Tag Archives: Sri Lanka

What is Mazda SKYACTIV technology?


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

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Synergy Drive (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hybrid_Synergy_Drive) and the Honda Hybrid i-DCD and Hybrid i-MMD (which superseded the not so efficient Honda IMA hybrid) tech.

Key concepts OF SKYACTIV

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

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

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

Application in Mazda vehicles

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

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SKYACTIV Technologies

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

Weight Saving

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

Optimized Engines

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

Stop and Start Technology

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

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

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

SKYACTIV-Drive Optimized Transmissions

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

So does any of the Mazda SKYACTIV feature hybrid technology?

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

The Mazda Axela Hybrid (Axela = Mazda 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do other manufacturers also do similar tech to SKYACTIV

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Sony SRS-XB3 Portable Bluetooth Speaker


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

The hardware

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

screenshot_1

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

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

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

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

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

Design and Quality

4836815_rd

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

4836815cv15d

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

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

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

Sound Quality

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

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

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

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

BASS (Lows)

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

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

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

Mids

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

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

Highs (Treble)

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

Stereo separation

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

Battery Life

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

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

Tips when buying a wireless portable speaker


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

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

Introduction to Wireless Portable Speakers


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

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

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

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

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

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

SPEAKER DRIVERS

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

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

internals-of-a-bluetooth-speaker

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

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

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

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

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

SPEAKER AMPLIFIER and AUDIO PROCESSOR

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

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

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

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

Bluetooth version and features

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

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

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

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

WiFi features

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

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

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

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

Environmental Protection

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

Note from Author 🙂

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

Related Posts

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

Portable audio equipment owned or used

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

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


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

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

Service Levels

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

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

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

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

Device

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

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

Perceptions – Lanka Bell 4G

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

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

Speed Benchmarking

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

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

Peak time speeds

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

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

Performance

LankaBell 4G Dialog 4G comparison

Off Peak speeds

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

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

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

offpeak-performance

LankaBell 4G Dialog 4G comparison - Off Peak

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

Stability

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Review: Xiaomi Redmi Note 3


Who are Xiaomi?

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

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

Why the Redmi Note 3

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

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

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

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

Unboxing

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

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

The Phone

General build

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

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

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

Android Software

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Display

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

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

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

Storage and memory

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

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

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

Camera

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

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

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

xiaomi-redmi-note-3-0024_crop

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finger Print scanner

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

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

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

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

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

Audio

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

Dual Sim

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

Performance

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

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

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

So how does it fare on synthetic benchmarks?

Single-core performance

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

Antutu-CPU

Vellamo-Metal

Multi-core performance

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

Vellamo-CPU

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

Browser

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

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

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

 

 

VellamoBrowser

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

Vellamo Browser Results

GPU

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

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

Test observations

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

Antutu-RAM scoresVellamo-Memory

Battery

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

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

GearLK Summary

Based on my usage here are the key points

The good points

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

The NOT so good points

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

Quirks

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

 

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.

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 🙂

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.

image

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.

Windows 8 phone: Promising but still raw and app store in its early days


I had wanted to try out the Nokia Lumia 800 as many who owned it spoke in praise on who smooth and slick the interface was, and this was truly credible considering similar single core equipped Snapdragon S1/S2  Android phones were stuttering in comparison.  However Microsoft dropped the bombshell by stating that none of the WP7 devices going to be upgraded to WP8, since they had said a higher bar for the minimum spec.

While the users of WP7 would have been very frustrated, the launch of the WP8 devices saw some great designs specially from Nokia, with HTC being a bit conservative compared to their Android offerings. The operating system brought many good opinions, but how does it stack up on every day use.

My experiences of WP8 are based on using the Nokia 620 and the 920, that provided me an idea of how it runs in base hardware, and somewhat higher spec hardware.

Touch and general OS navigation

The operating system has lived up to its smooth origins seen in WP7, and definitely had many Android users says how smooth the interface was.  Even Apple users commented positively on this, indicating Microsoft has got something right and not messed it up with the newer WP8.

Physical buttons

The phones currently have 3 physical buttons which seem to have the following capabilities.

  1. Windows button. Which takes you to the new desktop which features the tiles
  2. Back button.  Pressing this while in app takes you back within the app, and if you click the Windows button and then press this it recycles through existing apps and you can keep on pressing this to finally hasten the process of closing the app. If you keep holding this button it will show you the current running apps and you can manually select an app to get to it rather than having to recycle through.
  3. Search button, to bring the Bing search, to me this is of very little value.

Closing or selecting a running app

One feature that takes a while to get used to , and i feel is still lacking is the fact that you can’t actually close an directly.  The famous minimize, maximize and close buttons we are familiar with Windows are not there which is good as it goes with the other mobile platforms, but unlike with Apple or Android you have no way to kill an app.  Microsoft says WP8 being a true multi-tasking operating system compared to iOS and Android, is capable handling applications in similar lines to the JVM concept of Java, but if you really need to close an application this could have been easy achieved.

For instance if you hold the back button for a while it shows the current running applications similar to the what Android and iOS do, but you can swipe or press on a cross to close the app, but this to me is something that can be done easily and i wonder if its any patent that is holding back Microsoft from implementing this basic feature.

The desktop or as MS calls it Live Tiles

The desktops and widgets in Android, was not something that Google invented since these was possible with the Great Symbian operating system.  Apple looked simple without it but seems the market is now shouting for something similar even from Apple, and they are supposed to deliver something different for the first time in iOS wit version 7 to support this.

Microsoft answer with Windows Phone has been live tiles, and while it has been unique and effective, to me the multiple desktops concept of Android and Symbian is more efficient when you have loads of stuff that you want to access, where a single scrolling desktop becomes limiting.

Fonts and scaling

The fonts in WP8 like WP7 are clear and sharp but sadly they are a bit too large for me. The smallest size is rather to clunky, and due to this in places like Live Tiles, the Calendar you see only a little information.  However the ability to scale further seems limited, and hopefully Microsoft can provide a fix for this in the upcoming patch.

Resolution Support

With WP8 Microsoft also brought the ability to support higher resolutions since WP7 was limited to 800×480.  The budget WP8 phones such as Lumia still have this resolution, but the higher end phones support 720P with 1280×800 screens.  This resolution competed with the 2012 line of Androids and Apple, but with 2013 bring Full HD resolution to Android phones the market has moved on.  Microsoft is due to provide the patch that will support enhanced resolutions as newer phones are due to release with Full HD screens during the later part of 2013.

Hopefully this means support for better use of the resolution will also come, since at present there is no split view even for emails, which i find in Android which improves navigation and gives near Windows desktop usability.

Phone and contact features, good but still not good as Android

WP8 has very good usability and coverage on basic call features of a phone with easy dialing with its simple uncluttered interface.

  • Phonebook loads fast, and the search is fast and easy.
  • You can pin to start any contact, making your favorites easy to call
  • Adding a call to an existing call (for conference features) is easy but has a major limitation, it only allows you to add from the history, you cannot access the phonebook, OUCH
  • Speakerphone is easy to switch, but the touch can be too sensitive, one has to be a bit delicate in pressing the button
  • The default keyboard is quite effective in word correction and nice to type on, far better than many native keyboards on Android devices, but still not as effective as SwiftKey that i normally use with my android devices.  Third party keyboards are not available in the store, and i am not sure if such is possible with the nature of the OS.

I find the favorites and group feature useful and familiar which i used with Symbian and found in Android as well.  This allowed me to group people and access them without having to go to the search feature.  While the pin to start can achieve some sort of favorite concept, having this in the contacts search is a must have when the screen sizes are still comparatively limited.

Messaging, good but seems no one spoke to real users

  • The basic messaging features are covered well, but seems to be more favoring MMS, with the conversation thread feature a MMS only capability.
  • One big limitation that i had was with adding of contacts to a message.  White you can type part of the name, it seems to limit the names.  For example i had my contacts synchronized from Google, and any contact who had numbers as “other” type were not listed, and you had to and select the “+” and search and add the number, which was very annoying
  • The backup of texts to the cloud is there, but the backed up messages are not readable. Meaning unlike some third party SMS backup tools for Android which creates a new flag (=folder) in your Google account to keep your messages (hence you can search or read them through Google mail), the  contents of the message backup is not visible on your skydrive storage, and seems to be a hidden store that only WP8 can retrieve, so while its useful its lacking the full usability i would want from this backup feature.

Calendar features, severely lacking

The calendar features sadly to me are rather lacking which is very astonishing for me.  Microsoft with such a strong background on the desktop with Outlook has failed here in great style, though the interface in general is nice. Even feature phones (aka non-smartphones) have much better calendar implementations.

  • Month calendar view is MISSING.  Not only is it missing, but the Microsoft developers have CHEATED. If you go to the month view, it does show a view, but its not readable. If you take a screen snapshot and then check it out on a computer you will see that it has some “test data”, which may explain why they have purposefully made the font not readable.  This to me is inexcusable.
  • The current views implemented “agenda”, “to-do” are rather skimpy and minimalist.
  • Live tiles for calendars are supported but only one event can be shown. Supposedly the next release will allow you to see 3, but stills that very limiting, and currently its downright useless

File Explorer, nope never heard of that

After being a Symbian user for many years and then an Android user, a file manager to me is like a must have.  This applies to my Windows desktop usage as well.  With Apple i found this “securing the content” and lacking a file manager a major hurdle, as i could not open a file with the application i wanted.  Well i expected that WP8 will be more like Windows, though WP7 was more like Apple.

Well i was in for a big disappointment, there is no file manager in WP8, and you are unlikely to get one is the general talk.  Hence if you want to manage your files you have to do it via a PC.  However the only good side with WP8 is that you can connect it and manage your files from your File Explorer without needing the Zune app which was what you had to do with WP7, so some positive changes and shifts from the Apple like way, but still not good enough for me.

Synchronization and storage support

The big change with WP8 compared to the WP7 is the MTP mode support.  With WP7 it was just like iTunes in some ways that you had to convert content to copy, and that was it.  Further  with WP7 you had on support for MicroSD cards.

With WP8 you just connect the device (as you would do with an Android device) and it loads as a MTP compatible storage. You can copy and restructure the unrestricted contents through Windows explorer.  If the device had a Micro SD this is also visible and accessible making content transfer easy and simple.  This is a definitely a big positive for WP8 compared to Apple and allows it to compete into the Android space, since the Zune feature very much like iTunes has been seen as a limitation for many where content is normally not purchased from online stores, but rather from local sources.

However with the fact that for many apps seems incapable of accessing files copied into the device, and only able to list apps downloaded this advantage seems to be only valid for video and music, which i think is a big limitation which i hope Microsoft will remove by providing app developers better APIs that expose such contents.

Browsing

WP8 ships with an IE10 based mobile browser that is major overhaul compared to the older IE versions on the WP7 phones.  IE10 on WP8 is quite smooth and fast, but definitely plays second fiddle to the Android flagships and the Apple on the browser speeds.

However third party browsers are still lacking with the UC Browser the only major alternative.  I tried this out and while it was fast, it seems to have memory issues in its present state.

Major alternatives such as Firefox and Opera are still not available, and the chance of Chrome coming to WP8 will only occur if WP8 turns out to be major player in the mobile market, currently with under 3% of the market i don’t see Google paying too much interest.

Music and Video Playback

This is handled mainly by the players provided by the phone manufacturer based on the standard player.  The player from Nokia does a commendable job, but i am sure you will find a video format or two not supported.

However no strong alternatives are available on the store on this area as yet. VLC is supposedly working on an RT based version, but with the challenges adobe has faced putting out a PDF reader due to limited RT libraries available for the WP8 compared to the RT on the tab may also impact VLC in putting out a player quickly.

Camera

The generic camera app has evolved so says Microsoft, but to me the interface is still very primitive.  While the ability to see pictures taken is now on the interface, and some key options such as flash can be selected, the rest are still text options and there is no provision to select them and add to the interface.  However the ability to add new lens, which allows third party developers to integrate their features directly into the stock camera app is cool and something very innovative.

Why mobile camera manufactures and platform builders can’t learn from digital camera interfaces continues to baffle me, but Samsung and HTC seem to be getting there slowly.

Microsoft Office support

The major selling point of WP8 is that it ships with a free version of Office that has Word, Excel, PowerPoint and One Note. Windows RT tablet devices do not come with a free version of Office, and you have to purchase it.

While the other three are full fledged applications with some limitations, OneNote for WP8 and for RT is a very limited version compared to what you have with Windows 8 desktop!

With OneNote for WP8 you can only do the following,

  1. Enter a text type note
  2. Enter a checklist type note

Even basic features such as indenting a list item are only possible with the options menu with no easy tool bar, and features such as emoticon support for list items, drawing, etc are completely missing.

PDF and E-book support

While one now takes PDF and E-book support for granted, think again when it comes to WP8.

  • PDF is supported only via the Microsoft PDF Reader, which can only support reading PDF files downloaded.  Files copied to the internal storage, or files in the SD card are not listed, and hence you cannot open them.  Useless.
  • Native support for EPUB or MOB file formats are missing.  While there are third party apps for this, they all require you to download, and they cannot access the internal storage or SD card. Which means files you copy or have with you cannot be opened.  Massive failure for WP8 once again.

Games

I am not commenting here, since i have not tried them out.  However going through the store, most apps have the TRY option which is nice, but on the whole the number of popular titles are very minimal, and its very very early days for WP8 at present.

Many thought that with the common platform Microsoft so heavily spoke of, including me a person with .NET development background it was sad to hear that when it comes to developing hard core applications the RT libraries for mobile and tablets (do note that tablet version is also feature in the normal full Windows 8 machines), the common part is rather limiting is the general opinion, i intend to do a bit more research here to update the situation.  But if this is true, just because a game is available for RT for tab and desktops means, its going to be easily available for the WP8 version is not a fair assumption.

FM radio support

WP8 does NOT support radio features at present.  However support for this is due with the 8.1 patch that Microsoft is supposed to deliver soon.  Phone manufacturers such as Nokia seem to be aware of this, and current devices such as the 620 and 920 are supposedly having the radio hardware, and this will be accessible once the radio features are made available with the 8.1 update from Microsoft.

Microsoft App Store

I have already spoken on the app store in line with general phone features, but from the common stack here is a quick review.  My general opinions is while there is around 20-30% who will by many different apps including games, many smart phone users by it mainly for limited use, and need only a core stack of use for general usages.

App WP8 Android iOS
Skype Native Native Native
Twitter Native Limited features Native Native
WhatsApp Native Limited Native Native
FaceBook OS built in, Limited Native Native
Google Maps Native via Nokia Maps Native Native
Stock Browser IE10 Chrome Safari
Chrome Not available Stock, Native Native Limited
YouTube Not available Stock, Native Stock, Native
Office Stock, Native, Free Third Party, Limited Third Party, Limited
PDF Support Native App, Limited Adobe, and many other Native Native + Third Party
Viber Native, Limited Native Native

Conclusion

I really like the smooth interface of WP8, and the fact that it offers more freedom that what i found with iOS/ITunes.  Its like something in between Android and iOS and Microsoft has a sound platform here.  But sadly Microsoft seems to be not understanding their user base, or are talking to the wrong user base as evident by the simple mistakes they have in the phone, calendar and other areas that i spoke of.

Its just not the app store that matters, and Microsoft needs to understand that, before the app store you also need to get the basic phone capabilities sorted, and that is something i feel Microsoft has not understood.

I will continue to use a WP8 phone as a backup device hoping that MS will improve it fast and get it where it should be, but right now progress is very slow, and MS is not getting the basics sorted as seen with the Portico release. Reluctantly i will have to shift back to an Android as my main phone.