My Next Android!

This was a tough one. Really, after buying the Acer Stream S110 earlier this year, an Android phone which would happen to be refused an update to Gingerbread not much later; and even more so after testing the Samsung GT-I9100 for a while, I felt quite disappointed with Android phones.

Not that both were such horrible devices – the Galaxy SII being good enough to sell really well, making it the Android phone you spot the most out there in the streets. Still, I hadn’t been overly enthusiastic with the Galaxy SII, I hadn’t really liked it, finding it too wide to hold comfortably, disliking the rather low pixel density and the placement of hardware buttons. Then, on the other hand, all competing Android headsets had there own flaws. LGs dual core “Optimus” superphones, the Speed (P990 / T-Mo USA P999) and the 3D (P920) seemed nicer to me because of their LCDs and overall button layout, but had obvious flaws of their own. Flawed were all the other devices, such as the Sensation, maybe the least flawed of the aforementioned, but being out of the game for me because of HTC Sense, or the Motorola Atrix, which while really cool seeming with its Laptop Dock suffered a lot from its (albeit featuring qHD resolution) PenTile-LCD screen and Motorolas slow software updates, a few variants of this device are still officially stuck on Froyo.

In addition to the hardware, I felt that the software had real problems that didn’t make it quite likable to me. I started to really dislike Android’s menu button, a relict carried over from the days, when Android was being imagined as a Blackberry-competitor running on devices that itself resembled the classic blackberry formfactor: A small, maybe 2,6” sized display, placed on a rather wide candybar in a landscape position atop a full QWERTY keyboard. This form factor had never been really popular with android, even the old and famous G1 (HTC Dream) had looked very difficult from this because of its vertical slider. But with the G1 the menu button hadn’t been much of an issue, as you had a trackball and thus weren’t really forced to use the touchscreen at all with the early iterations of Android. With the 4,3” WVGA Galaxy SII this had fundamentally changed, and it had become totally obvious to me, that Android was a land of usability horror, partly due to the aforementioned problem, partly due to apps that didn’t fit into the problematic way Android did things, resembling iOS-Apps instead.

Being frustrated with all that, and reading that Honeycomb was still overly complicated (BTW a few issues, that aren’t so problematic with smartphones because of their smaller size will likely remain on tablets even with Ice Cream Sandwich), I felt like going webOS wasn’t the worst idea ever. This turned out to be wrong the night Leo Apotheker killed webOS, rendering the really promising HP Pre 3 an unannounced device. (HP may try to revive webOS, but I doubt that they can undo the damage done, rendering what was ahead this announcement an uphill battle a battle that is virtually impossible to win…) As we know now, the HP Pre 3 will likely never ever receive more updates, rendering the non carrier branded Rest Of the World version of it stuck on basically the same version it shipped with. This version has a load of bugs, the whole Skype integration doesn’t feel matured at all, and you happen to run into “Too many cards”-Errrors way to often. That aside, the accelerometer is effingly shaky, doing very abrupt orientation switches, making the device a rather painful thing to use as you can’t even switch that thing of. There simply is no patch for that. (You see, I really should update my review of the Pre3 and make it more negative.)

The most promising Linux platform out there not yet mentioned had been killed ahead of the launch of its last device. Maemo 6 as you should call it, as it hasn’t really much in common with the MeeGo open source project (which was cancelled and will come back as “Tizen” rather soon), made a good to great impression on the Nokia N9 anyway, because of physically stunning hardware (even though the SoC is clearly old and dated) and great usablility concepts. However, it is simply to expensive, being higher priced than the Galaxy SII, making it no real option for me.

Frustrated as I was, I bought the N900 in an attempt of escapism. Well, that thing is nice, but it is an awkward thing, being nowhere near a modern smartphone in its design and much rather a downsized Nokia Internet tablet that can do 3G and phone calls. While the N900 is insanely cool because of all its geeky features (FM sender, Infrared, the debian based package system), it is also fundamentally flawed by it’s landscape forcing software and form factor, its thickness, the resistive screen and a web browser, that doesn’t show you most of the great mobile webpages that were released since the rise of the iPhone and Android – some of these are so useful, that I use them on the desktop, because they are just a lot simpler while delivering all the important parts.

So I finally had to realize that it was time to get a decent smartphone, as I can’t carry my iPad everywhere. Not that it is too big, it is really OK and has an outstanding battery life, but you get awkward looks with it on the subway and in the rest of real life. Way to many people start asking you questions about it, its way to “Show Offy”, while all this doesn’t happen if you carry an “iPhone like device”.

I had been waiting for the Galaxy Nexus. While Ice Cream Sandwich looked really stunning, I simply hate a few details about this device. One is the SoC, which doesn’t seem to be the best choice. I don’t really understand why this isn’t an Exynos device. However, this doesn’t make enough of a difference to kill it for me. The camera is said to be decent. Be that as it may, 5MP isn’t what you expect in late 2011. Another downside, the very one that kept me from buying the Nexus S, is that you have no microSD option. And last, but not least, there’s the same button placement (volume and power button) that drove me nuts with the Galaxy SII. I know, I am just holding it wrong, but that kills it for me. Seriously.

So I instead opted to buy two devices that are said to even be officially updated to Ice Cream Sandwich. One is the aforementioned LG Optimus Speed (P990), which I got because it is an official CyanogenMod device – I really want to have this again, as this project prolonged my G1 use by about a year. The other is running the only Android skin I might be able to like: It’s the Sony Ericsson XPERIA Pro, the best spec’ed full QWERTY Android Smartphone available in Europe.

One of these (or both) will be my next Android smartphone(s). I will share my impressions!

The next Android flagship: Nexus Prime (Video)

Update (10/08/2011):The launch of the next Android flagship has been postponed because of Steve Jobs death – a gentle act. The launch will take place in London, October 27th.

BTW: I don’t feel like writing a tribute to Steve Jobs, so many others have and there is not a word that I could add to praise this great visionary without whom we likely wouldn’t be where we are with computing today. When I read that message in the morning on my way to work in the subway, I almost started to cry – something that happens really rarely to me.
Thanks for everything, Steve. Thanks for reinventing computing every once in a while, making the use of computers a joyful thing to everybody!

I haven´t been writing much lately, especially not about Android devices – I felt really bored by all the new devices that did not change much.

Most of the new devices are pretty good, at least those that you can consider flagship devices – and if you are not into spending much money for such a useless thing as a smartphone (or simply don´t have that much money at hand), there are plenty of OK mid range devices.

Soon this age of Android boredom is going to end, new devices are going to be released, but more importantly, the Android platform (the software, to make it perfectly clear what I mean) is going to be renewed with the next iteration of Android that is supposed to be numbered 4.0 and has the code name / branch name Ice Cream Sandwhich.

Ice Cream Sandwhich will reintegrate the two branches of Android we have right now: 3.* Honeycomb, which was newly developed for the special needs of tablet devices (bigger screen ;) ) and Android 2.3.* Gingerbread, which feels like it´s been around forever (actually, this is almost true: It was announced in December 2010). 

New software – this implies new flagship devices. One of these will be the device rumored to be called the Nexus Prime (other rumors say the Samsung made devices will be named “Samsung Galaxy Nexus” (what a stupid name!)).

Specs are rumored everywhere in the internets and honestly, I believe that they are accurate, but don´t feel like spreading them before the actual announcement at Samsungs Unpacked event on monday (October 11th, 2011).

Here however, is something more interesting a video of ICS running on the smartphone believed to be the next android flagship smartphone.

 That´s what I wrote all this for. More information and opinion after the official announcement!

VIA: thisismynext.com

Samsung Galaxy SII (GT-I9100) – Review

After about three weeks I feel ready to write this late review on the Samsung Galaxy SII, an Android best seller. I have been using it, switched back to my Acer Stream (2010 gen.), compared it to the Pre Plus and the old and dusty T-Mobile G1 to come to the conclusions I will share now. The Galaxy SII in question was running Android 2.3.3, build Gingerbread.XWKE2.


The first thing one notices when one gets the SGSII is: “Wow, that IS a small box.” The next is, after opening the box: “The box couldn´t be smaller.” One takes it out and thinks: “Hey, that is thin and light”. A second later one notices, that the battery isn´t inside the phone yet – I could go on like this, but who would read it like that.

HARDWARE


It´s thin (8.49mm), but huge – and light (119g). It´s fast, a 1.2GHz Dual Core ARM Cortex A9 chipset, accompanied by ARM Mali 400 MP graphics (developed and made by Samsung, called Exynos 4210) and 1GB of RAM  provide a stutter free Android experience on a WVGA (800×480) Super AMOLED Plus screen (12 subpixels. 16GB of onboard storage (microSD slot is there, too), an 8 Megapixel Camera with LED flash, a 2MP front camera and a HSPA+ capable 3G module make the spec sheet complete.

While the device feels good and solid in my rather large hands (at first I found it a little bit to light and was terribly afraid of breaking it), the hardware has its weaknesses – I don´t want to comment on the plastic skin of the device, which makes it so super light and feels sturdy, but on the button of the SGSII, which are.. well, not that great.

First of all, there is the missing camera button. Not that I would particularly like dedicated camera buttons, but with such a good and quickly starting camera like the one of the Samsung Galaxy SII, this IS annoying, as starting the camera becomes more interesting, as you know that you could do a quick shot if only there was a dedicated button (or maybe a lockscreen option, though that would be slightly inferior in my opinion) to start the camera. But there is none, and so you find yourself searching hecticly for that camera shortcut – I placed one on every homescreen, but that´s an ugly hack.

The three buttons the SGSII has on it the sides, volume up and down and power, are, to make this button game even worse, poorly placed, on opposite sides at the same height. This made me hating them, as I, while short pressing the power button to save power by switching the screen off, often accidentely raised the volume without noticing. Think of sitting in a business meeting (or a lecture at school or university, or in a play at the theatre) and your phone starts ringing loudly – it didn´t happen to me, but that was because I was lucky. I believe that Samsung should have placed both buttons on one side or moved the power button to where the iPhone has its – if engineerly feasible, they should do that for their next superphone, even if that means an extra milimeter of thickness.

These are the most annoying buttons, and I´ve got to say that the one physical, surrounded by two capacative ones, sitting right under the screen, aren´t that great, too. As Samsung seems to be trying to resemble the iPhone as good as possible, they didn´t watch usability here. While there is nothing to complain about the physical Home Button, the other two (you can configure their illumination in the settings, which is a nice touch) are so close to the bright and amazingly colorful screen (I didn´t miss qHD resolution, though more is always better ;) ), without anything that makes a haptic differentiator and at a low height of 14 milimeters, that it occurs that you touch them while trying to access the buttons of an application or the other way round – especially while you´re in a haste.

One more thing: There is no notification LED on the SGSII.

Nontheless, all these issues are neglectible, the Galaxy SII is a great hardware, that looks awesome (while sort of knock-offy), sometimes at expense of usability.

SOFTWARE

TouchWiz 4.0, slightly customized

The Android 2.3.3 software (as reviewed, I will update to 2.3.4 right after this review, unfortunately not OTA) doesn´t come stock but has a layer on top of it, that is custom to Samsung devices and has the name TouchWiz, iteration 4.0. With 4 buttons at the bottom it resembles a well known fruit phone. Besides that, Samsung has replaced many icons, and added in blue as an additional color.

While speed and responsibility aren´t harmed by TouchWiz (which is a notable thing, as other custom layers, like the ones of LG, Motorola (Motoblur), Sony Ericsson, and HTC (Sense) have been reported to slow the phones down – to there defense I have to add that the customizations of the latter two change a lot more),  my eyes and usability are.

It´s a personal thing, but I find these TouchWiz icons ugly in comparison to what Android 2.3.x (Gingerbread) delivers. While the colored buttons in the settings menu may help some, the changed battery icon definitely doesn´t – it´s always green, while the stock icon features different colors that help illustrating the battery status.

Samsung has added some applications in, as all manufacturers seem unable to resist to (this, btw, is a great pro of the Nexus series). Most prominently these are the 4 Hubs (Social Hub, Gaming Hub, Readers Hub and Music Hub), that offer you content for money – even the Social Hub, which just comes with a limited feature set. All of these hubs seem to be an attempt to build an ecosystem like the one Apple offers – but it´s no more than an attempt in my opinion. In addition to this, there is “Samsung Apps”, an application market which offers you a bunch of free Apps, among these many, that are in the Android Market anyway (which is still crowded and appears sort of unorganized). It has some special Samsung applications in the “Utilities” section, which are quite usable though (many of these come preinstalled, but not all), including Kies Air (which is great, you connect your Phone to your PC via WiFi and can access the phones data via your PCs browser), Samsung Remote, Samsung Mobile Print and a tool which you can use to update your phones camera firmware.
The most welcomed additions by Samsung to Android (they have added in a custom email app (somehow connected to that Social Hub crapware, customized dialer, contacts, calendar in a million small ways that don´t add value in my humble opinion) are 3 three pre installed apps: A Video editor, a picture editor and Polaris Office, which allows to view and edit Microsoft Office documents (+ view PDF). While all of these apps surely have a limited feature set (this is mobile!), they come in nice and handy and one is glad to have them. Swype is a nice addition that deserves to be mentioned, too.

A friend of mine just bought a SGSII (as his first real smartphone), and I want to share his first impression with Samsungs Software stuff (translated):

“I’ve now bought the SII 9100: D and I’m still happy ….. I wonder just how much garbage is already on the homescreens – mega lots of windows for gaming hub, movie hub, … etc – if you use them, does that cost money? Are these applications where one has to download stuff et cetera or where you are directed into a store?”

Sounds like fail, Samsung!

USABILITY/MULTITASKING (Software side)

Well, this is Android. Usability on Android has never been exactly award winning, and Samsung didn´t manage to really improve this with TouchWiz 4.0, which makes the whole TouchWiz story even more disappointing. Multitasking on Android means using a “Share” option (when you want to send something to another App) or using the Home Button with a short or a long press. While short press brings you back to the homescreen where you left of (another press then directs you to the first homescreen in TouchWiz (as opposed to the one in the middle on stock Android), a long press on the SGSII´s home button leads you to a Screen showing the “Recently used Applications”. This seems nice, but say you´ve got a notification (new email) and entered your eMail app using the Notification area (which Samsung enhanced nicely, though CM does this in a better way), you won´t find that eMail app among the recent apps that pop up after another long press after you´ve gone elsewhere (e.g. browser, to look things up). Google should really improve this in Ice Cream Sandwich, the next Android release which is going to unite smartphone (Gingerbread, 2.3.*) and tablet (Honeycomb 3.*) branches of Android again.
And then there´s this Menu Button, which, mostly because of bad usability decisions by App developers is a pain in the neck – comparable platforms like iOS or WP7 don´t have such a button, which shows that it isn´t necessary – in fact this button is a relict of the early days when Android was developed to become a Blackberry competitor using Googles services.
None of these things are genuinly Samsungs fault though, it´s a problem of Android itself.

PERFORMANCE

Nothing to complain here. It´s fast, it´s fluid – I experienced crashes using 3rd party applications, but that´s most likely not Samsungs fault. It´s on a speed experience level with the latest fruit phone. However, for those of you into gaming, you may consider to get a nVidia Tegra2 powered device (such as the LG P990 or the Motorola Atrix, which both have more flaws then the SGSII), as these feature the Tegra Zone with special games – what Samsung offers in their “Samsung Apps” can´t compete yet.

BATTERY LIFE
Well, it´s ok. It worked a day for me usually, and I am pretty hard on my phones – the SGSII did better than the Palm Pre Plus or the Acer Stream. I could critisize some of the Power Saving Mode stuff Samsung did (no revert to 2G, etc. pp.), but at least they tried to help users with power saving. What´s annoying: Once battery drops under 10%, you can´t take anymore pictures. Doesn´t make sense to me.
ACCESSORIES

Samsung doesn´t put much into the small box. Among a wallcharger and an USB cable and an everlasting Quick Manual, all you find is a surprisingly good in ear headset, which really sounds good. I am going to get myself one of these for my Palm Pre Plus as it just is a lot better (though not as good in the looks department – but, as you know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder).

VERDICT


The Galaxy SII is a good phone, that offers great performance. Samsung really did a good job with the Exynos chipset – unfortunately the phone doesn´t deserve the title “great” due to aforementioned issues. Many of the issues, mostly those on the software side are fixable – if they aren´t fixed by Samsung, the community will attempt to do so.

+ / Pro

  • huge, great, responsive, colorful Super AMOLED + touchscreen
  • thin
  • Camera
  • fast. really fast!
  • battery life is really ok for such a beast
– / Contra
  • TouchWiz / Samsung Software additions don´t add much
  • no Camera button, overall button placement
  • WiFi isn´t that good
  • Multitasking isn´t always fun thanks to Androids UX

More:
Screenshot Gallery on picasa
More LINMOB content on the SGSII

Android 2.3.3 on the Samsung GT-i8320

It´s not a huge step and I haven`t tried this out myself yet, but I am very happy to see some Gingerbread coming to the Samsung GT-i8320 (you know, that´s this mid-2009 phone with WVGA AMOLED screen, TI OMAP 3430 which ran a LiMo compliant OS OOTB) – as there is little ..err.. no evidence that anyone is porting over 2.3.x to the Acer Stream it is nice to have one device that runs the most beautiful iteration of Android for smartphones yet at faster than G1 speeds.

Don´t expect this to be perfectly reliable yet, there are a few things that simply don´t work yet:

  • GPRS / 3G data
  • Cameras 
  • GPS
  • SMS are said to be unreliable
  • apparently there are (almost random?) restarts

Still, it´s great to see this project improving. Kudos to everyone involved, especially to mephisto, the chinese mastermind behind this port.

h1droid Project page (Google Code)
Samsung i8320 Forums

No Gingerbread Update for the Acer Stream

According to Acer Germany’s twitter account @AcerDeutschland there won’t be a Gingerbread Update for the Acer Stream. While it certainly makes sense for Acer to discontinue support for the “Stream”, which didn’t sell that well (just have a look how few posts about the Acer Stream Android forums contain), this is another sad Android support story.

Personally I really think the “Stream” is a nice device, that probably suffered from a not too handsome design – but most likely more from a poor marketing. Acer are in fact shooting themselves in their foot by discontinuing the support for a device that’s not yet a year old – knowing that they discontinued the support for their “Stream” so soon, how can I possibly recommend their Acer Iconia Tab A500 which got positive reviews (BTW: when I went hands on at a local electronics store earlier today, i liked it, too)? I can’t and I doubt others can. Software Updates are very important, not only to enable the user to run the latest apps, but also to fix possible vulnerabilities – who feels comfortable using a smartphone with known vulnerabilities, knowing these won’t be fixed?

Especially if Android phone manufaturers really want to compete with Apple, they should provide software Updates for at least two years. Everything else is pathetic and a disaster for the whole “Android” brand.

Still interested in Acer products? Acer Iconia Tab A500 at Amazon.de

Nice Demo of HTC Scribe

While I was looking for something else I stumbled on this video demonstration  of HTC Scribe (by phone-guide-germany.com). The audio recording feature and the fact that you can see at what point during the recording you scribbled what might really be useful for students – imagine using this at lectures.

CeBIT 2011: Hands on with Hanvon A116 7″ Android tablet

The device I played with for the longest time at CeBIT 2011 without being bothered by booth people was the 7 inch tablet Hanvon A116. Despite its specs sheet says that this device has some decent hardware inside (1GHz ARM Cortex A8 (Samsung Hummingbird according to ARMdevices.net) + 512MB DDR2 Ram) this thing ran Android 2.2 in a horribly slow way – this maybe due to Hanvons customizations or bad drivers. 

I apologize for the quality of the video I shot – but at least I typed the spec sheet data into its description – so it might be helpful to some people. netbooknews.com/tabletblog.de shot a better video, and the video from ARMdevices.net is clearly the best.

Hardware specs are nice, but nothing special: 1GHz ARM Cortex A8 SoC (unnamed), 512MB DDR2 Ram, 2G SLC NAND, MicroSD up to 32GB, 7” 1024×600 wide angle TFT, 2D capacative (optional: Electromagnetic Resonance) touch screen, front camera: 1.3 MP, rear camera: 5MP with auto focus, WiFi 802 b/g, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, Optional built in 3G, GPS: optional, Battery: 3.7V 3300mAh LiPolmer (12.2 Wh) for 6 hour video play, 8 hour reading estimated battery life, I/O: micro USB, mini HDMI, 3,5 earphone jack, dimension: 199*126*11.8mm 

Interestingly enough the datasheet has information on anything you can think of but the weight – the device felt pretty light, on par with other 7” tablets (350 to 450 grams).

Hardware aside, Hanvon has been doing some work on the Software – on the unit I went hands on with, parts of this ran annoyingly slow – in fact, the homescreen replacement ruined the whole user experience for me – it seems to run much better in the video Andrzej shot for Netbooknews.com, so this might have been a faulty device (I had this thought at CeBIT, but when I came back later, all tablets were switched off and wouldn´t power on). But they also added in their own office solution and their ebook store (they are THE player in chinas e-reading market), so they are trying to add value, which is always a good thing (as long as you can remove the “added value” if you don´t like it, but with Android you should be able to do so).

No real information on pricing (“30% less than Galaxy Tab” (street price or launch price?)) and availability, though it might come to Europe, as Hanvon has a german subsidiary.

If you have further questions, just ask them by posting a comment.