Samsung S8+ = A 95% solution on time.

Samsung S8+ = A 95% solution on time.

I never said I wasn’t fickle.

 

I’ve switched phones again. I did love my Pixel XL – just read my review but in the ever changing landscape of mobile cellular telecommunications, 6 months is a long time. Since then the Pixel has been surpassed not once (LG G6) but twice. The second phone to dash past it in the rankings is, of course, my current lifeline, companion and my right hands near permanent fixture: the Samsung Galaxy S8+. A phone that to look at it makes the Pixel XL look like a child’s toy – and a design that finally makes it look like it is, something that for 2014 would be fine but shouldn’t have been released in late 2016. In hardware design terms NOBODY (and yes, that includes you Apple) is anywhere near what Samsung is capable of. Make no mistake.

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There has been a lot written about it, the S8+ – it’s a beautiful thing, speedy-fast, the screen is nothing short of phenomenal, and the Samsung UI isn’t (for a wonder) terrible for once. I mean, it’s no stock android, but it’s not the laggy cartoonish mess it used to be. If you tried Samsung’s a few years ago, and subscribe to the ‘once bitten twice shy’ phrase, I strongly suggest you go back and try them now. It’s a different world.

So with all that talk about the phone – which is (and I’ll put this in bold to make it clear) the best phone currently on the market, bar none – I think it’s worth pointing out something that I’ve discovered since using it for three days. Hopefully it’ll draw it away from the usual gushing my-life-depends-on-a-good-review press corp review because there are two key things that it’s teaching us about Samsung that are negative, much as I like the phone.

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Firstly, the finerprint sensor. It’s in the wrong place for one – the back is, and always has been the worst place for this. I know it’s for those with smaller hands, and I know it isn’t exactly an effort to pick a phone up off the table to use it – you can just double tap to wake, and input a pin or a pattern unlock. But that isn’t the point. The point is that if you’re spending millions of currency, and thousands of man hours on building and designing a phone like this, people shouldn’t have to compromise on something as basic as unlocking it.

 

But in this case, Samsung knows this. You see, originally (from some fairly accurate reporting) the fingerprint sensor was supposed to be buried under the non-physical home button. It was going to be the first of it’s kind, and would allow a thumb or fingerprint to unlock the phone without need of a physical sensor bolted onto it. Amazing! Incredible! Game changing!

 

Except it wasn’t ready in time.

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Instead what we got was a sensor bolted onto the back, right next to the camera lens. So if the back of a phone prompts compromise in having to use it, then placing it there is extra stupid. It’s too high, it’s too close to something you really don’t want to be smudging with an errant fingertip, and it is too small. It is getting increasingly annoying to use day to day, and I’m fortunate enough to have fairly long forefingers so can easily reach it. All because Samsung took a chance that new tech would be ready and it wasn’t in time, so late in the design stage they had to frantically find somewhere in their gorgeous, incredibly well packaged case to stick a sensor. Which is bad. It means they are compromising, again.

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You see the S7 was superb. It was, by the technology of the time, an absolutely without fault phone. It did everything we could do, and wasn’t released until it couldn’t be made better. They didn’t do it with the Note 7 – which started exploding on people, and they haven’t done it again with the S8. It shows that the company is still locked in the worrying chase being the first instead of being the best. Apples 7s/8 won’t be out for months yet. What Samsung (a company who isn’t afraid of making big choices) should have done is waited a month, delayed the launch and put out something that was technically perfect.

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Because with it’s (and I can’t stress this enough) damn near impeccable design, the best screen out there, excellent camera, good UI, faultless build quality, blazing speed (it’s the first Samsung I’ve had that doesn’t appreciably lag), expandable storage, desktop replacement functions, wireless charging (oh wireless charging how I’ve missed you) and everything else in that little gleaming black glass slab it kills me that it’s marred by a rushed release.

 

It isn’t enough to make it a bad phone. It’s a first world problem for sure, it’s stopping a superb phone being the perfect phone. There isn’t anything even close to it on the market right now for specs or design, so please if you’re in the market for a new phone don’t bother looking anywhere else, there is no point.

 

Just be brave  next time Samsung (have ‘courage’, you could say…). Sometimes a 100% solution a month late is preferable to a 95% solution on time.

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Mass Effect Andromeda: A great game with a bloated Task shaped flaw

Mass Effect Andromeda: A great game with a bloated Task shaped flaw

It was Havaarl that broke me.

 

Fucking Unearthed Remnant stuff. Who want’s that shit, anyway?! I must’ve tramped for bloody hours through that goddam jungle, fighting the same respawning enemies, in the same locations, over and over and over again. Boosting up onto random rocky outcrops, spinning my Ryder around like a top to use his suit-light to shine for the damn tech. (Oh and who the hell in the Initiative decided to chest mount the light!? Who does that!?)

 

I mean I found it all eventually. But by the time I had worked it out I was sick of the damn game and that’s a really sad end to what I had been enjoying immensely.

 

You see when I first read the reviews coming out about Mass Effect Andromeda, I was sceptical. It’s no exaggeration to say that the original trilogy is my favourite series ever, bar none, so I was in a state of almost paralytic ecstasy when the new one was announced, and the game was loading into my PS4. I’d firmly decided to make my own decisions and I was justified in this; if you ignore the ‘Tasks’ at the bottom of your quest log the game is good. Really good. It’s not ME2 or 3 good but it’s the equal of ME1 and that’s to be expected.

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See the reviews bemoaned the lack of character development, lack of new worlds, new alien races. They were mostly right but if you cast your mind back to Mass Effect 1, we didn’t get that many more alien races, and that much more character development. Certainly no more than you get by the time you finish the main game. Because those reviewers had made the cardinal sin of NOT FINISHING THE GAME properly before casting judgement. More balanced reviews have come out since, and are more accurate; not that Bioware aren’t to blame partially, because they are. They should absolutely have given those reviewers more time to make a better judgement, especially with a game this big.

 

That’s the thing about this game. It’s a basis, a start, a foundation to what comes after. Remember that this is another Trilogy and the characters and game will do nothing but expand and build from here. With this game Bioware aren’t weaving their space opera, they’re building the house and shell from the ground up and if they’d tried to include more races and story here then the whole thing would’ve been to unwieldy. So I am sanguine about what I’ve played because I loved the main storyline and campaign, and I think the crew we have are nicely balanced and set up for the 2nd and 3rd instalments which will no doubt be much more diverse and in depth. (NB Won’t they, Bioware….)

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But that isn’t it. See I played the main campaign and all the planetary missions and all the Allies missions – I pretty much ignored the ‘Tasks’ because they seemed mostly superfluous (and proved to be). So I focused on the Primary and Secondary missions of the game, rather than the Incidental ones. Which was perfect, gave a solid decent game with quite a few of the famous difficult choices Bioware are known for. Its only after I’ve finished the game and let the completionist in me drag me back to clear up my Tasks Log that I’ve come to hate the game, and it explains why those who tried to do it during the campaign got so angry with it all.

Because it’s not just Havaarl. I mean I did finally find them and then moved onto Elaaden and the myriad of boring, trackless sand dunes and chasing down Outlaw camp after Outlaw camp to find datapads, ill bodies or I don’t know what else. Dull, pointless, repetitive as HELL and a total waste of resources and my time. I know why Bioware did it – it’s an attempt to force you to explore the wastes, explore the new planets and find all the nooks and crannies. It’s just exceptionally badly judged.

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Players of this kind of game will do that anyway – we’ll fundamentally go and search and find stuff because that’s half the fun of it for us. The SAM memories and that god-awful rock chasing game actually resulted in my finding all the camps anyway – the Tasks were a total waste of time, since I’d already found all the forward points. The SAM Node quest, and the Science Rocks nonsense were dull and annoying but they did give me points in the blacked off areas to drive to. Every new planet before I did anything else I jumped in my Nomad and took off into the wilderness, ticked those points off and that usually gave me the whole map. THAT was a good idea, because they had map markers. The absolute worst thing about these DAMN tasks is that they’re unguided – there’s little to nothing worse than vaguely driving around the map hoping you may possibly find what you’re looking for.

 

It almost a game-breaker. I’ve read that they are procedurally developed to an extent, but that’s no excuse. It was a waste of disc space and a waste of dev time – if Bioware had spent that effort on a third new species, on an additional Allies task per crew member, or even just MORE character lines for the Tempest crew that do exist then it would be  a much better game.

 

It’s bittersweet. I enjoyed this game. It’s a fitting, fascinating start to a series and a very very good game – it’s just fallen victim of the same shit that Witcher 3 had – pointless, extra sub quests sprinkled throughout the map when what we really want is more depth to the characters and plots that we have. I’d go so far as to say its ruined the game for me, spoilt the end, like a bitter surprising aftertaste to a good steak. ME2 and ME3 got the balance right – hopefully Bioware remember this in two years time.

 

PS. Liam…. just…. urgh. Worst character i’ve ever had the misfortune of being forced to have in my team.

Bose Quietcomfort 20

Bose Quietcomfort 20

My ears hurt.

This is annoying. I’m only an hour and ten minutes into my flight, moving to this second travel-based entry on the second of my new tech item reviews. In this case, it’s a set of the Bose Quietcomfort 20. Comfort. Ha.

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To be fair I’m probably being harsh. There are three routes to take with headphones, over, on, and in-ear. Both have advantages and disadvantages. I first used a pair of on-ear wire Sony noise cancellers which were light comfortable and had that irritating dangling appendage (or ‘wire’) that did an ok job of noise cancelling, a pretty rubbish job of voice cancelling and a good job of music playing.

I replaced these with some on-ear Parrot Zik (the first extortionately expensive version) that did a good job of noise and voice cancelling, a better job of playing music but a crap job or being comfortable for anything longer than an hour. Yes, they were wireless but the stictches for the headband were on the inside and the leather was soft but oh so hot. After about an hour (most any flight) your ears were sweating and there was mild discomfort on the point of your head where the headband was. After four hours or so that was a blinding point of agony. Not good.

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So now I’ve moved to some noise-cancelling in-ears, by Bose, the Quietcomfort 20. Not the ‘i’ version, those for the idiots who’ve bought iPhones. I had the difficult decision though of purchasing these wired ones or the new neckband and Bluetooth version, the Bose Quietcontrol 30. I went for the wires (despite my very first world problem distaste for them) because the Quietcontrol 30’s have shorter battery, and if their battery does die, they’re useless as anything other earplugs. At least on a long flight (and it would have to be with a battery  life of around 12 hours) I can still use my Quietcomfort 20’s as headphones, albeit expensive ones or plug them into the in-flight entertainment. So I made my bed and now I’m sleeping in it, and having a damned difficult time of it.

You see I’ve gotten lazy. These earphones are just a little too tight, which makes them uncomfortable to wear long term. I mean, they never hurt like the Parrots did, but they do become noticeable a lot earlier and that’s distracting. Linked to the (in my opinion) excessively loud ‘hiss’ of active noise cancelling without music playing I’m finding the whole proposition irritating.

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The sound quality is good, although not stand-out. They get crashy when the music is racked up, unable it seems to cope with heavy bass. But I guess they’re smallish in-ear headphones so they were always going to struggle compared to the bigger on-ear or over-ear headphones. But I’m not audiophile, and so I’m not so bothered as some may be.

The case, battery life, and build quality is excellent as you’d expect from Bose, and they’re certainly the most convenient to carry active noise cancelling headphones I’ve come across. So that’s a set of major plus points! A large black mark is the battery; being active noise cancellers the headphones need a power source to power the technology. Bose have done this by building the battery into a slim pack at the bottom of the power cord just above the 3.5mm jack. It’s small and innocuous but still very annoying, and for a phone with a top mounted jack the battery sags  down the back of the phone looking sad and feeling awkward. Same goes for putting the thing in your pocket. Bad design, but for the life of me I can’t figure out where else they’d put it that wouldn’t be even more annoying…

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Although what I will say on the battery pack terms is that he person who decided to make it out of rubbery plastic needs burning with fire. It is EVEN MORE difficult to pull from a pocket than if it was just smooth. The single greatest point of irritation.

The noise cancelling is excellent, angry snake sounding hiss aside. It does a superb job of levelling off the external noises and even those sounds that active-cancelling tech usually struggles with, such as rapid pitch changes are levelled off or eliminated. By all accounts the new Sony over-ear headphones or the Bose QuietComfort 35 are even better but I would struggle to criticise the performance of these headphones in this area.

All in all I’m a little frustrated. I can’t decide if I want to keep them or not; but equally I like the concept, execution and results. The in ear comfort and that damn battery pack built into the already annoying appendage that is the wire are two glaring issues that are stopping me from feeling like these things are something I can commit to. I think that on balance for active systems like this you need the space bigger over-ear headphones can give you to pack in the battery and such. Trying to get it into the earphones just makes them just big enough to be more uncomfortable. I can only advise that if you DO want good active noise cancelling headphones, don’t get something that is in-ear. Go for an over-ear system like the Bose QuietComfort 35…. Just make sure it has a properly padded headband.

Dell XPS 13: brilliant but not quite good enough

Dell XPS 13: brilliant but not quite good enough

Ok, I know I’m late… but I’ve been busy and since I fund all these reviews out of my own pocket, on a government wage, give me a damn chance.

So the bottom line for these next couple of reviews will be based around the rather transitory shape my life is. A government job with a lot of travel and living in some pretty cramped conditions means I’ve kind of developed an obsession with gaining anything that will make my life easier on the frequent travelling miles I conduct.

Part of this includes a good laptop. But dear reader, remember that I’m also fickle, with almost impossible requirements for the state of technology (although things are finally beginning to look up). The first “proper” laptop that wasn’t bought for me for university was my trusty MacBook Pro 13” I bought in 2009, and that I sold to my brother in 2012, and is still doing sterling service for him; I can rant about Apple losing their edge all I want but in those days the bloody well made things to last! Would that they still did…

That lasted a long time, and I got my PC gaming fixes from a PC tower unit. But I slowly began to realise that I was barely using the tower PC, and I couldn’t take the thing with me away anyway, so I sold it. That left me unable to fulfil the Total War (various) shaped hole in my life, and so I began to cast around for a true gaming laptop replacement that didn’t weight 8 tons and was actually portable. I settled, in early 2013 on an ASUS 15.6 inch UZ500… slim metal chassis, discrete GPU good screen and all the rest. It also preformed decent service, despite it being windows 8, for the next few years until it’s ageing C/GPU combo began to show it’s limitations. My answer was the Razer Blade (2015) which, although brilliant was the wrong colour. It also got bloody loud under load (something the new one also suffers from) and barely qualified as a laptop due to the 5 hour battery life. So I got rid of that too.

That left me in a bit of a bad place. I can’t game currently, but a phone and tablet combo isn’t enough for my everyday use still. I’ve come to terms that until someone (Dell, Razer, I’m looking at you here) properly sorts themselves out and really makes external GPU’s in an external housing fed into the USB-C Thunderbolt 3 port on an ultra-book feasible in something that doesn’t look like a 14 year olds wet dream – Razer, still looking at you here; just because it’s a ‘gaming’ machine, it doesn’t mean it has to be stealth matte black and vomit green. Stop perpetuating the stereotype!

So, I decided to get the modern version of the laptop I was happiest with, the one that actually did a good job of being a laptop without the compromises inherent in trying to make it a ‘gaming’ machine too. Now I remained in a difficult place…

The modern Apple Macbook pro is even more eye-wateringly expensive and now comes with a bloody stupid keyboard (try it, it’s just awful, it’s yet another example of Apple being ‘courageous’ and ‘leading the way’ but in reality just being different for the sake of it and ending up a bit shit). ASUS machines look a bit like Macbooks, only with decent keyboards, but battery life is woeful. The HP Spectre trackpad is weird (like the keyboard is a bit fat and heavy and has squashed it down and oddly wide) for all that the machine is beautiful. Samsung haven’t made an Ultrabook worth considering for quite a while. That led me to Dell.

 

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Specifically the XPS13 line (the 15 is good by all accounts but too big and that GPU issue again…). So this little 13” laptop has been gaining plaudits from everyone in the tech writing world so I thought I’d check it out. After a mis-spent afternoon wandering about London I found one in the carbonfibre and spent a happy 5 minutes or so battering at the keyboard and swiping the trackpad and mentally pronounced myself content with the use of the thing. So I bought it.

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Now, here’s a salient lesson for all, and it’s valid for anyone buying any laptop. Don’t be lured into the specs. Power and clarity is a compromise. What I’m referring to is the current trend for 4K screens and i7 over other ‘lesser’ processors. Dells 4K screens, Apples Retina etc etc – yes they all look bloody beautiful. But do you really need them? Because they are a chunk of cash more and they really do suck the battery down – the difference between a 4K version of this laptop and the 1080p HD version is about 2 hours, give or take, which is a lot. Same for going for the more power hungry i7 processors over the i5’s or i3’s – yes, they will give you more power but is that power wasted? No matter how much better they are at regulating their battery usage compared to older generations they still do use more. So before you throw down the cash, consider do you really need that extra power and clarity at the expense of what could be as much as 3 hours of battery life?

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I decided that I didn’t, and kept my £700 (Dell are currently taking pricing lessons from Apple…) and went for an 7th Generation Kaby Lake i5 and the ‘lesser’ screen and can happily run it for 11 hours of use on 20% brightness or Messenger, Opera web browser with VPN (which I’d commend to anyone, you can stick your Edge or Chrome), YouTube and Word processing. This is one long lived little thing and that is essential in any Ultrabook; be you a traveller writing on a plane journey or a wannabe writer who takes their laptop to a Starbucks so people can see them, well, being a writer… it’ll cover you the entire distance.

It’s also worth noting that for general use without gaming (beyond theme hospital!) or graphical design it’s not given a single hitch or stutter. The Dell BIOS has an extremely light touch on this laptop as it should be, and Windows 10 is as ever exceptional and easily remains the best laptop or desktop OS currently (another reason to go with the XPS over a Macbook).

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It’s all very nicely packaged too, aesthetically pleasing to look at with a nice warm to touch carbon fibre finish to the inside and a silver aluminium shell. It’s light, and due to my favourite feature it’s actually very small, a 13” screen slipped into the footprint of a 10” machine due to the bezels. I really love them (something I never thought I’d say to be frank but there we go). They’re tiny, only 3 mm and give the effect that the screen is hovering above the base. It also looks nicely packaged and as we witness other manufacturers fall overs themselves to copy the look, we can take a shrewd guess that consumers think so too. Long that may continue, and into phones as well.

 

So thus far we have an attractive, small, powerful, very long lived little laptop with the best version of the current OS on it. So how is it to use I hear you ask, because let’s face it a beautifully crafted laptop that is a nightmare to type on or has the trackpad from hell is like Paris Hilton or Peter Andre; pretty, but essentially useless. But I’m pleased to report it’s more like a Jennifer Lawrence or Brad Pitt of a machine; pretty, but also capable as hell.

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The keyboard has remained as great as when I first tried it in the shop. After coming from that damn Lenovo Yoga Book to this is was a breath of fresh air. In fact to not miss the chance to take another swipe at Apple, I am typing this on a plane having just tried the Apple keyboards again in Heathrow’s Dixons. The difference is stark for comfort, typing speed, accuracy and general feel. Proper key travel and a not to overly clicky sound means that this IS something that you could write the Illiad on. The carbon fibre palm-rest is actually an overlooked but important distinction in the world of all aluminium design, as you don’t get that sharp edge digging into the heels of your hand when you rest them on the base. The trackpad is a little small, but manageable. It’s not Microsoft Precision touchpad, but it’s good enough and accurate. It suffers a little from the fact the chassis is so small though, as it feels a little compressed.

So you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s damn near perfect. Well it is, but there some oversights and compromises that have given me pause. The lack of bezel on the top of the screen means that the webcam is based in the bottom left corner of the screen, and that is weird. It’s not a flattering view regardless of how you look, nobody looks good making a Messenger or Skype call on this laptop.

Black mark one.

Secondly it still has a distinct charging cable despite the fact there is a Thunderbolt 3 port. I mean, this is verging on inexcusable for an Ultrabook released in the tail end of 2016 – having to lug around a massive distinct charging cable when you could have replaced it with a small, multi-use USB-C port that could double as something else was a total no brainer. Say what you like but 4x USB-C in an Apple machine is the way forwards; luddites stop complaining and get on board, that port is the way forwards. For what it’s worth this little Dell has 2x USB-A and usefully a full sized SD card reader plus the Thunderbolt 3 USB-C. Still, it’s very annoying.

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Black Mark 2, that I’m going to count as two full black marks due to sheer irritation.

But in all fairness, that’s about it. But in this current world, I’m afraid it’s not good enough to win out – I can’t help gazing towards HP’s superb x360. It has a comparable keyboard, screen, size, tiny bezels but has the webcam in the right place, can folder 360 for tent view to watch Netflix on, a much bigger trackpad, and USB-C charging… all for only £200 more for the 6th Gen i7 version.

 

So the bottom line is that this XPS 13 is genuinely a brilliant laptop. It really is, and general use it excels and beats the non-GPU Macbook Pro, Macbook, HP Spectre, Samsung whatever into the shade. But it’s been on top for too long now, and I get the feeling that Dell got scared of innovation; the lack of change beyond incremental processor and software versions between this laptop and the intimal one from years ago is actually pretty disappointing. Yet even with that it would still have been enough to win out… if not for HP and their Spectre. It had played second place to the Dell in the last version but the new additions that improves and also breaks new ground is enough to knock my laptop into second place at least for now.

 

Which considering I’ve already bought this, is exasperating in the extreme…

Samsung Gear ICON X

Samsung Gear ICON X

Occasionally I manage to convince myself it’s time to exercise. I mean, it’s mostly purgatory but if you don’t want to die at an early age, look terrible on the beach or want to diet properly it’s just something you have to do eh?

One thing that makes such gym trips slightly more bearable is music, and for long runs an audiobook. Now the component of this is a decent set of earbuds and over the years I’ve tried quite a few. For all of them the most irritating part was the wires. Critical as they may be they tangle and flop, no matter how I tuck them down my t shirt from the front, down my back, leave it free – whichever way they’d be worn there was a compromise. Either the wires fly around and act as an irritant, or they catch on things inside the t-shirt and jerk out of your ears in an often painful fashion.

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On ear headphones aren’t an option – I’m sorry if you wear them to the gym, but you look like a twat. That’s just how it is.

So I got rather excited by the release of the Samsung Gear IconX wireless earbuds… Say what you like, but it’s an awesome concept. Other have tried the same, and now with Apples notorious 3.5mm headphone jack decision (‘Courageous’!? Bitch please..) there are more companies leaping onto the bandwagon.

As ever I’m not going to throw in a description of the buds and blah on about numbers – they change enough with use to not really be that relevant, and if you’re reading this as a review then you’ll probablyknow what they look like. I mean, the picture’s here:

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What you’ll want is to know what they’re like to use. Small, easy to control, and well made in short. The thought that’s gone into it all is seriously impressive. So, stuff that they can do:

  • Bio track your heartbeat, distance and fat burn
  • Play music with 4GB onboard storage
  • Bluetooth stream the music/sound
  • Automatically turn on and off when you put them in/take them out of your ears
  • Control tracks and the biotracking with touch pad on the earbud itself

The in-ear detection is excellent and its distance accuracy when running is more than fine for the casual runner. In today’s tech world, it’s simply seamless. And price wise, you’re getting a fair deal for a leading piece of portable technology that, unlike the competition, actually looks good. (That’s right, Apple. I went there.)

The cons? The sound quality is only okay and I wouldn’t stream music for more than 50 minutes. It’s not going to win any awards for audio, but unless you’re expecting Bose mC35-level acoustic abilities, it’s good enough. You don’t buy earbuds for sound quality anyway – you buy them for convenience.

And knowing this, as fitness earbuds, I won’t use anything else but the Gear IconX (for now that is). Within the narrow sphere of fitness workouts, as long as your workout doesn’t last longer than around 45 minutes, you’ll be fine. They don’t fall out, they’re comfortable and you can easily forget they’re in, all without looking like a twat or being perpetually annoyed by the dangling, tangling wires. I’d even go so far as to say that when it comes to earbuds, whether for fitness or otherwise, I wholeheartedly recommend that you don’t bother getting anything with a wire at all. Thanks to Samsung, they’ve now been deemed unworthy.

They aren’t stupid looking either and they have remarkably few compromises; just you don’t try stream music into them for more than say 50 minutes, and you aren’t looking for Bose MC35 levels of acoustic abilities. For anything else, these should be your go-to headphones. I’m also particularly excited to find out what Samsung has in store for us next year… by some accounts, the Galaxy S8 won’t be having an audio-jack a la iPhone 7…

 

 

The Apple problem…

Ok so the inaugural post I think I’ll need to do on my newly minted blog is why I have such a downer on Apple stuff. There’s no point glossing this over, it’ll be clear whenever I post unless they really pull their socks up and drag their performance out of the hole it’s currently languishing within.

So, the first admission is that I used to be a fervent Apple-Addict. Way back in 2006 I thought I was being clever by adopting the LG Viewty instead of the Apple iPhone 3. The Viewty had, by all reasonable specs, a better camera, processor, bigger screen… I was very happy with it, smug almost, until I used a friends iPhone and I realised how wrong I was. The experience of using the iPhone was just so much beyond what I had that I switched immediately (at great cost). From then I was both addict and apologist – by the end of 2009 I had an iPhone, iPad 2 and a Macbook Pro and would loudly and proudly declare Apples superiority to all and sundry. The thing was, I was right.

The Apple back then was at the top of the smartphone, tablet, personal computing game. It’s products were impeccably made, worked perfectly, and the hardware was always ahead of the competition. Android was a buggy compromised mess, and the handsets running it were plastic abominations, for the most part. If you wanted something that just worked, you bought Apple and reveled in the status it gave you (mainly in your own mind, I’ll admit).

But, things have changed. When I deployed to the Gulf for 7 months in 2012, I decided to give the then new Nexus 7 a try. I couldn’t use my phone, so I got rid of it, and the only connectivity I could use was Wi-Fi so a 7 inch tablet covered all bases admirably. I’m afraid once I’d used that 4th generation of Android, my allegiance switched entirely. That version (uncluttered by hardware manufacturers ideals, such as the then hateful Touchwiz) really made me realise how much iOS was falling behind. Even the build quality of that little tablet was great – it wasn’t beautiful like the iPhone, but it was sturdy and comfortable to hold. I was converted. Not only that, but it was during that time that HTC bought out the M7 version HTC One – a bigger screen, my now favoured Android OS, and Apple like build quality. I sold my iPad, sold my Macbook as pointless and re-found the joys of portable PC gaming with the beautiful ASUS UX series laptop I bought to replace it. I could do more with better machines, for less money, and Apple was left lagging behind.

Which is the point. Apple had the lead, they were trail blazers – the iPhone creation, the instant personal connectivity with the world around us has changed our entire world like nothing else has in the past 100 years. It’s replaced, changed, altered the way we talk, communicate, buy, sell, share our lives, it’s caused a way of life that has literally brought down governments (Arab Spring anyone?). It’s resulted in no small part to someone like Donald Trump being elected to the White House. I cannot overstate how the introduction of the full featured easy to use smartphone has done to the way we run this world. Yeah, other manufacturers got there first but Apple made it work like nobody else and forced the change. It made personal computing a mass-market. But where the hell did their ability to innovate or perfect other companies ideas go?

Now, Apple is comparatively a shell of what it was. It’s a company riding on past glories and the fear of it’s user base for moving to something else. I don’t know a single user who has switched off the Apple system (wrench as it is) who has regretted it. I’m sure they’re out there, but they are the minority. Look at the recent iPhones from the 5 to the 6 to to the 7. Look at the MacBook Pro. Look at the iPad Pro. Nothing, nothing they have instigated in the past 3 years is better than everything else out there, and in fact if you compare them S7 to i7, Pixel XL to i7 Plus, Windows Surface to iPad Pro, Macbook to any number of laptops they come off demonstrably worse. There are always apologists – the old speed test ‘proving’ a smoother user experience is a good example (although that test doesn’t represent any way that a normal person would use a phone in real life), but they’re fading.

I really hope the iPhone 8 is something really special. Then they’d prove they have the Apple magic of old, and I could see them as worthy of the hype – as it is, they aren’t, they are seriously undeserved leaders and it’s frustrating to watch people trapped by fear of change throw thousands of pounds/dollars et al after inferior products based upon a lie of superiority.

Make no mistake – the leaders in the industry now are Samsung, Google and especially (and who knew i’d say this!) Microsoft. Buy a Pixel, buy a Surface, wait and buy an S8 – they’ll all show some full features that you won’t see in an Apple for the next 4 years.

The best Android Phone…. thanks, Google

The best Android Phone…. thanks, Google

So I am, according to a close friend, and forgive me but I’m quoting here “a total tech slut”. I prefer to think of it as “manufacturer agnostic”; I will go wherever the wind blows strongest. If a company offers the best that’s who I’ll spin to, I have no brand loyalty and I refuse to stick with something that isn’t good, just because of its reputation (*cough*Apple*cough*).

So I did have a Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, then I tried to move to the Note 7. Well, we know how that ended up (not explosively for me, fortunately) so I was reduced back to my S6. I say reduced but let’s face it, it is still a great phone. Great camera, great build, and of course the best Operating System (OS), which is currently Android. However I had my eyes on the latest and greatest, the Pixel Phone by Google.

oct-07-the-new-google-pixel-phone

The Pixel is a phone you should’ve heard of, even if you’ve been living under a rock. Google has run a pretty aggressive advertising campaign to push sales, using the fact that most ‘non-enthusiasts’ are not aware that Google has been running it’s own branded stuff for a while now under the ‘Nexus’ monicker. Well. No longer, and additionally this Pixel Phone is Google through and through; HTC make it, but they’re there just to provide manufacturing muscle. Make no mistake, the phone that you see is something designed entirely as Google wanted it.

I’ve had mine for months now, and it’s grown on me. So I’ll deal with the bad bits first, the parts I don’t like and the things that will annoy you day to day as you use it. Firstly, a fairly emotive issue in the world of smartphones; the fingerprint sensor:

It’s in the wrong bloody place

Now I’m sure that there are plenty of people who will swear blind that the back of the phone is the best place for the sensor. Well, you’re all wrong. It’s in a good place if you pick up the phone, yes, and it’s comfortable if you have tiny hands but for those of us with normally sized hands and what my grandmother would term ‘pianists fingers’ (to normal modern people, that means someone with long fingers). But on the back its impossible to use when it’s lying flat on the table, or propped up, or anywhere that doesn’t require it to be picked up. Yes yes, I’ve heard people tell me that “but you just double tap the screen and it’ll wake then use the pattern unlock”. Well, that’s not acceptable. When you have something as safe and easy as a biometric fingerprint scanner, placing where it cannot be used in 60% of the circumstances you would use a phone  isn’t acceptable in the modern world, not in a tech arms race this close.

Secondly, the design. There have been many plaudits from all kinds of gushing tech writers about this phone but, frankly, they’re wrong. It’s thicker than most smartphones of this power, and the bezel at the bottom is too big; in fact the bezels around the outside are all too damn big. In short the design is poor, at least compared to Apple or Samsung or HTC itself. I’m not sure who signed off on it but it looks like a fat iPhone. An iPhone that’s let itself go a little, maybe.

Finally, coming from a Samsung, the lack of wireless charging is infuriating (yeah, I said it). Now yes, I’m aware that the metallic body precludes this charging method but there’s that glass segment at the top – I assume this is to support the antenna, but I fail to see how it couldn’t (by people much smarter than I) work towards a method for wireless charging. The convenience of the charging method made itself indispensable to me over the years I used the S6 Edge, and I’m very disappointed that Google failed to add it to their phone.

Google Assistant is a terrible disappointment as well. It’s ‘contextual’ abilities leave much to be desired – it’s frankly no better than Google Now. This however, isn’t really an issue because actually Google Now is the best of the ‘AI’ assistants currently.

But that’s about it

Actually, the hardware aside… the rest of the phone is very, very good. If you’re an Apple user then I suspect you are Googles target audience and this phone will suit you very well. It’s similar but better in every way than the Apple equivalent, including in those key areas that appeal – ease of use, and the camera. Aaaah the camera. It’s superb! (Stand by for me to wax lyrical)

The Camera really is amazing. As in, it actually amazes you.

Google has made much song and dance about the camera – how it is rated top of all phone cameras by real camera geeks and you know what, I believe it. I’m an enthusiastic amateur with photography (Olympus user) and in a recent trip to Costa Rica I actually took to using the phone for panoramas and close ups over the camera because it’s that damn good. It’s clear, precise and beautiful. Look at these Instagram feeds for example:

https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/shotbypixel/?hl=en

https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/takenbypixel/?hl=en

As you can see the quality for a smartphone is really very very good and beyond what is possible with other phones. Even the iPhone 7 can’t match this – and for those of you curious, the reason is the software that Apple insist on adding its own filters to the camera image before the user even gets a chance at it. Even with a single lens, the Pixel beats out the S7 and the iPhone 7 for accuracy and clarity of picture across a range of situations that is an essential factor if you are a keen smartphone photographer, or even a camera enthusiast who wants a secondary lens. What’s the overused but very true phrase? “The best camera is the one you have with you”.

If you are really into photography, with your phone ditch whatever you have and get one of these right away!

The software is also, and I don’t say this lightly, impeccable. Coming from a phone with a hardware makers UI layer draped over it (the Samsung and HT before it) the clean, stock, ‘pure’ Android is superb and powered by the latest processor inside (Snapdragon 821) the easy of use and simple slickness of all the processes that the phone completes has absolutely won me away; even from the better hardware of the Samsungs. Grace UI, TouchWiz UI, Sense-whateverthehellversion is getting better but frankly it’s still crap compared to an Android set free of the heavy dragging weight of a manufacturer trying to put its own ‘look’ and ‘design feel’ onto  handset. It’s frankly not required, as Google has now proven.

google_pixel_and_pixel_xl

I have no hesitation to say that currently, the Pixel and Pixel XL (the one I have) is the best Android phone out there. The Samsung S7 edge currently offers more hardware but frankly the day to day daily smoothness of the operating system, which is significantly better than any other phone i’ve used (foolish internet ‘speed tests’ aside), means that Internet browsing, social media, music and messaging (i.e. 99% of what a phone is used for) is handled in a way so superior to handsets with better hardware that I won’t go back.

Samsung S8…. You’d better bring your A game in March….