Sunday, 15 January 2012

Why I hate smartphones - and what makes them great

It's taken me a long time to even entertain getting a smartphone. I used to find them a social nuisance, always ringing and pinging and going off all the time - and don't get me started on people who sit opposite each other in a cafe, each texting someone else on their handset....
Because of this, I've never bothered with them. A few years ago I threw my mobile phone away and spent four glorious years away from the mobile world. In fact, it was only because of work that I begrudgingly spent £4.99 on a handset and SIM card at the local ASDA store and that's been my 'phone of choice ever since.

I've recently been given (loaned) a few different smartphone handsets and asked to write some software and some websites to run on them. It took me a while to get past the fact that as a miniature computer, they couldn't compete with my notebook and as a 'phone they're just excessive. But slowly, I'm coming to realise that it's not the device that has upset me so much over the years - it's how it's used.

The earlier example is something you see a lot in most towns and cities across the UK:
two people sat opposite each other, each on their phone, chatting or texting with someone else. Why not just invite the other person to the cafe and sit and chat with them instead? I genuinely believe that these devices are affecting social interaction between people - and not just thanks to the slang and grammar that is creeping into everyday language, but even how people relate to each other when they are face-to-face. And it's not for the better!

That said, I'm slowly warming to these smartphone devices.
Not because I can access my emails and Twitter while on-the-go (I can, but still prefer reading things full screen on my notebook). Nor because I can view any website while out-and-about; because when I'm out-and-about, I want to interact with the real world, not a series of virtual images and links! In fact, for gathering and reading information, I still think something with a puny 3" screen is a pretty poor device for doing so, however impressive the technology behind making it happen is. And to see people sitting and walking around, oblivious to their surroundings, concentrating on what's happening to their "virtual alter ego" makes me want to weep. Put your phone away - enjoy the sunshine! Listen to the sounds of the city, enjoy the company of other people!

However, as a device for taking a photo and posting a quick note - "I'm here, I've seen this, come see for yourself" - well, I'm getting to actually quite like my (borrowed) smartphone(s). Jabbing a button to take a photo or a short video, then sending to the 'net takes a minute or two at most, but allows me to share what I'm doing with the world!

But now I've fallen out of love with my smartphone - because there's just sooo much going on and sooo many people "broadcasting to the world" that it's just becoming a noise, and I don't want to be just another voice adding to the massive pile of crap that makes up most of the "social networking" side of the internet.

In fact, I don't really care about sharing my stuff with the world.
I don't care if the world is interested.
What I do want to do is publish stuff that I find interesting and share it with my friends and family who may also find it interesting. That's it really.

And that's what sites like Twitter and Facebook allow me to do (I'm a pretty new user of both). I just didn't realise it; maybe because most of the posts I read are from people wanting to broadcast to as wide an audience as possible, trying to sound impressive or interesting to as many people as they can, trying to attract as many friends/followers as possible. But  my dislike of the Twitter and Facebook sites didn't stem from the technology - it came from how people were using them. But all it takes is a change of attitude, and suddenly my smartphone and a previously hated site becomes quite a useful tool.

I'd never consider phoning my best mate up to say "mmmm, I'm eating some toast, nom nom".
I wouldn't send even my closest family member an email to ask "tea or coffee? I can't decide".
I don't understand why people post rubbish like that on Twitter.
But that doesn't mean that I have to either. So I won't.

But posting text and images to the 'net (via Twitter for example) for my circle of dozen or so close friends who might be interested in what I'm doing and when is infinitely easier with one of these little smartphone jobbies. And as a result, they might come along to where I'm at and join in with what I'm doing. And when they do, the phone has done it's job so we'll make sure they are turned off and put away - there's a world going on outside that 3" screen!

Samsung Galaxy ACE S5830 review

Although initially very impressed with the HTC Wildfire S, after trying the Samsung Galaxy S2 II, there's no comparison between the phones. I'd love my own Galaxy S2 (the phones I have are on trial while I perform some RnD for software development) but I can't justify the price to myself.

Somewhere between the two - and available from for about £6/month (after cashback) with unlimited data - is the Samsung ACE S5830.

This is like the little brother to the S2. In most respects, when comparing the hardware against the WildfireS and the S2, it sits somewhere between the two. The screen/display is bigger than the HTC but smaller than the S2. This means the images are as clear (or clearer) than the HTC, but nowhere near as bright and vibrant  as the S2. It has a faster processor than the Wildfire (but not as fast the S2).
The actual handset is quite slim - although it weighs about the same as the HTC, because of the larger unit size, it actually feels lighter (if that makes sense?). All-in-all, this handset is a nice compromise between the lower (budget) end of the market and the all-singing-all-dancing- top-end (the Galaxy S2).

In fact, we may be seeing a bit more of this unit, since a few Nerd Club members have already expressed an interest in taking up the offer for a free handset with 300 minutes, 300 texts and unlimited data every month for about £6 (after claiming cashback). Not a bad handset. And not a bad contact offer either!

Samsung Galaxy S2 II review

I'm still pretty new to the whole smartphone market, having had a few different handsets in my possession for just a few days. I spent some time getting to know the HTC Wildfire S and was pretty impressed with it. But I've no real experience of owning any other type of smartphone, so haven't really had anything to compare it to.

I've been told that the Samsung Galaxy S2 II is the dogs-danglies of mobile phones.
The posters on bus shelters certainly look impressive but to the uninitiated (like me) it was just another phone handset. What could be so great about this, compared to other phones?

The first thing to note is that the colours are amazing. The image is bright and vibrant and really sharp. It's like the difference between an LCD television and an LED TV. The screen size is a massive 4.2" (480x800) and apparently uses AMOLED - whatever it is, the result is an image that stays the bright and sharp, even in direct sunlight.

I've seen what's possible with a bit of hacking and some custom code with these handsets, but never really appreciated the quality of the hardware. It's slim and light, has excellent power saving features (after leaving it overnight with all peripherals enabled, it still had about 70% battery the next day). One nice touch is that the screen doesn't get smudged up with fingermarks (actually it does, but these are only visible when you turn the phone off, not when you're using it). The photos are a massive 8mp and uploaded automatically to my Google account - the clarity of the photos is pretty good though I can't help but think that 8mp is a bit much for photos to share over the 'net. The images are good, but not "professional camera" quality. And unless you're going to print the images (in which case, use a camera not a phone!) there's not much difference between sharing an 8mp and a 4mp image - except of course the massive file size. In fact, when I downloaded the photos from my Google account onto my laptop, I found that resizing by 50% (and even by 25%) resulted in the same great image still at a resolution that was bigger than a lot of computer screen sizes....

This is just a personal gripe (although if I was paying for the data connection rather than using my wi-fi connection it might be a different issue). Everything else about the Samsung Galaxy S2 II puts it in a league of it's own. An amazing (albeit expensive) bit of kit. I'd love to be able to keep this one! Suddenly the Samsung Galaxy S2 makes the HTC Wildfire S look like a "budget" smartphone.

HTC Wildfire review

It's been nearly two weeks since the last post of 2011 and there's a reason for that - for the last few weeks, "real life" has just sort of got in the way. A few of us took a trip to an Irish Celidh (pronounced kay-lee) and sort-of skip-hopped-and danced the New Year in. On returning to Nerd Towers, we eagerly took all our new Xmas gadgets and gizmos round to the Nerd Cupboard to get to work on some new projects (and further advance - I'm not going to say finish - some old ones).
That's when it started to go wrong.

Real life (i.e. work) kicked in and suddenly all the spare nerding time was taken up with other things.
In fact, it's not all that bad; work involves investigating a number of different mobile handsets and writing some software to run on all of them. Some people do this as a hobby. If I were interested in mobile phones, I probably would too (some of the other club members are more enthusiastic about the phones than I and want to help out even though they're not getting paid for it!). But I'm getting paid to play about with some phones and write mobile websites and develop some iPhone and Android apps.

It's a pretty all-consuming task, so some of our earlier projects may have to wait for a week or two until this work is delivered.

Anyway, this leads onto the review of the phones.
The first phone I tried was a HTC Wildfire S

This was my first go with a smartphone. I've seen iPhones around and almost everyone at BuildBrighton has some kind of smartphone but I've never really seen the appeal in them myself. Anyway, putting that initial scepticism aside, I tried to evaluate this phone fairly.

Given it's the first phone I've tried, I was pretty impressed - but then I had nothing to compare it to. It's a nice, smart design. It feels pretty solid and the touch-sensitive screen responds well. I don't know if it's my fat greasy fingers, but the screen does get "smeary" very quickly though. Compared to my regular mobile phone, it is pretty heavy. But then again, this is a miniature computer, not an antique from the 90s.

I found that I manually have to put the phone into airplane mode to disable the wi-fi and bluetooth when I'm not using them, else the battery is flat if left overnight with everything enabled. I'm sure regular smartphone users know all the battery-saving tips already but I'm used to a phone that holds it's charge for up to 5 days at a time, not something that needs plugging in the next morning after using it!

All in all, the HTC Wildfire is a neat, compact smartphone. Probably ideal as a first, starter phone. The 5mp camera takes pretty decent photos and uploads them quickly and easily to my Google account. The 320x480 screen is big enough for most of the apps I tried and the display gives a bright, clear picture, while the black colour(s) are reassuringly dark (not greyed out like a cheap screen). But given I've nothing to compare it to, I don't really whether it's an amazing phone, or just a pretty good one!