Grandroids: Samsung Galaxy S4, Sony Xperia Z, HTC One

Sometimes the planets just align in the world of smartphones. In the space of a couple of months, we’ve seen three flagship phones released that seem so similar in specification that they could have been cast from the same mold. They all have 1080p screens and stupid-fast quad core processors. So: what’s the difference? Which one should you buy?

Firstly, from a performance and utility perspective, there’s nothing between these phones. They all do everything you’d expect from a top-end smartphone, and they all do it screamingly fast. You will not be disappointed to own any of these phones.

Forced to pick their differences, here’s how I see it broken down in a few key areas:

Screen

Sony Xperia ZWhen I first saw the Xperia Z (the first of these phones I laid eyes on), I was absolutely floored by its display. 1920×1080 pixels on these screen sizes is frankly bonkers: you cannot pick out an individual pixel, and the huge space for rendering browser content is wonderful. But. But but but. Compared to the HTC One and Galaxy S4, the Z is just missing something. Slightly washed out perhaps? Poor viewing angles? Not a showstopper, but enough that you can easily feel the difference.

The Galaxy S4 screen isn’t without fault either: it’s incredibly bright and punchy, to the point of being offensive. If you get one I highly recommend going into the display settings and changing the display to “Movie” mode. Colours in that mode are more realistic and the screen becomes more comfortable to look at.

Out of the box, the HTC One’s screen is the best of the bunch in my opinion.

Apps and Launchers

All of these phones run Android 4 and have the Google Play store available to download any apps you may desire. However: they take different approaches to the out-of-box experience. The Xperia Z is the most “vanilla”, with a standard-ish Android launcher populated with a few specialist Sony apps.

HTC goes a bit further with their Flipboard-esque Blinkfeed homepage, from which you can swipe to get at, again, a standard Android icon based app launcher. Blinkfeed looks nice, but I think if I was to use the HTC One as my main phone, I’d replace the launcher with something more standard and fill it with the widgets I’d like to use, rather than having stuff pushed at me.

Samsung’s launcher is fairly vanilla, but it comes out of the box packed to the gunnels with … crap. I’m sorry but there’s no other way to put it. I understand Samsungs intentions here: they see that a large number of Android users don’t really install apps or use widgets, so they’re lending a helping hand: here’s your fitness app, and your photo gallery app, and here’s a voice thing, and a translator, oh and a note thing, and … and.

For a user who doesn’t know that the Play Store exists, this might be useful. For readers of this article, and most experienced Android users, this just means removing widgets and uninstalling Samsung crapware until you can make some space and install the decent apps you need. It reminds me, in a bad way, of the crapware that comes loaded on Windows PCs.

Camera

I want to love HTC’s approach to the camera on the One. The science nerd inside me says that having fewer pixels on a small sensor means bigger “photosites”, less noise, and better response in low light. However, the comparison posts that have popped up seem to show that the Galaxy S4 camera blows pretty much everything else out of the water in all but the crappiest lighting conditions.

As with other aspects, the HTC One and Xperia Z cameras are perfectly fine, and will serve you ok for quick snaps, but if you want the best photos out of your smartphone, then the S4 is the way to go.

Physical Design

Samsung Galaxy S4 Physically, the Galaxy S4 is just shit. The first experience out of the box has you removing the flimsy, bendy back cover to insert a battery. The feel of that cover just gives me no confidence in the build quality of the phone. Once on, it also feels sweaty and slippery. Compared to the HTC One and the Xperia Z, the Galaxy’s physical look and feel just fall well short of what we’ve come to expect of a modern flagship smartphone.

If looks and build quality don’t matter to you, this is not a problem. But even considering the S4’s other fantastic qualities, the physical feel of the phone is almost enough to put me off.

In comparison, the HTC One is probably the best looking and feeling phone of this size that I’ve laid hands on. The weight is fantastic, and the feel in the hand is just right. It’s solid enough to give you confidence while not being chunky, and the blend of curves and hard edges make for a great hand-feel.

Likewise, the Xperia Z looks stunning. An obsidian-black monolith, sealed all around with milspec waterproofing, the thing just wants to be touched. The water resistance is a welcome addition: being able to rinse a phone under running water is not something I expected to like, but after doing it a few times I wish I could do it to every phone I’ve owned.

Unfortunately the convenience of a washable phone comes with downsides: every time you want to charge the Z or plug your headphones in, you have to fiddle with the (thankfully well-engineered) port flaps. I’m not positive if the waterproofing remains in effect with the flaps open, but I’d guess not.

If I had to pick one of these three phones purely on looks, it would be the HTC One. If I was a tradesman or regular watersports participant, I’d go with the Xperia Z.

Conclusion

HTC oneIt’s bloody hard to pick a winner from this bunch. They each have their upsides and some very minor downs. The HTC One camera is a disappointment but it looks smashing; the Samsung feels cheesy but is incredibly light and has a fantastic camera; and the waterproof Z could come in very handy, while Sony have also done amazing things with the modding community.

Forced at gunpoint to pick a phone, I’d take the HTC One, but I’d not be at all upset to take home any of the three.

As usual, I’m happy to answer any specific questions in the comments below.

Review: Huawei MediaPad from 2degrees

While I wasn’t overly keen to review an Android tablet, I have been impressed by the Huawei devices I’ve used to date, so I was happy to give the new 7 inch Huawei MediaPad from 2degrees a blast.

Bottom line: It’s an good device. It’s around half the price of a 3G iPad ($549 bundled with 2GB of data from 2degrees), with most of he same features apart from the screen size. If you’ve never used an iPad you’d be quite happy with it. You can watch movies, browse the internet, play famous games like Angry Birds, and read e-books using the Amazon Kindle app.

It runs Android 3.2, which is a thoroughly modern and pretty interface for tablets. There’s heaps of screen space to lay out your multiple home screens just as you like, making this device a great option for info-warriors. You could have Facebook, Twitter, calendar, email,weather, etc. all as widgets on your home screens, providing everything you need to see at a glance.

The Android Marketplace is packed with apps that are built for Android 2.x phones. Most of these will run fine on the MediaPad. It is less easy to find apps dedicated to the 3.x tablet version of Android, but they do exist. There’s no word on whether the MediaPad will be upgradeable to later versions of Android (including the new 4.0 version).

The hardware is robust. It looks very similar to a miniature iPad, with the same glossy black bezel and aluminium rear enclosure. The SIM card and MicroSD slots are hidden behind a plastic panel on the back of the case. The one weird thing I found with the hardware was that the micro-USB plug does not charge the device. There’s a separate charge port. This is a bit annoying given the number of micro-USB chargers that most people have floating around.

Here’s the technical details:

  • Screen: 7 inch IPS, 1280×800 pixel
  • CPU: Dual core 1.2GHz
  • Camera: 5MP autofocus
  • Storage: 8GB internal + MicroSD slot
  • WiFi: 802.1 b/g/n
  • 3G: HSPA+
  • Locations: GPS/AGPS
  • Other: Accelerometer, 4100mAh battery
  • Ports: Micro USB, Micro HDMI, Charging plug

There are a huge number of Android tablets attempting to encroach on the market that the iPad created. To be honest, they’re not doing well at all. I don’t see 2degrees’ new entry into the market changing this, but it’s still a good device for the niche. If you want something a bit smaller, a lot cheaper, but almost as capable as an iPad, definitely take a look at it.

Review: HTC ChaCha

HTC ChaCha

“It’s a Facebook BlackBerry”: my answer to the almost inevitable “what the hell is that?” question I’d get every time I pulled out the HTC ChaCha to check my email or get some directions. I took the ChaCha with me to the USA recently as my local phone. That’s my M.O. as a gadget guy: one phone with a local prepay SIM card, one with my kiwi SIM card.

HTC ChaChaThe ChaCha is an eye-catching little phone. Stark white and brushed aluminium, with a broken-looking bend in the middle, this is the device you want to carry if you enjoy people asking about your phone. The hardware qwerty makes it look a bit BlackBerry, but the HTC Sense UI on the touchscreen is very recognisably Android. It’s a little bit disconcerting, but it works.

This is a definitely Facebook phone. There’s a dedicated f-button below the keyboard that is context sensitive and lights up to prompt you when it’s time to book some faces. For examples:

  • When browsing the web, the f-button lights up. Clicking it will prompt you for a comment and share the URL and comment on your timeline.
  • When taking photos, the f-button lights up. Clicking it will share the photo on your timeline.

It all works jolly well if you’re an avid facebookalist. For people like me – I’m more of a twerp – I’d hope someone could hack the f-button to drop the f-bomb. That way I could just tap it to add tasty flavour to my tweets. And on that note, the included HTC Twitter app is adequate. It’s a bit stupid in that replying to direct messages has you composing a public reply, but otherwise it’s serviceable. Avid tweeple would be better off installing an alternative twittering application.

It’s Android 2.3 under the covers, which is a Good Thing. 2.3 means smooth scrolling, fast performance, and good memory management. It also comes with the accoutrements you expect from a late-model Android: GPS, WiFi hotspot function, multiple home screens, and all the other jazz.

If you’ve read my Android reviews in the past, you’ll know I’m not a fan of OEM add-ons to Android. Google built Android pretty well (version 2.2+ at least), so it bothers me that OEMs layer their crapware on top of a perfectly good OS. However, in this case, HTC’s already competent Sense UI makes a huge amount of sense (punny!). Sense takes the ChaCha’s unusual screen dimensions into account, and provides the user with a bunch of widgets (weather, clocks, Facebook, etc.) that work really well with the layout. Google’s first-party apps (e.g. Maps, Gmail, contacts) also work well on the smaller screen.

Third party apps on this device are hit and miss. The screen must report itself to Android as a landscape layout, rather than a wide portrait. This means that apps like the (otherwise excellent) IRB Rugby World Cup app, or Vodafone’s pre-installed MyAccount app are displayed small and in landscape mode. There’s no way that I could find to rotate them to portrait. The only option was to turn the phone sideways and get tapping on the touchscreen. Workable, but side-tappin’ is going to catch on like N-gage side-talkin’ did. A lot of other apps (e.g. Twitter, Seesmic) display in correct orientation with reduced vertical screen real-estate.

The hardware is HTC-quality. Super solid, no creaks or wobbles, and lovely in the hand. The keyboard is really clicky. I’ve become adjusted to the super light touch of capacitive touchscreen keyboards, so found myself typing pretty slowly on the ChaCha’s keys. I’m sure they’ll become smoother with time, and would be better for someone coming from another device with a hardware keyboard.

Conclusion

It’s a really nice piece of hardware with solid software. If you need a qwerty and love your Facebook, this could be your phone. The only deal-breaker might be if your favourite Android app doesn’t render properly on the screen.

You can grab it from Vodafone for $599, or less with a plan.

If there are any particular apps you want me to test on it, just ask in the comments.

2Degrees Huawei IDEOS X5 Review

2Degrees Huawei X5

2Degrees Huawei X5I’m confused. On the one hand we have Vodafone pimping the Samsung Galaxy S, an Android 2.1 phone hobbled with Samsung’s custom interface. On the other hand (in my actual hand), I have the IDEOS X5 from 2Degrees. It runs the all-but-latest Android 2.2, with almost identical specs to the Samsung. The Samsung is a thousand dollars. The X5 is $549.

To be fair, the Galaxy S has a faster processor and larger screen, but in complete honesty I prefer the feel, performance, and price of the X5 by a long way. This cements my opinion that Google’s Android OS is properly suited to phones around that $500 mark. If you’re spending $1000, just get an iPhone (or wait till later this year and get a Nokia WP7).

I’ve had the X5 in my pocket for the last few days, giving it a real workout. The bottom line is that this is one of the best Android devices I’ve used. It feels a lot better in the hand than many other phones. It has a better “heft”, and feels a lot more solid than the Galaxy. The build quality is up there with the Nexus One – there’s no wobbles, creaks, or alignment problems. The back has a nice soft-feeling matte finish, and the front is the fairly traditional monolithic glass screen with soft-buttons below the screen.

The X5 flips through all the regular expected smartphone shenanigans with speed and aplomb. Android users will know they need to install a bunch of apps, and dig around in the settings to turn on things like transitions and live wallpaper, but once you’ve got the phone set up to your liking, it really flies.

2Degrees have done a very good thing, in my opinion, by rejecting Huawei’s custom interface baubles. The customisation of the phone out of the box extends only to a few installed applications. Swype keyboard is there by default – I personally prefer the default Android keyboard, but some people swear by Swype. You also get Documents To Go (for editing office documents), Aldiko (for e-books), and Layar (for showing off). Other than that, this default Android build gets out of your way and leaves the user to make decisions about what they want the interface to look like.

All the great Google apps are built into the phone, including the voice commands and voice navigation feature. I have to say the voice commands didn’t really like my kiwi accent, but the navigation was very accurate when driving across Auckland. Initially I couldn’t find the settings for Android 2.2’s much publicised WiFi hotspot function, so I put in a call to the PR company to ask about it. They politely informed me that within the PR material (that I never read, but really should), was a note saying that hotspot functionality will be coming in a software update by the end of May 2011.

Upgrades?

It’s the question every Android user has to ask: will I get the new versions of Android? I can only say that I have no idea. I could imagine Huawei releasing 2.3 for this device, but then again at the price they may not want to pour much post-release support into it. Watch this space.

It’s not all roses

It wouldn’t be a review without finding flaws, but they really are rather minor.

Firstly, you need to know that Huawei don’t ship MicroSD cards with their phones. This is something widely discussed in the comments on my review of 2Degrees’ previous Android phone, so I thought I’d better point it out up front. If you have a lot of music or photos, add $50 to your budget to grab a 16GB MicroSD.

There’s one thing that I’d call a genuine (albeit minor) flaw in the X5:  the soft-buttons are meant to light up in low-light conditions, but I think the threshold needs some serious tweaking, or perhaps my test phone is broken. Most of the time the buttons are not lit up, and they are really quite hard to spot in dim indoor light. I can prove it’s a sensitivity issue by covering the light-sensor area at the top of the phone – the buttons dutifully light up nice and clear when all light is blocked to the phone. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a setting to make the buttons light up in less ambient light. It really is a minor issue, because the buttons work fine in all conditions, and you get used to their location after a few days (although you’ll have to memorise the specific locations when moving from another Android phone 😉 )

Conclusion

I’d seriously doubt if you can get a better non-imported phone in New Zealand for the price. If you want a fully supported phone from a local supplier, and you’re not an iFanboy or Windows Phone 7 weenie, you couldn’t really go wrong grabbing an X5.

Pros

  • The price!
  • Vanilla Android 2.2, no crapware
  • Build quality

Cons

  • Soft-buttons don’t always light up when required.
  • Probably no upgrades to 2.3 or above.

Xoom and Play

North America is in the foul clutches of Superbowl Sunday: an orgy or consumerist messages interspersed with football. A visiting USAnian was regaling me with tales of a sideline man with giant orange gloves, whose sole job is to get the attention of the referee when it is time for more commercials.

First up we have the XPeria Play, Sony’s Android 2.3 powered gamephone. I find this thing very interesting: Sony is normally fastidious about copy protection, locking their systems down hard. Of course this never stops their systems from being hacked, but they try. Android is arguably (actually: demonstrably) the least secure mobile operating system on the market today. Obvious conclusion: Sony will be baking their own game DRM into Android 2.3, perpetuating their “no upgrades for you” philosophy.

Then we’ve got the Motorola Xoom: “The world’s first Android 3.0 tablet”. The ad is a blindingly obvious dig at the iFanboys. Huge call given that no one has really played with one, and Apple appears to be on the cusp of launching the iPad 2. Still, early reports have the Xoom looking and performing “pretty awesome“.

Tablets though? It it only me that has this nagging feeling that we’re heading down the same path as netbooks: a huge, short hypecycle that quickly ends up satisfying niche purchasers and no one else?

Android: Everywhere and Nowhere

Both of these appear to be excellent Android™ devices, but they are worlds apart. There’s no way you’ll ever play Sony’s games on the Motorola Xoom, and I’ll bet a considerable sum that you’ll never see Android 3.0 on Sony’s Xperia Play. This is my conflict: I want OEMs to adopt a good operating system — and Android is really getting there much faster than previous efforts — but it’s just so damn confusing.

I get questions all the time from friends and visitors. It’s easy when they ask “should I buy an iPhone?”. I can say: sure, if you don’t mind Apple’s ecosystem and don’t have a philisophical position on open software. When they ask “should I buy an Android?”, I have to say: It depends on which Android you are talking about, then explain about versions, hardware and upgrades.