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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.

Google Nexus 7: a little bit of everything you do

Google’s Nexus 7 is more than just a tablet. It is Google through and through: a trade where you get a cool device, and Google gets your data and the opportunity to sell you stuff, both advertising and content.

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That is why it is such good value; and it is good value. You get a 7″ 1280×800 display with toughened Corning glass; a Quad-core NVidia Tegra processor; WiFi; Bluetooth; NFC (Near Field Communications) with Android Beam; Accelerometer; GPS; Magnetometer, Gyroscope, 8 hours or so battery life, 1GB RAM, and 8 or 16GB (non-expandable) storage. It runs Android 4.1, “Jelly Bean”.

Not only is the spec decent, but the device is nicely done, though it has been put together quickly. The manufacturer, Asus, says that the Nexus was conceived at a meeting with Google in January, at CES 2012. A few points of interest from Asus:

  • The textured back cover is meant to “feel like a pair of premium driving gloves that will not slip out of your hands”.
  • There are two microphones, one on the top and one on the side, to avoid the chance of blocking audio input with your hand.
  • The display uses a single glass panel with a touch film layer, which Asus says makes it 42% thinner than a “standard touch display module”.

The display is excellent, bright to view and responsive to touch. I compared it to an HTC Flyer, another decent 7” Android tablet though now 18 months old, and the Nexus is sharper, more detailed and more vibrant.

The Nexus is also lighter and thinner than the Flyer, and performs better with its quad-core Tegra 3 vs the Flyer’s 1.%GHzz Snapdragon.

It is not all one way. The Flyer has a rear-facing camera, a microSD slot, and a stylus, all lacking on the Nexus. Still, the 16GB Flyer cost over £400 when it was released, and checking Amazon.co.uk today it is still over £200. The Nexus is £199.00 for 16GB, or £159.00 for 8GB, and comes with £15.00 credit towards content on the Google Play store.

In other words, the Nexus is fantastic value, and makes much of the competition look over-priced.

Nexus and you

First impressions of the Nexus are good. The device is easy to set up, though it insists that you sign in to a Google account. I had no problem setting up Exchange email alongside Gmail though.

There is an emphasis on content and one of the first things I noticed was the covers of a couple of CDs I recently purchased and ripped to my PC. The reason is that I have Google Music Manager installed on the PC, which had automatically uploaded them to Google Music, and now the Nexus was showing me recently uploaded music. It is what you can expect from a Google-connected life; stuff just shows up.

The home page is dominated by widgets recommending purchases. You can remove these but they set the tone: Google is trying to drive content sales.

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There is also a Google strip along the top of the home page which allows text or voice search. The first time you tap this, you get an invitation to sign up for Google Now, a service which mines your personal information, such as location, calendars and other data from Google and from third parties, in order to deliver alerts and reminders.

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Google Now is exactly in line with what former CEO Eric Schmidt said at Mobile World Congress back in 2010:

Google will know more about the customer because it benefits the customer if we know more about them.

Is it worth it? Does it matter if Google knows where you are, who your friends are, and where you are going? Can you trust Google not to misuse that information?

Those are big questions; and while I doubt that anything worse than occasional annoying advertising will happen if you switch on Google Now, it is also spooky and disturbing if you care about privacy.

Leaving aside the big issues, it is a great advertising opportunity for Google which can do targeting based not only on what it knows about you, but also on the context of where you are and what you are doing.

Nexus in use

What is the use of a 7” tablet? Quite a lot. It is a good size for personal media consumption, though it could do with a case that doubles as a stand for watching video. Web browsing works well using the Chrome browser. There is Maps, Skype, Twitter, Dropbox, Evernote, Kindle, music and games, calendar and email. The main limitation is that you need to be on WiFi, but most of the time that is not a problem.

The Nexus has three soft buttons: Home, Back and Recent apps.

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Recent apps shows thumbnails of what you have opened recently and feels like multitasking even though it does not guarantee that those apps are actually running.

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There are a few niggles. The Nexus has speech to text built-in. It kind-of works but so slowly that most will not bother with it. Typing is much quicker and more accurate, even on the soft keyboard.

No Adobe Flash, which is a disappointment, especially in the UK where BBC iPlayer is popular. Adobe is not making a version of Flash for Jelly Bean, though apparently older versions can be installed with a bit of manual effort. Flash cannot be installed directly from the Play store.

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Conclusion

I think Nexus will fly off the shelves. No it is not as good as an Apple iPad, but it is smaller, lighter and cheaper, all of which count for a lot.

With deals like this, Google is making life tough for its third-party partners, Asus aside, and giving Amazon (perhaps the immediate target) a challenge too. Nor will it be easy for the likes of Microsoft, RIM and Nokia coming into the market with new tablets, given everything that the Nexus does perfectly well and at a keen price.

OEM vendors: it’s Google, not Microsoft you need to watch

When Microsoft announced Surface, its first own-brand PC, it raised immediate questions about the implications for the company’s hardware partners.

Not long after, and Google has also announced a tablet, the Nexus 7.

It looks a neat device. 7″ 1280×800 display, Corning-toughened glass, NFC, accelerometer, GPS, gyroscope, wi-fi, Bluetooth, and a Quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor. Plus you get Google’s latest “Jelly Bean” operating system.

By coincidence, I have just been reviewing another Android tablet, from a brand you likely have not heard of: the Gemini JoyTAB 8″ running “Ice Cream Sandwich”.

I did not get on well with the JoyTAB. It is full of the compromises you expect from a device made down to a price with little attention to design.

But the price. I thought the JoyTAB was at least good value at £149.00. What chance does it have against a Nexus 7 for just £10 more – and with £15 of Play Store credit thrown in?

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The Nexus 7 is made by Asus so you can argue that at least one OEM vendor is not losing out here. Even so, competing with this thing will not be easy. 

We do not yet know the price of the Surface, either in Windows RT or Intel guise. My prediction is that Microsoft will aim to price it more like an Apple iPad than a Nexus. Although Microsoft is desperate for Windows 8 tablets to succeed, it also makes its money selling the software, Windows and Office, that is included in Surface. It cannot afford to price it too low.

By contrast, Google makes little money from software. Android is free. Google makes money from advertising, and also hopes to build its profit from the content market, where it takes a cut of every sale. If NFC payment takes off, it might even profit from every payment you make with an Android device.

I am right behind Microsoft in what it is doing with Surface. It has been let down by its OEM partners, with too much hastily designed and/or low quality hardware, further impaired by unwanted bundled software and poor customizations. Surface follows on from Microsoft Signature in challenging those partners to up their game. Long term, they will benefit from Microsoft’s efforts to improve Windows devices overall.

How Android tablet vendors will benefit from Nexus is less clear.

Review: JoyTAB 8" Android tablet. Do you need to spend more?

How much Android tablet can you get for £150.00? Quite a lot, as this JoyTAB 8″ tablet from Gemini Devices demonstrates. No complaint about the specs: ARM Cortex A8 1.2Ghz processor, Mali-400 GPU, 512MB RAM, 8GB storage, running Android 4.03 “Ice Cream Sandwich”.

There is also a Micro-SD slot (confusingly labelled “TF Card”), a front-facing camera, headphone jack, USB connector, mini HDMI port, and wi-fi.

No Bluetooth, unfortunately, but you cannot have everything. Though given the choice, I would rather have Bluetooth than HDMI.

Still, no real complaint about the specs. How is it in use?

The unit is light though it feels a bit plastic, particularly the switches on the front and side, but they work fine. There is not much to see on the front: black screen, black surround, and two physical buttons, one for menu and one for back. On the side, there are buttons for power, volume and home. Personally I would rather have the home button on the front, but it is no big deal.

On the bottom edge are the connectors for USB, power, HTML, SD card and sound. Not clear why the SD slot is labelled “TF Card”, but I stuck a 4GB SD card in there and it worked instantly.

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I turned on, and was greeted with the JoyTAB wallpaper, its brightness perhaps compensating for the rather dim screen.

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Wi-fi connected smoothly, and I had a quick look at the apps:

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Nothing exceptional here. Documents To Go is a trial, Twitter and BBC iPlayer I added myself.

Unfortunately BBC iPlayer was a letdown. The app bounces you to the browser, and the browser says my phone (?) is not supported.

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I tried updating Flash Player to the latest version with no improvement. In fairness, this may be a BBC issue, though iPlayer works fine on other Android tablets I have tried.

YouTube mostly works, but video is not too good. It looks dark and detail is lost.

I got an even more entertaining error when I attempted to play my Google music in the browser.

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Web browsing in general is a mixed experience. Mostly it is good enough, though searching Google is slow and jerky if you have incremental search enabled.

Not only is the screen dim, it is unresponsive too. Pinching and zooming is an effort, and when it does work it is not smooth.

Still, Angry Birds works well, email works with both Microsoft Exchange and Google Mail, and battery life seems not bad though charging is slow even with mains.

I connected it to a PC and got an error. USB storage shows up if you enable it in settings, but it did not connect as an Android device. I fixed this by installing the (unsigned) driver from Gemini, which I found in a forum post here.

While I have not seen any faults, the test device does make odd, quiet popping noises from time to time when charging, which is a concern.

In the end I cannot give this a recommendation. It is good value in one sense, but if you can stretch to a Samsung Galaxy, which admittedly is twice the price, you do get a substantially better experience. An Apple iPad costs even more; but if you want silky-smooth touch control, a beautiful screen, and for everything to just work, then it is worth the money.

What if you only have £149? My pick would be something like a nearly new HTC Flyer, currently on offer at Amazon UK for around that price. Yes, it only runs Android 3.x “Honeycomb”, but it is a lovely device with a great screen and HTC’s customised Sense UI.

Update: It is worth adding that Google has now announced the 7″ Nexus Tablet which is on offer in the UK for £159 for the 8GB version or £199 for 16GB. That changes the rules.