Category Archives: smartphones

Smartphone Camera fun: Nokia Lumia 1020 vs Sony Xperia Z2

Sony has announced the latest Xperia, the X2, here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

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The Z2 boasts “a pro-grade camera far beyond smartphone class performance”, and captures images at 20.7MP, as inscribed on the rear:

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Sony calls its imaging sensor technology Exmor, and the Xperia Z2 uses Exmor RS for mobile.

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The camera software on the Z2 has an extensive range of options, some of which are shown below.

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How does it compare though with Nokia’s PureView technology, and in particular the Lumia 1020 with its 41MP camera?

First, I tried taking a similar point and shoot picture of the delightful view from the Sony stand.

Here is the Sony. It is a detail from the full image, so you can view it at full resolution:

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and here is the Lumia:

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Note that I am not using a tripod so the quality is influenced by how good the image stabilisation software is, as well as the inherent quality of the optics.

Sony has a special demo to show off the low-light performance of the Z2.

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See that small hole? You align the phone so that the camera can see through the hole, and take a picture. It looks like it will turn out blank, but actually picks up an image from the low light:

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This is not full resolution, but you get the idea.

My first effort with the Lumia was a disaster:

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I was sure it could do better, so I whacked up the ISO sensitivity and set the shutter to 4s:

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Still, in terms of automatic settings detection, the Sony proved more effective.

Which camera is better? On this quick and dirty test I felt that both phones performed well, but I am not ready to give up the Lumia 1020 yet. Then again, you do have to live with the slight protrusion of the Lumia 1020 lens from the body, whereas the Z2 is perfectly smooth.

Disclaimer: I am not a photographer and my interest is in taking quick pictures of decent quality conveniently rather than getting the best that can be achieved. I look forward to more detailed comparisons of the Z2 vs Lumia 1020 from photography enthusiasts in due course.

Alcatel OneTouch shows Pop Fit wearable smartphone at Mobile World Congress

Alcatel OnTouch has announced the Pop Fit here in Barcelona, on the eve of Mobile World Congress.

The Pop Fit is a tiny 2.8” 240×320 pixel phone running Android 4.2, but well equipped for wireless with wifi, Bluetooth and GPS. It is designed as a media and fitness phone that you can strap on your arm when out and about.

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Here it is in action.

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You can get your music from internal storage (there is a micro SD slot), or from apps like Spotify and Sound Cloud.

Also included is the Runkeeper app for keeping track of your running and fitness efforts.

A smart flip cover, included in the box, protects the phone and lets you control media playback through the cover. There is also a choice of coloured snap-on back covers in the box.

The Pop Fit will retail for around €89 and be on sale from May 2014.

Alcatel OneTouch is a mobile phone brand owned by Chinese giant TCL Corporation, whose origins are in a tie-up between French company Alcatel and TCL back in 2004. However Alcatel sold its stake in 2005 leaving only the brand name.

Review: Om Audio INEARPEACE ear buds. Superb sound

Ear buds are massively popular, but most do not sound that good. Tinny bass and splashy treble is nothing unusual. They can sound good though. At CES I heard a couple of true high-end in-ear headsets, Shure’s SE 846 ($999) and Audiofly’s AF180 ($549); I especially liked the AF180 and wrote about it here.

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But how about Om’s INEARPEACE at a mere $149? No, they are not the equal of the AF180s, but at one third the price they are delightful, musical, smooth, clear and with actual bass.

Om Audio is a company with some personality – “listening to music should be a sacred experience,” says the website, and that is reflected in the packaging, with the ear buds embedded in the side of a foam inner container.

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You get a set of ear buds with an inline controller and microphone for a smartphone, a smart zipped bag, and a packet of ear tips in various sizes.

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The ear buds themselves have a distinctive design, with a cylindrical body. The cable is flat and supposedly hard to tangle.

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Within each ear bud are two drivers, a balanced armature driver for treble and mid-range, and a 10mm coiled driver for bass.

The INEARPEACE ear buds are aimed at those in search of better audio quality than the average in-ear headset, and they deliver. Listen to these and you will not want to go back to the set that came free with your phone. There is adequate treble, but no sign of the shrillness that characterises so many ear buds. The bass is not overpowering, but it is clean and reasonably extended, making music more balanced, rhythmic and enjoyable.

I am not going to get too carried away; these are not the last word in sound quality. There are others to consider in the price range $75 – $150. These are more than decent though, and their musical sound and elegant construction wins them a recommendation.

Results for Nokia’s last quarter with Windows Phone: slightly worse than flat? Over to you Microsoft

Nokia has released its fourth quarter results for 2013. They make odd reading because of the division into “Continuing operations” and “Discontinued operations”, the latter including the mobile phone business which has been acquired by Microsoft. This tends to cloud the key point of interest for some of us, which is how Windows Phone is faring in the market.

The answer seems to be that sales slightly declined, though it is not clear. Here is what we know.

Mobile phone revenue overall declined by 29% year on year and by 5% quarter on quarter, for the quarter ending December 2013.

Nokia states in its report:

The year-on-year decline in discontinued operations net sales in the fourth quarter 2013 was primarily due to lower Mobile Phones net sales and, to a lesser extent, lower Smart Devices net sales. Our Mobile Phones net sales were affected by competitive industry dynamics, including intense smartphone competition at increasingly lower price points and intense competition at the low end of our product portfolio. Our Smart Devices net sales were affected by competitive industry dynamics including the strong momentum of competing smartphone platforms, as well as our portfolio transition from Symbian products to Lumia products.

Disappointing; though in mitigation Lumia (ie Windows Phone) sales volume in 2013 overall is said to be double that in 2012.

We do know that much of Lumia’s success is thanks to the introduction of low-end devices such as the Lumia 520. That has been good for building market share, but not so good for app sales or mind share – on the assumption that that purchasers of high-end devices are more likely to spend on apps, and that aspirational devices have a greater influence on mind share than cheap ones.

That does mean though that units might have gone up even though revenue has fallen.

Still, the results do put a dampener on the theory that Windows Phone is taking off at last.

This is a moment of transition following the Microsoft acquisition. Microsoft has not got a good track record with acquisitions, and the Danger/Kin disaster is hard to forget, but Nokia comes with an influential executive (Stephen Elop) and common sense would suggest that the team which created excellent devices like the Lumia 1020, and which was able to engineer strong budget offerings like the 520, should be kept together as far as possible. Or will it be dragged into the mire of Microsoft’s notorious internal politics? Over to you Microsoft.

Update: it is now reported that Lumia sold 8.2m devices in Q4, down from 8.8m in Q3 but up from 4.4m in the same quarter 2012.

Samsung takes over Times Square, New York City, for Galaxy Note 3

Samsung is launching the next Galaxy Note, its stylus-equipped phablet, at IFA in Berlin and Times Square, New York City.

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I am here for another event but who knows, might get a sneak look at the new Galaxy later.

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I am not keen on styluses but do like the idea of a converged device that does phone, tablet and notebook-like productivity all in one.

A great big phone: Samsung Galaxy Mega review

How big can a phone go? Samsung seems to be testing the limits with the 6.3″ Samsung Galaxy Mega. How big is that? Here it is laid over a paperback book:

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In fact, open the book, and the Galaxy Mega proves to be almost exactly the size of the printed area on the page, suggesting that this would make an excellent e-reader. I installed Amazon Kindle and so it does, though the screen is a little too glossy and the battery life too short for perfection.

Hold it to your ear though, and the Mega is big enough to feel faintly ridiculous, outside of places like San Francisco where daft-looking gadgets are the norm. That said, it is slim and smooth in the hands – maybe a bit too silky, it would be easy for it to slip out of your hands – so carries its bulk with good grace.

If you are constantly on the phone, and do not use a headset, the Mega is unlikely to be for you. Still, for many of us voice calls are a long way down the list of reasons for carrying a smartphone. Internet, games, email, text messaging and photography may well be higher.

What about writing and spreadsheeting? I got out my favourite Logitech Bluetooth keyboard, installed OfficeSuite Pro from Mobile Systems Inc, and started to type.

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I can get real work done on this; but I am unlikely to choose to do so. In fact, the screen size is not the problem. There are other issues. One is that the Galaxy Mega should be supplied with a prop-up cover or stand, since for functions like word processing with a keyboard, or watching YouTube or BBC iPlayer, it is best stood up on its side. Another is that the Android OS and its applications seem primarily designed for touch. The on-screen keyboard seems to pop-up even when not required, though ESC usually dismisses it, and getting at the formatting controls is just a bit awkward.

I also found that I could easily out-type OfficeSuite Pro on the Mega. I thought this might be an OS issue, but Infraware’s Polaris Office (which comes free for download with the Mega) is better in this respect, though less good overall than OfficeSuite Pro.

As a productivity device then, the Mega is not quite there and I will still want to take a Surface RT or some other suitable device on the road. It does work though, which has some appeal, and note that these Office suites also work well as viewers for Microsoft Office formats.

The hardware

Open the box, and you will see that, other than size, there is little else notable. Mine came with a 4GB SD card included.

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The device feels solid and well-made. The audio and headset jack is on the top edge, volume rocker on the left, and power on the right. On the front, at the base, is the home button. There are also soft buttons to its right and left for Menu and Back. These are backlit, but the backlight is usually off, which means you have to remind yourself at first that they really are there. I am not sure why Samsung does not put a little etching to indicate their presence.

The screen is great, though I would prefer less gloss, but it is bright and responsive so no real complaint.

The camera is decent but unspectacular. Good enough that most users will be happy, but not good enough to attract photo enthusiasts.

Battery life is decent, though not outstanding. 24 hours of normal usage will be fine, but over two days you will likely need a charge.

One thing worth emphasising: the Galaxy Mega may be bigger than the S4, but it is less powerful. The S4 has a quad-core 1.9GHz chipset, 13MP rear camera, 16GB memory, 1920×1080 resolution, and so it goes on. You are going to buy the Mega over the S4 for only two reasons: price, or because you really want that big screen.

Software

The Galaxy Mega runs Android 4.2 Jelly Bean with Samsung’s TouchWiz interface. I doubt anyone will have trouble with basic navigation, but it fails to delight.

One of its notable features is called Multi-Window. This runs as a pull-out application launcher, by default docked to the left of the screen. Here is the tab, which annoyingly obscures some text:

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and here it is pulled out:

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If you perform the right gestures with the right apps (not all of them work) you can get two apps running side by side by pulling them out from the bar:

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The vertical bar lets you resize the apps freely.

I think this whole thing is a mistake. While having two apps to view seems useful, even the Mega’s screen is not large enough to make it work with desktop-style convenience, and Android apps are designed for full-screen use. Nor do I like the bar as an alternative app launcher; it is unnecessary and gets in the way. This is another example of an OEM trying to improve an OS and making it worse. It is not too bad though, as you can easily disable it (drag down from the top and tap Multi-Window so it fades).

Incidentally, I had trouble getting a screenshot of the multi-window bar. The normal approach failed as touching any button makes it retreat. I used the deprecated DDMS in the ADK (Android Developer Kit). This required finding the Developer Options on the device. Bizarrely, you enable Developer Options by repeatedly tapping Build number in About Device. Odd.

Samsung store and apps

In its effort to make its devices distinct from other Android devices, Samsung is building its own ecosystem, including the Samsung app store which is prominent in the default configuration.

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What is the value for the user in this, given that the official Google Play store is also available? None, other than that it is good that Google has some competition. That said, this is where you can get Polaris Office for free, which is worth having.

Similar examples of duplication versus Google’s ecosystem are evident elsewhere, for example Samsung’s ChatOn versus Google Talk (now Google+ Hangout), though ChatOn does not do voice or video; and Samsung cloud backup versus Google’s cloud backup. For example, photo backup to Samsung’s cloud (once you register) is on by default; but this feature is also available in Google+, for Google’s cloud.

Overall this is confusing for the user and I am not sure how this game ends. It contributes to a sense that Android remains messy and disorganised versus Apple iOS or even Windows Phone, though in compensation it has wonderful functionality.

Samsung Air View is an attempt to bring the benefits of mouse hover to a touch interface by detecting the finger over the screen. For example, you can preview an email message.

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Plenty of potential here; though I found it unreliable. I still have not got magnification in web pages to work, despite turning this on in settings.

WatchOn lets you control your TV via an app that shows what is on. This worked for me though it feels like solving a problem I do not have.

The Music app isupports DLNA; but while it detected my Logitech Media Server I had trouble playing anything without stuttering.

Summary

There is a lot packed into the Mega and I have not done it justice above, but picked out some highlights. It is highly capable; but I hesitate to recommend it unless the combination of a large screen and a smartphone is perfect for you; if you do lots of web browsing, email and YouTube, but not many phone calls, or if your eyesight is such that having everything a bit larger is an advantage, it could be just the thing.

The disappointment is that Samsung has not made more sense of the large screen. The Multi-Window feature is not good, and in the end it just feels like a big phone. The fact that its spec is well behind that of the Galaxy S4 is another disadvantage.

The Galaxy Mega also exhibits the Samsung/Android problem of duplicated functionality, contributing to a user experience that is less tidy and more confusing than it needs to be.

Personally I am hopeful for the day when a single device will simplify my life and I will no longer have to carry phone, camera and tablet or laptop. This one does not get me there; but maybe with a bit more refinement a future iteration will.

Technical summary

  • Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean)
  • 6.3″ 1280 x 720 LCD screen
  • USB 2.0
  • MicroSD slot
  • MHL support (enables HDMI out from USB port)
  • GPS and GLONASS
  • 720p video supports MPEG4, H.263, H.264, VC1, WMV7 etc.
  • Cameras: 8 megapixel rear, 1.9 megapixel front, LED Flash
  • Video recording up to 30fps
  • Audio support including MP3,AAC,WMA,FLAC,OGG etc.
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 with Krait 1.7GHz dual core CPU and Adreno 305 GPU
  • Comms: FDD LTE, HSPA-PLUS,HSDPA,HSUPA,EDGE,GPRS,FDD LTE,802.11 a/b/g/n/ac,Bluetooth 4.0 LE,NFC
  • RAM: 1.5GB
  • Storage: 8GB on board
  • 3200mAh battery
  • Size: 167.6 x 88 x 8mm
  • Weight: 199g

Acknowledgement: thanks to Phones4u for loan of the review sample.

Review: Innergie PocketCell pocket battery charger: elegant design though limited capacity

Smartphone battery life has marched backwards, or so it seems: my ancient HTC Desire still lasts longer on a full charge than my newer Nokia Lumia 620 or Sony Xperia T. Another problem is tablets: battery life is decent compared to a laptop, but it is easy to get caught towards the end of the day or on a plane with an exhausted battery.

The solution, if you cannot get to a charger, is one of those pocket chargers for topping up your device. These are popular promotional giveaways, which means I have a drawer full of them (or would if I had kept them); but many are rubbish: bulky, fiddly with lots of assorted adapters to cope with different phones, and some with pointless adornments like solar panels.

I make a partial exception for a PowerTrip charger I received recently, which has an impressive 5700mAh battery, but it is still ugly, comes with three cables, and has silly extras like a solar panel and ability to work as a memory stick.

By contrast, the Innergie PocketCell is the first charger I have seen which has immediately impressed me with its design.

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There are only two pieces you need to carry with you, the small battery pack itself and a clever three-in-one cable in which the adapters snap together, so you can charge a device with Mini-B or Micro-B USB (the two popular types), or an Apple 30-pin dock connector (if you have an iPhone 5 or another device with the new Lightning Connector you are out of luck unless you have an adaptor).

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The same connector also serves to charge the PocketCell, using one of the many USB mains chargers you almost certainly already possess, or by plugging into a PC or Mac. The PocketCell has a USB Type A socket for output, and a Micro-B for input, so you cannot easily get it wrong.

On the side of the PocketCell is a button which you press to discover the current charge. It lights up to four LEDs, to indicate the level of charge remaining.

Battery capacity is 3000 mAh; not as good as a PowerTrip, but decent considering that it is less than one-third the size and much lighter (72g/ 2.5oz).

I tried the PowerCell on an iPhone 4 with a fully expired battery (at least, expired to the point where it would not switch on).

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The phone charged successfully, during which time the PocketCell got somewhat warm, but with impressive speed of charge. After the charge the PocketCell was pretty much exhausted.

The PocketCell supports 2.1 amp fast charge, which means it is fine for charging an iPad or other tablets with USB power.

The small size, nice design, and effective charging of the Innergie PocketCell means this device might actually find its way into your bag. The downside is that it is more expensive (especially in the UK) than some other portable chargers with equal or greater capacity, but its elegance and usability is worth a bit extra.

While I recommend the device, check that 3000 mAh is sufficient for you before purchase. I have also heard that the three in one cable is a little delicate, though you can get replacements if necessary or use a standard USB cable.

 

DTS Headphone X surround sound from stereo is astonishing though Z+ music app disappoints

I first heard the DTS surround sound from stereo demo at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The technology is called Headphone X. It was astonishing. You went into the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 theatre – it was in association with Qualcomm become some DTS technology is baked into the latest Snapdragon chipset – sat in a plush armchair, and donned stereo headphones.

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The next thing you knew, sound was coming from front left. Then front right. Then rear left. The illusion was amazing, and I was not the only one who removed their headphones temporarily to check that they really were the sole source of the sound.

I interviewed the DTS folk about the technology, and also spoke to the guys at Dolby. Nothing new, said the Dolby folk, we’ve had virtual surround sound for years. Yet, the demo at the Dolby stand fell far short of what DTS was showing.

Now you can try it, if you have an Android or iOS device. Download the Z+ app and listen to the demo.

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I tried this on someone today, and his “Wow!” reaction showed that the demo is still astonishing. You know it is an illusion, but it sounds as if you are seated in the middle of a room with five or more speakers.

If DTS has proved that surround sound from stereo is possible, what are the implications? Surround sound has not failed exactly, but its inconvenience has limited take-up. Many surround mixes of music albums are now hard to find, because they were made for long out of print SACD or DVD-Audio releases. What if you could easily download all these mixes and enjoy them with stereo headphones or earbuds?

An enticing thought, but there are caveats. The Z+ app, for example, is disappointing once you get beyond the demo. The only album it plays is the Hans Zimmer soundtrack to the Superman film, Man of Steel. One track is included for free, and the others are in-app purchases. It sounds good, but the surround effect is less convincing than it is in the demo. I heard better music demos in Barcelona. I also get superior sound on the iPhone than on the iPad (it is an iPhone app), though I might be imagining it, and in both cases I get occasional stuttering, though that may be because I am not testing on the latest generation Apple hardware.

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An app that only plays one album is not a revolution in sound, and if this is to go mainstream, DTS needs to sell its technology to one of the major music download or streaming services and have it built-in to the client app. It has made a start, with its Qualcomm deal which is meant to be in shipping chipsets from “the second half of 2013” according to the information in Barcelona. My guess is that any problems with stuttering will be removed when there is hardware support.

How does it work? The DTS guys told that it “it’s psychoacoustics. You’re triggering the brain with responses that induce it to say, this is from here. It’s a combination of timing and frequency. That’s traditional virtualisation.” After that, they explained, they apply room acoustics that take the illusion to another level. This could be the room acoustic of the studio, achieving a holy grail for audio engineers, or that of the listener’s own room or a concert hall, for example. The room acoustic can be user-selectable, though this is not a feature of the current Z+ app.

There is a caveat that might upset hi-fi enthusiasts. Think about it. Virtual surround sound is delivered in stereo, which seems impossible, but then again we only have two ears. Our ears are designed to hear sounds more clearly if they are in front of us. Therefore, to simulate a sound coming from behind you, do you need to make it less clear?

I put this point to a guy from DTS, that parts of the music are in a sense deliberately distorted or muffled. “That occurs naturally by our head,” I was told. So is the fidelity of the sound reduced in order to achieve the surround illusion? “No differently than speakers in a surround system would do anyway,” he said.

Another caveat is that, by design, the system only works with headphones. Of course, if you have a full surround system in your room, you can play surround mixes in the normal way, turning to the DTS technology only for headphone listening. Headphones are also unable to recreate the effect of a sub-woofer which you can feel in your chest. “It’s a physical element. We’re not going to be able to replicate it,” said DTS.

Headphones are unbeatable though if you want to recreate the acoustic of a different room, such as the studio where the music was mixed. Further, for a mass market, delivering surround sound through a mobile device and standard earphones is the right approach.

The Z+ app is disappointing, but I would nevertheless encourage anyone with an interest in audio technology to download it and try the demo. Headphone X has huge potential and I shall follow its progress with interest.

Nokia 925: smart camera and metal band design continues Windows Phone 8 and Lumia effort

Nokia has announced the Lumia 925, a high-end Windows Phone which will go on sale in Europe in June from Vodafone and others. The price is around €469 + VAT, presumably without a contract. Vodafone customers will be offered an “exclusive 32GB version” according to the press release.

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So what’s special about the 925? It sports a 4.5″ AMOLED 1280 x 768 display, which is decent, along with 1GB RAM and 16GB storage. Battery life is a claimed 440 hrs standby and 12.8 hrs talk time. No SD card slot, presumably for the same reason as for the 920: it would have “defiled it” according to Nokia VP Kevin Shields.

A big attraction is the camera, or rather cameras, including the main 8.7 MP PureView which also offers 1080p 30fps HD video, and the front-facing 1.2MP wide angle camera. The magic is said to be both in the lens and the software, especially the Smart Camera update (coming shortly after the launch) which enables the camera to take ten images in one shot, giving the user options for which one to keep (sounds similar to Microsoft’s Blink app which is already available for Windows Phone).

There is also Nokia’s HERE mapping suite which the company says offers “the world’s only fully integrated and true offline maps experience.”

Another Lumia innovation is the metal frame which is for “antenna functionality, appeal and robustness”. Presumably Nokia has ensured that it does not kill the signal when touched in the wrong place, as happened with the metal band for Apple’s iPhone 4.

Seemingly every mention of a Nokia phone has to ask the big questions. Can Windows Phone succeed against iPhone and Android? Can Nokia survive?

Whatever is the answer to those questions, this phone is unlikely to change it.

I will say that after a shaky start with the 800 (nice phone, terrible battery life and unfortunate bugs) the Lumia range has evolved into something excellent, that spans from good budget smartphones like the 620 to devices like the 820 and 920 which are a pleasure to use.