Sunday, 27 January 2019

Cold War

Pawel Pawlikowski's 2018 film Cold War is a tribute in style to his parents, Wiktor and Zula, living in post WWII rural Poland under enforced Stalinism. The story, however, is not. It's a tale overlayed on their characters as he remembers them. A couple who fell madly for each other, became swept up in the entertainment industry, escaped and returned. With the interesting use of timeline here, much has been left to the viewer to work out and create whilst soaking up the expert filmmaking on display.

The story begins with Wiktor (played by Tomasz Kot) and a colleague 'talent spotting' in the poverty-stricken villages of Poland, recording singing voices and assessing dancing ability in 1949. This leads to a 'school' where the youngsters picked to train for the stage are coached, with a view to making the grade to join the planned 'ensemble' on tour.

Zula, played by Joanna Kulig (who also popped up as singer in Pawlikowski's excellent Ida), is one of the hopefuls and Wiktor falls for her at first sight. It turns out that she's knifed her father for 'mistaking her for her mother' and is on the run, pretty much. We then leap on a couple of years and the by-now created traditional folk choral/dance group is touring. At the post-performance party, there's a beautifully shot moment (with a nod to Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche in Damage) where the pair's eyes meet a long distance across a room and the camera lingers and 'the moment' when they both 'knew' was defined. And so begins the turbulent relationship which leads the film over another decade or more.

Amidst broken down buildings and crumbling walls, the political party then put pressure on the ensemble to introduce material promoting the ideals of Stalinism with veiled threats, but rewards of tours and expansion if they comply. As they become more famous and embark on the tour, the authorities want to check out Wiktor. When they are in Berlin, he and Zula decide to defect to the West. She changes her mind and misses the rendezvous, he goes, and we leap forward to Paris a couple of years on, where they meet up.

The leaps in timeline are often open and rely on the audience to fill in some of the gaps, Pawlikowski not spoon-feeding details that really don't need time wasting on film. Another leap, and she turns up again in Paris, married to an Italian, but their stop-start affair continues. They make a record together, but she's not happy and takes off, back to Poland. The to-and-fro continues across europe until we end up back in Poland, with much water under the bridge, in 1964.

The story here is, of course, a large part of the take-away, but much more so for me is the technically expert filmmaking, photography, music, sets and atmosphere. Like Ida before it, it's shot in black and white in 4:3 format, which closes in on composition, often leaving activity and action outside of the frame and to the viewer's imagination. Only in european cinema are we able to enjoy such delights of camerawork where directors, not under pressure to make commercially viable films, can explore freedom of experimentation, long-shots, close-focus, shallow depth of field. Lingering shots of people sitting, often turning moving pictures into still-shots and works of visual art. Shooting a scene from another room, as a voyeur, creating atmosphere by use of interesting lighting and shadow, often here near-noir. The music leaps between folk, classical, solo piano, jazz and rock'n'roll. All marking time and place. It's all so refreshing and wonderful to consume. The film is a delight and it's no wonder that it's won, and is up for, awards aplenty.

At its root, the film is a love story. A love story about two people mad for each other. Soul mates, but also, for whom, when they try to settle into a framework of ordinary relationships and living situations, it falls apart. The passion is fired by turbulence and the magic between the two leads has to have that for it to work. Ordinary is not good enough. It's therefore also a story about freedom and tethering, expectations of society and kicking against the pricks. It's also sad in places when we so want it to work for them, but it can't. It's about loss and purpose, fame and values. As with all good filmmaking, you will interpret what you see and hear and decide for yourself what your personal take-away is. Fabulous film and a delight to watch more than once.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

In Bruges

I'm not sure how I've failed to see this excellent film for over a decade, but I have! This 2008 creation by writer, producer, director Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Seven Psychopaths) is an overlooked peach of a film.

Colin Farrell (The Lobster, Phone Booth, Minority Report) and Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart, Mission: Impossible II, The Treaty) play two hitmen who, at the outset of the film arrive in Bruges. They have been sent there by their boss but are not really sure why, except to lie low and let the dust settle after a recent hit went wrong! Gleeson's character Ken is the more senior of the two and is happy to trust that they will be told all in good time and until then, to sit tight.

The younger character Ray, played by Farrell, is impatient and can't abide the thought of sitting there, for what turns out to be 2 weeks, for what appears to be, no reason. Ken tries to engage Ray in enjoying the historic sights and delights of the city, but Ray is not interested, more keen to pick up the local talent and get wasted.

As more of the background opens up, it's clear that all is not what it seems, the boss does indeed have a specific purpose for the two employees, but that it might not be quite what is expected. Ralph Fiennes (Red Dragon, Schindler's List, The English Patient) plays the cockney-confident boss initially from his home in London with mad menace. He portrays the principled but uncontrolled man who tears his hair out at the expense of all around him in order to manage the situation in Bruges and eventually ends up there too, trying to sort out the mess created by the two hitmen.

As you'd expect, Fiennes excels in the role, convincing and demonic in many ways, as always playing the bad guy with expert ease. But this film is much more about the two hitmen reaching crossroads' in their lives, taking stock, working out values and what's important in the scheme of things. As Ray is haunted by the outcome of the hit that went wrong, he takes centre stage at the expense of all around him. He's falling apart bit by bit, hating himself. The two actors play off each other beautifully, with genius timing, dialogue, juxtaposition and humour. Ken is portrayed as a thinking father-figure to Ray, which changes his world view, and he really wasn't expecting that when he arrived in the city.

The supporting actors around the main leads are interesting and well developed in their short screen time, especially the French actress Clémence Poésy (The Tunnel, Harry Potter) who plays the one-night-stand with a twist! The setting is mostly out in the medieval streets of Bruges (where there is also a film crew shooting, weaved into our tale) which forms a delightful backdrop to this story which leaps between comedy and character-study to gore and thriller. There are twists and turns as we go and the director keeps us on our toes as it unfolds.

It's an excellent film which you must see, if for nothing else, the central two roles as they delightfully command the screen and keep the viewer captivated. The coarse language is not for the lily-livered. Highly recommended.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter)

This Martin Koolhoven creation is a Dutch film based on the book of the same name by Jan Terlouw and true story of a group of people in a small town in Holland at the tail end of WWII, being occupied by Germany and surrounded by the snows of winter. It depicts the dreadful suffering that the local people endured at the hands of the occupying forces and how one family and teenage boy tried to make a stand.

Michiel was 14 and lived in a (relatively) privileged family in a small town in which his dad was the mayor. He was constantly irritated by his father's attitude towards the Germans in the town, his approach being passive, keeping as much peace as he could, pretending to get along with the Germans with rank, with a view to sitting out the war with as little pain for his townsfolk as possible. Michiel wanted to stand up against them, considering his dad a collaborator, and eventually got involved in a pocket of resistance activity, taking risks but feeling like he was doing something positive.

As the story unfolds, we discover that people are not all they seem, there are many divided loyalties apparent along with different views of how best to muddle through and make the best of the situation. An RAF pilot crash lands in the local woods and Michiel, through a series of cruel events, ends up having to manage the situation, using resourcefulness, tact and diplomacy, cunning and stealth, weaving in and out of the Germans on his bicycle, using his young age as a cloak. As he manages the situation he visibly grows from a boy into adulthood as responsibility for real people's lives lays heavy on his shoulders.

Martijn Lakemeier plays the lad in the film and does it excellently, portraying the dilemma facing everyone in the town and reflecting the angst and emotions involved as he worked out his own place in the proceedings. It has been made in Dutch, German and English so subtitles all round, most of the time. It's shot in a bleak manner reflecting the winter weather which almost feels like black and white, but making for an atmosphere which depicts the harrowing situation.

The cruelty of the invading forces is on show here which can sometimes make for difficult viewing, the film trying its best to appear realistic and factual rather than hiding the stark truth of what was going on and what the people had to deal with on an hourly basis. Like many WWII films, it's sobering and allows most of us who are too young to remember, to reflect on the difficulties and horror which was faced by those born at the wrong time.

The whole cast perform admirably, some of the photography depicting the landscape in the snow is quite beautifully executed (with minimal hand-held going on), the music supporting the film is well constructed and appropriate to the scenes and there is much attention to detail in the sets reflecting the time and place. It's not an easy watch, but a rewarding one. Well made, with a serious reflection of the history of Europe, ordinary people's roles, anger, courage and character. Do see it.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Songmics Office Chair

Office chairs is a topic we keep coming back to, which probably reflects the amount of time we all spend in them! I'm a big bloke, weighty, and none of these little 'operator' or 'secretary' chairs are beefy enough for my weight. So the quest continued.

Apart from the weight factor, there's also the size. Try not to picture this in your head or you'll never get rid of it - but maybe Hattie Jacques sitting on the average office chair and how much of her would actually be 'on' the chair! Well, a bit extreme maybe, but you get the point. Some of us need a physically large pad to sit on as well as strength.

Enter the Songmics Office Chair from AmazonUK (https://goo.gl/a2ARDN) for anything from £70 to £150 depending on whether there's a 'q' in the month or not! It's a real beast of a chair, guaranteed for over 23 stones in weight, sizeable with comfy PU padding everywhere. Big 76" back with flip-up armrests with a lever for the usual 'stay in place' or 'recline'. Height can be set in a 10cm range and of course it is on wheels and swivels through 360 degrees.

Click through to the Amazon listing to see all the measurements and close-up pictures of the component parts, but it's certainly stood the test of The Salmon here! I got my first one last year and it's been great, and just bought another one for another location as it's been so good. You might be able to get a really cheap and cheerful Operator's Chair, but if it's for extended use and not for a child to use, you'll want something more comfy and stronger.

It comes in a box and you assemble it yourself of course, but armed with the supplied tools and kit (with plenty of spares - even two extra wheels!), it's much easier to do than some I've tried! You could easily pay £30-50 for a cheapo-special chair anyway, so if you wait for this one to drop to between £70-80, it's a much better option. Recommended.

Dimplex Electric Fan Heater

I never complain about the cold, or being cold. Only heat and being hot! However, even I have limits and this time of year when I'm down at my Static (out of season with water and boiler winterised) for any time checking or just hanging out for a change of scenery, it's very cold!

Enter the Dimplex DXFF20TSN Electric Flat Fan Heater scooped up from AmazonUK (https://goo.gl/hbgrbi) for £20. I chose this one over some of the other no-name brands which I could have got for about £13 based on the various reviews where people have had very poor quality control issues, including melting 3-pin plugs! I also chose this one as I realised that I had bought it before, down south, and remembered that it had been very efficient and reliable.

It's a simple thing really. A dial for on/off, half, full or cold power and another to adjust the degree of heat. It lays flat on the ground, which I think is safer than the ones which are tall and stand high. It's rated at 2000W so in round terms, I guess, on full power, drinks as much juice as a medium-sized kettle. It blows out an amazingly good flow of heat (or cold air) which warms up a medium-sized room in no time.

It's made of tough white plastic and feels very sturdy and has a carry-handle at the back. And that's about it really! Oh, and unlike some with very short cables, this one is about 2 yards long, so much better. Simple and efficient. Very efficient! Recommended.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Manchester by the Sea

Writer, Actor, Director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Gangs of New York) brings us this ordinary tale of ordinary folk getting by, in the north of America. Nothing special there, but it's presented beautifully and offers us an excellent alternative to the usual crash, bang, wallop!

Our 30-something central character, Lee, lives a solitary life, getting by as a janitor in Boston, keeping himself to himself, but also kicking against the pricks and not taking what the establishment decides to dole out to him. He often gets into trouble because of attitude and all this points to something in his past that has made him depressed, as he engages with the futility of existence. Think Good Will Hunting.

One ordinary day, he's contacted by the folk in his hometown, Manchester (the one in America), to attend to his brother who appears to be on death's door. Before he gets there, his brother has died and has also left a will which lumbers Lee with the guardianship of his son. The son is a 16-year-old who's similarly-minded to Lee, remembering uncle Lee from his childhood, snatching what he can from life aggressively and engulfing whatever experiences he can grab.

The story then becomes a character study of Lee and an observational tool as the new responsibilities are either embraced or rejected by him. As the tale unfolds, we get to understand what the past was about and why he doesn't live in the town any longer. There is use of flashback, but not intrusively so and it's obvious when it's happening. No confusion from leaping around timelines willy-nilly. Audience empathy with his situation is encouraged by Lonergan by making sure that we stay with Lee most of the time and see his world from as close to inside his head as we can get.

It's a story of challenges for a simple soul who was trying to live a simple life with wife and kids, struck down by tragedy. It's often sad as we get inside the lives of those who have been subjected to the events. There's one short scene between Lee and his wife which, through harrowing emotion, demonstrates the quality and power of the acting - but never sinks into sentimentality. I think it's a shame that the relationship between the two was not written into the film more as that would have been as interesting as the central duo.

Lee is played by Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James, Gone, Baby Gone) and he does it to near perfection. He's convincing in every scene of the film and is able to bring across to the audience the emotions, plight and dilemma facing his character. The nephew is played annoyingly admirably by Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom, Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and Lee's wife by Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine, My Week with Marilyn) who plays, as I said, a smaller, but noteworthy role. The main two leads are most enjoyable to watch and execute their talents with class. As they play off against each other, grappling for position, advantage, seeking truth, dealing with guilt, pain and desire. You can see that there's a chemistry between them and have both been chosen well.

There's some great camerawork on show here, especially in the scenes in which they head out onto the water in a boat, but also evident in ordinary scenes, interiors and round about the town. The music is sympathetic to the story, fits in nicely and the sets are mostly on location, which is atmospheric with much snow, rain and dour weather. This reflects the whole outing really - yes, a bit of a slow-burner with nods to european cinema - but this is real life. It turns out that it's a bit of a Marmite moment for many however, either love it or hate it, the film industry seemed to love it but many viewers just don't get it. That's sad for them as they are missing out on much.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Invero Cheese Grater

We spoke on Whatever Works some months ago now about cheese graters, and I don't think we ever did end up getting one, concluding it was easier, cheaper and less messy just buying grated cheese! However, we also concluded that buying grated cheese is very limiting in terms of the types of cheese available ready-grated.

Enter the Invero! This grater claims to be good for not only cheese, but also vegetables and fruit (I guess it would have to be hard fruit)! As for cheese, it works beautifully. The unit comes with 3 drums, each with a different grade of cutting holes, a bung for pressing down the cheese into the top chamber and a handle for turning the drum. The drums fit in easily and seem to be made well, of 'BPA-free food grade ABS' plastic and steel.

The whole unit is pretty well made, sturdy hard plastic, nice and big and brightly coloured. The rear of the unit has a lever which operates the vacuum sucker on the base and when on a firm, flat surface, it holds the unit down for ease of operation. It doesn't fly off the counter!

That's about it really. Simple tool, no electricity needed, washes up easily, stick the drums and plunger in a dishwasher if you're really lazy. As usual, there's a wild variation of reviews at AmazonUK but to me here, it seems here to be a very good buy at £15.

Travel Pill Case

This cute little box has a 1001 uses! It's marketed as a Travel Pill Case, but I've tried it with all sorts of stuff and it works on many levels.

It's made of really tough and hard plastic and unlike some of these boxes we've seen, the door-flaps for compartments is very firm and clicky to open/close, but not too firm to make it inaccessible for people with not so good hands. It folds over into two and the clasp holding that together is similarly firm and secure.

When it's closed it ends up being about 3" x 2" x 1" so fits snugly into a bag or pocket. There's 5 different sections each side of different sizes.

This is not a 'daily' dispenser kind of box, like some, so there's no day markings (though you could label them, I guess) and it feels much more like a multi-use case for whatever you have to put in it. Memory cards is a good one. Sewing kit maybe. The world is your oyster really!

Not much more to say really except that for a fiver at AmazonUK it seems to be good value, not cheap and nasty like some and very handy indeed.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

DeX (Samsung's Desktop Experience)

After my recent experience with the Samsung Tab S4 and now Note9, I thought that DeX was worth a closer look. This has been done before, on this and other platforms, by other manufacturers, but using it on these devices has been quite enjoyable, turning a tablet/phone into a more 'desktop' style environment.

At the end of the day, the Tab S4 is still an Android tablet and Note9 an Android phone, but Samsung have gone some way to make it look and feel more business-like, encouraging productivity. With a Samsung Keyboard attached, a (larger than Note9's) S Pen or Mouse in hand, DeX booted, the Tab S4 does feel much better than the dreary Android tablet experience that everyone's been hating for years, pushing them towards iPads.

Movable and resizable windows within which to work, a 'proper' desktop layout, Windows-style task-bars, easy-plugging to bigger monitors or laptops for even fuller control, using a TV to throw what you're doing onto a giant screen, the whole thing feels as though it's been thought out nicely. Yes, there are some glitches with some Apps which won't play ball with the DeX environment, but generally speaking it's a nice experience and for those who need it (or even those like me who don't) it's productive and fun too.

When using the Tab S4, the tablet's screen itself becomes the desktop environment. When using a Note9, it doesn't. So, plug a USB-C to HDMI cable between your Samsung device and Monitor, TV or laptop (with an HDMI-in capable port) and on the phone, you're swept through a wizard, getting you going. DeX chosen, the phone's screen goes blank and what was on it, is now on the monitor/TV and the phone's screen turns into a trackpad (if you choose it to be), like you'd have on your laptop, which you can control with a finger or the S Pen. If you prefer, you can set up a bluetooth keyboard, mouse or whatever and set yourself up a desktop-like environment which is served by the phone doing all the work.

I don't have a 'monitor' here to try this with, but I can report that the phone and Tab S4 hooked up to the TV no problem at all and allowed me control stuff on the telly, via the Samsung. The 'desktop' implications of this are clear for a business environment, as long as all your business can be conducted via Android and the available Apps. For me, that wasn't going to work as there are just, still, some things that you need a 'proper' computer for. One of which is Microsoft Publisher, which the Office Suite refuses to support into Android, claiming that MSWord replaces it. It doesn't! And podcasting, with the requirement for good quality microphones, recording software and Skype at the very least, that just don't make it across.

Anyway, for me this was more about media consumption, though HDMI-out pretty much nails that with Samsung anyway. But still, just to prove the point I continue. Open up (say) Google Play Movies on my TV using the trackpad and mouse pointer on-screen and it opens up in a window. Maximise the window and play your film. All works fine. The phone's screen remains as a trackpad though strangely, the audio still comes from the phone and not the TV. Maybe there's a setting for that which I've not found. Armed with a long HDMI cable, the user can sit in Comfy Chair and watch the content from phone/Tab on TV.

But there's also Screen Mirroring, HDMI-out, which can be switched to at any point in the process, DeX closes down and you then get a WYSIWYG environment, turn the phone to landscape, watch the film (though unlike with DeX, it also continues to run on the phone's screen)! Same result, different tools. (Though strangely, when hooked up using this method, unlike DeX, the sound comes from the TV, not phone!) Which clearly demonstrates that the target market for DeX is certainly not Johnny Hankie sitting in his bedroom! It's a business tool for business people on the road who want to hook up to a handy TV in a hotel bedroom and not have to lug their laptop with them, just pocket in phone, foldable bluetooth keyboard and mouse. And for that purpose, it works beautifully. And for anyone wondering, yes, armed with a Qi pad, the USB-C port being tied up doesn't mean you can't charge. You can, via Qi or a power/split adapter.

Moving back to the Tab S4, all the above remains valid, though in order to get connectivity you'd need a cellular version of the Tab S4 or hook up to the phone anyway. Or hope for Wifi. No, the Tab S4 is really a stand-alone DeX tool, which is why it's bundled with an S Pen and (in some cases) keyboard. You don't need that TV or Monitor, as long as you're happy to be constrained by the size of the screen, use of S Pen - or Bluetooth in a bigger keyboard and mouse. The options are broad and whichever way the person on the move decides to go with this, the end result is Samsung devices hooking up to big screens and the creation of a Windows-like environment within which to work. The downside, as I said earlier, is that you only get Android Apps. Which is where the Microsoft Surface Go (and similar) comes in!

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Samsung Galaxy Note9 (512GB)

As much as I love to play with new phones and tech stuff, I do sometimes wonder if there's an end to the road and a place that I can settle, on a device that doesn't have glaring omissions in 2019, is high-performing and will satisfy desire, so as to not always be on the lookout for the next thing around the corner. Maybe the fact that there's no perfect phone keeps the hunt, and interest, alive.

Device after device reveal themselves and slip through my hands, usually moving on, or back, but very few seem to stick. The units which do are usually ones which instead of being 'nearly there' like the OnePlus 6T 256GB for example, are more likely to have features that I personally value highly, even if I have to live with one or two that irk. Like a good AOD, speakers, built-in storage, timely updates and so on, much of which I have written about previously and blabbed on about on PSC.

Over the last few months I have been thinking more and more about my love/hate relationship with Samsung and how I have become a little discontented with the constant payoff of Vanilla devices in lieu of the interesting feature-factor. I've had Pixel devices in, and Nexus before them, and they feed the need for a pure Google experience and updated software but often fail in the excitement department, leaving an itch that still needs scratching.

As we know, the payoff for wandering off-piste can certainly be a move away from Google's purity, Vanilla, Stock Android, or whatever you want to call it, but the benefits can be a more interesting device, though one which demands commitment and a grasp of the slalom (though hopefully not too far away from the main slopes). I recently bought a Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 with S Pen and Keyboard - and it hasn't annoyed me at all - more so, I've enjoyed using it and embracing the stuff at which it's good. So, could this be the time to sell up, burn bridges, raise the (sizeable amount of required) cash for an expensive all-singing Samsung phone too?

Digital Hoarding
I've written before about the deep-rooted need to have huge amounts of memory and keep as much stuff with me as I can, even if for only occasional use. Safety net. And when I have no home router/broadband of my own to use, maybe it's more reasonable than for some. So the quest is for as much memory as I can shake a stick at, in my pocket. The 256GB OnePlus 6T has not scratched that itch I think maybe because I know that there's more out there - and there were still boxes not ticked! The 512GB of the Note9 plus microSD Card expansion, puts four time more storage in my pocket as I have on my Windows laptop! As I write, I've filled half of it with media and 120 DVD .mp4's on my memory card!

In the Box
The box holds an inner-box (which, incidentally, is TPU-case sized, but only has a leaflet inside - tight Samsung), a SIM Card Tray eject tool, USB-A (F) to USB-C (M) connector, microUSB (F) to USB-C (M) connector, power-brick, USB-C (M) to USB-A (M) cable, spare nib (and removal tool) for the S Pen and a pair of (nasty-looking in-ear-canal claustrophobic) AKG 3.5mm braided-cabled ear buds. Amazing that for this amount of cash, they couldn't stump-up for a TPU case. The Note9 itself is buried in sticky plastic - not only the usual back and front, but also around the edges, sides and between ports. I wonder if doing all that cost more than a cheap TPU would have cost! Still, it adds to the already premium look and feel of the product.

Big is Beautiful
The first thing that strikes you when you get it out is the height. It's a tall 18.5:9 ratio and it certainly feels tall. It doesn't feel disproportionately wide, however, and I can get my finger/thumb to meet around it (with no case). It's about a quarter of an inch taller than my Moto Z3 Play but surprisingly, is about the same width, though fatter. It's even slightly taller than my Razer Phone, not quite as wide and about as fat (though the Razer is of course very 'blocky'). Against the OnePlus 6T, it's slightly taller, slightly wider, slightly fatter and measured up with the Nokia 7 Plus, slightly taller, about the same width but certainly fatter. Bottom line is that this is a big phone, make no mistake, and as we shall see, makes the most of that. The Note9 is a heavy 201g which is up there with Razer Phone territory.

Around the Phone
I have the Ocean Blue 512GB version here with 8GB RAM, though the more popular one is clearly the cheaper (by about £250 as I write) 128GB/6GB version. In the hand it feels very classy indeed. The blue is a lovely deep shade and sweeps around everywhere that there's no glass. On the left side is the volume rocker and Bixby button, top, SIM Card Tray, antenna cut-outs and microphone, right-side just the power button and on the bottom, 3.5mm audio-out socket, USB-C socket, microphone, speaker and S-Pen, which clicks-in-out and with this blue model is a bright yellow colour. All the buttons click firmly and feel well made. On the back is a slightly proud camera lens island with flash and sensors, with a fingerprint scanner below in a small'ish oblong in keeping with the phone's design-language. Front and back are symmetrical as the glass gently curves around the corners, not outrageously like some previous Samsung models or the Nokia 8 Sirocco. On the front, there's an ear-piece speaker at the top alongside the other sensors, which doubles up as the partner speaker for the bottom one. We'll come to that. It's a beautifully made phone which feels like it's expensive and apart from that cost, the main physical problem for people will no doubt be the overall size in the pocket.

Speakers and S-Pen
I was kindly offered the loan for review of a Note9 a few months ago, so as to assess these two areas of interest. I won't roll it all out again, but feel free to click through and read what I wrote then, which is all still valid. Speakers and S-Pen. The missing part of my linked thoughts on the sound there is the earphone output. I really don't like these buds but I cleaned my ears(!) and quickly put them in for a test and they really do sound fabulous. Great for anyone who likes that kind of bud. For me, my AKG big over-ear 'phones sound even more amazingly good.

Samsung Galaxy S9 (Plus) with some differences
Apart from the obvious S Pen, there are large amounts of the Note9's performance and features which replicate that of the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus so I'll invite you to click through there and read my previous review, to avoid repetition and instead, focus here on the differences. If you can't find it covered here, it likely will have been there!

Glass and Aluminium
The Super AMOLED 6.4" Infinity Display with Gorilla Glass 5 covers the front. No wonder it's big! As we have come to expect from Samsung, the screen is super-bright (though still not as bright and white as the Nokia 8's LCD), super-colourful and can be set to 1440p, 1080p or 720p and colour tint/lean played with via pre-sets or manual sliders. It has a pixel count of 516ppi and as I said, is 18.5:9 in ratio. The visible screen (which has slightly curved corners) is 146mm high by 71mm wide, taking into account the slightly curved edges. It has no Notch of any sort and proudly leaves a little space clear, top and bottom, for speaker and sensors. It's slightly asymmetrical, in that there's a tad more space at the top than the bottom. The glass curves at the edges to meet the aluminium frame, which travels around the device's 'circumference'. The whole device is IP6/8 rated for dust and water.

Power Matters
One of the differentiators between the S8/8/plus/9/plus/Note8/9 is certainly the battery. For one thing, it has to drive bigger screens and service more RAM than some of the others. It has a 4000mAh battery whereas, for example, the S9 has 3000, Note8 3300 and S9 Plus, 3500. The Note9, like the S9 though does have wireless charging and Adaptive Fast Charging (QC2) via USB-C. That does make a difference, and I can confidently get to bed time even if I forget to use a Qi charger in the day. On more specific testing, it seems that we're looking at 24hrs between charges, auto-brightness, 8hrs SoT. As always, that claim depends very much on what you're doing with the phone and clearly, long spells of video recording or other meaty drains will adjust that down. I speak for my own general use.

Engine Room
The non-US version of the Note9 comes supplied with an Exynos 9810 rather than Snapdragon 845 and from what I read, the latter is slightly better for high-flying graphics use, but the former, ahead for everything else. I'm happy with that and can report that this device flies. I can't slow it down, however I try. Up against other devices I have here, doing speed tests (and of course, the difference is often nano-seconds) it's obvious that this chipset with the 8GB RAM is ahead of the pack. Even using the file manager to copy files from drive to/from card is blazingly fast, unlike many devices on which I've tried that task. The 512GB is such a pleasure to have, coupled with my 400GB microSD Card, I almost want for no more space! It's a powerful combination of hardware facilities.

Software
Out of the box, the Note9 is running Android 8.1 with December 2018 Google Security Update, as I write in the second week of January 2019. The Samsung layer over the top of that is Samsung Experience 9.5. There are promises of an imminent Android 9.0 download coming with the brand new OneUI from Samsung, replacing the Experience, so I'll report back when that drops. One thing to note is that for some reason, the user can't turn the Bixby button on the left off, like they can on the S9-series. The best you can do is make it pretty-much immune from accidental presses by assigning a double-tap to activate. Maybe that change will also come in the forthcoming updates. The Bixby thing has pretty much universal dislike that it makes you wonder, like with Moto Voice, why these manufacturers continue to kick against the much better Google-supplied Assistant. I have tried to like it, but, once again, it seems that it's a step too far to sell your soul completely to Samsung, accepting all their services over Google's. But maybe that's what some people (maybe in the far-east?) are doing. Anyway, it's much the same as the S9, so do follow the link, above for more.

Other Samsung Apps
There's so much here to cover that I'm not sure that I can do justice to it, but I'll have a go! Incidentally, the stuff that Samsung adds to the experience, outside of the doubling-up of Google Apps, doesn't feel like bloat - much of it feels like useful additions. Laying aside annoyances like pre-installed Facebook, Yahoo Finance and LinkedIn, the rest are either associated with the S Pen use (see link to review, above) or stuff that I already covered in the S9 Plus review (again, above). Most of this stuff can now be uninstalled if you don't want it (Samsung actually make a point of saying that on their website) and the usual Force Stop and Disable for the rest. They also allow the user to Hide Apps from the App Drawer, so various decisions can be made about whether or not you're going all-in with Samsung or retaining a more generic route with Google's Apps.

I have tried really hard to stick with Samsung's Launcher - with some success. The most annoying thing is the sideways-scrolling of the App Drawer! But brain will adjust. If you're into Health stuff, there's a heart rate sensor here, which in my testing works perfectly via the finger-sensor by the camera, and a whole bunch of other stuff, some of which Google has picked up on for Pixel, like wellbeing type things. Armed with some other Samsung fitness gear, I guess the fanatic could be away with that. And that's a recurring theme here. As I said before, bury yourself into this stuff and you can come out with a rounded mobile experience. Pick and choose, yes, stuff is still good, but not as good as for those who sell their soul!

Smart Things is kind of Google Home for Samsung. I have done no testing with that as I don't have any gear with which to test it! If you sign up for Samsung Pass, you can use your biometrics to sign into all sorts of Samsung hardware, software and services. In order to do this, you have to also get into bed with Samsung Knox, as the security agent. See how the whole thing 'spiders' out?
Samsung Themes, as I was saying in my S9 Plus review, allows the user to get rid of those nasty-looking Back, Home and Recents buttons for whichever you fancy. Pixelize Theme does the job nicely and is free. Soundcamp for Garageband, Kids Mode, Smart Call to control your phone calls and ID spam, Cloud, Gallery, the list goes on for those who really want to get buried - so do check my other reviews for more. Then there's some other useful stuff. Like a dedicated Video App and Music App. And some of these Apps are now not pre-installed, so you have to go and get them from the Play Store. Anyway, I think you get the idea. There are surprises, solutions, services and Apps at every turn, which Samsung have made available to the user who wants them. They have clearly in many cases nicked ideas from other phone makers, but then who doesn't!

DeX
I feel inclined to do a separate review of DeX. It's a complicated beast and there's enough here to be focusing on with the rest of the device, so I'll post that as soon as I've explored it as thoroughly as I need to. Watch this space!

Cameras
The main cameras are a pair of 12MP units, both with OIS, one with two aperture possibilities of f1.5 and 2.4 and the other, a fixed f2.4. The first one shoots at 26mm in full-frame terms and the other, 52mm with 2x zoom. There's all sorts of bells and whistles in the camera, as you'd expect from Samsung and the resulting output is right up there with the best of the best, if not quite grabbing the crown. The fun bit is being able to shoot super slow-motion video at 960fps, though only at 720p. The selfie is an equally capable 8MP f1.7 camera. Dive into settings inside the camera app and you'll find 1001 different options, settings, toys, AI (Optimiser), tracking, HDR, AR, Voice control, the list goes on and on - and frankly, I think most people reading this would likely turn most of it off! The Pro Mode is excellent for controls and options, with close focus being about 2" or so.

As usual, I'm going to point you to Steve Litchfield's coverage of all things camera, which he's assessed much better that I can in his Phones Show. Go and watch Samsung Galaxy Note9 and Samsung Galaxy S9. As for me, the results for my purposes are quite superb, the shots stand up to close scrutiny and for those wishing to push mobile phone photography another step closer to 'proper' cameras, this is certainly a good place to land for now.

Roundup
The Note9 ticks almost every box that you could possibly want ticking in a phone in 2019. I particularly love the 512GB+microSD, the AOD options, the LED Notification light survival, 3.5mm audio-out, as much as I say I don't need it, it's better to have than not have, fabulous (faux) stereo speakers output with Dolby Atmos, HDMI-out and DeX options, class-leading biometrics, some really smart Smart stuff to pick and choose from, oodles of bells and whistles throughout the main Settings and within Apps galore to play with and tweak to stop any boredom setting in before it's time to upgrade, super-fast chipset, attention to Game-centred options with water-cooling, far more than good cameras, excellent screen, great battery life, beautifully built body, the S Pen for those who want/need it, the list again, goes on. It's far more than a jack-of-all-trades because it's master-of-many too!

The case against it seems to be far outweighed by the stuff for it! Yes, it would be nice to get that Bixby button re-assigned to Google Assistant, it's a big and heavy device, bad for some, payoff of media consumption great for others, it's at risk of being confusing for people - but Samsung are addressing that by the aforementioned pulling back on pre-installing stuff - and it is, of course, expensive. Before spending out this kind of money, you have to be sure that it's what you want to do - or have a good Returns record!

The bottom line for me was about the hardware. The sound. The S Pen. The storage. The connectivity. The AOD. The battery. More boxes end up being ticked than pretty much anything else on the market, certainly Android. Can I get used to the Samsung 'way' and leave Vanilla behind? Armed with my Tab S4 alongside, I certainly can't say it's not interesting. What comes along with OneUI will give us a glimpse of the future - how much further Samsung can pull in the reins and make things even more comfortable for people like me who appreciate the benefits of the Vanilla experience too. I shall be sure to report back when it arrives and look forward to it very much. For now, I'm loving it and am completely sold on becoming a Samsung fanboy! Now, how long's that returns window..!

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Always On Displays

Glance, Always On, AoD, whatever you call it, it's all about what you can see on your phone's screen when it's at rest. I have been finding that over the past couple of years, there is no one device that does it well, with the features that I want - but some come close!

A large part of the usefulness of an AoD is that it's interactive. Notifications (including music/podcast controls) need to pop up and become active from the locked screen itself, not by then having to open up the phone (with whatever security you employ) to dig for the details. There are many phones which have a half-decent AoD display but fall over when interactivity is desired. Security is, of course, an issue at this point, and the best solution to prevent people seeing your messages is to long-hold the item so that a brief headline pops up, then face/iris unlock lets you proceed, where available.

Another part of the usefulness of an AoD is that the clock and icons and text are big enough to actually see 'at a glance' (where Nokia started), not so small that a person needs to find glasses or hold the phone close to the face. It's also nice when there are options to change the size, look and feel of the clock and display.

The other large part of the usefulness of an AoD is that it's always on! Or at least a choice for it to be so. Seems like a no-brainer, but so many devices are not. They need nudging, or tapping, or double-tapping or lifting or waving a hand over to actually see anything. I can't see why devices with big batteries and AMOLED screens, particularly, need to have the screen go off. Or at least have a switch to let the user decide.

Let's consider the options then, and phones that I've (relatively) recently had to hand. Of course, this list is not exhaustive and there are many phones out there which I've not had in-hand, so do chip in with what I'm missing. For those who don't want to read on, the short answer (for me) is that Samsung, LG and Moto Z get closest - but each still with bits missing.

OnePlus 6T is an example of a device which doesn't really tick many of the boxes, but there's no reason why it couldn't be fixed in software. There are a few options for different clocks but no interactivity at all and it doesn't stay on. Needs a lift/nudge/double-tap to then open up and do anything.

Nokia 8 Sirocco does have a true always-on screen, which doesn't seem to hit battery life at all, which intelligently switches off if it's in a pocket or bag, has some layout options, has a nice big clock, bright, making the use of the AMOLED, can be switched off if the user prefers (or times out) but the missing link is the fact that the notification items are often confusing (like a football popping up sometime around the general time that Google Assistant thinks that your preferred team is playing) but more problematically than that, none of the items are in any way interactive. Nokia 7 Plus since the Pie update it's reverted to a dumbed-down version of the Pixel AoD, so small clock, unchangeable, but unlike the Pixel, just doesn't stay on and needs lifting or double-tapping to fire up. As it is for the Nokia 6.1 - same thing.

Pixel devices running Pie puts you in the hands of the automation of the Assistant and doesn't give much control either. The icons are not interactive, so you again have to open up the device to look at items if you miss the summary come through. The display does stay on, so that's great, it shows battery state and Now Playing, but for me, the clock is too small and can't be changed.

Recent Sony devices should vary depending on screen tech, but don't. The LCD XZ2 has excellent clock options and notifications, but they're not interactive and the display doesn't stay on. The AMOLED XZ3 is pretty much the same. As for the OnePlus 6T, there's no excuse for not offering that option to people. Razer Phone (and Razer Phone 2) also has an LCD display, so I guess there's some excuse for not offering AoD. What you do get with a double-tap is a huge clock, however, and large cross-screen notifications as they come in. Sadly, there are no clock options, nor interactivity.

LG G6, G7, V30 and V40 and Samsung Galaxy S8, S8+, S9, S9+ and the Note series raise the bar with lots of options, in the process proving that it can be done on LCD screens (from LG), without nasty hits on battery. Loads of clock options, interactive notifications, music and podcast controls, swipes and scrolls galore - it's hard to fault. There's just one thing for me - the actual size of the display in both cases. Why can't I have a nice big clock, like the Razer and Sirocco, for example, I wonder. All that attention to detail by LG/Samsung but no sizing controls. However, these options, along with the amazing hardware benefits of Samsung devices (particularly) often have my index finger twitching over the Order button!

This leaves, for my little set of devices and experiences, the Moto Z3 Play. This also ticks many boxes. It works differently to others in that it has an ambient sensor which fires up the AoD when something moves across the front of the screen. This works excellently well - the clock is big, the notification icons are interactive and big, there's a battery 'ring' around the clock, day, date and time, though no options for other clocks or anything else in terms of design or style. It's bright and bold and but for one annoying quirk, it would be my winner here - there are no music controls and indeed, when music is playing, the whole AoD and ambient sensor become unresponsive. However, if you lift the phone up, suddenly Music controls (long-press-slide for Next/Play/Pause/Previous) appear! Bizarre - why is the ambient sensor disabled in the process?! Something else that needs fixing in a software update. Fell at the last hurdle, but pretty close!

These are just my group of devices, as I say, and I'm sure you'll have data to add from other ones. My experience certainly point to Samsung here holding the crown with LG and Moto slipped in just behind. Yet another thing that Samsung is just doing right. It's hard to resist sometimes, but my Moto keeps that twitching finger elevated over the mouse and not pressing!

Please do fill in the gaps with your devices and experiences. There is Huawei and Honor out there and Xiaomi now amongst many others. I wonder how they compare.

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...