Friday, October 24, 2014

#SCREAM14 - StarHub Community Advocates Event 2014



Last night, I was invited to the StarHub Community Reunion Event for Advocates and Members - SCREAM for short. The annual event was held this year at MINT (Moment of Imagination and Nostalgia with Toys) the Museum of Toys. The entire collection belongs to Mr Chang Yang Fa, a Singapore citizen.



There are so many items there, you could easily have spent the whole day just looking and appreciating them. The curator, Richard, mentioned that most of these toys are mint and untouched, and only represents less than 10% of the owner's entire collection!

To the new generation kids, the toys may look ugly and dull. But to the older generations, these toys bring out the best of our play imagination and the craftsmanship of the makers.



During the event, I met Grace Tan, an award-winning blogger who publishes a book "Blogging for a Living" and conducts blogging workshops. She is approachable and humble considering her achievements in Singapore blogosphere.



The evening was filled with activities and game prizes to be won. In addition, we were given an exclusive preview of the redesigned website, and had the opportunity to give our comments and suggestions.



Many members, including myself, received an unexpected award for our contributions to the Community. It feels great to be recognised for the efforts put in. But as Grace aptly described, we're all just having fun doing what we love to do!




Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Buying A New Digital Piano: Yamaha P-255

Photo by Candy Sari
Last weekend, I was caught on camera (paparazzi!) testing digital pianos at a Yamaha showroom. Yes, I am replacing the Korg SP-500 which has been with me for a very long time. When I bought it back then for about S$2000, it was the top-line Korg digital piano, with loads of fanciful features including key touch adjustments, hundreds of instrument and drum patches, recording capability, auto accompaniment, and even touch screen.

But why sell? I am somehow "tired" of the Korg's weighted keys which felt somewhat heavy (perhaps due to build-up of dirt in the hammer mechanism?). Also, I thought an equipment refresh could bring me new ideas for my upcoming music projects. Still, it took me a long time to decide whether to sell it off because everything else was working perfectly. I put it on Carousell for sale and there were several enquires for over a month but the enquiries stopped before anything concrete occurred. Finally, someone responded and after days of persisted correspondence, she came over to my house, tested the piano, liked it, paid and carried it off.

And just like that, my SP-500 is no more. It has served me extremely well, for recording and publishing the bulk of my Piano Spa tracks. My other synthesizer, the Roland XP-30, still stands good, which I now use as MIDI controller and instrument patches.



Before the sale was inked, I was already looking out for the successor. Intially, I was eyeing on the Yamaha P-105 (about S$1,200) for its price and positive reviews, but when I eventually tried it, I wasn't satisfied. The weighted key response against the actual velocity is just not there. There are some things that cannot be explained, but your combined five senses will detect it. It's just like watching a video that is out of sync with the audio. You can feel it even though the difference is mere milliseconds. My brain tells me my fingers are playing the notes with varying weight but the velocity output sounded indifferent, in a slight degree. My brain detected a lack of dynamics which made me feel that I am playing a synthetic piano devoid of "true" response.

The P-255 was just located next to the P-105 demo set, so I thought why not just try it.

Within moments of trying, I understood why the P-255 costs double of P-105.

The weighted response is excellent, the velocity response feels closer to acoustic. I like the simulated hammer action and the tonal sensitivity as I played the notes. I feel more inspired when playing on the P-255, and this feeling is extremely important for the kind of compositions I do.

That kind of sealed my decision.

I also checked out CP-40, which is a stage piano. Unlike the P-series, the CP-series have a lot more instrument patches, buttons and controls for on-stage performance use, like pitchwheel, programming for tone layers. It does not have built-in speakers, and cost the same as P-255. It was better than P-105, but costed a little more than P-255, and I wonder if I really needed the additional features.

I also tried the DGX-650 with speakers, and I thought the keyboard feel was rather outstanding given the price point of about S$1600, there are so many buttons, on-board controls, and with a sizable LCD panel, you could program layers of sound and songs with it. The only problem: too big and heavy. Feature-wise, the DGX-650 beats the CP-40, so if you don't need portability, the DGX-650 is a better choice for home use.

To look for alternative opinions and prices, I headed to Luther Music at Excelsior Shopping Centre (next to Funan IT Mall, building entrance is opposite Old Fire Station). I have always recommended friends who were looking for a digital piano to get it from Luther Music. Now it's finally my turn to buy one. After loitering a while, a man attended to me and had a discussion on my choice and other alternatives. He turned out to be Luther himself, and gave me his best price for the P-255.



2 days after pondering, I decided to go for P-255. I needed the authentic piano response above everything else. When I went down again to place the order, Luther threw in a free keyboard cover which made me very pleased.

It's going to be a full month wait before Yamaha has stocks to deliver. Meanwhile, there will be a void in my study room.



Monday, October 20, 2014

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Review (+Bonus Material: My Purchase Saga!)

This review article is made possible by purchasing the phone. No review units were provided. So let me start by sharing my purchase drama before going into the review proper.


Prelude (Purchase Saga)


The purchase of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 has been an adventure itself. It all started well with a successful register of interest with StarHub, next came the actual booking which also took place without a hitch. But the challenge came when collecting the phone. I was informed at the shop concierge that the wait would be at least 1.5 hours, so the natural thing for me to do was to go for lunch. When I returned to the shop 30 minutes later, I was shocked that I have missed my queue number by a mile. I went to the concierge who offered a priority queue number. This time, I waited at the shop without moving my butt. Sadly, the queue refused to move and I had to rush back to office for meeting. As I was approaching the car park, I received noticed that the meeting was cancelled. I dashed back to the shop hoping that my number is not missed. Alas, I missed by ONE. I went to the counter and asked if I could be served next, but he told me to get another priority queue number. Well, well. I ain't gonna wait for another half an hour. I left the shop empty handed.

Under usual circumstances, I would not have rushed to buy a brand new phone, but I had to give wifey her belated birthday gift and our wedding anniversary. So I bit the bullet and on the following day, went to the Samsung Experience Corner at Challenger Funan to get it. Happy like a bird, I presented her the surprise in the evening. Mission accomplished.



When she finally transferred all her data to the new phone and started using it on the first day in office, she told me the phone was not working properly. She couldn't receive calls (other party got through with a ring tone but there was no incoming on the Note 4), nor could she make a voice call (the call got through but there was no sound, neither could other party hear her). I gave myself another day to monitor the situation, since I assume it could be some network issue. But the issue persisted, even when SIM cards were swapped. On Day 4, I told her to pass me the phone to try out myself. I too faced this intermittent problem.

Devastated, I knew there were only 2 outcomes: either go back to the shop and hope they accept an exchange, or head to Samsung Service Centre where they would neither have stocks to exchange nor have the skill set to perform any repair for at least a few weeks. I reached out to all my Samsung contacts and I was fortunate to hear that the Samsung Experience Corner at Funan Challenger would accept my case for an exchange. Positive customer experience!



But looking at the bright side, if not for this saga, I would not have the opportunity to test out the Note 4, since it would have been possessed by wifey (lol).

OK, end of rant.

The Review


It's been a long time since I reviewed a Samsung smartphone. My last review was the Note 3 a year back, and I did not review the Galaxy S4 or S5. Looking back, I have been closely following the evolution of the Galaxy Note series, from its first incarnation to its current fourth refresh.


So, what are the features on the new Samsung Galaxy Note 4 worth clamouring for, compared to the 13-month-old Note 3?


  • Design: Love it or hate it, the metal sides may feel literally edgy, but I love the positions of the power and volume buttons. They are right where my fingers should be when holding the Note 4. They have the right size and protusion for ease of access. At the back of the Note 4, you will notice a lot more subtle contours to give the phone some character.




  • 2.7GHz quad-core: it's the fastest processor in a smartphone - at least for now. Theoretically, it will power the Note 4 to be smoother when handling multi-windows.



  • 4G+: it's delivers fast 300Mbps data speed. I have to warn you, though, the network speed is so fast, that you could use up you whatever GB of free data within hours. Scary.



  • QHD display: LG G3 has it first, and Note 4 now has it in their signature Super AMOLED. I wouldn't notice any major difference though, I'm perfectly satisfied with FHD. Nevertheless, no harm getting a display with even smaller pixel density. I do notice that there is colour tone shift effect when viewing at different angles.


  • 16MP rear camera: I think it looks fabulous. Did a test shot of my desktop underneath my desk and I'm impressed with the details despite in a low light situation. On top of that, the camera has optical image stabilisation and it really helps in capturing images and videos that are less jerky.


Top: Full image. Bottom: 100% crop at top left corner.




  • 3.7MP front camera: Front cameras are getting a lot more attention these days, so it's great to have a higher MP front camera module. Samsung ups the ante with the ability to capture panorama selfies termed as "Wide Selfies". But the front camera quality pales in comparison with the rear camera, and I feel the HTC One (M8) front camera still beats the Note 4.

  • Fast charging: This is another smartphone feature that will catch on with the mobile industry. You can charge the Note 4 by 50% in 30 minutes. How's that for time saving.



  • Improved S Pen: The S Pen is the least used hardware to my wife and myself. Nevertheless, stylus lovers will go gaga over the Note 4. It now supports 2048 pressure levels, it works more like a mouse (supporting multi-selects), and lets you collect text and content easily. So, even if you are not interested in doodling, the S Pen offers improved navigation features that everyone should use more often. It certainly beats using your stubby finger for more accurate on-screen selects.

  • Improved S Health: The improved S Health is a lot more integrated into the Note 4, letting you track your health in the background. It reminds you to take a walk when it detects you have been idle, the heart rate monitor allows you to measure your heart rate easily. It even has a UV detector! The next Galaxy Note should incorporate a PSI detector, serious!



  • Fingerprint Sensor: First introduced in Galaxy S5, this feature lets you unlock your phone with a quick swipe off the home button. This is a lot more secure than the on-screen security method which is easily visible and remembered. The sensor can also be used for secured online transactions like PayPal.

  • Settings -> Quick Settings Icons: Pick your favourite settings to appear as large icons at the top of the settings page. Now I don't have to scroll through the entire settings list to access the items I frequently use.





  • Flipboard Briefing home screen: I'm not a fan of home screen embedded news feeds, but the Flipboard Briefing UI is just smooth and enticing.


The Note 4 may have loads of improvements, but one thing that they did not change is... their user interface! I have grown to dislike the interface so much so that I feel I am using a child's phone. The icons and text are just too big and bright for my liking, the screen is so big but Samsung still only allows 4x4 icons on their home screen.

The Note 4 is less rugged than Note 3, especially the metal side frames with matt white coat which is prone to scratches. Unlike the predecessor, protective case is a must to keep the Note 4 in great condition.



Conclusion

So, is the Note 4 a must-buy? It really depends on how much you desire the new features. For the level-headed folks, the Note 3 is still a good-spec device that is not to be written off for at least another 18 months.

As much as I disliked the UI, the Note 4 is still an amazing piece of technology, and is still the only smartphone with a professional-grade pen stylus. With so much features packed in it, there is bound to be something that you will like about it.

Specs (SM-N910G)


  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 Quad-core 2.7GHz
  • Operating System: Android Kit Kat 4.4.4
  • Network:
    • 2.5G (GSM/GPRS/EDGE) : 850/900/1800/1900 MHz
    • 3G (HSPA+ 42Mbps): 850/900/1900/2100 MHz
    • 4G (LTE Cat.4 150/50Mbps) or 4G (LTE Cat.6 300/50Mbps)
  • Memory: 3GB RAM + 32GB Internal
  • Display: 5.7" 1440x2560 (QHD) Super AMOLED
  • Sensor: Gesture, Accelerometer, Geo-magnetic, Gyroscope, RGB ambient light, Proximity, Barometer, Hall Sensor, Finger Scanner, UV, HRM
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2X2 MIMO), Download Booster, NFC, Bluetooth® v4.1 (BLE),ANT+, USB2.0, MHL 3.0, IR LED (Remote Control)
  • Cameras: 
    • Front Camera 3.7MP + F1.9/ Selfie (90º), Wide selfie mode (120º). 
    • Rear Camera 16M+ Smart OIS/ Fast AF, Live HDR(Rich Tone)
  • SIM Type: Micro-SIM
  • Battery: 3220mAh
  • Dimension: 153.5 x 78.6 x 8.5 mm
  • Weight: 176g



Reviewed by Chester Tan
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Saturday, October 18, 2014

ASUS Padfone S LTE Review: Great Value

ASUS started its Padfone series back in 2012. As the name suggests, it's a 2-in-1 smartphone and tablet. The phone unit docks into the station for big-screen tablet interaction and extended battery life.



Since the inception, the Padfone series have focused on premium materials, flagship specs and large tablet form. Early this year, ASUS launched a little-brother variant, Padfone Mini, which transforms a 4-inch smartphone to a 7-inch tablet. I quite like the smaller form factor, powered with budget specs and at a low price for the entry market. But I didn't get a chance to review it as ASUS decided not to focus on this model in Singapore.



To my delight, ASUS remembered my interest in the Padfone Mini and sent the Padfone S to me one week before the official Singapore announcement so that I could prepare for this review.


Specs

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 Quad-core 2.3GHz
  • Operating System: Android Kit Kat 4.4.2 with ASUS ZenUI
  • Network: WCDMA 900/1900/2100, LTE 700/800/900/1800/1900/2100/2600
  • Display: Phone 5" 1080x1920 (FHD), Pad 9" 1920x1200 WUXGA
  • Dimension: Phone 143.93 x 72.46 x 9.98 mm, Pad 250.4 x 172.25 x 11.63 mm (WxDxH)
  • Weight: Phone 150g, Pad 514g
  • Battery: Phone 2300mAh, Pad 4990mAh
  • Memory: mDDR3 3GB RAM
  • Storage: eMMC 16GB, Micro SD Card Support (Up to 64GB), Lifetime 5GB ASUS WebStorage
  • Wireless: Integrated 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth V 4.0, NFC
  • GPS: Support GPS, A-GPS and GLONASS
  • SIM: Micro-SIM
  • Connectivity: Micro-USB 2.0, 3.5MM headphone, Mic-in
  • Cameras: Phone Front: 2MP PixelMaster; Rear: 13MP PixelMaster, F/2.0, 5-element lens; Pad Front: 1MP
  • Colours: Dark Ruby / Pure White
  • Retail Price: Phone - S$449 (special launch price S$399 till 2 Nov). Tablet Station - price to be announced



The Padfone series is the only solution in the market to achieve a converged phone+tablet experience. There is no need to sync your apps, files, chat history, media across multiple devices and waste your precious data counter. Use the phone on the go, and dock to the tablet station and continue working on the larger screen.



Unlike the earlier Padfones, the new Padfone S is priced for the masses. The phone unit has a removable back - but not removable battery - with similar matt coating as the Zenfone series. The companion Padfone Station is in 9-inch size with thick bezels, providing a comfortable grip and is more compact than earlier Padfone models, which are all 10-inch (except the 7-inch Padfone Mini). Both the phone and tablet are fitted with full-HD display panels so images and text look crisp.



As for the Padfone S functionality, there are no major surprises if you are familiar with the previous Padfones and the new ZenUI (as covered in the Zenfone 6 review).

  • Just like the previous Padfones, the Padfone S Station has built in battery to charge your phone and extend the battery life. Unlike earlier Padfone versions, the Padfone S has no option to select how both devices are inter-charged. Within the short review period, I was unable to determine the charging logic between the two. Sometimes, the phone unit would be charged, and other times, it would not. But whatever the scenario, the phone will not be drained in tablet mode. The Station battery gets depleted while maintaining the phone battery level. When used together, the Padfone S phone + tablet combo can last more than 2 days. With the phone alone, the 2300mAh lasted just a day for me, which is the norm for my kind of heavy usage.



  • Dynamic Display is the feature that lets you work on the same app as you switch between the phone and tablet modes. For apps that do not support Dynamic Display, the app will restart automatically within seconds, but it will not continue exactly where you left off. There is an option to force the app to continue between the modes without restarting, but this may cause display issues, since many of the apps are designed with different layouts and font sizes for phone and for tablet. So if you force-continue your app from phone to tablet, your fonts will look huge, and from tablet to phone, your fonts will look puny. There are also occasions where the tablet became unresponsive to touches, but the issue goes away if I re-insert the phone. In view of the Android constraints, I have to say that ASUS did a fabulous job in supporting seamless transition between the modes.


  • If you have removed the Padfone S rear cover, you would have noticed that the cover supports wireless charging, which is a nice add-on to provide a differentiated product offering.



  • The PixelMaster 13MP camera quality is above average, producing good colour capture, image contrast and clarity, albeit slightly oversharpened. Under low light, the aggressive noise reduction might make the images appear blotchy and lacks details, but without pixel-peeping, these images are good for social sharing. I enjoyed using the various shooting modes like HDR, GIF animation, Slow Motion, Time Lapse, Miniature video. It is queer that the camera can only shoot at maximum 5MP when docked onto the station. Below sample images are out of camera.







  • The phone screen appears to be on the warm side, which I feel may be more comfortable for the eyes. Fortunately, you can tweak the colour tones using the Splendid app which is available in most ASUS devices in recent releases.

  • The audio quality of the smartphone is one of the major weak points. I am not a fan of ASUS AudioWizard which generates over-compressed audio sound. When listening to music with varying volumes, for instance, classical genre, the compression effect results in fluctuating volume. The Station speakers fare better and delivers clearer audio thanks to front-facing design, but at high volumes, distortion is apparent.



  • There are sporadic lags when navigating in between apps. On the tablet, there are also occasional unresponsiveness when making on-screen selection, as the device seems to mistake the tap for swipe action. Despite the smoothness issues, there were no app crashes.


Conclusion

With the new Padfone S, ASUS continues their commitment to create transformable multi-mode devices. I like this new Padfone S because it comes in a smaller Station which translates to better portability. It would be awesome if ASUS creates multiple-sized Stations to cater for wider consumer needs.

The Padfone S, together with the Padfone Mini, is a good breakaway from the earlier Padfone releases that were sold at a premium price. If you like the idea of an integrated solution to access your phone contents through a large tablet, there is no other device but Padfone.

The new Padfone S may have a few performance hiccups, but at half the price of competitors' flagship models, I am willing to overlook these minor challenges for the unique experience. If you have been hesitating to get a Padfone for the longest time, wait no further. The Padfone S is the best bang for your buck.


Reviewed by Chester Tan
Rating: 4 of 5

Monday, October 13, 2014

Logitech Bluetooth Multi-Device Keyboard K480

Do you have a smartphone, a tablet and a desktop, but only one Bluetooth keyboard? Did you wish you could use the single wireless keyboard with all your devices without having to re-pair every time you use?



Logitech K480 is the answer to your wish! Regardless of the brand or OS, Logitech K480 pairs with 3 of your gadgets and lets you switch to any of them easily and quickly.



It has a built-in stand that is rubber-lined so your device will not slip off. The length is long enough to fit an iPad and another smartphone next to it. The stand is thick enough to hold even the original iPad.



And if you own the Samsung Galaxy Note PRO 12.2, the K480 sits confidently in portrait orientation without tipping off.



There are shortcut keys on the first row, like Home, App Switcher, Screen Capture, Playback, Volume, Search, Back keys. The round dial on the left offers sufficient resistance to prevent accidental changes. Upon switching, the K480 connects to your next device within 3 seconds. I prefer the physical switch dial than the softkey one on K810, the other multi-device Bluetooth keyboard launched over a year ago, as it gives me a clearer indicator of which device I am connected to.



I really enjoy using the K480 with my smartphone placed on the stand. Before the K480, it would have been impossible for me to use an external keyboard with my device without a large flat surface. With K480, I could place the keyboard on my lap and the smartphone on the keyboard stand and type on. The rubber stand keeps the device rested firmly even when the keyboard has some movement.



The only issue I have with the K480 is that the key actions felt plasticky and does not feel as smooth as the premium keyboards. The saving grace is that the keys are comfortably spaced for my fingers, not too close nor too far apart. While the keyboard is huge and relatively heavy - it's the size of a 12.5-inch laptop and weighs heavier than a tablet - the size ensures the keyboard can support heavy devices.





Conclusion

For S$59, the Logitech K480 is really a fantastic value. It's the ultimate desk keyboard for your computer, tablet and smartphone, while light enough to use on-the-go. If you were held back from the K810 due to the price, there is no reason to hold you back on the K480. I would like the keyboard actions to be a little more premium build, but I couldn't be too picky at S$59. After completing this review, I ordered one myself.


Specs

Connectivity: Bluetooth
Compatible devices: Windows 7, Chrome OS, Android 3.2, Mac OS, iOS 5 and above
Dimensions: 20mm x 299mm x 195mm (HxWxD)
Weight: 820g
Power: 2x AAA batteries
Recommended Retail Price: S$59
Warranty: 1 year


Reviewed by Chester Tan
Rating: 4.5 of 5