Blue Snowball Microphone review

As a regular podcaster, with my show I Saw That Years Ago, microphones hold a bit of interest for me. Over the years I’ve tried a fair few, and when my old Zoom H2 developed problems recently I needed to quickly find a replacement.

My search led me to the Blue Snowball, which has been a perennial favourite of many people, and for good reasons. First of all it’s inexpensive, usually found going for around £50 online. Then there’s the fact that it’s actually quite versatile, with the higher end version (as reviewed here) offering three different recording modes – Cardioid, Cardioid with -10dB pad, and Omni-directional.

Aesthetically it’s also a very handsome device : the main body being spherical, hence the name Snowball, with grilled openings at the front and back. Manufacturer Blue increase this visual splendour by offering the Snowball in a number of colours including White, Blue, Green, Orange, Purple, and the rather fetching Chrome finish on this review model.

Snowball-Wide

In the hand the ball-like microphone has a decent amount of heft, making it feel durable and expensive. It’s a little bigger than a tennis ball in real life, and once affixed to the included stand it can sit quite happily at chest height on a normal desk.

As the Snowball is a USB microphone there’s not much to do in regards of setup. I just plugged the device into my Mac, where it was instantly recognised and ready to go. Very handy for mobile podcasting, which is in fact where I went first.

Having a holiday booked, but shows still to record, I was pleased to find that the Snowball packed easily into a laptop bag without adding much in the way of bulk. The only real issue I had with it on my travels was the bemused look a customs lady gave me when I produced it from my luggage. At that moment it did resemble, with some accuracy, a thermal detonator from Star Wars. So I immediately demanded the release of Han Solo, and made my getaway on a passing baggage carousel.

Gatwick, yesterday.

Gatwick, yesterday.

Of course the main purpose of a microphone is to sound, rather than look, good. In this regard the Blue Snowball is again solid. As this is a condenser mic it’s very good at picking up a wide area of sound. On the standard cardioid setting, which was pretty much the only one I used, the Snowball proved sensitive enough to capture good quality audio while being positioned a foot or so away from my mouth. In fact I found the best results by having the mic sit to the right of my MacBook on a desk while I sat back in a chair. As I was travelling I didn’t want to have to pack a pop-shield, but this meant I couldn’t speak directly into the Snowball as it would invariably cause popping due to my sloppy microphone-technique.

“the Snowball proved sensitive enough to capture good quality audio while being positioned a foot or so away from my mouth”

The place I was staying was quite remote, and as such there was next to no background noise. This turned out to be important, as my home setup is in the heart of a city where it is very hard to block out the shouts and traffic noise of a metropolis, and the Snowball struggled more in this urban setting. Amidst my seclusion the sonic sphere proved a useful and sturdy companion. Recording was trouble free, and the amount of edits required due to noise or ‘plosives was acceptable. One thing I did find though, which is probably due to the entirely digital nature of the device, was that ‘plosives and pops did tend to completely obliterate the audio rather than simply make it grainy and harsh.

To hear samples of how the recordings went you can listen to these episodes of the show, all of which had my voice captured by the Snowball with no tonal alterations applied.

I Saw That Years Ago – Diva

I Saw That Years Ago – House

I Saw That Years Ago – Never Say Never Again

In general the audio seems clear and balanced, with maybe a slight over-emphasis on the higher registers. EQ would address this, and my only real concern is the sensitivity to background noise that a condenser mic brings. If you have a quiet recording environment, then the Snowball is a stout choice, especially for the price, but those with less sedate surroundings will find that noise spillage can be an issue. As an example you can try listening to the High Noon episode of the show, in which the first half is recorded on the Zoom H2 (which has always done a good job of cutting out background sounds), but was replaced by the Snowball for the second half.

I Saw That Years Ago – High Noon

While the audio isn’t hugely different, it did take more work to keep the background clean on the Snowball. This isn’t technically a problem with the device itself, but definitely an environmental factor that needs to taken into account if you’re thinking of buying one.

Snowball_Back

Summary

The Snowball is a popular microphone, and after spending a month or so with this model I can see why. Sound quality is good, and with a few tweaks in post production this can be brought up to impressive. There are a few idiosyncrasies that you’ll need to work around to get the best out of the unit. Using a pop shield is essential if you intend to speak directly into the Snowball, but this is true of many microphones, and you’ll need to take care with any changes in speaking dynamics to avoid sudden peaking in the audio, again not uncommon. Overall though the Snowball is dependable and versatile, especially as a travel recording solution. It won’t be replacing my SM58 and Focusrite preamp for my main home rig, as that handles noise a lot better, but the Snowball will be one of the first things in my bag for future trips.

 

 

The LG G4 – the best Android smartphone of 2015?

Smartphones are not only getting smarter, they’re also getting bigger. It was only a couple of years ago that my old iPhone 4S felt like a premier device that could do almost anything. Now, after spending a lot of time using a Nexus 5, the diminutive iOS handset seems more like something out of Zoolander than a phone that grown ups can use.

Zoolander

Of course Android phones were the first to make the leap into larger forms, with most of the top models for the past few years dwarfing Apple’s offerings. Samsung even introduced a new category of device with its Note range, causing the creation of a word the world could truly do without – the Phablet. What was wrong with the Tahone? It sounded far more exotic and less like a marital aid, but them’s the breaks.

Now LG has recently updated its flagship range with the new G4, a powerhouse device with many excellent features…but, has the craze for size actually hampered this design?

Having spent the last eighteen months using a Nexus 5 as my daily driver, I’m not one to eschew the delights of a bigger handset. Admittedly it did take a little getting used to initially, but now I’d regard the 5″ device as probably the optimum size. It’s big enough to enjoy the web, videos, and reading, but not so much that you can’t reach anything on the screen or feel like you’re holding a tea tray to your head when you make a phone call. Important stuff.

Nexus 5 & LG G4

Nexus 5 & LG G4

The LG G4 comes in at 5.5″, which might not sound like much, but actually makes quite a difference. In the hand it’s heavy, although not uncomfortably so. The body and screen are gently curved, which does make it sit well in your palm, but on this Korean model I reviewed the current genius trend for making expensive, mainly glass devices, incredibly slippy is in full force. For the first few days I was terrified of the G4 leaping from my grasp at any moment, so much so that I avoided taking it out of my pocket if I was walking down the street. Those who live in plush, green fields, or never leave the confines of a deeply carpeted house, will avoid these stressful issues, although static electricity could become an issue in the latter. LG does offer a leather backed version, which would certainly go a long way to solving this issue, but if you opt for a more standard model you’re definitely going to need a case, or at least some sedatives to avoid a heart attack.

While you can use the G4 one handed, it’s not really ideal. The reach is just too big for my average sized hands even with Android’s sensible placement of navigation buttons. To compensate for the larger frame LG has once again opted to place the power and volume buttons directly on the back of the unit rather than the side, just like on the G3. While this does make them easier to reach, it also makes them impossible to see, and I found myself feeling around for them unsuccessfully on more than one occasion. Maybe with more time you would get used to it, but for now I find it somewhat awkward.

Buttons on the back

Buttons on the back

LG has skinned Android on the G4, but it’s nowhere near as aggressive as Samsung or HTC’s offerings. The icons, settings, and general feel is clean and light, with a recognisably Android feel. Swiping left from the home-screen reveals a news stream app, rather than the Google Now page that is so useful on stock Android. Of course the Google Now launcher is freely available, and I did download it to regain my purist badge, but it’s only applicable to the top layer, as the drop down settings menus still remain the LG defaults. That’s not to say they’re bad, not at all, and after using the handset for a week or so I was whizzing around like a native. One excellent feature I liked was the tap to wake function, in which you simply double tap the screen and it will act as if you’ve pressed the power button. It worked for me about 70% of the time and was an easy way to quickly check notifications and even the time without picking up the device.

The LG user interface

The LG user interface

So, the screen’s too big, it’s too heavy, slippy, and the UI isn’t as good as it could be. Surely that’s a pretty damning opinion of the G4?

Well, no.

You see many of those objections are down to personal preference, clouded by my love of Google’s Android UI. If you want a larger phone but don’t quite want the step up to phablet territory, then the G4 is a very impressive unit. The display is bright, crisp, and is a fine place to watch YouTube or surf the web. Touch responses are accurate, and the whole interactive experience is fast, smooth, and easy to use.

Battery life is fantastic. On my Nexus 5 I usually finish the day with about 20% remaining, less if I’ve used it heavily that day. For the couple of weeks with the G4 I hardly ever got below 50%. The one time I managed to drain it involved travelling all day, making a few calls, moving between wi-fi antennas (always a drain on a battery) and taking about one hundred photographs in a dark room. Even then I still got home at around 1am with 5% left.

Very, very good.

Oh, and the battery is removable, so if you do manage to burn through it, you can always pop in another. While you’re at it, slap an SD card in there so you can take even more photos.

The camera, though, is the prime reason for buying a G4. It really is about as good as it gets on mobile phones at the moment. Using the device at a gig, with the usual challenges that low lighting and fast moving subjects presents, I still managed to get some really decent shots. This is mainly down to the extensive manual mode that the G4 offers. I even used the digital zoom, which on most units returns awful results, and snapped a couple of cool atmospheric images. Seriously, this camera is brilliant.

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At full zoom, in changing stage lighting, and with the subjects moving.

At full zoom, in changing stage lighting, and with the subjects moving.

Verdict

The LG G4 is an excellent, premium smartphone that delivers pretty much anything you want from an Android device. It’s powerful, fast, has a lovely display, and that camera, oh yes.

It surprises me then that I just don’t feel much love for it. I think the size feels too big to be truly comfortable in my hands, and while the UI is snappy and well laid out, it’s not as simple as a Nexus. I had hoped to upgrade to this model from my Nexus 5, which of course was made by LG, but I think I’ll hold onto that model for a little longer yet.

These are just personal gripes though. The G4 will be an incredible phone for most people and should certainly be at the very top of the list for anyone who wants a larger handset. Prices seem to be less than iPhones and Samsung G6s at the moment, and for the money I think you’d be getting a real bargain.

Are Smartwatches any good? The Samsung Gear 2 Neo makes its case.

When Apple recently announced its imaginatively titled Apple Watch, many commentators said that this now validated the emerging technology. Certainly the fruit giant has been successful in opening up new types of device by taking existing ideas and making them much more comfortable to use. The iPad for example was the first truly user friendly tablet, but it was by no means the originator of the idea – Microsoft had its own tablet PC back in 2002.

With the Watch though it feels more of a risk. For a start it needs an iPhone to work, and if you have an expensive device already in your pocket do you really need another overpriced remote control on your wrist? Also, how functional will it be with only a small screen to work with?

It will be a little while yet before we can see how Apple has addressed these challenges, as the device is not due to be released until next year, but if we skip over to the Android camp there are a few examples already loose in the wild.

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The Samsung Gear 2 Neo is one such device, and with an RRP of £169 it should be around half the cost of the impending Apple version. In a sadly similar fashion though you’ll need a Samsung mobile device to make it work. I can understand the principle of tailoring a proprietary system so that it melds seamlessly with its siblings, but this just continues the customer lock-in that music and app stores already promote. That being said, Samsung do sell an awfully large amount of phones, so chances are if you’re considering this device you may well already be in that eco-system.

The watch comes in a rather fetching orange livery (although more sedate options are available), feeling lightweight and comfortable when worn. I don’t have especially large wrists, and never thought of the watch as cumbersome, but this is primarily a man’s watch, and as such it would look slightly ridiculous on the slim wrists of gentle ladies. The screen is bright and clear, retaining just enough contrast to be read in direct sunlight, and automatically turns itself off when you stop interacting with it. This is excellent from a battery conservation point of view, but did mean that when you quickly raised your arm to check the time there was a slight delay as the watch sensed the movement and then turned the screen back on. Not a huge problem, more an idiosyncrasy of the new platform.

Setting up the device is very simple. Download the Samsung Gear app on your phone, turn on the watch, pair the two of them together via Bluetooth, and you’re pretty much done. Then you’re free to explore the various features presented on the tiny 1.6″ screen. Navigating around is actually very easy. You swipe left and right to move through the various home screens, tap on an icon to launch an app, then swipe down from the top to go back a step. It might sound fiddly, but after a couple of minutes it makes complete sense, which is a good thing. If you do manage to get lost then there is always the physical button under the screen which takes you back to the home page.

A decent start.

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Of course for a smartwatch to be smart it needs to do something other than tell the time. The Gear 2 Neo manages this via several built in apps. There is a suite of health related apps, although they really amount to multiple pedometers optimised for different activities such as running, cycling and walking. A heart rate monitor is quite a fun addition, and the ability to link the Neo Gear 2 to fitness tracking apps such as Samsung’s own S-Health, and the likes of Edomondo expand the possibilities.

Communications options are also good, with the watch able to display text messages, emails, and show you who is calling your phone. In fact, thanks to the built in speaker and microphone you can ever answer the call and hold the conversation without your handset ever emerging from your pocket. This is handy for thing like cooking or driving, but if you’re on the bus then you might want to think twice before being that guy.

One, rather huge, caveat on the communications front is that you need to use Samsung’s own apps if you want to receive and respond to text and email. This is pretty poor, as one of the best things about Android is that you can replace stock apps with ones you prefer. So the Gmail app can’t be running on your phone (unless you want two notifications for every email) and if you prefer Google Hangouts or Textra for your SMS, that will have to go too. Presumably the reason for this is that the Gear 2 Neo isn’t actually running on Android, but instead Samsung has used its own version of Tizen for the OS. No doubt there are advantages on the programming side, but certainly not on the users’.

20140918_173615

Apps choices aside, I have to say that having notifications on your wrist, ones that you can respond to with voice commands, is actually incredibly useful. If you suffer from phantom vibrations that cause you to constantly pull your handset out to see who sent you a message, only to be faced with disappointment, then being able to quickly flick your wrist instead is a wonderfully simple solution. Calls are also harder to miss, and there is nothing quite like seeing a text come in, tapping your wrist and voicing a response, then carrying on with your day. It’s a very James Bond moment. Voice searching is also cool, albeit slightly frustrating on the Gear 2 Neo, as Samsung’s default engine seemed to struggle to return results consistently.

20140918_173630

There are a few other issues too; functions are limited by the small screen size, so reading anything longer than a very brief email isn’t much fun, many of the options to change settings are still on the handset rather than the watch, and you do have to add something else to your daily charging routine.

But, well, it’s a lot of fun.

Wearable technology is certainly being promoted as the next big thing, and with the largest technology companies in the world all jockeying for position, this seems to be an inevitable truth. Whether they are quite ready for prime time yet is still debatable. For £170 you could buy plenty of useful things, or indeed a very nice watch. Then there’s the usual caution of never hurling yourself on the hand grenade of first generation products. With all that in mind, it’s not easy to recommend the Gear 2 Neo unless you already have a newer Samsung phone, and are willing to surrender yourself to the default Samsung apps. If you fit that criteria though, and have the money, then it must be said that you would no doubt get a lot of pleasure using a device that makes each day feel a little closer to being on Star Trek.

I was quite sceptical about the first-world nature of wearables. Now…I think I’m convinced. Better start another savings jar. Man, the future is going to be expensive.

Is the Canon EOS M the best value camera around at the moment?

When Canon launched the EOS M, its first Compact System Camera (CSC), back in the summer of 2012, the unit arrived with an eye-watering £700+ price tag. This might have been acceptable, after all it is a superbly built device, but along with the hefty cost it also featured a truly awful auto-focus system. Reviews were patchy, and the general advice found online leaned strongly in the ‘wait for the next model’ camp. Several months later Canon released a firmware update to help the crippled focussing issues, but in the ever changing world of technology this was a little too late to turn the tide of opinion against the EOS M. Time passed, prices dropped considerably, and then thoughts began to drift back to the camera that could have been.

If you head to Amazon or Ebay, it’s now quite possible to pick up a barely used, or even new, EOS M for between £250-£300, including a kit lens. This got me thinking…is this the best bargain camera available at the moment? So, I got one in to put it through its paces.

Canon EOS M Front

First impressions are very good. The body is solid, elegant, and feels sturdy enough to take out into the wild. The all metal construction certainly makes the camera feel like a premium product and a welcome departure from the mainly plastic chassis of its rivals. Canon include one of two lenses in the box, I received an 18-55mm zoom with image stabilisation, but other packs come with a 22mm prime lens. Here again Canon has opted to use an all metal body, which continues the high-quality theme. The zoom control on the lens is smooth and assured, plus there’s also a manual focus ring which exhibits the same authoritative response. There’s no doubt it’s one of the best kit lenses I’ve ever come across from a hardware point of view.

Controls on the device itself appear basic, to say the least, with a single dial on the top of the camera switching between Auto, Mode, and video. The reason for this simplicity is that the vast majority of the options available are found on the touchscreen display at the back of the unit.

Canon EOS M Back

Here you’ll have access to controls for ISO, Exposure, Shutter speed and the like, depending on whether or not you’ve selected a manual mode from the menu. Hardware-wise there are a few function buttons available and a thumbwheel for navigation. It’s pretty standard fare, with the touchscreen being the hub of the device and responding in a particularly good fashion to commands. One additional feature is that you can set the camera to focus and take a picture by tapping on the screen, which came in very handy when I used the unit to do a spot of street photography in Borough Market.

OUT AND ABOUT

While the EOS M is definitely lighter and more svelte than a DSLR, it’s still something of a stretch to call it a pocketable device. With the lens attached it looks, and feels, much closer to a small DSLR than a compact camera. This means that you need to decide whether to take it out with you or not, as opposed to being a device that you always throw in your bag. If you do opt to venture out then you’ll be wise to attach the neck strap, as the smooth body makes the EOS M a little slippery in the hand. All that being said, it’s a very nice camera to hold, with the small bulk keeping the weight down while still remaining reassuringly solid. A major omission though is that the screen doesn’t tilt in any way, so you have to frame every shot with the device held up in front of you. The screen is also quite reflective in bright sunlight (something that a tilting version wouldn’t really fix), so much so that on a few occasions I simply wasn’t able to take a shot due to the fact I couldn’t see anything on the display.

The recent upgrade to the auto-focus system has improved the speed at which the camera acquires its targets…but it’s still not great. Using the shutter button to focus is also hugely frustrating, as it regularly picks random things in the background rather than the subject you want. It did this time after time, and became irritating in no small measure. This is really disappointing as the results you can get with the EOS M are excellent. In the end I switched solely to the touchscreen shutter option (which of course lets you pick the focal point at the same time) and my results immediately improved. Here’s a few unedited examples;

WW1 Soldier Busker Turkish Delight Dinner Time Bad Hat Harry Foul ShotCheese Man Bread Man

On the whole I was very pleased with the results, several of which became even better when cropped and converted to black and white. The diminutive nature of the camera meant people didn’t really notice me as I wandered around, which is always useful with street photography. The zoom did feel a little short at times, and the shutter lag from pressing the screen to the image being captured was annoying, but after a while I started to compensate for the delay. It did mean that I missed a few shots, but still came home with some very usable pictures.

LOWER LIGHT

Roaming busy markets during the daytime is fine, but I wanted to see how the camera coped with being indoors. So, in a time honoured tradition of the blog, I sent a call out to the only hero who can truly test a photographic device. The result, after far too much hunting for focus, was this…

Batman

Hmmm, looks like I need to get the duster out.

Delving even deeper into the dark I set up my old lava lamp and got in close for a few more shots, this time using the manual mode to adjust the settings until they looked good on the camera’s screen.

I love lamp I love lamp too

VIDEO

One other feature that most new cameras need to have of course, is the ability to record decent video. To test this I took the camera out and moved between close, small objects, and larger moving ones (cars and buses). Here’s the results;

As you can see the AF resisted several attempts to bring the flowers into focus, but did a fair job of tracking the cars. It’s not brilliant, especially considering that it was a bright day, but depending on your subect matter it might work for you.

FINAL THOUGHTS

As you can see the EOS M is capable of some lovely, detailed images. Getting them though, can be a chore due to the AF system. If the subjects are reasonably stationary, and light is decent, using the touchscreen shutter will negate some of the frustration, but it’s not perfect by any means. This is a real shame, as the camera is smartly designed, very well constructed, and when it gets things right it can surprise you with how good the results really are. At the current price of £250-£300 though it’s an intriguing proposition. The problem is that you can pick up the likes of the Olympus E-PL5, Panasonic GF6 or, for something more compact, the Sony RX100 Mk1 at around the same price. In the end it comes down to the type of photography you want to do. If you prefer the simplicity of your phone, but want something that will take better pictures, then the Sony is an excellent option. If you want an expandable system, but in truth mainly take pictures of the kids and a few holiday snaps, then the fast focussing of the Panasonic and Olympus will serve you proud. This leaves the EOS M in a strange place. You wouldn’t really want it as your primary camera, it’s too idiosyncratic for that, but as a backup to a DSLR, or for those days when you want to purposefully go out and take high quality photographs, it has a lot to offer, especially for under £300. The proof though is in the pudding, or more accurately the wallet. I’m currently looking for a new camera, and my budget is around the £300-£400 mark. After two weeks with the EOS M I have to say that I won’t be buying one. Yes, it can take some great shots, feels good, and will last, but in the end I don’t really want to feel that I have a work around a camera’s foibles. I want something that I can trust to get that shot, and the Canon just doesn’t give me that confidence. So I’ll pass on this one, albeit reluctantly.

 

Review : Samsung Galaxy S4

Samsung Galaxy S4 review image1

If there’s one handset that challenges the iPhone’s dominance on the minds of customers, then it has to be the Samsung Galaxy S4.

Sure, the HTC One is well loved, Sony has found form again with the new Xperia range, and Google’s Nexus 5 offers simply the best value for money of any top tier unit, but in sheer volume of sales the S4 has got them beat.

Released in the summer of 2013, the S4 is packed to the gills with bespoke features that Samsung has somehow crammed into the elegantly thin frame. In many ways it’s a strong iteration of the wildly successful S3. The screen is marginally bigger at around 5 inches, and while this does feel large and somewhat cumbersome in the initial hours, the glass acreage soon becomes a comfortable place to interact with the device.

In fact the first thing you notice is just how much of the phone is screen. The side bezels are minuscule and the lower portion of the unit where the home and two softkey buttons live is also small. This does cause a few issues as you need to readjust the position of the handset quite often to be able to hit the back button. Over the first few days I found that I touched it by accident with part of my hand pretty regularly, which became something of an annoyance. Putting a case on the unit (which I would have done anyway, as phones are expensive and get dropped a lot) instantly solved the problem by shielding my fleshy thumb from the button. After that I found the S4 a very enjoyable experience.

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All that gorilla glass gives you a portal to the internet that makes watching Youtube videos and playing games a far more enjoyable past-time than it is on my iPhone. The colours are rich, text definition crisp, and the handset is very fast in pretty much any task. The size also makes reading books, articles, or general web browsing far more enticing than on lower-res or inch-challenged rivals. Over the two weeks with the device I definitely found myself using the S4 more for these sort of things than my old iPhone 4S. Actually, going back to my little stalwart after testing bigger phones can often be a little disconcerting. I adjust in a day or two and then it’s business as usual. But after the S4 my iPhone now has the permanent feeling of being too small for many of the things I want to do. I realised that I never really fire up my Kindle, Pulse, or Youtube apps on the iPhone, instead saving it for my iPad. With the S4 this wasn’t the case. Interesting.

CAMERA

One of the main reasons for my love affair with my 4S is the amazing camera. The camera on the S4 is very decent, producing photos that look rich and sharp. It also comes with a multitude of modes that can turn a normal shot into a GIF, multi-exposure image, or (bizarrely) put an image of the taker in the corner. In practice they can be a bit hit and miss. The multiple exposure setting is a kind of action shot, meant really for high speed action. The thing is if you move too quickly then it can’t quite catch the moment, too slowly and you end up blurry. When it gets things right though, the results are quite fun.

Here’s a couple of examples of what can be achieved quickly with just the in-built modes.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Review Image3Samsung Galaxy S4 Review Image5

The typical user will probably play about with these modes when they first get the device, then set them aside and stick with the excellent auto mode. Which would be no bad thing.

Here’s a couple of standard shots that show off the camera in normal use.

20131030_140910_Richtone(HDR)Samsung Galaxy S4 image 7

FINAL THOUGHTS

In the end, for most of us, all we want from a phone is that it’s easy to use, fast, takes cool pictures, and has a good screen. The S4 delivers on all these demands, and stacks a lot of extras on top. There are a number of special features such as eye tracking, and touchless control, but these all felt a bit clunky and pointless. Then there are the elaborate, but again in many cases superfluous although admittedly fun, camera modes. All of this takes up space on the storage and would be a big downside if it weren’t for the fact that Samsung includes a micro SD card slot so you can cheaply expand your internal space. Not many manufacturers do this any more, so it really is an important feature to note, especially if you want to carry your music or video collection around on your phone.

The S4 also has a removable battery, so you can replace it when the phone gets older, or carry a spare if you’re a heavy user. You might not need one though because I was very impressed with the normal day-to-day battery life, rarely finding myself below 20% when it was time to go to bed.

I wasn’t convinced about big phones until my recent experience with the Nexus 4. The Galaxy S4 has taken that curiosity and turned it into a full blown love. It’s hard now to go back to the iPhone, knowing that out there somewhere is an S4. Yes it’s plastic, but so is the new iPhone 5C. Yes it’s big, but it’s also slim and light, so this becomes an advantage. Yes it’s Android, but that’s another major plus these days. The S4 is simply an excellent phone that’s great to use, and the screen is lovely. In truth, this was the hardest one so far to send back.

Review: iPearl Chromebook Cover

Regular readers will know that I’m something of a Chromebook fan.

For the past year I’ve sported the Samsung 2013 Chromebook as my main laptop and I’ve been very happy with the little device. In fact I now have to fight for it as both my wife and daughters have also taken a shine to lightweight machine. All this use has meant that the poor thing has picked up a few bruises along the way, so I was very interested when I spotted the new hard-covers that iPearl were releasing especially for Chromebooks. iPearl, as the name might suggest, has previously specialised in similar accessories for Apple laptops, alongside a few PC variants. Now the Chromebook gets to wear some fancy new clothes. Nice.

iPearl Chromebook cover 1The design is a simple one. Two plastic section that clip onto the top and bottom of the Chromebook chassis. The plastic material is hard, matte, and reasonably transparent, meaning you can still bare your Chrome badge with pride. Once fitted the cover stays on nicely, doesn’t creak too much, and looks like it will protect the device from scratches and maybe even a short drop, but only maybe. A few edges stick out a little, making this not the most elegant of solutions. In general though the iPearl case is a cool way to brighten up your Chromebook, save the casing from crazy toddlers wielding marker pens, and is the perfect surface for covering in stickers. Cool.

iPearl Chromebook Cover 4iPearl Chromebook Cover 3iPearl Chromebook Cover 2

If you like the look of this orange example, or want to see the wide range of other colours available, then visit the Amazon store – here for the US or here for the UK. They cost around £20 and I for one think they’re a fun way to protect your machine.

Review: The Nokia Lumia 1020

While Apple and Samsung battle it out for the hearts and minds of mobile users across the world, Nokia has taken a different path in recent years. Mainly this was because of an exclusive deal with Microsoft for the Finish giant to use the Windows Phone OS on its hardware. To some this has been a huge mistake, as the Lumia range is well regarded but often overlooked due to the unpopular Windows platform. Supporters counter this with the arguments that Windows Phone is innovative, stylish, and more than capable for most users. Whatever your standpoint the truth of the matter is that Nokia hasn’t done so well and was recently bought by Microsoft, which pretty much ensures that it will become the sole hardware for Windows Phone from now on.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. In the past few months Nokia has released the Lumia 520 and 620, which have gone on to become very popular at the budget end of the market, showing that there might be life in the OS yet. The Lumia 1020 I have here today though resides at the other end of the scale, where the competition is much tougher and customers’ expectation are obviously a lot higher.

Nokia Lumia 1020 Review Image 1

The 1020 follows on from the similarly designed Lumia 920 (are you seeing a pattern here?) that always caught the eye thanks to its sharp looks, but caused wide-eyed surprise at its brick like weight. The new unit addresses that issue and does so even after incorporating a 41mp camera into the chassis. No mean feat that. This high power snapper needs a bit of room for all those megapixels, which manifests in a slightly bulbous back. At first glance it might seem bulky, but it’s smaller in the hand than you’d expect, and in some ways the camera bulge acts as a ridge to help when holding the device in one hand.

The overall unit though does feel thicker than say the HTC One or Samsung S4, both of which have larger screen sizes than the 4.5″ sported on the Nokia. This means that general one-handed operation is a little cumbersome, with the extra girth just making things difficult at times.  On Android you can side step the physical size issue by grouping your favourite apps together in folders located near to where you grip the handset, but Windows Phone doesn’t yet offer this useful option, so more often than not the 1020 becomes a two-hand phone for getting things done.

As you can see from the images Nokia fears not the use of colour. The 1020 blazes in the sunlight with its bright yellow body, of which I am mostly unashamedly a fan. Of course if holding this kind of device up to your face in public makes you feel squeamish then you could opt for the red or black options that are also available. Build quality, as you would expect from Nokia, is excellent. The body is solid, the screen is bright and responsive, while call quality is as good as any of the 1020’s rivals. Nokia also includes a suite of apps that definitely add to the Windows Phone experience. Various map, car navigation, and camera apps enhance the ability of the 1020 no end, which is good because the app store is still bereft of many names that most people would expect to see.

It’s safe to say that this is the optimum way to see Windows Phone 8, so if you don’t like this then you won’t find a better example anywhere else. Which is a shame, because it really didn’t take long for me to find myself bored of the 1020, and pining for my old iPhone 4S with its tiny screen and fading battery. Windows Phone 8 just feels…awkward. Apps can be slow to load, transitions between pages is delayed by the animations (although iOS 7 is now guilty of this too), and it takes a while before anything feels like it’s at your fingertips. It’s not bad or unreliable, just a different approach to design, but not one that tends to float my boat in any way. That’s not to say someone else won’t find it rather spiffy. At a recent work event I was stopped by a waiter when he saw me produce the 1020. He shared excitedly about his own 920 and how much he loved the OS. When I talked to him about why, it was clear that the design choices were ones that connected with him in some way. Of course he’d paid for his device, so the praises felt more genuine than my moans, as he had something to lose if the phone was disappointing.

Nokia Lumia 1020 Review Image 2Of course the camera is where the 1020 really shines. In various modes the device proved impressive, with light balance constantly making the best of shots, and colours remaining neutral rather than the saturation tricks that other manufacturers use as a default to charm the eye. One of the main advantages of the 1020 is that you can shoot an image from a distance, then zoom in when cropping on your PC. This resolution is so high that the image retains its details where others would descend into a noisy mess. Here are a few examples to show what it can do.

Nokia Lumia 1020 Review photo1 And here it is zoomed in.

church adjustHere’s a dark room with contrasting colours and images to focus on. It also features one of the built-in filters.

Nokia Lumia 1020 Review Image 3This was taken on an overcast day, just as the light was beginning to fade.

Nokia Lumia 1020 Review Image 4In the end the 1020 is an excellent camera, and a quite mediocre mobile phone. This could be acceptable for many, but the asking price puts it actually just above the iPhone on several carriers. For that kind of money it doesn’t hold up as good value. The iPhone has a very, very good camera, maybe 85% the capacity of the 1020, but also has 100% of the iPhone app and OS experience. The Nokia/Microsoft package really doesn’t compete with this, and when compared to the S4, HTC One and the hotly anticipated Nexus 5, it fares no better. If you love Windows Phone 8 then here you go, fill your boots. But if you’re undecided I suggest you look elsewhere.

 

Review: The Lenovo Ideapad Yoga 11S

When Lenovo announced the original Yoga 11 many of us thought that it sounded like a fantastic portable notebook. Then they revealed that it would run Windows RT, and interest pretty much faded instantly. Now the company has finally come to its senses and returned with the Yoga 11S and a full blown version of Windows 8. Hmmm, tell us more.

Now, regular readers of the blog will know that I have a love/hate relationship with Windows 8. There are plenty of aspects I enjoy about the new Microsoft OS, but hardware limitations – mainly poor touchscreen and trackpads – have made using the finger focussed new age of Windows less than fun in many, many cases.

The first laptop that really made me take W8 seriously was the excellent Thinkpad X1 Carbon, which I reviewed on this site (here). You must have also liked the device as the review has gone on to the most popular one I’ve ever written.

So how does the new touch enabled, light-weight notebook compare to its bigger brother?

Lenovo Ideapad 11S Yoga Review Image 1

The first thing you notice with the 11S is the colour – Clementine Orange – and just how gorgeous it is. After so many years of either cheap, shiny plastic or dull, grey aluminium, to finally have colour on a laptop that doesn’t look like it belongs in Toys R Us is a joyous thing. It took me about three seconds to fall in love with the drop dead cool look of the X1 Carbon, and the 11S managed the same feat in an even quicker time. I’ve heard many complaints about the Thinkpad and Ideapad line looking a bit boring, but I have absolutely no idea what people are talking about. To me those two lines of laptop are easily the best looking on the market today, yes, even prettier than the ever praised MacBook line, which just looks corporate and, well, boring to me at the moment.

Opening up the case reveals the island style keyboard which is now a standard on the Lenovo notebooks, and no wonder as it’s pretty damn good. Each key is curved at the edges, so this makes them feel slightly small, but I had no problem at all typing on it, in fact its one of the best keyboards I’ve used in a while. The Touchscreen on this device is an 11.6″ display boasting a pretty standard 1366×768 resolution. The colours and brightness are a little muted, possibly because of the touchscreen layer, but it’s more than enough quality for the general day to day uses that a notebook is designed to fulfil. Touch response is very good, which makes the swiping in from the edges gestures that Windows 8 employs easy to pull off. This wasn’t necessarily the case with the previous incarnation of the Yoga series (see my review for the Yoga 13), which proved twitchy at times, so Lenovo have obviously worked to improve the drivers and touch sensitivity in the newer models. Always a good thing.

One area that still needs serious attention though is the trackpad, which became a constant source of annoyance during the test. As a rule I normally turn off the Windows 8 gestures straight away as they only prove an irritant by continually opening the Charms Bar whenever you move your finger in from the right side of the trackpad. This did make the 11S more consistent, but the normal multi-finger gestures that you’d expect to work without a hitch, such as two finger scrolling, proved extremely unreliable. One moment you’d be moving down through a webpage quite happily. The next you’re just moving the cursor around with two fingers. Most notably it was the scrolling up with two fingers that often failed to trigger. I’m hoping that this is a simple case of the driver software needing to be fixed, as the trackpad is otherwise smooth and comfortable to use.

lenovo ideapad yoga 11s review image 2Windows 8 comes as standard of course, and works well on the 11S. Apps loaded speedily, I encountered very few hangups, and generally found the system to be up to the normal browsing, writing, and Youtubing demands that I expect from a notebook. The smaller screen might make using image or audio editing software a bit cramped, but if you want that kind of functionality its probably better to pick up one of the 13″ models Lenovo offer instead. It’s worth noting that this particular review sample reports to be equipped with an i3 CPU, which is not one that you’ll be able to buy. The current roster only features i5 and i7 chips, which should give the Yoga a bit of a speed bump on top of what is already a pretty nippy machine. Sadly the new chips are not Haswell, so you’ll need to wait if you want the crazy all day battery life that Intel’s new progeny offers, but in two weeks of using the 11S I never felt that battery life was an issue, with the machine always seeming to make it through the working day.

Lenovo Ideapad Yoga 11s review image 3As you can probably tell I’m a little smitten with the Yoga 11s. It’s a cracking machine in a very attractive package. The keyboard is great, the touchscreen too, and if Lenovo can sort out the deficiencies with the trackpad then it has quite a tempting proposition for those looking to buy a powerful and portable Windows machine. The only real issue, which sadly is a big one, is that in order to actually buy this laptop you’re going to have to fork out the best part of £1000. It does seem to be the asking price of lightweight machines at the moment, with the Macbook Air occupying a similar position in the market, but it feels hard to spend that much on this device. Yes it’s capable, smart, good to use, and stands out from the crowd. Whether that’s enough to justify this kind of cash though will be the factor that decides how you view the machine. If it was £600 I’d be typing in my credit card details right now, that extra £400 though makes it a far more considerable investment, and stacks it up next to the 13″ Macbook Air which is hard company to keep. Still, if you have the funds available, and want something distinctive, then the Yoga 11S is a very likeable device that will no doubt make an excellent companion on the road.

 

 

Review: Revisiting The Samsung Galaxy S3

While the Samsung Galaxy S4 is currently top of the heap in the Android world, it’s worth noting that the previous incarnation – the S3 – is still available from most carriers, and at very impressive prices. The technology may be a over a year old, but that doesn’t mean it should be forgotten just because of the shiny things that have arrived since. There’s plenty of life yet in the old faithful, especially if you want a few more notes in your pocket at the end of each month.

revisiting the samsung galaxy s3 review image 1

Much has been made of the plastic construction on Samsung phones – although maybe that will be less discussed now that Apple has joined the polycarbonate revolution with the iPhone 5C – but I have to say that the S3 doesn’t feel cheap at all. In fact in the pebble blue colour that adorns this review unit the handset looked and felt just like metal for the most part. In many ways the construction argument is somewhat distorted, as most of us will put our expensive new handsets in a case almost immediately, and keep them there for the duration of our contracts. From that perspective all that really matters then is whether the screen looks good and the apps work quickly. On both counts the S3 is still a great phone.

The 4.8″ Super AMOLED display beams with colour and crisp images, showing off its 720p capabilities particularly well when viewing videos or reading news-feeds, where the text is sharp and clear. Navigating through the various home-screens on the Samsung Touchwiz interface is snappy and responsive, with the older components still holding up strongly. In fact with the latest 4.3 Jelly Bean version of Android announced to be released for the S3 in November its conceivable that the device might actually get faster in the coming months. Now there’s something you don’t see in technology very often.

Revisiting the Samsung S3 review image 2

The S3 comes with two options for internal storage 16 or 32GB, but Samsung is one of the last holdouts in the Micro-SD card slot stakes, with one included on the S3 that can add up to a further 64GB of storage to your handset by the simple addition of a card. That means you can keep all your music on your device without ever having to worry about it affecting performance or requiring careful management of which apps you keep installed. This is a good thing, especially if you don’t have access to unlimited internet connections that allow you to stream your media.

One area where Android phones often fall down with alarming regularity is in the camera department. The S3 though, dodges this particular bullet thanks to a very decent 8MP shooter that produces pleasing, colourful, and detailed results. Here’s a few examples of images I was able to capture while out and about with the S3.

Samsung Galaxy S3 review camera image 1 Samsung Galaxy S3 review camera image 2 Samsung Galaxy S3 review camera image 3

If I was being picky then I’d have to say that the button arrangement on the S3, and therefore on the S4, lacks the comfortable user friendliness of the software keys on the Nexus 4, mainly due to the large physical home button that the Samsung devices use. Of course this has never hurt the iPhone, and for many an actual button will the preferable to a virtual one.  Touchwiz is also a love it or loathe it kind of UI, and Judging by the hilarious amount of these units that have sold it’s pretty clear that many, many people love it. I’m just not really one of them. It’s not bad at all, but having seen the stock Android vision for the OS, it’s hard to go back to a proprietary version without feeling that you’ve lost something valuable. Of course these are minor gripes, and ones that I’m sure I would attune to if I used the S3 for a longer period of time.

In short, if you want a really solid, capable, top-tier phone then the S3 will do everything you want and at a price that will go down easier than most in these difficult times. Yes it’s the older model, yes it doesn’t have as many whizz-bang features as the new S4 or come in gold like the iPhone 5S, but at the end of the day it will still have some battery life left after you’ve listened to your music collection, taken some great photographs, wandered the halls of Youtube, and maybe even made the occasional call or two. Now that to me is what technology is all about.

Review: The Sony Xperia SP

Mid-range Android phones can be a bit hit and miss. While they offer a cost-effective entry point to the world of smartphones, some I’ve come across could actually put you off using a touchscreen for years to come.

Thankfully the Sony Xperia SP isn’t one of those, in fact it’s quite the opposite.

Sony Xperia SP Review

When you first handle the device it comes as a pleasant alternative to the many flagship phones that are presumably designed to be ultra slippy, maybe in an attempt to sell you expensive replacements when the unit hurls itself from your grasp the moment it detects concrete below. The Xperia SP has a far more industrial feel, with rugged edges (not sharp), a prominent, side-mounted power button, and general solidity that means you can wield it without a case and not spend every moment waiting for the inevitable tinkle of shattering gorilla glass.

This is impressive as the phone comes complete with a fair amount of glass thanks to the 4.6″ screen.  The display is clear and bright, with the 720p resolution offering a very respectable reading experience for any blogs, news-feeds, or websites you may care to visit. Video playback is smooth and looks crisp too.

Using the screen to navigate is (for the most part) trouble free, with the touch response being alert and accurate. There are the occasional lags when moving between pages and apps, but this could be down to Android as much as the phone itself. The version running on the SP is 4.1 Jelly Bean, so it makes sense that an upgrade to the butter-enhanced 4.2 would ease some of the minor issues.

Storage is pretty standard for this price range – internal 8GB, RAM 1GB – but there is the increasingly rare sight of a micro SD card slot available on the SP. So if you want an additional 32GB to fill up with songs and videos then just pop one in and you’re good to go.

If there’s one downside to the SP then it’s, as is all too often the case on Android, the camera. While it can produce some decent results, the focus is slow, not entirely accurate at times, and the majority of images that emerged during my testing lacked any kind of sparkle. It’s usable in an emergency, but you definitely wouldn’t want to have to rely upon it for anything important. I’ve included a few shots below so you can judge for yourself.

Sony Xperia SP Review Camera Test Image 3 Sony Xperia SP Review Camera Test Image 2 Sony Xperia SP Review Camera Test Image 1

 

Overall the SP is a likeable handset that’s comfortable to use, solidly built, and actually looks pretty cool. One aesthetic that I really enjoyed, which probably says more about me than the phone, is the clear plastic edge on the bottom of the unit that flashes different colours to signify messages, missed calls, emails, etc. Such a simple idea, but one that adds to the charm of the phone.

Sony’s software is a little business like for my taste, with fonts and icons looking somewhat staid, but Android’s real strength comes to the fore here and within a few minutes you can add a new launcher that transforms the UI. With this done the SP proved a highly usable, dependable, and fun unit to have in my pocket.

If you’re looking for a low to mid-range unit – and don’t take many pictures – then the SP would be an excellent candidate to add to your ‘ones to try’ list.