Tag Archives: android

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. 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.

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.

Asus bets on everything with new UK product launches for Android, Google Chromebook and Microsoft Windows

Asus unveiled its Winter 2014 UK range at an event in London yesterday. It is an extensive range covering most bases, including Android tablets, Windows 8 hybrids, Google Chromebooks, and Android smartphones.

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Asus never fails to impress with its innovative ideas – like the Padfone, a phone which docks into a tablet – though not all the ideas win over the public, and we did not hear about any new Padfones yesterday.

The company’s other strength though is to crank out well-made products at a competitive price, and this aspect remains prominent. There was nothing cutting-edge on show last night, but plenty of designs that score favourably in terms of what you get for the money.

At a glance:

  • Chromebook C200 dual-proc Intel N2830 laptop 12″ display £199.99 and C300 13″ display £239.99
  • MeMO Pad Android tablets ME176C 7″ £119 and 8″ ME181 (with faster Z3580 2.3 GHz quad-core processor) £169
  • Transformer Pad TF103C Android tablet with mobile keyboard dock (ie a tear-off keyboard) £239
  • Two FonePad 7″ Android phablets: tablets with phone functionality, LTE in the ME372CL at £129.99  and 3G in the ME175CG at £199.99.
  • Three Zenfone 3G Android phones, 4″ at £99.99, 5″ at £149.99 and 6″ at £249.99.
  • Transformer Book T200 and T300 joining the T100 (10.1″ display) as Windows 8 hybrids with tear-off keyboards. The T200 has an 11.6″ display and the T300 a 13.3″ display and processors from Core i3 to Core i7 – no longer just a budget range. The T200 starts at £349.
  • Transformer Book Flip Windows 8.1 laptops with fold-back touch screens so you can use them as fat tablets. 13.3″ or 15.6″ screens, various prices according to configuration starting with a Core 13 at £449.
  • G750 gaming laptops from £999.99 to £1799.99 with Core i7 processors and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 800M GPUs.
  • G550JK Gaming Notebook with Core i7 and GTX 850M GPU from £899.99.

Unfortunately the press event was held in a darkened room useless for photography or close inspection of the devices. A few points to note though.

The T100 is, according to Asus, the world’s bestselling Windows hybrid. This does not surprise me since with 11 hr battery life and full Windows 8 with Office pre-installed it ticks a lot of boxes. I prefer the tear-off keyboard concept to complex flip designs that never make satisfactory tablets. The T100 now seems to be the base model in a full range of Windows hybrids.

On the phone side, it is odd that Asus did not announce any operator deals and seems to be focused on the sim-free market.

How good are the Zenfones? This is not a review, but I had a quick play with the models on display. They are not high-end devices, but nor do they feel cheap. IPS+ (in-plane switching) displays give a wide viewing angle. Gorilla Glass 3 protects the screen; the promo video talks about a 30m drop test which I do not believe for a moment*. The touch screens are meant to be responsive when wearing gloves. The camera has a five-element lens with F/2.0 aperture, a low-light mode, and “time rewind” which records images before you tap. A “Smart remove” feature removes moving objects from your picture. You also get “Zen UI” on top of Android; I generally prefer stock Android but the vendors want to differentiate and it seems not to get in the way too much.

Just another phone then; but looks good value.

As it happens, I saw another Asus display as I arrived in London, at St Pancras station.

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The stand, devoted mainly to the T100, was far from bustling. This might be related to the profile of Windows these days; or it might reflect the fact that the Asus brand, for all the company’s efforts, is associated more with good honest value than something you stop to look at on the way to work.

For more details see the Asus site or have a look in the likes of John Lewis or Currys/ PC World.

*On the drop test, Asus says: “This is a drop test for the Gorilla glass, and is dropping a metal ball on to a pane of it that is clamped down, not actually a drop of the phone itself.”

On Microsoft Surface: premium hardware, declining vision

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Microsoft’s Panos Panay shows off Surface Pro 3

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 was launched yesterday, but the roots of Microsoft’s Surface project – the company’s first own-brand PC – go back a long way. There are three big issues which it attempts to tackle:

1. The PC OEM hardware ecosystem was (and to a large extent still is) stuck in a vicious loop of a price-sensitive market driving down prices and forcing vendors to skimp on design and materials, and to pre-install unwanted third-party applications that damage user experience. Most high-end users bought Macs instead. With Surface Microsoft breaks out of the loop with premium design and zero unwanted add-ons.

2. The tablet market. Windows 8 is designed for touch, at least in its “Metro” personality. But desktop apps need a keyboard and mouse. How do you combine the two without creating a twisty monster? Surface with its fold-back, tear-off keyboard cover is an elegant solution.

3. Fixing Windows. Users of today’s PCs live on a precipice. One false click and the adware and malware invades. Live in the “Metro” environment, or use an iPad, and that is unlikely to happen. Use Windows RT (Windows on ARM) and it is even less likely, since most malware cannot install.

Surface could not have happened without Windows 8. The efforts to make it work as a tablet would make no sense.

Now we have Surface 3. How is Microsoft doing?

I have followed Surface closely since its launch in September 2012. The models I know best are the original Surface RT, the second Surface RT called Surface 2, and the original Surface Pro, which is my machine of choice when travelling. A few observations.

There is plenty that I like (otherwise I would not use it so much). It really is slim and compact, and I would hate to go back to carrying a laptop everywhere. It is well-made and fairly robust, though the hinge on the keyboard covers is a weak point where the fabric can come unglued. The kickstand is handy, and one of my favourite configurations is Surface on its kickstand plus Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, with which I can be almost as productive as with a desktop (I do miss dual displays). I can also use the Surface successfully on my lap. In cramped aircraft seats it is not great but better than a laptop.

There are also annoyances. Only one USB port is a severe limitation and seems unnecessary, since there is room along the edge. For example, you plug in an external drive, now you cannot attach your camera. Not being able to upgrade the internal SSD is annoying, though I suppose inherent to the sealed design. Performance was poor on the original Surface RT, though Surface 2 is fine.

More annoying are the bugs. Sometimes the keyboard cover stops working; detaching and re-attaching usually but not always fixes it. Sometimes the wifi plays up and you have to disable and re-enable the wifi adapter in device manager. Another problem is power management, especially on Surface Pro (I gather that Pro 2 is better). You press power and it does not resume; or worse, you put it into your bag after pressing power off (which sends it to sleep), only to find later that it is heating your bag and wasting precious battery.

The key point here is this: Microsoft intended to make an appliance-like PC that, because of the synergy between first-party hardware and software, would be easy to maintain. It did not succeed, and even Surface RT is more troublesome to maintain than an iPad or Android tablet.

Microsoft also ran into user acceptance problems with Windows RT. Personally I like RT, I think I understand what Microsoft is (or was) trying to achieve, and with Surface specifically, I love the long battery life and easier (though this imperfect) maintenance that it offers. However, the apps are lacking, and Microsoft has so far failed to establish Windows as a tablet operating system like iOS and Android. People buy Windows to run Windows apps, they make little use of the Metro side, and for the most part Surface customers are those who would otherwise have bought laptops.

Incidentally, I have seen Surface RT used with success as a fool-proof portable machine for running Office and feel it deserved to do better, but the reality is that Microsoft has not persuaded the general public of its merits.

Another issue with Surface is the price. Given most Surface customers want the keyboard cover, which is integral to the concept, the cost is more than most laptops. But was Microsoft going for the premium market, or trying to compete with mass-market tablets? In reality, Surface is too expensive for the mass-market which is why its best success has been amongst high-end Windows users.

Surface Pro 3 and the launch that wasn’t

That brings me to Surface Pro 3. The intriguing aspect of yesterday’s launch is that it was rumoured to be for a new mini-sized Surface probably running Windows RT. Why else was the invite (which someone posted on Twitter) for a “small gathering”?

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Admittedly, it is a stretch to suppose that the Surface Mini was cancelled between the date the invitations were sent out (around four weeks ago I believe) and the date of the event. On the other hand, this is a time of change at Microsoft. The Nokia acquisition completed on  25th April, putting former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop in charge of devices. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has only been in place since February 4. While cancelling a major hardware launch at such short notice would be surprising, it is not quite impossible, and a report from Bloomberg to that effect seems plausible.

It is also well-known that Microsoft does not intend to continue with three mobile operating systems: Windows x86, Windows on ARM, and Windows Phone. Windows Phone and Windows RT will “merge”, though merge may just mean that one will be scrapped, and that it will not be Windows Phone.

The promised arrival of a touch-friendly Microsoft Office for Windows Phone and Windows 8 further will rob Windows RT of a key distinctive feature.

This does not mean that Microsoft will not complete in the growing market for small tablets. It means, rather, that a future small tablet from Microsoft will run the Windows Phone OS – which is what some of us thought Microsoft should have done in the first place. This is a company that sometimes takes the hardest (and most expensive) possible route to its destination – see also Xbox One.

Surface Pro 3 specs: a MacBook Air compete

Surface Pro 3 is a large-size Surface Pro. It has a 12 inch 2160×1440 screen, a pen, and a redesigned keyboard cover that has an additional magnetic strip which sticks to the tablet when used laptop-style, for greater stability.

The kickstand can now be used at any angle, supposedly without slipping.

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The weight is 800g making it lighter than a MacBook Air.

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though note that the MacBook Air has a keyboard built in.

Battery life is quoted as “up to 9 hours”. There is still only one USB port. Full specs are here.

The Surface Pro 3 looks like a nice device. In the UK it starts at £639 for an Intel i3 device with a tiny 64GB SSD (I am running out of space with 128GB). And don’t forget the cover which will be at least £110 on top (prices include VAT).

A sensible Core i5 with 256GB SSD and a Type 2 cover will be around £1200. Not a bad buy; though personally I am not sure about the larger size.

Note that Microsoft has now abandoned the 16:9 wide-screen format which characterised the original release of Windows 8, designed to work well with two apps side by side. Surface Pro 3 has a conventional 3:2 screen ration.

Declining vision

Microsoft’s Surface project had a bold vision to reinvent Windows hardware and to usher in a new, more secure era of Windows computing, where tablet apps worked in harmony with the classic desktop.

It was bold but it failed. A combination of flawed implementation, patchy distribution, high prices, and above all, lack of success in the Windows Store ecosystem, meant that Surface remained at ground level.

What we have now is, by all accounts, an attractive high-end Windows hybrid. Not a bad thing in itself, but far short of what was originally hoped.

Microsoft is moving on, building on its investment in Active Directory, Azure cloud, and Microsoft Office, to base its business on an any-device strategy. The market has forced its hand, but it is embracing this new world and (to my mind) looks like making a success of it. It does not depend on the success of Surface, so whether or not the company ends up with a flourishing PC business is now almost incidental.

Asus Transformer Book Trio combines Windows and Android – but what is it for?

Microsoft has one idea about how to combine desktop Windows with a tablet OS: mash them together into a single operating system and call it Windows 8.

Asus has another idea. Put Windows in the keyboard dock, Android in the tablet, and allow the tablet to be docket to form a Windows or Android laptop.

This is the Transformer Book Trio, just launched and on sale from 11 November 2013 at £899.99.

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All my instincts say this a terrible idea. Let Windows be Windows and Android Android, do not try to combine them.

Trying the machine though I found it was good fun. Just press the little Android button and it switches.

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and it becomes an Android laptop:

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The dock mechanism is a bit ugly but looks robust:

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There is the question still: what will you do with the keyboard when not in use? In a home context that is not a problem, but when on the road I find the most convenient place to keep a detachable keyboard is to attach it, making it more of a laptop than a tablet in practice.

Having two computers in one gives you a few options, which I did not have time to explore in detail. As I understand it, you can share storage in order to open a document prepared in Windows on Android, for example, and with two batteries there is scope for charging one from the other.

This is two separate computers though. It should really be called Duo, but Asus calls it Trio on the grounds that you can use it as a laptop or a desktop machine, with an external display.

The PC runs an Intel Core i5 4200U, and has 4GB RAM and 500GB hard drive. The display is 1920 x 1080 and supports capacitive 10-point multi-touch. Connectivity includes 802.11ac (dual-band) wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.0, 2 USB 3.0 ports, Mini DisplayPort, and Micro-HDMI 1.4.

The tablet has an Intel Atom Z2560 with 2GB RAM and 16GB storage. Connectivity includes   802.11n (2.4GHz), Bluetooth 3.0, Micro-USB 2.0, microSD card slot.

Fun then; but what is the use case for this machine? This is where I am still having difficulty. It is somewhat expensive (though with a Core i5 performance is decent), and I have a hunch that users will end up sticking with one or the other OS most of the time – probably Windows given the price.

Oddly, it would make more sense to me to have a high-end Android device with the ability to run Windows when needed. This would address the case where a user wants to migrate to Android but occasionally needs a Windows app.

Brief hands on with new Asus Windows 8.1 T100 tablet – or should that be netbook?

Asus has launched two new tablets in the UK.

This one is the 10.1″ T100 has an Intel Atom “Bay Trail” Z3740 quad-core processor. The display is 1366 x 768 and supports capacitive multi-touch.

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You press a release button under the display to detach it from the keyboard, whereupon it becomes a tablet. This approach, it is now generally agreed, is better than a screen which twists over, since it gives you a reasonably thin and lightweight (550g) tablet rather one that is bulky and odd to hold. However, there is still the question of what you are going to do with the keyboard once detached, and I have a suspicion that these machines are likely to be almost permanently attached to the keyboard making them similar to netbooks.

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Microsoft’s Surface overcomes this to some extent, especially with the Touch keyboard cover that folds underneath and adds little weight or bulk.

On the other hand, the T100 strikes me as good value at £349.99 (which includes the keyboard dock), especially bearing in mind that Office Home and Student is bundled (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, but no Outlook).

The T100 comes with 2GB RAM and 32GB eMMC storage. Connectivity includes Bluetooth 4.0, Micro-USB, Micro-HDMI, MicroSD slot, and a USB 3.0 port in the docking keyboard.

I tried the T100 briefly. I was impressed with the performance; Word and Excel opened quickly and overall it feels quick and responsive. I did not like the keyboard much; it felt slightly spongy, but at this price a few weaknesses can be forgiven.

The tablet Windows key is not under the screen as with most Windows 8 tablets, but a button on the side. What looks like the Windows key in the above snap is inactive, and that logo will not show on the production units.

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.

Contract Bridge on a tablet: Funbridge vs Bridgebase vs Bridge Baron

Bridge is an ideal game for a tablet, well suited to touch control and the kind of game you can play for a few minutes or a few hours at a time, which is excellent for travellers.

So what are the choices? Here is a quick look at some favourites.

Funbridge is available for iPhone, iPad and Android. There are also versions for Windows and Mac. The Android edition is the newest but works fine, though of all of them it is the iOS release that is the nicest to use.

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The way Funbridge works is that you always play against a computer, though this is on the internet rather than running locally, but your scores are compared with other humans playing the same hands. I have not tried the “Two players game” so I am not sure how that works, except that the other player has to be a “friend” in the Funbridge community system. It looks like you play with your friend against two bots.

Funbridge has a lot to like. The user interface is excellent, much the best of all the tablet bridge software I have used and better than most desktop bridge software too. There is a good variety of game options, including one-off games, tournaments of 5 games each, and a series ladder you can climb from 1 club to 7 no trumps. You can select one of 6 conventions, including ACOL, SAYC (American Standard), and 5 card major at three levels from beginner to expert. I think this is a hint that to get the best from Funbridge you should use the 5 card major system.

Another nice feature of Funbridge is that you can go back and replay a hand to try a different line of play. You can also see all the other scores on any hand, and how they were bid and played.

Funbridge is not perfect though. The bidding is eccentric at times, and it can be hard to persuade your partner bot to play in no trumps rather than a suit. There is definitely an art to winning at Funbridge that is a different from what it takes to win at a real bridge table.

Since you are playing against a cloud-based server, you can only play if you have an internet connection. Not so good for most flights.

Funbridge is a pay per game service. Currently 50 deals costs £1.49 (about 3p each) or if you pay more the per-deal cost falls to under 2p. Unlimited deals for a year costs £69.99.

That said, you can get 10 games a week for free, though you only get the 10 free games if you have no paid games in your account; slightly unfair to the paying customers.

Bridgebase is available for iPad, iPhone, Android and Amazon Kindle. Bridgebase also offers a browser-based game based on Adobe Flash. Like Funbridge, you can only play with an internet connection. You can either play with human opponents, or solo with three bots.

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Of course human opponents are more fun, though there are advantages to playing with bots. No pressure, you can think for as long as you like, and none of the issues which afflict online bridge, such as players simply disappearing when in a bad contract, or being bad tempered if you make a mistake.

The Bridgebase user interface is OK though feels clunky compared to the smoothness of Funbridge. As in Funbridge, you can compare your score with other human players even if you play against bots. You cannot replay games, but you can undo your play which means you can easily cheat against the bots if you feel so inclined. Against humans your opponents have to approve an undo, which they will be reluctant to do other then in cases of genuine mis-taps.

The biggest problem with Bridgebase is the standard of the bots, which is much weaker than Funbridge. The play can be quite bizarre at times, sometimes excellent, sometimes daft.

A weak feature is that if your computer partner wins the auction, it also plays the contract, sometimes badly. I do not see the point of this. You may find yourself playing “hideous hog” style (Victor Mollo’s character who always tried to play the contract) as it is painful reaching a good contract but watching the bot throw it away.

Bridgebase is free to play, though there are subscription options online to get some extra features.

Bridge Baron is available for Android, iPad, iPhone, Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook. It is inexpensive (£13.99 currently on the App Store) but you have to pay separately for each platform. Unlike the other two games, Bridge Baron runs entirely on your device, which is good if you are offline, but means you do not compare your score against other humans. You can set the standard from novice to advanced.

Bridge Baron plays well enough to be fun, though well short of the best computer players. You can replay games at will. You can compare your score against the Baron’s score, review the bidding and play, and undo your play at will. You can also ask for a hint from the Baron.

The Bridge Baron user interface is basic, a little worse than Bridgebase (though faster) and much worse than Funbridge. I do not know why the card icons are so small; it is like playing on a huge table.

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Still, good fun and good value.

Conclusion

All three of these games have something to commend them. Funbridge for the best user interface and a standard good enough to be enjoyable despite a few eccentricities. Bridgebase for the option to play with real people, and for free play with bots. Bridge Baron for playing offline.

On the other hand, Bridgebase is spoilt by the poor play of its bots. Bridge Baron is dull because you cannot compare your score with other humans. Funbridge is the one I choose if I have some deals available, but can get expensive if you play a lot, and you will get annoyed with your computer partner from time to time.

There is nothing on a tablet that comes close to Jack Bridge for standard of play.

Finally, note there is no bridge app for Windows RT. So if you are a bridge addict with a Surface RT, you are out of luck.