Posts by Neil Thomas

I sometimes write stuff

Apple iPhone 5s review

I’m sure that you all know by now that Apple has announced their latest addition to their smartphone lineup – the iPhone 5s. As ever with Apple, there has been a lot of hype surrounding this launch, and that has resulted in the fact that some of the sites that have reviewed it haven’t really understood what the phone is about, or what it is trying to be. Some put it down for its “bad” specifications. Others fawned over the device just because it was sent down by the Apple gods from above.. Even though I’m pretty late with this review, hopefully I’ll be able to give my thoughts on the device, and while doing that tell you what this device is really about. Continue reading →

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Thoughts on WWDC

This year was very out of the ordinary for Apple, at least in my mind. It started when the page went live on www.apple.com. The image was completely different, it was colourful, vivid. It used a light font. It screamed “this is new”. Rampant speculation occurs. Then WWDC rolls around.

I’ll start with Mac. Mavericks came out, starting a new line of names because they ran out of cats. In my mind, as I type this on Mavericks B1, this is a very major behind the scenes update, without much of a surface change. The battery life got a major upgrade, which should go hand in hand with some of the stuff that I’ll talk about later. iBooks for Mac is also great for a student like me. Maps is kind of unneeded, but also a nice addition.

Then they announced the new Macbook Air. Apple has been very slowly iterating on the leading ultrabook and all around laptop on the planet, and this year is a huge one. Intel’s new Haswell processors push the battery life up to a claimed 12 hours, but early testing shows that the battery actually far exceeds that, with The Verge gettings 13.5 hours and PCMag almost hitting 16. This is definitely a nice upgrade, especially when it goes hand in hand with Mavericks. Then they announced the new Mac Pro, which is an amazing feat of engineering even if it does look a bit like a trashcan.

Then, iOS 7. This is what everyone was waiting to see and boy did Apple deliver. In a mere 7 months they completely redesigned the OS from the ground up and threw in a few new features to boot. It is still very unfinished, as you can see from the icons on the homescreen, but it is a huge update that the Apple team working under design guru Jony Ive should be proud of. Let’s hope they keep working on it to make it even better. As an Android user it is tempting me to switch, even though it is apparent where some of the new design features came from (Android).

Overall, this was a great WWDC – one I think that Apple, for once, over-delivered on the hype. I’m looking forward to see how all of these products do in the real world, especially iOS 7. Who knows, I might get an iPhone 5S.

LG Nexus 4 review

Nexus 4

Like the inevitable tick-tock of a clock, Google, in partnership with LG, released the fourth Nexus phone late last year. On a day inundated with news on Hurricane Sandy, they managed to send the technology community into overdrive and rain on Microsoft’s parade by introducing a flagship smartphone for just £239.99 unlocked. Despite the shambolic release that occurred through Google’s own Play Store, there is no phone out there that appears to provide this kind of value for money. Google has taken a huge gamble with this device by selling it through its own channels with next to no profit margin, but has it paid off by making the best Android phone out there? Read on to find out.

Hardware

This phone is beautiful. There are no other words to describe it. It is right up there with the iPhone 5 and One X in terms of hardware design and build quality, which is a massive achievement considering the price point. The unadorned glass façade gently curves down to meet the plastic frame which, when flipped over, reveals a gently shimmering micro-etched glass back. Sure, it was a poor design choice in terms of durability, but it looks great. The front is graced with a small speaker grill and a front facing camera. It also features a hidden notification light centred on the bottom bezel – which is very clear and bright. It’s also RGB, meaning it can be programmed to be any colour with apps such as Light Flow. Aside from the volume rocker and power button, the only keys you’ll see here are on-screen, keeping with the pattern started by 2011’s Galaxy Nexus and continued throughout many other post-Ice Cream Sandwich devices and, while not without their critics, I love them. It’s simplicity done extremely well.

Nexus 4 Back

The screen is a 4.7” WXGA (1280 x 768) IPS affair, but some of it is taken up by software buttons. The screen is also up there with the best, using the same in-cell technology the iPhone 5 made a big deal about which, seeing as both panels come from LG, makes perfect sense. The colours and vibrancy are great, although still trail behind AMOLED in certain aspects. The Nexus 4 feels solid in the hand, but also feels very slippery due to the glass back and curve, and I therefore highly recommend getting a case for it, no matter how difficult it is to cover up the beautiful exterior. Another slight problem is the chrome band surrounding the front. While it is done very well, it does have the tendency to scratch or dent. The buttons are made of the same material. They have a nice travel, and feel solid, but they are quite slippery – a recurring theme with the hardware on this phone. However, in spite of all of these flaws, this is easily one of the best designed Android phones ever.

Nexus 4 Base

Inside, the Nexus 4 sits perched upon the top of 2012’s internal hardware. It has a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro with an Adreno 320 GPU, coupled with 2GB of RAM giving you a blazing fast phone, although the upcoming flagships like the HTC One and Galaxy S IV should easily eclipse it. Benchmark scores demonstrate this, although these should be taken with a pinch of salt, as our testing shows that the US variant of the Galaxy S III (with dual-core S4 chip) obtains a higher Quadrant score than the quad-core S4 Pro-powered Nexus 4, suggesting that this benchmark has not been properly optimised for Android 4.2 yet.

Benchmarks

Device Chipset Quadrant AnTuTu NenaMark2
LG Nexus 4 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro (Quad) 4694 17561 59.6 fps
Samsung Galaxy S III (US) 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 (Dual) 5325 7373 48.7 fps
HTC One X+ 1.7GHz Tegra 3 (Quad) 7652 13546 57.0 fps
HTC One X (Intl.) 1.5GHz Tegra 3 (Quad) 4602 9795 54.7 fps
Asus Nexus 7 1.3GHz Tegra 3 (Quad) 3734 10426 55.3 fps

Software

This phone is running pure, unadulterated Android and is all the better for it. Untouched by manufactures, this allows the end user to experience and enjoy Android as Google intended, which is of course one of the major selling points of this phone. A positive knock-on effect of this is that it should receive timely updates to Android, currently on version 4.2.2. This is why the Galaxy Nexus remained a great phone throughout it’s lifespan – and why the Nexus 4 will be the same. It’s a safer choice than a Samsung or HTC phone, which may or may not be updated to the latest version of Android.

Nexus 4 Corner

Android 4.2 is the best version of Android yet, and it looks great on the hardware of the Nexus 4. I’m not going to do a full review of the software as it’s still the Jelly Bean that we know and love from I/O 2012, but I’ll go over a few of the new features, such as lock-screen widgets. Combined with the ever-growing number of third party apps that support this functionality, this is amazing. My favourite use case is to see my to do list and edit it all from my lock screen. This is joined by gesture typing (a Swype-esque keyboard), Photo Sphere (StreetView-esque 360 degree panoramas) and Miracast streaming to make the latest point upgrade of the dessert-flavoured OS.

Nexus 4 Camera

What does this all mean to you? Basically, you get a rock solid, lightning fast version of Android. This is easily on par with the iPhone, if not smoother thanks to Project Butter. It also blends in with all the apps that follow the Holo design guidelines (unlike the One X). I realise I must sound like a fanboy when I say this, but honestly it’s true. There are still places where Android lags behind iOS, but those places are few and far between. I’m genuinely excited to see what Android 5.0 will bring.

Camera, Battery and Radios

As many reviews have stated before, and more will state after, the Nexus 4 camera is simply average. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, but not amazing. I would put it about on par with the iPhone 4S in terms of picture quality, and slightly worse than that for colour reproduction. Rather than telling you, it’s better for me to show you. There is a full gallery of sample shots on the way to be added to this review later.

Nexus 4 Sample Shot Can

Again, the same goes for battery life. It is average, and maybe even slightly below. The Nexus 4 lasts about 10 hours on a charge, but with screen on time fluctuating wildly depending on usage and the ROM. My highest is about 4.5 hours and the lowest is about 1.5 hours. Not great, but with a bit of careful usage here and there it will get you through the day. I’ll also update this review with screenshots of a few charge cycles. I’m not entirely sure why the battery life is so sub-par considering it is a non-LTE phone with a 2100mAh battery, but I assume that the internals or apps are draining it.

The radios in the Nexus have been very good, definitely better than the One X I reviewed last year. WiFi reception has been pretty good, reaching 3 bars out of 4 in my room. This is pretty good for a smartphone as my room has brick walls, and 3G reception has been pretty good too. One major thing that the phone has been bashed for is the lack of 4G LTE capability, but if you are in the UK then that shouldn’t be a problem until much later when 4G is widespread, unless you are an EE customer.

Conclusion

Nexus 4 Conclusion

The Nexus 4 is easily the best phone in its price bracket and, in most ways, it is definitely the best phone on the market. However, is it the phone that you should buy? The HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S IV are both lurking just days away, and I say if you are buying a phone to last 3 or 4 years, this probably isn’t the phone to buy due to the crack-prone glass back and lack of LTE. If you are buying a phone to last 1 year (or even 2), then this is your phone. The promise of prompt Android updates ably aided by the swift internals will keep you ticking by nicely. Sure, in 2 years it might not be the best-specced phone, but it will remain the yardstick for Android in 2013. Why? Because it’s a Nexus, and this is how Android phones should be done.

 

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite review

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite Header

With the launch of the original Kindle in 2007, Amazon revolutionised the ebook and print industry. With its e-ink screen and thin construction, it allowed for people to literally fit entire libraries into their pockets. Couple that with Amazon’s free worldwide 3G service and its best-in-class content library, and you have a winner. And so it has been – four generations of Kindle have come and gone. All of them have been very successful, and now it is time for the fifth. Since its launch, Amazon have been diversifying it’s lineup – with larger, smaller, cheaper and keyboard-equipped variants of the Kindle. This time around, they have done the same. They upgraded the base model with a new black body and higher resolution screen along with a £20 price drop and ushered in the Kindle Paperwhite while expanding on the LCD equipped tablet lineup they began last year with the Kindle Fire. Today, I am going to be reviewing the Kindle Paperwhite – the successor to last year’s wildly popular Kindle Touch. Does it live up to the hype? Is the new ‘glowing’ screen any good? Read on to find out.

Hardware

Kindle Paperwhite (left) and previous generation Kindle Touch

Kindle Paperwhite (left) and previous generation Kindle Touch

There is an old saying – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – and Amazon has certainly abided by this for the fifth generation Kindle lineup, with both the Kindle and the Kindle Paperwhite being almost identical to their predecessors in terms of design. However, both devices have got a new lick of matte black (fingerprint magnetic) paint. However, not everything is the same. The Paperwhite is lighter, thinner and sleeker then the Kindle Touch, while also getting rid of the home button. This is definitely one of the timeless classic designs, much like the original iPhone. These improvements haven’t come without a cost though. The new Kindle has done away with the text-to-speech function with the omission of the 3.5mm headphone jack and speakers. There is also less storage – not that it would matter with ebooks being as small as they are.

The Paperwhite’s biggest new feature is the inclusion of an integrated light – a functionality that Amazon used to force you to buy a £50 case to obtain. This frontlight makes the screen ‘glow’, and this is done with LEDs on the edge, which are shone onto an overlay on the screen. This overlay bounces light off the screen, and at you – not causing eye strain like the backlit LCD displays on the majority of tablets.

And now for the question lots of people have been asking – “Does it work well?”. Short answer – yes. The screen can be very bright for pitch black situations, or dimmer to supplement natural light around you. There is some minor inconsistencies in light distribution around the edge of the display but nothing major that would impede the readability of the screen. The new Kindle also swaps out the infrared touchscreen of old with a new higher resolution smartphone style capacitive display. It is a lot clearer, less inset and refresh times are miles better. I did notice some very slight burn in, especially after leaving a book on a page for over 5 minutes, but it was nothing to worry about.

Software

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite Software

Kindle software of old was heavily focused on the reading experience – browsing your library, keeping track of your reading etc. With the new Kindle generation, Amazon have brought in a much more tablet-style operating system. It has front cover previews, suggested items on the home screen and other things too. To be honest, I don’t really like the new software as it is a bit more cumbersome to navigate what’s important (your books) and it makes certain information a lot smaller, such as how far you are through a book. As it is an e-reader, there isn’t too much to talk about, but you are now missing the ability to playback MP3 files as there is no speaker or headphone jack, which is a bit annoying but by no means a dealbreaker.

Content

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite Store

However, there is one place where Amazon is an undisputed king – it’s content library. Pretty much any ebook you can name is on the Kindle Store –  almost always at a discounted price compared to the physical copies, and Amazon’s usual array of daily deals and fantastic sales (including Yann Martel’s Life of Pi for just 20p) help to ensure that, for heavy readers, Kindles are unquestionably cheaper in the long run than paper books. Amazon has also become a publisher, allowing people to publish their books without any fuss straight to Kindle, and they have also restarted the old fashioned trade of releasing chapter a week books, much like Dickens would have done.  Amazon’s Kindle library is ever growing – and with subscription services like Prime – it is reason enough to buy a Kindle.

Battery Life

The Kindle has had (and still does have) astonishing battery life. This is most likely due to the fact that the e-ink display only uses battery to turn the pages, and also due to the great power management technologies used by Amazon. This year, it has become a whole lot more complicated with the inclusion of the light. Now that has to be powered, there was expected to be a huge hit to the battery life. Not so. According to Amazon’s statistics – and roughly corroborated by our own testing – the Kindle Paperwhite will power through 8 weeks of typical reading even with the light on. This figure is with wireless turned off, but it is impressive nonetheless. It really is fantastic to be able to use a device for extended periods of time without having to worry at all about running out of juice.

Conclusion

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite Conclusion Amazon has hit the nail on the head with the Kindle Paperwhite. With great hardware, an unmatched bookstore and a great price, the flagship of Amazon’s e-ink lineup is both the best e-reader out there and a worthy bearer of the Kindle nomenclature. I would have no trouble at all recommending this to anyone, and it certainly has boosted the amount of time I spend reading.

Nvidia unveils Tegra 4 chip and Project Shield handheld console at CES conference

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 12.49.13

It’s the first day of CES proper today, and the news has started to flood in. Nvidia held an interesting press conference today to announce a few things. There’s no doubt that the most anticipated (and most important) announcement of the day was the Tegra 4 – Nvidia’s new flagship chip to ‘rule them all’. That is until Qualcomm and Samsung show off their work. The new chip packs 72 GPU CUDA cores, and is produced on a 28nm manufacturing process which is a step up from the 40nm of the Tegra 3. This means that even though the chip packs more power, it’ll take less of a hit on the battery life. It uses a new quad core, Cortex-A15 based architecture as well. One notable omission is the lack of integrated LTE – while it does ship with an external modem, that both takes a hit on battery life and reduces space inside of the phone. It’s interesting to see whether this impacts Tegra 4 adoption, as many phones which used a Tegra processor internationally had to use a Qualcomm processor in the US so as to keep LTE.

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 12.44.14

The other thing that Nvidia announced was a new handheld gaming system called Project Shield. This came to me as a surprise, but its very very interesting. It features a 5″ 720p display, a Tegra 4 chip and an Xbox-esque controller portion. It is running stock android (i.e good) and has the ability to stream games from your Steam library from your computer to the device, where you can play them. It’ll be interesting to see whether this catches on or flops when it becomes available in Q2 2013

Google announces new Nexus lineup: Nexus 4, Nexus 10 and Android 4.2

We weren’t expecting any Nexus news today as hurricane Sandy pummels the East Coast, but the Verge has delivered with a full hands on and in depth look at Google’s new Nexus lineup – straight from Mountain View. Google has expanded on it’s preliminary Nexus 7 with the successor to the Galaxy Nexus (known as the Nexus 4), a new 10″ tablet called the Nexus 10 and all while introducing the next upgrade to their Android OS (4.2). At first glance, these devices seem really great, so let’s take a closer look.

Nexus 4

Nexus 4

The Nexus 4 is the fourth Nexus phone, the successor to the well-recieved Galaxy Nexus. The Nexus program is Google’s initiative to pick what it thinks to be the best Android phone on the market, modify it to their liking and load it up with stock Android goodness. This year they have picked the Optimus G, LG’s quad core beast of a phone. They’ve replaced the plastic for glass, added onscreen buttons, and made it a lot more like the Galaxy Nexus in terms of size and shape. Inside, there is a Quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, a 2100mAh battery and a 1280×768 IPS LCD display at 320 pixels per inch. Pricing is £239 unlocked at 8GB and £279 at 16GB. As you can tell, these are some great prices!

Nexus 10

Nexus 10
The Nexus 10 is a new device for Google. While they have made the Nexus 7, this tablet is set to go face to face with the iPad. It does bring quite a set to the table though, with a  2560 x 1600 True RGB Real Stripe PMS display, Exynos 5 dual processor and 2GB of RAM. The tablet is said to be ‘grippy’ and has a vaguely curved design and brushed metal back. While the design is not to my liking, I’m sure others will like it. It also includes a huge 9000mAh battery. Pricing is £319 for 16GB and £389 for 32GB.

Android 4.2

Android 4.2 is more of an incremental upgrade, but it still brings some great new features to the table. Here is a quick rundown

Photo Sphere
Allows for panoramas that capture everything around you, not just a strip.

Gesture Typing
This is a new feature in the keyboard which is similar to Swype. It lets you glide your finger from letter to letter to spell out words.

Multiple User
This allows for multiple users to have accounts on a tablet – similar to different User Accounts on Windows

Daydream
This is basically just hyped up screensavers.

Miracast/Streaming
Basically a Google Airplay competitor

Widgets on the lockscreen
What the title says^

HTC Sense 4+ review

This summer I reviewed the HTC One X, a phone that came preloaded with Android 4.0.1 and HTC’s comparatively lighter but nevertheless bloated Sense 4 skin. You might recall I went on a bit of a rant about it, with the problem being that it lagged. A new operating system on a top of the line phone should not be stuttering on the homescreen. Now, to coincide with the release of the One X+, HTC has come up with an answer. The new Sense 4+ skin is layered on top of that buttery Android 4.1 goodness, also known as Jelly Bean, but does it fix the inherent problems its predecessor had? Read on to find out.

The Good

HTC really has fixed a lot with the new version of Sense. Most noticeably, the stuttering has been eradicated completely and utterly. I’m not completely sure whether this is down to the new Jelly Bean’s Project Butter or simply HTC’s optimisations, but it really doesn’t matter. Whatever they’ve done, it makes the phone a joy to use. Expandable notifications have been introduced too, bringing all sorts of new functionality to your pull down shade. The only problem with these is the slightly awkward two finger pinch gesture to open them up – something that is not present in stock Android. The keyboard is really a lot better than it used to be, nixing the pointless arrow keys at the bottom and adding altogether better feedback and responsiveness. My biggest annoyance with the One X has also been fixed – the menu button situation. It used to be that the One X did not have a hardware menu button, with a software version popping on screen as and when it was needed, wasting about a tenth of the screen real estate. With this update, TC has added the option in settings to reassign the multitasking button to menu. Holding down this button with this setting enabled will take you to recent apps, giving back the screen that was taken. Google Now, Android’s answer to Siri, has also been added, with a long press of the home button propelling you straight into the new voice search feature. While I don’t want to go as far as to compare it with Siri as they both perform different functions, I have to say the retrieval of data is snappier and the voice is not nearly as robotic.

The Bad

There isn’t really much that has become worse in Sense 4+. After all, it is an update: something supposed to make something else better, unless you are Apple.

The Ugly

There is a lot in this section, and while there is not as much as there used to be, the list of negative aspects of Sense only reinforce my desire to see stock Android being shipped on more than one phone a year. The first thing is the icons, which remain childish and displeasing to the eye. Compared to the polished look of iOS, Windows Phone and post-ICS stock Android, you realise how far behind such skins remain, and a little customisation with an icon pack goes a long way aesthetically. I still feel that the greens and whites of Sense clash with the deep blues and Tron-like lighting of Holo clash horribly, however certain elements appear pleasant and muted. Another thing that hasn’t been fixed is the lockscreen shortcuts, still default to the ones you have placed in your dock.

Conclusion

Overall, I think Sense 4+ is a great upgrade over Sense 4, making Sense a decent skin once again. It makes it smoother, faster, slicker and better looking while also tying in new functionality that you won’t necessarily find in a stock Android build. If you are a user of one of HTC’s One series phones, I urge you to upgrade to keep your sanity and enjoy the butter.