Monday, August 18, 2014

Ericsson T28s (1999): In Search of the Icon in 2014

I would never have imagined myself touching this mobile relic again in 2014. The Ericsson T28s is one of the most iconic GSM mobile devices during the turn of the 21st century. The T28s holds a special place in my heart because it was the priciest mobile phone I've ever owned.



The Ericsson T28 was launched 15 years ago in late 1999. Back then, it was retailing for over S$1000, so you could imagine how premium this phone was. The other premium phone that was competing for the Singapore market at that time was Nokia 8850, which I already possess.

The T28 has an amazingly thin battery made of Lithium Polymer, the first mobile phone to use it. Its keypad is covered by the automatic flip mouthpiece which automatically answers your call when you do. Hanging up is just as easy: just close the flip. Ericsson was ahead of its time, accessorising the mobile warriors with the first-ever attachable MP3 player and the Bluetooth mono headset. It supports voice dialing, has games like Tetris and Solitaire.



How did I get to possess this gem in this day of age? I came across a Twitter post mentioning that someone in Malaysia was selling it, but when I dug deeper, I found it doesn't ship to Singapore. A quick search led me to this other seller who ships to Singapore. There are actually a lot of sellers in China but I am not too confident of the condition after reading online comments. Plus, the shipping time takes way too long and the price is not much different.

This Malaysian seller posted real product images and has claimed on his site that the T28s is in "perfect condition" and carries a 1-year warranty. Did I actually believe they are perfect? Of course not, but to make that claims on the website means the units must definitely look the part. After getting a friend who works in Malaysia to help out in clarifying the purchase, he managed to find out that the same seller will ship to Singapore when ordering from his own website, which accepts PayPal. That means I no longer need to go through him to make the purchase.

Price? RM200 + RM10 processing fee (S$80).

10 days after I made the order, the phone finally arrived, well packed and protected with several layers. The package comes in a "Sony Ericsson" box with a China domain name. Inside the box contains the phone, the battery, the 2-pin charger and a 3-pin adapter.


When I held the T28s in my hand, I knew immediately that it is not made of the original material, because I have used the original before. The plastic feels too crisp to be 15 years old, the logo prints are blotchy and not detailed enough, the rear grey panel is smooth plastic coating instead of rough denser metal mould.



I suppose the only original part was the internal board, which is certainly more important, as I noticed some PCB rusting. Fortunately, my brief test shows that the internals seem to work well: phone calls clarity, speaker, mic, ringtone, LED, vibration, buttons, menu navigation, all works. Using my nano SIM with the appropriate SIM adapter is not a problem on the T28s.



If you are also interested to get hold of the Ericsson T28s, the website seems to have a lot of quantity. It also has other retro models like T39, Nokia 8850, Motorola RAZR series. Visit ShadyMobile.com, order one, and relive a part of your technological past.





Saturday, August 16, 2014

Xiaomi Redmi Note: Too Cheap To Be Too Good

Xiaomi is practically outselling all smartphone brands in Singapore in recent months. When Redmi Note opened its online order for the first time, the stocks are completely snapped up in less than 1 minute. Same for second wave 2 weeks later. No one can resist the unbelievable price of S$199 and respectable spec on-paper.



Specification


  • Processor: Mediatek MT6592 1.7 GHz Octa-Core
  • Display: 5.5” IPS LCD (1280x720) 312 ppi
  • OS: Android 4.2.2 Android Jelly Bean
  • SIM: Dual SIM slots, standard size
  • Memory: 2G RAM, 8GB built-in storage, Optional USB OTG, Micro SD slot support up to 32GB
  • Camera: 13MP auto-focus, LED flash, Video MPEG-4 1080p @ 30fps both recording and playback
  • Connectivity: WLAN 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, A-GPS, micro-USB 2.0 connector charging and USB OTG, 3.5mm Audio connector, Dual Mics and 1 common 2-way receiver.
  • Audio: supports codecs MP3, AAC, AAC+, AMR, WB-AMR, MIDI, OGG
  • Networks: WCDMA 900/2100, GSM/EDGE 900/1800/1900
  • Data speed: DC-HSDPA+ 42Mbps, HSUPA 5.7Mbps
  • Battery: 3,100 mAh Lithium Polymer battery
  • Size: 154 x 78.7 x 9.45 mm
  • Weight: 199g



I finally placed a successful order in the third wave and received it within a week. I bought it for my mum, but before I passed it to her, I opened it up for a quick review.

Packaging and Design

I like the simplistic brown packaging with clean labels, which reminded me of IKEA. The smartphone box only contains the phone, USB cable and quick start guide. Xiaomi packs the charger separately so that the main package is standardised throughout the world while only the charger needs to be regionalised. Xiaomi also includes a pair of SIM adapter so that consumers can use their micro SIM with the Redmi Note.



The Redmi Note weighs 199 grams with battery, but does not feel that heavy due to the larger mass. The rear battery casing is made of glossy plastic that attracts grease and probably scratch-prone. The casing material feels cheap which is unfortunate because the casing is the most touched area. If Xiaomi were to use a better material, the whole experience would have been different. Getting a protective case is highly recommended.



At first look, the IPS display quality appears good. The viewing angle is wide and there is no apparent colour tone deviations. However, I find the display screen is not evenly backlit, so for consumers who are extremely particular, they would be sorely disappointed.



People always ask whether Redmi Note is too big, and my answer is that it depends on your usage behaviour and expectations. If you feel your current screen is sufficient, then you are better off to stick to a device around the same screen size. For me, I am very used to large screens, so the Redmi Note feels right.

MIUI

Xiaomi custom UI is arguably one of the more innovative Android UI variant. While most of the Android makers' UI are largely similar, Xiaomi's MIUI offers such different experience that one would almost be lost when using it for the first time.

Actually, MIUI closely resembles iOS where all the installed apps appear on the home screens and there is no separate app drawer. Even the recent apps are also presented in a single horizontal row. Xiaomi even has its own Mi Cloud platform for messaging over data. What's good is that the apps in the folders are unlimited in size, unlike iOS or Android where it's limited to what the screen can fit. Under the Settings, you will find 2 tabs. The General tab contains the usual Android Settings layout while the Quick tab contains the more frequently used settings that consumers would look for.



The UI offers lots of customisation possibilities, from the way the notification shortcut buttons are displayed, to the UI themes. I like how easy it is to change the themes and wallpapers as Xiaomi offers an extensive online library of downloads. Some apps like Note and Music support on-screen gestures, so when doing a swipe-down action on these app icons, a pop-up screen appears to let you use the app immediately instead of opening a full-window screen. The Browser app is also preset with a startup page full of useful links for the consumer to surf around.



Xiaomi is generous in including third-party apps and bundle it under theirs. For instance, the Security app contains a suite of functions like Cleaner to empty your cache, Data Usage to track your data, Power to configure battery usage profile, Virus Scan to check for rouge apps, Permission to list down the accessibility of your apps.



Interaction Experience

While the Redmi Note specs appear impressive (8-core!), the hands-on experience feels otherwise. The phone occasionally feels sluggish with screen stutters when scrolling, and I find the transition animations slow down the overall navigation. Though the device gets higher score on Antutu and Quadrant benchmarks compared to ASUS Zenfone 6, I feel the Zenfone 6 runs smoother.

Camera operation is similarly slow, and the 13MP images have considerable compression artefacts despite selecting high quality setting. Actually, I do not spot any visible differences compared to "low"quality setting. Speaker is clear though it sounds thin, and I like the ability to listen to FM Radio even without plugging in earphones.



When I use some apps for the first time, it would warn me on permission issues. As an advanced user, I appreciate the warning as I could block any unwanted access, but non-techie users might be daunted when they start to explore the device. If they picked the wrong selection, they would need to go to the Permission settings to seek out the app and rectify the selection.


Still, it's a good thing that MIUI allows you to manage the apps permissions in detail, so you can really lock down apps to prevent any access whatsoever. This is something that non-MIUI devices could not support unless your phone is rooted.



Conclusion

MIUI is an impressive overhaul of Android UI which I quite appreciate, but the experience is dented by intermittent sluggishness. The performance just does not feel as polished as the other more experienced brand manufacturers. The MIUI is a mixed bag of functionality: on one hand, it is designed to be user-friendly; on the other hand, there are extensive advanced features (like managing permissions) that a basic user might not be able to handle.

The Redmi Note nonetheless offers a great price for the general consumers who do not need power performance and who likes the refreshing interface without the often-critiqued Android experience. And it only costs S$199.



Reviewed by Chester Tan
Rating: 3.8 of 5

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pushbullet: Mirror Notification and Share Info To Multiple Devices

While you were busy working on your desktop or laptop, have you ever missed any notifications on your smartphone? Pushbullet will end this problem by mirroring the notification from your smartphone to your computer. You can either install a Windows app, Chrome extension, or Firefox extension. You can also disable selective apps from forwarding notification.



Additionally, Pushbullet also let you send URL links, files, to-do list, addresses, to multiple devices and even to friends with Pushbullet app. I find it immensely useful when say I found some useful information on one device and wants to pass the information to another devices. With Pushbullet, I can easily send to the device and pick up from there, without having to re-enter the information from scratch, or go through laborious file transfer methods.


Pushbullet is available in multiple platforms. Visit https://www.pushbullet.com/apps for the list.

Android Download link: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.pushbullet.android&hl=en

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Fireworks with Samsung NX30 (Happy National Day, Singapore!)

In Singapore, there are only a few ways to display our celebration mood. One of the ways is a fireworks display, and most of my photographer friends will never miss chances of capturing awesome images.


My wife works at MBFC so we were able to get in during one of the Saturday NDP rehearsals. It's definitely not the most scenic spots, but it's a great place to enjoy the fireworks up close, air-conditioned, and in privacy. When we were there, there was already another guy setting up with his DSLR and tripod. I made a decision to travel light, so all I brought was the Samsung NX30 and 18-55mm lens without a tripod.

No tripod? Then how could I capture long-exposure shots?


Samsung NX30 has this nifty feature called Remote Viewfinder. With that, I was able to frame the images via my Android device, adjust all the exposure settings, and trigger the shutter. So I placed the NX30 on the window ledge, took a few test shots, and readied for the big bang. Initially I set to 3-second exposure, but along the way, I dropped the exposure to 1.3 second as I found that the shutter drag resulted in over-exposed and blur fireworks.

Once you get the shutter set, you then adjust the aperture and ISO so that the scene is exposed to your satisfaction. In my case, my aperture is f/5 and ISO is 400. To ensure ultimate exposure control, you must use the M (manual) mode and not the other auto modes or else your images will end up with different exposure values. Also, please set the autofocus to "manual" and adjust the focus so that the buildings are in focus. A smaller aperture helps in ensuring the fireworks are in focus.



For me, I always love capturing the large firework patterns because they fill up the entire frame nicely. Once the fireworks explode, that's the best time to hit the shutter to capture the light trails. Some of my shots were late because of a short shutter lag due to remote trigger.

After snapping a few dozen shots - considered little - I picked up 2 better shots and edited it using Lightroom. More particular photographers would run through the images on Photoshop and might even layer multiple fireworks shots, remove the smoke, brighten the landscape, etc. to give a more incredible final image.




Happy Birthday, Singapore.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Strontium Nitro Plus 64GB U3 MicroSDXC Memory Card

Should you get a USB flash drive or an SD card or a microSD card? How about getting one storage card that comes with all 3?



I received a unit from Strontium who requested me to write a review. Strontium Nitro Plus 64GB MicroSDXC card is rated as UHS-I Speed Class 3 (U3), with a read speed of 80MB/s and write speed of 60MB/s. If you do plenty of 4K and Ultra-HD video capture, you need a really fast card. Does this Strontium card perform as claimed?



Opening the packaging is so easy thanks to perforated lines. This beats the packaging of some other brand.



Oddly, I was unable to insert the microSD card into the USB card reader. Upon comparing with  my existing cards, I found that in general, larger capacity microSD cards are slightly thicker than lower capacity ones. Strontium needs to give a little more allowance on their USB card reader to cater for this.



No matter, I benchmarked the card using the SD card adapter on a Dell XPS 11 laptop running Windows 8.1 over CrystalDiskMark.



In comparison, I tested my 2 high-speed memory cards and here's what I got.




The benchmark says it all: The Strontium Nitro Plus are blazing fast!!! When writing large sequential files, the Strontium performs above the advertised spec. All 3 cards slow down significantly when do random writing in smaller sizes. This shows that the memory card works best when reading or saving huge file sizes.

But how does it work in real life? I tested the Strontium with my fastest SD card and did an unscientific comparison.


Device 1: Nikon D600
Procedure: Shoots 15 RAW images (22MB) continuously, release shutter, clocks time that it takes the memory card to write and flush the buffer completely.

Strontium Nitro Plus 64GB: completes in 8 sec
Sandisk Extreme (45MB/s) 32GB: 11 sec
Philips 16GB SDHC (Class 10): 30 sec


Device 2: Samsung NX30
Procedure: Shoots 16 RAW images (17MB) continuously, release shutter, clocks time that it takes the memory card to stop writing.

Strontium Nitro Plus took 23 sec.
Sandisk Extreme took 22 sec.
Philips 16GB spent 31 sec.


It appears that Nikon D600 makes use of the fast write speed to achieve improved speed over the slower cards, but the Samsung NX30 appears to be slightly worse off. Therefore, to enjoy maximum transfer speed, your hardware must also support the fast transfer speed. Make sure the card reader has the UHS-1 rating, which delivers up to 104MB/s.


I also tested the Strontium card on the HTC One M8 using A1 SD Bench Android app and was pleased to find the Nitro Plus card reaches a high read speed of 85MB/s, while the write speed is a respectable 51MB/s. This only means that you can confidently use the external microSD card to store your media and apps and maintain the speed when accessing them on your smartphone.

Conclusion: Speedy!

The Strontium Nitro Plus performs as it claims: it will deliver top read speed of 80MB/s (and beyond!) and write speed of 60MB/s when using devices that support the high speed. To top that, Strontium offers a lifetime warranty (or 10 years for countries that do not recognise lifetime warranty) and comes with a licensed version of MyBackup Pro Android app worth US$4.99.

My independent review has confirmed that the Strontium Nitro Plus is capable of performing beyond the advertised speed. Currently selling in Singapore at a suggested price of S$139, purchase one of the Nitro products to win some prizes. Details below.


Reviewed by Chester Tan
Rating: 4.6 of 5


Promotion: Shop & Win $8888

Currently, Strontium is carrying out a promotion called the Strontium Shop & Win $8888 Cash and Prizes at all major participating retail outlets in Singapore. The promotional period is from now till 31 August 2014.

How to participate: Purchase any Strontium NITRO PLUS / NITRO / NITRO LITE product for a chance to participate in our Monthly Lucky Draws and Car Decal Grand Draw. Follow the 3 steps below:




Visit www.strontium.biz/shop-and-win for full promotional details.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

ASUS Zenfone 6: Quality Value Large Screen Smartphone

ASUS has been making premium Padfone smartphones for the past years. Now, they have introduced a new value-priced smartphone range. The ZenFone series are not only affordable, the user interface has undergone a positive rework to improve usability on the Android OS.

Zenfone comes in 3 sizes: Zenfone 4, Zenfone 5 and Zenfone 6. Currently on hand with me is the Zenfone 6, retailing in Singapore at a mere S$329, and the hardware specs are pretty impressive for the price.



What's With ZenUI

ZenUI is ASUS new UI for Android smartphones. It has claimed to have made over 200 modifications to the basic Android OS, but the fonts and menu designs largely follow Android. What ZenUI offers are:


  • Customised Quick Settings. Pulldown from the right of the notification bar and the screen will be filled with circular quick setting icons. The top 4 icons in green - Flashlight, Memory Boost, Calculator, Quik Memo - are non-modifiable. The rest may be customised and re-arranged. Pulldown from the left of the notification bar and you will see the usual system notifications.

  • Background Image. Have you wished your background image is not so bright so that it does not clash with your home screen app icons? ZenUI allows you to adjust the transparency when selecting your image, saving me effort to edit the image before selecting as my background image.

  • What's Next. This feature highlights your upcoming tasks and activities, and it even does countdown. At first I thought it was just another calendar reminder app, but I later found out that the app is intelligent enough to inform you of changes to upcoming appointment. For instance, when the original appointment date is postponed, it will show on the notification. Similarly, when the location of your next appointment is changed, it will remind you the moment the meeting organiser changes.

  • Do It Later. This feature allows you to set aside notifications or events into a task list when it arrives, e.g. missed calls, SMS, emails. When you visit the Do It Later task list, you may choose to mark as important, or click to read the original message. Once you do, the task automatically disappears, thus saving you effort to remove them.

  • Remote Link app converts your Zenfone into a remote device to work with your PC via Bluetooth. It can act as a mouse trackpad, a keyboard, a media remote controller, and a Powerpoint presenter with slide preview.

  • PC Link app lets you access your Zenfone on your PC via USB. You see the exact screen on your PC and you can make use of the PC keyboard, mouse and touch to interact with the Zenfone remotely.

  • Share Link and Party Link apps let you send and receive files to other devices via Direct WiFi. Unlike the Android Direct WiFi which is slightly more difficult to get it running, these apps works in a snap. The best part is that it works with other Android brands, iOS and Windows Phone under SHAREit app (developer is Lenovo).

  • One-hand Operation. ASUS understands some consumers might find the 6-inch screen size too large for single hand use. So it devises this feature to allow user to resize the display. The resize is permanent, all the action will be contained within the window, including the 3 capacitive buttons.

  • Voice Call option buttons. I've never seen so many call option buttons on a voice call screen. Other than the usual buttons to mute, add caller, there is an option to record the call natively.

  • Easy Mode. This seems to be a de-facto feature for recent Android phones to combat consumer concerns about the complex home screen. The Easy Mode home screen displays the apps in 3x3 layout. I quite like the Zenfone Easy Mode layout, as its icons are pretty and does not look as plain.



Now that I have completed describing the ZenUI, let me talk about the Zenfone 6 itself.


Specs


  • Processor: Intel® Atom™ Z2580 Processor 2.0 GHz with Intel Hyper-Threading Technology
  • Operating System: Android Jelly Bean 4.3 with ASUS ZenUI
  • (Upgradeable to Android 4.4 KitKat)
  • Network: GSM 850/900/1800/1900, UMTS/DC-HSPA+ 850/900/1900/2100MHz ( DL: 42Mbit/s / UL: 5.76 Mbit/s)
  • Display: 6" 1280 x 720 (HD), LED Backlight IPS+ Panel (400nits), Corning® Gorilla® Glass 3, Synaptics Touch IC, support GloveTouch
  • Graphics: PowerVR SGX 544 MP2
  • Dimension: 166.9 (L) x 84.3 (W) x 5.5~9.9 (H) mm
  • Weight: 196g
  • Battery: 3300 mAh, Irremovable polymer battery, up to 28hrs 3G talk time
  • Memory: mDDR2 2GB RAM
  • Storage: eMMC 16GB, Micro SD Card Support (Up to 64GB), Lifetime 5GB ASUS WebStorage
  • Sensors: Accelerator/Gyro/E-Compass/Proximity Light/Hall Sensor
  • Wireless: Integrated 802.11 b/g/n WiFi-Direct, Bluetooth V 4.0
  • GPS: Support GPS, A-GPS and GLONASS
  • SIM: Dual Micro-SIM
  • Connectivity: Micro-USB 2.0, 3.5MM headphone, Mic-in
  • Cameras: Front: 2MP Camera F/2.8; Rear: 13MP, F/2.0
  • Colours: Charcoal Black / Pearl White / Cherry Red


Price Value

Before you continue, this is the first thing I would like to mention. The Zenfone series are competitively priced, and the priciest and largest Zenfone 6 is retailing at only $329. There is no way that ASUS can sell this device with top-grade hardware, but as I use the device, it does not feel like a low-priced low-spec smartphone in most aspects.

Build and Design

The Zenfone 6 feels very well-built and solid, with 6-inch of Corning Gorilla Glass 3 screen and the iconic concentric circle finish at the bottom strip of the front surface. The rear matt plastic cover is removable - with much effort - to reveal slots for 2 micro SIM cards and 1 microSD card. The battery lays hidden beneath the inner casing, a somewhat disappointing move. The volume rocker and power buttons are located on the right which are easily accessible by your index finger when you hold it.


Screen

After getting used to Full-HD screens, the Zenfone 6 screen fonts appear soft. While the colour and contrast is good from the front, the colour tones change as you look from different angles.

Camera

The camera app is rather intuitive. Sometimes it would detect the scene and recommend the HDR or Low Light mode, which you could otherwise activate it manually. There are 2 separate shutter buttons for still and video capture, as well another button to activate "Turbo" burst shot mode.



ASUS claims its PixelMaster technology with f/2.0 five-element lens helps to capture low light images with good brightness and low grain by downsampling the images. Yes I do find the images are not grainy but I find it overprocessed and lacks details. No matter, you can choose not to enable the low light mode and shoot in normal 13MP size. The auto-mode images may appear conservatively exposed, but zoom-in and you notice sufficient details. With today's photo-editing tools, you would have no trouble enhancing the images before posting.



The camera can be easily activated from standby mode by pressing the volume button, which is good. I like the GIF Animation mode where I can easily capture a 30-frame sequence and save it as GIF easily. I also like that the Gallery app easily displays the EXIF via pop-up menu. Time Rewind also allows you to choose the correct moment to save - 2 seconds before and 1 second - after you press the shutter.





Speaker

The Zenfone 6 is one of the softest smartphone I have reviewed so far. Turning on the AudioWizard improved the volume but produced compressed and distorted audio. I could barely hear anything for some YouTube videos in a noisy environment.

Battery life

Battery life is nothing to shout at, despite a large capacity 3300mAh. For my kind of usage, it comfortably lasts through my waking hours of about 18 hours, a little longer than other review phones.


Drawbacks

The most apparent difference when I switch from a top-end smartphone like HTC One M8 to the Zenfone 6 is the overall speed, which is understandable due to a relatively slower processor. Despite capable of connecting up to HSPA+ (42Mb/s) network, I seem to have to wait longer for data content to be loaded. After a few days of adjusting my expectations, it feels fine without any stutter. So while overall experience is smooth, it's just a little less snappy than top-end devices.

Another inconvenience is that the permanent soft keys at the bottom of the screen have no backlight. I find myself missing the keys when using in the dark, as the buttons are rather spaced apart.


Conclusion: Great Price, Good Quality

Zenfone 6 is one of the larger smartphones in the market, but somehow I get accustomed to it without major issues. Personally I'm not concerned with weight, and what wins me over is the rock-solid build quality. The removable rear casing is great as I could replace if it gets worn. The ZenUI brings a lot of useful and unique features to the end-user. The processor runs the device smoothly without hint of struggle. Available without contract in Singapore for S$329.


Reviewed by Chester Tan
Rating: 3.8 of 5