Upgrade Day

My three favourite days of the year. My birthday, Christmas Day and Apple Upgrade Day. The latter of which is today. Like Christmas, there is a festive build up to the big day. First comes the Special Event where all the shiny new devices are revealed. Then a few days later Apple’s online store will open for pre-orders. A few days after that the new OS is released. And then, a week after the devices were first shown off, deliveries begin. Continue reading “Upgrade Day”

Apple Pay

So. Apple Pay. I like my Apple devices, I really do. In fact I love my iPhone. True love. Wait till you see what I’ve bought my iPhone 6s for Valentines day. But that’s another story. Back to Apple Pay. What a gimmick. A pointless, unnecessary marketing gimmick. Or so I thought. But Apple has gradually won me over. I’ve seen the light. Why did I ever doubt them? The first revelation was at a McDonalds. I’d ordered my meal, but then discovered I’d left my wallet back at work. My lunch was about to be aborted when it occurred to me – I had registered a debit card on my iPhone. So I paid with my iPhone. Happy days! And a Happy Meal to go with it.

Now I’ve gotten used to paying with it. I stand in queues waiting to purchase my shopping, killing the time with a little bit of Candy Crush. Suddenly I’m at the front, the cashier has rung through my items and it’s time to pony up. Do I reach into my pocket, pull out a wallet, fight to get a card out etc etc? Nope, I just swipe my phone and lets the magical Cupertino Money Pixies do their stuff. How did I ever manage before?

I’d been wondering though. On the London Underground, if I tap in with my debit card and tap out with my iPhone (using the same card), would the system recognise them as the same card and charge me accordingly? Or would it read these as two payment methods and charge me twice? My hunch is that I would be charged twice. I can report that I have now made this error and can reveal the result. You’re charged twice. So don’t do it. It’s an expensive way to travel. Fortunately, I have read somewhere that the new iPhone 7 has a special app called Aladdin that turns the device into a Magic Carpet, which will save everyone a fortune on travel costs.

 

iPhone 6 Review

It has arrived. And it is beautiful. I’ve had it in my possession for a whole three days, which is more than long enough to come up with a few observations. Firstly, I guess, is…why an iPhone? I’ve been an Android owner since selling my iPod Touch in Mexico, and buying a Samsung Galaxy S2 upon my return to England.

That was largely down to two issues. The iPhone screen was titchy in comparison to its Android rivals. And it was way overpriced. The iPhone 6 is neither of these. The 4.7″ screen is just right and it’s a similar price to some of the top end Android devices.

I do like, prefer even, Apple’s iOS to Android. The Apple app store is, albeit marginally these days, better. The phone itself is the finest looking device on the market. I love the fingerprint touch ID to unlock the phone and make purchases.  The screen is fantastic. But then, the screens on most top end phones are fantastic.

There are some minor annoyances too. I can download Chrome and use it as my browser. But I cannot set it as my default browser. So, whenever a link in a message or email is pressed, up pops Safari. There’s also a feature which lowers the screen content when you double tap the home button. This makes it easier to press on content or buttons in the top corners of the screen. It works nicely. But not as nicely as a capacitive back button would. Lastly, I have yet to find a backgammon app that is anywhere near as good the one I had on my HTC.

How about Apple’s online services compared to Google’s? iCloud is nifty enough once it’s set up. There is, though, no reason to compare it to Google. I have downloaded almost everything I want from Google-landia in the app store. Google Maps, Drive, Now, Plus. The only thing I wanted but could not find was Google Tracks. But there are alternatives.

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Then there is the beauty factor. One of the things I disliked about Android and Google was how ugly they make some things. Google makes some of the best services going. But so many of them are plain ugly. Offensive to the eye even. That’s not so with Apple, where aesthetics matter. Everything about the iPhone six is beautifully designed and easy on the eye.

Is the iPhone an improvement over the HTC One? Yes, of course. It’s the latest model versus a nearly 2 year old model. It should be better. But it’s not as significant an improvement as the HTC One was compared to the Samsung Galaxy S2. Except in one way. What way? That’s for tomorrow….

An Early iPhone Upgrade

I am one of those people who loves the latest, shiny new electronic toy. If I had the budget, I’d fill my entire flat with gizmos and gadgets. Mrs P would probably object, but then if I had the money, she’d be out shopping for shoes and might not notice. But aside from budget constraints, there’s another issue that prevents me from upgrading my second favourite gadget whenever I want to. My mobile phone. It’s that two year contract with the network, locking you in. My camera is my number one gadget. Of course.

I still have seven months left on my HTC One contract. It’s a great camera. I love it. But have you seen the shiny new iPhone 6?! It’s just so….shiny. And new. I want one. But how, oh how do I get one? And by getting one, I mean now. Not is seven months. Without paying an arm and a leg for the privilege. Preferably, without paying anything more than I do now. Well, it’s actually quite simple. I sat down, did a little research and then did the maths.

First things first. I am going to have to pay Three £35 a month for the next seven months. Fact. But could I use my current plan in a different phone? More to the point, will Three swap over my plan from the micro sim of the HTC to the nano sim of the iPhone 6? The answer, happily, was yes. For a small and very affordable charge of £5.

Second issue. How can I get an iPhone, without paying a deposit (or at least only paying a small one) and without a network contract but with the payments still  spread over 24 months, without ridiculous interest charges. There’s a number of ways. I’m going to deal with the 16gb model here. You can buy one from the Apple Store on finance, paying a total of £600 for a £539 phone. Or from GiffGaff, paying Just a few pence under £590.

There are other ways to do this and pay even less interest. Such as take advantage of Curry’s Buy Now Pay 12 Months deal. In 12 months pay it off with a 0% transfer credit card and all you have to do is pay the fees – £25 to Currys as an early settlement fee and anything from £5 to £15 for the balance transfer. This adds up less than, but pretty close to, what you’d pay Apple. Which is why I went the Apple route. It’s just easier.

Third issue. For the next seven months, I will still be paying £35 to Three and now another £25 to Apple. Which leaves me £25 extra out of pocket for the next six months. That was simple to resolve. Firstly, by the time I actually get my iPhone and have paid the first instalment, I’ll only have six months left on my contract. Secondly, I’ll just sell my current phone. I don’t need two, and I’d get a handy £120 for it. Which I can offset against the extra £25 p/m I have to pay.

Ok, so I will still have to pay an extra £5 per month for the next six months. But I can manage that. And actually, I will be better off in the long run*. When my contract with Three is up, I will keep the sim only plan at £15 per month. So I’ll be paying in total the sum of £40 per month for my iPhone with unlimited data. Instead of the £45 I’d be paying Three, plus the £99 upfront cost, if I upgraded next year with them. In total, with Three, you’d pay £1179 over 2 years. Going the independent route, the total cost is £960. That’s a saving of more than £200. Plus, I’m free from the phone contracts. Sure, I’m paying the phone on finance, but I’ve split the hardware away from the network. Which is great**. Which begs the question. Why is anyone signing up to phone contracts with the network operators?

So I have ordered my phone. It’ll be here in a week or two. I plumped for the Space Grey model. Just 16 gbs. That’s plenty. I checked my 32gb HTC One. I’ve only half filled it up in 17 months, and there’s at least 5 gigs of rubbish just waiting to be cleansed.

* Yes, I know. I’d be better off still if I did wait till my upgrade date. But stop raining on my parade!

** O2 and GiggGaff both already split the call plans from the phones. That’s a great move by them. Three haven’t. That’s a poor move. I shopped elsewhere as a result.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia has its critics, that’s for sure. It’s far from perfect. The nature of the beast that it is guarantees that there will controversial additions to articles. I’ve been the source of a flaw once. I had used Wikipedia to research a chap that I had written about –  Joey Deacon. A few months later I started getting a ton of hits from Wiki. Someone had decided that my post on Joey Deacon should be listed as a source. The credit has since been removed. More sources are usually a bit better.

But as a free resource of general knowledge about everything, it can’t be beat. It’s awesome. Don’t like the bias of an article? Well go through the sources. If nothing else it’s a platform upon which to start your research. How much do I like Wikipedia? A lot. I think they claim to be amongst the top five most popular websites in the world. They are definitely one of my own top ten most used websites. The other nine? At a guess, WordPress, BBC, Facebook, Google, Feedly, Gmail, Amazon, Flickr and YouTube. At a guess.

I like Wikipedia enough to donate. Just £3 mind you. I’m a tight fisted so and so. But some things are worth a moment of thought, and a dip into one’s pocket. Seriously, I’ve had my money’s worth from the site. And some. The very nice peeps at Wiki also sent me a generic email of thanks, which I have pasted below. It explains the whats, whys, hows and buts. It also tells me that I am FANTASTIC, which is quite frankly something that is not mentioned enough and is worth £3 all by itself… 🙂

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Dear Gary,

You are so fantastic. THANK YOU for supporting the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that runs Wikipedia and its sister projects.

Your donation covers not only your own costs of using Wikipedia, but also the costs of other Wikipedia readers.

Like the retired farmer in upstate New York who’s using Wikipedia to study the science of sludge, and the student in Kuala Lumpur who’s researching organic chemistry. The British mechanic who, after he broke his back in an accident, used Wikipedia to retrain himself as a web developer. The civil servant in Finland who set up an offline version of Wikipedia for a small school in Ghana. And the father in Mexico City who takes his little daughters to the museum on weekends, and uses Wikipedia to help them understand everything they’re seeing there.

Wikipedia’s job is to bring the sum total of all human knowledge to everyone around the world in their own language. That’s a pretty audacious mission, but with 30 million articles and 287 languages, I’d say that thanks to you and people like you, we are getting there.

On behalf of the Wikimedia Foundation, and the half-a-billion other Wikipedia readers around the world: thank you. The fact that you are helping to pay the costs of running Wikipedia means it can stay ad-free and independent of bias, focused solely on helping its readers. Exactly as it should be.

You may have noticed that for the first time this year we’ve tweaked our fundraising so that most people will only see the banners a handful of times, instead of for weeks. That’s deliberate: we don’t want people to get irritated by too many appeals. But it does mean that fewer people will figure out we’re a non-profit, and that we want their help. So if you’re willing, I’d appreciate if you’d help spread the word by forwarding this e-mail to a few of your friends.

And I’d love if you’d try joining us in helping to write Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s written entirely by volunteers — tens of thousands of ordinary people around the world, exactly like us. If you see a typo or a small mistake on Wikipedia, please fix it. If you know anything worth adding, please add it. Some people find it remarkably satisfying, and maybe you will too.

Thank you again. I very much appreciate your trust in us, and I promise you: we will use your money carefully and well.

Thanks,
Sue

Bingiton

I took the Bingiton search challenge. I entered five searches and chose the best set of results. There was a clear winner every time. As much as I’d rather wean myself off Google products, Gmail, Maps and most of all Search remain unbeatable. I still mourn Reader, although Feedly is filling the gap admirably. Did anyone take the challenge and win with Bing?

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The Printing Obituary

I wrote a piece recently, Through The Keyhole, letting you into the private life of the Mexile. Ok, it was more a limited and selective peek. The focus was ‘the workstation’. But there was a bit I missed. A piece of equipment that sits underneath my laptop. That’ll be the printer. Every workstation has a printer. Mine is an Epson R800. And a fabulous printer it is too. I hinted in that article at workstations I’ve had in days gone by, specifically before I left for Mexico in 2005. They were cutting edge work stations. I bought the latest, fastest and most expensive computers. The Epson R800 is a relic from that time.

I spent a fortune on it. I spent even more on the inks and professional grade paper. This was a serious printer for pro photographers. Borderless A4 prints of archival quality that would last 80 years plus. I used to print out hundreds of photos that were taken on my holidays, and show them to anyone who didn’t have the force of will to say no. They were carefully placed in black bound folders within protective sleeves.

I still have all those photos. They’re safely stored in a big drawer under the bed. Where no one ever sees them. That’s why I stopped printing them. Besides the fact I couldn’t take my printer to Mexico with me. What’s the point? I discovered Flickr, which stores my photos in nice albums. But not under the bed. They’re on the web, for anyone to see, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. They’re even there on Christmas Day. In fact, not even a government shutdown prevents you from going to see them.

The printer is dead. Or so I would have thought, back in 2005 when I started out with Flickr, It turns out that photographic home printing is dead. That was before the days when you’d print out you National Express and train tickets, or concert tickets. I print out quite a few of them. So I went to buy some ink for the old R800, to get some low grade use out of it. Amazon reminded me just how much the 7 or 8 cartridges cost. A whopping £92 for the full set.

Screw that, if you’ll pardon my French. In the photo below, you’ll see a new shiny black printer next the classier looking R800. It’s another Epson. It won’t do much of a job printing photos. But for tickets and documents, it does just fine. It’s WiFi too, so no cables. I have even downloaded an app for my phone and can print from documents on my phone, or even scan images to my phone. What a wondrous device.The price? A measly £49. With a full set of three ink cartridges. Barely more than half the price of ‘inking-up’ the R800.

Replacement cartridges are less than a tenner the set too. Technology moves on. In this case, less is more. Less cost, less cables, less fuss. The new printer hammers the final nail into my life before Mexico. The last relic of that period of my life gone, forever.

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Cancellation Karma

I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I can’t say I was either shocked nor surprised how hard it was. Even though logic and reason would make you think it would be easy. Where shall I begin this tale? Let’s go back to May 2011, very briefly. I emerged from the Three shop in Bournemouth with a shiny new Samsung Galaxy S2. On a two year contract, with Three. Two years, in theory. But not if Three could help it. Let’s fast forward two years. My contract ends, so I call them. I don’t want to renew, and I can sense their fear. But I just want to switch to a cheaper rolling month by month contract. I don’t need to be paying for the phone itself anymore. They breathe a sigh of relief.

But the Samsung Galaxy S2 was a dated phone, and I was waiting for something better to come along. It came – the HTC One. I bought a brand new contract rather than upgrade the old. For a good reason, but one that is unimportant to the story. So I called up to cancel the S2. Alas, their cancellation lines are only open from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. So I waited till I had time during the week. I had to wait three weeks.

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I finally got through last week. I explained the situation. I have a new phone. And I have bought it with Three, so fear not I haven’t left you! Just need to cancel the old contract please. ‘I can definitely help you with that, sir‘, came the reply. Followed by, ‘but what most of our customers do, sir, is….‘. Followed by scripted bilge. I asked him if more than 50% of Three customers have two contracts and two phones with Three? He wasn’t sure. I reminded him that he’d just told me that, in effect, ‘most’ customers do. Which is nonsense.

Seriously, I have a new phone with Three. I do not need two. No one else in the house wants this contract, they all have there own. Just cancel it. ‘I can definitely help you with that, sir‘, <pause as a page is turned> ‘but what most of our customers do, sir, is….‘. No, really, just cancel it. ‘I can definitely help you with that, sir‘, <pause as a page is turned> ‘but what most of our customers do, sir, is….‘. This continued for, and I kid ye not, for nearly 30 minutes. Before he finally yielded, with great reluctance, and transferred me to the cancellation department. Jesus H Christ, I hadn’t even been speaking to someone who could actually cancel the bleeding contract! And he had just spent half an hour promising that ‘he could definitely help me with that’. When, in fact, that was the one thing that he couldn’t do at all!

The policy was eventually cancelled, after further hanging on hold until someone who could cancel a policy picked up the call. But not before a few more efforts at retention were made. What was the net result of that call? Mrs P’s contract is up. We are shortly going to get her a new phone. It was going to be on Three. Now it will not be with Three. Too difficult to cancel when the time comes. Their efforts to save a customer cost a customer. Cancellation karma indeed.

The telephone sales industry really does need to be looked at by regulators. I know this from experience. Not this experience. From working in the telephone sales industry, Service is shoddy. Miss-selling is closer to being the norm rather than the exception. Sales scripts are closer to harassment and bullying than they are banter. Most firms should probably have their outbound dialing departments shut down. Many should probably have their Inbound departments closed two. And new regulations should definitely be implemented. I have my own list of regulations that I would like to see.

  • If a call centre is open and available to sell a policy or provide a quote, it should also be able to amend or cancel a policy. Opening hours for both sales and cancellations should be the same.
  • If an 0800 (free) number is available for sales, then ALL numbers provided to customers for other purposes should be free.
  • If you can buy a contract or policy online, then the company must also make it possible to cancel online.
  • If a customer asks to cancel a policy, they must be put through to an agent who can cancel the policy immediately. Any attempt to retain should be a breach of regulations.
  • Retention agents handling cancellations should be permitted to ask why the customer wishes to cancel. Once. They can offer to transfer the customer to a sales agent if they would like to explore better offers. Once. Otherwise, the policy or contract should be cancelled immediately.
  • Any company failing to cancel a policy within five minutes of answering the call should be fined. Heavily. There’s no reason it should take any longer.
  • Agents should not be allowed to sell a quote from an outbound ‘cold call’. The customer must ring back.
  • I could go on. But you’re bored already.

Google 2013

Following on from my review of sorts of the HTC One. There’s a reason I like Windows OS. And a reason I had reservations about Android. The former is a clean, slick, pretty hot looking operator. The latter is often ugly, functional and even clunky sometimes. One of the reservations I have about the new Flickr is that it looks a bit Google-ified. That’s to say, it could look prettier. To say the least. I blame Marissa Mayer. She’s from Google. Ironically, she herself is very pretty. But I’ll have more to say on Flickr another day.

Google constantly irks me. They buy up cool companies and then shut them down. They make ugly, ugly products. And yet they just work better than the competition. Tried searching for mail in Outlook.com? For all the prettiness of Microsoft’s email baby, it’s a decade behind Google. I gave it a good run, and still use the email address they gave me. Via Gmail.  But, amongst all the Plain Janes of Google’s product portfolio, there’s that one stunner…

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Google Maps has always been the best. Again, Bing maps is pretty, and it actually works well. In some ways better. But it’s not as expansive, its version of Street View is very limited. But maps is the one product where Google has the entire competition well and truly licked. Knocked out the park. On the desktop or on a mobile device, it has no peer. And to rub salt in the wounds of those competitors, Google Maps just got a huge make over and is better than ever.

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It’s Maps and Earth all in one, with genuinely useful (as opposed to frivolous and gimmicky) functionality built in. It remembers your locations and searches, brings up strips of images, has slicker street views and awesome tilt/3D views. I got my beta invite a few days ago and have been playing around a while to see if it breaks or if the new stuff wears thin. It doesn’t and they don’t. Want to see the new Maps for yourself? Request an invite. It took them a week to let me in, so the sooner you apply, the sooner you get to play.

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So, Mr Google. I give in. You win. I’ll throw my lot behind you. I’m kinda committed, I guess, having bought a new Android phone. Again, the beauty of that Sense 5.0 interface, as I mentioned in the review I did of the device, wipes all the traditional Google ugliness from view. I’ll give Google+ another go. Google+ photos too. I’ll switch back to using my Gmail address again.

I’ll let you resume your snooping around my hard drive. Credit where credit is due. Google keeps innovating. You keep churning out fantastic products. Even though you really, really pee’d me off when you killed Reader. I’m using Feedly now, by the by. It’s the best of the rest, sort of thing. It turns out that Feedly is just as good as Google Reader once you get used to it. In fact, it’s Googe Reader made pretty. It’s the product you should have made in the first place…

HTC One Review

Alternatively, I could have entitled this post ‘Why I Didn’t Buy A Galaxy S4, Nokia 925 or iPhone’. Let’s deal with the last two first, because they are easy. The Nokia 925 is a gorgeous looking phone, and I love the Windows 8 OS. But. If we put aside the fact that it’s not yet available (and I just can’t wait* another month for shops to start shipping) it’s just too under powered for my liking.

One of the key things I use a smartphone for is photography. I don’t want to wait 15 seconds for a photo to be processed. And those are the sort of reviews I kept reading. The specs make that perfectly believable. There’s also the lack of apps, but if it excelled elsewhere I could have forgiven it. The Nokia was almost a challenger. Almost…

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The iPhone? I’m not nuts. Why on earth would I want to pay the Apple premium to obtain a device which is inferior in almost every way to the latest Android sluggers? The screen is too small, the OS is stale, and its best features are, at best, only on a par with the latest and greatest from Google, Samsung and HTC. Let me put the iPhone in context. If all Android devices were removed from sale, then I’d wait for the Nokia 925 to come on sale before I’d buy an iPhone 5.

Really, my choice was only ever between two phones. The Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One. It’s a tough choice. They are both superb phones. There’s not much between them, as you can see from CNet’s Prize Fight. But they do approach things in their own unique ways. I like the fact that you can open the S4 up and add storage space in the shape of a mico SD card. You can swap a drained battery for a fresh one two while you’re at it.

You can’t do this with the HTC, but the trade off is a gorgeous one piece metal body. Holding the two of them in a shop, you feel you’re comparing a Rolls Royce to a Lexus. And as far as storage is concerned, truth be told, the 32 gigs you get with the HTC is enough for me anyway. The S4 screen is a 5″ monster, just that little bit bigger than the HTC. But  the HTC 4.7″ screen is big enough. In fact, I’m going to declare that 4.7″ is the ideal size screen for a smart phone. The sweet spot. It’s perfect.

So build quality is a big points scorer with me. There’s another two factors that HTC wins hands down as well. The speakers. Those dual front facing Beats speakers are fabulous. Sure, you’re not going to rock out an auditorium with it. But you’ll not be straining to hear what’s going on, even if you’re at the side of a busy road. They are phenomenal.

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The second factor? This was very much the X factor. I’ve been using a Samsung smartphone, the S2, for a couple of years. And I tried out the S3 and S4 in stores. It’s all very much about evolution, rather than revolution. The Touch Wizz interface Samsung uses is very functional and effective. And also very ugly. But it works, and hey…better the devil you know. When I ordered the HTC One, the HTC Sense 5.0 interface was the unknown element. Would I like it?

I love it. I love Blinkfeed. How best to describe it? Ok. You know sometimes you get home and switch on the TV because your favourite program is on. And sometimes you slump into that armchair and just start flicking through  channels until you find something interesting. That’s kinda like blinkfeed. Sometimes I pick up my phone and go straight to an app. Sometimes I just pick it up and flick through blinkfeed. I’ve set it up and get all sorts of stuff that interests me, a lot of it from sources I wouldn’t normally go to.

The rest of Sense 5.0 is also slick and easy on the eye. The dialer and phone book are a huge improvement over what Samsung offer. So it turned out that perhaps the best reason to switch from Samsung to HTC was originally not a reason – perhaps ever a deterrence. There is another test to come. What’s the camera like? It’s a 4 megpixels large sensored unit that, again, approaches things in a very different way to Samsung. I’ll run that one over on my photography blog, which I’ve decided will be the place for all my camera / photo related stuff from now on. I’ll link to it.

But as things stand, I’m delighted with my new HTC One. Thrilled. And absolutely convinced I made the right choice. Sorry Samsung, but adios.

* I can’t wait, because the Jelly Bean upgrade to my Galaxy S2 caused massive battery drain issues which were never resolved, and rendered the phone useless after as little as three or four hours.

Galaxy S2 Jelly Bean UK Update

If every you venture onto tech forums, you can’t help but notice that there seems to be an ongoing, and never ending, Apple v Android v The Rest flame war that rages between fanboys, and fangirls, of the competing eco systems. I wouldn’t describe myself as a fanboy. I like Apple products. But I wouldn’t buy one at the moment. They are, whatever else anyone might say, over priced. And they aren’t ‘better’. The volume advantage in the Apple appstore doesn’t count for tuppence. I couldn’t possibly use 1,000 apps, let alone 100,000 or a million. The Apple appstore does have two advantages that do count however.

The first is that new apps do tend to hit the Apple marketplace quicker. Flickr’s new app still isn’t out on Android yet, and neither is the BBC’s iPlayer app with download abilities. Why not? Well the reason kinda leads me into the second advantage. Whilst Android is fragmented across a huge number of different hardware devices, meaning some apps need tweaking for different handsets, the Apple eco system feeds just a single piece of hardware. Ok, there’s the iPhone and iPod Touch. But they are for all intent identical.

That also means that when there is an OS update, Android users often have to wait for their handset manufacturers and carriers to develop and deploy it. The case in point. My beloved Samsung Galaxy S2. There have been devices rocking Android’s latest incarnation, Jelly Bean, since last July. I’ve had to sit and wait for nigh on eight months for it to finally release for the Galaxy S2 in the UK. But last weekend, after months of rumours and delays, I got a Google sized dose of Jelly Bean.

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Was it worth the wait? It was certainly a bit of a wait for the download to finish. More than 300 mbs, which seems to have impacted somewhat on the phones available storage. But it’s not a problem. I have a 32gb SD card installed to supplement my storage needs. The installation went through fine though. Restart. And? Looked pretty much the same, truth be told. But now with Google Now, the much vaunted new product that keeps you up to date with all things local.

I tried to install the widget, but was left with a greyed out bar suggesting that I ‘get Google Now’. I thought I had got Google Now. It turns out you need to set it up first, and to do that, you need to find a slightly obscure and bland blue Google app. You can see it in the left hand image, on the right hand side beneath the weather app. What do I get from Google Now? So far, I’m sorry to say, not a lot. A weather app. And when I’m out a map showing me how to get home. It’s early days though. I suspect it will burst to life when I hit London in a couple of weekend, and I have more than just a few trees and fields in my local area. Let’s hope so.

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I mentioned that the OS looks pretty much the same. It does. But it is a little tidier. A little easier on the eye in places. Pull down the Notification bar, and there’s a row of settings along the top. As there used to be. But swipe, and you get a few more. The My Files folder is the biggest improvement, making navigation a little easier, especially if you’re just trying to get to the external SD card. And the Display Brightness setting is suddenly ever so prominent. That turns out to be important.

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One thing I noticed missing on reboot was the Task Manager. I have, or had, an icon on the front of my phone, for killing apps and preserving battery life. It turns out that you now have to hold down the Home button. As before, it brings up a list of open apps, but it now has a bar along the bottom. The left hand icon opens up the Task Manager. The middle icon opens up Google Now – they’re clearly pushing that as ‘the way forward’. And the last icon just closes all open apps.

There is a downside to the Jelly Bean update for the Galaxy S2. A downside that makes ease of access to the Display Brightness and Task Manager important. Battery life. Or lack of it. I noticed shockingly rapid battery drain straight away, and a search of the internet tells me I’m not the only one. Far from it. I pity anyone on the standard 1800mh battery – even my extended 2000mh battery fails to get through a day of even light-ish use. Not even close to a day, in fact. With moderate use, my battery is pretty much done shortly after lunch.

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Setting default apps is easy, as you’d expect. But the reminder screen (middle image above) is slightly annoying. I get it. I know how to reset default settings. Stop flashing up every darned time. One welcome update though is to Samsung’s Swype keyboard. This alone makes it worth trading in an iPhone for a Sammy. No tapping, just swyping. It works incredibly well. I wouldn’t go back to tapping. No sir. That’s so 1980’s. One issue I’ve always had , though, is when I’ve reset the phone and wiped the dictionary. If you swype in something it doesn’t recognise, it’ll guess, and often guess badly.

This affects me more than most. I tend to send several emails signed Gay rather than Gary before I remember. And if I go for my whole name? Well that’s just gayness all the way.  My many gay friends will know I have nothing against gays, nor gayness, for that matter. But I’m sure you can see how it’s a bit irritating! But with the Jelly Bean update comes a new Swype feature that saves your dictionary using your Google account. Brilliant!

My Jelly Bean verdict? Very much evolutionary rather than revolutionary. As most up dates are. But some of the new features are very welcome. Google Now has potential, even if I’m yet to see the fruits of Googles labour. But the battery drain is a serious issue. I do hope there’s a new update to resolve that soon.

Kindle Fire HD Review

I’ve had three weeks to play with my Kindle Fire HD, enough time to come to a few conclusions. How about I get the negative points out of the way first? The on/off button and volume rocker. The former is flush, so you can’t see it. The latter has ever so slightly raised notches that remind me of Braille.  Braille is a wonder of the human world. All medicines in the UK have a Braille print. But my fingertips are just not sensitive enough. I can’t feel the notches on the Kindle either, and it isn’t something I’ve gotten used to. I have to move the Kindle about so I can look for and see the buttons. That’s sloppy design.

The interface isn’t terribly strong either. The text based menu isn’t customisable  and some lock you into Amazon. The video button for example, takes you to LoveFilm. Why not link to the videos I’ve loaded onto the device? Same with the Photo link – Facebook is the only online option. I’d like it to open Flickr. The carousel on the homepage is clunky. And you can’t have folders for apps, so if you download a lot of them, it gets messy.

There’s also the issue of the screen orientation. Some different apps decide they like to be oriented only in one way. So again, I have to move the Kindle about. The Kindle isn’t ultimately as responsive as an iPad, but to be honest that issue isn’t one that bothers me. The difference is noticeable, but not big enough to really affect my daily use of the machine. Lastly, and by far the biggest negative point is that, despite being based on Android, it locks you into the Amazon eco system and out of the Google Play system.

What does that mean for the user? There are a ton of apps on Google that aren’t available on the Kindle, including all the Google apps – YouTube, Gmail, Maps etc. Also, were I able to log into the Google Play store, I have a bunch of paid for apps that Amazon now wants me to pay for a second time. Nice. So this is the biggest negative point by far. Sort of. Actually, I had my Kindle rooted and Google Play loaded onto my Kindle within 10 minutes of having it out of the box.

That’s quite a bit of negativity. Are they Kindle killers? Let’s see. On to the plus points. The screen is beautiful. It’s iPad comparable. It looks good even in bright light. It’s genuinely fantastic. The device feels solid and made to last.  A week point in many app eco systems is app discovery. The Kindle is locked into Amazon, who are the masters of providing products and ideas to the paying public. The Kindle reinforces their place at the top of the tree. I’ve already bought two Kindle books based on their recommendations, according to what I’ve read before.

I love getting a free app everyday as well, through Amazon’s App of the Day. I’ve complained about the Kindle locking you into the Amazon network, but if you embrace that, then the device works very well. The Kindle book reader is brilliant. I’d always had doubts as to whether a Kindle could replace the paper book in my affection. It has. It achieved that within minutes.

The size of the device is perfect. I’d often wondered what the point of a 10″ iPad was. It’s too big to carry around everywhere, and doesn’t do anything that my smartphone can’t do. And it’s too small to compare to a laptop. It always seemed a pointless extravagance. A luxury device for those with more money than sense. I still hold that to be true. The Kindle has a 7 inch screen, so it not pocketable either. I wouldn’t take it every where with me. But its small and light enough to carry on bus journeys. And for books, movies and games, it’s so much nicer to use than my Samsung Galaxy S2.

Is the Kindle Fire HD an extravagance? Absolutely. Aren’t most electronic devices to some extent or another? But here’s the killer deal. It’s £159. That’s a very affordable luxury item. It’s a steal. For what you get, it’s an absolute freaking bargain. None of those negative points I mentioned at the beginning get you particularly frustrated. Even if the device cost more, they’e not deal breakers. You live with them. But at £159? I almost feel guilty for bothering to mention them. I love my Kindle Fire HD, and give it ten out of ten. I highly recommend the device. Which is why my mum bought one. And a co worker. They love theirs too.

The winner and loser of all this? Google and Microsoft. I wrote a number of posts about six months ago, having been thoroughly frustrated by Google+, Picasa and their storage upgrade. I attempted to wean myself off Google products full stop. Microsoft would have been the beneficiary. I liked the new Outlook.com and used it for several months. The Windows Phone 8 OS looked really appealing. And Windows 8 for the desktop looked promising. But then three things changed my mind. First, the Kindle Fire HD. Second, The Nokia Lumia 920, despite all it’s plus points, is just too big and clunky. I wouldn’t buy one. Thirdly, Windows 8 for my lap top. I bought it for £15, downloaded and installed it on day one.

I won’t bother doing a full review of Windows 8. I’ll sum it up here is a single paragraph. It starts and shuts down really quickly. It’s worth the upgrade for that. You turn it on. You get hit by the ‘Metro’ interface. There’s little to nothing in the app store worth having. There’s a ton of junk worth avoiding. Most apps do what you can do in a browser window, but more slowly. Much more slowly. App discovery in the store is appalling. So you hit the app that says ‘Desktop’, and the Metro interface is gone. You’re back into Windows 7. But there’s no Start button, and after a while that’s annoying. So you go get a new start button (I paid $5 for this one, although free options are available) installed, and forget all about the Metro nonsense. To sum up, Windows 8 is nice and quick, the Metro interface pointless.

I like Microsoft and the direction they’re going. But they haven’t sold me on the eco system. So Google wins. I give up, and return to the fold. My next phone will be an Android device. I’m back onto Gmail. It’s like I never left, quite frankly. I’ll just leave you with this thought…

The Technology Spree

I’ve been on a techno spree lately. The Fuji camera. A new Dell XPS17 laptop. And now, my latest acquisition – a birthday gift – is a shiny new Kindle Fire HD. The latest and greatest in the Kindle family. It’s so new, I haven’t even got it yet – the UK release date is tomorrow. I should have it by the weekend, one hopes. The Fire HD might have a few limitations, but for £159, you really can’t grumble. It packs a beautiful screen, excellent external speakers and the 16gb of memory is enough for me. I won’t be storing my music collection on it, as that sits on my smartphone. Besides, it’s time I took more advantage of the cloud. I have plenty of storage space online.

The Fire HD boasts another feature that appeals to me. A double wifi antennae  to ensure I get a strong signal. That’s key. Having chosen to use TalkTalk for our internet provider we have to tolerate their fairly abysmal modem and service, so anything that helps catch a strong signal is a serious plus point. Although, needless to say, when the contract is up, it’ll be cancelled and replaced. With what? That decision hasn’t been made yet. I’d love a business line. You can get some serious speed and bandwidth with leased line providers Next Connex. The prices are, of course, oriented towards business, so it’s not really an option that meets the needs of home use. But, oh, those speeds. Business has played the key role in determining the broadband services we use and what we will need, with one company in particular leading the way. This is the sort of device created by the internet, rather than the other way round.

Decent speed and bandwidth have never been more important to me. I consume tens of gigabytes every month, uploading photos, watching BBC iPlayer and other video services. My Kindle Fire is likely to increase my consumption. It’s a new way of viewing my photo collection for one. It’s quite possibly the best way. I suspect the screen size and quality will have them looking their sharpest. And the mobility of the device means my photos can go anywhere. Well, anywhere that there is a wifi hotspot. I can’t wait for it to arrive…

The Tech Silo

One of my favourite bits of photo editing software is Nik Silver Efex Pro, which is either a standalone app or can be used as an Adobe Lightroom plugin. It’s a fantastic bit of kit for black and white conversion, and also has a fair few more adventurous settings. But alas, I fear for the future of Nik. They have just been purchased by Google, who are probably really after their mobile photo editing apps. Google has a rather poor history of wrecking companies it buys, with a few notable exceptions.

I don’t trust Google, and have lately taken something of a dislike towards the company. Last year, when Google+ was launched, I gave the company a chance at providing all my internet needs. I embraced Google+ – to a degree, anyway – and changed my email back to Gmail. I purchased 80gb of space for $20 and I uploaded hundreds of my photo albums to Picasa/Google+. But I abandoned that idea when a few things became apparent to me. No one I know is interested in Google+, for one. But more importantly, Google’s way of splitting the photo site between two backends (Google+ and Picasa) was crazy. It lead to all sorts of issues, the most crucial one being that a large number of the photos I had uploaded had been shrunk to a small resolution by default. By default! What sort of ‘back up system is that?

A couple of months ago, Google sent me an email to let me know my $20 storage upgrade was renewing. No thanks. I declined the offer. But it turns out I wasn’t allowed to decline the offer. I either had to manually remove all the photos I’d added or close my entire Google account. That’s right. I couldn’t just delete Picasa from my package, I would have to close my entire Google account. Gmail, Reader, Maps etc etc. You might be thinking, how hard can it be to just delete all your photos? Surely there’s a batch operation in there? Nope. I had to manually delete every album, one by one. Hundreds of them. It took ages. I was, to say the least, peeved. Hence the dislike I’ve taken to them.

Can I live without Google? I set about trying to find out. I use quite a large number of Google products. Gmail, Reader and Maps of course. Also Chrome. And then there’s Android. It’s surprisingly difficult to erase Google from my life. Opera’s latest browser, it turns out, is finally sufficiently bug free to be a genuine alternative.Microsoft’s new Outlook.com email is slick. Bing search has improved massively, and Bing maps are also pretty good. But I came up against two brick walls. Firstly, Reader – there is no alternative product that works as well. Secondly – Android. That OS does rather lock one in.

Outlook doesn’t work well in Android, and Bing maps aren’t available in an app. Opera’s mobile browser is the best, but it uses Google Search by default and that can’t be changed. Locked in, indeed. But maybe not forever. I rather like the look of the new Nokia Lumia 920 with Windows Phone 8. If I replace my phone next year, it will be with the Nokia. Or any other phone that is not Android.  I might also buy a tablet. But again, it will be Windows or Apple, or perhaps a Kindle Fire HD. Which technically runs Android, but at least it’s hidden from sight.

Ideally, though, I look for open apps and systems that don’t tie you into a silo type eco-system, whether it be Google, Microsoft or Apple. There’s more than one type of security out there. For sure, one should secure your PC with new software regularly to keep viruses, trojans and other malicious attacks from affecting your digital life, and to keep your computer operating smoothly. But there’s also the security of keeping what you ‘own’ on the web, safe and in your own hands.

That’s getting tough to do, as each independent company gets bought out by a corporate behemoth, one by one. But options always remain, especially when you’re in the market to buy new hardware. My laptop has about had it now. A new one is in order. And I shall be searching the web for new programs to install to keep my computer running smoothly, to get through the tasks I have to do and to make the most of the web. Companies that turn me off, ala Google, might find I (and others) start looking elsewhere.  Back to the opening point of the post – finding replacements can be difficult. I hope I don’t have to look for a new Nik, because they are the best at what they do.

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Tech Lust

I may have ended my 365 project early, but I still take plenty of photos with my Samsung Galaxy S2, and the results are all still making their way to Instagram and my InstaGary site. And It’s still all good fun, playing with new apps and filters. The latest app I’ve discovered is Painteresque, available on Android, and by far the best filter I’ve found yet for turning photos into paintings. The results are shown in the picture below.

But my main photographic interest, if not the main source of my snaps quantity wise, is still my Olympus Pen. I haven’t used it as much of late But I have plans for my Pen. I have my beady eye set on a new lens. It’s an f1.7 unit, priced right and would enable me to get so much more out of the camera. It isn’t just the lack of a bright piece of glass at the end of the sensor holding me back though.

My laptop. I bought it in 2008, and it shows. The CD drive stopped working years ago, as they always seem to do with laptops. The camera and speakers have also since died. USB ports are ceasing to function. And despite reformats to clear the clutter, it’s just so, so, so slow. Painfully slow. Made worse by the fact that I’m running, or trying to run, the latest processor and RAM intensive photo and video editors. As far as other programs are concerned, I run resource-light apps and software to try and keep things moving. For antivirus software I use Norton – it keeps the bad guys out of my system. Just as importantly it lets the good guys in my system function properly. It is quite possibly the only  program that I do use that is both up-to-date and easy on resources.

It is, most definitely, time for a new laptop. I have my beady eye cast on a few units. HP, Sony, Samsung and Lenovo are all candidates. It’s just going to depend on who is offering the biggest bang for my buck when the time comes for me to buy. No brand is off the list though, other than Apple, so suggestions/recommendations are welcome.  My requirements are quite simple. A minimum of an Intel Core i5 processor, 6 megs of RAM and a 17″ screen.

I’m just a little peeved that I’ll be buying a few weeks before Windows 8 is released. Although that might not be a bad thing. I’m sure I’ve read that last minute Windows 7 buyers will get a free update, and maybe I can hold off going through with that update until everyone else has suffered from the early release bugs!