For those who have been following me, you might have noticed that I haven’t been keeping up with my tech blog lately. This week I accepted a writing position at AndroidGuys.com, reporting on Android-relevant news and rumors. I will be doing a lot more coverage there (so far have written 9 posts in two days), so if you enjoy my writing, I encourage you to follow me over there: http://www.androidguys.com/author/josh-noriega/ I will still post stuff in this blog from time to time, but sparingly, as I’m kept pretty busy at AG. Thanks for following, and I hope you enjoy the writings to come! You can also follow me at my G+ page: google.com/+JoshNoriega
Google’s I/O events are always an exciting time for Google/Android fans wanting to know what Google has been up to and what’s coming next. Like usual, this year we got some impressive goodies in part of Google’s plan for world domination, rooted from advancing the role technology can play in our everyday lives.
Here are my impressions of the most memorable moments:
Android “M” Preview
Android M annoucement [via theverge]
Android M was the kickoff topic of the event, and not unexpected. The preview version of the not-yet-named next version of Android was briefly shown, which looked a lot like Lollipop. This is not a surprise, as Lollipop still has some growing to do, Android M will be a refinement of it. Google stated that their focus with “M” is quality, along a number of improvements and added features:
- App Permissions improvement – More concise app permissions and the specific permission can be requested in the app upon action to use that device function.
- Chrome Custom Tabs – Links to websites inside apps (such as Flipboard) launch in a Chrome tab that is skinned to match the app’s appearance, for a seamless experience.
- Android Pay – Simplified experience to pay, just unlock and tap. Can use to pay in apps. Can use fingerprint (on supported devices) to authorize purchase.
- Power & Charging – Smarter power management. Feature called “Doze”, in which device can tell when it is left unattended for a period and go into deep sleep to save battery. Future devices will use the new USB Type-C standard, which will have faster charging, flipable charging port insertion, and ability to charge another attached device using the phone as the power source.
I kind of disagree with the move to another dessert already. In the past, Google has waited until bigger Android overhauls to move on to a new name for the OS. I don’t see how these improvements to Lollipop justify moving to “M”, doesn’t seem big enough. But whatever.
Senior Vice President, Sundar Pichai, talking about Android Wear [via sfgate]
The Android smartwatch interface is constantly being improved. Google is adding the following capabilities to Android Wear:
- Always On – Ability for app to go into a low-power state and still show information. This would be useful having the time shown (like a normal watch) or keeping a grocery list shown without having to keep turning the watch on.
- Wrist Gestures – You can scroll up and down on the interface by twisting your wrist up and down.
- Draw Emoji – This one is minor but fun, you can send someone an emoji by drawing it out.
I was disappointed to not hear about any new Android Wear products this time around. At last year’s Google I/O, the LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live smartwatches launched, and a date for the Moto 360. There was no mention of any devices here, only software 😦
The new Google Photos [via yahoo]
- Google Now – Google Now is being improved to get you information you’d potentially want even quicker. Google introduced a feature called “Now on Tap”. When you’re reading something in an app and hold the home button, Google Now reads what’s on the screen and presents you information and links on certain things it can flag, such as a person’s name or a movie. Further, using that concept, you can simply ask Google a generic question, such as “What is this?” or “Who is he?” and it’ll link the question to the subject that it recognized in the text. Creepy? Yes. But cool? Definitely!
- Google Maps Offline – This one I see a bigger deal to those who travel. Before, if you saved an area in Maps to use offline, you could only really zoom in and out and view the area. You couldn’t search places in that area or request directions within that area. I’m happy to report that Google recognized the limitation and added these abilities to offline Maps. It even saves reviews of places within the saved area!
- Google Photos – If you’re on stock Android, you most likely use Google’s Photos app to look through your images. For these of us, I think we can agree that Photos was pretty bare-bones, not having much functionality and resulting in a lot of scrolling. Google focused on bringing it up to speed with today’s standards, adding the following features:
- Timeline date grouping – You can zoom in and out to view images taken within a week, month, or year.
- Searchable organization – You can search a keyword to bring up that particular set of photos/vids.
- High-res, free and unlimited picture and video cloud backup. Up to 16MP pictures and 1080P video. Pretty insane.
Other notable mentions were:
- Project Brillo – Aimed to connect our devices and our home, a step forward from the capability of the Nest thermostat. And example of this is unlocking your front door with your device.
- New VR Cardboard – supports larger phones and easier to assemble.
- True-to-scene image/video capturing – Google is developing technology to stitch together depth in large-space photos, for the user to be able to move and really see the scene. Also, together with GoPro, they built a prototype contraption to record a 360 degree video.
I wonder why Android Auto didn’t have a highlight, maybe it’s not ready for prime time?
Were we all satisfied with the announcements at this year’s I/O?
So I have a confession to make. I don’t own a smartwatch. Yes, I know, pathetic.
But wait, is it pathetic, really? I’m the kind of person that looks at both sides of the coin. On one side, we have the tech geek, who puts practicality aside and buys a device because it’s new and cool. On the other side, we know from experience that first-gen products have pretty big compromises and don’t end up worthy of their large price tags.
The first batch of smartwatches out the gate did not impress me one bit, such as the Samsung Gear line, Sony Smartwatch, or LG G Watch.
Really LG? [via Slashgear]
Right as we were getting used to more premium smartphones, we’re knocked right back into uninspired designs. Manufacturers were essentially attaching a rubber strap to a square block and calling it a day. I’m as much a tech geek as the next guy, but I’m not giving my money to someone who doesn’t try.
But alas, out of nowhere, Motorola stepped up to the plate and gave something worthy to place on our wrists, the Moto 360.
The original Moto 360 [via Motorola]
I can without a doubt say that the Moto 360 set the standard of what a smartwatch should be, and it unarguably blew the competition away.
So at this point you probably have this question for me: Why don’t you have one?
Although the Moto 360 looks just about perfect in the press images, everything ain’t flowers and rainbows in real life. And forgive me in advanced if this nit-picky, but I feel I have enough of an argument. Enough of an argument to settle my geeky-side down and wait for a product that more meets my standards.
Build-quality-wise, Motorola nailed it. The press images don’t lie, this thing is beautiful in real life. And all the different strap choices are fabulous. However, when using it, these concerns show their faces:
- Size/Thickness: Probably less a problem for larger folk, you’ll certainly notice it on your wrist and other people will too. Now, this might be something you like, maybe you want to stand out. But generally, with watches, we’re used to a certain proportionality. This guy sticks out like a sore thumb.
- Resolution: The 205 ppi resolution on the Moto 360 just doesn’t cut it. This was the first thing I noticed when I played with it the first time. I could see the pixels. With 1080p and QHD resolutions in current smartphones, the super low res on the Moto 360 hit me hard.
- Speed (or lack of): I was disappointed when I learned that the Moto 360 was using such an old SoC: Texas Instruments OMAP 3, from a few years back, instead of the current Snapdragon 400. But I dismissed the thought, saying “How much power does a smartwatch need anyways?”. Well, I was wrong. Its slowness does clearly show around the Android Wear interface.
If you think I’m being harsh, you won’t want to hear what I have to say about the competition. Like I said before, I praise Motorola on setting the standard of the smartwatch design with the 360. And this was their first crack at it! Bravo, but there’s still lots of work to do.
So where are we currently in 2015? Well, waiting for manufacturers to step up and fill in what was missing from their first-gen smartwatches. And also, for new ones to come in, following Motorola’s lead, such as the Huawei Watch announced earlier this year:
Huawei Watch [via Huawei]
My money will go to the one who nails design and specs.
Do you agree?
Gotta get something off my chest. Yes, very serious. Not really. Well, depends.
Let’s take a trip back to 2013. Yes, it doesn’t seem that far ago, but in the tech world, a lot happens in 2 years. The first HTC One (M7) was announced and they did something no one did in a smartphone before, dual front-facing speakers.
I would say it was a pretty successful gamble (at the risk of design compromise and extra bezel). We’re up to the One M9 this year and BoomSound is still going strong. This is unlike other things HTC has tried in the past that didn’t go very far, like 3D or the depth of field camera.
But this isn’t an article to talk up BoomSound, but rather, a concept that BoomSound introduced, a speaker in the earpiece.
HTC One (M7) top speaker [via AnandTech]
So I get that there’s some manufacturers that don’t care about front-firing speakers, or rather, they don’t think there’s enough market that cares about external audio enough to change the design. Like with the two big hitters of today, the Samsung S6 (bottom speaker) and LG G4 (rear speaker).
But we have already had a speaker, since the beginning of cell phones, by which we hear phone calls. So simply, why not make it louder and able to output any of the phone’s audio?
This would essentially kill two birds with one stone: You don’t have to make a redundant speaker on the rear, bottom, etc. and the speaker would be facing in the right direction.
I just don’t get why this isn’t a thing.
Do you agree?
Microsoft has made quite a standout with its Surface line of tablets. No doubt, it has had a bumpy start. The “RT” version of the Surface didn’t work out, nor did we expect it to. I remember back when the original duo were released, the Surface RT and Surface Pro, and thinking “OMG, we have something promising and something…well, the opposite”. Not to mention that the RT was gonna confuse a market that was used to simplicity, which Apple defined the tablet world to be for most people. RT was kind of Windows but not? What exactly could it do and what couldn’t it??
Surface History [via Microsoft]
So it took Microsoft til the third iteration to fix the problem, with the Surface 3:
Surface 3 [via Microsoft]
Mind you, it’s the “Surface 3”, sans the “Pro” in the name. And this time, we have the full Windows operating system (Windows 8.1), not a mobile version of it. So why does the Surface 3 even exist then? Why not just the Surface 3 Pro? Well, because the Pro is too expensive, and Microsoft is clearly saying that that’s not going to change.
So the question then becomes, what does the vanilla Surface 3 compromise on?
For starters, instead of using a full PC CPU (Intel Core i3/i5/i7) like the Pro does, Microsoft is taking advantage of the cheaper, low-power Intel Atom line. Now, “Atom” may not bring up pleasant memories (recalling the netbook days), but it has come a long way. The re-introduction of the line with the slew of Win8 tablets a couple years ago has proven that it is very well capable of casual computing and HD playback, just don’t expect to play Crysis.
We also have a slightly smaller screen, at 10.8″ vs. the 12″ of the Pro. Here is the full spec list:
- Display: 10.8″ 1920×1280 (3:2 aspect ratio) IPS LCD
- SoC: 1.6 GHz Intel Atom x7-Z8700 (quad-core)
- Ram: 2GB or 4GB
- Cameras: 8MP rear and 3.5MP front
- Battery life rating: 10 hours
- Storage: 64GB or 128GB, expandable with microSD slot
- OS: Windows 8.1 (Windows 10 in near future)
- Chassis: Magnesium alloy with ceramic finish
The pricing is set at 2 tiers: $499 for 2GB Ram with 64GB Storage or $599 for 4GB Ram with 128GB Storage. Comparing to the cheapest Surface 3 Pro at $799 for 64GB and 4GB, I would say the pricing is pretty justified.
The build closely resembles the Surface 3 Pro, and that’s a very good thing. Microsoft has always shot towards “premium” in their designs. Simple, solid, and premium. And being that the Atom SoC is low power and does not require a fan, the Surface 3 is thinner and lighter.
Surface 3 (top) vs Surface 3 Pro (bottom) [via Pocketnow]
It’s a funny thing though, when I first picked it up, I thought the chassis was plastic. Unfortunately, the light weight and finish makes it feel that way. This was before I read up and saw that it wasn’t. It’s quite ironic that they put effort into better material, but the end result isn’t that different. I do believe it’s a solid product, and not flimsy. I just wish the feel would confirm that, it doesn’t.
The kickstand is of course present. However, it’s not the same as with Surface 3 Pro. A compromise was made here as well. Where the kickstand on the Pro is friction-set at any position, the non-Pro has the pre-set, clickable positions, like past Surfaces. But we do have 3 positions to choose from this time.
The 3 different kickstand positions [via Microsoft]
Here are the available ports:
Surface 3 Port Layout [via Microsoft]
On the front:
Surface 3 Features [via Microsoft]
I must say that the dual front speakers took me by surprise, pleasantly. They’re inconspicuously placed as slits on the bezel and can get plenty loud.
So you’re probably thinking, cheaper model = poor display. I’m happy to report that looks as gorgeous as a Surface product should. I have always praised the Surface displays for their vibrancy and viewing angles, I feel quality when I look at them. I’m glad Microsoft made the right choice here, a tablet is essentially a big chunk of screen after all.
Many would argue that’s there no point in getting this tablet without the keyboard attachment.
Surface 3 Type Cover [via Microsoft]
While I wouldn’t go that far (especially since this cheaper model is more play than work), I will say this is one of the best soft keyboard implementation I have seen. It attaches via strong magnetic connection (and props up to a slant via magnetic as well – very clever Microsoft), is backlit, has a touchpad, and serves as a screen cover. Just don’t expect much of a tactile key-press response, this is a thin keyboard for obvious reasons.
Type Cover Attachment [via Microsoft]
Unfortunately it comes at a price, $130. Ouch.
The other renowned Surface accessory is the Surface Pen:
Surface 3 Pen [via Microsoft]
And this one ain’t as simple as it sounds either. The Surface Pen is cased in aluminum, inputs to the Surface wirelessly via Bluetooth, and has a clicker and eraser. Also, together with the Surface screen tech, your palm can touch the screen without interfering with the Pen input and screen press sensitivity is detected. Pretty fancy, huh? The Surface Pen goes for $50. Tip: The Surface 3 Pro Pen is the same, it goes for $35 on Amazon.
So with all that said, is the Surface 3 worth it? As I love to say, it depends on you. As with Android, what I love is all the choice we have (yes, this is partly a knock on Apple). You can get a full Windows tablet no matter what your budget is. Such as a Dell Venue 8 Pro for around $150 or a performance tablet such as the Surface Pro 3 (i5 with 128GB storage) for $1000. The vanilla Surface 3 is a middle-ground, for those who don’t need need a high performer but want the premium quality. I think Microsoft finally made the right move for the cheaper Surface variant.
Now that top-end smartphones are not making leaps anymore between releases, something interesting is happening. Low/Mid-end phones have always been given a bad rep, and for good reason. They’ve historically been slow, had terrible displays, and quite flimsy build quality. But because they’ve always trailed behind flagship phones, they’ve gotten better. And now that the high-end is slowing down, that’s given the lower-end the opportunity to catch up, as they still have room for improvement.
Being that these phones do not make as much headline as flagships do, I thought there would be value in making a list of what are the good, non-budget-busting smartphone choices of today. So without further ado…
Asus ZenFone 2
Asus is known for making some fantastic computer hardware. However, they have been having trouble really making a stamp in the mobile space, at least in the US. And it’s not exactly well-deserved, they’ve had with some solid and interesting attempts. Anyone remember the PadFone X, that phone/tablet hybrid system? (link)
Like many manufacturers nowadays, Asus settled on a flagship label to stick with, known as the ZenFone, originally introduced in 2014. This year it was followed up naturally with the ZenFone 2:
Asus ZenFone 2 [source]
Introduced at CES 2015, this guy made some great impressions with its “high-end” like specs:
- 2.3 GHz Intel Atom SoC (64 bit)
- 4GB Ram
- 13 MP f/2.0 aperture rear camera
- 5.5″ 1080P IPS LCD display
- 3,000 mAh battery
- Multitude of color and textured chassis choices
Spec-wise, the ZenFone 2 can hold its own against popular flagships. But where Asus really made a stance was the price, at about $400 off-contract (not confirmed, as US launch is slated for May 18th). This is in a world where top-end smartphones retail for around $700.
However, the picture ain’t perfect with the ZenFone 2. Reviewers have knocked it’s camera and battery performance. But if you’re not expecting some trade-off for the price, you’re dreaming.
Update: Via Phone Arena, the ZenFone 2 will be on sale for just $337 for only one day, on May 7th.
Lenovo K80 [source]
The Lenovo K80 was in the news recently, noticed for being a very good competitor to the Asus ZenFone 2, with the following specs:
- 1.8 GHz Intel Atom SoC (64 bit)
- 4GB Ram
- 13 MP with OIS, rear camera
- 5.5″ 1080P display
- 4,000 mAh battery
See the resemblance? But Lenovo does up the battery to a whopping 4,000 mAh, which is crazy for a budget phone!
Unfortunatley, the K80 is for the Chinese market at the moment. Hopefully like many, it can be acquired through an international online shop. The pricing translates to about $290 US.
Moto G and E (2nd Gen)
Moto E on left and Moto G on right [source]
We can’t talk about budget phones without talking about Motorola’s offering. In my opinion, Moto has stretched the dollar the farthest in the mobile space.
It is important to note that the latest Moto G was released 6 months before the more-budget Moto E. Therefore, although the Moto E is the cheaper of the two, their specs are actually very close. This will change once a Moto G refresh comes out.
Source: Droid Life
Being that the prices of the Moto G and Moto E are currently $179 and $149, respectively, keep in mind that these phones are not gonna soar. They get the job done. And following Moto’s ways, you’ll get virtually stock Android and updates fast.
Huawei Ascend Mate 2
The phablet-loving folk also have some choices in the budget arena, a good one being the Ascend Mate 2.
Huawei Ascend Mate 2 [source]
Huawei has been making some headway in the US lately, with cheap beginnings but moving up steadily. The Ascend Mate 2 is a 6.1″ behemoth but retails for a budget-friendly $299 unlocked ($249 currently on Amazon).
- 1.6 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 SoC
- 2GB Ram
- 6.1″ 720p Display
- 13 MP f/2.0 aperture rear camera
- 3,900 mAh
Can you pinpoint where the compromises were made? Although the Ascend Mate 2 is equipped with a decent camera and large battery, the Huawei had to let go on the processor and display resolution to meet that budget price. But if you’re more about function and want that huge screen, this might be the one for you.
HTC Desire 626
HTC Desire 626 [source]
HTC’s Desire line of phones is often overshadowed by their huge push for their more premium One flagships. But lately, the Desire phones have not been too far off spec-wise, for a significant less cost, removing the metal for more traditional poly-carbonate (more fancy way of saying plastic).
One of the more recent release was the Desire 626:
- 1.2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 SoC
- 1 GB Ram
- 5″ 720p Display
- 13 MP camera
- 2,000 mAh battery
Spec-wise, this guy is more of a competitor to Moto’s low-end. This is reflected by the price as well, at about $200. But if you’re a fan of HTC’s software and build quality, this might be the budget phone for you. Via @upleaks, it is slated to be a prepaid Sprint phone at some point.
It must be said that your choices aren’t only limited to new phones if you’re budget conscience. Why not consider a flagship that was released last year? As updates come out, the old ones drop in price. They’re going to be right in line with new mid-end phones (maybe even better). Here are some good examples, as of today’s writing:
- HTC One M8 for $270 [via techbargains.com]
- Samsung Galaxy Alpha for $250 [via techbargains.com (expired)]
- Samsung Galaxy S5 for $349 [via logicbuy.com]
- LG G3 + $100 Amazon Gift Card for $399 [via techbargains.com]
Hope this helps anyone with a tight budget. Yes, some of these aren’t US, but they can be acquired, try a Google search. Just bear in mind that the warranty may not work if it’s in a different country, but being that the price is lower, many are willing to take that risk. Also check radios for compatibility with your carrier! The world uses GSM, so no-go for Verizon and Sprint folks.
LG finally took the wraps off the G4 yesterday, and if you’ve been following teasers/leaks, quite frankly not much was left to be surprised about. Here’s a recap of the spec list:
- Display: 5.5″ Quantum QHD (2560×1440) IPS LCD screen
- SoC: Snapdragon 808 (6-cores, Adreno 418 GPU, 64-bit)
- Ram: 3GB
- Cameras: 16MP f/1.8 aperture with 3-axis OIS and laser focus rear camera and 8MP f/2.0 aperture front camera
- Storage: 32GB internal and microSD slot supporting up to 2TB
- Battery: 3,000 mAh removable
- Speaker: Rear-facing
- Software: Android 5.1 Lollipop with UX 4.0 user interface
- Chassis: Leather/Ceramic/Plastic, removable back cover with multiple color choices
So what I underlined above are really the interesting points about this phone, which outlines my discussion. Otherwise, what we have with the G4 is a pretty typical, solid flagship. And depending on what you value most, probably the most perfect phone for you. That’s what’s great about Android, choice 🙂
If you’ve viewed any coverage on the G4, you can tell that a huge focus is on the screen. Pocket-lint has a good overview of the technicalities, here. To summarize, in comparison with the G3 display:
- 20% greater colour reproduction
- 25% brightness improvement
- 50% greater contrast
And while not using more battery life. Also, the Quantum display has a 98% DCI colour gamut, reaching for those richer AMOLED color saturations.
Snapdragon 808 SoC
The SoC chosen for the G4 would have to be the biggest knock I give it. Allegedly, LG chose the Snapdragon 808 instead of the 810 to save cost. But I would only be okay with this if meant cost-savings for customer, and I’m highly doubtful it will.
Android Authority wrote a piece on why LG chose the 808 instead, here. What bugs me is this excuse from Qualcomm’s head of marketing:
“The decisions on which chipsets to put on which handsets come from over a year ago”
Well, why is the HTC One M9 and even LG’s own Flex 2 (announced few months ago) using the 810!? I think by cutting corners, LG brought a little negativity to the G4 that just shouldn’t have been.
And why does the 808 have the Adreno 418 GPU while the older 805 has an Adreno 420? Is it still the greater the number, the better?
One last thing. While the 808 does support Quick Charging, the G4 does not. And no wireless charging either. Some things to think about.
I’ve already shown my appreciation towards the G4’s rear camera when it leaked a few week ago, here. I love the focus LG is putting on the camera. Lowering the aperture to f/1.8 should be great for low-light capturing and there are tons of manual controls that make it feel like a dedicated camera.
One option that caught me off guard (in a good way) was the 2.0 OIS. LG up’ed the optic to stabilize in the “z” direction, not just planar “x” and “y”. What this means in layman’s terms is that the optic can now move in any direction to help to stabilize the shot for you shaky image takers.
The Laser focus makes a return from the G3. However, LG has added a Color Spectrum Sensor (CSS) to capture more accurate colors of ambient light. Here’s a good read on it, from Phone Arena.
It seems like this is the phone for you if you value the camera. Cannot wait to play with it!
Removable Back Cover
Now, it seems funny that I’m counting this as a feature. Back when Android devices were developing, this was something they all had in common. Nowadays removable back covers are foregone for the sake of a “premium” design. Just why can’t we have our cake and eat it too!?
As much as the G4’s design leaves some to be desired, I just can’t help but applaud that you can plop in another battery and increase your storage with a microSD card, up to 2TB. Yes, TB is not a typo! Do they even have microSD cards this large??
Comment down below on what you think about the G4! Impressed, meh, or disappointed?