Game of Phones: Apple iPhone 7 Plus is out, Google Pixel is in

A while back I posted something (now deleted) about the new Google Pixel XL going too much in the direction of Apple.  Then I thought about things for a bit. With Microsoft having now firmly established themselves in the hardware sector with their Surface range of laptops (and now desktop PCs), it seems that the major players in the tech industry have effectively decided that yes, doing an Apple – designing both hardware and software – is the most efficient thing to do.

I initially wrote off the Google Pixel and Pixel XL as Google aping Apple.  Similar design, similar principals.  The user would get the latest and greatest feature updates and timely security updates as Google designed both the software and hardware themselves.  I was concerned that Google would not look favourably to other flagship Android manufacturers as a result, and Android – as an ecosystem – would become insular.  I was concerned because my experience of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was the best thing I ever had with an Android phone.  The Galaxy S7 Edge was nice, but felt super bulky and – dare I say it – almost cartoony alongside it.  The Note 7 was slim, had a beautiful screen and screen layout, packed full of features .. and the potential to explode at any time.

So my reaction to that was to go back to Apple.  Apple is safe.  Apple is good.  But the thing is, Apple just isn’t as good as they used to be.   They occasionally come up with some products that are truly excellent (their Beats Solo 3 wireless headphones are the bees knees, for example – the battery life of that thing is incredible), but I’ve notice that over the past couple of years, more and more bugs and other issues have crept into their products which has put a bit of a downer on things.

It’s expected that new MacBooks and MacBook Pros will be announced today, and given leaks from the MacOS system itself, it appears there will be a lack of a physical “escape” key.  As a sysadmin/engineer, the “escape” key is one of the most important keys on a keyboard.  I spend a great deal of time on serial consoles which require a combination of ‘escape’ key combinations to diagnose and bring servers online.  If Apple does take away the ‘escape’ key – or turn into a virtual key through the much rumour OLED touch bar – this is going to be a problem.  I am super glad that my return to the Mac is with a design that has served Apple very well for the past 8 years or so.  I shall let others figure out whether the new design is going to work out or not.

The iPhone 7 Plus is good all round pocket computer.  But it’s not great.  The CPU is the fastest in the industry as demonstrated many times over.  The optical zoom is a nice feature to have, but I find that iPhone 7 Plus photos are too soft and looking at images at 100% resolution yield too soft (almost paint-like) qualities to it in comparison to something like the Samsung Galaxy lines.  But my biggest bugbear with the iPhone 7 Plus has been the cellular capabilities.  With the Samsung phones, the reliability of 3G/4G has been superb.  Handover between Wi-Fi and cellular and back again – no problem.  iPhone 7 Plus with iOS 10 – many problems.  Many are blaming Apple’s use of Intel modems for this (whereas with the iPhone 6/6S phones, Apple used Qualcomm).

So I’ve made one more exchange.  I’ve turned my SIM only contract into an phone contract and gone for the Google Pixel XL.  The iPhone is going.  The brief time I’ve had with the Pixel XL has sold me that even if it took Google just 9 months to get this thing out, it’s still done a better job than Apple has with the iPhone 7/7 Plus.  With the Google Pixel XL, cellular connectivity is spot on, the raw Android OS does everything I want of it, and the camera is just superb – lens flare issues or not (again, bringing up the concept of improving imagery with smaller sensors using computational photography – Photoshop before you Photoshop so to speak).

I can live without iMessage and the recent update that allows people to place stickers and animated GIFs all over the shop.  I hate it, to be honest.  There’s a lot of UI associated with that I’d rather see gone.  I can live without iCloud Photo Library.  Google’s Pixel provides unlimited free storage for photos and videos shot/taken on the Pixel, and given that I can backup my entire Google Account through the use of Spanning Backup – no problem!  I’m also a lot more confident of Google’s cloud infrastructure than I am of Apple’s.

Google is definitely aiming to get iPhone users to convert, and I think they’ve done a pretty ruddy good job here.  Given that a lot of my personal workflow goes through Google’s G-Suite for Business, it makes more sense for me to use a device running Android that can make the best use of it.  The problem in the past has been that Android was never completely there for me.  It is now.  And having Google take the lead over other Android flagships gives me a major advantage.  Perhaps now Samsung and Co. will do more to ensure they get out security and feature updates to their Android phones faster.  My initial analysis was wrong – Google is showing others how Android should be done.  And long may it continue.

But Martyn, you may ask yourself, what about the iPhone 8 (or whatever they’re going to call it) next year?  Well, next year is next year.  Providing Google continue to roll out updates, and providing they’re committed to Android and Pixel, I think I’ll be a proper Android convert for a very, very long time.

Where do we go from here?  The next big thing in IT that’s going to shake things up a bit: artificial intelligence.  There’ll be a blog post on that soon.

P.S. – no, definitely no more phone swaps for me for at least a year (and if I do, it’ll be through the phone contract).  I’m keeping the iPad because I’ve still yet to see an Android tablet that renders books, newspapers and magazines as well.

When mobile phones outsmart DSLRs

I’ve always enjoyed taking photographs and have owned a number of standalone cameras in my time.  I never enjoyed 35mm film cameras because of the fiddly nature of spooling the film into the camera, so was very happy when I got my first ever digital camera way back in the year 2000.  It was a Sony Cybershot.  It was a big clunky camera.  My most recent was another Sony Cybershot (the well received RX100 MkIII).  Tiny thing.  But I’ve just sold that.

Why?

I’ve come to realise that I just don’t like carrying around two devices that now do the same thing.  In fact, the device that’s replacing it does more – it can automatically tag photos with location data which makes it much easier to identify where a photo was taken.

So..

I’m buying a Samsung Galaxy Note 7.  I already own the Galaxy S7 Edge (which will be sold to make up the shortfall when the Note 7 arrives), and both devices share the same camera optics.  The S7 Edge has taken some of the most impressive photographs I’ve seen from a camera phone to date.  It uses dual pixel technology as found in the Canon 70D camera (which has only just found its way into the new and pricey Canon 5D Mark IV) which means super fast auto focus.  It behaves extraordinary well in low light situations.  In Pro mode, one can generate RAW files.  In short – you’ve got professional camera features in a mobile telephone.

Let them eat cake - photo taken with Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (full auto) - click image for full size
Let them eat cake – photo taken with Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (full auto) – click image for full size

But why the Note 7 in particular when the S7 Edge and Note 7 share such similar specifications?  The first is the S-Pen.  Steve Jobs has always dismissed styluses for phones, but the Note 7 is more than that.  With the Note 7, you can write directly on the screen when the phone isn’t in use and save them.  As I’m always taking down notes, this is going to be a much-used feature.  The second is the curved screen isn’t pronounced.  My biggest problems with the S7 Edge is that I whenever I grip the sides, it results in accidental app launches and whatnot if the phone is unlocked.  Then there’s the slightly larger size over the S7 Edge (a whole .2 inches).  I have large hands, therefore a larger phone suits me better.  Then there is the refined user interface, the iris scanner (though as I wear glasses, I don’t think I’ll get much use of that feature).  The Note 7 is the first Samsung phone to incorporate blue light reduction which I find very useful before heading off to sleep.

I have made the decision to stick with the Samsung Galaxy Note series for future mobile phone tech.  Samsung has taken the lead over Apple (who are currently embroiled in the iPhone 6/6 Plus “touch disease” fiasco).  In particular, I trust Google’s services far more over Apple’s (especially given I have a proper SLA with Google for Google Apps for Work – no such SLA exist with any of Apple’s online services;  I fear that one day,  as Apple integrates its online services even more tightly into MacOS and iOS, they will seriously muck it up, leaving vulnerable Apple users with lost data).  I’m also with Intel in saying that if you’re going to go down a fully digital audio route for headphones and the ilk, USB-C is a better medium than Apple’s own ecosystem.

All these features within a single unit that I carry about every single day and hardly leaves my side.  It’s strange to think how far mobile phone technology has become.  The S7 Edge/Note 7 processors contain neural net technology for crying out loud!  It is a computer, it is a phone, it is a compass, it is a satnav, it is a pro camera.  It’s no wonder why mobile phones have become so popular.

 

The House of Fun: Galaxy S7 Edge photo test

Last night I met up with a fellow former Google Apps Top Contributor who was in London for a few days.  Anurag and I went on a whistlestop tour of Westminister and the South Bank, stopping off at the local McDonalds for something to eat and drink.  It was absolutely boiling, but I managed to take some great photos using my Galaxy S7 Edge camera.  Clicking on each photo opens the original file, so you can see how detailed the full-size image is.

Much better than the iPhone 6S Plus in my opinion.

We did spot a large number of journalists along the South Bank setting up camera kit for their reports on the EU Referendum.  Most of them were standing against the backdrop of the Houses of Parliment.  I’d imagine today the South Bank is overrun with reporters.

Also: Android Pay, like Apple Pay, can be pretty spotty on TfL contactless readers. Sometimes you have to change to a different barrier if the one you want to use rejects the phone/card.  Do hope TfL fixes this.

As Apple’s cloud services fall over and go splat..

(See Daily Mail: “Apple’s iCloud comes crashing down” which includes a quote from me courtesy of Twitter, but they managed to mangle the caption (9.2.3 versus 9.3.2) and also includes the typo of the week which is: But it is unlikely the tech giant knew it would unleash furry on the iPad Pro.” – this is why I use an ad blocker these days to prevent publications from getting revenue for poor editing)

.. I’m putting the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge through its paces.  Android has come far since I last used it in anger.  Yet there’s still no method of setting up a way of getting the phone to keep notifying me of an unread SMS – essential when you’re on-call and you’re in deep sleep.  There are third party apps, thankfully, but finding the right one is tricky.

I put Android Pay to use this morning.  Unfortunately, the uptake from British banks and Building Societies is a bit thin on the ground at the moment.  Thankfully my own bank has adopted Android Pay and it was just as easy to set-up as Apple Pay.  And even easier when it came to pay for a Costa coffee.  If anything, it felt faster.

The S7 Edge has a great camera built in – capable of even shooting in RAW format (requires that you switch to the Pro mode).   But even when on Auto, it takes some great pictures – take a look at this 12 megapixel shot of keys.  Focusing was extremely fast indeed.

Macro shot of some keys - focusing was very fast.
Macro shot of some keys – focusing was very fast.

I’m a bit undecided about the video.  I’ve not had a chance to put either the HD or UltraHD video shooting modes to use – but I have seen footage where it looks the person shooting the video has consumed 90 pints of beer and taken hallucinogenic drugs.  The background seems to distort and wobble.  It’s been pointed out that this is likely due to video stabilisation being enabled – that is, digital video stabilisation + optical image stabilisation = improbability drive effects.

I’ll get back to testing the video functions later.  Not important to me right now – I don’t shoot much video anyway, the important thing is stills photography which seems to me to be one of the best smartphone cameras on the market.

Call quality is excellent.  The unit supports EE’s Wi-Fi Calling out the box (you just need to enable it within the Phone settings), so if you have decent Wi-Fi, you can make calls over that rather than the cellular network.

Pretty much every app I had on the iPhone 6S Plus (bless it’s recently sold soul) is available under Android, and in some cases is a much better experience.  And like the iPhone 6S Plus, the Galaxy S7 Edge has a fingerprint scanner which works pretty well.  Not quite as spontaneous and as flexible as the iPhone, but it’s come leaps and bounds since the Galaxy S5 (which I have as a work phone) and is perfectly usable here.

The “edge” part of the S7 Edge is a lovely idea: you can access frequently accessed content, apps and contacts by simply swiping from the right hand curved edge of the phone.  Really makes a difference and the whole screen looks extremely impressive as a result too.

Google Play, which replaces the temperamental Apple App Store, works and I can remotely install apps from any web browser.  The S7 Edge also integrates into my Google Apps for Work account and I can manage the device remotely – so if it ever fell into the wrong hands, I can perform a remote wipe (or locate it, or both).

Overall I’m very impressed with the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and I do not yet regret my move.  Time will tell how fast Samsung will roll out security and Android updates to the device (including new major versions of Android), but so far so good.

iPad Pro (12.9″) Four Months On

Still loving my iPad Pro (12.9″).  But I’m not loving developers who are taking time updating their apps to take advantage of that higher resolution screen.  Google is slowly getting there, but they are still a very long way off getting everything up to date.  I’m still waiting for the official Gmail app to be updated, for example.

One of the biggest complaints I have with the 9.7″ iPad Pro (which I don’t have, by the way – I love my gadgets, but I don’t have infinite monetary resources!) is that because the resolution isn’t any better than the iPad Air 2, there isn’t as much incentive for developers to hurry up and crank the resolution up for its bigger brother.

I’m finding that I am using iPad Pro a lot more at work for note taking, and also for handwritten notes and drawings (which can be embedded into documents such as PDFs or Word files).  There is something lovely about the freedom to choose between typing and handwriting and typing/drawing.  A good app for this is GoodNotes 4.

Prompt 2 for iOS is a must-have application for those that need SSH access to servers.  Now with split-view support, one can have a web browser and an SSH session running side-by-side simultaneously.

I’m also finding that I’m reading a lot more free magazines via Surrey Libraries’ Zinio magazine service.  With 12.9″ of sceen real estate to play with, one can view magazines at a 1:1 level without having to pinch/zoom.  I have to take the keyboard cover off to free up weight, and the whole thing feels as if I’m reading the broadsheets, but it’s perfectly usable.

TIP!
Surrey Libraries give their customers access to a lot of premium services online, and at the libraries themselves (including Find My Past).  Worth checking this link out if you’re got a library card. There’s stuff there I didn’t even know about.

Web sites are still a bit of a problem.  Most sites (including this one) are designed to be “responsive”, so you’ll get the very best version depending on the resolution of your device.  For sites such as BBC News, this looks and feels like the desktop version.  But where certain technologies come into play, you’ll get a mobile version which just looks horrible.  I find, however, that using Gmail site is still better than using the Gmail app.  At least Google Chrome uses the full resolution whereas the app does not.

Overall, still very pleased with my purchase.  The limitations at this time are still developer focused, rather than anything to do with the hardware or OS itself.  But I’m sure Apple will do their best to encourage them to update, update, update.