All posts by Rayaz

From a professional work perspective, i am a software professional focused to towards Solution design and Software Architecture. Outside work, I am car and gizmo geek, spending hours reading reviews and forums to keep myself updated of industry trends, reviews. I do my own spend on gizmos so that i get a hands on experience, and some of these based on time gets reflected on this blog!

What is Mazda SKYACTIV technology?


A rather regular query i am asked by many non-Mazda as well as older Mazda owners is whether the SKYACTIV implementation is similar to Honda and Toyota Hybrid tech.  Considering I am currently a Mazda vehicle owner, i decided I should blog on this topic. But for automobile fans this would be rather stale news considering SKYACTIV tech has been in the market for over 5 years.

First and foremost, SKYACTIV is not a single component but it encompasses several initiates by Mazda to bring improved performance and fuel efficiency without going the typical Hybrid route.  Current SKYACTIV technology avoids the traditional hybrid concept of having an Atkinson cycle engine, an electric motor coupled to high capacity battery, which is charged via regenerative braking (and more) as is the case with the very popular Toyota Synergy Drive (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hybrid_Synergy_Drive) and the Honda Hybrid i-DCD and Hybrid i-MMD (which superseded the not so efficient Honda IMA hybrid) tech.

Key concepts OF SKYACTIV

Mazda approached the challenge of offering good performance with great fuel efficiency via the SKYACTIV technology banner in a different way,

1. Keep the weight low (in other words, don’t bring in any heavy batteries and associated tech that you normally see on Hybrid implementations, a quick read http://www.conserve-energy-future.com/advantages-and-disadvantages-of-hybrid-cars.php)
2. Extreme efficiency in the many facets of the vehicle’s manufacturing (which in many ways assist to keep weight low and also perform with great efficiency)
3. Don’t ruin the handling or performance (rather enhance it, CVT and Dual-Clutch implementations are still not as smooth as the automatic gearboxes)

As one Australian road tester scripted “Put simply, SKYACTIV technology is about substantial efficiency gains without the slightest compromise to the car’s performance and dynamics. Those gains are achieved through more precise design and engineering of key components”

Application in Mazda vehicles

Mazda automobiles have different levels of SKYACTIV concept applications and though all carry the SKYACTIV moniker, not all the tech is applied to all cars 😦 Hence your SKYACTIV badge may not translate to all the benefits, and may explain why your car’s fuel economy and performance is not what you expect.

01-inline-skyactiv-technologies-chassis-design-body-design-drive-design-direct-injection-gasolin
SKYACTIV Technologies

Source: http://technicalquestionsbank.blogspot.com/2013_10_01_archive.html

Weight Saving

Almost all Mazda vehicles that get tagged as SKYACTIV tend to be much lighter than the cars from competing vendors. In an age where newer models continued to increase in weight, Mazda was among the first manufacturers that reversed this trend. While safety regulations, and the need for more space had mandated the need for the weight increase, Mazda focused on achieving this by designing in efficiency gains in its manufacturing across all its components (Chassis, Frame, Gearbox, Engine, etc) to provide weight saving without compromising safety.  The level of SKYACTIV concepts applied to reduce weight differed from vehicle to vehicle on the Mazda range.

Optimized Engines

SKYACTIV engines feature very high engine compression ratios, which has enabled Mazda engines to provide greater economies. Here again the Japan domestics cars feature higher compression ratios due to the availability of higher grade fuels in Japanese market. Mazda tends to tune lower compression ratios for vehicles exported to other markets. E.g. the 2liter engines for Japan run 14:1 ratios, while the exported vehicles to Australia, etc run at 12:1

Stop and Start Technology

Practically all leading manufactures now feature the stop and start feature in their vehicles, and frankly people who run on Hybrid vehicles have not been happy with this. The judder as the engine keeps starting up, and the fact that many switch to blower mode for the air condition have been key areas of concern.

Mazda’s basic version of this implementation is called i-Stop. i-Stop which merely enables the vehicle to start and stop the engine when it comes to an idle mode such as a traffic light. Here Mazda uses the power of the car battery to run the electrical, hence the main benefits are felt only if your idle stops are short and not common. In extreme city traffic this can become annoying and rather useless. Further in order for the i-Stop to provide even 30 secs of power for the electric, Mazda recommends special batteries, that are hard to find in many markets. I noticed that if you don’t get a specialized battery designed for start and stop operations, the battery would only last about 6 months and the battery would not even be able tot start the car.  However if you check the battery, the battery is still good enough to be used with other cars that are less sensitive to the output of the battery.  If you are Mazda owner you will soon learn to live with Master warning light on, and the i-Stop light in orange indicating its not enabled.

The better solution from Mazda for this is i-eloop, which is a brake energy regenerative technology (http://www.mazda.com/en/innovation/technology/env/i-eloop/).  Here an innovation that Mazda incorporate is that it avoids using a battery, and has a specialized capacitor that stores the kinetic energy generated when braking supposedly very very similar to the tech BMW uses. This sadly in our market is only featured on the top spec 2.5L Mazda 6, and  coupled with i-Stop can provide true benefits where the vehicle can run on this special battery while on idle for several minutes. Unfortunately  i-eloop offers many of the benefits of the hybrid without the overheads of the heavy battery and mechanicals.

SKYACTIV-Drive Optimized Transmissions

The Mazda gearboxes are lighter, and coupled with optimized gear ratios. Mazda engineers also state they have implemented features that enable their gearbox to compete against other CVT and dual-clutch implementations.

So does any of the Mazda SKYACTIV feature hybrid technology?

Yes there are mazda vehicles that merge SKYACTIV technology with hybrids, but they seem to be experiments than core products. A few examples,

The Mazda Axela Hybrid (Axela = Mazda 3)

fbox_axela_h_01

The Axela Hybrid (http://www.mazda.co.jp/cars/axela/#axela-sport#axela-hybrid, and http://www2.mazda.com/en/publicity/release/2013/201310/131009a.html) is a bit of a wild card, and maybe a way Mazda is learning hybrid tech to prepare for the future. The hybrid tech is actually licensed from Toyota (Toyota’s Synergy Drive) as the Axela Hybrid contains a PRIUS gearbox and battery coupled to a heavily de-tuned 1998cc SKYACTIV engine. The engine had to be de-tuned because the Toyota gearbox was not designed to handle the level of power and torque generated by the 2liter Mazda engine, as it was originally designed for the 1498cc Prius.

Coupled with the SKYACTIV tech that already competes well against hybrids, the fusion of even older Toyota hybrid tech enabled the Axela Hybrid to actually provide better economy than the 3rd Gen PRIUS in Japanese tests, while providing greater performance even if the 1998cc engine was toned down to near 1500cc power outputs.  Note that the Axela Hybrid omits i-stop and i-eloop, as these are all replaced with Toyota’s Synergy Drive technology.

While most consider the Axela Hybrid more Toyota than Mazda in its internals, but i must say the Mazda 3/Axela looks stunning specially in the frontal view (a baby Mazda 6) compared to the rather ugly Prius 3rd gen.  Sadly i am seeing very little Axela Hybrid’s in Sri Lanka, though i am seeing the more expensive (and still ugly) Toyota Prius 4-th generation cars 😦

TIP: Interesting read comparing the new PRIUS and the Mazda Axela hybrid, and how much of Mazda has done to hide the Toyota internals.  http://oppositelock.kinja.com/mazda3-hybrid-more-toyota-than-mazda-1752761790

The Mazda Flair (= Suzuki Stingray/Wagon-R hybrid)

The older Flair Crossover was a re-badged Suzuki hustler with a premium price.  The new Mazda Flair (not a crossover anymore by the looks, http://www.mazda.co.jp/cars/flair/#flair) seemingly a re-badge Suzuki Stingray (aka Wagon-R Hybrid).  Needless to say how much of Mazda tech is in the Flair i cannot quote, as its very hard to find literature about this partnership and the level of Mazda tech that has been added on (if any).  The Flair is not what you call a Mazda zoom zoom car, as it features a 660cc engine, good enough to keep you happy in the city.

Do other manufacturers also do similar tech to SKYACTIV

If you look at the range of vehicles offered by Honda and Toyota in US and Europe, you will notice that Hybrids DO NOT lead the way, rather its the electric wave that seems to be path to the future. The reasons are simple.

In the US many don’t drive on congested city for larger part of their drives, and hybrids with their heavy batteries, don’t offer any great advantage in such conditions.  Here many manufactures have opted to use Hybrid concepts to provide greater power.

In Europe the diesels have proven, specially small diesels with turbos have proven to as economical as Hybrids without the complications.  In recent times European petrol cars have shifted to small capacity with turbos to provide better fuel economy and still offer good performance, and we see this trend now catching up with the other vendors as well.

While the recent rigging of fuel test results by VW has impacted the credibility of diesel, the success of other manufacturers have shown this was a viable option, as there are many concerns of how green Hybrids are (specially over the non green nature of the hybrid battery manufacturing process).

Further Mazda is not alone in the making efficient manufacturing, optimized gearboxes, efficient engines. Honda for instance with its new Civic omits Hybrid tech for the US market, and opts for a small turbo to give the power, but provide greater economies, a popular route that many manufactures are now trying with petrol, similar to the diesel approach that was successful in Europe.

In conclusion

If you happen to owning a Mazda 6 2.5L featuring the i-eloop, and drive the car in western market roads, you will definitely be able to achieve 2.0 liter economies while enjoying the 2.5liter outputs without the baggage of heavy batteries that are typically part of any hybrid, and maybe the key reason that people think SKYACTIV is as good or better than hybrid tech.  However cars such as the new Honda Accord with the dual electric motor hybrids are very viable and equally entertaining options.

However most other Mazda’s with SKYACTIV might offer decent economies than their competitors (or used to, as competitors have now developed their own tech to achieve the same), but cannot really provide those great fuel economies in true road conditions if your drive them in heavy congested traffic filled roads.

In such conditions, only an EV and hybrids  can provide truly great fuel economies,

.. BUT.. if you are not purely concered about the fuel economy, and are passionate about your drive, there are not many hybrids other than European brands and Tesla EVs that can provide the joy of driving while also offering good fuel economies when you are not stepping on the pedal.

And for any enthusiast driver, many of the Mazda SKYACTIV cars will surely be on your shopping list, for its blend of good looks, decent fuel economies, good performance and above average handling dynamics !

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Review: Sony SRS-XB3 Portable Bluetooth Speaker


The Sony XB3 is a new series of Portable Bluetooth speakers from Sony that has been geared to take on the JBL Charge/UE Boom market. Sony past models X33 and the X3 were very good speakers that focused as more affordable alternatives to the the Bose SoundLink Mini market, rather than the outdoor friendly market. Sony seems to have made a decision that the outdoor oriented market was a better space, and the new XB series is geared towards this.

The hardware

The XB3 product replaces the X33 (and X3) speakers, but by the likes of it, it might be a viable option for the very good X55 as well if you want similar audio volume but in a more outdoor oriented packaging.

The XB3 audio hardware layout is pretty much standard for the class, with dual woofers and dual passive radiators. The key factor Sony shouts about is the larger 48mm full range woofers it uses, the audio processing engine to boost bass (megabass) and Sony’s LDAC Bluetooth technology for high-resolution audio streaming.

I have extracted why the LDAC can be important by the following quote from Sony,

“LDAC™ audio coding technology developed by Sony, which allows transmission of up to around three times the data volume of existing technologies, and was the first in the world to offer audio quality in the Hi-Res class using Bluetooth Audio”.

While LDAC is offered by Sony on other more expensive models, the XB3 and XB2 were the first models to feature this in the lower price bracket.

The range 2015/16 range of speakers from Sony maxed out at 20W output for models which operated similar on battery and when on charge, while models that offered higher outputs the X55/X77 etc offered lower outputs on battery but the amp got into full power only when it was being charged. The XB3 is the first Sony where the output is 30W (all models in the past range were max 20W) and works i201606200911583902n the same manner on battery or when charged.

EXTRABASS is the new thing with the XB3 and Sony claims the BASS boost has been achieved by a combination of specially tuned woofers and radiators coupled with the Sony DSP processing. Sony also goes on to add that this is particular tuned for modern dance floor and EDM tracks, more about this on the sound test section.

This effectively now pitches the XB3 directly in line with the JBL Charge 3 and the UE Boom 2 on loudness. I did a quick table to compare the XB3 with the JBL and UE speakers (and the older X33 model) and you will how similar the XB3 is now to the competitors, clearly showing Sony targeting the JBL Charge 3 and UE BOOM 2 speakers, as in the past most of the comparisons of the X33/X3 was with the Bose SoundLink Mini I/II. The driver sizes are now pretty similar, and based on RMS output the XB3 seems to have the more powerful amplifier.

screenshot_1

Wit4836815cv19dh the XB3, Sony also brought in some outdoor protection into its speaker,and its now IPX5 certified (Water resistant).
While it cannot be immersed compared to the rivals which are IP7 and IP67 certified, it can now withstand splashes of rain and drips of water (essentially making it shower, kitchen and pool friendly). Notice the rain in the Sony marketing photos 🙂

The XB3 design is primarily meant to be placed horizontally, the XB3 is also capable of being kept vertically due to its non slip rubber exterior. While this is not going to make it provide 360 degree sound like the UE Boom speakers, you can now use it in smaller places which is a useful design feature.

The speaker also has the NFC pairing, an 3.5mm aux in stereo port and the USB chargeout. Importantly Sony has upgraded the Bluetooth spec to version 4.1 which means lower battery consumption. Range wise the Bluetooth range is still 30ft, and Sony works well even with thick walls without any sound artifacts (unlike my Bose Soundlink III which has issues with big cement walls!).  The UE Boom and Anker speakers have a greater Bluetooth range and they say 60-100ft.

A new feature for Sony is the ability to pair two speakers (aka dual pairing) with the speaker ADD button. The pairing is similar to the JBL implementation where you can pair speakers of the same type (two XB3) but you cannot pair different models (e.g. and XB3 with an XB2) as is possible with UE speakers. When paired you can decide if you want the speakers to Double (both play full range) or Stereo (left and right channels play on different speakers).

Like all Sony Bluetooth only speakers, the XB3 does not work with the SongPal application.

Design and Quality

4836815_rd

Gone is the Xperia Z phone like smooth external feel we saw with the older X3/X33 models, and we now have a rubbery non-slip exterior. The design still is very conservative its no longer the premium desktop feel speaker, but feels more rugged and outdoor friendly. The shape to me is more pleasing than the JBL Charge and UE Boom which are the two direct competitors.

4836815cv15d

The water resistant feature means that the aux in, usb charge out, and power are now protected by a flap cover. If you going to using the speaker a lot with the aux in or on charge this can be annoying, but with a very good battery life and outdoor use being the market, i assume most users are not going to be complaining too much about this. It would have been better if each of the ports had their own protective covers rather than one huge flap is my opinion, which is the case with competitors such as the UE Boom. Since my use is mainly indoors, i found this rather annoying compared with the exposed connectors on the older models.

Only the POWER, EXTRABASS and BLUETOOTH buttons have tiny LED lights to illuminate it when using thexb3buttons speaker in a dark location. The volume UP and SPEAKER MUTE buttons have tiny bumps which is useful to identify the buttons, but why there are no LED for the volume button baffles me (same criticism i had with with the X5). Seriously why don’t manufacturers use different colored LED for buttons, specially to differentiate the volume up and volume down buttons at least (red and blue maybe)?

Since the speaker allows pairing two, a nice design touch is the indicators to show if the speaker is the left or right when you pair two speakers and set it up for Stereo mode.

Sound Quality

To start of with yes, the XB3 with MegaBASS on is loud, very loud and can easily fill a big room, or be heard outdoors, no question about that. Since i also had the Sony X5 with me (which is a higher up model but older) on battery the XB3 is significantly louder, and when connected it still much louder than the X5. One might say it should be because the X5 when powered is 20W while the XB3 is 30W. But being loud is one thing, the question is how is the quality of the sound and the manner in which it handles highs, mids and lows.

The next point to clear is that without MegaBASS on the volume is significantly lower, and selecting MegaBASS does not simply increase the BASS but also has a profound impact on the mids and highs as well.

Without MegaBASS the speaker lacks the oomph and that also explains why Sony has MegaBASS on by default.

Sony models in the past had a button to enable ClearAudio processing, which enabled more cleaner sound but it also meant lower battery times as this required additional processing. While the XB3 does support ClearAudio, there is on way to disable or enable it, and i assume it is always on which is a good thing, since on the X5 the sound was definitely richer than with ClearAudio on.

BASS (Lows)

Well with MegaBASS being the feature, let me start with the Lows. The XB3 with MegaBASS on handles bass quite well for a speaker of this size, but it also seems to be bass dominant, which is very different compared to the older models which had a more balanced playback. Further while it handles some forms of music well, the bass did sound a bit muddy with certain songs i tried. In many ways the bass for more akin to the type of bass you see with the Bose speakers.

The Sony X5 which has a special woofer to handle bass provides a more richer bass that can handle thumps better than the XB3.

However the XB3 is still a small speaker, and the bass does not have the thump you will get from a larger speaker.

Mids

Without MegaBASS on the Mids are well handled, and with MegaBASS on while they are still handled the bass tends to drown the mids.

Compared i found the Sony X5 handled the Mids better even when for songs with heavy bass.

Highs (Treble)

The highs are handled well both with MegaBASS on and off, and sound very clear.  The bass does not overwhelm  the treble in most songs i listened.

Stereo separation

Though the speakers are placed a part, the distance is not that great and you are not going to notice the stereo separation which is also how all other speakers of this type work. However if you want true stereo separation you can pair two XB3 and select stereo mode. I did not have a second unit to try this and provide feedback if it does work as stated.

Battery Life

The XB3 bring a big improvement on battery capacity compared to the older models and essentially doubles the on battery use time compared with the X33. Battery times quoted by manufacturers cannot be taken as fact since they don’t mention the volume. In most cases the volume is at 50% and this maybe rather too low for our usage.

Online reviews and forums are the place to go for this information.  I had the XB3 with me for over a week and i used it for 12+ hours without charging, and the volume was usually at 80-90%.

Tips when buying a wireless portable speaker


Compiled a few tips / best practices when buying a wireless portable speaker.  If you have any more please do comment on this post!

  1. Don’t go by reviews, audio is a personal taste, and speakers are designed to play certain genre’s better than others. So take a collection of your music and try out how it sounds before investing.
  2. When trying out speakers, try it out in environments that you will want to use the speaker. Testing in an enclosed sound room, or big showroom may sometimes make the speaker feel better or worse than what it is. Smaller speakers perform better in smaller rooms, and the bass performance improves when you place the speaker closer to a wall. Some speakers have issues with balance (tend to rock or vibrate) depending on the surface you keep it or with high volumes, and take this into consideration
  3. Be vary careful of fakes of popular affordable products. You will find loads of fakes for speakers made by Bose, JBL, Beats, Sony simply because many buyers want this, and some A-Grade fakes are very well made that its hard to distinguish it from the original unless you playback and listen carefully. In some cases the fakes can even perform better acoustically but may have durability issues in the long run !!!If the Bluetooth speakers voice prompts are Chinese like for well known brands its most likely a fake 🙂
  4. If you intended to use it on Bluetooth and wireless, try it out with over the preferred wireless medium.
  5. Most wireless speakers will sound better when you connect it to the traditional mini stereo (aux) jack.  There are some speakers where the aux in may not have any amplification while the Bluetooth will amplify.  With Apple dropping the 3.5mm port, the aux in is becoming an option rather than a mandatory requirement.
  6. Understand your speaker and see how it works, some speaker amps are designed to run at lower power in battery mode, and sound much better when they are connected to the power line. If you hope to use the speaker mainly on battery mode make sure its not connected to the power line when testing to see how it performs on battery.
  7. Some speakers will not playback when they are being charged!! So test this or read and check if it does.
  8. Don’t assume that speakers having dedicated treble, bass controls (E.g. Marshall Stanmore) are professional models.  In most cases these for the design, or to compensate for limitations in the quality of tuning implemented.  A speaker that can handle different music genres without you having to fiddle with controls is more desirable, indicating it has been designed and tuned well.  If the speaker comes with an app that has a software EQ maybe useful but again not mandatory.
  9. If you can’t find the speaker in your local market, you use YouTube and listen to videos by reviewer who have used high definition mics to records sample sounds.  You need to listen with a good headset to get the best of these reviews, but since the sample music and environment is not going to be same you may not get the same outcome as testing it personally.  One such popular reviewer i listen to is https://www.youtube.com/user/clavinetjunkie
  10. For everyday use some of the larger OEM brands that sell equipment worldwide produce very good speakers as they may use the same drivers and other related hardware as big brands.  Notable brands i have come across include Anker and Divoom who actually make products that compete and outperform leading brands.  Another recent example is the Xiaomi  MI bluetooth speaker which offers far better sound quality, build and features than the much pricier Jawbone JamBox mini which it has been designed to look like (however make sure you are buying from a reliable source, as many online sites sell replica’s of the Xiaomi MI)
  11. The quoted battery time by manufactures are usually for 50-60% volume, cranking the speaker to 90-100% is going to reduce that quote time significantly.  Many speakers with 10hrs quoted time can go down to 2-3hrs when cranked full.  Read forums and reviews to get an idea of the actual battery of of the device you are planning to buy.
  12. For WiFi speakers firmware versions are very important. Make sure you update the firmware but also read forums if the new firmware has introduced any issues before updating.
  13. When buying wireless speakers with the intention of using wireless capabilities and the ability to combine multi-room and multi-device capabilities, the mobile app provided by the vendor is going to be a very deciding factor.  Here again online feedback is going to be a very useful information source (more than reviews, unless the review is a long term variety) since only long term users will be able to discuss the challenges and limitations they find.
  14. Size is not the sole indicator.  Smaller sized speakers may perform better than larger sized speakers because they may actually cram in better hardware and optimized tuning.  Checkout reviews of the Bang & Olufsen A1, a pricey premium palm sized portable speaker that actually has audio quality superior to much larger Bose SoundLink III (Thanks to an unusually large 90mm woofer at the bottom that handles bass and mids coupled to a tweeter for the highs!).  However small speakers may come with other issues.  Amazon reviews for the A1 indicate that it heats up and shuts down, and the all aluminium body becomes hard to hold when it gets warm under use.  In some cases specially with OEM speakers the external case maybe large, but the internals feature very low end hardware. Rather than buying such OEM speakers you can buy a small speaker from a tested brand and get better audio and battery performance.
  15. Bose is NOT the nirvana of speakers in the portable world (though most of us may only hear a lot about the SoundLink and SoundTouch series).  There are many niche brands that offer great audio performance but they also come at a steep price. One such brand making great speakers in the portable market is the a nordic brand called vifa (https://www.vifa.dk)
  16. Most speakers with Bluetooth will work from 20-30feet away from the music source, though that will depend a lot on the construction materials used for walls and area interference.  However there are some speakers that boost Bluetooth for over 50feet making them ideal for outdoor use, or for large areas.  Depending on your need this might also be a key selling point when buying speakers that you want to connect via Bluetooth.
  17. Most leading brands don’t state the output of the speakers in watts, since this number cannot be verified easily and also will depend on the manner the calculation was done.  However some brands do share the output such as Sony, Harman Kardon, JBL, and some even indicate the frequency band to give you an idea of the way the total speaker drivers will handle music.  When calculating the total watts, big brands only consider the powered drivers, and radiators are not considered into this calculation.  However i have noted that OEM speakers add an output for radiators to falsely increase the output of the speakers!  But don’t go by the watt count, as that’s not a true measure of a quality of the speaker, and neither is it a way to decide the loudness.
  18. When buying OEM brands, try out the speaker since most reviews are by authors who are provided the device free (same applies to amazon in some cases) and they will not write any negatives or problems since they will only get free equipment for favorable reviews.

Introduction to Wireless Portable Speakers


We live in a generation where the mobile devices are a central part of our life.  The importance of the mobile has brought an explosion in portable companion devices such as the portable chargers, Bluetooth headsets, speakers, etc.  Portable speakers are not a new concept for folks who would have been used to boom boxes and battery equipped radios in the 1970s.  These speakers were part of a major cultural change when it came to street music.

The popularity of the IPOD brought a new wave of portable audio devices in the likes of sound docks.  However for Android which joined the party a bit later found only limited options for sound docks  due to the change in the connector (mini USB to Micro USB), and the variety of device types.  The emergence of Bluetooth as a medium for playback, and combined with music apps on smart devices truly made universal portable audio devices to come into the market.

The portable wireless audio market since then has been growing fast, and these devices are offering continue to improve on the quality audio in a smaller foot print.  In order to achieve these portable wireless speaker manufacturers have designed in extensive concepts that allow maximum use of the small space of the speaker cabinet.

For anyone who has used audio equipment will know that size of the speakers, no of speakers, type of speakers, power of the amplifier, etc are not pure indicators for good quality sound.  The speaker designers have to tune the speakers to ensure it can handle a full range of frequencies, and the circuitry and software must also be designed to ensure compressed audio is processed, amplified to make use of the speaker hardware.

Unlike home theater systems or mini hi-fi systems, which feature dedicated sub woofers or speaker units for bass, the portable speakers with the size limitation are challenged in handling playback of the full spectrum of frequencies.   Hence if your expectation is that the portable wireless speakers are going to give the same quality and loudness of GOOD home theater systems or mini hi-fi systems, you will have to tone your expectations 🙂 , but things keep improving so some of these portable speakers can provide far better output than the largish computer speakers we used in the past.

So here is a few useful notes on the basics of a portable wireless speaker that can help you buy like a pro!

SPEAKER DRIVERS

Since we refer to the complete unit as the “SPEAKER”, i will refer to the individual speakers in this unit as “DRIVERS”

Modern good quality portable wireless speakers will feature some of the following drivers.

internals-of-a-bluetooth-speaker

  1. Full range drivers – These are all purpose speakers, which will TRY to handle all frequencies with on speaker.
  2. Mid Range drivers – These speakers will usually handle most of the vocals in the music (300-5Khz)
  3. Woofers – These are used to handle low frequencies (40 – 1kHz)
  4. Tweeters – These are used to produce high frequencies (2kHz – 20Khz)
  5. Passive Radiators (also called drone cones) – The air forced by the main woofers and speakers are “re-used” and pushed through the radiators (a piece of audio equipment that specially useful for bass frequency), which add to improved bass response. Most radiators are passive in nature, as in they do no use any electrical power (they are not connected to the amplifier), but are entirely powered by the pass through airflow.
  6. Bass Reflex port – This is more common approach to improve bass responses on speakers. Many small PC computers feature this technology, which allowed superior bass outputs from standard speakers. Here again there are variation, but seemingly with smaller footprints the passive radiators seem to offer better bass responses than a reflex port, as bass reflex ports are harder to design (but cheaper to implement)

A good read for passive radiators – http://www.centerpointaudio.com/passiveradiators.aspx

If you buy a speaker and it only has two same size drivers, then its mostly likely having full range speakers, where both drivers will try to play all frequencies.  The quality of the full range driver will decide how well the total speaker system plays different genres of music, but most often such speaker will be bass limited (bass will be muffled and lacking the thump), or if the manufacturer tunes it it may lack the mids (which will effect the vocals).

Many knock offs (copies/fakes) of branded products or cheap speakers will usually feature full range speakers, and possibly a simple bass port.

Some higher quality speakers may bring in a more balanced set of drivers that combine the different types (mid range drivers, woofers, radiators, tweeters) to provide good quality audio which can also handle different music genre’s.

SPEAKER AMPLIFIER and AUDIO PROCESSOR

The drivers/woofers/tweeters/radiators are one part of the speaker, but another essential part is the sound processing hardware and amplifiers.  The speakers also consist of the DSP (Digital Signal Processor), the DAC (Digital Audio Converter), and codecs.  The quality of the hardware and software used here, along with the tuning of these to match with the drivers/woofers will be key for the overall performance of the speaker.

This is why you will find that some speakers touting very powerful speakers may not sound so great for different music genre’s, as lack of software optimization and poor sound processing can completely cause the speaker drivers to be useless. Some vendors may add buttons for controlling treble, bass but you may find  when playing wireless you will hardly use these buttons and also need to change them from song to song making them useless.

A speaker that is optimized to handle different types of audio without such perks, and not distorting will be a happier purchase !

Another important aspect is how the manufacturer has designed the speaker to perform under battery mode.   Some speaker amps throttle the output of the speaker if its running on battery to reduce the drain on the battery, hence the speaker may not sound as great on battery compared to when its connected to the power and is charging.

Bluetooth version and features

The key enhancement in newer Bluetooth versions is the reduction in interference from other devices and frequencies.  One has to understand that frequencies used for other devices vary from country to country, and hence the interference can differ.

In most cases Bluetooth 2.1 would be adequate in handling playback of HD audio, but Bluetooth 4.0 with LE support can be help improve the power consumption of Bluetooth equipment.

A good read : https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-difference-between-Bluetooth-4-0-3-0-and-2-0

Some Bluetooth speakers allow you combine speakers and provide you better stereo isolation.  Though the portable speakers have multiple drivers, they are located to close to each other to really differentiate left and right channels.  By adding two devices, the speakers split left and right enabling better stereo isolation (which will also depend on how you place the speakers)

WiFi features

Newer wireless speakers may support WiFi, and this will bring a heavy dependency on the quality of the mobile application provided by the vendor to harness the speaker capabilities.  The mobile app will allow you to combine many speakers and stream audio from your mobile device to the speakers that can be located across your house.  The app will also help integrate with popular audio streaming sites, the support sites would depend on the application.

Each speaker will use separate bandwidth, and hence your network quality and bandwidth become key factors for the quality of audio that the speakers can provide when playing over WiFi.

Purchasing speaker to harness the WiFi capabilities will need lengthy research as many products have very grave issues such as regularly failing to connect to a wireless hotspot, breaks in streaming, lack of support for popular audio streaming sites, etc.  WiFi in portable speakers still seem to be in maturing state and here its led by a fairly new company called Sonos who create good audio devices that also feature robust WiFi connectivity supported by a good app for key mobile platforms.

Most WiFi speakers will also have Bluetooth connectivity, but if you fallback to Bluetooth you won’t have the ability to connect all the speakers as one, a key selling point for WiFi speakers.

Environmental Protection

A popular demand these days if for speakers to be very outdoor friendly including the ability of the speaker to handle a dip in the swimming pool.  New speakers come with different IPX ratings, and one has to understand making a speaker soundproof also bring in various forms protection for the equipment within, and the use of different materials for speaker drivers.  These can result in reduced audio quality in some instances.

Note from Author 🙂

This is a shift in interested towards mobile speakers, since Mobile Phones have become boring in recent times !!  With evolutionary improvements being harder to even notice (slightly better camera, faster processor, better battery life, better display, etc), and some features that to me are downgrades such as the lack of a 3.5mm speaker Jack (= no high quality DAC for audio), i decided a slight change on interest was required.. and the area i have now picked is portable audio. If you have any such gadgets and are willing to loan it for me for a week or two for review, i would be most delighted!

Related Posts

Some tips when buying a portable wireless speaker – https://rayazmuthalif.wordpress.com/2017/01/29/tips-when-buying-a-wireless-portable-speaker/

Portable audio equipment owned or used

Bose Soundlink Color, Sony SRS X5, Sony SRS XB3, Harman Kardon Onyx Mini, Divoom Solo, Bose Soundlink III, JBL Charge, Bose Soundlink Mini

Dialog 4G LTE or LankaBell 4G, which one should I go for?


I have been using the Dialog 4G LTE for a while.  After a very bitter start with Dialog, things settled down and overall the general performance has been good (in case you want to have a good read, check my rather lengthy review at  https://rayazmuthalif.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/dialog-lte-decent-package-but-speeds-may-vary/).  The recent doubling of capacity (albeit only in the night time) to compete with a similar offer made initially by SLT, meant you definitely got a lot of data for your buck compared to before.

However i realized my anytime 25GB on Dialog was exhausted by the mid of a month, and i decided to give a shot at Lanka Bell 4G.  Lanka Bell was offering the same 25+25GB offer, but for almost 33% less monthly charges.

Service Levels

The sales guy made the connection quickly but proved to be not very “truthful” which complicated my service activation.

With LankaBell too I had a very very rocky start, and I found that the LankaBell support is a lot more “government like” compared to Dialog

The device refused to work after it delivered stating that it was configured to work, and complications on billing vs service address meant LankaBell refused to send me service team.

After almost a week the device was activated without any service staff needing to come over, baffling how they managed to do that!

Device

Lanka Bell provides a Huawei device (Model B310s). The device comes with two VERY large antennas, i am not sure if they give two antennas because they have their stations far and wide.  I was able to get TWO bars without any antennas, and get 3 bars (full strength) with just one antenna in my area.  The large antenna really does make the device rather massive in foot print.

Update (May 2016): My sister got a new Dialog 4G connection, and they too are now providing the B310S model.

Perceptions – Lanka Bell 4G

The immediate perception was that the Lanka Bell 4G speeds was slower, and patchy. When i say patchy, i get regular periods where the internet just stops working for a few minutes, and then gets going on its own.

In addition page loads for general browsing are rather slow, slower than what i get on the 3.5G dongle.

Speed Benchmarking

So I decided to test it out using a network speed test site, and the test scenarios was,

  1. I ran two rounds of test, back to back
  2. I avoided the famous speedtest.net app, because i felt that the telcos had learnt to “tweak” to make their connections faster for this test
  3. I used the same device and browser (Nexus 5X, Chrome browser)
  4. I ran it at nearly the same time, one after one
  5. Tested it over Wi-Fi, both 4G devices were kept just 2 feet away from my phone

Peak time speeds

These were run during an overcast day, and during peak hours.  The key is the average performance, as the max performance is “burst” of high speed that maybe only relevant for bragging rights.

During peak hours Dialog 4G trounces LankaBell 4G by 9 times higher download speeds, and 6 times higher upload speeds.

Performance

LankaBell 4G Dialog 4G comparison

Off Peak speeds

Decided to test it at a more off peak time, where the user base is less, and here on a sunny Saturday morning at around 7am.

During off peak hours Dialog 4G offered 9 times the download performance, but the upload performance was only 2.5 times faster than LankaBell 4G

the key change being that the LankaBell upload average speeds increasing.  In both cases we see a remarkable improvement in speeds compared to peak hours.

offpeak-performance

LankaBell 4G Dialog 4G comparison - Off Peak

Update (May 2016):  Another observation was that the LankaBell connection did not allow too many connections to be made. For example if my Torrent downloader was set to a maximum of 10 parallel threads for a download, I could not do anything else (e.g. Browse, check mail, etc).  Comparatively with Dialog I could have 3 torrent (30 connections) + do what I want and still have enough connections.

Stability

Another key question of any connection is how available and stable it is.  I have now have the LankaBell connection for over 2 weeks, and it has been extremely disappointing.  I have called support once because I could not get connectivity (the device could not get a connection from the tower) and it was resolved without a visit by the tech team, indicating an issue with the stations. The same has appeared 2-3 times since then.

Comparatively Dialog has performed better, but in one occasion (where the LankaBell also refused to get connection) I had no connection and it was on a very overcast day.  Surprisingly Dialog 4G on the phone was working, so the problem was with the 4G fixed line network.

Conclusion

So if you want speed Dialog aces it, and Dialog also definitely have a much more stable connection.  However the LankaBell connection is still fast enough for most general users, and with the 33% monthly lower cost, LankaBell 4G can be a viable alternative (and possibly the best cost per GB for general users).

Advice to LankaBell : Improve your call center and sales teams, they need to be more polite and supportive… you don’t have the performance, so you got to cover it up with service to grow your client base, and ensure you retain the clients you gain.  And work on the reliability of your network, the patchy performance is terribly irritating.

Sadly a saving of 33% monthly may not be worthwhile compared to the loss in performance, unstable performance and unstable network.  Dialog and SLT seem to be much better propositions currently for fixed line fast data at the moment…

Your speeds may differ based on location and density of consumers. So feel free to share your views

Review: Xiaomi Redmi Note 3


Who are Xiaomi?

A comprehensive review of the Redmi Note 3, manufactured by China’s No 1 phone manufacturer (yes they outsell Samsung and Apple by a clear margin).  While Xiaomi is yet to get public attention in Sri Lanka (as only Dialcom markets this in Sri Lanka, none of the big names have yet taken up this brand), the brand has got superb attention in India, China, and great online sales.

Featuring great specs, top notch build quality, and a very competitive price, the Redmi Note 3 should be on the list of most shoppers in the mid tier phone market.  Unlike big brands HTC, Samsung, Sony who are only getting to use the MediaTek processors recently Xiaomi has a lot more experience, and when you see the forums you will realize the Xiaomi phones are far more reliable than the big brands.

Why the Redmi Note 3

Xiaomi in case sounds like a new name, don’t be worried, as it is BIG in china.  Xiaomi is the No 1 phone manufacturer by volume in China (Apple coming in second).  Xiaomi also manufactures many high quality gizmos in addition to phones (Tablets, Home automation, CCTV cameras, Action Cameras, audio devices, power banks, etc).

Xiaomi’s hallmark is similar to OnePlus, high quality finish, good hardware, good software, but very good pricing. However unlike OnePlus, Xiaomi sells in large volumes, as it targets both budget users, as well as high end users.  Xiaomi was listed as No 2 (next to Samsung) in the Android space for “Best Manufacturer” on going beyond boundaries by Android Magazine.

The Redmi Note 3 is an evolution of the highly popular Redmi Note 2, and in many ways the internal hardware has not changed much.  The key addition is the finger print scanner, and the full metal finish to give the phone a more premium feel.

I had been targeting to try out the Redmi Note 2, and in the nick of time the Redmi Note 3 was released, I ordered it on Gearbest while it was on pre-sale.  The price difference between the two models are minimal since the hardware is only marginally different.

Unboxing

Nothing to get excited here, you just get a box with the phone, charger, and cable, a popular packaging approach by many vendors (the Ulefone Paris was an exemption!). No headset is bundled, however Xiaomi does make some great audio headsets at very cool prices, check out the Xiaomi Piston 2/3, which are rated highly for a low price but great audio quality.

Gearbest also ships an adapter to use the charger with your countries power outlet.  The unit does not come with any form of screen protector that you can use for a long time (it simply comes with a very cheap sticker for the front that you need to remove as it completely washes out the colors of the display).  Remember to pre-order a screen protector and case when buying !!!

The Phone

General build

The device is a bit hefty if you are used to lightweight phones, and you feel it when you use it.  After using the Ulefone Paris 4G, this extra heft is noticeable, but inline with my LG G3. The quality of build is very good aided by the all metal construction.  The plastic covers in the back (top and bottom) cover the antennas have the identical color of the metal  You really do not notice they are plastic until you inspect it closer.  On the whole the device can easily pass as a high value phone.

But on the design front it is rather “stale” with no standout design features other than the finger print scanner. In some ways it looks a bit like a chubby, repeat chubby IPhone 6.

Unusually though its only 8.7mm thick, it feels thicker than the HTC M8 and the LG G3 (which is 9.4mm and 9.3mm respectively) when you hold it.  The rather sharp curved corner design might be the reason for this.  The IPhone 6S comparatively is a lot slimmer at 7.1mm, and hence the curved look does not impact, unlike the case with the Redmi Note 3.

Android Software

Xiaomi has its own custom ROM which is named MIUI.  The ROM features massive customization to leverage other services offered by Xiaomi (Mi Cloud, etc) and Xiaomi devices (specially the Home Automation aspects).  However unlike major brands Xiaomi seems to have not gone with the Material look, and also has different styles across its system app, indicating that multiple teams are developing these components, and the application of common standards across teams is yet to happen.

#TIP: When I got my phone it was running MIUI 7.0.x, and software update check did not show the 7.1 update that was available online.  I downloaded the update and tried to update it via the phone and the MIUI PC Suite, but it refused to update. Subsequently the 7.2 update was released, and yet I did not get the OTA update.  I realized something was not quite right, and I posted my issue on the MIUI  7.2 thread, and a community member responded that my phone was carrying a custom ROM (the MIUI discussion forum has a large active user base).

A little bit of research highlighted the story.   For international sales the online vendors tend to ship it with a custom ROM, because… because the standard ROM does NOT come with Google apps installed.  More worrying is that these “Custom” ROMs tend to have malware, and adware, so if you have problems getting updates or features not working, etc, flash the phone and flash your phone with a stock ROM.  While the custom ROM I had did not have any such behavior, a friend of mine who had such a ROM on her Redmi Note 2, had irritating pop ads come up when she enabled her data, and this could not be stopped, and we could not trace the app causing this as it had so many Chinese apps.

Once I flashed it with the standard ROM, I noticed the 7.2 release was indeed vastly nicer and smoother than the 7.0.x ROM originally pre-installed on the phone.  Do note though the MIUI 7.x is still based on Android 5.0.2.  Xiaomi while providing updates for MIUI have been very slow in updating the base Android ROM version compared to rivals.

An important feature that was implemented in MIUI 7.1 and newer that was very noticeable is the vastly improved scaling of fonts.  In the 7.0.x ROM, the fonts were like a Windows Phone, where the XS setting had rather big fonts.  I like my fonts to be smaller and sharper, so it was disappointing when I first launched the phone, but after the 7.2 update the font scaling is way better.

#TIP: Since I did not want to side load apps or to use the Mi App store, I found a link on the MIUI forum that had the tutorial to install the entire Google apps without too much drama.  In case you want to do the same, the link is http://en.miui.com/thread-198204-1-1.html

When downloading there are two forks for the ROM, stable and dev.  I opted for stable, since I did not want any unstable features to be on my daily phone.  In addition you also have the CHINESE and INTERNATIONAL ROMs.  The INTERNATIONAL ROM is only available for a limited set of devices, which are sold officially outside China.  The International ROM get updates much slower than the CHINESE versions.  However for the Redmi Note 3 there is only the CHINESE ROM since its not sold outside the Chinese market as yet.

You can uninstall many of the bundled bloatware apps that comes with Chinese language only, you will still have a few that you can’t uninstall.  While these are not very intrusive, you also find some system apps that are purely in Chinese and can be irritating.  E.g. if you select change ringtone or font, you are loaded the Xiaomi Mi app store (which is only in Chinese), and you have to try your luck to get what you want 🙂  since there is no translation available.

Likewise the system app updates are provided via the Mi App Store, which is only available in CHINESE.  I identified the apps by the ICONS to update them.  The Mi App store also has other apps you find on Google Play store, but i am not sure if these have any “modifications”. My advice is that you install Google Apps, and download other apps that you want directly from the Google Play store, which will allow you to see details and comments in your language !

#TIP: Remember go the MI App store and disable auto update via Wi-Fi.  I noticed that for instance the Mi Fit app I downloaded from Google Play store (that I use with my Xiaomi Mi Band 2) was replaced with a newer version that was Chinese only.  I uninstalled and reinstalled it to get it working in English.

Unusually i did not see any implementations that used gestures to get things done in MIUI, considering so many customizations had been done by Xiaomi.  I really liked the three finger screen shot swipe on the Ulefone Paris.

Display

The display is a critical component of any phone, and here the Redmi Note 3 does not disappoint.

The full HD resolution gives a good striking effect, indicating Xiaomi has not skimmed on the quality of the display.  The touch sensitive is very good.  At full brightness the display real does provide a lot of contrast.

#TIP: Make sure to attach a good quality tempered glass protector to give it the proper finish.  A friend of mine who got the same phone hard ordered the Nilken 2.5D tempered glass protector and it gave an absolute great finish to this display.

Storage and memory

The 16GB version comes with 10GB available for end users.  This should be good enough for most, but keep in mind that there is NO micro SD slot (the Snapdragon edition of the Redmi Note 3 does feature a micro SD slot).  Considering the rather hefty proportions of the phone, the fact that Xiaomi skimmed on the micro SD slot (which was there in the Note 2) is a bad downgrade.

The MIUI launcher is not light (But not as heavy as Samsung’s TouchWiz), and around 800MB-1GB of the 2GB is used by the system.

#TIP: If you are a heavy user or gamer, get the 3GB RAM version, but for most the 2GB should be more than adequate.

Camera

Most Redmi Note 3 features a 13MP camera Samsung ISOCell sensor (Model S5K3P3 1/3″, 1 μm pixel size), a super fast Phase Detect Autofocus,  a F2.2 aperture lens and a dual tone flash as its primary shooter.  The front camera is a 5MP, Omnivision sensor with a F 2.2 aperture.  No form of optical image stabilization is implemented.  This is the same as the Redmi Note 2 (however the Redmi Note 3 Snapdragon version has a different camera module, which seems to be less capable).

#TIP: I said “Most” Redmi Note 3 units, it seems Xiaomi has the “bad” habit of using other sensors as well, when they are short of supply.  Redmi Note 2 and Note 3 units are known to also feature an Omnivision sensor for the main camera, and the picture quality of this sensor is comparatively inferior to the Samsung version.

The camera specs are more than decent, and with a big aperture low light photos technically should be good, but as it goes camera performance is more about the quality of the lens, sensor and the photo processing algorithms than mere specs.

xiaomi-redmi-note-3-0024_crop

In use, for a budget priced phone, the Redmi Note 3 has a very good camera.  The picture quality in good light is very good, even though closer inspection reveals a fair bit of noise.   The focus is fast, very fast and metering implementation is good.  The distortion is in photos taken are minimal.

I saw this thread in MIUI for some shots taken by a very enthusiastic user http://en.miui.com/thread-238985-1-1.html, and they were quite amazing.  My shots have not been anywhere close to this quality 😦

Under low light however the pictures are not that great compared to my LG G3.

The front selfie camera produces good still photos, considering the price tag of the phone.  If you are into features, the phone does not have a front selfie flash.

The camera app is simple but may not be to everyone’s appeal.  A left swipe from the edge brings the camera modes and setting option.  An irritating feature is that the photo options are rather stupid.  Rather than say 3MP/5MP/13MP it just has Low/Medium and High, and you need to do the guesswork what that might be !!  Fortunately the video options are somewhat better defined with FULL HD/HD and SD.  Panorama mode, and slow-mo video (and time lapse video) are available.

Panorama mode however is a rather big letdown, the resulting images are very poor in detail.

Finger Print scanner

This being my first owned phone with a fingerprint scanner, I was curious to see how it worked compared to the implementations I have seen with Samsung and Apple devices.  What I noticed is that when it works, its super fast and downright good. The fingerprint sensor is located at the back of the phone near the camera, and the location is very intuitive.

However the fingerprint sensor has its issues, as  there are occasions where you need to tap the finger several times, before it gets registered.  In some cases though it registers (you feel the vibration on the sensor) the screen took a while to unlock (3-10 secs), this to me seems to be not an issue with the sensor, but rather the software implementation.  One time I had to restart the phone to get it working again.

*I also read in the MIUI forum if you have a custom ROM, for many the finger print scanner had not worked.  Users with this problem got it to work after they flashed it with the original Chinese ROM.

*The 7.2 thread also mentions that the fingerprint scanner seems to have become buggy with the new firmware build, which might explain the issues I have faced

The software implementation for fingerprint registration is implemented well, as you can add several fingerprints.  The fingerprint registration requires around 8-10 scans to confirm and save a new fingerprint.

Audio

The in-built speaker is quite loud and does very well in speakerphone mode but can be a bit shrilly.  The in-ear audio quality is very good for calls with the microphone pickup also be clear to the recipient.

Dual Sim

Both the SIMs are 4G capable, however only one can be enabled to be the data SIM at a particular point.  When you are on a call on one SIM, the other is put on standby (any caller will get the phone is not switched on message for the standby SIM).

Performance

The phone features a 64-bit octa-core Mediatek Helio X10 chipset (this was known as the MTK6795 when it was released with the Note 2), based on Cortex A53 cores, which is quite a powerhouse.  This chipset is coupled with a PowerVR G6200 GPU, a big improvement over the ARM Mali 40o/720 GPUs in other MTK chipsets.

The performance of the 3GB unit maybe slightly better due to more available memory, but even the 2GB performed well.

General user interface is nippy and smooth, browsing fast and smooth.  However there are occasional freezes, something i did not see with my lower spec’d Ulefone Paris!

So how does it fare on synthetic benchmarks?

Single-core performance

Many new budget multicore chipsets provide poor single core performance (opting to market high no of cores), it must be understood that most system apps are single core implementations.  Which is why even phones running older chipsets such as the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800/801 phones are still very fast for general usage (my other phones the LG G3 and the HTC M8 Eye both run Snapdragon 801 processors).  While the Helio X10 chipset in the phone is fast (2ghz cores) single core performance is still not up to Snapdragon 801 levels.  The Snapdragon 650 version of this phone true to Qualcomm design, provides much better single core performance.

Antutu-CPU

Vellamo-Metal

Multi-core performance

This is where the Helio X10 chipset trumps older quad-core chipsets, coming up with high scores, the chipset is up with powerful chipsets (the octa core topping scores from QUALCOMM 801 and even the newer 808 are beaten by in tests, and only falling  behind the top end Samsung chipsets powering the S6 and the Qualcomm 810).

Vellamo-CPU

The Vellamo multi-core illustrates how powerful the Redmi Note 3 performs in multi-core mode, where it actually comes to match the Snapdragon 808 powered LG G4, leaving the rest in its wake.  So for apps that can use the full cores, this phone should give really good performance.  The multi-core performance even outclasses the Redmi Note 3 PRO powered by the Snapdragon 650 processor.

Browser

While general browsing is smooth, the benchmarks indicate this as a key weakness of the Helio X10 chipset.  Compared to other phones running Android 5.0.x, the X10 has much lower browser performance, almost 30% less even though the other phones have similar or lower single/multicore performance.

But don’t be deterred, as price wise all these phones are on much higher scale. For the price bracket the Redmi Note 3 performance is very good, among the best one might say.

Scores from Vellamo Browser (for Chrome) shows that the Redmi Note 3 offers superior scores to Snapdragon 400 and 410 powered devices, but is not able to get close to the Snapdragon 801 and 800 flagships that are around 2 years old now (and are priced similar for used devices in the market).  Unusually the much less powerful MT6753 powered Ulefone Paris and Blue Life One seems to be able to perform better on the browsing department remains a major anomaly.

 

 

VellamoBrowser

#TIP: Use Chrome as the main browser, the stock Mi browser has horrendous client side JScript performance, and also seems fully focused for the Chinese market (aka, you can only set one of the 3 Chinese search engines as default, and the front page is full of various Chinese sites bookmarks, which you can’t bypass).  Though vellamo HTML5 tests show Chrome only marginally better than the stock browser (which is based on Chromium), the latest version of Chrome is definitely a lot smoother than the stock browser for regular use, and far more INTERNATIONAL friendly!

Vellamo Browser Results

GPU

The GPU scores while not current flagship levels, are more than adequate for most average gamers.

Antutu 3D benchmarks scores are higher than Qualcomm aderno 330 GPU, but on specific test such as UX strategy it’s less than half and more closer to lower chipsets because it has to push fullHD while phones such as the ulefone Paris only have 720pHD.

Test observations

  • The details tests results show that one aspect where the Redmi Note 3 does outstanding well is in the MEMORY and IO benchmarks, that are inline with the top phones (which also helps it get higher better benchmark scores).  The fact that the Redmi Note 3 uses a fast storage and memory modules will definitely help overall system performance.  The scores below show that in the RAM and IO scores from Antutu and Vellamo.  Across you can see the Redmi having outstanding memory scores, and the storage IO is also superior to the HTC M8 and LG G3!

Antutu-RAM scoresVellamo-Memory

Battery

One of the main criticisms for chipsets made by the Taiwan based MediaTek was its slow battery charging performance.  However with Helio X10 (and other’s launchd at the same time) features MediaTek’s rapid battery charging tech similar to Qualcomm’s Quick Charge technology, and its called “Pump Express Plus”.. fancy naming !!!.  See http://en.miui.com/thread-211793-1-1.html for more details.

While rapid charge tech only works with supported chargers, when connected to my laptop which can do max 1.5-2A on its special USB port for charging devices, I measured a draw of around 1-1.2A by the device, which is actually a bit better than the draw I get from the HTC M8 and LG G3. Battery usage in standby is decent, and I can get around 1.5-2  days of use.  The key consumer of battery tends to be the display.

GearLK Summary

Based on my usage here are the key points

The good points

  • MIUI interface is highly customized, but has great user friendly features
  • Great still photos under good light
  • Fast and accurate focusing under good light conditions
  • Excellent display and touch sensitivity
  • Smooth and good usable performance
  • External build quality is excellent, even superior to expensive handsets from reputed brands
  • Dual SIM implementation is solid
  • Signal strength and connectivity is above average
  • Large capacity battery comfortably providing more than a 1-2 day’s of use
  • Rapid battery charging technology enabled
  • Regular software updates to fix issues, with an active community pushing the vendor

The NOT so good points

  • Conservative design of the phone
  • No micro SD expansion slot
  • Finger print scanner is good, but seems to have software issues
  • Chinese ROM can be an issue for international users who are not tech savvy due to the lack of bundled Google Apps, and far too many system apps that are only in Chinese
  • Custom ROMs with Google Apps bundles have malware and issues, which sadly will result in international consumers having an wrong perception of the Redmi Note 3
  • Still photos under low light even with the flash are poor and full of noise

Quirks

  1. Something that bothered me was that ROM kept stopping me from downloading apps that were rather small in size (e.g. Viber, WhatsApp), saying I should use Wi-Fi, and though I selected ignore it still refused the download.  This was usually sorted by saying unchecking use Wi-Fi for large downloads in all Android phones I had used.  However in MIUI you also need change the settings in the Download app.  Seeming the limit is 1MB by default!!, anything larger is Wi-Fi only.  Check out how to change this setting at http://www.androidheadlines.com/2014/09/android-getting-rid-annoying-wifi-download-limit-miui.html
  2. Menu option to change the default app for main applications such as the browser is hidden.  This option is available in MIUI, check out http://www.technobuzz.net/change-default-browser-app-settings-mi3-phone/ on how you do that.
  3. Disable auto update in the MI App store, if not apps that you downloaded from Google Play store are updated with Chinese Language only versions!!!
  4. Changing the system font always requires a reboot, something I did not have to do in any phones that supported this feature (E.g. Samsung devices, HTC devices, LG devices).
  5. When you create a group (folder) in your home pages of the launcher, and you click on it, an irritating feature is that it starts looking for recommended apps that are similar to what you have in that group.  The bigger issue is that you can’t click on any icons below because of these list popping up.  This is a bug reported, and there is a work around provided at http://54.243.194.135/thread-209345-1-1.html.  However you need to do it per group folder.

 

Installing an M.2 SATA hard disk on a laptop


SSD drives provide a world of a difference to your laptop and desktop, however there might be many who are running with standard magnetic drives, wanting to upgrade but are put off by the high prices of large capacity SSD drives.  For desktop users of course they could install a small SSD as the boot drive, and then have the large capacity standard disk as the data drive.

But when it comes to laptops, there is usually space only for one 2.5″ hard disk, so the option available is to replace the standard disk with an SSD.  But not all may be keen on this option, with justifiable reasons.

Why not SSDs?

1. SSD hard disks are expensive, and typically a 512G SSD can cost well over 2-3 times the price of a normal disk (though prices of SSD drives have reduced drastically in the last 1-2 years)

2. SSD drives and data losses seem to be something people fear, specially with that fact that SSD start loosing capacity and performance as their cells die away.  However industry comparisons show SSDs failure rate of 1.5% compared to 5% for normal HDDs

3. The issue that SSDs can loose data stored due to power failure.  Then again this is something that can happen with normal HDDs

But the performance of an SSD is something that can even make an old PC feel fast..  and the allure is very tempting..

Use the mSATA/M.2 SATA for SSD and keep your standard hard disk

What many may not be aware is that most new laptops do have another option.  This comes in the way of another slot that we rarely bother about.  Older machines came with mSATA (mini SATA) port and the new devices come with the next gen M.2 SATA (these were called NGFF drives, Next Generation Form Factor) ports.  This port can take a drive or other device such as internal 4G modem, etc.  Many brands offer mSATA and M.2 SATA drives that work in two manners.

1. As a boot drive just like any other SSD

2. As a cache drive, where linked with software cache application the drive provides the SSD performance

What does an mSATA or M.2 SATA drive look like!

mSATA and M.2 SATA drives are tiny when compared to a 2.5” SATA drive, and actually they can be even smaller than the RAM/Memory chips in your laptop!!!

Lenovo X240 M.2 SATA installation

Lenovo was among the first to opt to replace the mSATA with the newer NGFF/M.2 SATA port.  We found that buying a M.2 SATA (or even a mSATA) drive is not simple as a 2.5” SSD as they come in various form factors and sizes in addition to the capacity!

Beware of the different sizes of mSATA and M.SATA drives

mSATA and M.2 SATA drives come in different sizes!!!! You need to make sure you buy the correct size so that it fits yyour laptop.  Lenovo in particular has a rather small size which is not supported by big brands that we know (E.g. SanDisk, Kingston, Samsung, Crucial, etc), and you find that a big player for Lenovo compatible size is a Taiwanese based company called MyDigital.

911554700_488

While the width of the M.2 SATA drives seems to be set at 22mm, the length of the M.2 SATA drives vary and include 80mm, 60mm and 42mm.  The Lenovo X240 and T440 have 42mm sizes M.2 SATA ports.

Do note you also find custom size mSATA SSD units that are even smaller than the 42mm variant!  Hence is very important you get the exact requirement that will meet your laptop.

Steps to restoring your old OS to to the new mSATA/M.2 drive

So now we have the correct format, and the correct size.  We ordered the first drive for my friend, who was running a X240.  When installing the drive he had few challenging requirements.

1. He did not want to do a fresh installation of Windows 8.1

2. He wanted to use his standard drive as the data drive and the M.2 SATA as the boot drive

Based on past experiences we started our venture, by creating an image of his existing drive using Acronis, which i had got free with my Crucial SSD.  We carried out the following steps.

1. We created a backup of all partitions required other than the Data partition and the Lenovo recovery partition using Acronis

2. Booted with the Acronis rescue disk that we had created in an USB and restored the backup to the new M.2 drive

3. Removed the old hard disk and booted with the new SSD

BANG…. Baring teeth smile problems.. Windows indicated to us that drive could not boot.  We tried to fix the boot by loading with the Windows CD and using diskpart in command line, but no luck Baring teeth smile.  We also noticed something peculiar, though we had copied all the partitions, the EFI boot partition was not getting created on the new drive (we tried it twice).

We then decide on a new approach, we did a fresh installation of Windows 8.1 on the new drive to see if it booted and worked.  Yes it worked fine.. and then we booted using the Acronis recovery USB boot drive and replaced the OS partition of the new installation with the OS partition from our backup.

Booted.. and this time it WORKED Smile

Performance

I am currently running with only a SSD (a Crucial MX500), and when my friend’s machine only worked with the MyDigital SSD it performed pretty similar to my machine.  However when we had it coupled where the standard hard disk was also there as the data drive, the shutdown was noticeably not instantaneous, presumably because the standard drive had to be gracefully shutdown, negating some of the benefits of the SSD.

Boot up times were significantly better and so was the general usage.  However it must be noted that the MyDigital M.2 SATA drive in pure boot mode is a slower than current low-end-tier drives, which might explain why it felt slower than my Crucial MX500.  I will update this once I install the same drive on my T440p to do a proper comparison.

I tested the drive with bootracer to compare how it performs against my drive, and another machine with a standard drive.

To login screen (secs)
MyDigitial SSD 13
Crucial MX500 256GB SSD 11
Hitachi 500GB 7200rpm

Benchmarks are one thing, but perceived performance is the key.  Specially in an enterprise laptop where the greatest performance killer the famous McAfee Virus scanner and its bloatware rule, the system performance most impacted is storage reads. Unusually compared to the benchmarks from professional sites using the same tool, my times are far slower, one reason maybe the fact that domain login is setup on our PCs.

The noticeable improvements after the upgrade were,

  1. Faster boot times
  2. Much faster time to load the desktop after logon
  3. General usability is vastly improved (mainly due to the improved read performance, making background tasks such as McAfee performance much faster)

I got some benchmarks from legitreviews.com that had tested the MyDigital drive, as well as the MX100 as well as other key brands, and have tabulated it for the benefit of your reading.  Links to the actual reviews from where I have extracted this scores are listed below.  Based on this review, and a few observations,

  • M.2 drives such as the MyDigitalSSD offer very good boot times, bettering the 2.5” SSD drives
  • Read performance of the MyDigitalSSD is on par with the other big brand M.2 offerings as well as 2.5” SSD
  • Write performances are much lower than other drives, part of the reason seems to be the lack of any cache on this drive.  This is also reflected with the slower real world copy times.
Drive MyDigitalSSD 128GB M.2 Kingston SM2280 M.2 120GB Crucial MX100 256GB Samsung EVO M.2 256GB
ATTO Read (MB/s) 538.1 554.1 550.3 550.3
ATTO Write (MB/s) 443.2 516.2 346.4 512.5
AS SSD Seq Read (MB/s) 512.3 499.7 518.3 506.8
AS SSD Seq Write (MB/s) 140.4 339.3 329.2 481.2
Real World Copy 5GB JPG (sec) 71.1 44 50 40.9
Real World Copy 5GB Mp3 (sec) 69.2 44.7 39.3 43.6
Windows Boot Bootracer Time to login (sec) 3 3 7 2
Windows Boot Bootracer Time to desktop(sec) 19.4 19.5 28.3 19.3

What if I don’t want use my mSATA/M.2 SATA in cache mode than boot mode?

First you have to realize that the software to use your drive in cache mode does not come with your drive as standard in most cases.  For example the drive we got is sold by MyDigital on amazon in three forms (yes in addition to the length and capacity of the drive, complicated is not the wordSarcastic smile)!

  1. A drive that works purely as a boot drive.  This version does not come with Hybridrive software that will enable the drive to be used in cache  mode.  This features the Phision controller and Toshiba NAND chips.
  2. A drive that can work as a boot drive as well as a cache drive.  This version comes bundled with a license copy of Hybridrive. Hardware wise this is identical to the above drive.
  3. A pure boot drive, but featuring a different brand of NAND chip and controller, and Amazon review comments suggest this drive is more reliable than the other two.  This drive features Micron NAND chips and a XXX controller.

In this case you don’t need to do any recovery, you just install the M.2 (or MSATA) drive and boot as usual.  Once you have booted you install the Hybridrive software, and configure it.  Configuration include to use the full disk as a cache drive, or a part.  The part you don’t allocate for caching can be used for standard data storage purposes and is loaded a physical drive.  The storage you allocate for caching is NOT shown as storage and is internally managed.

You only get the performance benefit after about 2-4 reboots, as the Hybridrive software needs to identify the OS files and common files which are then copied to the M.2 SATA drive.  Thereafter you always work on the M.2 SATA drive, and the Hybridrive software copies the updated files to your standard hard disk when the machine is idle.

Can I install an mSATA or M.2 SATA on my desktop?

If you have one of the small form factor desktops (e.g. Such as an Intel NUC) or a mini-PC, these essentially come with laptop or tablet like motherboards, and are certain to have M.2 or mSATA ports for you add storage.  Further even full size boards may feature these ports, but these ports may only support a drive purely for caching purposes and not be capable of booting an OS.  The only way you can confirm is by checking your technical guide for your board or device (And forums).

Checklist when deciding to install an mSATA or M.2 SATA drive

Based on my experiences, here is my checklist, and I am most glad for feedback to improve this!

  • Check if your laptop or device has a mSATA or M.2 SATA port
  • Check if the port can be used to boot into an OS or if it can only work as a data drive or cache drive
  • Check what type of port is supported (mSATA, M.2 SATA, etc)
  • Check the length of the drive
  • Check what brands of drives are tested and confirmed by your laptop/device manufacturer
  • Check with the SSD drive you are choosing what brands of laptops/devices they have tested and see if your is listed
  • If your device is not listed by your laptop manufacturer or in the SSD, check out forums, if not test the device before purchasing to ensure its compatible
  • If you wish to use the drive as a cache drive, see if the drive is offered with a copy of a caching software (as it might cheaper than having to buy this software separately)
  • To compare boot times before such an upgrade, install Bootracer and test your boot time, and then compare after the upgrade.
  • If things are slow to load the desktop, check your startup apps as no matter what these can slow down if any software is having a long wait

Nokia Lumia 1520, one of the best “phablet” phone devices of 2013/14


The Windows 8 Lumia range in 2012/13 had excellent design, good camera’s and helped start re-building the Windows Phone market, which was accelerated with the super pricing of the Lumia 520 that helped in more than one way to increase the Windows market share.   However one thing was obvious, the hardware on these phone was pre 2012, yet Windows seemed more than efficient compared to Android that it helped smooth operations with rather mediocre hardware.

The first phone to break this mold was the Lumia 1520, as it for the first time a Windows Phone 8 device matched the Android flagship phones on the hardware.  However to the WP8 buyers the question was? Was this phone still better than the older flagship the Lumia 1020? Had Nokia (Microsoft) changed their focus on the top end camera performance on their flagship?  However for Nokia and Microsoft it was clear it was not just about the camera, but also making the phone match the performance of the Android in the industry test, since many buyers tend to look at the media for their purchase decisions, and negative flak about the low end of the hardware, were dragging the Lumia image down.

Hardware

The Lumia range no matter what the phone had some form of the the dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus Krait processor inside the phone until the the arrival of the Lumia 1520 (and the look alike lower budget Lumia 1320).

The Lumia 1520 features the cutting edge hardware during its launch, featuring the quad-core 2.2Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 (Model: MSM8974, Krait 400 cores) processor, coupled with the Adreno 330 graphics, and 2GB of RAM.

The android club might say only 2GB? when the Samsung flagship the Note 3 had 3GB.  But if you have used Androids you know its one memory hog, though things have improved a bit after Kit Kat, however add the Android memory inefficiencies, and the heavy Samsung TouchWiz interface, and the additional custom apps the Note 3 brings in with the Stylus, you realize 3GB is  a MUST!  Step back and compare the Lumia with the other major mobile OS, Apple iOS.  The flagship there the IPhone 5S (at the time of the 1520 launch) and even the latest Iphone6 and 6+ only have 1GB, so 2GB is more than enough for Windows, don’t compare apples to apples (no pun intended) since the mobile OS platforms and vendor customizations require very different hardware requirements.

I have used the Lumia 520, 720, 820, 620, 920 and 1020, and got a chance to try the Lumia 1520 from a friend, and I immediately noticed the gain on the performance in general OS usage.  One must also consider that unlike the older Nokia models with the Lumia 1520 the hardware has to handle almost double the pixels as it features a fullHD resolution (1920×1080) compared to older flagships that had 720pHD (1280×768).   The resolution impact may not be noticeable in most apps due to the Windows big font approach however!

Performance

First and foremost comparing devices on the same platform with the same tools maybe relevant in some ways, but when comparing against different platforms this can be totally meaningless factor.  Reason is that how the operating platform behave, the optimizations, etc means the real performance you feel can be vastly different though the hardware might be the same. Take for example an Apple IPhone 4S, a Lumia 520 and any Android phone running a dual-core processor with 512MB memory, and I can say the Android phone feels really slow, but the other two devices are far more smoother.  So keep this in mind and don’t purely go by benchmarks to say which is the superior device.

Finding free benchmarks for Window Phone devices are not easy, and even paid once are not many.  So seeing how well it performs against phones running other platforms are not easy for a blogger like me.

One tool that has started proving some means of comparing across platforms is the Basemark OS II tool from Rightmark.  Results shown are a combination of data extracted from the web, and my personal tests.

The overall test one might say are give an usual picture showing the Nexus 5 and Lumia 1520 to have near equal results, and that makes sense when they are running nearly the same hardware configuration.  We also see the quantum improvement of the new Lumia 1520 compared to the older Lumia 1020.  Also evident is that the lookalike Lumia 1320 (and the Lumia 630, both powered by Snapdragon 400 processors) is far slower, but match last year’s the Lumia 1020 flagship though they are running mid-tier hardware in 2014 terms.

Basemarkoverall

However the graphics test for Basemark provides is rather different, and questions the accuracy of the test.  The chart below has the Nexus 5 roaring massively ahead of the Lumia 1520, and also ahead of the IPhone 5S.  Once might say the Windows 8.1 graphic drivers and game engines maybe not as optimized as the Android version, but the Apple 5S pushes a lot less pixels, and has a very powerful GPU, so its quite startling.  But the comparison of the Windows devices here makes sense, and see how much more powerful the Lumia 1520 GPU and CPU combination is compared to the Lumia 1020 (almost 4x times).

basemarkgraphics

A review of the Nokia 930 published in www.7tutorials.com uses the WP Bench app to test the Windows phones, shows the Lumia 1520 (and the 930) going neck and neck, and providing nearly a 100% (2x) improvement to the Lumia 1020 performance in graphics, memory and storage tests.   Interestingly many had said the gain for Windows from better hardware was going to be marginal, but the performance gains of the Lumia 1520 over the 1020 indicates that WP8/8.1 performance does improve tremendously with better hardware, though performance gains from 1GB to 2GB memory have been marginal.

Design

One of the most favorite and still popular WP8 Lumia phones is the 925 for it classy design.  The new co-flagship to the Lumia 1520 the Lumia 930 harks back to this design, but sadly the Lumia 1520 opted more for a plasticky feel though it has the strong and sturdy polycarbonate chassis.   The worst is the red variant as it has a glossy body making it feel really cheap, however the other colors have a matte type surface similar to the Lumia 920, giving it a more refined and premium feel. The design though has very little novelties, and seems to be more functional.

1520-0

I like that they put the power button at the middle as it makes the phone operable with single hand thank to this design touch (something the HTC designers for instance missed out with the HTC butterfly I had sometime back).  The SIM card and microSD slots have trays rather than simply inserting the devices which also gives it it a premium feel.

Though the phone features optical image stabilization, it has a slim shape something that Nokia got right with the 925 and the same mantra is applied to the Lumia 1520. However the days the optical image stabilization was a Nokia feature is now gone, HTC and then LG joined in, and this year IPhone (with the 6+) and Samsung (with the Note 4) join the club, and they have even thinner profiles.

The phone is large, and definitely a phablet and bordering a tablet, but heavy at 209g.  However when you hold it, you will realize it does not seem to heavy compared to say the Lumia 1020.  Weird when the 1020 is much lighter.  This all boils down to the weight balance and design, as the camera hump on the Lumia 1020 definitely upsets the phone balance for normal use.  I have the Lumia 1520 next to my Nexus 5, and you see the difference of what one calls a large 4.95” phone and the Lumia 1520!

IMG_0687_crop

Display

A phablet has to be large, and the Lumia 1520 (and the cheaper 1320) are Nokia’s first fling into the highly lucrative phablet market that Samsung got going with their Note series phones.  The users of these devices mainly want to watch videos, play games, and hence the quality of the display is very very important.

The prominent and very easily noticed Smile aspect of the Lumia 1520 is its fullHD resolution 6” display.  The Lumia 1520 moves away from the AMOLED type displays that were in the Lumia 1020 and 925, and moves back to a IPS LCD display, a Nokia ClearBlack type, a decision that seems to be favored by many due to the more natural colors of the LCD displays.  The display comes with a protective layer of Corning Glass 2, unusual that it uses the older generation of this tech, when even the Lumia 1020 had Corning glass 3? Could this be a cost issue?

The display also has the supersensitive touch tech (aka glove mode) which is something Nokia has been bragging with the Lumia range (and the only one to omit this surprisingly is the new Lumia 930). The Lumia 1520 display is also supposed to have something called Assertive Display Technology (got that from wpcentral.com) where each pixel is can dynamically adjust to the current environment, and this is unique to the Lumia 1520 currently.

The display has good color representation, and decent legibility outdoors, and great legibility indoors.  The display however is very reflective, and a matter screen protector may seem a good option if you are an outdoor user.

Camera

While Nokia and Microsoft will like you to believe the camera in the Lumia 1520 is a match for the Lumia 1020, from a photographic perspective there have been improvements, but there have been sacrifices as well.  To the purist this sacrifices are too much, and the Lumia 1020 continues to be the camera flagship in the market for those who want the best in photographs but also know how to use a device to get the best out of it (more on this later!).

Lumia 1520 Lumia 1020 Lumia 930 Iphone 5s Galaxy S5 HTC One M8 Note 3
MegaPixel 20 41 20 8 16 4 13
Sensor Size 1/2.5” 1/1.5” (aka 2/3”) 1/2.5” 1/3” 1/2.6” 1/3” 1/3.06”
Sensor Toshiba BSI CMOS Toshiba BSI CMOS Toshiba BSI CMOS Sony BSI CMOS Samsung ISOCELL ? BSI CMOS Sony BSI CMOS
Pixel Size 1.12 µm 1.12 µm 1.12 µm 1.5 µm 1.12 µm 2 µm 1.12 µm
Aperture F2.4 F2.2 F2.4 F2.2 F2.2 F 2.0 F2.2
Focal Length 26mm 26mm 26mm 30mm 31mm 28mm 31mm
Flash Dual LED Xenon (main)
LED (video light)
AF Assist Beam
Dual LED Dual LED (dual-tone) Dual LED Dual LED Dual LED (dual-tone)
Image Stabilization Optical Optical Optical Digital Digital Digital Digital
Exposure Control Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
ISO Control Yes Yes Yes No* Yes Yes Yes
White Balance Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Shutter Speed Yes Yes Yes No* No No No
RAW capture DNG DNG DNG No* No
HDR in-camera No No No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Video fullHD @ 30fps fullHD @ 30fps fullHD @ 30fps fullHD @ 60fps 4K @ 30fps
FullHP @ 60fps
fullHD @ 60fps 4K @ 30fps
FullHP @ 60fps
Mics 4 HAAC 2 HAAC

First compare the 1520 against what most would compare, the Lumia 1020.  Immediately you notice many of the photography oriented features have been removed and moved mainstream.  Xenon LED is out, the sensor is substantially smaller (the Lumia 1020 sensor is 67.5% larger than the 1520 sensor) and more similar in size to the market standard, the lens aperture is also smaller.  Fortunately the Optical image stabilization has been retained Smile  Photography control is still very much available thanks to the Windows Phone OS that provides one capability still missing in the Android space which is the shutter control.  The difference in ratio to the Lumia 1020 sensor is shown below.

Sensor-size

While I am not an Apple fanboy, the native camera app for Apple phones may have very little control, with things improving with the new iOS 8 (which now features exposure control). However Apple iOS does support in its latest version many advanced photographic control capabilities similar to the Windows OS, which is harnessed by third party camera apps such as ProCam. My comparison table is with the native camera app, however expect some great camera apps for iOS 8 devices. The * in the apple column is to indicate that these are supported by iOS and third party apps currently do provide this capability for iOS devices.

However now compare the Lumia 1520 against the flagships of 2013/14 and you see its now a match or slightly superior to the rest of the competitors, making sure the Lumia 1520 remains one of the best camera smartphones in the market, but compared to the Lumia 1020 is definitely less cable for an photography enthusiast.  You will also see that the Nokia 930 features the same photography specs as the 1520, which means the Lumia 1020 replacement is yet to come (well looks like Panasonic may have brought the replacement, as their latest smartphone the DMC-CM1, the phone having the model number more akin to a Panasonic camera has the largest ever sensor on a camera, featuring the 1” sensor found in most pro cameras such as the Sony RX100, Nikon 1 and Canon GX7).  The picture below shows the Lumia 1520 camera lens and the Nexus 5.

IMG_0690_crop

I have a Lumia 1020 prior and found that it takes very good photos to match a decent point and shoot digital .  The Lumia 1520 is good but still not in the same league of the Lumia 1020.  One of the biggest pain points of the 1020 has been the significant lag, as the entire processing of the image is done using the phone hardware (not specialized image chip like in the 808).  The Lumia 1520 features much more powerful hardware, and hence the lag is much less.  However if you have used an IPhone or a top Android phone you will notice the Lumia 1520 is still not as fast when its capturing images.  The chances of focusing and getting the shot right are rather poor even with the Lumia 1520.

UPDATE (1-OCt-2014):  The new Nokia Denim update due rebrands the Nokia camera as the Lumia camera, and it seems the big grievences with regard to the camera performance is supposedly getting some serious fixes that should bring joy to Nokia 1520, 930, 830, 730 users!  Fixes include the following and if this works, the Lumia phones are going to really improve on their camera performance!  However all these features will only come for the latest snapdragon processor models, the older Snapdragon S4 plus based phones such as the Lumia 1020, 925/920, etc will not have these 😦

  • Fast camera startup and capture
  • Burst mode that takes photos in milliseconds
  • 4K quality video and 8.3MP extraction from the 4K video stream
  • HDR auto and dynamic flash available in the camera app directly
  • Improved low light algorithms to get even better picture quality.

If you read many reviews of camera comparisons of phones, one thing becomes obvious.  The best hardware, and most featured camera app alone is not going to make your phone the best camera app. There is a lot more, for those who like to click and have the device do the thinking (in digital cameras we call this the auto mode), the IQ of the camera logic is vital.  Importance factors include the way the camera metering works, the speed of the focus lock, specially under low light situations.

You will also notice that the focus of HTC and Apple has been different in the camera department, as they have avoided the megapixel game, and opted for a larger pixel size to allow more light per pixel.  HTC with a 4MP version sadly may have gone with too low a resolution, but Apple seems to have picked the correct spot with the 8MP resolution.  However unlike the samsung phones, the Lumia phones with Pureview use what is called downsampling where the photos are taken at full resolution and with something called pixel binning scaled into a smaller (usually 5MP) version that results in a super sharp image (if the focus had got it right that is).

This has been and continues to be the area that Apple still takes the cake, as it provides possibly the best camera app for even the dumbest of users to end up with good photos.  Samsung comes a close second is my opinion.   Nokia has great cameras, the camera app in Windows is super featured, but in auto mode you may say that the photos are not that great, even with the Lumia 1020.  You really need to make use of those settings to get great pictures, and for many this a bit too complex is my opinion, and an area that Nokia / Microsoft needs to put some serious work into.  My current phone is a Nexus 5, not a great camera phone but a decent one, but I can take much better photos (though they may not be that great in sharpness) than the Lumia 1520, though the Nexus 5 has much less capable photography specs and the google camera app lacks many of the advanced features.

Sound

The Lumia phones have always done well in the audio department, and the Lumia 1520 extends this.  The large size helps to host larger speaker presumably because the audio is loud and clear on speakerphone mode.  Call voice quality on the earpiece is also great.

Since I do not have any fancy tech to validate my opinions I switched to GSMArena to see how they rated it, and yes the ratings are good to excellent, not the best but among the best.  Surprisingly the audio scores for the loudspeaker for ringing tone (= music on the speaker) are lower than some smaller phones (including the Nokia 720), however the loudness of sound for voice is very good (which was the area I noticed, and good to see the scientific test confirm this).

Storage

The Lumia 1520 also brought back something that was missing across the Lumia flagships prior, which was a MicroSD card slot.  While the phone had 32GB internal storage, of which around 25GB was available for the user, microSD was the latest variant supporting upto 128GB cards either microSD, microSDHC or microSDXC.  This would make this phone an ideal multimedia device with great storage flexibility.  The 20MP camera with the capability to store in RAW format, would also require large degree of space Smile

Battery

This was also one of the key selling points of the Lumia 1520, as it includes a massive 3400mAh capacity battery, and the battery endurance test for this phone was at the top in the GSMArena test, and still continues to be among the top in 2014.  The larger battery is definitely required for a massive display of this size, but thanks to the much more efficient chipset combined with the large battery the Lumia 1520 is one of the few smartphones that can guarantee you a full day operation at minimum, something most smartphones would struggle even with smaller displays.

However the GSMArena battery test are not really enterprise class, as in it does not mimic enterprise users who are very intensive phone users (you usually say gamers are intensive users).  I will update this post with feedback from my friend who will be using the Lumia 1520 as his work phone switching from a traditional blackberry.  Lets see how he feels of battery performance of Lumia 1520.

Update1: My colleague has been running the phone for two days, full time on wi-fi at work, and is easily seeing the phone being able to last 2-3 days.  I am waiting to see how the full data mode usage feedback will, but its looking very positive.

Niggles

Problem 1 : I upgraded from Windows 8.0 (Nokia Black) to Window 8.1 (Nokia Cyan), and hit a major problem!.  After the upgrade I could not get the extra tiles, and could not find this option in the start+Theme setting.  Turns out the ability to configure the number of tiles was only available in the 8.1 Developer Preview, and is now a default option for Windows 8.1 release edition.  However my problem was that what was the default setting was not appearing.  Turns out this can happen, and the solution.. yes.. wait.. do a reset of the phone.. yes a full reset.  Tried it, and yes magic !  the extra tiles were there without a fuss.  Seems the upgrade process does not do all the upgrades properly and you may need to do this to make sure you phone is all well.

Problem 2: This was a biggy, I could not get data to work at all, no matter what.  Though I gave the APN settings of my provider it keep saying DNS error.  I tried resetting again but with no success.   I then downloaded the Microsoft Access Point app, which was one solution listed in the forums, but found that this does not support Windows 8.1 release edition.  Turns out the problem was that with 8.1 you need to ensure your SIM is provision by the telco provider, as the settings are picked by the provider.  With Windows 8 I had no problem, so in case you hit this problem speak to the telco provider to provision your SIM first.

Lumia 1520 or other? My choice….

If you are buying the Lumia 1520 for its camera, I say also look at the competitors from Android and iOS.  Specially the Note 3 and the upcoming Note 4, and the IPhone 6+ since they may even offer better capability since the Lumia 1520 has been cut down too much.  However one place the Lumia 1520 seems to have a great advantage is on the battery endurance.

For the purest camera capability currently available get the Lumia 1020, even if its supposedly at the end of life by this year (which also means its not going to get any new updates from Microsoft).  To me the Lumia 1020 still remains a favorite, and still question the Nokia team why they launched the Lumia 1020 with the slower chipset when they could have done better and made the Lumia 1020 a stunner.

However if you want a big display phone with great features with great battery life, the Lumia 1520 is one of the best options and I might say one of the best phablet devices out in the market, with the Samsung Note 3 maybe taking the overall crown (if you consider the stylus as a need).  Things will surely change with emergence of many phablet products in 2014, led by the IPhone 6 Plus (assuming the screen bending issue does not cause a drop in sales), but to me it will be the Note 4 with its astounding spec that will surely be the new benchmark.  However the Note 4 and IPhone 6 Plus will be priced over two times of the Lumia 1520, and that to me makes the Lumia a hot buy now more than the time of its launch.

In case you find the 1520 great, but a bit too large, the Lumia 930 its co-flagship with same tech but in a slightly smaller profile, and far more premium build feel is a solid but pricey alternative, though the strongest challenger maybe the recently launched HTC One M8 Windows phone version that is looking to be an excellent prospect.

Motorola Moto G, the best bang for the buck phone of 2013


Nokia in 2012/13 managed to get single to double digit market share in many markets with its Lumia 520.  Motorola had been brought over by Google decided to take that concept to the next level in the Android world, and put out the Moto G.  Until the emergence of the Moto G, budget android phones were very badly spec’d and compromised in many ways, specially in the area of build quality.  While leading Chinese players such as ZTE, Huawei did produce better products than the big gun Samsung, they still had build quality issues and inferior internals.

So what makes the Motorola Moto G so popular, and a rebel in the world of mid tier budget phones.

Hardware Configuration

The Moto G packs in a very decent configuration, with very little compromises.

Processing and graphics

From a processing aspect it packs the same kind of hardware found in the Samsung S4 mini and HTC One mini featuring a quad-core 1.2Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor(with a slightly inferior processing core, the Cortex A7 vs Krait 200/300 on the Samsung and HTC) and an Adreno 305 GPU.  The phone also came with a healthy 1GB memory.

The processor is definitely well about the cheap brigade that usually featured dual-core units, which were either outdated/low end units, or less capable units with compatibility issues such as MediaTek or Broadcom. 1GB RAM was also a premium configuration, as most were either 512 or 768MB in this price range.

The Adreno 305 GPU may not be gaming powerhouse, but for day to day computing it was more than capable, and could provide a decent gaming experience at HD resolution.  Again the 305 GPU packs a lot more than what you see on other budget phone which feature the 302 Adreno or less capable PowerVR or severely detuned Mali GPU units. The other advantage being with Qualcom now the top dog in the mobile arena, the gaming compatibility for Adreno is among the best.

Display

An area usually compromised by budget phones was the display, and Motorola really created a major wave here, as the Moto G featured a 4.5″ IPS LCD display that was a proper HD resolution (720×1280), and also had the latest Corning Gorilla Glass 3 protection layer to go with it.  The display is not the typical budget type, and has very decent sunlight legibility, brightness, and had a very good punch in color.  Competing models in this range typically had lower resolution (480×800 or at most 960×480 display’s).  The resolution in the Moto G is superior to the much pricer Samsung S4 mini (and for that matter even superior to the IPhone 5!), and it really offered a great pixel per inch for its price.

BATTERY

Another strong point with the Moto G was that it had a comparatively large 2070mAh battery, that would allow the phone to easily last a day with data and general usage, even though it packed quite a powerful chipset and a large display.

CAMERA

The one place that Motorola did NOT do that much was the camera (an area of weakness that Motorola has long had, though the Moto X did do quite well), as the sensor and camera capability’s were more into the budget range.  however the camera to most in this price would be considered “A-OK”, featuring a 5MP sensor with autofocus, and a F/2.4 lens, and a fairly powerful LED flash to back it.  The front camera is a 1.3MP.

One of the customized apps strangely is the camera app, though you download third party camera apps and even the Goggle Camera app to use.  The Motorola camera app is rather primitive and can make taking decent photos with the limited camera capabilities hard.  I used the Google Camera app to get better results than the native Motorola camera app.

The native camera app has a tendency to shoot fast, without getting proper focus, and though the native interface saw some tweaks with the Android 4.4.4 update, I was able to get much better focus results with the Google Camera app on the same phone.

Under low light, the photos tended to be very noisy, and lacking in detail and sharpness. The flash is quite powerful, but when taking indoor portraits the flash can be overpowering, and the photos tend to have overexposed wierd effect.

The camera has no software or hardware stabilization feature (not seen any in this budget to feature such capability), and this means videos can be choppy unless you hold the camera firm. Strangely though the Snapdragon 400 chipset supports FullHD video recording, Motorola has limited this to 720HD for videos.  However considering the capabilities of the camera keeping it to 720HD maybe a wise option 🙂

The front camera performs similar to many others, in that it functions and can provide decent footage if the lighting good, and can get grainy and dark if the lighting is poor.

STORAGE

The phone was initially launched with a measly 8GB, but it was soon backed by an 16GB version.  With no SD card expansion, I recommend that you avoid the 8GB version unless you are seriously budget restrained, as you barely have 5GB storage once the OS aspect is covered, and you are sure to run out of storage very quickly.

SOFTWARE

The trend the Motorola Moto X started as being part of Google continued with the Moto G, which meant you got Android updates nearly as fast as the Google Nexus range. The Moto G launcher and customizations were minimal and hence updates were simpler on the part of Motorola.

DESIGN

The design of the phone does not have any great innovations, but has a very nice tapered feel in the back that makes it easy to use single handed. The great part of the design is the build quality, as its generally creak free and well put together.  The customizable back cover is also a nice feature that should go well with the younger crowd.

One of the features of the phone that is less mentioned is the splash resistance design (might be also why Motorola made the battery a sealed type though the back cover is removable).

CONNECTIVITY

The phone has the basic connectivity, with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth (4.0) supported.  Data wise except the 4G version, the rest are limited to 21.1Mbps 3.5/3.75G capable.  The only omission is NFC, though i am sure most won’t be disappointed on that 🙂  The 3G speeds are pretty decent, with speedof.me test 4-6Mbps download speeds, similar to what i get on my nexus 5 in 3G mode.

One feature the Moto G support that is not possible with the Nexus range is to OTG feature, which allows you to connect an external storage device (such as a flash drive or hard disk).

CALL QUALITY

Another of the areas the Moto G does well is on audio quality, the in-call audio is very good, and importantly the speakerphone performance is also good (something the LG made Nexus phones has struggled in recent times).

PERFORMANCE

So how well does this Motorola G perform.  Here are some tests that i have run on the processing and browsing aspects.

The budget Moto G, provides surprisingly good performance, and with Antutu optimized for multi-core, it manages to provide better scores than the two premium phones from Samsung and HTC (the One mini and S4 mini).  Interesting it also gives a better score than the Nexus 4, which featured a Snapdragon 600 processor, but was known to be under clocked to avoid heating issues due to the glass back design.   A closer look at detailed test shows that the Adreno 305 GPU provides similar performance to Xperia Z, and twice the performance of a Tegra 3 based device.  Clearly you are getting a phone that can do more than fine for your general gaming needs.

MotoG-Antutu

The Vellamo test has now been beefed up beyond pure web testing, and we see that it performs decently matching the capability of the Xperia Z on both browsing and processing capabilities.  If you have used an Xperia Z or an S3 you will notice that these phones are still quite nippy, but the Samsung is dragged down by the heavy TouchWiz customization, and older Android version. The fact that the much less priced Moto G provides the same performance is a good indicator that this phone can hang around for a  while if you are not the type to change phones quite frequently.

MotoG-Vellamo

NIGGLES AND ISSUES

The Moto G features a radio, and here it seems that going with vanilla Android, the Motorola developers forgot to add the essential features everyone wants.  For instance to use the FM radio you need to hook a headset so it works as an antenna.  However when you play the radio there is no feature to change the audio to speakerphone in the phone, or to a Bluetooth Audio unit! You can use the HF Button Widget (Alpha) app to route the radio to the internal speaker phone, but i could not find a way to route it to my Divoom Solo BT speaker (seems you can route it to BT headset but not a speaker).

The Android 4.4.3 and 4.4.4 update also have the 3G connection bug.  The bug makes the phone struggle to maintain 3G connection, and it keeps dropping back to 2G (edge).  However this has a relatively simple fix that i found when having similar problems trying Korean-region Samsung phones. You can use apps in Google Play such as Network (by Philipp Mangelow) and Phone Testing (by diewland) to force the phone into WCDMA mode, and once you do, your 3G connectivity issues should be history.

VARIANTS

Initially it was just a 8GB version that was launched in US, and very quickly followed up with a 16GB version.  This was then followed by a more global launches, and a dual-SIM variant.  All three had super pricing that made them hot favorites.  A recent version was the 4G LTE version, but this also came with a price hike, that made it move closer to more expensive premium offerings.

The Moto G packaging also differs from region to region.  The 16GB version I tried from the US market was one of the most skimpy, with the box only having the phone and a tiny micro USB cable.  No charger, no handset!  However the second model I tried was the XT1033 dual SIM, and this was targeted for the middle east region, and this included a charger and a very “low cost” handset. The charger was the type which had the cord as part of the unit, so if you wanted to copy stuff you will need to get a separate micro USB cable.

The Moto G 2014 edition (aka Moto G 2), an minor evolution than expected

Motorola just launched the Motorola Moto G 2014 edition in Sep 2014, and though many expected a big change in the internals, the changes sadly have been minimal, seemingly to keep the price down to the same as the first gen Moto G. The internal core processing capabilities remains unchanged with the Snapdragon 400 processor and Adreno 305 being retained, though many were hoping to see the Snapdragon 405 to be featured on this phone.

The phone now has a larger 5″ display, and also fixes one of the major concerns of the phone, the storage as it now have a SD card expansion slot. The camera is now a 8MP back unit, with a f2.0 lens, which should mean better photos under low light conditions than the first version.  The front camera has also seen an improvement in spec atleast, as it now has a 2MP front unit.  The main camera can now record video at fullHD it seems.

Strangely Motorola has not increased the capacity of the battery, considering the display is now a larger unit.  Theory says the battery life should be inferior to the 4.5″ Moto G, but internal tweaks and possibly the power efficiencies of the display may help compensate and help the 2014 Moto G (2) achieve the same battery capabilities of the first gen Moto G.

Huawei E5576 portable 4G LTE mifi hotspot router


The E5576 is among the first Cat4 LTE mifi hotspot routers in the market.  The key change from Cat3 LTE is that possible download speeds have increased from 100Mbps to 150Mbps, while the uploads speeds still remain at 50Mbps.  However mobile phones have now moved beyond Cat4 in recent versions, but you will be hard pressed to the stated speeds with you Telco’s.

 Design

The E5576 compared to some 3.75G Huawei portable hotspots is chunky with a 15.5mm thickness, and a 150g weight, and the reason seems to be the inclusion of a higher capacity battery and improved Wi-Fi range.  However it’s still very pocket-able and compact in size.

IMG_20140824_090520

The device has a standard SIM (mini SIM) slot, where most phones are now featuring micro SIM or nano SIM’s.  However there are many markets where the Mini SIM is still in use, and Wifi hotspots and dongles tend to retain the mini SIM due to this reason.

IMG_20140824_090620

The device also has a built-in MicroSD slot, which can be access by the connecting devices similar to a NAS storage device, the storage is directly accessible if you connect it to a computer.

The device has a WPS button in case you don’t want the hassle of entering a key, or sharing the key but want to provide access to your hotspot to another person.

IMG_20140824_090727

The device features a 1.45″ OLED display that provides information of the mode of connectivity, signal strength, the battery percentage, if you have any sms messages, the network connected to, the time and most importantly the amount of data you have downloaded since the device was switched on.  The display is very easy to see both in dark and very brightly lit areas.

IMG_20140824_080119_crop

The device also has a port to connect an external antenna if you want to boost the signal strength.

Performance

The important thing is how does it perform.  Testing any device for Internet speeds is not easy, as the only way is to compare against another device at similar time periods on the same network.  What I have done is tested the device in several locations using my telco provider who states their max speeds in burst mode is 40Mbps.

The other impact on this would be the inherent latency and overheads of accessing the device over Wi-Fi and the performance of your Wi-Fi hardware in the phone / desktop you are using to access this device.  To see if this has an impact I have also tried access the device from two devices at similar times.

I have also used several test products, as they all have different test modes.  My preferred tool is speedof.me (a web site) as unlike other tools it does not only test for ultimate speeds but speeds across different file sizes (we don’t always download large chunks of files).   My telco provider Dialog Telcom in Sri Lanka, is considered the fastest in our country, but the speeds offered by them tops at 40Mbps in short bursts, and hence is no way going to top the max capabilities of this device.  The highlight the device provides more than adequate performance, and i have achieved sustain speeds in the 10-15Mbps region when downloading from youtube using JDownloader with 10 streams per download.

Tool

Download Average

Download Max

Upload Average

Upload Max

Latency

Speedof.me

10.2 Mbps

10.2 Mbps

2.8 Mbps

2.9 Mbps

166ms

Speedof.me

18.8 Mbps

19.3 Mbps

12.5 Mbps

12.5 Mbps

158ms

Win8 Network Speed Test Metro app

7.8 Mbps

47.1 Mbps

0.8 Mbps

1.2 Mbps

200ms

SpeedTest.net

24 Mbps

13.1 Mbps

260ms

Battery Performance

The device features a 3000mAh battery. The battery is not removable, which is a strange decision for such a device.  Most personal Wi-Fi hotspots states usage times of 4-6 hours, the E5576 official brags a 10 hour usage time, though I feel this might be 3G usage periods as 4G can be very demanding.

My test for battery usage may  not be very formal, but compared to my last personal hotspot I had (the Huawei R201), the E5576 definitely has superior battery performance even when used in battery drenching 4G LTE mode.  So from an end user perspective I feel over 4-6 hours is easily possible from this device in 4G mode.  However for non-continuous use where i had many devices connecting it for occasional use, i could take it for a day easily.

No fancy capabilities such as wireless charging as yet on this device 🙂 The device comes with a micro USB to USB cable and charger, though you can charge the device through your PC USB port (which is what most would end up doing).

Variants

The E5776 comes in different flavors, as telco’s require some frequencies to be limited so that the device does not work across all regions.  Its important that you see what your local frequencies are, and also the locations you might travel if you are globe trotter and buy the best possible model if you are buying it privately.  The model I have with me is the E5776s-32 which is pure FDD LTE model, while other models also support TDD LTE modes, but have only limited FDD LTE band support.  Further this model is the only one which has a wide 3G band coverage, making it ideal for the globe trotter types.

The information on the  models I have extracted from http://www.store4g.com/huawei-e5776/

Huawei E5776s-22 4G LTE-TDD 2600MHz
4G LTE-FDD 800/1800/2600MHz
3G HSDPA/HSUPA/UMTS/WCDMA 900/2100Mhz
2G GSM/GPRS/EDGE 900/1800 MHz
Huawei E5776s-32 4G LTE CAT4 FDD 800/900/1800/2100/2600MHz (LTE B1 B3 B7 B8 B20)
3G HSDPA/HSUPA/UMTS/WCDMA 850/900/1900/2100 MHz (WCDMA B1 B2 B5 B8)
2G GSM/GPRS/EDGE 850/900/1800/1900MHz
Huawei E5776s-860 4G LTE-TDD 2300/2600MHz
4G LTE-FDD 2600MHz
3G TD-SCDMA/WCDMA 900/2100mhz
2G GSM/GPRS/EDGE 900/1800 MHz
Huawei E5776s-601 4G LTE-TDD 2300MHz
4G LTE-FDD 1800/2600MHz
3G TD-SCDMA/WCDMA 900/2100mhz
2G GSM/GPRS/EDGE 900/1800 MHz
Huawei E5776s-922 4G LTE-TDD 2300/2600MHz
4G LTE-FDD 1800/2600MHz
3G TD-SCDMA/WCDMA 900/2100mhz

 Administration

The application provides the usual web interface, and the default access URL is 192.168.1.1, with admin/admin being the username and password combination.

The application also has a MOBILE version which is a made to fit for a small screen, but note that the mobile interface has only basic features, and remember to load the desktop mode in your mobile device or you may feel that some options are missing in the device!  For instance you can’t define a new provider (VPN) from the default mobile view.

Areas of improvement

One area I feel that the unit has stepped back is the way you switch off the device.  If you hold the power button for about 5 secs the device shuts down the Wi-Fi, but continues to have its data connection on.  If you press the power button for around 10 secs the device shuts down.

It would have been more preferable if the unit had a separate button to switch Wi-Fi hotspot off, and kept the power button for the purpose of powering off only.  Pressing the power button for 10-secs is a bit tedious, but it has the advantage that the device is unlikely to get switched off by mistake when in a bag or pocket.

Conclusion

If you have a decent data package on your phone, and you do not mind using your phone as a hotspot, such a device is likely to be meaningless.   However if you have several devices, and want to share your data, this is an ideal device, and provides excellent performance, good battery life.  The Huawei range has a much better reputation for reliability over ZTE based on local experiences.

The Google (LG) Nexus 5, a great all rounder among smartphones


Buying an Android phone has become very complicated as you see the number of models, and the marketed features.  However for “smart” buyer a phone that is good enough in most areas is sufficient as long as the latest Android build is available quickly, and the device is well supported for a few years with Android updates, and incorporate a solid hardware configuration.

This has been the area the Google Nexus range of phones have been targeted, and add the fact that the device is usually released featuring the best hardware for an absolute great price has made it a very attractive (albeit hard to get outside the US, and not cheap outside the ?US) device.

I had the Nexus 4 twice, and found the simplicity and great updates to be an attractive offering, but the camera was a major let down. This kept me away from the Nexus 5 for a while, but I finally took the dip, and knew it was going to be hard one as it replaced the Lumia 1020 which had an amazing camera!

One thing I am finding more and more as a recycle my phones every 1-2 months, is that the “innovation” to be very very minimal, and it is really more of what you like in a phone in design or what you like in the form of  “software tweaks” marketed by the phone vendors.  For many most mid-range or better smartphones should do well.

The design

The Nexus 5 one might say has nothing special when it comes to the external design of the phone.  Unlike the Nexus 5, the back has no glass cover, and has a soft matte type plastic that is very nice to hold, similar to the Nokia Lumia phones.  The side bezels is very thin, but the bezel at the top and specially at the bottom are large.

The weight of the phone is super, at 130g its not to heavy and not light making it near ideal in the weight department.  It may be simple, but it’s a design that will work for most (does for me), though Google seems to be trying a bit to copy the Lumia range as they are planning an yellow edition of the Nexus 5!

The display

The Nexus 5 features a FullHD (1080×1920 pixel) 4.95″ IPS+ screen protected by a Gorilla Glass 3 layer.  The display is very good, and with the high pixel count the display is very sharp, and a thing I liked was the colors, which are very similar to my experience with the HTC displays I liked so much.  The touch is very good and you rarely have any complaints when using the device.

The hardware and performance

The Nexus 5 was released with cutting edge configuration as at 2013, featuring the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 (Quad-core 2.3Ghz Krait 400) paired with an Aderno 330 GPU.  The hardware still remains a very powerful unit as the newer releases by Samsung, Sony, HTC, LG in early 2014 featured the slightly tweaked Snapdragon 801 (which had a slightly more powerful processor, and a mildly higher clocked GPU).   A few benchmarks to show you where it stands against the currently leading phones in 2014.

Vellamo 3.0

The HTML 5 browser test shows that Chrome performance is at the very top, only outdone by the newer Galaxy S5 (Samsung is known for their highly optimized browser performance, and as you would note the Galaxy S4 has done well on this test).

The hardware test has it nearly the same as the Galaxy S5, indicating there is very little to differentiate between the Snapdragon 800 and 801 on computational aspects.  You also see how much faster the Snapdragon 800 family is compared to the flagships 2 years ago (the HTC One X and the Galaxy S3) and last year’s top dogs the Galaxy S4 and the Xperia Z.  Vellamo 3.0 was released recently hence any form of vendor based tweaking to get better scores will not be in-effect making this an useful tool right now to see how phones compare on processing and web browsing scenarios.

Nexus5-vellamo

 

Antutu 4.x

A highly popular benchmark and one that is known to be doctored (cheated) by mobile phone vendors who tend to shift the phone into the most optimized mode when this test is being run (Samsung, HTC, etc have been caught doing this, subsequently they have now stopped doing it in recent times).

The benchmark also takes a while to get optimized to the new Android builds, which has meant the Nexus range results are rarely accurate.  Here again with Android 4.4.4 released very recently the scores seem to be not reflecting the correct performance of the Nexus 5.  The test scores are show the Nexus 5 being more in the range of the older Snapdragon 600 phones (S4, HTC One M7) than with the Snapdragon 800/801 phones, which is not accurate (the sister phone LG G2 is showing far higher scores when they are practically identical in configuration).  Also noticeable is that the Nexus 4 which is also a Snapdragon 600 based device is showing very poor results, so the pattern is evident, that the Nexus range completely avoids any kind of cheating when it comes to Antutu test!

Nexus5-Antutu

 

Voice quality, Speakers and audio quality

The voice quality and clarity of the phone is excellent, that is when you use the earpiece.

However when it comes down to the loudspeaker mode the phone disappointed me.  The speakers were rather feeble both on calls and music.

The bottom of the phone is where the speaker is found, and you may initially think it features a dual speaker setup, but turns out that only one of the grills has a speaker, the other is the microphone!

IMG_0498

The audio out through the 3.5mm headset jack is also rather weak, if you want to listen to ear dropping music, this phone is not going to you.  When I hooked it to my headphones I found the sound to be very low, and lacking the punch I have taken for granted with phones I have previously used.

Here is the audio test extracted from the popular phone portal GSMARENA.com, and you will see my observations matched by lab tests from this popular site. Yeah opinions matched by test results, rare 🙂  Interesting is that the sister phone the LG G2 also suffers with the same problem.

Speakerphone test Voice, dB Pink noise/ Music, dB Ringing phone, dB Overal score
Sony Xperia Z 60.1 58.3 61.6 Below Average
LG G2 65.7 62.2 66.2 Below Average
LG Nexus 5 65.0 64.8 65.8 Below Average
HTC One 69.3 66.6 75.9 Good
Samsung I9505 Galaxy S4 70.6 66.2 77.3 Good
LG Nexus 4 71.0 66.6 78.8 Good
HTC One X 65.1 66.0 75.8 Average
Nokia Lumia 1020 69.8 66.6 72.5 Good
Nokia Lumia 920 61.6 64.8 65.8 Below Average
Samsung I9300 Galaxy S III 75.1 66.5 75.0 Good

 Camera

The Nexus 5 is a the Google version of the LG G2.  The hardware is pretty near identical for the camera except that it feature a 8MP sensor as opposed to a 13MP in the G2.  The Nexus 5 does include the optical image stabilization, a rare feature among Android presently (But to be quite common going forward).  The OIS is not as advanced or effective as what is offered in the Nokia Lumia phones, but it’s superior to the software stabilization you see in many other phones.

The camera at the back looks very large, but in reality the sensor is the same size as what you find in most other phones (a 1/3.2″ sensor sourced from Sony, with a 1.4 micron pixel size), and the large circle a bit of marketing to highlight the existence of the optical image stabilization hardware it seems.  Interestingly the photos from the Nexus 5 are far superior to the Sony Xperia Z, which has a similar sensor.

IMG_0500

The image quality of the camera is very good, and it does decently under poor light (which is great considering the aperture of the lens is a f/2.4, when most rival cameras feature f/2.0 or 2.2, which is a big improvement over the Nexus 4 I used before.  The flash is also quite powerful and helps get decent footage when shooting indoors.  I used the HDR feature a lot, since the camera tends to loose some detail when you take the photos normally but where you can use HDR, the picture tend to be far more natural and detailed.

The video is smooth thanks to the stabilization and decent hardware, but you won’t find any of the high speed captures that you see with rival phones from Samsung, HTC, LG, etc as Google keeps it simple with 30fps at FullHD.

The Android camera application which was updated after Android 4.4.3 is simple but quite effective, and I really am amazed by the Photo Sphere feature, which allows you to get some amazing (amazing) panorama shots.

I also like the wide angle nature lens, a 30.4mm which in mobile phone terms is quite wide, with many others having only a 35mm or worse. You will appreciate the focal length when capturing landscapes, group photos, and when taking photos in a crammed space.

Android 4.4.3 onward however there is a bug with the camera application which causes it to simple crash when taking photos. There is no clear pattern on why this happens, and even after the Android 4.4.4 update, the problem still remains.  It’s not very frequent, but it’s an annoying bug.

Variants

The Nexus 5 is sold in two forms one for the US market with the model code D820, and international version is the D821.  The spec is identical, the only difference is the LTE bands supported. If you like me are using the Nexus 5 outside the US, and 4G LTE is not a major requirement, either model will do fine for you.  If you like me live in south asia, and 4G is you desire, then seek out the D821!

The phone is also available in 16GB and 32GB internal storage sizes.  Do note that the Nexus 5 just like all other Nexus phones has NO micro SD slot for expanding the storage.

D820 HSDPA 800 / 850 / 900 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100LTE 700 / 800 / 850 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100 / 2600
D821 HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100LTE 800 / 850 / 900 / 1800 / 2100 / 2600

 Conclusion

The Nexus 5 unlike the other all other Nexus 5 phones before, has fixed the biggest gripe, and now offers a very decent camera.  The phone is simple and effective in its design, the performance is great, the display is very good, and the battery life adequate.   For many this should be a great phone, and with Google ensuring this device will get several more updates this is a definitely a safe and solid buy.  Just make sure you are fine with the low loudspeaker performance and poor headset audio quality!

Google’s Nexus strategy seems to be now showing signs of change with the new Android L launch said to also launch the Google silver range, where there will be multiple vendors who will launch  phones with basic Android OS similar to the Nexus range.  However this does not mean that support for Nexus phones is stopped, it just means that there is going to be many vanilla Android phones going forward and not just one vendor making it exclusively for Google.

Smart phones, BYOD, MDM and enterprise user challenges


Enterprise communication and collaboration for many years has been an exclusive Blackberry market, and though Nokia did try with Symbian powered E-series, they could not make much in-road into the enterprise.  However how people use phones and the type of phones we use has changed drastically after the advent of iPhone/IPad era, and then the old bastions of Blackberry and Nokia have been brought to their knees when Google joined the fun with the Android Mobile OS.

Recently at work I was handed a small assignment to assist in defining the smartphone platforms to be supported as the organization stepped out from the Blackberry era (finally), and to see how popular MDM solutions in the market supported phone management considering the growing trend of BYOD.

While smartphones and apps may have been new innovation to the consumers in North America until Steve Jobs brainwashed all with the IPhone, North American enterprises already had PDAs crowding this space.  But outside North America smart phone platforms specially in the likes of Symbian led by Nokia were booming with rich apps for both consumers and enterprises. However with the iPhone and the masses of phones powered by Android, backed by social media crazy users, the phone (and tablets, phablets, etc.) have become the leading device employees spend time consuming content worldwide.

Duh, Why company provided smartphones for the masses?

Once may ponder why this is even a question, but surprisingly when it comes to providing company funded devices, beyond the senior leadership, the cost between feature phones and even a low end smartphone from a reputed vendor are huge in markets outside Europe/US/China, etc.  Hence senior leadership even in today’s terms question what is the benefit and ROI that the organization gets specially if there are no official mobile strategy or mobile applications that are deployed.  Wonder why, a few things that come to my mind Sarcastic smile

  1. How many times do you drop the company provided blackberry/feature phone? The feature phone you get maybe basic but its reliable and rugged, but cheap smart phones have a very dubious background when it comes to reliability and long term use.
  2. Other than email, does your phone support any other organizational use applications?
  3. Do you need your phone to last a whole day of use without recharging?
  4. Does your company have any mobile apps/mobile compliant web applications that you can use right now on your mobile?
  5. Do you ever log into your company VPN through your mobile and use any web-based or mobile apps on your device?  For that matter are you allowed to log in via the VPN (= VPN licenses)
  6. You most probably will be limiting your personal use of your current company provided phone because of its poor in web, gaming and social capabilities, with a smartphone will you spend more “official” time on personal activities now that your phone can do more cooler things?
  7. You may have a small data package, and corporate mail access maybe through your blackberry capabilities, will you demand more data when you smartphone capabilities and habits start consuming far greater data?

These are testing questions, since at the end is the organization investing on something that has poor returns, and may even reduce your productivity and commitment towards the organization? 

Other costs in addition to the phone to an organization

The questions I posted before, clearly highlight that for an organization its not just the cost of the smart phone, there maybe a need to include a lot more that is the true cost of providing expensive smart phones.

  • a better data package
  • purchase VPN licenses
  • purchase MDM (Mobile Device Management) licenses
  • purchase new blackberry licenses
  • purchase client licenses (CALs) for any applications they need to expose, etc.
  • custom development costs and new app/server costs as the enterprise may need to upgrade its applications to enable the end users to benefit from the smartphone and provide real ROI to the organization (Many company web apps may have been developed purely with the desktop in mind, and may have Adobe Flash/Microsoft Silverlight/Microsoft Active X technologies applied which are not likely to work on your mobile device)

So are there any benefits from providing a smartphone to enterprise user?

So why should an enterprise invest, are there actual benefits?  Some benefits maybe immediate, while some others needs to be considered as a strategic and longer term in benefits.

  • The (smart) phone is a device that is with the employee most of the times, the more capable the device, the better the ability to be productive on the device and respond or act with urgency rather than wait and come back to one’s desktop/laptop
  • Be the platform for pushing native or wrapper (Hybrid) applications for specialized corporate requirements. If your organizations has them already, its about opening it for a larger group assuming compatibility has been tested with the mobile devices certified by the organization
  • Powerful email app that provides near desktop level of capabilities specially in the email viewing aspect (in addition to improved readability, it also allows viewing of embedded files, etc.). This means you can push emails with rich embedded and attached contents
  • Powerful browser that supports mobile and desktop mode with excellent JavaScript/HTML5 support.  This will result in improved browsing experiences, providing good support for any web based corporate implementations to execute with good performance and near desktop usability
  • Lync, Skype, Google Hangouts, Facetime and other video conferencing solution support.  Improved front video and large high res displays facilitate high quality video conference capability supported by new 4G high speed data capabilities on the phone
  • Support for powerful corporate and customer friendly enterprise (and social) messaging platforms (BBM, WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, etc.)
  • Large high resolution displays provide the user with “more to see” along with powerful client apps for viewing rich content (PDF, Microsoft Office formats, video)
  • High level of control through integration with an MDM solution for security and control of devices

Modern OS and enterprise compliance

While users may have a multitude of apps on their smart phones, when it comes to enterprise usage, you can boil it down to some key areas a standard capabilities beyond what maybe offered through custom business apps, which included,

  1. Secure connection to the enterprise Intranet via VPN
  2. Solid and secure email client with desktop level of capabilities
  3. Desktop equivalent browsing capabilities
  4. Microsoft Office editing and viewing applications, with good or 100% compliance in office compatibility
  5. Native support for enterprise favored communication platforms
  6. Support and compliance for enterprise favored collaboration and portal platforms

However modern users are not happy with only restricting themselves with enterprise communication platforms, specially when these do no support communication with external clients.   Here we see end users opting to use social media communication platforms risking security, mainly since end users perceive that there are no solutions that can enable them to achieve them same.

Modern OS capabilities – Enterprise perspective

A very simple table to list the key platform capabilities, and app support an enterprise user may require in their smartphone, your comments are most welcome.

  Apple Google Microsoft Blackberry
OS iOS Android Windows Phone 8 BB OS 10
Current Version 7.x 4.4.x 8.1 10.x
Native Calendar Very Good Very Good Good Very Good
Native Email Very Good Very Good Good Very Good
Native Browser capabilities Good Very Good Average Good
App/Device Backup Cloud + Local (ITunes) Cloud + Apps Cloud Local (BBLink)
Other OS built-in No No No Yes (Android 4.2)
Checkpoint VPN Mobile App Mobile App Only in WP 8.1 Internal VPN client
Lync 2013 Yes Yes Yes Sideload APK, other stores
BB Enterprise IM
BBM Yes Yes No Yes
Viber Yes Yes Yes Side load APK, Amazon
WhatsApp Yes Yes Yes Yes
Facebook Yes Yes Yes Yes
Google Hangouts No Yes No No
Skype Yes Yes Yes Yes
Skype Video Yes Yes Yes Yes
Native Browser Safari Chrome IE 10/11 BB Browser
Chrome Yes Yes No No
Firefox No Yes No Sideload APK
Opera Mobile Yes Yes No No
Opera Mini Yes Yes No Side load APK, Amazon
OneNote Yes Yes Yes No
Microsoft Office Mobile Free* Free* Free No
Office compatible editor apps Purchase* Free* No Free (Docs to Go)
Portable Hotspot Yes Yes Yes Yes
USB tethering No Yes No Yes
Mass storage mode No Yes Yes No
LinkedIn Yes Yes Yes Yes
Official SharePoint Mobile Compatibility Safari Android Browser IE Mobile No

Blackberry BB10 devices have the unique proposition that since the 10.2 update, they are able to directly install and run android APK files, since the Android 4.2.2 runtime has been licensed by Blackberry.  However Blackberry does list any Android apps directly, however it seems some of the apps that made it into the BB10 such as Skype are Android ports rather than native apps which harnessed these capabilities.  There are many informal work around which include installing the APK of the third party app store apps, installing the Amazon app store app, which maybe far to complicated for normal end users.

Windows Phone 8 is a evolving platform, and the early releases were very poor in some basic smart phone capabilities though the OS is very simple and nice to use.  However with the most recent 8.1 release, a lot of features that an enterprise user will require has been introduced or improved including a powerful calendar app (the one in Windows 8.0 was horrible), VPN support (yes shocking that it was missing!), improved notification capabilities, improved Browser (IE11, though alternative options are missing), etc.

Enterprise collaboration

From an enterprise collaboration point, SharePoint is the only one listed in the comparison, but SharePoint is just one of the platforms in today’s enterprise collaboration needs. SharePoint support for non IE platforms have been poor with SharePoint 2010, but has improved with the newer release (SharePoint 2013).  However Microsoft uses ActiveX controls to allow desktop like use via the IE browser, and this means you don’t get that same usability when it comes to consuming SharePoint on a mobile device (and for that matter any non IE browser on your desktop, or on a non Windows platform!).

However most web-based collaboration platforms “should” run fine in modern smartphone browsers, but again “should” is the word.  You may find that,

  1. The collaboration portal may require you run them in “Desktop compatibility mode” rather than mobile to use them properly. 
  2. The platform internally maybe using third party components which fail to work properly on the mobile browser on your device
  3. Modern mobile browsers vendors are having a raging war to be the “Fastest” has resulted in them focusing on benchmark tool tweaking than true compatibility with standards and performance.  This means while your collaboration portal may be properly engineered, this tweaks may cause the portal not to work fine on your mobile browser
  4. Layout, “Data intensity” and “Heavy nature” of the solution.  The solution maybe geared with heavy data use, and pages with complicated and large amount of content, which may pose a challenge to your mobile browser both in the screen area

Why an MDM (Mobile Device Management) solution?

Many enterprise users would be familiar with how the organization imposes restrictions specially on what you can do your laptop and workstation.  Controls include the type of password, the ability to install/uninstall programs, features of the operating system exposed to end users, etc.

The growth of the mobile as tool that allows you to access and run applications that you usually did on your workstations would thus require the same or even greater level of security is not a surprise.   The MDM tools provide this capability, and the capability differs depending on the tool.  However common capabilities include,

  1. Ability to erase the phone remotely (level of granularity may differ on what is erased)
  2. Enforce a password / lock policy on to your device
  3. Deploy corporate applications on to your mobile device

Newer solutions geared specifically for smart phone platforms are now providing capability to align with the growing BYOD challenges, of controlling enterprise apps and data from user’s personal apps and data.  However such tools are currently limited on platform supports as this has become a key marketing criteria for smartphone manufacturers.

MDM solutions include Microsoft System Center/Intune, Blackberry Enterprise Service, Samsung Knox EMM, Airwatch, Fibrelink MASS360, MobileIron, Meraki Mobile Solution, etc.

BYOD and its impact to the enterprise

BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is not something new, as many of us would have taken a second phone in addition to the company provided phone.  However with BYOD, the entire concept of a company provided phone is vanishing as employees are bring their own devices, which are hooked into the enterprise. This poses threats as well as challenges to the enterprise IT teams, in that

  • How do you separate the personal data and apps from enterprise apps
  • How do you implement and enforce company policies such as password/lock policy without interfering with the employees customizations
  • How do you erase data without erasing the employees favorite games, and apps when they leave?
  • How do you ensure the employees personal apps do not have access to the enterprise data

Summary

The article to me scratches the surface of these topics, since its based on the high level research done.   Comments from any one who has been more deeply involved would be great !