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. 


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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.

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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. 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!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Jelly Bean, or Why I Am Back to the Galaxy Nexus

This is funny. I have spent weeks trying to justify my reasons for buying Galaxy Note and flashing AOSP Android on it, terming it the best device out there. That was until Jelly Bean was released by Google and the ROM was available for Galaxy Nexus WITHIN 24 HOURS.

First, let's see what are the advantages of a Galaxy Nexus vs any other phone running AOSP Android (including Note):

1) All the hardware features work, that includes USB On The Go and MHL HDMI output.
2) Battery life. Battery life. Battery life.
3) No software incompatibilities, force closes or errors

In short, those are the advantages of running a software on a phone for which it was made. After long experience I have decided that it's not entirely feasible to advise my readers to flash custom ROMs on phones which disable a few features.

So why did I switch? To be perfectly clear, don't think for a second I was unhappy with my Note. No, what attracted me what this:

1) Google's announcement of Jelly Bean and it's features (covered in my previous post)
2) The fact that it was installable on Galaxy Nexus within 24 hours of announcement

Specifically, I was intrigued by Project Butter. Would it bring the speed and smoothness that are being claimed? It turns out - get this - Google actually UNDERSTATED their achievement regarding Project Butter. The Galaxy Nexus seems to have acquired at least an eight core processor and 3 GB of RAM. It is fast AND smooth. And no, it is not the 'perceived smoothness' that is to be found in iPhone. It is REAL. It is INCREDIBLE. It makes me want to cry. It defies explanation. How did they eke out such performance is beyond me.

I will update this post ASAP with a video. Please understand that most videos of Jelly Bean running on Galaxy Nexus on the Web don't do it justice. That is because the UI runs at 60 frames per second and the videos are mostly made at 24 FPS. Which means that it's even better than what you see in videos.

I will also cover other features that I love in Jelly Bean. For now, the summary is that the mobile landscape has changed. HTC and Samsung may be celebrating the successful launch of Galaxy S3 and One X, but a six month old phone has just stabbed them in the back. If you are looking for the best Android phone in the market, BUY THE GALAXY NEXUS. Don't look anywhere else.