Category Archives: Phones

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.

 

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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.

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.

The Nokia 41MP Pureview battle – Lumia 1020 vs 808: Photography control and camera app features


The Nokia 808 was the last and the best of the Symbian powered Nokia smartphones, and featured the pinnacle of camera in a phone.  The Lumia 1020 is said to be the next upgrade of the 808, and if so it has to be the new benchmark for camera in a phone.  The question to this date remains a hard fought one, as both these phones are very special, as they target the professional and enthusiast photographer, and also the users who want photos with  on compromises (meaning oh what to do, that’s all a phone can do to be not an excuse).

I have been using the 1020 for a while, and decided against all common sense knowing that the Symbian platform is dead, to buy a Nokia 808 to see how does it fare against the newer Lumia 1020 featuring what Nokia markets as the phone to replace the 808. The review focus foremost is as the camera in the phone, and secondly on the basic smartphone capabilities.

P1020196

I am going to start this unique review more on photographic terms (no I am not a professional photographer, but a person who appreciates high quality photos and control when taking photos) since these two smartphones are more about the camera than anything else.

Part 1: Photography control

The two phones are actually very very powerful photographic equipment when it features a sensor that is larger than sensor feature in professional smart cams such as the Canon G15, Canon S120, Lumix LX7, Nikon P7100, etc and hence the ability to use this in full manual mode is important.

Here is a quick comparison of the Nokia Pro Camera (Lumia 1020) app and the Nokia camera (Nokia 808).  I have not considered any third party camera apps, or Lenses that may give additional controls in this.

  Nokia 1020 Nokia 808
Aperture Control No No
Shutter control Yes No
ISO control Yes Yes
Exposure control Yes Yes
Compression quality No NormalSuperfine
Manual Focus Yes No
Touch Focus Yes Yes
Focus Light on/off Yes Yes
Capture modes 5MP

5MP + 34MP

5MP + DNG 34MP

2MP

5MP

8MP

34MP

Aspect Ratio 4:3 and 16:9 4:3 and 16:9
ND Filter No Yes
Capture Mode NormalTimerBracketing

 

NormalBracketingInternal

Self-time

Saturation No Yes
Contrast No Yes
Sharpness No Yes

Lumia trump cards

The Lumia 1020 has the advantage in that it offers shutter control, which is a very powerful feature. The Nokia 808 sadly was due to get this before they pulled the plug on the Symbian platform, and while you can’t set it manually you can achieve a bit of shutter control by using the ND filter and exposure control, but still this critical element goes to the Lumia 1020.

The Lumia 1020 brings another massive ace that  it can save both a 5MP shot and the 34MP shot, a feature the 808 lacks, and the latest ability to save in DNG format means photographers can get into Photoshop or similar tools to enhance their photos.

Nokia 808 trump cards

However the Nokia 808 comes out fighting by having the ND filter which is useful when shooting in bright light, to get better exposure on your photos, and also is able to apply custom saturation/contrast settings when shooting.  Another powerful feature is the ability define the sharpness you want applied to the photos, and the quality of the compression.  So several powerful capability that the Lumia 1020 Pro camera is not able to match.

The 808 also wins in that it has a 2MP mode, which is ideal for uploads to your social sites, and also has an added advantage that it has a higher zoom level compared to the Lumia 1020.

Round 1: Conclusion

So from photography control view and app point of view the Nokia Pro camera of the Lumia 1020 has the edge over the camera app, and when you couple the Windows phones ability to load Lenses (custom camera plug-ins) this definitely goes the Lumia 1020 way, but the 808 is not easily beaten!

The Windows 8 platform is fast developing, and there are talks that the aperture control may also come into this app, and further changes are due to the Nokia Pro Camera.

Blackberry z10: Camera and Multimedia, much much improved


Camera Hardware

Blackberry has not won and awards or praise for quality and innovation on the photo stills and video capabilities on their smart phones. The Z10 may not set any new standards but it does improve Blackberry standards by a big way and ensures its not multimedia that is taking away the buyer from Blackberry.

IMAG0040

The Z10 features a 8MP sensor coupled to a F2.2 lens in the rear, while the front camera features a 2MP sensor coupled to a F2.2 lens as well. 

IMAG0037 The field of view (FOV) of the camera compared to my HTC Butterfly is not great, but HTC is known for there very wide angle lenses compared to the competition.  The FOV i would say is more in line with the Samsung S3 though possibly a bit better (Samsung has one of the worst wide angle implementations, specially in video mode).

Still photos

The 10.0.9.x update which i tried while providing decent stills and videos, i felt were lacking in sharpness and detail. However once i got the 10.1.x update, the story changed.  The quality of still photos improved greatly, so much so that level of details was far better than the photos taken off from my HTC Butterfly under both good and low light conditions.  In good light it seems to offer better pictures than most phone cameras i have ever owned.

While the F2.0 lens of the Butterfly gave it an edge in low light, the Z10 did fairly well but more importantly when i analyzed the photos taken (in auto mode so that i can also consider the camera app IQ) the details were fastly better on the Z10.  A few reviews i read also showed comparison with the illustrious Galaxy S3, and here the Z10 does better than the S3 which is a good indication but came second to the Apple IPhone 5.

IMG_00000009

IMG_00000010

IMG_00000034

However the low light performance is no match for something like the Nokia 920 which has amazing low light pictures mainly due to its ability to slow down the shutter to absurdly low figures thanks to its hardware stabilization implementation.

The camera app for still photos compared to the Android, Apple and Microsoft (thanks to the Nokia Camera app and lenses modules) is very plain, with only the aspect ratio, mode, and flash settings being controllable.  In order to select the slow motion video, panorama, picture effects you will need to select the “Hopefully coming in the future” menu!

One feature that Blackberry has implemented is Timeshift, a capability currently already offered in the Nokia Lumia phones.  This is available as a complete different shooting mode, and is a very cool implementation.  It takes photos in burst mode, and then for any detected faces it allows you to go through a dial to decide which photo of that person you want to include in the final version.  Very very cool, but the only miss is that it disables the flash on Timeshift mode, so its usefulness is strictly in under good light.

The auto focus of the camera is sufficiently fast, but compared to the speed of AF i have been exposed to this is more in line with the Sony Xperia range than the HTC and Samsung phones for auto focus speed. 

The camera touch focus is implemented in a quirky manner that can take some time getting used to.  In the Android phones if you have enabled touch focus you just touch the location you want it to focus and boom it takes the photo, or it simply focuses on that point and takes the photo on the click of the capture button.  In the Z10, you have a focus point, you must be careful not to tap on it, and move the focus point to the specific area you want to focus and then tap to take the photo.  This approach means taking macro focus shots can be challenging specially in low light condition.

The focus accuracy is fairly good once you get used to this method, as you can see from the sample photos where i have moved the focus point.

IMG_00000096 IMG_00000097

The flash of the camera is decent and more than enough to do the job.  Its a standard single LED unit which provides adequate coverage.

Blackberry like Nokia is well aware that getting good developers to start launching apps for their platforms are going to take of only if the platforms can show they are able to start taking on the two big boys in the form of Apple and Android.  So until then Blackberry like Nokia has implemented a very feature rich image editor that ensures the image editing options are fully covered.  So if someone tells you a Blackberry user, hey your phone does not have this, app, give the response, why do i need it when my in-built editor can do much much better for free 🙂

Video footage

The z10 is capable of recording 1080p at 30fps from its main (rear) camera, and 720p @ 30fps from its front camera. The Z10 really shines here, as the video footage under good and semi-decent light is amazing.  There is very good detail and smoothness on the video, and the audio quality is also very good.  The continuous auto focus does tend to hunt a bit when the subject is moving, and takes around 1-2 seconds to get the focus back.  Under low light conditions the footage becomes grainy and looses the color vibrancy.  However the video footage is very impressive and any Blackberry owner can be happy that the video is in par with the competition.

The video also features an digital video stabilization implementation. When enabled the feature does well in ensuring the video remains stable even if your hands are not steady while recording. 

However the video application is plain vanilla and you won’t find any features such as the ability to take a photo while video capture is going on, or changing the exposure, etc.

Speaker performance and headset

The in-built speaker is of the mono variant, and cannot compare with the new stereo implementations now becoming the benchmark as offered with the latest HTC one.   The speaker blares out a decent amount of volumes, and while the audio clarity is good the bass is lacking.

At max volume the speaker still holds strong rather than getting distorted which is a good, but the audio is best listened through an headset or external speaker.  

One annoying problem i noticed is that the headset is not industry standard, in a time where even Sony has moved away to accept the industry standard headset.

Video Player and editor

The camera comes with built-in player which according to external sites has a good support for codec’s.  The phone hardware is more than capable of handling 1080p videos with ease.

The Z10 also features app called StoryMaker, an app similar to the genre of the Microsoft Movie Maker, which provides cool features for you to trim, merge and downscale videos and also directly upload to youtube.  The app has been well implemented and should be more than sufficient for most video editing needs, which in android and the iOS world you will have to achieve by buying one or many apps.

Music app

The music app is implemented cleanly and provides a simple and quick interface for playlist creation, and music playback.  

IMG_00000031  

A good source on the use of new OS in addition to the great articles from crackberry was, http://us.blackberry.com/content/dam/bbCompany/Desktop/Global/PDF/Media-Gallery/blackberry-10-pressroom/BB10%20Reviewers%20Guide.pdf

Blackberry Z10 hardware: Not all versions have the same hardware!


While the BB market has been declining rather fast, specially among the enterprise users, I felt i had to try out the Z10 and see what new OS and hardware was capable of, since the Z10 and the new BB10 platform has shown good promise, but to many this maybe a year too late in entering the market.

Hardware

The previous Blackberry units very much like the Nokia smart phones running Symbian and Windows 7.x ran rather outdated hardware due to the fact that the operating systems they ran were not supporting modern multi-core hardware, let alone the capabilities of the single-core hardware.

However with BB10 and the Z10 (and now with the Q10 and Q5) Blackberry like Windows Phone 8 has leveraged far more modern and capable hardware.  The hardware in the Z10 maybe modern, but the Snapdragon S4 Plus now is a mid range processor/GPU in the Android space which are now running powerful quad-core and octa-core units.  While Apple may feature a dual-core processor on their current units, and Apple’s strategy of putting very powerful graphics (which is still a match even for the latest Android units) makes the Apple units more potent than the Z10 hardware.

Yet its unfair to compared a platform by the hardware specification alone, since with WP8 we saw the same hardware provide super smooth performance that an Android device fails to achieved. Similarly the Z10 with the new BB10 platform while having its peculiarities offers great multi-tasking, and smooth functioning, and the web browsing performance is very much in tag with the Android quad-core units. 

Not all hardware is the same, Asia and Middle East phones have older Texas Instrument processor

With BB having only a  limited set of models (but compared to Apple one might say they have a wide variety!) i expected that all Z10 units to be the same with possible differences in the antennas for regional support.  However to my surprise this was not the case.  The antenna support for different 2G/3G and LTE was expected, but what i did not expect was that the actual running hardware to differ.

Seemingly BB decided that LTE was not for the Asia and Middle East market phones, and thus decided to eliminate LTE support on this phone, and also by making this decision opted for a totally different chipset for phones of this market.

Model No Processor and GPU 2G Bands 3G Bands LTE Bands
STL100-1

RFG81UW

Dual-Core TI OMAP 4470 1.5Ghz  + Imagination GPU PowerVR SGX 544

GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900

HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100

Unsupported
STL100-2

RFH121LW

Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus MSM8960 (Krait) + Adreno 225 GPU

Same as STL100-1

HSDPA 850 / 900 / 2100

LTE 3, 7, 8, 20 (800 / 900 / 1800 / 2600)

STL100-3

RFK121LW

Same as STL100-2 Same as STL100-1

HSDPA 800 / 850 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100

LTE 2, 5, 4, 17 (700 / 850 / 1700 / 1900)

STL100-3

RFF91LW

Same as STL100-2 Same as STL100-1

HSDPA 800 / 850 / 1900 / 2100

LTE 2, 5, 4, 17 (700 / 850 / 1700 / 1900)

STL100-4

RFA91LW

Same as STL100-2

CDMA 800 / 1900

HSDPA 900 / 2100

LTE Band-13 (LTE 700 MHz )

The key change as you can see with the ST100-1 is that it uses an older TI OMAP processor.   Whilst the processor maybe old, the performance of this processor is still very good but in performance test run by users owning both the models, the browsing performance is significantly different with the Qualcomm S4 Plus unit performing nearly 1.5-2x times better.

The other advantage the Qualcomm unit has is that its made with a new fabrication process (28nm) compared to the TI OMAP unit (45nm) which should mean it should run cooler and possibly have an advantage on the battery usage when on 2G and 3G mode (LTE mode is known to be a power hog).

When you compare the GPU the difference is less obvious as the PowerVR 544 GPU can be more powerful if its the multi-core version (which is what the Apple IPhone uses) compared to the Qualcomm Adreno 225 unit.  However if its a single core PowerVR 544, then the Adreno 225 GPU will be far superior. 

The edge the PowerVR will have is that the older PlayBook device also ran a TI OMAP + PowerVR combination, but with sales bending greater to the Adreno based Z10, will new games be targeting the Qualcomm units?

The impact of this hardware change is also being felt on updates, with the Z10 sales being greater in volume in the US and European markets, the STL 2/3/4 models get more frequent updates than the STL 1. 

With the antenna differences marginal its is very weird why Blackberry opted for a two model approach (and they have done the same with the Q10 as well).

I found an STL100-2 with great difficulty as most phones in my country were STL100-1, or units brought from USA and Canada which meant the LTE would not work (we use LTE 1800Mhz).

Some useful links:

Firmware Upgrades

Make sure you have the correct OS to leverage the hardware and app market

When i got the unit it ran a 10.0.9 version of BB10, and since i did not have LTE compatible SIM i disregarded this to be simply because my SIM not supporting.  However i faced a problem that i could not install Skype (beta) which was released on BB World recently as it required the platform to be 10.1.x. 

I promptly tried the OTA (Over the Air = phone upgrade) which surprisingly said there were no updates.  This worried me, and the initial forums i read said i should update this with a leaked ROM.  I was on the verge of downloading a 920MB size download running 10.1.2xxx when another forum indicated that i should backup my phone,and try the update using BBLink.

The advise was good, as it prompted me with the availability of a new update of the 10.1.x range.  The update was large, around 1GB in download and the phone was updated to 10.1.1720, which was far from the latest but still better than what i had.

The good “side effect” of this update was that it now lists 4G as an option in the connection, even though my SIM is still not an LTE compatible.  It seems BB enables the settings based on the provider, and these updates come along with new firmware.  The evil “side effect”  of this update was a bug where the text message app no longer is able to match SMS received with the contacts which is driving me crazy!

Why Blackberry can’t provide small patches as done by Android, Apple, Microsoft for their platforms is a concern, as downloading 1GB each time to me is crazy! 

Your firmware upgrade depends on your SIM, not where your phone originated from

Many things to learn is what i have gathered with my first time move to a Blackberry devices.  My reading as i got to know the phone also found that your update depends on your SIM on the phone rather than what market your phone was made for.

For example though the phone i got was from European origin, since i have a Dialog SIM from Sri Lanka, the update i get will be based the approved firmware and features for Dialog.  It seems if you have an deactivated SIM, the update will still come based on the provider of the SIM if you are updating via a PC using BBLink.  A workaround suggested for getting updates that are not available from your providers is to get an old SIM from another provider from Europe or US so that you can get new updates faster.

The BB10 Operating System

>coming soon 🙂

Nokia Lumia Windows 8 phones, better than competing Android mid and low end rivals


The latest generation of Windows 8 Phone OS Lumia phones have got Nokia back into the competition, so how do they stack up compared to the Android competition? Which should you choose?

After using the Lumia 620 and then the Lumia 920, i have got a fair idea of the usability and fit of the Nokia Lumia range for 2013.  My separate article of Windows 8 Phone will give you and glimpse of where it standards against Android and iOS, but the simple story is while the App market may not be as featured, for most users the required apps are available, and then in that light the Windows 8 Phones have to compared on the bundled software and hardware, and that’s a key factor you need to consider.

So should i buy a Windows 8 Phone?

If you are into serious gaming or want access to apps, apps and more apps (and end up never really using most of these apps), then Windows 8 Phone is not for you, iOS or Android is the way to go.  But if your Smartphone use mainly resolves around facebookk, browsing, Skype, viber, etc, etc  (and gaming is Angry birds, and its likes) which is what you call “essential apps” then Windows 8 Phone is back in serious contention, as it does provide good support to compete with the other two platforms, and out does the Blackberry BB10 as well.

Why so little memory on Windows devices

Don’t compared specs apple to apple is very important, if you do so then the Apple devices might look rather obsolete specially in memory capacity compared to the mighty Android devices.  What you have to realize is that Android as an operating system is very heavy and not optimized, which is why the devices with the latest JellyBean OS do not run well with 512MB, and 1GB or 2GB is recommended.

Windows 8 phone in comparison is far more optimized, and you will see that most Windows 8 phones do might well with 512MB memory, though some games have problems installing with 512MB, which is a bug according to Microsoft and they are working on fixing this.  Heavy users though have indicated there is a lag switching between applications with 512MB memory, but again nothing as bad as the Android lag.  The top of the line phones currently feature 1GB memory.

Why Nokia, and not another Windows 8 Phone?

While Microsoft may have pitched the HTC 8X/8S during the launch Windows 8, it has been Nokia who have been pushing Windows 8 phone sales.  HTC, Samsung and Huawei have not really generated great success with the Microsoft platform, and the reasons are very obvious.

  • HTC may have got a cool design, but never have followed up with any newer devices, nor have the focused greatly on providing anything great on the software aspect (the HTC One version supposedly coming with Windows 8 phone may change things for HTC in the Windows 8 phone market)
  • Samsung put out a cut down Galaxy S3 version as a Windows 8 phone, and that was about all they did
  • Huawei has been pushing several devices, but have not seen the same global impact as Nokia, and the recent issues with US sales of Huawei will also impact this drive

In comparison Nokia followed up the 920/820/620 launch with another great set of variations in the 720/520, and variants of the 920 for other telco operators.  The recent launch of a much slimmer 925 and the upcoming 41MP Nokia EOS has also got people excited.   More importantly Nokia has always had great software in their phones, but the world change with Apple and the store concept and Nokia got lost out here.  The Microsoft App store is still in the early growth state, and Nokia knowing this has invested heavily on writing many great apps for general thing that people do, and these have made the Nokia phones special compared to the other Windows 8 phone devices.

Where does Nokia Windows 8 phones compete well?

While the Android and iOS world has been booming, Apple has always held the premium market until 2012/13 where the Samsung Galaxy S3/S4 have now entered strongly into this market, and HTC One is another great contender this year.  While the premium market goes well server the mid tier and upper range of the low end markets has not seen great phones.  However in Asia this market is very important, and Nokia has always been great here.  Nokia’s strategy of putting good hardware, better than average cameras and high quality displays into the mid and upper low range is something that Android rivals have not focused that greatly on, as they tend to skimp either on the camera or phone hardware.

All Nokia phones offer Krait series 200 or 300 hardware, with better than average graphics in the way of Adreno 225 / 305.  Similar hardware is available on Android devices, but they cost around 50% more at minimum.  So for your money if you a person who is not an avid gamer, the Windows 8 phone featuring Nokia’s stand tall and are very good value for money.  The upcoming Windows 8.1 upgrade should improve the OS greatly.  Use an Nokia Lumia WP8 phone and try a similar Android phone with the same hardware for a month, and you will notice how much more optimized the Windows 8 OS is compared to Android stable mates!

Which Windows 8 Nokia phone to buy?

Though the model range is rather wide and the differences marginal among these, in reality not all are available in the same region. However here in Sri Lanka, where phones are brought in from all over the world the selection criteria can be much harder 🙂

nokia-lumia-wp8-devices-e1361957967698

Model Strengths Weaknesses My opinion
Lumia 620 Good build quality, very good hardware for the price range, large high quality display, support for micro SD cards, decent camera, Full-fledged OS including free Office Mobile, NFC support Small capacity battery, a bit chunky due to the thick external casing, 512MB memory An excellent buy with a solid all round performance, and far better than anything in the Android market in this price range.  I would say this is the best buy in the Lumia range.
Lumia 820 Excellent display, decent hardware configuration, micro SD expansion, and good camera, Free Office Mobile, LTE support, NFC support, 1GB memory Display resolution same as lower models A nice design, but this to me is the weak link as its overpriced initially and though prices have dropped Android competition has caught up with this model in recent times in the likes of Xperia L, etc on the hardware specs and bang for the buck
Lumia 920 Super camera for low light and flash less photography, excellent build quality, Very good display, LTE support, 1GB memory Bulky size, battery life below par, hardware not different from the 820 to make the flagship special, no micro SD card slot An excellent phone for photography and awesome display and design, but sadly heavily overpriced initially and for a 4.5” phone this is far too heavy. Supposedly this was because of the optical stabilization module, but the newer 925 has the same but is much lighter indicating the reasons maybe very different! Current low pricing makes this a steel since it’s a really solid phone with a great camera.
Lumia 520 Similar to the 620, but offers a larger more usable 4” display, pricing is excellent, and the hardware exceptional compared to the competition, decent camera, large capacity battery. Really really bad display panel, no front camera, no LED flash, slow focusing when taking photos, small battery capacity, no NFC, no compass, 512MB memory, uses a smaller sensor compared to the Lumia 620 It fixes the small size and has a bit larger battery compared to the 620, but sadly unlike the 620 too many corners are cut on the display and camera. However compared to Android competition this stands out still, and is a very good buy.
Lumia 720 Better than the 820 in every way, except the lower memory capacity.  Has a much larger battery capacity giving it very good battery endurance Uses a smaller sensor than the Lumia 820 making it not that great under indoor conditions, 512MB memory A much better buy than the 820, and also well priced. The 820 and 720 are far too similar and wish Nokia had opted for the 1GB memory for this unit and faced out the 820.This phone is the second best buy in the current Lumia range in my opinion for value of money buys.
Lumia 822 Excellent price, and identical to the 820 with the exception of the support for CDMA as opposed to LTE, 1GB memory Ugly bulky design more in line with the WP 7.x generation Lumia series, Lumia 820 has a nicer design, and so does the Lumia 720. Only offered as a carrier phone so make sure its unlocked if you are buying it A good buy if you can live with the bulky and rather bland design, if not as good as a 820 and 720 at a lower price.

Conclusion

Nokia has been loosing sales in the Smartphone market, but the loss rate has been reducing, as they are making a good comeback in the mid and low end of the Smartphone range, which currently is heavily dominated by Samsung, and other Chinese origin phones.

The new Lumia Windows 8 phones in the mid and low end smartphone market makes a lot of sense for buyers compared to the rather inferior and overpriced Android phones, but Nokia will not find it easy if Apple does go about launching the budget IPhone as that definitely maybe big trouble for its latest emergence.

Windows 8.1 is needed very quickly as the OS is the limitation, but for many average Smartphone uses the OS is solid and featured, and i would say take a look the Nokia 620, 720, 520 as they are good value phones with superb hardware and a very very smooth operating system.

HTC Butterfly: The practical alternative to the HTC One and Galaxy S4


The 2013 is proving to be the year of Full HD screens, and where quad-core is become a minimal requirement for a flagship.  However HTC launched a small scale release of an interim flagship to the HTC One X, when they released the HTC Butterfly, also known as the HTC J and Droid DNA in other markets.

The Butterfly was the first Full HD phone from a leading manufacturer, and also featured an even more improved LCD compared to the HTC One X (which was already considered one the best) and named the Super LCD3.   In addition year 2011/2012 had been the year for Nvidia to rule, but as with the Nexus 4 setting the trend late 2012 saw Qualcomm take the lead ,and the Butterfly followed suit featuring an awesomely powerful QUALCOMM Snapdragon Pro S4 quad-core paired to a very powerful Adreno 320 graphics core.

Hence the Butterfly was equipped to the very best at the time of its launch on the hardware side, and matched by an sleep and light body.  But being planned as a limited edition, it was meant to be replaced by the HTC One, which was to feature a major “shift” in camera expectations, and some in HTC felt that playing it safe and have a backup plan would be a good idea.  Turns out the decision was a good one, lack of supplies and issues with the microphone patents have dented HTC One supplies, and the Butterfly has now been launched in many more markets to fill in.

DesignP1000083small

The Butterfly maintains a simple and clean design, but does not feature anything outstandingly new, as HTC kept all this for the HTC One.  In many ways the HTC Butterfly is a upgraded HTC One X, compared to all out new phone.

The phone features the same Polycarbonate body, but this time without the matte finish HTC has opted for a gloss finish, targeting the Asian market for the phone.  The body is now more sharper than rounded, and gave clues to the HTC One design that was to come.

The centerpiece was the large 5” Full HD screen, with minimal bezel. The sides have the speakers grills, but only one side actually has speakers, the other is merely for the design, shame as that would have been awesome.  The speaker grills are colored red for the red, which mutes the design, but in the white the silver grills look awesome.

The back is standard HTC with nothing but the camera and flash, and the Beats Audio logo. 

The phone is super light for a 5” specially if you happen to have used a Galaxy Note 2 🙂 (the Apple users feedback was of course, my word its so huge, wonder what they will say when they hold a Galaxy Note 2) and the balance is superb.  It feels so much smaller than the 5” and can be easily used single handedly.  Its what you call a very likeable phone, similar to the HTC One X.

HARDWARE

The Nexus 4 set the trend with the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro, the Butterfly features the same, and in many ways its identical to the highly regarded Sony Xperia Z and ZL.  The Butterfly features the Snapdragon S4 Pro, before it was mildly tweaked and rebranded the Snapdragon S600, and has a 1.5Ghz Quad-core processor, coupled to a super fast Adreno 320 graphics that is capable of providing 60fps+ even at Full HD resolution.

Unlike the HTC One X, the Butterfly also has now upgraded in the memory area, with 2GB of RAM, making it future proof and also capable of supporting the memory requirements for the newer games and applications.

INTERFACE

The Butterfly is current still running Sense 4+, but its going to be the first HTC from the “prior to the HTC One” to get the Sense 5 upgrade, scheduled to happen in end May 2013. Hopefully HTC will stick to their schedules. 

Update: The update to Sense 5 was rolled out a bit later than scheduled by HTC, but only for the Taiwan phones with CID HTC_621.  Months have gone and yet the rollout has not happened for the other region phones, while the same update was rolled out for HTC One X+ phones for more regions. This has frustrated a lot of users based on the feedback visible on the HTC Singapore, Malaysia and India Facebook sites.

I checked out a HTC One, and noticed the new Sense 5 has a really nice font and simple interface, though the BlinkFeed launcher seems to be a bit “marketing” to me, but i need to try it to really see it.  However the fancy Zoe photography feature is missing in the leaked ROM and all hope that it will make it to the final drop since the Butterfly and HTC One have near identical hardware, so there is no real reason to drop it saying there is no processing power to handle it, so lets wait and see.  For now if you have an HTC One X/X+, the interface on the Butterfly is on different except for a new “App & Shortcut” widget which seems to be a HTC Butterfly one inclusion.

P1000109small P1000111small

UPDATE: The Sense 5 update has almost all the features first seen with the HTC One, with the only exclusion being Zoe which seems to be an exclusive for phones with Ultra pixel type cameras (possibly this might be linked to the different imagechip used for these phones).

However once the Sense 5 update comes, I will update it, as that’s the true upgrade that has many cool features which we have come to expect from new phones and have seen Samsung and Sony include in their customizations in recent times.

DISPLAY

HTC remains faithful to the LCD brigade and i am for one are happy for that, since the LCD screens have proved to be more accurate on colors than the AMOLED units. In addition many of the AMOLED units even in the S4, S3 (and the HTC One S) are pentile units, which have lower number of pixels than in reality.  The new Super LCD 3 screens is superbly sharp, and the colors are very natural.  The Full HD resolution means the pixel density is one of the best, and the text is sharp and clear.

Unlike the Xperia Z, the HTC has touch buttons so the screen resolutions is a true 1920x 1080, and you really appreciate the quality of the screen when you keep it next to a lower resolution screen.  Viewing angles are pretty good with the Butterfly and the screen is very rugged as its protected by a layer of Gorilla Glass 2.

CAMERA and VIDEO

The back camera is where HTC has played it safe, and it seems the Butterfly features the same sensor and lens as the HTC One X+.   The camera in the One X+ was one of the best cameras in 2012, but was beaten by the Galaxy S3 and IPhone 5 for outdoor shooting, though the F2.0 lens cut down the advantage by offering good indoor performance. 

While the camera performance is good, the pictures tend to be a tad noisy, a historic issue with the HTC range in recent times.  However under low light the camera performs quite well, possibly due to its large aperture lens. One of the advantages with HTC is that the Field of View (FOV) of their cameras are exceptionally wide, both in stills and videos, an advantage for group shots and landscapes compared to Samsung.

The HTC implementation also supports constant focusing on video, similar to the Sony Xperia, and under good light this works quite seamlessly but under lower light conditions, the focus tends to hunt and its best that this is disable if being used indoors.  The video quality though is definitely lacking in detail compare to the video footage from the Samsung S3 (see

The camera interface is superbly implemented, and provides a great set of features including very easy to select camera effects to be applied on the fly.  The camera also supports real time HDR, which is very useful when taking photos in testing light and bright light situations. The focus and burst performance are exceptional, as it was with the HTC One X.

The front camera features a new introduction, that would be seen on the HTC One, with a F2.0 lens for low light, and a wide angle 88 degree view for group and a 2.1MP, and is considered the best front camera in the market, even better than the one on the Galaxy S4.

PERFORMANCE

Well with the hardware spec it should fly and it does fly, though if you already use a HTC One X/X+ or Samsung Galaxy S3, you will notice that the interface is smoother, and browsing is faster but you are not going to say wow, coz the snapdragon S4 Pro does not really make this that faster on normal usage, but it does so in gaming and also sustain the performance when there is high load from background processes.

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The popular Antutu benchmark shows that the Butterfly outpaces all the older devices, including the near identical configuration Google Nexus 4, and this is commendable considering Antutu includes a 2D and 3D test run at native resolution, and here with almost twice the pixels to push the scores are still better for the Snapdragon S4.  However the Xperia Z is faster than the Butterfly, and evaluation of the scores indicated that the Xperia Z had better scores on 2D and 3D, so Sony has tweaked things better than HTC?  I feel the HTC Butterfly being the first Snapdragon S4 Pro, and HTC wanting to make the HTC One shine may have not tweaked things much, and the next release of the 4.2 Jelly Bean should match the Xperia Z scores.

image

One test for browsing performance is the Vellamo test suite.  Here we see that the Butterfly does manage to beat the older generation quad-core units, but is again second to the Xperia Z.  Clearly HTC has work to do.  This is also one test where the Nexus 4 a Snapdragon S4 processor device with lower resolution seems to struggle, a question that has remained a puzzle. Some say that many “leading manufacturers” have tweaked the phone software to detect the benchmark being run and made things “artificially fast”, and with the Nexus 4 having no such tweaks, could this be the reason 🙂  Another good news is the suspect usually have been Samsung and many Chinese firms such as Huawei, etc.

DESIGN PROBLEMS

Every phone has their different quirks, and some maybe user opinionated since each of us have different usage styles, however here are mine with regard to the butterfly.

  • The POWER button placement at the top for phone of this size is not very ergonomic and is rather hard to use, a side placement or side mid (as in the case of the Xperia Z) is definitely a must
  • The covers for the charger and connectivity port (bottom) and the micro-SIM and SD-card (at the top) are very hard to remove, and if you are not careful you can easily crack the cover.

CONCLUSION

The HTC Butterfly may have been an interim flagship and shadowed by the “Ultra Pixel” camera bearing HTC one, but it offers an unique design, excellent handling for a 5” phone, exceptionally light but practically rugged including the waterproof feature.  The hardware is top of the line, and specially the 2GB RAM makes it very future proof.

For those who may not like the IPhone-ish design of the HTC One, and its “premium” price, the HTC Butterfly offers nearly the same for much lower price, and comes the the added  goodies of a waterproof body, larger screen and microSD expansion and flexibility of storage which for many could be a lot of practical advantages.

The Sense 5 release for the Butterfly is due soon (as i write this) but HTC could have done better by offering the update since its been more than a few months since the HTC One release, and the Butterfly has been used to fill the void in the supplies for the HTC One.  Sadly this is an area that HTC continues to be late, which is releasing new firmware updates, specially for phones which are still very much high end (e.g. the HTC One X and One X+ are due to get the Jelly Bean 4.2 update with Sense in Sep 2013!). 

HTC clearly is showing they are wanting to get back loss business from Samsung, but Samsung is not the same company it was 2 years ago when HTC was able to compete in equal terms, and hence has to be a Mohamed Ali, and move like a bee, and be fast as lightening.  This means quicker updates on software than Samsung, while continuing to stay focused on providing only useful new custom features (Samsung puts out a lot of crappy features, good for marketing but mainly useless for most users) and very importantly improve their camera photo quality, an area they have beaten by all the big boys right now.

Ultra pixel is going to take time, so HTC needs to keep improving the camera implementation and performance tweaks of phones such as the Butterfly, HTC One X/X+/S, and the mid range to make it big again.

Sony Xperia Z, the 2013 flagship with a design to kill, and backed with the hardware to match


Sony has had a reputation from the time it entered the Android market that its phones had the design element, but were always a step behind in hardware, and so so on the software side.

The Xperia Z (and its sister phone) the flagship for 2013 heralded a first for Sony that the hardware was at the time of the launch the top most specification among the available droid phones, and was backed up with awesome 5” Full HD Bravia display that was only beaten to the market by the HTC Butterfly (a limited production model) and a cool design that had buyers and reviewers drooling over.

However Sony’s rule as the topmost spec in the market was short lived, as the launch of the flagship phones by the two other giants in the android space, first by HTC with their one, and then followed by Samsung with their Galaxy S IV so the specs eclipsed (marginally as the difference in performance is marginal, as the new flagship only users a slightly newer version of the Snapdragon chipset).  But still these competitors (specially the once again all plastic Galaxy S IV) trail on the design element.  If this can help Sony rebuild and grow in the Android space is to be seen, but the Xperia Z is a clear indication that Sony wants to get a bigger piece of the smart phone market, and that bodes well for its follow up launch of smaller models that should also feature top of the line hardware.

HARDWARE

The Xperia Z featured a 1.5Ghz  Krait configuration, consisting of a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro (APQ8064) chipset (this chipset has since been increased in speeds and called Snapdragon 600), backed by the Adreno 320 graphics core, 2GB of RAM.  The combination at the time of the launch was the hottest, and matched the Nexus 4 and HTC Butterfly that featured identical hardware.

The processor and graphics offered performance that left the Nvidia Tegra 3 standing, and many say that even the Tegra 4 would be hard pressed to match this performance.  The story seems to hold true, as for this year there is no Tegra 4 based releases yet indicated by any manufacturers, and all the leading manufacturers have used Qualcomm units, a bad sign for Nvidia indeed.

Design

Sony continues to do what its good at, which is the design.  IMG_20130319_190537The Xperia Z features a slim sleek profile with a scratch resistant tempered glass front and like the Nexus 4, a glass back.  It also features a cool Z sticker, which adds a touch of class.

The beautiful full HD display only has a very small bezel around it, which makes the phone quite easy to handle for it size, and the overall weight is also minimal.

Since the phone is a water proof and dust proof unit, Sony has omitted the usual camera button that one finds with its phone, but in case you do not want the water resistant feature, the much cheaper and near identical Xperia ZL features the camera button along with a simple plastic back.  For many though the glass back design alone will make their purchase decision.

Display

The year 2013 is all about Full HD screens and the move up in size.  The Xperia Z is among the first few to feature a full HD screen.  The large 5” screen resolution is actually 1776×1080, as the bottom pixels are taken for the soft key buttons similar to the Google Nexus 4.

The display when compared to the phones of 2012 such as the HTC One X, Galaxy S 4 and Nexus 4 show how much more sharper the higher resolution has made things.  However users will have to be be vary that apps will still be targeting the 1280×800 resolution that is still the common resolution, and until the Galaxy S IV with a similar resolution enters the market in big numbers, the application compatibility and the fact that applications harness this extra pixels will not be truly applicable.

Sony like HTC has stuck on to TFT type screens, and to me that is a good thing. TFT screens tend to be sharper than the AMOLED screens, and also offer much better visibility when used outdoors.  The Xperia Z screen continues on the sharpness that you appreciate, and has great colors.

The problem for Sony is going to be HTC, who with their HTC J/Butterfly/Droid DNA already showed that the could offer a better LCD type screen than the Xperia Z, and the new HTC One is definitely going to do better, so why Sony could not put out a better display for their flagship is going to hurt them.

A common complain that you will see on the Xperia Z is that the color fade based on the viewing angle.  To me if i was the user of the phone, i am not going to see that much, unless you want to use it as a group video player (do we do that a lot?).  So don’t go by reviews and take this as a bad thing, for me the fact that the neighbor cannot clearly see my screen is a  good thing.

Sony also applies it video and picture optimization called Bravia 2, which to many is simply a contrast boost but it works fine, as it pops the colors out.

Camera and Video

Sony though a camera giant, tends to play safe on the camera phone market, and this to me is a sad thing.  The Xperia Z has the same size sensor as the 8MP units but this time it features 13.1MP, which may mean sharper photos in good light but in most conditions the pictures are going to look grainy with all those pixels cramped into a such a small sensor.  The lens maybe a F2.2, a larger aperture than the traditional F2.4 lenses we have seen with Sony cameras in the past, but the boost is marginal and to me the increase in mega pixels is going to be negative on the photo quality.

The Xperia Z for a phone so large also features are rather small LED flash and i felt the high mega pixel, small sensor and the small flash could only mean that the Z was in no way going to be the best camera phone.

The photo samples confirmed this, as other than in good light the camera struggled to focus and provide anything called good photos.  The photos to me looked much worse than what got from my One X, S 3 and the Xperia S unless it was under very good light.  Even with the flash indoors under lower light conditions the photos were nothing great.

The focus performance under good light was good but not lighting fast as i had come to see with the HTC One X, and under poor light it struggled.

The camera also features something called a Superior Auto, which does a lot more optimizations than the standard auto mode, and yes this feature does seem to do well but it also means the photos are limited to 12MP (a good thing!)

The other feature that would prove to be an irritating one, and something that Sony users will be puzzled is that the the camera app takes about 5 seconds to load.  Why this is remains a mystery, as camera app loaded much faster on the Xperia S, and with so much hardware its a sad story for the 2013 flagship on the still photo arena.

The video of course is capable of 1080p, at 30fps and so it should be with the kind of hardware the Xperia Z is running on.  Sony also is heavily marketing that the Xperia Z is capable of doing HDR in video mode as well.  On the video department the Xperia Z performs better, but still under low light the crammed sensor will struggle.

The Xperia S also featured one of highest megapixel cameras with a 12MP unit when all the competition were doing 8MP.  However based on the pictures i have taken and reviews read, my feeling is that Sony tried to win customers by marketing higher mega pixels than true better picture quality/video.

The unit features the same F2.4 type lens that all are familiar with the Sony Arc S launch, and for some the Arc S remains the better shooter.  The extra mega pixels have further highlighted the lower quality of Sony camera images, and this is an area Sony still has work to do.

What is crazy is that Sony has such a pedigree when it comes to compact cameras with small sensors, and that their camera units and processing is being thrashed by Samsung, HTC and Apple is something that Sony should be ashamed.

The video like HTC features constant auto focusing which is great for slow moving footage, but remember to disable this when doing fast moving footage if not you are going to feel sad.  The video is also capable of 1080p HD, and the quality is good enough and the camera performs decently even in poor light.

A feature increasingly common with most flagship phones is the ability to take still photos while recording video, the Z can do that, but the still photos are limited to 1MP!, this is rather poor when the HTC and Samsung implementations in 2012 with lesser hardware could already do full resolution stills while video recording.

Video playback and sound

The stock video player is good supporting most formats including MKV and Div X.  The video playback is awesome on such a large high resolution screen, and in case you are into videos this phone is excellent.

The audio quality on voice calls are good, but for a phone of this size the loudspeaker performance is nothing great, and it seems this maybe due to Sony trying to make this phone water resistant, and had to sacrifice on the size and design of the speaker.  The fact that the phone only has one speaker is also going to hurt it with the HTC One coming out with large stereo speakers on a smaller foot print.

Sony as followed Apple on its new design for the ear phones with the flat type, sadly i could not test these out as I only had the phone for a short while.  However the ear phones to me looked a bit budget in the quality of finish, and i felt Sony cold have done better on the quality of finish compared the Apple ear phones.

Storage

The phone only comes with 16GB on-board, a strange decision when Sony always went with 32GB for their flagship phones, and the trend this year is that its 32GB or higher.  With the base OS taking a fair amount out of the 16GB, the decision for Sony to reduce the flagship internal storage seems crazy, specially since the phone is not cheap!

However Sony has made up for its miss in the past by including a microSD card slot that is capable of taking cards upto 64GB, providing the expansion capability.

Battery

With a more powerful chipset and graphics, larger screen ,and higher resolution the battery drain is going to be a question on everyone’s mind.  Sony has boosted the battery of the Xperia Z with a fairly large 2330mAh unit, and the phone needs it.

Gsmarena showed the phone standby performance is great (it should with such a large battery) but once you start using that display things don’t last that long.  Under normal use the phone will struggle to last a day if the display is used a lot, as the display is the key battery consumer.

The battery is not a removable type, which is not a big problem unless your battery dies on you.  With so many portable external battery chargers available the removable nature of the battery is not a big concern anymore, but how many recharge cycles can this battery hold with the continuous drain on this unit will only be proven on a long term tests.

Software and Customization

The Xperia Z launched with Jelly Bean but not the latest version, opting to go with the 4.1.2 version rather than the 4.2.1 version that may have improved performance.  The update for 4.2.1 is due but with competing flagships launching shortly with 4.2.x version, Sony needs to move fast, but it seems that is not going to happen.

Sony in recent times has not attempted to include any heavy customizations, which has also enabled the phones to  provide good performances. The Xperia Z does have some level of customization, but compared to the Samsung and HTC implementations, the Sony implementation is light but also lacking in features.

There is now a permanent pop up feature that you can use for some apps, which is a bit like the multi-view feature by Samsung.  Sony wall papers look great and add to the finish of the phone.

Screenshot_2013-03-16-19-51-47Screenshot_2013-03-16-15-13-15Screenshot_2013-03-17-16-54-25Screenshot_2013-03-16-15-43-04 Screenshot_2013-03-15-09-43-34Screenshot_2013-03-16-15-41-28Screenshot_2013-03-16-15-40-49

The extra resolution means split screen implementation for the calendar and email are not cramped and easily viewed.   However some of the widgets like the calendar widget still have too much white space and don’t take benefit of the higher resolution.

Screenshot_2013-03-16-17-42-10

Usage issues and problems from known from forums

  • The phone when used for browsing in particular tends to get very warm at the top bottom. The glass back does not help here, as it amplifies the heat.  The heat is easily  noticeable even after a short period of browsing.
  • The screen though supposedly rugged has several examples that have cracked under light use, indicating their maybe a design issue rather than a quality of material problem.
  • There is also a reported issue of the phones dying if the battery charge goes very low, and the phone sometimes can be brought alive using a recovery process but not always.  Sony has confirmed this issue, which is a big minus point for the phone.
  • The loudspeaker if immersed in water will be low until the water clears out, again a poor design issue
  • The camera interface does not rotate and seems to have been designed to work with the ZL hardware camera button

Performance

I have compared the performances of last year flagships and the Nexus 4, along with the Xperia S to give an indication of the improvement in performance.

One has to note that the graphics and internet rendering performance cannot be compared apples to apples since the Xperia Z has to render on much greater pixels, so in case the performance matches that alone is a major achievement.

Screenshot_2013-03-15-09-41-48Screenshot_2013-03-15-10-01-39Screenshot_2013-03-15-10-11-01

Compared to LG Google Nexus which has a lower resolution, the Xperia Z screams and also shows that Google does not optimize its phones much.

Compared to the 2012 flagships, the Xperia Z is able trounce them on all departments which indicates how much more powerful the Snapdragon S4 Pro processor is.  The slightly faster but near identical Snapdragon 600 on the HTC One and the international version of the Galaxy S IV will surpass this but not by much. Except the next update from Sony to make things even better.

The chart also shows that the quad core krait in the Xperia Z is able to offer a heavy improvement compared to the dual-core version that was featured in the HTC One S.

Chipset GPU Android Antutu 3.0.x Quadrant Nenamark Vellamo 2.x GeekBench 2.0
Sony Xperia Z 1.5Ghz Quad Snapdragon S4 Pro Adreno 320 4.1.2 20486 7871 59.9 2178 1991
Sony Xperia S 1.5Ghz Dual Snapdragon S3 Adreno 220 4.0.4 8219 3306 37.9 1393 996
HTC One S 1.5Ghz Dual Snapdragon S4 Adreno 225 4.0.3 10558 4707 61.0 1535 NA
HTC One X 1.5Ghz Quad Tegra-3 Nvidia Tegra 3 4.1.2 14781 6805 57.1 1578 1359
Samsung Galaxy S III 1.4Ghz Quad Exynos 4412 Mali400MP Quadcore 4.0.4 14300 5343 58.9 1569 1824
LG Google Nexus 4 1.5Ghz Quad Snapdragon S4 Pro Adreno 320 4.2.1 17640 5014 57.8 1302 1302

Conclusion

The Xperia Z has many things going its way.  It definitely has a great design, and is maybe only second to the upcoming HTC One (the Galaxy S IV looks just like the Galaxy S 3, so Samsung yet again fails on the design element and quality of materials).

The design is backed by a a very good screen that is also large, and offers full HD resolution.  Sony has also gone to the extra length of making the phone water resistant and dust resistant.  Practical things since that means if the phone was to get wet in the rain or was in your pocket, this phone is going to come through fine, and that is one worry you don’t need to concern over.. nice.

The Xperia Z features a great processor and graphics, that means excellent performance in games, browsing, video, etc.  Add the microsd expansion slot it makes it an ideal multimedia device.  Well done Sony.

BUT the poor camera is a big negative for a camera of this price and status, and Sony’s decision to go ahead with a ridiculous 13MP sensor that is the same size as the 8MP sensor we have seen in 2012, and backed up with a smaller flash only made things harder for the Sony software guys working on the still photo area.  The performance of the camera to me is worse than most 2012 phones, including Sony’s own phones, sad.

The heating issue and the durability of the screen is also a concern, and adding a clunky screen protector is going to hurt, but here Sony has a solution, opt for the ZL version with the plastic back, but then you loose the water resistant feature, ouch.

However no phone is perfect, the Xperia Z ticks many good things and with a design so elegant, it must sell well.  But the world seems to buy phones based on marketing, and Apple and Samsung are very good here, and that is something Sony seems not capable of matching, and until that changes the Xperia will remain second or third to most.

HTC One, the new flagship launched, set to become the new top dog in the Android market


Normally my reviews have been hands on based on true usage of devices, but have launched a new series of articles featuring releases of key products in the mobile arena.

Sony recently launched the cool Xperia Z, which for the first time for Sony featured state of the art processors matched with a nice design and some cool features (water proof, dust proof), etc.  However Sony’s glory was short lived, as HTC launched its new flagship now renamed simply as HTC One.HTC-One_Silver_Left-580x490

HTC seems to working hard at getting back its lost glory to Samsung, and the HTC One maybe the phone.  Samsung seems to have ditched quality feel, but improved to the top dog status (in the Android space) on the hardware, software and multimedia in recent times.

HTC meanwhile has continued with its great looking Sense UI, but competition has caught up with it, and the UI seems to be going the way Samsung’s TouchWiz went becoming more and more heaving ruining the interface performance, something most Android fans owners have to bitterly accept is way behind iOS devices.  Whatever project Butter from Google with the Jelly Bean released brought seems to have been lost with the heavier customizations of these custom skins. While HTC kept up on the hardware side, and improved on its multimedia, it was outdone as Samsung took advantage of its ability to manufacture chips by improving on industry platforms by offering a more finely tuned Exynos unit that gave it the edge over competitors.

The HTC One offers many things that would have most phone buyers drooling over and definitely puts it as the phone to have for Android fans (and Apple fans wanting to switch),

  1. The already great LCD2 screen in the One X has been improved with the new LCD3 that was featured in the HTC Butterfly phone now featuring on the HTC OneHTC-ProductDetail-Overview-Container4-02-bg
  2. The screen size remains 4.7” (thankfully, as anything larger would be phablet territory), but the resolution is now full HD (1080p), the resulting PPI means an even sharper screen
  3. Cutting edge chipset and graphics featuring the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chipset which has 4 Krait processors (at 1.7Ghz) coupled to Adreno 320 graphics, and 2GB RAM to top it.  This should provide great performance that should top the charts until the new range featuring the A15 architecture (led by the Galaxy S4) come along.
  4. An aluminium build a move away from the current classy polycarbonate and anodized constructions featured with the HTC One X and One S models but should bring an ooze of class that the Samsung phones lack. Whether this will hold good with the current HTC One X owners will be the trial.
  5. Stereo speakers to provide loud and quality audio and maintain HTC’s quality audio focus. The speakers are said to be 4 times more louder than normal phone speakers, and feature totally new construction as well as having chambers that are twice as large current rival phones for better acoustics. HTC-ProductDetail-Overview-Container3-01pre-bg
  6. A large battery 2300mAh, and that will surely be required when you have such a high resolution screen and powerful hardwareHTC-ProductDetail-Hero-slide-05
  7. An extreme risky but innovative camera that it is marketed as a 13MP equivalent, when in reality its a 1/3” 4MP sensor (which can take over 300% more light than current sensors) with what HTC calls Ultrapixels technology and said offer better picture quality and low light shots.  Current samples are not all positive, but that maybe an issue with beta software, the final build and updates to come may make things far more rosy for the Ultrapixel sensor. The camera features also a f 2.0 lens which HTC owners of the current gen would already be familiar with.  The phone also features a totally new ImageChip that handles camera DSP.
  8. Features a 2.1MP front camera with a 88 degree view for group video and
  9. 2-axis optical image stabilization in similar lines to the Nokia Lumia 920, a feature that digital camera owners know is far superior to digital image stabilization, that should definitely aid far smoother video, and possibly better pictures under trying conditions.
  10. This will all be wrapped with a new UI, the Sense 5.0 which will premier with the HTC One, question is will HTC provide this update for the older One X / X+ and Butterfly units, we do hope so since loyalty is important if HTC is to regain its position as a top player in the android space.
  11. Dual microphones which automatically switch the range so that the sensitivity is adjusted based on the external environment

Will this HTC hold out and win the battle against Samsung when they release the Galaxy IV? Will the HTC One camera live up to its hype or face the reality as did Nokia with their Lumia 920 camera that said a lot but still only performed a bit better than the rest.

Loads to think but the HTC One does look good, and with it geared this time for a massive launch in March, it may ask many Galaxy S3 owners is it time to switch to HTC one again?

While technically the HTC One replaces the HTC One X, i have compared the temporary fix HTC did with the One X+ which in some way tried out some changes that are now featured in the HTC One (E.g. Corning’s Gorilla Glass 2.0, a larger battery).

The HTC Butterfly was the phone that truly brought most of the features other than the camera to the market, but it was launched only in few markets, but i fear with the launch of the One, if the Butterfly will get sidelined and loose support from HTC (something HTC sadly has a bad habit of doing).  The Butterfly may not have the fancy camera but it features nearly the same hardware, screen and has the added advantage it has a microSD card for expansion and quick transfers that the upcoming flagship lacks.

  HTC One X+ HTC ONE HTC Butterfly
Screen Size 4.7″ 4.7″ 5″
Type Super LCD2 Super LCD3 Super LCD3
Resolution 720 x 1280 pixels 1080 x 1920 pixels 1080 x 1920 pixels
Protection Gorilla Glass 2 Gorilla Glass 2 Gorilla Glass 2
Chipset Nvidia Tegra 3.0 AP37 Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 Qualcomm Snapdragon 600
Processor Quad-Core Tegra 3 Quad-core Krait 300 Quad-core Krait
Processor Speed 1.7Ghz 1.7Ghz 1.5Ghz
Graphics Geforce 2 ULP Adreno 320 Adreno 320
Graphics cores 520Mhz    
memory 1GB Same 2GB
Onboard 32/64GB 32/64GB 16GB
MicroSD No No Yes
Camera 8MP Sensor 1/3″ 4MP UltraPixel sensor 8MP Sensor
Front Camera 1.6MP 720p 2.1MP 1080p 2.1MP 1080p
Speakers Mono Stereo Stereo
Battery 2100mAh 2300mAh 2020mAh
LTE support No Yes Yes
Sense Version 4+ 5.0 4+

Sony Xperia S, a worthy flagship in design but lacking in hardware


The Xperia S heralded a new design that definitely caught the eye of many, as Sony Ericsson moved out and became Sony.

The NXT series of phones was led by the S as its flagship, and the phone’s design stood out of the crop, but faced a stiff challenge when the HTC One Series also came with an outstanding design.

I got hold of this phone recently as i wanted to try it out, after trying out its lesser known but in some way more advanced Xperia P twice.

HARDWARE

Sadly this is the very area Sony continues to get battered even today, though the Xperia Z promises to change this for the first time for Sony.  The Xperia S packed a dual-core Qualcom 1.5Ghz unit backed by the Adreno 220 GPU.  The processor and GPU are quite capable but this combination is what you saw in 2011 phones from HTC and Samsung, which had moved on to quad core units by 2012.

The one place the Xperia S had matched with times was the memory, with the Xperia S featuring 1GB of RAM, though that was also changing with Samsung releasing the US Galaxy S3 with 2GB, and now in 2013 we are seeing all new phones coming with 2GB.

Design

The Xperia S definitely can be proud of one definite thing, which is that design.  The phone still looks good, and feels good.  The design was fresh and different but the design also meant a large bezel at the bottom which many of the users did not like, and the new 2013 models have dropped this design, which mean they don’t look very much different from others phones on this end.

The Xperia S sadly did not have touch enabled buttons for the lighting grid, unlike its cheaper Xperia P sibling, something that can be irritating if you have used the Xperia P before the S (as was my case!).  If not i am sure you won’t be too bothered about this.

Display

The Xperia S was also Sony’s first phone with the 1280×720 display, and it featured a very sharp LCD screen that was boosted by the Bravia software optimization that boosted contrast for video playback.

I have come to realize that i am a person who appreciate sharpness of the screen, which was one reason why i did not like the pentile AMOLED screens on the Galaxy S3 and HTC One S, which lacked the sharpness.

The Xperia S has a very sharp and solid display that to me is only second to the HTC One X, which features a screen that is superior to my eye, but that maybe a personal choice.

Sony has opted for a more narrow display compared phones offered by HTC and Samsung with its NXT Series phones, and the Xperia S may offer better single handed operations but i find the narrow size a bit restrictive when it comes to typing on the keyboard.

Camera and Video

The Xperia S also featured one of highest megapixel cameras with a 12MP unit when all the competition were doing 8MP.  However based on the pictures i have taken and reviews read, my feeling is that Sony tried to win customers by marketing higher mega pixels than true better picture quality/video.

The unit features the same F2.4 type lens that all are familiar with the Sony Arc S launch, and for some the Arc S remains the better shooter.  The extra mega pixels have further highlighted the lower quality of Sony camera images, and this is an area Sony still has work to do.

What is crazy is that Sony has such a pedigree when it comes to compact cameras with small sensors, and that their camera units and processing is being thrashed by Samsung, HTC and Apple is something that Sony should be ashamed.

The video like HTC features constant auto focusing which is great for slow moving footage, but remember to disable this when doing fast moving footage if not you are going to feel sad.  The video is also capable of 1080p HD, and the quality is good enough and the camera performs decently even in poor light.

Video playback and sound

The stock video player is decent, but does have limitation on the formats supported and you need to download a third party app to ensure you can play all types of media formats.

One area Sony has always been good is the sound quality on the headset and loudspeaker, and the Xperia S continues that tradition.

However the bundled in-ear type headset is average in quality, and also does not fit well into your ears.  I preferred the HTC bundled units the one series which offer better sound quality and fit.

Storage

The phone features 32GB on-board which is very much the standard for flagship phones bar the rare Galaxy s3 with 64GB available in some markets.  However Sony omitted the microSD card which meant no expansion on the storage and also took away the users ability to load content quickly by switching SD cards.

Considering the bulk of the phone, and the easily removable back cover Sony missing the microSD is a sad omission.  However seems Sony has now understood this and the recently launched Xperia T has a very easily accessible MicroSD slot.

Battery

The Xperia S was also the series that got Sony into the IPhone like non-removable battery space, which effected its sales, as many power uses tend to carry spare batteries as full use of these phones means less than a day of use.

The Xperia S with its largish 4.3” screen and older chipset meant it lost out in battery life to the more powerful Samsung phones, but it still was able to provide over 1 day use which was decent.

I tend not to have mobile data enabled unless i want it, with such use i could manage around 1.5-2 days of use.  Though it use an LCD type display which is supposed to do well with white background render, the phone drains battery quite rapidly when browsing, which is also reflected in the gsmarena battery tests.

Software Updates

Sony’s other areas of weakness has been that it has always got caught on the wrong end when releasing its phones that it was always one version down from Samsung and HTC.  The Xperia S suffered as it was launched with Gingerbread when the hot topic was ICS.  Sony provided the ICS update quickly but the initially version proved to be rather buggy, but subsequent updates improved the performance and stability, with the Xperia S getting the updates ahead of all the other NXT range phones.

However with the release of the Xperia SL, identical phone with a higher clocked processor, and the Acro S, the Xperia S updates were pushed into second priority, and then the recent release of the Xperia T has further slowed the much awaited Jelly Bean update.  Sony has informed that this update would rollout in Mar/April 2013, while the Xperia T got it late Jan 2013.

The good news is that the Xperia S code was shared with Google, and this means you may see one more major update for this phone which makes it one of the few phones (the Galaxy S2 is the other) to have received 3 major updates since the release of the phone when most have only got 2 updates at most.  The updates have also not been just base versions, and also featured new features that were available with newer releases, which means value for money for users who brought the phone.

Issues noted

The phone i had had was already running the most latest 4.0.4 update which was quite stable, and i did not notice any irritating or annoying behavior.

However the white version (which i had) definitely showed a weakness in build quality with the external paint work peeling off in some areas on the edges quite easily though the phone only had been used for a few months.

The micro USB has a cover, and this is also an area that has paint peeling happening, and Sony seems to have sorted this out in the Xperia T by omitting the cover just like most others have done.

Performance

I have only included tests of Android 4.0.4 for other devices, to provided a more apple to apple comparison, though several of the phones were tested by myself with Jelly Bean which boosted performance (bar the S3!) specially on the web browsing area.  I am sure similar or better improvements can be seen when the Jelly Bean update for the Xperia S rolls out.

The Samsung E110S Galaxy S2 features identical hardware to the Xperia S, but features a lower resolution screen, which is why you see far better performance on Quadrant, Nenamark and Antutu, all which take the 2D or 3D performance as well into play.

We also see how much faster the S4 Snapdragon featured in the One S, which was the chipset everybody hoped that Sony would have used or at least opted to use the Adreno 225 graphics, and we only see it appear now in 2013 with the Xperia T.

Also noticeable is that the Xperia S with an weaker CPU and GPU still holds well against the Galaxy S2, considered one of the best phones to be released in 2011 and its true competitor as all others were launched a year later.

  Chipset GPU Android Antutu 3.0.x Quadrant Nenamark Vellamo 2.x GeekBench 2.0
Sony Xperia S 1.5Ghz Dual Snapdragon S3 Adreno 220 4.0.4 8219 3306 37.9 1393 996
HTC One S 1.5Ghz Dual Snapdragon S4 Adreno 225 4.0.3 10558 4707 61.0 1535 NA
Samsung S2 E110S 1.5Ghz Dual Snapdragon S3 Adreno 220 4.0.4 8689 3531 53.8   716
HTC One X 1.5Ghz Quad Tegra-3 Nvidia Tegra 3 4.0.4   5700 54.1 1519 1369
Samsung Galaxy SII 1.2Ghz Dual Exynos Mali400MP, Dualcore 4.0.4 10279 3093 48.0 1133 727
Samsung Galaxy S III 1.4Ghz Quad Exynos 4412 Mali400MP Quadcore 4.0.4 14300 5343 58.9 1569 1824

Conclusion

The Xperia S design today stills remains fresh and cool, and the display great to look.  The processing may be lacking but for most this might still be more than good enough when budget and mid tier phones are still featuring single core units.  Packing 1GB memory this phone can still be a good buy for many, and with a decent camera to back it makes a good buy just like the S2, with the added benefit that you get a higher resolution screen that the S2 lacks.