Monday, 30 December 2019

Greadio AM/FM Pocket Radio

This is a dinky little stocking-filler radio with retro dials and buttons and a 'wooden' look. Don't be fooled though - it's not actually wood, but wood-coloured plastic! This feels like a bit of a con given the description, but I got past it!

You can get this in this upright version or a landscape orientation for the same price from AmazonUK currently about £16. Yes, the build is a tad dubious being all plastic and knobs and dials could be firmer in use, but I've certainly twiddled with worse, even on big-brand radios - and they all do their job. The orange-backlit retro-dial for tuning on the front is cute and when it decides that it has enough of a channel-lock you get a green light on the front left confirming. Opposite that there's an orange light, always on, when power is on. The retro-dial on the front has wavelengths for FM/AM in concentric circles and underneath this, there's five slats for the speaker grille.

Top volume is really not bad and it doesn't seem to distort any when pushed there, depending on the quality of the lock on stations. I'm in North Wales and I had best results outside. Inside the house it was often much more strong for signal when held in the hand over relying on c.12" telescopic aerial which pulls out from the top. Incidentally, that aerial feels like the best-made component on offer here! It's not too tinny but don't expect much bass! Clearly this radio is designed to be used outdoors though.

The front 'wood' is just a 'cap' really as when viewed side-on it quickly changes to grey plastic. On the right side we have a volume dial and a three-stage slider-switch getting you from Off to FM and AM. Underneath that is a 3.5mm audio-out socket. There's clearly no stereo here on any level, by the sounds of it. I was expecting it to be there via earphones, but I really can't detect it. Having said that, the sound through earphones is just fine, obviously depending on the quality of the 'phones.

My love affair with AA/AA batteries continues into 2020 as we are using two AAs here. Hurrah! Available from any shop in any town or village, no long-charging to get going again with a built-in battery, no annoying microUSB to fumble with! Works with rechargeable Eneloops as well as ordinary batteries. The unit also stands unassisted fairly firmly for perching on that rock by a waterfall when you just have to listen to some tunes!

The radio is not as small as some, so certainly not front-jeans pocket, but good for a coat. There's also a factory-fitted lanyard from the back, so it could be hung from a ruck-sack or whatever. It's a cute little radio - yes, you could certainly get better quality for similar money, but to be fair it's fun, it's not a lot of cash and if I'd opened this on xmas morning when I was a nipper, I'd have been delighted!

Sunday, 29 December 2019

Django (1966)

The shame of never having seen Django, the inspiration for Tarantino's Django Unchained, laid heavily on my shoulders, so when I saw it included with Amazon Prime Video I projected myself in for a viewing! A Spaghetti Western from the mid-1960's, dubbed, in this case, was a delight to consume and only Clint Eastwood was the missing genre hook!

Director/writer Sergio Corbucci and friend/colleague of Sergio Leone was responsible for a glut of stories and films between the 1950's and 1990's, many of which will have been missed by mainstream audiences outside of Italy, but specialising in low-budget shot-in-Europe looking-like-USA Spaghetti Westerns, alongside forays into drama and comedy. I have a list of films to catch up on and much to learn, from Ringo and His Golden Pistol (1966), The Hellbenders (1967), Navajo Joe (1966), The Great Silence (1968) and many more. There were many shots at using the Django name over the years for sequels but none hugely successful. Corbucci and star Franco Nero here only once got involved, reprising his role in Django Strikes Again (1987).

In the meantime, back to this film and we have the mysterious drifter, bizarrely dragging a wooden coffin behind him, walking, not on horseback! The question on everyone's lips for a good portion of the film is about the coffin. What's in it and why is this loner dragging it! On the Mexico/USA border he stumbles on a prostitute being abused by a group of bandits, deals with them, then has to negotiate a band of power-hungry racist hoods led by ex-Confederate Major Jackson with similar intentions, whilst avoiding a pool of quicksand!

As I said, Franco Nero stars, playing our civil war veteran loner in question, Django, who incidentally was roped in for a cameo appearance by Tarantino for Django Unchained, along with 1001 other projects and films over the last 60 plus years - and he's still going - including resurrecting his character in the forthcoming Django Lives! The list is so long, you'll have seen him in numbers of films. More recently for example, Letters to Juliet, Die Hard 2, Force 10 From Navarone and John Wick: Chapter 2. I told you I had much watching and learning ahead! He does play the central role very much like I'd expect from Eastwood though, similar anti-hero style, selfish crook with principles! Much of the acting is about a look, a style, menace, mystique and not dialogue.

The rest of the film unfolds in a genre-like skin and style as the audience backs the man who ends up alone, against everyone else around him, particularly getting in the middle of two gangs in conflict. Think A Fistful of Dollars. Fighting for survival amongst clever manipulation, plot, sub-plot, twists and turns in the storyline! It's all great fun and is notable for a few violent acts which got it banned in some countries for a couple of decades, though I'm not surprised that it was lifted - as by today's standards of exposure to gore and blood, it's nothing much. Again, Tarantino nods to some of this in Reservoir Dogs. The power of the tale nowadays is more sinister. Anyway, I won't give any of the plot away but encourage you to take a look.

The cast are all convincing for the day, make-up or not! Each brings something to the show and injects additional menace, humour, style and class. José Bódalo plays Hugo Rodriguez the bandits' leader, Loredana Nusciak, Maria the prostitute, Ángel Álvarez, Nathaniel the comic Bartender (think Silvanito in A Fistful of Dollars) and Eduardo Fajardo as the nasty Major Jackson! There's a large body of bodies(!) involved too and if you dig around in IMDb and Wikipedia there's much trivia and interesting facts to be found about the film and production. It's not a long film at just an hour and a half and the soundtrack by Luis Bacalov is an interesting and appropriate one, adding atmosphere to the fun!

I'm sure that there's much I have missed in terms of hooks into the genre and other work by all these fine people so it will be good to chew it over on the next Projector Room podcast with Gareth Myles. This film serves as a great backdrop to those investigating the genre like me and gives depth and understanding to some of the more recent work which have taken this earlier outing as inspiration and even a baseline for much more going forward. A must see, particularly while it remains included on Amazon Prime.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Good People (2014)

This is a cute little low-budget thriller with a similar idea to A Simple Plan. Based on a novel by Marcus Sakey of the same name and pulled together by Danish director Henrik Ruben Genz this could easily be glossed over and/or missed in lieu of time spent with bigger titles. That would be your loss!

American husband and wife Tom and Anna are living in a town-house in London renting out their basement to (unknown to them) a crook who's a bit of a career-criminal nasty. We start by watching him being involved in a violent money-grab from a club and introduced very early on just how nasty he is! Leap forward a while and Tom and Anna find him dead in their basement - and back to A Simple Plan - a bag full of cash.

Tom, played by James Franco (127 Hours, Pineapple Express) and Anna, by Kate Hudson (Almost Famous, Deepwater Horizon) are struggling in life. Running out of money, he's invested heavily in a property to renovate and she's hard-working too as she also tried to get herself pregnant. So now, faced with the moral dilemma, having no idea still that their tenant was a crook, they start to piece it together and wonder if they could get away with it, in order to rescue their sorry situation - including paying for IVF treatment.

Franco and Hudson are doing alright throughout all this. No awards likely at the time I'd imagine, but ably portraying the angst of the dilemma as their characters decide what to do next. We then get a deeper glimpse into the London underworld as the tenant's gang seek their stolen loot by even nastier methods of information extraction! Various Brits pop up throughout including the evergreen Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty, The Happy Prince, Valkyrie) as the copper trying to deal with bent colleagues around him and even a couple of scenes for Anna Friel (Marcella, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Pushing Daisies) all dipping in to join the fun.

The story develops as the gang have themselves double-crossed a foreigner with investments in what's going on and things head towards a gruesome and violent climax for many involved! So it's a tight little thriller which doesn't disappoint and is just about on the safe side of being forgettable! I enjoyed it and it passed 90 minutes quickly. Give it a go!

Saturday, 21 December 2019

The Nanny (1965)

The Nanny is an excellent gripping British thriller starring Bette Davis as the ageing titular nanny pandering to generations of a wealthy British family - and adopting a very convincing British accent for the outing! She's a faithful family retainer having been nanny to at least two generations, current children, their parents and mum's sister too. It's a dramatic story reflecting the stuffy attitudes and values of the day!

Nanny is considered very much a part of the family, though reflecting that stuffy era, refers to the family members formally - and they, her. The story is built around her decades of service to the family, though set in the present 1960's. Bette Davis (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, All About Eve) encapsulates the role beautifully, mixing lovely caring trustworthy nanny with glimpses of the sinister, to keep the audience guessing!

British audiences of my age will know Wendy Craig not as a film star, but a TV sitcom one. The very funny but troubled mum in Butterflies and before that, Not in Front of the Children. Here, she plays another troubled mum to the 10-year old brat Joey along with a talked-about but nowhere to be seen at the outset, daughter Suzy. Suzy is played in flashbacks by the clearly very talented child-actor Angharad Aubrey but seemed to drop out of show business after this film. William Dix, who also later starred as Rex Harrison's Dr Doolittle's side-kick, plays the pretentious spoilt brat to perfection at the ripe age of 10. Clearly very confident as he shares most of the camera time with Davis.

There has been an incident in the family, which I won't give away, which is the basis of the decision to send brat Joey off to 'special' school for close attention and therapy. He comes back for a holiday at the outset of the film and comes across as a naughty, attention-seeking boy. The question which builds with excellent pace throughout the film is what's been done, who's done it, if it was done - and who's the bad guy/gal here - if there is one! Is someone being wrongly accused or is the audience being led a merry dance en route! Mum can't cope with all this so Craig plays a broken woman, taking drugs half the time to cope with life, children, husband, played by the very stuffy James Villiers (For Your Eyes Only), being away on business half the time and relying on nanny to hold her household together.

Mum's sister Pen, played by Jill Bennett (For Your Eyes Only, Moulin Rouge[1952]), is also a monied wreck with something wrong with her heart - meaning that she could keel over any minute, if stressed, and snuff it on the spot - especially if she can't reach her rescue-pills! So you can see that all these elements are cooking up a boiling pot of opportunity for thrills and spills as we head towards a climax.

The film is directed by the largely unknown Seth Holt, clearly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock as it bears many hallmarks of the master's work. It only 'feels' dated because of people's dress, behaviours, language and mode of speech of the day. Other than those elements it survives very well and remains a watchable thriller. It's atmospherically shot in black and white but also in what was considered 'widescreen' of the day, so not TV-ratio, and is pretty short and punchy at just an hour and a half. Not too long for the audience perched on the edge of their seats! It's a good ride and even though modern hardened audiences might now guess the outcome, I can just imagine the faces on the thrilled cinema-going audience of the day if they could see the screen through the smoke)! Give it a go. It's very enjoyable.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

The Nightingale

This is a really engaging film which is set in Australia in 1825 amongst the British Army at war with the Tasmanian Aborigines (Palawa) as the badly-behaved Empire tries to turn the country into a prison, shipping so-called convicts off there from the northern hemisphere. I'm no historian, but I think that's the bones of the background.

The story follows Clare, an Irish convict shipped there who is trying hard to build up her good behaviour towards being afforded her freedom. She has earned it when we join the story, but it's being unfairly denied by a bunch of soldiers who are using her for their pleasure. They won't let her go whilst she is still useful to them.

Things quickly get out of control as the most senior soldier is denied a promotion on the grounds that he can't control his rabble troops in his small outpost and Clare's husband confronts him just at the wrong time about her freedom. The soldiers indulge in acts of violence and cruelty to her, her husband and child. (There are some subtitles here and there as people slip into their native languages, including Gaelic, but the vast majority of the film is in English.)

This is where the story turns into a quest for revenge as Clare engages the services of an Aboriginal 'tracker' who can help her navigate and negotiate the Tasmanian wilderness as they follow the soldiers to the town where he's seeking his denied promotion. We follow the two sets of travellers now across the terrain, full of challenges and bumping into groups of people on both sides of the war, all behaving badly towards both women and Aborigines. As the tracker keeps out of the way of white people for fear of being shot or taken as slave, Clare keeps out of the way of everyone, particularly as she has no papers to prove to anyone that she's anything other than a convict.

What's interesting to watch throughout is the aggressive racist attitudes of pretty much everyone involved. The Aborigines hate the whites, the whites hate the Aborigines, the white men with freedom or power (either will do) are all happy to use and abuse the women, black or white, particularly if they're convicts (or in Clare's case, can't prove that she has earned her freedom) but also the likes of Clare who expects her tracker to be a bad person and treats him like an inferior with verbal abuse and unreasonable expectation.

Aisling Franciosi (The Fall, Game of Thrones) is phenomenal in the lead role as Clare. She doesn't put a foot wrong and is harrowingly convincing throughout. She demonstrates her revengeful plight and vulnerability through excellent acting as she heads towards her goal of doling out slices of justice. The pretty much unknown Baykali Ganambarr similarly executes the role of Billy the tracker with convincing ease and I guess that he's one to look out for going forward. Sam Claflin (Peaky Blinders, The Drift) and Damon Herriman (Mindhunter, Justified) play the rotten soldiers with grizzly nastiness and the rest of the cast fit in around them, all playing their parts well.

It's a frighteningly eye-opening watch and (presuming some level of accuracy) an education relating to what went on in the southern hemisphere in the 19th century as the British Empire went about its business dehumanising people of other nations and continents, taking by force what was not theirs. The film seems to have been shot in 1.37:1 which is kind of like an old TV screen. I'm not sure if this was an artistic or financial decision but certainly with a wide-screen ratio, much more could have been made of the amazing landscapes. It's not an easy watch and in amongst all these prejudices the viewer ends up not being quite sure who to side with - but invariably comes down on Clare's side. Highly recommended viewing.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Soundcore Life Q10 Bluetooth Headphones

SoundCore, the offshoot brand/firm from Anker are making some great stuff these days. I previously reported positively on the Motion+ Speaker and now I was looking for a simple pair of headphones having got myself into a real pickle with aptX this, Low Latency that and noise-cancelling the other! These fit the bill - as long as you like bass!

The Soundcore Life Q10 headphones are very cheerful and bright being black with a smart red trim throughout. They are obviously over-ear as headphones and have a firm and clicky expanding headband with good travel. I have a huge head and it's very comfortable for me. I also have huge ears and mine just fit nicely into the cushions (but with not much to spare, unlike my AKG K701 mega-size unit in which they're lost)! I have used them for extended plays now watching films and they remain comfortable into hours. They fold up - in on themselves. Kind of. There's a limit to how foldable larger headphones can get I suppose.

Comfortable into hours is also a good thing because you won't often have to charge these 'phones. The Anker battery technology is clearly cross-pollinating here as this set has a staggering 60 hours of use time, far in excess of most others and certainly rubbish buds! I'm guessing that we're not going to get 60 hours on Bluetooth on full volume, but certainly on sensible volume levels and using the supplied 3.5mm cable to plug into your source, you're much more likely to do better and somewhere near what they claim. Testing to come. There is a payoff here too which makes them quite big - they certainly do stick out significantly more from the head than many others. Depends how much the extra battery is worth to the user as to whether this payoff is worth it.

Talking of charging, I was delighted to find this set which actually employed USB-C over microUSB. There's a huge number of headphones out there, bang up to date, all-singing-all-dancing, which are still using the old standard, so choice is certainly much slimmer for those of us who barely have a need for microUSB any longer. Here we go then, and in my test, I set up a phone on a Qi charger and started a music player rolling a random track loop, hooked it up to the 100% charged headphones by bluetooth and set them to medium volume. It was very hard to kill the battery as the level ticked over to 90% after 12 hours and then 80% after 24. On that basis, we're looking at 24hrs x 5 = 120hrs! Now, I'm sure physics will come into play if I were to just leave them running and every 20% portion of the battery would not behave so well, but even so - this is a staggering performance and leaves no doubt as the the 60 hours claim. I would expect even more if wired. Compare this to the dreadful 4-8hrs of the average earbuds and there's no competition if you're OK with size.

Fast USB-C Charging means that you can, with the right gear, get 5 hours of use for only 5 minutes of charging or a full charge from flat in 2 hours. I tested this too and it's as good as they say - how could I now doubt them! If you want to take advantage of all that fast stuff you'll need to grab your own fast-charger as there's not one supplied. One quirk that I wasn't expecting and hadn't really thought about was that it seems you can't charge the set when being used with bluetooth, but you can when being used with a cable. Seems a bit odd.

The headphones are made of plastics and faux leather for the cup-cushions but it feels sturdy enough, solid and hard. They don't look 'cheap' cheap, but certainly not premium. There's no IP-rating here either, so not good for Singing In The Rain! On the right cup there's the USB-C and 3.5mm audio-in port. There's a red LED to indicate when it's charging which turns blue when done. There's an 18" long USB-C to USB-A cable supplied in the box as well as a 3ft 3.5mm to 3.5mm cord. There's a BassUP button (which I'll come to) alongside volume up/down buttons and a multi-function Power button too. All controls are on the right side.

Bluetooth pairing is very quick and easy with the devices I have tried here, locking on quickly and holding the connection well. On my walking test, I have found the range to be more than adequate though I haven't been able to test that through flint walls! Running through the controls, I can report that music playback can be paused and restarted by a quick press of the power button, track forward/back via long-presses on the volume buttons, BassUP by pressing that button quickly (followed by a female announcement for on and off!), a quick double-tap on the power button to get an announcement as to battery state (high/medium/low), a medium-press on the power to invoke your phone's Assistant (good for Google as tested here - returning to what you were listening to after your enquiry - and apparently also for Siri) and quick-press the power button to answer/hang up phone calls. The microphone seems to handle voice calls perfectly well and my test conversation caused no problem either end.

The sound coming out of these to me, the layman, is excellent, very loud, good clear quality, but ludicrously bass-heavy. And this is without the BassUp engaged! I have had to use on-device music players with their own equaliser controls to tame that for what level of bass I think is low enough for me. I get the whole 'boom box' thing and maybe when I was younger I'd have been much more up for booming bass, but not now. This exceeds even the baseline settings which Marshall employ with their headphones, which is saying something! Forget about governors for volume in the EU, we need governors for bass! It's quite ludicrously set high.

Depends what you're listening to of course - so listening to rock it's off the scale with bass, but solo piano and it's OK. I've also been OK watching films (until there's some oil tanker explosion going on)! Like the Motion+ speaker, referred to above, what this needs is a controlling App for the phone. The App for the speaker works really well, but doesn't include this headset. I shall appeal to them. So, if you like bass, you'll love these. Then, if you haven't pounded your poor eardrums enough, you can tap the BassUP button which makes it even more ludicrous for bass. Very silly. BassUp technology analyzes your audio’s low frequencies in real-time and instantly increases the bass, apparently! Book yourself a hearing test for 6 months time!

Bluetooth 5.0 is present and one of the important things for me was to get round this lip-sync with video/film problem, latency, using bluetooth. As I said at the outset, all these fancy technologies just seem to complicate the whole issue and this month I've tried all sorts getting here. aptX, aptX HD, aptX-LL and most of them in my experience here provide a worse lip-sync than just making sure it's simple and BT5. Nothing fancier - as discussed with and advised by Steve Litchfield on Phones Show Chat. I still see a lag when watching video, but have found ways to minimise that now. Some apps and services are better than others in this respect, so Netflix/Amazon Prime/YouTube are much better than VLC, for example. The latter does have a manual 'delay' which can be set for each film/track/album (and then saved) however. Bluetooth remains very confusing to me with all these different standards flying around, but I think I have found a way forward which doesn't involve irritation!

The headset is also Hi-Res Audio Certified, which apparently means it supports "playback of music files that have a higher sampling frequency and/or bit depth than CD - 16bit/44.1kHz". It sounds great in that respect to me - but then maybe I couldn't tell the difference anyway! The unit is also equipped with 40mm dynamic drivers which apparently means (and again, I rely on the tech-heads here) that "headphones driver ranges from 20mm – 50mm in diameter and generally, a driver's size determines the loudness." So this is near the top! I'm sure there's more to it than that but I'm not here as a headphones/audio/sound engineer - rather reporting what I find and hear!

The 'newer and upgraded' version of these headphones from SoundCore is the Q20. Beware, as these are redesigned and offer noise cancellation but the payoff for that is half the battery life - and to add insult to injury, a return to microUSB for charging! Madness.

Anyone looking for a budget set of headphones which perform perfectly well (particularly if you like bass) could do much worse than these. They're about £45 but there seems to be a semi-permanent £10 voucher off at AmazonUK, so £35. The battery life is quite staggering (so you're much more likely to have a charge when you grab them) and the icing on the cake, USB-C. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

Xiaomi MiJia Wiha Screwdriver Set

I wonder how many people reading this would not be thrilled to receive this screwdriver set! Xiaomi seem to be branching into so many different product areas now, and usually doing it really well, like here. Great materials, design and quality. Like the old days!

We've seen this done before of course with all sorts of screwdriver bits inside handles and interchangeable this and that, but to be honest, they're usually plastic and cheapo crapo! This is the opposite and although not as cheap as the aforementioned, you get the feeling that it's good for a lifetime's use instead of a decade (or until someone drops it and plastic splits on cheap ones)!

There's an outside metal 'sleeve' which slides up and covers the tray inside. The tray is plastic, but it's the only part that is - and it's solid and hard. The tray can only be placed inside the sleeve the right way (upright) and when it gets to the end, a firm press on the top of the tray 'clicks' it into a locking mechanism which only releases when pressed in again - when it pops out.

In the tray, you get a 'handle' in which the bits are placed and this has three flat sides to assist grip and a twirly-end to help which screwing-in to reposition hands. It's made of metal again and beautifully moulded. You can get different sizes of these kits with different arrays of bit-heads for different prices. This is the 24-piece set and has a range of Philips, Flat, Hex and Torq bits of different sizes. They're pretty small and the kit lends itself to precision jeweler, optician or clock-repair tasks, but of course, a thousand jobs around the house.

The icing on the cake is that the bits are all magnetic so not only do they stay firmly in the handle when in use but somehow 'snap' into the place-holders in the box too. How that works with a plastic tray, I don't know, but it does. I guess there must be a metal sub-tray in there. Each bit is etched with the size it is in the set and there's handy logos on the tray indicating the set of each row.

I'm really impressed and am now on the lookout for other Xiaomi stuff by default when looking for stuff I need/want, checking their gear first! This one is available from AmazonUK for about £20 (it seems to fluctuate) alongside the rest of their range. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Marriage Story

Marriage Story is going to be a bit of a Netflix Marmite film for many. There will be those who really don't want to spend a couple of hours watching a real-life conflict not only between two people who are really not sure if they want to be together and their son, but also lawyers on the battleground exhibiting their craft and others who will be able to, like me, focus on the fine performances.

Director Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha) created this film on the back of his real life experience amidst his divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh. Before I knew that, it felt like the backdrop of actors, hollywood, theatre directors and luvvies-all-round was just getting in the way of a clean story of a similar ilk, such as the beautifully produced Kramer vs. Kramer. However, this soon pales into insignificance as the meat of the story centres around the nuclear family breaking down and how people deal with each other, careers and the legal profession.

Adam Driver (Girls, The Report) is the up-and-coming star of a generation. He's talented and can seemingly turn his ability to any role he wishes to embrace. The military's loss is cinema's gain. In this role he embraces the position of workaholic theatre director, good dad and laid-back Mr Nice Guy alongside the new situation in which he finds himself. Having to fight for his marriage, shared custody of his child and the legal profession all at the same time. He does this with naive empathy, lost in a sea of new experiences, not quite understanding how this can be happening. Scarlett Johansson (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Scoop, Match Point) is equally convincing as the actress becoming famous and successful whilst keeping a lid on family responsibilities, dwindling love and being baffled by lawyers too.

The chemistry between the two is infectious. They, and the film, are engaging from the start. We jump in as there's a narration going on. First him, then her, talking about the good and bad aspects of each other and their marriage. We later find out that these are prepared lists created for the benefit of a marriage guidance process, but it's an excellent scene-setting technique as the audience quickly learns a huge amount about the family and their background. It is clear that they are deeply in love but that life is getting in the way, particularly their dedication to their careers, path dividing them as it trundles along.

There's one scene in the middle of the film where the pair try to sit down and talk with other but the attempt falls, sweeps between raw emotion, anger, frustration, bitterness, tears and transparent deep love. The scene is beautifully acted and is watched by all, eyes-wide! A super example of a scene within a film which almost doesn't need the context of the rest of the story. Check it out. The emotions expressed throughout the film are so convincingly expressed and performed that the viewer is sucked in, well and truly at every turn.

There's some comic moments in there too. At one point there's a woman appointented by the court to spend time with each of them in their normal habitat. Her performance is very funny as she doesn't quite know how to react to what's going on around her whilst Driver's character is trying far too hard to make it all look normal! There's Johansson's sister running around stressed as she's charged with the task of serving the divorce papers on him. She's played by Karen Duvall, who was excellent recently in the TV series Unbelievable. Then there's her mum, comically played by Julie Hagerty, who I still can't see outside of auto-pilot mode in Airplane! The family members are painted up as a real bunch of quirky people, as you can see. At this point, it really starts to feel like it's a Woody Allen comedy with all the usual hooks into funny New York characters and cast playing off against each other to great amusement with reflections of the absurdity of real life - often led by Allen favourite Wallace Shawn. There are also nods to Allen in terms of the shooting style as often we see cameras left shooting empty rooms whilst actors are out of them, not in shot.

The son (Azhy Robertson) looks very much like Doc in The Shining or, at a stretch even the kid in Kramer vs. Kramer. He plays his part very well. He's not just along for the ride but has some real dialogue and even at his young age has been chosen well with a budding ability to act. Then we come to the legal teams and actors again often plucked from Allen's casting book. Alan Alda plays an ageing family lawyer quite brilliantly. He's clearly had enough of hard-nosed legal wrangles and having tried to retire, really isn't up for the modern cut-throat world of Ally McBeals! It's great to see him again, thoughts of *M*A*S*H* of course! Laura Dern (Blue Velvet, Jurassic Park, Twin Peaks) pops up as one of the lawyers out to cut throats and embraces the role with gusto! Against her we have Ray Liotta (Hannibal, Goodfellas) in a smaller part, but one in which he exudes a similar gusto in each of his scenes! The pair of them up against each other in the near-informal courtroom is another scene-in-film to watch and enjoy more than once.

It's a film that, as I said at the outset, needs to be watched for the performances more than story, as they are, without exception, quite superb. The backdrop and sets, directorial style and production values are all very interesting and high. It's a film made for awards by Netflix and that's clearly where it is heading. If you really don't fancy the subject matter and think it looks like it is about couples bickering, then think again. You'll be delighted with, if nothing else, the exceptional two leads. Highly recommended.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Light Phone II - A Phone for Humans!

Tools, not Feeds they say at Light. This is a phone which pretty much does nothing of what we're used to doing these days with our pocket companions. They say that scrolling feeds is not good and that their basic tools are for getting things done. I wonder how many people reading this actually really want to disconnect with pretty much all of the network which they've built up around them. This really is not a phone review but the bones of a philosophical and social discussion.

Unlike KaiOS which is trying hard to integrate the likes of WhatsApp and FaceBook to a simple phone, LightOS says goodbye to social media, advertisements, news or email - like that's desirable in 2020. Maybe it is for some, but I hazard a guess that it's the very, very few who want to cut themselves off in this way. Designed to be used as little as possible, so humans can get back to interacting in the old-fashioned way. A phone that respects you! The price of your removal from the world? A staggering £265/$350! Available in Black or Light Grey.

The tools to which they refer are Telephone, SMS, a list of Contacts, an Alarm Clock, and maybe later Play Music, Voice Memos, Notes, Calendar, Weather app, Dictionary and some way to give the user Mapping Directions or call a Taxi (there is a GPS built-in). This was a crowd-source project and they really seem to have done well in terms of making it happen, both for the original Light Phone and now this second generation. I didn't ever see the first one, so I'm coming in cold to the second.

The thing that hits the user coming from a smartphone is that the device is tiny. It's got a 2.4" display with huge bezel-space around it - and the screen is black/white/gray e-ink. Think Kindle. The refresh-rate is as slow as an older generation Kindle's so every screen-tap means a wait before anything responds and that e-ink 'ghosting' remains when changing content. Screen-taps often don't register until the user realises that they have to press hard - this is no capacitive AMOLED! The screen-taps, apart from having lag, seem to want to be hit 'high' on the target. This is especially obvious when using the keyboard, which is very small indeed and only available in landscape. Not surprising really as in portrait it would be even smaller. Every time text input is needed, the screen auto-turns.

The phone is plastic and less than 4" in height, 2" across and about 1cm fat, taking into account the convex back - apparently done in order to pack in more battery over the flat original. It's 78g in weight and the whole package fits somewhere in the middle of my palm (see photo)! There's a earpiece speaker up the top where you'd expect, alongside a light sensor which enables auto-setting of the panel's light-up. Sadly, there's no USB-C here so we're back to microUSB for charging. They claim that the battery is good for 7 days on standby and 2 hours of talk-time. I am finding that those claims are about right as after using for about 3 days almost half of the charge is depleted. It's also IPX3 splash-resistant.

On the left is a NanoSIM Card Tray with the usual pokey-tool and a reasonably well made tray sliding in and out. The phone is capable of a 4G connection and it seems to do well with that. I have very successfully tethered other devices to it for a connection and it works beautifully. Quick to connect and maintains a good strong signal which is passes on to attached equipment. There's also a Hotspot option which I wasn't able to test but apparently works for up to 5 devices. Similarly, with making calls - the connection is strong, the person the other end can be heard well enough with the volume keys on the right adjusted to maximum and the person the other end hears the caller very clearly. The fact that the phone's microphone is well away from the mouth because of the size of the unit deters it not! (Though this is the same as many a bluetooth earpiece.) SMS works fine both ways, once you've been able to type it on the fiddly keyboard. There's no auto-correction to help, incidentally, so mistakes are rife.

Bluetooth 4.2 is present, though I'm not sure what it's for! Maybe it's for playing music, if and when the Music Player is added to the device - or perhaps there's a file-sharing facility coming too via a Manager. At the moment I can't seem to connect anything to the phone. There's also a 3.5mm audio-out socket up-top which again, will come in handy for listening to Music someday. There's no camera of course, as this would be too much of a distraction and make the user interact with the phone and world too much. The Alarm function works efficiently but the ring-tones for phone-calls and alarm are low in volume and buried in a pocket could easily be missed. In actual fact, without some sort of Music Player, it's hard to test the sound output.

On the top there's a 'wake' button which is also power on/off. Pressing that shows time, day, date, battery icon and percentage, wifi and cellular strength icons and a 'proceed' circle at the foot. Press this and you're launched into the Phone/SMS screen where you can select a dialing pad, SMS compose or Search for previously saved Contacts. Between the volume buttons on the right-side is a Menu button which takes the user to a Phone, Alarm or Settings.

In Settings, Phone takes you back to the main Phone screen mentioned above, alarm gives a numeric keypad to set a simple alarm and Settings launches a sub-menu including Airplane Mode toggle and Notifications which allows for Ringtone selection from a list of a few (all too quiet). Same for SMS and Alarm. There's also a privacy toggle to either show incoming messages on the Lock Screen or not. Moving onto Preferences allows for Time setting/display options, auto-capitalise on the Keyboard, a hearing-aid control option in Accessibility and another toggle for haptic-feedback when touching the screen - recommended to be left on to have some confirmation that your screen taps have worked as you wait during the delay! There's a simple numeric system passcode which can be set to get in and out of anything past the Lock Screen. Connectivity settings for WiFi, Bluetooth and Hotspot and options to open a Light Account, Reset the phone, check for LightOS Updates (which seem to come in almost daily) and so forth.

In order to do anything more at this stage, you need to head for the Light Website via a desktop browser and to the Light Dashboard. Here you sign in with your Light Account credentials and have access to a bunch of further much-easier-to-control and manage options. If the place where you hold your Contacts will let you Export them as a .vcf file (Google Contacts doesn't offer that) then they can be imported here and, as I understand it, when the phone is connected to WiFi will keep these in sync. It's not clear about how many the phone will hold or how many can be imported as I can't seem to execute this in any case. You can also also add Contacts manually but when I tried that, WiFi turned on, I waited and waited, and the one I added via the Dashboard didn't turn up on the phone. So, again, maybe features not yet finished. For me, an import from Google Contacts would make a huge difference, though clearly ongoingly, one would then need to keep doing that export/import to keep it up to date. Basic PIM functionality would make a big difference here. I get the no-social-media thing, but surely a properly syncing Calendar/Contacts/Email is a bare minimum, even for those dipping out from the world! Maybe significantly it talks to iCloud! Lastly, Device Info tells you all about the phone and records your IMEI number which could be handy if you lost it.

As I said at the outset, this is all about a philosophy and a becoming-trendy agenda to disconnect, or at least be able to choose to disconnect, from the deluge of media we're all bombarded with - and the evolved behaviour of humans to see the world through their phone-screens. To challenge people to ask themselves about how many human friends they have and how many virtual ones have replaced them. To question how humans now spend their time buried in technology instead of being out there paragliding, cycling or in the pub.

It's an ambitious project and an expensive one, to make this point. There's an option here for kids, I guess. Keep them off-grid from an early age, but still in touch. For my money, I think there's a much more desirable middle-road to be considered via the KaiOS option where a lot of the above is retained, but at least some of what we've got used to is also available. Maybe they're different philosophies at heart, but that's where my money would go - and quite a huge chunk less of it than this expensive luxury.

Many thanks to Lee Burnett for the loan for review.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Projector Room 51

Projector Room
Episode 51 - The Long Irishman


@Gareth Myles and @Allan Gildea join me as we chat for an hour or so about what we've been watching during the last fortnight. We focus on The Irishman but have plenty to say about much else, too. Available via https://stevelitchfield.com/projector/index.html or your podcatcher of choice. Enjoy  @Steve Litchfield #podcast

Phones Show Chat 528

Phones Show Chat
Episode 528 - ABP: Another Brilliant Podcast!



This week @Steve Litchfield and I welcome long-time collaborator but first-time guest @Malcolm Bryant as he talks about his path through the early days of creating EPOC freeware and now bang up-to-date apps for Android. Available via https://stevelitchfield.com/sshow/chat.html or your podcatcher of choice. Don't miss it! 

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Gold Digger

This 6-part mystery/drama/thriller is currently running on BBC1 on Tuesday nights, but you can skip ahead and watch all 6 episodes if you're impatient, like me, via the BBC iPlayer. I won't give away any plot spoilers.

It's a decent enough little story lifted from the ordinary by the main two leads, Julia Ormond and Ben Barnes. Their performances are both well executed and remain convincing throughout.

Julia is 60 and Benjamin's half her age. They both keep their real first names. How quaint. She has 3 grown-up kids with various problems of their own and Julia has just undergone a divorce. Julia and Benjamin meet by chance and fall in love. Julia is wealthy. Her kids think he's a Gold Digger, so does her ex-husband, who is now together with a new woman. They work together to try to find out about Benjamin and ultimately try to hijack the relationship in order to 'protect' Julia instead of wishing her happiness.

And then all the sub-plots come along - as you might imagine, nothing is quite as it seems and everyone has something up their sleeve!

The series is really about loyalty and truth. Who is Julia going to be loyal to - her family, her feelings, her new lover? Who is Benjamin going to be loyal to? Is he telling the truth about his intentions and background? Or is he indeed a Gold Digger on the make?

It holds together pretty well, though episodes 4 and 5 slow things down before 6 ties things up. Probably could have been done in 4. It's thoughtfully produced and directed, well acted, give or take, by the cast and throws enough questions into the proceedings to ensure the viewer hangs on in there until the end.

It's great to see Julia Ormond again and if you haven't dipped into this one, I think you'll enjoy it dear reader! Unlike some other BBC programmes which have been doing the rounds lately, this one seems to be of better stock. Catch it while you can.

Locke

Steve Litchfield mentioned this little film almost exactly a year ago on Projector Room and I just saw it pop up on Film 4 the other day, so gave it a go.

It has to be the lowest budget film ever made! Hire a BMW and Tom Hardy, pay Olivia Colman, our Fleabag friend Andrew Scott and Ruth Wilson for voice-parts, get Hardy to drive down the motorway and film him in the car talking - almost in real-time! It really could easily be a radio production - or even just be broadcast as-is via radio.

Of course, the strength of this film is in the script, story and dialogue between Hardy's character and those various bods on the other end of his carphone. The world is closing in on him as he tries to do the right thing by a woman he has got pregnant at the potential cost to him of losing everything else in his life. The question is, will that happen - or will he smartly piece together the puzzle which he needs to shuffle and sort out to keep everyone happy and find solutions.

There's a big event happening at work the next day. He has to be there. There's this woman giving birth. He has to be there. There's his wife in meltdown at home and son expecting him home to watch football and eat hot dogs. He has to be there.

It's taut and claustrophobic and Hardy very well executes the range of emotions, anxieties and frustration that one might expect to see given the situation.

And that's about it really. Well executed and writer/director Stephen Knight keeps you watching 'til the end.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Samsung Galaxy S10 (512GB)

Here we go again! Acknowledging that Samsung phones seem to be the only Android devices out there that tick enough boxes! Speakers, speed, storage, AoD, Audio-Out Socket, good enough camera, close enough to Vanilla Android and more... I've been through S9 Plus, Note 9, Note 10, S10e, S8 and one-by-one they get ruled out - but maybe I'm getting to the core reason eventually... size!

The latest shot at finding the perfect phone for me brings me opportunistically to the Samsung Galaxy S10. It's smaller than the S9 Plus and Notes, bigger than the tiny S10e. Perhaps things may have worked out differently if I'd tried the S9 (non Plus) but I always feared the battery horror stories. The S10 is just about the right size in my hand, my pocket and big enough to type efficiently on the keyboard along with getting enough content on the screen to see sensibly.

Box Contents and Ticking
The 'proper' price for an official UK (Exynos) version of this phone with 512GB storage is £999, but shopping around, considering importing or used, buying the (some other regions incl. USA) SnapDragon variant of the device, the thrifty purchaser can bag it for anywhere between about £500 and upwards. Clearly the 128GB version is cheaper, but big storage was certainly one of the boxes I wanted to tick! So, I managed to find a SnapDragon 512GB version in black, second-hand from a trusted friend, imported from Hong Kong, looked after with cotton wool gloves similar to mine! In the box there's a power-plug and USB-A to USB-C cable, a USB-A to USB-C adapter and a plastic case. It looks like there were some earphones in here but, along with the SIM Card Tray pokey-tool they seem to have gone AWOL. Good job I don't need them - and if there were earphones, I'm sure I'd have hated them for being in-ear plugs!

Goldilocks
The physical appraisal of the phone for me is about size, the Goldilocks Zone, just right. It's a little wider and taller than the Pixel 3 but not as fat, the 16:9 Nokia 8 Sirocco is a bit wider, less tall and not quite so fat - and against the Moto Z3 Play, it's about the same height, not so wide but a little fatter. It's 157g in weight which also makes it relatively light compared to the device set here. It feels good in the hand and easily passes the finger-thumb test around the waist - even with the case applied. This case is a hard, clear plastic one which is alright, but a little slippery. It's nicely minimalistic with proper cut-outs for all the ports and buttons, but doesn't offer huge protection. Much of the glass is exposed. As usual, I've applied a cheap TPU and it's much grippier and won't fall easily.

Sandwich
The S10 is a glass/aluminium sandwich with GG5 on the back, 6 on the front, both sweeping near-symmetrically to meet the frame. The curve on the edge of the glass is subtle, nothing like the Sirocco, and content on the screen is not in any way impaired. On the left we have the volume-rocker and Bixby button (which can now be assigned to pretty much any App you fancy for short-press) whilst quite high up for some on the right is a lonely power button. I rarely need it, so it hasn't bothered me. Up top there's a SIM Card Tray which offers 2 slots in this model (check regional variation) with the second doubling as a microSD Card cavity. Down at the bottom there's the usual USB-C port, 3.5mm audio-out socket and speaker. On the front we have the other speaker, various sensors and a punch-hole selfie, top-right. Lastly, on the back there's a Samsung logo with the camera-island placed centrally above it, 15% down from the top, housing the rest of the camera gear and heart rate sensor. It sits a tad proud, but cases make it flush. The phone is IP68-rated for dust/water resistant (up to 1.5m for 30 mins).

Dynamic
The front panel is a Dynamic AMOLED 6.1" 1440p one presented in a 19:9 ratio returning 550ppi and ready to make the most of HDR10+ content where it can be found. As you might expect, it's blazingly bright, enabling me to use it at about 25% indoors. When outside, there's no danger of not being able to see what you're doing on manual brightness or adaptive, swinging between c.400nits and 800. There's adjustments available for Vivid or Natural, a Cool/Warm slider and even White Balance RGB controls too - you can set this screen just how you want to see it. I've remained on Vivid (the default) and am happy with the level of saturation of bright colours - it doesn't feel OTT. There seems to be a factory-fitted plastic on the screen which, to be honest, I didn't notice on Day 1! Given my experience with the Note9 and micro-scratches on GG5 (not 6 as here), I'm inclined to leave it in place and see how I get on. I've tested the fingerprint scanner for rogue entries, just in case, and it doesn't let anything other than registered prints through.

Biometrics
The biometrics are up to the usual Samsung standards - face unlock works superbly well regardless of the fact that they've removed the Iris scanner, registers quickly even with full-face beard and never fails - there's even a slinky ring of light emitted around the selfie-cam when it's brought into play! Tested with photos and other people, it seems secure against intruders! The fingerprint scanner is ultrasonic and not optical and appears to work excellently well from various angles, various fingers, even when the screen is off - OK, not quite as fast as capacitive, but not far enough behind for it to be a pain - and I'd trade that, for being on the front aiding desk/table use. One thing to note is that as seems common these days, a swipe-up is needed to get into one's homepages after face-unlock has been executed. Seems a bit daft to me, but at least the fingerprint scanner gets me straight in.

Punch-Hole
The screen is impaired by the selfie-cam top-right of course. As usual, the human eye after a short time adapts and 'doesn't see it' unless looking for trouble! The bigger issue for me is that the battery icons et al are 'pushed' left, which takes more getting used to, making less room for notifications - hampered further by Google insistence that Notification bars are 'built for notches' still and all the 'middle' is wasted. This whole notch thing has been a disaster really!

Really Always On!
One of the fabulous aspects of the Samsung devices is the Always On Display, as we know. This one is exactly the same as the other devices in the family and works in just the same way. Loads of options, Edge Lighting for Notifications with even more choices, manual brightness adjustments and scrolling information from core apps which the user can choose per app on/off. This really should be baked into Android via the Mothership!

Q Pie
The phone arrived to me here with Android 9 Pie installed and November 2019 Google Security during the third week of November. Project Treble really seems to have done the job here and Samsung are better than ever before supporting their devices with prompt updates. Android 10 should be along any minute with the final stages of the Beta programme available as I type for those who jumped. In the meantime, with One UI software running in the background, I've found that the only feature I lust for is the left/right full-side Back gestures - but hang on - Samsung have provided this now for a while via their own installable One Hand Operation Plus app, which works perfectly in replication.

One UI
I have covered One UI time and again whilst reviewing other Samsung devices in the family, so I won't plough through it all again here - search my Blog for "One UI" and you'll find it all. It's the same here and has been thought out really very well. One UI 2.0 is in the pipes for the Android 10 rollout, I understand, so we'll see what that brings. It's almost tempting to use the Samsung Launcher, but I'm personally so at home with Nova Prime that I choose to use it. For one thing, I like my Google Feed page to the left which Nova's Companion App provides. (Warning - this needs side-loading, so be sure to flip Install Unknown Sources for Chrome off when finished.) If you stick with the Samsung Launcher you have the choice of the Bixby panel to the left of Home, or turn it off completely (once you've signed in to get to the settings), and Edge Panels to play with, regardless of chosen launcher. Anyway, as I say, lots of One UI coverage elsewhere here, including the deeper capabilities of the Bixby system for those who wish to dig around.

Bloat or Float?
This might be a question that Samsung have posed to themselves following huge uproar across the globe about how intrusive their bloated software experience feels to the new user - as here, it's really been very toned down. Even though I'm signed into my Samsung account, I have not got hardly any pop-up messages, reminders and plugs to install this, that and the other, use this, that or the other service and so on from previous experiences. A large amount of the Samsung Apps are only installed at setup if you specifically ask, otherwise sit, sensibly, in the Play Store. I have installed one or two, and that's how it should be. There are a few apps pre-installed, but I'll give them a pass on this as they have been selected to be generally enhancing the experience, like Always on and Edge stuff. Exceptions to this include the uninstallable Facebook, LinkedIn, all the Bixby support stuff (but as I say, it can now be largely hidden), Briefing (?), Link to Windows Service, Office Mobile, Dictionary and a few others. We could add to that list support for all sorts of other service-layer apps for the likes of Samsung Pay, Pass, Cloud, Store, Games, Gallery, Themes - and then the superfluous array of doubled-up and unnecessary apps which Google supply like Messenger, Calendar and Email. The point is though that they're more invisible than ever before because the system at last doesn't keep nagging the user to adopt them over the ones which s/he has chosen. This does seem like a significant strategy shift and welcome it is! I'm happy to ignore entries in the App list if I'm not nagged.

Chipset Choices
I have it on good authority that the SnapDragon 855 version of this phone brings better battery life, camera quality and headphone audio which I'll come to later, but for now, yes this is the USA version of the phone rather than the 'global' one. I also note that there's an FM Radio included, missing from the Exynos 9820 version. The speed of the engine is really noticeable when, for example, reading/writing data compared to lesser phones. I can remember waiting to copy my media to internal storage and microSD Cards for much, much longer than this. It races through every task thrown at it at lightning speed. There's 8GB RAM here which ensures again, rapid task-switching and few undesirable closures. Going back to apps used hours before, or even days, ensures immediate resumption. There are of course an array of 'care' tools to 'optimise' memory and RAM as usual in settings to tweak this experience.

Pocket Computer
The big one again for me here is that armed with my 512GB microSD Card, I have 1TB of storage available to me, and with all the media and files I want to carry inside my Pocket Computer it leaves me about 300GB free! I know I'm a niche case and self-confessed Data Hoarder, and I won't go over the pragmatic reasons for that again in relation to my living situation, but rather focus on the decades-long desire to really feel as though the device I have in my pocket really is a Pocket Computer, challenging in many ways, a desktop/laptop PC. Love it! The USB-C works perfectly with data OTG, passes my 2TB Extreme SSD test with flying colours as well as any size microSD Card I throw at it. When I want to watch my media on a bigger screen, armed with a USB-C to HDMI adapter, I can watch it on my telly! No WiFi needed. Good ol' fashioned cables! Well done Samsung. Furthermore, want to play with DeX? It's all present and correct, echoing onto a large screen on-demand. My Pocket Computer becomes a fully-fledged one with connectivity to keyboards, mice and proper productivity. Pass-through Qi charging? No problem - it just works, whilst mirroring or using DeX. This kind of solution has been tried many times by various systems, some half-bake it, some do some of it well, but Samsung just does it all - right!

Socks Blown Off!
I've been blown away by the sound coming from this phone through my usual reference headphones via the 3.5mm audio-out socket. It's quite stunning, quality, volume, bass, the lot. Apparently, as I said above, this sets the SnapDragon version of the phone apart from the Exynos one. The phone can cope with audio files with 32-bit sampling then downsample to push out the sound. Maybe not quite the height of what the LG phones can natively handle though, which have very high bit depth sampling. Hence 'Quad DAC'. There's also the matter of how much 'oomph' is in the amplifiers. This is strictly analogue. Akin to buying a 30W BT speaker rather than a 10W one! So the top-end LGs, for example, have dedicated high power amplifier stages, while the Samsung has an amp, but it's not as special. If you followed all that, you're more like a sound engineer than I'll ever be! Good job we have the likes of Steve Litchfield and Gavin Fabiani-Laymond to keep us straight! The long and short is that it sounds amazing to these ears.

System-Wide Dolby
Sitting above this, system-wide, is Dolby Atmos with basic controls, but controls which do make a difference. You can play with various settings when playing sound through the speakers, which I'll come to, but also even more when headphones are plugged in. Dolby Atmos ('tuned by AKG') offers a choice of Auto, Music, Film and Voice - and can be turned off if preferred. Siting below and usable in tandem are a few pre-set equaliser controls in the usual way, as well a custom setting and equaliser sliders for the user to set. A handful of ways to adjust the sound which is excellent to begin with anyway. There's a sound wizard you can run through which tests your hearing for an array of beeps and sounds in order to deliver the best experience. It's all very encouraging that such care and attention is given to sound in my view, neglected to this degree by most others.

Stereo Speakers
The Stereo speakers are similarly very good indeed. I would say that the sound produced is certainly better than the Note9, S9+ and Note 10 Plus (which I reviewed recently for Phones Show Chat) and on a par with the other market leaders just now (laying aside special cases such as Razer Phone). It's loud and produces good enough bass and mid-range for my kind of listening, capable of filling a small lounge-sized room, defying the physical size of the unit in many ways. The top earpiece speaker does push out less sound than the bottom-firing one but they somehow sound and feel balanced when placed centrally to the head. We've seen and heard this before on other phones of course, put down to the 'tuning' and clever software involved. This is no Bluetooth speaker with booming bass of course, but it ain't half bad and is oodles better than most phones I've tested. The stereo separation is extremely good even at slightly longer distances from the head. Tested with fancy YouTube Dolby Audio Surround tests, as long as the phone is close enough, there's a real sense of immersion. Nothing like with headphones of course which, again, blows one's socks off! Incidentally, unlike many other phones out there, Samsung switches the stereo between speakers regardless of which landscape way you turn it - ensuring that the left channel is always on the left and vice-versa.

Wireless Sound
Bluetooth 5 is on offer for those not wishing to use a cable and it supports aptX. The pairing process is one-tap quick and easy for peripheral devices and sound, though of course dependant on connected equipment quality, is equally amazingly clear and loud - with access to the same range of equaliser controls. All my testing has been done using the Samsung Music App but, as I say, these equaliser controls are system-wide so will work with all apps including YouTube. Hang on, there's more! On this SnapDragon version there's even the aforementioned FM Radio which works very well indeed, auto/manual scan, station memory/favourites, recording function. Once the aerial establishes connection via something plugged into the audio-out socket, you can then switch from headphones output to speaker. Reception is good in my test areas.

Connections
Talking of which, reception generally is excellent for phone calls, GPS for Mapping, Bluetooth range, WiFi, even NFC - tested here with Google Pay and hovering over terminals picks up with ease, quickly. Starts to feel like Samsung is the new Motorola when hardware components are so robust. Another connection, of sorts, are the Heart rate and blood oxygen Sensor on the back of the phone next to the cameras which is supposed to work in tandem with the Samsung Health App. Having downloaded and installed that, it all feels a bit like fluff - and interesting that all this has been removed from later models of the Samsung phones. I couldn't get the sensor to read my pulse successfully. It kept telling me that was finger was not placed correctly. It did at one point get to 80% and told me it was 63bpm but didn't finish - that was the closest I got! Good job I don't need it - or care! Samsung Health App uninstalled! All this wellbeing stuff is a bit lost on me to be honest - I'm sure some people make use of it, but it just feels like a gimmick. Maybe Samsung thought so too!

Power
There's a 3,400mAh battery in the S10 here. Having got used to 4,000mAh units these days I was a little concerned. In my 10% reading test we currently have the Google Pixel 3 at the low end floundering on 50 minutes and the Xiaomi Mi A3 leading the pack at 2 hours 6 minutes. The S10 returned just about 1 hour 20 minutes. Far from the best, and worst, somewhere in the middle. On an average day's use for me (yardstick being my normal behaviour applied to all test devices with Adaptive Brightness and Adaptive Battery engaged) we're looking at somewhere in the region of 24 hours between charges and 6 hours Screen On Time. I did get nearer 30 hours one day but with only 4 hours SoT. As always your mileage will vary depending on what you're up to, but it's certainly not as bad as I'd feared - and we do have Qi charging in the wings. Top-ups as we go, desk, car, bedside. There's a 15W fast-charging brick in the box that'll get you a 50% charge from flat in half an hour - and with the right gear, it'll fast Qi charge too at 15W. Also present is the fancy Reverse wireless charging, so you can charge a friend's phone from the back of yours - and even pass that through, so cable up yours and place theirs on yours! Even more boxes ticked.

Snap, Snap...
I'm not going to even try to compete with the glut of in-depth reviews by the Pixel Peeping Brigade when it comes to the camera option on the S10, rather I'll tell you what I find and how I find using it and how the resulting shots look to me! Check out Steve Litchfield's coverage for loads of thoughts about taking photos with phones, including the S10/Note 10 range from Samsung. There are three cameras on the back alongside the heart rate scanner and LED flash. The user switches between the three via on-screen icons. The main camera is a 12MP Dual (not variable) f1.5-f2.4 (which switches based on available light) unit with OIS and a 'normal' field of view, another 12MP f2.4 which has 2x optical capability again with OIS and a 16MP f2.2 wide-angle camera with no OIS. And boy, is it wide! Distortion is the name of the game here, in bucketloads! There is a setting in which you can 'correct' distortions created by this extreme wide-angle though in practice here it seems to also 'narrow' the angle slightly in the process. On the good side, the shooter can do amazing jobs with room interiors and stimulate creative juices for all sorts of wacky stuff. There's no AF but in reality, everything will be in focus working with such wide optics. The 2x optical zoom, though not now market-leading in terms of 5x, still produces a useful extended range and in my testing here, pinch/splay to zoom up additionally to 10x (and anything between) produces very good and usable shots as well. It also has a trick up its sleeve in terms of close-focus. Place something close to the lens and it knows what you're up to and snaps into focus as close as it can then auto-adjusts as you creep closer. I've been able to fill the frame from a few inches away with 13mm across. The main camera produces photos beautifully for me and the rest of the 98% of users who don't have test-benches! Even those who do, seem to report excellent results too, also in low light, making use of dedicated modes and that dual aperture. The Selfie is a 10MP f1.9 unit and also has icons to switch between 'normal' and 'wide'. The results seem excellent to me again and the 'live focus' smartly tracks the face for Portraits and suitably auto-blurs background.

Camera UX
Common throughout the camera software, there's lots of AI going on, lots of decisions about what's needed taken out of the hands of the users if they choose, like that aperture control on the main camera and when Night Mode kicks in and so on. This will be the perfect arrangement of course for the 98% so it is clearly the way to go. There are manual overrides as well, however, some strangely buried deep in menus, some up-front and centre, some only accessible via a switch to Pro Mode. The 'viewfinder' in Pro Mode does its very best to emulate a 'proper' camera with adjustments possible for, amongst others, ISO, Aperture, Focus, Exposure Compensation and even a multi-dot focus grid, switchable to centre-weighted. All great fun to play with and for those taking photos from phones in any way as a serious competitor to 'proper' cameras, tools for creation. For everyone else, there's Scene Optimiser with various 'intelligent' features, Shot Suggestions (where the AI tries to work out what you're shooting and adjusts settings to get you the best shot) that re-ordering option which Samsung does, letting the user choose which 'main' modes appear on the 'main' shooting screen - and so on. Oodles and oodles of stuff to play with for the fiddler, great shots via AI for the rest. And that's where I'll leave it! For those who want more in-depth on the camera and results from pixel-peeping, just search YouTube - there's tons of it out there executed much more ably than my attempt would be, even if I had the extended interest! To me, for now, a phone in a camera is for taking shots from the hip, out and about and not much more. For more, you know what I'm going to say, buy a camera!

Verdict
As you may have gathered by now, I'm hugely impressed. I'm mostly impressed over previous tries and fails with Samsung that they're actually leaving me alone! Much cleaner UX than ever before and allowing me to use the phone as I want to without nagging. It's just the right size for me, the AMOLED display is the best there is, the speakers approach being the best available on a phone, the build quality is equally reassuring and all the above attention to detail, functionality, facilities (which many others are removing) is, I think literally, second to none. It's a package which ticks so many boxes for me and it seems that at last, with Samsung not bloating things out and enabling the user to stick with Vanilla, I've found my niche. Especially with this 512GB version and microSD Card and all the connectivity options. Have we arrived? Truly a proper Pocket Computer? I would not pay £1000 for it but if you can find one at a reasonable price like I did, I'd highly recommend the Samsung Galaxy S10.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Phones Show Chat 526

Phones Show Chat
Episode 526 - Maxxing Out The Gigabytes
This week Steve Litchfield and I welcome Chris Kelly back to catch up with where he's at with Mobile Phones.
All the usual furniture of course - and a bonus-length show!
Available via https://stevelitchfield.com/sshow/chat.html or your podcatcher of choice.
Enjoy 😁

Friday, 22 November 2019

Official Secrets

I was looking forward to seeing this one, a slice of history that, for once, I had been alive to understand more the context and complexity regarding. It didn't let me down and I was pleased that Keira Knightley grasped the lead with gusto.

When I see the name Keira Knightley my mind, maybe unfairly, conjures up Pirates of the Caribbean. She's been in many more serious and stretching roles of course, but this seemed to have set the framework for me. So yes, The Imitation Game, Atonement and Pride & Prejudice - but not before have I seen her excel and convincingly lead. She plays Katharine Gun in this true story, as a GCHQ employee who, although having signed the Official Secrets Act to get a job there, felt morally obliged to leak a secret document to the press in order to prevent massive loss of life in Iraq in 2003.

As usual with film adaptations, we're never really quite sure what liberty is taken with the truth but from what I can remember and reports I have seen, it's pretty faithful and in keeping in theme with the excellent Red Joan. In the final scene, much like with Red Joan, they even used footage of the real person around the court in London as things reached a climax. So, yes, a whistleblower was she, but because of the context of what was going on, gained support for her plight in defending her actions and exposing the Blair/Bush activity and the dubious actions of their senior staff.

The whole cast performs excellently, particularly Ralph Fiennes as her lawyer along with many good and strong British actors. Dr Who's Matt Smith plays the journalist chasing the story well and Rhys Ifans doing similar work across the pond.

It's a bit of a slow-burner at times as they key players wait for the wheels of justice to turn and various people await their fate, including Katharine's Turkish husband fighting against unfair deportation. Director Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky) doesn't let up with the tension however and keeps the audience glued to the screen, slow or not. The sets are nicely arranged and supporting photography and positioning thoughtful enough to make for interesting visuals.

I really enjoyed it and the near-two hours flew by whilst watching. I always like a true story - it adds a certain element to films when executed well, as it has been here. It's also a little-person against the power of the establishment story, when the moral stand of the former is absolutely right, but the procedures, politics and safety concerns for the masses is questionable at best. Recommended very much for those, like me, who pretty much remember all this going on, but also for those who want to see the maturing Keira Knightley doing some real acting.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Projector Room 50

Projector Room
Episode 50 - Korean Kingdom
Gareth Myles and I welcome back Steve Litchfield to the mix for show 50 as Allan Gildea is busy working.
The show is available now via https://stevelitchfield.com/projector/index.html or your podcatcher of choice.
We natter for an hour about all things film, cinema and TV - why not join us as we dig for gold and look for blood in Vienna!

Monday, 11 November 2019

Xiaomi Mi A3

One of the big Chinese firms currently swooping into and scooping up the mobile phone world is Xiaomi, as most folk reading this will know. They present a compelling argument on many levels with their well-pitched and well-priced phones and here's another of them. The Mi A3, following and improving on the line of A1 and A2 encapsulates the AndroidOne programme with resulting purity and hopefully, less iOS copycat style and features.

The first clear advantage of the latest model is the Samsung AMOLED screen over the previous models, which housed LCD panels. This makes a huge difference in many ways, as we know. They went back and forward with microSD Card support, now putting it back and the SD600-series chipset has improved by steps, now settling on 665 from 625 and 660. RAM has stayed at 4GB on this unit but there is a 6GB and 128GB storage model out there for the A3, but this one is 64GB. The (becoming standard) 48MP-to-12MP camera setup is added over previous units with simple 12MP - and the 2x optical zoom of the A1 has been replaced with a wide-angle in the A3, both skipping the A2! Again, they've fiddled about with 3.5mm audio-out sockets, first yes, then no, now yes again - all these changes seem to have been a reaction to current trends with the A2 really missing out on most. Anyway, here we are with the latest, so let's see what it's about.

Attractive Design
It's a very attractive phone firstly, though in the mould of a thousand-and-one others, being a GG5 sandwich with plastic frame. The More Than White version I have here is glossy and looking like Pearl White with a hint of shimmering rainbow colours as its moved, reflecting various light sources. The back curves round the edges to meet the frame, unlike the front panel, which is flat. Feels great in the hand, just the right size (for me) in hand and pocket, whilst giving a big enough screen to be useful for ageing eyes! Feels solid and well made.

The Box and Tour
In the box there's a clear TPU case which, bizarrely, when in place does not protect the camera island on the back. When placed directly onto a surface it touches, asking for dents and scratches. I got a cheap one from Amazon for a fiver and it's much better. Good for them to include one, bad for them not making it properly! The back is set up 'camera' style with an emphasis on landscape with logo and writing that way, alongside the three-lens camera lump and LED flash. It looks classy and reflects a quality way above the price-point. There's a SIM Card Tray on the left side, which is very stiff in use, good and bad, and when opened reveals cavities for either 2 NanoSIM Cards or one and a microSD Card. Strangely, used in the latter formation, the phone considers the primary SIM to be No.2 slot! On the other side, there's a power button and volume rocker which are very clicky, but the plastic doesn't feel particularly premium, unlike the rest of the phone. Up the top we have a 3.5mm audio-out socket and the bottom, a USB-C port and single mono speaker. The bottom is arranged iPhone style from a couple of years ago - and now many others - with a fake grille the other side of the USB-C. On the front, there's a teardrop notch for the Selfie Cam and speaker for calls in a sliver at the top. There's a little bit of chin at the bottom, but really not much.

Amazing Value
Many thanks go to Mike Warner for sending this unit over for review, he having imported it from Europe, though it is the Global version. The only evidence of being non-UK is a euro-plug and UK adapter supplied in the outer box. He was able to source this for an amazing £115 from Europe, though for those who want a formal UK route, AmazonUK are selling at £185 as I write. There's nothing much else in the box - a pokey-hole tool and a USB-A to USB-C cable, 10W charging plug and that TPU. The phone supports 18W QC3, but for that you'll need your own plug.

AndroidOne, No Bloat
The Mi A-series are part of the AndroidOne programme and having played with some Xiaomi phones recently which are not, this really makes a huge difference. In many ways it's like any other AndroidOne phone - that's a good thing! Clean and neat version of Android which ensures that the owner knows exactly where they are, guaranteed two versions of Android going forward, so this, being supplied on Pie will be expecting Android 10 and 11 - and three years of Security Updates from Google, ensuring life expectancy to at least summer 2022. As I switched on, in the first week of November, October 2019 Security was offered and so downloaded and installed. It also ensures a pretty much bloat-free experience, unlike non-AndroidOne. As for Motorola models under the same banner, there are some manufacturer's so-called useful additions. Here, we have preinstalled Mi Community and Mi Store apps (which can both be fully uninstalled) and in Settings there's a menu item called Mi Services, within which there are toggles to be a part of the User Experience Programme and to send Xiaomi Diagnostics. These can both be switched off, but the menu item can't be removed. This phone had been bought via AliExpress and there was also an app of theirs installed, but can easily be uninstalled, leaving no apparent trace.

Performance, Storage, Connectivity
The clean vanilla feel of Android continues as we observe the bog-standard Pie Navigation two-button approach with nothing in Settings to change that to anything else. Google Feed cards are available to the left of the Homescreen, though can be turned off. The Notification area is pure vanilla Android and Dark Mode is rolling out to various Google Apps in the same way as it is over the current weeks for other AndroidOne devices. Under the bonnet there's a Snapdragon 665 chipset with 4GB RAM. There is a 6GB RAM version out there somewhere but in terms of task-switching this feels perfectly good with a clean version of AndoidOne. To be honest, this is not the fastest chipset out there and now and then I notice a task taking a little longer than I'm used to on flagships, but this is getting picky. It's perfectly good and the vast majority of people wouldn't notice. I won't bang on again about 128GB minimum but instead, firstly remind myself of the price of this phone - and second that there's a microSD Card slot. I've tested that with my 512GB microSD Card and it plays perfectly well. I've also tested my 2TB Extreme SSD (FAT32) in the USB-C port and again, that works perfectly well, reading and writing quickly enough to use for data. I tested it for HDMI-Out, but sadly, no go. The aerials are all very good, WiFi, GPS, BT and Cellular. On test calls in various locations which have challenged in the past, it does well, holds a call, sounds good and loud, no breakup or drops.

Super AMOLED
The screen is indeed Super AMOLED and 6.1" with a ratio of 19.5:9 but is 'only' 720p. This produces 286ppi which for those ticking boxes will stick in the throat. For me, given that it's AMOLED particularly, I think it doesn't matter. It's amazing enough to even get an AMOLED panel at this price, we shouldn't be quibbling about the resolution when with my 50+ year-old eyes, it looks just fine. I have looked at photos, closed in on text on the screen and it looks perfectly sharp and clean to me. As usual, younger eyes may think differently - so that will save us old fogies cash! As I said, there is a teardrop notch for the camera but it doesn't intrude far, remaining very subtle. The screen goes right up the top apart from that and there's a small chin. I think that aids use of navigation controls with thumb-space. The screen is not particularly bright at 363nits and auto-brightness does tend to end up at 80%+ when checked to see what it's up to, even indoors. The biggest hit is when you manually drop it to, say 50%, which I've done here against my Nokia 8 Sirocco and at 50% the Xiaomi is much more dull than the Nokia. The colours are bright enough though, which is a good thing as there is no way in Settings to control how they look. The default values have clearly been worked out for generic use and they're fine. Heading outside into bright sunshine, which we happen to have here today, it remains usable at 100% but you wouldn't want it any less than that to continue using the phone.

Always On Display
What we don't get here is an Always on Display. It just isn't part of the AndroidOne setup and those which have it (various Nokia phones, for example) have been added by the manufacturer. Xiaomi has not done this - and like Motorola, rely on the phone being woken up to see anything. However! This is an AMOLED, so enter the Always On AMOLED app! This works perfectly and is very highly recommended. There's all sorts of toggles, options and switches inside it to personalise and make it work just how wanted - it even emulates Samsung's Edge Lighting superbly. This completely plugs the gap and transforms the phone in this useful respect. If you choose not to do that, then you're routinely looking at a black screen. If you nudge it or lift it, the under-glass optical fingerprint scanner target pops up but double-tapping the screen doesn't get you further. Press the power button at that stage and you get the (sleeping) AndroidOne lock-screen with a quick flash of Notifications across the screen in cards, which can be viewed in-situ but some sort of unlocking is needed to drill down further to the content.

Security
This brings us to that Fingerprint Scanner and Face Unlock. If you lift the phone with just the fingerprint scanner target on the screen (as described above) the Face Unlock doesn't work. In order to execute the Face Unlock you have to press the power button. However, there are settings inside Always On AMOLED to bypass this and enable Face Unlock as soon as you lift the phone and face it. Why wouldn't you install this app?! The Face Unlock registration is frighteningly fast, even for me with full beard - bit of a worry about security there, some might say. In use, it works as quickly as Moto's, so no complaints. The Fingerprint Scanner registration is simple, quick and straightforward. Once in use, it's amazingly fast and accurate. I might even say that this is the best implementation of an under-glass optical scanner that I have used as yet. Very encouraging and reassuring.

Sound
The bottom-firing mono speaker is clear and loud. Far from the best in terms lows or highs but very happy in the middle. It is better than many out there but doesn't challenge the Big Boys in this respect for quality. Certainly bedroom/kitchen-filling volume, if not quite lounge. Most users will be perfectly happy for basic use for music, video and spoken word. There's no system-wide sound equaliser function, so users will have to rely on their apps for that. I have been able to do so and adjust up for some more bass without hitting the volume too badly. There's no stereo of course so best use headphones for watching visual media.
Talking of which, there's none in the box, but there is a 3.5mm audio-out socket. Plugging in my usual reference headphones I can report that the basic output is actually not bad. Much louder than many I have tried and a more active bass response. I was surprised. No sound is possible out of the USB-C port so any enhanced dongles need to be 3.5mm. Most users will be more than happy with the headphone output as-is though.
Bluetooth 5 is here supporting aptX HD, pairing is very quick, easy and reliable and the output sound is quite stunning, depending on receiving equipment of course. Again, very impressive at this price-point. There's even a basic FM Radio app bundled which works very well indeed, either with headphones or plugging something into the 3.5mm audio-out as aerial, then speakers. Seems to lock onto stations well in my neck of the woods and produces an excellent sound. There's no recording function in the app, which I know some folk need. Whether or not the FM Radio is bundled in the UK version of this phone, I don't know. I'm also not quite sure why there's a headphones icon in the Notification area until a reboot even after I've shut off all media apps and disconnected headphones! Probably a bug.

Battery
The battery installed is a tad over 4000mAh, which is great for the size of the phone. That's the same as the whacking great big Razer Phone! Using the supplied slow charger it takes well over 2 hours to fill but with a QC3-compatible, more like an hour and a half. There's no wireless charging here on offer but I can confirm that my Qi Receiver works perfectly well overnight (as long as the user doesn't want to spoil the look of the attractive phone's back)! As for performance, I usually do two tests, my 10% reading/general use test and my average-day-for-me test. Not clinical or technical, but I can at least apply a level playing field for all devices I test.
The 10% reading/general use test is up against the currently leading 1hr 46min of the Google Pixel 2XL and... we have a new champion with 2hrs 6mins! Amazing! Driving the lower resolution screen, AndroidOne and economic chipset I guess has enormous benefits in terms of SoT and general usage in the hand. Next up, the average-day-for-me test and it passes with flying colours on my short 2/3 days in use. We're looking at sneaking through to two full days for those who don't push boundaries, so if you're careful, a charge every second night. Otherwise, the exceptional performance is returning me 40+ hours with 7-9hrs SoT in my usual test. Maybe even more if one doesn't have Always On AMOLED running, though again, in my tests here, that doesn't seem to have much impact. It's another box ticked here with excellent returns.

Cameras
There are three cameras on offer here, although one of them is really just a 2MP f2.4 depth-sensor supporting for Portrait DoF and there's no sign of OIS anywhere. The main normal-angle camera is what is almost becoming the standard 48MP f1.8 Quad Bayer shooter producing 12MP shots and the second, an 8MP f2.2 wide-angle. There's a 32MP f2 Selfie camera round the front which does indeed shoot (what I consider to be) nice sharp photos of one's mug using the full 32MP on the sensor!
The camera app is clearly Xiaomi's own and it has that feel and design language about it. In some ways it's pretty basic (with more emphasis on AI, letting the camera's software decide for the user) for example the 'Picture quality' settings are either High, Standard or Low, not quoting MP or choice of ratio (though this can be done elsewhere). You can assign the Volume buttons as a Shutter release and even change metering mode between average, centre-weighted and spot and force a 48MP full use of the sensor! So mixed messages there I think between appealing to the novice and expert! There's a Straighten function ensuring shots of buildings and the like are taken 'upright'. The Night Mode seems to work really well in testing here for when there's no alternative, the camera forcing the user to stay still while it does its thing. Yes, of course it's not a perfect picture with no noise, but what do you expect in darkness! It's physics!
Portrait Mode has a manual live-slider, making use of that third lens and even reads out the degree as an aperture value. There's filters on-the-fly to apply and even a Pro Mode in which the two main cameras can be adjusted for various shooting parameters. Close focus in Pro gets pretty close but not as close as using the Zoom Slider on 2x magnification. This is digital, but for (approaching) Macro shots it works really well and will focus at about 5" filling about a quarter of the frame with a microSD Card, for example.
Most people will be encouraged to just turn on AI and be done with it. This performs well and makes intelligent decisions about what a person is shooting. As I always say, the camera in most phones will meet the needs of 98% of people not worried about peeping at pixels for purity.

Roundup
I have resisted saying "for the price" too often here, but I wanted to more! This phone with AndroidOne onboard is absolutely fine for such a huge percentage of people. You have to look and ask yourself why on earth anyone would pay £1000+ for a flagship phone when one of these can be bought for one-tenth of that price. And ask yourself what's missing. You could argue about IP ratings and Qi Charging and S-Pens and optical zoom and a few other bits - but you can get TEN of these for one Note 10+ and Co. There's nothing wrong with this Xiaomi phone and it performs more like a upper mid-range phone than a £115 budget one. Even if you take the mainstream UK price of £185, you can still buy five of them for the price of a Note 10+ et al with enough left over to buy a slap-up meal for four at Mrs Miggins Pie Shop! Armed with this beauty, you'll want for very little more and save a shed-load of cash! Xiaomi are getting aggressive and taking over The West! Available now in Kind of Gray, Not Just Blue and this, More than White. Do yourself a favour.

Update
I neglected to investigate NFC properly in the above. I assumed that because the Google Pay app loaded and as I was presented with a picture of my Debit Card in the usual way, I assumed also that I could use the phone for payments. Turns out that's not the case and there's no NFC functionality on the phone, which takes payments out of the equation. It's impossible for me to hook my bank up with every phone I review, so had not done that, but should have checked that the phone had the capability. Depending on how important that is to you, and again, considering the price of this phone, this will obviously affect any buying decision.

Motorola One Action

Yes, a bit late to the party for this device which was released in autumn 2019 but I found out that these were still being sold direct from ...