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: 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.

WP7 Non-update Update being Updated

The update that isn’t an update will be coming to Vodafone New Zealand’s HTC Trophy devices next week. Revealing an interesting insight to the update shenanigans, Vodafone has said that the update has been approved by both Vodafone Group and Vodafone NZ, and Microsoft will push the update next week.

Microsoft announced the update on Monday, and has been slowly rolling it out worldwide, with some troubles on some phones creating a ruckus. This being the first public update (developer devices got a couple of updates prior to general release), Windows Phone 7 nerds have been trying to find out how the update process works. Carriers are apparently allowed to block one update, but will then be forced to accept the update along with the subsequent update. This means if carriers were to block this update, they would need to roll it out along with the heavily telegraphed NoDo update (including copy-paste).

The delayed rollout of this first update has caused some to query if the update is indeed being blocked by their carrier. Turns out the “staged” rollout might very well take more than a few weeks with carriers worldwide collaborating with Microsoft to approve the update prior to releasing the hounds.

HTC Goes Forking Crazy: HTC Desire HD, new HTC Sense, and HTCSense.com

Android’s open approach allows OEMs to muck about with the UI and functionality, and the kings of muckings-about are HTC. They stick their indisputably sweet “Sense” UI over top of Android, and have just announced a brand new version of Sense, with a device and a website to back it up. The most interesting bit is perhaps HTCSense.com, a website that allows you to customise, contact, and access the content  on their phones via the web.

But hey, don’t listen to me, here’s the Australian PR company telling you all about it (no idea if/when it will be available in New Zealand):
[quote]

HTC UNVEILS HTC DESIRE HD WITH NEW HTC SENSE AND HTCSENSE.COM

Sydney, Australia – 27 October, 2010 – HTC Corporation, a global designer of smartphones, today unveiled a new HTC Sense experience with the new Android-based smartphone – HTC Desire HD. The HTC Desire HD will be available from early November 2010 exclusively on Vodafone and 3 mobile.

“The HTC Desire HD includes the new version of HTC Sense which introduces a number of key innovations including a series of connected services called HTCSense.com, that broadens a user’s mobile experience,” said Anthony Petts, Sales and Marketing Director ANZ, HTC Corporation. “The HTC Desire HD’s sleek unibody design offers a stunning visual experience and window to your news, friends, photos, favourite places, and video content. It’s perfect for those who want a great multimedia and web experience, interacting, connecting and sharing with friends.”

“The HTC Desire HD is one of the most highly anticipated Android smartphones this year, and will give customers an even simpler and more amazing experience,” said Ross Parker, General Manager Devices and Pricing, Vodafone. “Available to our Vodafone and 3 customers, we expect the HTC Desire HD, with its stunning features and multimedia performance, along with a competitive price point to be one of the hottest Android devices this Christmas.”

HTC Desire HD

The first smartphone to be powered by the new 1GHz Qualcomm 8255 Snapdragon processor, its bright 4.3” super LCD display, coupled with Dolby Mobile and SRS virtual sound, 720p HD video recording and an 8-megapixel camera with dual-flash, means the HTC Desire HD is designed for optimal enjoyment of outstanding multimedia content. Building on the unibody heritage of the HTC Legend, the HTC Desire HD is sculpted from a single block of solid aluminium and embodies the quality and innovation that HTC is known for. Busy professionals will also appreciate the new HTC Fast Boot feature that significantly cuts short the power-up sequence, allowing users to quickly respond to emails and calls the moment their planes touch down.

HTC Sense

The new HTC Sense experience offers a variety of enhancements that improve how people capture, create, share and access multimedia content. Shoot videos in HD, edit photos using a host of fun camera effects, and then share photos and videos directly to YouTube or to your big screen TV via DLNA. The new HTC Locations offers a differentiated online mapping experience that delivers instant, on-demand mapping without download delays.

HTC Sense also includes a new integrated online e-reading experience that comprises an e-book store powered by Koboä and a mobile-optimised e-reader which allows users to highlight, annotate and quickly search for definitions or translate unfamiliar terms.

HTCSense.com

With the new HTCSense.com service, people can simply manage their mobile phone experience from their HTC phone or personal computer. For example, people can easily locate a missing phone by triggering the handset to ring loudly, even if it is set to silent, or to flag its location on a map. If the phone has been lost or stolen, users can remotely lock the phone, forward calls and texts to another phone, send a message to the phone to arrange its return or even remotely wipe all personal data from it. HTCSense.com makes it easy to setup a new HTC phone or access archived mobile content such as contacts, text messages and call history from a PC browser. People can also customise their phones with exclusive HTC content like wallpapers, HTC scenes, sounds or plug-ins.

Availability and Pricing
HTC Desire HD will be available for $0 upfront on Vodafone’s $59 promo offer over 24 months (min total cost $1416)¹. The device will be available through Vodafone from early November and launch dates to follow soon on 3 mobile.

About HTC
HTC Corporation (HTC) is one of the fastest growing companies in the mobile phone industry. By putting people at the center of everything it does, HTC creates innovative smartphones that better serve the lives and needs of individuals. For more information about HTC, please visit www.htc.com.

About Vodafone Hutchison Australia
Vodafone Hutchison Australia (VHA) is Australia’s fastest growing mobile provider, operating the Vodafone, 3, and Crazy Johns brands. Formed in June 2009 following a merger between Vodafone Australia and Hutchison 3G Australia, VHA provides mobile services to over 7.4 million customers in Australia. http://www.three.com.au & www.vodafone.com.au

¹: Approved customers only. Offer ends 25/11/2010 (unless extended). Offer available to new customers who sign up to a Vodafone $69 Contract Cap over 24 months. Minimum monthly spend is $59 for months 1-24. From month 25 onwards, if you remain on this Plan, minimum monthly spend is $69 per month. Early exit fee: $69 x months left on contract. Offer will be applied as a $10 credit to your Vodafone mobile bill each month for the first 24 months of your contract. $10 credit may be used towards included services only. Any charges for additional or excluded services will still apply. Not available with any other offer, not transferable and not redeemable for cash.”

# # #
The names of companies and products mentioned herein may be the trademarks
of their respective owners.[/quote]

Vodafone HTC 7 Trophy with Windows Phone 7

Gadget reviewing is a funny business. Here I am about to write about something that has been covered extensively by full-time bloggers on other sites. Thorough just doesn’t begin to describe Engadget’s Windows Phone 7 review, so if that gives you a gut full of TL;DR, try Gizmodo’s quick points. Perhaps try this review on MobileCrunch if you want a middle-ground.

So what I’m going to do is pull out a few interesting points from those reviews, talk about the HTC 7 Trophy specifically, then cover some deep technical stuff that I’ve been discovering as a WP7 developer. I’m also open to any questions you might have about Windows Phone 7 or the Trophy itself.

Disclaimer: I have been loaned an HTC 7 Trophy by Vodafone and Microsoft. I develop software for WP7, iPhone and Android.

Reviewing the Reviews

Here’s some salient points from the epic reviews of Windows Phone 7:

  • Stuff is missing. Engadget puts it best when they say “Microsoft has definitely laid the foundation for the next several years of its mobile play. Now it’s time to get the upper floors finished.” Extending their analogy, it’s like a half-finished shopping mall: what’s there is perfect in every way, the floors are polished, the toilets working and the plastic plants are shiny. But occasionally you come up against a wall of wooden panels blocking your way into the food hall that hasn’t been completed.
  • MobileCrunch says WP7 passes the girlfriend test. This means it looks and feels good to non-geeks. Non-geeks are people who have no idea if or when their phone is “multitasking”. They have never felt the need to copy a URL into a Twitter message. This is a very, very important fact; the ratio of non-geeks to geeks is approximately infinite.
  • Gizmodo says “Windows Phone 7 is the most aggressively different, fresh approach to a phone interface since the iPhone”. I agree. The similarities to the first iPhone are striking – the same shortcomings, and the same praise of a revolutionary and responsive OS.

To those points I’d add this: since the iPhone came out, several things have changed for me personally. Firstly, I stopped obsessively comparing reviews, and visiting phone stores looking for a phone that was slightly better than my Sony Ericsson or Nokia “smart” phone. I also became ultra-picky about the way each phone I reviewed behaved. I’d scroll the menus and lists up and down, looking for lag and juddering. Every phone that wasn’t an iPhone would do this. Windows Phone 7 doesn’t. It is the first phone OS that is as responsive and buttery-smooth as the iPhone.

The HTC 7 Trophy

HTC7 Trophy As of writing, the only phone we can buy in New Zealand is the HTC 7 Trophy from Vodafone. It’s a phone that has a clear lineage back to the Google Nexus One via the HTC Desire. It has the standard 1GHz WP7 processor, and all the accoutrements you’d expect from a smartphone (GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth). A sometimes overlooked feature of Windows Phone 7 is the FM radio present in every phone.

The three compulsory Windows Phone 7 buttons are under the main screen glass, just below the 3.8” 480×800 display. The buttons are “soft” buttons (rather than physical clicky buttons), and give a wee haptic buzz when pressed. The soft buttons make the face of the phone very clean, but at times these buttons are hard to differentiate from the on-screen application bar present in some apps.

Battery life is iPhone-class, rather than Nokia feature-phone-class. If you’re using the phone non-stop for calls, WiFi, videos, etc. you’ll need to be charging every night, and possibly even jacking in to a USB port during the day.

There’s one minor “but” about this device: the HTC 7 Trophy has an occasional judder when scrolling. Something barely noticeable that wasn’t present in the prototype phones I used, nor any other WP7 device I’ve seen. It’s something that friends (who also have the HTC 7 Trophy) and I are trying to get to the bottom of. Our current theory is that it may relate to low battery charge. But then again the battery in my Trophy is currently below 30% and there is no juddering whatsoever. This is peculiar, and I’d love to hear from other Trophy owners if they’ve seen anything similar.

Tiny (and really, it is a curiosity more than an issue) niggle aside, the Trophy is well built, feels great in the hand, and performs outstandingly well.

Getting Tecnical

Lock and Load

Since around August, I’ve been on one of the Microsoft “TAP” programs for WP7 developers. This is similar to the Apple developer program where iPhone developers get access to iOS beta versions before the rest of the population. What I saw there was that the functionality of the WP7 OS was locked in stone months before public release. Since then, the OS has become incredibly stable and fast.

It’s my belief (I’m guessing here), that Microsoft have branched a long time ago into the next release that will contain copy-and-paste (among other features), while spending time making the core OS utterly bug-free. This also explains how Engadget and others have seen a working version of copy-and-paste on Microsoft devices.

Overall, I like this approach. It gives me confidence.

Class System

There are two classes of Windows Phone 7 developers. I’m not talking about Silverlight and XNA. I’m talking about regular 3rd party developers versus carriers and OEMs. As a “regular” developer, I have access to a subset of APIs that lack (among other things) raw network sockets, and access to the camera stream. HTC on the other hand, have some sort of special development framework that allows them to do things like build a flashlight app that enables the xenon flash on the Trophy.

While annoying, I’d hazard a guess that this is one of the concessions Microsoft is making to pacify OEMs who would normally expect to customise the buggery out of their devices. My hope is these lower-level APIs will be eventually opened to regular developers, in the same way portions of the iPhone API have been progressively enabled.

Good and OK

There are also two classes of app turning up in the marketplace. On the one hand you have apps whipped up with little thought by developers out for a fast buck. Then you have apps that have been built with care and attention, a focus on performance, and great design that fits with the Windows Phone 7 Metro language. This is no different to the iPhone and Android world, but I’d warn you to read reviews and use the “Trial” option before parting with your cash.

Conclusion

For me, having Windows Phone 7 on a “real” device is a milestone. It’s the culmination of months of anticipation, putting up with a frankly butt-ugly prototype device, and wondering if the production devices would be significantly better than prototypes. They are. Apps run smoothly, and network performance in particular is greatly improved on the Trophy production device.

I’m excited that we have another player in the smartphone space. Competition is good. I’m also buoyed by the attention Microsoft has paid to the tiniest details of touch response and UI flow. If you’re a geek that needs multitasking and copy-paste, wait. If you live in an Apple ecosystem, get an iPhone. If you want ultimate control over your device (well, sometimes) get an Android. If you want a stable, fast, responsive OS with a great catalog of apps and games, deep Facebook integration, and a completely fresh look, get a Windows Phone.