Category Archives: mobile

Asus ZenWatch 3 prompts the question: is it time yet for smartwatches?

Today Asus launched the ZenWatch 3, an Android Wear smartwatch set for release towards the end of this year. Price was announced as €229.

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Powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100, ZenWatch 3 is a chunky affair, 9.95mm thick. “Mainly for the male market?” I enquired of an Asus PR person; “well, yes” was the response. 1.39-inch AMOLED display with 400 by 400 resolution and 287ppi pixel density, three buttons, one programmable for quick app launch, customisable watch face.

Forget all that though; the big issue with these gadgets is the battery life, which is “up to two days”. Whenever I have tried a wearable, the battery life problem is always why I abandon it. I realise you just have to get into the habit of charging it every night, but I am not used to this in a watch. A further problem with the ZenWatch is that you need the special charger with you at all times, since it has an unique charging connector:

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What about smartphones though, these took off despite their short battery life. The reason was that they added a lot of value. Email, maps, then Facebook and Twitter on the go. And if it ran out of power, at least you still had a watch.

The battery life question then is bound up with the question about how much value the smartwatch adds. There is fitness tracking, there is the convenience of glancing at your wrist rather than pulling out a smartphone to check an email or text message, there is turn by turn directions. Enough?

For me, not yet. At the same time, technology always gets smaller and more convenient. No doubt today’s smartphones will look bulky and inconvenient in 10 years time, and it may well be that the future personal communications device looks more like a smartwatch than a smartphone. You can’t beat the convenience of of something on your wrist, rather than something you carry in a bag or pocket.

That presumes, though, that either smartwatches get smart enough to replace rather than complement your phone, or that some other compelling feature turns up that will make them a must-have.

I’m typing this as the Samsung Gear 3 event is about to begin. Vendors are keen to make this work. Come on Samsung, wow me.

The battery life question then is really another question. Are smartwatches sufficiently compelling that

Sweetlabs Android App Services: what is it?

Margins on smartphones are thin, which is why we regularly hear commentary about how only Apple and Samsung are making any money from them. Vendors therefore look for other ways to monetize their business, though it is never easy, and there are plenty of examples of failed music stores and other premium services. Google can always make money, through Play Store revenue, ads served via Search, and monetizing the data it collects. But what of the smartphone vendors?

One obvious strategy is to pre-install applications, for which the app developer may pay. I say may because without inside knowledge its impossible to tell whether the Facebook app, for example, is pre-installed as a benefit to customers or because Facebook has paid something. Most users would probably install the Facebook app anyway; but fewer would install the Opera web browser, to take another example, so common sense says that if you find Opera pre-installed, it is more likely than Facebook to have paid for the privilege.

On Windows PCs, which also suffer from low margins, the pressure on manufacturers to make money from pre-installed applications has had a dire affect, significantly reducing the appeal of the product. At worst, you can pay good money for a PC, turn it on for the first time, and be greeted by a flurry of dialogs inviting you to install this or subscribe to that, along with warnings that your new purchase is “not protected”. Apple has never allowed this of course, which is one of the attractions of Macs. Another consequence was that Microsoft introduced its own brand of PC, Surface, and opened stores selling “signature” editions of PCs on which most of the foistware is absent.

The situation on Android should never be as bad. The operating system has a modern design, which means that applications are isolated and cannot cause as much damage as on Windows. If an application that you do not want is installed, it is easy to remove.

Even so, pre-installed apps on Android do introduce clutter and confusion, especially when combined with the constant requests for various types of permission which characterise the initial setup experience. I imagine that many users simply agree to everything, since the consequences of denying permission are rarely clear, and most want their new device to “just work.”

Sweetlabs is a company which specialises in monetizing app installs on Windows as well as Android. On Windows it is best known for the Pokki app store. Sweetlabs does not always present its brand overtly to users. Users are not its customers after all; its customers are app developers and smartphone vendors.

I reviewed a smartphone recently, and soon after switching on for the first time, I saw a notification inviting me to “Complete device setup” and to “Allow App Services to push messages to the n…” (I am still not sure what is the cut-off word):

If you tap this notification an app installer opens, presenting a small selection of apps categorised as either “Essentials” or “Entertainment”. You are meant to select the apps you want and then tap Finish to have those apps install, agreeing the terms and conditions as you do. Once you tap Finish, the notification disappears, though I noticed that the Sweetlabs service continues to run in the background:

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My understanding is that the service continues to run because at some future date more apps may become available. The Sweetlabs site talks about promoting apps through “multiple customer-facing touchpoints, including white-label apps and widgets that integrate into the out-of-box experience and persist through the lifetime of the device.” This can include a Featured Apps widget on the home screen that recommends apps “over the lifetime of the device.”

Is this a good or bad thing? The answer is nuanced. I dislike the way the notification implies that these optional app install are part of device setup; it is not, it is a marketing app. You can get all these apps through the official Play Store and App Services is consuming unnecessary system resources.

On the other hand, if you accept that pre-installing apps is inevitable given the low margins in this business, the Sweetlabs approach has advantages. Instead of simply dumping a bunch of unwanted apps on your device, you can choose which ones you want, if any. Therefore the company promotes itself as a better approach, even presenting itself as a fix for crapware. My review device had pre-installed apps on it as well, though, so it is more a case of putting up with both.

From the perspective of app developers, any service that helps get your app noticed in a beyond-crowded market is a significant benefit. Sweetlabs also offers an app analytics service focused on who is installing your app.

I wrote this post because I did not find much information about App Services when I searched for it after seeing the notification on my review device. If you are wondering whether you need it on your device, the answer is no; it does nothing essential, it is a vehicle for promoting apps, and you can safely disable or remove it. I recommend installing apps from the Play Store instead, where you can see user reviews and other information. It is not really evil though; it may have reduced the price of your smartphone as well as providing app developers another way to get their products noticed.

Honor 8 smartphone first look

I’m just back from Paris and the European launch of the Honor 8 smartphone.

Honor is wholly owned by Huawei though the relationship between the two businesses is a tad opaque. I’ve been told that Honor is run as a separate business focusing on a young internet-oriented market, though there is shared technology (it would be crazy not to). The Honor 8 represents a significant strategy shift in that it is a relatively high-end phone, whereas previous devices have been mid-range or lower.

One of the first things you notice about the Honor 8 though is its similarity to the Huawei P9, launched in Europe in April 2016, is obvious. That is no bad thing, since the P9 is excellent and the Honor 8 cheaper,  but the business strategy is a bit of a puzzle. Honor says its phone is targeting a different market, and it is true that the shiny glass body of the Honor 8, in a pleasing blue shade on my review unit, is jauntier than the grey metallic finish of the P9. The P9 is also a fraction slimmer. Yet the devices are far more alike than different, and I would happily pull out the Honor 8 at a business meeting. The Honor 8 also benefits from a few extra features, like the rear smart key.

The P9 has the benefit of Leica branding and shared technology for its camera. An Honor/Huawei PR person told me that this is a software-only distinction and that if you look at the hardware sensors the two phones are very similar. Should photographers therefore get the P9? Possibly, though for a casual snapper like myself I have not noticed a big advantage. See below for some comparative snaps.

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The Honor 8 (left) and the Huawei P9 (right).

To get a bit of context, the Honor 8 is being launched at €399 with 4GB RAM and 32 GB storage, or €449 with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage (inc VAT). That should equate to around £345 and £390 in the UK. The P9 was launched at £449 for 3GB RAM and 32GB storage, substantially more, though as ever real-world prices vary, and in practice a P9 today will likely cost only a little more than an Honor 8 if you shop around. The 8-core Kirin processor is the same, and the screen is the same resolution at 1920 x 1080. Both models also feature a dual-lens 12MP rear camera, 8MP front lens, and a rear fingerprint reader.

Out of the box

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The Honor 8 immediately impressed me as a nicely packaged device. You get headset, charger, USB C cable, SIM removal tool, quick start guide (not much use but does have a diagram showing exactly where to insert dual Nano-SIMs and microSD card) and a couple of stickers for good measure. I am not a fan of the headset which lacks any ear-bud gels so it not secure or comfortable for me, but tastes vary.

The glass body is attractive though shiny and easy to smear. Honor can supply a simple transparent case – more a tray than a case – which will offer a little protection, but most users will want something more.

Switch on and there is the usual Android palaver and confusion over permissions. Here I did notice something I dislike. I got a notification saying I should “complete device setup” and “Allow App Services to push messages”:

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Rather than tapping Allow, I tapped the notification and found an app installer and an invitation to “Choose the apps that come with your phone”. I tapped to see the EULA (End User License Agreement) and found it was a Sweetlabs app that “facilitates the recommendation, download and installation of third party apps.”

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This is horrible; it is deceptive in that it is presented as part of system setup and performs no useful function since you can easily install apps from the Google Play store; at least one of the apps offered by Sweetlabs (Twitter) was actually already installed. My opinion of which apps are “Essential” differs from that of Sweetlabs:

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I did not agree the Terms and Conditions. We have seen this kind of thing before, on Windows, and it is damaging to the user experience. History may repeat with Android.

Other than that, setup was straightforward.

Things to like

Fortunately, there is plenty to like. As on the P9, the fingerprint reader on the back is excellent; in fact, I like this feature so much that I sometimes absent mindedly tap the back of other phones and expect them to unlock for me. On the Honor 8 though, it is even better, since the fingerprint reader is also a “Smart key” which you can configure to open an app or take an action such as starting a voice recording or opening the camera. You can configure up to three shortcuts, for press, double press, press and hold.

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Another neat feature, also not on the P9, is the Smart Controller. This is a universal infra-red controller app and it seems rather good. I pointed it at a Samsung TV and after trying a few functions it declared a “best match” and seems to work fine.

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The camera

The camera is a key selling point for the Honor 8. One lens is RGB, the other monochrome, auto-focus is better with two lenses, and the ISP (Image Signal Processor) takes advantage by recording extra detail. There is also a great feature called Wide Aperture which lets you adjust the focus after the event.

When the camera app is open you can swipe from the left to select a mode. There are 16 modes:

Photo
Pro Photo
Beauty
Video
Pro Video
Beauty Video
Good Food
Panorama
HDR (High Dynamic Range)
Night Shot
Light Painting
Time-lapse
Slow-Mo
Watermark
Audio note
Document Scan

After just one day with the device I have not tried all the modes, but did take a look at Pro Photo which gives you control over the metering mode, ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, exposure compensation, focus mode (automatic or manual), and white balance.

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These same controls are on the P9 though with a slightly different UI and this causes me to wonder exactly what is the Leica contribution that is on the P9 but not the Honor 8. There are a few extra settings on the P9 if you swipe in from the right, including film mode, RAW mode and a Leica watermark option.

How is the camera in use? I took some snaps and was pleased with the results. I also tried taking a similar picture on the Honor 8 and the P9, and comparing the results:

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A Paris landmark (P9 left, Honor 8 right)

You can’t tell much from the full view, especially since I’ve resized the images for this post, so here is a detail from the above:

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Detail view (P9 left, Honor 8 right)

Much difference? Please do not draw conclusions from one snap but these support my impression that the Leica-enhanced P9 takes slightly sharper pictures than the Honor 8, but that a casual user would be happy with either.

Performance

The performance of the Honor 8 seems similar to that of the P9 which I reviewed here. The P9 features a Kirin 955 SoC versus the slightly older Kirin 950 in the Honor 8; the specs are similar. Both have 4 Cortex A72 cores, up to 2.5GHz in the Kirin 255 versus up to 2.3GHz in the Kirin 950. In each case, these are supplemented by 4 Cortex A53 cores at up to 1.8GHz and a quad-core Mali T880 MP4 GPU.

Geekbench 3, for example, reports 1703 single-core score and 6285 multi-core, one figure slightly worse, one slightly better than the P9. A run with PC mark came up with a Work Performance Score of 5799, below the P9 at 6387, with the difference mainly accounted for by a poor “Writing score”; other scores were slightly ahead of the P9, so something may be sub-optimal in the text handling and scrolling.

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Conclusion

I do like this phone; it looks good, feels responsive, and comes with some distinctive features, including the superb fingerprint reader, dual lens rear camera, smart key and smart controller. It does not seem to me to be a young person’s phone particularly, and I can see some people choosing it over a P9 not only for its lower price but also for a couple of extra features. Photographers may slightly prefer the P9, which also has a fractionally slimmer body and a more elegant, understated appearance. In the general phone market, the Honor 8 is competitively priced and well featured; I expect it to do well.

Wind up your iPhone–this is not a wind up!

I have long thought that the solution to the difficulties we have keeping mobile devices charged is to make more use of the energy created by our bodies as we move around.

Once long ago I had a mechanical watch whose automatic winding worked perfectly; I never had to think about it.

Today I received news of something which is not quite that, but which still sounds useful. An iPhone case equipped with a dynamo so you can turn a handle to recharge it.

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Claiming to be the “World’s first dynamo-powered iPhone case”, the AMPware Power Generating iPhone case offers up to 2 hours phone use from “10 minutes of winding”.

Let’s note that 10 minutes of winding feels like a long time when you are doing it. However, if you are stranded without power it could be most useful.

Currently the case is for iPhone 6 and 6S only. Cost is £69.99 from The Fowndry

Huawei P9 smartphone launched in London: first look review

I attended the launch of Huawei’s P9 and P9+ smartphone range in London. This was a global launch from a Chinese company which, like Xiaomi with its impressive presentation at Mobile World Congress, is intent on competing at the high end of the market.

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Huawei also has an important edge over Xiaomi in that its P9 range will be available shortly; from Huawei’s vMall online store in mid-April, or from various UK operators in “early May”.

The review sample came in a smart box with charger, USB type C cable, and white earbuds/headset:

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Insert micro-SIM, switch on, and the start-up experience I would describe as “reasonable for Android”, with a flurry of pop-ups asking for various permissions and agreements to terms and privacy policies; pretty ugly and hard to make sense of, but for this review I tapped OK to agree to most things in order to get what I guess is the normal experience.

I was also prompted to set up the fingerprint reader. This requires several readings of your finger and works well for me. Just touching my right finger on the back will unlock the phone. The phone storage is encrypted by default.

Design-wise, Huawei tried to persuade of the merits of “aerospace-class aluminium”, “diamond-cut edges”, “brushed hairlines” and the like; but while it is decent enough it does not strike me as exceptionally beautiful or nice to hold; of course tastes vary. It is thin and the edges are narrow to maximise the screen space. I am impressed that the designers squeezed a 3000 mAh battery into such a slim, light device.

The camera

Every smartphone needs some differentiation. Huawei has focused (ha!) on the camera. The P9 has a dual lens and the camera is designed in partnership with Leica, a well known and respected brand among professional photographers.

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The back of the P9 showing the dual-lens camera and fingerprint reader.

Both lenses are described as “Leica Summarit”, one 12MP camera is colour and the other monochrome. Dual lenses can help with focus, and in addition Huawei say that the monochrome lens adds detail to an image. You can also take monochrome pictures of course, and this was used to good effect in some of the samples by professional photographers we were shown. Of course you can easily convert any colour image from any camera to monochrome; perhaps the results from a specialist camera are superior.

Huawei also states that dual cameras mean more light and detail in low-light conditions, which absolutely makes sense.

A hybrid focus feature uses “laser, depth calculation, and contrast” and automatically selects the best result, says Huawei.

I have not been trying the P9 for long, but did take roughly the same picture with the P9 and with the Lumia 1020 (the latter famous for its 40MP camera). All settings were default. The P9 is top, the Lumia below, slightly cropped and then reduced in resolution (click for a double-size image):

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The P9 is more vivid and probably most people would prefer it. Here is a zoomed in detail, with the P9 at full resolution and the Lumia reduced to match:

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Of course I am not a professional photographer, nor was I using a tripod; but this is how I use a camera on a phone. My feeling is that the Lumia still comes out well for close detail and I am sorry that Microsoft has not come out with a true successor to the 1020, which will be three years old in July. The sad story of Windows Phone at Microsoft is not the subject of this post however.

There is much more to the P9 camera though. Here is a look at the settings:

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When the camera is open,  there are buttons across the top to control flash, wide aperture (for close-up shots), filter effects, and switching between rear and front (8MP) cameras.

The wide aperture option enables a remarkable feature: the ability to re-focus after taking the shot. Simply take the picture with the wide aperture option. It will be then show up in the Gallery with an aperture icon overlay. Tap the image to open it, then tap the aperture icon below the image.

Now you are in “wide aperture effects” mode. Tap any part of the image to focus on that spot, and enable a slider to vary the aperture after the event.

It really works:

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Now tap the out of focus tulip…

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This is magic and a lot of fun.

You can swipe up for Pro controls:

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In order to get full use of these options (and indeed the rest of the phone) you probably want to download the manual. The Pro controls are (left to right): metering mode (how exposure is set), ISO, Shutter speed, exposure compensation (brightness), focus mode and white balance.

Swipe left for a selection of special camera modes:

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There is also some fancy stuff like voice activated shooting (say “cheese” to take a photo). You can do burst shooting to take a rapid sequence of shots, with the best couple auto-selected. You can take rapid shots (capture the moment) by pressing volume down twice; the screen does not light up immediately but the shot is taken. I got a time from press to photo of about one second using this mode.

Video resolution is a maximum of 1080p, 60 fps, with stereo sound recording.

All things considered, this is an excellent camera, which is why Huawei handed out a book of professional photos taken with the device, which look superb.

Performance

The P9 feels fast and responsive. Huawei mentioned a file system optimization which increases performance but I have not got details of this.

I got a PC Mark score of 6387.

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This is ahead of the Samsung Galaxy S7, which scores 5926. Another mobile which is to hand, a budget Cubot with a quad code 1.3 GHz Mediatek, scores 3223.

On Geekbench 3 I got a score of 1725 single-core and 6087 multi-core. This compares to 2170 and 6360 for the Galaxy S7, so it falls behind slightly.

A bit more detail:

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The biggest difference versus the S7 is in the graphics. The P9’s Mali T880 is not quite the equal of the S7’s Exynos 8890 (on UK models).

Audio

A few notes on the audio side. There are a couple of annoyances, one being that the default music app is not much use to me (I use Spotify or Google Play on Android). The supplied headset is disappointing, with no rubber gel so the fit is rather insecure, and a rather bright sound with little bass. No matter, you can use your own headset; and plugging in a high-quality headset left me with no complaints.

The other good news is that the on-board speakers are remarkable. I can put the phone down, play some music, and really enjoy it. Bass is unusually good considering the lack of a proper speaker enclosure, and clarity is excellent.

Pricing

Let’s get some pricing context. The P9 is a flagship device, though from a company not perceived as a premium brand, and is priced accordingly. At £449 for the cheaper, smaller model it is about 20% less than a Samsung Galaxy S7, and about 27.5% less than an Apple iPhone 6S. It is good value considering the hardware, but not a casual purchase. Here is a table

  RAM Storage Size Screen CPU Battery Special features Price
Huawei P9 3GB 32GB 5.2″ 1920 x 1080 8-Core
2.5 GHz
3000 mAh Dual lens camera
Fingerprint
Reader
£449
Huawei P9+ 4GB 64GB 5.5″ 1920 x 1080 8-Core
2.5 GHz
3400 mAh Dual lens camera
Fingerprint
Reader
£549
Samsung
Galaxy S7
4GB 32GB 5.1″ 1440 x 2560 8-Core
2.3 GHz
3000 mAh IP68 Water resistance
Wireless charging
Gear VR
KNOX security
Fingerprint Reader
£569
Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge 4GB 32GB 5.5″ 1440 x 2560 8-Core
2.3 GHz
3600 mAh IP68 Water resistance
Wireless charging
Gear VR
KNOX security
Fingerprint Reader
£639
Apple iPhone 6S 2GB From 16GB 4.7″ 1334×750 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
1715 mAh Fingerprint sensor from
£539
Apple iPhone 6s Plus 2GB From 16GB 5.5″ 1920×1080 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
2750 mAh Fingerprint sensor from
£619
Apple iPhone SE 2GB From 16GB 4″ 1136×640 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
1624 mAh Fingerprint sensor from £359

The table above comes with a number of caveats. It doesn’t cover all the important specifications, it doesn’t tell you about the quality of materials or design, and some details, like the amount of storage, vary depending on the exact offer. The prices are for unlocked phones, whereas most people buy on contract. Apple’s prices tend to be higher than shown, because who wants just 16GB non-expandable storage? With 64GB the 6Se goes up to £439 and the 6S to £619.

First look conclusion

A couple of days with this phone leaves me convinced that Huawei has come up with a true high-end device at a very reasonable price. The camera is outstanding in terms of features though having been spoilt with the Lumia 1020 I would like a bit more than 12MP; I realise though that counting pixels is no way to judge a camera.

On the software side I note that the out of box experience on Android is not great, thanks to incessant permission pop-ups and confusing alternatives for things like music and email. Samsung’s apps are a bit better I think; but if you mostly live in Google apps or other favourite third-party apps, you will not care too much. Everything I have tried so far has worked.

The usefulness of the fingerprint reader is a pleasant surprise, as is the sound quality from the built-in speakers.

For sure the P9 is well worth considering if you are looking for an Android mobile with great performance and an interesting camera. It is excellent value for price/performance.

I think Samsung should worry a bit, not just about Huawei, but about other Chinese vendors with aggressive marketing plans, such as Xiaomi. Apple? On the train back I spoke to a passenger using an iPhone and asked whether she would switch to a mobile that was both better (in hardware terms) and cheaper. No, she said, because everything syncs between my phone, iPad and computer. Of course she could switch to Android and get similar synching with apps from other vendors; but I got the impression she is happy to stay in Apple’s world where stuff (more or less) just works. In this respect, it doesn’t help that each Android vendor wants to make their mark with distinctive apps; for many users that is just additional complication (I have declined to set up a Huawei ID, despite being prompted).

An impressive device though, and a clear statement of intent from Huawei.

Quick thoughts on Surface 3 from a long-term Surface user

I’ve been using a Surface as my usual travel PC for a while now – mostly Surface Pro (the first iteration) but also Surface RT and Surface 2. Microsoft has announced Surface 3 – is that a good buy?

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Note: this is not a review of Surface 3. I intend to review it but have yet to get my hands on one.

First, a quick note on how I have got on with Surface to date. I love the compact size of the devices and the fact that I can do all my work on them. I find full-size laptops unbearably bulky now – though slim ultrabooks or small netbooks still have some appeal.

The main annoyances with my Surface Pro are the small SSD size (I have the 128GB model) and a few technical difficulties, mainly that the keyboard cover (currently the Power Cover) plays up from time to time. Sometimes it stops responding, or I get oddities like the mouse pointer going wild or keys that auto-repeat for no reason. Detaching and re-attaching the keyboard usually fixes it. Given that this is Microsoft hardware, drives and OS, I regard these bugs as disappointing.

Surface power handling is not very good. The Surface is meant to be running all the time but sleeps so that touching power turns it on or off almost instantly. That’s the idea, but sometimes it fails to sleep and I discover that it has been heating up my bag and that the battery is nearly flat. To overcome this, and to save battery, I often shut it right down or use hibernate. Hibernate is a good option – fairly quick resume, no battery usage – except that about every third resume it crashes. So I tend to do a full shutdown.

I find the power button just a little unpredictable. In other words, sometimes I press it and nothing happens. I have to try several times, or press and hold. It could be the contact or it could be something else – I don’t think it is the contact since often it works fine.

The power cover has stopped charging, after 10 months of use. It is under warranty so I plan to get it replaced, but again, disappointing considering the high cost ($199).

A few grumbles then, but I still like the device for is portability and capability. Surface Pro 2 seemed to be better that the first in every way. Surface Pro 3 I had for a week on loan; I liked it, and could see that the pen works really well although in general pens are not for me; but for me the size is a bit too big and it felt more like an ultrabook than a tablet.

What about Surface 3 then? The trade-off here is that you get better value thanks to a smaller size (good) and lower performance (bad), with an Atom processor – Intel’s low power range aimed at mobile computing – instead of the more powerful Core range. Here are some key stats, Surface 3 vs Surface Pro 3:

  Surface 3 Surface Pro 3
Display 10.8″ 12″
Weight (without cover) 622g 800g
Storage 64GB or 128GB 64GB-512GB
Processor Intel Atom x7 Intel Core i3, i5 or i7
RAM 2GB or 4GB 4GB or 8GB
Pen Available separately Included
Cameras 8MP rear, 3.5MP front 5.0MP rear, 5.0MP front

What about battery life? Microsoft quotes Surface Pro 3 as “up to 9 hours of web browsing” and Surface 3 as “up to 10 hours of video playback”. That is a double win for Surface 3, since video playback is more demanding. Anandtech measured Surface Pro 3 as 7.6 hrs light use and 3.45 hrs heavy use; the Surface 3 will fare better.

How much do you save? A snag with the Surface is that you have to buy a keyboard cover to get the best out of it, and annoyingly the cover for the Surface 3 is different from those for Surface, Surface 2 and Surface Pro, so you can’t reuse your old one.

A quick look then at what I would be paying for the Surface 3 vs Surface Pro 3 in a configuration that makes sense for me. With Surface 3, I would max out the RAM and storage, because both are rather minimal, so the cost looks like this:

Surface 3 with 4GB RAM and 128GB storage: $599
Keyboard cover: $129
Total: $728.99

Surface Pro 3 with 8GB RAM, 265GB storage, Intel Core i5, pen: $1299
Keyboard cover: $129.00
Total: $1428.99

In other words, Surface 3 is around half the price.

Will I buy a Surface 3? It does look tempting. It is a bit less powerful than my current Surface Pro and perhaps not too good with Visual Studio, but fine for Office and most general-purpose applications. Battery life looks good, but the 128GB storage limitation is annoying; you can mitigate this with an SD card, say another 128GB for around $100, but I would rather have a 256GB SSD to start with.

However, there is strong competition. An iPad Air, I have discovered, makes an excellent travel companion, especially now that Office is available, provided you have a good keyboard case such as one from Logitech; you could get an iPad Air 2 with 64GB storage and a keyboard for slightly less than a Surface 3.

The iPad comparison deserves some reflection. The iPad does have annoyances, things like lack of direct access to the file system and non-expandable storage (no USB). However I have never encountered foibles like power management not working, and as a tablet it is a better design (not just because there are abundant apps).

It is also worth noting that there is more choice in Windows tablets and convertibles than there was when Surface was first released. Some are poorly designed, but ranges like those from Asus and Lenovo are worth checking out. In a sense this is “job done” since one of the reasons for Microsoft doing Surface was to kick-start some innovation in Windows hardware.

I hope to get some hands-on with Surface 3 in the next few weeks and will of course report back.

Why Microsoft is hard to love

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stated last week that “We want to move from people needing Windows to choosing Windows to loving Windows. That is our bold goal with Windows.”

It is an understandable goal. Many users have discovered a better experience using a Mac than with Windows, for example, and they are reluctant to go back. I will not go into all the reasons; personally I find little difference in usability between Mac and Windows, but I do not question the evidence. There are numerous factors, including the damage done by OEMs bundling unwanted software with Windows, countless attacks from malware and adware, badly written applications, low quality hardware sold on price, and yes, problems with Windows itself that cause frustration.

There is more though. What about the interaction customers have with the company, which makes a difference to the emotional response to which Nadella refers? Again, Apple has an advantage here, since high margins enable exceptional customer service, but any company is capable of treating its customers with respect and consideration; it is just that not all of them do.

Now I will point Nadella to this huge thread on Microsoft’s own community forums.  The discussion dates from September 10 2014 and the contributors are customers who own Windows Phone devices such as the Lumia 1020. They discovered that after updating their devices to Windows 8.1 they experienced intermittent freezes, where the phone stops responding and has to be cold booted by pressing an emergency button combination (volume down plus power). These, note, are critical customers for Microsoft since they are in the minority that have chosen Windows Phone and potentially form a group that can evangelise this so far moribund platform to others.

The thread starts with a huge effort by one user (“ArkEngel”) to document the problem and possible fixes. Users understand that these problems can be complex and that a fix may take some time. It seems clear that while not all devices are affected, there are a substantial number which worked fine with Windows Phone 8, but are now unreliable with Windows Phone 8.1. A system freeze is particularly problematic in a phone, since you may not realise it has happened, and until you do, no calls are received, no alerts or reminders fire, and so on, so these customers are anxious to find a solution.

Following the initial complaint, more users report similar issues. Nobody from Microsoft comments. When customers go through normal support channels, they often find that the phone is reset to factory defaults, but this does not fix the problem, leading to multiple returns.

Still no official comment. Then there is an intervention … by Microsoft’s Brian Harry on the developer side. He is nothing to do with the phone team, but on 27 October receives this comment on his official blog:

Brian, sorry to hijack you blog again, but you are the only person in MS who seems to care about customers. Can you please advise whoever in MS is responsible for WP8.1 and make them aware of the “freeze” bug that MANY users are reporting (31 pages on the forum below). There has been NO feedback from MS whatsoever in the months that this has been ongoing and it is obviously affecting many users (myself included). If “cloud first, mobile first” is to be a success, you better make the bl00dy OS work properly. Thanks

Harry promises to raise the issue internally. On 12 Nov still nothing, but a reminder is posted on Harry’s blog and he says:

Nag mail sent.  Sorry for no update.

This (I assume) prompts a post from Microsoft’s Kevin Lee – his only forum post ever according to his profile:

I’m sorry we’ve been dark – I work closely with the Lumia engineering team that’s working directly on this. Trying to shed a little light on this…

Beginning in early September we started to receive an increased number of customer feedback regarding Microsoft Lumia 1020 and 925 device freezes. During the last two months we have been reaching out for more and more data and devices to systematically reproduce and narrow down the root cause. It turned out to be a power regulator logic failure where in combination with multiple reasons the device fails to power up the CPU and peripherals after idling into a deep sleep state.

I am pleased to pass on that we have a fix candidate under validation which we expect to push out the soon with the next SW update!

Appreciate your patience.

OK, so Microsoft knows about the problem, has sat back saying nothing while users try this thing and that, but now after two months says it has a “fix candidate”. This is greeted warmly as good news, but guess what? Phones keep freezing, no fix appears, and in addition, there is lack of clarity about how exactly the fix is being “pushed out”.

Two months later, user Shubhan NeO says:

And I broke my Lumia 1020. Not going back to Windows Phone ever ! Switching back to Android ! Here is sneak peek of my phone !

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It is not quite clear whether he broke the phone deliberately in a fit of frustration, but perhaps he did as he comments further:

Works ? Seriously ? It hangs 2-3 a day, has stupid support for official apps. So many issue.

I’m done.

Here is another:

I paid the extra £ for a better phone; with a better ’41-megapixel camera’… now to find out that people with cheaper models have not had any freeze problems. Despite peoples comments about this being an aged device, and probably the reason for lack of support, I must add that I only purchased my 1020 ‘NEW’ in July 2014 (which is only 6 months ago). For 3 of those months it has been very unreliable … I am extremely disappointed in how I and everyone else here has been treated by Microsoft.

Read the thread for more stories of frustration and decisions never to buy another Windows Phone.

What are the real problems here? The hardest thing to accept is not the fact of the fault occurring, or even the time taken to fix it, but the apparent lack of concern by the company for the plight of its customers. If Mr Lee, or others from the team, had posted regularly about what the problem is, how they are addressing it, possible workarounds and likely time scales, it would easier for users to understand.

As it is, it seems that this part of the company does not care; a particular shame, as Nokia had a good reputation for customer service.

I post this then as feedback to Nadella and suggest that a cultural shift in some areas of Microsoft is necessary in order to make possible the kind of emotional transition he seeks.

Microsoft’s Lumia 400, the cheapest Windows Phones yet, but what is the brand becoming?

Microsoft has announced the Lumia 435, the first 400-series Lumia and the cheapest Windows Phone yet. The Lumia 532, also just announced, is an upgrade to the Lumia 530 and also pitched at a low-end market.

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Lumia 432

The 435 has a dual-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon processor, 1GB RAM and 8GB storage, front-facing camera, back-facing 2MP camera, micro SD slot. 4″ 800 x 480 pixel screen. GPS, wi-fi and Bluetooth. Replaceable battery. Dual-SIM is available.

The 532 has a quad-core 1.2 GHz Snapdragon processor, 1GB RAM and 8GB storage, 5.0MP main camera, front-facing camera, micro SD slot. 4″ 800 x 480 pixel screen. GPS, wi-fi and Bluetooth. Replaceable battery. Dual-SIM is available.

The phones are expected to go on the market in February at a price of around €69 (£53.50) for the Lumia 435 and €79 (61.50) for the Lumia 532.

I like the Windows Phone OS, and these devices look like great value. That said, the last aspirational Windows Phone was the Lumia 1020 in Summer 2013, with its fantastic camera. You would be forgiven for concluding that Microsoft has given up on high-end Windows Phone devices, which is unfortunate for developers since those are the devices likely to deliver more app sales.

If the Lumia brand has become strongly associated with cheap phones it will be hard for the company to convince customers that a high-end device is worth their attention in future.

We may get some phone news soon, linked to the launch of Windows 10; we may hear more at the event on January 21 in New York.

More details here.

A nearly perfect boombox: take your audio on the road with TDK’s Trek Max

I first heard the Trek Max at a busy press exhibition; audio rarely sounds good in big noisy rooms but I was struck by the fact that this TDK device was not dreadful but made a valiant attempt to deliver the music: there was at least a little bass, there was volume, there was clarity, and this from a small box, 24 x 5 x 10cm to be precise.

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I asked for one on loan to review and it has not disappointed. There is not much in the box, just the Bluetooth speaker, a power supply/charger, and some mostly useless bits of paper.

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The hardest task was getting that sticker off the front without leaving a gooey mark. Having done that to the best of my ability, I charged the unit, and paired with a phone. My attempt to use NFC (one-touch Bluetooth connect) failed with a Windows Phone, but worked with an Android tablet. It is no big deal; pairing is straightforward with or without NFC.

Then I played some music. I put on Santana Abraxas; this thing boogies, and does a great job with the complex percussion and propulsive guitar. I played Adele’s 21; it sounds like Adele singing, not the squawky sound you might expect from a device this size, and the drums on Don’t You Remember have a satisfying thud. I played Beethoven’s Third Symphony; the drama and power of the opening movement came over convincingly, albeit in miniature form.

I am not going to pretend that this is the best Bluetooth speaker I have heard; it has tough competition at much higher prices. I do not judge a thing like this versus a home audio setup or a larger Bluetooth speaker that is only semi-portable. This is something to take with you, and even sports a “weatherized” case; the manual makes clear that it is “splash-resistant” rather than anything more serious, and then only if you make sure to close the rubber flap over the panel on the right-hand side, but still a handy feature.

Any clever tricks? Just a couple. One is that you can use the Trek Max as a battery charger for your mobile phone (or any device compatible with USB power). Here is that side panel in detail:

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From right to left, there is the USB power output (it has no other function), an AUX in for a wired audio connection, power in, and a master power switch which turns the entire unit off (including the USB power output).

The other party trick is the ability to work as a speakerphone. You are grooving along to music from your mobile, and an incoming call comes in. The music stops and a call button on the top illuminates. Press to answer, take the call hands-free, and press twice to end it. Neat.

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Note that the Trek Max is surprisingly heavy for its size, around 1.25Kg. It does not surprise me; there is a lot packed in, including a decent battery.

The speaker configuration is right, left, central woofer for the (mono-ed) lower frequencies, and passive bass radiators at the back, boosting the bass.

It is worth noting that the Trek Max goes surprisingly loud – louder than I have heard before from a device of this size. That is important if you are outside or in a noisy room – but please do not annoy others too much!

The Trek Max  A34 replaces the Trek A33. What is the difference? Primarily, NFC Bluetooth pairing, pause, resume, forward and back buttons (they work fine), and better sync with iOS devices: on these, the volume control on the Apple device directly controls the volume on the Trek, whereas on other devices the volume controls are independent.

Conclusion: a great little device, and make sure you hear it before dismissing it as too pricey for something of this size.

Specifications

Weight: 1.25 Kg
Size: 24.1 x 9.8 x 5cm
Power output: 15w total
Bluetooth: 2.1 + EDR, A2DP, HFP, HSP, AVRCP
Battery life: 8 hours

Microsoft Band: do you want to track your health? and with a Microsoft device?

Data on human health has immense value. At an individual level, use of that data has the potential to enhance well-being and productivity, to extend life, and in some cases to avert disaster – such as prompting early investigation into a heart condition. In aggregate, more data on human health enables deeper medical research, especially when combined with other data about lifestyle, profession, location, diet and so on. Medicine is big business, so this is a business opportunity as well as (one hopes) a benefit to humanity.

There is also a dark side to this data. The more data an insurance company has on our health, the more likely they are to exclude the conditions we are most likely to suffer (defeating the purpose of insurance) or to ratchet up premiums for worse risks. Do we trust the industry, whether that is the IT industry or the insurance industry, to safeguard our personal data from being used against us?

The value of this data goes some way to explaining the IT industry’s obsession with fitness gadgets, an obsession that seems to go beyond the demand. I tried a Fitbit for several months, a wristband version. It is a great device, and I found the data interesting, but not enough to motivate me to keep the thing charged up and on my wrist, after the novelty wore off.

The reality is that most of us strike a balance between keeping vaguely fit while not allowing health concerns to dominate our lives. Coffee may be bad for you, but it is also a lovely drink; there is no point in extending life if you cannot also enjoy it.

How much health data, then, is too much?

These questions are likely to come to the fore as increasing numbers of health-monitoring devices come our way, especially multi-purpose devices that do health monitoring as one of several useful functions.

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Enter Microsoft Band, which the company successfully kept under wraps until a couple of days ago. It’s $199, works with Windows Phone, Android and iOS, and packs in a lot of features, though its 48 hours battery life is too short for my liking (I am hard to please; my plain old watch has a 10-year battery life).

Band hooks into the Microsoft Health platform. There are apps for all three supported phones, and data goes into a cloud service which delivers “intelligent insights” for you. “The more you share with Microsoft Health, the more accurate and helpful your insights will become,” says the blurb. There seems to be a link with Health Vault, a service which provides for sharing of health information with health professionals; of course the company says privacy and security are highly protected.

If I buy one (only available in the US currently) it will be more for its non-health features. Microsoft Band (by linking to your mobile over low-energy Bluetooth) will do calendar alerts, email previews, plain old watch mode (so it is actually a smartwatch), facebook posts, Twitter messages, weather, and (on Windows Phone only), Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant.

There is a built-in microphone and you can speak to Cortana on the go. I’ve been trying Cortana since it was was announced at Microsoft’s Build conference earlier this year, and she/it is pretty good. Cortana is not just voice activated search; it is also an example of voice UI, so you can make appointments, take notes, or ask for directions. Its voice recognition and question parsing is impressive, in my experience, though of course not perfect.

As ever I have a developer’s eye on this and I think it is interesting. Voice recognition, touch screen, and semi-permanent link with a smartphone is a powerful combination, if Microsoft opens this up to developers; and I will find it surprising if it does not.

In fact, there are already third-party apps, if you count the Starbucks partnership. You can pair a Starbucks card with Microsoft Band, and pay for coffee with it. The method is rather low-tech: the Band will display a barcode which the Starbucks scanner can read, but still, it beats searching for your card or even pulling out your mobile.

And there is of course the health tracking aspect. There are a ton of sensors here:

  • GPS
  • UV monitor (detect when sunscreen is required)
  • Optical heart rate sensor
  • Gyrometer
  • 3-axis accelerometer
  • “Galvanic skin response”: probably measures electrical conductivity of the skin to assess moisture level
  • Skin temperature
  • Microphone and touch screen

Haptic vibration is used for alerts.

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Can Microsoft make a success of the Band and steal a march from Apple, whose Watch (which also does fitness tracking) is coming early next year? Apple’s device will be more beautiful, more expensive, and has more functions; but it will not work so well with Android or Windows Phone.

The big downer with Microsoft Band is that it is US only for the moment. Health Vault is already in the UK so we may see a UK release; the possibilities for global rollout are uncertain.