Sunday, May 29, 2011

MCM Expo London Comic Con 2011

On Saturday I attended by first ever MCM Expo London Comic Con at London Excel. Before you asked, no, I wasn't a cosplayer - but I do admit part of my motivation for waking up at 6am in order to get to East London before 9am was largely due to wanting to photograph cosplayers.

Me and Jenni got there about 15 mins before the gates open. Half an hour later, Motoko, our twitter pal, arrived advance tickets in hand. We joined the queue at one of the North Event halls which resembles a massive hanger. It took us about 30 minutes before we got in - but not before being handed a 'swag bag'. Mine contained a .hack/SIGN DVD, complete with an action figurine of Mimiru.

The halls were awashed with stalls selling both licensed and unlicensed merchandises. Comic books, mangas, films, plush toys, retro video games, action figures etc - it was a geek's paradise. Nintendo, Tecmo Koei, Gamespot UK, Warner Brothers Games, THQ, Capcom and Atari had booths set up to showcase upcoming new video games such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Dynasty Warriors whatever, Gears of War 3, Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition (just how many times can Capcom re-release this game?) and a couple more. Creative Assembly also hosted a Q&A session regarding the history of the Total War series as did Square-Enix/Eidos for the upcoming Deus Ex: Human Revolution video game.

Unsurprisingly the event was awash with cosplayers. I have to admit that I found myself admiring the dedication of many of these cosplayers. The attention to detail on their costumes - most of the time home made, were simply mind blowing. Not only that, but many of the cosplayers were in character as well. The 501st Legion UK Garrison is worth a mention due to their authentic-looking Star Wars costumes. I was very impressed by the cosplay quality of Iron Man, Lenneth from Valkyrie Profile, Ghost from Call of Duty and the apes from The Planet of the Apes. Even the Duke made an appearance!

The highlight of the day was the Futurama cast panel. I have been following the Futurama series since the inception and it was a joy to see and hear Billy West (Philip J Fry, Professor Fransworth, Zapp Brannigan, Dr. Zoidberg), Phil Lamarr (Hermes Conrad, Preacherbot), Lauren Tom (Amy Wong, Inez Wong) and Maurice LaMarche (Kif Kroker, Morbo, Lrrr, Calculon) talk about the voice production and how some of the voices of the characters they play came to be. Richard Nixon's Head 'aroo', for example was inspired by Billy West's childhood experience from watching Nixon debate with John F. Kennedy where he (Billy West) feared Nixon would turn into a wear wolf.
We also caught the panel of Simon's Cat, where the creator of Simon Tofield explained the inspiration that led him to create this popular cartoon series. A Q&A session with Craig Busch (of  The Lion Man TV series) was followed by a preview of his new reality TV wildlife series surrounding the conservation of wildlife in Africa.

MCM Expo was a great fun first experience. I do have a number of complaints. First, the acoustics at the MCM Expo Theatre was horrible. You could hardly hear a thing, and even the cast of Futurama had trouble hearing themselves. Then there's the money spinning machinery. £15 for a ticket to obtain a single autograph from the stars? Plain ridiculous.

Check out my photographs of the day here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

View other users' twitter stream

Well here's an interesting new feature on Twitter web client that is being rolled out as we speak. Twitter has updated the following page so you get to view the user's twitter stream. Rather than be presented with a list of who the user is following, you will be presented with real time tweets from twitter users who the user is following. This makes it easier to discover new people to follow.

The screenshot demonstrates how another twitter user would view my twitter stream:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

SPB Time for Android review

Having been a fan of SPB software since the good old Pocket PC days, I was keen to see how they would do on other platforms. The first chance came with SPB Shell 3D on Android (which I loved). Now they have released another one, this time in the form of SPB Time - a port of the original Windows Mobile for Pocket PC release. For most parts, SPB Time is similar to the ones already released on other platforms with very minor differences, so this review is more or less applicable for all versions of SPB Time on all platforms, including Symbian and iOS.

SPB has been aggressively pursuing new releases on the Android and iOS platforms. We have already seen the release of SPB Shell 3D on Android and SPB Wallet on both iOS and Android platforms - both great applications well worth the admission price. With SPB Time, SPB aims to provide smartphone users with an alternative clock application. What's so interesting about a clock app I hear you ask? After all every smartphone, or even bog standard phone comes with a clock.

Like SPB Time for iOS, SPB Time for Android is an advance skinnable time application with a number of useful features. The features included with SPB Time are extensive. You get both analog and digital clock modes, world clock, a stopwatch, countdown timers, alarms and a calendar for moon phases. All these features are accessible via the aforementioned pull up menu. Exclusive for the Android version are homescreen widgets for both analog and digital clock (both skinnable), alarm and moon phase.

If you find the standard clock too simple or boring for your taste - you can download one of the many additional skins available for it. Skins are easily accessible from the pull up menu. While I personally do not care about the type of clock shown, people who uses their smartphones as a replacement desk clock (with cradle) will find this useful and neat.

World Time not only allows you to see the current time in cities (from a database of 10000) around the world, but also view useful infos like which timezones they are on and whether there are any daylight savings (and if there are, when does it end/begins). It also gives you the times for sunrise and sunset on that particular day. A partly obscured earth (not in the iOS version) that spins between each cities is visible on the top, giving you a rough visual cue of their locations and whether it is day or night.

I won't dwell on how the stopwatch and countdown timers work. But if you must know, both tools works just as they should and are fitted with nice big buttons. The Moon Calendar is also simple, giving users a clear view of the current moon phase and all the significant lunar phases, including any future partial or full solar eclipses. Nifty I say.

There are three alarm systems in SPB Time. First, the aptly named Classic Alarm which allows you to choose the sound and volume, alongside the date and time. If you have ever used any alarm system on a phone, this should be a walk in the park. The next one is called Paranoid Alarm which would not stop buzzing you until you solve a puzzle. Finally, the Bio Alarm aims to gently wake you up slowly in a more gentle and less-rude method, starting with ticks, then the sound of birds or water and finally ending with the proper alarm. All three alarm modes are accessible from the main clock.

SPB Time is a well made clock application. Most of the features here can be replicated using various freeware applications; but what SPB has done, and done well they have, is packaged all these useful tools (and then some) into a well executed package. For only £0.99/US$1.99 (the promotional price for two weeks) on the Android Market, SPB has done it again - creating a product that offers plenty of value.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Powertraveller Solargorilla review

Being a geek, I rarely find myself being capable of leaving my gadgets at home. So at a recent camping trip (where we backpacked), I found myself packing my Nokia N8 and Motorola Milestone 2 (I would have also brought the Xperia Arc and Nokia E7 if I had the choice!). The problem with all modern smartphones are the battery life is pretty much sh*t. I can barely go half a day on the Milestone 2 and the N8 will last a maximum of a day on my usage pattern.

As you know power is hard to come by when camping - and I need all the help I can get. It was April, the days were getting longer and I thought what better than to use a camping holiday to test out some solar panels as well. My emails to solar manufacturers were initially unheeded, then a reply came from Powertraveller - alas they did not have any Solargorilla to send to reviewers. But then community team #LeStudio52, of which I am part of and you should be too, helped source one for me. I was good to go.

The Solargorilla features a clamshell design and is made of two photovoltaic solar panels (the newer version comes with glass panels that increases efficiency) that can be folded together to aid portability. Built quality is brilliant. One night I accidentally left the Solargorilla outside my tent connected to an external battery pack in the rain and it survived. I have also used it on a sandy beach, so it is obviously built to survive in tough environments. I would be more concerned about the durability of the device I am charging rather than the Solargorilla itself. A zipped neoprone case is included to store the Solargorilla and other accessories.

Two ports can be found on the bottom of the Solargorilla. The first is a 5V USB port designed to charge mobile phones, smartphones, digital audio players and PSP. Alongside it, you will find a 20V power socket that is enough to charge laptops under 40 watts. 17 adapters are bundled with the Solargorilla including mobile tips for Nokia and Sony Ericsson phones; DS Lite and PSP game consoles and any devices that charges via microUSB and miniUSB. Laptop tips for laptops made by most manufacturers like Dell, Lenovo, HP and Acer are also included. For Apple Macbooks, you will have to use it with a MagSafe car charger adaptor - sold separately from Powertraveller.

What the Solargorilla lacks is a built-in battery pack. For £140 I found it disappointing that there isn't any built in battery pack in the Solargorilla. Instead Powertraveller recommends that the Solargorilla is used with their flagship Powergorilla battery pack (another £140 cost), though you can also charge other battery packs via the USB out. The two are connected via a cable and a status LED near the ports indicate charging. Unsurprisingly, only one device can be charged at once.

When I decided to bring the Solargorilla to Wales, I didn't think we would be blessed with constant sunshine and mid-20-degree heat. The weather was brilliant almost the entire week, making our holiday in Pembrokeshire an unlikely but ideal place to test the device (in the UK at least). The Solargorilla was capable of charging fully a phone after a day in the sun. We did have to move the direction the panels are facing to best harness the power of the Welsh sun, which is hardly ideal. Some devices wouldn't charge at all unless I turn them off first - likely due to the lack of output. On overcast days, the device struggles only able to top up my phone by about two battery bars.

With summer fast approaching, the Solargorilla may make sense but British climate has never favoured solar technology. Even during the summer months you would not expect to see plenty of sun. They are also particularly expensive - even more so if you buy it with the Powergorilla battery pack. Unlike the Freeloader Supercharger, you can't attach them to your backpack as well, making them effectively useless and none-productive while you are on the move.

Unless you are travelling to a country with warmer climate or can't let go of the whole green thing, it probably makes more sense buying a large battery pack to travel with rather than relying on this. Don't get me wrong, it works brilliantly - but don't count on it as your sole source of portable power in the UK.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Foursquare review

Foursquare is a geolocation social media service aimed at allowing users to broadcast their locations in the form of 'check-ins'. I have been an avid Foursquare user for almost a year now, and while my usage priorities has changed, I remain an avid user for completely different reasons to those when I first joined.

Let's get the basics out of the way. The service used to revolve around the competiton of mayorship.  If a user check in at a location more than anyone else within sixty days, they are awarded the 'mayorship' title. Marketers often uses Foursquare mayorship as an inceptive to get people to check in. For example Domino's Pizza rewards any current mayors of any of their stores with a free 'pizza' every Wednesdays. Some venues offers deals (called 'specials'), like 20% off food, simply by requiring the user to check-in, and users can use the mobile app to easily see if there are any specials nearby.

Points are awarded after checking in at venues. The amount of points given at each check-ins depends on a number of criteria - including whether that was the user's first at the venue, or whether the user was checking in with friends etc. The points are accumulated over a seven day period. Users can check where they are on the leader board. Suffice to say, most users do not bother with this.

Badge collecting meetups can be fun to make new friends
Foursquare check-ins can also earn users 'badges'. These badges are unlocked based on a number of prerequisite, and are dependent on tasks that the user has to do. Some are simple enough to activate, like the Local badge, which can be unlocked with three check-ins at the same venue. Others are a bit trickier - the Player Please badge for example can only be obtained by checking-in with three users from the opposite sex (they have to be your friends). Badges are also used by brands - check in at three Starbucks cafes to unlock that badge with the topless siren.

In any case, never mind about getting virtual badges - the most important service by Foursquare that I've ignored for too long but has come to appreciate are recommendations in the forms of tips. Users can leave positive or negative tips at venues - a boon to people like me who likes to explore but lazy to web research. And since v2.0 of the release, Foursquare has placed even more emphasis on the creation of to-do where it will remind users whenever there are to-do items nearby. Clever? I think so!

The things we did just to acquire badges...
I now mainly use Foursquare  to explore whichever areas I am in. This usually involve looking for restaurants and bars that are frequented by other users. The settings can be changed to include friends or everyone else. It also shows how many times my friends has checked into a particular venue - which is great, but only if you trust your friends - and I tend to! It is a great tool for travellers who never plans ahead (people like me!).

Foursquare also allows the user to know if their friends are nearby. Yes, it sounds like a stalker app but you can always choose not to check-in. This isn't an issue to me, as I am always up for an impromptu meetup with friends, and even people who I follow on twitter but haven't met yet - and in the past Foursquare has allowed me to do just that.
Stats of your check-ins can be accessed via the web client
A couple of weeks ago I was having lunch at a local pub (where I checked-in as usual). Near the end I saw check-in notification by a Foursquare friend who I have never met (but do talk to on twitter regularly). A couple of minutes later a tweet arrived by her mentioning the fact and suggested we should meet. And indeed we did! We hit it off and plans are now in place for a proper meet-up. Similarly a couple of days ago I was at a restaurant in Chinatown and somebody I know spotted me there but wasn't sure and so checked on Foursquare just to be sure!

Like Twitter, Foursquare (and other geo-location services like Gowalla) are not pointless services - if you know how to use them. Earning badges and other virtual points may be fun - after a while (in fact I've stopped chasing badges). Also, while Foursquare allows this, I would not suggest publishing your Foursquare check-ins to your other social media accounts - unless you have comments that you would have published on Twitter/Facebook anyway. Not everyone wants to know about your regular morning check-ins at railway stations.

Foursquare is best experienced with a smartphone while out and about. After all, what is more boring than sitting on a desk typing out a blog post telling you just how awesome Foursquare is? Wait, that would be about Gowalla. While marketers haven't been embracing Foursquare like they should, the ability to seek out friends and venues makes it a great service for people who loves exploring.

Friday, May 20, 2011

StuckBuddy review

Here's a review of something that I was sceptical at first, until I was sent one to try. The StuckBuddy is a universal suction cup that can be attached onto any portable device. With this attached on a phone, it immediately turns into a cheap and simple desk stand. I've used it on train journeys with my phones in order to watch films. It also works on large devices like tablets if you want to tilt the display forward a bit.

Unsurprisingly, the suction part has to be clean and it works better on a smooth surface like plastic. It doesn't work as well on rubber surfaces like the battery door of the Motorola Milestone 2. The £4.99 device really works better with devices with plastic, metallic or glass materials like the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc and the iPhone 4. The StuckBuddy can also be used on any other flat surfaces like a mirror where you can then hang light stuff like keys.

Update: Mobilefun are running a promotion on the StuckBuddy. If you buy anything on the site, you will get a free Stuckbuddy simply by entering the word BUDDY in the rebate code section at the checkout. The offer will continue whilst stocks last.
The StuckBuddy is available from Mobilefun.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Nokia shows Ovi the door

News that Nokia is dropping the Ovi brand comes to no surprise. Hopefully Nokia's full attention will not turn onto delivering a compelling Windows Phone hardware. Nokia has been quietly dropping services, finally realising that they can't compete on services with software-focused companies like Google and Microsoft.

Ovi Mail for example was migrated to Yahoo!, though the brand name retained. I know of no one who uses Ovi Mail, other than signing up out of curiosity. Other services dropped in the past includes Ovi Files, which features a Dropbox-like service which allows users to remotely send and access files, and Ovi Music Unlimited.

The only compelling service by Nokia that has been successful is Ovi Maps, and that is only because it offers offline maps, free voice navigation and cracking 3D view (on desktop). And rumour on the tech circles is that Ovi Maps, now called Nokia Maps again, will be integrated into Microsoft's Bing Maps as part of the core Windows Phone mapping service.

Nokia's desire to promote the Ovi brand was a huge waste of money and resources. Nokia as a brand was positive and desirable (back then anyway), so why not leverage the best asset they have? Most consumers (I am not talking tech bloggers like us) recognises the name Nokia - and not some Finnish word for door.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

iFlow Reader shuts down due to Apple's policy on in-app purchases

News this morning about how Apple killed off iFlowReader, an application exclusive on the iOS platform, by changing the rules in the middle of the game doesn't surprise me. What does surprise me are how some Apple apologists have defended Apple's action. Still, no point arguing with them.

Apple succedded in killing off iFlow Reader, an ebook reader/market competitior to their inferior iBook app is by using a very simple means - force the developer to pay 30% of the selling price of any ebooks they sell via the iOS app. This rule also applies to every other developer planning to sell in-app items. The developer of iFlow already makes less than 30% margin on the books they sell from the publishers, so in effect they are actually taking a loss on each books being sold. How is that for a sustainable business model? It wouldn't even surprise me if Apple wants a 30% cut in groceries ordered via Tesco and Sainsbury's app.

Obviously not all blame can dumped onto Apple, however evil and vile they are (and they are, everybody from Steve Jobs to the robot minions in Best Buy blue uniform at the various Apple Stores). The developers of iFlow Reader were wrong to bet everything they have (more than a million US dollars and equity) on a single platform rather than spreading their risk across multiple mobile platforms like Android, Symbian and Windows Phone. They were willing to do so because of blind faith to the Apple brand (just look at how they branded their ebook app), only to get screwed by Steve Jobs.

Moral of the story? Apple are an evil monopolistic company no different from Microsoft were in the 1990s. Do not develop for a single platform. The same applies to any developers in other industry, particularly third party video games developers who decide to develop exclusively for a single console without any monetary compensation from the platform holder.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What's the point of Google Music?

Apparently Google Music is the next big thing in the music and tech industry.

With the service, currently in beta and is US-only, you can upload 85GB of your music online, and stream them anywhere anytime on any device.

Sounds great? Except it isn't. The benefits are so minuscule I can't see why anybody would want to use this service.

Firstly, why would anyone want to upload 85 GB of music files to the cloud, only to waste more bandwidth to stream again? Most mobile networks are scaling back the amount of bandwidth they give their users - and the few unlimited data options available are expensive. Hell, 85 GB is half of what I am allowed to download on my ISP!

You can't stream while traveling on the Tube or visiting remote places where 3G signals are weak. And even then, good luck with battery. Streaming stuff on 3G can be a bitch and smartphones aren't getting any better when it comes to power optimisation. You could argue that you can play music at a friend's place. Well I could too, by carrying a small cheap harddrive or plugging in my phone. Or are people really that lazy?

Finally Google Music requires Adobe Flash. Right away this limits the use of Google Music to devices that has Flash. And let us not forget that most workplaces (at least those that I know off) has banned the installation of Flash on their computers (with good reasons).

A couple of people have brought up that it could be used as a backup. Well 85 GB isn't even enough to back up 1/8th of my FLAC collection.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Sony Ericsson XPERIA mini and mini pro hands-on

Sony Ericsson yesterday announced the XPERIA mini and mini Pro, successors to the XPERIA X10 mini and X10 mini Pro. I was at the London press conference where I had the chance to go hands-on with the newly announced devices.

Both the XPERIA mini and mini Pro are powered by a 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor with Adreno 205 GPU, the same processor speed that powers their flagship XPERIA Arc and Play, and 512MB RAM. They will run on the latest Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system. The phones features a 3″ LCD display (up from 2.55" from the X10 mini) with HVGA resolution (480 x 320) powered by Sony’s Mobile BRAVIA Engine - a software that optimises the contrast and colour. The 5MP camera on the back (not Exmor-R) is capable of 720p video recording. Both will have the same 1200mAh battery. The XPERIA mini Pro will also feature a front camera with VGA video and four-row slide-out keyboard.

I personally found both the XPERIA mini and mini Pro to be rather cute. Despite being rather thick, they are both comfortable to hold and use. The screen is delightfully responsive and the 3″ screen did not feel as cramped as on the old X10 mini variants. In fact the small screen makes it easier to use Android one-handed as every corner of the screen is within reach. The HVGA resolution ensures that the screen is sharp. The homescreen corner touch UI is similar to the one that came with the XPERIA X10 mini, and is optimised for the small screen. It also contains the same Overview mode that début with the XPERIA Arc, Neo, Play and Pro.

The XPERIA mini Pro’s keyboard was a delightful surprise, in that it was a joy to use. The width of the keyboard is similar to that of a typical candybar QWERTY smartphone (e.g. Blackberry) and is very comfortable to type on. Keys were well spaced and gave good amount of feedback. Both devices are fast to operate thanks to the fast single core 1 GHz Snapdragon processor with Adreno 205 GPU having only to power a HVGA display. The fact that it comes with the latest and greatest Android optimised for smartphone also helps.

With the XPERIA mini and mini Pro, Sony Ericsson has made wide promises on how they will integrate services from other companies deeply into the operating system in order to differentiate from their competitors. Deep Facebook integration that will début with the new phones will allow users to enjoy Facebook features without using a client. If you are tagged in a picture, the picture will be automatically be available from the Gallery application. Similarly all your Facebook photo albums will also be one-tap away. A ‘like’ button in the music player will allow you to share tracks on your Facebook wall. 

Sony Ericsson were keen to stress out that the XPERIA mini and mini Pro are not ‘Facebook phones’ and integrations are also being planned for other social media services like Foursquare and Twitter. They will never put a Facebook logo on the device, nor create a dedicated button like how HTC did with the ChaCha. These integrations will also be made available as an OTA update for Sony Ericsson other XPERIA phones, like the Arc and Pro.

No price or availability has been announced yet but both to go on sale August of this year.