Friday, June 22, 2012

The Android'isation of the Windows Phone 8 start screen

Now that the dusts has settled and I have had a chance to study closely the screenshots of the new Windows Phone 8, it has finally come to my attention how much Microsoft has compromised with Windows Phone 8 in their chase for bigger marketshare.

I present to you the new start screen that will soon grace your Windows Phone devices:
Cluttered. Generic. Ugly
That's some ugly mess up there, don't you agree?

The move towards a symmetrical design and introduction of tiny live tiles has resulted in Windows Phone 8 now looking like a cluttered mess resembling the typical grid layout employed by many bog standard mobile OSes, just with live tiles instead of icons. Where is the neutral space? It actually looks like a poor imitation, a third party launcher made by a third party developer who was attempting to mimic the original Windows Phone 7 homescreen, but has somehow forgotten the core Metro principal that made Windows Phone 7 so aesthetically pleasing, elegant and classy to see and use.

I appreciate the ability to resize tiles (it's an option after all, one that I would choose not to use). But to those who weren't planning on resizing tiles (like me), well the new symmetrical home screen will actually shows less medium size tiles compared to Windows Phone 7 (six versus eight). Think about that. The whole point about the original Windows Phone homescreen and live tiles was about information at a glance. Now tell me how you can glance at that cluttered mess up there with all those stupid tiny tiles? It is amazing how, with one fell swoop, Microsoft has managed to turn Windows Phone from a beautiful OS to an ugly one. I know small tiles will be optional, but it won't be for us who wanted eight medium tiles to show at any one time.
Information at a glance
As someone who has long championed the unique interface of Windows Phone 7, I am more disappointed than angry with the decision makers at Microsoft Windows Phone division, who has caved in and allowed one of the most beautiful asset and aspect of Windows Phone Metro user interface to be lobotomised and ravaged. Have the designers at Microsoft's Windows Phone division not have the will to follow through what they once believed in?

You know, I can deal with old devices being left behind. It is the violation of Metro UI that I can't stand. Microsoft has made a big deal about core aesthetic values of Metro UI, and and how important the whole 'less is more' concept is. It seems that with Windows Phone 8, Microsoft developers and designers are stamping on that very belief and philosophy. In fact, the one thing that scares me more about the future of Windows Phone, is that if something as sacred as the Windows Phone 7 start screen is considered expendable by their creators, so are the rest of Metro! I can already see the reintroduction of scroll bars and even Apple'esque skins (oh, the horrors!) in future iterations.

I hope the people who has whinged about the start screen on Windows Phone 7 are happy. You have just made Windows Phone 8 look like yet another generic, ugly and cluttered mobile OS. Urgh. I live in hope that the final version of Windows Phone 8 will have options to revert to the old style asymmetrical off-center start screen - I really want that negative space back dammit!

When will you stop breaking my heart, Microsoft?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Windows Phone 8 announced

Microsoft today detailed the next version of Windows Phone Apollo, Windows Phone 8. No doubt the information passed down by Redmond today will have to be digested first, but it seems to have gone down well by my Twitter followers.

First up, the new Windows Phone 8 will run on the same shared Windows NT kernel and C and C++ libraries that will power Windows 8 and Windows RT. How exciting is that? Microsoft has effectively announced the first single platform running from desktop, tablets, laptops and smartphones. This means developers can easily reuse code to deploy their apps on all Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 platform. It also means better display support (Windows Phone 8 will support 480x800, 720x1280 and 768x1280 resolution) as well as multi-core processor support.

As Windows Phone 8 will have support for native DirectX 11 code, game devs can now release the same games on Windows 8 desktop, tablets and Windows Phone 8 smartphones. Windows Phone 7 runs better on a single core processor than an Android device with quad core processor, so it is certainly exciting to see multi-core processors supported with Windows Phone 8. Other changes includes the much requested expansion storage support, NFC payment and customisation. Yes, Windows Phone 8 will include a new homescreen with resizeable live tiles. I am not entirely too convinced by this as Windows Phone 7 has always been about offering UI consistency. Still, it is entirely optional and will at least appease those who has complained that live tiles are 'too large'.

Microsoft will also be deploying Nokia's mapping technology - effectively giving Nokia another cash flow in terms of licensing fees. A win-win for Nokia and Microsoft. In addition to that, Microsoft has also demo'ed the new Internet Explorer 10 with improved JavaScript and HTML5 performance. Skype and other third party VoIP will also be integrated into Windows Phone 8. Windows Phone 7 apps will also be recompiled by Microsoft to ensure they work on Windows Phone 8. Microsoft has also detailed background tasks and introduced 'real multitasking'. Finally, OTA updates will be delivered to the devices with updates promised for at least 18 months.

Now some bad news for current Windows Phone 7 owners, there will be no upgrade path for us lot. Current devices like the Nokia Lumia 800 will receive Windows Phone 7.8 update, bringing UI enhancement but you won't be getting anything like the new Windows NT kernel. It is certainly disappointing to see older devices get the cull, but it is probably necessary due to technology limitations. Other than that, Microsoft has reassured that Windows Phone 7.8 will feel and look just like Windows Phone 8.

Microsoft has slapped Google down this week, first with Surface and now Windows Phone 8. It is an exciting time to be a mobile technology fan, after years of putting up with sub-par UI. Don't get me wrong - Android is sleek, but the UI in both ICS and Honeycomb, are just a bloody mess. If executed properly, Microsoft will not only bring a mobile OS with brilliant UI and UX, but also the power and feature parity that mobile geeks craved. If this will give Google a kick in the arse to pay attention to the actual user interface of their Android platform, then better still. At the end of the day, us consumers will win.

Update: It appears that Microsoft has caved in and screwed up with the design of Windows Phone 8.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Microsoft announced Windows 8 Surface tablet, shows OEM partners how it is done

Microsoft today announced a range of Surface tablets running on the upcoming Windows 8 operating system. No doubt some of you have read about it as it has been covered by every news site and blogs (sorry). There will be two version of Microsoft Surface tablets, one that runs on ARM processor and Windows 8 RT (Runtime), and the other an Intel-powered Windows 8 Pro tablet.

The Windows 8 RT Surface tablet will be powered by an NVIDIA Tegra-based ARM chipset. It will be available with either 32 or 64GB capacity and comes with a 10.6" HD touch panel. Microsoft has not announced pricing or availability other than it will be priced similarly to other comparable Windows 8 RT tablets at launch, sometime in September or October of this year.

The more exciting of the two Surface tablets is the (likely to be more) expensive Windows 8 Pro tablet. Again, no pricing has been announced but it is fair to say that it will be priced similarly to an Ultrabook/Macbook Air laptop. Considering it is essentially an Ultrabook convertible tablet, I expect it to be so. Unlike the Surface RT, the Surface Pro will be powered by an all dancing, all singing Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5 processor, with capacities ranging from 64 to 128GB.
It will weigh 903 grams, hefty compared to ARM-based tablets like the iPad and Windows 8 RT Surface, but also light when you compare to Ultrabooks or other x86 tablets like the ThinkPad X220. The 10.6" display is full HD, meaning it has a resolution of 1080p, and will be protected by GorillaGlass 2. It will be available three months after Windows 8 is launched, so expect it around January or February of 2013. Both devices will come with built-in stand. A detachable cover with built in multi-touch keyboard will also be made available.

With the specs and facts out of the way, it is time for some wild speculations. I am going assume that the Surface RT tablet will be powered by either a Tegra 3 4-PLUS-1 SoC or newer next generation Cortex A15-based Tegra. I certainly hope it would be the latter or will be slightly disappointed that Microsoft has not gone for the more modern Qualcomm's Krait-powered Snapdragon S4 rather than the now architecturally outdated Tegra 3.

Price wise, I expect the Windows 8 RT tablet to start from £399 and the Windows 8 Pro slate to start from £699. This is effectively what I would be willing to pay personally for the base model of a tablet with similar specs, and is in line with my expectations on how each should be priced - depending on the built quality of course. Incidentally, a Macbook Air 11 with an Ivy Bridge Core i5 processor and 64GB storage costs £849.
I suspect Microsoft has decided not to release a detailed spec sheet as well as pricing information as Autumn 2012 is still a long way away and anything can happen between now and then (it's an eternity in tech). I still live in hope that Microsoft will change the aspect ratio from 16:9 to 16:10 or even better, 4:3. It seems that only Apple and HP gets that 4:3 is the perfect aspect ratio for tablets. Still this is likely to be wishful thinking.

As for accusations that Microsoft has essentially sidelined their OEM partners, well tough luck. Hardware partners haven't been exactly doing their bit what with undesirable Windows Phone 7 smarpthones (bar the Nokia Lumia 800 and certain HTC devices) and Windows 7 notebooks. Hopefully this will inspire OEMs to develop something a bit more compelling than the me-too products they have been dumping on the Android market. I am still waiting for Lenovo to announce a Windows 8 ThinkPad tablet product, and if this will spur them to make a better product then so be it.

I am personally very optimistic and excited by Windows 8. Microsoft's foray into dedicated tablet hardware is well overdue. With a design that not only looks original and exciting, all I can say is finally some exciting alternatives to some pretty mediocre Android tablets. It is about time a manufacturer steps up and be willing to offer a decent alternative to the mighty iPad.

As the poster boys for Windows 8, I hope Microsoft doesn't deliberately cheapen the Surface tablets in order to get them on the market for cheap. They are OEMs whose business model revolves around just that. Microsoft would do well to set an example to OEMs via premium quality tablets aimed at promoting Redmond's swinging new OS to first adopters. Bring on Fall 2012!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Retro phone heaven: Ericsson T28s

This, folks, is the best phone ever made. When it was released in 1999, the Ericsson T28s became aninstant classic. It was, quite literally, the phone to get. I bought this Ericsson T28s via Singlepoint 4U (remember them?) back when it was released. It was only my second ever mobile phone (my first was the Motorola StarTac - another classic in mobile phone design).

I loved the design of this Ericsson flip phone so much that upon my contract renewal, I decided to obtain another T28s. I eventually replace it with the equally brilliant T39m (featuring the same keyboard flip minus the spring action button). These days smartphone (and even dumbphones) features the same boring looking slabs with only a few manufacturers putting much emphasis on design. But back in the late nighties and early noughties, design played a far more important roll in the production process and indeed, the marketing of such devices.
Today I dug out my T28s from the drawer, alongside two disconnected batteries. Amazingly, despite having not been switched on for almost a decade, both batteries were still holding their charge, one at around 30% the other 60%! In fact, upon inserting a spare o2 sim card, the device promptly adjusted the timezone, clock and date! Amazing. Not even the iPhone does that. Okay, it probably does, but I bet the first generation iPhone didn't.

Now I only need to source a charger and I am ready to rock this phone as my main device for a day. With Twitter via SMS, I can't wait! Anyone care to donate me one? Scratch that, is anyone willing to part with a R380?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Three launches AYCE EU data roaming package

I have some pretty neat news for readers who frequently travel to the EU from Three UK. Starting from this week, Three UK monthly customers will be able to enjoy all you can eat internet on their smartphone whilst in Europe. For a fiver a day, customers will not have to worry about overspending and running up a massive bill even when they move between countries.

This is good news for Three customers who love to hop on the Eurostar and wander around the mainland continent. There are alternatives of course, but each will likely require you to swap sim cards, not to mention having to research for each network in each European nation. This will take a huge load off for data hungry travelers  particularly those who frequently visit Europe on business. Imagine that, no more worries about having to use dodgy internet cafes to upload your photos to Facebook.

For those who are on a long holiday, the £5 a day internet pass is quite a lot. Data light users like me will want to research for local sims or roaming deals with their respective couriers first before jumping. But if you are a data heavy user, look no further.

Nokia Lumia 610 review

I will get right to the point. The Lumia 610 is Nokia's biggest mistake when it comes to their Windows Phone 7 portfolio. Their strategy of racing to the bottom has backfired badly. Core Windows Phone 7 features like Live Tiles has been disabled no thanks to the compromise made with the RAM. While built-in apps has not suffered much, third party apps suffers from incompatibility issues, as well as inability to update its content in the background and update their Live Tiles.

It is difficult to comprehend why Nokia and/or Microsoft chose this route for Windows Phone when the OS philosophy has always been about standardisation, none-compromises and fending of potential fragmentation. I admire Nokia's strategy of getting the price of Windows Phone devices lower, but not when it alters the usability of Windows Phone.

At the end of the day, all I can say is the Lumia 610 and Windows Phone Tango should be treated as none-canon to the Windows Phone family and should thus be ignored and forgotten forever.

Read on my review on FoneArena to see why exactly I found the Lumia 610 to be a failure.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Sony Mobile Xperia U camera samples

I have been testing the Sony Xperia U's camera more and the conclusion I came up in my review of the device still stands. Images are good enough for posting on the web (like on here), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. But upon closer inspection, details are lacking and often fuzzy in nature revealing an over aggressive use of post processing. The quality of pictures taken are just average at best, colours are dull and the dynamic range is poor. It isn't a fast camera as well, taking time to focus particularly when shooting close ups. So good enough for web shots but don't try to get it on paper.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Sony Mobile Xperia U review

The Xperia U is Sony's newest entry level smartphone aimed at replacing the demunitive Xperia Ray. For a small smartphone, it is rather well equipped with specs that would make more expensive and bigger phones blush with envy. However is a small smartphone now a handicap? Read on to find out. But first let's get those pesky specs out of the way, shall we?
  • STE U8500 NovaThor SoC with dual core 1GHz processor
  • Mali-400MP GPU
  • 512MB RAM
  • 8GB Flash Storage
  • 3.5 inch LCD 'Reality Display' with 480x854 resolution
  • 5MP camera with autofocus, 720p30 video recording
  • Quad band GSM
  • Dual band/Tri band 3G (depending on model) HSDPA 14.4Mbps
  • WiFi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1
Part of Sony's new range of 'NXT' Xperia 2012 smartphones, the Xperia U features a similar design to the flagship Xperia S and Xperia P. Equipped with a 3.5" display, it is also quite a bit smaller, but with a resolution of 480x854, it is also pretty sharp. While the LCD screen does not perform well under strong sunlight and the maximum brightness isn't quite as bright as it should, it is powered by Sony's BRAVIA engine enhancing contrast and colour saturation.