Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Quick Review: Xiaomi Mi Mix

Xiaomi's newest flagship device manages to break many conventions, as well as potentially trailing the look of future smartphones from more familiar names like Apple and Samsung.

Despite packing decent late-2016 specifications, the Mi Mix is all about its screen and bezels. Or more accurately, its screen and missing bezels, because the 6.4" 1080p+ screen runs from edge to edge and right to the top edge. Including, uniquely, right into the rounded corners.

On first sight the Mix is jaw-dropping. Its Ceramic build is pretty impressive before you even turn the screen on. Once you do however... everyone who saw me using it stopped to comment. In fact the most common reaction was to whip out their iPhone Plus (usually) and marvel at the disparity in screen size and quality for such a similarly sized device.

Get past the wonder of the screen and things aren't always as impressive. Performance-wise, the Snapdragon 821 and 4GB RAM keeps things humming along nicely. However you'll be running the Xiaomi in-house MIUI 8.0 skin which, like most Chinese OEM's skins, lacks an app drawer. You'll also not find Google Mobile Services here, so no Play Store or indeed any of Google's Android apps. Fortunately Amazon's App Store runs fine here.

The Mix's 16Mp rear camera is passable, but barely so for what is a premium device. It's in a whole different league though when compared to the front facing selfie camera. Having done away with the top bezel, Xiaomi has had to move all of the sensors that normally reside up there down to the bottom chin. That includes the selfie camera and it's a move that really hasn't worked.

Images taken with the front camera exhibit significant distortion in the vertical - somewhat akin to the view a fish gets looking up from the bottom of a deep pond, I imagine. Inverting the phone marginally improves matters but the best you can hope for is a landscape selfie that distorts things in the horizontal plane, but seems to produce a more acceptable result.

Back to the screen again and even allowing for the impressive display to surface area ratio, you might find that there are some glitches to contend with. The resolution is an obscure 2040x1080 and those extra 120 pixels over true 1080p can cause problems.  In a number of apps the odd aspect ratio of the screen confuses the display decisions and you'll find that either the sides of the app get cut off or sidebars are displayed to restore the 1080p aspect ratio.

Summing up then, the Mix is amazing in some areas and average in others. The screen is big, bright and goes places that others don't. Paired with the materials used in construction, Xiaomi have managed to build something that is every inch a premium device. If the review stopped here then we would be talking about the most impressive smartphone ever assembled.

The cameras are a disappointment though and MIUI could really do with an option to choose to have an app drawer, rather than dump icons onto your home screen. The absence of Google's Mobile Services is currently a problem, however should Xiaomi choose to export it officially , that could easily be fixed. There's no micro SD slot, but with the only storage options being 128GB or 256GB that's probably one that most could overlook.

Even so, the Mi Mix is a technical achievement Xiaomi can be proud of. At a price of NZ$1299 for the 128GB version it seriously undercuts both the Google Pixel XL ($1649) and iPhone 7 Plus ($1629) whilst out-blinging both comprehensively. Had it squeezed a better camera in to the Mix I'd have gone as far as to say it deserved a place on your shopping list alongside either.

As it is, if you want to stand out from the crowd (whilst attracting a crowd around you) and can live with the cameras this might just be the phone for you. Anybody else need not apply.

Why Can't HTC Hit The Smartphone Mark?

HTC used to be everyone's favourite smartphone brand, in fact it isn't so long ago that the company came from nowhere to outsell the iPhone.

However, HTC has been in a death spiral for a number of years now, as it has struggled to hit the mark with a compelling device, burnt money on weak and confusing advertising campaigns and even managed to blow the opportunity presented by partnering with Google to deliver the Nexus 9 tablet.

It's difficult to remember a time when HTC last delivered a compelling device. Its unibody One flagship has been through four iterations without ever making a good argument for itself. The previous One X suffered from terrible overheating issues and was wildly outperformed by the Galaxy S3.

Perhaps the last HTC phones which could be considered class leading were the Desire and Desire HD.

Why is HTC on such a run of poor form? I suspect it isn't the devices. After all its flagships have been on the end of plenty of awards and they may have had flaws or annoyances, but no more than other, more successful flagships.

I don't think the problem is that HTC can't sell phones. I think the problem is that HTC can't sell HTC. Marketing has been poor and as a result potential customers are lost and existing customers not retained. Brand recognition is down and a HTC branded device offers no perceived kudos to its user.

Those failed advertising campaigns (basically everything the company has done since its 'You' campaign) didn't just fail to convert customers, it deterred them. It needs a high-quality, lengthy and expensive to restore its profile.

It just doesn't have the funding for such a thing. As a result contract manufacturing of devices like the Google Pixel are probably its only smartphone future.

As Apple has proved time and time again, success is not just about the product, it's also about the sell. Not having the sell is the problem that is killing HTC.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Apple Will Make Serious Moves Into TV In 2017

Apple TV has been a hobby for far too long. With other hardware streams proving difficult to maintain and an expectation that Apple will look to more lucrative service based revenue streams in the future, Apple's play for the living room has to be its big bet for 2017.

Apple TV has slowly been growing into a device with broader appeal as features have been added to its armoury. In fact its probably fair to say that it is one short leap away from the explosive growth that characterised the early years of other iOS devices: compelling, exclusive content.

Netflix and Amazon have both shown that they understand what's going to drive revenue growth and subscriber numbers and both are pushing hard with their own content creation efforts. Amazon's Grand Tour is a particularly high profile example of this. Apple can't rely on piecemeal offerings of other provider's content to compete.

What strikes me as interesting is that Apple didn't take on Clarkson / May / Hammond trio itself and use it as a platform to create its own content empire. It's something that Apple wasn't prepared to do with music. Choosing instead to pay out for Beats and build its streaming service on the back of what was already there.

That didn't prove to be an exceptionally astute decision, given the significant number of problems and complaints Apple Music generated after its launch. Does anyone really think Apple couldn't have done a better job of its service on its own?

The same is true for a TV service. With its own content Apple has a ready market of hundreds of millions of device owners worldwide, many of whom would lap up the opportunity to get their entertainment from Apple alone. Is it just too big a step for Apple to comfortably make?

If it isn't ready to go it alone then Apple needs to look at buying ready made service. Who could that be? Well, with Apple's war-chest, just about anybody from the BBC down.

Apple made a costly mistake in not reacting to Spotify quickly enough. If it doesn't make a serious move into TV in 2017, it will probably have made another one. 

How Android Updates Really Work For Buyers

Android has one perceived weak spot when compared to iOS or Windows 10 Mobile: system updates. Whilst Apple manages to pump out new iOS versions to at least the last four generations of iPhone and Microsoft delivers new Windows 10 updates on an almost monthly basis, Android buyers face a more uncertain future.

Or do they?

Comparing like for like devices is illuminating. For example Sony delivered two major updates to its Xperia Z3 range, taking them from KitKat to Marshmallow via Lollipop. A similar story is true for the HTC One M8, LG G3 and Samsung Galaxy S5, which follow the same path of upgrades. Interestingly the Nexus 5 won't be receiving the Nougat update either, giving the lie to the Nexus promise of better upgradeability.

The iPhone 6 - a phone of a similar vintage - has already received the latest version of iOS and will undoubtedly be receiving iOS 11 and 12 too.

A solid point for Apple then?

Not in the big picture. You'll probably be to busy juggling the storage on your 16GB iPhone 6 to worry about updates, or like many you'll have had to delete content just to get them to install. And in all that time you'll have done without the benefits of bigger, brighter, more pixel dense screens, expandable memory, waterproofing and better cameras.

And just at the point where Apple's upgrade policy is about to pay dividends you need to upgrade your iPhone anyway, because its battery is dying, the storage is full and the buttons aren't working well any more. And you'll have paid a premium for this privilege too.

Assuming that you'll win the smartphone game because your iPhone offers a better upgrade promise is a theoretical win only. The chances of you retaining your smartphone long enough to reap the benefit are slim.

Android OEMs need to speed up the rate at which they deliver upgrades once Google makes them available, but in terms of the number of updates they're delivering they're doing just fine.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

AirPods: Practically Magic? More Like Witchcraft If You Ask Me

So this is the first of Apple's ad spots for its AirPods - totally wire-free headphones. Yes they connect to your iPhone when you open the charging case and pause music when you pop one out of your ear. Practically magic? Probably not.

Frankly the most amazing thing about this spot is the suggestion that dancer Lil Buck has made use of some dark magical forces to keep these attached to his ears.

The Apple App Store Monopoly

A US Appeals court has given iPhone customers leave to sue over the App Store monopoly, potentially opening a path to third party App Stores on iOS. In the same week that Apple announced 60% growth in App Store revenue and confirmed $20bn was paid to developers in 2016, its a bad time for this news to break. The Appeals Court overturned an earlier ruling and reopens the question of Apple's app sales policy.

Apple's argument has always been that customers don't deal with Apple, they deal with individual developers. However the Appeals Court based its decision on customers paying Apple for the apps. It can hardly deny any interest in the transaction with this being the case. Even Apple's secondary argument that developers paid for space in the App Store (via the premium it pays to Apple on each sale) was rendered moot once Apple began demanding payment for subscriptions, as well as dictating how much apps and content could be sold for outside of the App Store.

Apple fans argue that Apple cannot possibly hold a monopoly when Android owns the larger share of the market. This argument is nonsense. The App Store is the only way (short of jail breaking) iOS customers can get apps for their devices. And publishers can only access those customers by following Apple's very specific rules. With upwards of one billion device owners out there unable to go anywhere else for apps that sounds like a monopoly to me.

As a minimum Apple should be forced to allow third-party stores to be installed onto iOS devices. If the precedent of Windows and Internet Explorer is followed, then it should be forced to pre-install third-party stores too.

What I find perplexing is the EU, which makes so much noise about monopolies has completely failed to even investigate the legitimacy of the iOS / App Store lock-in. The legal system being what it is in the US, this has a long way to go before any kind of definitive decision is made.

Some pressure from the EU could move things on an awful lot quicker.

I don't see a defeat on this item as particularly affecting Apple. Customers will likely choose to use the App Store even if other options are available. Android customers have certainly stuck with the Play Store. However it's that freedom of choice which iOS owners are currently being denied.

Whether they want it or not is a different matter entirely.

Friday, 13 January 2017

PC Sales Back To 2007 Levels


2016 was the fifth consecutive year of declining PC sales, with the market having shrunk back to 2007 levels. In those five years sales have fallen by almost 25% compared to 2011’s all-time sales record of 353 million units.

About the only good news is that 2016’s decline was less than 2015’s. The overall effect is more pain for PC manufacturers.

Lenovo edged out HP as the number one seller, with Dell in a comfortable third place. All three increased their share of the market, with the top three being responsible for 56% of all sales. Unsurprising based on their high-volume, low profit enterprise sales focus.

For the remaining players things look bleak. Worst hit is Acer – number two in sales as recently as 2010, the company has seen volume fall from 48m to 18m – accounting for almost half the fall off in sales all by itself. Apple managed to outshrink the overall market too – although higher selling prices mostly offset the pain.

With the market continuing to shrink (and far below IDC’s 2012 forecast of 500m sales in 2016) it seems all the more likely that vendors are going to have to follow Apple’s lead and trade volume for profitability. The only problem is that customers looking to buy premium will usually plump for an Apple device. However being able to target some premium niches (games machines for example) is allowing some OEMs to take a slice of the high value pie.

Predictions for the PC market in 2017 are dangerous – the uncertainties caused by 2016’s political upheavals don’t suggest large investments in new technology from enterprises and more caution on the part of consumers.

That certainly doesn’t suggest a return to growth to me.

Monkey See, Monkey Do: HTC Unveils A New U

It's so long since HTC managed to bring a device to market that generated genuine customer interest I'm seriously doubting it is something which could ever happen again.

Evidence for this arrived today in the form of the new HTC U Ultra. A phone that appears to be the product of a company with no direction. Or clue.

HTC seems to have borrowed design decisions from as many rivals as possible, without considering whether they work either individually or together.

Most visible is the secondary display of the LG V10. Original, if ultimately futile, on the LG V range. Pretty lame here. Then mix in the glass / metal sandwich from (amongst others) the Galaxy S7 and finally leave the headphone jack out off. A famously unpopular feature of the iPhone 7.

Then there are the mistakes that HTC has managed to make all on its own. For a start, its an enormous device, yet its battery is comparatively small. That's bad for battery life (between charges) and battery life (charge cycles).

To add insult to injury, the U Ultra sports a non-standard USB-C audio setup, complete with headphones that won't work with anything else. Exactly the sort of thing that Apple gets dinged for and HTC shouldn't be allowed to escape without sanction.

So what HTC have delivered is a phone without any real HTC-ness, which from the front apes a largely unsuccessful LG phone and from the back mimics a rather more successful Samsung one. As a new flagship device it's rather disappointing.

HTC also announced its intention to reduce the number of smartphones it releases this year. That's an eminently sensible decision given the last few years of disappointment. Retreating to a niche and building phones for its remaining loyal fans might just allow the HTC name to live on as more than a contract manufacturer for Google. I'm struggling to see the new U that HTC is aiming its phones at otherwise.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Nokia's iPhone Response Revisited: How A Market Leader Fell

When Apple announced the iPhone in 2007 Nokia was the world leader in phone technology and sales. Its smartphones ran versions of Symbian which, when combined, gave it first place in the smartphone market too. Nokia was the world number one in mobile communications everywhere outside the US.

Apple effectively gave Nokia a year's grace to respond to the iPhone. As previously discussed, that first device was horribly flawed and, as a bonus for Nokia, wasn't even available outside of the United States for most of its lifecycle.

How did Nokia respond to the iPhone so badly? Why did they fail to respond for so long? Nokia's iPhone competitor didn't arrive until October 2008 - 22 months after the iPhone launched and three months after Apple released the historically significant second generation iPhone, the 3G.

First of all Nokia was guilty of arrogance. Interviewed the day of the iPhone launch Pekka Pohjakallio, head of the company's smartphone division, called it "very exciting for us". Now there's a man who likes his excitement dark.

Presumably Nokia bought itself some iPhones, took them apart, used them and based on the information it gleaned, went out and designed a phone to take on its new challenger.

Then they threw it away and released the N5800 instead. A phone so bad that even the biggest, most loyal fanbase in the world wouldn't buy it. S60 was pretty poor before Nokia tried to graft a touch interface onto it. Afterwards it was abysmal. The phone was less than reliable too.

It was a problem that was to plague Nokia right up until the point it decided to abandon Symbian. Replacement phones, targeted with bringing Apple back down to earth were poorly designed, poorly implemented and unreliable. The damage to Nokia's reputation and competitiveness was marked. When the potentially brilliant N8 was launched as a last gasp effort to save S60, it failed to generate any kind of bounce. It was inevitable that a platform change was coming - the rest is history.

Yet Nokia had a potential competitor to the iPhone warming up in the wings before Apple even released its first device. Maemo, which had until then powered Nokia's internet tablets, had great potential and offered a much higher starting point, given its day one touch first design.

Politics within the company meant that the Maemo group were starved of resources and support within Nokia and as a result the project died having only ever released on phone.

HMD's release of new Android phones bearing the Nokia name at CES and at the upcoming MWC will no doubt garner interest from many quarters - not least the Nokia fans the company left behind as it lurched from one smartphone disaster to the next.

With a much tighter ship, better hardware processes and no input into the OS, this new Nokia seems a lot more likely to succeed than old Nokia ever did.

LG's Smartphone Problems Go Deeper Than Just Modularity

I have never met anyone who owned an LG smartphone. In fact I can't recall ever seeing anyone using an LG smartphone. Despite delivering some interesting devices, with leading edge features, the company seems unable to get any kind of traction in the smartphone business.

LG is hardly a name likely to get pulses racing. It has no currency outside of its native South Korean home. To gain some credibility it needs to do more than just deliver quality devices, it needs to back them up with a sustained, global marketing push which makes a virtue of their capabilities and presents them as a valid alternative to Samsung.

The G5 is a perfect example of why LG isn't a safe buy. Its modular design and ability to swap in 'Friends' modules sounds promising. Except LG hardly delivered any and third parties were completely disinterested. LG canned the idea and the G6 won't offer modules.

Now imagine if Apple's next iPhone has this capability. It would be sold from the get go as the greatest offering in mobile since ever. Apple would have a handful of first-party options available at launch and favoured third-parties would be allowed to join the launch party. One year on we'd be drowning in 'iFriends' modules and wondering how it was possible to live without them.

Without any consumer recognition or any brand loyalty, LG has no future building smartphones. It's a left field choice, too far out in left-field even for my taste, and before you even consider an LG phone you've got to go through a whole gamut of more sensible options: Apple, Samsung, Huawei, Sony, HTC, even Motorola sit ahead of LG. I'd even say that Asus has a better smartphone placement than LG.

It says something that Galaxy Note 7 owners were prepared to keep hold of a potentially explosive phone rather than replace it with one of LG's offerings.

The smartphone market is maturing and sales are stagnant, if not falling. For a company on the fringes you have to wonder whether there's any value in carrying on.