Saturday, 17 October 2020

Google Pixel 4a 5G

Everyone out there in tech-reviewland is understandably comparing the three new Pixel devices with each other. The 2020 Trio of Pixels 4a, 4a 5G and 5. They all have their pros and cons, price-points and user-emphasis. But you've probably heard enough of that by now, so I'm going to do my Pixel 4a 5G review as a comparison with my daily in-use phone, a Pixel flagship of yesteryear, the Pixel 3 (128GB) and see how it stacks up.

The Pixel 3 was released in autumn 2018 at a cost of £769 (for the 128GB version). The Pixel 4a 5G here is pitched at £499 and has the same 128GB or storage. Two years is a long time in tech, as we know, and the 3 can now be picked up new or used at much less than the release-price. In fact, significantly less than the 4a 5G price now. So for me personally, it's a decision based on usability - and the question I pose myself is, is it worth another £499. A good starting point here before reading on might be to watch Steve Litchfield's video review in The Phones Show 407 in which he pitches the Pixel 4a 5G more specifically up against the Pixel 5.

One of the very poor aspects of the Pixel 3, as I reported time and again, is the battery performance - so I'll be looking at that with hawk-eyes - and the other issue for me is the size. I have found that Pixel 3 is just a tad too small for me these days and wonder if the slightly bigger size of the newcomer will suit better. The XL Pixels are usually too big for me and I've been crying out for a 'Pixel L' in the middle for some time now! This could be it. Lastly, the output from the speakers. If it's as good or better than the Pixel 4a which I recently reviewed, it'll get a pass, depending on the other two elements here. Three aspects then, amongst many, to drill down into here.

Android 11
 does bring some changes over previous versions, which I'll address in another feature sometime soon. For now, I'll paraphrase what I said in my Pixel 4a review about the software experience ...it's the pure Android experience. Vanilla flavour as Google intended. This is reassuring, especially with the promise of two OS updates and three years of Security ones. You know what to expect and it delivers. No bloat, no apps to uninstall (for those who are happy with the Google ones) and everything working as it should between them all and with Google services. Android is Android and you can add pretty much whatever apps you want to on top. The strength of Android, choice. Don't like GMail, don't use it. Install another email client. Homescreen elements are stuck. At A Glance is up the top there and Google Search at the foot. Don't like it? Install Nova Launcher - or any one of another hundred launchers.

Firstly then, to the box and what's in it. As usual with Pixels, you get the standard set of stuff! A power charger, USB-C to USB-C cable, USB-C to USB-A adapter, pokey-hole tool, a few papers and the phone. The days of earphones are gone and (with Google) cases - a simple TPU in the five hundred quid would have been nice. Mean.

The design is very much the same as the 4a. Plastic ‘moulded’ around the edges to the front, buttons, ports and camera island in the same place as is the rear capacitive fingerprint scanner (same as the Pixel 3). The volume rocker and power button are not as ‘solid’ as the 4a. There seems to be a little 'play' back/forward, but they are certainly similarly ‘clicky’ in use. It's a pleasing design, the plastic will make sure it takes a lot more abuse before it breaks, like the Pixel 3's glass could well do if dropped. Some will think that at this price-point it should have been 'more premium' glass. What you don't get here that the Pixel 3 has, is any official IP-rating for environmental protection. Take your own risks with that, then, but I think it should survive a rain shower or quick dunk into clean water - just don't try orange juice for a half-hour!

The OLED screen is not as bright as the Pixel 3's. It just 'feels' a little 'duller' and less colourful. I'm sure that the screen must have been made by someone else. For the same point on the brightness slider, it's just not as bright. Wind the brightness up manually to 100%, and there the difference can be seen. It's a warmer white and not so cleanly bright as the 3. The difference is worst at angles and closest to each other when viewed face-on. The viewing angle is not as good either (by a very small margin to be fair) and as you turn the phone round the 4a 5G casts blue eventually at a very tight angle and the 3's screen never does. But then who's going to look at their screen like that! I'd much rather have battery improvements than test-bench slight deficiency, if that's what's at stake! (Image credit phonearena.com)

The screen is a 6.2" 1080p OLED with a ratio of 19.5:9 returning 413ppi covered with Gorilla Glass 3. It looks perfectly sharp enough for me and I agree with Steve about the refresh-rate being 60Hz - I really can't tell the difference with 90/120Hz - and the Pixel 3 is 60 as well anyway, long before all this became trendy! The difference is that the screen goes out to the edges, pretty much. The 3 has a large chin and forehead, so not only do you get more screen because it is bigger, but also because it exploits the whole frontage. The benefits of this are obvious. As for Gorilla Glass 3 instead of 5/6, well, I've personally had more reliable results with v3 in terms of scratch-resistance so am happy with that. I'll come to the overall size a bit further down.

A word on 5G cellular connectivity. The most interesting thing about 5G is the fact that I can't get it and don't think I need it! I'm hoping that with it turned off, I will enjoy battery benefits making the most of the significantly bigger cell than was placed into the Pixel 4a (with no 5G). I shall test that now with 5G on and then off. The battery is 3,885mAh, so much more capacity than the Pixel 3 here as well. It is, of course, driving a bigger OLED panel but also should benefit from the closer-to-mid-range chipset, the SnapDragon 765G over the Pixel 3's more flagship-level of the day SD845. The SIM Card tray is the same simple one, incidentally, which can take a nanoSIM only and the phone is eSIM-ready too.

Let's consider the size first, then. The 4a 5G is taller, wider and fatter than the 3. It's also about 20g heavier. Hunting round to find a phone to compare it with, the closest I have here are the Moto G8 Plus and Motorola One - remember that super little AndroidOne smartphone I was recently raving about? When I started setting up the 4a 5G my first reaction was that this is too big for me. However, I think that part of that was because I had immediately come from my Pixel 3 and it was a bit of a shock. After 24 hours, my brain settled down and my hands were finding ways to wrap around it which acknowledged the bigger size, but somehow made it manageable - even just about for one-handed use. There's a small balancing act there, but I do have big hands. So in Day 2, I've convinced myself that I can do this! It's clearly not as dinky in the pocket, but the screen-size benefits offset that. The Pixel L? Maybe. So far, so good.

Speakers are next. Steve was right about the speakers. They’re about the same as the little 4a and neither of them have quite the quality or volume output of the Pixel 3. It’s not hugely far off, but it’s there. An equaliser is needed on both 4a models (reducing volume in the process) but not on the 3. Spoken word is very clear when moving from music/video/film to podcasts. When watching music videos with the screen about 2ft in front of me on the desk, the stereo separation and left/right is just fine. If you block the speakers in turn you can indeed hear that most of the ‘body’ comes from the bottom one - but 2ft in front of me, it mixes it well enough. The more I use it, the more I think the speakers are good enough for me, even though not quite 3 level. Note that the speakers don’t switch stereo around when phone is spun round, but then neither do they on the 3. So far, so good still!

3.5mm Audio-Out I think that with my AKG K701 Reference headphones here, the 4a 5G has better output than the 4a. Different components for the greater cost maybe? It’s louder and has more body than the 4a. On this one, I went from ‘nobody will complain’ to ‘this is actually very good’. Steve points out that the DAC is different, since it’s part of a different chipset, so maybe different - and for some of us at least, better, but not up the wired leaders. Switch to Bluetooth and as we so often say now, the sound output really is quite stunning - but then it often is on a phone costing half the price of this one too.

How about battery, then? Initial response is that the battery is excellent. I have done my usual 10% Screen-on reading test and was staggered by the result, being 3 hours and 20 minutes! This overtakes my current leader, Motorola G8 Power with its 5,000mAh cell by 10 minutes! As I said, it's a 3,885mAh unit and during these initial tests, I do have 5G turned off, but when I run the same tests with 5G on, it really doesn't seem to make much difference. I wonder if that's because I am not in a 5G zone, or that I don't have a 5G Tariff. Maybe it would be different if I was and did. I can't test that.

The average day (for me) results are also very, very good. Not quite up to the days-on-end of the Samsung Galaxy M51 with its 7,000mAh battery, but no problem at all getting to the end of a day, even with heavy use - and with light/medium use, through the second day too. As always with battery tests, your mileage will vary. I test with Adaptive battery and brightness on the whole time, but of course there will be different results as users vary the settings. So, back to the Pixel 3 and of course, the newer phone is embarrassingly better on the SoT test! That 3hrs 20 minutes for the 4a 5G turns into 45 minutes maximum on the Pixel 3. More powerful chipset, smaller battery - OK, but I still maintain that there's something bizarre about the 3's screen-on drain. And I have two here, both the same. So, no contest! There's a 'Fast charging' 18W charger in the box which charges from flat to 50% in about 45 minutes and to full in about 90.

What is missing, however, is the Wireless Qi Charging. This is an annoyance and certainly a tick-in-the-box for the Pixel 3. Set up with Qi chargers all over the place at home and suddenly having to rearrange things. A Qi Receiver can be used and I have a couple here which I have tried, but they also annoy as, however thin they are, they still seem to make the phone 'rock' on a flat surface. Still, the way things are going with power, as described above, I think I can live with this irritation!

A quick word on the Google Assistant before I go on. The 4a 5G does not have the squeeze-to-activate the Google Assistant. Gone. Will it be a miss? Well, for me, I forget it's there on the Pixel 3, never use it - and am more likely to say "OK Google" for the required action if I were to talk to a machine! The rest of the time I can type, thank you! The usual swipe-up from the bottom corners invokes immediate attention ready for the user's command or request. But yes, for those who liked and used that feature, this year it's a miss. There is, of course, the same excellent Always on Display with options to be on/off or sensor-controlled. There's the (virtually) unique Now Playing, which is used here much of the day - and all the other Assistant stuff we've come to expect with Pixel models.

The SnapDragon 765G is powering the 4a 5G as I said earlier, is a step-down from the Pixel 3's 845, but you really wouldn't know it. The newer phone flies around any tasks thrown its way with gusto. I guess hard-core gamers might complain, but even many of them have been impressed with the 'G' of the 765. There's 6GB RAM which is two more than the Pixel 3 but, again, I have noticed no slow-down switching between running apps nor stuff being shut down that I was hoping would still be open. The 4GB of the 3 was good enough, so I guess these 6GB are better!

Storage is, at last, becoming 128GB as a base-line and that's great. I've been bangin' on about demolishing 64GB for years now, especially as with Pixels, there's no microSD Card slot for extra data. This was also true of the Pixel 3, however, though a 64GB version was available at release for £100 less for those who (thought) they didn't need more! As usual with Pixels, there's no HDMI-Out so cabling up to a TV is out, but that's no surprise. Would have been a nice bonus! Tests with the storage are positive. Reads/writes from my various test SSD/adapters via the USB-C port are very quick as it copies data both ways or processes it on the fly.

Connectivity is really strong in my tests here. Using Vodafone in the UK I am able to make and receive cellular calls with no breakup even in a known cold-spot of poor reception and the same is true for WiFi tested here with two different broadband routers. GPS locks on fast and changes reflected instantly in various mapping and weather apps, for example. NFC is present and although in the current world-climate I can't test Google Pay, others are reporting that it's working well and certainly the NFC works fine for data communication.

I'm going to do my usual wriggle here on cameras, report the basics and point you again to Steve's review in which he explains things better than I can. We have a very familiar Pixel setup here with a bonus over the Pixel 3 of an extra wide-angle shooter. So the main one is pretty much the same 12.2MP f/1.7 with OIS, similarly 8MP f/2 Selfie and with the added 16MP f/2.2 wide-angle lens. The interface of the camera is again very familiar, everything simple, logically laid-out with nothing to confuse and an emphasis on letting Google work stuff out for you! This is no Sony Xperia 1 for sure. As we know, most of the clever stuff is computational and the results, consistently excellent. Anyway, yes, do watch Steve's take.

The questions for me have been answered here during my time with the Pixel 4a 5G. I have concluded that the phone is just about acceptable for me in terms of size. Not too big, not too small. The speakers, though not quite as good as the Pixel 3's, are good enough for my purposes. The missing Qi Charging probably remains the biggest annoyance in actual fact. I'm not really concerned about lack of (official) IP-rating and the build and construction of the phone is perfectly fine for everyday use as a workhorse, if not terribly pretty with glass. The bigger screen, though not as bright, is again good enough for me with lots more space for content and the engine-room arrangements make it a perfectly good win. The camera is, well, a Google Pixel camera, so no complaints, the battery knocks spots off the Pixel 3 in every way and the pure, clean, non-bloated and Vanilla software experience can't be found on any other device than a Pixel.

So, as the current owner and user of a Pixel 3 (128GB), would I cough up £499 of my own money for this newer device. That's the question. It's a tough one, which I'm trying to answer with honest to myself - and I think the answer is probably yes. I could see this as my go-to phone for the coming months and maybe years, taking over from the 3. I'm an absolute sucker for the pure experience on a phone - and only a Pixel really delivers that in the Android world - and enjoy updates and new features first. So I can look at whatever else anyone else is doing, enjoy the more feature-rich hardware coming along, play around with it, safe in the knowledge that my SIM Card is nicely snug and tucked away in the phone that I actually want in my pocket. As for the pick of the current crop of 2020 options from Google, and bearing in mind that I haven't seen the Pixel 5 yet, this is the one for me. For the similarly-minded Google nut, this is the life!

If you're going to buy a Pixel 4a 5G from AmazonUK when released in November, please use this link - it costs you no more and they move a few quid my way for the referral. Many thanks.

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Planet Computers' Cosmo Communicator

The Cosmo Communicator from Planet Computers is a very interesting device. A step back in time maybe. A niche product for a very specific user maybe. A productivity tool extraordinaire maybe. An alternative approach to communication - and what we have long accepted now as the mobile phone form factor maybe. One thing's for sure - it's a step up from their first attempt with the Gemini.

Sadly, it's taken us all this time to get hold of a review unit here at Phones Show Chat, so late in coming is it that the next generation is in the works with the promise of the next step, in the shape of the Astro Slide. You can watch Steve Litchfield's brief introduction to the Cosmo and basic comparison with the Gemini in The Phones Show Episode 380 from about a year ago now.


The box is as interesting a creation as the phone itself - in the same style as the Gemini, I seem to recall. It's very nicely presented with a magnetic lid reflecting the action of the Cosmo itself. Flip it open and you're presented with the top opening flap housing a picture of the device open and the bottom flap, the keyboard. Just like you've opened the device! Inside, there's the Cosmo and the usual array of leaflets, start-guide, pokey-hole tool, stickers, cleaning-cloth, a 'fast charging' plug and USB-C to USB-A cable. No case or earphones. Apparently there's a slip-on cover in the retail box and maybe even an HDMI adapter (more on that later) too in some regions. There was also (not here) a screen-protector, factory-fitted which many users didn't realise was there, but once removed improves the screen brightness, colour and reliability of touch, although does make it even more of a fingerprint magnet.


The first impression when the Cosmo is retrieved from the box is that it's a huge, heavy lump of a device! Probably the biggest phone I've ever had in for review and the reason clearly is, that it's no ordinary phone. It's much more a pocket-computer than a phone, with the phone functionality very much secondary. However, responding to complaints from Gemini users, the functionality on the outside of the device (when closed) has been significantly enhanced which means that it can indeed be used much more easily as a phone without having to open it up to do pretty much anything, like with the Gemini.


The Cosmo is really well made. It feels like a brick or something with which nails could be hammered! The hinge mechanism is solid-feeling and when the clamshell is opened up it takes some effort to start the movement - when closing, if left with no human intervention, clamps shut with the speed of a Venus Fly Trap - but with a loud clunk! Watch out for your fingers around the hinge though as it's very sharp and has drawn blood on many occasions. On the bottom there's nothing much, on the left end is a 3.5mm audio-out socket, USB-C port, SIM-Card Tray, microphone and the left stereo speaker. On the right is the other one, another USB-C port, more microphones and a power button. The back is taken up completely by the sturdy hinge mechanism and on the front there's nothing to get in the way of your fingers pulling the shell apart!


The top is where the new fun starts and a 1.91" AMOLED display. Flanking this in symmetry are two islands, one the camera/flash unit and the other a multi-function button, LED display and fingerprint scanner. There's a 'smart speaker' at each end so that the user can take phone calls with the unit either way up, top being then the active one. The design is pleasing to the eye overall but could be classified as 'industrial' in the same way that Motorola used to produce early Android devices. Oh, and it's grey/black. No green/red options for business-users allowed!


The rest of the fun starts when you open up the device and are presented with the 'Psion 5' keyboard. It's so very reminiscent of that device except that the keyboard doesn't slide forward - they're moving further that way with the Astro. The keyboard is oodles better than the Gemini keyboard, though to be fair, the Gemini I had in-hand was a very first generation one with noted keyboard problems - and the unit eventually did have a new one placed onto it. The keys 'float' around a central pivot and 'click' reassuringly when pressed. This is no 'chicklet' style keyboard like the Nokia Communicator line or recently, the F(x)tec Pro1.


The 5-row keyboard is nicely designed with an offset array rather than 'square' blocks of keys, just like a 'proper' keyboard. There are big, dedicated cursor-control keys, a decent-enough size return key and full-sized back-space and Escape. The Tab key could be bigger, but not without something giving elsewhere. There's a numeric row up-top, same full-size as the others and a decently sized space-bar which appears to execute the command wherever it is struck, an improvement over the Gemini again.


Then there's 101 Fn actions with a secondary function assigned to pretty-much every key! All sorts of controls, well assigned, arranged and thought out. Example being Fn/Alt which opens the phone. The user will get used to the location of these, even if they have not come from a Gemini upgrading, or even a Psion 5. Take into account all the functions splayed out from the Alt key, Sym and Emoji, the world really is your oyster! Special mention for the secondary function for the Alt/Menu key and Enter, being phone call/hang-ups and also the space-bar as a quick route to the Assistant in use.


An even more special mention for the fact that the keyboard can be backlit on a sliding scale in Settings with the light glowing around each key and through the white letter/number/icon on each screen. It stays on even when the screen times out, which seems a bit odd - only shutting off when the lid is closed. Maybe that's so that the user can still see to change audio-settings, volume etc. It's a nice improvement over the Gemini but we've yet to see what it might do to the battery!


The screen facing the user is clearly designed for landscape use and it might be pretty difficult to use in any other way, for most things, which makes it this unique take on Android with difficulties of design along the way, rather depending on App developers to make sure their offerings work in landscape too. Which, as we know from Android Tablet use, they often don't. But the screen is very nice indeed. A bright and colourful 5.99" 1080p AMOLED with an 18:9 ratio and return of 403ppi. There's 'scratch resistant glass' on offer but I guess it's highly unlikely to get scratched inside there anyway.


The Cosmo is powered by a MediaTek Helio P70, which seems to compare by those who know about these things to a SnapDragon 660. I have had various phones over the last couple of years running that chipset and have seen no problems. Speed around the UI here seems fast enough, opening/switching between apps good, the 6GB RAM plenty. Don't let others tell you it is not!


A disappointment to find that Android 9 is still running things, particularly now that Android 11 is out there, making this two generations of the Android OS behind. In practice, the main missing elements for me are the Dark Mode stuff to be honest. But then when you are using a device that feels so far removed from 'ordinary' phones anyway, it detracts much less than it would for a mainstream offering. Looking at you, Motorola!


More of a concern for some users might be that the Google Security patches are only available here to April 2020. The device can also dual boot with Linux (and even Sailfish, I think) but this really is beyond me and best left to the serious geeky nerds out there! I really can't review that or comment.


Communication options are great with 4G excellent for calls and data. Not a glitch - clearly good components. Same is true of the GPS with Maps and Weather apps and so forth locking on quickly and hanging on well, reflecting movements and so on. NFC is present so Google Pay should work, though I also can't test that just now I'm afraid. Other reviewers report it working well though and certainly other NFC communication duties work as they should. The sensor for this is around the camera island so well placed. Wifi hooks up strongly and maintains a hold very well with 2.4 or 5GHz available. Incidentally, there's space for 2 SIM Cards (and an e-SIM if you like) but if you want to use a microSD Card, this takes one of the physical slots.


Talking of microSD, there's a slot and it's playing nicely with my 512GB card reading and writing fast enough by far, so no speed issues here often noticed with some phones I have tested with specs less than flagship level. There's 128GB storage on the phone as well, which is just great - 64GB away with you! Plugging in my 2TB Extreme SSD for USB OTG was not a success. It crashed the phone, twice, when plugged into the USB-C port on both sides. I was disappointed with this as almost all modern phones can handle this these days. More surprising was that HDMI-Out is not working. I was convinced that this was a selling-feature for businesspeople on the move and yet, it doesn't seem to work at all. On further investigation it seems that it will work, but only if you use the specially designed adapter sold by Planet Computers. The MediaTek chipset apparently prevents the use of any other so-called universal adapter and solution. I wasn't supplied with one, so can't test it. Planet want another £40 for that!


The two USB-C ports can be used for other peripherals, however, for those not using Bluetooth, including a mouse, bigger keyboard, cable to a computer for data exchange or whatever really. They can also be used to charge the unit, which I seem to remember is a change from the Gemini where one of them was for data only. Apparently, the right-hand USB-C port only trickle-charges the battery - and then only if the screen is on. Odd.


The replaceable battery in the Cosmo is a 4,220mAh unit and seems to be a regular complaint generator from Cosmo users. As always, battery life is going to depend on usage and options including the backlit keyboard and AoD on the outside screen. I have everything turned on full here and have found that the battery life is not as good as a businessperson might hope using it as a mini-laptop out and about, doing presentations and relying on the unit as their workhorse. I have tested this over an average day here and found that over a 12 hour day with 5 hours screen-on-time I'm down to about 30%. Another test I performed was to fully charge it, leave it switched on but closed for 24hrs, no SIM Card in but connected to WiFi - and when the 24hrs were up the battery was all-but dead. So, in use with care, maybe it'll just about get to the end of a busy day but I would suggest that people carry a powerbank or spare battery - at least you can!


The stereo speakers are really nasty. Tinny but reasonably loud. They are alright for casual listening and phone calls, voice stuff I guess, but it's a grimace-inducing exercise to play music or watch film/video. I managed to tweak the output to some degree for music by using a player app with its own equaliser, as usual, at the expense of volume - but there's no system-wide controls for sound output so I suggest you use apps which have those controls. Furthermore, my Whatever Works and Better Before co-host Aidan Bell has discovered that the speakers output content out of phase. This reduces volume and quality significantly and may or may not be a problem, depending on how much of an audiophile the user is - and if the user is, I guess this probably isn't the device for them anyway!


Sound from the 3.5mm audio-out socket is tested here with a pair of AKG K701 reference headphones and I can report that the output is again perfectly good enough for most people, loud and with some bass and good tone. Bluetooth 4.2 is present and when hooked up via that method the experience, as usual with bluetooth, is transformed into the excellent category - however, this does always of course depend on the quality of the attached equipment. Pairing is fast and connection reliable.


There's a recording FM Radio app bundled which uses something plugged into the 3.5mm audio-out socket as an antenna in the usual way. Once rolling it can be switched to speakers and actually, sounds very reasonable in my tests. The connectivity is not as strong as some other devices, but as always this will depend very much on where you live and what signal you get with other devices. All I would say is that I have other devices in the same location which do better.


The outside screen is the big change over the Gemini, it could be argued and this small OLED panel which dynamically switches between landscape and portrait, shows time, date and day with various status icons for the likes of cellular strength, wifi, battery and below the clock, incoming notification icons. Tap on one of these and you get a sub-screen of information with a bit more about what it is and some tap-able options, usually leading the user to open up to see anything of any real use. Very handy for incoming SMS and seeing the first part at least of emails however. It's an improvement over a bunch of flashing LEDs which the Gemini user had to learn!


The user can also access a bunch of other control options with a press of the button including some limited Settings, Music Playing, Camera shooting, Video recording (both with the front-camera, which means that if you keep the Cosmo closed and the camera pointing away from you, you can't see what you're shooting), Torch control (LED flash) with timer, Phone function with dialpad, list of Contacts and recent calls and a Voice Memo function. It feels like a half-baked solution to be honest, with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 leading the way with a fully-functioning Android screen on the outside or Motorola's Fold. But then the focus and emphasis of this device is different. Very different. It's all about that keyboard.


The button on the front also acts as a fingerprint scanner but with the device closed, there doesn't seem much point. It unlocks the device, but with no benefit on the outer screen much at all, mainly the inner one - and when you then open it up, it wants the fingerprint scanner to be used again! So then you have to execute hand-gymnastics to fumble around to find the scanner round the back! I guess the user would get used to locating it 'blind' quickly enough, but yes, of limited use it seems beyond extra security.


The camera on the outside of the device is a 24MP f2.8 (read: very small aperture, only really suitable in good light) shooter alongside the aforementioned LED flash. When using it with the device closed the view is echoed on the tiny screen and refresh-rate is appallingly slow and clunky. Move the device and the image catches up with the move after a horribly long delay of about half a second. Doesn't sound much but really, it's not usable! Open up the phone and use the main screen inside to monitor and it's oodles better, just like any half-decent phone. The supplied camera app is very basic with Photo or Video as options, flash on/off, HDR control and a switch to the 5MP camera inside the unit for what really will be, for the target audience, the main use of the camera. Conferencing calls, Skype, Hangouts et al. There's face tracking going on too, so as you move around others will see you in focus. You can pinch-to-zoom up to 4x but of course that's all digital, noisy and nasty. Again, this business tool is not for taking pretty pictures with.


There's none of the usual Android Setup procedure expected with pretty much every Android phone these days. Just turn it on and there's the desktop. Accounts need to be signed into, including the near-obligatory Google one on most other devices. No invitation to sign into anything, Google nor Wifi. Very much like a Psion in fact - the user can, if they want to, use this device completely stand-alone with the Planet supplied software and tools and never go online!


The Planet Computers interface for Android is what's in use here and it is, in many ways, close to 'stock' Android. It's obviously in landscape orientation and the standard Back, Home and Recents control buttons are on the right (though can be switched to left or turned off). The software experience is very similar to the Gemini, though to be fair, I did have limited use of that. There's a pop-up menu with access to a bunch of Planet tools and apps - Airmail (email), Agenda (calendar), Notes, Ledison (controls for the outside LEDs flanking the fingerprint scanner), Data (Db) and Keyboard control. It is nice to have a very quick route back to the home screen with a dedicated keyboard key, to the left of the space-bar. The other Android controls are pretty much standard including the Notifications Shade and information across the top at rest. Because the screen is so wide in landscape, this can make the most of the notifications as they line up potentially in abundance!


Verdict

This is a beautifully made device which, for the right person will be a perfect solution. I see a businessperson on the road, or on a train. Papers spread in front of them as they draft a report. They really don't want to lug a laptop with them and they're OK with the smaller Psion 5 style keyboard to knock out their thoughts. When they're done, the very same device can be clacked closed and put into an inside jacket pocket and even whipped out to answer calls, locate their next meeting in mapping, fully connected in the same way as they would any phone in 2020.

The point and difference here is obviously the keyboard. It's what this is all about. The question is, would the user be prepared to live with the other compromises involved in order to only carry one device. One device that might just do all they need, even if not so well once the keyboard is finished with. Or is there another, better solution I wonder.

There's also a nostalgia angle for those of who adored our Psion devices - this is a fabulous step back in time, to a large degree, brought up to date. In other ways, feeling like it's still the 1990's. And then there's the other elephant in the room, the £799 it costs, even now, a year on with the Astro Slide successor en route.

The other issue is about this being one of very few options for people who want a truly pocketable device with a truly usable keyboard for productivity, even if it's a secondary unit for those on the move. Keyboarded devices tend to be niche, very niche. And so expensive on short runs and creative funding routes.

Personally, there's not enough here for me at this kind of cost. If it were half that price, I think it might well have. For others, sat on that train, making a living and still being as productive as they can be, this could well be the perfect connected solution. But let's not call it a phone - it's a pocket computer with phone functionality built-in.

Friday, 9 October 2020

Google Pixel 4a

When I come to start a phone review, I often start with a comparison with the closest likely device from which the unit has been upgraded. The logical route with the Google Pixel 4a is therefore the Pixel 3a - but this time, things are not quite that simple as there seems to be an absolute flood of other Pixels out there, new, old and some just about to arrive!

Likely contenders are the Pixel 3, Pixel 3a, Pixel 4, Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 - and that's laying aside the XL versions! Steve Litchfield has published a video review covering much of this on his YouTube Channel - The Phones Show 406 - which might be a place to start before reading my thoughts here.

One of the two elements which I'm mostly concerned with here is battery performance. The battery performance on my Pixel 3 here is diabolical when the screen is on, but perfectly reasonable when it is off! A strange dilemma there then - it's a good phone as long as you don't use it! The 3a was better, with the lesser chipset, but still not perfect. I found that the 4 was significantly better than both of these when I had it for a short spell last year, but it seemed like nobody else, anywhere, agreed with my findings!

The other one is the stereo speakers. The Pixel lines have always done speakers pretty well and even though often resorting to 'faux' stereo, the resulting sound output has always pleased me enough to consider it very good indeed. So this will be the other area I want to focus on in the coming days. Incidentally, Google PR constantly have by-passed us in loaning units, which means that I have had to use my own money to buy the 4a - so it may be going back if I'm not happy with it - if it's not significantly better than the Pixel 3 I own.

The physical is first, as usual, following a brief report on the box contents, being exactly the same as Pixels from recent years - power-brick, USB-C to USB-C cable, USB-C to USB-A adapter, pokey-hole key and a couple of leaflets. No case, no screen-protector. So, I'm putting this up against my Pixel 3 as that is my currently used daily device and it's really all-but the same size. The 4a is very slightly wider, very slightly less tall and very slightly fatter. As expected, the glass back of the Pixel 3 makes it look and feel more premium, but don't forget that on release that was a £769 phone (128GB) and this 4a is £349! Something has to give. Having said that, there's something very nice about the Just Black covering on the new model as it curves nicely around the edges to meet the front screen.

On the plastic right edge there's a mint-flavoured power-button and just under that, volume-rocker. These buttons are very, very clicky - a really nice touch which injects confidence. Up the top there's a 3.5mm audio-out socket, on the right a SIM Card Tray and at the bottom, the bottom-firing part of the pair of speakers. There's another symmetrical grille the other side of the USB-C socket, which I assume is for looks and houses a microphone. On the front is a flat screen with the other speaker up-top and that's about it.

On the plastic back we have the capacitive fingerprint scanner 75% of the way up, central, a 'G' logo towards the foot and the square camera-island top-left with one lens and a flash visible. It doesn't feel any less substantial in the hand than the 3, it's about the same weight and design is appealing. Maybe even more so than the 3. Anyway, time to fire it up!

The first thing I notice is that the screen of the newer phone extends pretty much out to the edges of the phone on all sides with a very slight 'chin' at the foot. The payoff here is that there's a punch-hole camera top-left which of course is not visible on the 3 as there's a forehead to envelop it. Even though the 4a is slightly less tall, therefore, there's more screen which measures 5.81" over the 5.5" of the 3.

The front panel is protected from scratches by the use of Gorilla Glass 3, which is different to the Pixel 3, which has GG5. We'll see over time what difference this might make, bearing in mind that GG3 has been used broadly elsewhere and for longer. The only problem which I ever had with Gorilla Glass was indeed with the 5 version where a Samsung Galaxy Note9 ended up with horrible micro-scratches. So perhaps GG3 is better for my use-case anyway.

It's a 1080p OLED screen returning 443ppi. Pretty much the same specs as the 3 in actual fact. Both screens also look pretty much the same to me displaying a white screen on full brightness, colours look great in all the OLED glory and very well bright enough to be using outdoors in ordinary levels of daylight. It's just that with the 4a, you get more screen!

The data-copy from the Pixel 3 to 4a was the usual seamless affair using the cable, even protecting homescreen layout, apps and data. It's still not quite Apple-seamless as signing into various 3rd party apps require input, though Auto-fill and SmartLock helps a great deal at least with less repetitive typing of the same data in some cases. Some apps' Notification Settings are remembered, some not. It still feels like a work in progress, but better each time.

The SIM Card Tray is just that - space for a single Nano-SIM with the choice for the user of doubling that up with an eSIM. The tray is also plastic but slides in and out well enough. As Steve pointed out, it has some environment-proofing in evidence so even though there's no official IP-rating here, some measures have been taken to protect the device. There's no microSD Card slot here of course, so you get 128GB or storage and that's it - but that's so much better than 64. You can plug in a card to the USB-C port with an adapter and that works well. The data transfer is fast enough for most people but I have noticed in various scenarios the slight slow-down of data execution. One example being an SMS Backup/Restore using the app I favour. I notice that the speed at which this is executed depends very much on the processing power of the phone in question. Also copying mp3 files from an SSD Drive - the evidence is there, this is not as fast as flagship phones/Pixels. There's no HDMI-Out of course, like all Pixels.

The phone arrived with Android 10 but immediately upgraded to 11. When we come to the software experience, it feels a bit like reporting on an iOS device - we all know what we get. The pure Android experience. Vanilla flavour as Google intended - like Apple for iOS. This is reassuring, especially with the promise of two OS updates and three years of Security ones, but not quite up to the Apple standards which usually seem to press on to 5 years. So, there's not much to say really about the software experience that has not been said by me elsewhere in numerous reviews of Pixel phones and Android OS appraisals. You know what to expect and it delivers. No bloat, no apps to uninstall (for those who are happy with the Google ones) and everything working as it should between them all and with Google services.

Android is Android and you can add pretty much whatever apps you want to on top, the strength of Android, choice. Don't like GMail, don't use it. Install another email client. Some anti-Google bods will of course point out that there's no way to uninstall GMail in the process, but the same is true of Apple and iOS too. Homescreen elements are stuck. At A Glance is up the top there and Google Search at the foot. Don't like it? Install Nova Launcher - or any one of another hundred launchers. They do let the user now hide the Google Panel to the left of the Homescreen these days for those who don't want to use the Assistant, Discover and SnapShot etc. Speaking of the Assistant, the 4a does not have the squeeze-to-activate the Assistant. Gone. Will it be a miss? Well, for me, I forget it's there on the Pixel 3, never use it - and am more likely to say "OK Google" for the required action, much as I detest talking to machines!

Always on Display is present of course, along with the staggeringly oft' used Now Playing by yours truly! A killer-feature for me and I don't understand why others (without recourse to a third party app) haven't emulated. The whole show is powered by the SnapDragon 730G which, as I said earlier, seems fast enough in most operations outside of test-bench conditions and most people without a flagship Pixel next to it with a SD8xx chipset won't notice any lag. Similarly the 6GB RAM, up from 4GB, seems insignificant to me. They both process app switching and hold apps and services open long enough for my liking - and when they don't, it really is usually nano-seconds to open them up again.

Connectivity is very good. The Pixel 3 has been a challenge to me with cellular connections for voice calls in some areas but this was not presenting the same. GPS locks onto position quickly whether it be in Maps or Weather or any other application needing it, as tested here. I have not tested NFC with Google Pay (for security reasons with my bank and keep reviewing phones) but the NFC certainly works for connectivity and I understand from others that Google Pay is working fine. Wifi locks on well as tested here with a home broadband setup, another broadband out and about and also my Mifi set-up. Good 4G connection, no blips. The fingerprint scanner on the back works beautifully well as we would expect from a capacitive sensor - first time, every time - and is quick to register.

As usual, I'll point you to Steve's review above for an appraisal of the camera, but the short answer is that it's as good as any other Pixel with excellent images created from the mix of lens and software magic. There's no wide-angle or optical zoom here, but a solid performance all-round. So much so that many people will buy this little phone for that reason alone - a cheap way to get a Google Camera. Check out Steve's video for more.

So now we come to the tricky two questions that I need to pose myself. Is the battery performance good enough over the Pixel 3 and are the speakers as good as the Pixel 3's to justify spending £349 to grab this phone. We'll start with the speakers.

The faux stereo produced here, if not held up against the Pixel 3, is pretty loud, fairly good quality and only suffers a tad by the speakers not both forward-facing. However, for my purposes here against the Pixel 3, sadly I find the comparison raising the significantly more tinny nature of the 4a output, certainly less bass and also volume - though the latter is closer. It seems to me that cheaper components have been used in the 4a which results in a less pleasing output. Having said that, put the 4a up against 101 other phones which don't have anything near the good output of the Pixel 3 - and most people will be happy - probably won't even notice the tinny top-end. I was able to apply the usual equalisation tricks to get rid of some of it, but as always with phones - at the price of volume. It's not great - and this box needed ticking for me. So next is battery.

The Pixel 3's battery life is rubbish. There, I said it! The context of that though is not that it's rubbish getting through a day in a pocket, moderate use, but when the screen is on for extended periods of over an hour. The remaining battery drops like a stone and my 10% Test which I have defined and spoken about many times now, returns me between 35minutes and 45minutes. So the 4a didn't have to do much to win here! And it certainly is much better. The battery is 3140mAh over the 3's 3000 but with the less power-hungry chipset, I assume assisting, the 4a trumps it. The 10% Test result, which I executed a number of times, is returning between 1hr 10mins and 1hr 30mins. Potentially twice as good on that test - and yes, certainly getting the user through the day no problem. So does it tick the box? Is it enough for me to spend £349? No. And the reason is that even though the Pixel 3 has a lousy battery, it does have Qi Charging and I'm set up with Qi Pads all over the place so can just plonk it down whenever I settle somewhere. Now, true enough, I could add a Qi Receiver to the 4a, but it's not a neat solution. I have two or three here and although it works fine, it sticks out the back and makes the phone rock on a desk/table. I don't like it. Built-in Qi is a win.

So, with no tick for speakers and half a tick for battery - sorry, it's not enough. I wanted to love it - and it will be a fabulous device for many, many people - just not me, just now. If I didn't have a Pixel 3, I still think I'd put the £349 towards the forthcoming Pixel 4a 5G or 5. The Pixel 4a 5G and 5 have much bigger batteries and if 5G is turned off (who needs it?!) I can imagine that the performance will be to my liking. As we don't have the units to hand at the moment, I can't possibly say what the speakers will be like but as Steve said in the video, there is a strong possibility that one of the speakers in the 5 is actually under-glass, which will, no doubt screw the sound. I'll have to wait and see. But for now, the cash stays in the bank.

A couple of things to round-up before I end - one is that the 4a does have a 3.5mm audio-out socket which the 3 does not. Handy for those who need it. Can't say that I once have been caught out by the 3 not having it. Bluetooth on all modern phones is staggeringly well implemented and the sound offered is quite stunning, as it is here for both phones. And if I really need it, I can put a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle in my wallet!

The question becomes, therefore, what next? How does the 4a compare with the 4a 5G and the 5 which will be along shortly? Well, I'll leave Steve to consider that question - so once again, check out his video - but for me, I have great hopes for the Pixel 4a 5G. Not only does it have that bigger battery, not only can I turn off the 5G to make the most of it, but also the phone is a tag larger. I think I might prefer that. The Pixel 3 has always been a little small for me, the Pixel 3a was slightly bigger and slightly better in that respect - and the 4a 5G is back in that general framework. That's the one I shall be looking at next, even if it is £499. I think it'll be a better fit for me.

But in the meantime, I can't not recommend the 4a here to most people out there. As much as I nit-pick, most of it is just that. This is a cracking little phone. Good enough battery. All the excellent benefits of ongoing support and fast updates from Google. Super camera results. Good enough sound output. 3.5mm audio-out. And only £349. For most people, what's not to like?

Oridget Digital Timer Plugs

Most of us will remember the electrical timers with a spinning clock/dial and loads of 'pins' to put into lots of holes to make the thing turn on and off - well, this does that same thing digitally, but with more functions!


The unit has a battery inside so will not lose the settings for a good 24 hours if left unplugged. The clock is easy to set and offers 24/12hr options. The range of programmes is enormous with pretty much every combination of days you could wish for from every day to one day - and all options between (so, for example, weekdays, M-Sat, M,W,F and so on - there are loads)!

The user can set up to 18 events for the timer, so again, a whole range of days, timings, options galore - we can't imagine how anyone could use them all up! There's also a Random mode which runs, you guessed it, at random intervals - ON for between 1min and 16 mins, and OFF for between 16mins and 32mins, randomly. The countdown timer lets you plug something in and get it to turn off after an assigned time - again, easy to set.

The LCD screen is big and clear and if in view of the user, constantly displays the time so can be used as a clock! The main digits are large too so can be seen from a distance away. It's made of hard white plastic and you get two in the box, making them currently £8 each. The buttons are firm and clicky. All in all, they're excellent units which we recommend.

If you're buying, please use this link: https://amzn.to/3daQRA1
Thanks - I get a few pennies 🙂

Thursday, 1 October 2020

PodHub UK Podcasts for September 2020

...a roundup of our month of podcasting. Links to the team, communities and podcast homes on the net at the foot, so scroll down!


Phones Show Chat
Episode 588 - The G Pro Makes Six
Tuesday 1st September 2020
Steve and I are back with a midweek catchup. I review the Moto G Pro, Steve, the Nord against the Samsung Galaxy S9+and we both chat about the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 589 - Neon-Drenched Japan
Saturday 5th September 2020
Steve Litchfield and I are back with a content-packed PSC once again and this weekend we welcome Bloomberg's Vlad Savov to chat about a bunch of current issues and thoughts about the current mobile scene.

Phones Show Chat
Tuesday 8th September 2020
Steve and I are back with another midweek catchup as we chat about what we're up to in the world of mobile - and were just too late recording for the Pixel Android 11 update news. D'oh!

Whatever Works
Episode 119 - Gift Shop Open
Friday 4th September 2020
Aidan and I are back with another fun-packed show and this time, the Gift Shop is open - so do roll up and chip-in to buy a mug, coaster or t-shirt! Pretty please!

Projector Room
Episode 70 - Radioactive Relic
Wednesday 9th September 2020
Gareth, Allan and I are back with a square-eyed feast of all things good from film, TV and cinema. Bust a Blood Vessel at zero Centigrade and join us as we natter again for an hour.

Better Before
Friday 11th September 2020
Aidan and I are here again with another episode and this time we're joined by Gareth Williams as we natter for an hour about what is better now and what was Better Before. This time, it's TV, Podcasts, Food Packaging, Microsoft Windows, Shaving, Correspondence, Confectionery and Books vs e-books!

Phones Show Chat
Saturday 12th September 2020
Steve and I are back with a content-packed weekend show and this time we take flight with Tom Stuart for some topical natter.

Tech Addicts
Sunday 13th September 2020
I make my first appearance on Gareth's own Tech Addicts Podcast! We natter for an hour about all things tech including the Microsoft Surface Duo, Pixel 4a, Poco X, Android 11, HarmonyOS and YouTube Music.

The Phones Show
Episode 404 - What Apple Did Right with iPhone 11 Pro Imaging
Monday 14th September 2020
Title speaks for itself really, don't it! Join Steve over on his YouTube Channel as he demonstrates what he means!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 592 - In and Out of Phase
Tuesday 15th September 2020
Steve and I pop up again midweek to natter for a while about what's going on in our heads and in the world of mobile phones. Aidan pops in for 5 minutes, to explain about the Planet Computers' Cosmo's speakers' audio misalignment.

Chewing Gum for the Ears
Wednesday 16th September 2020
Steve and I are back with our occasional dip into the world of music, this time joined by Aidan who tinkers with his Six Pack of Picks! All sorts of gum to chew, including a new album from Deep Purple, 52 years on!

Whatever Works
Episode 120 - Scrubber Penetration
Friday 18th September 2020
Aidan and I are back again with another thrilling podcast to keep you amused as we consider Whatever Works in our lives and in the lives of the Group Members here too. Why not join us as we visit Sony in Japan!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 593 - 4a from the USA
Saturday 19th September 2020
Steve and I chat with Roger Martin about all things mobile phone from across The Pond. Like many of us, he dances the Android/iOS dance of course!

Tech Addicts
Sunday 20th September 2020
Gareth and I pull apart all sorts of tech stuff for fun!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 594 - Zoomed to 10
Tuesday 22nd September 2020
Steve Litchfield and I are back with a shorter midweek catchup in which we chat about the new Nokia devices, I appraise Android 10 on the Motorola One Zoom and Steve praises his mobile solution including use of the Surface Go.

Projector Room
Episode 71 - Wretched Ratched
Wednesday 23rd September 2020
Gareth, Allan and I are here again with our thoughts on all things film, cinema and TV. It's a bit of a long one this time, so grab un Café Grande! Bill and I face the music whilst we all chunder over Chan!

The Phones Show
Episode 405 - Xiaomi Poco X3 (NFC)
Wednesday 23rd September 2020
The best value phone of 2020? Join Steve as he offers his answer and leads us through where this sits in amongst the rest of the offerings, particularly from the Chinese brands!

Better Before
Friday 25th September 2020
Aidan Bell and I are here again with natter for a while about what was better before - or not! We take comments from the group members of course in this first of our fortnightly shows.

Phones Show Chat
Saturday 26th September 2020
We're back again for the weekend show and this time Steve and I welcome Tim Evans back to chat about all things folding and opening, first-hand - and what's cheap'n'capable too!

Tech Addicts
Sunday 27th September 2020
XP not RIP? A £6K Canon? Perhaps you'd like your coffee machine hacked? Or maybe more into domestic flights! Gareth and I are up, up and away!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 596 - The Pixel Confusion
Tuesday 29th September 2020
Steve and I are back again midweek for a short catchup. We eagerly await delivery of the Pixel 4a and compare that with other Pixel options on the table. Ditto for the Sony Xperia 5 II - can this be the closest thing to Android perfection?


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The Podcasts
PodHubUK - Phones Show Chat - The Phones Show - Whatever Works - Chewing Gum for the Ears - Projector Room - Tech Addicts - Better Before

The MeWe Community Groups (follow the links to join up)
Phones Show Chat & The Phones Show - Whatever Works - Chewing Gum for the Ears - Projector Room - PSC Photos - PSC Classifieds - Tech Addicts

The Team
Ted Salmon - Steve Litchfield - Aidan Bell - Dave Rich - Gareth Myles - Allan Gildea

Google Pixel 4a 5G

Everyone out there in tech-reviewland is understandably comparing the three new Pixel devices with each other. The 2020 Trio of Pixels 4a, 4...