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.

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Review : Samsung Galaxy S4

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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.

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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: 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 – Living with the HTC One

The Android platform has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, but if there’s one area were it lags behind iOS, and even Windows Phone, it’s that the premium handsets often don’t feel all that…premium.

Samsung devices may dominate the landscape, but they are hardly ever regarded as beautifully designed or manufactured, often the opposite.

It was a big deal then when HTC unveiled the One, and in doing so raised the stakes for all Android devices that will have to follow in its, rather large, footsteps.

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‘Be gone plastic!’ Cried the HTC designers. ‘Welcome aluminium!’ and thus it was.

There’s no denying the workmanship and quality that the One represents. From the gorgeously bright and detailed 4.7″ 1080p display, to the surprisingly effective twin, front facing, Boomsound speakers, you can see how much thought has gone into the design of this flagship handset. The camera boasts ultrapixels rather than mega ones (fancy), and produces pleasing results, especially when using the Zoe mode which shoots short videos from which you can select the best frames to make still images. All very clever.

It is an utter mystery to me then why I just never really fell for the One.

Build quality? No. This is a series piece of kit

Performance? Not at all. The phone is very speedy.

Feel? Well…maybe this is where it begins to fall away for me.

A few months back I wrote about how the Nexus 4 had initially felt too big and cumbersome, until one morning it just clicked. This never happened with the One. In fact I think the Nexus 4 is partly to blame.  In the hand the Nexus 4 was slightly shorter and possibly wider, albeit by a very tiny margin. The One though seems just too tall. Possibly the speaker at the top is the culprit, but the sound really is terrific (I’d say this is one of the best devices I’ve ever encountered for listening to podcasts on) so you wouldn’t want to take one away. But the real problem for me was that after spending time with stock Android on the Nexus, anything else seems a bit…clumsy.

The navigation on the HTC One is via a back button on the left and a home button on the right of the front panel. In the middle is a large HTC logo that does nothing except hamper the neat three button system that stock Android employs. This shouldn’t matter too much, but it does, it really does.

On a big handset you don’t want to be moving the device around in your hand any more than you already have to, but the arrangement of buttons made this inevitable. Plus I kept hitting the HTC logo by accident, which no doubt illustrates my inability to learn new tricks (old dog and all that) but i’m sure won’t make me unique.

HTC Sense also complicates things by proving less intuitive than stock and offering not much in the way of advantages for the perceived obfuscation.

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Now I realise that I am almost certainly in the minority with these qualms. The One has garnered very impressive reviews all across the tech press, and certainly the quality of the handset is worthy of the accolades. But for me I just can’t get excited. I really wanted to love this device. I’m a fan of HTC, Android is growing on me at a frightening rate, and my old iPhone is beginning to lurch, so a replacement is in order. After using the Samsung Galaxy S3 and S4 I was left cold, so the One was my great hope. Now, although there is nothing wrong with this phone, it just doesn’t seem to suit my particular (possibly odd) tastes either.

Maybe I’m just cheap. The Nexus 4 was reduced to £200 the other day and my eyes are definitely turning back to it, with only the prospect of a lower cost iPhone causing me to pause.

For many the One will be exactly the thing they’re looking for. Indeed if you want a larger screen, quality materials, and excellent sound then it ticks all the boxes. Those of us with a hankering for something smaller, or purer in the Android stakes, can also take heart that there are other offerings out in the world to meet our more diminutive needs.

 

 

 

Living the Google Life – Day 10 : The Nexus 4

It’s been a little over a week now since I swapped all of my Apple gear for the current Google alternatives. On the whole it’s been a fascinating experiment as I’m learning how I actually use devices and services.

The Nexus 10, Samsung’s iPad rival, has been a challenge, partly due to the wider, shorter construction which feels less comfortable to use, but mainly the lack of tablet optimised apps that Android currently offers. This might not be the whole story though as I’ve found myself using the Nexus 4 for many of the jobs that a tablet was previously employed. Could it be that having a bigger screen on my phone means that I don’t need a tablet as much as before? Curious…

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The first time I held the Nexus 4 in my hand I thought…Crikey! This is a big phone. Coming from the diminutive lines of the iPhone 4S, the N4 seemed like a canoe in comparison. Holding it up to my face felt odd, silly even, and not being able to accomplish many common tasks with one hand took some getting used to. I’ll have to admit that throughout the first week I was seriously doubtful of the size and shape of the phone.

Then an odd thing happened.

On Monday morning, while going about my normal blog reading, podcast listening, article researching routine I realised  that the N4 had suddenly become normal. No decision to stoically endure the vaste expanse of gorilla glass had taken place, my hands hadn’t been charmed by the songs from WhooVille and grown two sizes that day, instead I’d simply gotten used to it. Even more mysterious still, returning to my iPhone quickly revealed that the up till now perfect screen looked…well, cramped. What kind of sorcery is this?

Part of the mental adjustment was not being an idiot on purpose. You see as a creature of habit I tend to keep all my app icons in the same locations when moving between handsets. This invariably means that Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and such things are on the left side of the screen so that I can, being left handed, access them all with my thumb. Now the Nexus 4 has its power button on the right hand side, so without thinking I started holding it in my right hand (so I could actually reach the button), and then found that tapping any of my daily icons was quite difficult. The problem initially appeared that the screen was just too big, but after realising what I was doing I moved the icons and, of course, suddenly I could navigate the phone with one hand again. I wonder how many other daft things I’m doing in life that I could fix with a little thinking?

The stock Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean OS runs very smoothly on the device and I have to say that in the week and a half that I’ve been using the Nexus 4 there hasn’t been a single error message or app that stopped responding. A nice change from the older iterations I used before. All of the apps I wanted where in the store, with the sad exception of the excellent Downcast podcasting app, which I use everyday on my iOS devices. I did try a few others but none of them really felt as friendly as Downcast, and in the end I returned to my previous app of choice Podkicker, which does the job well and is easy to use.

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Otherwise it was pretty much business as usual in smartphone land. My emails flowing gracefully into the Gmail app – which it should be noted looks and works a lot better here than it does on my iPhone. Calendars synched without issue, phone calls where loud, clear, and didn’t drop, while texting and browsing were transformed thanks to the swype style functions that Android offers on its keyboards. On my iPhone I have to type all the words in a traditional fashion letter by letter. Its fine because the iPhone keyboard is very accurate.  On Android I can quickly drag my finger over the various letters and the phone will decipher my scribblings into words, with impressive accuracy. It’s great! Writing long emails is now a fun game as I see how fast I can move my finger. This is undoubtedly one of the things I will miss most when I return to iOS.

Another impressive feature is the amount of services I can send files to. On iOS it tends to be a limited set of apps that I can either choose files from or send them to. Dropbox if you’re lucky, Camera Roll, Gallery, and iCloud are the regular offerings. Android opens this up much wider with Skydrive, Google Drive, Amazon, Dropbox, Bluetooth and several other often appearing in the options. I like this freer attitude to file access and still find Apple’s implementation rather crude and proprietary.

Even the camera on the Nexus 4 is good. I had heard rumours that it wasn’t up to much, but in use I haven’t seen this at all. Whereas it’s not quite as easy to use as the iPhone (size again), the result I achieved were the equal of its Apple counterpart, which was something that genuinely surprised me. In a good way.

An impressive camera makes the Nexus 4 a complete package.
An impressive camera makes the Nexus 4 a complete package.

After my initial concerns I have to admit that the Nexus 4 has gotten under my skin. Where once it was enormous, now it’s a handy screen size. The apps I want are pretty much all there, and the camera would make a transition from the excellent 4S feel like you weren’t losing out in any way. When you then consider the cost of buying a Nexus 4  –£279 in the Google Play store for the 16GB model off-contract model – it really does become a hugely compelling device. I can’t think of a better value-for-money phone out there that is anywhere near as good as this one.

Will I be switching? I don’t know…it’s still a big decision, but one that the Nexus 4 makes a lot less frightening.

Living the Google Life – Day 1

Over the past few years I’ve noticed a few things about how I use my technology. Although the majority of the devices I own bare the markings of a certain California based fruit company (no not Apricot for you old-timers like me out there) the software I use has a distinctly Googly flavour. Gmail handles my communication, Google calendar attempts to bring order to my chaos, I write the articles that feed my family on Google Drive, Google Search aids my research, Google Maps help me get where I’m going, and Google + is fast becoming my preferred destination for social networking. If only the company made devices. Well, actually, it kind of does now. With the current range of Nexus devices we have tablets and phones that are intended to show us the mobile world as Google thinks it should be, and Chrome OS running on Chromebooks showcase how this translates to a full blown desktop operating system (stop that sniggering at the back!). So I thought, well, why not try living with them? Not piecemeal, but entirely.

I already have a Chromebook, which has proven itself over several months to be an excellent writing machine, and the Nexus 7 joined our family at Christmas. So it wouldn’t take much to skip over to the green fields of Android and complete the lineup. Armed with my univendor flavoured scheme I made a call to Google UK, who took pity on this impoverished freelance tech writer and agreed to loan me a Nexus 4 phone and Nexus 10 tablet for two weeks, possibly out of interest in my findings, but mainly to stop me calling them again.

And here I am. Nervous? Yep, just a little.

My iPhone 4S has been de-simmed and placed carefully in a dark draw, not to see the light of Facebook again for 14 days. The iPad 4 which accompanies me pretty much everywhere I go has been surgically removed from my hands, leaving the phantom tingles of a once present limb in its wake. Now I am in the company of strangers. The Nexus 4 will be my phone, the Nexus 7 my Kindle and handy sidekick, while the Nexus 10 takes on the challenges of the heavy duty tablet assignments. The Mr T of this technological A-Team if you will. Ensuring all the lovely plans come together is my Samsung Chromebook – you know, the really cheap one that I think is pretty damn wonderful.

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How will it all work out? I don’t know, but I’m hoping that by the end of the two weeks I’ll be a little wiser in the ways of Google Fu. I also hope you’ll join me as I take these steps into a fruit free fortnight. Time for a technical adventure…

Are you an experienced Nexus user? If so what apps should I be running? I’ve already downloaded the standards – Kindle, Dropbox, Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, Wunderlist, Pulse and Audible, but are there others that make life on a Nexus device a glorious thing? Let me know in the comments below, and please feel free to ask any questions or offer suggestions on things I can try while exploring the world of Google living. 

 

Living with the HTC One SV

With Samsung currently dominating the Android market for phones, it can be easy to forget that not so long ago HTC were the big kids on the block. With models like the Legend and Desire the Taiwanese manufacturer quickly made fans of UK Android users, including myself who toted a Desire for couple of years. That phone was lovely to hold, had a great screen, but quickly succumbed to the paltry amount of internal memory. This left me having to avoid updates to large apps such as Facebook and Google Maps, while always having to juggle which app I could consider using in case it filled up the usable storage. Subsequent Android system updates that allowed some apps to be moved to the SD card was a welcome relief, but of course all the big ones didn’t offer this convenience. By the end of my contract I was glad to jump ship to iOS where the memory/storage issues didn’t cause the same headaches.

During my absence Android has quietly continued to refine its innards, becoming the dominant operating system on the mobile platform. It’s also resolved many of the issues that caused me anguish in the earlier days, so much so that I find my eyes wandering back to the greener side of the fence. It was with interest then that I took delivery of the new HTC One SV, a mid-range Android phone that seems a cut above some of the cheap and nasty devices I’ve come across in this area.

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In the hand, a rather important aspect for a device you’ll be holding all the time, the SV is a slim, light and comfortable handset to use. Its gently contoured back and grippy plastic casing means you don’t have the constant subliminal tension that your handset is going to leap from your grasp at any given moment, which is always nice. Perhaps one of the things that aids this sensation of inertia is that HTC has eschewed the current trend of hilariously large screens and instead fitted a 4.3” one to the SV. I must admit that I’ve yet to use a 5” screen that I didn’t find cumbersome, but this size seems almost like the perfect compromise between pocket and eye friendly design. It’s big enough to make me look at my iPhone 4S with a sense of inadequacy, but small enough to mostly navigate with one hand. Downloading the new Google keyboard helped in this fashion as the swipe feature (entering text by dragging your finger from key to key rather than hitting individual letters) meant that typing was also accurate and felt like a little game every time I wrote a text message.

The screen itself is also a respectable effort. It’s not quite up there with the retina displays of the world, and you can see jagged edges to text, but its perfectly usable and the size means apps look clean and clear, with bright colours. The HTC Sense 4+ skin is still one of the better adaptations available, but as usual I dropped it quickly in favour of the Go Launcher which I used to customise my layout. This really is something you forget about on iOS, just how easy it is to completely change the look and feel of your device on Android. Within ten minutes I’d personalised the entire UI, and I could change it back again with a couple of quick swipes. Brilliant. All this fiddling didn’t seem to bog down the SV, as the handset was snappy and responsive throughout the time I spent with it. One regret is that the version of Android running on here is 4.1.2, but that’s not surprising when previously premium models like the Samsung Galaxy S3 are still awaiting their upgrade to 4.2.2. The SV does have a standout feature though, that of 4G compatibility. For those lucky enough to live in the rarified areas of the UK that offer this provision of fast mobile data this will be a tempting offer. Of course the handset can do nothing about the prices that EE charge for access to the mobile superway, the monthly payments for which I imagine they must be collect via a masked man on horseback waving a loaded flintlock pistol at the terrified customer.

IMG_0940

Sadly the camera is nothing more than average on the SV. Images are lacking definition, somewhat washed out, and not always properly focussed. I say sadly because otherwise this is a very alluring handset. Many times I had my iPhone 4S and the SV sitting on the table and I’d find myself reaching for the HTC, and not just because I was reviewing it. I’m in love with the screen size, the light weight, and the possibilities that Android offer for tuning a UI to your particular preference.

The SV delivers on many levels as a workhorse handset, and if you only occasionally use the camera on your phone then I can’t see why you’d need to spend a lot more on a device. Those who want all the newest features that Android have to offer will be better suited with the Nexus 4, HTC One, or Samsung GS4, but if you just want a really good handset that’s pleasing to use and offers you a micro SD slot to store all your music on, then you wouldn’t go far wrong with the HTC SV.

Living with the…Kindle Paperwhite

I love books. Actual, physical books.

In fact when I first heard about e-readers the idea just turned me cold. How could people give up the feel of a proper book in their hands, the artwork on the sleeves, and all those creases in the spine that acted as waypoints for the adventure you’d just experienced? What grey, cold, computer could have the same heartwarming effect?

Well, as it turns out…the Amazon Kindle.

I bought my first Kindle as kind of an experiment. The slim plastic casing was lightweight, easy to hold, and in direct sunlight the pages looked, well, like a book. I tried in vain to fight the lures of this temptress, but in truth, she had me once I read my first e-inked line. The transition was swift. When perusing the listings on Amazon I’d check to see if new titles came in digital formats. Second-hand bookshops, once a sanctuary to me, slipped from my mind and faded into legend. Only something that could be emailed to my device was worthy of inclusion in my collection.

I had been digitised.

Where once I was a man whose home was packed with books, now the shelves were empty, an ebook collection nestled in the slim belly of my Kindle…and I was happy.

But there was one area in which the little device struggled. Well to be honest it didn’t struggle, it outright failed. Low light. If the sun went behind a cloud, the lightbulbs chose to shine in different directions, or my warm glow of literary self satisfaction faded, then the Kindle became next to useless.

KindlePaperwhite2

I tried various lights that could be attached to the Kindle, but these all quickly became annoying. Some were bulky and added weight, others were tiny and flapped about all over the place like epileptic stick insects. I considered the official Amazon case with a built in light, but the hilarious price of £50 soon put paid to that idea. No, I was a dayreader now, and that is how it would stay. Unless I sat by a desk lamp of course.

Then came rumours of a new Kindle…one that would bring light to the word. I held my breath. Could this be true?

Slowly rumours transformed into speculation, then tentative, leaked technical specs appeared. So, the prophesies were soon to be made plastic. Glory be! Shortly afterwards the Kindle Paperwhite appeared, replete with an internal light and the promise of eternal happiness. Well, the happiness was only available through certain outlets, but the light remained standard. Lo, the Paperwhite had come into the world…and it was good.

After spending the past two weeks with this luminescent device I must admit that sadly…it’s rather wonderful. I say sadly because it now means a frantic scramble to gather together enough cash to buy the damn thing. Thus it was, as ever shall be.

What makes the Paperwhite so attractive is the illumination itself. I’ve tried reading books on my iPad, Nexus 7, and various mobile phones over the years. It’s not a terrible experience, but my eyes tend to tire quickly when staring at small text on those harshly bright screens. The Kindle Paperwhite glows in a more gentle fashion, allowing you to spend longer reading and less time Googling for symptoms of cataracts.

Have you seen the light?

The design is elegantly simple too. Gone is the keyboard that wasted so much space on my old unit, replaced instead by a touch-screen. Thankfully there’s no swiping involved. You just tap the left side to go back, the right to go forward, the top to bring up a menu, and the bottom to see how much of the book remains. Actually this is a great little feature as the lower display swaps between the rather random ‘Loc’ display – which acts as a page number – to a far more useful option that uses your average reading speed to calculate how long it will take you to finish reading the book. Simple, brilliant, and mildly accurate.

Otherwise it’s business as usual for the Kindle. Meaning that the extra functionality (distractions) tablets and phones offer are sacrificed in favour of a dedicated reading experience. It’s hard to convey just how powerful this simplicity is. When you pick up an iPad you can read, then check your email, quickly update Facebook, maybe order another book from the Amazon website, then watch that video that your friend has just sent, possibly a quick game of Ski Safari, then….what was I doing again?

On a Kindle you pick the device up with a solitary purpose in mind – reading – and with the Paperwhite you can now do that anywhere at all. The battery still lasts forever, you can load new titles from your computer or have them delivered straight to the unit from the Amazon store, and the compact design means it’s comfortable to hold for long literary sessions.

If you’re a reader then there’s no better device on which to enjoy the words of others.

Living with the…HTC One X.

The mobile phone industry is the ultimate in ‘shiny things’ thinking.

No sooner have you bought a device, usually via an expensive ongoing contract, and learned to master the complexities of the modern smartphone with its many splendours, then your contract is heading towards renewal. Your provider then entices you with another, sleeker, lighter, whizzbangier model to replace your now brick-like technological equivalent to a rusty lawnmower. Giddy with excitement at the impending device nirvana you sign a new contract and begin the whole sorry tale once more. Thus it ever was and ever thus shall be.

Your mobile phone the day after your contract runs out.
Your mobile phone the day after your contract runs out.

Or is it?

Last year I took the rather unusual step of not signing up for a contract when my old one matured. Instead I decided to buy a second hand phone, secure a cheap monthly contract which didn’t subsidise the costly device, and see how it would work out. The results have been, well, cool.

Rather than run the gauntlet of eBay I opted to pay the premium of an established S/H online store (replete with short warranty) in my search for a new handset. The iPhone 4S had recently become last year’s model so the 16GB version was available for £380. Now this is a hefty sum of course, but by avoiding the expensive monthly contract I worked out that over two years I could save around £300  – not too shabby – and of course that saving would then pay for the next phone. Suddenly I had become a financial genius. Next I plan to dabble in futures, derivatives, and no doubt impoverish my family.

In the year or so since then I’ve enjoyed my iPhone and am very glad that I took this route. So much so that I’m doubtful I’ll ever go back to a subsidised plan again. This then opens up intriguing possibilities. As we all know smartphones have advanced so much in recent years that almost any decent model will do everything we need on a day to day basis without issue. So starting to shop in the S/H markets means you can get some very good units for a lot less than your contract would demand, and if you avoid the Apple models (with their premium price tag) you can even bag a real bargain.

A quick perusal on http://www.smartfonestore.com (the site where I bought my iPhone) shows that you can pick up some terrific devices for great prices. One that I was particularly interested in was the HTC One X, which had run the iPhone close last year and which could be bought now in mint condition for just over £200. Thankfully HTC where willing to lend me one for a few weeks, thus saving me having to wipe out my savings in the interest of journalistic endeavour. So, the question was how does the One X fare a year and bit on from it’s release?

The rather splendid HTC One X
The rather splendid HTC One X

Those used to the diminutive charms of the iPhone will notice straight away that the One X is a big phone, mainly due to the 4.7 inch screen. Now I’ve been rather skeptical of the current trend of devices that can double up as surf boards, and in many ways the One X did little to persuade me otherwise, but in some instances I can really see the appeal. Over the last year or so I’ve noticed that I don’t really watch Youtube videos on my iPhone. The reason for this is that the 3.5 inch screen just feels a bit too small for this activity. On the One X it suddenly made sense. HD videos looked superb and the impressive viewing angles meant sharing the experience with friends was far more likely than with my Apple alternative.

The screen itself is gorgeous. Colourful, bright, and capacious, it made interacting with the handset a very pleasant experience. Typing is dramatically improved since my days on the HTC Desire, again probably aided by the generous acreage of space. But this expansive ocean of gorilla glass also meant that I had to adjust the positioning of the phone in my hand more than I ever do with the iPhone, and the usual habit of typing one handed while walking down the street was a much harder feat to achieve successfully.

The Android operating system, which has been upgraded to 4.1.1 Jelly Bean, is smart, efficient, but still has the occasional lag, although much improved from previous incarnations. Android has come on leaps and bounds in the past couple of years, with plenty of the top apps such as Instagram, Kindle, Facebook, Twitter, Temple Run, and the ever gorgeous Google+ being present. Actually Google’s suite of apps (Maps, Youtube, Now, Voice Search, etc…) all look great and work brilliantly on the One X, meaning that most important tasks are now easily covered. There is still the delay in top apps reaching the platform though, so if you always want the latest and greatest then the iPhone still remains the place to be.

I’d read on several forums that the battery life on the One X was a bit of a let down, but during the weeks of testing this was never an issue. With an average day including sending and receiving several emails, posting and checking social media sites, listening to an hour or two of podcasts, and even – heaven forbid! – the occasional phone call, the battery always had a bit left in the tank by the end of the day (which is often about 1am in my discipline void existence).

If there was one area where the One X lost a few points it was the camera. Now for many things it’s perfectly fine, but when compared to the iPhone (which does pretty much always have one of the best cameras available) it lacked a bit of sharpness and focus at times. That said it would be totally acceptable for everyday use and you’d only notice the difference if you had an Apple device on hand to compare it to.

That screen really is a bit special.
That screen really is a bit special.

So there it is. As the One X has now been superseded by the One X + you can expect the prices to continue to drop, which is great is you’re looking for a superb handset that offers cracking performance and will not cost you a small fortune. It might be getting long in the tooth when measured by the insane upgrade cycles that we now find ourselves terrorised with, but it’s still a terrific phone with plenty to offer.

Let the eBay treasure hunt begin!

Baby, how you’ve grown… (Part 1)

Regular readers of this site will know that I have a somewhat idealistic take on technology. The possibilities of the internet paired with powerful mobile devices and reliable, easy to use, interfaces still excite me on a daily basis. Maybe it’s a sickness. Quite possibly. But in the spirit of those immortal words sung so convincingly by Luther Ingram in 1972 – ‘If loving you is wrong, I don’t ever want to be right’.

Of course that song was actually written from the point of view of a lover involved in an affair with a cheating husband, and you can imagine that after the music faded someone ended up hurt and alone. Maybe it’s not the best analogy to use. Ah, you’re an intelligent bunch, you can work through the moral disarray.

In short – technology is great. So to celebrate this I decided to illustrate some very simple but wonderfully convenient ways it has changed over the years to make our lives better.

The Home Wrecker’s Anthem.

Remote Controls

When I was merely a snippet of a lad the only mobile technology I came into contact with was a remote control for our brand new, top-loading, VHS recorder. I loosely use the word remote because rather than the infrared devices that clutter up the gaps in our sofa cushions these days, the one we had actually attached to the front of the machine via a cord. So remote became a very subjective word. If six feet was remote to you then you were in luck, otherwise it seemed that you’d been given a quite close control, one that really offered little advantage over just getting up off your backside and turning the video on or off yourself.

How times have changed.

The other day I was in the pub with friends and realised that I’d forgotten to set my PVR to record Match of the Day (if this is all becoming far too lad-like for you, I refer you back to the first paragraph which included references to a 1970s love song, albeit of rather questionable values). In the past this would have been resolved by going home, calling home, or just bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t at home and why couldn’t someone invent something that stopped this kind of tragedy from ruining innocent lives. But not this day. Instead I quickly whipped out my iPhone, launched the Sky+ app, found the program guide and sent a signal for my PVR to begin recording. It was right, just, and I swear I heard the faint echo of angels singing as I slid the magical device back into my jeans and lifted my glass in victory. This is how life was meant to be.

Now this is a remote control.

Personal Organisers

As a child of the 70s who reached those troublesome young adult years amidst the avarice, violent protests, and terrible synthesizer music of the 80s, there is one item that came to symbolise those difficult years. The Filofax. It was the age of share dealing, business meetings,  go-get-’em young executives making huge fortunes on far east investments then losing it all before the end of the day. Buy low, sell high, act like an over privileged idiot and end up thirty years later working in a petrol station, with a haunted look permanently darkening your gaze.

So how could you achieve such heights? The trusty Filofax. A paper world that needed to look battered, and so filled with contacts, notes, and calendar entries that technically the item counted as a potential explosive. Everyone who was someone had one. That’s a lot of ones.

The other thing I remember about the Filofax was how remarkably expensive they were. So for what was essentially a smaller than usual, leather, ring binder you could pay quite ludicrous prices. Then there was the additional expense of the inserts you needed to stuff into the thing to make it actually useful. It really became the case that in order to own a filofax you needed to be a high earner just to afford the new ruler, business card holders, or latest coloured note pages. Of course as the collection grew so did the weight and size, until those desperate to look important were dragging around what amounted to a filing cabinet in their pockets. Hernia treatment clinics have recently been linked with coming up with the concept, but they strongly deny the allegations.

Where are these paper palaces now?

The smartphone appeared pretty much out of nowhere and wiped out the industry. There had been the initial PDAs that started the transition, but really the iPhone, Blackberry and recently Tablets have taken the place of these impractical, additional devices. Now instead of the type of leather you clad your information in it’s the type of manufacturer. Brand names are back in fashion – Blackberry for the business professional…who doesn’t keep up with the times. iPhones for the well heeled, and Android for the rebels. What’s that? Windows Phone 8? Your guess is as good as mine.

Oddly one thing hasn’t changed. We still stuff additional pages into the phones to make them do more and increase our productivity. We just call them apps now, and thankfully they have little impact on our spines. Until the evil Hernia people find their angle…

In the days before Google Calendar…

 

Video Chat

It wasn’t that long ago that relatives in distant lands would film themselves on camcorders while giving seasonal messages, proudly holding aloft new born babies, or expressing they love for those far from them. These video cassettes would then run the gauntlet of x-ray scanners, crazed postal workers, and differing manufacturing encoding standards in the hope of delivering their precious cargo. To be honest it was such a pain that most people didn’t even attempt this high-tech form of correspondance, instead electing to write letters and throw a few choice pictures into the envelope. Long distance calls were expensive and at times actually of low enough quality to make it not worth the effort either. But still we tried to keep in contact with family and friends on foreign soil. I know of relatives that recorded audio diaries, repete with bedtime stories, which they would regularly send to their grandchildren so they could stay present in their lives even if not in a physical form.

There is a certain romance to this. The effort involved makes the intent more admirable. The striving to stay in contact even though the world would do its best to keep you apart is a true measure of love. It’s something almost noble.

These days our options are wide, free, and – technical hiccups aside – pretty much instant.

Where does the cassette go?

 

Skype, and its digital ilk, has made a huge difference in the lives of families who move to distant parts of the world, or in some cases just to the other end of a country. Now bedtime stories can be read in real-time, and the reactions witnessed as Bilbo nears his final confrontation with Smaug. I’ve been at parties where someone who couldn’t make the couple of thousand mile journey actually spent the entire night in the corner of the room via her laptop. She raised drinks, took part in the jokes, and was able to feel part of her wider community all from her home a hemisphere away. Journalists like myself conduct globe spanning interviews with celebrities that would once have had to brave the press tours to promote their newest creation. Children talk with their school friends in the evening, not seeming to see it an issue that they’ve spent the entire day with them already. The world indeed has been made smaller. It might not be the labour of love that went before it, but I think anyone would take it in a heartbeat.

 

There will be a few of these musings on the way tech is changing how we do the things we’ve always done. Why not leave a comment telling me what your favourite, simple changes are? Maybe they might even make it into a future post.