Galaxy S III, Samsung was bucking this trend and included both a changeable battery and a micro SD card slot. The days of these features seem numbered though, much like the reducing trend for camera shutter buttons, and the complete lack of a xenon flash equipped camera for a year or two across any of the ecosystems. Personally I can live with sealed batteries, but the SD card slot and shutter button are still big deals for me, but I must be in a diminishing minority.

We've seen that most smartphones are converging to touch-only hardware, with a button or two for power and a home function if you're lucky, and a volume rocker. One can only presume that this is due to the powers of supply and demand. Android and Window Phone phones had some variety in their early days, but with this fizzling out it, one logical train of thought is that the non-slab phones simply did not sell enough for manufacturers to bother making them again; why would you if they lost you money last time around because nobody bought them!? Maybe the extra complexity of non-slab phones and potentially large premium in build cost means they have to sell them at higher prices, which again would decrease demand. Or they're sold at lower margins, meaning the manufacturers, retailers and carriers alike would all see less profit on these devices, and their days would be numbered.

I don't blame the manufacturers, retailers or carriers for not continuing with devices which don't sell or don't make them enough money to bother, that's just life selling in a free (ish) marketplace. It does however make life for the smartphone enthusiast very dull. In recent episodes of both The Verge Mobile Show and The Phones Show Chat the presenters have bemoaned the lack of interesting devices, and alluded to a perceived plateau or technology and specifications within the smartphone space (although in fairness Chris Ziegler was rather shot down for his explanation of this, though he stuck to his guns!)

I've found myself agreeing with these guys; an industry which was once really interesting is starting to decline in variety. We still have 3 or 4 platforms to keep us interested on the software front, but hardware is becoming more of a commodity (it's not there yet) which is a real shame, and it seems that whilst I once changed phones every few weeks that is starting to drop to every few months, or more.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Nokia N9 Review

With thanks once again to Steve and Tim from Phones Show Chat, I've been fortunate enough to spend a couple of weeks in the company of the Nokia N9. This device is on loan from the owner as opposed to a PR company for example, and as such had to be treated with a little more care than the average phone I buy myself or a typical review unit. The first challenge came in the size of the SIM card, and having not used a device requiring a micro SIM before, a trip to my local Three store was in order to pick one up.

To set the scene a little history is useful. MeeGo, an operating system collaboration between Nokia and Intel, was announced at Mobile World Congress in February 2010. It was to be a mashup of Nokia's Maemo operating system and Intel's Moblin operating system. February 2011 and with Stephen Elop at the helm, Nokia famously ditched both MeeGo and Symbian from their long-term strategy, and instead choose to partner with Microsoft and Windows Phone became their platform of choice going forward. In a leaked memo to Nokia employees, Elop said: "We thought MeeGo would be a platform for winning high-end smartphones. However, at this rate, by the end of 2011, we might have only one MeeGo product in the market."

Despite MeeGo being dropped from the company's new smartphone strategy, on 21st June 2011 Nokia announced the N9, 16 months after the Nokia/Intel collaborative operating system was announced. Bringing Nokia and Intel's resources together to work on MeeGo was seemingly a complex operation, the fruits of which were taking too long for Elop to consider it as a viable contender going forward. It was therefore questioned why Nokia released the N9 at all, as the present incarnation of the operating system had no future, and rumour of the same physical chassis design being used for Nokia's Windows Phones turned out to be correct. The N9 started shipping in September 2011 to a select group of countries which did not include USA, UK or India, and Nokia's N9 availability page confirms that the device never officially made it to these countries.


The N9 press release referred to "hardware and software (that) were jointly designed to ensure that they fit together seamlessly", and they certainly did a good job here. A year after the device's launch and we know the same deign was successfully re-used in Nokia's Lumia line of Windows Phones and won a good share of design prizes. The phone's chassis is milled out from a single piece of polycarbonate, with curved glass across the front which flows nicely in to the curves of the handset. It feels very nice and surprisingly small in the hand, as the 3.9 inch screen is surrounded on the sides by very little in the way of bezel. There are no front facing buttons, and simply a power/lock button and volume rocker on the right hand side. The bottom edge is perfectly flat, such that the device stands upright with no support, and here you'll also find the speaker.

The top edge is also perfectly flat, meaning the N9 also does great headstands! Here you'll find the 3.5mm headphone socket along with an ingenious flap and slot mechanism, to hide first the micro USB port for charging and data, and second the micro SIM tray.

The glass front protects a front-facing camera in the bottom right and a white notification light in the bottom left corner. The screen is AMOLED and includes Nokia's ClearBlack Display technology, a pair of polarizing filters which combine to gives better viewing angles and greater visibility in sunlight. At the rear you'll find an 8 mega-pixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics and dual LED flash, and the camera glass is very slightly recessed, maybe half a millimetre or so, from the rest of the chassis, presumably to stop it getting scratched when the phone flat on its back.

The N9 weighs in at 135g, the same as a Galaxy Nexus but heavier than the iPhone 5, but feels very solid due to the single piece chassis design. I haven't dropped it (yet) but I'm very confident it would survive most day to day falls from tables, pockets and armchairs!

The usual hardware specs aren't going to mean a huge amount without lots of other MeeGo phones to compare against, but for completeness we have a Cortex A8 clocked at 1GHz, a dedicated GPU, and 1GB of RAM. The battery capacity is 1450 mAh, and I never ran out of juice during a full day, so clearly a lot more power efficient than your average Android device!

Operating System

The Nokia N9 is a MeeGo based device, but the user interface layer is referred to as part of the operating system itself, as the device's "About" screen states, this isn't just MeeGo, it is MeeGo Harmattan. Named after a West African trade wind, Harmattan refers to the swipe-based user interface on top of MeeGo, and is very different to most other mobile interfaces.

Three areas are presented in Harmattan: events, applications and open applications. Each is a whole-screen view which scrolls vertically to show more content. To move between each view a swipe from the left or right edge of the screen to the other is needed, similar to swiping horizontally between homescreens in Android for example. The swiping wraps around, so swiping continually from one side to the other will move you in a loop through the three views. As you'd expect, the events view gives you notifications like meetings, incoming messages, missed calls, and feeds from social networks. Applications view is a very colourful and visually pleasing grid of icons used for launching apps, and all currently running apps can be found in the third view called, you guessed it, open applications. In open applications view, apps are represented by live views of the apps themselves in a 4 by 4 grid view, and pressing and holding brings up the option to close one or all of your running apps.

Left to right: "Events" view, "Applications" view and "Open Applications" view

The swiping doesn't stop there though. From any app you can swipe edge to edge horizontally to take you back to where you came from. Sounds odd? Well, if you came into the app from the applications view, it will take you back there. If you came into the app from the events view, it will take you back there. After half an hour of using the N9 it becomes second nature and very intuitive, and I've since been doing the same swiping motion on my Nexus S somewhat amusingly. A full swipe upwards from the bottom edge does the same and returns you to where you were before you opened the app. 

Whilst in an app you can swipe from the top edge downwards to close the app altogether, which is even more amusing for previous Android users who are used to doing this motion to see the notification drawer, and I did initially close a few apps by mistake in the first hour or two! The final swiping gesture whilst in an app is upwards from the bottom edge, but instead of a full swipe, a small swipe/flick to anywhere around the half way mark dims the app and pops up a drawer of 4 icons for your most commonly used apps, which is very useful to quickly get to the camera for example.

Quick access to 4 of your most commonly used apps with a small swipe upwards

There's more swiping in the lock screen too: a full swipe vertically or horizontally from either direction will unlock the phone (or bring up the passcode screen if you have chosen to enable it), and the half swipe upwards to show the drawer with 4 app icons also works from the lock screen. Again, if you have passcode lock enabled these apps can only be launched once the passcode is entered. After a few seconds the lock screen times out to the standby screen, which by default shows the time and notification icons. I've also got the weather courtesy of the MeeCast app. Interestingly you can wake from standby with the expected press of the power/lock button, but also by double tapping the screen!

Lock screen

By now you're probably getting the message, lots of swiping! Writing all of these gestures, and subsequently reading them, or even explaining them to someone vocally seems long winded, but the reality of using the device day-to-day is that it all becomes second nature very quickly. Returning to other mobile operating systems such as my usual Android and employer-provided Blackberry seem very old and unintuitive in comparison, and flicking and swiping away at the screen to get things done in MeeGo Harmattan is genuinely a joy.

Delving further into the operating system we find there are references to other platforms: tapping the status bar at the top of the screen reveals controls to switch notification sound profiles, between ringing, quiet beeps and silent, along with a volume slider control and shortcuts to WiFi and Bluetooth settings, the like of which we've in some incarnations of Android-based devices. Pressing and holding an icon in applications view gives you the opportunity to move your icons, create folders and uninstall apps, reminiscent of iOS. There is an "accounts" area, where anything from Google, Dropbox, Twitter, Youtube, Facebook to name a few can be configured to feed the single events view (as well as feeding other things like contacts, sharing services, etc), similar to WebOS.

Left to right: Status bar drop-down, Accounts app, moving application icons

There is now certain amount of uncertainty over future development of MeeGo Harmattan though. There have been 4 releases since September 2011, and whilst N9 owners rejoiced when the latest version dropped, PR1.3 in July 2012, it was a bittersweet moment as the Maemo team also departed the same month.


Despite MeeGo Harmattan currently having no viable future at Nokia, the app situation isn't as bad as one might expect. Of the "core" apps I personally expect/need from a smartphone in 2012 I've only hit two big stumbling blocks so far. For the following there are good quality apps from either the service themselves or 3rd party developed apps:

Twitter, Dropbox, Sports Tracker (GPS tracking/stats for running/cycling), FotoShareN9 (to instantly upload photos to the cloud for safe keeping, Google Latitude, Podcatching, Last.FM Scrobbling, Weather, Barcode Scanner (barcodes and QR codes), Google Reader, Google Drive, LinkedIn, Kindle...

You also get Nokia's excellent maps and turn-by-turn satellite navigation, all free out of the box, with downloadable country/state maps. The two stumbling blocks for me were Evernote, where EverN9 exists but is broken and has been discontinued by the developer so a fix is unlikely, and Sonos. With apps for those two I could call it 100% for me, although everyone's mileage may vary, and you may find another app/service that isn't catered for. The chances may be slim though, as there is a very active and friendly community around the N9. Unsurprisingly there are a lot of people who tried/bought the device and loved it, and wanted to get the best experience possible. So you'll find loads of helpful forums, great contacts on Twitter, and lots of 3rd party developed apps for MeeGo Harmattan and the N9. With some caveats, you can even run Android apps thanks to some insanely clever folk! If you pick one of these up I'd recommend the following sites: Talk Maemo, Everything N9, My MeeGoAlso follow these guys on Twitter: @everythingn9, @MFaroTusino, @andyhagon, @stephenquin58.


As previously mentioned the N9 has an 8 mega-pixel camera, with Carl Zeiss optics (a wide 28mm lens with f/2.2 aperture) and dual LED flash. The video recording mode goes to 720p at 30fps, which has become a baseline standard to smartphones in 2012. Both performed very well; sample shots below.


Sadly, the N9 is ultimately a frustrating device. And its not even the N9's fault, it's Nokia's. What we have here is a new user interface paradigm which is graceful, intuitive, smart and different to pretty much everything else out there. Outside the operating system and user interface, we have beautiful award winning hardware, a terrific camera and a great screen. The curved glass and rounded edges of the device match perfectly with the swiping gestures in MeeGo Harmattan; it is obvious that it truly was "hardware and software (that) were jointly designed to ensure that they fit together seamlessly", to quote the N9 press release. The frustration is that Nokia jumped the MeeGo Harmattan ship, before the N9 had even been announced to the world. PR1.3 may be the last update to the operating system, and whilst the MeeGo and N9 community is incredibly strong, it is only a matter of time before it starts to diminish. Or is it?

Jolla is a company founded by the ex-MeeGo developers of Nokia, and aims to continue working on MeeGo from the state Nokia left it in when the Maemo team was disbanded. Codenamed Sailfish, Jolla's mobile operating system will have bases in Mer and Qt, and their plan is for the product to be used in smartphones, tablets and many other devices. Whilst this isn't MeeGo Harmattan by name, it is by its roots and by the people working to bring it to life. Fingers crossed we get another viable and long-term mobile platform from these guys.

Sources: Nokia, Taskumuro, Engadget, The Verge, My Nokia Blog

Thursday, 20 September 2012

HTC One V Review

The HTC One V was announced at Mobile World Congress in February 2012, along with its larger siblings the One S and One X. It went on sale in the UK in April, and thanks to Steve and Tim from Phones Show Chat, I've been able to use a review unit as my primary device for the last few weeks. The One V is without a doubt third in the pecking order behind the One S and One X in HTC's first half of 2012 Android line-up, but my penchant for smaller devices has meant the One V was always been the one I was most keen to try out.



The design of the chassis is very reminiscent of the Legend, HTC's 2010 phone with an infamous chin. You can in fact trace the heritage of the chin through the Legend, the HTC Hero and all the way to the T-Mobile G1, the phone that first introduced us to Android back in 2008. Also shared with the Legend is the uni-body aluminium construction, making the device feel incredibly sturdy in the hand and giving a sense of quality merely through it's weight alone. That's not too say it feels heavy though; at 115g it certainly isn't overweight, but in direct comparison to its plastic-constructed counterparts you will notice a difference.

Spot the difference! HTC Legend (left) and HTC One V (right)

Part of my keenness to try out the One V was its size, something which ironically would put a lot of smartphone enthusiasts off. At 120mm x 60mm and with a 3.7 inch screen, the One V is much closer to "phone-sized phone" than current flagship devices from all the Android manufacturers. 4 inch screens appear to be the absolute minimum for anything with top end specs, and most flagship devices (see the Galaxy S III, Razr Maxx, Xperia S, Ascend P1, Optimus L7 and One X) are in fact comfortably closer to 4.5 inches. Bezels are getting smaller, and devices thinner, but there is still something about about a 3.5/3.7 inch device that just fits nicely into the pocket in my opinion!

My personal preference is still for a physical home button, something with which only Samsung seem to agree. Unfortunately for me therefore, the One V has backlit capacitive buttons for "back", "home" and "recents" (the three standard navigation system buttons for Android going forward). They work fine though, and we still have physical buttons on the right side of the chassis to control volume, and a power/wake button on the top. Also on top is a notification light, something rarely included in recent handsets.

At the bottom of the One V, on the reverse, you'll find the one break in the aluminium uni-body; a hatch constructed of plastic which houses access to the full-sized SIM card slot, and micro SD card slot. The aerials are also expected to do their work through this area of the chassis, which doesn't work particularly well in my experience. WiFi performance was on par with other plastic-based devices I tested alongside the One V, but GPS performance seemed weak, taking longer than other Android handsets to gain accurate location from cold-start, and losing lock whilst driving using Google Navigation. Tim from Phones Show Chat had also noted poor cellular performance during his testing. There is clearly a cost/benefit analysis to be done for this type of chassis construction, and whilst not disastrous in my testing, it does seem that the solid feel gained from the aluminium body impacts performance of the wireless components.

Plastic hatch reveals SIM and microSD slots


At time of writing in September 2012, the HTC One X arguably had the title of best screen amongst all the Android handsets on the market. The One X's Super LCD 2 technology, whilst curiously not used in the One S (AMOLED in case you were wondering) is in fact used here for the One V, and the results are stunning. At 800 x 480 WVGA the One V clearly doesn't have the resolution of the flagship One X, or the pixel density (~250ppi against ~310ppi), but the colours are extremely vibrant and the viewing angles amazing, coupled with that feeling that the display is on the glass as opposed to behind it.

The impressive One V screen

Not so impressive is the storage: 1GB for apps and 100MB for media, and a 2GB SD card in the retail package (though not included in the review unit I had). The 1GB space carved out for apps will serve non-geeks just fine, but the chances are that if you're reading this review, it won't be enough for you long-term. The 100MB for your media is nothing but a token gesture, so all media storage hinges on the SD card, and you'll want to swap that measly 2GB card out for a larger one pretty quickly. At least you can swap the card out though, something or a novelty amongst the increasing majority of devices not shipping with micro SD slots.

To wrap up the hardware, the One V has been very light on its 1500 mAh battery. Android devices are notoriously poor in their efforts to get through a single day on charge, an attribute I can confirm with personal experience of over 10 devices I've personally owned and used day-to-day whilst being truly mobile. Recent exceptions like the Galaxy Note and Razr Maxx have included large capacity batteries, but for the One V to last as long as it does in my normal usage pattern, with only 1500 mAh, is very impressive.

Operating System

The core specs of the One V are very mid-range in the current market. A 1GHz single-core Snapdragon CPU pairs an Adreno GPU along with 512MB RAM. This is probably the bare minimum for an Android 4 device such as the One V, and whilst there isn't any appreciable lag around the operating system, you don't get the same fluidity as the Galaxy S III or Galaxy Nexus for example. No less than four software updates were waiting for me on booting up the One V for first time, core app updates and "system updates". I'm not sure why these couldn't be wrapped up into cumulative updates, as the full reboot each time was a pain! I was hoping one of them would be an upgrade from Android 4.0.3 base to 4.0.4, but this wasn't forthcoming. Android 4.1, codenamed Jelly Bean, has been promised for the One S and One X, but at time of writing there has been no word from HTC about the One V.

Regular Android enthusiasts will know that as an HTC device the One V comes with HTC's interpretation of Android, Sense. We're looking at version 4 of Sense, and one which is cut-down from the "main" version of Sense 4, as seen on the One S and One X. HTC inexplicably created their own version of the recents view (aka multitasking) for Sense 4, but presumably due to the system resources required this has been dropped for the One V, with its weaker CPU and lower RAM count. There are also 5 homescreens instead of 7, and fewer 3D transitions when compared to the One V's bigger siblings.

One V Sense/stock mix and match!
Left to right: Sense lock screen, stock recents screen, Sense app drawer

The rest of Sense 4 is however fully in tact, but if HTC had to cut down Sense 4 on ICS to fit the One V's hardware resource limitations, I'm actually not surprised they haven't committed to getting Jelly Bean out to the One V. Not only would Jelly Bean have slightly higher resource requirements, but there may be even more work on the Sense front, cutting even more bits out here and there to again fit the One V's smaller resource limitations.

Now, whilst Sense 4 is less of an eye sore compared to previous incarnations, I still dislike HTC's customisations and general look and feel. They may only be little things, like the effect when scrolling to the end of a menu list, or the circular tick boxes with frustrating colour choices, but when they are as frequently seen as those GUI components are, they can start to annoy. A lot. See below the mix of GUI elements, tick boxes and themes all present in one phone. Interface consistency is certainly one area where iOS and Windows Phone are streets ahead or Sense-based Android phones (and any skinned android phones in fact), and provide yet another good reason for Android manufacturers to lay off their skins and go with stock.

How many themes?
Left to right: Sense Bluetooth, Sense Privacy, SMS Backup+, GMail, Seesmic

I encountered a few bugs during my time with the One V, the first being the WiFi network notification. I turned this off but it still persisted. Through turning it on and off a few times, and a factory reset, this was still the case so, can only presumably be a bug. The second was the lack of calendar notifications, where events with reminders passed without any notification from either the stock calendar app or Business Calendar, whilst notifying on all my other Android devices. Again, this persisted through clearing the calendar app's data, and a factory reset, so again appears to be a genuine bug. Both of these were after checking for updates and being up-to-date, as far as the phone reported.


Dedicated camera buttons are seemingly on the way out; very few devices are seen with this useful hardware feature, with a few exceptions and camera-centric phones like the Nokia N8 and 808 Pureview. The One V therefore relies like many on screen presses for taking pictures, and focusing, should you wish to compose your shot off centre for example. There is a 5 mega-pixel unit, incorporating HTC's "Imagesense" technology, with a dedicated imaging chip and backside illumination sensor claiming improved low-light performance. This may be true, but I had very varied results with the One V, from decent indoor shots and good outdoor close-ups, to very poor shots of anything past a couple of metres away, see the sample photos below and see what you think.


Sample shots from the HTC One V

Shutter lag is however very minimal, and there is a continuous shooting mode accessed by holding down on the shutter on-screen button. Also impressive is ability to take photos whilst recording video, admittedly recently released in iOS 6 so no longer unique. Video recording is available up to 720p and is again good enough without blowing anyone away.


Living as I prefer and choose to do with smaller phones, I've become far too used to devices like the One V. Its larger siblings, the One S and One X, have far better specs and take all the glory, and the One V is left to splutter along with a slimmed down software experience to match its under-powered hardware. Sure the screen is great, one thing that did make it down from the big daddy One X, and the chassis design incredibly sturdy whilst providing great feel in the hand, but the camera was inconsistent, the software trimmed, and even then not as smooth as the flagship devices, and you really can tell this is handset is firmly in that terrible clichéd "mid-range" territory.

My closing comments apply to HTC as much as Samsung, Sony and all the other Android manufacturers, in that this size of device (under 4 inch screen) does not have to automatically mean that is has to hit the mid-range price bracket. Size of chassis does not have to be proportional to price of handset, and as most flagship handsets are incredibly thin, I no longer believe that the top-range specs could not fit into a chassis the size of the One V, based on overall volume of chassis comparison. I can only assume I'm in a minority and that all the focus groups and consumer studies show otherwise, and that people want larger devices for the large screens, so for now this trend seems unlikely to change.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Samsung Galaxy S3 Event

I was lucky enough to get into the Samsung Mobile Unpacked event tonight, following a tip-off from Steve Litchfield, for the unveiling of the Galaxy S3. There was the standard kitsch presentation with lots of over-the-top “design around humans” type statements, but the main win was getting some hands on time with the device ahead of its European release on 29th May.

Steve had come prepared with the Galaxy Nexus, and straight away you could see the striking similarities in outwards appearance. Versus the more straight edged appearance of the S2, the S3 sports rounded contours around its entire exterior, design to “fit the human hand”, something ever so slightly borrowed from Sony Ericsson some 2 years ago. The two phones are as good as the same size, and pretty similar to the S2, although Samsung have done a good job at squeezing in a 2100 mAh battery whilst keeping the thickness down under 9mm.

Truth be told there weren’t any massive advances in the hardware here. That’s not to say the overall package isn’t great, because it is! The camera seemed much better than the lacklustre performance from the Galaxy Nexus, although borrowing its quick camera app load-time and rapid fire shooting, including a “best photo” feature that fires 8 rapid stills and attempts to pick the best on for you. The 720P 4.8” screen, Super Amoled, looks the same as the Galaxy Nexus’ and probably would shade just under the HTC One X (and yes, if you care, it is PenTile). The exterior casing is in reality Samsung’s usual plastic that doesn’t feel like “just plastic”, although they bucked a recent trend with both a microSD card slot and a removable battery! There are accessories to boot, including wireless charging dock (lovingly borrowed from Palm), HDMI adaptor, desktop and car docks.

Samsung have however mad a real effort in the software department, adding several features above and beyond stock Android. Under the collective banner of Touchwiz Nature UX, you’ll find such things as:
• S Voice which is basically an imitation of Siri
• S Beam which is their version of stock Android Beam from ICS
• Wake Unlock Actions to wake and unlock the phone with voice commands
• Raise the phone to your head whilst reading an SMS from a contact to start dialling them
• Face tagging in photos, with auto sharing to the recognised contacts
• Pop up play, allowing you to leave video playing on top of the rest of the OS

There are more features of course, and this isn’t intended as a full review or even preview! However Samsung have been very busy in the software department, which adds weight to many commentators’ opinions that hardware specs for smartphones are beginning to plateau, with software potentially being the new differentiator. Many criticise the Android OEMs for trying to build their own brand loyalty through skins, frameworks and UIs, even more so as traditionally these company’s expertise lie in hardware not software development, shown up in the early Android incarnations of Sense, TouchWiz, UXP et al.

My gut feel at the end of it all was similar to when the Nexus S came out, and was branded the culmination of this year’s smartphone technology, as opposed to setting out a stall for this year’s new technology. The camera hardware isn’t new, although it borrows some nice speed features from the Galaxy Nexus. Curved design borrowed from Sony Ericsson. Wireless charging borrowed from Palm. S Voice borrowed from Apple’s Siri. The comparatively large battery is welcome though, and for our shores should cope well with 3G radios, with the LTE version faring less of course!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Soundwear SD10 Review

After having such a great experience with the Avatalk Jogger, I thought I'd grab some Bluetooth headphones for home/train use, once again banishing the annoying wires. You can pick up the Soundwear SD10s for less than £20 including delivery from the usual online stores, so there were limited expectations at my end before they turned up, but they turned out to be even worse than I thought.
The reasons for trying the SD10s were that they fold up nicely (my self-imposed requirement being small enough to fit in the front pocket of a rucksack), they came with a case, and were powered by internal rechargeable battery. First up, they do indeed fold up nicely, and come with a small velvet pouch - not so much a case that would provide any protection, but pouches do take up less space than hard cases, so not the end of the world.
That's where the good news ends unfortunately. I tried many times to use the SD10s, but they were so uncomfortable I don't think I lasted more than 3 or 4 minutes on each occasion. The edge of the plastic around the ear hook was far too pointed, almost sharp, and dug into the skin around my ears! They were also I believe too heavy for prolonged use.

There is a claimed battery life of 20 hours, but I couldn't stand to wear them long enough to test this claim unfortunately. Charging is via mini USB on the side of the right-hand earpiece, with a red notification light to let you know progress.
Here you'll also find forward, reverse, volume up and volume down buttons, arranged circularly around a multifunctional button for start/end call and play/pause. All the buttons are on one earpiece, and I couldn't help but think they would be better laid out across both earpieces.

I would've loved to have picked up a bargain here, but I got what I paid for in the end. It would be hard to recommend the SD10s to anyone as they are so uncomfortable and too heavy for prolonged use, hence the short review and swift re-sale on a local forum!

iPhones Are The Correct Choice, For Everyone Else

My wife, my sister, my sister-in-law, her boyfriend, my brother-in-law, his fiancée, her sister; all these guys now have iPhones. Sadly it's probably for the best.

They have no remote inkling for tinkering whatsoever, quite the opposite in fact. The less time they spend fiddling and setting things up and making them work the better, and the better for me too, as I'm the one they all come to for help! Sure I'd love it if they all had Android devices because that's what I choose myself, and it would be a more familiar OS for me to help them with, but I can't hand on heart recommend Android in the operating system's current state.

They won't worry about the walled garden of the Apple ecosystem and any limitations of iOS, because the restrictions won't be apparent to these non-geek users. iTunes is a horrible piece of work on Windows (apparently much better on OS X, but I can't back that up with no OS X machine in the house), and they all have Windows PCs/laptops. But they won't worry about using the nasty iTunes software for getting their music from PC/laptop to the iPhone, and for the occasional backup, because occasional use wouldn't get you that frustrated. Plus being non-geeks, they have lower expectations of software in general, whereas I expect things to be smooth. In the case of iTunes, I don't expect it to become unresponsive whilst changing the artwork for an album of 12 tracks for example (particularly with 8GB RAM and an SSD under the hood, where exactly does that delay come from?!)

iCloud features will "just work" out of the box, if they even choose to use them, as none of these people have Macs or iPads, so will only benefit from the backup side of it, not the sharing of photos amongst devices. iMessage will again "just work" out of the box, and I reckon half of them won't notice or even care to wonder why certain messages are in different colour bubbles. As long as the person at the other end gets the message, and they get a reply, that's all that matters.

Personally, I have grown accustomed to being to configure everything exactly as I like it, for example:
  • Dropsync sends my photos to Dropbox straight after they are taken. At some point after sat at my PC I will drag photos into folders based on the event or subject matter, and Picasa will face tag them and upload full resolution copies to Google's servers, and then they will all be accessible from every Android device I own; phone, tablet and TV. And that's every photo I've ever taken.
  • Titanium Backup runs on schedules to backup all my apps and their data, and those backups too are sync'd up to Dropbox for safe keeping, should I lose my phone, or want to rebuild from scratch.
  • All the birthdays and addresses of my friends and family are stored in my Google contacts, so reminders for buying birthday cards and navigating to their houses in the car is incredibly simple.
  • I actually have full control of labels, stars and archiving within my Google Mail.
  • I can pick any mp3 music file to use for a ringtone, a message tone, a reminder, and in fact almost any notification noise.
  • My calendar is always on my device's home screen, so I always know exactly what is coming up.
  • Particularly, but not exclusively, with Nexus, Sony Ericsson and HTC devices with unlocked bootloaders, I can actually run the particular custom version of Android I wish to choose. CyanogenMod is a stunning piece of work and has given lots of my phones completely new leases of life, as well as lots of tinkering opportunities!

Some of those are biased to Android because I'm a heavy Google services user, and some may even be possible with iOS, with which I don't profess to be an expert. However, my point is that I want to be able to do these types of "power user" things with my device, whereas the normal user wouldn't be the slightest bit concerned. What will matter to them is things like getting music onto the phone (iTunes), getting all the apps their mates have (App Store still winning here let's face it), maybe the odd backup when one of their mates loses their phone and loses all their photos (iTunes again). These types of tasks are still too involved with an Android device, no matter how much hand holding the Android OEMs put into their GUIs for events like plugging into a PC.

This is why iPhones are, at the moment, the correct choice for everyone else, but not for me (and many other geeks of course).

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Motorola Droid Razr Maxx Announced With Huge Battery

Motorola yesterday announced the Droid Razr Maxx, an Android Gingerbread phone on Verizon, very similar to the Droid Razr released at the back end of last year, with the biggest difference between the two being the massive 3300 mAh battery. There's no word on a GSM variant yet, but the original Droid Razr made the transition so fingers crossed the Maxx will do the same. The previous biggest battery in an Android phone in the UK was 1930 mAh in the Atrix, unless you count the Samsung Galaxy Note as a phone in which case it was 2500 mAh. The first generation of LTE phones in the US have been known for poor battery life, similar to the first generation of 3G phones which we also saw in the UK, so if Motorola are quoting 21 hours talk time on Verizon LTE, the figure would presumably be even higher on a potential GSM/HSPA variant.

Whilst it's slightly disappointing that the device will launch with Gingerbread, one would suspect ICS will make it to the Droid Razr Maxx (and the Droid Razr) and despite the large battery, the handset is 145g, which for comparison is slightly heavier than the LG Optimus 2X but lighter than all the HTC Sensation line.

Seemingly there are no new wonder battery technologies around the corner, and if you listen to the 361 Degrees podcast or heard my spot in Phones Show Chat 118, you'll know that we all share the same belief as many other commentators that we'd rather sacrifice a millimetre or two in device thickness to gain a few hundred extra mAh to get us through the day! Happily this is the first manufacturer to really go for the idea, and the Droid Razr Maxx is still only 9mm thick, where the original Droid Razr was 7.1mm (at it's thinnest point!).

Whilst there are after market extended batteries for some phones, they have generally either been third party and hence somewhat unreliable, or have added bulges to the handset to ruin it's design. Having the larger battery in the phone from the start has to be the way forward for today's "always connected" smart phones. Good work Motorola, hopefully other manufacturers will follow suit.

Source: Motorola

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Avantalk Jogger Review

The Avantalk Jogger Bluetooth Stereo Headset was released early in 2010, but I only came across it a few months ago whilst searching for a headset to use in the gym. I've been using it for 4 months now and felt I could give it a review, based on a good amount of usage. I have the black version, but various colours are available, as shown on the Avantalk website.

My use of the Jogger headset has been paired to various mobile phones, for listening to music and podcasts, primarily in the gym. There are many, many Bluetooth headsets out there, but the Jogger sets itself apart from the rest by being very light and being water resistant, which for gym use translates into sweat resistant! The headset comes with a selection of rubber ear bud rings, a USB charging cable, and a pouch to keep all the above together.

For tech spec chasers, the headset supports Bluetooth version 2.1 with the Headset, Handsfree, A2DP and AVRCP Bluetooth profiles, which means most phones will pair with it and be able to play audio output from the phone such as notifications and music, and make/receive phone calls as well.

Photos of the Jogger show it has quite a different design to many headsets; two circular pieces house the ear buds and control buttons, with a rounded band to connect them and also hold the headset in place on your head. Once the earbuds are placed in the ear, the band effectively hugs your head and keep the buds and the whole headset in place. Like me, you may find that when you first put the headset on, it doesn't immediately feel totally secure, but having spent many hours running, cycling and rowing, I can confirm that it has not once felt like slipping, let alone falling off! This is a quite a feat, but then the headset only comes in at 23g, and it's clearly a lot easier to keep a lighter headset in place around your head than a heavier one.

A lightweight headset does lead to worries about lack of battery, but again I've been surprised. Listening time is quoted by Avantalk as 8 hours, but I've been getting more like 10 hours from mine, which for me lasts through several gym sessions without needing to recharge. Advance warning of battery depletion is given through beeps and the notification light on the right side earpiece. The 170 mA battery is rechargable, via the included USB cable. As a small aside, the charging port (shown below) is the same size as the 2mm Nokia charging port from circa 2006 to 2009, and I was able to charge a Nokia 6300 with the Jogger's USB cable!

As shown below, the notification light on the right side earpiece uses blue and red colours for various means; blue when turning on, red for low battery and turning off, and blue/red cycling for pairing mode. The light is positioned next to the multi-function button; long press for power on and off and single press for play/pause or to answer an incoming call. Next door are the next/previous buttons, and on the left earpiece you'll find volume up and down buttons. I found the buttons to be easy to find and use whilst the headset was on, and even before I'd committed the "play/pause on the right, volume on the left" combination to memory, I found I instantly knew which buttons were under my fingers just by touch.

Sound quality has been very good, and the volume has been enough to hear spoken word podcasts above the very significant background noise of not only treadmills and cross-trainers, but the gym's own (usually awful) music. This alone surprised me the most about the headset, although the caveat is that this was at full volume on both the headset and phone, although even then there was no noticeable distortion. My headset has had a fair amount of sweat thrown at it too, and in 4 months of running, rowing and cycling they have so far lived up to their water (and sweat!) resistant claim.

The Avantalk website has an RRP of $49.99 (at time of writing that's £32) but I got them for a sale bargain £21.45; right now MobileFun and Play have them in stock for around £30, which is still a good price considering many other heavier and less comfortable headsets sell for a lot more.

Anyone looking for more volume or audio quality, whilst not needing the water resistance, will no doubt look elsewhere. However, anyone looking for a headset for the gym or any other sporting activity need look no further in my opinion, as long as you don't mind having all the volume dials cranked up to "max" in noisy environments.