Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Windows Phone 8.1 First Look

WP8.1's transparent Live Tiles,
Cortana and new notification bar
Courtesy of the Windows Phone developer program, the latest release of Microsoft's mobile OS is now hitting devices worldwide. Packing in a selection of updates with some new features and new ways of working the point version upgrade seems a little stingy.

The big recognition point will be Cortana, Microsoft's answer to both Google Now and Siri. Given that this is beta and very much pre-release the functionality and quality of recognition is fantastic. Having the Cortana live tile surfacing information that you tag as important in your notebook works as well as Google Now, even if the range of things reported on is quite limited at the moment. (To be fair that may be because I'm using a US service in New Zealand).

The second high profile change is the arrival of the action centre. This single place for accessing notifications doesn't stray far from the mould created by Google and copied by Apple: swipe down from the top of the screen to gain access to four (customisable) shortcuts, and details of all the alerts from applications that you have tagged as worthy. The top bar previously only accessible through a downward swipe now becomes omnipresent, meaning that time, power and network status are always available.

Microsoft have updated it's keyboard with Word Flow - a swipe style word tracing service that outperforms any I've previously used. It's quick intuitive and manages to do a better job with punctuated words than similar products on Android. Certain words will also surface appropriate smiley style icons - phone Mobile phone and car Car being two examples. It's a nice touch which typifies the consideration that Microsoft has given to this release.

Changes to the live tiles won't be to everyone's taste, however none are enforced so if they don't float your boat you can just disable them. Owners of large screens (4.5" according to Microsoft) get to choose between the two and three column layouts. It's also possible to turn your live tiles transparent and display an image behind them. Having tried this on the Lumia 1020 I can say that the latter works very well, however I'd be inclined to stick with the two column layout on the 4.5" screen, otherwise it can get a bit messy in there.

There are new intelligent controls for WiFi and battery. The former had some clever tricks up it's sleeve - it will find friendly free WiFi hotspots and register/connect to them automatically. It also allows you to share your home WiFi with friends without having to give them your passcode. Of course they'll need to be using Windows Phones too if they want to take advantage of this function.

Microsoft has updated the calendar, adding a new week view and swipe scrolling between views. It looks as good as ever and works well.

There's also support for Miracast displays for those handsets sporting the hardware to use it - only 2014 Nokia handsets at the moment.

All in all I found the upgrade to be a significant improvement in the Windows Phone feature set. To the point where the only reason for not buying one would be the absence of an application that you must have from the Market.  By the time the update gets released into consumers hands Nokia will have added its own update to the mix, which should make the new 2014 Lumias an even more appealing prospect.

Appealing enough to tempt iPhone and Android owners? I think it's entirely possible - Windows Phone looks better, it's now feature competitive and available on a wide range of hardware. For an increasing number of people that means that Windows Phone is now a viable option.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Magnify For Windows Phone Review

Magnify's category screen
- the app's home page
Whilst it's often true that most apps arrive on iPhone first, with a minority arriving on Android before making the jump to the App Store, there are a handful of enlightened developers who release on Windows Phone first, and when they do the results are often impressive.

A perfect example is the Magnify app, a news reader app which is beautiful to look at and use.

The app is a similar take on news reading to Flipboard but done in a visually more pleasing way which plays to the strengths of Windows Phone.

Feeds are split into broad categories from which it's possible to drill down to individual feeds or a whole category. The way that
parallax scrolling is used for images in the feed lists is especially pleasing and executed brilliantly. You can select both categories and feeds that you want displayed by Magnify.

Once you have opened a story scrolling is undertaken by the outside box flip. If you want to keep the story it can be shared to Twitter, Instapaper, Pocket or OneNote. Without wishing to be greedy, it would be good to see Evernote added to that list too.

Finally Magnify has a Live Tile which will span a wide column and display photos and headlines from your feeds.

If you have a Windows Phone I'd highly recommend that you make room for this.

Magnify (Beta) can be downloaded from the Windows Phone Marketplace.

Mozilla's Real Problem: Mobile Irrelevance

Mozilla has had an interesting couple of weeks in the spotlight thanks to its decision to appoint Brendan Eich as its CEO and then fail to deal with the backlash in any kind of way. I'm not going to cover the relative merits of that argument - it's far too nuanced and very specific to California in a way that makes it impossible to understand from the other side of the world.

As it picks up the pieces of the last few weeks the truth is that however damaging they have been, the real problem is that, at it's heart, Mozilla is a dying business failing to compete in the one market sector where growth is a given: mobile.

Mozilla's income - and very existence - is almost 100% dependent upon the payment it receives from Google for making their search engine the default choice in the browser. In return Google gets two things - search activity (and from that its own income stream) and a weapon in its war with Microsoft. Google cannot countenance a world where Internet Explorer remains the dominant player, however its own Chrome browser isn't universally liked, so keeping Firefox around assists in its proxy fight against Bing.

However the collapse in desktop PC sales - the one area where Firefox has good penetration - is a massive risk to Mozilla's business. Customers are consuming more and more of the internet from mobile devices. And a greater and greater proportion of that mobile usage is being driven from apps not web browsers.

So Mozilla faces a tough future - decreased usage on the desktop. Next to no browser penetration on mobile devices and a complete failure to make progress with its own mobile OS.

Whoever finally takes over the role of CEO needs to find a way to get people installing Firefox on mobile platforms before Google decides that the utility of their partnership has diminished so far there is no future in continuing with it.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Kenu Airframe Portable Car Mount Review

Finding a secure, semi-permanent mount to hold your smartphone in your car without damaging either the car or the phone can be a bit of a trial. Finding one that doesn't look decidedly low rent or block your view by sticking to your windscreen is even harder.

The Kenu Airframe promises to be the solution to all your woes - being discrete, well-designed and functional; as well as attaching to 'any' air vent.

The Airframe arrives in a dinky little box with a small instruction leaflet and the mount itself. It's smaller than I expected it to be - about an inch high and two wide, made of black and grey plastic.

Attaching the Airframe to your air vent is straightforward - twist the rubberised grip on the back to the right orientation, push it onto the air vent vane and you're done.

Mounting the phone is easy too, put the right hand side against the arm of the Airframe, give it a gentle push towards the right, locate the left hand side of the phone and release. To remove push the phone to the right and then pull away - if you just try and pull the phone out chances are the Airframe will come with it.

Considering that all of the marketing has been aimed at the iPhone, it's a surprise to find that the Airframe can accommodate bigger phones too. Both my Xperia Z1 and Lumia 1020 fit comfortably into the holder - as well as the iPhone 5 of course.

The Airframe holds the phone completely steady. On my Alfa Romeo with the Airframe located at the extremity of the air vent hardly any of the airflow is blocked - excellent news in the stifling Kiwi autumn. I found that allowing the bottom of the phone to rest on the dashboard below the vent made the phone stable enough to type on the keyboard without having to remove the phone from the mount (whilst the car is stationary - please don't use your phone whilst driving, no matter how stable your mount).

All in all I've been impressed with the Airframe - it does exactly the job I wanted it to do with no fuss or drama. My phone(s) felt completely secure and I was never concerned that the Airframe, phone or the combined assembly were going to end up on the floor.

You can get the Airframe from the Apple Store or order direct from Kenu - delivery to New Zealand took a very acceptable five days and as only one shipping charge is made makes ordering multiple units a bit of a bargain.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Monday, 7 April 2014

F1: Bahrain Result Sounds Warning Bells

Bahrain's first night race ended up being a great way to celebrate both the tenth race and tenth anniversary of the Grand Prix in the Emirate. A battle between the Mercedes drivers which was tense but never dirty, a close finish behind for the podium places and more evidence that Pastor Maldonado shouldn't be on the grid.

The race was the third clean sweep for Mercedes - pole position, fastest lap and race win. It was a second straight one-two for the team - only Hamilton's mechanical failure in Australia preventing the team taking a clean sweep there too.

The gap between Mercedes and the other teams is a serious concern though.

In Malaysia Hamilton's fastest race lap was one second quicker than Alonso - the quickest of the also-rans, but Hamilton was cruising for most of the race. In Bahrain it was a different and rather worrying story.

Due to Maldonado's brain-fade, which put Gutierrez's Sauber into a barrel roll the safety car was required, meaning that the race effectively re-started with ten laps to go - and the two Mercedes cars nose to tail. With a win up for grabs there was no question of either Rosberg or Hamilton giving any quarter and they went for it.

In those ten laps (and despite a battle that had to slow them both down) Hamilton pulled out a 24 second lead over Perez, who finished third in his Force India.

That's 2.4 seconds a lap. And Hamilton was on the slower tyre. And it wasn't as if Perez was backing up faster cars behind him. That's over two minutes taken over the whole 57-lap race.

On the basis of the first three races it's looking extremely unlikely that we'll see anybody other than Rosberg or Hamilton on the top two steps of the podium this year. Unless mechanical failure or a collision intervenes.

With everybody else already resigned to racing for third it remains to be seen just how engaging the season turns out to be. You may only need two cars to have a race, but Hamilton looks to have Rosberg on the ropes already - in Bahrain there would have been no race but for the intervention of the safety car, Hamilton a comfortable 10 seconds clear at the point it was deployed.

The season looks like breaking down into three races - one for Hamilton, one for Rosberg and one for everyone else.

Mixed News In Latest HTC Financial Report

HTC has endured a torrid couple of years during which it has managed to fall from the top of the smartphone tree to an obscure also-ran. That despite producing 2013's phone of the year in the flagship HTC One. The first quarter of 2014 didn't produce much good news for the company either as it posted another loss and failed to meet even it's own pessimistic guidance.

On the plus side, sales and revenue were up - breaking a 28 month losing streak that stretches back to before the launch of the One X. As these figures pre-date the general availability of the new One M8 there are small crumbs of comfort to be taken by the company and fans of its devices.

With a new line of mid-range devices alongside its flagship targeting further improved sales the company is aiming to break back into profit in the second quarter of the year.

To do so it has got some work to do it re-establishing its smartphone credentials. The new One M8 isn't a huge upgrade on the previous model and its gimmicky camera doesn't immediately strike me as something liable to drag people away from more traditional handsets.

What's required is a huge marketing offensive to show how the One's camera capabilities fit in with customers lives. Whilst photography isn't the main reason why people choose smartphones it is a big differentiation point between otherwise similar devices - especially in the Android market.

Here HTC have slipped badly - Sony is the obvious choice if you want an Android phone with a top notch camera; Samsung the second choice. The 4mp camera in the HTC One is losing the battle - and some. At the counter it looks a weak option, reviews have shown that gimmicky depth effects aside it is a middling quality camera.

Yet HTC manages to pack in so many improvements that should set it apart from the Android mainstream - Sense, Blinkfeed, Boomsound for example - that it should really be converting much more of the praise its devices get into sales.

Nokia and Sony have both shown that differentiating a device around its camera capabilities can work to boost sales and credibility. HTC have managed to drag down a very good device by doing it wrong.

It's a strategic error that needs to be addressed in future phones. In the meantime HTC's best plan may well be to try and sell the One M8 in the mid-range market (and at a middling price) where its camera won't prove to be such a handicap.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV - New Zealand's First Viable Electric Vehicle

New wheels and badges distinguish the PHEV
from other Outlanders
I can't say that the Mitsubishi Outlander has ever held much appeal for me, until this week that is. The new Outlander PHEV makes a bold statement about the future of motoring worldwide and a specific one about motoring in New Zealand.

The PHEV is a plug-in hybrid vehicle, which takes all the best bits of previous hybrids, matches them with a family friendly SUV body and cranks out some quite amazing economy figures. That despite providing the space and 4WD off-road capability of the regular Outlander.

The Outlander sports two electric motors and a two-litre petrol engine. It appears to be the same disappointing unit that powers current Lancers - poor NVH performance being it's most obvious problem.

However for most city dwelling drivers that may not prove to be a problem as the PHEV will run for 50km or more solely on the battery pack and electric motors. That's well inside the average daily commute for around 95% of drivers. Go beyond that and the petrol engine will cut-in and recharge the batteries. Or you can select the Battery Save mode which will use the petrol engine to assist the electric motors (when climbing hills for instance) to increase the overall range. The PHEV also sports regenerative charging - which generates charging power when braking to further extend the electric only range. Combining a full fuel tank and full batteries offers a driving range of around 800km - meaning that Outlander owners won't be suffering from any range-anxiety.

So far so good.

In New Zealand the PHEV is going to start at under $60,000 - a premium of just $4,000 over the top of the range petrol only Outlander - that's amazing value. Holden's price of over $75,000 for the Volt looks very silly indeed by comparison.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Windows Phone 8.1: Too Little, Too Late?

Cortana - From the Halo game world to real life
At Build today Microsoft made Windows Phone 8.1 official, showing off new features and capabilities. Most of which were excellent news for existing WP8 owners (who will all get an upgrade) and future Windows Phone buyers.

There were some headline grabbing new features too - not least Cortana, which looks to be a pretty impressive mash-up of Siri and Google Now. It looks pretty smart, with capabilities beyond Apple or Google's products. Good as it looks however, it's a case of Microsoft playing catch-up, and that's never a good place to be. Siri has some key advantages, based on what we saw in the demo at least. Not least because it's possible to launch Siri but holding down the iPhone's home key whether the phone is on or off.

The Word Flow keyboard extension was nice to see, even if it got mostly missed in all the noise about Cortana. Microsoft have jumped ahead of Apple and drawn level with Google in the text entry stakes.

Skype will be gaining some new features (as well as some Cortana integration) however it's hard to see Microsoft failing to bring anything new to either iOS or Android - recent events have shown that it knows where the bulk of its potential customers are.

Tweaks to the lock screen and Live Tiles operation will be gladly received by WP aficionados and largely ignored by the rest.

The most significant part of the WP8.1 announcement was the arrival of full Enterprise support on the platform. This has been a particular bugbear of mine ever since the launch of WP7. How on earth could Microsoft fail to support the full EAS security set on its own devices, when Android and iOS devices managed it. Know of an organisation currently using Windows Phone for their enterprise devices? They've probably got a weak security configuration on their Exchange Server. Now however that is not the case and enterprises could potentially see benefits in having their smartphones and PCs running versions of Windows - something that was decidedly difficult to move forward with the prior security shortcomings. Expect more big wins in the enterprise for Nokia / Windows Phone in the near future.

Ultimately the Windows Phone 8.1 upgrade looks fantastic for existing users, who will embrace the new functionality and options; and new smartphone owners will also see plenty here to persuade them to jump from their feature phone; however I don't see anything here which is going to rapidly change the number of existing smartphone users jumping platform from the competition.

By that measure, and despite being a worthy and desirable upgrade, Windows Phone 8.1 must go down as something of a disappointment.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Please Apple, License Swype

Swype's letter tracing is fast
and accurate
If there's one area where the iPhone really lags the competition it's that of data entry. Whilst Google (and Swype, Swiftkey) have upgraded the concept of a touch keyboard with their excellent trace keyboards and Microsoft are promising a similar upgrade for WP8.1, Apple are stuck with the same basic technology that arrived with the original iPhone in 2007. It's proving beyond them to even get a workable 'shift' key solution.

There's a quick-fix solution and delivering it would make for an significantly enhanced user experience - one of Apple's core values.

By licensing Swype from Nuance Apple would be utilizing technology from one of its existing partners, so there shouldn't be any complications arising out of a new partner. It would also be getting a mature solution, which would mitigate against the kind of disastrous introduction that it endured with Apple Maps.

It's rare that Apple ends up in a position of playing catch-up, but now that they are a quick resolution needs to be found. In my opinion this is not only the quickest but also the safest way that Apple could plug this gap.

Twelve South SurfacePad Review

I don't like putting cases on my phones, ease of access is everything in my book and anything that gets between me and interacting with my phone is a barrier I can do without.

There are times however when you need to protect your phone - especially the screen. Which means putting a case on. Finding one which doesn't add to the bulk of your phone is important at these times, especially if you use an iPhone.

After Apple have gone to all that trouble of making the iPhone as slim, light and attractive as the current iPhone is, it seems a blasphemy to then wrap it up in a god awful rubber, polycarbonate, or chunky leather case; which both adds bulk and looks vomit-inducingly ugly.

When I heard about the Twelve South SurfacePad my interest was piqued. This looks like the slimmest lightest way of protecting your iPhone from damage.

The Surface pad s a wraparound case which protects the front and most of the back of your iPhone. The edges aren't protected - except for the left hand edge which is covered by the hinge. The case adheres to the phone using an reusable adhesive surface, which means you can remove and refit your case multiple times (the long term effects of the atmospheric contaminants like dust and pollen on a removed case remain to be seen).

Once fitted the case adds a  minimum of bulk to the iPhone - a millimetre or so on each face and two millimetres for the hinge at the side. The extra weight can't be discerned without the use of scales.

On the positive side the SurfacePad looks great when installed on the iPhone. The Napa leather feels good in the hand too. There's also a fold in the rear of the case which allows it to be propped up in landscape mode, for watching videos primariliy, in a similar manner to many iPad cases.

On the downside, there is no closure mechanism for the front flap so it relies on gravity holding it closed. If your phone ends up in a pocket with keys or coins it's entirely likely that they will work their way between the screen and the case, with the associated risk of damage. There's no easy way of resolving this without adding bulk to the case, so it's a trade off that needs to be part of your buying decision.

Overall though I like the SurfacePad, its good to look at and to hold and (mostly) does the job of basic protection. Best of all it's unobtrusive enough to leave permanently attached.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5