Monday, 22 July 2019

Nokia 8 Revisited - Keep Your Cash in the Bank!

Deciding which mobile phone to buy is a complicated issue, which keeps us talking about it! It's true that more people than ever are settling on a device and staying there, like we eventually did with our home computers a few years ago. They got good enough to last longer. So is the same with phones now and which one is right for each person is a very individual choice.

I'm here looking at the Nokia 8 to see how many boxes it ticks for me, but maybe you can do the same for your devices - even if, like this one, it's been tucked away for quite some time whilst shinier, newer models grab your attention. Do you really need to pay out for the latest chipset, more RAM, zooming camera, ultrasonic under-glass fingerprint scanner, face recognition software and so on? There is certainly some benefit from taking stock, considering what's important to you and just seeing if something from yesteryear might be just as interesting as scratching that itch spending your hard-earned on the latest and greatest.

The Nokia 8 was released in October 2017, so as I write it's heading for 2 years old. My 128GB model with 6GB RAM was bought in January 2018, so 18 months in my care. The 64GB model with 4GB RAM was the more common one, but this one has clear advantages - for those of us who want them and for whom they fit with use patterns.

Let's start with that storage. 128GB working in tandem with a microSD Card slot, which is playing very nicely with my 512GB Samsung card. The boxes being ticked here for me (the serial SIM Card swapper) are, enough on-board storage to hold my 50GB of ripped CD's, books on Amazon Kindle, books on Google Play Books, audio-books on Audible and a bunch of music videos - all of which sit tight, not on a card, so that when I swap phones I don't have to think about that baseline. (I do accept that most people wouldn't need to think about that, but this is personal!) The microSD Card slot means that I can carry with me - in my phone - ripped  DVD's (pretty much) as many as I like. I rip DVD's to mobile-viewing standard which means that each is between 600MB and 1GB generally and my collection is currently using about 450GB of that card. Hopefully by the time it reaches 512GB, the 1TB card just released won't be a silly price any longer. Back-up plan is to assign TV shows to one card and films to another - but that's one for later!

Front-facing fingerprint sensor is next. We're heading that way with improving under-glass technology but are not there yet. Again, this is a personal one but I have always been bugged by fingerprint sensors pretty much anywhere else! Sony, Motorola, Razer, now Samsung all playing around with side-mounting which is, in my view, the worst place. For some, the back placement is good, I accept - those whose phones live in pockets, but my tick-box is for the front, every time. Even though the FPS is small'ish and the Back and Recents capacitive buttons are baked into the hardware, I'd still rather have this than many others' solutions. The buttons can be set to stay lit whenever the screen is on and it works a treat when the phone is on a desk/table.

The chin and forehead are substantial. One might even say old-fashioned in the size they take up but the 5.3" IPS LCD 16:9 screen sits in the middle beautifully and it can be argued that this phone is the perfect size for handling, size and grip. And no stupid notch! The 544ppi ensures a razor-sharp display and Gorilla Glass 5 with no dumb coating over it ensures that they'll be no casual scratching. The LCD remains the brightest I've seen on any phone and my only concern about it is that the AoD is not the same as was afforded the Nokia AMOLED models, nor even the Nokia 7 Plus, 6.1 etc. The AoD can be set to stay on for 20 minutes maximum, then the phone needs to be nudged or lifted to start the 20 minute clock again. It could be done with an LCD, as others have proved with other models, so sad that it's not great here. Furthermore, the AoD is linked to the Adaptive Brightness which doesn't do a great job keeping it bright enough. But maybe a small price to pay for all the rest of the goodness.

The Snapdragon 835 chipset and 6GB RAM make this Nokia 8 feel like it's still bang up to date. There's not a lag or delay anywhere across the UI or switching tasks. Alright, so there are newer and faster processors now, nearly 2 years on, but this was ahead of its time on release and is still perfectly functional. With such a clean implementation of Android, which it is, who needs more - even the current Pixel models still have 4GB RAM.

One of the drawbacks of the Nokia 8, not even having started out on life under the AndroidOne banner, is that I doubt it will be afforded Android Q when it comes along. Having said that, Nokia have kept the phone right up to date with Security Updates, right alongside other models which do have the guarantee of 2 updates and 3 years of Security. So we'll see in the coming months if it's been forgotten. Don't forget that this device arrived with Nougat on-board, so it's already been through Oreo and Pie.

The phone is built from aluminium and glass, the former of which sweeps around the back from the screen making a beautiful rounded pebble-like design which, without a case on, feels premium in the hand. The buttons and camera island surround have chamfered edges and add to the classy feel. It's not rated highly for environment resistance, but the IP5/4 will help with splashes and rain etc.

The speaker, though not the best in quality, is very loud. As always, equalisation can be achieved through software to a large degree and being able to start that equation with a good loud baseline makes for plenty of options to enable super sound. It's a mono bottom-firing speaker, which sits next to the USB-C port but that doesn't seem to be a problem for most people's demands. The Nokia 8 also came with a 3.5mm audio-out socket, so plug and go! There's a 24-bit internal DAC making the output strong, loud and great quality through decent headphones - and bluetooth 5 for hooking up wirelessly if you want.

The USB-C port enables QC3 and in my case now, a permanently attached (nod again to 3.5mm audio-out not getting headphone use in the way) Qi Charging Receiver pad, adding wireless charging to the mix for this metal-backed body which is obviously not capable. The battery it charges is not the biggest at 3090mAh, but it punches above its weight and never seems to fail to get me through an average day. Dot some Qi chargers around the place and there's top-up aplenty as you head through your day. Maybe if you're out sight-seeing and shooting lots of photos and video this could be a restriction, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the performance of the battery, especially since Pie came along.

The dual 13MP f2 Zeiss camera/s for my use (and I suspect the vast majority of people's) are just fine. Very good results in most lighting conditions. I do accept that going newer and more modern will get you smarter cameras, AI, clever processing in software, dark/night modes, even now optical zoom, but for most of us, for most of the time, we don't need all that for our family snaps and records of where we might have been. I love the artistic dedicated Mono mode which makes sole use of the secondary lens on the back. There's also OIS in colour shooting, yet another 13MP f2 camera on the front for Selfies and OZO audio recording in 4K Video, which still wows me, 2 years on when I hear it.

When I initially reviewed this phone I declared it very capable, but boring. Maybe that's still so, but all this time later, I think there's a compelling argument to suggest that the Nokia 8 is still a perfectly good work-horse, has many amazingly good attributes, shrugs off many of the newer so-called improvements and changes introduced on more modern phones and holds its head up high. It is high praise indeed that this phone is still in my hand, still keeps up with anything I can throw at it, is bang up to date with software and retains some of the more desirable attributes which have now slipped away from newer phones.

If you have a phone kicking about in a drawer which you forgot about from a year or two ago, why not get it out and think about it again - especially if you're on the brink of shellin' out some wonga on an all-singing, all-dancing expensive shiny new thing! If you happen to have a Nokia 8, don't neglect it! And if you don't have one, think about it before you're too late. At today's prices, new or second hand, it represents amazingly good value. I was maybe wrong to dub it boring. Boring can sometimes represent solid and consistent delivery. One thing's for sure, good quality phones are lasting longer now so keep your cash in the bank!

Noise Cancelling Headphones

This is very much a generic review from a newcomer to noise cancelling headphones from someone who has never before used the technology - and isn't really a big headphones user. So no previous experience or yardstick with which to compare this TaoTronic SoundSurge 46 headset, nor with which it is supposed to be capable.

I turned to the HowStuffWorks' ANC Page to help explain the principle of what is going on here and this diagram very basically sums up the principle. By actively erasing lower-frequency sound waves they actually create their own sound waves that mimic the incoming noise in every respect except one: the headphone's sound waves are 180 degrees out of phase with the intruding waves. From the illustration we can see how this works. Notice that the two waves (the one coming from the noise-cancelling headphone and the one associated with the ambient noise) have the same amplitude and frequency, but their crests and troughs (compressions and rarefactions) are arranged so that the crests (compressions) of one wave line up with the troughs (rarefactions) of the other wave and vice versa. In essence, the two waves cancel each other out, a phenomenon known as destructive interference. The result: the listener can focus on the sounds he wants to hear.

So that's the theory, but does it work - for these virgin ears! This particular headset which was sent over for review can be purchased for about £70 at AmazonUK but there are plenty of other models, styles, headphones, earphones, plugs, wired and/or wireless out there to choose from. This set is presented in a semi-rigid zipped black case with a Velcro strap inside to hold the headphones in place and a netted pocket on the other side to hold the supplied 3ft long 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable, USB-A to microUSB charging cable and some strange-looking twin-adapter which, on further investigation, seems to be for people on planes - to convert the plane's twin 3.5mm mono headphone socket to a single stereo 3.5mm headphone socket via the armrest of the aeroplane seat. Having not set foot on an aircraft since 1842, this is all alien to me!

The headset itself is an over-ears model which sits comfortably for a good time, at least on my head. The spongy pads are soft and mould well to the ear-surround and the adjustment for height has good travel, distance and firmness, holding in place well for any setting. The two cups swivel around about 100 degrees for different shaped heads and so forth. The headband is black plastic with good padding. Plastics are used throughout cunningly disguised here and there as metal with pseudo-chrome painted on chamfered edges. The unit does not 'fold', so for travel, the allowance in luggage needs consideration. They generally feel very well made and like they would have a reasonable lifespan.

The left cup houses the microUSB charging port. Shame it's not USB-C, but for the target market, maybe houses remain littered with microUSB facilities so perhaps this could be considered an advantage. On the right cup is where all the rest of the action happens and it is circled with buttons, ports, knobs and controls! Firstly, a simple press-in power button which is short-pressed to power up the unit, long-pressed for bluetooth pairing and doubles up as a Play/Pause button. Next is a volume rocker which is reasonably sized and controls volume as it should. Then we have the 3.5mm audio-in socket, blue light for bluetooth, microphone and finally, facing the front, the ANC switch which is a firm on/off slider with a glowing green light inside when active.

The volume buttons can be long-pressed for previous/next track and there's a level of call handling if you're paired with a phone. Power button confirms answering a call and hangs up afterwards, long-press to reject an incoming call and even a double-press function to redial, initiating a call (as long as it's the same as the last one dialled)! The power button can be long-pressed to start the bluetooth pairing procedure. I tried it on a few devices here and it hooked up perfectly every time, no fuss. As you might expect, a blue light flashes fast while that's going on and has a steady flash whilst it's active and being used.

The manufacturer claims that 2 hours of playback can be achieved from a 5 minute charge - so I tested that! Five minute charge from flat, using an ordinary USB-A 2.1A/5V socket, full volume playback via bluetooth, with ANC on - and I got an hour and a half, but presumably without ANC on and a medium volume they won't be fair off with the claim.

They further claim that a full charge can be achieved from flat in 45 minutes (which it did) and that a full charge will last 30 hours of playback. All these figures of course depend on volume and whether or not bluetooth/ANC is being used so your mileage WILL vary! Following initial testing, continuous playback, max volume, ANC on, the full battery lasted 10 hours, so presumably the 30 hours quoted is likely to be achieved by wired use and no ANC, at medium volume. Other reviewers' experience tends to support that, some reporting over 25 hours with basic use but much less with bluetooth/ANC.

The bluetooth connectivity is not the best I've used for distance inside a house. During the test I walked from one room, through a corridor and into another room and there was significant breakup. I would have had at that point two house walls between the unit and phone, but only ordinary walls - not thick flint ones, and only about 15 feet away. I gave up on my line-of-sight test at 100 yards, as it was still working perfectly (and I ran into a brick wall)!

When all else fails and you have a flat battery though, plug in the 3.5mm cable. I was surprised (perhaps I shouldn't have been) that the ANC just doesn't work. Not only that, but the headphones really do become passive - even the volume controls don't work! Great to have an old fashioned manual backup though! I also discovered that even if I plug in the 3.5mm and the power-cord at the same time (and tie myself up with wires!), the ANC still doesn't work. So there's no power-pass-through to the 3.5mm options, the ANC only works with bluetooth. And maybe that's normal for ANC headphones. I have no previous experience to draw on.

To the sound, then. Testing here against my AKG K701 reference headphones and the very bass-orientated Marshall Monitor set. I'm no audiophile, as you probably know, and most headphones sound great to my ears, but I can tell the difference. The AKG sound is clearer and cleaner with sounds across the range sounding just perfect, good volume, not too much bass, not too much high-end and very nice mids. Perfect for my kind of music. The Marshall set are very loud and by default, very bassy. They clamp onto my head like a vice and short-term listening is all I can manage before getting them off me! Maybe they're designed for small heads! But the bass is booming, mids are OK and highs pointed. The TaoTronic set here in comparison has pretty good volume, is a little too bass-adjusted for my personal taste but others will love this shift. For the music I rarely listen to these days, like rock, they perform very well. Not quite Marshall depth, but very good. The highs are pleasant and mid-tones clear. Overall, without ANC turned on, they are a very decent set of cans with a very nice sound which would please all but the fussy audiophile.

Turning on the ANC, the initial sledgehammer impression is that all the bass has gone! The bass just seems to drop out completely, which would be no good for the above-mentioned rock-fan, but for me and the music I listen to, it's more of a bonus for that to happen. Again, each to their own (and there are plenty of Music apps/machines out there on which equalisation can adjust sound output to compensate.) The clean mid-tones, jazz, solo piano still sound very good indeed. As for the ANC, yes, it certainly does work very well for reducing constant droning noises such as an electric fan, car engine, aircraft (no doubt). There's a marked and huge reduction in collection of those constant sounds and coming in here for the first time testing the tech, it's very impressive indeed. I had a 'wow' moment when I first heard what was happening. However, this set at least, doesn't deal well with sharp, loud and unexpected noises - like someone stood next to you suddenly shouting. Or a car horn. But maybe as a safety feature that's a good thing - keep out annoying noises but be alert to important noises? Depends on your view I guess. Maybe more expensive units have even better tech which also deal with such unexpected peaks of noise.

Some users complain of a 'white noise' in a quiet environment, which to be honest, I can't hear - but then maybe my ears and hearing are beyond fine-enough perception in middle-age! I would have thought that the point is more about why a user would turn the ANC on in a quiet environment anyway? You don't need it! Unless it's to dumb-down the bass, in the case of this unit? Either way, everyone will find their own way - and everyone has different hearing and ears, so this is clearly a very personal thing.

I'm pleased that I have at last had a chance to hear ANC working. I do wish that it worked when wired as I'm more likely to use earphones that way. On balance though, my summary is that in my life, I really don't need ANC. I don't fly on planes or go on trains, stay long enough in a car these days nor have to endure an environment with low-level hum. But it has been fabulous to experience it working - amazing technology which has a real world use for lots of people. Apart from the hit on battery, if I needed this, I'd never use anything else. Clever stuff, I muse as I head back to my AKG's!

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Metro Manila

This 2013 film from The Philippines can certainly be filed under World Cinema as it gives the world a picture of what life is like for ordinary folk trying to scratch a living there. I have first hand knowledge of how things are in The Philippines and the realities that I have been told about reflect very much the picture created here.

Writer/director Sean Ellis' only other film of note seems to have been the disappointing remake of Operation Daybreak, Anthropoid. Fortunately, Metro Manila is very much better and worthy of seeking out. The three leads are clearly well known in the east and I'll no doubt get letters for not knowing them! Jake Macapagal, John Arcilla and Althea Vega are the names in question. Arcilla does have a credit for having been in The Bourne Legacy - and certainly comes across in the film as the most accomplished of the cast.

An ex-soldier tries to settle down in the countryside with his wife and two children, growing rice, like many thousands do in the region. The greedy buyers of the rice have so much on offer and know that the farmers have nobody else to deal with that they lower and lower the offering price and drive people into poverty, not even having enough to eat, let alone look forward. Our family decide that they have to do something to survive - and like many other naive people, head for Manila where they think opportunity must be better than starving to death in their village.

They arrive in Manila, green as grass, and instantly get ripped off by pretty much everyone they bump into. They end up living in the slums with no food, no money. He tries to get a job, but can't. He gets a day's work only to be ripped off again. Eventually, he responds to an advert for a firm looking for security guards in a high-risk operation where the employee death rate is high because of the corruption and crime on every corner. Unknown to him, he's being groomed for more unpleasantness down the line.

In the meantime, his wife decides that the only way she can hope to work and feed her kids is to get involved in a seedy bar where staff are expected to do favours for drink-buying customers. Just to complicate all that, it turns out that she's pregnant and starting to show, so her new career doesn't last long. However, the bar owner has a solution - as some of the customers would be more interested in the daughter anyway. The harsh realities facing people this situation are clear to see. A downward spiral of moral compromise, people with no scruples and sole intention being to survive themselves at any cost to anybody around them - adjusting to need and demand, learning quickly through adaptation - and this in a country rife with religious mania forced on them by the Spanish centuries before.

The husband by now is working as a security guard and getting pulled into dark behaviours with a group of men working there as well, again, victims abused by those around them responding by sinking into decline towards the lowest common denominator. It's a harrowing and sad look at realities facing many people in The Philippines - and I'm sure many inner-cities around the world not afforded the affluence that people in the west take for granted.

As I said at the outset, I have been told by people who come from The Philippines how it is (I was married to a Filipina for some years). The widespread corruption and crime infecting every official and department - a climate where people routinely buy a driving licence because corrupt officials are on the make, for example. All sounds very depressing, but actually the film has been made very well and the three leads play their parts quite superbly. The horror of the characters' situation is clear to see and has been very well filmed. The shooting is reflective of an inner-city slum area, the hustle and bustle of millions of people fighting for the same thing - to just survive.

The film does meander off a little towards the end into more of a sub-plot thriller, but let that not distract from the image being created here - and by far the main take-away from the film. Most of it's in Tagalog with subtitles, but reflecting reality in the country, there is an amount of English spoken too - and many people speak both languages - alongside the thousands of other dialogues around the country. Recommended, educationally, I think.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Leaving (Partir)

Another French film scooped up on the cheap here which I missed on release back in 2009. From the pen of writer/director Catherine Corsini (Summertime) this one stars Kristen Scott Thomas as a bored housewife looking for something new and exciting, and plays out a bit like Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Suzanne has every privilege in life, married to a small town doctor who is also Mr Popular in the town and has great influence with the officials and other professionals around him. He agrees to build her a physiotherapy clinic so that she can get back to work and do something interesting. Unfortunately for him, she falls hook, line and sinker for the hired hand he employed to do the donkey work!

She realises that she's madly in love with Ivan, played by Sergi López (Dirty Pretty Things) and will stop at nothing to be with him. She demonstrates throughout the unfolding of the story that this is the case and jealous husband by this time is using his influence in the town to ensure that if she's leaving him, she'll be ending up with less than nothing. Yvan Attal (Rush Hour 3, Munich) plays the husband Samuel and the three leads perform very well in their roles. The pick of the three, as you might expect, is Kristen Scott Thomas (Four Weddings, The English Patient) who carries off the English woman settled in France, speaking French with near perfection.

This is beginning to sound at best like a sexy romp or at worst an 'ordinary life' drama, but hold on there! As things develop, all is not quite as it seems (as may be indicated from the opening flash-forward scene) and we do have an injection of 'thriller' as well. As usual with European cinema, there's a laid-back tone to proceedings some of the time, the photography is excellent, making use of lovely French countryside as it hooks up with beautiful music throughout.

It's a tale of passion, revenge, lust, love, determination and dissatisfaction. It's a short film, but is perfectly paced to make the most of the storytelling. Kristen Scott Thomas acting impeccably is worth the viewing alone. Recommended.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

The Widow of Saint-Pierre

The original title of this French film from the year 2000 is La veuve de Saint-Pierre and I recently got a used copy on the cheap to view on DVD. It's the moving (allegedly) true story of crime, punishment, rehabilitation, passion, compassion, intolerance and prejudice.

Firstly, "Saint Pierre and Miquelon is a French overseas collectivity in the Western Hemisphere and the Northern Hemisphere. It consists of an island archipelago off the coast of Newfoundland near North America. The collectivity shares a maritime boundary with Canada" (Wikipedia) for those, like me, who were ignorant! Our story is set around 1850 and familiarises us with a Police Captain and his wife, who have been relocated to the island from Paris, for reasons which never quite become clear. The community around them is a hard-working one in which there are many widows, as men often lose their lives at sea.

One dark night, Auguste, played extremely passively by Emir Kusturica, and his friend in a mad drunken night off, go to frighten their retired boss for fun but one thing leads to another and they end up killing him. Auguste takes the rap for it, as he actually plunged the knife. He is sentenced to be executed by the guillotine. Only problem being, for the town's council and the captain, is that they don't have a guillotine - nor anyone willing to act as executioner! Augustine is locked up in the Police compound whilst they send to Paris for one and try to find someone to do it.

Police Captain Jean is played by Daniel Auteuil (Un Coeur en Hiver, The Girl on the Bridge) with much conviction, portraying a man madly in love with his wife Pauline, played by Juliette Binoche (Certified Copy, The 33, Damage) who, in turn, is trying very hard to make a life for them both in this outpost. She holds in high regard a garden, greenery and a greenhouse in order to grow plants to remind her of home, but has nobody to help her achieve this end. Jean holds Auguste in his cell in the compound and Pauline convinces him to let her make use of his labour as they await the guillotine.

Auguste respects his level of freedom and responds responsibly, resigning himself to his fate but embraces his own rehabilitation in becoming a great help not only to Pauline, but as time goes on, many members of the community. So much so, that as the guillotine approaches, the people rise up against the police and council to try to stop justice being served on this popular and helpful member of their community. What then transpires are the events surrounding the effect of their attempted intervention on Auguste, the officials, Pauline, Jean and police as many of them are wrenched between the moral high-road and humanitarianism, deciding on a friend's life.

Director Patrice Laconte (The Girl on the Bridge) ensures that Binoche plays her part to reflect a personal, and at times, sexual tension between her character and the criminal, never overplayed though, bubbling under the flowing skirts or decency of the time. Binoche does this beautifully of course, as we'd expect, as the rest of the cast pull their weight behind her. The three leads play very nicely off of each other and there's always an understated tension reflecting things not said, actions not taken and thoughts not aired.

Some of the scenery and photography is breathtaking and is shot making the most of the wide cinema screen in this setting with wide swings of season and much sea mist. The sets are tight, mostly within the houses of the community on the island but with interior detail of buildings well thought out and reflective of the time. It's a wonderful film which in some ways is so passive that it feels much more of a reflective journey than it is, but at the same time, fraught with tension which induces empathy for the characters having to face the turmoil. Recommended intelligent viewing.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Testament of Youth

We were talking on Projector Room recently about the forthcoming James Kent project, The Aftermath (2019) and also the acting ability of Alicia Vikander as we considered her role in The Danish Girl. Here, the two intersect as I watched Testament of Youth.

As always, it seems, when a film is created from a 'true story' there's some give and take, opinions about details, authenticity and comparisons with previous stabs at the same project. The full truth of the life of Vera Brittain, the central character in Testament of Youth, is summarised on the Wikipedia Page dedicated to her life and writings. Well worth a read. Reference is made to a 1979 BBC2 4-part television adaptation, which I must now track down, in which Vera is played by Cheryl Campbell.

Coming from a life of privilege at the turn of the 20th century, Vera is born into a family who have made themselves wealthy through industry. They appear to not want for much, though remain principled about waste and retain a value-base in keeping with the day and their acquired social status. Vera is a very smart girl who wants only to be afforded the same opportunities for education as her brother. She has to fight for it as it is expected that she will find a husband and live the same subservient domestic role as did her mother. Eventually she goes off to Oxford, but WWI breaks out just as she does.

The value base of the social class and society of the day dictate that it was a privilege, duty and honour for young men to fight for their country, so off goes the brother and his friends, one of which Vera is in love. At this point the film turns into a bit of an epic, with time passing across the 4 years of WWI, the tragic depiction of the senseless waste of human life in the trenches, the loss to country, family and individuals. In the mix, Vera awaits word about her brother and (by this time) fiance, feeling as though she should be doing something more useful to everyone than burying her nose in books at Oxford.

She heads off to become a volunteer nurse, initially in Britain but then also, in order to get closer to those she loves, in France - in amongst the trenches. What follows then is a depiction of the events which I won't give away in case you want to see it and don't know fine details of the harrowing story. A story of heroics, bravery, chaos, depression but ultimately new life and hope for the future of the world in renewed peacetime for those who remain.

It's beautifully shot, the sets are convincing, the costume is spot-on and production quite excellent all round. Vikander is simply superb in the role of Vera, she plays it with all the right emotions at all the right times - without slinking off into needless Hollywood tear-jerking style. Having said that, the proceedings are dramatic and emotional, depicting the horror of the day and plight of the people living through it. She is surrounded by an ensemble of actors who each play their parts in turn quite excellently, even those with just a scene or two. Look out for lots of Brits in there too, with Colin Morgan (Humans), Taron Egerton (Rocketman), Dominic West (The Wire), Emily Watson (Apple Tree Yard), Kit Harrington (Pompeii), Miranda Richardson (Damage), Anna Chancellor (Ordeal by Innocence) - the list goes on!

After all was done and settled down, Vera Brittain became a writer, poet, journalist and pacifist for much of the rest of the century and published works on which much of the film is based, notably Testament of Youth in 1933 and later, after her death in 1970, her actual diaries, Chronicle of Youth in 1981. Alicia Vikander pulls all the strings together here, preventing it from becoming a soppy love story, and apart from being very attractive, she is clearly an amazing talent who has so very much ahead of her in the decades to come. Highly recommended viewing and reading.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Headwinds (Des Vents Contraires)

This 2011 mystery drama from France was originally called Des vents contraires and is based on the novel by Olivier Adam of the same name. It's a reflective story starting with a man who is a writer and married to a doctor in Paris as they go about their daily lives. They argue in the opening scene about hectic schedules and neither affording the other enough shared time to look after the two kids, a young girl and boy. The scene ends when she says that she's had enough of all this. They go about their days but the wife doesn't come home that night.

Husband conducts a search but after she's been missing for a year, all-but gives up and decides to make a fresh start in a house by the sea which his family owns but is standing empty, back in the town where he came from. The viewer doesn't see any of that year as we instantly leap forward. His brother offers him a job as a driving instructor and indeed, they start again.

Once again with much European cinema, I have to admit to knowing none of the people involved in this subtitled film except for Audrey Tautou playing the missing wife, who's on-screen time is somewhere between 5-10 minutes. Wonder how much she got paid for that! Benoît Magimel is excellent as the husband, throughout, having to face the task of bringing up the two kids on his own, ably supported by the hugely experienced Antoine Duléry as his brother. The two kids share the limelight though, Hugo Fernandes and Cassiopée Mayance with Magimel as they play off against him convincingly as they're too-young-to-realise the full implications of what's going on but both miss their mum.

During his regrouping, we find out that the police in Paris had hauled him up as a suspect in the missing wife's case during the year which the films skips for the audience, but is ultimately dropped. This doesn't stop him from being suspected of new crimes down by the sea, once the locals find out about his background, however. In his grief, he makes some bad decisions and acts irrationally a number of times, which doesn't help him.

Jalil Lespert directs proceedings at a pace which is just right, though leisurely - this is no action film. It's a well played out drama (which reminded me in some respects of Manchester by the Sea) which keeps the audience guessing almost to the last frame about the truth behind the missing wife, but is more a reflective drama relating to family and people having to adjust and get on with new parameters in life. It's available on Netflix in the UK at time of writing and is certainly recommended for a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

The Danish Girl

This 2015 Tom Hooper film is staged as a fictitious story loosely based around the life of the Danish artist Einar Wegener, who became Lili Elbe. Hooper previously directed Les Misérables and the excellent The King's Speech. Having never heard of this person, I did some research and the facts as recorded, pretty much follow the line of the film's story, what was recorded in the David Ebershoff novel of the same name and Elbe's autobiography Man Into Woman, so I'm not sure where the fiction comes in!

Einar/Lili is played by Eddie Redmayne (who made such an excellent job of previously portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything) and his wife Gerda, by the gorgeous Swede Alicia Vikander (Tomb Raider [2018], The Light Between Oceans, Ex-Machina). The story is about Einar's journey of discovery as a man, believing that he was born the wrong gender, and subsequent fight with himself, his wife and those around him to gain acceptance, initially as a transvestite but later as transgender.

At the outset of the film, the couple appear to be very happy, madly in love, enjoying each other and creating their art. It's when his wife's model goes AWOL that Einar steps in, wearing some female clothes - and starts to like it, believing eventually that he no longer wants to be a man. If you're interested in more details about this, the Wiki page carries much of it, including more on Klinefelter syndrome, and transgender pioneering but for now, back to the film!

We start off in Denmark, head off across Europe with exhibitions of work for both husband and wife before settling in Paris where, by this time, Lili has mostly taken over Einar's life and feels that she can live openly in the liberated French capital. Redmayne plays both roles amazingly well. Just enough man before and just enough woman after. Some of the stages require imagination, but let's not forget that we're going into this knowing. Many people who bump into Lili on the street are taken in - and if you look at the real photo of her on the Wiki page, it's easy to see how. Redmayne is clearly very talented and is able to convince the viewer most of the way along. Emotional upheaval, disbelief, not understanding, anxiety at the so-called professionals trying to help him - the required range of acting is pretty much nailed.

Vikander too, coming from being a happily married woman, through not understanding what is going on, facing major change and loss, mixed emotions of loving her husband so very much, but wanting him to be happy. Torn between the desire to help him to be what he needs to be but facing the potential of losing a husband, towards acceptance through pain but driven by love for the person, man or woman. She also raises to the challenge and again, demonstrates excellent acting throughout. They're both very convincing and well cast to deliver the sadness and turmoil through to the outcome, which I won't spoil here. Also supported excellently by Adrian Schiller, Amber Heard and Emerald Fennell.

The direction and photography are excellent, with a thoughtful approach reflecting the artistic stage, compositionally, via lighting and various focusing techniques. The sets and costume reflect the time and place beautifully along with people's level of 'stuffiness' and attitudes to change and prejudice. It's an excellent film, poignant, sad, a biopic which has a lot to say about the 20th century, shifting acceptance and levels of understanding in both everyday life and within medical advancement. I really didn't think I'd like this subject matter particularly and sat down to watch, expecting to turn off, but it quickly had me hooked and the two leads certainly contributed hugely to that focus. Highly recommended.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Media Monkey and Living with 64GB

I have a problem. I'm not only a Digital Hoarder, but also Serial SIM Card Swapper! This works fine for me generally, but a couple of things get in the way. One of them is the two remaining phones I have here with only 64GB Storage (and potential of the Pixel 3a/3aXL) and the other, Google Authenticator. Let me explain.

Firstly, Google Authenticator and recent horror stories about Google account security and SIM-hacking encourages all of us not to make too many changes to, certainly the primary device we're using and which Google sees us using - along with our cellular operator. Better, then, regardless, for people like me to play with various devices of course, but not to make too many changes, particularly with SIM card to flag security events.

However, laying that aside, I have more than 64GB of data that I want to carry with me and a 512GB microSD Card bulging at the seams with films and TV shows (a story for another day as I wait for 1TB microSD Card prices to drop). Here's the equation. Audible Books 11GB, Kindle Books 1GB, Music 35GB, Music Videos 5GB, Audio Comedy 3GB = 55GB. Take into account system/OS space needed by various devices, cache/data held in various other apps, and you can see I'm overspilling.

Why do you have to have all that stuff with you at all times, I hear you ask - well, I live half off-grid with no unlimited broadband and don't want to keep paying (/using up data) my cellular operator to download stuff time and again when I want to watch/listen. Keep your data on a card and plug it in when wanted via USB OTG? Well, that works well for devices which support this, but apps like VLC have to then constantly refresh the content - and apps like Google Photos keep bugging me to sync the folders every time, etc. Cleaner and better to just dump it into internal memory.

So - how to reduce the size of my data. The biggest offender was the music, of course - all of it ripped at 320kbps as .mp3 files. After consulting with Malcolm Bryant of Freepoc and some kindness his end researching/testing, I settled on his suggestion of MediaMonkey to do a job on my Music. There are other tools of course, but this one worked well - and it was like stepping back in time using it as a Windows programme - and the basic version is free. There's a Gold version which enables another bunch of stuff from about £20 upwards. It's a lovely old-fashioned interface of windows, tick-boxes and progress bars!

As most people reading this will know, CD quality produces files somewhere in the region of 160kbps, with arguments for human ear listening of 128kbps. I'm no audiophile so already there was a saving of half to be had! Sure enough, I copied the 35GB of files into a fresh folder, pointed MediaMonkey at it and told it to convert the 320kbps files to 160kbps. As expected, the 35GB suddenly became 16GB - and with some further 'culling' of music I don't even like (and don't know why it's there) I got this down to 11GB. It did take a long time, but you can watch it working! I let it run overnight, so not sure exactly how long the 4000 files took to complete.

I honestly can't tell the difference for casual listening and objective achieved. My 64GB devices now have about 35GB of my data, total, leaving plenty for everything else. Furthermore, I no longer have to move files around when switching between phones which have 128GB and 64GB internal storage, have been able to create more space on my Film/TV microSD for more content and can either plug that in (for devices with no card slot), put it in the tray (or not) depending on projected use. I'm free to use 64GB devices again - and maybe to even consider that Pixel 3a XL!

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

MeWe - Reply in the Root!

Embedded Threads - Some Pointers...

One of the big issues on MeWe is this pesky threading and replies thing, which it seems clear that they are not going to change, so we need to navigate it.

One of the biggest offenders here is when on Mobile, in the App, the Notifications serve the user up with an already hived off path of a conversation - and a button welcoming the user to Reply at the bottom. If you use this reply route then the reply will be hived off also onto a sub-thread and not be clearly visible to all, like it was in G+ back in the day. See Figure 1.

The trick here is to NOT reply there, but to tap on the body of the text in the first message at the top, which then takes you to the original post. You can then scroll down and reply - so that everyone can see what you've said.

If you go ahead and reply from that first screen, the reply will be hidden under that little arrow (see that "1" bottom-right of one of the messages in Figure 2) and you then have to tap it to see what it says. Easily missed when browsing.

Of course, the pay-back here is that you then have to address the person you're talking to in order to invoke their Notifications (assuming they are on) so they will be alerted to your reply, by the usual @ tag system.

Of course, people will have different views - and some people like the way MeWe do this, but as it's the No.1 complaint and confusion here, going forward I'd like to encourage everyone to do the same thing - or at least be aware that you can do.

Any questions or misunderstandings, fire away - I'll do my best!

Monday, 24 June 2019

Motorola One Vision

Tempted as I was by the recent Sony 21:9 phones, I couldn't quite bring myself to pull the trigger because of some hardware and software compromises. I have a track record of loving the Sony name but always being disappointed by their phones. Enter Motorola to the rescue!

I've been fussy about device size over recent months and years, rejecting many very capable handsets because they were, well, just not feeling right in my hand. The risk of this going the same way with this was high, given that 21:9 required 'tall' design going on, making it hard to use with one hand and not pocket-friendly. However, I have been surprised. The Vision, after a few days, feels like it might actually be just the right size. Not too narrow to use the keyboard whilst making mistakes, tall enough to make good use of scrolling social media posts/news, wide enough in landscape mode to watch 21:9 content on YouTube, Netflix and anywhere else where it can be grabbed - and yet, not too tall for comfort in front-trousers pockets. So far, so good!

As usual these days with Motorola, there's a clear TPU in the box which is perfectly good and protects the phone from mild knocks and slippage. The back is Gorilla Glass 3, so will slip around in the hand without it. This unit is what they call Sapphire Gradient so as you might expect, a deep blue, shiny, moving to a lighter shade towards the edges. There's a bronze version also available but which seems harder to come by. The back glass curves around the sides to meet the plastic frame around the edge, which doesn't detract from the premium 'feel' of the device. The back also houses a camera 'bump' (almost flattened by the TPU, but not rocking) on the top-left, an LED flash underneath, an android/one logo and 'M' circular capacitive fingerprint scanner in just the right place for index, about 75% of the way up.

Get Connected
On the left is a Hybrid Dual nano-SIM/microSD Card Tray with pokey-hole, which means that (at least on this UK-sourced unit) you can choose between 2 SIM Cards or one SIM Card and a microSD. You can assign data use to only one of the SIM Cards at a time. WiFi and cellular signals seem very strong, a thing I check for now since I found some (even flagship) handsets to be sadly lacking with (apparently) poorly chosen component aerials. On the right is a volume rocker and power button, the latter being knurled for blind ID, on the top is a 3.5mm audio-out socket and on the bottom, USB-C data/charging socket and single mono speaker. Lastly, on the front, a flat sheet of glass - although nobody quite seems to know what kind of glass. Motorola say that it's '2.5D Glass' whereas they're more specific about the rear panel.

Cinema in the Hand
The 21:9 CinemaVision FHD+ display on the front then is an IPS LCD 1080p (x 2520 for the ratio, returning 432ppi). It's no AMOLED, but much like the Moto G7 Plus which I reviewed recently, it's bright and colourful enough for the unit's price-point. There's a lack of really rich saturated Z3 Play colours, but fiddle with the three options in settings and you'll find it pleasing enough. Remember the price! It's certainly bright enough and remains usable out in bright sunshine, which I tested yesterday. There are bezels, all round, 2 or 3mm, with a larger one on the chin. But we're being fussy, I think. I'm OK with bezels - with the TPU in place it ensures no accidental screen taps. We'd also be fussy to complain about seeing the whole screen in grey in a dark room whenever the screen is woken. It's an LCD!

A Big Hole
What is a problem for many it seems, is the size and position of the Selfie camera. It's big and intrusive and sits in the top-left corner, so naturally bottom-left/top-right when viewing media. The hole is big, the surround is big and it gets in the way. It screws with the Notification shade area in portrait, pushing all the content right, ironically shoving the Android Pie clock back into the right corner and shuffles everything else around. It also makes the Notification shade, because of the size of the cut-out, disproportionately fat. There's no getting around it, the whole arrangement looks odd - and what is worse, intrudes into viewing 21:9 content, pretty much the USP of the device in the first place! Motorola One Vision gets impaired-vision!

The W(hole) Fill
Having said all of the above, the human brain is a flexible organ and very quickly, in just a few days here, I've got used to it - and in all honesty, much like people say about notches, don't see it much. Part of the reason for that is that 21:9 content is not hugely available out there and anything less shifts the display right, so that end of the screen is not used. Which is, in itself, a bit odd, as the 16:9 content is nicely curved at the right corners but sharply squared on the left! I wonder at this point if Sony have implemented this outcome more pleasingly.

Real World 6.3 = 5.3!
The Vision has some weight and feels solid and sturdy in the hand, despite the plastic. It's 180g in weight, which is significant. The only place that the phone feels less than premium in fact is the SIM Card Tray. When you take that out, it's horribly plastic-feeling. Part of the weight is the glass of course and the 6.3" diagonal sounds like it's a giant - but don't forget that it's 21:9, so actually it's not a huge screen in a sense at all. I haven't done the maths but, back of a fag packet, if this had been 16:9 it would have been more like 5.3". So it's in many ways, quite dinky. It's very slightly taller than my Nokia 9 PureView but certainly less wide. It's even less wide than my Moto Z3 Play, though somewhat taller. I can very easily touch my thumb and middle finger around the waist. It's about the same thickness as the PureView and significantly fatter than the Z3 Play. So, deceptive, because of that wacky screen ratio!

Protected Access
Motorola have added an IP5/2 - a "water-repellent design which creates a barrier to help protect against moderate exposure to water such as accidental spills, splashes or light rain. Not designed to be submerged in water, or exposed to pressurised water, or other liquids; may diminish over time. Not waterproof." Straight from the horse's mouth! The capacitive fingerprint scanner on the back works beautifully well, in registration and execution. Fast and perfect every time. It can also be assigned to swipe-scroll-down the Notification shade.

128GB Standard at Last!
One of the key features which made a huge difference for me was the 128GB UFS on-board. This has become my baseline minimum now, given my demands, and with a microSD Card slot ready for 1TB, my 512GB card worked perfectly. Not only that, but the phone will accept my 2TB SanDisk Extreme SSD into the USB OTG port, sees it, reads and writes to it out of the box. Kudos to Motorola for enabling this, where so many others fail. One more step to catch Samsung et al now, to include HDMI-out which like all Motorola phones, sadly, it does not. But with this feature set, we're talking pocket-computer and real file management on a large scale, not just app-running phone.

No Dragons
Talking of Samsung, Motorola have done a deal with the giant company as the Vision employs one of their chipsets. The Exynos 9609, which those who test these things out, are suggesting is not unlike the SnapDragon 660 in terms of performance and efficiency, and not a stone's throw from the 9610 Samsung used in their Galaxy A50 which I recently reviewed and concluded there that it showed some slight slowdown. I put down to the plethora of Samsung software and UI additions that they added. I can almost certainly confirm that to be the case now as this Vision, with next to no extra software and UI changes from 'stock' (what there is, I'll come to), shows no slowdown in anything I throw at it. The chipset is perfectly good for all but demanding gamers, I contend. The 4GB RAM might be considered to be on the lower side, but don't forget that (amongst others) Google's own Pixel models do perfectly well with this with their similarly clean software. The 4GB RAM is perfectly fine for 98% of users' app switching. I really can't fault it - again, remember the price here!

One Clean One
To the software, then - and the Vision arrived with Android 9 Pie and May 2016 Google Security in place. It's an AndroidOne phone, so, much like the Motorola One which I recently reviewed, very clean and near-Vanilla. The Motorola One, also on AndroidOne, got very quick updates over the months - it seems that Motorola are taking the commitment to AndroidOne seriously and keeping up with others, in a way that they don't seem to do with their non-AndroidOne handsets. A lot of that is about additional software of course, which the Vision (and One) don't have, to make work with updates before release. It's often a payoff of 'clean against features' as well as the depth of resources any phone maker can throw at after-sales support.

Not Quite Always On
One of the annoyances of this equation for me is the lack of the same Active Display which works so fabulously on Moto's non-AndroidOne phones. There's an AoD but it doesn't respond to movement in front of the phone to switch on. It comes on when there's an incoming Notification, very briefly. If you're quick enough, you can then interact with it in the same way as a full Active display but if you miss it, you then have to 'nudge' or lift the phone to wake it. Not a deal-breaker but a little annoying. You can register your face to get the screen turned on by face recognition but in order for this to work, you have to lift it (or nudge and put your face in front of it), press the power button briefly then hold it in front of your face. It works blazingly fast when you do, but by the time you've done all that, lifted it up, your finger is round the back anyway so you might as well use the fingerprint scanner. The face recognition can also be set to keep the screen on whilst you're looking at it, useful if you're reading a long bunch of text, I guess.

It's a Gesture
Some of the Moto Gestures, Actions and Display stuff survive the AndroidOne bridge, such as the chop-chop torch, twist-twist camera, 3-finger screenshot (with downwards continuation), 1-Button Navigation (which remains a joy to use and the best on the market) and more. The additional software which Motorola add, as we've said before, are useful additions rather than bloat and/or third-party money-spinners.

The rest of the software is pretty standard AndroidOne Pie with all you'd expect from the Notification shade, settings, adaptive battery/brightness, Wellbeing, stock-looking launcher and UI with Google Cards with a right-swipe, At a Glance at the top of the home screen and Google Search field at the foot. Because of the height of the screen this works rather well and doesn't make the space between the two feel too cluttered to make use of various widgets. It's just a bog-standard offering of Android Pie in so many, reassuring ways.

Happy Snapper
Apart from the 21:9 screen, the Vision has a second major feature-set and that is the very capable camera. I'm going to send this over to Steve Litchfield so that he can do an in-depth analysis, but I'm very impressed so far with the 48/12MP f1.7 main camera with OIS, supported by a 5MP f2.2 depth-sensor partner. There's no zoom, but in my tests the Portrait and Night Vision modes work excellently well, especially in low light. There's an array of other Motorola-added modes to their camera software, some gimmicky, some standard but also some very useful for creative shots within the phone, including a full manual/pro mode. 4K video at 30fps is possible with other modes to play with in the video setup too. I've been comparing shots against the JPEGs produced by the Nokia 9 PureView this week and, yes I know it's subjective but, I think that the shots coming out of the Vision are more pleasing with less aggressive sharpening and smoother edges on close inspection than the Nokia. I think that most users who care to look any closer than what's needed to post snaps of their cat to Facebook, would appreciate the difference.

Shallow Hole
That big ol' hole on the front of the camera houses a 25MP f2 Selfie and I've been very impressed with the Portrait mode in testing here. It produces a lovely shallow depth of field and to some degree when you see the results, you forgive the huge hole. A little! In some ways, the selfie-cam is more fun to play with than the rear camera and capable of seriously high-res images! We'll see how it holds up when Steve gets it in his lab! The issue here, as I said earlier, is how the user feels about this huge hole interrupting their viewing pleasure of cinema-centric content. On the other hand, how cinema-like can a tiny screen in your pocket be - with a single mono speaker.

Excellent Speaker
Which brings us nicely to the sound. The speaker is bottom-firing and the natural way to hold the phone in landscape for me is hole bottom-left, speaker right. But users have the choice of left and hole top-right of course. When using the phone for enjoying just audio it doesn't really matter much that it's bottom-firing (except for pocket/cradle issues) or mono. The speaker produces quite excellent sound in actual fact. During my testing here, I was trying to find a phone I have in stock to compare it with and was expecting it to be one of the Nokia devices - or the Moto Z3 Play, but no - I ended up pitching it against the Pixel 2XL. Praise indeed. It's very loud and apart from those cymbal crashes in the top-end and rock-bass-grunge, competes well above its price-position for quality. It's not quite as rich and enjoyable overall, but it really isn't far off. Solo piano and light jazz sound delightful.

Dolby Audio
The sound can be tweaked by the system-wide (basic) Dolby Audio, which is the same limited version as can be found on the Samsung flagships these days - nothing like the full-blown Razer Phone experience. There's Smart/Music/Film for loudspeaker use and selecting between them makes subtle shifts in the sound of the output, but no real control. It's great to have, rather than not of course - and can be utilised for some recordings with decent effect. In relation to the aforementioned Samsung Galaxy A50 sound output, there's no comparison. The Motorola One Vision produces a much better sound.

Plug in a pair of decent headphones to the 3.5mm audio-out socket and those options suddenly open up to include Custom setting. Tap on the Edit button and up pops a graphic equaliser array with intelligent pre-sets or full manual control. It's still nowhere near the full-blown Dolby version I spoke of, but it certainly adds many more options. With my AKG reference headphones the sound is decently loud and controllable. There's no (24/32-bit built-in or dongle-supplied) DAC here of course, so don't expect miracles without adding an adapter but it's a very nice output as it is. There is a pair of nasty-looking earphones in the box, which is good at least for those who want to build up their ear-wax! I can't bring myself to test them!

Bluetooth and Wireless
Bluetooth 5 works well and as expected, but there's no aptX amongst the other supported protocols. It produces an excellent sound tested here and all those equaliser controls remain available to tweak and play. There's also an FM Radio app included which, like other Moto variants, allows recording and once connection established using something plugged into the 3.5mm socket, allows the phone's speaker to be deployed instead of headphones. It's an excellent additional feature which is often missing these days.

Power Matters
Battery power has been reviewed by others less favourably than I am finding. Some negative opinions have been bounced about but in my testing this week I have been achieving, based on my average use when testing phones in general, everyday and dedicated use, between 24-30hrs per charge with 6-8hrs Screen on Time using Adaptive Battery and Adaptive Brightness. I think that's a pretty good return for the 3,500mAh cell. In my continual-reading and general use test I am seeing a 10% depletion of the battery in about 1hr 20mins. I don't know what others are doing with the phone to get poor results. The battery can be charged for 15 minutes with the 15W brick and USB-C cable in the box for 7 hours of power, according to Motorola.

No Brainer
Leaving the best for last, the price. At £270 Motorola have pitched it right in there with lots of competition but with more features and quality components than many, as they did with the G7 Plus, clean Android and useful Moto signature additions. The price will come down very soon to £229 (or even £199) at which point it would be a no-brainer. A fully featured terrific smartphone with 95% of the features of a so-called flagship from various other makers at five times the price. The niggles, I can live with. The attention to detail dealt out by Motorola is reassuring and the 128GB storage as standard is a peach, making this one of the most exciting phones I've reviewed this year. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019


A gripping story of abuse, social divide reflecting the lengths to which humans can be pushed before cracks show, whilst others might just come out the other end, repaired. Actor, writer, director Paddy Considine (The World's End, Peaky Blinders) brings us a 2011 production worthy of Mike Leigh.

Peter Mullan (Ozark, Top of the Lake, The Magdalene Sisters) is Joseph, a Scottish man living in a poverty-stricken dole-driven inner city lower-class estate surrounded by others in much the same situation. He leaps from disaster to crisis on a daily basis in a lager-fuelled violent excuse for an existence, heading for self-destruction.

Drawn by the smile of Hannah, the religious middle-class woman who runs the local charity shop, he starts by deflecting the anger he feels at how the world has treated him and his feelings of worthlessness onto her, as she, hiding behind what she thinks is a shield of religion, soaks it up for a time. Olivia Colman (The Favourite, Broad Church, Fleabag) plays Hannah who, as it turns out, has a bunch of problems of her own behind that shield, much of which lies behind her abuse from husband James, played by Eddie Marsan (The World's End, Still Life, The Professor and the Madman).

What starts out as a sad story about people stuck in settings they'd rather not be a part of turns into a dark thriller with turns unexpected which drive the story away from a reflection of the mundane lives involved. As Hannah and Joseph spend more time together, their stories unfold and we discover more about both of their worlds, present and past.

The two leads, as you would expect, perform impeccably. They are both more than convincing in their roles and draw the viewer into their world, in order to appreciate what it's like and how it might feel to be trapped, powerless, in situations often not of their own making. The makeup and costume adds to the atmosphere and sets reflect that dour urban neglect often present. The cast around the pair bring interesting characters, most of which having a similar set of their own problems brought about by a life of challenge and unfairness. There is a theme amongst all this about social divide and class, but it's not the driving force of the film.

It's an earthy drama about people, poverty and abuse which draws out much emotion in the audience and certainly is not much fun for the characters or viewer. There are points of hope and optimism for those who look for them - within a sea of sadness and misery. A gritty film which you'll be pleased you watched.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Rotek USB Otoscope

An Otoscope is medical contraption which is used to look into ears, as we know. Usually the quack will whip it out, turn on a light inside, change the nozzle which goes in your ear after it's been washed (hopefully) and inspect the outer ear and surface of the ear drum.

This gadget takes that a step further and sticks a camera into a thin shaft so that the image can be viewed on a computer screen, live as a video feed. Once the software is running, a photo can also be taken or video recorded. Some folk have been able to send recorded footage or photos to medics to save time for everyone when analysing issues.

First thing to say is that I have a good number of phones here - this unit is (allegedly) Android-only, though you can get other models for iPhone I understand - but I can't get any of them to work with it. You download an App and install, then run the software, but it always returns an error and won't hook up. The instructions say that you have to have a phone which supports USB OTG (no problem here) but also UVC (USB Video Class) which I've never heard of, so maybe someone can advise there. Anyway, no worries, as it works fine - and probably more usefully - on my Windows 10 laptop with an .exe file which is downloaded from the Rotek website.

The unit is about 6" long and has a 5.5mm end with the array of LED lights and central lens for the camera. It fits in my ear fine and I can see very clearly my ear drum and the canal. This unit is fixed focus and seems to focus at about 1" distance from the target. It focuses fine with the 720p HD class camera. You can get higher resolution units, but this is fine for inspection. And it doesn't end there of course. You can use this for looking at your teeth, up your nose - or any other bodily orifice you fancy! Or indeed, there might be a good case for using it to inspect blockages in drains or any other round-the-house DIY thing which you can't get to see easily. There's a cord which goes from the end of it to a USB connector which is one of these 3-in-1 units, microUSB, USB-C or USB-A. In-line in the cord is a rotary wheel to control the brightness of the LED lights at the end, which can be very bright.

It comes with a carry-case and some very dodgy-looking 'ear wax removal' tools and sticky-end things, which I think are best left to professionals, frankly. They could very easily be poked into the ear drum creating damage, a trip to A&E and surgery! I'm surprised that they allow those to be included, but then if people are stupid enough they could stick a cocktail stick in their ear and push a hole in an ear drum. So yes, I think this is a great inspection tool, not treatment device!

The software is easy to use on the computer and has loads of different options for recording and snapping photos. The screen is clear and the target can be seen very well. As an inspection tool, I highly recommend this over a manual unit which only one person can see at a time and has no recording potential. But the best, and amazing thing is the price. AmazonUK are selling this for £16! The kind of kit that a few decades ago might have cost huge amounts of money - and were only seen on Mission: Impossible!

Sunday, 16 June 2019

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Original Title: Toki o kakeru shôjo
Continuing my quest for good quality Animation (as opposed to mass-produced Disney junk) I stumbled on this one and was disappointed, overall.
The style is that Japanese one, and I get that, but I think the style suffers in the way it depicts human beings - which is a shame. The animation otherwise is top-notch - lovely back/foreground visuals and near 3D-feel and attention to detail as the viewing angle from the camera makes the most of depth and focus in many scenes. It's all clever stuff and if only the people were afforded the same attention instead of blindly following the style, I think it would be much more pleasing.
Apart from that, the storyline had the real makings of an interesting time-travel one, but it has been hijacked and turned into a teen angst tale centred around kids at school, without a rich backdrop or intelligence to lift it beyond.
It's quite a long film for an animation but lacks the class and grip of others I have seen during my quest, particularly those from Studio Ghibli.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Nokia 9 PureView

Nokia phones seem to draw me in more than almost any these days. The attraction is of course, nostalgia, but also the clean version of Android, almost always AndroidOne software now, but each device having a certain class or USP of its own. This is why whenever a new device rolls out of HMD, I find myself disproportionately enthused!

The Nokia 9 PureView was not immediately on my radar, however, as the USP here was photography and I (still) think that hoping to get the flexibility and quality of even a £100 compact camera out of a 'flat' phone is too tall of an order. The compromise, up to now, has not been worth enthusiasm. However, with software development treading where optics can't - and in some cases folding imagery via mirrors and tunnels - maybe there's light at the end of it! Nokia/HMD are pushing boundaries and the 9 PureView is certainly worth a look, particularly as it's been a Limited Edition release and who knows when it might no longer be available - or indeed what existing units in mint condition might become worth! It's time to take the plunge and buy a phone to keep - for a change!

It's tempting to compare the 9 with the 8 Sirocco in terms of bare-bones as it shares the same 6GB RAM, 128GB (non-expandable) storage, P-OLED screen, QHD(+) resolution, GG5, the exact same Always on Display, Android One software, Zeiss optics, single loudspeaker, no 3.5mm audio-out socket but 24-bit audio and OZO recording in 4K Video, Qi charging of almost the same size battery - in fact one of few differences is the Snapdragon chipset which the 9 updates to 845 from 835. I get the impression that they're from the same stable! But there are also differences of course, not least of which is the physical size.

Long, not Dumpy
The Nokia 9 is physically very different to the 8S as it has been made with the now becoming-standard 'long' screen rather than the 8S's 16:9 'dumpy' one - and flat! Pros and cons for both of course, but the width of both is about the same. This clearly means that for the same width, the 9, as I said, is taller. The significance of this for me is that the typing experience on the on-screen keyboard is no worse! The wide 16:9 8S screen makes typing a pleasure, and the 9 retains that. Important stuff! Compared to some other devices I have to hand then, it's a tad smaller in height and width than the Pixel 2XL but certainly less fat, almost exactly the same in all directions as my Moto Z3 Play - so much so that I wonder if my Mods might fit(!) - obviously smaller all-round than the Razer Phone 2 and very similarly-sized to the Nokia 8 (non-Sirocco).

Around and About
The front is a flat piece of glass with substantial sized bezels, chin and forehead. Hurrah! At the top there's a range of sensors, ear-piece speaker and Nokia logo - and at the bottom, nothing! The design language is sympathetic to many recent Nokia devices, including the 6 and 7 Plus, with that chamfered edge of metal around the edge front and back, visually moulding the glass to the 6000-series aluminium circumference. On the right edge are the volume rocker and power buttons, similarly fashioned, solid and clicky. On the bottom is the USB-C data/power port and single mono speaker, on the left there's nothing and on the top, a SIM Card tray with pokey-hole eject. You can get a Dual-SIM model, but this one is single. On the back, which is another sheet of GG5, is another Nokia logo, androidone logo and the array of lenses, which we'll come to, potentially making this a very special phone. The back is a fingerprint magnet, very slippery and reflective. There's one colour available and it's this Midnight Blue. It's attractive in a conservative kind of way. But yes - a TPU is an absolute must (and there ain't one in the box). You will drop it - and it will break!

When this phone first hit the shelves in February/March this year, there was much hoo-har about the quality of the in-screen optical fingerprint reader. People were reporting that it was near impossible to register prints and even when they did, it wouldn't recognise them - and another whole host of problems. I didn't see a unit which behaved this way - behind the cutting edge as I am - so can only report on what I find now. The April 2019 Google Security Update was apparently bundled with a whole host of improvements, not only to the camera but also the fingerprint scanner. When I fired up this device, the first thing it did before letting me in to see anything, was to apply that update. So that's where I'm coming from.

Fingerprint Scanner
The registration process is slow and fussy. When the screen is at rest and off, you're not only presented with the AoD but also a target for your fingerprint. Presumably in time, this optical system will disappear and everyone will adopt the much better, faster and more secure ultrasonic version. In the meantime, and having tested this over a number of days, I've turned it off! It's horribly unreliable with time and time again failure to recognise fingerprints. I've tried removing and re-registering to no avail. There are a couple things that those with more patience than I can try. Firstly, it seems to work better when fingers are not dry. So 'moist with sweat' fingers have a much higher success rate. (I'm sure somebody will prove that this is not physically possible, but it seems very much like that in my tests.) Secondly, keeping fingerprints upright, bottom to top, works much better both on registration and in use and lastly, it always works better straight after rebooting the device (which might point to processor/RAM). If you try to use it side-on, it struggles to register and won't often recognise. Which is a shame because the natural position for using it is thumb coming in at 45 degrees. It's not right and is much worse than any other system I've tried. They need to fix this somehow - and they can, as it's software.

The route in, is assisted, however by face recognition. A quick tap on the screen and the face recognition works for me, with full face beard, perfectly every time. From all angles and most lighting. Some have said the payoff here has been security but it's not possible to use this for purchase security, which I reckon is a good thing. The point is, that if you don't want to struggle with a fingerprint scanner that's rubbish (at this point), you have another good option. Or if you're really paranoid, turn it all off and use a password/code/pattern in the traditional way! It's a real shame that this feature has been brought to phones too early for its own good - a capacitive scanner on the back - or better still, on that empty chin, would have been a much better option.

Always On
As I said earlier, the AoD is the exact same version as the Sirocco's and gives four choices for clock and display content, settings to time-out (or never), always-on when on charge (so a handy night-light-clock) and it's equally bright, big and white on this AMOLED screen. Take note, Google and adopt for Pixel! [I note that in Android Q Beta 4 changes are being made to the size/clarity of the AoD.] It's so nice to have a true AoD though this one doesn't seem to wake up very well after switching off having been in a pocket. I'm continuing to test that but at the moment, it seems that every time I get it out of my pocket, I have to press the power button to wake it up.

Bright and Sharp
Heading back to the screen, it's a bright and sharp and gorgeous 1440 x 2880 (538ppi) in 18:9 ratio. It's all-but 6" and is a P-OLED protected by GG5, like the N8. Watching video on the device is a real treat as the brightness and colours pop out. Wind up the brightness manually and it is incredibly bright. Delightful.

Clean Sweep
The phone arrived with Android 9 (Pie) in place and quickly updated to that aforementioned April Security with the improvements that I wasn't able to appreciate on a before and after. The AndroidOne software ensures a near-Vanilla clean software experience with additional useful features like the Nokia AoD, Camera, Lightroom (optional at startup), My Phone (Nokia's Support and Maintenance package) and that's it. Hurrah! I don't think we need to go over all the aspects of Android Pie again, but it's all here and works very nicely. I've not even installed Nova Prime!

Flight OTG
As I said before, under the bonnet there's a Snapdragon 845 chipset, which no doubt everyone will say is 'very last year' but seems to do the job well. There are some things related to camera which could be done faster, which I'll come to, but I really don't think that a SD855 would fix that, and 6GB RAM which keeps everything around the UI flying nice and quickly. The 128GB storage could be more (or a microSD Card slot could have been added) but I would have been delighted if it had been doubled to 256GB. For those pushing the camera to limits, that will certainly be a restrictor and necessitate the use of flash SSD plugged in OTG. Thankfully that OTG seems to work well and I've been able to read/write media to cards. The device is not a heavy one at 172g but it is IP6/7 rated for dust and water.

Lend me your Ear
We now come to my favourite topic, sound output - the single mono speaker and lack of 3.5mm audio-out socket. The speaker is bottom-firing and if left unobstructed produces a decent enough sound. It's louder and better quality than the Sirocco's with a tad more bass and certainly more volume. Perfectly good for the vast majority of people - and equaliser available in software (not system-wide) of the user's choice. I've been using Equaliser + Pro again and it enables the speaker to pack a decent punch after tweaking. The lack of an earphone jack will impact different people in different ways of course, those who want to use legacy gear will weep, whilst the vast majority won't give a stuff and get on with the Bluetooth 5 and aptX. In the box there's a revolting looking intrusive ear-canal attacking pair of earphones(!) with in-line control (which works with both media and Google Assistant) but they work OK and sound fine with the 24-bit thing once the supplied USB-C to 3.5mm adapter from the box is employed! What's notable however, is that when I plug in my decent reference AKG headphones, I can hardly hear anything! Tried again with the dongle which came with the Sirocco - same result. Tried with the Razer Phone 2's super-power DAC dongle and suddenly it all came to life! Volume and power and rich sound. The dongles supplied in the box of these devices are clearly doing nothing and a DAC-enabled solution is needed to get any decent volume and quality. But then, to be fair, this is not a music-centric phone!

USP Hit or Miss?
No, it's a photography-centric phone of course and this is where I turn to the camera(s). The basics of what's being done here is that an array of 5 cameras are working together to supposedly create super-snaps! 5 x 12MP f1.8 Zeiss Optics units, two of which have RGB sensors and the other two, mono. There's nothing special about these cameras, lenses, sensors - it's in the combination, ToF and software that the magic is supposed to happen. (Time-of-flight is supposed to resolve distance between the camera and the subject for each point of the image, by measuring the round trip time of an artificial light signal provided by a laser or a LED. Wiki.) The array of lenses on the back are distinctive and interesting-looking, already having attracted comment and questions!

RAW Depth
Each camera takes a separate image when the shutter is fired, the images are then combined and processed. JPEG is the standard but RAW is available for those who want to go nuts on detail and post-processing - and produces DNG files. The Adobe Lightroom software will allow on-device tweaking of lots of parameters of the taken shot, though have to then be converted back to JPEG to be shared anywhere sensible via the phone. There's a Depth Map setting which can be turned on and off - if on, 1200 levels of depth are recording with every shot. Processing takes about 5-10 seconds after each one, then the resulting image can be opened in Google Photos (on the phone) and the point of focus and level of 'blur' can be adjusted and 'new' photo saved.

Eating Storage
This works excellently (and is great fun) but we understood that it is also supposed to work in Google Photos Editor in Chrome and it doesn't seem to do so - that final Depth Slider is missing from the array of options. Perhaps this will be fixed by Google/HMD. One thing to be aware of is that the phone creates an image roughly 5x the size if Depth Map is on, which might be an issue for those with auto-upload over cellular connection operative. I have enjoyed playing with and impressed by the results of the 10-second 'bulb' setting for low-light photos, but of course you do need to somehow keep the phone still for the duration. I've also been impressed with one thing I never assess during reviews these days - the LED flash, which though no Xenon, works much, much more effectively than most phones I've tried recently - with half-decent power/coverage and balanced light/colours.

Eating Data
Shooting in RAW of course records all sensor's data in the images which provides for much more flexibility in Lightroom and other image-manipulation solutions over the good-enough-for-most compressed-to-save-space JPEG equivalent. This is all real 'pro' stuff (or at least 'nerd') for those who really think they have a use for photos beyond what 98% of people do! But fine, it's a hobby! I see the difference when testing it here and zooming in - though again, users should be aware of the much bigger c.30MB file sizes - not only for sharing around and backing up, but also the hit on the 128GB on the phone - and no expanded memory. And don't forget processing time - don't be in a hurry!

There's loads to play with for someone interested in pushing the boundaries of photos from phones and playing with images as a hobby or profession (if they are stuck somewhere without their proper gear, I guess), though we do await software improvements and tweaks. Other phone hardware still seems to do a better job, despite this phone's supposed 'expertise'. The inclusion of a free (light) version of Lightroom is helpful for playing around, even if some of the higher-end features will cost the user not a one-off payment, but £4.39 per month to use! Steps back. Depends how keen the user is to play about with images on-the-go, I guess.

It's OZO Cool
Apart from the above, the camera interface is very similar to the Sirocco's with Nokia's style and design - with a pretty much similar feature-set. Time lapse, slow-mo, Pro, Mono, Panorama, Square - the usual stuff. There's a button which zooms you in to 1x, 2x and 5x but it's not optical - and there's no OIS - the software and smart combination of lenses and sensors is supposed to negate the need, I think! But it doesn't help for video - which only uses one camera and electronic stabilisation (which is kind of better than nothing)! Incidentally, the OZO sound recording is present, like with other Nokia phones, and works superbly well when shooting 4K video. Mind that storage though! There's a 20MP Selfie camera on the front with which you can use the Bokeh Mode, which does a decent enough job, but there's obviously no Depth Map thing going on, with the 5 cameras facing the other way!

Shaking Power
One thing to note is that the vibration motor in the phone is one of the strongest I've used for years! It makes a right old racket if left on a table, almost negating the need for ringtones! The AoD, like with the Sirocco, doesn't seem to hit the battery too hard and has a little more capacity at 3320mAh. In my tests over a week or so I'm doing well with it - no trouble at all getting through a day - in fact most times, it can be eek'd-out to a day and a half or so - as always, depending on what you're doing with it! Start mashing RAW photos on a day out and uploading 4K video, watching films and blasting music and it'll be a different story, as with any phone. Power management is helped here by the QC3 brick in the box and Qi Wireless charging for sipping as you go.

Hovering Around, Waiting Development
Some phones seem to really struggle with Android Pay terminals, in my experience - some even needing their case taking off to work at all - but this works amazingly well. Two, three, four inches hovering over the receptor and it picks up and works. If you want one of these units (and trust that Nokia will continue to develop the potential going forward) you'd better not hang about as it was a limited release. Who knows when it might just not be available (and we'll be onto the next thing)! The phone, as I said, is AndroidOne, so there is some commitment in that regard at least for 2 OS Updates and 'regular' security Updates (though this is feeling a little forgotten already, still on April).

Further Viewing and Reading
Those who want to pull the results apart and deeply analyse the performance of the output of images from this phone, which should be its USP, should take a look at Steve Litchfield's (very, overall fair at the time but negative) Phones Show 361 and see that improvements all round are needed by Nokia for people looking under the surface (though the 100% fingerprint scanner failure rate then is really not true now - it's up to about 50%!). For the rest, who want to tinker with tech and see what's going on, they might want to consider even buying! It's not cheap, but it's also not expensive! Half way between budget and flagship at around £500 (or I see $400 in the USA). I was hoping that the price would drop, but no - not in the UK, even to the USA level. I shall be very interested to see where Nokia take this and how much development comes along, so I'm happy to keep it in stock.

Resuscitate the Duck!
There's lots of negative commentary out there about this phone, but I have hope for the underdog. People like to jump on a project that appears to be a dead duck, but I really like the phone - for more reasons than its USP. Sucker for Nokia? Yes, this is most likely the case, I admit! If this were a phone made by any other company with the development yet to come and these gaps in performance, I'd have laughed at it, not given it a second look, least of all considered buying it!

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