Friday, November 18, 2011

My top 10 apps for Windows Phone 7

It's been over a year since I introduced Windows Phone 7 to you fine readers. Back then I lamented on what a refreshing Metro UI Windows Phone 7 offers, but the lack of features meant that it isn't quite ready for prime time yet. Since then the platform has slowly matured to something that not only looks pretty, but actually useful. Gone are the days where you can't copy and paste or multitask. Still while Mango tastes delicious, it still some way to go before it matches both iOS and Android in terms of functionality.

But never mind that, Windows Phone 7.5 Mango is about explode thanks to Nokia with the new Lumia 800. HTC and Samsung has also refreshed their lineup with the HTC Titan and Radar, and Samsung Focus Flash and Focus S. There will be many new users to the refreshing platform, some who probably has never owned a smartphone before, though I suspect many would be Symbian refugees jumping their sinking ship.

A good place to start discovering apps would be the Marketplace, but even with 30,000 apps and counting, the Marketplace's poor search has proven difficult to obtain that rare good app. One of my favourite app discovery, urm, app is AppFlow, where apps are curated by Windows Phone fans. These includes apps that has been optimised for Mango (Live Tiles, fast app switching) and hidden gems.

Well, here are my top 10 apps for Windows Phone 7 anyway:

A sophisticated ad-ware supported ebook reader with support for the standard ePub format. Download and read free books on Project Gutenberg, or upload your own ebooks via Dropbox. It is simple, and yet deep inside the menus you will find a huge amount of advance settings to make your reading experience a bit more personalised.

TuneIn Radio
With a database of over 50,000 radio stations from around the world, TuneIn Radio is one of the best legal ways to obtain free music on the go, assuming you have a data plan (and you should). Stations can be sorted by genre and locations, and also be pinned to the start screen.

LDN Travel
The Lite version offers basic but still useful status updates of the London Tube. More importantly however, the app also allows you to check your Oyster card balance - how cool is that? The paid-for version includes a licensed tube map, journey planner, bus times and departure countdown, just so you can eke that extra one minute in bed.

Bingle Maps
Bing Maps is actually rather good, in Britain at least, but at times you may want an alternative perspective. Well Bingle Maps uses Google Maps as its source and even includes satellite view, as well as search feature.

The best thing about Windows Phone 7 are the live tiles, and StickyTiles takes that concept further allowing you to apply virtual sticky notes onto the home screen. Need a quick reminder to buy that pint of milk? Just stick it on your home screen.

My ContacTile
This nifty app allows you to quickly share your contact info with other users, by way of generating a QR code. This QR code can then be pinned to the home screen, ready to be scanned by anybody with a smartphone. Moo cards are great, but how many of you really pay attention to them? I have collected so many of them over meetups but never have the time to type it all in my phone book. This ensures that your contact gets copied immediately.

new group*
A rather simple app that enables you to create a tile heading, so you can better manage the home screen, allowing you to divide your live tiles into 'sections'. Okay, it isn't the best solution to an ever populated start screen, but until Microsoft allows sub-folder tiles, this is the second best solution.

There are plenty of weather apps available on the Windows Phone marketplace, but WeatherDuck is free (ad-ware) and supports ten day weather forecasts and background updates. And yes, WeatherDuck also supports two-face Live Tiles for multiple cities.

Disappointed that the default Phone app does not support smart dialing? Look no further. TrueDialer's dialpad will search your contacts as you type. It doesn't do much else, but it doesn't need to.

4th & Mayor
The official Foursquare client may look nice, but the menu isn't particularly intuitive and is slow. 4th & Mayor boots up to show immediately where your friends are, which is what Foursquare is all about. Checking in is a tap away while exploring the area is a swipe away.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Nokia Lumia 800 with Windows Phone 7.5 build 7740

Report on the internet today suggests that Microsoft is pushing the Windows Phone 7.5 Mango build 7740 update on a small portfolio of phone. Nokia is also said to preparing to push 7740 update to the new Lumia 800 soon.

Yesterday Nokia reflashed my Lumia 800 from a prototype software to one that is running Windows Phone 7.5 build 7740. No official changelog was provided to me, but the 7740 is said to improve stability with Microsoft Exchange 2003 and voicemail notification. This isn't a Nokia-specific fix as these fixes will also be delivered to other Windows Phone handsets made by other manufacturers.

OS Built: 7.10.7740.16
FW: 1600.2479.7740.11451

The update has also fixed the power management issue that plagued all the review units running on prototype software. I have also noticed that the Lumia 800 feels snappier than before it was flashed, but perhaps that was because it was running on a prototype firmware. The speed difference between retail ROM and the 7740 update is likely to be negligible. Internet Sharing has not been included yet, as is an update to fix the camera performance and image quality. Nokia has confirmed that such fixes will come at later date.

Nokia has also included several third party apps within the 7740 update. These includes eBay, British Airways, Sky News, Ministry of Sound and TripAdvisor. Fortunately, all of these apps can be uninstalled.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Nokia Music with offline Mix Radio

Nokia Music, the radio mix player for Windows Phone 7 has finally been updated to support offline mode. The mode, which was demonstrated to us at Nokia World, allows for users to download mixes for offline listening. Similar to Spotify, except it is free. On the downside, each mixes are curated, so you won't be getting the freedom as you get with Spotify.

It is worth noting that while the app integrates itself with the Zune player, Nokia Music is still a separate app. So expect to see the splash screen each time you launch it. Still as it a Windows Phone 7.5 Mango-compatible app, you can easily switch to it quickly via fast application switching method.

Once inside Nokia Music you can easily listen to your music files, buy mp3 files or check for gigs nearest to you. Tapping on a gig listing will bring up details of the gig itself, as well as direct shortcuts to purchase tickets. Gigs can be pinned as a live tile, as well as viewed on the Bing Map.

However more importantly with the new Nokia Music brings the aforementioned offline mode. To download a mix for offline listening, simply tap on a genre and look for a mix you want. Once a mix has been chosen, tap it to play or hold down to make it available offline.

As there are 100+ mixes to choose over ten genres, with each mixes holding roughly 20-30 tracks, there's plenty of music to be discovered here. Mixes are also regularly updated, which can be refreshed from the offline menu. All mixes, downloaded or otherwise, can be pinned as a live tile. Sadly only four mixes can be downloaded for offline listening at any one time.

You can also create custom mixes. By searching for a favourite artist, Nokia Music will create a custom playlist of music that matches the one of your favourite artists. This is similar to the similar artists radio mode, and works just as well. Unfortunately custom mixes can not be made available offline.

There are however a couple of downsides. The most obvious is you can only skip up to six tracks per hour. This is a limitation that, I presume, has been imposed by the record labels. While Nokia Music doesn't provide the user with the same freedom as Spotify does, but it is hard to argue when you do not have a monthly subscription to pay to listen on your mobile. I also wish that it would support custom search for gigs, for example in a different city or date rather than just the one closest to you. I would also like to see integrated not only with Nokia Music, but the Zune player so I can scrobble my plays.

After just a day with the new Nokia Music, I am finding it indispensable for music discovery on the go. Offline mode is a highly useful feature as not everyone has access to fast 3G Internet all the time, especially here in London where network congestion are frequent. Is it worth buying a Lumia just for Nokia Music? Perhaps not. But if you are going to get one anyway, Nokia Music is one of the few invaluable apps you can find bundled in any smartphone right now.

Nokia Music with offline Mix Radio should be available as a Marketplace update for the new Nokia Lumia 800 now.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

HTC Sensation XL first impressions

I have been using the HTC Sensation XL as my main smartphone for the past 24 hours, and boy is this phone big. The 4.7" Super LCD screen with 480x800 resolution is 0.4" bigger than the one found on my Samsung Galaxy S2. 0.4" does not sound massive, but the difference is huge. It makes all the other phones I have tested in the past felt like they were made for children. It is available now in the UK on the Three network.
Whether or not you think a 4.7" screen is ideal, there is little sign that this trend will stop, in fact Samsung has announced a smartphone with a gigantic 5.3" screen. Fortunately there are companies out there who has decided to buck the trend of making unweidly devices, like the Lumia 800 with its more mainstream 3.8" screen. Still, there will always be people who believe larger equals better, and in some who doesn't, and that's where choices are.
HTC is marketing the Sensation XL as an audiophile portable music player, thanks to their agreement with Monster. Yes, a pair of Monster urBeats IEM is bundled with the phone. Me being a sceptic of all things Monster brand will definitely be testing HTC's claim that the 'With Beats Audio' really isn't just another snake oil sold by Monster. So do keep an eye out for my review, to be published right here.

In the mean time, read my hands-on preview right here.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Nokia Lumia 800 review

Nokia announced the Lumia 800 at last week's Nokia World 2011 in London, barely eight months after Stephen Elop announced in the now infamous Mobile World Congress press conference, that Symbian was dead, and that they were going Windows Phone 7. A few days after Nokia World ended, Nokia started handing out Lumia 800 review units to the UK press.

This is an impressive turnaround from the old days when Nokia would announce a phone, only to ship them months later. In fact the Nokia Lumia 800 will actually go on sale on 16 November in Britain. I have even seen working demo units in mobile phone retailers like Phones 4U and the Carphone Warehouse. And people were writing Nokia off as late as October, claiming Nokia were unable to ship their first ever Windows Phone 7 smartphone until Q1 2012.

The Lumia 800, as Nokia's first mass market smarthone with an OS that isn't built in-house, delivers with aplomb. Well partly anyway, but the design of the Lumia 800 is so unique, so refined and so well thought out, it is easy to overlook its shortcomings. This is Nokia's sexiest smartphone to date, and is their most desirable smartphone in many many years.

Windows Phone 7 might not be for everyone, but it is sleek, fast and Metro UI offers a user experience second to none. This is the first genuine alternative for those seeking an alternative to the duopoly that is Apple iOS and Google Android. For those willing to break away from the me-too crowd, the Lumia 800 is a genuine article worth considering. Read my review on FoneArena to find out why.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Nokia Lumia 800 preview

I have had the Nokia Lumia 800 for two days now. It's a lovely device and one I am enjoying using as my current main smartphone. While I continue testing and work on my review of the Lumia 800, do check out a couple of videos of the device in operation I have made for FoneArena. You can read the original hands-on review of Nokia Music and Nokia Drive here.

Nokia Lumia 800 UI tour:

Nokia Drive:

Nokia Music:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Nokia Lumia 800 unboxing

Well here is it folks, the Nokia Lumia 800. Barely a week since it was announced at Nokia World 2011, Nokia has begun handing them out to the press, and boy am I in love. Nokia's first ever Windows Phone 7 smartphone is a product of love, and you can see why. The neat small blue box is well thought out with all the bundled accessories easily accessible. Hell, I even got excited about the bundled case.

The Lumia 800 is made of a single polycarbonate piece, and you can see why the hardware design has been so well received. It isn't any old slouch either. The 1.4 GHz single core Qualcomm processor is speedy enough, and combined with Windows Phone 7 Mango, the Lumia 800 flies. 512MB of RAM, a none-expendable 16GB storage , WiFi, Bluetooth and 8MP AF camera with Carl Zeiss optics completes the specs tour. Unfortunately I have found the camera to be rather poor in comparison to the Samsung Galaxy S II. I was told that the Lumia 800 I have is a prototype, so here's hoping a firmware update will improve the performance of the camera.

I have always been a keen admirer of Windows Phone 7, and in fact wished Nokia took the step earlier in embracing this OS. In my mind there is no doubt that this is the correct decision, but whether or not consumers will accept it is an entirely different matter altogether. Regardless the Lumia 800 is a fine piece of kit and I am determined to put it through its paces. Watch this space.