Monday, 26 November 2018

Xiaomi Mi Note 3

This is the first time I've had a Xiaomi phone (or any device, come to think of it) in my hand - and like all good buses, they come along in two's! Thanks to Mike Warner for sending these over for me to to have a look.

The Mi Mix is a giant device, very nice indeed, and Mike has imported this then reflashed it so that it's now running LineageOS. Another first for me. I'm so impressed with that, that I am sending over another of my devices to him and I'm going to ask him to put it on that. When it comes back, I'll be keen to review LineageOS (from a user's point of view). But for now, it's the Mi Note 3, centre stage.

Bling
The first thing the eyes are bombarded with on opening the box is the bling! It's like a shimmering mirror and sea of oscillating blues on the back! One could argue that it's tacky, when another would declare beauty! It's very shiny and bright though, so until a case is applied, it won't be missed! The second reaction is iPhone. Yes, it's another Chinese manufacturer making their phone look like an iPhone. I muse on this sometimes and usually conclude that it's meeting the need of the masses who can't afford an iPhone but want to be seen by their peers (at school?) to be a part of that iPhone set. Apart from the argument that the design is good and well thought out, which could be true. My standpoint is that it just makes the world a less interesting place when all phones look the same. Anyway, I won't bore you again with that one!

Flattening
Now then, it's another glass/aluminium sandwich, of medium weight, fits in the hand nicely with glass curving with subtlety around the back but more slightly on the front, ensuring that the screen is flat. I'm swinging back from curvier to flat these days, I must admit. The curved edges of various phones including the Samsung devices and my beloved Nokia 8 Sirocco are very pretty to look at and make for glorious jewellery, but the flat panel is much better pragmatically.

Tour
While we're here, the front panel is a 5.5" 1080p IPS LCD with a 16:9 ratio and protected by Gorilla Glass 4. The device feels like it should have a 2:1 panel really, because there's a Chin and Forehead, unusually these days. No attempt has been made to pull the screen out top and bottom, nor make the device any smaller in those directions. It almost feels like the Chin and Forehead have been made a feature! But it's OK with me. It actually has a Nokia 8 feel about it with the capacitive cluster in the chin, providing for a Moto-style 'pebble' fingerprint scanner cum Home button and one 'dot' each side for Recents and Back (which you can thankfully switch in Settings). Up the top is a selfie and speaker, on the bottom another speaker and USB-C port. Right side has volume rocker and power, left, Dual SIM Card Tray and on the glossy back, on the left, there's two flush camera lens holes and a twin-LED flash.

Screen
The LCD panel is bright enough without being amazing. Next to the Nokia 8 it looks decidedly dull, but that's a bit of an unfair match! Outside in an overcast UK day today it is perfectly usable - though how it would cope with bright sunshine I can't tell. Basic Settings can be adjusted (warm, standard, cool) along with Contrast controls - but they're all a bit basic and don't really seem to make much difference to me. But having said that, the colours on the screen are bright and pleasant enough without being anywhere near Samsung Saturated or Sony Black! The average user would be very happy with the screen.

I've Got a Little Behind!
The Note 3 is currently running MIUI 9 with Android 7.1.1. and May 2018 Google Security, which feels like a disappointment, though I do remember Mike saying something about MIUI 10 and Oreo so, given that he's a ROM tinkerer, maybe an off-the-shelf unit would be different. Maybe he could comment.

Under the Bonnet
The phone is driven by the Snapdragon 660, which we know from the likes of the Nokia 7 Plus and represents a good trade-off between performance and power efficiency. It seems to trot along quite nicely, multi-tasking adequately with the 6GB RAM and ordinary users won't be waiting around. The 64GB Storage and no microSD Card slot, however, in my view, is a loss - though it seems that I'm alone in this respect - as everyone is being driven to not having any data on their device rather permanently linked up to the cloud and paying (in one way or another) for data transfer on-the-fly. The more time goes on, the more old fashioned I get to feel! (I am aware that there is a version of this unit out there with 128GB, which, for me, makes a huge difference - even without a memory card.)

Faux Functions
I was surprised to find that stereo speakers are present - well, that becoming-popular 'faux' stereo which pushes high-end sounds out of the earpiece and the rest from the bottom (main) speaker actually. The overall sound experience is a bit weak and tinny at top volume. Drop it down a bit and things improve but this is not a ghettoblaster, by any stretch of the imagination! It's perfectly functional and, in actual fact, the stereo effect is much more impressive than the overall sound output. This 'faux' stereo thing does, somehow, much as it sticks in the throat to admit, seem to work. On the face of it unbalanced and, well, just not right - but you can't argue with results and at this tiny pocket-sized computer level, it exceeds expectation. So, OK for most non-party room-filling uses.

Dangle Dongle
There is no 3.5mm audio-out socket present, they, like most others, going with USB-C. The output via headphones is 24-bit and I tried it with what dongles I had present and it sounded amazingly good - but then I'm no audiophile and I always seem to say that, whatever phone I try! I will say that it sounded even more meaty and loud with the dongle that came with my Razer Phone over others, so what that says about dongles, phones, built-in DAC, DAC-in-dongle and compatibility, I'll leave for you to decide with your friendly sound engineer! Bluetooth 5 is present with A2DP and LE, but no aptX.

Audio Control
There are Music and Video Apps supplied by Xiaomi and they seem to work well. Like Huawei and Honor devices, there is no global sound controls, no Dolby, no control of equalisation of sound outside of specific apps - and then many of them are locked to headphone use only. A person could get used to a system-wide audio control like Dolby Atmos, running in the background, applying its settings to anything that is being played through speakers or headphones at all times - then feel very short-changed to discover that their next device has no such control, bringing less enjoyment. Shame.

Straighten Up
The main camera is a 12MP f1.8 unit with a 'usual' field of view with OIS, and the second, 12MP f2.6 2x Optical zoom with AF. There's a simpler 16MP selfie camera round the front. The camera interface is again very iOS, but laying that aside it's very functional and clear (point taken!) and has a few extras like vignetting effects, beautify, detection of groups in selfies and a 'straighten' mode which I've never seen before! Like a compass, I guess. Point the camera at something where straight lines are present and it adjusts the frame of the picture about the be taken to make sure it's 'square'. If you point it at something with no straight lines, it just disappears. That's useful! Close focus is really not bad at about 2 inches and then there's that 2x optical zoom. You can also shoot 4K video at 30fps. Results are excellent as far as I'm concerned, for a tiny camera in a tiny pocket device, until you get to low-light - then the budget nature of the hardware shows its face. But for most people, most of the time, for most purposes, it'll be just fine.

Day and a Bit
The phone has a 3500mAh battery, which, for the size of the device is really big and though I don't have time to test that thoroughly, early indications suggest that it's perfectly good to get most people doing most average things to bedtime and beyond. Scouring commentary around the internet it seems that most users are agreeing with that appraisal. It's equipped with Quick Charge 3 which means, in this case, and hour and a half from flat and 50% in half an hour.

Finger on Chin
The fingerprint scanner on the front chin works well, setup is quick and simple and execution fast - first time, every time. There is of course no other fancy unlocking stuff at this price-point like Iris or Face recognition but there is lift-to-wake and DTTW, wake for Notifications and even wake with volume buttons! More importantly - and not to be taken for granted with devices out of China, NFC is present, which means Google Pay will work, along with the other NFC benefits. As Xiaomi establish a foothold in the West, this is certainly something that they're not going to leave out in future. And finally, an IR port for controlling your TV and other devices in the old fashioned way!

MIUI
Saving the best(?) until last, we turn to MIUI. Big gulp. No prizes for guessing how much I like this thick, all-encompassing, plastered overlay on top of Vanilla Android. Yes, I know, I've made mention of the boring nature of Vanilla sometimes and that devices need to have USPs and something, well, just different in terms of design or functionality to make them different from the boring pack - well I might have to eat my words! This device already clones an iPhone physically and the UI is littered with all sorts of design items that is also blatantly trying to copy iOS. As I was saying earlier, I'm not sure of the motivation, but if one of the factors is trying to get current iOS users across to Xiaomi/Android, then I can see what they're up to. In many places it looks just like iOS, the Settings pages, icons, colours, switches/toggles, Notification colours, buttons, paths and routes to get to central controls - it's all there, plain as the eye can see.

Uniform Compliance
As you will guess, I just find this annoying and difficult to imagine why anyone would choose it over much cleaner setups and 'traditional' use of Settings and placement of controls etc. Having said that, it is also clear that Vanilla is going all iOS too with design element in Pie, so I'm not sure what the future holds for miserable gits like me hankering after the old ways. It is clear that the baseline UI of Pie has been made to look all Apple. Apple Pie, eh. At least the default icon set here is not childish LG/Samsung like it could been and there's not much 'bloat' in evidence, though I'm not sure how much of that might have been down to Mike and ROMs etc. Security, optimisation, management of running tasks and app control is all present as has become expected with most devices developed in China and the East, rather than just trusting Google and Android to sort it all out. It feels like there's so much here that's just not needed and that, in itself, becomes the bloat.

Prime Cuts
Armed with Nova Prime Launcher of course things can (at least) look different - and they do. Many a device I have had in to review and not got very far because I just can't stand having to try and negotiate what on earth they have done with Android - and Nova saves the day. It provides some continuity across devices in a way that Google Now Launcher used to do. It makes it usable and workable, though at the end of the day, underneath that Nova skin, the user still has to know where to go to find stuff and look at some of the UI, some unchangeable beyond even Nova Themes.

Most will be Fine
Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of device here for the money and I'm sure that someone coming into it for 2 years on a contract, only device, would get used to how it works and where things are (if they care) and would be just fine. If they are coming from iOS they'll be right at home in Settings/UI and there are lots of bells and whistles to play with in terms of individual tweaks and functions, many of which I've not had time to cover here.

Lineage Love
I love so much what Mike has done with the other device however, the older Mi Max, that I would love to see this Mi Note 3 running under a LineageOS. I can't wait to get my device back from him so that I can play with that and review it, with nightly updates, just like Cyanogen back in the day! This phone could feel so much better with that onboard. But leaving that aside, there's a lot to like about the Note 3, if only one can get used to (or hide much of) the MIUI.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

HandBrake

I've been trying hard to find ways to carry my media content, for which I have paid good money, onto my devices. To view how I want to, when I want to, with convenience. So far, it seems, the film industry is so paranoid about having their content ripped off that they just make it difficult.

Not that anyone with half a brain doesn't know how to get round it, by illegal downloading etc. and call me a mug, but I wanted to do it legally and above-board. Well intentioned as I have been, there seems to have been two sticking points. Google Play Movies (which I'll write about my solution regarding in another post soon) and the DVDs that I (apparently) own! It's to the latter that I come first.

The last time I tried a DVD RIPping tool, including HandBrake, it felt like the person needed a degree to know how to use it and to be an AV engineer to set all the parameters, formats, intended use switches and audio settings, blah, blah. So much so that I gave up on a number of tries. Just recently, I decided to have another go.

I can't speak about other solutions, but the Open Source Video Transcoder HandBrake (https://handbrake.fr/) now works perfectly with default settings for the non-engineer non-geeky-nerd, ordinary person. Plug in your DVD player to your computer (Windows, Mac, Linux), fire up the software, stick a DVD in the drive, let it read it, give the (usually auto-selected main film) file a name (if it doesn't auto-select the main file, it's easy to do it manually) and hit the Start Encode button.

Now, if you want to RIP in anything else but the default 'Fast 1080p30' setting, you can play around with settings and tinker until your heart's content, even assigning various mobile devices and audio formats etc. but the point about this post is that you now don't need to. Defaults just work!

The resulting files vary in size but I have tested them on a range of phones, tablets, computers and TVs - and that default setting is perfectly good and video watchable. For those wanting super high definition or whatever, yes, you'll need to play around - but for my 55 year old eyes, it's perfectly watchable on my TV and super sharp on phone screens.

The length of time each file takes to RIP seems to depend on the DVD and length of film, obviously, but generally it seems to be about half-real-time and I'm getting a 2 hour film as a 600/700MB file .m4v in format (though tinkerers can change this). This means that let's say a collection of 100 or 200 DVDs can fit easily onto a cheap and cheerful microSD Card. Fiendish and free - It's beginning to feel as though I do own the stuff I've bought!

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Wonder Wheel

It's a shame that this latest Woody Allen film got such a poor reception as I think that it has much more to offer than reviewers would have you believe.
Whilst I hold my hands up to my love of all his films, I do acknowledge that yes, this isn't his best work. But if I can be this creative in my 80's, I'll be more than happy. Many 80 year olds don't remember what they had for breakfast, let alone create, write, produce and direct a feature film! Allen continues his collaboration with Amazon Studios after the quite superb Crisis in Six Scenes mini-series in 2016. In that work, Allen drew out the talents of Miley Cyrus and she performed the radical beautifully. This time, he's focused on the ability of the very experienced Kate Winslet as his leading lady and Boy Band flop-cum-actor Justin Timberlake.

The story, in usual Allen fashion, is an observation of relationships between people and how, by poor choices made by many of them, chaos ensues! Ginny is married to Humpty but is having an affair with local lifeguard Mickey. She has a small son (from a previous marriage to a jazz drummer, when she was trying to be an actress) who sets fire to things for fun. Humpty has a daughter from a previous marriage who turns up out of the blue after five years, having fallen foul of her gangster husband. Initially distraught by the previous let down, Humpty then welcomes and protects her prioritising her over all else. She, Carolina, by chance, hooks up with her dad's wife's lover lifeguard who's thinking that he'd rather be with a younger girl than the older Ginny. Ginny finds out of course, can't say anything, and heads into downward spiral as she can only watch the mayhem getting irrational, madder and madder! The price of desire, love, lust, and deceit becomes depression, alcoholism and unhappiness. Unless - there's a way out! Hope you're keeping up!

As you can see, it's a right mix-up! The set is Coney Island in the 1950's where the family live in an apartment on the fairground, an unused previous attraction! When he's not fishing or gambling, husband works maintaining the rides in the fair and wife's a waitress in the cafe. They are making ends meet, just, when the daughter turns up and becomes a financial burden, unfairly in Ginny's eyes. She wants what money they have for psychiatry for her son, not keeping his daughter from being murdered by the mob, who she's grassed up and is on the run from!

Kate Winslet (Titanic, Contagion, Quills) plays Ginny, who holds it all in her hands. She does this superbly well as an actress leading the cast, if not as a character! This doesn't stretch her at all really - the closest she gets to that is when she's with Mickey and he's clearly getting interested in Humpty's daughter. As the tension grows, the closer she gets to performing as we know she can. Mickey is played by child-star Justin Timberlake (The Social Network, Friends with Benefits) and also provides as the ad-hoc narrator doing the fourth-wall thing which Allen loves to use. He does alright in this light role, but I don't really see a great actor in him yet.

St Trinian's girl Juno Temple (The Other Boleyn Girl, Atonement) plays Carolina and I think is underused by Allen in the storyline in lieu of Winslet's screen-time. I would like to have seen her character develop more and as an actress she looks like she has much more to give. She does a good enough job for the time she has but hopefully Allen will give her a more meaty role next time out.

John's brother (I bet he hates that!) Jim Belushi (Twin Peaks, Red Heat) takes the other leading role as the vest-wearing slob husband with tendencies towards booze and violence which Allen writes in perfectly. Where there's a working class troglodyte family involved, there's always one of these characters and Belushi carries it off formulaically. The only other main player is the pyromaniac brat Richie and he doesn't really have any dialogue much, so could have been pretty much played by anyone his age.

This is not really a comedy, though there are comic bits in it via observational stuff. It's not been written as a string of one-liners, which we know Allen can also do, but as a drama with a dark edge, a comic edge, an emotional undertone and as a vehicle for a glimpse into 1950's New York at the beach, which is clearly a reflection of his own experience. The sets are impeccably put together, the costume and design spot on and the atmosphere of that setting and time is beautifully created by all the above and excellent direction and camerawork. As usual, the soundtrack and tunes are well chosen with a leaning towards swing, big band and jazz.

As I said at the outset, this is far from Woody Allen's greatest moment, but it certainly is interesting and a drama well worth seeing if not for anything else, then the muted performance of Winslet. Even muted, she executes a commanding performance. Highly recommended.

Monday, 19 November 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

This is the latest project from the Coen Brothers, in collaboration this time with the ever-growing and influential Netflix. It's available on Netflix UK right now and is certainly worth seeking out for those who like the style.

And style it has in bucketloads! It's funny, sad, gory, violent, thought-provoking and engaging. It's the tale, or I should say six tales, of life in the Wild West and feels every inch like a Western in genre. The Coen Brothers have done Westerns before of course, or at least stuff set in the hot New Mexico kind of areas of the south of the USA. No Country for Old Men springs to mind. True Grit. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (Where Buster himself was also seen - actor Tim Blake Nelson.) It's an increasingly popular backdrop for many a TV show like Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul, for example. The hot, baking, dusty and dry plains.

The film almost feels like it should have been a TV series as the six tales are not really related closely - or if they were, I missed it! This has been raised and no, denied. It was always going to be a film. A collection of short stories from the Wild West. At times it feels like it could have been a tightly-penned Tarantino project, there certainly being some crossover of style - particularly shamefully intricate dialog verging on monologue at times.

Buster Scruggs, the cowboy who 'sings and slings guns' starts things off and is really very funny. He sings his way through his part of the film whilst dispatching anyone who gets in his way. There feels a lot of nods to Blazing Saddles at this point as we wonder what we're in for! But things turn dark and nasty pretty soon. Lots of unexpected outcomes to stories of criminals, good decent god-fearing folk, old-timers and young naive maidens alike.

Various actors, known and unknown pop up to serve their part, then disappear. Liam Neeson amongst them in a bizarre tale of entertainment provider and ruthless manager of resources! Tom Waits, near unrecognisable as the aged prospector and an even less recognisable Tyne Daly as a fiesty old bird! There's something for everyone in these six outings and too many different actors in small parts to list. A fine collection!

The setting and production values are excellent along with the smart use of photography to assist in telling the tales with impact where needed. It's all great fun, some of the stories slower than others, some purposefully so, but all with their dark streak and surprises along the way. A Coen Brothers' romp, which it was clear they had great fun with, wrote very well and executed interestingly. Highly recommended. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - Netflix

Kenwood Tin Opener

We gave up on those stupid little battery-operated sit-on-top spinning tin openers. We tried a few of them and after initial positive thoughts (see https://goo.gl/wULkxp) - or using them so infrequently these days so they're bound to last forever(!) - they all seem to give up, stop fitting properly, stop working properly or just breaking! So instead, we went back to plug-in electric!
Kenwood has seemed to be a pretty good name for white goods over the years, so this one, though not as cheap as some others, seems to do the job perfectly once the technique of settling the tin in the right place is mastered. You lift up the lever, make sure the edge is under the knurly-wheel, put the lever back down and press. The magnet in the arm holds the lid when it becomes separated after cutting and the machine also holds on to the tin and can be manually removed whilst lifting the lever.

It's also a knife sharpener, round the back - seems to work in the two different sized slots - and on the front there's a bottle lid remover which is manual, like most other bottle-top removers! The unit is pretty light though, so hold onto it whilst levering off your bottle lid!

Seems to be pretty well made of sturdy plastic and feels like it might last a good time. The unit is available in Chrome or White and varies in price between £20-£25. Here's an AmazonUK link https://goo.gl/EzAeug
Aye - mushy peas, Granville!

Friday, 16 November 2018

Ida

With a nod to Roy Gardiner for his post about the work of Pawel Pawlikowski (https://goo.gl/iSJ1Rz) I can add that this, his 2013 film, is certainly also worthy of note. It's a harrowing tale set in 1960's Poland, bleak and resource-stricken following the aftermath of WWII, by which time many other countries were on the road to some recovery. This seems to be Pawlikowski's hunting ground and his work clearly enables pause for reflection. Purposeful use of black and white and near-4:3 adds hugely to the atmosphere, era and setting.

During the war, Anna had survived as a toddler, whilst her parents and brother did not. The family was Jewish and Anna was sneaked off to a local convent to be successfully hidden from the Germans. Back to the 1960's and Anna is shortly to take her vows and become a nun. Before she does so, Mother Superior feels that she needs to give closure to the plight of her family and sends her off to her only known living relative - an aunt in a nearby town - to try and find out what happened to them. The pair set off together to track down what they can. Turns out that the aunt is a depressed alcoholic saddened by her situation following previous professional high-standing and achievement as a lawyer. She's now a judge, but she has lost hope.

It's a sad story of abandonment, poverty, tragedy, the struggle between religion and war, reflection of purpose and futility, choices and life's meaning - as the two leads try to find some, amongst the bleakness. The two are played by the relatively well known and experienced in European cinema's Agata Kulesza and the pretty much unknown Agata Trzebuchowska. The latter plays Anna perfectly as she struggles with this plight, demonstrating a commanding ability within this difficult role. She draws the viewer in beautifully and enables an empathy which the audience could well have missed out on.

The story, however, gives way to the production. This, though, is a work of art with sumptuous visual engagement - and quite brilliantly perceived and executed photography that only European cinema seems to be able to do quite so well. Every shot, every scene, is like a moving painting on canvas. The regular absence of dialogue in many films would be uncomfortable and feel out of place, whereas here, that yielding to visuals and art is excellently created when offered to the eye. Placing figures in the frame oddly for example, which, if you tried to describe the effect, would be difficult, but here - it just works. It's a masterpiece of creative film making and even if you don't fancy the story or setting, just try and see it for the art. Highly recommended - and I shall look forward to seeing Cold War very much.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Nokia 8 Sirocco (Revisited)

As I woke today on 14th November and was greeted with my Nokia 8 Sirocco's November 2018 Google Security Update, I thought it might be time to look back at this device. I also note that AmazonUK are currently selling this for £349. Stunning value for a fabulous phone.

I started listing the Pros and Cons and the little Cons list seems very lonely in comparison to the Pros. But maybe I'm biased, so let's be pragmatic. Some people won't like getting used to the LG Blue tint, though I have to say that I honestly don't notice it now.

So here we go...128GB of storage as standard, 6GB RAM and Snapdragon 835 makes it fly, the glass/steel design is gorgeous - beautiful, very bright 5.5" P-OLED 1440p screen, 16:9 'ordinary' ratio for most content out there, Gorilla Glass 5, IP6/7, Always On customisable Display, AndroidOne with included promises (looking good so far), Dual Cameras with Zeiss Optics and 2x Zoom, OZO Audio Recording with 3 mics, 24-bit Headphone output, NFC, rear-mounted lightning-fast Fingerprint Scanner, Qi Charging, Quick Charge 4, 3260mAh Battery which is good after my long-term tests for 30+hrs, 6+hrs SoT at 40% brightness and finally and crucially for me, HDMI-Out (though sadly locked at the set 128GB).

As for the Cons, LG Blue Tint, no SD Card, no 3.5mm and the Mono speaker could be better. As I said before, I'd have liked expandable memory options and a slightly better speaker (though actually this one is perfectly good for most casual uses) but I don't notice the tint and I ain't bothered about 3.5mm now.

All in all, at this amazing price, I think it's a staggering good purchase which I would recommend to anyone not hung up on those couple of things. Above all, it's a perfect hand and pocket-size device which, because it's 16:9, makes for broad and great viewing of all content whilst not getting 'tall' as is now the trend. Go get one while you can - and no, I don't work for Nokia!

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Un Coeur en Hiver (A Heart in Winter)

Unqualified as I am to critique European cinema, I know what I like and enjoy watching. I have visited this 1992 French drama from the pen and directional command of Claude Sautet a number of times and am drawn back time and again to look, see and find more.

As is often the case with European films, the story is simple. There's little action and thrill, often more a study of real life, real people finding their way through real situations. One could almost consider it dull and documentary in content, except for the way it is crafted and beautifully executed on screen.

Stephane is a repairer of stringed instruments in Paris. His business partner, Maxine, is a buyer and seller of the instruments. Camille is an up-and-coming concert violinist who, for most of the duration of the film is engaged in a recording studio, making records. The premise is simple. Camille meets Maxine, they begin a relationship which he's more into than her, she meets Stephane and falls in love with him, Stephane rejects her interest and later, advances. The focus of and interest in the film therein lies with the life of Stephane and trying to understand his motives and actions.

Stephane is a solitary soul, living for his work, not interested in anything much except his workshop and platonic friendship with a girl who works in a bookshop across from their frequented cafe, near the aforementioned recording studio. Nothing is ever said, but the undertones suggest that actually he only has romantic eyes for Maxine and when Maxine announces that he is involved with Camille, Stephane is visibly shaken. As time goes on, the unhappy Camille pays more attention to Stephane and eventually corners him and forces him to be blunt, cold and rejectful. He doesn't want her.

The story then develops mainly between the three of them, the juxtaposition of roles and places in which they find themselves and wedges are driven between them. There are interesting asides going on with Camille living long-term with her mentor and facilitator female friend, who becomes jealous of her attentions - and an interlacing of themes regarding love, familiarity and rejection between Stephane and his ageing parents.

Stephane is played beautifully by Daniel Auteuil (Caché, Jean de Florette, Le placard) who has a list of film credits as long as your arm in Europe and the kind of actor that you will have seen in something. Ironically, he was, in real life married for a time to the beautiful Emmanuelle Béart (Mission: Impossible, Hell, Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud) who plays with equal quality the role of Camille. The third part of the trio, Maxine, is played supportingly by André Dussollier (A Very Long Engagement, [the voice in] Amélie, Colonel Chabert) and also has a grand pedigree in European cinema, forming the bonding gel between the other two, main players.

It's a moving and poignant film, beautifully shot with plenty of interiors in typical European style, smart use of shallow depth of field and passive camerawork, not afraid to allow the action at times to continue out of shot. The violin music is so good as a part of the score that you'd think it was dubbed or that Béart actually is a violinist - apparently not, she learnt for a year for the role! It's a character study of one, two or three people, depending on how you view it, which embraces meaningful silences, long looks, controlled emotion and thoughtful musing. It's almost Woody Allen in so many ways, without the comedy.

The takeaway elements of this film are not on a plate for the viewer, rather thoughtful reflection will enable a grasp of what's going on, what it's about and indeed how much they can digest. There's no easy outcomes, often more questions than answers and a film that looks for the viewer to join the dots. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Google Pixel 3

Here it is! The latest and greatest from Google - rolling out the Pixel 3 for a sizable sum of cash. This needs to be put up front really and the following digested in the context of that. The 64GB version is £739 and 128GB, £839. That's a lot of cash in my book. A lot of cash that would buy an awful lot of smartphone elsewhere. But, OK - let's approach it with an open mind and be prepared to have our socks blown off in the usual way, particularly by the special unique features that Pixels bring to the table.

The first thing to be said is that this is the younger brother of the 3XL, as has become the norm for Pixel releases, and I don't have a 3XL here to compare it with, neither have I even held or seen one in the flesh, so to speak! As I have previously reported, I always felt that there was something about the 'mass' of the 2XL which made me keep trying it and giving up - and something about the size, not 'mass' of the 2 which did the opposite. One felt too big, the other, too small. I approach this increased size 'little brother' with optimism.

And the second thing to say is that, having now unpacked it, it looks and seems pretty much as small as the Pixel 2. I can't help thinking that it's just too small still, even though I accept that there's a screen increase which should make it feel bigger. I've been able to copy across by cable in the usual Pixel Perfect way, all the data to get going right away from my Nokia 8 Sirocco - and whilst they are next to each other on my desk, I think that the Sirocco, for me anyway, is what this Pixel is going to be up against during my voyage of discovery.

In The Box
While that's going on, a peek in the box reveals the usual range of accessories including a USB-C to USB-C cable, USB-C to USB-A adapter, a 3.5mm to USB-C dongle, power brick and a pair of earphones that are outer-style, which for once, I might actually use! I can't stand these in-ear ones! The bit that sits on one's outer-ear looks very Apple and half way down the cable is a control nobule, which I'll test in due course.

System Storage
The process took 8 minutes, with 35GB of data coming across, magically turned into 25GB! This is because, whilst the Sirocco was hogging 12GB of it for the System, the Pixel is amazingly only using 1.1GB, though I do accept that this will start to get eaten more as I use it (36 hours later, sure enough, it's 8.7GB). I must admit to being shocked at myself for failing to take into account this factor during my recent deliberations on whether or not I could live with a 64GB phone with no microSD Card slot for expansion (https://goo.gl/ycQ1Wi) the assessment of which has taken an upward turn! As an aside, I did plug in a microSD Card to the supplied adapter, then via a microUSB to USB-A adapter(!) and the phone used the data on the card, no problem, so one could argue that for very occasional use, that could be a workaround.

Inflexible
September security was present when I fired it up and this was update straight away to November (it's now 9th as I write), so not sure what happened to October! The phone already knows my voice, so no need to train it for that, as it does my bank card - though registration with the bank is (reassuringly) still needed. The homescreen layout, pages, folders and widgets didn't make it across, but that might have been a tall order across OS versions and OS flavours (8.1 to 9 and Android to AndroidOne). Talking of the homescreen, the Pixel remains annoyingly inflexible on the first homescreen having screen elements unmovable and unremovable, Google Search Bar at the foot and clock/weather and Notification widget up top. I have a calendar widget that I've used since 1842 which I simply can't put on my homescreen. The screen is too small to see enough of it and shrinking its text makes it unreadable. Maybe the 3XL would be better. This is exactly what Android was supposed not to be!

Smart'ish Setup
The setup process is incredibly fast and sweet. Not quite Apple yet, but certainly heading the right way. Still stuff to sign into but with Auto-fill and Smart Lock to assist it's far from the painful and half-day process of yesteryear using Android. So, screens all set up, apps all signed in and we're ready to go. I now head towards the broader questions of whether it's worth the money by picking apart some of the stuff you get with a Pixel that you don't with a Nokia.

Flying Tigers
A good starting point would be the Snapdragon 845 (P3) against 835 chipset (N8S). I can't really believe that without heading to testbenches this would make any difference to the average non-gaming user. Both devices fly through any task thrown at them, as they do during multitasking, even though the N8S has 6GB RAM over the P3's 4GB. Insignificant. As is the difference between the Nokia's IP67 and Pixel's 68. Both perfectly good enough. Not that I tested either!

Don't Think, Shoot!
Photography is an area where I know that Google excels via software and for the pixel-peeper, it's clearly going to be streets ahead of the Nokia. However, for the man in the street, the Nokia is perfectly fine for that oft' quoted generalisation here - more than good enough for 90% of people to do 90% of the stuff they're going to do with it. You could argue that there are more bells and whistles, toys to play with on the Nokia than on the Pixel, but you can't argue with results. The camera is a 12.2MP f/1.8 unit, for the record, with OIS, partnered by two Selfie shooters on the front, one 8MP f1.8 and the other 8MP f2.2 wide-angle which can be zoomed with a slider to get everyone into shot down the pub! Littered all over the internet is test after test which clearly shows that Google has become very clever here with excellent photography, especially in low light, even if the Nokia has a 2x zoom, 2 lenses and the Pixel has OIS to differentiate. Being unqualified/uninterested enough to take this further, I'll point you to Steve Litchfield's video appraisal at this point, to see a breakdown and close analysis (https://goo.gl/KB95WT).

Vanilla
The Pixel is running stock Android, as we know, and the Nokia is utilising the AndroidOne experience. We know that this means the Pixel will always be close to the beating heart of what Google are doing, Security Updates first and OS iterations straight from the core. Whatever Nokia and/or Google claim about AndroidOne, the Nokia 8 Sirocco is still on Android Oreo 8.1 with October 2018 Security (yes, of course, it could be much worse) whilst the Pixel is bang up to date. The promises that the AndroidOne experience would be timely and next to Pixel itself, though very good compared to most, isn't quite that. But we're being picky now.

Long Live the King!
Now we come to my favourite topic - sound! The Sirocco has a fairly decent enough bottom-firing mono speaker which sounds fine for most uses. It can feel tinny at the top end sometimes and there's not much bass to speak of, but sitting in the middle there, perfectly good enough for that 90% of folk again. Whereas, the Pixel has (kind of) stereo speakers. Not quite the front-firing 'real' stereo speakers of the Pixel 2, but rather this kind of faux stereo using the chin's front-firing speaker for the lower frequencies and the forehead's front-facing speaker where the earpiece for calls is, obviously at the other end of the unit, for the mid/highs. I've always said that in a device this small it doesn't matter about stereo. It doesn't matter where the sound comes from to a degree, but what's important is the overall sound experience. So how is it?

Testing this against the Sirocco is not really a fair match, the Pixel being streets ahead in overall quality and volume, so I turn to my trust Razer Phone to raise the challenge. May seem a bit unfair the other way, but let's see! Using the same YouTube videos on both devices, firstly with the Razer's Dolby Atmos off, then on. The Pixel 3 has no 'global' sound control - what you get is what you get without using apps' internal controls.

The first test reveals that the Pixel is just as loud as the Razer but slightly less rich and qualitative. The second test reveals that the Pixel remains slightly louder, but that the Razer, Dolby in full flow, blows the Pixel away for quality, richness, bass, depth and enjoyment. As always, all of this depends on what you're listening to and which app it's being served up from, but that's the overview. On listening to music, the same track, same 320kbps .mp3 file, pure piano, nothing else, I did indeed detect some distortion at full volume on the Pixel, but not anything on the Razer.

It's tempting to think better of the Pixel as it's such a more practical device to carry around over the Razer and is so much more capable in many other ways, but I'm trying here to be objective on what my ears hear. Maybe the test is, as I say, unfair. Perhaps a better test would have been against an iPhone X or Samsung Galaxy Note 9, but sadly I don't have them here now. From memory, I would say that the Samsung models that have been here lately were very similarly sounding to the Pixel. Some of these top-end manufacturers seem to, at last, be taking this seriously and nobody could complain about the speaker-sound experience on display here. I'm just nit-picking. But while I'm doing so, the Razer is still King!

HDMI-Out
As my research had suggested, of course HDMI-out doesn't work, so no way to get content stored on the device onto the TV with a cable. Inevitable really as Google want to encourage people to be online, not encourage them off. It's a great shame that this option is disappearing with all other port-served functionality in lieu of wireless everything, assumed connected at all times and being able to afford to stream. Kudos to Samsung, LG et al for keeping this going. Even my Sirocco will do this!

DAC Buddy
As I consider headphone output, I'm beginning to wonder why I started out comparing this Pixel 3 with the Sirocco! I'll get back to it - it's the physical really. As for headphones output, the Pixel comes with a DAC dongle so you can plug in your old 3.5mm headphones and they sound great doing that, but the system takes a step up when (in terms of functionality) you put in the supplied USB-C Buds. The controller in-line although feeling quite old-fashioned now, hooks the user up to the Google Assistant and if you let Google do it, will alert you to notifications and read them out to you. Having said that, I've yet to get it to work! It's supposed to emit a beep when something comes in, then you press the button in-line if you want to hear it. I heard the beep during setup, but never again! Probably a setting somewhere which needs throwing. Incidentally, this Bud set works perfectly on the Sirocco, too, controlling the Assistant and volume up/down pause/skip/play, so that's good.

Panel Peeping
Leaping from pillar to post, I'll now consider the screen. I'm not really interested in benchmarks, rather using my eyes to judge, for my use. It's a bright, but far from the brightest, P-OLED 1080p panel, flat, and 5.5" diagonal. I think it's very very slightly brighter than the Sirocco's screen and Razer's LCD but not as bright as the Moto Z3 Play's. Colours are rich but saturation controlled. Adjusting the minimal controls in Settings doesn't really seem to make much difference. They've done the now common thing of 'rounding' the corners of the panel so that it's in keeping with the curves of the corners of the device itself, for no other purpose. A square-cornered viewing panel is very clearly more logical, but they've gone the way of the pack. The panel doesn't quite get to the top or bottom to leave room for the front-facing speakers, which some consider to make it look unbalanced, with chin and forehead.

Never Off
The always-on screen is a clear bonus over many other phones still in 2018, though the display is not as bright and big as it is on the Sirocco. Neither phone really have very much direct interactivity with the notification items without moving through to the next screen, when locked, unlike Samsung, LG and Moto for example, who enable direct actions (which don't time out or go away if you miss them when they first pop up). What you do get is some colour, but more importantly Now Playing. This is a fabulous toy to have available and to play with, whereby the phone always listens to what's going on around it, detects music playing, then tells you what it is, giving you links to other services if you want to follow them, options to buy or download, history list of what your phone's been listening to, and so forth. It's great fun and very handy, though not really a killer feature for everyone. How it does this, offline, seems like black magic!

Be Gone, Notch
They've pretty much made the device the same size as the 2 by doing the usual 18:9 screen thing, though have steered clear of the Notch Lunacy, unlike on the 3XL. Some days I really like the flat panel, Razer, Moto Z-family, then other days I look at the gorgeous curves around various 'pebble' devices, Sirocco, Samsung 8/9 and the like and think that looks lovely and feels great in the hand. There's no doubt that the flat panel is much more pragmatic and aside from aesthetics and design, there's really no need for curved glass. Down the sides is the Active Edge sensors, so squeeze for Google Assistant rather than long-pressing Home, and this works well for those likely to use the feature. You can adjust the sensitivity of that and/or turn it off and/or enable it whilst the screen is locked and/or set it to silence notifications etc. with the same squeeze.

Yawn!
Speaking of which, the front and back are glass, Gorilla Glass 5, held together by a sweeping aluminium edge. The phone could be an iPhone. It could be a Huawei. It could be an LG. Phone design is becoming more and more boring IMHO and I'm guessing, as stated in PSC472 this week (https://goo.gl/JZHSLv), I weep for the impersonalisation of design and interesting USPs, every phone the same. Compared to the Sirocco, and especially Razer, Moto Z-family, CAT S61, to mention a few, it's just boring! Unlike some others who seem to think that the lower 80% of the back of the phone is 'grippy' I disagree. It might not be shiny and slippery, but there's no way the slightly textured back means that the user wouldn't need at least a TPU case. In actual fact, for those who have this phone in-hand, lay it face down, then run a finger from bottom to top on the back and you'll see that actually, the so-called more grippy 80% is more slippery than the top 20%. Ha!

Faceless
The back also houses the same-looking fingerprint scanner of the previous version, in the same place, works excellently, registration and in use, though why they haven't got onboard with face recognition by now, I don't know. Now that is a 'modern' feature worth having! USB-C port is on the bottom and also SIM Tray (e-SIM ready). This Clearly White model has a bright orange power button on the right, above a volume rocker. All plastic, but very clicky and solid-feeling. The power button brings up the Power Off, Restart and Screenshot options with a long-press, short press kills the screen light and double-press, the camera. The volume rocker brings up a slider on-screen, with handy taps for quick access to Mute/vibrate control and direct route to all the volume sliders. It's well thought out, as is a lot of stuff in the latest iteration of Android, 9. Pie.

Adaptive Android
Android 9, Pie, of course brings all sorts of changes, improvements and benefits to the Pixel owner, which would take an awful lot of time to go through, but some of the highlights for me are certainly the Adaptive Brightness and Battery. The auto-brightness, to be honest, I almost always turn off, but since Pie it's a different proposition. It really does seem to learn from the users' 'corrections' over time, making it a useful tool rather than a pain, getting it wrong. This helps also for battery.

Powerless
The battery, on the face of it, just shy of 3000mAh, is not a powerhouse by any stretch. Adaptive battery, like the brightness, learns the user's patterns of use, app use, what background updating is important and what can wait until you next start using the phone. I have found initially that the delay on notifications can be annoying during the period of learning, but it will learn. A simple example being that I want Google Plus notifications coming in all the time, MeWe the same, Hangouts likewise - but News or IMDb can wait until I next fire it up. So in theory, it learns that based on my usage. Like it learns when I'm most likely to offer it a charger and adjust battery management accordingly.

Personally, I'm not confident about that battery being big enough compared to other devices out there. We're routinely heading up to 4000mAh now and I would certainly have traded dimensions for more, even if only for peace of mind. I haven't had, nor will I have this phone long enough to test this properly, so can only report what others have found - that it does indeed need more and relies on top-ups and fast boosting. I don't see a setting anywhere like you'd get in a Samsung device for example, to exempt certains Apps from that. In Settings for individual apps there's 'background restriction' settings, I thought would do this, but it doesn't seem to. Looks like you're in the hands of Adaptive Battery trusting Auto or you're not. The unit is also the first Pixel to come with Qi charging and that works perfectly, as you'd expect, manually assisting power with top-ups. There's also a fast charger in the box, so options.

Launching Pie
The Homescreen Navigation control is the Pie version of course, and I have gone on record as saying that I don't particularly like this - and that Moto does it better! Unlike other systems, you can't change this. Like it or lump it! Don't get me wrong, it's very functional with the slide-pause-slide for apps (like an Italian footballer taking a penalty) and quick-slide for recents cards, iPhone cloned, flick-right to switch between last two apps, and I'm sure the user would get used to it, but I'd still prefer (at least the option for) the three buttons - or better still the Moto Slider! The Notification Shade drop-down has also been iOS'd with big round buttons, long-press for settings, short-press to change, blue on, grey off. I have to admit that it's attractive and intuitive in use. Much like the new colourful icons in the Settings menu. It doesn't feel like LG/Samsung cartoon-land, but more tasteful and adult.

More than Well
There are all sorts of new entries in the Settings, mostly auto-background stuff and evolution of previous projects. Wellbeing is one of them, keeping track of what you've been up to, telling you off if you're naughty and allegedly looking out for your health and exposure to too much screen-time! There are new gestures, seen in other phones before, but now adopted, like flip to silence, Wind Down, pacing you from being away until it's lights-out by encouraging your reduction in speed by (not so) subtle hints like turning the screen mono and heading to do-not-disturb. You don't have to enable all this of course if you want to give the Big G the Big V!

Big Brother Selling
All this stuff is AI-based and learning from the user. This is the direction Google has been going for years now, keeping data about you and your habits so they can sell it to others and encourage you to spend time online, pretending that they care about your health! Me? Cynical?! You can see it as Big Brother of course, or you can consider it very convenient and useful to make your life easier (nothing to hide, so might as well), like the washing machine once did. Things move on and we get closer to the world being run by robots every day. Thankfully I'll be long gone by then!

Epilogue
Available in Clearly White, Just Black and Not Pink, it's a cute little thing which is very capable indeed. It's a clever bunch of cutting-edge tech which has, once again, learnt from other manufacturers leading the way and added features a year behind them (no doubt the Pixel 4 will have face-recognition and under-glass fingerprint scanners). The speakers sound fabulous, the camera results are clearly market-leading, however they get there, the software is second to none and developments from Google are a joy to be a part of going forward. The Pixel owner really feels that they are part of the development and evolution. So what's not to like? Well, I remain concerned about the battery but will be happy to be proved wrong on that, I do think it's just a bit too small for me (bigger could have meant more battery), I personally would like a 256GB version (or 512GB pretty please!) and then there's the last issue, from where I started, price.

People Have Too Much Money!
The most important factor is price, because some phones are just getting more and more expensive while others are getting cheaper. I say it again - phones that do 90% of what flagships do for a third of the price, or less. Well, maybe 80% in Pixel's case(!), but you get the point. I still get the feeling that these devices are overpriced, not reflecting the cost of making them, R&D included, but what the market will stand. However clever this phone is, it's not worth that much money - and I find it hard to just throw the money away to have the latest and greatest, when others will do almost the same job for so much less. It's an open discussion of course, but certainly driven by how much spare cash people have got. And it seems, going from the general rise of flagship prices, that they have too much. Laying that aside and money no object, it's a great slice of tech and I'd love to have one.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Hannibal (TV)

Much like the Thomas Harris originated story-turned-film, Hannibal the TV Series currently showing on Netflix in the UK, is a mix of gore and dark nastiness delivered almost completely tongue-in-cheek! "Whenever feasible, one should always try to eat the rude."

This reforming of the books and films turns the thing largely on its head, placing Hannibal, yes, in his earlier days - long before the setting in the books and films - as a practicing psychiatrist, going about his dark activities but right under the nose of Will Graham and the FBI, assisting them with trying to catch a serial killer on the loose. There was no indication in the books or films about this kind of relationship between the characters early on, just the cannibal Hannibal preying on the likes of the young Mason Verger et al luring them into his lethal playground of self-amusement!

The irony is that for a large part of the proceedings, it's actually Will Graham who ends up in the cage and Hannibal outside, with Will trying to convince everyone around him that Hannibal has framed him into being incarcerated and that the respected FBI helping hand is actually the monster. Speaking of the cage, the show makers have had great fun with the sets - building on the sinister interiors for fun by introducing what, at times, comes across more like a medieval torture house!

It's gory and bloody throughout with the killer creating scenarios in keeping with a Francis Bacon painting - and indeed straight out of the books and films - but never really scary or how I would describe Horror, though Netflix seem to want to categorise it that way! This is a not a new show, out there between 2013-2015, it's just that I only just got round to seeing it. It's typical American TV packaging with 39 episodes across three series, each about 40/45 minutes.

The English actor Hugh Dancy takes one of the two leads as Will Graham and is annoyingly irritating as he camps up the role, half of the time floating off into some fantasy world, peppered with apparent mental illness as he executes his 'gift' of analysing a crime scene, much like he did in, particularly, Manhunter. In that film, and indeed the books, he had presented as in-control however, not lost and out of control. The way that his role here was written is odd and not in keeping with Harris' original vision. But then, as I say, everyone here seems to be having a laugh with the genre and material anyway. There are laugh-out-loud moments as it sometimes dips into the ludicrous!

The Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen takes the other lead and although he brings his own look and feel to the role of Hannibal, it's not quite Anthony Hopkins (even when he was taking it seriously!) or even Brian Cox. He's not very convincing, sinister or dark enough. There's no magic ingredient seen when you look into his eyes - unlike the others - he just looks like an ordinary nice bloke. Some of that might be down to the quality of photography and direction, I guess, which in turn, might be down to the fact that a range of 12 people took the task across the 39 shows! At least he has a foreign accent, like the original Hannibal might well have had, coming from Lithuania!

Laurence Fishburne plays Jack Crawford and, like Will's adjustments, is depicted as being far too ordinarily human and involved, compared to the original stories. At every crime scene, involved directly with Hannibal and mixed up far too closely in the action. It was interesting to see the development of the storyline concerning his wife and his difficult homelife, which is not really covered very much in the original stories. There's also a confused Clarice Starling character in the mix who Hannibal seems to like but not nearly enough, as he did Clarice. I won't give too much away in case you want to live through the twists yourself!

Nods, left right and centre to, particularly, the films, the last two of which were certainly enveloped with mirth. Lines used in the films/books reeled out again, often by the character who didn't actually originally say them! Catchphrases galore, gender-switching of some roles, like Freddie Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki) the Journo now being a female character - and Dr Alan Bloom now the female Alana Bloom, embellishment of quirks and character traits very strongly in the already-comic Dr Frederick Chilton (Raúl Esparza). To top all the fun off, we even have British comedian Eddie Izzard popping up in a confusing cross-role in which he appears to be part-Hannibal, part Multiple Miggs, part Paul Krendler, part new doctor-in-chains thrown/written in because he fancied being a part of it, maybe!

Don't get me wrong, it's all good fun. It's off at a tangent from the original books and films - and people like me who knew the books and films inside-out are treated to all sorts of nods and references to them throughout this. It's a mad mix of dark and nasty but also comic and humour. It's great entertainment for those willing to lay aside the expectation that it will continue in the vein of the originals or expect it to follow the same 'rules'. It's not a remake of any of it, it's an artistic extension and often very different production. Recommended for those approaching it in the right frame of mind!

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Is there More to Life than Pie?

This last week, I had got to the point where I realised that no mobile phone available in the Android world had what I wanted - so I considered Apple!

Those who know me, know that the times I've considered iPhones and other Apple products in the past has always ended in failure. The longest lasting Apple product I owned was an iMac. I loved the hardware so much that I tried and tried and tried to make it work for me, but I just couldn't get my head round the Apple Way after such a long run with Windows.

Then there's the iPod Classic sitting in my drawer! Still going. The battery never seems to need topping up! I switch it on every six months to check and all my Music, Music Videos, TV Shows and Films I bought from the Apple Store back in the day are still on there for me to listen to and watch (on the tiny screen, and with headphones of course)! But I digress - the main point here was the boredom attained by mobile phones generally - and the possibility that I have to consider that, stood out as long as I have against manufacturers' skins and forked versions of Android, they are more interesting than Vanilla! As might be iOS.

I have recently reviewed and considered a range of phones including the latest from Huawei, Samsung, Google, LG, Motorola, Sony, Nokia, Asus, Honor and BlackBerry and rejected most of them, ultimately, because they are not Vanilla - or not near enough to Vanilla for my liking. But actually, it could be argued that, well, at least they have made an attempt at having a personality of their own. Of that list, the devices that run clean versions of Android, or as near to, I put my SIM Card back into them to use as my daily device, fire up the phone get it all updated from when it was last used with Play Store Updates of Apps and any OS/Security Updates, then shrug. Right. What's next, I say.

It makes me stop and think. After all the negative things I've said about the range of devices which are not Vanilla enough for me, I have to think also that they hold my attention longer because they are different and have functions and quirks and, yes, I guess, a personality of their own. Much as I dislike pre-installed bloat, much as I don't get why Settings have to be rearranged, much as I reel at manufacturer's own versions of basic PIM apps already supplied by Google, I have to admit that they are to some degree interesting, different and offer an option. Which is what Android was always about.

Which brings me back to Apple and iPhone, or indeed any device really that yes, may not be a Pixel, pure and simple, with fast-as-lightning updates going forward, but at least doesn't make me shrug and lose interest in using the device very quickly. Now, to be fair, I did get to the same point when I have tried iPhone sometimes, too. But the exposure has been very brief. But maybe it should be in the list of stuff to try and longer-term, more interesting. Maybe this is all poppycock - and the real reason that it's boring is not because of Vanilla or personality, but lack of engaging apps and services. The bubble burst with social media? A jaded view having been let down by Google Plus?

Perhaps this is not about hardware at all but software and services - and having been involved over the last decade in the rise and fall of many, perhaps this whole issue is about the plateau which phones find themselves sitting on. Most things are settled, innovation is less strident and the journey has slowed down. In amongst that, however, the boredom question remains - and should make us strive for phones that are different in some way and not a bog-standard Google or Nokia.

Is there more to life than Pie?

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Huawei Mate 20 Pro

It seems unbelievable to me that this phone is £900 to buy. I can only assume that this is so in order to make up the company's losses having given so many away to tech reviewers! In my view it's an absurd price for what you get - in short, a forked implementation of Android with apparent sub-par components, bloated out by the company with dreadful so-called features that nobody needs, pretty on the outside - and just yet another iPhone clone. All the following of course, is my view only based on my observations and findings.

There are so many of these devices out there in Reviewland that I really don't think there's much point in my going over the base specs and the usual tour of the device, so I'll launch straight in with my observations. This is not a review of the phone I'm presenting here, but more like my thoughts on how on earth I could live with it!

Pay Attention!
So let's start with the out of the box experience. You do get the chance to refuse to install a bunch of third party apps, though if the user is excitedly clicking through without paying attention, many of them are ticked by default and will then install. As it is, even for those paying attention, there's still loads that they can't do much about. Some can be uninstalled, some force-stopped, some disabled. This is just yet another shocking cludge of apps and services that the uninitiated and unknowledgeable will be 'defaulted' into.

The Flavour of Bloat
Facebook, eBay, booking.com, SwiftKey, Microsoft Translator, but to name a few. Then there's all the Huawei ones - half of which mimic the Google ones and can't be got rid of. Calculator, App Gallery, App Assistant, Huawei Backup, Compass, Email, Files, Health, HiCare, HiVision, Mirror, Notepad, PhoneClone, Recorder, SmartRemote, Support, Themes, Tips, Weather, the list feels like it is endless. And bringing what? The kind of apps and services that are just not needed. Doing deals with third parties in order to reduce the cost of the device, I get to keep cost to the buyer down, making it more attractive on price. But this phone is £900! How does that sit? Is it just greed? Incidentally, if you want reviews of all those Huawei apps mentioned above, you'll need to look elsewhere.

Setting or App?
Furthermore, there are installed apps which don't need to be an app at all! Like Software Update, for example. Why is this an app? Surely the user can go to Settings and find the route to Software Updates - if indeed any of the apparent target audience will actually give two hoots about software updates! Talking of which, right at the top of the Settings page is a fixed reminder that you need to open a Huawei account, which doesn't go away unless you give in and open one!

Speak Up!
I really thought that the Samsung Galaxy S9+ I acquired recently was bottom of the pile for 'likely to see my SIM Card' status. This slips underneath! I'll continue with the speakers arrangement, which is something of a joke, I feel, given the price. The sound coming out is in my view tinny and low in volume, the Dolby is on by default (and can't be switched off, for using speakers) and does nothing at all to make the poor speakers and arrangement any good at all. It's a weak sounding device at best and to top it all, one of the speakers is inside the charging port which gets (partially) BLOCKED if you plug in a charger!

Calm Down!
Alright - the first thing that hits you when you hold the phone is how tall it is. It's an odd ratio of 19:5.9 with a 6.39" screen. It sounds much bigger than it is because it's so tall. That 'big' screen, corner-to-corner, is really not that big at all. Held against my Moto Z3 Play, it's only just a bit taller but it's significantly narrower, when you take into account that the 'curves' round the left and right are included. This trend of curving the screen round the edges is really becoming boring. I know I banged on about the Nokia 8 Sirocco having this feature and how nice it was, but Nokia seemed to have done it much better on a 16:9 screen. Here, along with the aforementioned Samsung, it just looks daft, particularly when consuming media and the top and bottom of your picture disappear round the edge. Flat screen please. Stop this nonsense. It's impractical...

Not Another Notch!
...as is the stupid Notch! At least Samsung didn't do that! I know, yes, I can hide it, but watch those Notifications slide down from the top with their square edges if you do! Again - badly implemented and designed. The Always On screen is present and although it has no options to change the look, like Samsung/LG does, it does the job and has a scheduler, gives the user a digital clock, date, time, battery but the only Notifications that make it to the off-screen are Missed Calls and SMS! If you use Huawei's Music Player, what is playing is also echoed on the Off-Screen but there's no controls - and it doesn't work with any other player that I've tried - including Google Play Music. Bizarre. Anyway, the sound is so horrible and tinny, you won't miss it much as you won't be playing music.

Nova Prime
So, how could I improve things with my favourite Launcher? Pretty well, as it turns out. Nova Prime has been such a consistent help to me trying to Pixelise and Nexusise phones over the years and this presents little challenge for it. (Except for Reverse Charging - See Power, below.) You lose the swipe-right for Google Assistant Cards, unless you APK a bolt-on, but a simple Google App shortcut on the Homescreen gets you there in a tap. It's plain sailing from there making the phone look just how you want it to with Homescreens and App Drawer just like most people expect it to be. Nova lets you 'hide' the bloat apps (as does Samsung, incidentally) though that seems beyond the M20P as they really want you to set it up like an iPhone with all the apps splayed out across multiple Homescreens. So you get all the pureness of Nova and get rid of at least some of the cludge of Huawei and EMUI.

Slippery Pebble
Yes, that's what it feels like in the hand. Everything rounded, glass and aluminium. It's smooth and though some colours apparently have a 'lined' more grippy back, you really couldn't use this with no case. Which it doesn't come with. Apparently. (At least for European folk, Huawei couldn't spare a couple of quid out of the 900 for a cheap TPU). The aforementioned USB-C port is on the bottom, next to a cludge of a SIM Card Tray. Cludge because Huawei have unilaterally introduced a new standard of Memory Card! Unbelievable! So microSD cards now as cheap as chips, are replaced by their new standard, the NanoSD. None available yet - and no doubt when they do become available they will have hiked up prices for the foreseeable. That just seems daft to me. I can not believe that the shaving off of 4/5mm inside the device needed a whole new industry build of different cards. Absurd! I hope it falls flat on its face.

Around and About
On the side is a volume rocker and red power button and up the top, well nothing much apart from an IR window. Certainly not a 3.5mm audio-out socket, which has not made the cut. There's a dongle in the box to take you from your old headphones into the USB-C port which, to be fair, gets you 32-bit output. The body is IP6/8 protected for dust and water (30 minutes in the drink down to 2 metres) and screen a really bright AMOLED one with a variable 1440p resolution. It's a good screen with 538ppi packed in, so there's no complaints here. Viewing angles are very good and there's no real 'LG' cast of any shade that I can see...

Brain Control Hand!
...and on the screen comes the biggest talking point of the device, probably. An under-screen fingerprint scanner. This seems to work really well though does require a certain amount of pressure and time. I don't think it's unreasonable and given that the other biometrics of face recognition are so good, it's not often needed. You do have to hit the right spot on the screen which, until you pick it up, is not indicated, but it's no big problem. Brain will control hand in good time! This is a breakthrough feature, works well and maybe goes a little way to justifying some of the ludicrous cost of the phone.

Eat My Hat!
Out of the box the device is running Android 9.0 (Pie) with October 2018 Google Security Update having arrived. That's good, though as stated above, I have no confidence going forward, with this level of bloat and segregated services to support that Huawei will keep up with any updates. If I'm wrong, in six months time I'll eat my hat! Much of the above-described is a result of Huawei's EMUI skin on top of Android, which is apparently Version 9. Not that it is of any significance to anyone. It just means that they have confused everyone by moving stuff around and not having settings in logical places, messed with power and efficiency settings, memory control and so on, for no real reason except, from what I can see, to put their 'mark' on their product so that current users know that it is theirs and to dupe switchers from iOS that it's 'just like an iPhone'. Shameless and sad.

980, 6, 8, 128, 256
The new Kirin 980 chipset flies through any task and multitasking assisted by the 6GB or 8GB RAM depending on market - much like the 256GB or 128GB versions of storage. Armed with 256GB of storage I would just about have said, sure, I don't need a dumb NanoSD, but with 128GB I might well. I have a specific use-case for plenty of storage and yes, I'll accept that this is odd and most would be OK with 128GB. A bit of a worry has been that this unit keeps failing to log onto either of my Mifi units unless a reboot is executed, told to forget the network and password put in again. Not sure what that's about but doesn't happen with a landline router.

HDMI-Out
There are two Modes which appear when you plug your phone into a TV. Phone Mode and Desktop Mode. The latter creates a connected PC-like screen on the TV which allows negotiation around the phone and access to online media, for example, and anything else, using the phone's screen as a touchpad. Much like the DeX thing from Samsung you can then feel like you have an extension of the phone to use on a big screen etc. Personally I don't see the use of this, but I guess some road warriors might. More useful to me is the Phone Mode within which the phone's screen is echoed onto the TV and any stored media can be played back. The picture, in my tests is pretty low-res. but I may be able to persevere with that adjusting things - and it might also be the fault of the quality of the downloads or my TV, I guess. Unlike other manufacturers' models apart from Samsung it seems, the Qi charging continues to work when it is playing, doesn't seem to get hot even though whatever is being played also plays on the phone's screen at the same time. This is all very well, but it doesn't help me much until there's a 400GB NanoSD Card at the same price as a normal one. Not that I'll have this phone by then!

Power
The battery in this unit is 4200mAh. I'm really not sure where they've put that as although it's tall, it's really not very fat or wide, so kudos to them for that. At this level of power, I could really relax as I head out for the day. Not only that, but you get a super-fast charger in the box (40W) which will get you 70% charged in half an hour and you have fast 15W Qi Charging as well. As if that wasn't enough, the next USP of the phone is Reverse-Charging. Out on a day out with a friend, their phone is nearly out of juice, no power socket in the cow field, place the two Qi-capable phones back-to-back and transfer some of the charge from one to the other. This is a great new feature - and one that I think will take off and all the other manufacturers will be rushing to emulate on their shiny new models. HOWEVER - beware! If you have Nova Launcher installed and in use on the Huawei, Reverse Charging doesn't work! It just keeps trying to transfer apps.

Snap, No Grin
The other selling point of the Mate 20 Pro seems to be the camera arrangements, providing for a triple-lens mega-pixel sensor setup and 5x zoom. The quality of the camera results seems to be a bit in doubt at the moment amongst the tech reviewers, some wow'ing and others shrugging! There's a 40MP f/1.8 main camera lens, a 20 MP f/2.2 wide-angle one and an 8MP f/2.4 telephoto with 5x Optical Zoom and OIS, all boasting Leica Optics. The Selfie on the front is is a 24 MP f/2 unit with a standard field of view. I have to admit that I'm pretty impressed with the camera options, range of settings and modes available, which head into useful, mostly, rather than cartoon/toy, but then I'm not pixel-peeping. To my mind, the cameras do what they should do, provide photos for casual sharing online and allow for various in-vogue effects. Maybe also for making small photos to print. The target for cameras in phones still, without pretending to replace an SLR. From what I understand from the pixel-peepers, we're still, I'm not at all surprised to hear, an awful long way from that - clever software replacing fine large glass optics ain't here!

Not a Fan
You might have gathered by now that I'm not a fan! The overriding annoyance of the device is, yet again, that they're just copying others. They have no identity or personality of their own which makes it across and past the irritations present. The market-leading feature of FPS in the screen should have done it, but doesn't. Having to deal with the bloat and inflexibility of the system is just awful as an experience, unless, which is what they hope no doubt, users just knuckle under, sign up with the company, sell their soul (and data) to them and do things their way. But beyond that, even the basics are done badly in my view, like the sound output and Always-On screen options or rather lack of.

No Style or Personality
I wish anyone paying £900 for this all the very best at getting past all this. I'm bemused and sit here, once again, wondering where on earth the AndroidOne version is, which would, at least, address a good number of the inherent problems. It's a copycat boring slab with uninspired design, in the Samsung mould. Nokia have proved that it can be done well, cleanly and with style and personality. Never have I been so pleased to get back to my Sirocco! I find it hard to believe that reviewers out there are not being positive about this device for any reason other than ensuring they get given the next model from this company staged to take over The West alongside Xiaomi.

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