Monday, 2 March 2015

Review: Huawei Ascend Mate 7

Huawei is rightly proud of battery performance on the Mate 7.
One of the OEMs making real waves at the moment is Huawei. The Chinese company came from nowhere to ship 75 million phones last year. Most of these phones have been bargain basement devices aimed at developing markets, however the company does have phones with more aspirational targets. The Mate 7 is one of them.

Packing a 6" screen into a phone would have been considered lunacy just a year ago. When Nokia released the Lumia 1520 it felt more like a table tennis bat than a phones. However Huawei have managed to make the Mate 7 feel no bigger than smaller screened contemporaries like the Note 4 and iPhone 6 Plus by practically doing away with screen bezels and slimming the phone down to 7.9mm. The result is a phone that doesn't feel enormous in the hand.

That feeling is helped by the phone's construction: its metal body has a nice tactile finish and it never feels as if its about to slip from your hands, unlike some metal phones I could mention.

With the phone held normally in your hand you'll find the first surprise on the Mate 7 - your index finger will naturally into the dip in the back panel for the fingerprint sensor. It's not a swipe sensor like the Samsung GN4, so its a bit easier to get good first time recognition. As a bonus the sensor recognises your finger and turns the phone on at the same time, meaning you'll never need to use the power key.

Also on the back is the 13mp camera from Sony, which was acceptable for a smartphone camera - especially in good light. Flip the phone over and you'll find a 5mp camera for selfies, which was also performed adequately well.

Whilst you've got the phone flipped over you'll have a chance to admire the screen. Its a 1080p IPS panel with excellent colours and a very strong backlight. Whilst not up to the colour reproduction of Samsung's SAMOLED displays, its a good match for other IPS displays.

Inside the mate 7 are Huawei's own processor, 2GB RAM and the biggest battery I've ever experienced in a phone - 4100mAh. As I only had the phone for two days I can't tell you what the battery life is, save to say that it easily coped with a two day stint without charging. That partially compensates for the lack of a removable battery. You do get a microSD card slot though - however it isn't just a microSD slot. You could alternatively choose to pack a second SIM card in there and switch networks on the fly, although if you do the 32GB version might be a better buy.

And that's where the positives stop. Because once we start talking about software Huawei falls flat. The Android skin isn't nice and still doesn't support the Android app drawer. Instead all installed apps end up on the home screen. Like some terrible hybrid of iOS and Android where widgets and apps have to co-exist. If you're going for this phone I strongly recommend ditching the Huawei launcher for something more sensible like Apex.

So why would you consider the Huawei Mate 7? It does everything you need a phone to do adequately well, is very nicely made and has a nice screen. There are no real stand out features though, until you get to the price.

Here the Mate 7 really does stand out - its currently retailing at NZ$599 - around $400 less than the Galaxy GN4 and almost half the price of the iPhone 6 Plus. For the money it represents astonishing value for money. The biggest problem would be if you were unable to see past the Huawei branding. If you're looking to buy a phablet there have been three standout devices to consider - the LG G3, Samsung GN4 and iPhone 6 Plus.

The Huawei doesn't ave one standout feature like each of those, but it's still worthy of being in their company.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Samsung Galaxy S6: Baby, Bathwater All Gone

A beautifully made phone, but
compromises have moved it
away from Samsung' heartland.
Samsung announced the Galaxy S6 today and as the leaks promised it is two phones, one with a curved screen, one without. It also has the premium construction that the media has been baying for since the launch of the S4.

Yet, despite Samsung delivering some quite clever updates, the S6 is on a fast track to failure.

As I've said many times here before, people who want premium smartphones buy iPhones. Don't believe me? Look at the performance of Sony and HTC over the last 12-18 months. Both bet their house on building premium flagship devices to outgun Samsung's flagships. Between them they sold fewer phones in the whole of 2014 than Samsung and Apple did in the final quarter.

Or to put in another way, the GS5 sold 10 million in its first 25 days on sale, all HTC's handsets together managed 20 million in the whole year. LG on the other hand, had a great year with its technically advanced but very plastic G3. It managd to outsell Sony and  HTC combined for the year and saw sales rise by 24%.

The Galaxy S6 takes the same path as HTC's One and Sony's Xperia Z3. It marries aluminium and glass to offer an iPhone matching premium level of build. That means a higher build of materials and more complex build process.

In making this change Samsung has thrown away some of the features that made it so attractive to the customers who bought Galaxy phones. No expandable memory and no removable battery. Also gone is the waterproofing that made the GS5 a good choice for anyone who went outside. The metal and glass case is sure to be less robust than Samsung's plastic was, which means users will have to invest in a case - not something the GS5 required.

The removable back panel has gone too, meaning an end to the flexible customisation that the S5 offered.

So whilst I love that the S6 delivers multiple payment methods (NFC and mag stripe); support for multiple wireless charging standards and has upgraded screen and cameras, I'm sure that Samsung is putting its eggs in the wrong basket with the changes to the GS6. When it made these changes to the Galaxy Note 4 it saw first month sales drop 10% when compared to the Note 3, and that's a phone which has no equals on any platform.

The GS6 isn't going to persuade people to jump ship from iOS, nor is it going to prevent those premium buyers defecting. In fact, I expect that Samsung will have to release a high end plastic phone later in the year to try and reclaim some of those buyers. Especially if LG delivers a sensible upgrade in the G4.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

F1: Mercedes Increases Gap To Field, 2015 To Be As Dull As 2014?

In terms of competitiveness 2014 was the worst season in F1 since 2004. Mercedes dominated and won every race where they didn't have mechanical or other issues. The competition between the teams drivers was similarly lopsided - only poor mechanical reliability on Lewis Hamilton's part allowed Nico Rosberg to take the championship battle down to the wire, and even then no-one really believed he could win it.

This season promises more of the same. In spades.

Nico Rosberg's headline time at Barcelona's most recent test suggests that the car will be carrying an even bigger advantage than in 2014. And despite Rosberg's protestations that he will come back stronger this year, I see no chance of him taking the fight to Lewis Hamilton.

Last year Daniel Ricciardo's Red Bull picked up the pieces to the tune of three wins when Mercedes had problems. This year Mercedes advantage will be such that they need to use all of their capability to beat the field, which should improve reliability.

Assuming the two drivers manage to avoid taking each other off, there's a distinct possibility that Mercedes may take a clean sweep of race victories.

Fortunately it looks like there'll be plenty of racing down the field.

However, after rejecting plans for a second division in Grand Prix racing, the teams find themselves with a de facto second division anyway.

It's just that Mercedes are the only team in the first division.

Photo: "Lewis Hamilton 2014 China Race" by emperornie

Vesper Kicks Back Against App Store Race To The Bottom

Vesper is just one of many good note taking
apps in the App Store. Most are free.
The iOS App Store changed the way that we bought apps forever. The pricing strata defined by Apple - as well as the number of free apps - has inevitably led to a frenzied race to the bottom, where apps are either price so low as to make themselves unsustainable or are free and supported by annoying in-app purchases or intrusive advertising.

Even these low prices haven't insulated developers from scathing reviews of products which deliver exceptional value for less than the price of a Mars bar.

The developers of Vesper, Q Branch, have decided that they can't ride this wave any more and alongside the launch of a new version of the app with enhanced iPad support, they have raised the price to $9.99.

I've never used Vesper, but it seems a pretty run of the mill journaling/note taking/scrap booking application, it looks good, but then so do many other similar apps in the store..

I guess the question here is does Vesper offer a potential purchaser enough to make the purchase worthwhile when there are dozens of free (and free with no ads) note taking apps that look as good and work as well?

Only time will tell, I guess. Personally I don't think there are many people who will see a value here. But given the size of the App Store I guess is only needs a miniscule percentage of customers to do so to make Vesper profitable for the developer.

And ultimately that's what they are in the game for. I don't have an issue with paying for apps to support a developer, but Vesper wouldn't necessarily be my choice for taking that stand.

Samsung's Galaxy S6 Edge Fully Exposed - But Why?

The S6 Edge screen appears to work differently from the Note Edge.
Samsung has done a pretty poor job of keeping the lid on its Galaxy S6 line. We've seen leak after leak and this one, from XDA-Developers  member Graaler, appears to show both phones in final configurations.

The standard S6 deviates little from the S5, save perhaps for the metal edge. Think Note 3 to Note 4 for an idea of the transition.

The S6 Edge however looks to have curved screens on both sides of the device. However, unlike the Note 4 Edge, they just appear to be part of the main screen and don't contain sidebars.

This may be because the devices are hardware engineering pieces and don't contain the final build of the firmware, but the Edge is less pronounced on the S6 than the Note 4, which suggests that it may be a different Edge solution than its big brother.

Not long to wait to find out for sure though.

Leonard Nimoy At His Most Awesome

Spock? That was just acting... this was Nimoy at full-on legendary. The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.


Wednesday, 25 February 2015

F1: Against All Odds Manor Will Be On The Grid In Australia

Manor will begin the season with a modified version of
last year's MR03.
Manor Motorsport, the team that raced as Marussia last season, is looking like it may have pulled off the turnaround of the century and will be getting to the grid for Australia, despite going bankrupt in October.

The team announced that it had signed Will Stevens to one of seats for the season. This is presumably all about budget, as Stevens previous performances in lower formulae don't suggest there's a rare talent hiding within. Stevens made his F1 debut in the season ending Adu Dhabi Grand Prix driving for Caterham, once again funds were the key reason for that drive.

Manor have an extremely tight deadline to meet, with its 2014 car requiring extensive modification to meet 2015 regulations. Reducing the front bulkhead the required 5cm to comply with new safety regulations seems like the biggest challenge.

Time is tight - the team needs to be ready to ship out by March 6th, giving it a week to complete the changes to the cars, get them built and ready to fly.

Given that the team will have two cars which haven't turned a wheel prior to Practice 1 at Melbourne and don't have a driver of the quality of Jules Bianchi to carry them forward it seems likely that Stevens and his future (paying no doubt) team mate will spend the season racing each other for last place.

Whilst it means extra cars in the field it seems a particularly disingenuous way of achieving that goal.

HTC Comms Manager Hints At New Strategy

Following the leaks that raised the curtain on the new HTC One yesterday you'd think that the company's MWC Event might have fallen a little flat. Not so, according to Global Comms manager Jeff Gordon, who tweeted that the exciting stuff was still unknown.

If this is true (and not just bluster to try and save the keynote) then it suggests that HTC will indeed be moving into new areas as it seeks to reduce its dependence on smartphones and diversifies its business to become an accessory manufacturer.

As I've said before, HTC has failed not because it makes poor phones, rather that it is a David fighting a whole legion of Goliaths.

If Gordon's tweets are to be believed then the future of HTC is going to be rather different to its past.

Ad For Apple Car Leaked Online

Well, not exactly. But here's one interpretation of how Apple might use its legendary reality distortion field to promote the Apple Car.

Too many great lines in here to pick a favourite, but watch out for a guest appearance by Bono!

Sony Premium Audio Card, A Product By The Desperate For The Gullible

Sony's future business will centre around three core divisions: PlayStation, Movies and Components. So the announcement of a microSD card for audiophiles needs to be taken seriously, after all it signposts the future direction of the business.

Its a shame then that Sony admits it doesn't know who will buy it or how big the market is.

What's so special about Sony's new microSD card? Well it has been engineered to minimise electric noise in operation. In itself a questionable achievement, given that noise from the microSD card has never been a complaint of any audio device I've ever seen reviewed. Surely though this product would only make sense if there existed a music player which had received the same attention to detail.

There isn't one. Not even Sony's $1,200 Walkman makes this claim.

The words 'Premium Sound' picked out in gold lettering on the card are the most important part of this product. It is Sony's play to try and build a differentiated product to all the other microSD cards that are out there. And it needs to differentiate, because this thing will come in at the equivalent of $155 or around twice the price of a standard Sony microSD card of the same capacity. Or five times the price of a branded equivalent from Sandisk...

Whilst the Walkman ZX2 offers some value for its $1,200 price tag, this card has no justification other than a vague hope that enough buyers are gullible enough to spot the Premium Audio label and pick this over other cards on the shelf. I suppose it is a trick that has worked for cable suppliers for a good few years now. I would guess the profit margin on this card is equivalent to selling 50 regular microSD cards, so for a company prioritising profit over volume it makes some perverted sort of sense.

Yet I can't help feeling this marks a watershed for the Sony brand.