Tag Archives: review

Two weeks with a Nokia Lumia 920

Just in time for Nokia to announce the Lumia 925 (and 928), I’m belatedly posting my review of a Lumia 920 (d’oh!).

As a techie and long-time disparager of Microsoft technology, the Xbox 360 was the MS product which turned my head. I won mine in a competition (having been a PlayStation and Nintendo gamer), and from the very first experience I was impressed – it was easy to get up-and-running, get online and pull in my social contacts from Facebook, and it was generally a smooth and impressive device. Since then I’ve also gotten to know some of the folks at Microsoft who are focussed on working with the Open Source community, and my opinions have distinctly softened and changed.

I’ve played with both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 on display in stores, so when the nice folks at Nokia Connects offered me the opportunity to trial their flagship Lumia 920 for a fortnight in March, I jumped at the chance to immerse myself in the experience. The last Nokia phone I’d owned was the slider  7650 model from way back in 2001 – I’d been a loyalist through the 1990s until then, but wandered into BlackBerry land for a couple of years after that. I’ve also had every iPhone model since the 3G and have in parallel tried Android devices running 2.2 through to 4.1. So, from both a hardware and software perspective, I guess I’ve got a fairly broad experience, and was intrigued to find how a Windows Phone from Nokia would suit my “power user” habits!

A couple of notes. Firstly, if I’m mixing tenses here it’s just because I’ve now returned the device per the trial arrangement. The other thing to point out is that I really did do road test of the phone for two weeks, to the extent of popping my nanoSIM into a microSIM adapter and using it for as much as I could. More on this to come.

The first thing to say is that the bright red Lumia 920 looked and felt fantastic in the hand, although it is substantially larger than the iPhone 5.

The Nokia 920, customised to taste

The Nokia 920, customised to taste

One tiny issue I felt that wasn’t considered was the central positioning of the camera lens and flash in the back of the device, which meant I’d often have my hand across it and needed to wipe it, but I suppose a case or skin might have reduced that. The screen was a visual treat, it looks stunning in day-to-day use, and was also very nice for watching the couple of videos I looked at while I had the Lumia. The iPhone took over most of my photographic life for many years (which is sad in many ways, I realise), and I’ve got thousands of photos stored on it. Coming back to the camera on the Lumia, apart from the seemingly more-frequent need to clean the lens, it produced some great results – although I did miss the HDR capability which might have levelled out some of the contrast in a few shots I attempted.

no HDR

HDR would have helped with this early-morning shot

One particularly innovative feature of the camera on Windows Phone 8 is the concept of “lenses” – apps which can extend the basic function of the camera application itself. I also appreciated the way in which the Photos app enabled me to both browse my own Facebook and other social network albums, but also to see the latest content from my friends. Clever stuff. Oh, and SkyDrive let me get to the images straight away across different devices and on the web. +1 for sensible functionality. I vaguely missed Instagram for a couple of weeks, but I imagine that app will materialise for the platform before too long (and since the Instagram/Facebook “ToS-gate” I’ve largely moved back to Flickr or to dual posting anyway).

Rounding out the hardware commentary, I’ll add that the battery life was acceptable (I tended to pop the phone on charge whilst in the office and overnight, but it seemed on a par with my other device). I was also very happy with the performance of the phone – everything was extremely fluid and I didn’t encounter any hangups or freezes. Very slick.

Live tiles

Live tiles

Time, then, to talk about Windows Phone 8. I’ve admired the rebooted and reimagined Windows Phone UI from afar for a while now. After all that came before it in Windows Mobile efforts, it’s a bold and stunning revolution of a user experience – and I believe it is one that works.

It’s an interface that is alive, glanceable, and easy to use. The live tiles in particular are a game changer. The resizable tiled UI lives up to the selling point of true personalisation. More than that, the list of apps is one swipe away, and not only is is searchable, it’s super fast to jump to any lettered section of apps (sorted alphabetically – crazy, right?). I am a definite fan. I’m not yet convinced of the Modern UI / tiles in Windows 8 the desktop experience, but that’s more because of the janky need to switch between old and new paradigms to get some things done – for Xbox, tablet and phone, I think this is a useful approach.

The alphabetical list of apps is useful

The alphabetical list of apps is useful

I was pleased to be able to get back to my content and online services quickly, at least in relation to a subset of the apps I use regularly. Amazon (Kindle and Shop, plus a handy barcode scanner tile shortcut), Evernote, Last.fm, Spotify, Netflix, and Paypal were all present and correct. Twitter is covered by multiple apps (I chose Rowi), as is Facebook – although in the case of the latter most are fairly poor mobile web wrappers. There’s a giffgaff app already too, for all you giffgaffers out there!

However – and you may have seen this coming – the key missing parts of my daily workflow were all essentially app deficiencies. No 1Password, no good route planning apps for bus and train, no TomTom, no Feedly or Flipboard, no Instagram, no Google+ or Google Maps, or anything decent for YouTube.

Petty arguments between technology behemoths aside, I’d love to see more organisations taking Windows Phone seriously as a platform, as it does involve rethinking existing UI strategies, and I believe that the Modern UI is something here to stay across Microsoft devices. A few apps do exist for other things I use like BBC News, Github and Flickr, but all could do with an update or an “official” app to come along. I genuinely believe it is a mistake for organisations to ignore this platform.

Finally of course we reach “the prison I knowingly built myself” – and that is called Apple iCloud. The majority of my music is now stored there, and whilst the Windows Phone app for OS X was very effective at enabling me to sync iTunes playlists, I couldn’t just grab things from the cloud when I wanted. Messaging was particularly frustrating too, as I barely have any Windows Live or Skype contacts compared with the folks I interact with daily via iMessage. Messaging was annoying, as iPhone users tended to end up getting half of my conversations, some via text, and then missing things as they were logged in via their email address. I could see some great stuff in the Windows Contacts world, having groups of contacts whose updates I wanted to follow, but I wasn’t immersed enough for it to immediately work for me.

To round off on a high note – let’s talk about online management. Both Google and Microsoft seem to have this right, and Apple are living in the past. Using the My Windows Phone portal was great, and a better experience than even Android’s ability to send apps from Google Play to the phone – I liked the integrated view of SkyDrive, Xbox Live etc.

Thanks Nokia for a chance to play with your lovely device – definitely something I’d recommend to those looking to commit to a change and wanting a modern device. A few more apps, and a way out of my prison, and I’d be there myself…

Footnote:

A last, personal and slightly unrelated note – Microsoft are very lucky to have hired the man who persuaded me to leave IBM, Patrick Chanezon – Pat’s blog post about his choice in many ways mirrors my experience of dealing with Microsoft over the past few years – there’s a much more heterogeneous and open approach there now, and I wish him very well in the future, I had a great year at VMware working with him!

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Back to my Mac, aka Lionification

There are simply so many things to write about lately, but the one which has finally prompted a post is this:

Lionificated

… yes, it’s a computer desktop. Exciting stuff, huh? 😛

Background

I’ve been a Mac user for a little over four years now. In fact, the journey has been more-or-less chronicled here on my blog since acquiring a MacBook Pro in 2007. I still have the same machine, and it is still in great condition, although I’ve been through several batteries. It has never seen a fresh install of the OS since it shipped (with OS X Tiger 10.4) – instead, it has been upgraded through Leopard and Snow Leopard (which I really liked on its debut).

Over time though, it has become less central to my computing experience. I moved from Windows to Ubuntu on my day-to-day work machine, and my computing life fragmented to include a netbook, smartphones, and most recently a tablet (which is yet another of those things I keep meaning to write about!). Main use cases for the Mac continue to be Keynote – by far the best presentation software available on any platform, in my opinion; Lightroom and iMovie; and iTunes, which is firmly embedded in my life as a sync source for my iPhone and for organising my music library. Even though the iTunes data itself was migrated off the now-comparatively-weedy 120Gb internal drive a couple of years ago, I’ve continued to struggle for a comfortable amount of available disk space, but I still use the Mac for all of those things and I can’t really think of a viable alternative, despite the cloudification of many of the other services I use and their associated data.

Pros and Cons

When Lion was announced and the features previewed last year, I really struggled to see anything compelling in the release. It was clear that it was the iOSification of the desktop OS. The early views of Mission Control looked cluttered and bloated (combine Dashboard, Spaces, and Expose? surely a mess?). I wasn’t a fan of the idea of the Launchpad, I didn’t have a multitouch trackpad, I like to be able to switch and recompose app windows on a GUI and not run things full-screen. My early experience of the Mac App Store wasn’t positive either, with many apps I’d previously purchased having to potentially be repurchased to get the benefits of autoupdate that the App Store could bring.

My early 2007 MacBook was just on the cusp of supported hardware for Lion (it scraped in by virtue of the Core 2 Duo processor; I bought a Magic Trackpad a little while ago to take advantage of gestures, although since it’s separate I still haven’t used it a great deal). I already mentioned my continual struggle for space on the hard drive, but knowing that Apple had actually managed to make the OS smaller in previous releases by getting rid of legacy cruft, it seemed like Lion might be worth a shot.

I spent the week before the release cleaning things up – removing any remaining Classic apps or PPC apps that relied on the now-defunct Rosetta (very few, mostly old camera drivers which were only included in their respective packages to support older machines at the time they shipped); running OnyX to clean out caches and logs; uninstalling anything I’d not used for a long time; cleaning down Library and Application Support folders associated with software I no longer use. Yes, a clean install would have got around this, but on the flipside I would have spent a lot of time putting things back the way they were and reinstalling software. Once I’d done the upgrade I was miffed to discover that the installation package had vanished, but I’m glad that the brilliant Don McAllister has found a way to recover it from the Mac App Store for future use!

So what do I think?

Well, the scrolling thing is interesting. I get the reason that so-called “natural” scrolling has been introduced to unify the touch interfaces across OS X and iOS, and I also realise that while I could switch it off, it’s not going to go away so I may as well get comfortable with the idea. It’s one of those brain-rewiring exercises, similar to the one I’ve been going through learning Unity on Ubuntu, and for the same reason – there’s little point in fighting the future once the decisions are made.

Now for two things I didn’t expect to like: Mission Control and full-screen apps. I really, really like them… I’ve always used a large number of Spaces to organise my workspace and I’m finding that Mission Control makes this even more intuitive. I can still quickly zoom out to have an overview and move things around, and if I’m using the Magic Trackpad the swiping to switch apps and spaces is nice too. There are a few apps that need work on their full-screen modes, notably Chrome, but that will come in time.

I’m not bothered by iCal or Address Book having strange faux-“natural” new looks, since I’ve migrated almost all of my use of those apps to Google anyway, for maximum interoperability across devices and platforms. On the rest of the visual aspects, I’m not sure I like the “zoom/pop” dialog boxes yet. The more rectangular buttons do seem more serious and polished than the older Aqua lozenge style, but it’s a shame to see a much more grey overall feeling across the UI.

Java is gone, as Apple said it would be, but the procedure to get it back was very smooth and simple, typing “java” in a command window started an Apple Update installation, with within a few moments it was all done.

Java on Lion
A couple of little niggles with some other apps. I also found myself resetting my Dock (which I’d been running in 2D with various folders docked as Stacks) to its default state by clearing down the associated .plist files and restarting it, to get it back to the way Lion comes out of the box / download.

The future

I mentioned a tablet and a variety of other lightweight devices, but I can’t see myself abandoning the PC device (in this case a laptop of some kind) just yet. As I mentioned in the discussion of scrolling, I’m firmly of the opinion that we need to adapt to new ways of interacting with technology, and I’ve got a range of devices to play with right now. However, I haven’t yet found a replacement for the keyboard / graphical desktop / pointing device combination that is as effective for creating content as a PC (be that Mac, Windows or Linux, with keyboard and mouse/trackpad/pointer). I can type quickly on a touchscreen smartphone or tablet now, but it’s still not as comfortable for creating text and laying out images as a graphical computer desktop of some kind. I can perform simple and basic image or video edits on a mobile device, but again for anything more extensive I find myself wanting to see more and have finer control than I get with a fat fingertip on a small touchscreen.

So all of that leads me to think ahead to a next device… not that I must have one at the moment, but still. I’ve increasingly fallen out of love with Apple over the past year or two as they have behaved in an increasingly anti-competitive manner over Android, the App Store, made silly restrictions locking out hardware replacement in new iMacs, etc. – but I can’t see myself escaping the ecosystem completely due to the quality of the software I’ve already mentioned, even though I’m not locking myself in to the entire Apple life end-to-end.

The new generation of MacBook Airs hit on Wednesday alongside Lion, and I’m reconsidering whether or not that would make an acceptable replacement for an older 15″ MBP. On paper, at the expense of a diagonal 2″ of screen real-estate, I would still get +1Gb RAM, potentially more storage (256Mb flash storage over 120Gb HDD), a CPU that’s clocked slower (1.7GHz vs 2.33GHz) but probably runs faster due to architectural improvements… it’s tempting… if I could be convinced that I’d get the performance I’d like in iMovie and Lightroom, and if I had the cash, then I might make that jump. I suspect that Lion and the Air make a great match.

Thoughts on The Social Network

uncomfortable

… and “uneasy” are two words that I’d use to describe my immediate reactions to The Social Network, aka the Facebook movie.

I’d previously heard various people talk about the film, including a very enthusiastic review on the Guardian Tech Weekly from Jemima Kiss, Gia Milinovich and Charles Arthur. I’d also listened closely to the thoughts of Leo Laporte and Jeff Jarvis on This Week in Google – neither of whom were so glowing, and who gave a reasoned discussion towards the view that the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is in fact “anti-Internet” in his portrayal of the themes. I was impressed that Leo had producer Dana Brunetti take him on during net@night that same week. The film is based on a book by Ben Mezrick and also, apparently, real interviews with a couple of the “injured” parties. Given the advance chatter, I was keen to see it for myself.

Firstly I will say this – the film was gripping. I was not bored at all, even though it was a couple of hours long. The music by Trent Reznor was great, and almost all of the performances were excellent. Before anyone comments, I also know it’s a dramatisation / fictionalisation… so I wasn’t expecting to go in to the cinema to watch a “true facts” documentary. I’m also not sorry to have been to see it!

It’s very hard to say what disturbed me or put me ill-at-ease. Anyone who thinks that Mark Zuckerberg comes off as some kind of injured genius good guy here is clearly not looking at the movie through the same lens as me. As presented, he’s not the nice guy that he claims to be at the end of the story. He betrays his closest friend – admittedly the man whose testimony much of the source material is based on – despite several acts of generosity on Eduardo’s part, including the way he apparently overlooked Mark’s personal flaws.  The Winkelvoss guys do not come over well in the script, and I did wonder whether part of what I thought was a flawed performance there came from having a single actor play both twins, which must have been technically tough.

I guess I got the uncomfortable feeling that the film was a pop at geeks, a pop at privilege as well, and the female characters were all pretty poor (either Sorkin hasn’t read up on how to create strong female roles, or felt they are not relevant in this geeky collegiate techy world). I think the multiple betrayals were probably what left me with the ultimate sour taste in my mouth. Maybe I’m not cut out for hard-nosed business 🙂

For all of that, there were some great comments… I particularly felt resonance in the discussion of how a site, a social model like Facebook, like the Internet itself, is never finished – like fashion, it evolves.

I’m still mulling my reaction, and may have to watch it again to rebalance (or perhaps reinforce?!) my views.

Footnote: did you know that IMDb is 20 years old today? Wow. That’s one of those sites that has showcased the power and changing nature of the Internet over time, emerging from the embers of Usenet lists, crowdsourcing people power to generate an amazing treasury of information, going commercial, and then acquired by Amazon in 1998. Congratulations!

Update: a day later and I’ve thought about this a little more. I think there are two other things that bother me about the film. Firstly I can certainly relate to Zuckerberg’s lack of social comfort in the rowdy college party culture, so I think looking at that made me a little uneasy too. Secondly, the film presents the genesis of Facebook / Facemash as a reaction to a break-up and fundamentally something of a revenge-driven science project… something that Zuckerberg has dived into as an attempt to recreate the college social experience so that other people will think it is cool (and presumably by extension, that he is cool), an attempt to boil it down to algorithms, rather than through a real desire to engage in that space himself. Perhaps the infamous privacy incident where he took his own content private when he couldn’t drive the new controls on the site a few years ago is a sign of that. Now, I know that the authors and filmmakers can say well look, we have the original blog post as evidence here… and I’m not denying that’s the case. I think that if that is all Facebook is, though… well it makes me feel pretty strange about using it and other similar sites to the degree that I do.

My review policy

Earlier this week I heard that the Federal Trade Commission has introduced new advertising guidelines, which amount to rules for bloggers who review products. A contact of mine also sent me a link to this information directly… I think the unspoken implication there was that they were aware I’m sometimes sent free things to review and that maybe I wasn’t being open about that.

Both of these events acted as triggers to make me finish this post, which has actually been sitting in draft state in my blogging client since… well… March this year. I can’t see that the FTC has any jurisdiction over my blog, but I’ve been thinking about this for a while, as a way of telling both readers and companies what they can expect from me.

It’s true that I’ve been given access to products for review purposes on occasion, and sometimes I’ve been able to keep hold of the products (or been given a full software license after the review period has ended). I’ve always been careful to point out where I’ve been offered a product for review, most recently for example, with the LG Arena mobile phone.

So here’s my standpoint.

  • Firstly, and very importantly – I write here as an individual. I do not make a secret of who my employer is, and you are welcome to read all about me on the About page. However, my opinions and are my own and may or may not represent my employer’s views. I will not review anything here on behalf of my employer, I do so as an individual.
  • If a company wants to invite me to review their product or service then I’m often interested in taking a look.
  • I appreciate it when the company or PR firm actually takes the time to find out what I’m interested in and what I write about, rather than sending me a silly email. Do your research.
  • If you send me something to review, you should expect an honest set of opinions. I will not sugar-coat what I think of it.
  • If you send me something to review then it will be on my timescales. I have a life and a day job and both of those come before writing about your product, site of service.
  • I will always disclose whether I was given / given access to a product in my review. If I do not call that out, then readers should assume that I own the product or am otherwise a personal user of that site or service.

That’s it. Pretty straightforward, really.

Living with the LG Arena

Thanks to the nice people over at LG, I’ve had the opportunity to play around with one of their devices for the past month – the LG Arena KM900. Let’s get the next bit out of the way straight off the bat…

Disclaimer: LG solicited my feedback on their products and provided me with a free phone for evaluation for one month.

Right, that piece is done 😉

frame3.jpg

Bearing in mind that before the iPhone, my previous mobile phone was a pretty old Sony Ericsson T6xx, this was quite a change from the mobile phones I’d handled in the past. Of course, the flipside of that is that I’ve now been using an iPhone 3G and 3GS for more than a year, so the Arena had to cope with many of my prejudices formed on the basis of familiarity of how a touchscreen phone “should” (or, at least, could) work. I wanted to give it a fair chance, though, so I chose to ditch my BlackBerry Pearl 8100 for the period I had the Arena – frankly, not a hard choice, as I’m no fan of the BlackBerry UI, which I’m convinced was designed by someone who hates other people.

The out-of-the-box impression was certainly pretty good. It’s a sleek, shiny, device which feels well-made with a brushed metal and glass front. It’s got a great feature set, too – 5.0MP camera which also records video, Dolby Mobile audio, front and rear-facing cameras, wifi, bluetooth, Java, an FM transmitter, multiformat video playback including DIVX, 3G video calling… the list really goes on. It also has quite an interesting 3D user interface where the screen rotates around a virtual cube as you swipe left and right through the menus. So it scores highly on both the prettiness/style and the features. It’s lighter and smaller than the iPhone, too.

I’ll be honest… I had a mixed experience with with LG Arena. I think it could be a great consumer phone, if you take a step back and forget that the iPhone exists. The camera is great (and has a flash), and the video quality and playback were more than acceptable – very good, actually. I confess I didn’t try the music player much – I guess such things are becoming pretty commoditised and it seemed to be fairly standard. This was the first phone I’ve had with a front-facing camera for video calls, which was a nice feature – but I don’t know anyone who has a video call-capable phone or who uses that, so it was somewhat redundant. The range of stuff available on this handset is great, though. Email and web browsing, check and check… although the browser interface was a little finickity at times.

I had a few issues, the first being, sadly, the screen. Touchscreens are becoming de rigeur and this one looks good… until you try to view it in strong daylight, when the fact that it is highly reflective becomes a huge problem. Plus, it collects fingerprints like crazy. I also found that it wasn’t as responsive as other screens I’ve used, and some aspects of the UI were frustrating (swiping through menu options left-to-right, as well as through lists up and down, for instance). It looks stylish, but it’s not the best experience I’ve had. It does offer a level of haptic feedback, which I switched off straight away – by default, when you touch the screen it buzzes to simulate the experience of having been touched, but in practical terms I found this somewhat annoying.

The next drawback is fairly minor, as it’s mostly a business issue. I wasn’t able to use this on an office network, as the wireless didn’t support either 802.1x certificates or LEAP – disappointing, but not a core feature in a consumer model, I’ll accept. However, there was another problem with the way in which the wireless and networking support worked… it has a fairly complex set of profiles which (I think) are supposed to help to decide which type of network to use at which time, and I found that it kept prompting me to use wifi or GPRS rather than just defaulting to the faster option, which did drive me nuts from time-to-time.

The final complaint I have relates to probably the biggest emerging area in the mobile market… Applications. In theory, this is a Java / J2ME capable device. So, I merrily installed a series of applications, none of which were really suited to the touchscreen, and all of which looked very plain. An SDK is available, but I found it was poorly documented. There’s no centralised way of getting hold of apps, either. LG have a couple of downloadable “widgets” on their website, but having downloaded them to a PC I couldn’t find a way of installing them. All-in-all I felt it was a device that is highly capable, but crying out for an easier way to extend functionality.

Thank you, LG, for giving me the opportunity to take a look. I think it’s a nice handset, got a great combination of hardware features, a nice looking UI – but, in my opinion (and I’ll readily admit I’m an uber-fan of one of the competitors here), it’s let down by the “small touches” and by the software.