The Google Pixel 2 XL: Great phone, brilliant camera!

I’m continuing to enjoy using my Google Pixel 2 XL phone.  It is quite the beast.  I love almost everything about it – including Android.  Took me a few days to get used to how Android deals with things, but one the adjustment period is over – it comes naturally.  I do still kind of miss having a front fingerprint scanner – I do keep putting my finger over the camera flash from time to time, but I’m sure muscle memory will eventually kick in.

But what I really love about this phone is the camera.  It truly is best in class despite only having a single lens.  Google’s computational photography outdoes Apple considerably.  The Google Photos service is also a remarkable thing – far better in many ways than iCloud Photo Library – though I do wish Google would maintain up-to-date support for the latest camera RAW formats as my Sony RX100 mark V isn’t supported and I can’t upload my RAW images.  Otherwise, Google Photos for me has been the best experience in managing and organising photos since the Apple Photos app.  I can download the whole lot via Google Takeaway – though I’d also appreciate some form of API so that I can plug in another cloud service (thinking Backblaze B2) to back up all photos on the fly.  One cannot escape the cloud these days!

Taken at Surbiton Station with a Google Pixel 2 XL.
Pizza time at work. Taken with Google Pixel 2 XL. Note that at 100% crop, you can read the Samsung logo on the TV clearly. With Apple, this would be like am expressionist painting.

The photos are good enough, IMHO, to leave the proper camera at home.  I’m very happy with the quality that Google brings to the table.  When the Pixel 3 XL comes out, I’m sure it’ll be even better.

Interestingly enough, I’ve been going through my photos that are now stored in Google Photos and it’s interesting to note that after the iPhone 6S, the (mainly Samsung) Android phones that I have had produced much better imagery than the iPhone 7, iPhone 7S and even the iPhone X!  At least to my eye.  There’s something that Apple did from the iPhone 6S onwards that seems to have resulted in “painting like” imagery when cropped at 100%.

Getting back to the phone itself, customising ringtones is dead simple to do on this phone – unlike iOS where you have to jump through a number of loops beforehand.  I also really like notifications – though a bit in-your-face at first, they are highly customisable and I like that one can easily copy codes from SMSes or reply/acknowledge direct from the notification centre.

Google really make use of the bigger screen resolution to fit more icons on, and this also means that apps such as Authy allow me to cram as many 2FA sites on there than I could with the iPhone X.

Apple Music on Android is a bit of a pain, however.  It can often just open, sitting there with a blank screen until I click the pull-down menu and fuss about with it.  Then there is the issue that it doesn’t seem to recognise purchased content which IS still available in the UK iTune store and is also downloaded to the phone:

Apple Music – 3 years later, and being a pain in the arse on a different platform.,

Apple still has much to learn about co-operating with other platforms.

I regret nothing switching to the Pixel 2 XL.  Bring on the Pixel 3 XL later this year.  Unless Apple really pull something out their sleeve…

I’m all about that bass, ’bout that bass, no treble..

.. except there’s a decent amount of treble in Apple’s new HomePod “smart” speaker.  But that bass!

The press has certainly not been wrong in stating that this is perhaps the best quality of speaker of the current generation of “smart” speakers.  The bass and response of the sound emanating from this tiny, yet tubby speaker definitely has put my now redundant Alexa-enabled Echo Plus to shame.

The fibre mesh is lovely to touch, it’s almost difficult not to walk past and give it a bit of a stroke..

Set-up was extremely easy – just plug it into the mains and then hold your iPhone (it must be an iOS device – forget buying one of these if you’re not heavily tied into the Apple iOS ecosystem) near the speaker.  Set-up begins on your iPhone and ends when Siri fires up and prompts you to try her out.

The biggest weakness of this speaker aside from no physical inputs or outputs, plus no Bluetooth support?  Siri.  It has yet to get any of my requests of songs or playlists right (I’m an Apple Music subscriber – albeit using the 6 months free subscription with EE at the moment – I’ll have to start paying again in April) – but I can AirPlay stuff directly from the phone without any bother.

However, what Siri can do is interact with my Philips Hue lights far more quickly via Apple’s HomeKit than Amazon’s Alexa ever could.  I have been extremely impressed with HomeKit’s performance on iOS and Siri so far.  While HomeKit support is still fairly limited within the “smart” devices industry – for example, British Gas’ Hive could REALLY benefit from such support – it does mean that for many devices would have to be refreshed in order support a specific chipset that HomeKit requires.  So we may not see Hive support for quite some time.

If you’re curious to know what’s going on inside the HomePod, this iFixit teardown will show you that it’s next to impossible for the average consumer to fix.

It’s funny how the music industry has changed over the past few decades.  When I was a kid growing up in North East London, I was over the moon with the hand-me-down Amstrad tower system which compromised of a turntable, an FM/AM radio/tuner, dual deck tape deck (Amstrad was famous for this).  I didn’t even have a CD player for quite some time.

Now we tend to subscribe (monthly or annually) to music services rather than paying for individual tracks or albums, listen on mobile phones or computers, or stream music to speakers.  While many people who take music seriously will still have an amplifier with built-in equaliser (another thing that the HomePod does away with – it’ll automatically “equalise” the music for you), a great many people will still be using these smart speakers in place of a traditional hi-fi set-up.

I’ve been a big fan of Apple’s audio products over the years.  I started off with a 3rd generation click wheel iPod and have made my way up to the iPhone X.  I’ve also bought three types of Beats headphones – the Beats Solo 3 wireless, the Beats EP and the granddaddy of them all, the Beats Studio 3 wireless – and perhaps my favourite of all – the AirPods.  None of these is cheap, and none are the absolute best in class, but I’ve always found a use for them (the Studio 3 wireless is ideal when the neighbours are doing late evening DIY, the Solo 3 for general computing use, the AirPods for daily commuting, and the EP for anything else (I originally bought it in Edinburgh when the Solo 3 unit suffered a charging problem and I had to send it to Apple for repair).

Apple gadgets update: October, 2017

iPhone 8 Plus

Still happy with the phone.  Does what it says on the tin.  The beauty of it is that when paired with an EE contract, you’re getting a good all-rounder.

In many areas I’ve visited, I often get between 40Mbs – 100Mbs 4G connectivity.  When connected to Wi-Fi the device switches to Wi-Fi Calling which is a significant battery saver (unlike Three’s implementation of Wi-Fi calling which will only kick in if there is insufficient cellular strength).  Plus there is the new higher quality HD voice calling – available only through EE at this time.  Haven’t had a chance to give that a go as yet since it requires the other person to also have another iPhone 8 (or better).  Plus EE fully supports Visual Voicemail too.

I had a chance to give the free inclusive London Underground calling function which kicked in automatically as soon as I got to the platform at Waterloo’s Bakerloo line station.  Wi-Fi just kicked in automatically – no need to configure or select the Wi-Fi hotspot – It Just Works(tm).  Really handy.

The quality of the camera is something I’m still undecided on.  Yes, it is better than the iPhone 7 Plus, but many photos are still very “painting-like” in comparison to say, the Galaxy Note 8 or the forthcoming Google Pixel 2 XL.  I’ve enclosed a small sample of unedited photos, shot in the new HEIC format and exported to JPEG.

(Click any of the following photos to get full-size image – but a reminder – all these photos are copyright and I have all rights reserved on them – if you want to use them, please get in touch first)

The video quality looks okay, but I’ve found that with the release of MacOS High Sierra, Photos does not automatically import videos.  If I AirDrop a video to my Mac, it inexplicitly saves it as H.264 – especially odd as one can only shoot in HEVC at 4K 60fps.  I’m hoping that whatever is causing the block in automatic video importing via Photos/Photostream will be fixed in an iOS or MacOS update shortly.   I will say I am particularly disappointed in Apple for not releasing an update to Final Cut Pro X to enable HEVC before or after iOS 11/iPhone 8 was released.

Battery life is good – especially if the phone is using Wi-Fi Calling – and having bought a Belkin induction charger, I just plonk it on the charging pad each evening that sits just under my monitor.  And I can continue to use the phone while it’s charging – and just pick it up without entangling myself in wires.

Oh, and EE’s 6 months free Apple Music and streaming data is good.  One has to make sure that if you have let your direct-with-Apple Apple Music subscription expire, after applying the EE offer, you’ll need to log out of iCloud Music Library and log back in otherwise weird stuff will happen within your desktop iTunes application.

Apple Watch Series 3 with Cellular (LTE)

Very happy with the new series 3 watch.  It’s faster than its predecessor (app switching and general app usage is now usable!), has more storage, and the new cellular capability means that I can make and receive phone calls in the toilet(!) or on the way to the local supermarket to pick up lunch whilst leaving my phone at my desk.  Yes, the watch is still tethered to one’s iPhone, but it gives the watch a much bigger range away from it.  One problem I’ve noticed is that whenever I enter and leave the Wimbledon branch of Sainsbury’s, I always set the alarm off.  It can’t be the watch, surely?

Apple TV 4K

As a 4K/UHD owner, getting access to 4K content can be a little tricky.  So Apple’s foray into the 4K space was always going to be welcome.  Especially the free upgrade to 4K streaming of existing iTunes Movie library content.

The first thing I noticed was that ALL video had significant motion blurring.  This was because my LG 4K TV has a number of picture “enhancements” that I had to find and turn off.  I’ve had the TV for over two years and I hadn’t even noticed them buried within the myriad of options.  But turning them off – including disabling 4K upscaling on my amplifier/HDMI switch – did the trick.

I don’t have HDR, so the video output from the Apple TV 4K is always 4K SDR.  And with the TV’s motion enhancements out the way, the picture quality is excellent to the point I’m using the Apple TV’s Netflix app as my default, along with NOW TV (whose app is now looking a little decrepit now and isn’t near as useful as that on the LG TV, but Apple TV’s performance is far better) and BBC iPlayer.  Like NOW TV, the BBC iPlayer too is looking a little long in the tooth and really should get an interface update to make it more like other platforms.  That said, Apple probably enforces UI policies on these things, so there’s that.

Are 4K iTunes movies worth it?  The answer is: yes.  They do look better to my eye than HD.  I do not care about HDR.  My TV doesn’t support it and even if it did, given the age, it probably wouldn’t support the right type.

I’ve relegated my forth generation Apple TV to the bedroom which is ruddy useful as I can pick up where I left off upstairs or downstairs – whenever or wherever I feel the most comfortable at the time.

MacOS High Sierra

It’s okay-ish, but shutting down the 2017 MacBook Pro attached to the LG UltraFine 4K monitor results in the monitor showing a cyan screen every time.  Automatic Time Machine backups are rather spurious – I have to untick and tick the automatic backup flag to get it to work, only for the backup to complete and the Time Machine Systems Preferences panel telling me the next backup will only happen when the disk is next connected.  It’s almost always connected!  Then there is the issue of Photos and iCloud Photo Library’s Photostream.  Not all photos transferred automatically from the phone, and absolutely no videos transfer.  I have to AirDrop them and import.  And using AirDrop to High Sierra does not result in HEVC video files for some bizarre reason!

High Sierra is not Apple’s finest moment, I have to say.

The iPhone X factor – not for me

Nope.  Not yet, anyway.  But I’ve decided to go ahead and switch networks again anyway.  Now seems a good time to do so.

I’m moving back to EE, and I’m picking up an iPhone 8 Plus and Apple Series 3 Watch with cellular to go with it.  I’m getting a whopping 100Gb of monthly data (the watch gets unlimited data – principally you can’t really do that much with it – e.g. you can’t watch movies or use other data-intensive applications), Apple Music for 6 months (£60 value), and the ability to roam in the EU as well as the USA and Canada (which Three doesn’t cover, strangely enough).

I’m ditching the monthly iPad Pro data and moving to pay-as-you-go (also via EE).  I don’t use 3G/4G data much on the iPad and it doesn’t make much sense to pay monthly for something I don’t use.

I chose the iPhone 8 Plus for the reasons I’ve already mentioned in my last post.  I think the iPhone X is too big an expensive gamble at this time.  I’m sure Face ID will be fine, but I still think it’s a little early. What’s app support like, for example?  How will existing apps that utilize Touch ID work with Face ID?  How much work will developers have to do to replace Touch ID with Face ID?  Do they have to develop two methods?  Or do you even have to do anything at all?  This should have been announced back at WWDC.  But then again, that would have spoilt the surprise.

Besides which, my new contract with EE also includes an annual upgrade – so if Apple produces an iPhone XI next year with everything fixed from the iPhone X – all will be well. Until then, I personally cannot wait to try the new camera sensor in the iPhone 8 Plus.  I am big on smartphone photography and even though I love my Sony RX100 V to bits, I tend to use the iPhone to “mark” geographical locations so that when I import footage from both the iPhone and RX100 V, Apple’s Photo apps groups them all under one geographic heading.  I’m terrible at annotating my photos after taking them, and this is one little hack that works for me.  Which is probably why I’ve never moved over to Adobe Lightroom…

And of course, there is wireless charging.  When I next visit The Hub by Premier Inn in Edinburgh, I’ll be able to charge my iPhone on their wireless charging pads whilst I eat breakfast.  I think that this, for me, is the biggest and more important new feature of the new iPhone generation.

As for the CPU, it’s rumored that the A11 Bionic processor meets or slightly exceeds the processing power in my 2017 13″ MacBook Pro.  Which is just insane.   A phone having the potential to beat a general purpose computer.

Reviews coming as I get the kit.  If I get the kit.  Delivery times are dependent on supply, and we all know what that’s been like in the past! (That I’ve only managed to pick up AirPods in the past month despite being released nearly a year ago is just insane – imagine what the supply constraints of the iPhone X will be!)

The joys of Tuvan Throat Singing

Though I subscribe to Apple Music, I still keep Spotify around (which has a free tier) for the Discover Weekly.  It’s recommended some decent tracks, and thanks to its latest recommendations I’ve discovered the joy that is Tuvan throat singing through the band Huun-Huur-Tu and their album, Sixty Horses in my Herd.

The following song was the one Spotify recommended to me:

They’ve toured a fair old way over the years, and you can find a number of their live shows on YouTube.  During my research, I also came across the band the Alash Ensemble, and the following TEDx talk introduces us to a song which really makes full use of throat singing – it’s quite ethereal!

Also, Spotify recommended me a lot of Balkan music.  It too is very good.  I particularly like this one: