Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sony XPERIA NXT S, P & U hands-on

Last year Sony made clear their intention to combat Apple through a four screen strategy, by leveraging their services across four core product line ups - Bravia (TV), Xperia (smartphone), tablets and laptops - into a single integrated platform. We have already seen Sony rebranding their PlayStation Network (PSN) service to SEN where the ID can be used across their other services. With the rise of Samsung and cheap Asian OEMs, Sony has seen their market share eroded. Sony's strategy on winning back customers is clear: promote integration and make smartphones with memorable and distinctive designs.

Sony announced two new Xperia NXT, the Xperia P and Xperia U smartphones at Mobile World Congress a couple of days ago and today I had a chance to go hands-on with the new devices at a press briefing in London. Available for hands-on are the Xperia P and Xperia U, alongside the previously announced Xperia S. With these new devices comes a new design language, and boy did Sony finally get it right. The translucent bar that separates the main device with the antenna gives it a floating frame view. It may serve no purpose, but it gives the devices a unique look among the sea of boring Android phones.

Do check out my hands-on preview here. In the meantime I will be getting a Xperia S review unit soon so do hit me on Twitter if you have questions.

Nokia Lumia Experience House Soho

The first I heard of Nokia Experience House in Soho was when barely a week after Nokia World in November, I received an email from Nokia UK asking me to drop by their new temporary office to collect a Lumia 800 review unit. This was one of the few moments when a manufacturer offered to meet in person before handing out review units. Most of the time, PR agencies would rather post units to reviewers, which is fine and all especially if you do not live or work in London. But the lack of face to face communication isn't something I particularly enjoy.

The concept of a temporary pop up office set up for tech journalist is certainly intriguing at least from my perspective. There is little doubt that Nokia House was born from a marketing point of view, and there is a good post by my friend Benjamin Fox about the popup office (or Experience House as Nokia calls it) from a digital marketing POV here. But enough waffle, let me tell you tell you a story about the Nokia Lumia Experience House in Soho. Despite the mention of the Lumia 800, this has nothing to do about the phone and more of my experience from a freelance mobile reviewer/blogger's point of view and why holding intimate one-to-one meetup is important to me.
Nokia has been aggressive in making the media gets accessed to Lumia 800 units as quickly as possible, and were very keen to hand them out in person for whatever reason they have. This provides them with the unique opportunity to demonstrate Windows Phone to the many journalists who has yet to experience it, as well as invite visitors to learn the design journey of the Lumia 800. I was joined by three other fellow reviewers on my first visit, one who was the famously outspoken IT columnist Andrew Orlowski (incidentally, Orlowski has been a critic of Nokia's strategy for many years but has been very positive of the Lumia 800 in his review on The Register).

The four of us were ushered to the first floor of the House where a number of demo Lumia 800 were set up with laptops and accessories in stow. We were guided to each demo sections where we were demonstrated each key features of Windows Phone 7, from the social networking side to Microsoft Office integration to SkyDrive, their cloud-based service. Also on demonstration is Nokia Music, an exclusive Nokia app for purchasing and streaming music. I was told that as Nokia House was only a popup event space, it will be gone by Christmas, but we were welcomed to drop by and visit at any time.
While I was impressed by my short visit to the House, the thought of revisiting never occurred to me. That was until two weeks later when my Lumia was 'recalled' to undergo a firmware upgrade. In this visit the ground floor was redecorated and features a more opened space reception where I sat watching columnists from a well known fashion magazine (the title escapes me) receiving one-to-one demonstrations from Nokia training staffs. The unusually warm November sun poured in from Greek Street, giving the reception a nice cosy and intimate feel.

When Nokia extended the lease through the new year, I made several more visits. With each revisit I noticed tiny changes, mainly to the furnishing. The first floor is now furnished with pictures of Nokia House guests and occupants. The reception has been turned into an office for their social media team. The office of course was always opened for the media to use. On my visit to photograph the white Lumia 800, I actually edited the photographs, wrote the post and published from the very office. It was also difficult not to eavesdrop on their discussion a few feet away for a new Facebook competition. The transparency was comforting and at no point did I feel pressurised to pack up and move on.
Last Thursday I received an email from Claire of Nokia Press informing me that Nokia House would close on the 29 February. This came a surprise to me as a couple of weeks ago Mark, the communications chief, excitedly said to me that would be extending the Greek Street HQ up to summer. Obviously the landlord of the building thought differently. So on Friday I decided to pay what may be my final visit to the House, to take pictures for this blog post, but mainly say goodbye and thank the people who ran the House. It was a pleasure to meet Emma again and discuss post her Nokia House gig. It was a shame Mark wasn't in, but I did bump into him later nearby outside.

Very few mobile brands goes the extra mile, though I can always rely on Three UK, Sony Ericsson and indeed Nokia to do so. I have to stress that their forward approach and invitations to parties does not equate to me giving favourable reviews and vice versa. I blogged and tweeted some pretty nasty stuff in the past about all of these brands, and will continue to do so whenever they merit such feedback, like, you know, whenever they release awful products.
Nokia has made countless of bad decisions in the past couple of years, and even continue to do so, so it is nice to see them doing something right for once. I do admit, from a mobile's perspective Nokia isn't a brand that connects to me emotionally (very few brands do anyway). Unlike many mobile enthusiasts I have met, my first, and in fact my next five, phones wasn't a Nokia. Still there is a fascinating history and rich heritage behind the Finnish brand I respect and can't help admire even if I am no fan of all their products. And it wasn't difficult to appreciate the hard work and care that they obviously put into this Experience House.

So thanks to Mark, Emma, Vicki, Matt and others who has always made me feel at home. It is a shame that when the inevitable Windows 8 tablet is announced soon, there will be no Nokia House to look forward to having our hands-on in. I hope Nokia and the other manufacturers will learn something out of this little experiment. After all being social does exist outside that of Twitter and email.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Marvel Avengers Assemble!

Marvel has announced that the much anticipated The Avengers adaptation will be called Marvel Avengers Assemble, in the UK at least. This humorous change in title is presumably made because audiences may get confused with the campy 1960s British spy TV series of the same name. With the title change also comes a new poster, filled with action genericness, exploding stuff and Robert Downey Jr.. Are you sure this isn't Iron Man 3, Marvel?

Title change and generic Hollywood action poster aside, this is one of the few action films I am looking forward to this year. Joss Whedon may have let us down with the spectacularly mediocre Dollhouse, but let's hope this is more Firefly than that, shall we? With a new trailer out tomorrow, and a fast approaching April release date, it won't be long before we find out.
Marvel Studios presents Marvel Avengers Assemble—the superhero team-up of a lifetime, featuring iconic Marvel Super Heroes Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye and Black Widow. When an unexpected enemy emerges that threatens global safety and security, Nick Fury, Director of the international peacekeeping agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D., finds himself in need of a team to pull the world back from the brink of disaster. Spanning the globe, a daring recruitment effort begins.  
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Samuel L Jackson, and directed by Joss Whedon, Marvel Avengers Assemble is based on the ever-popular Marvel comic book series The Avengers, first published in 1963 and a comics institution ever since. Prepare yourself for an exciting event movie, packed with action and spectacular special effects, when Marvel Avengers Assemble hits UK cinemas on 26 April 2012.
Via SFX 

You are not a number

Ever noticed how by being online you are slowly being turned into yet another number? The rise of so-called social media metric services by Klout, Kred and Peer Index has slowly been ruining my experience on Twitter. And not because people using them would tweet button their Kred+ or Klout+ onto Twitter, which is already annoying enough.

I refer to of course to the number game. The age old belief that huge follower number equals that of influence is still popular and while it is true to a certain degree, it is easy to game Twitter and up your numbers artificially. I won't go into details, but one method is through boosting their Kred, Klout and Peer Index number by tweeting endlessly about stuff they obviously have no clue about thus boosting their respective social media metric thingy. Gullible people would then be fooled into thinking that these people are worth following because hei, they have a big score next to their name so they are experts.

This, of course, is bullshit.

So why should I give a shit? Well because some of these people are good Twitter users who has turned evil. They have value I do not want to miss hence why I was following in the first place, but they also dilute their value with nonsense. They would set up some auto tweet some random stuff service so their Klout number would not fall. Stuff like what I am going to tell you next.

I had the misfortune to once read an advice RTed into my timeline. This advice was so ridiculous and stupid in epic proportion you can actually tell that it was crafted by a so called Social Media Guru/Expert/Specialist TM. It went something like this:

"If you want people to RT your tweets then you better start to RT theirs"

I could not remember who it was who retweeted it, nor the person who originally tweeted that but I hope they are reading this: you retweet because you saw a tweet you want to share, not because you want another twitter user to reciprocate. Advice like this ruin my Twitter experience because I do not know if a retweet that just entered my timeline is there because of the user's genuine desire to share, or because they want to game Twitter.

You can follow me on Twitter. But do not worry as I will not be expecting you to RT my miserable tweets to your followers.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Big Egg Hunt in London

For about a month, London will hold host to 209 giant eggs. Dubbed The FabergĂ© Big Egg Hunt, the aim of this rather mad concept is to raise money for two charities, Elephant Family and Action for Children. Today, armed with nothing but a vague idea on where some of the eggs will be, we set off start our quest in finding all 209 eggs. Sadly, two eggs has since been stolen and a couple more vandalised, meaning it is unlikely we will ever complete our quest thanks to a couple of selfish spoilsports. Still it was a fun day and brought us to parts of London that we have never been to despite residing here for many years.

LoveFilm review

I haven't been a LoveFilm subscriber for about two years or so now. It has nothing to do with their service, it just I haven't had much time to watch films and I also decided to wait for them to build up their Bluray collection. Recently I decided to reactivate my account to see if anything has changed, and also to test their streaming films.

I have always been a keen user of LoveFilm's (and ScreenSelect before them) mail DVD service. Nothing beats a good old physical disc when it comes to film. You get the maximum video quality, special features and do not have to deal with bandwidth issues. LoveFilm's The amount of Bluray films on LoveFilm's library has indeed improved, sadly some films remained only available in DVDs. I blame the rights owners for this but it isn't easy to excuse LoveFilm and Amazon for not trying. 

LoveFilm used to be brilliant when it came to sending out DVDs. Sadly this isn't true these days. Long gone were the days when I used to watch three films in a day and send them the next day, only for LoveFilm to immediately dispatch the next three DVDs the following day. It wasn't uncommon for me to receive six discs a week, or perhaps even nine if I was lucky.

Still, I expected I could at least watch three films a week. Even this was a mistake. Turnaround was slow I could walk to a Blockbusters 100 miles away (if there is still one!), and get my film fix first. In the one month I was with LoveFilm this month, I probably received nine films. At one time three days lapsed after they received a disc before dispatching the next! This despite having a reasonable queue of around 15 discs.

Having been bought by Amazon, I had high hopes of LoveFilm. I was wrong of course. With Netflix having now set up a UK operation I expected LoveFilm would buck up. Sadly this was not the case. The streaming library was disappointing. To be fair, part of the issue remains with the film industry for being backwards to new technology like this. Still you would think a giant like Amazon would be able to flex their muscle once in a while. Rubbish streaming or otherwise, the least they could do is try not to screw up their core mail-in business!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Nokia Lumia 710 review

The Lumia 710 is Nokia's second ever Windows Phone smartphone. I have been using it for a couple of weeks, often swapping my Lumia 800 for this depending on my mood. Over my testing period I found that the Lumia 710 has a couple of advantages over the more expensive Lumia 800, mainly it has a user removable battery and a sharper LCD screen that has not been tainted by PenTile technology.

Despite its entry level price, it doesn't come with any of the compromises that you would normally find in budget phone. It runs on Windows Phone 7.5 Mango and has the the same 1.4GHz Snapdragon SoC as its more expensive siblings, the Lumia 800 and Lumia 900, so it is more than capable of running any current Windows Phone applications and games out there. Perhaps the biggest advantage is its 8GB fixed storage, but I doubt many entry level users will be complaining about that.

You can read my full review of the Lumia 710 right here.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Carbon Twitter Client for Windows Phone 7 review

Update 2 (17 October 2012):

A highly critical message to the developer of Carbon used to reside here for a month. Satisfied that he has read the message, I have decided to remove it. You can find the original review below of a product that no longer exist (abandoned), which is a shame as it had plenty of potential.

Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 has an excellent social media integration, including support for Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. Twitter is well integrated within the OS, but it is still missing a tons of functuinality such as searches, trends, reply to all, RTs, multiple accounts and more importantly, direct messages. Until Microsoft expands on the integration, it is up to third party clients to fill the void.

Previous attempts by other third party developers has so far failed to capitalise on this. Most of these apps were plagued by either poor performance, lack of features or just plain broken. For example, Twitter's own official app on Windows Phone 7 isn't fit for purpose, and at times does not work at all.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The North Face E-Tip Gloves review

You may have heard that we have been experiencing a rather cold late winter this year. Even people like me who don't normally wear gloves has taken to wearing one. Unfortunately due to the explosion of smartphones with capacitive touchscreens, using one with gloves is nigh impossible. Enter The North Face E-Tip gloves.

The E-Tip isn't particularly unique. I have seen several gloves using similar conductive material fabrics designed to be used with touchscreen devices. You can even turn your existing gloves into one that can be used with your phone.

The conductive material used by The North Face is a type of fibre called X-Static, which contains a layer of silver which helps prevent the growth of bacteria and regulate temperature. Naturally, it also allows you to touch the display of a smartphone on both thumb and index fingers.

The nice thing about these E-Tip gloves are the additions of silicon grip pattern on the palm side of the gloves, aiding you in gripping whatever device you are holding. There is also a useful small clip that allows you to attach the two gloves together when not in used. The gloves themselves aren't attractive, but at least they are comfortable and provide a level of warmth for urban use.

As with all gloves of this kind, accuracy takes a hit meaning don't expect to be able to type as quick as you normally would without a pair of gloves. It is still accurate enough for general use, but expect plenty of trial and error. Learn to trust your smartphone's auto correct and you will still be able to jot down a quick message easily in between snowman building sessions.

At £30, these gloves aren't cheap but they do provide you with enough warmth and some degree of freedom to use your phone in the cold. I got mine from Snow+Rock, but you can find them in almost any good outdoor kit stores, and even Amazon. There are versions for both male and female, as well as a more expensive called the E-Tip Pamir with GORE Windstopper fabric.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Nokia Lumia 900 brief hands-on

While photographing the white Lumia 800 at the Nokia House this week, for a brief moment, I was shown an early prototype Nokia Lumia 900. The previously announced Lumia 900 is due to hit American telco AT&T next month, with an international version rumoured to be announced later at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

I was asked not to take pictures of the prototype, but the overall hardware design is similar to the one shown at CES 2012 and there are already plenty of press pictures out in the wild, including the leaked white Lumia 900. Curiously, the prototype I was shown did not have an AT&T logo, but there was nothing else to make me believe this was an international Lumia 900/910.

The Lumia 900 features the same design language as the Lumia 800 and Nokia N9. While it looks like flatten Lumia 800 and thus features a larger footprint than its smaller cousin, it still feel light and comfortable to hold. The edge of 4.3" AMOLED CBD display's bezel is also raised, interrupting the smooth curved design somewhat. I was told that it will be gone on the production version. The device I was shown was black, with similar matte finish to that of my black Lumia 800. And yes, the display's glass is flat.

Beneath the unibody polycarbonate body lies components not dissimilar to the Lumia 800, including a Qualcomm Snapdragon SoC with 1.4GHz Scorpion processor and Adreno 205 GPU, 8MP wide angle camera with dual LED flash and a bright Carl Zeiss branded f2.2 lens, 512MB RAM and 16GB storage, plus some upgrades including a larger battery as well as a front facing camera for video calls. The AT&T Lumia 900 also contains a LTE radio, a technology that much of Europe's telco has been dragging their feet to deploy. It will run on Windows Phone 7.5 Mango.

I actually prefer the overall design as well as the feel of the Lumia 800 in my hands, to the prototype Lumia 900 myself but this is just a personal preference. The Lumia 900 does look like a great alternative for people waiting for a Windows Phone Lumia with a larger display and/or front facing camera, so Nokia would be wise to announce its availability in Europe soon.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Nokia Lumia 800 white edition hands-on and gallery

This morning I had a chance to go hands-on with the recently announced Nokia Lumia 800 white edition at the Nokia House in Soho.The device was a prototype, but it looks ready to be released. The finish is indeed glossy, but it complements the colour well and does not show off fingerprints as much as I feared. Apart from the colour, the Lumia 800 here features the same specification as a standard Lumia 800, meaning 1.4GHz Snapdragon SoC, 3.7" AMOLED display with CBD, Windows Phone 7.5 Mango, 8MP camera and 16GB flash storage.

Check out my hands-on report and gallery here.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Three Web Cube hopes to free us from the tyranny of BT

Amid all the snow chaos, here's something that has caught my eyes. And once again it is a new product by Three UK.

When I reviewed the new MiFi v3 (Huawei E586), I wondered if Three's decision to include a cradle with the MiFi was a precursor to something greater - a statement of intent to enter the home broadband market. Well they did - the recently announced Web Cube looks like a great alternative to those without broadband, or those wishing to gain home broadband without the commitment to a telephone line contract by British Telecom. At least for those in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Leeds, where Three is conducting trials.

The HSPA+ certified Web Cube is basically a MiFi all dressed up for home comfort. The sleek case not only looks great, but houses a SIM card to enable instant broadband wherever you are - that is as long as you have a wall socket nearby. While not nearly as flexible as a MiFi, it is sold with a reasonable data plan. I was informed that it would be available for £15 a month on a rolling contract which gets you 10GB worth of data or £15.99 a month on a 24 month contract, which will net you 15GB a month data.

10GB or 15GB a month won't cut it for serial downloaders, and it certainty won't convert me to ditch my fixed line broadband yet. But there is a market for university students who move around a lot. When I was a student, I switched accommodation at least once a year, and because of that, was never able to afford a home broadband package. 10-15GB might not be a lot, but it is plenty for students who will no doubt abuse the internet network at their libraries.

But if Three UK introduce a AYCE plan with this, an has the infrastructure to support such heavy downloads - then I can see this is a suitable replacement to fixed line broadband. ;)

So what do you think? Would the Web Cube be enough to ditch BT?