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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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