Wednesday, 16 July 2014

EE Kestrel Mini-Review

As usual, this loan device came courtesy of Steve and Ted from Phones Show Chat, and is a curious one, something a little different to the flagship devices which get most of the attention of the technology press. I hesitated to title this as a mini-review, it's certainly not a full review, the reasons will become apparent. In the end it's more of a comparison to its nearest competitor and my current day-to-day phone, the Moto G.

The EE Kestrel has a 1.2Ghz quad-core SnapDragon 400 CPU, 1GB RAM, 4G connectivity, a micro SD card slot, 4.5” qHD screen, and a 5MP camera. The obvious comparison is against the Moto G, which now has a 4G model which also has a micro SD card slot. The Kestrel and Moto G share matching CPU, RAM, connectivity and micro SD specs. Their cameras are on par with each other, both pretty poor. Their speakers are similar, both distort at around 50-60% volume. They both have a notification light! Whilst being very similar, here is how they are different...

Kestrel Positives
  • Price: At £99 the Kestrel wins by between £20-£60 depending on where you buy your Moto G, and if you buy the 3G or 4G model.
  • First impressions: The Kestrel feels snappy on first use, it doesn't feel like it weighs much either when you first pick it up.
  • Capacitive buttons: Gives more screen space versus on-screen buttons.
  • Connectivity: SIM unlocked it works with Three 4G perfectly, which is great given Three is most mobile geeks’ network of choice!
  • Some genuinely very interesting OS additions on top of a base Android build, including:
    • “Networked apps" - you can control access to wifi and mobile data per app.
    • “Startup manager" - control which apps can or can't launch on device boot.
    • “Notification manager" - control which apps can send push messages to the notification panel.
    • "Do not disturb" - on a schedule, per contact restriction of ringing/vibrating.
    • “Power saving" - including ability to select protected apps which are kept running no matter what, an analyser to let you know any power-intensive background apps, and another analyser telling you settings that may be adversely affecting battery life (GPS, screen brightness, etc).
    • “App operations" - show how often each app calls APIs such as location services, personal data, messaging, and device hardware.
    • Audio profiles (a la S60/S40 in the old Nokia days) and a nice easy way to change between them form the notification shade.
    • Split screen for settings - with the "all" pane with the usual Android settings menu, and the "general" pane which has just commonly-used settings, not cluttered up by all the other million and one settings in the "all" pane.
  • Two built-in launchers, although they’re called "home screen styles"...
    • One for normal not tech-savvy folk, which has no app drawer, all icons are on the home screens (a la iOS).
    • One for even less tech-savvy folk, with big easy tiles (a la Windows Phone) for apps and commonly used functions. This would be truly great for those with no interest in learning to use a smartphone, but who want a little more than a feature phone can offer. This home screen style also bumps up the system font, a giveaway that maybe this is aimed at the older person?!
Left: Choose your home screen style.
Middle: "Standard" style. No app drawer, just lots of icons like iOS.
Right: "Simple" style. Probably aimed at smartphone novices.

Kestrel Negatives
  • The capacitive buttons aren't very responsive, and their lights turn-off too quickly (the only setting is auto-off and permanently off).
  • The screen is pretty dull, and only qHD (even the Moto G has 720p).
  • The charger (top) and headphone (bottom of left edge) ports are in unorthodox places, a little annoying.
  • Whilst the built-in launchers have their use-cases, anyone reading this blog post would HAVE to install an alternative.
  • In the capacitive buttons row the Kestrel has an old school menu button instead of a recent apps button.
  • The OS is v4.3 and unlikely to be updated in a timely schedule, if at all... (a side effect from all the customisations which have been added?)
  • And the deal breaker... 8GB internal storage. Not so bad given the presence of a micro SD card slot, but this 8GB is partitioned such that apps have less then 1GB. I couldn't even finish installing half of my usual apps. This is exacerbated by the presence of built-in apps like Facebook, Kindle, EE Film and more which you can’t uninstall.
Left: I didn't get to install even half of my usual apps when this happened.
Right: There's loads of space left, just not for apps.

I'd conclude that the storage partitioning is a complete deal breaker for me, so much so that I couldn’t use it as my full-time device to test it properly, and find out how good the battery life was for example.

Huawei/EE have put some very nice touches on top of Android. Some of these are available on other operating systems of course; on Android they may be available via a big bunch of third party apps, plus the need for root in some cases, but they are all here by default on the Kestrel. Whilst the built-in non-removable apps are a pain, the extras on top of a standard Android OS build are mostly commendable, usable, and designed fairly well. I think a lot of normal (non-geek) users would find them useful. To go a step further, the "simple” home screen and launcher could be the basis of the perfect smartphone for an older person or a complete smartphone novice. This is a great Android smartphone for a novice, as Android is still too complex for the average non-geek, and this device with all its customisations makes it much easier for the inexperienced user.

For the money, you would never expect a great camera, high-end CPU or great quality screen. It's great that the Kestrel does 4G at a cheaper price than the Moto G, but the Moto G has a better screen, doesn't suffer the app space partitioning, and is hugely more likely to be kept up-to-date. I would pick the Moto G over the Kestrel any day, though the Kestrel is a very, very interesting device with some very nice touches.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Feels Like a New Moto G

I factory reset my Moto G last night and set everything up from scratch. I'd not done this since I bought the phone 7 months ago. It took until past midnight, and I was short on sleep anyway!

However, battery life in the 48 hours since the reset has been much better, and the feel around the operating system is much quicker, along with only one app crashing where previously there would have been several. This is with the same set of apps and data as before the reset. To be complete in the detail here, that 7 months usage did include the update from Jelly Bean to KitKat. The conclusions are therefore:
  • Android now behaves like Windows, in that users who consume lots of software/apps/services will accumulate crud, which over time slow the device down and make random things (crashes, force closes) happen, and only a fresh install gets you back to the speed and stability you know the hardware is capable of.
  • Major version updates of the operating system should always be followed by a factory reset where possible.
  • Android's native backup and restore of apps and app data is still pathetic, and very rarely restores a complete set of apps or app data, if it starts at all. There’s very little control of how it happens, and no web portal to see the apps Google has linked to your account, such that you know the apps it will restore, and have a choice to prune the list. Android is far, far behind iOS in this area, which has had flawless back and restore for years.
  • The Moto G really is a brilliant device, especially given the context that this (albeit non-4G variant) 16GB model cost me £81 brand new from Tesco with ClubCard vouchers plus £3 for a SIM unlock.
None of this is news par se, but as one of those annoying folks who wants his phones to be "phone sized" (that's around 130mm x 65mm for me) it does justify my feeling that there isn't a better phone out there for me right now, over 7 months after the Moto G originally 

I've been tempted by a Moto X, the natural migration path in some ways from the Moto G, but as it is now a year old, a successor is likely around the corner. Given the Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini and HTC One Mini 2 were both disappointing and overpriced, my hopes for a new phone-sized phone to purchase seem to rest on rumoured devices such as:
  • Sony Z2 Compact, where they'll hopefully have fixed the Z1 Compact's problems like the under-performing camera, the nasty factory-fitted screen protectors, and the chassis design that makes it feel larger than it is.
  • Moto X2, where they'll have a much better camera in than that on the Moto X, and release it in the UK promptly (versus 6-7 months delay on the Moto X after it launched in the US)
  • Some other thing that's a bit off piste and will surprise me into a purchase (a small Xiaomi device, a OnePlus One Mini, etc)
That list doesn't include anything too concrete, or even anything likely to be released in the near future. It's just as well this feels like new Moto G since the factory reset, as I seemingly won't be buying anything actually new any time soon...