My Xperia Z managed to last almost 2 years before things started to go awry. Sure it wasn’t exactly a smooth road for the entire time I had the phone, what with the NFC update refusing to apply every time I rebooted my phone or the myriad of issues that plagued its Android 4.4 release, but it worked well enough that I was willing to let most of those problems slide. However the last month of its life saw its performance take a massive dive and no matter what I did to cajole it back to life it continued to spurt and stutter making for a rather frustrating experience. I had told myself that my next phone would be a stock Android experience so I could avoid any potential carrier or manufacturer issues and that left me with one option: the Nexus 6. I’ve had this phone for just over a month now and I have to say that I can’t see myself going back to a non-stock experience.
First things first: the size. When I moved to the Xperia Z I was blown away by how big it was and figured that anything bigger would just become unwieldy. Indeed when I pulled the Nexus 6 out of the box it certainly felt like a behemoth beside my current 5″ device however it didn’t take me long to grow accustomed to the size. I attribute this mostly to the subtle design features like the tapered edges and the small dimple on the back where the Motorola logo is which make the phone both feel thinner and more secure in the hand than its heft would suggest. I definitely appreciate the additional real estate (and the screen is simply gorgeous) although had the phone come in a 5″ variant I don’t think I’d be missing out on much. Still if the size was the only thing from holding you back on buying this handset I’d err on the side of taking the plunge as it quickly becomes a non-issue.
The 2 years since my last upgrade have seen a significant step up in the power that mobile devices are capable of delivering and the Nexus 6 is no exception in this regard. Under the hood it’s sporting a quad core 2.7GHz Qualcomm chip coupled with 3GB RAM and the latest Adreno GPU, the 420. Most of this power is required to drive the absolutely bonkers resolution of 2560 x 1440 which it does admirably for pretty much everything, even being able to play the recently ported Hearthstone relatively well. This is all backed by an enormous 3220mAh battery which seems more than capable of keeping this thing running all day, even when I forget that I’ve left tethering enabled (usually has about 20% left the morning after I’ve done that). The recent updates seem to have made some slight improvements to this but I didn’t have enough time before the updates came down to make a solid comparison.
Layered on top of this top end piece of silicon is the wonderful Android 5.1 (codename Lollipop) which, I’m glad to say, lives up to much of the hype that I had read about it before laying down the cash for the Nexus 6. The material design philosophy that Google has adopted for its flagship mobile operating system is just beautiful and with most of the big name applications adhering to it you get an experience that’s consistent throughout the Android ecosystem. Of course applications that haven’t yet updated their design stick out like a sore thumb, something which I can only hope will be a non-issue within a year or so. The lack of additional crapware also means that the experience across different system components doesn’t vary wildly, something which was definitely noticeable on the Xperia Z and my previous Android devices.
Indeed this is the first Android device that I’ve owned that just works, as opposed to my previous ones which always required a little bit of tinkering here or there to sand off the rough edges of either the vendor’s integration bits or the oddities of the current Android release of the time. The Nexus 6 with its stock 5.1 experience has required no such tweaking with my only qualm being that newly installed widgets weren’t available for use until I rebooted my phone. Apart from that the experience has been seamless from the initial set up (which, with NFC, was awesomely simple) all the way through my daily use through the last month.
The Nexus line of handsets always got a bad rap for the quality of the camera but, in all honesty, it seems about on par with my Xperia Z. This shouldn’t be surprising since they both came with one of the venerable Exmor chips from Sony which have a track history of producing high quality cameras for phones. The Google Camera software layered on top of it though is streets ahead of what Sony had provided, both in terms of functionality and performance. The HDR mode seems to actually work as advertised, as demonstrated above, being able to extract a lot more detail of a scene than I would’ve expected from a phone camera. Of course the tiny sensor size still means that low light performance isn’t its strong suit but I’ve long since moved past the point in my life where blurry pictures in a club were things I looked on fondly.
Overall I’m very impressed with the Google Nexus 6 as my initial apprehension had me worried that I’d end up regretting my purchase. I’m glad to say that’s not the case at all as my experience has been nothing short of stellar and has confirmed my suspicions that the only Android experience anyone should have is the stock one. Unfortunately that does limit your range of handsets severely but it does seem that more manufacturers are coming around to the idea of providing a stock Android experience, opening up the possibility of more handsets with the ideal software powering it. Whilst it might not be as cheap as other Nexus phones before it the Nexus 6 is most certainly worth the price of admission and I’d have no qualms about recommending it to other Android fans.
When Google announced the Nexus 4 I was genuinely excited, my Lumia was showing its age and I was eager to get back to the platform that I loved, especially one delivered by Google. However month after of month of delays which had me hanging on the order page every day eventually wore my patience down and I swore that Google wouldn’t be getting any money from me this time around. Whilst I’ll admit that I almost caved when they finally became available I stuck to my guns and kept searching for a replacement handset.
Initially I was sold on the ZTE Grand S as it’s release date wasn’t too far off into the future and it’s specifications were really quite impressive. Still being an impatient, instant gratification kind of guy I kept searching for other phones that had similar specs but would have a release date sooner rather than later. It didn’t take long before I stumbled across the Sony Xperia Z which not only matched the ZTE in every way it was going to be available months earlier. Within a week I had dropped the requisite cash for one and not long after it arrived at my doorstep.
The Xperia Z is by far the largest phone I’ve ever owned with a massive 5″ screen with an even more incredible 1080p resolution (yeah, that’s the same as my TV). For someone with large hands who struggled with the smaller screens on iPhones and my Samsung Galaxy S2 the increased screen real estate is just awesome, especially when it comes to typing on it. The screen itself is none too shabby either with that high DPI making everything look clear and incredibly detailed. It is a TFT screen which means that it’s viewing angle is somewhat limited (which is not usually a problem, but its certainly noticable) and it’s a little rubbish when used in sunlight. This can be combated somewhat by turning on auto-brightness adjustments which is strangely set to off by default.
Despite its size and glass casing the Xperia Z is quite light, especially when compared to the hefty Nokia device that I upgraded from. It’s not on the level of the Galaxy S2 where I’d sometimes forget I had it in my pocket, it’s far too large to forget about. I believe this is due to its rather unique construction where the glass layers are actually quite thin which, whilst reducing weight, does mean that when pressing on the screen you can sometimes cause the LCD to warp slightly which is a little disconcerting. Having said that though I’ve already managed to drop mine a couple times and it’s managed to survive with no noticeable consequences.
The hardware under the hood is great on paper (Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core 1.5 Ghz processor with 2GB RAM, 16GB on board storage) and it doesn’t fail to deliver in the real world either. Out of the box all motions are buttery smooth with all applications reveling with the insane amount of grunt that the Xperia Z has behind it. The only time that I’ve seen it struggle is when I’ve started to make modifications (like a custom launcher and theme) but even that only seems to happen at very particular times and disappears as quickly as it started.
Surprisingly such grunt doesn’t come at the cost of battery life thanks to the massive 2400mAh battery that powers the Xperia Z. Whilst it will gladly chew through all that energy should you give it a reason to (like playing Minecraft on it, for instance) in its default state it’ll last for days on a single charge. I charge my battery every night but most of the time it’s above 50% when I do, showing that it’s quite capable of going for 2 days without requiring a charge. This is all without its crazy STAMINA mode enabled either which disables data connections when the screen is off which I can only assume would increase the battery life further.
The camera is none too bad either being a 13MP Exmor RS chip, similar to the ones that power Sony’s powerhouse pocket cams like the NEX-5. It’s capable of producing some pretty decent pictures, like the one you see above, however like all smartphone cameras it languishes in low light when it tries to ramp up the ISO and just ends up creating a noisy mess. The HDR video also seems to be something of a gimmick as turning it on doesn’t seem to have a noticeable impact on the result video produced. I haven’t done any conclusive testing with it however.
Sony took something of a light touch when it came to customizing the underlying Android OS with their mobile theme being a thin veneer over the default Jellybean interface. They’ve also favoured the in-built applications over developing their own versions of them which is great as whilst Samsung’s apps weren’t terrible they paled in comparison to others, including the stock Android versions. The only application that got a lot of work was the camera app and realistically all that was done to support the not-so-standard features that Sony packed into it. Overall I was quite pleased with Sony’s approach as it shows that they’re focused on providing a great experience rather than attempt to shovel crapware.
However I can’t really give Sony all the credit for that as it really comes down to Android and the third party application ecosystem that’s developed around it. Whilst I hadn’t been gone from Android for long the improvements in many of the applications that I used daily is really impressive and things that felt like a chore on other platforms are just so much better. That coupled with the insane amount of customizability that Android allows has enabled me to make my Xperia Z truly unique to me coupled with all the functionality I had been missing on my Lumia.
Sony has really come a long way with their line of phones, from way back in the day when they launched their first Xperia (which I still have in my drawer at home) to today when they’re building phones that are, in my opinion, best in class. I’ll admit that I was a little worried that I had jumped the gun when I heard the S4 was going to be out soon but the Xperia is not only comparable, it beats it in several categories. The fact that Sony was able to release a phone of this calibre ahead of the competition says a lot about Sony’s development team and I’m happy to say they’ve created the best phone I’ve ever used to date.
Ho boy, rarely have I copped more flak for a post both online and offline than my piece early last year on how the general population of Instagram made me feel. In all honesty whilst I knew there were a few people it would piss off, which was one of the reasons it sat in my drafts folder for ages, I still felt like I had some valid points to make based on my observations based around the Instagram user base at large. Many people took offence to this, arguing points ranging from “Why should that matter to you anyway?” to “You’re using it wrong, there’s great communities on there”. I was hoping that the comments section would have been the end of all of it but late last week the topic came up again and I lost an hour in the ensuing debate so I figured it was time I made my position on this whole matter more clear.
I recognise that for every example I can dredge up of someone posting a horribly framed and filtered picture of their breakfast someone else can just as easily show me something like this. My criticism wasn’t levelled at people who use the service in this fashion but reading back over the post and the ensuing comments I never really made that entirely clear, so mea culpa on that one. However I don’t feel that the general thrust of my argument has been invalidated by that as many users agree that the vast majority of stuff on Instagram isn’t particularly great. This isn’t unique to Instagram however as any user generated content site suffers from Sturgeon’s Law and honestly the mentality of users on said sites really doesn’t vary that much but Instagram hit closer to home thanks to my interest in this particular area.
I’ve also had people try to bring me back into the Instagram fold in order to convince me that there’s something in the platform for me. Now whilst I wasn’t an active user for quite some time I did have the application installed on my Galaxy S2 for the better part of the year, mostly so I could view pictures linked to me on Twitter without having to use Instagram’s then rather shitty web interface. From time to time I’d look at pictures on there and see some genuinely good ones but not often enough to convince me that it was worth investing my time to better my feed by subscribing to said users. The fact of the matter is I already have many other avenues for discovering photographers that I like, ones that share a critical characteristic with.
Our preferred platform of choice.
For me the undisputed platform of choice is my DSLR. I’ve tried many other camera systems from high end point and shoots, film SLRs and yes multitudes of cameras in phones but in the end I always end up coming back to my DSLR. The reasoning behind this is because of the amount of control and influence I have over the final image, something which I struggle with on any other platform. It may sound weird if you prefer the simplicity that’s granted to you by camera phones (something which I do understand) but I find it a lot easier to take pictures on my DSLR, to the point where using anything else just frustrates me. I think that’s because I know that whilst I can do a lot of things in post should I so desire there are some things I simply can’t unless I’m using my preferred platform of choice.
This is somewhat at odds with the Instagram community which, as far as I’m aware, doesn’t take particularly kindly to those who take photos outside of their phone and then upload them via the service. If I was going to use Instagram again that’s the way I would use it but I’d rather not antagonize the community further by breaking the current social norm on there. For now I really only use Facebook to distribute pictures (mostly because my recent photographic endeavours have involved friend’s weddings) but I’ve been a fan of Flickr and 500px for a long time now as they seem to be more my kind of people.
I’ve come to realise that even my beloved DSLR community isn’t immune to this kind of malarkey either as there are far, far too many people who I walking around with a $1000+ camera with the shocking kit lens on it shooting in auto thinking that they’re the next Don McCullin. The criticisms I’ve levelled at Instagram apply to them as well although they’ve yet to congregate onto a platform that’s as ubiquitous as Instagram has become.
After the backlash I received I set myself a challenge to try and use my camera phone to produce pictures that I’d be proud to share and the above is probably one of the dozens I’ve taken that’s anywhere near what I wanted it to be. 6 months of trying have shown me there’s definitely a lot of effort required into creating good pictures, arguably the same amount as required by using a DSLR, but I still feel like I’m constrained by my phone. Maybe that’s a personal thing, something that I could overcome with more time and dedication, but in saying that I’d propose the same thing to all the Instagrammers out there. Borrow a friends DSLR and see the world from our side. Maybe you’ll come away with an appreciation for the technology that helped give birth to the platform you so love today.
Look I can understand how frustrating it can be to live in a place with crap cell phone reception. I spent the majority of my life living only 30 minutes outside Canberra and even that short distance was enough for the reception to basically drop off to nothing unless you were with Telstra. Even then you were lucky to be able to place a call indoors (especially if you had the typical colourbond roof) with most mobile calls being made from the nearest hill you could scurry up. I still suffer from spotty coverage even in town thanks to my current network provider but not once have I thought that a femtocell would be the answer to my problem.
Like I’ve said previously femtocells seem to be like a cash grab from cellular providers who instead should be spending their own money on fixing their coverage problems. Their use case is almost too narrow to be of any use since you need to have a broadband connection (which usually puts you in mobile phone range) and since nearly every broadband router comes with a wireless access point there’s no need to use 3G when you’re at home. In essence you’re just giving yourself full coverage so you can pay the exorbitant cellular data rates whilst at the same time using your own data cap, in essence double charging yourself for the privilege. Just like there doesn’t seem to be a case for a cellular tablet I struggle to find a use for a femtocell other than for a cellular provider to bilk their customers.
It seems that these useless devices have finally made their way onto Australian shores with Optus, the carrier with the worst record for coverage (in my experience at least), beginning trials of the devices:
Dubbed the ‘3G Home Zone’, the new Optus femtocell device is a small base station that plugs into a wireless router and uses a fixed-line broadband Internet connection to boost mobile coverage. Once operational, the Optus femtocell device should typically provide full mobile coverage within a 30 metre range.
Optus recommends that the 3G Home Zone be connected to a broadband service with a minimum download speed of 1Mbps and a minimum upload speed of 256kbps — if the speed is capped at 128kbps or lower, the device will no longer work.
The most insulting part about Optus’ introduction of these devices is that they’re charging for them, and it’s not a trivial amount either. You either pony up $60 initially and another $60 over 12 months (with a $70/month plan) or you pay $240 outright. Now far be it from me to get in the way of a company trying to make a profit but it would seem that the investment they spent in getting these devices functional could have been far better spent upgrading the spots where reception is a problem. Getting 3G indoors is all well and good but the vast majority of use cases for that are already covered off aptly by wireless, and you don’t need to pay an additional monthly fee to use that.
What I would support however would be something along the lines of what AT&T is doing in the USA, giving all users who request it a free femtocell. Of course it would seem like a silly move to begin with but having been an actual AT&T customer and seeing the coverage problems they had a free femtocell would go a long way to keeping people on their network. Of course they didn’t start out free (they definitely weren’t when I was there) but obviously the cost can’t be too high or they wouldn’t be offering it. Hopefully it won’t be too long before Optus follows suit.
Femtocells feel like a solution in search of a problem. Sure it might be great to have full coverage in your house (I currently get 1 bar) but the reason for doing so seems almost non-nonsensical when you look at the requirements needed to do it. I can’t see a future where I’ll ever need a device like this unless they somehow make it affordable with a satellite connection, but even then if I’m that far away from humanity I’d be guessing I wouldn’t want to bring the Internet with me. So hopefully these silly devices will disappear into the dark niche they belong in: the technically ignorant and woefully misinformed.
For all their faults Microsoft have done some really great work and brought a lot of innovative ideas to fruition. Sure their strategy of embrace, extend and extinguishrightfully earnt them the reputation of being an evil company but despite this they’ve continued to deliver products that are really head and shoulders above the competition. From emerging technologies like the Surfaceto dragging others kicking and screaming into the world of online game consoles Microsoft has shown that when they want to they can innovate just like anyone else can. One of those innovations that, in my opinion, hasn’t received the press it should is the idea of the Three Screens and a Cloud form of computing which Microsoft started talking about almost 2 years ago.
The idea itself is stunningly simple: that the computing experience between the three main screens a user has (their computer, phone and TV) should be connected and ubiquitous. Whilst I still detest using the word cloud computing for anything (it feels like magic hand waving) the idea of all these screens being connected to a persistent cloud back end unlocks potential for innovation on quite a large scale. The devil is in the details of course and whilst such an idea is something to behold the actual implementation of this is what will show whether or not Microsoft knows what it’s talking about, rather than just drumming up some hype with a new industry buzz term.
Microsoft is already making headway into implementing this idea with their Live Mesh range of online services. I’ve been a big user of their remote desktopfeatures that have allowed me to remote in via anywhere with a web browser. They’ve also been hard at work making their Office products more accessible through Office Web Apps, which provide a pretty good experience especially considering they’re free. Their current strategy for getting on the TV sees to be centered around improving the Xbox Live experience and integrating it with the upcoming mobile platform Windows Phone 7. Time will tell if they’ll be able to draw all of these platforms together to fully realise the Three Screens idea, but they’re well on their way to delivering such a service.
Stepping away from Microsoft’s work the idea of a computing experience being agnostic to the platform you’re on has been a fascination of mine for quite some time. You see I make my money based around virtualization which has its roots in the idea of removing dependency on a platform from the software. More recently I’ve been diving into the world of virtual desktops which give you the novel ability of taking your desktop session with you, needing only a USB key for the user. There are quite a few companies offering products that implement this idea but more recently some have taken it a step further like CITRIX and their search for a Nirvana Phone. Realistically I see no reason why you couldn’t interact with that same session directly on the phone or on a TV if you so desired, getting us dangerously close to realising the Three Screens idea.
Although Microsoft is credited with the soundbite that captures this idea they’re not the only ones working towards unifying a computing experience across platforms. Google has made serious inroads into the mobile sector and just this year announced that they would be coming to the last screen they had missed, the TV. They’ve also taken the first steps to integrating the phone and computer experiences with the Chrome to Phone extension for their browser. Whilst Apple had been some what lax about their foray into TV they have since revampedthe idea to be more like their other iOS based products, signalling that they too are looking to unify the user experience.
At it’s heart the notion of Three Screens is of freedom and ubiquity, with users data empowered through it’s ability to transcend restrictions that once plagued it. The true realisation of this idea is still yet to be seen but I know that the unification of the three key computing platforms is not far away. With so many big players vying for dominance I’m sure that we’ll see a platform war of the likes we’ve never seen before and hopefully from that the best products and services will arise victorious, to the benefit of us all.
I spent the vast majority of my life living out in the country where mobile phone reception was scarce even when you were on the top of the highest hill you could find. For many years I stayed with Telstra because they were the only ones that could provide me with a connection that wouldn’t drop out most of the time and, thanks to my employment at a retail establishment that peddled their wares, I was able to get a very decent plan that kept me going until about 2 years ago. After moving into the city I’ve always felt spoiled having mobile phone reception wherever I go and I’m still mildly surprised when I get coverage indoors since the corrugated iron roof we had would kill any signal. I know I’m not the only one who’s had these kinds of issues but since I was at home I had many other ways to contact people, it was more the convience factor for those few who didn’t have IM or email.
The problem hasn’t gone away for my rural comrades who still languish with poor cell phone reception. Since the population is spread out so sparsely it’s not worth any mobile provider’s time and money to try and improve the signal out there as their potential customer base is quite small. It’s the same reason that they haven’t bothered with upgrading many rural exchanges with the DSLAM architecture required to give the same people broadband although there are other companies providing directional wireless broadband solutions to cover these guys off (that’s not the same as 3G broadband, just in case you were thinking that). The solution that companies overseas seem to be peddling to those who don’t get the mobile reception that they want seems to lie with the introduction of Femtocells, but I can’t really see how that fixes anything, nor why anyone would actually pay for the privilege.
A femtocell is basically a small version of those giant cell towers you see every so often. They work off the idea that they can route the voice and data traffic over a broadband connection, usually provided by the person who has purchased the femtocell. From a technical point of view it’s actually quite a simple and elegant solution as it makes use of existing infrastructure to provide a service that some people potentially lack. When deployed into the real world however there’s some issues that I just can’t see a simple solution for, especially when you consider those in a situation similar to mine all those years ago.
Firstly there’s the dependency on a broadband connection. Now whilst I’m not terribly familiar with the broadband situation in the USA here in Australia if you’re lucky enough to be able to get any kind of broadband the chances are you’re within a certain short distance from a telephone exchange which typically has its own cell tower. If you’re unable to get cell phone reception but you have connected broadband you’re either inside a building (which usually only kills 3G) or in some kind of freakish blackspot. Either way you’re still connected to the outside world via the Internet and possibly a landline or VOIP phone which could be your mobile phone if it’s capable of running Skype or similar. Additionally for those of us who lived with little to no mobile reception and lack proper broadband a femtocell is useless, since it simply can’t operate in those conditions.
There’s also the fact that, should Australian mobile carriers follow the USA’s lead, femtocells will have to be purchased by the end user. Now it’s always nice to have full bars on your phone but realistically if you’re at home there’s not really a need for it. The data aspect is fully covered by having wifi in the house which even the cheapest of ADSL routers come with these days. I can understand the voice aspect somewhat although if you have broadband in Australia you either have a landline which you can divert your mobile to when you’re out of range of a tower or you have naked DSL and VOIP, which could be used in much the same way. Additionally if you’ve got a smartphone there’s the possibility of using something like Skype which would still be contactable via the Internet should you lose signal at home. Really the mobile carriers should provide the customer with an outdoor picocell instead as coverage blackspots like that tend not to be isolated to a single household.
I guess I’m approaching this problem from the view of someone technically inclined as I can see the attraction for someone who’s stuck in a blackspot and doesn’t want to mess around with diverts and VOIP on their phone. Still the limited application of such devices really makes me think it should be a cost beared by the carrier as realistically it’s their infrastructure that the customer is paying for as even if it was free there’s still the broadband connection, bandwidth and power required for these devices. The problem would be rendered completely moot if a service like Google Voice came to Australia but for now it seems we’re still stuck with less than ideal solutions to poor signal issues in residential areas.
The last two years have seen a very impressive trend upwards in terms of the functionality you can fit in your pocket. It didn’t seem like too long ago that streaming a YouTube video to your phone would take half an hour to load and would cost you at least $5. Compared to today when my phone is actually a usable substitute for my fully fledged computer when I’m on the move. For the everyman this has led to even the cheapest of phones being filled to the brim with oodles of technology with even sub $100 phones having features like GPS and 3G connectivity. Even more interesting is the line that once separated smart phones from regular phones has become increasingly blurry to the point where consumers rarely make the distinction anymore.
Realistically the initiator of this paradigm shift¹ was Apple as they brought technology that was usually out of reach to everyone. Sure they did it whilst making a decent buck off everyone but they broke down that barrier many people held that paying over $200 for a phone was something of an extravagance. Now it’s not unusual for anyone to shell out up to $1000 on a phone these days, especially when that cost is hidden away in the form of a 2 year contract. The flow on effect was not limited to Apple however, and now we have yet another booming industry with many large corporations vying for our wallets.
For the most part Apple still reigns supreme in this world. Whilst they’re by no means the largest competitor in the smartphone market, that helm still belongs to Symbian, they still carry the lion’s share of mobile Internet traffic. That hasn’t stopped Google’s competing platform from sneaking up on them with them taking 24% to Apple’s 50%. The growth is actually becoming something of a talking point amongst the tech crowd as whilst Google has floundered in its attempts to replicate Apple’s succes with its Nexus One it’s platform is surging forward with little signs of slowdown. Could it be that the line Google towed of open winning out in the long run has some truth to it?
Amongst developers the one thing that gets trotted out against programming for Android is the market segmentation. With the specs on Android devices not tightly controlled you have many different variables (screen size, is it multi-touch, does it have a keyboard, etc) to account for when building your application. With the iPhone (and soon Windows Phone 7) those variables are eliminated and your development time is cut by a significant amount. Still the leniency granted by the Android platform means that manufacturers are able to make a wide variety of handsets that can cater to almost any need and budget, opening up the market considerably. So whilst Apple might have broken through the initial barrier to get people to buy smartphones it would appear that people are now starting to crave something a little more.
For every person that has an iPhone there’s quite a few who want something similar but couldn’t afford it or justify the expense. The Android platform, with over 60 handsets available, gives those people an option for a feature rich phone that doesn’t necessarily attract the Apple premium. In essence Apple pioneered demand for devices that it had no interest in developing and Google, with it’s desire to be in on the ground level for such a market, took the easier road of developing (well really they bought it) an open platform and leaving the handsets up to the manufacturers. At the time this was a somewhat risky move as despite Google’s brand power they had no experience in the mobile world, but it seems to be paying off in spades.
Real competition in any markets is always a good thing for end consumers and the mobile phone space is no exception. Today almost any handset you buy is as capable as a desktop PC was 10 years ago, fueling demand for instant access information and Internet enabled services. Google and Apple are gearing up to duke it out for the top spot in this space and I for one couldn’t be more excited to see them duke it out. I never really want to see either of them win though because as long as they’re fighting to keep their fans loyal I know the mobile world will keep innovating at already blistering pace they’ve managed to sustain over the past 2 years.
¹Don’t you dare call buzzword bingo here, that’s a proper use of the term.
There’s really no love lost between Apple and I. Whilst I’ve blasted them many times on this blog I’ve never made a sweeping statement against all their products since frankly, if they were crap Apple wouldn’t be in the position they are in today. Still I’ve got a beef with how they deal with developers and how they keep features from their users (citing that it’s not required or bloat) and then releasing that very feature to wide fanfare in another revision (MMS anyone?). Still with them pushing over 42 million handsets worldwide they’ve created a market that I can’t rightly ignore if I’m in the business of mobile applications that strive to have widespread adoption. So about three weeks ago I took the plunge and dropped a cool $1040 on an iPhone 3GS and I’ve spent every minute with it pushing the phone to its limits.
Now I’ve spent a considerable amount of coin on phones before but the iPhone still tops out as the most expensive one that I shelled out for. Usually when you part with this much dosh you’re greeted with packaging fit for a king with extras and accessories flowing from the box. Apple, true to their minimalistic design philosophies, give you little more than the phone, ear buds, usb cable and charger, with the whole thing fitting in something roughly the same size as a house brick. Sure I wasn’t expecting too much but I’ve bought phones for hundreds of dollars less that came with more, so my initial impressions, whilst impressed with the minimalistic nature, were soured by the fact that I had parted with so much for so little. The blow was softened somewhat by the fact that my company paid for 90% of the phone, one of the perks of being a contractor 😉
I then took the time to get the phone set up which (groan) had me installing iTunes. Now I’ve had an iPod shuffle for about a year so you’d think I already had the software installed but this isn’t the case. I’d managed to avoid it by using a program called Floola which allowed me to drag and drop music onto it. After getting the software installed (and making sure not install the bug ridden port of a browser Safari¹) I had my iPhone up and running and something caught my eye.
It was the screen on this phone, it’s really quite gorgeous. Even though my Xperia X1 has almost double the screen resolution it just doesn’t seem as nice as the one on the iPhone, even with Sony’s UI smothering the beast that is Windows Mobile’s default UI. For a long time geek like myself the UI was very intuitive and my better half (who I bought an iPhone for as well since she’d been pining for one for years) didn’t have any issues navigating around her new toy. After getting the basics out of the way I decided to go straight for the heart of the iPhone’s apparent success: the App Store.
Yet again I was met with extremely slick UI design that was done to facilitate the non-tech crowd through a world that was ostensibly for techies. In minutes I was downloading all manner of applications: Echofon, Facebook, Shazam, AroundMe all found their way onto my phone in a matter of minutes of getting it onto the world wide web. My initial disappointment with the lack of included extras was soon pushed aside by the overwhelming amount of functionality that could be unlocked with few clicks on the App store. My inner Apple critic was still shouting loudly in my ear that this was the devils store and any more attempts to dive deeper into this world would be met by damnation of all those who sit atop a pylon of free and open ideals. But the apps called to me because it was just so damned easy.
It took me a long time to be willing to part with extra money to buy something on the app store but it finally happened when I had 30 minutes to kill and I was stuck in a parking lot with just myself and my iPhone. Browsing through the free games section nothing really caught my fancy so I looked through the paid section. Noticing that a long time addiction of mine, Bejeweled, was available I happily signed my soul away and not less than 2 minutes later I was busting jewels like a pro. The game has since brought me a couple hours of entertainment, well worth the $4 I parted with for it.
I was quite surprised by the browsing experience on this phone. With many sites now creating mobile versions specifically for the iPhone (this site included, if you’re on a mobile device it will switch to an iPhone-esque theme for you) browsing sites is quite a lot easier than I thought it would be. With sites that don’t implement it the multi-touch interface makes zooming around the pages quite smooth and very enjoyable, a long way from my roots in Windows Mobile world. I haven’t had a chance to compare the experience to Opera Mini, but from what I’ve heard you gain page loading speed at the cost of some things not rendering quite right. Still I’ll stick with the default browser for now since most people design for that first if they’re creating a mobile site.
In the interest of doing a full review of the iPhone I decided that I’d best buy some music as well, and while I’m at it let’s see how it would perform downloading an entire album over the cell phone network. Hitting up the store I decided that I’d grab an album of a band I’d just recently come across: Miami Horror. For the princely sum of about $8 I was treated to a full album of tracks and in the space of a 15 minute walk all but 2 tracks of it had finished downloading. Colour me impressed as I’ve tried doing things like this before on other phones and been quite disappointed. The whole experience left me wanting to do it again just for the sheer novelty of being able to think of a bad, look them up on iTunes and have their album on my phone in less time than it would take for me to drive to the closest record store. Once again Apple’s philosophy of “It just works” seems to be a winner.
But of course since I am at heart a geek there are some things about my new iPocketCandy that aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. In the nation’s capital 3G coverage is somewhat spotty for my carrier (Three) and this usually incurs me roaming whenever I go indoors. That’s not too much of a problem since the iPhone has a switch to not use Internet when roaming (which is bloody awesome, I had to get an application for Windows Mobile to do that). However the process of getting it to switch back to 3G takes about 2 minutes or so to complete when the same operation on Windows Mobile took about 10 seconds. Given that the device also freezes for about 5 seconds when switching networks by itself this has become a bit of a bugbear, especially considering I’m in and out 3G reception most of the day.
I’ve made a habit of keeping a good contacts file in my Outlook ever since I moved to a Windows Mobile phone. You can then imagine my elation when I saw an option to sync directly from Outlook in iTunes. That was until I actually tried to sync them to my phone upon which I received the error that there was no default mail client installed. Funny that since I had the email client open at the time. A couple furious Google searches later proved that I wasn’t alone in this problem and it in fact lies with Apple, since they haven’t built in support for the x64 version of Outlook. For a company that likes to tout itself as an innovator it gives me the irates when they miss something as simple as this, especially when the problem has gone unresolved for months. I ended up creating a CSV file of my various contacts and uploading them into Google Contacts (I’d never seen this before) and syncing them that way. That’s 4 hours of shenanigans that I shouldn’t of had to go through.
There are also some other tasks, like importing your own ring tones, that feel like they were purposefully made difficult so that you go for Apple’s solution. When you first plugin your iPhone iTunes won’t even show the ring tones folder, which would send most people straight off to the store to buy a ring tone they want. Sure its relatively easy to work around but is it really that hard to have the option there right from the beginning? I’m sure the sales department had a say in how that whole thing went down.
The iPhone is also the reason why I believe the iPad is not a revolution of any kind. Whilst I’ve yet to get my hands on an iPad the countless videos and reviews I have read show me little more than an overgrown version of the very phone I now carry with me. Most of those 42 million people who bought the iPhone did so because they actually had a use for the damn thing. The iPad however fills a need that none of them had previously and subsequently I can’t fathom that the initial rush of purchases are anything but people who would buy whatever latest widget that Apple released. Sure it would make a great “coffee table device” but really think about how often you would actually use such a device, and then think again if you had an iPhone in your pocket. The use cases for the iPad shrink considerably the more thought you give to purchasing it, which ironically I think is the exact reason why it has so sold many (yes I just called all iPad owner’s thoughtless brand whores, what are you going to do about it?).
That all being said however I can’t detract from the fact that the iPhone is the best mobile phone I’ve ever had. Everything about it just works (eventually at worst) and the amount of functionality that can be unlocked through the App store is quite phenomenal. Apple’s commitment to making what was once geek now chic works incredibly well with the iPhone and I can see the reason why over half of my tech oriented friends choose the iPhone as their smart phone. For anyone that can afford one the iPhone is a purchase that you won’t soon regret and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how my future Android purchase (currently shaping up to be a HTC Incredible) shapes up along side it.
¹Seriously, Safari on Windows is a bloated piece of garbage with numerous security holes. From all accounts its fine on OSX but it seems the team who ported it to Windows didn’t put a heck of a lot of thought into it and as such I can’t recommend it to anyone. Chrome/Firefox are still the safest and best browsers on this platform.
Let me premise this post with this one fact: I’m a confessed, huge, blubbering Sony fanboy. Ever since they suckered me in with the original Playstation I’ve been at early morning/midnight launch of their consoles, and I’ve happily parted with many dollars in order to get the console on the first day. I’ve never regretted doing this, especially with Sony’s habit of releasing consoles riddle with delicious exploits for the hackers to get their hands on. That, and they’ve now developed a nasty habit of removing features from their products in order to make them cheaper, something which I feel is a bit rough and doesn’t do them any favours PR wise.
So of course when it came time for work to replace my phone, you can probably guess who I turned to first to see if there was a suitable replacement.
Sony had decided that it needed to step into the arena of Windows smart phones and it’s first entry attempt is the Xperia X1 (which is sitting beside me as I type this). Sony can’t take all the credit for the handset however, as the internals of the handset were designed by smartphone giant HTC, who make pretty much every Windows smart phone you see despite the branding on the outside. This was a smart move by Sony as they whilst they have a small foothold in the laptop and UMPC market their experience with Windows based phones is nil, and established companies are typically risk adverse when it comes to cracking new markets.
They can take credit for a lot of other things to do with the handset. The overall design of the handset is stunning, with the body being mostly metal with plastic chrome flashing around the outside. This is one of the things that drew me to the handset initially, as it’s something different to the typical shiny black plastic you see on handsets these days. The arc-slider design, whilst by no means revolutionary, certainly adds a nice touch to the handset and helps to keep the device a bit slimmer then it’s counterparts.
Sony, as with most Windows mobile using companies, decided to rethink the default mobile UI and put their own system in. Traditionally this came as a re-skinning but many are now going for a complete overhaul of the default UI. The Xperia has a slight twist though, and that comes through the idea of panels.
The basic idea is that you can change between different default modes of operation for your phone. It’s actually not a bad idea and there are many panels out for things like Youtube and Facebook. They’re definitely a step up in terms of design when compared to the normal UI as they can take advantage of the IR trackpad at the base of the phone. The fish panel is a gimmick more then anything, but it’s a great thing to show people so they get a feel for what the phone is capable of.
What really suckered me in to this phone was is that everything just plain works. Every Windows mobile phone I’ve had has suffered from at least 1 or 2 shop stopping glitches that caused the phone to be next to useless around 50% of the time. My first ever phone, the O2 Atom Exec routinely suffered stability problems. After having it serviced (and the screen replaced, due to a drunken attempt at a commando roll) it would randomly turn itself off if touch, bumped or prodded. Something that was particularly distressing when you were on a call and needed to put it down to turn on the speaker. My most recent handset, the HTC Touch Diamond, did tick all the right boxes (size, weight, power, features) it also had a lovely habit of completely muting itself when someone rung, so that I could hear them but they couldn’t hear me. Several trips back and forth to the repair centre and online resources couldn’t turn up a fix. Pity I lost it as it would’ve made a great universal remote
The Xperia, whilst not a revolutionary piece of hardware or software does make some incremental changes that turn out to be a very usable phone in a delightfully sleek package. Sure it lacks an accelerometer and the IR trackpad, whilst a great idea, does turn out to be a bit lackluster but the build quality alone makes up for these lost features. Plus people won’t wonder why you’re so happy to see them when you put this phone in your pocket 😉
Overall I’m very pleased with my purchase and I’d love to see what else Sony has in store for this market. Whilst at the RRP of over AUD$1000 I’m not suprised that everyone is rushing out to buy one of these, but for the business and “prosumer” market it’s definitely in the ballpark.