Vanilla Ice-Cream in Galaxy Nexus Sandwich

Ever since I had to give up my recent acquired Sony flagship mobile phone, Xperia S, I looked around in the market for a replacement.

I had wanted to try out Windows Phone. I think Microsoft has finally got their formula right this time round, after failing to gain a foothold in the mobile market with their Windows CE and Windows Mobile products  since 2000. The tiled interface is as evolutionary and refreshing as Apple’s multi touch interface. Fragmentation, which appeared to the biggest culprit in Microsoft’s previous failures in mobile market, is to some extent addressed by Microsoft’s attempt to put in restriction in how manufacturers and developers build and develop their handsets and applications respectively. The end result is a consistent interface, and much tighter control on how applications are being executed and rendered. The key draw back for me is the hardware, as the display and camera functions are not inspiring. I thought I would just get a cheap Windows Phone (since all Windows Phone looks and function the same!) as an interim, but eventually settled with Google Galaxy Nexus because I have always wanted to try out the pure Google experience.

galaxy nexus

Galaxy Nexus

Google Galaxy Nexus, manufactured by Samsung, runs on the latest Android operating system, i.e. Ice-Cream Sandwich (ICS) . With Google’s ICS, they seemed to have finally fixed the memory management issues and streamlined the user experience. I have to say it is a product, out of the box (because with Android being a open source, it doesn’t take a genius to do magic wonder in order to improve its usability), that would seriously compete with the likes of current Windows Phone and iOS. It may seemed like Google’s past desserts (Cupcake, Eclair, Frosted Yorgurt, etc) were a failure, or at best an alpha/beta of their operating system. However, if you trace through Android history, from the first public release (Cupcake) in 2009 to now, versus how long Microsoft put their act together, it is actually quite a remarkable progress. One might argue that Apple did it right in the first iPhone product,  but remember Apple was clever in its product release strategy. It had deliberately omitted key phone function features, and progressively released these missing functions as it rolled out its iPhone roadmap over the course of 5 years.

Galaxy Nexus is made by Samsung

Galaxy Nexus is made by Samsung

Back to Galaxy Nexus, I am not quite impressed by its form factor. It looks as if Samsung has deliberately short changed its development just to make sure it does not cannibalised its own flagship products, i.e. Galaxy S2 and Galaxy Note. The 1280×720 screen is nothing to shout about, until you put it on the brightest setting.  That said, when I put it side by side with Galaxy S2 or Lumia 800 (both of which have the same resolution of 800×480 pixels), it does look as good, if not better, given its higher resolution display. The back battery cover feels plasticky,  almost becoming a classic trademark of Samsung products. Camera is mediocre, as it fares badly when taken under dim lighting condition or trying to capture a fast moving object. How I miss my Xperia S for that matter! Don’t get me wrong, Galaxy Nexus has a decent hardware specification, but my take is that it is a jack of all trades, master of none. That said, I do like the ICS soft keys in the Galaxy Nexus with its backlit implementation. Beneath the soft keys, a multicolored notification LED is featured which glows on selected event such as a missed call or unread message. You can download the app Light Flow to customize your LED configuration, in terms of the events to be notified, colour of the LED notification, or even the rate of the LED pulse!

ICS compliant application will now have all menus at the top corner, freeing up the bottom screen from the cluttered menu

Inside Galaxy Nexus however, the user experience is superb given that it is running on the Ice-Cream Sandwich. Unfortunately, at the point when I got the phone, it was still running on 4.0.3, not 4.0.4 which offers an even more optimal performance. (Nothing stopping me from upgrading it to 4.0.4 though) Regardless, I understand that 4.0.4 was shortly released “OTA” after a few weeks. On the positive notes, the user interface is polished and uncluttered. The multi tasking of applications does not has any slight adverse effect on the overall phone performance. The UI navigation experience is as “buttery” smooth as you can imagine. With a pure Google experience, it also means I do not have those bloated applications that offer bells and whistles at the expense of performance. Given that I have most of my resources resided in Google (mails, contacts, calendar appointments, photos, etc), I have immediate access to every of my content and information the moment I signed into my Google account. No hassle of synchronising or data migration!

But it did not take me too long to switch to another phone. Not because Galaxy Nexus is bad, but because I have been eyeing on HTC One X after hearing how HTC had improved its camera function over the year. That has been my biggest gripe of HTC products (amongst others). That said, after using HTC One X for two weeks now, there were and are times where I still miss Galaxy Nexus for its clean ICS implementation!

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Xperia S – Sony eXperience?

It has been a while since I blog about gadgets. My current Galaxy S II is probably the first gadget for a long while where I have kept it for more than six months; 8 months to be exact. There is really no new smart phones around that would excite me to change. HTC seems to have over sensationalized its sensation products (although I just learnt that its camera capability has improved since the last HTC phone I have used). That said, there are a couple of products that I am looking forward to.

Xperia

First, there’s Galaxy Nexus, a Google-branded phone made by Samsung. I have always wanted to try “Out of the Box” or “Vanilla” Android phone. Then there’s Sony’s Xperia S, Sony’s first product after their break up with Ericsson. I wonder if the DNA of Xperia S will be “Sony inspired”, or inheriting the mediocre Sony Ericsson genes.

Galaxy Nexus was first released to the market. But the lure of what is considered as Sony’s first Android product in Xperia S, especially upon hearing a reliable news that it’ll be  released 2 weeks later, made me decide to wait for the latter instead. On the first day when Xperia S was sold in the retail,  I went to the outlet and bought a set without even waiting for other customers’ feedbacks.

The first impression of the minimalist-design hardware gives me a mixed feeling. I like the cool looking clear bar at the bottom of the screen. It reminds me of the design found in Sony’s LCD  TV products. However, it is just  bells and whistles, as it just display the icons of the  touch panel functions above it, and nothing else (edit: I was told it could also act as light notification, but am not sure about it).  I wonder what goes behind the mind of the designer. As I figure out eventually, the design is probably meant to align with the new  UI design in Google ICS (Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest version of Google Android OS platform). Still, given that the bar takes up a good chunk of the phone form factor, I thought it is a bad design.

Sleeky but not functional Light Bar

The phone feels thicker and heavier than the sleek Sony Ericsson Arc I had used previously. So perhaps it is a sign of Sony trying to get rid of its SonyEricsson DNA, albeit not in the direction I would have expected from a consumer company like Sony. The back battery cover is removable, even though the battery is not and there is no removable storage space. On the other hand, the battery cover fitment is not perfect, leaving an uneven gap all around. In nut shell, the phone does not wow me like the Arc did on first physical encounter.

But I have to say, the phone grows on me after a while, primarily by its superior screen and camera function. First on the screen. The BRAVIA HD technology, along with its high 1280×720 resolution, renders rich colour saturation and image sharpness. The photos and videos look amazingly stunning with the colour vibrants and black deep. While it looks stunning on photos and video playback, I thought in some applications, the screen display looks a bit wash out, perhaps by the brightness and contrast level that is tuned towards HD video playback.

Sony Screen with Bravia HD engine

The camera, powered by Sony’s Exmor R for mobile CMOS sensor, reaffirms my belief that Sony produces one of the best, if not best phone camera in the market. A friend of mine did tell me that Apple’s  iPhone 4S has the best optic lens in the mobile market, but I think Sony’s Xperia S is not far behind, if not the best. Pitting the camera function of Samsung Galaxy S II against that of Xperia S, makes me realize how Samsung has stagnated in its innovation. I remembered I was most impressed by Samsung Galaxy S’s camera function, thinking on how it had the best mobile camera capability in the market then. Perhaps the DNA of the two consumer giants (Sony and Samsung), plays a big part in this gulf.

Ravishing screen and sublime photographing capability aside, Xperia S still has some unfinished work to do in order to be the leader of its pack. Although none of the phone manufacturers has yet launched an ICS out-of-the-box product, it is still disappointing to see Sony releasing a Gingerbread based Xperia S. The phone still experiences random moments of lags, slight enough for me to notice it, and the Sony’s home launcher force-closes on me a few times. That said, Sony’s home launcher and widgets have gone through some significant improvement, both visually and functionally. But I think they could have channelled their time and resources on improving the overall user experience, instead of bridging the gaps of Gingerbread.

Sony phone with the old Sony Ericsson Logo.

Unfortunately, the deal breaker for me is the Sony Xperia S’s security management. The issue is how the phone handles the “IdleTimeoutFrequencyValue” parameter, part of the security policy enforced by my company’s Exchange Server. Based on my knowledge, the parameter, configurable only by exchange server administrator, implies the longest acceptable time that the device can idle before the phone needs to be locked.  I know my company’s administrator had initially set as “1 minute”  before settled for “40 minutes”, as many employees felt that the policy was “too strict”. Xperia S takes this parameter literally, and will only lock my phone after 40 minutes of idle. There is no way I can force a lock; For all the previous phones that I have used, I could either set a shorter time-out myself, or force a lock by pressing the power button. With this “bug”, I have to bear the risk of leaving my phone unprotected for as long as 40 minutes. A few years ago, this is probably not a big deal for me. However, ever since I experience the loss of my phone within 5 minutes after misplacing it in a public place, I become more conscious about mobile security, especially with more confidential and/or sensitive information stored in our mobile devices these days.

So it is a “Short eXperience” for me, perhaps that’s what Xperia S stands for me. But if you don’t have a strict company exchange server administrator like mine (that configures every parameters of the policy), can live with some of the niggling issues highlighted above, I am sure it’ll be a “Splendid eXperience” for you.

WebOS TouchPad, a simple desktop in tablet form

WebOS-powered TouchPad

I am a big fan of Palm products. Those days it was cool to carry a Palm PDA, and if my memory did not fail me, my first Palm product was a Palm Pilot series. Palm gave me the impression of building nifty products but not a world shaker one. However when the webOS was first unveiled in 2009, I thought it is the mobile platform to go, with Windows and Linux both dominating the desktop market. The thoughts of web connected device, taking advantage of the Web 2.0 technologies, was just salivating.

Since then, a handful of Palm devices were launched sporting WebOS. I love the simple interface but the form factor never grew on me. With the products mostly focused in the US market, strangely if I may add, I never got to own one until now.  Then HP acquired Palm, and it got me lighted up. A PC giant (or a ex PDA big player in Jornado and iPAQ), and an promising next generation mobile OS maker, perfect marriage or a disastrous divorce in making? Continue reading

Samsung Galaxy S II, The best Android Smartphone ever?

Whenever i hear such a claim, on any product for that matter, i always wonder what is the context of the “best”. You see unless the product excels in all departments, i.e. it is the purrrrr -fect product in comparison to its competitors (see there is still a context) it can’t be the best.

Take the category of smartphone as an example. I would rate HTC for its famed Sense experience, which help to ramp up a newbie experience with Android (and Windows Mobile previously). On the other hand I see SonyEricsson being in the leader in its camera functionality having used its Xperia Arc and compared it with all the Galaxy S series. That said, HTC Sense is getting too complicated as the company tries to be sophisticated for its products to be ‘smart’. But I have digressed.

So when I read reports that raved the new Samsung Galaxy S II as the best Android smartphone to date I thought it is a bold statement. Don’t get me wrong as I think it is yet another fine product by the Korean company but that statement needs to be contextualized. Continue reading

Experiencing the new Xperia in Arc

A couple of years ago, when SonyEricsson decided to re-invent their new flagship mobile product in Xperia X1, I bought their vision, literally. The phone, despite running on Windows Mobile platform, wowed me with their sleek design and their UI panel concept. Hey, I even contributed to their vision by developing a navigation panel. The quality of the phone was far from perfect, and I promptly returned the phone back to the service centre when they offered a buy-back proposal to appease my dissatisfaction. That was my last impression of a Xperia product. Continue reading

Desire HD a Déjà vu

It has been more than 3 months since I have gotten myself a Desire HD. Usually I would be excited with the new phone, and would blog about it like I did with my Galaxy Tab and Galaxy S. Somehow, with Desire HD, I have been dragging my feet (or rather my fingers) to blog about my thoughts of the HTC latest flagship Android gadget.  It was mostly disappointments that piled up one after another, and I tell you why.

HTC Desire HD

 

When I first had my hands on the Desire HD, I actually thought I fell in love with it. The overall quality is just what you would have expected from HTC; The use of good quality material (over some cheap plastic material assembly), the polished user interface including the initial set up process. The phone feels heavy but it makes you think of the good solid material instead of the negative aspect of the weight. The tactile feedback on the screen gives a “tight, controlled mechanical” response you would expect from a high quality haptic technology based components. The initial take of the phone then was this should be what HTC Desire was 6 months ago. But it turned out to be more than 6 months gap.

Like all romances, love at first sight is never definitive, and with Desire HD it is a good classic example of that. The quality one can expect from HTC is not just about the positive ones. There were still alignment issues with the housing and casing covers, and the stability of the HTC applications that were bundled with the phone remained questionable, just to name a few. Before this blog entry degenerates into rants, let me just highlight three key areas that had subdued my enthusiasm about this phone.

With all the fantastic technical specifications that Desire HD is carrying, the phone fails miserably in the screen display and camera department (of course in my humble opinion). If Samsung Galaxy S had changed my perception about what a mobile phone can do as far as video recording and playback are concerned, Desire HD proved why the former is the best selling Android phone in the marketplace today. That is despite all the great things you can find about the phone itself. At a first glance, Desire HD screen display looked fabulous. The Super LCD screen appeared to have match the bar set by Samsung’s Super AMOLED screen. But when I placed my Desire HD and Galaxy S side by side,  my jaws dropped and I was almost screaming, “What is so super about the SLCD!?”.

From the video below, the display on Desire HD is simply washed out. The display colors looked faded and flat, whereas in the Samsung devices they looked vibrant. Looked at the contrast and brightness!   The conclusion I got?  I would never want to watch any movie on my Desire HD, if I happen to spot somebody around me carrying a Samsung Galaxy S.

Moving on to the video recording capability. Despite the specification of being able to take 720p video, Desire HD  was never able to match the video recording capability I had experienced in Galaxy S. The ghostly motion effect is still there, especially if the video is taken in an indoor setup (flash is a moot point because I could record a smooth video indoor with Galaxy S). If that was not bad enough, there was a severe bug in Desire HD, that resulted in video recorded with random stuttering effect. So when you are trying to take a HD video, this bug becomes a big joke. Incidentally this bug occurred only when I set the video camera mode to 720p. Essentially, the phone had problem recording at 30 frames per second in high definition. There are “dirty” workarounds, but I was never happy with this video recording function since day one.


a sample of video recording using Desire HD. Notice the freeze in 0:16 frame.

Then comes the software aspect of the phone. I remembered when I first got HTC HD2 more than a year ago, I had to endure the buggy SMS application for more than 2 months. If text messaging is an essential mobile function for you, that bug effectively rendered the phone unusable. Despite the bad experience, I remained hopeful when Desire HD was first launched in the market.  HTC development team must have learnt a big lesson out from that saga and delivered a better quality product this time round.

How wrong was I again! One of the selling point of Desire HD is that it is “smarter” than before with its Htcsense.com.  The latter is essentially a service based feature which enables the phone owner to locate and control the phone remotely. Theoretically one can locate the phone with the help of GPS, or initiate a ringing on the phone so you can locate its presence acoustically. One can even initiate remotely, to redirect phone calls and text messages, or wipe out data in case of emergency. Sounds great isn’t it? And of course I said that is in theory, because until last month, I could do nothing of these, even though these were advertised features. The  HTC support acknowledged that the performance stricken services (or applications) in htcsense.com were buggy and the development team was working on it. Being an IT-trained professional, I can understand how software can never be perfectly free of bug. However, the line should be clear between a software in alpha stage versus one that is go-to-market ready. HTCsense.com was clearly at a former stage, so it baffled me why the product was being launched in the first place. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise given the pressure to launch in the market, but it looked like somebody in HTC had done his maths. That the market share gain (through early product launch) will take care of the market share loss (due to the product quality problem).

A web-based service that looks good but not functional at all

On the otherhand, the HTCsense.com could also be more smarter than it is. As of now the services become useless when the phone battery get depleted. Imagine you discover that you have left your phone at home when you reach the office.   You want to remotely redirect your phone calls and/or text messages, only to find out that your phone is “uncontactable” because it runs out of battery. But I digress.

In all my correspondences with HTC support, it was clear to me that they could not commit a time to fix the problems. I gave up, and was looking to sell away the phone, or to do something about the phone myself. With xda-developers.com, I could save a hell lot of my time from building my own ROM or optimizing my kernel which I did for my previous phones. I found Leedroid custom ROM and kernel, flashed it, and the phone finally became what it should really be in the first place. However, there are things that do not change, such as  the hardware limiting issues (i.e. screen display). In other cases, such as the overall product and customer experience with HTC,  it is almost like a carbon copy of the previous one when I had HD2.

It is a déjà vu again.

Holiday season warm up with Creative ZiiO

Year end holiday season is here finally, and I am already imagining a Christmas tree in my house with all the interesting gadgets nicely packed as presents surrounding it. More on that in subsequent blog posts. In the spirit of sharing joy of holiday season, I would begin by sharing my peep on Creative ZiiO 7″ — Creative first attempt in the Android tablet space.

ZiiO 7" Tablet

ZiiO 7" Tablet

 

Earlier this week, I was privileged to have my hands on Creative ZiiO 7″ tablet, even though it was just a development unit. Given that (that it was just a development unit), the exterior finishing was not expected to be polished. The tablet was however loaded with the latest firmware that would supposedly shipped for production, so the hands on experience will still be close to that of a retail unit.

For a tablet, what draws to one’s attention is usually its form factor and its screen display. Admittedly, the first impression was a mixed feeling. The size of the tablet, defined by a 7″ wide screen, coupled with its all-white outfit, would definitely catch an enthusiast’s attention. This is especially so for somone like me who had already experienced a 6″ Kindle and a 10″ iPad, the two extreme end of a tablet-type devices. Of course, Kindle belongs to a different league altogether, given that it is a dedicated e-reading device. However, the size and weight of these devices should give a tablet-shopping buyer a good reference of what he needs to look out for, for there is no one perfect tablet in the market that fits all the needs.

Holding ZiiO 7" with one hand is convenient

 

Once ZiiO 7″ catches your attention, the screen display might possibly drops yours. I was definitely disappointed by the screen display, especially after having used to colour vibrancy that Super AMOLED display offers, in my Galaxy S and recently Galaxy Tab. The colour is a little flat, and further impacted by the viewing angle. If there is anyway to describe the visual impact, it feels like a 3M privacy screen filter fitted on it, albeit a little exaggerated. Ziio sports a resistive screen. While it is probably one of the most sensitive resistive screen in the market today, Creative’s decision to stick with it sets me scratching my head given that capacitive screen has becoming a norm these days.  But I was quickly reminded that Ziio 7″ is Creative’s entry model for their Android tablet product line, and costs just 1/3 of Samsung Galaxy Tab’s price tag. Fair enough, but unless you are a budget-conscious shopper, or one who is about to buy the China-made i-Pad lookalikes, wow will be the last thing you would say when you power on the Creative’s ZiiO.

Usability wise, Creative ZiiO is very capable, despite having to navigate over the resistive screen.  The screen was responsive, so were the applications. I was told that ZiiO uses its own processor, ZiiLABS ZMS-08 HD Media-Rich Applications Processor. While I have not benchmarked its processor in the 7″, I tried on ZiiO 10″ which uses the same processor, and the result was astonishingly good, scoring a 3000 over points in CPU. To give some context, my over-clocked Galaxy S could only manage half of what ZiiO has achieved. ZiiO has a stereo speaker, but I could not make out its quality given that I was in a cafeteria at the point of testing ; Just not a conducive environment to test sound quality.

Creative Zii applications

 

ZiiO is still running the older Android Eclair (2.1) as we speak, even for the retail units. However, I was told that Froyo (2.2) should be released for upgrade very soon.  As I unlocked ZiiO 7″ tablet, I was greeted by Creative’s own simplified lock screen and home launcher. Neat, I told myself. At least the company is going to the right direction in developing its own DNA. On the application front,  Creative have a few customised applications, ZiiMusic, ZiiVideo and ZiiPhoto. Given Creative’s specialty, I have no complaints with their multimedia playback software, although ZiiMusic did hang on me once before I had to reboot the tablet to solve it.

ZiiO's Kindle

 

Having used Kindle for a while, I naturally tend to compare ZiiO with the former, as an e-reader. ZiiO, with its weight almost twice that of the Kindle 3 (400g vs 241g), definitely feels heavy if one were to read over a prolong period of time. For a quick read, I would think it is definitely capable. What I was impressed is ZiiO’s night mode feature, which not only dim the backlit display, but also also toggle the display foreground and background color, so that the screen would not be too glaring. Although it can’t beat e-ink technology, the night mode feature is the most welcome feature, if you always like to read at night.

In a nut shell, for $359 SGD, I think it gives the China-made A-Pad a run for their money (go support Singapore products!). Looking from another perspective, if you are planning to spend $200-300 for a digital photo frame, grab this Creative ZiiO for its value for money, since it could do what a digital photo frame does, and more. But when pitted side by side with the bigger brothers, I could sense that Creative ZiiO 7″ is shouting out for his super-brother (not ZiiO 10″! fwiw) for reinforcement. I heard it will be coming …

Snap shot video of the hands-on (in a noisy cafeteria)