Tuesday, December 4, 2012

HTC Desire X: Is it time to fall in love again?


HTC - the maker of universally loved devices. The maker of universally hated devices. Loved because of their design, build, and software; hated for their battery life and instability. They are a paradox.

Initially HTC started out as an outsourced manufacturer for brands like Compaq. In 2006 they started with their own devices. Instantly becoming legendary among hardcore geeks, HTC were known for their class leading Windows Mobile based devices.

Then Android came. HTC were the ones who came up with the first Android based phone, the T-Mobile G-1. For two years HTC ruled the roost as far as Android was concerned. Sets like Hero and Desire firmly established them as the top player in Android in 2010. Following Desire's success, HTC built devices like Evo, Desire HD, Incredible, and others.

Fast forward to 2012, and HTC are about to finish their second consecutive bad calendar year. Their market share has eroded. What happened? One word: Samsung. Relative unknown in the Android world in the beginning of 2010 (and HTC's heyday), Samsung unleashed the Galaxy S upon the world and suddenly things changed. Previous Samsung Galaxy offerings had been poor cousins to their HTC counterparts, but Galaxy S, with its industry-leading processor, display and software, stole the show from under everyone's noses. Suddenly Samsung had a bestseller on their hands.

And then, Galaxy phones started popping up every time you looked. Samsung easily ruled the high end with Galaxy S, and device that was priced more affordably compared to HTC's offerings yet was superior in most respects, and they started littering every price point with a Galaxy set. HTC, being a smaller, more specialist manufacturer, struggled to keep up. They ultimately came up with Desire HD, which was termed a successor to the Desire, but had mostly the same internals and just a larger display. Later, in direct competition with Samsung's Galaxy S2, HTC launched the Sensation and their troubles deepened.

For the first time, a flagship HTC product had nothing special to write home about. Its dual core processor was inferior to that in Galaxy S2, its build quality was suspect and the battery life was horrendous. Its display, while boasting a qHD resolution, was no match for S2's non-PenTile super AMOLED.

Fast forward to 2012, and HTC unveiled a radical restructuring of its product line. The One line, comprising One X, One S and One V, was correctly heralded as a return to form. One X, in particular, boasted a quad core processor, and a unique polycarbonate body, coupled to exquisite design. At the time HTC's intent was to stick to a simplified product line. However, for some reason, the One line did not generate quite the sales it was expected to, and HTC defaulted to their modus operandi of releasing new phones every now and then, often overlapping each other. Thus, the Desire name was revived.

Which, in a rather long-winded manner, brings us to my current phone, the Desire X.

In a nutshell, Desire X lands squarely in the midrange. It has a dual-core 1 GHz processor, a respectable 768 MB of RAM, a 4-inch screen with 800x480 resolution, 4 GB built in memory and a card slot. Nothing extraordinary, then.

In reality, the phone grows on you. Take the screen; on paper it is a very ordinary piece of kit. In usage, though, its brilliant - its quite sharp, so much so that a friend mistook it for a retina display. The colours are brilliant, especially the whites. It has to be seen to be believed, the first time you turn on this phone, the screen hits you as something similar to iPhone's Retina.

The hardware is extremely well designed in true HTC fashion, with what is merely a pleasant sensation at first sight turning to pure love by the second day of usage. The plastics used are extremely pleasant to handle, the construction is bullet proof and very pleasant to hold. Fit and finish is top notch, in fact far superior to anything offered by Samsung. One added bonus is that the bottom row of capacitive buttons follows the proper Google convention, with back, home and multitasking options. The missing menu button appears in the apps themselves rather than cluttering up the fascia.

Everything just works. The buttons are pleasant to use, the battery cover is easy to remove, the screen is easily reachable by one hand at all times. It is a solid, solid outing by HTC and it will impress anyone no matter what phone they use. (Except for iSheep, to whom nothing exists but iPhone).

I am not a great fan of HTC Sense, but I must admit that the latest version seems particularly elegant and grown up - in fact, short of pure AOSP Android, Sense is perhaps the best looking skin by any manufacturer. The lock screen, with its iconic metal ring, is a good place to start. You have a clock and four shortcuts on the bottom. You pull away the ring to get to the home screen, or you drag the shortcuts, or any notifications, to the ring to open that application. Simple, elegant, and fun to use every time.

The rest of the UI is mostly Android 4.0 as usual. The call, contacts and SMS apps, while sporting entirely customized interfaces, do afford a comparison to the AOSP Android apps in terms of looks, mostly black on white. The most significant implication of this is that people like me, completely in love with pure Android, can use Sense as a daily driver

A dual core processor and 768 MB of RAM make for some interesting experience on the Desire X. The phone is not super-fast, but it is CONSISTENT, meaning that you get exact same operation times every time you open an app or close it. Curiously, there is no tab for 'live wallpapers' under the customization app, meaning that HTC don't think the Desire X can handle them. However, install an alternate launcher, or launch the LWP apps separately from app drawer, and live wallpapers can be set, with mostly good results. I have yet to encounter any LWP that seriously impacts the performance of Desire X, and I am frankly at a loss as to why HTC think so lowly of a dual core 1 GHz CPU.

Most impressively, the phone performs where it matters. There is no power button lag, meaning the screen wakes up and unlocks instantly. The phone, messages and contacts apps launch instantly too. The rest is above average as well; games play well, though don't expect to get top performance out of heavy titles. That said, those heavy titles run at least well enough to be playable.

The camera is good with fast shutter speeds, though video capabilities leave much to be... desired (clever me). The one major omission is front camera, which might be a deal breaker for many in this age of free Skype video calls.

However, consider this: for Rs24k, you are getting a top-quality HTC handset with Android 4.0, dual core processor, adequate battery, card slot and a fantastic 4-inch screen. I believe this is a compromise worth making. For me, no other midrange set comes close to Desire X for sheer desirability and robust performance.

HTC are back, and it IS time to fall in love again. Let's hope they continue this trend into 2013 and before long the company will be on the rise again.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Month with Galaxy Note 2

Hello all

As I announced earlier, I have moved to a Galaxy Note 2 from my trusted and beloved Galaxy Nexus. It has been one month and I'd like to share my experience, and please take note, you won't find such 'long term tests' on other tech blogs.

My Note 2 is the beautiful Titanium Grey version, bought factory sealed and unlocked. Its built in memory is 16 GB.


Believe it or not, I am thinking about getting rid of the Note 2 ASAP. Main culprit is the pathetic, infuriating, shameful 'power button lag', i.e. when you press the power button, the phone takes a second or so to wake up.

It is simply amazing how Samsung curate the shortcomings of their products so lovingly and carry them across to newer devices, spanning years and generations. This has been a pet peeve of Touch Wiz sets and it is still there, true to form, quad core processor and 2 GB RAM not withstanding.

Home button? Why, a double tap of that now enables S Voice, another pointless layer in addition to Google's own vastly superior Now (also present - go figure). Naturally, the home button waits for the second tap every time, before switching to home. To hasten its laggard ways, you can disable S Voice. Elegant.


I have said it before, and I will say it again: TouchWiz is a hideous monstrosity that is an affront to Google'e beautiful Holo interface. Everything from the horrendous in-call screen to the Contacts app have been given a makeover that brings them bang up to date..for 2010. True, the apps are more functional, but most of those additional functions are not utilized anyway.

Touchwiz: Beautiful, innit?

Those reading this on a PC, do one thing: go to your display settings and set the resolution to 640x480. See how bloated everything is? That's basically what Samsung have done with added screen space on Note 2: absolutely nothing. The whole UI, windows, fonts, scroll bars - everything is just an enlarged version of that found on Galaxy S3. Short of browsing the web or media, you are NOT getting ANY additional advantage out of that 5.5 inch diagonal. Unless, of course, you root it and set a lower LCD density, in which case it all makes much more sense.


The S Pen works, and adds a truly unique dimension to the device. Trouble is, it is STILL not fast enough and most of the times taking it out and using it is too much of a bother. For example, the hover applications are cool, but isn't it just easier to tap on an item to see its contents rather than fumbling out the Pen, and placing its tip precariously above that item? I like the fact that Samsung likes to throw everything to the wall and see what sticks, but still, there is such a thing as redundancy.

As far as screen, camera, sound quality etc are concerned, all are top notch. You won't find a better equipped phone on the market. Multi-Window feature really works and is a major reason to buy the Note 2.


You know what they say about the best art? You don't notice it. Same holds true for Note 2's performance. After loading it up with apps, the phone still just flies. You don't notice how fast it is - things just happen when you ask them to. No stuttering, slowdowns, or lag. True, the beautiful 60 fps animations of Jelly Bean have been buried underneath, but if that concerns you too much go buy an iPhone. Please.

Same's the case for battery life. Under heavy usage you can easily eek out 18-25 hours with 4-5 hours of screen on time. Therefore, it is not a worry and you can, for once, actually USE your device without constantly glancing at the battery meter.


Note 2 is perhaps the best equipped phone on the market, bar none. Everything about it is top notch, from the fit and finish to the internals. The added features easily justify the price - in fact it is a bargain, and you don't hear it that often about a flagship device. .

It is THE device for you if you haven't used an AOSP Google phone, i.e. the Nexus line, recently. After a while TouchWiz just grates. That's Note 2's downfall.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Which Phone to Buy Right Now: October 2012

Hello all

The past few months have been tumultuous, both in terms of events in the tech sphere as well as my personal life. I lost my Galaxy Nexus to a mugging, and that has made me realize that it is no longer to operate a cellphone in public in our city. What automatically follows is that if you buy an expensive cellphone, it is best to use it indoors.

However, you cannot let this thinking dominate for long; after all, there'd be no point of this blog if everyone started living in fear. That said, my sincere advice to everyone is to keep a super-cheap phone in their pockets at all times, and avoid taking their 'normal' phones out as much as possible.

Here it goes.


This category is not easy to decide upon. There is so much competition that the mind boggles. Lots of other brands besides Samsung and Nokia have stepped into this arena and keep adding features while keeping the price anywhere between Rs1,000 to Rs2,000. It might be tempting to go for a Chinese brand which will give you many features for the same price, but don't. No matter how cheap a phone you plan to buy, there is no sense in throwing money away; therefore it is advisable to go for a brand like Nokia or Samsung.

My recommendation this month is Nokia 100.


For around Rs2,000, you are getting excellent telephony and a passable keypad for texting. Long battery life goes with the territory.

My previous recommendation in this category, the Nokia X2 02, remains a good phone, but its price at Rs6,500 now comes dangerously close to some Android smartphones. That's right, from Q-Mobile and others, you can now nab an Android smartphone for around Rs8-10,000. Therefore, X2-02 stands disqualified.


Unlike a few months ago, this category is now full of compelling choices. There's the Samsung Galaxy Y, Y Pro and Duos; I believe they are hampered too much by their QVGA screens. Therefore my recommendation for this category goes to HTC Explorer once again.

Image 1

Previously I had misgivings about its performance and the software (Android 2.3), but at Rs11,200 the phone is nearly unbeatable as a package.

At the upper end of the spectrum we have  Sony Xperia U (Rs19,000)                                 

Image 1

Now Xperia U is a 'beginner' in price only; it sports a dual-core 1 GHz processor and comes with Android 4.0. The only possible downside is non-expandable memory (capped at 4 GB) and 3.5 inch screen, which nevertheless sports a resolution of 800x480. The main camera is the usual excellent Sony effort and there's a front camera too. The phone has only 512 MB of RAM but I have a feeling that the dual core processor will take care of that. In short, these features cannot be obtained at this price; well done Sony.


There is a new interesting contender in town. Meet Samsung Galaxy S Duos.

Looks similar to Galaxy S3, dual sim, dual core, 4 inch screen, Android 4.0. Priced at Rs25,000 currently, the GS Duos is an ideal piece of kit and that quite reasonable price is icing on the cake. With 768 MB RAM the phone is unlikely to suffer slowdowns. As such, even without trying it, I can say that this is quite a safe bet for a midrange smartphone. Everything else is too expensive and not worth it.


Yeah, you guessed it. I will STILL recommend my beloved Galaxy Nexus.

With Jelly Bean and even rumoured Androud 4.2 which is almost sure to make it to Galaxy Nexus, the phone keeps getting better. It's specs may now be so last year (dual core 1.2 Ghz processor, 4.65 inch HD display), but think: the added advantages you are getting with Galaxy S3 is quad core processor, more memory and a tad larger screen. In my opinion, the Galaxy Nexus works so well, you don't need to go further. Yes, the 16 GB memory cap is a limitation, but as I have discovered, you can easily live with that. The sheer elegance of the phone's hardware and pure Android UI is unbeatable - the phone just works, day in and day out, with amazingly smooth performance and no bugs to speak of. With the price hovering around the Rs35k mark, there is simply no better overall package on the market.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 Review: The Kitchen Sink is in There Somewhere

Hello all

So I have bitten the bullet and bought a Galaxy Note 2. I know, I know. I lived with the original Galaxy Note for a few months and after struggling to fall in love with it, went back to my beloved Galaxy Nexus. So what's different this time round? Let's compare:

SPEC                GALAXY NOTE             GALAXY NOTE II
Processor           1.4 GHz dual core            1.6 GHz quad core
RAM                  1 GB                                2 GB
Screen diagonal   5.3 inches                        5.5 inches
Resolution           1280x800                        1280x720
Launch OS          Android 2.3                     Android 4.1.1
Battery                2500 mAh                       3100 mAh


Soon after Samsung was riding the waves of unprecedented success following the launch of Galaxy S2 (still one of the best and most beloved sets on the market), Samsung decided to dabble in some experimentation. It launched the original Galaxy Note, which was, by all respects, an enlarged Galaxy S2 with a stylus. Samsung bet on two trends : desire among some users for a larger screen and re-introduction of the stylus. In typical fashion, they threw in a few surprises: the processor had been upgraded to 1.4 Ghz from GS2's 1.2, and the screen had graduated to a proper HD effort compared to the paltry (but excellent) 800x480 resolution of the GS2 screen.

The devices would have been same otherwise, but for the software. Samsung did not just include a stylus in the package, they built a whole suite of apps (S Pen apps) around it, designed to take advantage of it. That attracted the attention of not only geeks like me, but also painters, artists, and others who liked to be productive on the go.

Despite its size, the original Note was a raging success. It sold in excess of 10 million worldwide, and after an upgrade to Android 4.0, remains a high-demand and well loved device one year after its launch. Even today it can cost upto Rs50k in the local market. Whatever reservations the tech blog posed about its size, have been blown away by the stellar success.


I already gave the specs at the start of the post, but the differences go much deeper than specs. First and foremost, the Note 2 is the first major phone in the world to launch with Android 4.1 Jelly bean. That, when its flagship Galaxy S3 remains on 4.0, although update is rolling out gradually. From the superior fit and finish to the huge battery, to the superior screen, it is plain to conclude that the Note 2 is Samsung's new flagship.

That change of loyalties brings an unprecedented focus from Samsung's software engineers. First of all, launching a major device, with so many custom apps, on Jelly Bean is a major feat in itself; the OS came out 3 months ago. Secondly, the Note 2 represents the epitome of all software mods Samsung have done so far to Android; it comes loaded to the brim with features that will take months for users to find out. S Voice, Smart Stay, Smart Rotation, Wi Fi Direct, plus a new host of functions related to the S Pen such as touchless scrolling etc., all are there.


There's no question about it: The Note 2 looks stunning, especially in the 'Titanium Grey' variant. I thought S3 was a mixed bag (looks wise as well as overall), but the Note 2's proportions work so much better.

The screen is undoubtedly the star of the show. At first glance it is virtually undistinguishable from that of Galaxy S3, but during text-heavy work such as internet browsing, the non-Pentile nature of the screen comes to the forefront. Everything is super-sharp with no jagged edges whatsoever. In theory iPhone 5 and HTC One X might have better screen, but none of them can match the 5.5 inch expanse of the Note 2 Super AMOLED.

The rest of the hardware is understated. All the ports and slots are in their usual places. Thankfully, this time Samsung have remembered to include a notification LED. That alone removes the biggest problem I had with the original Note.


So here is gets interesting. Let me get it plain: I HATE TouchWiz, Samsung's custom UI (TW). Yes, they have improved it somewhat during the past years. But even today, what TouchWiz is doing is taking away the best visual bits of Jelly Bean and replacing it with 3 year old stylings which are perhaps more functional but horrible looking.

Take the launcher. It smacks you in the face with 4x4 grid of icons/widgets and expects you to live with it. Beside limiting you to 7 homescreens, and allowing for some too-large Samsung widgets, the launcher does nothing to enhance the functionality of the default Android Jelly Bean launcher. In fact, here is a list of the features TW launcher is missing compared to default Android:

1) Folder creation is way more difficult. You cannot drag an icon on top of another to create a folder
2) No dynamic resizing of widgets
3) No dynamic placement of icons (where other icons jump out of the way if you wish to place something on the screen)
4) No Google search bar on top
5) It is slower compared to default launcher

So, the first thing I did was to install Nova Launcher from the market. Boy, was my world changed. Nova gives you all the features you could want, with ultimate speed and flexibility, and I was stunned to learn that 99% of the features worked without requiring Root. What does it offer in addition to the default Android options? here:

1) Ability to create upto 9 homescreens
2) Ability to customize grid size (I am running 5x4)
3) Ability to specify whether the application and widgets grid scrolls vertically or horizontally
4) Ability to re-size any widget
5) Folder creation in line with default Android - just drop one icon on top of another and the folder is there

In short, installing another launcher takes away almost 50% of the pain from TW. The remaining 50% comes from Samsung's apps, specifically contacts and dialer. Dialer itself is OK, but the incoming-call screen is the UGLIEST I have ever had the misfortune of laying eyes upon. Mere words cannot describe how horrific those two giant circles look, denoting call/reject options, how close together they are. Picking a call on the Note 2 can cause physical pain. It is an abomination; there is absolutely no justification for Samsung to omit the default Android call/contact apps with their own. The former are a paragon of understated beauty.

Galaxy Nexus on the left, Note 2 on the right

The TW apps also have another serious drawback: they bypass the swipe-to-switch convention adopted by Android 4.x where you simply swipe left and right to get to another tab in an app. In Note 2, where such a provision would have been welcome given the sheer size of the screen, you have to flick your thumb up and down to switch tabs.

By now it must have been clear that I absolutely hate TW, and already feeling homesick for the AOSP Android UI of my beloved Galaxy Nexus. That said, I appreciate some of the enhancements Samsung have brought to the table which are not present in default Android:

1) Seamless integration of contacts with social networking services. Auto-detection of common contacts and matching
2) Seamless integration of cloud services into Gallery. In fact Gallery is the best part of the TW UI
3) Various S Pen touchless browsing features

Which brings us to one of the most-touted features of the Note line: the S-Pen. Let me make it clear from the outset: please don't base your buying decision on it, since its utility varies greatly from case to case.

For me, the S-Pen represents a productivity enhancement that is best used when the user is not using the Note 2 as a phone. In Pakistani conditions, bringing out your Note 2 while outdoors, and then using the S Pen means you might as well hang a sign on you saying "Come and mug me". Yet, while browsing, or while in a meeting, S Pen can become a great productivity tool. You can take notes, cut and paste pictures, or hover the pen on the screen and browse the web or gallery etc. For artists, painters and graphic artists, S Pen, combined with apps like Photoshop mobile, can become an invaluable tool. It suddenly comes together when you try to enhance your Gallery photos for web uploading. On the Note 2, you can actually do it with ease.

Lastly, I would have loved to see Android's default navigation bar rather than the hardware keys for home, back and menu. For some reason, Samsung continues to defy Google and insists on providing a three-year-old solution to its users. Yes, I know the bar would have taken valuable screen estate, but it would have allowed to phone to become smaller, and given significant usability advantages.

You can't have it all, I guess.


Hands down the Note 2 camera is one of the best i have seen. It is almost (but not quite) as instantaneous to take a photo as that of the Galaxy Nexus. Quality is OK too if the lighting is right.


The phone comes with every connectivity feature you can imagine. It also has NFC, which is useful for touching your phone with another having NFC and...sharing web pages. Unless NFC starts supporting file sharing, I don't see much use for it, but it is nice to have (like a lot of things on the Note 2).


What about speed, you say? On Note 2, you will soon stop noticing the speed of operation. That's because it will cease to matter: this thing flies through everything with ease. Most apps open and close as soon as you push the button or touch the icon. That said, the speed increase is not as pronounced as I was expecting. For one thing, that irritating power button lag is still there; I don't know what Samsung have been doing past three years, but I am sure nobody worked on this. However, in real world usage, nothing, not even the Galaxy S3, approaches the Note 2 in terms of raw speed.

To conclude, yes, the Note 2 might well be the most full-featured phone on the market. It is also one of the best looking ones. The S Pen works just as well as advertised. However, the whole experience is slightly let down by the software. As an overall package, though, this might well be the best portable gadget in the world right now.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Which Smart TV to buy - or NOT!

Hello all

Today I touch on a topic that's near my heart: sharing experience across various devices. These days the electronics firms are having a field trip, selling hyper-expensive 'Smart TVs' to an unsuspecting public.

A Smart TV is one which has some 'smarts' built in - i.e., it has an operating system running various apps. Samsung is advertising its latest line with fancy features such as gesture control, video calling, and browsing. While the TV part of the deal is admittedly excellent - the LED panel is sharp and gives outstanding image quality - it all gets iffy when they try to charge a 100% premium for the supposedly smart features.

Why? The answer lies in 2005. Yes, that golden era when Nokia ruled the world of phones. What has that got to do with anything? Well, all the best Nokia smartphones had a feature called 'TV Out'. What it did was display the screen of your phone on your telly, via a cable that went into the audio jack of your phone and split into three for the DVD input on your TV. With this setup, you could browse the web, stream media, play photos and vidoes, and games, on ANY TV. In 2005.

Fast forward to 2012. TVs have given way to HDTVs. DVD inputs have given way to HDMI slots. And the excellent TV-Out feature has given way to 'HDMI Out' in best-case scenario and MHL in the worst-case. See, most flagship Android phones (even some mid range ones) either have an HDMI out slot or support MHL (multimedia high-definition link) technology through their micro USB ports. They connect to an HDTV's HDMI slot via a cable. And they display the contents of your phone, in FULL HD, on your TV.

Think about it. With a device you already have and spending maybe 10 USD on the cables, you can browse the web, make video calls, watch/stream HD movies, play games, on your TV. Your screen becomes a computer powered by a hefty processor and GBs of RAM with top of the range internet connectivity.

So there. Smart TVs are a scam - at least if you plan to buy them due to their 'smart' features. Buy a smartPHONE instead! Or wait for the day when such throwaway functionality comes built in with every HDTV instead of being on a pointless premium

Friday, September 14, 2012

iPhone 5: what it is and how it affects the world at large

Ah, so the cat is out of the bag. iPhone 5 is upon us; it will be available in stores worldwide over the next couple of months. Let's go briefly over how things went at Apple's event to announce the 5.

Most people say it lacked pomp and chutzpah. I also came away thinking the same, but after sleeping over it, I came to a new realization. The event was dull because it lacked Apple's reality distortion field. It conveyed features for what they were, not making hyperbolic statements or promises.

Secondly, and most importantly, Apple did not have anything even superficially jaw-dropping to announce. In fact, some of the 'features' came straight out of a comedian's portfolio. So what do you do with a 4-inch screen? You'd think it would be better for web browsing etc. But no, Apple says you CAN ADD A FIFTH ROW OF ICONS to its desktop!

The 'new' additions to Siri, meanwhile, are an exact copy of what Google announced with Jelly Bean's Google Now feature. Two months ago.

The camera remains largely the same. Yeah, there's a panorama mode. As if its the first. The rest? Aluminum construction. Yay. Thin. Double-yay. And hey, now you can get location updates within apps. So useful for the three people who like to text while navigating in their cars.  There's 4G/LTE too, though about a thousand phones on the market have it right now.

Having been through the revolutionary changes, let's see what stays the same:
1) Design of the hardware
2) Design of the user interface
3) Camera resolution
4) Pixel density of the display

So that was that, a summary of Apple's most boring event in years. Oh, that is, for the Apple fans. For everyone else (THE THINKING MAJORITY) it was a study in a company undoing itself right before the world stage. Having reached some sort of commercial apex, Apple seems content to rest on its laurels. It is just adding minor variations to the OS while retaining the same aesthetics for the hardware and software design. In other words, Apple is behaving EXACTLY like Nokia, 4 years ago.

There are naysayers. Some say it is wrong to expect something groundbreaking from Apple. Hello? Since when? How did that materialize, since Apple itself claims every new feature as a revolution? This is the most despicable example of the pathetic sold-out mentality prevailing within the tech journalism circles. Hype up a new Apple device to high heaven, then try to justify it when it doesn't deliver.

How is that innovation?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

World's First iPhone 5 Review

Hey y'all.

Today I have the scoop of the century, if not millennium. Tired by my continuous jabs at their products, Apple staff abducted me yesterday and took me to their flying-saucer-shaped headquarters. There, I was seated in a blank room. A ghostly apparition, perhaps a 3D projection of Steve Jobs, sat before me and look very angry; there were red flashes in his eyes. He placed an object before me and intoned: "This is the iPhone 5. Bow before it, kiss my feet, and then review it. Failing that, you will be abducted again and never heard from."

Trembling, I took the phone in my hands; I stared at it reverently, knowing fully well that only Steve's ghost and I had touched the finished product in the entire world. Here's my review.


The iPhone 5 looks nothing like any other phone on the planet. It is made of a sturdy polycarbonate, is very flat and therefore will survive falls easily, even from thousands of feet, since it will then float harmlessly to the ground. Strike one for Apple there: the first phone in history to achieve this feat: the world's first truly drop-proof phone.

The phone's front fascia is dominated by a grid of numbered plastic squares. iPhone has been touch-only in the past, but users have been crying out for more tactile interaction with the phone. Therefore, Apple, as always attentive to its customers' needs, invented a neat solution: little plastic squares are mounted onto springs; they have contact points which, when connected to the circuit board below, send appropriate signal to the CPU and it displays a number or an alphabet on the screen. Apple has named this technology 'iType' and of course, being a world first, it is patented. There are already rumours in the market that many computer and phone manufacturers are scrambling to discard an imitation of this solution, which they called 'keyboard' or 'keypad', and come up with an alternative. Judge Lucy Koh has cancelled her vacations in anticipation.

On top of the iType surface is a little white screen with 18:9 aspect ratio for ideal multimedia playback. The screen diagonal is 3.5 inches and features an advanced technology called 'LCD'.

On top left there is a huge speaker slot. Apple thinks that today's mobile phones suffer from poor voice quality and have therefore increased the size of the speaker to 2 square centimeters to enable users to better listen to calls. This speaker grill size and design has also been patented under the name 'iHear' patent violation notices have been sent to every electronics manufacturer on Earth and beyond. There is also a solar panel to complement the existing battery ("iCharge") and that will ensure a battery life of a week under heavy usage.

There are little design flourishes all over. The Apple logo, for example, is there in the very shape of the phone, saving precious space and weight of previous solutions where embossing was required. The iPhone 5 will be available in all colours corresponding to the rainbow from day one, all the better for its target demographic. The phone is only 3.5 mm in thickness, therefore taking the title of thinnest phone ever made. The Apple shape makes the experiencing of holding and using a phone a joy.

The rest about the innards of the phone is a mystery. I did learn that thanks to the smaller display, the processor chosen is a single-core 337 MHz job. I am confident that the iPhone 5 will perform even faster than its predecessor.


As expected, the phone dialing experience on iType is second to none. The squares click and there is a hitherto unseen tactility and clarity to the whole experience. There is no T9 or alphabetical dialing since that solution has been in use for many years and has caused countless mis-dialing incidents. To protect user's privacy, Apple has opted not to build an address book in the phone and instead, every iPhone will come with the elegant binder (pictured) called 'iNote' which will clip neatly to the phone itself. The binder will be used to store contacts and other information by users. Providing endless flexibility, iNote is a pioneering technology allowing its users to write or draw virtually anything, maintain a calendar, jot down engineering plans, song lyrics, friends' birthdays, recipes, etc, while keeping the content perfectly secure and within easy reach.

The back camera has a special mode called 'iNote mode' where it will photograph content on the iNote pad and act accordingly. For example, if it's a telephone number, it will dial that number, requiring precisely one key push from users. If it's a drawing, it will scan it and keep it on display for 30 minutes, so that you can share it with others; naturally, all other functions will be disabled for the duration to save users from complications.

This kind of out-of-the-box thinking is what sets Apple apart from competitors. Hands down, this is the most secure way of storing information.

The purpose of some keys marked as +,-,X,/ and MR, M-, M+ was not immediately apparent. According to Apple representative, these represent another pioneering technology. The sign keys are for quick calculations, while MR, M- etc are for storing any picture taken by the camera, deleting it or recalling a previous one.

To further bolster the security and provide users with bulletproof peace of mind, incoming calls as well as SMS service, have been disabled. It is possible to send a message via iNote though. Apple says that 90% of iPhone 5 customers will still have iPhone 4 or 4S, and they will continue to function even after introduction of iPhone 5. By disabling incoming calls or messages, iPhone 5 will remain a bulletproof platform while previous phones will find themselves useful as well. It's a win-win situation.


Apple introduces a new internet portal called Siri.com. To browse the net, you will simply have to recite the entire URL into the phone's mic and the website will appear on the screen. This will prevent mis-typed addresses and provide users with a truly hands-off experience. Needless to say, web browsing is fully integrated with iNote.

Apple's Safari version for iPhone 5 reaches new levels of security and reliability. This browser rids itself of unnecessary clutter like Flash, HTML, and images. Instead, it presents web pages in a supremely attractive text-only form, truly outstanding on the white LCD. Pages load instantly, and since iPhone 5 foregoes wifi owing to its fickle and insecure nature, the uncluttered web can travel even faster on the provided GPRS connection.

Continuing with tradition, there is no dedicated memory slot. There is a proprietary 47-pin port though, which will accept a wireless transmitter (sold separately), to stream content from a nearby PC or phone. Thus, weight has again been saved by foregoing internal memory.

The camera is carried over from iPhone 4S, which means it is the best on the market. Any pictures you take will appear instantly on the LCD, and to enhance smoothness during editing, they are 8-bit monochrome only. You can always upload the pics taken by camera, in full colour, to any website via the built in GPRS connection.

The iPhone 5 also excels when it comes to music and movies. In a survey, users found the black bars interrupting the movie frame as the biggest irritant. Therefore, iPhone 5's screen has an aspect ratio of 18:9, and needless to say, Movies play perfectly. 8-bit monochrome LCD ensures that, unenamored with the burden of colour or detail, they retain a record-breaking 60 frames per second.


I had the previlege of only a brief time with the iPhone 5. However, even so, I was able to conclude that iPhone 5 is the most advanced and user-friendly gadget ever to be released. It has unprecedented security and user friendliness. It beats anything by Samsung or Sony or Nokia. It is a revolution ten times as big as the original iPhone was in 2007. Apple has once again delivered a stunning device that is second to none on the market.

The release price has been revised slightly upward to $1000. This was kept to take the confusion out of making the purchase: most Apple users, according to studies conducted by Apple, only recognize banknote designations 500 or higher. Not having to count the money at an Apple store is a great incentive to buy an iProduct, and once again it proves that Apple places user experience as its top prority.  I believe it is a small price to pay for what is essentially a world-changing device. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Deadly Sins of Gadget Buyers: The Mistakes We Make

Whew. My last post about Apple's litigations and their real motive attracted a lot of attention. I am grateful to my readers and hope they will keep coming back for more.

Today let me invite your attention to a few crucial mistakes we all buy while buying gadgets, which allow manufacturers to rip us off and make fools out of us. While I may be overwhelmingly in favour of Android phones, I nevertheless know that every manufacturer is out to make money, and preferably, more money than deserved. Here I list down some key mistakes gadget buyers (including myself) make.

1) Going for 'specs' rather than 'experience'

Granted, in most cases the two are tied. For example, a web browsing experience on a 720p 4.7 inch screen will be superior to that on a 4 inch 480p screen, owing to both size and resolution. Also, you absolutely WANT 1 GB of RAM if you hope to keep your Android set chugging along.

But from here on it gets crazy. Quad core processors? Who needs them with Jelly Bean? Samsung Nexus S, an almost antiquated set, runs just fine on JB. Same goes for Galaxy Nexus, which is beating those newfangled Galaxy S3s at the speed game. You need latest SOFTWARE, not hardware.

2) Camera

Trust me, even a cellphone costing 500 USD cannot better the photo quality offered by a cheap point and shoot camera costing 1/5th the price. Even if the megapixel count goes up to 12 or 16, they are still there on that tiny sensor which cannot make sense of most things in the world. Same goes for video: most smartphone cameras these days will happily make an HD video but they cannot match the smoothness and light range of a dedicated camera.

So bear in mind: you just need to pay for a PASSABLE camera on a cellphone, even if it is 3.2 megapixels. Anything over that is overkill.

3) Ignoring perfectly good products for one missing feature

We do this a lot. We have a feature in mind, and for that feature we are willing to pay more. We ignore perfectly good gadgets for trivial factors. So an HDTV has only one HDMI slot. So what? You can switch cables around can't you? Is it worth paying 20% more for the one with 3 slots but same picture?

Similarly some digital cameras cannot output to an HDTV. Again, there is no sense in paying more for this feature since most HDTVs these have USB slots and you can play any content on them.

Which brings me to the biggie: Smart TVs. I will cover this in a separate feature, but suffice it to say that it is one of the greatest ploy to grab more money from consumers.

So THINK. If you NEED to have a TV out connection on your phone, you must be using it very often. If you aren't likely to use it for months, no sense. The age of good Nokia phones where several features and technology was thrown in to see what lasted and what didn't, is long gone. These days you can't just say 'Yeah, but it's nice to have just in case' because you are paying for it dearly.

4) Gadget envy

Many people buy gadgets because their friends or bosses have them. Again, I would say, THINK. You want an HD monitor, right? Do you really need one with 27 inches diagonal? Won't a 22-incher suffice? Similarly, everyone at a mall having the iPhone does NOT mean it's a good phone. Democracy's underlying assumption that majority is always right, does not stand up to testimony and never was this truer.

5) Not waiting

In many third world markets, gadgets are often priced at what a buyer is willing to pay. When a particularly hot or popular gadget launches, the dealers make a lot of money, capitalizing on the buyer frenzy.

My advice is simple: WAIT. You don't absolutely need to have that new phone, TV, laptop etc, on day one. Wait for it to OFFICIALLY launched by authorized dealers. If it is not likely to, wait at least 6-8 weeks. Invariably, prices of new gadgets come down with time, and in case of cellphones, they plummet to 60 or 70% of the launch pricing. Remember: it's nothing if you flaunt the PRICE of your gadget - the only thing you can safely show off if you get good value out of it

Waiting has another advantage: you will be able to read thorough reviews of the gadget and know all about its flaws (there are many, believe it or not). Many features simply don't work, or refuse to work in specific situations. Mostly, internet FORUMS rather than reviews are a good source of this crucial information. Much of it might be misleading or very specific, but it is nevertheless useful.

These were a few mistakes that buyers make while buying gadgets. I will be back with more as I make them!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Great Game Behind Apple/Samsung Verdict: Racism and Eliticism

Spot at least six differences between panels. If you can't, congratulations: you are a US judge!

This is not one of my usual articles. If you are expecting an objective analysis of the Apple/Samsung verdict, please look elsewhere. Objectivity in this case is not required or even welcome. This is a highly personal, opinionated account of my thoughts on the Apple copyright suit, its process and its implications in the long run.

As you know, Apple filed a lawsuit against Samsung, alleging that the latter stole several "patented" design ideas of its products, specifically phones and tablets. They contended that the similarities were enough to cause confusion among consumers, who might pick up a Samsung device thinking it was an Apple device. These patents covered everything from overall design of a device, to the software features, to the design of icons, etc. You can get the details from any tech blog. The summary of the situation is that none of the claimed 'patents' were actually invented by Apple. However they were awarded to them.

The suit was litigated. From the outset Judge Lucy Koh let it be known loud and clear through her remarks that she was not going to be objective or logical. The patents covered 26 devices by Samsung. At the end of arguments, a lengthy form was given to jurors, who were supposed to decide on patent violation by each of the 26 devices individually. It was estimated that it would take weeks for them to fill it out and arrive at a decision.

Surprise, surprise: the jurors were back after two days, holding Samsung guilty of all charges and slapping a penalty of $1.05 billion on them. Naturally, Samsung plans to go into appeal. However, I don't believe for a second that any US court will EVER side with a Korean company against one of their own.

Now, I am the first one to admit that I have always mocked Samsung's TouchWiz interface for its Android devices as 'iOS for kids'. Their icons are similar; but, you know what: Android is completely different to iOS. Therefore the resemblance is entirely superficial, and any consumer can easily distinguish between Samsung and Apple products simply by seeing the logos. It's not the same situation as "NOKLA" replica phones, which are so close to the real thing that it is genuinely possible for anyone to be fooled.

Therefore, to claim that Apple deserves $1 billion from Samsung thanks to lost sales is not only ridiculous, it is shamefully insulting to human intelligence. It is like Rolls Royce claiming patent infringement by BMW for copying its 'design' of a car with four wheels, four doors, two headlights and a steering. Further, according to the verdict, a Rolls Royce customer is capable of walking into a BMW dealership thinking it was a RR dealership, buying the car and going home. Suppose the chap's wife says, "I thought you went to buy a Rolls Royce". The said chap: "D'oh! I didn't see the logos! What a fool I am!"

Are we all that stupid? In the putrid, fetid minds of the Apple-bankrolled judge and jury, we are. I, however, believe that this fiasco is just a tree in a large forest, and we should be able to see the forest. Here it comes.

To me, this decision reinforces a worldwide racist/elitist agenda against third world and non-white races. Yes, you read that right. You see, a win for Apple means that Apple is allowed to slowly strangle other mobile manufacturers out of existence. It also means that competitors have to remove useful features from future devices just because Apple thinks it owns them. Granted, the decision covers the US market only and elsewhere similar suits have been thrown out. But US is a big market and no manufacturer can hope to remain successful in the long run without having a meaningful presence there.

Compare Apple and Samsung. Apple commands an uncompromised mindshare amongst the world's elite: bankers, executives, billionaires, and rich offspring of them. The pricing of Apple products ensures that they sell by the millions, yet do not reach the masses. Apples' application ecosystem is also closed and expensive. You have to be seriously rich if you mean to take full benefit of Apple products. It is like having to pay extra for 'diet' version of your favorite ice cream: you are paying more to get less. This strategy is successful because there is a whole section of general public which cannot be persuaded to invest a little time and effort into their technology. They want things as simple as they want, even if they are missing features. In return, they want a visibly expensive hardware so that they can flaunt it and announce their status. What the device can or cannot do is of absolutely no concern to them.

All credit to Steve Jobs for identifying this segment of the market and nailing the job of tailoring his products to them. An iPhone is simplicity itself: no advanced features, just a sea of icons. Looks wise it is bland and elegant. It has a tiny 3.5 inch screen with super sharp picture. It can make calls. It is updated once a year at a specific time and its operating system also receives an update once a year.

By contrast, there are several dozen Samsung Android phones. Even the most basic one of them can largely match the feature set of an iPhone at 20% the price. But with Android, people have to customize. They have to invest time and effort to mold the device in their own persona. You can never be pleased with your current Android phone because you know that a better one is coming out next week. Android customers talk about internal memory, RAM, processor speed, screen density, while comparing the specs of their phones. Android might be almost as easy to master as iOS, but its perception differs.

However, thanks to Android, a huge portion of the world's lower middle class can now be connected and become part of the information revolution. With phones for every pocket, anyone from a cornershop owner to a student to a chief executive can afford and enjoy the connectivity and advanced feature set. Technologies like GPS, WiFi, NFC, and video calling can now be enjoyed by people in Asia and Africa for whom iPhone's price is more than their entire years' salary.

The chief beneficiaries of Android are all Far Eastern companies: Sony, Samsung, HTC, LG and a host of Chinese manufacturers. The defining trait of these companies has always been to profit from volumes rather than margins. Therefore they focus on reaching a widest possible audience, as opposed to Apple whose main source of profit is 'Apple Tax', i.e. exorbitant overpricing of its products.

Both approaches have their merits. Apple gets to keep its efforts cleaner and more focused, and considerably more polished overall (though Android 4.0 and 4.1 have beaten Apple in that respect). It means Apple doesn't have to worry about reaching every segment of society yet it can remain the most profitable company on the planet.

The elite class so comprehensively locked, the only alternative left for competitors is to reach for other demographics and income groups. In the process, humanity benefits.

Now coming back to the verdict, one can clearly see that while Apple shows no plans or intentions to extend its product range beyond the very expensive, it nevertheless seeks to root out its competitors. Specifically, the Samsung Galaxy Y is no threat to iPhone, yet it might be wiped out from the face of the planet as a result of Apple's lawsuit. Keep in mind that the US patents mechanism and judiciary is on Apple's side. With world's deepest pockets it is not fanciful to assume that in the long run Apple is in a strong position to 'influence' judiciary worldwide, especially now that there is a 'precedent' in the form of the US verdict.

So once again: Apple retains its stronghold on the elite, while eliminating competitors which cover every segment from lower middle class to the top tier.

What can it mean? To me, it is nothing less than an attempt of placing embargo upon the right to information by the less privileged populace of the world. There is no other explanation for the absurdity of these proceedings. If Apple has its way with the patents, ultimately it will own all the devices that can provide access to internet. The devices that will be affordable by under previleged masses will be crippled, underpowered, and might even block access to certain portions of the internet. So, while information is freely accessible today, in a near future it will once again become a luxury to be enjoyed by the elite.

Yes, it is far fetched. But tell me: why else would Apple be allowed to dictate what its competitors can and cannot sell? Go back to the beginning of this article: what if Rolls Royce decided that it will litigate the Toyotas, Hondas, and Suzukis of this world out of existence due to their 'abuse of patents'? Will Rolls Royce ever cover the market segments thus vacated? Never. So it will only leave a vast population not being able to afford transport whereas previously it could.

This process of concentrating the world's resources in the hands of the precious few is nothing new. It has already occurred in the realms of finances, natural resources and food. I won't be surprised if the same agenda is carried out for information because after all, it is the most precious commodity of all.

I will leave you with an interview of the foreman of the jury, one Mr Hogan. See and judge for yourselves.


Monday, August 27, 2012

What to look for when buying an Android cellphone

Hello All

I am back after a prolonged holiday and some of the experiences during the 5 days provoked me to write this post.

I do a monthly round up of phones recommended to buy, and occasional one on which phones NOT to buy. All this begs a deeper, wider question: when out to get a cellphone, what should you look for? What is the bare minimum one should be able to accept and what are the compromises involved? My years of experience has enabled me to lay down certain criteria. Here goes.

1) Screen size

It's not so simple anymore. I think we can wholeheartedly agree that the iPhone's screen, once a benchmark for touch phones, looks hopelessly tiny today for media and web consumption. That said, iPhone's puny 3.5 inch job has something going for it that other phones have only last year begun to match: PPI, or pitch, or dots per inch. iPhone has a PPI of 325, which means that even on the tiny screen text is clearly visible. That means that you can read much smaller text on an iPhone. In 2010 the flagship screen size for Android phones was 4.3 inches; however, it had a resolution of 800x480 meaning that pixels were stretched far and wide, and the net effect for having a large screen was nullified, especially for text intensive tasks such as reading and web browsing.

2011 came and in November of that month Galaxy Nexus landed, changing the Android landscape for good. Firstly, it had Android 4.0 (now 4.1). Secondly it had a huge 4.7 inch screen in an elegant package, with a resolution of 1280x720, and a PPI of around 310. That means that for the first time, Android phones were beating iPhone at its own game with matching resolution and almost twice the screen size. (Do the math: 4.7 inches vs 3.5 inches is not a simple job of division but squaring that fraction). Web became much easier to process and books and magazines suddenly came to life.

However, even today, that screen size and resolution is not cheap. The cheapest HD screen as of this writing belongs to LG's Nitro HD and that costs 34k. So what are the alternatives?

Go small. Get a phone with 3.5 or 3.7 inch screen; the small screen size will mean that even at 800x480 pixels the PPI will be in the 275-290 region, rendering the text perfectly legible. Sony's Xperia U and Sola fall neatly into that bracket, not to mention HTC Desire S, One V, and Samsung Galaxy Ace and S Plus, to name a few.

You can go lower and cheaper, but then you are not really getting a good experience. At HVGA (480x320) and QVGA (240x320) resolution, there are a lot of options available, such as Samsung Galaxy Y, GIo, Duos and HTC Explorer; but you will have a painful web browsing experience on those thanks to low PPI and resulting pixellated text.

2) Software

It's a tragedy that we are 10 months into the launch of Android 4.0 (ICS) and yet companies have the gall to launch and keep phones on Android 2.3 (Gingerbread). Yes, GB is good for most users. It plays especially nice with the stupid custom skins such as Samsung's TouchWiz, and those from Sony  and Motorola. But ICS is in another league in terms of usability and sheer elegance. Anybody not giving ICS on a phone selling in 2012 is short changing their customers.

So go for ICS. HTC's 2012 lineup, with the exception of Explorer, has ICS. Sony's 2012 Xperia lineup has it, or at least has a confirmed upgrade. So what of Samsung, the world's biggest smartphone manufacturer? Why, they have exactly THREE phones running ICS - Galaxy S3, S2 and Note. Note (ahem) the flagship or near-flagship nature of these sets. It's a shame that out of the dozens Galaxy sets being sold by Samsung, only three has ICS.

But wait - there is something even better than ICS. Jelly Bean, Android 4.1, sets a new benchmark in terms of speed and smoothness, and even iPhone cannot match it in those criteria. So far, only two phones, both Nexus devices, are officially running JB; Samsung Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus.

3) Processor and RAM

A big deal is made out of dual- and quad-core processors these days. As per my experience, if the software is right, even a single core phone can fly. What it needs is RAM, not necessarily processor cores or speed.

Truth of the matter is, most Android phones these days ship with 512 MB of RAM. That is too little. Most Sony phones, even in 2012 and running ICS, sport similar RAM and therefore slow down to a crawl after few weeks of usage. At least HTC and Samsung give 768 or 1 GB of RAM to most of their sets. But situation is not idea. I believe in order to ensure a smooth experience, at least 1 GB of RAM is required; phones having that are numerous, such as Motorola Atrix, HTC One S and One X (but not One V), Samsung Galaxy S2, S3, Note and Nexus, LG's Optimus 4X and Nitro HD, Sony's Xperia S and P.

With 1 GB of RAM, you can make do with even 1 GHz single core processor, or dual core tops. Nobody really needs a quad core processor so I would suggest looking at options before paying the price premium.

4) Application Memory

Contrary to my earlier, rather extreme views on the matter, even 16 GB memory is enough for most users. So your phone should either have that built in (many do) or have a card slot. Done? Not exactly.

There is one more thing called 'Application memory' - something that is variously called "user memory" or "user accessible portion of ROM" or such. This is very crucial. Many phones, while having acres of memory, usually assign 320 MB or 512 MB for user's apps. The figure lowers down to 160 MB or even less than 100 for lower-tier phones.

Why does this matter? Android apps. They take a lot of space, and even if you shift them to memory card (a  not exactly easy or seamless process if you have dozens of apps), they leave their 'soul' behind in application memory. Therefore, install a few crucial apps and games, and 320 MBs are gone in no time.

Therefore I would suggest to ALWAYS, ALWAYS go for a phone that has at least 512 MB of application memory. This figure is not easily verifiable so I would suggest either check out gsmarena.com, that phone's official web page or, the best option: check the phone out in a shop (don't ever buy a phone without thorough checking), go to Settings>Storage and check the figure there.

So which phones qualify? The best one in this regard is Galaxy Nexus, which doesn't assign any limit at all to app memory, meaning that essentially you have 12 GB of app memory (of course at the expense of other media). Phones like Samsung Galaxy S, Note, Nexus S, and HTC One S and One X, all sport decent space for apps. Sony phones curiously lag behind in this regard.

5) Camera

Truth is, if you are obsessed about cameras on your phone, you have come to the wrong place. I have long professed that if you pay a premium for the camera on your phone in order to have a 12 MP snapper, it is far, far cheaper to nab a point and shoot from Canon or Nikon at less than one third the price for infinitely superior photography. Phone cameras are destined to be just another convenience, not a defining feature. The basic criteria here is not megapixels but immediacy. For example, the Galaxy Nexus, my phone of choice, sports a rather poor 5 MP camera. But, it has zero shutter lag, meaning that the picture is snapped as soon as the button is touched. That, in my opinion, compensates for the less than ideal low light performance.

So forget about the camera. You just want good stills and HD video, and virtually any phone will give you that.

6) Battery

No matter what you do, you'd be lucky if your Android phone lasts one day on a single charge. In 2012, battery technology still belongs to 2008. So no need to fret about it - it's a lose-lose situation!

By the time you finish reading this (I hope), you must have realized that it's not easy to buy an Android phone. That is because of the sheer choice available. However, I have listed what I think are the criteria that REALLY matter, and if you are able to meet MOST (not all) of them I believe you will have a relatively trouble-free experience.

Of course, the one single phone that meets all of the above criteria is my beloved Galaxy Nexus. Go figure :-).

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Only Review of Ainol Novo7 Aurora II Tablet on the Web!

Hello all, and Greetings

As promised, I am back with my review of the tablet I recently purchased. Why do I see fit to label this as the only review? Simple: I Googled it and I did stumble across one or two reviews that were more like detailed product descriptions, but no actual, critical review.


So, let's start with the specs. The tablet boasts a 7 inch IPS display of 1024x600 resolution, dual core 1.5 GHz processor, 1 GB of RAM, 16 GB of built in memory, a card slot, USB host function and HDMI out. For Rs15,000 this is a cracker piece of hardware, in fact far better value for money than any tablet or phone on the market. GPU is Mali 400 which is again quite respectable and better than many mid-to-high range phones. Add to that the fact that it is running Android 4.0.3 straight out of the box and Aurora becomes nearly unbeatable.


So is there a negative aspect to this device? Plenty. First it doesn't have a SIM slot and therefore no phone functionality whatsoever. Personally I don't mind since I never intend to make a phone call with a tablet, but several people I showed this to differed, so it seemed that SIM slot is a pretty big deal. Secondly, and perhaps expectedly, the performance doesn't match the hardware. Given the fact that this thing is running virtually pure Android with little or no embellishments or modifications, the speed and smoothness of operation seemed just a little bit off. But then, maybe it's just me since I am comparing it to my Jelly Bean-powered Galaxy Nexus and my perception of how fast and smooth an Android device can run have changed  permanently.

The final negative strike is battery life. This thing eats battery despite being not a phone. With Wifi connected it gives me around 2-3 hours of screen time. Perhaps it will take some time to settle down, or perhaps I am not using the proper charger. In any case this might POTENTIALLY be a deal breaker if you intend to use it to complement your work PC.


The list of positives is quite long. Google Play Store compatibility is there and apps download and install all right. Built in apps are nothing to speak of, literally, as they are all in Chinese. I had trouble running YouTube; some Googling revealed that problem was with the YouTube app and not the Tablet, and an earlier version of the app ran just fine.

Web browsing is almost PC-quality, the only drawback being that the screen resolution doesn't cut it anymore and you have to zoom in to read the text properly.

Games requiring good 3D hardware run just fine. The IPS LCD is quite good in terms of viewing angles and surprisingly bright. The UI may stutter as mentioned above, but it is no big deal. Wifi connectivity works well. The device is a little heavy which means it can become uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time, but that drawback is shared by all tablets.


This being a Chinese product, there are a lot of accessories available with local  vendors and there is also a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt. You can get a USB host cable, and even a keyboard dock-cum-flip case. However, these accessories are not available with all retailers. Further, the keyboard dock, while quite functional and pleasant to use, is a generic piece meaning it is not specific to Aurora II, and is quite ungainly in terms of looks and handling. But in the end, the accessories that you might require for this tablet to function properly are all there and can be obtained quite cheaply.


In conclusion, I will say this: you can't find better value for money in the phone/tablet market than Ainol Novo7 Aurora II. It does everything a top-end Android device is supposed to do, while costing one third or even one fourth. For anyone considering an Android phone, Aurora II is a necessary diversion. For many consumers, who do not require a very powerful device with them at all times in their pocket, the combination of this tablet plus a cheapo call-and-text phone becomes almost unbeatable.

I believe we are witnessing a revolution in consumer electronics. With the flood of Chinese tablets and introduction of Google's own Nexus 7 tablet, the pricing paradigm of these devices has changed. In case of Aurora II, you get a tablet that can do 90% of what Android tablets costing 3 times more can do.

All this can only benefit the consumer, and I foresee much, much exciting time ahead for us all. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Google, Not Apple, Is the True Tech Pioneer of Our Times

There is no shortage of 'analysts' on the internet which portray Apple as Father Christmas, relentlessly innovating, and supposedly delivery product after product of highest quality. The positive features of Apple products are touted as if they are the Second Coming, while the negatives or shortcomings are brushed aside as 'design quirks'.

The intention of this post is NOT to take away from the contributions Apple has made to electronics. Like Microsoft and Google, Apple has been, on numerous occasions, transforming the technological landscape. It remains a pioneer in product design and polish, and no other company can match it in terms of profitability and marketing ability.

That said, these days Apple is a greedy company which is afraid of competition and is trying to litigate its way to world dominance, relying on dubiously awarded patents for things it did not pioneer.

For average Joes like myself, who cannot afford most of the Apple products, there is another company which over a course of its existence, has completely transformed the information landscape. Its well known products like Google Search, Gmail, and Android, have delivered such towering value to common man that efforts from other companies dwarf in comparison. Here is a list of contributions that Google has made to my PERSONAL life.

1) Google Search. Never before has information been so easily available. Google Search, for me, transformed the Internet. It was not the first search engine, but it was revolutionary. Its speed and accuracy remain unparalleled. A coupe of days ago Google added 'Knowledge Graph' to search results, meaning that for most of your queries an exact answer is now available along with traditional search results. Try typing 'mass of moon in kg' or 'no. of medals won by China in Olympics' in a Google Search box right now and you will see that once again, quietly, Google has elevated the search game. It keeps giving.

Google Search has also been responsible for transforming other platforms. Remember when you had to search for a file in initial release of Windows XP? Remember that dog which wagged its tail for interminable minutes before results of your queries started appearing in spurts? It is common knowledge that Bill Gates made his team question the fact that how come Google's internet search was faster than Windows' offline search. Following that MS released Desktop Search, and subsequently baked the new super-fast search technology right into the Start Menu of Windows Vista and 7. Another several million lives transformed.

2) Gmail. Inexplicably, Gmail is STILL not the biggest web mail service. So what makes Gmail the webmail pioneer? Consider this: before Gmail, the only options with any credibility were Hotmail and Yahoo. Both had cumbersome web pages taking hours to load on the (slow) internet connections of the day. Lots of useless chrome, and the biggest crime of all: the main page of your mailbox did NOT show your mail, rather a jumble of highlights from your inbox mashed with other stuff. Also, there used to be mailbox size limits measured in MBs, not to mention attachment size limits.

Gmail changed all that. The UI was (and still is) lightweight, with unparalleled search and filtering features. It offered GBs of mailbox space, since copied by everyone else. The ads are there but they are lightweight and unobtrusive. And most importantly, it remains the ONLY web mail service that opens right on your inbox rather than useless mumbo jumbo.

Then there is Google Talk, chat client that was integrated right into the mailbox. Add to that seamless integration with Google Docs (now Google Drive) and continuous stream of new features, and it is pretty hard to beat Gmail.

3) Android. Need I say anything? Suffice it to say that Android is the name of an operating system that put desktop-like power into the hands of hundreds of millions of people worldwide, becoming their portal to the world. Android is responsible for revival of companies like Motorola and Sony in the mobile space, as well as transformation of Samsung from a humble also-ran three years ago to the biggest manufacturer of mobile phones in the world today. Not only that, countless other companies from China are manufacturing Android based phones and tablets, threatening to change the tech landscape in terms of pricing and specs. More than a million Android devices are being sold every day. It is all good for the consumer giving them choice, freedom, affordability and flexibility.

And as a bonus, it is the exact anti-thesis of everything that Apple stands for.

4) Google Translate. This is a comparatively lesser-known service that translates any web page for the user in real time. While it may not seem much, just a few years ago this would have seemed like science fiction. What's more, in typical Google way, the option just appears when you load a non-English web page; no menus to get into, no buttons to push.

5) YouTube. It is not a Google innovation, rather it was bought by Google. Since then, YouTube has become one of the premier content services on the web where you can check out missed TV shows, trailers, original material, as well as videos prepared by traditionally text based organizations like Car and Driver. Everything is free and available all the time. Again, stuff of science fiction come to life.

6) Maps/Earth. Again, the stuff of science fiction. Your city, your country, your world, mapped out and on your PC or mobile. You can locate specific addresses and routes to get there. You can check out traffic density. You can see how a place looks without moving from your desk. Yes, navigation services existed before Google Maps, but none of them were and are, as rich as Maps, not to mention completely free.

These were just SIX of the innovations that Google has made that have had a transforming effect on not only the tech landscape, but landscape, period. Take a look, consider how often you use these services and tell me your life doesn't depend on at least one.

Google, like any other company, is out to make money. It has all your personal data. The difference is that Google isn't afraid to experiment, and it mostly gives away stuff for free. Google has had a far more profound effect on the world than Apple with its fancy design can ever lay claim to. Sorry, that's the truth as I see it!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Tablets: Do you really need them?

Last week, I purchased an Android tablet. My detailed review of it will follow, but before that, there's a fundamental question which many people have been asking me: should I buy a tablet? 

There are several possible answers to this. First is, if you need to ask, you probably don't need it. I believe that covers 90% of the cases where that big touchscreen is invoking the lust for gadgets (read toys) inside males of all ages, yours truly included. If you consider the prices for iPad and some Android tablets from manufacturers like Samsung, Acer and Motorola, you can easily conclude that a laptop is a far, far better investment and cheaper too. 

It's not that simple, though. We all know that Apple has the market cornered with iPad. Some analysts go even as far as stating that while there's a market for iPads, the existence of a market for tablets is questionable. The numbers bear them out. However, to really know how a tablet can add to our lives, we need to see how tablet owners use their tablets. 

A typical iPad user is also a typical Apple customer. That means several things:
1) They are not in it for productivity or really adding value to their lives
2) They just have to have anything with an Apple logo on it
3) They use their gadgets to appear as part of some sort of elite club

There are exceptions, however. I know several executives who use an iPad for emails and browsing. 'Sent from my iPad' is becoming an increasingly common PS to emails and social media posts. One does realize, though, that emails and internet are CONSUMPTION of media rather than CREATION. That is where the dividing line lies. 

Tablets are great for consumption. Browse the web, read emails, check on status updates, read books, view videos, play games etc. For all the stuff that doesn't require too much input from users, tablets are unparalleled. Their touchscreens make navigation a joy, and generally their screens have very high quality (new iPad leads in this regard). 

Trouble arises when you need to DO something. Write a report, prepare a presentation, manipulate a photo, edit a video, run queries on a database. You can ONLY do all this on a PC. That PC needs to run  Windows, needs to have a robust chipset and dedicated graphics support. It also needs to have a physical keyboard and mouse. Without all these, good luck preparing even a single slide of a PowerPoint presentation.

As far as media consumption is concerned, Windows in general has fallen behind. Things are more seamless and direct on a phone or a tablet. Case in point: what do you do when you have to email a picture? On a PC, you open a web browser, load up your email service, click Compose, click Attach a File, click on Browse, navigate the folder in the window that appears, click on the picture, click Attach/Open, then add email address in the address field, and click Send. On an Android phone or tablet, you open picture gallery, tap on it, click on the 'share' icon that appears on top, select 'Gmail' or 'Email' from the drop down list and click. You only have to add email address and click send. However, Windows 8 UI might change all that. 

That said, for browsing and videos etc, laptops are generally as good as tablets if not better. 

You cannot carry a tablet around in your pocket. You have to carry it in a separate pouch or case. So, if you do have to carry something extra, why not carry a laptop? It is quite clear that if you have a laptop and a good smartphone, there's really no need for a tablet in your life. However, if you choose to purchase a dirt-cheap phone for calls and texts, you can easily afford a tablet which will offer a much better experience at the expense of portability. Really, think about it: there is no real need for calls and texting to be integrated on a single device with email, Skype etc. 

So we have found an answer. Or rather, a bunch of them

1) If you have a PC and a good smartphone, you don't need a tablet
2) If you have neither, buying a laptop is a better idea
3) If you have a personal laptop, you don't really need a tablet
4) If you don't care about productivity and have too much money, you're not reading this blog so go away :-)

Friday, July 20, 2012

Which Phone to Buy Right Now: July 2012

Welcome to my monthly round of eligible bachelors in the phone world. This month I am in a flux; some pretty huge towers have fallen, and all they have left in their wake is a mass of rubble. 

Let's begin with the basics.


I am at a loss here. I have been very vocally enamored with the Nokia X2-02 as my budget phone of choice. I even advocated it despite occasional instability. For me, the feature set more than justified the price. No longer. 

See, since last month or so, the second SIM slot in my phone has stopped working. Since this has been my secondary phone, I have hardly used it. I can take it to a service center and get it fixed, but the very appearance of this defect is startling. With such a basic feature gone missing for no apparent reason, I can no longer recommend X2-02. 


So what to buy then? I present, friends and neighbors, the Nokia 110. It calls. It texts. It has an address book. If you need more, scroll downward, otherwise this is the phone for you. 


Image 1]

My remarks for this phone are largely carried over. This phone is facing stiff competition in desirability stakes from Samsung Galaxy Y/Duos/Pro as well as HTC's own Wildfire S which has now become quite cheap. However, at Rs12k this feature set is unbeatable. The Galaxy Y series does have the better processor but it suffers from the very limiting QVGA display. But wait...there's ANOTHER new player in town. Behold the HTC Cha Cha.

Image 1

At Rs15k, Cha Cha is one hell of a phone. It has an excellent QWERTY keyboard and a good-ish screen. I have used it and found that it performs all basic functions quite admirably. The one drawback is how the screen sometimes fails to turn off when you put it to your ear - and that results in missed calls. But then, it might be some software or hardware defect in my own set. 


This is a new category, and I have just had to shoehorn it (awkward name and all) thanks to one manufacturer: Sony. The company is churning out smartphones with extremely attractive specs at jaw-dropping prices, so much so that the Xperia Neo V, a set that I CANNOT recommend thanks to its broken software, sells for Rs19k. Xperia Ray, the 8 megapixel cameraphone with Android 4.0, sells for the same price. But the truly stunning product in this plethora is Sony Xperia U.

The phone sports a DUAL-CORE 1 Ghz processor, a 5 MP snapper, 512 of RAM and no shortage of style. The price? Rs20k. Yes, you read that right. A Sony phone with a 3.5 inch screen, resolution of 800x480 and a dual core processor is available, brand new, for Rs20 k. I haven't tested this phone but it shows great promise. HOPEFULLY the typical Sony trait of software slowing down to a crawl will be fixed or mitigated through the presence of dual core processor. Drawbacks? 4 GB of free memory, no card slot. Since this phone is equipped with a fairly high end graphics processor, one would expect to be able to play the latest games on it. The problem is that many of these games clock in at above 1 GB or even more. The absence of an SD card slot, in my opinion, comes close to crippling this phone. Also, the phone launches with Gingerbread (Android 2.3) which is an OS from last year. 

But the price! That, coupled with the promised upgrade to Android 4.0, makes this phone my choice for 'Upper Low-Range'. 



HTC One V looses its crown, if only due to the fact that I haven't been able to use it for any length of time. Why Nexus S, a two year old smartphone? The winning ingredients are all there. 1 GHz single core processor, latest Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, good camera, good design, and a price of around Rs25k. Given how JB can transform a phone into a super fast and smooth device, this is an unbeatable option. Yes, there is a plethora of smartphones at this price and some have even better specs, but it's all about the software, and there's no beating Jelly Bean. 

There are some sets from Sony such as Xperia Arc S, Neo V etc which are selling at midrange prices. Problem is, there's no trusting those phones. Several of my friends and relatives have bought the Xperia Neo V at my recommendation, and I am constantly receiving calls of complaint from them. It has been updated to Android 4.0 but there's no beating the suckiness of custom Android skins and how they slow down to a crawl over time. At a price lower than Rs20k this might be acceptable to a degree but no longer. So bye, bye custom skins, hello AOSP Android. 

AOSP rules, and so does Galaxy Nexus. Since last month, it has received Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and boy, does it beat every other phone on the market with its sheer speed and smoothness. At Rs37k it is hard to find a better specc'ed phone as it is, but it is its software that ensures that Galaxy Nexus remains the best phone money can buy for the foreseeable future. 

There are a few compromises. The camera is relatively average in terms of picture quality, battery life is not the best and the 16 GB built in memory can be a tad limiting in absence of an SD slot. But these fade into the background considering the sheer  elegance of this solution. In raw hardware terms, the Galaxy Nexus loses out to current Android flagships such as Galaxy S3 and HTC One X only in terms of processing power, screen brightness, memory and camera. Given the monetary savings, these quibbles are insignificant. All that ceases to matter once Jelly Bean kicks into gear and blows every other mobile OS out of the water, regardless of the machine it is running on. 



What has a 7-inch screen, Android Jelly Bean, excellent quad core processor, a hardware keypad, crystal clear call quality, long battery life, and costs Rs32k? Why, it's Google's Nexus 7 tablet AND Nokia 110!

See, for around Rs30k you can obtain the best tablet on the market that is not the iPad. Google's Nexus 7 tablet sports a high quality 7 inch display, Android Jelly Bean, all powered by Nvidia Tegra 3 quad core processor. It's all the tablet you will ever need combined with ease of use, speed, and compactness. If you use a high end smartphone but sometimes wish for a bigger screen, this is the device for you. 

It doesn't have a SIM slot though, so you need something else to make calls and texts. May I suggest Nokia 110. Carry it around in the middle of Saddar at 1.00 am at night without fear. If threatened with a gun, hand it over without a second thought, while your multimedia powerhouse rests safe and secure at home where it will be properly used. You have all bases covered with this setup at an astoundingly low cash outlay. 

So how come old favorite Galaxy Note is not returning here? For one thing, I have sold it. Nah, that's not the reason. Real reason is that it costs way more than the Nexus 7, offers arguably less utility given its smaller size, and falls flat on its face hobbled with Samsung's TouchWiz UI. You can root it and flash pure Android, but it retaliates with horrendous battery life. So, no cigar. 

I hoped you liked this month's noticeably wizened and sober edition of 'Which Phone to Buy Right Now'. See you soon with 'Which Phone to Avoid At All Costs'!!

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Or, whatever happened to my cellphone obsession? To which I answer, this is the 'and more' part of the 'Gadgets and more for the thinking majority'! Who said A Little Less Apple could only be about tech? Not me!

So I just finished the entire three books, and I am deeply moved, to say the least. Yes, this is 'young adult' fiction, it features a female protagonist, it is set in a post-apocalyptic near future, it has a complicated love triangle, and its has the old hero-turns-villain tactic. Yet, I have to admit that I find it an astounding piece of fiction, and in many ways Author Suzanne Collins imagination and world-building calls to mind that of J K Rowling and, in fact, the great Arthur C Clarke.

Let's start with the characters' names. Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Finnic, Haymitch, Primrose, Plutarch, Coin, Cinna (my favorite). All these names are short and just on the edge of the familiar, yet not quite of our times - in other words, perfect for a dystopian future where cultural development has taken a back seat to survival. These names alone establish Collins' skill at creating a setup for her story, and it only gets better from here. The first word that comes to mind reading her diction is 'efficiency'. Collins uses compact, simple sentences and yet most sentences are statements of fact rather than mere atmospheric devices. This curious (to me) technique helps establish a background for the events in the story very quickly and without getting on your nerves. Like the best fiction, the books make the reader establish a whole universe in their minds. However, the story progresses along with the world building, to the extent that both are inseparable.

Simplicity is one of the the trilogy's strong suites. From the depiction of normal day to day routine in District 12 to the epic final scenes, the text never gets convoluted, never forces you read a paragraph again, and most importantly, never loses sight of the primary mission of telling a story.

The first book, titled 'The Hunger Games', begins with the grim day to day happenings in 'District 12'. District 12 is one of the districts of a state called Panem (there's the naming again!). Apparently it spans the area covered by today's United States. By this time I am sure the whole deal about the Hunger Games no longer qualifies as a spoiler, thanks to the hugely popular movie. In short, the Capitol conducts a televised game show once a year in which two children from each of the 12 districts participate. All 24 participants are left in an 'arena' where they are supposed to kill each other until only one is left, who is the victor. 

The premise can sound incredibly cruel, but it says a lot when one realizes that it's a perfect allegory for our times. There's the 'game' of boxing, in which two people beat each other silly until one bleeds or faints or both, and the other is declared victor either on the basis of being the one standing or having scored more hits. You can imagine that a boxer's lifelong health will take a beating when his professions is taking bone-rattling hits to the face (pun intended). What I mean to say is that the Hunger Games don't sound too far off from our reality shows, with the notable absence of the killing element. 

The theoretical foundation of the Hunger Games is that they are conducted by Capitol as punishment to all the districts for having rebelled at some point in the past. It also serves as a continued reminder of the districts' slavery to the Capitol. Most importantly though, The Hunger Games serve as a commercial juggernaut that are a major source of entertainment for entire Panem and profit through advertising revenue for the Capitol. 

I can go on and on about the political and sociological implications of the novels' setup, but this isn't meant to be a recap of The Hunger Games trilogy. I would just hint at the story, which starts off with the Hunger Games and works its way towards being a tale of revolution, carnage, and political intrigue. The story widens dramatically in terms of scope through the books so that the third book, 'Mockingjay', is largely a war story with a rebellion against the Capitol as its centerpiece. 

The Capitol itself is an intriguing place. It serves as the master of Panem, being replete with technology, abundance of resources, high fashion, as well as a completely enslaved populace who pick away endlessly at minor inconveniences like who gets invited to what parties and the logistical ramifications of  feather costumes. Time and time again, several themes emerge from the novels, namely how 'prosperity' and 'abundance' are irrevocably tied to complete submission, and how the populace is branded variously as 'gadget makers' or 'miners' based on their district of residence, and how technology is solely used to consolidate an autocratic rule. It's a highly disturbing future which reminds one strongly of 'Airstrip One' from the novel 1984. 

Technology, as earlier mentioned, plays a vital role in Panem. Again, there's Collins' uncanny skill of creating objects and events just on the right side of plausibility yet by no means everyday. There are large hovercrafts, there are invisible cameras, devices that project pictures into the sky - those are the things that can be found in any number of comic book based movies and sci fi classics. What sets the trilogy apart is how there is a highly personal angle to technology. For example, The Hunger Games contestants, kids as young as 8 years old to older ones in their late teens, pass through various treatments where girls lose all body hair and gain perfect skin, while the boys don't grow a beard, during the duration of the games. There are dresses which gleam in patterns. There are machines which automatically prepare food at the push of a few buttons. The are 'pods' which automatically spray bullets on anyone that approaches. It's a wonderful mishmash of various concepts and devices which, in typical fashion, ultimately is not for the service of citizens but to strengthen the Capitol's autocratic rule of the people in the Districts.

So what do the kids get in return for being killed? Their families enjoy adequate sustenance in form of ration and supplies for an entire year. The extreme poverty in the districts means that the families are eager to present their kids as the Games fodder.

It's all highly political, highly symbolic - yet there are no sermons, no simplistic good vs. bad battles. The protagonist, Katniss, is a complex character - so complex, in fact, that she honestly doesn't know herself. She doesn't know what she wants, or why she prefers one situation to another. In short, she is wonderfully human.

The other characters are equally deep, rich and unpredictable. Take Cinna, the designer who designs the Hunger Games opening ceremony dresses for Katniss. While there isn't a great deal of physical description about Cinna, you can just tell by the name itself that this guy is largely hairless and speaks in a high voice, possesses an athletic body, and is good at heart. I don't know, maybe it's just me!

There is no shortage of wonderful characters to explore. Haymitch, who is the mentor of the District 12 contestants; trust me, you won't possibly know anything about  him even after you have finished 90% of the story. Peeta, a wonderful boy who forms one corner of the love triangle and is a fellow contestant with Katniss. Gale, who is Katniss's friend....see, I can't tell too much about the characters without giving away too much of the story. Suffice it to say that MOST (not all) characters are multi-dimensional, and in that context a certain character's infallible sweetness, sincerity and goody-two-shoes attitude is thrown into sharp relief. I do believe though that with such complex characters changing so much, one anchor was needed - more for the readers than perhaps for the story!

Then there's the 'mockingjay'. The symbolic centerpiece of the trilogy, mockingjay is a genetic amalgam of the mockingbird and blue jay. The background is that the Capitol, weary of mockingbirds' speaking ability and thus information leakage, sought in the past to eradicate the entire species. Instead of going extinct, the birds mated with the blue jays to form a new species which is resilient to the Capitol's devices. The Mockinjay has been used - and I use the words carefully - in a BREATHTAKINGLY beautiful manner throughout, to advance the plot, to lend emotional depth to the scenes

Listen, I am not literate in the classics. My reading universe consists largely of the Web, magazines, Stephen King, Arthur C Clarke and Reader's Digest. So I am unable to offer a critical evaluation of the Hunger Games trilogy. All I can say is, it's refreshingly different, chaotic yet simple, and above all, not mere entertainment. There is sufficient darkness driving the story to haunt you for days after. Much more worrisome is how the world depicted in the trilogy is just a SLIGHTLY altered version of our own.

I would reiterate here that the books, titled 'The Hunger Games', 'Catching Fire' and 'Mockingjay', paint a grim world which is startlingly similar to our own. Paradoxically, the fantasy setting coupled with the very human characters combine to suck the reader in.

The end is nigh. Read the books while we all wait!