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 9. 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)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Thoughts On The OnePlus One

There’s no question this is a beast of a phone in terms of spec and physical size. The textured “sandstone” back helps its slave, I mean user, keep its enormity firmly planted in the hand though I can see those with smaller meat hooks having a hard time wrangling it. Fortunately the volume and power buttons are well placed, about ⅔ of the way up the sides. I’m not a huge fan of the chrome trim around the screen, I had gotten used to the generic black slab that is the Nexus 5. At least it has some personality in the design which the Nexus does not.

Performance and Battery Life
The first thing to show up after it powered up was a force close screen. I got this with the latest Cyanogen nightly build on my N5 as well. It can only get better from there I thought... Fortunately the setup continued without a hitch and I moved on to installing and updating my apps. I opted not to restore my apps automatically as I find Google is horrible at remembering what was actually installed on my last device, installing apps from ages ago that were only on my old device for minutes. I find navigating the Play store and initiating app downloads is a pretty good non-scientific benchmark for overall phone performance. Lesser devices, even the Nexus 5 tend to choke a bit once you start searching for and queuing up app downloads. There was none of that with the One, it practically downloaded and installed every app as fast I could find them. I began the arduous task of opening each new app and inputting my credentials. This too was super duper quick with nary a sign of jank. I’ve only had the phone for a few days but I can say the battery life is superior to that of the Nexus. With normal to moderate usage I estimate I will able to make it about 1.5 days. With heavy screen usage I’ve found the battery does drain at mere mortal phone rates. I was hoping my battery experience to be analogous to that of my Galaxy Note 2, unfortunately it’s not but it’s still greater than the Nexus 5. The battery gets a pass in my book, hopefully it will become much better once Android L hits Cyanogenmod.

Usability
Cyanogenmod is more than just a way to get “stock” Android on old devices. After using it on my Nexus 5 for a while and now on the OnePlus One it’s disappointing to go back to truly stock Android. The various customizations and tweaks offered in CM embody the spirit of Android. It’s great that root access and tons of third party apps are not needed to get things as simple as a numerical battery percentage icon, a reboot option, and custom themes. The CM camera app is way better than those in Google and AOSP builds. It offers lots of control and useful options right at your fingertips, without needing to dig through menus. Speaking of the camera, its image quality seems to be somewhat better than the Nexus 5 but it won’t be winning any awards. Probably the biggest bonus of the OnePlus and CM over the Nexus 5 is the ability to eschew the on-screen, permanent navigation buttons. One would think this isn’t a big deal but it’s amazing how much bigger the overall real estate of the screen feels without those pixels needlessly wasted. I understand Google wants to control the Android experience from top to bottom, making navigation controls consistent from device to device is an important piece of that. I can deal with the back and menu buttons being in different places when I upgrade phones, at least give me the choice.

My biggest concern in the long run with the OnePlus One is how frequently it will be updated. You can’t just go out to CM and grab the latest nightly, nor would you want to. OnePlus needs to put in their drivers and tweaks to make it work well with the hardware. I know once Android L hits I’ll be jonesing something fierce for that increased battery life and swanky Material design. As a former Nexus owner it’s easy to get spoiled by getting updates straight from the source as they are announced. Fortunately Android (and all mobile OSes for that matter) is a mature platform, even major revisions come with marginal increases in stability and function. I just need to convince myself that newer isn’t always better. For $299 it’s easier to overlook some nice-to-haves other flagship phones sport such as wireless charging and a dust/water resistance rating. It feels very well-built and is a handsome device. It has also been rock solid other than the hiccup I experienced in the initial setup. It will be interesting to see what Google has in store for the next Nexus phone iteration though they’ve been quiet as usual on timing, specs or even the existence of the phone itself. I would recommend the OnePlus One to anyone looking for a top tier unlocked device at this particular moment. You can’t touch the performance to dollar ratio and native Cyanogenmod is the icing on the cake.