Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Which Phone to Buy Right Now - May 2012

Welcome to my monthly round of eligible bachelors in the phone world. Let's begin with the basics.


No, my prediction didn't pan out - X2-02 is STILL my budget phone of choice. See, after all, Nokia is Nokia - you can't beat an offering from a reputable company with one from the b-grade manufacturers. The phone has stabilized somewhat but that might be solely because I use it mostly as my wireless music transmitter in the car. That, along with the general 'tick all boxes' nature of the S40 interface, remain strong points in favor of this little guy. 


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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.

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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. 

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This month I am dropping HTC Radar from the, er, Radar of prospective buyers because One V's price has come down to Rs26k and it truly is an excellent package for that price.  Why not Sony Ericsson Xperia Neo V? Because Neo slows down over time. It still remains a good bargain, but there should be no compromise on the speed of a set at any price. Neo V has received it's ICS update and it makes it a very compelling solution but I have discovered that the problem of slowness of contacts and messaging apps remains. 


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At Rs 25k, HTC Radar is an excellent Windows Phone 7 set. As I mentioned in a previous post, WP7 doesn't have the power or flexibility of Android, but it is noticeably ahead of iOS in those aspects. Arguably, WP7 is the best-looking interface on phones today. The phone is fluid, fast, and has good specs. The only drawback I can think of is that since WP7's future is far from certain, this set's resale might be questionable.


So the Nexus retains its perch. In the intervening time, I have had the chance to use the HTC One X which is being billed as the best Android handset on the planet right now. However, I cannot recommend a set with hard physical buttons and tiny, non-user-replaceable battery despite all its other merits. Additionally, I will take vanilla Android 4.0 any day over HTC's Sense, but that's a personal preference and nothing else, since Sense has its own advantages. 

Right now I am also not recommending the Galaxy S 3 since at launch it is too expensive. Over time it MIGHT conquer the Nexus but that will take a few weeks. You cannot argue with the power of quad-core processors found in One X and Galaxy S3, or with their superior cameras and multimedia capabilities. However, we are after the best mobile phone in terms of value of money, si
nce last month, the set's price has fallen to Rs35k. It is astounding to see the local market's gross underestimation of the handset's capabilities, and their perceptions are dictated by the 5 MP camera. However, this ignorance means that the Galaxy Nexus has now become a bargain. Let them be fooled. 


The hottest phone in local market at the moment. I recently traded it in for my Galaxy Nexus and flashed Android 4.0 on it, and with that software there is no other phone on the PLANET that comes close to the Note. It's price has also fallen to Rs45k, at which it is a downright bargain. 

Note is the SAME as Galaxy S2, with three differences: 5-inch screen with an HD resolution (same as Galaxy Nexus), larger battery and stylus capability. The only negative points I can think of are debatable pocketability, Samsung's horrible TouchWiz UI over Android 2.3 (though an Android 4.0 update is due in a month or so) and difficulty in reaching the corners of the screen due to large size. If you can live with these shortcomings, get ready to be blown away by the games and movies on this device as nothing else comes close to in those respects (except to some extent, the Galaxy Nexus). 

The only reason it still inhabits the 'adventurous' category is because (a) it is humongous in size and (b) you have to hack it in order to flash Android 4.0, in order to make it useful. With Samsung's TouchWiz skin, the attraction of the set reduces slightly. However, it remains an excellent device. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Note to Apple: Shut up and Compete

It's time to live up to the 'Less Apple' portion of my blog.

Since 2010, Apple has been suing companies left, right and center for patents. It would be pertinent to mention here that most things claimed to be invented by Apple, are, in fact, NOT invented by Apple. That includes the mouse, the windows-based graphical user interface of a PC, the all-touchscreen phone - in fact pretty much everything you find within Apple products. Voice recognition technology, or 'Siri', is but a version of the same kind of facilities present on the Symbian operating system for years.

Yet, this morning there is a news that US Customs has halted at least some shipments of the HTC One X and EVO 4G LTE (presumably at the Port of Los Angeles), as a result of an earlier ITC order won by Apple over a patent lawsuit for "data tapping" (context-sensitive text-based actions) in the browser and messaging apps on some HTC phones.

Earlier, Apple got various courts in Germany, Australia and the US to actually ban the sales of Samsung Galaxy Tab in those countries. In those countries, Apple has also patented 'big-screen with a single hard button' design and therefore saw fit to make the claim that the Galaxy S2 infringed on its designs. 

I agree that the Galaxy S2 follows some of the same design principles as the iPhone. But Apple itself launched the iPhone after LG Cookie and various other phones which had a large touchscreen up front. No one in their right mind can mistake a Galaxy S2 for an iPhone. The similarities in design claimed to be infringements on patents is like claiming that Audi copies BMW by providing 4 wheels with its cars. Or Sony copies Philips by providing a big screen on its TVs. If you don't believe me just look up the details on the internet. Interestingly, on mainstream tech blogs, no one seems to question the sanity or integrity of these claims. 

This kind of lawsuits are all the rage within the tech industry. However, the difference with Apple is that judges all over the world seem too eager to grant relevant stays and injunctions favoring Apple with such astounding speed that the mind reels. It seems that in the entire world only Apple's claims are worthy of being heard and granted speedy decisions. 

I don't claim to be a legal expert. However, the disturbing frequency with which these patent claims are arising suggests that a conspiracy is at play here. I won't refrain from suggesting that Apple is bribing a host of legal personalities and media outlets to get its way. There is no other explanation. This makes even more sense given how the late Saint Steve Jobs publicly committed to annihilate Google and its Android OS, implying that the vastly superior OS was a copy of its own iOS. 

In a larger context, these lawsuits are making cowards out of rival manufacturers. HTC, Samsung, Motorola etc, are now too anxious not to face legal battles and are removing features or modifying them in their products. In other words, this phenomenon is stifling progress. This is a sorry situation and the biggest losers are consumers like you and I. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The FUNNIEST and the MOST USEFUL review I have ever read

Guys and gals, you know HTC  have skinned Android 4.0 with their own skin called Sense 4.0. Normally tech websites are all gaga over it - this guy from (aptly titled) Android Police rips into Sense and leaves it a shivering, sobbing mess.

The highlight of this article is not the sarcasm though - it is how closely many things strike home. Perfect for midweek blues, and of course, food for thought before buying your next gadget.


NOTE: This article applies to HTC Evo 4G LTE, which is the US version of HTC One X. The software is guaranteed to be all but identical. 

Worldwide Mobile OS: Android and iOS dominate

Guys and gals, here is an extract from the Gartner report detailing worldwide market share of various mobile operating systems. Android rules, but the achievement of iOS cannot be ignored, as Apple makes only two devices and those are the most expensive on the market.

You see, on Less Apple, we give the devil his due, unlike the company this blog claims to cater less to. Go figure :-)

Operating System
4Q11 Market Share (%)
4Q10 Market Share (%)
Research In Motion

Source: Gartner (February 2012)

There are other interesting observations. Symbian shrinks to 1/3rd of its former market share and that is a stunning achievement by Nokia as well: seldom has a company messed up as badly in so short a time. 

Microsoft loses half its miniscule market. This can only point to bleak prospects ahead for Windows Phone 7; what makes it worse is that WP7 is a fairly good OS. 

Windows Phone 7 a 'Colossal Failure'

This guy, Eldar Murtazin, knows his stuff, and most of his predictions come true. Here in the linked article he terms Windows Phone 7 a 'colossal failure' - but didn't we know that already?


Friday, May 11, 2012

Galaxy S3: The Other Side

People, I think you know I am not a great fan of Galaxy S3 right now. However, the more reviews I read, the more I become convinced that my earlier impressions might be a little too pessimistic. Also, the device is scheduled to launch at a VERY reasonable price of Rs65,000, and it will only go downhill from there.

Of course, my final impressions will only come when I have had some time with the device, but in the meantime, here is a link to an excellent article on the hype and expectations of GS3 by Alex Dobie. Here's a link:


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

There's no perfect phone, so I made one!

Galaxy Note was born to run Android 4.0. Don't believe me? Witness the difference below!

BEFORE:                                                                      AFTER:

Tech review sites these days are, to put it mildly, chicken shit. They review phones and other gadgets, yet shy away from conclusions. Is this phone/tablet/computer perfect for me? "It depends", "Yes, but ALSO consider these other options [insert relevant iGadget here]", "No single answer is possible", "Not easy to conclude" - those are the weasel words reviewers typically employ. Result? More confusion for the consumer.

It is no secret that my all-time favorite phone is Samsung Galaxy Nexus. While using it for several months, I kept finding myself wishing, "Oh, I wish it had a better GPU, a larger battery, and external storage". I loved the software, but the hardware left something to be desired.

A few days back a friend brought me his Galaxy Note and asked me to flash Ice Cream Sandwich on it. The Note, in case you didn't know, is a phone/tablet hybrid with 5.3 inches HD screen, 2500 mAh battery, 1.4 Ghz dual core processor and an extremely fast graphics processor. The trouble is, it runs Android 2.3, made uglier by Samsung's TouchWiz interface.

So I took his phone and performed an open-brain surgery. Rooted (hacked) it and installed an Android 4.0 ROM on it, and viola! Suddenly his phone had all the goodies of Android 4.0 with all the hardware goodness of the Note. In effect, his phone had become a Galaxy Nexus with a better screen, battery, storage and processor. Behold:

I went out the next day and exchanged my Nexus for the Note.

"Rooting" is the word for "hacking" or "jailbreaking" in Android parlance. In layman terms, rooting opens the phone's file system for editing. Here are the steps I took:

1) Installed a software called "Odin" on my PC and also downloaded something called a ' rooted kernel'
2) Made sure that it had all the required Samsung drivers
3) Rebooted the phone into 'download mode' (a mode which connects phone's internal NAND memory to the PC directly)
4) Fired up Odin and made it copy the rooted kernel onto the phone
5) Rebooted the phone into 'Clockwork Mod Recovery' (a Recovery can be thought of as broadly similar to the BIOS interface of a PC)
6) Made a backup of my existing data
7) Installed the ROM called ICS Stunner (search XDA Developers for http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1552554&page=859)
8) Rebooted

Magically, my new phone had dropped all the ugliness and become the ultimate cutting edge device, running the latest software.

The next thing I did was enable tablet mode on the phone. Android 4.0 has both phone and tablet interfaces built in. In fact they are not separate interfaces at all - most things are shared, the main points of difference being some apps having multi-pane split view and the desktop, which combines the notification bar and the navigation bar. The only step that needs to be taken to do this is to edit a file in system to change the 'virtual resolution'. In this case, the magic number is 213 pixels per inch. Anything above, the OS assumes it's running on a phone. Anything below, and it sees the device as a tablet.

The rest, they say, is history. While Samsung sit on their ass making users wait for the much-needed upgrade to Android 4.0, the amazingly talented guys at XDA-Developers actually went out and prepared the necessary ROMs and hacks to make the Note infinitely more elegant and useful.

There are risks to this process, and some users have reported 'bricking' of their devices as a result. A 'brick' is a device that is dead - doesn't turn on, doesn't do anything. However, that is a tiny proportion of users and a vast majority has upgraded their device without spending a penny.

Here are the advantages I have seen upgrading from my Galaxy Nexus:
1) Perfectly usable tablet mode thanks to the larger screen
2) Extra, expandable storage
3) Better battery life
4) Amazing graphics performance. Live wallpapers run perfectly on this thing, and they don't slow rest of the phone down. I haven't seen this in ANY other Android set I have used, including Galaxy S2
5) The screen is amazing for all computing tasks

The biggest advantage of Android, in my humble opinion, is that it has got the best development community of any damned platform. Don't believe me? Check out www.xda-developers.com.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Samsung Galaxy S3: A great leap sideways?

2012 is strange. We are five months in and I have yet to see a gadget or announcement that is truly jaw-dropping, except for Canonical's Linux on Android project.

But, you say, there have been many events: the continuing fall of Nokia, iPad 3, HTC's One X, and... Galaxy S3? How could i possibly not feel excited about Galaxy S3? Question is: how excited are Samsung themselves?

Samsung I9000 Galaxy S

Well, from left to right, here are the official press shots of Galaxy S3, S2 and S. For S and S2, Samsung chose to display the TouchWiz desktop with widgets. S2 looks particularly enticing with an array of beautiful widgets showing off the Super AMOLED Plus's high contrast and rich colors, and also Samsung's attempt to harmonize its widgets lending the desktop a cohesive feel.

And then, look at the S3. First of all, it just shows a lockscreen in grey hues. The clock features a font that is NOT Roboto. The notification bar appears to be exactly the same as previous Galaxy. In other words, just by looking at that screen, you cannot tell that it is Super AMOLED and features Ice Cream Sandwich. So, just how excited are Samsung themselves?

Samsung's presentation in the London unveiling was distinctly Apple-like in many respects, i.e. all smoke and mirrors. It showed of S Voice, a fancy take on Android's built in voice recognition platform, and came off as an imitation of Siri. Therefore, Samsung effectively validated Apple's fraudulent claim of being a pioneer of voice recognition in mobile phones. It also showed some motion-based features that seemed an extension of what HTC does with Sense.

That is not to say that the S3 itself is not a cracking piece of kit. With a quad-core processor, 4.8 inch display, 2100 maH battery and card slot, it addresses many of the foibles I had with my current favorite phone, Galaxy Nexus. As far as looks and materials are concerned, I find everything quite elegant except for the butt-ugly button at the bottom and the two capacitive keys flanking it. I believe in day to day usage that area will be really hard to reach.

Ah, but here's another question: With Galaxy Nexus now selling for Rs37k and the S3 likely to be priced in the 50-60k range, which is the better buy?

The problem is, the dual core handsets by Samsung, including Nexus, GS2 and Note, are amazingly fast and consistent in performance. Especially Galaxy S2 and Note, thanks to their dual core Exynos processors, are blazingly fast. Crucially, you can get AOSP Android (that is what Google's PURE version of Android) ROMs on all three either built-in or via flashing.

Which brings me to the major let down for Galaxy S3: software. It is now clear that HTC Sense and Touchwiz skins designed for Android 4.0 are nowhere near the visual sophistication of AOSP Android, and in effect take away much of the glamour and seemlessness of the software. S3 and One X also have buttons and that alone marks a big step backward in terms of usability. They also make a mockery of the large HD screens, and at first glance make you feel as if the phones are running 800x480 resolution.

So S3, while still the best new phone of 2012, is perhaps not the BEST phone of 2012. Dual core processors are fast enough, and none of the dual core phones make you wish, "Oh, I wish it were running a quad core processor".

While my final impressions will only come when I have had a chance to actually use the device, right now it seems a great leap sideways for Samsung.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Nokia: How to Destroy a Company - Part II

As I have mentioned previously, I have been a long time Nokia user. In first part of this article I linked to an article by Eldar Murtazin. In the second part I will take you through my experience of witnessing the demise of Nokia from the perspective of an end user.

Nokia's downfall can, in many ways, be termed parallel to the downfall of Symbian as a lead platform for the company. Symbian was the leading smartphone OS in the world till a few years ago. Not only it enjoyed support from Nokia, Samsung and Sony Ericsson among others, it was also considered to be the most powerful and flexible.

Believe it or not, to the Nokia faithful like me, iPhone was a non-event. While having an attractive touchscreen interface, it lacked too many features vs Symbian (and even does today to some extent) to interest me. In fact I handled an iPhone and disliked the interface right away. Then there were other issues, like absence of MMS, multiple SMS recipients, and broken Bluetooth, not to mention the paltry camera. What we didn't count on was that Apple put smoothness of operation first and foremost, and did not hesitate from dropping features in order to ensure the quality of the user experience, and that would push the iPhone as the phone of choice for non-geeks.

Then Nokia promised a touch version of Symbian and announce the 5800 XpressMusic as its launch vehicle. With a 3.2 inch nHD screen, wifi, GPS, TV Out, and unparalleled audio, the phone had it all and easily beat the iPhone in terms of raw specs. Back then, smartphones used to be geek territory and owners were expected to put in quite a lot of labor into their phones in order to get them to work. iPhone changed all that under our noses but we were more concerned about what a phone COULD do, not HOW. And 5800 promised everything including the kitchen sink.

The phone launched and I paid an astronomical sum for it. The screen was resistive, which meant that it required pressure to be clicked, but I had been sufficiently blinded by blogs like AllAboutSymbian to believe that it was, in fact, preferable to multitouch (capacitive) offered by iPhone. I used to feel proud that the 5800's touchscreen could be operated by gloved fingers, a big problem in Russia but absolutely irrelevant to hot and humid Karachi.

So I got the phone and knowing nothing better, enjoyed it. The desktop was next to useless with just a big calendar widget and four customizable icons, followed by butt-ugly 'contacts' and 'menu' items underneath. Everything, from the clock to the signal bars, was clickable and served up the relevant app or setting. The phone lacked kinetic scrolling and all scrolling had to be done via a scroll bar. Yet, all this was cutting edge since it was 2008.

About a year later, the N97 was launched. It promised to be a revolution, and as usual, I bought into the hype. Two months later I gave it away to my sister, since its internal C: Drive storage of a paltry 50 MB meant that I had to clean web cache before every browsing session. Incredibly, not even a software workaround was offered by Nokia to address this. It was a pattern I should have been getting used to, but my jaded mind still insisted on Nokia being the best.

With their flagship set left in the dust, Nokia unveiled the N900, a stunning piece of hardware that ran on Maemo 5, the desktop-like Linux based OS previously used power Nokia's internet tablets. The set with its stunning screen and user interface, coupled to the stellar hardware, seemed to be a answer to my prayers and once I again I bought into the hype.

This time the hype lasted several months long. If you could get over the limited apps available for the set, all was hunky dory except for the fact that the phone only operated in landscape mode. Nokia had promised a firmware update within two months of release to enable portrait operation, but the placement of the lockscreen key meant that this was a promise Nokia did not intend to keep. So six months later I was with a phone that was uncomfortable to use despite its amazing hardware and software. I sold it in exchange for HTC Legend on a whim.

Within the first few minutes, several things struck me:
1) Android was far more user friendly and customizable than any other system
2) The desktop customization alone ran rings around anything offered by Symbian
3) Android Market was teeming with good apps
4) The contacts from Google and various services such as Facebook were seemlessly synchronized
5) Multitouch with kinetic scrolling meant that operating the phone after anything by Nokia was equivalent to driving a Ferrari after a motorcycle.
6) The Symbian app menu was and is a horrible place to be.
7) By sticking to conservative processors in the interest of battery life, Nokia ensured that their sets were slow and ungainly in terms of performance.
8) Nokia deliberately killed any hopes of being able to compete with iOS and Android by ditching Maemo and then Meego, and deciding to go with Windows Phone.

Within those few minutes I realized what I was missing by sticking to Nokia. The world had moved on. Nokia swindled its users out of user interface improvement by taking years to implement simple things such as kinetic scrolling and customizable homescreens. Today's Belle system by Nokia looks and feels like a pale imitation of the Android interface.

Having lost hundreds of thousands of my hard earned cash to faulty devices from Nokia, I will not regret one bit when the inevitable bankruptcy comes. The entire Nokia user base missed out on two years of innovation following the launch of iPhone and then Android, which redefined how mobile phones were to be used. Nokia had the guts to charge top drawer prices for devices which were clearly inferior. I think this way not by way of revenge, but simply because Nokia deserves it.

I will also hold blogs like Allaboutsymbian.com responsible for criminally misrepresenting the true picture in the mobile landscape. Through useless, irrelevant comparisons, dreaming up fictitious scenarios where a particular Nokia set was destined to excel the rivals, meaningless comparisons, and offering ridiculous workarounds for situations where a rival system clearly had the functional advantage, blogs such as these ensured that their readers remained a false sense of superiority. Visit the blog today, read the forum comments and see for yourselves.

Interestingly enough, AAS banned me from using its forums about two years ago when I started blowing apart their bias and attempts to mislead users. That ban has only recently been lifted. Too bad I now have absolutely no interest in visiting that site except for comic relief.

How times change.