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.

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.

Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 First Impressions

Sony Xperia X10I’ve got my hands on a $1100 Sony Xperia X10 for a couple of weeks. I was pleased and excited when the PR person offered me this device to review. The Android market in New Zealand has stagnated for a long time, but finally I thought we were getting some of the latest and greatest Android devices in-country.

Initial thoughts after 10 minutes: what unadulterated, utter crap. Seriously. Sony are harming the Android brand by leaving this device on the market with 1.6.

Plug in baby

First thing I need to do is plug in the charge cable. This requires me to use my fingernail to pop open a cheap, floppy flap on top of the phone, which doesn’t cleanly fold out of the way. I have to hold the phone in one hand, then use a finger to hold the flaccid flap out of the way while I plug the cable in with my other hand. Or perhaps I need three hands? Why the fuck do people put up with this bullshit? As far as I can tell, the only reason for this waste-of-space flapped plug on top of the phone is so that the equally useless lanyard loop can be elegantly centred on the bottom of the phone, where the charge port should be.

Witness the comedy live (well, kinda). Use your imagination as I try to open the flap, then plug in the cable, then open the flap, then open the flap again, then finally hold it open with one finger while trying to plug in the cable with the other hand.

I sit down to get on to the corporate WiFi network. Firstly the scrolling behaviour of the list of available WiFi networks is totally weird. It starts slow then speeds up when you let your thumb off, meaning things go flying off the end of the list. Then apparently I need to root the phone and have the SDK to be able to add a 3rd party root certificate (a very common setup for corporate networks)? Compare this to the iPhone, which just prompts once for the option to accept the unknown root cert.

The keyboard is an abomination. It’s unresponsive, and half the time won’t go away when I finish text entry, thus obscuring the “Done” button on the page I’m using. If I want to insert an exclamation mark inside a word I have to tap the “?!” button twice!? How intuitive is that? My experience is identical to Engadget’s review from a few months ago:
[quote]Keyboard input — a pretty important topic, if you ask us — was a surprisingly big problem on the X10. First off, you can’t consistently use the back button to clear the keyboard like you can on virtually every other Android device we used — here, it deletes everything in your current text field and keeps the keyboard up on the screen on occasion, thought we can’t nail down the pattern of the behavior. Much, much more dangerous, though, is the fact that we’re seeing all sorts of missed inputs. You’ll press a letter (and you get the character pop-up, so you know the keyboard has registered it), and maybe somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of the time, it won’t “take” — it just won’t go into your input box, which makes entering almost any text a maddening procedure.[/quote]

Let’s see how far we’ve come

Conclusion: 30 minutes with this device reminds me how far we’ve come since this sort of half-arsed attempt at interface wankery was accepted as “awesome”. I’m sorry but it’s true. I feel sorry to the PR person that sent me this phone, and I can’t wait to send it back.

Maybe the X11 will come with Android 2.2 and a less bullshit interface. But since when have Sony done anything as intelligent as that?

Sony PlayTV finally coming to New Zealand?

Update: I am an idiot. They say a great way to generate responses is to publish something incorrect on the internet. Russell (and others) below manage to put one and one together and not get 3 like I did.

Most likely actual announcement would be TVNZ OnDemand on PS3. Which is still awesome.

playtv The planets appear to be aligning. PlayTV is a plugin TV receiver for the Sony PS3 that enables terrestrial digital TV reception and DVR functionality on your console.

New Zealand TV geeks have been asking about the possibility of getting Freeview on PlayTV since the original launch of PlayTV back in 2008. In the mean time, many are using imported PlayTV devices without EPG support.

If you put this blog post from Sony Europe (thanks @icogill for the scoop) together with an invite I have for a “Briefing session” from TVNZ and Sony next Tuesday, what do you think?

Check back on Tuesday and I’ll let you know what I find out.

Sony XPERIA X10 available in New Zealand from June

My enthusiasm for the original XPERIA phone was dampened by the warty Windows Mobile OS. The new (to New Zealand) X10 is running the Android OS. To be honest, I have no idea which version of fork of Android, but does that matter? I’m sure someone will chime in and tell me. It looks good doesn’t it?

You can have one for only about the price of a top-end iPad starting from June.

Full press release follows:
[quote]New Zealand, 9th April 2010: Today Sony Ericsson launches the XPERIA™ X10, the flagship handset of the aptly named ‘Fab 5’ series of mobile phones for 2010. Building on Sony Ericsson’s entertainment heritage the handset is designed to deliver the best user experience in communication, social media and entertainment in one place on a stunningly clear new four inch screen.
 
Socialise with friends and family in a whole new way through new unique signature applications Timescape™ and Mediascape, on the XPERIA™ X10 and open up a world of possibilities with the Infinite button.  This clever function is integrated into Timescape™ and Mediascape and can automatically recognise connections between contacts, content and media. By recommending alternative ways to communicate or guiding users to new media experiences, the Infinite button lets consumers discover more in a truly open way.
 
·       Timescape™ intuitively brings together all recent mobile and online communication in chronological order onto a 3D scrolling menu – Facebook™ and Twitter updates, photos, missed calls, emails, and SMS messages –easy viewing and organisation of previews, or full views. Press the Infinite button to access all of your communications with one person in one place.
·       Mediascape is the smart way to get music, photos and videos, as it cleverly pulls online content as well as content already stored on the handset all onto the same screen. Smarter still, when listening to a favourite song, press the Infinite button to see related content about that artist, as well as albums, songs and video content from YouTube™ and Google.
 
Another signature feature is Face Recognition – simply take photos of your friends with the 8.1 megapixel camera, with 16 x digital zoom, and tag up to five faces on the screen. The image is automatically filed in date order under the friend’s name in the photo gallery or social phonebook. Upload the photos directly to social network sites or simply click on a friend’s face to start communicating with them. Next time this friend is snapped in a shot, they will be automatically tagged using the face recognition software.
 
Brendan Johnston, Managing Director, Sony Ericsson Oceania said, “The XPERIA™ X10 is a superior consumer experience enabling people to catch life all in one place while on the move. We are delivering a true, open world of entertainment with our unrivalled social networking capabilities, media features and choice of the most popular applications on Android Marketplace. Add that to our new, unique User eXperience (UX) platform and it really sets the XPERIA™ X10 apart.”
 
The UX platform builds on top of the Android™ operating system and brings together a rich graphical user interface, unrivalled service plug-ins and content from external partners to deliver unique consumer experiences such as Sony Ericsson’s signature applications Timescape™ and Mediascape.
 
Enjoy a host of features and capabilities including: Gmail, YouTube™, Google Maps™, Street View™, 3D games, push email and calendar, video streaming and recording, album art, TrackID™, 8GB microSD™ card and Bluetooth™ stereo with a 3.5mm audio jack. Its human curvature design ensures the handset ergonomically fits in the palm of the hand for the best user experience possible. 
 
The XPERIA™ X10 supports GSM GPRS/EDGE 850/900/1800/1900, UMTS HSPA 900/1700/2100 and UMTS HSPA 800/850/1900/2100
 
The XPERIA™ X10 will be available in Sensuous Black at an RRP of $1,399 on the Telecom and Vodafone networks from June 2010.[/quote]