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A Dece Oasis Power Bank Review

Posted by wicked August - 27 - 2015 - Thursday Comments Off

A dece oasis power bank

Lenovo subsidiary ZUK has launched its own accessories brand called “A Dece Oasis”, currently the company only produces a small but loud Bluetooth/NFC speaker and power banks, here we will take a look at the latter. The power banks are due to go on sale over the coming weeks, and a price has not been set yet. When they do go on sale you will be able to purchase them over at: Zuk.hk

First let’s take a look at what comes in the box:

Dece power bank unboxing
Opening the box, we find the 9000mAh power bank sat in a foam inlay, a quick start guide and the warranty card. Under this layer we have a flat micro usb cable measuring 12 inches, a Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0 charger and a leather and metal wrist strap.

The battery has a sturdy white plastic body featuring the brand and logo on the front and the batteries specs on the rear. The top is trimmed with a bronze coloured, textured aluminium collar with 4 LEDs and features 2 x QC2.0 USB ports, a  QC2.0 micro usb port and a single button.

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Charging the power bank with the provided cable and plug took just under 2 and a half hours, which brought it from completely drained to full. By the end of the charge, the aluminium trim felt slightly warm to the touch but not to the point that I would be concerned about leaving it on charge overnight. According to the provided documentation, the charging efficiency is in excess of 90% and will automatically cut out if it reaches 45 degrees. The LEDs both change colour and brightness as the battery charges/discharges, allowing for a fairly accurate representation of the charge level. All 4 LEDs will start as bright and blue when the unit is fully charged. Over the course of each 25% the battery is depleted an LED will slowly turn from bright blue to purple and then a dim red before going out and the next light starting the process. This means you can calculate the battery percentage to within about 8%.

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We ran several 10-minute tests with this power bank, the first was with a phone that supported Quick Charge 2.0 and featured a 3000mAh battery. Over the course of a 10 minute charge whilst the phone was on but with the screen off, the battery increased from 40% to 59% (19%) and showed only a minor change in internal temperature, increasing from 25.6 to 28.3 degrees.

The second test we ran was charging two QC2.0 devices simultaneously, the above-mentioned 3000mAh phone and a 4100mAh phone with USB 3.1 type C.  Over the following 10 minutes the 3000mAh device charged from 50 – 68% (18%) and the 4100mAh charged from 50 – 69% (19%).

The third test charged the 4100mAh device from 80% to 90% in another 10 minutes and finally the final 10% took 19 minutes. The much faster charging on the 4100 mAh device could be attributed to its use of USB 3.1 type C.

Battery Capacity mAh Charge Time Devices Charging % Gained mAh charged
3000 10 minutes 1 19 570
3000 10 minutes 2 18 540
4100 10 minutes 2 19 779

 

Power bankThe ZUK website proudly boasts 12 different safety measures included in the power bank, which include protection from: temperature, short circuit, reset, output current, input overvoltage, input counter, output overvoltage, over-charging, over-discharging, anti-static and magnetic fields. They also state that after 400 charge cycles the battery should still retain 88% of its capacity which is 25% higher than the international standard.

Overall I certainly think this is one of the finest examples of a power bank that has come across my desk. The build quality is exceptional and coupled with a high capacity and quick charge 2.0, it meets my every need for an external battery. I will certainly be keeping one of these handy from now on, and when they come on general sale, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a few as gifts for friends.

That being said, new options come around all the time, so one must always keep an eye out for the best deal!

 

Further reading:
XDA TV: ZUK Z1, specs, info and launch event
XDA TV: ZUK Z1 unboxing

New S Pen Mini-Review: Why is this Stylus Better, and Why Should You Care?

Posted by wicked August - 27 - 2015 - Thursday Comments Off

spen feature image

pensThe S Pen is what makes a Note a Note, and now that there are two flagship Samsung phablets competing for your pocket, that differentiator is more important than ever. I’ve been on this train since the Note 3, and with each iteration, I find a new reason to use the S Pen. While this phone stylus is what Samsung intends to be the main selling point of the Note, I feel that not many reviewers pay much attention to it and not many users care for it. In this article I’ll give you some of my impressions with the S Pen, and why I think it enriches the Note’s experience

The Galaxy Note had a rocky debut as it pioneered into the phablet space, defining what consumers should expect out of large-screen phones. Looking back, a stylus on a 5.3-inch phone doesn’t sound too useful. It was not until the 5.5-inch screen of the Note 2 came around that the Note began to shine with the S Pen. Samsung brought with it a myriad of multitasking features, and the Note 3 improved upon that with the now-traditional Air Command, which put useful stylus functions just a button press away. The Note 4 focused on improving the S Pen’s functionality by making it more of a mouse as well as a pen. Finally, we get to the Note5 and everything I’ll touch on below. This is a tool that is meant to make your life easier, but how, and in which instances?

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First things first, I want to mention how the pen has improved in design from last year’s version. The new S Pen is about as wide but a little bit thinner. Most importantly, it loses the ribbed texture and replaces it with smooth plastic (which can pass off as metal as a distance, something Samsung loves doing with their products). The pen also doesn’t feel as blocky as the one from the Note 4, which makes it somewhat easier to twist around in case you need to reach its button. Then we get to the clicky button.

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While a small touch, it is a very nice one. There is something authentic about it that makes you want to click it in-between notes, sometimes to aid your concentration and sometimes to annoy those around you. But it is another mechanical bit to worry about, and people are worrying. I won’t go deep into the debate regarding the S Pen controversy, but in case you didn’t know, you are not supposed to put it in backwards. Just don’t. It’s tempting, it seems to fit without issues, but it’s not a good idea, and Samsung agrees.

Note 4
Note 5

The S Pen is also more functional out of the box for the sole reason that the Note5’s screen density is as well. You have more information on your screen at any given time, but items are also smaller. This is the perfect opportunity to make use of a stylus’ precision. The Note5’s S Pen scribbles also follow the pen slightly faster, but the writing angles and sensitivity adjustments don’t seem major here, at least not as major as the Note 4’s. The S Pen is great for just casually scrolling around websites and highlighting or storing information. But what can the S Pen actually do for you that your finger can’t?

The S Pen is great for casually scrolling around websites and highlighting or storing information.

The screen of the Note5 could be considered too small for serious note-taking, but it is an option (which I will expand below). Taking notes with Action Memo is as easy as ever — it’s right there in your Air Command, a stylus button press away. Now it’s even easier to access it, though, as you have the optional Air Command shortcut floating button, meaning you won’t need to spin the pen around to find the trigger (but again, doing so is easier now than ever). The best part is the ability to take notes while the screen is off. You simply take away the pen and the screen will light up infinitesimally, and then whatever you write on it will be saved the next time you store the pen, giving you a notification that it did so for reassurance.

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Another great feature of the S Pen is its ability to select text while holding down the button as if you were doing so with a mouse. This makes careful text selection a breeze on a touchscreen, but it also works with gallery images and other items. Moreover, the S Pen can act as a mouseover function when viewing websites, which is very useful when visiting the desktop version of various pages, if only in certain situations.

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Then there’re Samsung’s Air Command features, which seemingly get trimmed down every year. Now you can still find the popular “screen write” and “smart select”, as well as the S Note shortcut and others you can configure. Screen write is very useful for when you need to share a screenshot with an annotation, and the simple sharing screen makes it fast and easy by defaulting your most-used sharing applications. What’s new, and extremely useful, is scroll capture, which you can initiate on a screen write before you begin writing anything. It allows you to take screenshots of big lists, but beware that the longer it is, the lower resolution it will be (mostly noticeable in extreme cases).

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I meant “hello world”!

Smart Select is similar to screen write, but it only grabs a certain part of the screen and it’s primarily meant to be used with Scrapbook, one of Samsung’s note/information storage solutions for the Note line. If you are familiar with the feature, you’ll find pretty much the same in terms of features. The process has been made a little easier and more intuitive, though.

The S Pen can still be used to input text through handwriting, and while a little faster and more accurate, it is still largely the same, and still prone to failure if you have bad handwriting (like I do). To most, it will remain more of a gimmick than a useful feature. Something that has been lost, though, is the hidden Wolfram integration in S Finder, which allowed you to jot down math formulas and equations that would then be inputted into Wolfram Alpha. For anyone else studying for a degree in STEM, this is quite a loss in potential, but on the bright side you can now remove S Finder from your life without losing any value. That being said, remember that S Finder can actually search for words stored in screenshots/scrapbook, making this tool much more useful for those exploiting screen write, scroll capture, and smart select.

Serious note-taking is possible on the Note, but not easily with the default applications. Action Memo is useless for anything more complex than a quick reminder or number, but S Note comes back with a more streamlined approach. Now that the S Finder has no Wolfram and that S Note hasn’t had it for many versions, there is less value on the app, but it still allows for brilliant image scanning that turns the text and writings into editable text. This is great for students who simply want to take pictures of their textbooks or blackboards to manipulate content on the screen. This leads me to third party apps: many other applications have S Pen support, and a personal favorite is Squid (Papyrus), which allows you to configure the S Pen’s button and provides you with an infinite canvas so that you don’t have to make new pages when you run out of space. Math homework on the Note, in particular, can be quite fast, as you can simply copy and paste what you are working on to iterate in a pinch.

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The S Pen comes with many other additions that make your life easier. One of them is the ability to scroll in certain applications simply by hovering the pen above the bottom part of the screen. You can also preview links on various applications by hovering on them, and sign PDFs or write on documents without needing to print then re-scan the thing. I think that the included stylus has a lot of potential, and with the Note5, I find myself using it now more than ever. The screen-off function makes writing down notes and thoughts easy and intuitive, but I also do love the S Pen for simply browsing around, as its length allows you to reach any screen corner with very small hand movement. The added precision and features make it great for a variety of tasks, especially when researching or editing a feature. But most importantly, I feel that the whole experience has been refined from hardware to software, and it’s more of a pleasure to use than it has ever been.

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If you do not intend to use the S Pen at all, make sure to turn off pen detection in the settings, as it states that it might have a slight impact on your battery life. Also, some applications don’t properly support the S Pen (even though they did at certain points). For example, Chrome won’t let you do the hover scroll nor the hover link previewing, and Docs and Sheets have a bug where the phone vibrates whenever you get the S Pen on the screen (this happens on the Note 4 running 5.1.1, too).

Either way, I think you should simply try and incorporate some of its many features into your usecase. It has a lot to offer, and it’s one of the main things that make this line-up so noteworthy.

More about the Note5 will come in my future in-depth review coming next week. The S Pen is an important part of the Note experience, so I felt it deserved more than just a couple of paragraphs in a review feature. Now that’s out of the way!

Do you use a stylus on your phone? If so, for what? Tell us below!

Check Out XDA’s Note 5 Forum >>

App Review: YouTube Gaming

Posted by wicked August - 27 - 2015 - Thursday Comments Off

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Yesterday saw the release of Google’s new addition to the global video site YouTube, YouTube Gaming. Being brought to you by the makers of Android, it of course comes with an app which we have taken an in-depth look at for you.

Firstly, what is YouTube Gaming? Well, not only does it let you keep up-to-date with your favourite gaming channels from YouTube, it also allows you to follow your favourite video games and suggest videos featuring them. But, its key feature is one that Twitch TV has dominated for years, Live Streaming. YouTubers can now stream directly from their channels, and therefore directly to their fanbase.

App Breakdown:

Before we go any further, it’s important to note that the tablet, phone and web version of the app differ slightly. This article will focus mainly on the phone version.

Home Screen and Navigation

When you open the app you are presented with a home screen that is reminiscent of the YouTube app home screen, but with a few unique features. The first of these is obvious, underneath the search bar there’s a scrolling banner feed. This advertises current popular livestreams and videos featuring games or channels you like. However, my favourite part of this feature is that it previews the item that is currently selected, without playing sound.

Much like YouTube, YouTube Gaming has a home feed of recommended videos. However, in YouTube Gaming it is more differentiated and has more navigation options. The feed is separated between livestreams, channel videos and game videos. Each of these comes with a heading banner that navigates to a feed list featuring that specific section.

Screenshot_2015-08-26-21-11-56   Screenshot_2015-08-26-21-12-24   Screenshot_2015-08-26-21-12-19   Screenshot_2015-08-26-21-12-42   
 

You may have noticed that we have mentioned navigating via games. This is because YouTube Gaming allows you to search for videos via the game they feature. You can also ‘subscribe’ to games to get certain games featured more on you feed. Each game has its own homepage where you can find information on said game, as well as videos containing it. You can also separate the videos shown on the game homepage by whether they are live or feature YouTubers you are subscribed to.

Live stream

Of course the biggest feature for YouTube Gaming is its Screenshot_2015-08-26-21-18-30Screenshot_2015-08-26-21-18-38livestream capabilities. For years if YouTubers wanted to do a live show they had to go to Twitch TV, but now they can do it through YouTube. However, how does it hold up against the current champion of livestream?

As it turns out, rather well. Much like with Twitch, there is a chat feature that allows you to communicate with the channel and other people watching the stream. However, much like Twitch, the traffic is often so heavy that you don’t have time to read a message before it’s gone. YouTube Gaming also gives details of the stream being watched, including how many people are watching and links to the channels featured in the stream.

YouTube Gaming’s biggest advantage, as far as live streaming is concerned, is the ability to pause live streams and watch them on delay. This is something that you cannot do on Twitch and some other streaming sites.

Odds and Ends

There are a few little features that make the app run a lot smoother and make it easier to use. For example, instead of searching through channels to add ones you’re already subscribed to on YouTube, you can simply import them from YouTube. This also works the other way round. If there are any channels you are subscribed to on YouTube, but you don’t want them showing up on YouTube Gaming, you can un-star them. Also, when you bring up a game page or channel profile, you can exit back to the home screen by pressing the X in the left corner.

As it is an extension of YouTube, the video options are the same and the swipe controls to close videos have also been carried across. It is also screencast compatible, as you would expect from a Google product.

If you are on the table version of the app the main difference is the home screen navigation. Instead of having three sections (Feed, Channels, Games), It only has the Feed section. Instead, the Channels and Games appear as watermark overlays at the right and left sides of the screen respectively

Bugs and Bad Bits

Now no app is perfect, especially when just released, so here I will outline the main bugs and problems that I found.

First of all, and this was kind of expected, there are still ads. This is YouTube after all. Now this would not usually be too much of a problem, as you can just install an adblocker and it will be fine. However, if you try running a live stream with the ad blocker running, you may experience problems loading and more lag than usual.

Secondly, when ran on one of my test devices, a Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini running Android 4.1.2 Jellybean, it had difficulty loading some of the live streams, but not others. So if any of you are on dated devices or software, you may also experience similar problems.

As far as frame skips are concerned, it ran pretty smoothly for the most part. However, when watching live streams frame drops were common and occasionally the app came close to stuttering for extended periods of time. Although, you can argue that this is expected due to the GPU demands of live streaming.

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Lastly, when exploring the features of the app for this review I came across a UI bug. When I loaded into one of the livestreams the chat and details interface did not load. This was solved by closing the stream and reloading it. This bug was captured at 00:48 in the below video.

Exploring YouTube Gaming

Conclusion

All in all, the new YouTube Gaming app is very user-friendly and contains plenty of ways to narrow down the video experience you want. It gives fans easier access to live shows of their favourite YouTubers, and allows seamless navigation between live and prerecorded videos. Twitch may need to watch out, because the king of the video world has just gone live.

 

Do like Youtube Gaming? Can it compete with Twitch? Let us know your opinion in the comments!

Hands-On with an Unnamed Elephone Device

Posted by wicked August - 26 - 2015 - Wednesday Comments Off

Elephone Q

During a recent visit to Elephone’s HQ in Shenzhen, I was lucky enough to get a hands-on with an as of yet unnamed phone that will retail at around $80. Aimed at children or as an accessory, the smartphone is the smallest I have seen, featuring a tiny 2.45″ (240×432) LCD display. It seems like a novelty at first, but there is a reason behind that.

The device is clearly not intended to be a daily driver, however, there are many other places this device can shine. Place it into an arm-band and use it as a fitness tracker, use it as an mp3 that can also make phone calls (yes, it has a microSD slot and 32GB of internal storage), use it as the center of your latest hardware project or give it to a child as their first phone. One of the staff members over at Elephone mentioned that they had been wearing it on necklace when listening to music.

The body of the device is unsurprisingly made of plastic, resulting in a weight of just 52.4g  — and since it measures just 90 x 43 x 11.5 mm, it can be carried anywhere with relative ease. The battery is small at just 550mAh with standby time pegged at 110 hours, but with a screen this size you won’t be playing any intense games or using many of the heavy battery draining apps, so that should not be an issue. The processor is a dual-core MediaTek 6572, so again don’t be expecting to be breaking any benchmark records. The rear camera is 5.0MP and the front is just 0.3MP, so you won’t get best the selfies in the world either. That being said this is clearly intended to be more of a toy than a serious phone and we can’t wait to hear if you guys can think of any interesting use cases for a phone this size.

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Of course, though, this tiny size does not come without issues. I tried typing on it and found it virtually impossible. However, if you have small fingers or like to use voice recognition software like Google Now or a speech-to-text option, this could be a great device for those times you don’t want to carry your 5.5″ phone with you.

Q and ZUK

Two Elephone Q’s along side the new ZUK Z1

During my brief hands on, the UI and menus seemed very responsive with very few frame skips as confirmed by profile GPU rendering. This surprised me, I expected such a cheap and small device to perform substantially worse than it did. In fact, everything about this device seemed to defy the price tag. The phone gave me nostalgia of a time when people carried mp3 players as well as their phones… in a world where that had continued, this is how I image they would have evolved, not only to play music but also having the ability to keep track of your calendar, messages and even make calls if needed. The body of the device, whilst being plastic, felt sturdy and I wouldn’t be overly worried about it being damaged if I dropped it. The display appeared to be one-point touch, and as you would expect there was no NFC. However something present there that you don’t see often in phones was a sleep monitor alongside the pedometer, and other sensors which could be useful if you, like many power users, like to keep track of your body through fitness bands etc. My final impressions were that this is something that can be used to fill many smaller use cases, but if you are looking for a daily driver, this is not the device for you. But that is kind of obvious.

 

As I said earlier, this device is yet to be named and is currently using the internal name Elephone Q, leave a comment below and I’ll pass them on, you could be the one to name this fun and quirky device.

 

What would you do with a phone like this? And what do you think the device should be called? Leave a comment below!

S Pen Controversy: User Error, or a Design Flaw?

Posted by wicked August - 26 - 2015 - Wednesday Comments Off

spen stylus note 5

By now, many of us have heard about the Note5’s stylus and how it breaks a vital mechanism when you try to store it backwards. Many discussions and debates have happened since, with a number of publications publishing editorials defending either the company or the affected users. Now that we have better information of what is going on, we want to know what you think. Who is to blame? Is the user at fault? Is this a design flaw, or simply a catastrophic oversight?

Hardware Dyslexia, or How Specification Sheets Are Not Straight-Forward

Posted by wicked August - 25 - 2015 - Tuesday Comments Off

hardwaredyslexia


With each new device leak and spec announcement we see product-cycle hype rise. Those who frequent enthusiast circles typically want the best they can get out of their favorite phones, and in the last few years, the amount of discussions regarding the cameras and processors of flagship devices has seemingly outgrown sensible expectations. When you factor in the fact that 2015 has been a rather stagnant year in terms of flagship hardware, you get a recipe for disaster.

More Hardware, More Variables

The main issue I see is that there is a lack of holism when interpreting specifications. Admittedly, I feel like this is more of a current phenomenon than anything. Various technologies such as AMOLED have branched away and evolved at a different pace than others in the same category. This year in particular, we saw a much more diverse repertoire of SoCs in flagship devices due to the Snapdragon 810’s disappointments. The Exynos 7420, the 810, the 808, the 801, the Atom Z3580 and the Helios X10 were some of the names we saw hit our most awaited phones, each with a set of strengths and weakness that gave them vastly different results.

This becomes a problem when you take into account that simple specification sheets and their values do not represent the entirety of the hardware component and its inner workings, but rather a few characteristics that are easily digestible and marketed. By now, most enthusiasts know that a megapixel count says little about image quality. Many mainstream consumers are aware of this too — otherwise, the iPhone wouldn’t have the “great camera” badge in the collective subconscious. So while we now know that 20MP does not necessarily mean good pictures, a lot of specifications still entice us when in reality, we shouldn’t be looking at the numbers themselves but the package as a whole, and the relationships between those numbers.

Processors, Screens, Batteries…

An example I always find myself bringing up when discussing phone performance with friends has to do with processors, frequencies and cores. If you take a look at the Snapdragon 805, the term “quad-core” and the frequency “2.7GHz” sound mighty impressive. They should, because this is a very impressive processor indeed. My Note 4 is still an immensely powerful device, but so is its Exynos counterpart. This one has an Exynos 5433, with a very mighty “octa-core” term and a not-so-impressive “1.9GHz” frequency. The average consumer can sometimes be carried away with these numbers and fill in the blanks of his knowledge with assumptions as to how they relate, and this results in something I’ve taken to call “hardware dyslexia”.

As with most things, the devil is in the details, and the details in this case are the things that you won’t find listed on your typical carrier store. The Snapdragon 805 and the Exynos 5433 have remarkably similar performance output in important categories despite those different numbers. The Snapdragon 805 uses Qualcomm’s custom “Krait” cores, while Samsung opted for a more vanilla ARM Cortex solution. Moreover, the “octa-core” term is misleading, as the big.LITTLE architecture typically has 4 powerful cores and 4 energy-efficient ones, and the packs typically act in isolation unless homogeneous multi-processing takes place. But that solution came much later than octa-core phones; owners of the Exynos S4 and Note 3 should remember some heartbreaking news.

The processor takeaway: There are many factors that influence performance in and out of hardware. Benchmarks do help predict the theoretical potential of the hardware, but the potential does not always translate to the real world. Many factors, such as software, throttling and bottlenecking, can greatly alter the results. When it comes to user experience, numbers should never be blindly followed.

This also takes us to screens: with leaks, we typically only hear about the screen size and resolution. To me, learning these things is completely useless as far as predicting image quality goes. Full HD is still good for most people so I do not get disappointed when this shows up, nor classify the screen as lowly, but excluding that, one cannot even rely on OEMs’ past history and promises. An example would be the M9, which surprised everyone by having a worse screen than the M8 in metrics like brightness, contrast and even saturation accuracy, when the M8 was known to be one of the finest LCD panels in these same areas. LG’s promises of accurate color reproduction in the LG G4 were proven inaccurate by technical reviews, which put it behind the pack leaders in both saturation and GMB accuracy. Quoting AnandTech:

As one might have guessed from the previous two results, the end result for the LG G4 is that color accuracy isn’t quite as good as one might have hoped. Due to an excessively wide gamut and a cold color cast, the G4’s display ends up slightly disappointing.

Then you have the fact that many reviewers and consumers still believe Samsung screens and AMOLED panels as a whole are very saturated, when in reality these panels have made tremendous leaps forward, and reputable screen analysis site DisplayMate has called the screen of both the Note 4 and Note 5 the best screen they have tested.

The screen takeaway: look for empirical luminosity, contrast, and color accuracy measurements rather than buzzword panel names.

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Battery size is also a specification people wildly rave about, when in today’s mobile world, optimization can trump high capacity. We’ve seen many devices with ridiculously large batteries underperform (like the Droid Turbo), and devices with smaller batteries perform well. This is because every other component matters – screens, processors, modems, audio chips, and the software that optimizes each of these components. When the battery size of the Note5 was revealed, many were disappointed as it was not only lower than the 4,100mAh we had seen rumored, but 220mAh lower than the previous Note. I too had my doubts, though Samsung’s screens have become more power-efficient since the Note 4, as has the Exynos 7420 (in part due to its class-leading 14nm FinFET manufacturing process). Now that I have the phone in my hand, I find myself surprised that I am able to squeeze over 5 hours of screen usage on a full day out of a 3,000mAh li-on trooper.

The battery takeaway: real-world battery tests that match the way you yourself will use the phone, or that indicate the device’s potential for improvement with future ROM and governor advancements, are far superior to flat capacity specs.

This year, we even saw the disconnect between specs and real-world performance extend to power cords. The OnePlus 2 was touted to have a USB Type C plug, something which was considered a universal step forward. Reality came crashing down once more when we learned that the plug is new, but the USB standard is not (that is, it does not come with USB 3.1). To make things worse, no quick charging is found in the device despite it having a Quick Charge 2.0 ready chipset… Qualcomm’s flagship, at that. The end result is a marketing campaign that touts progress while the phone falls as flat as its new cable.

All The Pieces Matter

What I am getting to is that specifications by themselves mean little, particularly the popular numbers, terms and names we see released and leaked every other day. Without context, these numbers are little more than marketing gimmicks in leak form. Especially when we know that:

  • The best processor and RAM do not make for a smooth user experience by themselves, as shown by the Note5 (more on this in an upcoming review)
  • More cores and higher frequencies are not necessarily superior, nor the only way to improve performance (something the Exynos line has shown time and again).
  • A Quantum Display is not going to be better-looking through promises, and traditions do get broken as technology evolves.
  • Wishful thinking won’t make a new port perform better than an old one, not even if details are hidden away until people get a hands-on.
  • A big battery can be crippled by all of the above, and a small battery can last a long time with the right set-up. Examples of all of this are everywhere.

Yet we still get excited at learning about a battery size, or a screen resolution. I believe that numbers by themselves mean little to nothing, and that they must not only be contrasted, but also considered within the whole. That is, there are many variables to consider, and optimizations in one place can trickle down to another. There is a lot that specification sheets don’t mention, and manufacturers can design a phone’s internals in such a way that they intelligently synergize to bring out an unexpected package. Software also plays a major role, and we all know a bad ROM can kill your battery and a good one can save your day.

We all commit some hardware dyslexia at some point, though. Especially for devices we cannot wait for — we grab every new detail and hold it dear, expecting the best out of it. Sometimes we are disappointed, but it can go both ways. That small battery might end up lasting you all day, and that non-flagship processor might give you a hell of a fast user interface. Numbers are numbers, and while higher ones are usually better, they don’t imply that the end result – a holistic one – is ultimately superior. In many ways, I’ve learned to ground my expectations and look at the connections rather than the numbers themselves, and not get carried away by the hype. It’s hard, and with Nexus phones in the horizon, I personally have to try to remain objective and not go on the hype rollercoaster that comes with every anticipated release. Ultimately, we need to take off the fanboy goggles and realize that there’s always more than meets the eye. And that’s what I personally love about technology, so I hope you will find some of that in my future pieces.

 

Do You Care Much About Wireless & Fast Charging?

Posted by wicked August - 25 - 2015 - Tuesday Comments Off

wirelesscharging

We all want better battery life, but OEMs seem content with just giving us faster ways to charge our phones. This is not the solution we want, but it is a good thing to have nonetheless. Those that manage to get through the day just fine and charge overnight might not have much of a need for it, however. How much do you care about these features? Would you prefer them to give us proper battery life instead?

Walking The Great Firewall Of China

Posted by wicked August - 25 - 2015 - Tuesday Comments Off

Walking The Great Firewall

Frequent readers will be aware that as well as being a news writer for XDA, I am also the manager of our social media. Because of this when I was invited to attend a press conference in Shenzhen, China I had some concerns. Many of the websites and services we take for granted are inaccessible in the country including anything associated with Google, twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia to name but a few. Unwilling to miss out on the opportunity though I booked the flights, made my visa arrangements at the embassy, downloaded a handful of VPNs and a few days later flew out on the first leg of my 18,000 mile round trip.

Suspicious Apps And Censorship

Landing in Shenzhen I immediately checked for the airports network to report back Shenzhen airportto the office, and upon connecting an .APK started downloading without my consent or a prompt. Opening my browser I was greeted with a splash page directing me to log in through the app they had just sent me. Upon checking the app permissions I discovered it wanted far more than its fair share and so deleting the file I disconnected and left the airport. This was not the only time I observed this phenomenon, several places around the city that would usually be considered safe back home had the same practice. Needless to say, I relied on mobile data and the hotel Wi-Fi a lot. The Wi-Fi in the hotel just had a simple “click here to connect” splash screen and was capable of download speeds comparable to my fiber connection back home. That is of course when I was visiting an unblocked site or service. As expected attempting to send a message via Hangouts resulted in failure and my emails (All Google Inbox) wouldn’t refresh either. Choosing this as a perfect opportunity to test my VPNs, they had all worked back home but seemingly not here. Every one that I tried failed to connect. Speaking to Andi from Gizchina he recommended one that would work but cost $60 a year. Going to look it up, I discovered that as it utilized Google search, Chrome’s Omnibox did not work. It was at this point that I used Bing for the first time in my life.

 

Sim Cards And The Language Barrier

On the way to the hotel I received my new 中国联通 (China Unicom) sim card, popping it from its card the thought struck me that this sim seemed big, very big. Sliding open my card tray I realised that this was a mini sim, Something that I have not seen for many years and I certainly did not have a compatible phone. Having just travelled through 4 airports I did not have any scissors. Thankfully, the folks sponsoring my trip (Elephone) did have a sim cutting tool and using a dual sim Mi Note as my daily driver, I cut it down to micro size allowing me to still keep my British nano sim in place next to it. Over the coming minutes I received several SMS instructing me to set up my SIM, which were translated for me by the helpful people at the hotel. Normally I would have simply copied the SMS over to Google Translate but not in China. It was far quicker just to ask someone than to Bing an alternative that worked.

温馨提示:您定购的是(OCS)双4G微信沃派20月租13.93元,本月扣除月费13.93元,您的帐户余额为35.97元。中国联通【手机营业厅】快速查询账户余额、话费及详单,让您放心消费,充值还享9.85折。

For the curious this translates to roughly “This is a 4G 20 month SIM and costs $2.19 a month, if you run out you can top-up for $1.54”

Jordan from XDA TV did not have the same luck, upon inserting his sim into his LG G4, his phone’s language changed automatically to Chinese, and changing your language back to English from one you don’t speak is quite arduous if you don’t know where language is in your settings by memory.

The Apple Obsession

I hadn’t even arrived at the hotel when I discovered the country’s opinion on iPhones. In Britain they are a popular choice but many other brands are viewed at the same level. Someone would never be looked at as superior to others for having an iPhone 6 over say a Galaxy S6 or any other OEM for that matter. In China they appear to be the epitome of class. Upon being handed the ZUK Z1 in the car, the owner of the device (an Elephone employee) stated, “I love the design, it looks like an iPhone 6+ or the Mi4.” (a device commonly stated as appearing similar to iDevices). The nearest Apple store to me in the UK probably averages at less than 50 members of the public in at any one time. Step inside the Apple store in Shenzhen however and you step into a crowd. Every device had a small gathering around it whether it was a Mac, a phone or a pair of headphones. There were live demonstrations occurring around the store that were also being shown on large screens for people who couldn’t get close enough to view. It was nothing short of manic. One event that confirmed this view happened whilst in the office of Elephone for a meeting. Upon exiting we were asked for a photograph with some of the team in front of the new ZUK sign they have in the lobby. The man in charge of the team asked that someone take the photo and when several people pulled an Elephone or ZUK Z1 out of their pocket, he without a second thought stopped them and stated:

“No this is an important occasion, we need a worthy camera, someone get me an iPhone!”

This left me stunned. I can’t imagine many companies willing to say this in front of their staff, never mind the press, however no one seemed phased by it. They just returned their phones to their pockets and pulled out their iPhones instead. This attitude appeared to be ingrained in everyone. OEMs appeared to believe that people were only using their phones whilst they saved for an iDevice, no matter how good their Android phones may be. I left thinking they were correct; this was certainly the impression people gave. The devices are by no means cheap either: the 128GB iPhone 6+ in China will cost you ¥7788 or $1216 USD, for those not familiar with the cost in the U.S. it will set you back $949 for the same unlocked model direct from the store.

Wherever You Go, There’s QR

A feature that I observed widespread usage of was QR, with every poster in the metro having a code – business cards and even receipts had them. I can go for months at home without seeing one, but there I rarely went minutes. Amusingly when I need to scan them over here, I use Google Goggles. Not an option there and neither was installing an alternative from the play store. I attribute the use of these codes to the language barrier, as most URLs are in Latin script even when leading to a website completely in a Chinese language. Consider having to type these URLs in a script you are not accustomed to, it would not be simple or easy, so QR codes for them do make sense. I would be interested to see if NFC could ever replace these in many mediums however currently usage over there appears to be minimal apart from in contactless payments. Of the two 2015 Chinese flagships I currently own, neither support the technology.

Spoken Word VS. Typing

It initially struck me as odd how many people were using voice recognition when sending messages. Whether it was Siri or just the voice tool in many android keyboards, many people were holding their phones briefly to their face repeatedly during conversations over SMS and IM. It was not until I had my epiphany regarding QR usage that I also realised that typing in Mandarin and the like could not be as easy as just saying what they wished to type. Despite Google’s best efforts with Pinyin Input, if people can’t get the app easily they will look for alternatives. This method certainly seems to work for them and they seem to not be bothered by a lack of alternate options. I have also since become aware that the app WeChat, which is incredibly popular in China, also uses voice messages which would certainly exacerbate the voice message situation.

Piracy Problems

Piracy seemed commonplace in China. I spotted this in the OEM app store of a phone I used briefly Cracked piracywhilst over there, with an entire section of the store dedicated to pirated and/or modified versions of games and popular apps. Upon asking about it, I was given an answer that made it painfully obvious that they had no idea you were meant to pay for certain apps. It is entirely possible that this is down to a lack of Play Store and with so many different app stores available, most people would miss out on popular apps without developers wanting to offer their apps for free on a store without payment options or wanting to publish their app on more than one store.

 

 

All being said and done, the experience was an eye-opener. Simple tasks like checking my emails or sending a message became a chore and taught me an important lesson in taking my internet freedom for granted. Next time I visit I will be more prepared and will go with a VPN that I can confirm as working there prior to entering the country. For every service that was blocked for me, they have long since developed excellent alternatives and many people do not notice a huge lack of functionality. They have long been accustomed and it’s just the way the internet works for them.

 

Have you been to China? How was your experience? Leave a comment below!

 

The Future of Bloatware, Making a Buck a Phone

Posted by wicked August - 24 - 2015 - Monday Comments Off

Digital Turbine DT Ignite

A number of global carriers, including Verizon in the US and America Movil in Latin America, have partnered with a small public company, Digital Turbine, to preinstall targeted apps. These are specifically chosen upon activation based on mined user data. Certain OEMs like HTC, Acer, Asus, and Sony are also dipping their toes. But bloatware will soon go far beyond a few extra annoying, custom-picked icons on your homescreen. The future is app recommendations, in your face, for as long as you own your device. If you want to know more, just follow the cash.

Digital Turbine, formerly known as Mandalay Digital, took a big gamble late last year. The company’s core business, modest in size, powered content stores (apps, music, etc.) for carriers, including some large ones in Australia like Vodafone.

In November 2014, Digital Turbine announced it was issuing $100 million of stock to acquire a startup called Appia. The deal closed in March 2015. Appia is a middleman: it links companies who are willing to pay for users to install their apps to anyone who has access to consumer eyeballs, including other app developers and content publishers. For example, as of right now if an Appia partner–and it’s relatively easy to sign up as one–can convince a single Android user to install and run HBO Now, that partner will receive “up to” $1.19. It’s not so different from web affiliate programs in which publishers get paid to drive purchases on eCommerce sites, but app install ads have become big business. This CPI (cost per install) model is one of the ways Facebook has been so successful driving advertising revenue on mobile devices–nearly $3Bn per quarter right now. The promise of Appia for content partners is that they too can monetize mobile users as well as Facebook. Appia, with reported gross margins around 20%, presumably makes about $0.30 for facilitating the HBO Now transaction.

The combination of Digital Turbine and Appia creates a single unique…app ecosystem that offers an app agnostic approach through which wireless carriers, OEMs, and distributors can enhance their own revenue generation as the majority of app installs today goes to both Facebook and Google.

Bill Stone, Digital Turbine CEO

A New Kind of Vertical Integration

At the time of the acquisition, Digital Turbine was just another Appia partner. The company had built two products, DT Ignite and DT IQ, to power app installs and app recommendations for carriers. DT Ignite was originally pitched to carriers as a mobile device management (MDM) solution that would allow them to deliver content to devices after they were sold, reducing the risk of missing shipping deadlines as apps were debugged and updated. Here is the marketing video from 2014, which only just mentions “customized CPI deals.”

But delivering ads to the homescreen quickly became the clear winning pitch, and Digital Turbine wanted to own the entire supply chain–from advertiser relationship to carrier relationship, including the underlying ad marketplace and technology for choosing and pushing apps to the end-users’ devices. It was a big, big risk. A couple quarters post-acquisition, Digital Turbine is getting short on cash, and its stock is near an all-time low. The company is adamant its fortunes are about to change.

The universe of companies who might be willing to pay $1+ to have their apps installed on a phone is big, representing pretty much any app that has a meaningful possibility of generating ongoing revenue from the user. This includes subscription services like HBO Now, Spotify, or Netflix; eCommerce businesses from Amazon to Target to Hotels.com; sharing-economy darlings (Uber); scammy junk with in-app purchases; and free-to-play (aka pay-to-win) games. That list also includes VC-funded startups looking to buy growth, even if uneconomically. The highest paid CPI offer for partners on Appia right now is $4.57 for Empire: Four Kingdoms on iPhone. [One thing is very clear from the amount companies are willing to pay for installs: iPhone users are far more “valuable” (gullible, maybe) than Android users.]

It’s not uncommon for people in the smartphone biz to refer to the homescreen as the most valuable real estate in mobile. Digital Turbine’s software–and now with Appia, its advertiser relationships–give its carrier and OEM partners another way to wrest control of the homescreen from Google and sell that beachfront property to the highest bidder.

Today Digital Turbine has relationships with many mobile operators. Here’s a slide from a recent investor presentation:

Digital Turbine Carriers

It’s All About The Money, Money, Money

So, now the big question: What’s it all worth? Digital Turbine says that by the end of the year it hopes that it will be generating $2 of revenue per activated device. This figure comes from some number of pre-installed apps per phone multiplied by an open rate multiplied by the average revenue per offer. $2 is a global figure, so it’s likely higher in the US, but that still doesn’t sound like much. Digital Turbine’s partners, the carriers or OEMs, share in less than half of that amount. So, today Verizon is selling its customers’ homescreens for about a buck each.

We’re not the first to talk about DT Ignite being preinstalled on phones, but we’re here to tell you it’s still the first inning for app-install ads. Based on investor presentations, Digital Turbine is hoping to build long-term towards $6+ per activation, still less than $3 net to the carrier but maybe a bit more interesting. In the month of June, DT Ignite was pre-installed on about 800,000 devices globally. If Digital Turbine is to hit its financial guidance for the year, that number will have to climb dramatically– to something closer to 3.5 million per month. So, if you haven’t seen it yet, keep an eye out for DT Ignite coming soon to phones near you.

DT IQ

Digital Turbine’s DT IQ product–offered in whatever form the customer wants (see image above)–lives on the phone at all times in order to drive app-install revenue for the carrier (and for Digital Turbine) through the life of the device.

Remember that IQ is a recurring revenue opportunity. So when we put IQ on millions of devices this year, the monetization of those devices will not be just for those devices but also the new ones we add next year.

Bill Stone, Digital Turbine CEO

DT IQ launched on six T-Mobile devices in the US in the second quarter along with all new Vodafone Android devices in Australia. On America Movil, a carrier with nearly 300 million subscribers primarily in the Americas, Digital Turbine will, starting this quarter, be using the “Appia demand network to supply app installed ads into the American Mobile application on the homescreen of all Android devices.”

Of course, DT Ignite and DT IQ aren’t on iPhones. Apple would never allow it.

So, does anyone care? Of course we in the Android community, we who buy Nexus devices and root for no reason other than to get rid of bloatware, hate all of this, and it wouldn’t take too many customers voting with their wallets to get carriers to stop. But for now, you should all prepare for the coming era of homescreen monetization.

 

How Do You Benchmark Your Device?

Posted by wicked August - 24 - 2015 - Monday Comments Off

discussionbenchmarks

There are many useful apps and tools that allow you to know more about the way your device performs. Many enthusiasts keep a healthy repertoire of benchmark applications that they run when they get a new device, or periodically to measure performance increments. Some are holistic while others stress on a particular component. Which benchmarks do you like running on your devices, and why?