Friday, 13 December 2013

The Moto G, And Updating Without New Firmware

It's widely recognised that Motorola, now owned by Google, have created the best value-for-money phone this year in the Moto G. I managed to get hold of the 16GB model from Tesco in the UK for £81! It retails for £129 normally, but Clubcard vouchers brought that down, and with a £2 SIM unlock from eBay, it is comfortably amazing value for £83 all-in. However, in the week since I've had the device, it's something less obvious which has surprised and impressed me.

The first was on 9th December 2013, when the list of apps with updates in the Play Store included "Motorola Boot Services". Whilst the update description merely said "Enhancements to the power-up experience", the update actually changed the initial boot-up animation to a Winter-themed one. I've meddled with boot-up audio and animations before on other devices, but that required you to have root, as it would mean replacing protected system files. Motorola have however built the Moto G firmware such that a Play Store app is able to modify these system files. A new boot animation capability isn't going to change the world, but it's something I've not seen any other Android manufacturers put into their devices, and is a nice touch and something different from Motorola, as well as a pretty clever idea. I also love that the boot animation app package is called moodles! (com.motorola.moodles)

The second was yesterday, 12th December 2013, when another Play Store update caught my eye, "Motorola Camera". The LG Nexus 5 launched with Android 4.4, and was updated recently with new firmware images to 4.4.1 and 4.4.2. Whilst the 4.4.2 update's change log was slightly shrouded in mystery, the 4.4.1 update definitely contained camera app improvements. This is great for the Nexus 5 owners, however, the clever thing Motorola have done by siphoning off the camera app into a Play Store updatable package, is to allow updates to the camera app without touching the entire phone's firmware. That means much less hassle getting the firmware updates tested, regression tested against existing functionality, and then getting it approved and tested by networks/carriers around the world.

A look at Motorola's entries in the Play Store (below) shows there are quite a few apps which can update via the Play Store, including the FM Radio, the Migrate app, the Assist app, the SMARTACTIONS app... All of these can be updated without the need for the lengthy process of building, testing and network/carrier approving a new firmware. Google Play Services was updated at Google I/O this year which allows core APIs, services and apps to be updated by Google without manufacturers releasing new firmware as well. Google have also started to release other apps into the Play Store such as Calendar and more recently Keyboard, and the likes of GMail, Maps and YouTube were already updatable through the Play Store, so all your core Google apps are updatable without firmware updates too.

The sum of all of this is that whilst the Android version problem is not getting any better, the version problem itself is in fact becoming less and less of an issue. Getting those version updates for your non-Nexus phone, give or take the highly popular devices like the Samsung Galaxy S4 or HTC One, is slow due to development time and network/carrier approval process. Or for many other devices updates never happen at all! Now however there is an argument that you're not missing out on a huge amount if you're not running the latest point release of Android, given all the other software components can be updated outside of firmware updates, and especially if you have a Moto G of course!

Monday, 23 September 2013

iPhone 5c Lust!

Unfortunately, I believed the rumours leading up to the Apple launch event on 10th September 2013 which were suggesting that the new colourful iPhone would be a "cheap" device, maybe even so cheap that it would be within reach of the those in developing countries.

As a mobile enthusiast, if you want to be able to comment on the industry, be able to genuinely make comparative commentary between devices and ecosystems, you simply have to have an iPhone. That or have very convenient access to one, and with my better half moving from iPhone to Android, that's left me needing one of my own. Whilst not the biggest by market share any more, the iPhone is still arguably the single most important device, if not the most important ecosystem, and every product announcement, price change or hardware glitch becomes mainstream news.

Apple's service of keeping older handsets eligible for newer operating systems is very commendable, something which is much easier to maintain when you don't have the disconnect between one company writing the operating system source code, and another company making the hardware and customising the operating system almost to their heart's content. Android phones in particular can find themselves stranded on very old versions where a manufacturer has seemingly lost interest. Yet it is only this year that the iPhone 3GS, released in 2009, has fallen off the support train being the newest device not to have iOS 7. This however means that the old 3GS I can see in the corner of the room, next to a bunch of charging cables and a couple of old Android phones, is no longer good enough for that job of being a relevant comparison device.

So with the rumours of the 5c being such a cheap device, I was quite excited at the thought of being able to buy an iPhone again. It's not feasible to buy full-priced, or even second-hand iPhones of the latest generation or two when you are using them as comparison devices, they're simply too expensive (although they do hold value very well of course). I reckon anything up to £350 at a push and I was in, and the fact that they were coloured only made me lust more. 

I'd already been eyeing up the HTC One Mini in blue, and I'm glad that manufacturers have started building colourful devices again. The multi-colour approach has in recent years been most utilised by Nokia in the Lumia range, and I really hope they've sparked all the manufacturers to think again about colour, and take us away from the land of black rectangles!

Needless to say I was of course then disappointed when Apple announced that the iPhone 5c would start at £479, completely out of the price range for a device used mainly for comparison purposes. Not only that but as I buy all my devices SIM free, it is probably too expensive even to buy as a main device, and I'm not even sure I could live with iOS on my main device even if I thought I could justify the cost.

We now know that the iPhone 5c was never going to be a budget device, and actually sits nicely between the 4S and 5s (yes, one is upper case and the other lower...) in the Apple range, allowing Apple to drop the iPhone 5, and presumably make a lot more margin on each 5c they sell, boosting profitability, whilst adding new marketability and product differentiation in the 5c with its coloured casing. Very smart move as ever from Apple, but a shame for me and anyone else who were excited to pick up a shiny new colourful budget iPhone!

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

BlackBerry Q10 Mini-Review

Thanks to Steve and Tim from Phones Show Chat, I've been lucky enough to get a short loan of a BlackBerry Q10, and I've been testing it out as my almost day-to-day work phone*. All email and Internet access plus outbound calls have been on the Q10, leaving only inbound calls on my previous handset. I was concerned that in going after the consumer market, BlackBerry's version 10 operating system would lose some of the efficiencies of its predecessors as a raw efficient phone call and email machine, instead going after flashy graphics and fancy gesture controls. Well, they have indeed gone after those features, but the physical qwerty keyboard is happily alive and well! This is only a mini-review due to the short time period I had with the handset, and that I was unable to get enough time to test out some major features with a busy workload!

*The almost is because there was simply too much hassle in 1) cutting up my current mini SIM into a micro SIM, plus 2) getting the IT department to remove the BES service on my account, then have it put back on a week or two later!

The Q10 is BlackBerry's latest incarnation of their most traditional form factor; the wide candybar with a physical qwerty keyboard. It's where they made their name many years ago, and is still what most people think of when they hear the word BlackBerry. It's also a favourite form factor of mine for work and getting things done, having already tried touch-based keyboards for the that purpose. When typing acronyms, technical terms, names and lots of punctuation into emails whilst on the move, which my job regularly requires, I still find there is nothing better and more efficient than a physical keyboard. Unfortunately for me, there can't be much other demand in the market for this, as this form factor is now an endangered species.

BlackBerry OS 10

The Q10 launched with BlackBerry OS 10, which is a big departure from the recent BlackBerry OS 5, BlackBerry OS 6 and BlackBerry OS 7 versions seen on the last few years' worth of Bold, Curve and Torch devices. Out go a lot of the old style menu driven functions, and in come swipe gestures. Out goes the entire concept of a traditional home screen used by iOS, Android and Windows Phone. Out goes the nasty low resolution displays and slow CPUs and in comes a lovely screen, lots of RAM, and with it some very nice transition animations. Fortunately this all runs very smoothly, which is probably no surprise given that BlackBerry OS 10 is built on QNX, a real-time operating system built to be dependable and lag-free in multi-tasking environments. Seriously  the animations around the OS are buttery smooth, to borrow a phrase from Google! At the time of writing the Q10 was running version 10.1, with version 10.2 allegedly being around the corner based on leaks into the wild earlier this month.

The new gesture controls take a while to get used to, as does the lack of a genuine "home" screen. The "main" screen is arguably the multitasking view, which gives a vertically scrollable 4x4 list view of running apps, which works really well. Swiping to the screen on the right gives you a horizontally scrollable app drawer, where apps can be re-ordered and put into folders like iOS and many Android-based devices. Swiping to the left from the multitasking view takes you to BlackBerry hub, a unified messaging area for all your email accounts, SMS, BBM, notifications, and calls. Swiping down from the top of the screen in any of these views brings up quick settings for WiFi, Bluetooth, Alarm and a link to the main settings area for the whole device. Within some individual apps this top down swipe gesture gives you the app's menu area, and commonly the app's settings and shortcuts. Swiping from the bottom of the screen upwards at any time takes you back to the multitasking view, which as previously mentioned makes this view (arguably) the home or default screen if you were forced to pick one. Check the bold sections there, that's a lot of gestures to remember! As a full-time geek I found I got my head around this eventually, but I'm not so sure the average user would find this easy at all, especially compared to simpler user experiences and paradigms found in iOS and Android.

Multitasking App Drawer

It should be noted that BlackBerry no longer requires BES or BIS connectivity with OS 10, where OS 7 and previous did. For the average user this is great, as BlackBerry bolt-ons for BIS were only ever confusing, and forced traffic through BlackBerry's own servers which weren't known for their stability, particularly during 2012. For business use, a server-side upgrade to BES 10 is required for the handset to use BES to sync email and PIM data. With my employers not forking out for this paid-for BES 10 licence and upgrade, I opted instead to use ActiveSync. In practice this worked just fine, although during my test period I found it to be 10-20 seconds slower updating email and calendar entries. The standard Microsoft Exchange-based remote wipe functionality wiped the entire device, as opposed to removing the ActiveSync account and its related data.


My primary use case during this brief period was for work purposes, which only really needs call, SMS and email functionality, and these all pass with flying colours. I use Evernote a lot, and was excited to find it was integrated into the OS. Until I found it was very basic, not even bringing in tags for example. There is no standalone Evernote app, as there isn't for many other marquee services and apps found on iOS and Android, and even Windows Phone in a lot of cases (probably because Microsoft are paying for them). This was one of the areas I didn't have time to fully explore though, as I was using the Q10 only for work purposes, but anecdotally there do seem to be many big-name apps missing from the BlackBerry World app store, and quality games also seemed hard to find. If I were to have the handset for personal use, I would also have tested Google services integration, and was unsurprised when I found very little in the way of first-party Google apps in BlackBerry World, instead finding third-party paid apps for access to Drive and Maps for example. Note that anyone using Google 2-step authentication will have to use an application-specific password to add your Google account for email, calendar and contact sync.

One very interesting feature I ran out of time to test was being able to run Android apps within BlackBerry OS 10. At present this is limited to Gingerbread (v2.3) compatible apps only, but version 10.2 is rumoured to bring support for Jelly Bean (v4.1) apps.


This is the best hardware qwerty keyboard device I've used. Unfortunately that's not a great accolade, as all the other efforts in this area, particularly the Android-based ones, were so incredibly poor. We haven't seen an Android phone with physical qwerty keyboard in the UK since the Motorola Pro+ in December 2011, which is 18 months ago, and that too was poor, under-powered and underwhelming in almost every way! There is no such thing as an iPhone with a physical keyboard, and next to none for Windows Phone. The last big stand on physical keyboards outside of BlackBerry was by Palm (subsequently bought out by HP) with the Pre range of handsets, and that didn't end well! So it seems this is a dying breed, which is a real shame for those who love the form factor.

The keyboard buttons have slightly softer click than previous BlackBerry models, but still retain the per-button curved raised edge, making each button easy and quick to locate under your thumbs. I found I was equally fast on this keyboard as I have been on all the previous generation of BlackBerry handsets. The overall build quality is great, very sturdy, and has a great feel in the hand. I didn't have much chance to properly try out the camera or speakers in any meaningful way, but quick tests showed them to be no cause for concern.


Again, I must stress this is mini-review only, and I lacked enough time to properly test things like the camera, using Android apps, and many other consumer-facing apps, features and integrations. However, as a business tool and a natural successor to the Bold and Curve ranges, I was pleased to see that the new BlackBerry OS 10 direction had not detracted too much from the origins of being a very efficient business tool, and whilst it is a little larger than previous models to accommodate a bigger screen, I could definitely use it day-to-day at work. It's great to see a manufacturer put some decent specs behind a handset with physical qwerty keyboard, but I'd still prefer it with Android or even iOS if I were to have the handset for personal use as opposed to work use.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Same Phone, Same Build, 4 Months!

Something strange has happened!

Since 2009 I'd fallen into the habit of change with mobile phones. The materialisation of good value "pay as you go" deals rivalling "pre-pay" monthly contracts meant it became truly feasible to drop out of the 12, then 18 and even 24 month tie-in to one mobile network and a single device. Sure you could buy a SIM free device even if you were mid-contract, but your monthly payment was still paying for your contracted device, because it was subsidised, not "free". That meant buying a new device mid-contract was an extravagance, but once you drop into "pay as you go", you free up the subsidy portion of your monthly payment to spend on devices.

This led to a rapid turnover of devices, driven I think by four factors:

  • Each device turned out to have a significant deal breaker
  • The grass was greener; there was a better/faster device, gadget lust took over
  • The grass was different; there were major new features or new form factors in the market
  • I could turnover devices quickly outside of pre-pay contracts

This sent me through Symbian, Android, Windows Phone 7, even WebOS; you can see my personal device history over here. Throughout that time I didn't stay on the same device for more than a couple of months, three at the absolute maximum. Whist I may have not purchased a new device every couple of months, I ended up changing my SIM card between devices in my possession for a few weeks at a time. More than that, some devices (for example the Motorola Defy, Sony Xperia Ray, Samsung Nexus S) were customisable enough that I went through multiple operating system builds as well. Non-Nexus Android devices in particular can change dramatically when moved form the manufacturer's build of Android to something built by the community, either direct from CyanogenMod or from the very talented folk hanging out in the XDA forum.

This was all great fun, but skip forward to the present day and I'm writing this post having had my SIM card in the same phone with the manufacturer's build for well over 4 months. The Motorola RAZR i. Is it some kind of amazing super phone. No. Is it the manufacturer's amazing implementation of Android. No. So why have I settled after all that previous fluidity? Going back to the reasons I kept swapping in the first place:

  • The deal breakers - For me, this device has none. Past deal breakers have included poor battery life, poor camera or no camera flash, device too big, device's core hardware going out of date leading to latest versions of operating system running like a dog, and end of support for the device both from the manufacturer and the community. I can't leave this section without calling out Motorola's use of an Intel chip in the RAZR i, as opposed to ARM chips in 99% of other Android phones. There are still some apps which don't work, most high profile in the UK is iPlayer (if you really want to watch TV on a phone). There are zero apps which I use that don't work however, so no deal breaker for me personally, but maybe for others.
  • The grass is greener - I haven't seen any device released since the RAZR i which would tempt me, even with an unlimited budget. This is mainly due to my personal preference for "phone-sized" phones, and with flagship devices from HTC, Samsung, Sony et al arriving with 4.5" to 5" screens, I am simply not interested. Anything in the manufacturers' line ups below this screen size seems to have been relegated to mid-tier, as if the size of a screen is directly correlated to how good a phone should be. This means there is very little in my size range with specs worth getting out of bed for! This is subjective I know, however, Motorola did a great job of packing a large screen in such a small case. Ideally I'd still have the RAZR i made slightly smaller, but it comes just about inside my tolerance for size! The grass is greener argument has also faded away in terms of operating system build. I still run CyanogenMod on a few low-end devices which use exclusively for the gym or mountain biking, and they continue to do an amazing job, but the days of having the time or inclination for fiddling with custom recoveries and ROM installations are waning. Do I wish Motorola had been much quicker getting the latest version of Android out for the RAZR i, of course! However, the only thing I'm truly pining for from Jelly Bean is Google Now. The rest is minor tweaks or background "under the hood" improvements.
  • The Grass is different - This goes in some ways hand in hand with a previous post about form factor monotony. Referencing just the Android world, we've seen that there has been nothing but rectangular slabs for well over a year now, and innovation with form factor has simply died off. Nokia's industrial design for the Lumia range, previewed with the N9, was a nice slant but ultimately the same. HTC's efforts with the recently announced One are also to be commended, if only for putting the speakers on the front of the device and not the back, but again still a rectangular slab. Physical keyboards appear to be out for good, as do sliding and flipping form factors. With this kind of stagnation in hardware design there is simply far less chance of seeing any different grass.
  • Because I could - This one actually hasn't changed. I'm still "off contract" and have the option of selling the RAZR i at any time and using that money to buy the latest and greatest, but the the previous three points explain why I haven't!

Does this mean the RAZR i is the greatest phone since sliced bread? I suspect many, it not all, would argue against it, but it is pretty close for me, and that's why it has been with me for over 4 months, unheard of in the my recent phone geek history. The scary part is that I may be on the RAZR i for some time to come, unless one of the manufacturers decides to break rank and release, shock horror, a flagship-spec phone-sized phone. I can dream...