Hans D. Baumeister

Hans D. Baumeister

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active - First Impressions

Since updating my company iPhone 4 to iOS 7, the thing has basically become unusable. Since even the new iPhones sport a screen size that isn’t of much use to me, I finally decided to go for a 5” Android phone.
My first experiences with Android were - with the exception of the greatly underdimensioned Xperia Pro hardware - quite good, after all, so I wasn’t afraid of the switch.
After getting my contacts (that I had moved back to iCloud after switching back to the iPhone) moved to Gmail, I was good to go.
A colleague has a predecessor of the Note 3 and is very happy with it, so I was swaying in that direction, but when I saw that there was an “Active” version of the S4 with a slightly “smaller” screen, that seemed the ideal solution.
The Active has the same internals as the regular S4 but with an LCD screen instead of an AMOLED, as the latter is often too dim for use in bright sunlight. Also, the Active is rated IP67, which means you can actually take pictures under water (down to 3 feet). It also has a metal frame, which - I would hope - will make it a bit sturdier in case of a drop. On the negative side, the camera in the Active has a lower pixel count than on the regular S4.
Also, the Active is available in orange, which to me seemed a nice complement to the red case of the
Xperia Pro. Speedy as always, Amazon Prime delivered on the day after it was ordered.
My first day with the phone wasn’t, however, so positive.
See my separate review of Samsung Kies, the connectivity software available for the Active.

Burning through the Battery

The main problem I had with the phone on the first day was an android service called CloudAgent, which apparently is used for all cloud sync activities such as backup to the Samsung account as well as Dropbox. This ended up using a major portion of the battery’s juice:

2014-01-22 - CloudAgent 30p

Just before the phone gave out (which wasn’t much after this screenshot was taken; don’t be fooled by the “3h 53m on battery” - it was charged in-between), CloudAgent had kept the CPU active for over 2 hours! Needless to say, the phone could have been used as a pocket hand warmer the entire 3 1/2 hours it stayed on.

Luckily, I got that fixed relatively quickly: I turned off all dropbox syncing and the problem went away.

GPS Fix
The second issue on the first day was that it wasn’t able to get a GPS fix - seemingly at all. One of the reasons for wanting a phone with a bigger screen was to replace my 2005 TomTom XL (shelling out 70€ for a new map for a device this old really bakes my cake!). My colleague had shown me a free-to-use navigation software that stored its maps on the device SD card, and this was one of the reasons for me to switch to Android.

However, the phone simply wouldn’t get the GPS fix. Okay, I was indoors, but right next to a very large window wall; the iPhone likely would have gotten the fix quite quickly.

On-Phone OS Update
One of the settings (About Device -> Software Update) showed that an update was available for installation. It turned out to be a 192 MByte download, quite a sizable package, considering I’ve read that Android 4.4 is “only” 56 MByte in size.

Comparison to iPhone 4

Besides the screen size (which is the reason I left the Apple universe in the first place), there are other, major differences to the iPhone 4 (and 5c, which I’ve used quite a bit).

For one thing, the phone is nicely and completely unexpectedly light in comparison. I’m not going to bother with gram figures; it’s the haptic experience I’m interested in. This thing weighs nothing in comparison to the iPhone 4!

The screen is great; one thing Android really does much better than iOS (even version 7) is to provide selectable font sizes that really work. Great for someone that needed his glasses on to use the iPhone - with the larger fonts and the larger display, I can read everything on the screen without glasses!

The display is, of course, much brighter and “prettier” than that of the iPhone 4, but that isn’t a fair comparison. But even comparing it to the 5c, it stands out.
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Review: Sony XPERIA Pro

To get some insight on my switch from an Apple iPhone 4 to an Android phone, please have a look at this entry as well as the prelude to this review.

What convinced me to chose the XPERIA Pro over another Android smartphone with a physical keyboard is the side-slider (bigger keyboard), screen size (bigger than the Motorola Pro+) and the technical specs, including the ability to officially upgrade from Android 2.3.4 (Gingerbread) to 4.04 (Ice Cream Sandwich).

As mentioned before, I’d physically tested a Motorola Pro+ device before ordering the XPERIA Pro. While the Motorola really is quite a nice phone (and seemingly quick, despite the restricted hardware specs), but the display was just a tick too small, as was the keyboard. My thumbs just aren’t as nimble anymore.

So lets get into the pros and cons of the XPERIA. Keep in mind that this is a device released for 2011...

Device in General
I ordered the red phone (also available in charcoal and sliver), which really is “pretty”. The materials feel great, according the spec, the phone is fitted with gorillaglass for the display. The slider mechanism feels extremely solid, I’m quite sure it will work fine for a long time. The back is easily removable, yet on the device quite solidly. The SIM is easy to insert; with a little finagling, I was able to slide the Micro-SIM adapter in with proper electrical contact. Considering that this is impossible in quite a number of phones, I can live with shimmying the thing around a bit. The contact hasn’t budged since I started using the phone, so that’s ok there.

Keyboard
At first glance, the keyboard looks chincy, but when you start using it, it is absolutely fine. I can type quite quickly using both thumbs, while supporting the back of the phone with the fingers of both hands. The device does auto-capitalization - despite the checkmark being off in the settings. This still fools me once in a while, I’ll hit shift and continue typing, only noticing a bit later that I’ve been capitalizing everything. I presume this is a bug in the 4.04 release.

Display
The display is touted in the Sony marketing materials as being exceptionally good, due to the “Bravia” engine, with comparison photos of photos with and without this technology. Personally, I find the display to be quite okay, though it can’t compete with a modern iPhone 5 or Galaxy S4 display in clarity or contrast.

Speed
I didn’t bother testing the device with the preinstalled Android 2.3.4 - something I should have done to get a feel for the responsiveness in comparison to 4.04. From what I’ve read on the web, 4.04 does have issues with processing speed, and - quite honestly - this is the major issue I have with the XPERIA Pro. The device has a single-core CPU, a decision on part of Sony that is completely beyond me. Even in 2011, devices slanted for the professional market - as the XPERIA Pro supposedly is - had dual-core CPUs, often at 1.5 GHz.

That second core is badly missed on the Pro, as is more device memory (only about 380 MB remain). Even with moving apps to the SD-Card (not possible with all apps), you won’t install very many apps on the phone before you run out of memory, which makes the phone even slower.

Even with seemingly enough memory left over, the processing speed takes a massive dump - I’ve cleaned out the phone by removing apps I don’t REALLY need (but would really like to have) several times already.

Reception
One thing became very clear to me since switching from the iPhone 4 to the XPERIA Pro: the iPhone quite obviously was designed for excellent WiFi reception, at the expense of cellular reception quality. With the XPERIA, this is reversed. I have good cellular reception in locations (like my home office), where I had none whatsoever with the iPhone.

On the other hand, where I had full-power Wifi reception with the iPhone (like, in the kitchen), the XPERIA Pro is only at about 50%.

Talk quality
Boy, this really blew my mind: I’d always had issues understanding people while talking on the iPhone. With a bit of surrounding noise (i.e. train station), talk quality was so low, I generally avoided being on the phone. With the XPERIA Pro, this is completely different. Unless the person on the other line is using an iPhone (yep!), calls are very clear and seem to have a great bandwidth. HD voice seems to be implemented in some form, something that at least the iPhone 4 definitely doesn’t seem to offer.

Battery
The battery on the phone is exchangeable, which immediately prompted me to get a second one on ebay (for a laughable 7€). Unfortunately, I didn’t check ahead of time wether there is a docking station available to charge the battery out of the phone - which there is not. Oh, well, now I have two batteries…

The battery lasts - with use comparable to the iPhone - about as long: one day maximum. Wether this would have been different, had I left 2.3.6 on the device, I don’t know. Discussions on the Web seem to indicate that 4.04 is also a bit of a power hog.

Summary
If this device had a dual-core CPU and double the internal RAM, I would probably keep it for the next 10 years (okay, I’m exaggerating slightly here). To add to my wish-list, I would make it just a tick bigger (i.e. bigger display) and would love an official update to Android 4.1 or 4.2.

Would I recommend the device? If you’re looking for an Android phone with an excellent physical keyboard, I doubt you can find a better solution. Unfortunately, physical keyboards seem to have gone out of favor with the users (and the manufacturers). The selection is dwindling, with options like the BlackBerry 7.x devices going down the drain (lack of support, dusty old GUI).

You can still order the XPERIA Pro new from select sources - something you should definitely consider if you feel you can live with the caveats.

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Sony Bridge for Mac

Okay, so far I’m relatively happy with my Xperia Pro, which I will review elsewhere.
I find the Sony Bridge for Mac software, however, to be complete rubbish.

It tries to be a sync solution for photos and music, even going so far as to sync with iTunes. I haven’t tested the iTunes sync (as I don’t listen to Music on the Xperia), but the way Pictures are handled is a disgrace.

For one thing, the import - i.e. copying photos shot on the Xperia to a local directory - often brings errors with multiple files (“…couldn’t be transferred…”), apparently, because those files are damaged. As it turns out, this is complete crap; selecting the pictures individually and clicking on “Import selected” transfers them just fine.

There is no way to select individual - or all - pictures to delete them in the import photo mode, which is definitely a function that is necessary to have.

A complete joke is the file browser, which is available by clicking on the phone on the left side and selecting “Browse files on your Xperia device”. It does what it says: it lets you browse files. Delete or move files? Negative.

I’m not sure who does Xperia product management at Sony, but they certainly have not understood that this level of software quality isn’t going to retain customers.
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The long road to smartphone heaven

This is the prelude to the actual review of the Sony Xperia Pro. If you don’t want to read my gab about how I ended up with the device (in this post), then just skip to the review itself.

Several weeks ago, I took a deep plunge into very cold water (at least from my perspective at the time): I switched from an iPhone 4 to an Android device (see here).

The reasons, in short, were few:
  • more and more quirks, the higher the version number of iOS went
  • the impossibility of typing on the onscreen keyboard

Several months ago, I’d already tried a clip-on, slide-out bluetooth keyboard for the iPhone (that doubled as a case). While the keyboard was really quite good, the connection via bluetooth was a disaster. Not because the electronics in the keyboard (or the iPhone) were an issue, but because - in my opinion - bluetooth just isn’t made for that type of connection.

With a smartphone keyboard, you only use the connection for a couple of seconds (to answer an SMS) to perhaps a minute or two (to write an email). After a while, bluetooth goes to sleep, likely both in the keyboard and the smartphone, otherwise both batteries would be dry in no time. Then, when you next need to use the keyboard, it takes “forever” to wake back up and reconnect.

Why in blazes no-one has put together a slider keyboard for the iPhone that lets you slide the phone into the keyboard case and automatically connect to a real-life dock connector (via which a keyboard connection can be made) is beyond me. There just isn’t a better data connection than a cable.

So off I went into the depths of the internet to find a decent smartphone with a slider keyboard.
I’d actually taken this route before, about a year ago, when I picked up a Blackberry Bold on ebay. I used to be a big blackberry fan back in 2006 or so, when my then-employer offered it. And, to be sure, the keyboard can’t be beat for the size of the device. But folks, the user interface is so… so… well, so 2000-ish!

I had to resort to using my Palm Treo 680 some time last year when the glass on my iPhone ruptured and I’d sent it off to be repaired. Boy, considering how totally awesome the Treo used to be in its heyday, you just can’t use the OS nowadays without retching. I mean: 480x480 and 256 colors? Get real!

Perusing the various google hits on this blog entry or that product test (and about a zillion ads for each interesting link, as is the norm on google nowadays), I was peeved to find that there are no very recent keyboard-fitted smartphones out there! Okay, that changed very recently with the new Blackberry device, but this was before then.

Ebay showed a plethora of Blackberry Torches - a device I nearly ended up getting - until I started reading some of the opinions… and it just goes to show: it was high time Blackberry updated their OS! Apparently, even with OS7, the look and feel were a bit, well … see the comment on the Treo above!

I ended up getting two devices. One was a super deal on a Motorola Pro+ running Android 2.3.5 and the other was a brand new Xperia Pro in red. To be fair, I was quite surprised at the functionality and ease-of-use (no manual needed) of the older version of Android. Which, as it turns out, still powers, what, 70% of all Android phones?

Unfortunately, the Motorola really is a compromise. The screen is tiny (not good for my 45+ year old eyes) as is the keyboard. Perhaps it's an age thing; I used to be able to speed-type on these tiny candy-bar keyboards with very low error rates… no more. To be sure: the Motorola Pro+ Keyboard feels very nice and types quite well. It’s just, well, too small. I also kept hitting the function buttons on top when trying to type numerals.

So I ended up keeping the Sony Xperia Pro. Read on!

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Security breach by WhatsApp

Sad but true - “do no evil” just doesn’t apply to many companies out there, even those that produce apps and services that are really useful.

Take some recent reports of the widely distributed WhatsApp messenger, available on most mobile platforms:

Wired Magazin

CNET

CBC

Blog of Kim Randall (interesting summary)

Even though the CEO assured the readers of a public Blackberry forum that WhatsApp wasn’t collecting this information, that appears to have been a lie.

With SMS and Apple Messages, WhatsApp has moved way down the list of apps I use regularly (i.e. pretty much to the bottom), after reading the reports of their data abuse, I’ve deleted the app from all my devices.

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First Impressions: Android Security

Apple prides itself for a highly scrutinous overview of all apps submitted to the Apple Appstore.
Anything that might offend or otherwise perturb is denied a listing. For several years, this has been one of my main arguments of iOS over Android, and the argument may very well still be quite true.

However, I’m quite surprised - positively - of the details listed under “Permissions” for each app in the Google Play store, with the permissions you grant each app categorized under

  • Network Communication
  • Personal Information
  • Storage
  • System Tools

I’m quite certain this is done by an automated process that checks to see which functions are called from within the API. This is information that is completely lacking in the Apple Appstore. Permissions details are also available on the Amazon Android store, by the way, but by far not in as much detail as on Google Play.

As an example, I was about to load Wunderlist onto my Xperia when I read that the app would be given full rights to read my contacts database:

“Allows the app to read data about your contacts stored on your tablet, including the frequency with which you've called, emailed, or communicated in other ways with specific individuals. This permission allows apps to save your contact data, and malicious apps may share contact data without your knowledge. Allows the app to read data about your contacts stored on your phone, including the frequency with which you've called, emailed, or communicated in other ways with specific individuals. This permission allows apps to save your contact data, and malicious apps may share contact data without your knowledge.”

Why the heck would I accept that? There is positively no reason at all for the app to go pilfering through my contacts, as there are no contacts assignable to list entries. While I like the way it is simple to set up different todo lists in Wunderlist, this has - until I get more detailed info - stopped me from installing the app.

I remind the reader about reports on the widely distributed WhatsApp, which apparently transfers all contact data from the mobile device to one of the WhatsApp servers… gee, I wonder what they do with that information…?

So the logical thing to ask is: does Wunderlist also have full access rights to my contacts on iOS? And if it does, why doesn’t Apple disclose that information proactively? Perhaps iOS apps aren’t as secure as they are always daunted?
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Religious Conversion: iOS2Android

Anyone that knows me understands, that I am deeply rooted in the Apple world.
In 2006, I’d made the final switch from Windows to Mac, due to severe issues with a then high-end Windows PC not being able to fluidly import DV content from a camcorder.

I’d actually “re-converted”, since I’d been an Apple fan ever since working as a lab-assistant in the Mac lab at college. Needless to say, I was very keen on getting an iPhone when they first came out. I finally splurged in 2009 and bought an AT&T-locked but jailbroken 3GS in Riyadh. After some ups and downs with this device, I received a used iPhone 4 from my employer to use.

When I started with the iPhone 4, iOS was still in version 4.x. Everything was groovy, I was very happy. Things really went downhill for me with the switch from 5.x to 6.x. Maybe its me, who knows, but I started having serious issues typing properly on the on-screen keyboard. Without any tactile feedback whatsoever, I kept hitting the wrong keys. Automatic word completion never worked for me, I’d always had that turned off.

Then I started having issues with the device, both from a software and hardware standpoint. When the battery died (no more than 1/2 day of regular use without recharging), I was glad to have an iPhone 4 and not a 4S, as a battery swap on a “4” is pretty straightforward and doable in 10 minutes or so.

When the phone ran awire at the CeBIT tradefair (my wife’s 3GS did the same thing, so it must be an iOS issue) by doubling keypresses and zooming the screen to roughly 110% (cutting off the outside border), I decided that my long-time relationship with the iPhone would be put to the test with an Android device. For a short time, I had considered a Blackberry 9800 series (keyboard slider), but after reading a bunch of forum entries, I decided that BBOS 7 just doesn’t cut it anymore.

I tested a Motorola Pro+ which I found on ebay a decent price (99€). The device is loaded with Android 2.3.6 which - despite the OS’ “Age” - is quite feature-packed and fluid. However, while the Keyboard is excellent, it is just too small for my clumsy fingers.

This is an age-related issue, I believe; some time ago, I had to send in the iPhone to have it repaired and switched back to my Treo 680 for the iPhone-free period. I remember, years ago, being able to type on the Treo quite quickly (and nearly error-free) - now, I have issues with that keyboard just as much as with the Pro+ keyboard. Also, due to the keyboard being below the display (instead of behind it), the display size suffers. I also had a few issues with hitting the “back” soft button instead of a top-row key.

I opted instead for a Sony-Ericsson Xperia Pro, a landscape-keyboard slider phone with a decent-sized display (a bit bigger than that of the iPhone 4), with physical “Menu, Home and Back” buttons (instead of silkscreened ones) and a very nice-to-use slide-out keyboard. Also, the phone is upgradable from the standard Android 2.3.4 to an official Sony release of 4.0.4.

I’ll detail my switchover-experiences in a separate entry, as soon as I’ve been able to gain some experience with my new phone!
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