Grandroids: Samsung Galaxy S4, Sony Xperia Z, HTC One

Sometimes the planets just align in the world of smartphones. In the space of a couple of months, we’ve seen three flagship phones released that seem so similar in specification that they could have been cast from the same mold. They all have 1080p screens and stupid-fast quad core processors. So: what’s the difference? Which one should you buy?

Firstly, from a performance and utility perspective, there’s nothing between these phones. They all do everything you’d expect from a top-end smartphone, and they all do it screamingly fast. You will not be disappointed to own any of these phones.

Forced to pick their differences, here’s how I see it broken down in a few key areas:

Screen

Sony Xperia ZWhen I first saw the Xperia Z (the first of these phones I laid eyes on), I was absolutely floored by its display. 1920×1080 pixels on these screen sizes is frankly bonkers: you cannot pick out an individual pixel, and the huge space for rendering browser content is wonderful. But. But but but. Compared to the HTC One and Galaxy S4, the Z is just missing something. Slightly washed out perhaps? Poor viewing angles? Not a showstopper, but enough that you can easily feel the difference.

The Galaxy S4 screen isn’t without fault either: it’s incredibly bright and punchy, to the point of being offensive. If you get one I highly recommend going into the display settings and changing the display to “Movie” mode. Colours in that mode are more realistic and the screen becomes more comfortable to look at.

Out of the box, the HTC One’s screen is the best of the bunch in my opinion.

Apps and Launchers

All of these phones run Android 4 and have the Google Play store available to download any apps you may desire. However: they take different approaches to the out-of-box experience. The Xperia Z is the most “vanilla”, with a standard-ish Android launcher populated with a few specialist Sony apps.

HTC goes a bit further with their Flipboard-esque Blinkfeed homepage, from which you can swipe to get at, again, a standard Android icon based app launcher. Blinkfeed looks nice, but I think if I was to use the HTC One as my main phone, I’d replace the launcher with something more standard and fill it with the widgets I’d like to use, rather than having stuff pushed at me.

Samsung’s launcher is fairly vanilla, but it comes out of the box packed to the gunnels with … crap. I’m sorry but there’s no other way to put it. I understand Samsungs intentions here: they see that a large number of Android users don’t really install apps or use widgets, so they’re lending a helping hand: here’s your fitness app, and your photo gallery app, and here’s a voice thing, and a translator, oh and a note thing, and … and.

For a user who doesn’t know that the Play Store exists, this might be useful. For readers of this article, and most experienced Android users, this just means removing widgets and uninstalling Samsung crapware until you can make some space and install the decent apps you need. It reminds me, in a bad way, of the crapware that comes loaded on Windows PCs.

Camera

I want to love HTC’s approach to the camera on the One. The science nerd inside me says that having fewer pixels on a small sensor means bigger “photosites”, less noise, and better response in low light. However, the comparison posts that have popped up seem to show that the Galaxy S4 camera blows pretty much everything else out of the water in all but the crappiest lighting conditions.

As with other aspects, the HTC One and Xperia Z cameras are perfectly fine, and will serve you ok for quick snaps, but if you want the best photos out of your smartphone, then the S4 is the way to go.

Physical Design

Samsung Galaxy S4 Physically, the Galaxy S4 is just shit. The first experience out of the box has you removing the flimsy, bendy back cover to insert a battery. The feel of that cover just gives me no confidence in the build quality of the phone. Once on, it also feels sweaty and slippery. Compared to the HTC One and the Xperia Z, the Galaxy’s physical look and feel just fall well short of what we’ve come to expect of a modern flagship smartphone.

If looks and build quality don’t matter to you, this is not a problem. But even considering the S4’s other fantastic qualities, the physical feel of the phone is almost enough to put me off.

In comparison, the HTC One is probably the best looking and feeling phone of this size that I’ve laid hands on. The weight is fantastic, and the feel in the hand is just right. It’s solid enough to give you confidence while not being chunky, and the blend of curves and hard edges make for a great hand-feel.

Likewise, the Xperia Z looks stunning. An obsidian-black monolith, sealed all around with milspec waterproofing, the thing just wants to be touched. The water resistance is a welcome addition: being able to rinse a phone under running water is not something I expected to like, but after doing it a few times I wish I could do it to every phone I’ve owned.

Unfortunately the convenience of a washable phone comes with downsides: every time you want to charge the Z or plug your headphones in, you have to fiddle with the (thankfully well-engineered) port flaps. I’m not positive if the waterproofing remains in effect with the flaps open, but I’d guess not.

If I had to pick one of these three phones purely on looks, it would be the HTC One. If I was a tradesman or regular watersports participant, I’d go with the Xperia Z.

Conclusion

HTC oneIt’s bloody hard to pick a winner from this bunch. They each have their upsides and some very minor downs. The HTC One camera is a disappointment but it looks smashing; the Samsung feels cheesy but is incredibly light and has a fantastic camera; and the waterproof Z could come in very handy, while Sony have also done amazing things with the modding community.

Forced at gunpoint to pick a phone, I’d take the HTC One, but I’d not be at all upset to take home any of the three.

As usual, I’m happy to answer any specific questions in the comments below.

500 Words and Sony Xperia Z

Twitter has destroyed this blog.

I don’t mean that Ev came and smashed my server with a hammer. But because my inspiration and unique thoughts go straight on to twitter without the chance of elaboration (most often to the detriment of society – sorry), I feel no compulsion to come here and write. As I type this I’m finding it difficult to drag these thoughts out of my head, and the very act of writing long-form is alien.

Is this wrong, or just new?

I was gutted, as is usual, to not attend Webstock this year, but didn’t stop me getting inspiration from the event. One suggestion I heard remotely was for creators to write 500 words each day before reading any, as an antidote to the antidata happening online – the trivialisation of news, the sound-biting of thoughts, and the selection of high-fructose corn syrup* entertainment news over the hard-news broccoli.

So this is me, steaming some fresh broccoli for you. Open wide, here comes the aeroplane!

I’ve been an Android hater for many years now. Back in the bad old days of 2.3 I was like the worst kind of Atheist: ranting against the stupid majority for blindly following their Google God; desperately explaining my stance to an unending stream of believers with closed ears. I still say that early Android was trash. Nothing more than a cheap, poorly designed, user-hostile land grab by Google.

Lately, I’ve been playing with Android 4 variants, and last night I got to take a look at the new Sony Xperia Z (both phone and tablet). Wow! Android: you’ve come a long way baby.

Xperia Z_black_frontFrom the outside, the phone is perfect. Some tech blogs are saying the screen is not the most fantastic and the camera needs work. I suggest you take a fucking step back for a minute and just look at the thing:

  • 1080p 5″ screen in a ultra-slim black rectangle
  • Quad-core 1.5 GHz (jesus christ!) processor
  • LTE radio
  • 13MP main camera
  • 2MP front camera supporting 1080p30 video
  • Completely waterproof to 1m for up to 30 minutes

In what world is that not holy-fucking-shit awesome? In what world do you pick this apart and say that the screen looks a fraction washed-out when you view it off-angle? In person the phone is outstanding. The screen looks like paper: you cannot see a single pixel, while its Android 4.1.2 OS – thankfully largely untouched by Sony – is massively fast and smooth. And a quad-core 1.5GHz processor? Son, in my day that was a kick-ass gaming PC. None of my complaints about old Android stand true here.

One of my other complaints about Android has been the shocking treatment of upgrades, with carriers and OEMs leaving customers out to dry on horribly insecure versions. Sony have mostly solved this by cosying up to the modding community, to the point that they were named XDA-Dev’s OEM of the year. One of the comments on that post grumbles that Sony aren’t releasing new versions and have left support to XDA-dev. That’s the point my man! The one thing us nerds have been asking for is the ability to upgrade our own phones, and Sony appears to give us that by default, rather than grudgingly producing a root unlock down the line when they deign it appropriate.

I started watching Burn Notice last night on the recommendation of a friend. I’m talking S01E01 old-school. I had to check IMDB because the program was recorded in 4:3 ratio and the main character was rocking a Motorola RAZR. Take a guess at the production date.

2007. In 2007 the state of the art was a Motorola RAZR. Today it’s that thing up there. I’m going to get all Matchbox Twenty up in here: Let’s See How Far We’ve Come.

*Apparently the actual analogy was pizza-vs-brocolli. My analogy is better.

 

 

Nokia Lumia 920 Review

The Lumia 920 (taken with a competing smartphone)

It’s a fantastic phone. Yes it’s porker at 180 grams, but if you can get over that single downside, everything else is frankly wonderful.

For users coming from Windows Phone 7, the 920 is a huge step-up. The screen is finally on par (and often surpasses) other high-end smartphones; performance is wonderful, with the lack of app load and switch lag making multitasking brilliant; and the new start screen gives you the control you’ve always wanted.

If you’ve never used a Windows Phone, the 920 (and others in its class) might just make you want to.

Hardware

The Lumia 920 brings the familiar polycarbonate body shell from earlier Lumias. Mine is black, but I’d prefer one of the other colour options: cyan, grey, red, white or yellow. The rounded edges feel nice in the hand, and the buttons have been spaced out a little, which makes it easier to differentiate between the volume and lock buttons.

The screen, at 1280×768 rocks a 332 ppi pixel density. For humans, this just means that you’ll fail hard when playing “find the pixel”, just like on the iPhone 4. Brightness and contrast are great, and I haven’t noticed any colour casts or issues.

Another Microsoft device shot with a 920

The camera. Ooohh the camera. Where do I start? Basically this: we took some shots in a dingy Redmond hotel room, and couldn’t stop saying “what the fuck?” when viewing the results. The last time I was this stunned by a camera was when I first used the Canon 5DII. Now there’s no way that the Lumia 920 would match the 5D2’s output, but it’s a hell of a lot better than any other phone camera I’ve used.

Battery seems pretty sweet, and if that’s the one reason the device is so heavy, I can forgive it. Bashing around at Microsoft’s BUILD conference, with flakey WiFi, spending all day tweeting up a storm, and the battery still has 30% charge at 7pm. Not bad at all.

WiFi, Bluetooth, 3G, NFC, and other stuff work fine.

Software

Windows Phone 8 is a player. Finally. Phone 7 was a cool operating system with a stunning new visual design. It worked fine as a phone, but it sucked in a few essential ways that I won’t bother going into.

With 8, performance is bonkers. Running “big Windows” (aka the NT core) means that apps can be massively pre-optimized by the operating system so they load and run super quick. And yes, that means existing Windows Phone 7 apps. Putting 7 apps on an 8 phone is like having brand new apps.

Add to that multiple CPU cores and some serious optimizations around the input and UI thread performance, and you get incredibly slick software. It’s buttery smooth everywhere.

The new start screen is really, really cool. It’s like Android’s customizable launcher without the shitty mess. Pin people, apps, widgets and icons in 3 different sizes, and lay them out in a cool masonry arrangement. For me this was explained best when Steve Ballmer, Joe Belfiore and Jessica Alba held up their phones at the launch event. Three phones, all running the same software, but they looked totally different because of the way each user customized them. None of those users had to root their phones or install custom “launchers”.

Built in apps are fast and work great. Linked inboxes in mail, multiple calendars, the same great people hub, and some nifty new stuff including “Rooms” and “Kids corner”.

Xbox Music with streaming and downloads makes the music hub great, and this is now available to New Zealanders without having to work through a USA Live ID. Like other apps, Xbox music can set your wallpaper using album art, which makes the phone really come to life, even when locked. I’m looking forward to local apps leveraging this wallpaper option, after seeing how the CNN app updates the wallpaper with news photography every 30 minutes.

Another new addition is a real timesaver: not only does the keyboard auto-correct as you type, it also pre-suggests words. If you’re typing a sentence and hit the spacebar, you will get suggestions for the next word without even typing a letter. This is uncannily good: I found it suggested the correct word a good 30% of the time, increasing to 80% after I’d typed a letter or two.

Sure we could have an argument about “Apps”, because Windows Phone doesn’t have Instagram or Letterpress, but my bet is these will come. For one: porting is massively easier in WP8 (I can say this because I have first-hand knowledge of porting c++ iOS games to WP8); and hopefully with 8 we’ll see some decent market share. Hopefully.

So there you go. A biased, enthusiastic review. Feel free to fire any questions in the comments because I’m sure I haven’t covered everything.

Buying

Unfortunately if you’re not one of the lucky few to pick up a 920 at the BUILD conference, there’s currently nowhere you can buy one. There’s no word on carriers for New Zealand at this stage, but given the support of previous Nokia phones, and Microsoft’s planned marketing spend, I’d be confident they’ll show up on all carriers in short order.

Two Weeks with the Apple iPhone 4S

I’m just going to focus on a couple of things here, because you know what this phone is and what it can do.

Siri Speaks Kiwi

Yes she does, and pretty well at that. Siri is the best voice recognition system I’ve used on a phone. Apart from the occasional weird word (“egg” comes to mind), accuracy was incredibly good, even with background music and talking. It struggled a bit when I was driving, but then who wouldn’t in the wall of sound that is my Nissan Sunny. Hey, it’s economical.

But let’s get this straight: Siri is so much more than voice recognition. It’s the lack of “commands” that really does the job. Everything else I’ve used requires you to speak a command: “dial x”, “message y”. Some allow you to use variations like “call/ring/dial”. But you have to remember those commands. Get them wrong, and the phone complains pleasantly.

Siri is different. She gets the general idea of what you’re asking. It doesn’t matter if you say “set a reminder for …” or “remind me to….tomorow” or “tomorrow, remind me to …”, or even “don’t let me forget to …”. The genius in Siri is her ability to find meaning in your statement and build a result around it. Whichever way you put it, 9 times out of 10 Siri will do the right thing.

Combine Siri with the addition of location based reminders, and “remind me to get milk on the way home” becomes something seamless and wonderful. It’s genuinely futuristic.

The big gap for Siri in New Zealand is not the accent. It’s the lack of location services. Ask Siri to “find me a Korean restaurant”, and she’ll politely decline. “Sorry Ben, I can only look for businesses in the United States”. Let’s hope this gap is being closed.

It’s The Ecosystem, Stupid

Chances are – in New Zealand especially – at least a couple of your friends have iPhones. You might have an iPad yourself. Perhaps like me you grabbed an Apple TV just because they’re so damn cheap? The new version of iOS really ties this ecosystem together. Sure there’s been synergy before, but iOS 5 takes it further.

Find my Friends, which I considered creepy, is properly useful and even a bit fun. While camping on Waiheke, friends offered to bring fish & chips for dinner. I invited them to a temporary Find my Friends share (24 hours by default) earlier in the day. Around dinner time, I picked up my phone, expecting to make the normal “What time are you coming? Here’s the address”, call. Instead I fired up Find my Friends and saw them already halfway across the island, homing in on my position. Fun and useful.

iMessage likewise. If you have friends with iOS5 devices, your messages just became free-as-in-data. Certainly much cheaper than SMS messages assuming you have any sort of data plan on your device.

iCloud helps make sense of multiple devices.

  • Sync your mail, contacts and calendar between all your devices. Useful if you don’t have a corporate email account, or if you like to keep your personal stuff separate.
  • Photo Stream automatically syncs your last few photos (actually up to 1000, stored for 30 days), to all your devices. Snap a shot on your iPhone, and it’s automatically available on other devices, including as a slideshow on Apple TV.
  • The iWork integration with iCloud is excellent. Edit a document or presentation (or other iWork doc) on any device, and changes are synced to other devices automatically. You can even download a PDF copy from a browser – probably the simplest PDF conversion I’ve ever seen.
  • iCloud Backup does the backup that iTunes did previously, but stores it safely in The Cloud. In fact, combine iCloud Backup with the new WiFi sync, and you barely need to connect the phone to a computer anymore.

Airplay is great – view a video or song on your iPhone and stream it instantly to Apple TV. Airplay Mirroring (4S only) is a vision into the future of gaming: use your iPhone as a control and dashboard, while the big screen (via Apple TV) is your gameplay screen. Mirroring was flakey for me, and for others I’ve talked. Once it is nailed down it will be a great function.

And we haven’t yet touched on the huge hardware ecosystem, which is arguably more reason to go with the iPhone than anything above. Just check out, for example, this awesome add-on that my boss pointed out. Just one of about three billion different docks, dongles and doo-dads that plug into an iPhone’s dock connector.

Should I Buy One?

The $1,049 to $1,349 question. I’ve broken this one down before. Unless you have a particular need for open devices or crazy large screen sizes, the iPhone 4S is (still) the best phone out there. iOS has matured to the extent that rough edges are really hard to come by. Everything just works.

It pains me to say it, but moving back to iOS after a year with Windows Phone, it’s brutally obvious where Windows Phone needs to catch up: polish and ecosystem. XBox has been around for a lot longer than Apple TV. Why, quite frankly, the HELL does WP7 not integrate with XBox (the device, not the XBox Live back-end) the way iPhone and Apple TV work together? And infrequent but hugely annoying bugs like the “disappearing keyboard” in Mango are just downright frustrating. So close, but just not there yet. Bring on the Nokias.

And then there’s Android. Again, so close but just not there. Unless you have a pressing desire to have an “open” device or giant screen sizes, the iPhone is probably a better choice.

In an alternate universe, Apple would build services like Airplay, Find my Friends, iMessage and iCloud on open protocols so that all devices could play equally. In this universe, that’s never going to happen. So if you want a part of that truly useful, seamless ecosystem, just put your koolaid drinks up and party in the iPhone club.

Nokia N9 Review: Gorgeous Hardware

Three-Colors-of-Nokia-N9My understanding is that the N9 was all but complete when Stephen Elop announced Nokia’s sea change. In fact, I’m writing this review 60 minutes before Nokia (hopefully) announces their first phones running Windows Phone 7.  So what does the N9 mean in this context? The rumoured (and demonstrated) “sea-ray” device looks uncannily similar in design to the N9, so you can assume that – software notwithstanding – at least one Nokia Windows Phone will look and feel very similar in the hand to the N9.

On that note, let’s focus on hardware, and I’ll touch on Meego at the end. As is standard, hit me up in the comments if I’ve missed covering anything you want to hear.

Hardware

The N9 is simply gorgeous. The model I’m reviewing is matte black polycarbonate, with a piano black, slightly rounded screen. I can hand it to someone and have them gasping with delight without even turning the phone on. It’s a little hard to explain, but the combination of size, shape, and just overall feel makes the N9 a total standout. I’d go so far as saying it feels more comfortable in the hand than an iPhone 4, and (probably just because the ‘4 has been around so long), feels more futuristic.

amoled_vs_lcdThe seamless polycarbonate body aches to be touched. I found myself gently caressing it to find seams, and failing. The other upside of a solid plastic (it feels wrong using such a cheesy word for this material) body, is that the colour is impregnated through the entire shell. If you can get hold of a blue or pink N9, and happen to scratch it, you’d barely notice.

The AMOLED screen is stunning too. The jet-blacks contrasted with the popping colours under the bulging screen give the entire thing an almost holographic look. The resolution doesn’t come close to the iPhone 4, but the readability in bright daylight blows it – and any other LCD – clean out of the water. The other upshot of the AMOLED display is that Nokia have used it cunningly to display a floating clock when locked – there’s very little battery cost because there’s no backlight burning up the Amps.

I’m not sure if the on-screen keyboard fits under the hardware category, but I do hope the haptic feedback carries over to other Nokia devices. There is a satisfying, but subtle click and de-click when you press and release keys. The timing is perfectly synced with your finger motion, and it adds a genuine “feel” to the on-screen keyboard unlike other phones I have played with.

The camera is Nokia-awesome, and works faster than any phone camera I have played with. I haven’t touched the latest Androids or the iPhone 4, but the speed difference compared to my current Windows Phone is incredible.

The last cool thing about the N9 hardware is the “pentaband 3G”. We humans call it 5-band. For kiwis this means you don’t have to worry if this phone will work on XT or Vodafone. Just stick the MicroSIM in and go.

NokiaHeadsetComparisonThere is one vexing issue with the hardware: Nokia use a different headset pin arrangement to Apple. I presume this dates back to pre-iPhone days, but the sad fact is that a majority of headsets today are built for the iPhone pin arrangement. Any normal headphones will work fine in the 3.5mm socket, but plug in an iPhone-compatible headset and they won’t. Nokia and Apple have transposed the microphone and ground rings. So, while the plugs at left look outwardly identical, the one on top (from my workhorse Ultimate Ears 220vi headset) does not work at all (no audio, nothing) in the N9. The bottom plug is the included Nokia headset. NB: photo taken using the N9, cropped.

Software

If you position MeeGo as a loaded gun to Microsoft’s temple, they should rightfully feel motivated to make Windows Phone a success at Nokia. MeeGo (specifically MeeGo/Harmattan) is an excellent first release for a smartphone OS – notably with a more complete feature set than the original Windows Phone 7 release (and for that matter iOS 1.x). However, MeeGo’s uncertain future makes the Nokia Store for 3rd-party apps somewhat barren. Having said that, the core apps are there: Facebook, Twitter, Skype, YouTube, Foursquare, and yes, Angry Birds.

The OS performs well in most places, with just a wee bit of lag in strange areas like the Settings app, and an occasional miss-registered tap or swipe. Again, forgivable issues for a v1 release, and certainly nothing that really puts you off the day-to-day use of the phone.

MeeGo asks that users swipe in from the edges of the screen to perform common tasks such as switching between apps and checking notifications. Swiping from the left or right edge switches between the three core screens: apps, notifications, and running tasks. As a concept it works ok, but in reality I found myself swiping a couple of times in most cases to trigger the behaviour, then several times more to understand where in the OS I was placed.

MeeGo will serve most smartphone users extremely well. Nokia’s traditional expertise in the core applications is there, and I didn’t find too many rough edges. Mail4Exchange is a full-featured Microsoft Exchange sync; the browser is a variant of Webkit, and works well; and multiple calendars are supported in the calendar app.

Nokia’s mapping and GPS capability truly shines on MeeGo and the N9. Nokia maps with full driving directions and 3D landmarks, with the same fantastic worldwide coverage we’ve come to expect from Nokia. Map data is pre-cached, so using the GPS in the car is not going to cause you expensive data charges. Frankly, the N9’s mapping functionality blows Windows Phone out of the water in New Zealand, and is easily on par with Google Maps in iOS and Android.

There are a couple of software shortcomings that you should note before committing to MeeGo. Not deal-breakers, but just in case they matter to you:

  • GMail contact sync doesn’t seem to be present. Mail and calendar work fine, but not contacts.
  • Copy/Paste is spotty. Works fine from most editable fields, but not from e.g. website body copy.

Conclusion

It’s a great smartphone, and I’m sure it will stick around for a while even with the new WP7 devices coming out. Grab one if you like the look of it, and aren’t overly concerned by the future upgrade path and app store story (although, MeeGo 1.1 is in the wild, so we can hope it will come to existing devices).

You can buy the N9 for $999 from Vodafone, or less with a plan.

 

Review: HTC ChaCha

“It’s a Facebook BlackBerry”: my answer to the almost inevitable “what the hell is that?” question I’d get every time I pulled out the HTC ChaCha to check my email or get some directions. I took the ChaCha with me to the USA recently as my local phone. That’s my M.O. as a gadget guy: one phone with a local prepay SIM card, one with my kiwi SIM card.

HTC ChaChaThe ChaCha is an eye-catching little phone. Stark white and brushed aluminium, with a broken-looking bend in the middle, this is the device you want to carry if you enjoy people asking about your phone. The hardware qwerty makes it look a bit BlackBerry, but the HTC Sense UI on the touchscreen is very recognisably Android. It’s a little bit disconcerting, but it works.

This is a definitely Facebook phone. There’s a dedicated f-button below the keyboard that is context sensitive and lights up to prompt you when it’s time to book some faces. For examples:

  • When browsing the web, the f-button lights up. Clicking it will prompt you for a comment and share the URL and comment on your timeline.
  • When taking photos, the f-button lights up. Clicking it will share the photo on your timeline.

It all works jolly well if you’re an avid facebookalist. For people like me – I’m more of a twerp – I’d hope someone could hack the f-button to drop the f-bomb. That way I could just tap it to add tasty flavour to my tweets. And on that note, the included HTC Twitter app is adequate. It’s a bit stupid in that replying to direct messages has you composing a public reply, but otherwise it’s serviceable. Avid tweeple would be better off installing an alternative twittering application.

It’s Android 2.3 under the covers, which is a Good Thing. 2.3 means smooth scrolling, fast performance, and good memory management. It also comes with the accoutrements you expect from a late-model Android: GPS, WiFi hotspot function, multiple home screens, and all the other jazz.

If you’ve read my Android reviews in the past, you’ll know I’m not a fan of OEM add-ons to Android. Google built Android pretty well (version 2.2+ at least), so it bothers me that OEMs layer their crapware on top of a perfectly good OS. However, in this case, HTC’s already competent Sense UI makes a huge amount of sense (punny!). Sense takes the ChaCha’s unusual screen dimensions into account, and provides the user with a bunch of widgets (weather, clocks, Facebook, etc.) that work really well with the layout. Google’s first-party apps (e.g. Maps, Gmail, contacts) also work well on the smaller screen.

Third party apps on this device are hit and miss. The screen must report itself to Android as a landscape layout, rather than a wide portrait. This means that apps like the (otherwise excellent) IRB Rugby World Cup app, or Vodafone’s pre-installed MyAccount app are displayed small and in landscape mode. There’s no way that I could find to rotate them to portrait. The only option was to turn the phone sideways and get tapping on the touchscreen. Workable, but side-tappin’ is going to catch on like N-gage side-talkin’ did. A lot of other apps (e.g. Twitter, Seesmic) display in correct orientation with reduced vertical screen real-estate.

The hardware is HTC-quality. Super solid, no creaks or wobbles, and lovely in the hand. The keyboard is really clicky. I’ve become adjusted to the super light touch of capacitive touchscreen keyboards, so found myself typing pretty slowly on the ChaCha’s keys. I’m sure they’ll become smoother with time, and would be better for someone coming from another device with a hardware keyboard.

Conclusion

It’s a really nice piece of hardware with solid software. If you need a qwerty and love your Facebook, this could be your phone. The only deal-breaker might be if your favourite Android app doesn’t render properly on the screen.

You can grab it from Vodafone for $599, or less with a plan.

If there are any particular apps you want me to test on it, just ask in the comments.

2Degrees Huawei IDEOS X5 Review

2Degrees Huawei X5I’m confused. On the one hand we have Vodafone pimping the Samsung Galaxy S, an Android 2.1 phone hobbled with Samsung’s custom interface. On the other hand (in my actual hand), I have the IDEOS X5 from 2Degrees. It runs the all-but-latest Android 2.2, with almost identical specs to the Samsung. The Samsung is a thousand dollars. The X5 is $549.

To be fair, the Galaxy S has a faster processor and larger screen, but in complete honesty I prefer the feel, performance, and price of the X5 by a long way. This cements my opinion that Google’s Android OS is properly suited to phones around that $500 mark. If you’re spending $1000, just get an iPhone (or wait till later this year and get a Nokia WP7).

I’ve had the X5 in my pocket for the last few days, giving it a real workout. The bottom line is that this is one of the best Android devices I’ve used. It feels a lot better in the hand than many other phones. It has a better “heft”, and feels a lot more solid than the Galaxy. The build quality is up there with the Nexus One – there’s no wobbles, creaks, or alignment problems. The back has a nice soft-feeling matte finish, and the front is the fairly traditional monolithic glass screen with soft-buttons below the screen.

The X5 flips through all the regular expected smartphone shenanigans with speed and aplomb. Android users will know they need to install a bunch of apps, and dig around in the settings to turn on things like transitions and live wallpaper, but once you’ve got the phone set up to your liking, it really flies.

2Degrees have done a very good thing, in my opinion, by rejecting Huawei’s custom interface baubles. The customisation of the phone out of the box extends only to a few installed applications. Swype keyboard is there by default – I personally prefer the default Android keyboard, but some people swear by Swype. You also get Documents To Go (for editing office documents), Aldiko (for e-books), and Layar (for showing off). Other than that, this default Android build gets out of your way and leaves the user to make decisions about what they want the interface to look like.

All the great Google apps are built into the phone, including the voice commands and voice navigation feature. I have to say the voice commands didn’t really like my kiwi accent, but the navigation was very accurate when driving across Auckland. Initially I couldn’t find the settings for Android 2.2’s much publicised WiFi hotspot function, so I put in a call to the PR company to ask about it. They politely informed me that within the PR material (that I never read, but really should), was a note saying that hotspot functionality will be coming in a software update by the end of May 2011.

Upgrades?

It’s the question every Android user has to ask: will I get the new versions of Android? I can only say that I have no idea. I could imagine Huawei releasing 2.3 for this device, but then again at the price they may not want to pour much post-release support into it. Watch this space.

It’s not all roses

It wouldn’t be a review without finding flaws, but they really are rather minor.

Firstly, you need to know that Huawei don’t ship MicroSD cards with their phones. This is something widely discussed in the comments on my review of 2Degrees’ previous Android phone, so I thought I’d better point it out up front. If you have a lot of music or photos, add $50 to your budget to grab a 16GB MicroSD.

There’s one thing that I’d call a genuine (albeit minor) flaw in the X5:  the soft-buttons are meant to light up in low-light conditions, but I think the threshold needs some serious tweaking, or perhaps my test phone is broken. Most of the time the buttons are not lit up, and they are really quite hard to spot in dim indoor light. I can prove it’s a sensitivity issue by covering the light-sensor area at the top of the phone – the buttons dutifully light up nice and clear when all light is blocked to the phone. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a setting to make the buttons light up in less ambient light. It really is a minor issue, because the buttons work fine in all conditions, and you get used to their location after a few days (although you’ll have to memorise the specific locations when moving from another Android phone 😉 )

Conclusion

I’d seriously doubt if you can get a better non-imported phone in New Zealand for the price. If you want a fully supported phone from a local supplier, and you’re not an iFanboy or Windows Phone 7 weenie, you couldn’t really go wrong grabbing an X5.

Pros

  • The price!
  • Vanilla Android 2.2, no crapware
  • Build quality

Cons

  • Soft-buttons don’t always light up when required.
  • Probably no upgrades to 2.3 or above.

Windows Phone 7: An Alternate View

Fanboy, while poorly defined, is probably the most common among the many pejoratives flung my way by coprophagous  internet monkeys. Despite my teflon exterior, some of that shit sticks, yo. In pursuit of some balance, I’ve lent a Windows Phone 7 device to Dylan Reeve. You may have heard him as a guest on New Zealand’s best podcast, or via his A Social Video project. Dylan is a fellow tech geek, but doesn’t really hold a phone preference. Forced at gunpoint, he’d probably admit to batting for the Android team.

Once I get the phone back from Dylan, I’m going to find a less geeky subject to join us on the precarious see-saw of internet opinion, because God knows you’ll only be happy when I’m suspended in mid-air, unable to climb down for fear of injuring the poor delicate Android users on the other end.

Without further dalliance, let me hand over to Dylan, unedited and unabridged:

My smartphone experience is a little different to many others – I started with a Nokia 5800, then moved through two Android phones in reasonably quick succession. My main phone now is a Samsung Galaxy i5503, which is a entry-level Android 2.1 phone.

So with that in mind I’ve been an interested observer of Windows Phone 7, and was happy to spend a little while rocking the LG Optimus 7Q. What follows are my thoughts about the phone, itself, Windows Phone 7 and, unavoidably, my comparison of it to the Android and Symbian phones I’ve been used to.

My very first impression of this phone upon using it seriously was that it’s heavy, and pretty big compared to my current small phone. It’s also well engineered – despite having a sliding keyboard it feels solid and well built.

I’d have to characterise my overall Windows Phone 7 experience as frustrating. I like many aspect of the concept of the operating system, but in practice there were many things that annoyed me.

So first, we’ll start with what I do like (some of this will also be revisited in the “don’t like” section)

  • User Interface – The overall Windows Phone 7 UI is consistent and uses common gestures and concepts throughout, this even extends into many of the apps.
  • Design Concept – WP7 has a bold design. Square, two-colour, large strong sans-serif fonts. I like the way it looks.
  • Good Core Applications – The built-in apps such as email, browser, calendar, messaging are all well designed and easy to use. I felt no need to seek alternatives.
  • Dedicated Buttons – I hate Apple’s anti-button ethos, using the iPad annoys the hell out of me for having just one useful button! The WP7 back button is especially welcome. Camera and search buttons are also nice.
  • Camera – The camera was great, as well as nice 5MP stills it will also record pretty decent 720P video.
  • Keyboard – The LG Optimus 7Q has a slide-out keyboard. It’s a nice feature.

Now on to what I didn’t like so much

  • Speed – Despite having better hardware that all the phones I’ve owned previously this phone constantly felt slow. Coming out of lock especially, but also within apps.
  • No Multitasking – I thought MS was mental when I heard WP7 was not going to have multitasking. I was willing to believe application hooks and saved state might make it okay – it doesn’t.
  • Search Button – I like that is has the button, I don’t like the implementation on this phone. As a touch-button it’s easy to accidentally hit (especially while using the camera) and it dumps you out of what you were doing and into Bing.
  • Apps – It’s still early days of course, but there doesn’t seem to be a huge variety of apps in the Marketplace. I tried all the free fully-featured Twitter apps (only 4) and none really suited me.
  • Unintuitive – Despite the common swipe-to-next-page convention throughout the system it’s not always intuitive or obvious that what you’re looking for requires a swipe to the left.
  • Settings – One of my favourite things in Android is the ‘Menu’ button, it is used within apps to display a contextual menu, which will usually include access to settings. There’s no similar convention in WP7. It can be hard to find settings, or impossible from deeper in the app.
  • Status – There’s no persistent status bar. In many apps it seems to be impossible to see battery status, signal level and time. Sometimes it can be revealed with a downward swipe, but not always.
  • Design Concept – It’s good, but it quickly gets broken.
  • Keyboard – It’s good that it has a keyboard, but the physical design isn’t quite right. The Shift and Function keys especially are awkward and small.

That’s the summary. There are obviously heaps of little details, so I’ll go into a few things, mainly about the things I struggled with.

We’ll start with Multitasking, it was my biggest issue. I’ve been used to be able to effortlessly switch apps in my various smartphones, as well as leave applications running in the background (Twitter as an obvious example). While most apps seem to do a good job of saving state, there is significant startup times usually. For example to get from browser to the my Twitter timeline in Beez (the client I used most) would take no less than 8 seconds plus however long it would take to actually load the stream.

Which brings me on to speed – I don’t know why, but everything seemed slow. It takes a while to load apps, and then often a while to draw the user interface stuff, and then a while longer to populate it. I’m fairly sure hardware wasn’t an issue, but not sure what is going on in the OS that made it so slow.

The design concept of Windows Phone 7 really stands out in the shiny-curvy design of most other mobile platforms. It’s bold and simple. The primary pinned application icons are white line-art on a solid background, and the background accent colour can be changed. But that’s doesn’t last long – very few apps seem to conform to this idea, and as soon as you start pinning third-party apps to the homescreen you end up with a multi-colour patchwork. Even the core setup breaks this – Microsoft’s XBox Live and Office icons flout the style.

So? I like it in theory, and it’s a very capable platform overall, but for me it just wasn’t quite right – the balance of like vs. frustrate didn’t pan out. Perhaps new versions may improve some of these issues?

Telecom Motorola Backflip: A Pocketable Trainwreck

A funny thing happened today. The Motorola Backflip appeared, unannounced, at my door, with a note from Telecom. It said something about a four-week loan and added:
[quote]We’d love to know what you think of the Backflip, and would appreciate your feedback via your media channels, social media or otherwise.[/quote]
Sure. I’ll let you know what I think: this phone is a piece of trash. It’s a pocketable train wreck, as @Polarbearfarm suggested. Do I sound angry? I am.

It starts with the proud announcement from Telecom that the phone is “powered by Google’s Android 1.5 operating system”. Would that be the 18 month old 1.5 release that performs horribly, doesn’t support WPA-Enterprise WiFi and will only be upgraded at Motorola’s whim? Android 1.5 is a blight on the smartphone landscape and it is shameful that carriers are still foisting this bullshit on unsuspecting buyers.

Then you turn the phone on, and unbelievably it gets worse. Motorola demands that you register with their MotoBlur service. The phone is a worthless brick until you hand over an email address and password to Motorola. You can’t hit the home screen or make a phonecall. And why? So you can hand further information to Motorola by tying your Twitter, Facebook, and other social media accounts to MotoBlur. It doesn’t even use third-party OAuth to do so, it asks for your passwords in the clear, with no warning.

And the hardware: the keyboard is clunky, the performance anemic, and the stupid touchpad on the back of the screen is impossible to use and emits random click events as you use it.

I’m really, really sorry Telecom, but I just can’t in good conscience recommend this phone to anyone. I’m surprised it came to me outside of the regular PR channels. Maybe they were too ashamed? It’s the comedy smartphone option for stupid people. Save yourself $300 and get the IDEOS from 2Degrees.

2Degrees Huawei IDEOS U8150 Review

ideos The way I read it, 2Degrees’ main target market is the younger pre-pay user. They’re not (yet) looking for corporate accounts or sophisticated high-end smartphone users. In this sense, the IDEOS U8150 is a great fit as their first smartphone: capable, not going to stun the geeks, but priced well for the market.

At $379 outright, you can’t expect the U8150 to compete with the iPhone 4 or top-end android phones, but it performs admirably. I think this is largely down to the unmodified Android 2.2 version that Huawei have loaded on the phone. Even with a 528MHz CPU, the U8150 performs almost snappily. In fact in places it out-performs a full-price Android smartphone running 2.1 with layers of OEM cruft.

It still has that classic Android UI lag, with the screen running a few milliseconds behind your thumb. But the thing is, I’m ok with that for the price. When I pay near-on $1000 for a phone, I want it to feel like an iPhone or Windows Phone under my thumb. But for $379? I’ll accept feature-phone performance and smartphone features.

Features? We got Features!

Another huge plus of vanilla Android 2.2 “with Google” is you’re guaranteed to get all the things you’d expect from Android. Apps, maps, email, contact sync, navigation, active wallpaper. It’s all right there out of the box. Which is frankly amazing for the price. This phone even does some stuff that the iPhone 4 can’t do: it has WiFi tethering and FM Radio.

I like Huawei’s approach with this device. Step away from the forking customisations that HTC, Sony, Samsung, and others seem so enamored by, and just run the device the way Google planned. And Huawei are no slouches either: apparently their network gear is behind the networks that serve more than a billion humans.

So what are you compromising by not spending $500 more? Two key things: screen size and upgrades. The screen is tiny, and the on-screen keyboard is just adequate at the size. If you txt and email a lot, play with one first to make sure you’re comfortable.

The lack of upgrades will be a concern for the geek-set: Huawei have categorically stated that this phone won’t be getting Android 3.0. I don’t know if that also means no other 2.x versions, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve dropped the facility for upgrades altogether. Again: no real drama for the target market, because 2.2 doesn’t lack features (like 1.x) or performance (like 2.1).

One-upmanship

Vodafone tried to pull one over 2Degrees by dropping their 845 Android phone to $199. Thing is, the 845 is really at the level of a throwaway phone, or perhaps just barely valid as an emergency backup for smartphone users. A resistive touch screen and Android 2.1 on slow hardware is just a recipe for pain and anguish. Comparing the devices side-by-side, you can see a couple of other places the 845 falls short: no FM radio, no 802.11n (but it does have a headphone plug too).

Do yourself a favour and stretch to the IDEOS if you’re looking for a cheap Android phone.

Conclusion

I can’t believe how good the kids have it these days. When I was a young scallywag I had to pair a Nokia phone with an iPaq (that’s a Q there, not a D) over infrared.

Pros:

  • Did I mention the price?
  • Vanilla Android 2.2
  • Capacitive touch screen
  • Coloured backs for cool kids

Cons:

  • Screen size and resolution (ok for price though)
  • No upgrades to Android 3