Sunday, January 25, 2015

2014 BMW i3

 

The BMW i3 is the marque’s first foray into the world of mass produced 100% electric vehicles. Though the category is small the i3 shares some diverse company. On paper it looks like something of a cross between the Tesla Model S luxury sport sedan and the economical Nissan Leaf. I was glad to have the opportunity to come to my own conclusions about the i3 through BMW’s extended test drive event. In the interest of full disclosure, I have owned a few BMWs and would consider myself a fan of the brand.

Equipment and Capacity
The model I was given is the “Electronaut” edition. It’s loaded with navigation, DC quick charging, heated seats, interior bamboo accents and blue Electronaut branding everywhere. Aside from the bamboo accents most of the dashboard and some other areas are covered in what looks like unfinished fiberglass. The result in look and feel gives a disappointingly cheap vibe. I’m sure it’s some sort of ultralight material but my past experience with the brand left me wanting a more up-market feel. The dashboard is enormous, mounting a radar detector took all of my 6’2” height and reach to complete. The cabin is spacious given the diminutive exterior dimensions of the car, it can comfortably seat 4 adults. The rear suicide doors and flat floor eases loading and unloading of children however if you have a rear facing car seat expect huge challenges getting your baby into it. Your best option if you only have one child is to sit in the opposite rear seat to load him or her. Attempting this from the exterior is very difficult as our seat left about an 8 inch sliver from its side bolster to the C pillar of the car with which to wedge a baby in sideways. Lighting in the back seat is dismal leading to lots of fumbling with seat belts and harnesses.
There is very little in the way of cargo space. The trunk can fit 2-3 medium luggage pieces and the front cargo compartment is only large enough to contain a bag with the charging adapter, air compressor and towing materials. This is probably for the best as that compartment is not protected from the elements. As far as I know the iDrive system is similar to what you get on other BMW models and is reasonably easy to control. As a car and tech nerd I was hoping BMW would provide a more connected experience with the i3. Wifi, a web browser, apps, Google/Apple integration, over the air updates and detailed diagnostic information are all missing from this iDrive system. Bluetooth audio and an aux jack is nice but I expected more from such a technologically advanced automobile.

Performance and Handling
Having driven a wide variety of cars I would classify the i3 as quick. In sprints from a standstill there is a very brief hesitation when fully depressing the go pedal and then the torquey electric motor quickly places you into your seat. It’s not about to blow the doors off of a Porsche 911 but it’s more power than I was expecting. The instant torque and lack of transmission makes the car a blast to drive if you can manage not to concern yourself with range. 20-40 and 40-60mph dashes are dealt with in a blink of an eye. The instant acceleration drops off somewhat as you reach highway speeds but the i3 certainly isn’t lacking in the passing power department.
It’s clear BMW took great care in developing the regenerative braking system deployed by the i3. The vast majority of my driving was done with a single pedal. Lifting off the accelerator completely will cause alarming deceleration at first but after about 30 minutes of driving it becomes second nature. The car slows so quickly with no throttle input that the brake lights illuminate. Provided you are a good driver and leave enough space from the car in front, you should never have to touch the brakes unless someone pulls out unexpectedly.
At speed through corners the i3 performs as you would expect a BMW to, flat and composed. The car approaches its grip limits rapidly however. Most sane drivers will never find these limits commuting to work but those that like to drive a BMW as the ultimate driving machines they are may find the i3 to be a bit less ultimate than they expected.
The i3’s steering is super sharp, almost like it’s overcompensating for the lack of the feel a traditional rack and pinion setup provides. There is no dead zone, moving the wheel a millimeter to the left or right off center will have immediate results. Around town and during spirited jaunts it’s quite nice, the steering wheel feels well connected to what the front tires are doing. Highway is a very different story. I needed extra focus to keep the car in the center of its lane, subtle course corrections caused my passengers to sway more than I would like. I wish BMW had softened up the steering for speeds above 50mph. The car is also highly susceptible to crosswinds and tractor trailer wash.

Range and Charging
The i3 gives three economy modes to choose from, Comfort, Eco Pro and Eco Pro Plus. Comfort gives the best throttle feel and response, it’s linear and predictable. Eco Pro deadens the go pedal. It feels like the first half of the accelerator pedal’s travel is really only giving 20% power. This mode is good if one can’t control their lead foot. Eco Pro Plus is downright dangerous and provides no perceived benefit over Eco Pro in my testing. While traveling down the highway I slipped the i3 into Eco Pro Plus and experienced rapid deceleration. Panicked, I pushed the accelerator down harder yet the car kept slowing until the pedal reached the floor which caused the car to rocket forward. Thinking it was a fluke I tried the switch a few more times, making sure there was no traffic behind me. Each attempt on the highway yielded similar results. Around town Eco Pro Plus deadens the throttle so much you could find yourself in a tight spot when pulling into traffic, only to hit a burst of instant torque when your foot hits the floor and the computer relents. I kept the car in Comfort most of the time and used Eco Pro when trying to make it an extra mile or two to a charger.
I feel it is disingenuous to show 86 miles of range when the battery comes off the charger in the morning. As soon as I touched the climate controls the estimated range dropped by about 10 miles, unavoidable in sub freezing temperatures. Even if I wanted to drive with no heat it was necessary to run the defroster at all times to avoid fogging. I averaged about 50 miles of electric range the four times I drive the car to depletion. To be fair most of my driving was highway miles. The model I tested came equipped with the optional range extender. This added approximately another 50 miles of range with a 2 cylinder gasoline generator. While driving around town it’s quiet enough. I had gotten used to the car being dead silent so the rumbling range extender never completely faded into my subconscious. During spirited or highway driving the range extender’s decibels roar to angry lawn mower levels. This alone was enough for me to want to stop for charges on long trips as I didn’t want to deal with the racket. While it’s nice to have the option to use fast filling and ubiquitous gasoline I would much prefer BMW stuff that compartment with more batteries to boost the EV range. The least they could have done was outfit the extender with a reasonably sized gas tank. Doubling its capacity would go far toward alleviating charge anxiety during trips that push the the car’s limit.
The car I tested had the fast DC charging option but I was unable to test it as the nearest capable station was over 400 miles away. Even at 240v the i3 takes several hours to reach just 80% charge. I charged it for 12 hours on a 120v outlet at my home and it only reached about 75%. To my disappointment the provided charger pulled less than 12 amps on every 120v plug I tried, despite some being 30 amp circuits. The car has options to limit its charging rate but everything was set to max on my attempts. Driving the i3 anywhere but around town takes careful planning and frequent charging. A 240v charging station in your home is a must.
BMW offers a free year of access to the ChargePoint network which primarily uses standard 240v EV plugs. It sounds like a generous offer but finding power while out and about was challenging to say the least. None of my travel destinations had charging available for the i3. One shopping area had a Tesla charger but they are incompatible with other EVs. My town has 2 ChargePoint stations which is nice but ultimately not very useful. With the i3’s limited range, charging at your destination is necessary if you want to avoid dipping into the dino fuel.

Cold Climate Ability
I had the opportunity to put my i3’s optional snow tires to the test as we received about 6 inches of the fluffy white stuff during the weekend I had the car. Annoyingly for experienced New England drivers it isn’t possible to completely disable all driver assists. Even with the traction control off, the stability control remains on. This is probably for the best however, the car definitely has the tendency to rotate when the rear wheels lose traction during acceleration. The stability control quashed this behavior nicely, at the expense of forward motion. In spite of this I was able to get around reasonably well on poorly plowed roads. The defroster worked well at the great cost of range. It’s not a Jeep but the i3 shouldn’t leave any competent driver stranded in a typical New England winter.

Final Thoughts
In a competitive and economic vacuum I give the i3 an B+. It’s fun to drive, its range is ok for current battery technology and interior room and accoutrements are acceptable for owners without small children. Though it wears a BMW badge it would be unrecognizable as one without it. There are hints of its Bavarian roots when it comes to performance but it’s painfully obvious everything else about it is geared toward trimming the fat. The result is a cheap feel that probably won’t jive with brand loyalists. If the car were just $5,000 less I might be a bit more forgiving but with a starting MSRP of just over $42k BMW set my expectations high for overall fit and finish. What I want from an EV in this price range is something that looks similar to regular 3 series but with an EV powertrain. Why traditional auto makers insist on saddling EVs with quirky styling is beyond me. I suspect BMW is going to have a very difficult time selling this car once Tesla’s Model 3 is released. Assuming Tesla makes good on its promises, a 200 mile EV range for $35k in a package that will have Tesla’s styling DNA is a much more appealing proposition. If one absolutely needs an EV with a BMW badge and cost is irrelevant then the i3 is a fine choice. Otherwise it’s hard to justify the i3’s slight performance edge and brand cache when you can get similar range, capacity and equipment from its much less expensive competition.









Saturday, January 17, 2015

Motorola Nexus 6

Unless you’re a die hard Android fan you've probably never heard of the Nexus line of phones. Google contracts various manufacturers to produce reference platform devices to showcase “vanilla” Android. Owners of these devices generally enjoy running the latest Android updates, sent straight from Google. History has shown the devices themselves have been a mixed bag in terms of performance, reliability and build quality. The previous generation Nexus phone, the Nexus 5 is generally lauded as one of the best Android devices to date. Built by LG, it hit the sweet spot right in the middle of performance, good design and price. After about 2 months of ownership I feel qualified to comment on how its successor compares.
Form Factor/Cost
At first glance it's clear the Nexus 6 took a hard left from where it left the Nexus 5 in Google’s product road map. The 6 is huge, it eclipses a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (albeit only just) and is quite thick in the center. The size is great if you can handle it, literally. Once you go to this size display it’s very difficult to go back to even a 5” screen. The readability and real estate are addictive. It’s pocketable in my large men’s jeans but only just. Anything bigger and I’ll need to start carrying a murse. The gently curved back helps with holdability but it’s annoying that it doesn't lie flat. An “OK” response is challenging to issue if the phone is sitting on a desk. The other most significant departure from the outgoing model is the price. At $650 it’s nearly twice as expensive as the Nexus 5. The 2K screen and other top tier components force it to compete with high end devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and iPhone 6. While this sounds fair on paper it was an unexpected and unpleasant surprise to the Nexus community. The Nexus line is no longer the budget friendly path to excellent, well supported devices.
Performance
For its tip top specs and cost I expected blistering performance in day to day use. Unfortunately the reality is far from this ideal. The phone struggles to do something as simple as launch an app without delay. Frequently I’ve tapped app icons a second time when the first press didn’t seem to register, only to have the app open as soon as my finger comes down the second time. The multitasking card view also takes an unreasonable amount of time to load. Most surprisingly, certain applications perform more slowly on the Nexus 6 than on my 2013 Moto G (MyFitnessPal and Slickdeals come to mind). I’ve read most of the performance issues I’ve experienced are due to the software based full disk encryption Google uses on the Nexus 6. Their minds were in the right place by making the phone more secure by default but the performance hit is unacceptable. It wouldn’t be as infuriating if I could simply turn off the encryption but this is not an option, at least not without rooting the device and jumping through a few hoops.
Camera
The camera on the Nexus 6 is the best of any Nexus to date but that’s not saying much. As someone who frequently uses an DSLR to take photos of fast moving objects (e.g. kids) the Nexus 6 camera produces inconsistent results in anything but perfect lighting conditions. I’d estimate only 1 in 6 indoor shots I take of my kids produce a result where faces are not an unrecognizable blur. Autofocus is slow and light metering is frustrating in the Google camera app. Third party apps remedy this somewhat, especially now that Lollipop gives API access for them to directly control the ISO and shutter speed as well as capture in RAW format (Camera FV-5 deserves a mention here) but the “stock” experience is mediocre at best. So much so that I usually grab my wife’s iPhone 6 any time I need to take a photo on the run.
Battery
Battery life is only barely acceptable. It’s a good thing Motorola includes a turbocharger that can boost the from from dead to 80% in something like 10-15 minutes. Equally important for this power hungry beast is its support for the Qi wireless charging standard. I have two Qi pads, one at work and one at home. If I don’t top off my battery half way through the day I’m in trouble if I have a late night out planned. It boggles the mind how a 3220 mAh battery can be so insufficient. It would seem the 2k screen used in the Nexus 6 is the culprit. Despite also using a similar AMOLED display the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 achieves nearly double the on-screen time of the Nexus 6 in the benchmarks I’ve seen. I don’t know how this is possible but I would gladly take a 1080p display if it meant twice the battery life. Maximizing off charger time clearly wasn’t a focus for Motorola and Google and it shows.
Reliability
It needs to be said I’m on my third Nexus 6. I purchased the AT&T variant when it became available for preorder. The device I received was subject to one to three random restarts per day as well as bouts of unreachability, inbound calls would go straight to voicemail despite the phone sitting on my desk with full cell service. The second device I received suffered from the same issues. The 3rd Nexus 6 came with a green dot on the box, indicating it was from a new production run. While AT&T and Motorola never officially acknowledged a problem with the first run of devices it’s clear by this mark that something tainted a not insignificant number of first-run devices. Despite the third phone being a much more stable experience, my confidence in Motorola as a competent device maker has been shaken.
Conclusions
This phone is clearly the result of mismanagement and lack of vision. It feels like it exists mostly as a release vehicle for Android Lollipop and as a statement that Google wants Android on large screen devices destined for (Google Play) media consumption, everything else be damned. The poor battery life, QA problems and disk performance all point to a product that was rushed and/or not given enough resources to develop completely before a hard ship date. That being said, it’s the only way to get stock Android on a device larger than the Nexus 5. If another vendor announced a 5.5-6.0” device with unadulterated Android updates as they were released from Google I would jump ship from this mess of a device without hesitation, assuming there’s enough resale value in it to break even.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Android Wear and the LG G Watch

     Cyber Monday treated me well this year, among other deals I came across Best Buy offering the LG G Watch and a $50 Google Play credit for $80. Even before getting it in my hands it was abundantly clear this and the Samsung Gear Live watch were rushed out of the door so Google actually had something to deliver Android Wear on when it was announced. In no way does the hardware and software justify it's original MSRP of $229. I wanted to know if, for a net cost of $30 is it worth while to strap to my wrist every day?
     I'll get this out of the way first, the battery life on this device is abysmal. With the screen set to never sleep, which I've found is necessary for the pedometer to work correctly, I barely make it from 6:00am to 10:00pm. When I put it on the charger last night it reported 3% battery. With the screen set to automatically sleep I get about a day and a half out of it. There is no automatic brightness control and it's only barely legible outdoors at max brightness. Otherwise the 240x240 pixel screen is acceptable, it has good viewing angles and the colors look OK. It definitely won't be winning any style awards, it's as generic looking as a watch with a screen can get. I was thinking of getting another band for it but anything other than the generic black rubber strap it comes with would bring attention to the extremely boring design of the face itself. This doesn't bother me too much as I've never worn watches for style. I expected the hardware to be mediocre, what I really wanted to evaluate is Android Wear itself.
     The watch is essentially a Google Now delivery device. Along with mini versions of the cards you get on your phone, it also mirrors all of your notifications and in some cases lets you send quick responses. Incoming calls can be quickly silenced with canned text responses such as "I'm in a meeting." You can also bark out a few sentences to reply to an email or text which is handy if you're driving and don't particularly care about correct grammar or punctuation. There are a few third party apps, most of which are extensions of their phone counterparts. You download these apps via the Google Play store on your phone and the relevant Wear pieces are then pushed to your phone. RunKeeper has a mini app that allows you to start activities by talking to your watch. The Google Fit integration works just fine and I look forward to getting a device that performs heart rate monitoring as well. There is even a mini browser that lets you surf the web on your wrist. Dick Tracy, eat your heart out. Of course in reality browsing the web on your wrist is a terrible experience. After messing about with third party apps it's abundantly clear it's best to stick with what Wear is intended for at this point, to parse notifications easily and quickly without needing to break out your enormous, cumbersome phablet.
      While it's a good first effort, the platform and hardware have a very long way to go. Wear devices really need to run independently of a parent phone or tablet with their own mobile data connection. I want to be able to leave my phone on the charger until I need it but that's not possible with Bluetooth's very limited range. I can't make it more than 2 rooms over before my watch disconnects. Wear devices also need to come standard with more fitness sensors and a system-wide method to input text without speaking. I will continue wearing it as a replacement for my Fitbit. I have high hopes that Google will continue dumping resources in to developing the platform, it has a lot of potential beyond the nerd crowd as devices become smaller and more attractive.





Monday, October 6, 2014

Nokia Lumia 1020 and Windows Phone

I picked up the Nokia Lumia 1020 to use when I need something better than a standard camera phone but don’t want to carry my SLR. It has been so long since I’d held a premium Nokia device and I forgot how much I missed their uniquely solid yet svelte build characteristics. The 1020 feels fantastic in your hand with its beveled edges and premium polycarbonate that is smooth to the touch yet not slippery at all.
You can’t talk about a Lumia device without also discussing its polarizing operating system, Windows Phone. Even before its acquisition by Microsoft, Nokia was their partner in the Windows Phone arena. Certainly Microsoft had hoped Nokia’s kout as a premium mobile device maker could bring people to the platform. It has been a slow start but at this point I’m solidly impressed by Microsoft’s efforts. With the latest Windows Phone 8.1 update the 1020 isn’t left wanting from a feature set perspective. While it has always been stable and responsive even on low-end devices, the addition of Cortana and the ability to tweak more system and appearance related settings brings Windows Phone squarely into competition with the iPhone and Android.
The biggest and longest running problem with Windows Phone is its desolate and sometimes sketchy app store. Microsoft was simply too late to the game with a competent operating system to attract customers and subsequently app developers. Fortunately Microsoft has been throwing money at the problem, sometimes developing their own in-house versions of apps (e.g. YouTube) or paying developers outright to bring their app to their platform. At the end of 2014 they are way better off than they had been a year ago, most of the big name apps and social networks are there but Microsoft is still a long way off from having enough apps to bring users of established platforms over. Microsoft also has a huge problem with fake and scammy apps that share the names of the services they emulate but have none of the functionality. Most just tell you about the “features” of a service or app, hoping to get a few ad clicks from anyone unfortunate enough to download their app. The biggest problem however is Google’s complete lack of support for the platform. The only 1st party Google experience you get on Windows Phone is a basic search app which is of little use. There is no way to get push email, Hangouts (and subsequently Google Voice), Maps or Google Plus. Windows Phone fans will point to 3rd party apps and maybe just settle for using the mobile sites for these services but that’s wholly inexcusable for folks coming from Android or iOS. Of course the lack of Google support makes sense, Microsoft competes with them in almost every way whereas Apple has enough users and competes less directly with Google for it to be worthwhile for Google to deliver an outstanding experience on their operating system.
The camera is really the reason anyone buys this phone in the first place. I can imagine Nokia engineers and marketing in a meeting, trying to come up with a feature they have control over that can entice users to the fledgling platform. Their answer was to put their hard work and research in Symbian camera phones into their flagship Windows Phone. Aside from a few flaws it is without a doubt the best camera phone on the market. It completely negates the need for me (and I would guess most people who care about capturing quality on-the-go photos) to carry a point and shoot camera with them. It’s hard to complain about the camera because it really is astounding for being an accessory to a mobile phone but I look at it as a point-and-shoot replacement, since that’s what it aims to be. Shutter delay and subsequently long processing and write times between shots is the kill-joy with this camera. Capturing moving subjects (e.g. kids) is very difficult. Even if you pre-focus the shot, pushing the dedicated shutter button still results in a half second delay before it makes the capture. After it takes the shot it spends at least another few seconds write the full size and 5 megapixel image file to memory. Unfortunately, low light performance is also just not that great. High ISO settings are available but are mostly unusable for anything other than sharing the result via MMS or social networks. All of this being said I was still very successful in using the 1020 in lieu of a dedicated camera for family outings this past weekend. Granted we were outside most of the time but after some trial and error I was able to get shots that I liked. Nokia makes manual settings such as ISO and shutter speed readily available. After getting these controls down and finding the sweet spots between the two settings it really comes down to timing the shutter delay. The motion compensation works well though it’s a little disconcerting to hear your phone clicking and whirring away while you’re getting a shot. I only tested 1080p video briefly and was satisfied by the results. The video quality seemed on par with what I could get out of a modern iPhone.
I like the Lumia 1020 a lot. Windows Phone really grew on me over the 2 days I used it as a full time phone and camera. They say the best camera is the one you have on you. If my life didn’t revolve around Google services (Hangouts in particular) I could replace my Android phone with little reservation and feel confident I have the best pocketable camera at my disposal. Unfortunately we will probably never see first party support for Google on Windows Phone.  This means I’ll likely never be able to use the 1020 or its successors full time, and that bums me out.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Friday, September 5, 2014

This is one of my favorite car in motion photos I've taken. I love the sense of speed you can get from a still photograph.

Need For Speed

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Like Windows 8, the Surface Pro 3 is a device that innovates and compromises at the same time due to its split personality. At 12 inches across with a 3:2 aspect ratio, this is a large device for a tablet. The physical size is complimented by the display's screen resolution of 2160x1440. With these dimensions it's clear Microsoft is aiming for a device focused on productivity and content creation. Battery life is good for a laptop but mediocre for a tablet. For most people it should last a good portion of the day with moderate use. The powerful Intel Core processors found in the entire lineup are the most power efficient of their kind but still a far cry from the ARM based technology found in a traditional tablet. This was the correct choice by Microsoft for a device meant to replace a laptop. I look forward to future iterations of the Surface Pro which will undoubtedly include passively cooled, even greater battery sipping Core processors. Until then we will need to put up with a small amount of heat and fan noise.

I've found sleeping and waking the Surface Pro 3 is intermittently buggy. There have been times where it has gone unresponsive to input after sleeping and I've had to completely turn it off and back on. This could be due to the InstantGo power mode, I haven't tried disabling that to see if it improves this behavior. Hopefully Microsoft will address this with a patch, according to Google I'm not the only customer with this problem. Until then I'll be sure to save my work before locking my device.

The type cover is good but not without flaws. The keys have enough give and click to provide a convincing typing experience. Their back-lit nature is a nice touch and definitely expected at this price point. The track pad is supposedly better than the outgoing model however I still find it a weak point. Multi-touch gestures such as scrolling only register some of the time needing broad, sweeping motions to engage consistently. It seems Microsoft is banking on users fully utilizing the touch screen for anything but precise pointing needs. The pen input seems to work well as a pointer when I forget to pack as mouse however I prefer to take notes by keyboard. It's unfortunate Microsoft doesn't provide a permanent spot to park the stylus when not in use. 

If budget isn't a concern or you can get a deal on one (as I did) I'd recommend the Surface Pro 3 and type cover to anyone looking for an ultra portable PC right now. I wouldn't recommend it to those considering it along side an iPad or similar high-end Android tablet. For better or worse it's a PC in tablet clothing. Microsoft has been responding to customer feedback, refining Windows 8 and the Surface at a rapid pace. Neither are perfect but as the Surface is the reference device for Windows 8.1 it's the best way to experience Microsoft's vision. I think we'll see considerable improvement with the Surface Pro 4 and Windows 10. If you can wait for it, that might be your best bet.

Pros:

  • Ultralight and made of high quality material
  • Beautiful high-res 3:2 aspect ratio display is great for productivity
  • Good battery life (compared to a traditional laptop)
  • Might save you from carrying a tablet


Cons:

  • Obscenely expensive, the bottom two model tiers shouldn't exist. 4GB of RAM and 64gb of storage for a full PC operating system and apps is inexcusable in 2014
  • The type cover is not included and is not optional if you wish to use the Surface as a laptop replacement
  • A few bugs need to be worked out with the sleep/wake cycle
  • Only 1 USB port, mini displayport instead of HDMI and no full size SD card slot (bummer for photographers)