Sunday, 31 March 2019

A Serious Man

Attempting to work my way back through the Coen Brothers' films, I got to this 2009 one which is in many ways similar to Fargo but centred around Jews living in 1960's America and focuses in on the story of one man at the centre of a chaotic life amongst all the religious tradition (think Martin Freeman or William H Macy from Fargo's film and TV shows).

We have lots of crossover actors too from all sorts of other Coen Brothers' projects (and plenty of Woody Allen's too), which makes it interesting to spot-the-link as we go along! Larry is A Serious Man who's played excellently by Michael Stuhlbarg (who also played Sy from Fargo Year 3 as Ewan McGregor's Emmit Stussy's accountant) and Larry's world is falling down around his ears. His wife is fed up with him, seeking a divorce and looking to set up a new life with her friend Sy (yes, another Sy), played by Fred Melamed who also popped up in Fargo, along with various Allen films. His son hangs out smoking pot most of the time, daughter is only interested in how she looks, stealing money from Larry for a nose-job and preening herself for boys! Then there's the scary next door neighbour (think American Beauty) looking like he'd punch his lights out given half a chance over property boundaries!

Larry is a Professor in the local college who's seeking betterment and that likelihood is looming any minute so he has to hold it together. The son's bar-mitzvah is also coming - and what a scream that is when we get there and the son is high! Larry's loser brother is also living in the house with the family and Larry has to deal with him and his problems on an hourly basis and to add to his troubles, the wife is making him pay for the legal fees associated with the divorce and has forced him and his brother to go and live in a motel! Thrown into the mix is an attempted bribe for higher marks by an Asian student and his father, making Larry feel as though the threat of racist claims gives him no choice but to comply - and the money would be handy! Larry heads for the Rabbi to seek advice (a very funny turn from Simon Helberg, from The Big Bang Theory fame) and get's nothing but philosophy as the world closes further in on him.

What's interesting and different about this film is that there's really not much meat to the story (unlike the Fargo where murder and mayhem surrounded the main character) and nothing much happens - and in that regard, it's much more like an Allen comedy. It's about people, their interactions and one man having to find a path through it all. In some ways it's lethargic, but in every scene there's also rich comedy and laugh out loud moments, tempered with just having to feel really sorry for the long-suffering Larry.

There's deep meaning, no doubt in the film for those who don't want to take it at face value, philosophical and religious commentary about the meaning of life, the struggle for answers to impossible to answer questions, reflected for some on Larry's classroom chalkboard as he poses difficult mathematical formulae for his students to look to solve - along with a bizarre opening and apparently unrelated subtitled scene in which questions are asked about reality, existence and perception. There's much to get your teeth into if you want to delve beneath the surface, but it's also an entertaining tragicomedy which the viewer doesn't really have to know much about Judaism to enjoy.

The film is, as you would expect, beautifully produced and directed with exacting detail from the brothers who can, it seems, make films now just as they want to now instead of pandering to money-making in the industry. And it shows - the amount of time and effort spent on sets and camerawork are an education, regardless of the content of the film, story, script or dark humour.

The cast, as I said earlier, are exceptional, each and every one - and it's great fun spotting people from other films and TV as you go along. I'm enjoying my path through the films of the Coen Brothers very much and the further I travel along it, the more I appreciate that these filmmakers are some of the creative geniuses of our time. Highly recommended - as are most of their films.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Boomerang!

I would never have thought to watch this film from 1947 if it had not been suggested that I do so by my dad. It was one of Great Uncle Ted's favourites and dad tells me that Ted took him as a lad to the cinema in post-WWII Southampton for repeated viewings as Ted loved it so much! So I thought I'd give it a go.

The story is a true one, or based on fact, about a popular priest in Connecticut who is shot in the street one dark night, the failure of the local police to catch anyone for it, the subsequent framing of a drifter who nobody cared much about, the potential political impact on some of the local businessmen and officials in City Hall and the moral standpoint taken by the city's DA in order to see right prevail.

The priest was very popular and when nobody was being apprehended for the crime, the authorities came under much pressure from, particularly, the press who were out to get headlines at any cost. The public were up in arms and demanding, almost to the extent of mob rule and/or violence, that something had to be done. The rising pressure on the man leading the police investigation also had an impact on how he behaved and executed his duties. So a real pressure cooker boiling up and only the DA standing between the accused and a rope.

Now, I'm too young to really know most of these actors, but Dana (isn't that a girl's name?) Andrews takes the lead as the DA and is clearly the most capable and natural actor on display here. He's a handsome chap who I realise now was the heart attack suffering pilot in Airport 75, decades later - and has a list of cinematic triumph aplenty from 1940 onwards! He's married to Madge, played by the very pretty Jane Wyatt in a time when men made sure that women knew what society expected of them (though Madge, in this case, has a surprise of her own too)! A time when women leave the room when men come in to let them do business, which, by inference, would be above their heads. A time when they were expected to serve food and drinks to the assembled men and even put up with overt rudeness. On one occasion a man enters the room where man and wife are sitting, to which the man exclaims delight saying "...I needed some company" and the woman is shuffled out of the way, as if hers was not good enough.

This is an interesting snapshot of post-WWII America though, where everybody, but everybody is smoking (on one occasion next to a petrol pump and even in a court of law) - and boozing half the day too! Every scene seemed to involve breaking out a bottle and glasses - alcohol left right and centre! Also a time when young people were well behaved, well groomed, polite and neatly dressed - and everyone wore black or dark colours, all men dressed the same - and wore hats!

In keeping with this, the film was shot in 4:3 and black and white, in a near noir style with long and deep shadows, uplighting, shallow depth of field, close ups and soft focus. Think Casablanca. Hoards of men swimming around police offices, run by Irish migrators, paint the picture and style of the 1940's sets and style. It was directed by Elia Kazan, famous for various other projects such as A Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden and On The Waterfront.

The story unfolds in a near-Hitchcockian way as twists to the story come along and turns are presented to the audience without prior exposure. I wouldn't exactly call it a thriller, but the style of delivery is clearly an attempt to make it so and thrill the audience with what material the filmmakers could, given that it was true - and presumably most people would have known the outcome. In that sense, it probably works better decades later for the likes of me, who didn't!

Hang on - I recognise an actor here. It's Karl Malden who plays one of the policemen, though not a lead role. He's the one with the nose! One of those actors that you'll have seen all over the place but probably don't know his name. I remembered him from Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, The Streets of San Francisco and Patton in the end! I expect people older than me will of course connect more with the actors here.

It's an enjoyable watch, which doesn't feel like it's a boring old film in black and white. It's very well made and on the whole, solidly acted. It's paced nicely and there's no room for getting bored or making a cuppa during the proceedings. Films always seem to have a special edge when the viewer knows that the story is true, and this is no exception. It's not so easy to get hold of, but if you see it somewhere being shown one afternoon on one of the film channels, set your recorder. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Razer Phone 2 (Revisited)

Disappointed as I was to hear the rumours about Razer abandoning their Mobile Division and the cancellation of the Razer 3 along with Project Linda, I was re-encouraged to then read that this may not be quite so. We should have learnt by now not to listen too much to rumours! A statement from Razer suggests, though not too specifically, ongoing commitment after all.

Furthermore, I'd lost heart in the apparent abandonment of the OG Razer Phone in terms of Security Updates and a long-awaited shift to the Android 9 (Pie) software - so much so that I'd stopped using it except as a media server. My flawed logic and feeling was about who'd want to invest their enthusiasm and time in a system that they know is heading down a short cul-de-sac. However, nothing lasts forever - and something which one of the PSC Group members said, made me take stock of that. Whatever phone (or other piece of tech) we buy, it won't now have a long life. Gone are the days when we can buy any tech and expect ongoing support for decades. So, the message I digested was to get on and enjoy using it - the phone with the best speakers on the planet - and stop fretting about the future!

Previous Thoughts
In my original review of the loan Razer Phone OG, I was wow'd by the amazing sound coming from the speakers, six months later I was back with longer term views, having by then bought my own, from then until now I have compared the sound output to many other phones including this Samsung example and finally, I bought and reviewed my own Razer Phone 2 to see if and how that improved on the already fabulous USP. I remained disappointed by the lack of updates from Razer and ultimately returned the unit (as the improvements were significant - but not £700 significant!) amidst rumours, as I said above, of abandonment - as it was an expensive acquisition.

Nice Price
However, it seems that Razer got their finger out, responded to the Razer Community's pressure and pushed out an update, just last month, giving the Razer Phone 2 a delicious slice of Pie. I had previously considered that, as I already had the OG Razer and there's was no sight of Pie in either, the 10-15% improvements in speakers in the second generation wasn't enough to be throwing away more flagship money. The other significant event which swayed my decision was that the new price of the Razer 2 had been dropped from £779 to £499 (thus initially at least fuelling the rumours of a Razer bail-out). Time to think again!

Pie for Chips
As you can see from the screenshot above, as soon as I turned on this SIM Free unit, which arrived with 8.1 and October 2018 Security, it was looking to download Pie and February 2019 Security, followed by a second download attending to Audio fixes and improvements, latest GMS apps and other fixes and improvements, unspecified. Very encouraging! The usual array of Pie changes are listed there along with 4K video recording at 60fps in the Camera app.

Restored Ease
One of the huge benefits of working with Nova Prime, particularly when it's baked-in here (which means there's no need for the side-loading of the Nova Companion app to get Google Feed, or Discovery, or Assistant Cards - or whatever it's called this month) is that a simple BackUp from the old device to Google Drive (for example, though could be anywhere you fancy) and Restore to the new, means that you're up and running as swiftly as, well, a swift!

Greens and Blues
To the changes, then - and there ain't that many really - but I do feel better! There's obviously all the Pie goodness in terms of the Settings being rearranged and more colourful, some stuff shifted from one menu to another, or from sub-menu to menu - and the round big buttons in the Notification drop-down (though this time they're Razer Green/grey instead of iOS Blue/grey) - but we've seen all this many times now. Navigation control on the homescreen is a Pixel Pill and (non-context sensitive, ever-present) Back arrow (which we believe will be going away in Android Q anyway). Interesting that they've done the same thing here as I found in one or two other manufacturers' Pie implementations, differently to Google's Pixel devices.

Controlled Pills
The Pill control also work slightly differently in that with Pixel you have that one up-swipe from it to get to Recents and a staggered up-swipe to get to the Apps Tray, but here, and better I think, it's a swipe-up from the Pill for Recents the same, but rather swipe from the 'dock' area for the Apps Drawer. Works well and there's no finger gymnastics to learn for users. You can also, should you wish, unlike with a Pixel, switch back to Home, Back and Recents buttons. Whichever way you have it, the screen space is taken up with them (except for in media-centric apps like YouTube) so there's no clever OnePlus/Samsung full gesture control available as an option. Call me an old fart, but I think I actually prefer the old way - certainly until everyone catches up with the much better Motorola execution of The Long Pill.

Loving Nanny
Adaptive battery and brightness are present along with Digital Wellbeing, for those who still love their Nanny. There's the aforementioned 60fps 4K video recording for those who might make use of it and the important point here is that all this is straight-from-Google stuff, not tweaked and messed with by phone manufacturers wishing to put their stamp on it and (allegedly) making it better. There's something pure about the way in which Razer works with Nova who works with Google, keeping what's on the phone as clean as a whistle - whilst still enabling terrific customisation options in the launcher's settings.

Chroma
The Chroma thing on the back works just like it did before, enabling control of the lighting of the big Razer LED logo. By far the most sensible option for this is of course using it for incoming notifications but otherwise off. But each to their own! Those who do cane it can, of course now, use Qi Charging for top-ups.

No Voice Games
Strangely, the Dolby Atmos in the Razer Phone 2 (since Pie) has had a couple of main options taken out - Voice and Game. I have no idea what that is about, nor seen it referred to anywhere, but it really doesn't detract from the vast array of options, buttons, bells and whistles available to tweak sound until the users' hearts are content - making the system-wide sound options second to none. One of the most enjoyable things I've found whilst using the system is not blaring rock music out at maximum volume, but rather turning it down and then playing with the rich options available in a quiet room. This is not just about raw volume - there's such of a lot of other ways to enjoy great sound!

Louder and Richer
So there's not much more to report really. I still maintain that the speakers are louder and richer than the OG Razer to the tune of about 15% - and that the Razer Phone 2, armed with Dolby Atmos is the best sounding phone one can buy. I've still yet to hear Asus' ROG phone output, though we did cover that on a PSC show a few weeks ago with Adrian Brain, who was able to at least put that up against the OG Razer Phone. Results of that can be heard in Phones Show Chat 485.

Own the Risk
There's no black and white statement from Razer about the future of their Mobile Division. This phone could, very well still be a niche device and Razer might stop supporting it as we go through the 2019 months. And yes, I might well then end up whining about being let down again - but I'll really try not to! Even Android phones with previous generation versions of the OS - and a security version a year old - are still perfectly usable. The challenge might be, should that happen, an acquired adjustment of mindset, owning the risk of that happening right now. The price now, for the amazing hardware on show is very reasonable, and not only for the speakers. I shall hope for support going forward, but revisit these words in the months to come if I'm feeling disheartened!

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Motorola One

The Motorola One is an attempt by the firm to bring an Android One device to market, with all the benefits of regular updates and clean Vanilla that brings along with the Moto signature. It started off in asia as the P30 Play, smaller brother of the better specified Motorola One Power or P30 Note. The China version had a different front-end for that market. Hope you're keeping up at the back! When it got to the UK as the One last year, it was released at £269 but is now available at just £199. That's a congested place in the market, but not when you consider only devices as close to Vanilla as this one.

If you can see past those claiming that it's a clear iPhone clone with Apple design language (after all, everyone's doing that), I think they've done pretty well here. But let's get that one out of the way. Yes, it does look kind of like an iPhone of the day, with the general shape and positioning of the camera islands on the back, but unlike the real clones produced by the likes of Honor, Xiaomi et al, that's where it ends. Where some others also infiltrate the system and settings with iOS-style options, colours and buttons, Motorola here certainly does not - beyond those adopted by Google for Pie.

Parentage
This handset reflects a mixed parentage of Motorola and Pixel - and actually looks very much like a Pixel. It has the general shape of the smaller of the Pixels, but with one big difference - the screen is usefully that much bigger. I've always said that the Pixel devices have been small one, too small, big one, too big - and this unit sits right in the middle - in the same way as various Nokia devices. The Goldilocks Zone.

Tough Plastic
First to the physical, for 'tis where we usually start, and we find a device made mostly of plastics - hard and tough-looking plastics, which doesn't seem to detract from the robust feel of the device. It oddly feels like it's glass in the hand because of the look of the back, which has been carefully covered with a layer of clear plastic on top which is very reflective and glass-looking! (Very much like the front covering of the keys on the Nokia 6680 family - remember those!) Added to which, I have the black version here, this adds to the 'more classy than price reflects' look and feel. Those who have said that it feels less that great because of plastics seem to have been handling the white version.

Moto M
There's the word 'Motorola' on the chin on the front, which is slim and would have acted with symmetry taking in the forehead, if there was no notch and ears - we'll come to that. Bezels left and right are 'just right' - balancing minimalism with enough space to avoid accidental touches. There's an earpiece speaker in the forehead with a Selfie camera and sensors but no Notification LED. On the right is a volume rocker and power button, plastic again, but feeling plenty sturdy enough. On the top is a 3.5mm audio-out socket, left side SIM/microSD Tray and bottom, USB-C port and two grilles - one of which is a mono speaker. Lastly to the back and a circular fingerprint scanner with a Moto M in it, just in the right place 75% of the way up in the middle. This works perfectly well, registration is short and sweet and it works blazingly fast every time.

Large Box
The One feels very much like the size and weight of a Pixel 3, but when you put them side-by-side you realise that the Motorola is significantly bigger - but it feels like it's all screen in comparison - though of course the chin of the Pixel has to house one of the two faux stereo front-firing speakers. Motorola claim that the device is splashproof, but there's no IP rating - much like the rest of their current range of devices. In the (strangely oversized) box you get (in usual Motorola style these days) a thin and floppy TPU, which is perfectly usable and grippy but many will want a better quality one. There's also a USB-A to USB-C charging/data cable, a 15W TurboPower charging plug and the usual papers and SIM Tray ejector tool.

Dot Notch
The front glass is protected by Gorilla Glass 3, which makes it better for protection from micro-scratches but not so protective against shattering. I'll take that payoff, having recently marked a GG5 screen. It's an LTPS IPS LCD screen underneath, 5.9" in a 19:9 ratio, making it tall and narrow compared to 16:9. There's a very wide notch at the top. There are sensors, speaker and a camera taking up that space, but you really get the feeling that it could easily have been smaller - or at least that in software there was the option to hide the ears and bring the Notifications down more (but I suppose that's not the Google Way). There's hardly any room for Notifications and I constantly have a Dot on both sides telling me that there's more to see.

Hawk Eyes
The panel is a 720p one and on the face of it, you'd think that's a big problem - and it might be for those with younger eyes or people who want to use the device for specific graphical purposes, but actually it's just fine. The colours are reproduced very nicely and can be switched between Standard and Vibrant in Settings with a warm/cool slider for fine tuning. Text in web pages looks absolutely fine to my eyes, clear enough and I see no edge issues with characters. Why we need 1440p screens, I don't know. 287ppi in my world is perfectly usable. Putting this LCD screen up against (what is still, I think, best in class) the Nokia 8, both on 100% brightness, yes the Nokia is brighter, but that only really rears its head in practice when out in bright sunshine. Watch out if you live in Libya, or somewhere else with sun! Actually we do have the sun out here today and the screen remains perfectly usable in bright direct sun, if not quite so good as the Nokia.

Pick a Card
This Motorola One was bought from Argos in the UK and is Dual SIM out of the box, so I can only assume that this is true across the board, but worth checking if you need that and you're in a different region. The two slots can both be used for non-data but you have to choose which of the two will work with data. The good news is that the microSD Card slot is available as well as the two SIM slots. Talking of which, I have tested my 512GB microSD card here and there's no problem reading/writing from that and the phone didn't want to format it first. The USB OTG also works perfectly, plugging in this big card - and the system sees it and uses it as an extSSD. Kudos! Incidentally, testing of the cellular and wifi aerials returned excellent connectivity as we'd expect from Motorola.

One Nice Pie
On release, the phone was running Oreo but in keeping with the spirit of Android One, was soon updated to Pie and this unit now has February 2019 Google Security on board. I feel confident going forward that this will be kept on schedule in the same way as Nokia is doing, but not the other (non Android One) Motorola devices, which seem to lag behind somewhat.

Not Underpowered
Another price-point decision taken with this phone was to equip it with a Snapdragon 625. Let's be clear here - this is no Snapdragon 400-series underpowered device. The Moto Z3 Play is working perfectly well with a SD636, behaving mostly like a flagship device with an 800-series chipset, and this 625 really doesn't feel much different. I honestly don't feel any delay in any processes running anything which I would normally ask of a phone. No doubt a heavy gamer this would not suit, but for most of the rest of us, I think it's just fine. Not to mention the power benefits. Strangely, the only single thing I noticed the device being slow to do, was to power-off. Compared to other Android One devices, maybe that is indeed a chipset thing.

Managing Fine
There's 64GB of on board memory here and, unlike the Pixel, a microSD Card slot, as I mentioned, so plenty of space for media and storage alongside hundreds of apps and their associated data. Yes, I'd much rather have 128GB but with USB OTG and 64GB, I can manage! Same as the Pixel, this has 4GB RAM and, again, I see no problem with this. Switching between tasks is just fine and I have had many, many apps open which the system (at least through aggressive RAM management) is not closing down.

Disproportionate
The battery supplied in this phone is a 3000mAh one, which, on the face of it, is pretty mean, but with the SD625, less RAM, 720p screen all working together with the efficiencies of Android Pie, the return on daily use with this battery is really super. It's getting way past one day, mostly through the second. As always, it depends what you're doing with the phone - how demanding you're being, which means that I can only go on my average use. Like the Nokia 8 Sirocco, the battery capacity seems to be disproportionate for what I'm getting out of it in terms of longevity.

Coding and Decoding
I now come to my favourite topic, sound! There's a single mono loudspeaker here which although is no Razer in terms of volume or quality, Motorola has supplied what they're calling Dolby Audio controls. Now, this is an interesting topic as it's not the Dolby Atmos as supplied with the Razer Phone, nor is it the apparently stripped down version found in the likes of the Moto G7 Plus or high-end Samsung devices of late. The version in the Razer seems to have the most controls and options, this version here second with a similar layout but not quite so many and the latter, Samsung/Moto (for example) having some very basic on/off switches and three pre-sets. Apparently, it's all to do with the audio decoder and what that is capable of processing (2.1, 5.1) - and from there, the software supplied to control it. I shall have to learn more about all that but for now, this device has Dolby Audio, but with many more options available - more like an Atmos implementation.

Better Components
In practice, the speaker of the Motorola One with Dolby turned off, is still pretty loud and a fair quality. Much better than you'd expect for a unit of this size and price. Motorola still seem to ensure that they supply phones with better components than many others, even when cutting costs generally to hit a price-point. Turn on the Dolby Audio and the sound can be changed, tweaked and manually altered to improve and adjust high, mid and low end depending on the kind of music being listened to. Much like with the Razer, the options are near-limitless and really do make a good speaker into an excellent sounding device. There's no stereo of course, but if you need that there's a traditional headphone socket!

AMP and DAC
Turning to headphones, then, and doing my usual test with firstly music and my AKG K701 reference 'phones. The sound produced is pretty low volume and flat without Dolby. There's no extra amplification going on here or fancy DAC stuff, but, like with the speaker, the use of Dolby makes a huge difference and allows for all sorts of enhancements to the sound. Again, near-limitless control and options. Now, plugging in my Razer DAC dongle (into the USB-C socket instead of using the 3.5mm) the volume and quality is transformed, as we might expect. Furthermore, the employment then of the Dolby Audio settings make a supporting hardware combination working with the phone's software, produce an amazing sound. But maybe that's true of any old phone!

Around the Edges
You probably have worked out by now that I'm no physicist, nor audio specialist so I dabble around the edges of understanding all this stuff, focusing much more on the experience, reporting what I hear and how it sounds. What sounds poor to my ears and what's great. Testing 5.1 audio via YouTube now - and I can, once again, hear helicopters coming over my head sounding like they're from behind me, as if sitting in a room full of speakers and Surround experience. I'm sure it's all tricks, but it sounds just fabulous. So - long and short is that the speaker is very good. Punches well above its weight. It's no Razer, nor bluetooth speaker, but is much more than adequate. Put on some headphones and things sound great with Dolby to help. Add a DAC dongle in the mix and immerse yourself!

Wireless Love
Things seem simpler when Bluetooth headphones are used - all the above goodness with no dongles or DACs or cables, of course. It seems that there's no aptX support here but even without, it still sounds fabulous, though that, I suppose, would only be tested with bigger and better kbps audio files anyway. I'll leave all that to the experts! FM Radio is also amazingly included, just like with various other Motorola handsets - kudos to them for continuing to support his - and here it's the recording version which can also be used via the speakers, again with system-wide Dolby Audio support for tweaking sound. What's not to like!

Snipped Snaps
The supplied cameras will win no awards but are are perfectly functional used in tandem with Motorola's camera app. It looks and feels very much like the app present on the Moto G7 Plus, Z3 Play and others. It has a sprinkling of bells and whistles but draws the line before adding options for kids and teens playing with daft effects. Feels much more adult! There's clearly no OIS at this price-point and options with 4K are limited to 30fps, but what you expect for under £200 with a SD625! The main lens is a 13MP f2 unit, Google Lens is baked in - and Portrait Mode works pleasingly well with the secondary 2MP f2.4 depth sensor and a slider for live appraisal. Close focus in Manual mode Macro gets a reasonable shot at about 3 inches. It's a perfectly good camera for the masses of people using the phone for social media purposes. Pixel Peepers - away!

Purity
Now to the UX and near-Vanilla Pie experience. This is where it gets spookily similar to the Pixel and Essential Phone again with homescreen elements laid out just the same way but with, as I said earlier, more space via the larger panel. The fixed elements are present top and bottom, At a Glance and Search tube, right-swipe for Google Feed baked in, swipe-up from Home for Recents cards and longer swipe for Apps Drawer. The Pie-style Notifications drop-down with the bog-standard editing and colour scheme is employed. Settings too, mostly as stock as you can get. No Motorola adjustments anywhere in sight.

Moto Adds
In order to find the Moto stuff, you need to launch the Moto App within which you get access to some of the Moto Actions, Security and Display controls, but not all. The Voice stuff is missing completely, this being a stock experience mostly. Sadly missing is the one aspect which raises Motorola devices above most others - the Approach in Display. Instead of this, and replacing it, is a very similar scheme to the one most Nokia devices on Pie have adopted - in that you have to nudge or lift the device to fire up screen information. Immediately a Notification comes in, you do get some control over how to use that information and execute quick-interactions (to a degree), but only that first time. If the screen goes off again, that's it - chance gone. The much more interactive version of all this is available in the other Moto phones, but they've obviously decided to keep it very Vanilla here, as adopted by Nokia. Shame.

Cute and Neat
The bottom line is that there's an awful lot of phone here, particularly for the Android purist for £199. It's clean, very Pixel-like with great battery and sound options. It's cute and neat - certainly pocket-friendly, has a perfectly adequate camera for the vast majority and defies the mid-range chipset through efficiency, performance and longevity. Yes, the phone is made of plastic but let's face it - you're going to have a TPU on it anyway - and plastic makes it lighter than it could be with all metal and glass.

Great Value
The main attraction for me is the purity of Android One and the fruit of the growth of the scheme. The Motorola One is a perfectly good option for anyone looking for the simple approach with some Moto goodness thrown in. Motorola are going great guns and I for one, armed with £199 would much, much rather have this clean and great sounding experience over any one of the upcoming Chinese firms' offerings. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Moto G7 Plus

It's sometimes difficult to see quite where phone manufacturers are pitching their devices these days. It used to be clearer, with budget, mid-range and flagship but now we're getting devices coming along which challenge those boundaries and give exceptional value for money.

Last week, I was writing about the Xiaomi Mi 8 Lite, which is right in the same category as this new offering from Motorola, the G7 Plus. It's priced at very nearly budget, behaves mostly like a mid-ranger but with some aspects which could be considered flagship territory. As we know, the G-series Moto devices have evolved now through a good number of changes and this one is the latest - and arguably - the best so far.

Top of the Range
This is, of course, what they consider top of the G-range, and is priced on release in the UK at £269. It doesn't have the 5000mAh battery of the G7 Power, but apart from that, leads the way. It's available in Deep Indigo and this gorgeous deep red which they call Viva.

Quick Tour
It's quite a tall device, a smidgeon taller but narrower than my Moto Z3 Play, but obviously thicker as it's not Mod-ready and the battery is locked in. It's of average weight, which is surprising when we learn that the front and back are Gorilla Glass 3, although the band holding them together is plastic. The front is flat but back curves away round to the then flat back. On the back is the now-signature camera ring cluster and underneath it an ever so slightly too small circular fingerprint scanner. On top is the SIM Card (dual in some markets)/microSD Card Tray and on the right, volume rocker and knurled power button, which you won't be needing much. More on that later. The bottom houses a speaker, 3.5mm audio-out socket and USB-C port. On the front there's a minimal chin, but just enough for the firm to print their name, and in the forehead, proximity sensor, ambience sensor and selfie camera. In the hand it feels great and almost exactly the same weight, size and footprint as the Nokia 8, which I happen to have here. There's no IP-rating here but the internals do have Nano-coating which make them splash/rain resistant.

Turbo Flight
It was great to see that in the box Moto included a TPU which will work fine for 90% of people, I'm sure, but it's a bit thin and flimsy in truth. A better one for a fiver is a good idea, difficult as it might be to look a gift horse in the mouth! There's a USB-C to USB-C cable and QC4 27W TurboCharger, yes - you read that right! It's a terrific addition to the package and in my test, I can get the 3000mAh battery from near-flat to 100% in 56 minutes. It's quite amazing watching it fly. 60% notched up in 18 minutes here, 82% in 28 minutes, 92% in 38 minutes, 96% in 48 minutes. I wouldn't want to do that every time, for fear of knackering the battery long-term, but for emergency boosting and when the user can't (or forgets to) trickle charge overnight, it's great to have.

Power Point
Which brings us nicely to battery life and the bad-press that the device seems to have got in the hands of some reviewers out there. In my first three days I can report that the battery, though of course I'd rather have 4000mAh, is good enough (on my level playing-field of reviewing, testing and using devices over the years) for my average mixed use (employing adaptive battery and brightness) for 24 hours with 6 hours screen-on-time. I think that's OK and certainly, for me, gives little danger of not getting to bedtime. If you want to carry the 27W charger, however, it obviously gives options for the heavier-user. There's no Qi Charging at this price-point of course.

Flying Chips
The battery (and price) is clearly assisted by a less powerful chipset, in this case, top of the G7 range Snapdragon 636 and 4GB RAM. Android 9 Pie (with December 2018 Google Security, the promise of Q and at least two years of Security Updates) is present which has its own optimisations to ensure a power-efficient device. I don't so far notice aggressive closing down of apps to maintain that equilibrium but time will tell. The 636 compromise seems to have little impact on performance to me. It's the same combination which I see on my Moto Z3 Play and it seems to fly through any tasks presented, with switching between, a breeze. It would, of course, be nice to have a 128GB/6GB RAM version but this is the 64GB one. Again, price-point. Apparently these is one out there somewhere but not in this neck of the woods. 64GB is, for me, just about manageable as long as there's a microSD Card slot, which there is, officially supporting 512GB cards, but i'm sure more (if formatted in the device). Like the Z3 Play, it's great to also see that the file system enables the plug-and-play of my 512GB microSD Card, opening possibilities aplenty for carrying data and media for whatever purpose the user fancies. I currently have a DVD rip'd film playing as I type this and the stereo speakers create an excellent sound. Yes, let's go there next...

Sound Margins
The G7 Plus has a speaker top and bottom, working together with the system-wide Dolby Atmos to create an excellent sound. Comparing this here with the Razer phone, the Moto's top volume exceeds the Razer's by some margin, even if it doesn't quite get the richness and bass. The Razer's listening experience is superior with Dolby Atmos on, fuller and deeper, but certainly at the expense of volume. Depending on media source and, as always, music style or spoken word, the Moto, with volume wound right up can sound a little tinny, but drop it down to 80%, which is still very loud, and that quality comes back.

Wide Sounds
Playing with the Dolby settings, which are Smart (auto), Music and Film, much like the arrangement on the top-end Samsung devices, sometimes it sounds better with, without - or a mixture of effects. All in all, though, it's an excellent facility and well worth having. The stereo effect, when placed 18" in front of my face testing with my usual stereo-exploitative track The Prophet's Song by Queen, is terrific and the fact that the bottom-firing speaker carries the low-end and the top (earpiece) speaker the highs, doesn't detract from the experience hardly at all. Further testing with YouTube videos designed to demonstrate stereo effect similarly sound terrific, though not creating the highs of the Razer's 5.1 surround.

Plugged In
The G7 Plus has a 3.5mm audio-out socket (cue cheers). I plugged in my AKG K701 reference headphones and can report that the sound is terrific as well. It's rich and immersive, with the stereo space sounding great. Testing with 5.1 surround YouTube videos and Netflix, there is a real surround thing going on, with spaceships and helicopters coming over my shoulder sounding like they are! The audio purist will of course find better sound elsewhere with fancy DAC and amplification options, but at this price-point I think that 99% of people wouldn't think that the sound produced is anything less than excellent. Bluetooth 5 is on board with aptX too - it seems to hook up easily and quickly to bluetooth peripherals and sounds equally good though headphones or speakers.

Wireless
As if all this audio-chat was not enough, there's also an FM Radio present which fires up nicely on demand and initially needs something plugged into the 3.5mm socket to act as an aerial. Once done, the unit tunes in scanning for stations. In North Wales it found plenty of stations and many of them were strong signals which again, sounded great. Once established, you can then switch the sound to come from the speakers and there's even a record facility for those who want it. A great (and rare) addition for devices released, certainly in Europe. Whilst we're talking wireless, I'll just mention that the wifi and cellular aerials, as usual, it seems with Motorola, are excellent. Last week I was really struggling with the Pixel 3 with a voice call, but in the same situation, this was perfect.

High and Mighty
The 6.2" LTPS IPS LCD screen is a 1080p (FullHD+) one with a 19:9 ratio, making it tall and almost filling the frontage, as I said earlier. The resolution creates 405ppi, which is plenty for most human eyes! Unlike the Super AMOLED panel of the Z3 Play, the LCD here is clearly cheaper and uses less power, but actually it seems sharp, bright and colourful. You can adjust the colour in Settings between some basic parameters, but the Saturated setting looks best for my use. LCD panels have come a long way over the last few years and certainly Sony's XZ2 screen was hard to tell from an AMOLED. You clearly also get no burn-out and longer-term potential problems with this technology.

No Sun here
I don't have any bright sunlight here to test the screen with, but although pretty overcast out there it seems very bright to me (the Cave Dweller!) and yes, it could be brighter, but remains perfectly usable. If I get some sun, I'll report back! The elephant in the room now - the notch! Yes, there is one, and it's a kind of large teardrop one in the middle. It is quite big, and for those who don't want it at all, there's no way in software to hide it with a black block for the 'ears'. So it'll be a question of whether or not people can get used to it. I have quickly adapted, and I think like most objective users out there will report, the brain very soon adapts and doesn't 'see' it. If you have black wallpaper of course you can't see it on the homescreen!

OIS for Twitchers
There's another bonus for users at this price-point, that being OIS in the rear-facing 16 MP f/1.7 camera. This obviously helps with low-light shots and as you probably know, I'm no pixel-peeper, but those who are say that the phone can take very good low light shots with little noise, compared to units without. No doubt Steve Litchfield will put the camera through its paces, but to have OIS is a real bonus for those folk out there who like to take photos of owls! It's twinned with a 5MP f2.2 depth-sensor unit and between them, they seem to do a decent job of the en vogue Portrait thing. The front-facing Selfie is a 12MP one.

Camera Extras
Comparing the camera's options to the Z3 Play, there's a couple more 'toys' on the Play (Text Scanner, Face Filters) but on the Plus, there's better slow-motion options. The camera setup on the newer model is better equipped in terms of raw MP counts and the specs slightly evolved, like for example, the addition of 4K video from the Selfie at 30fps, the older stuck at 1080p. There's an additional 'all in focus' switch which, presumably, works with what hardware and software there is to emulate in 'real' camera terms what would be a very small aperture opening. I guess that the clever bit then comes in with OIS and balanced shutter-speed to try hard to not create a load of noise. The rest of it though seems very similar indeed. At the risk of repeating myself again and again, here's the short version - most people won't care as long as they can take snaps!

The Big M
We'll move into software in a minute, but just to mention that the fingerprint scanner with a big M in it on the back is very responsive, accurate, quick and easy to set up (though not quite Pixel-quick) and just in the right place. Because of the available options supplied by Motorola, there's loads of ways of interacting with the phone and not having to always pick it up and use the fingerprint scanner to get in - though as I'll say in a minute, there's room for improvement in software.

Wave Hello
Firstly, the very same 'approach' is employed that's present in the Z3 Play. Wave your hand over the sensor on the front of the screen and you get the Moto Circle with time, battery state, day, month and date. Below it, you also get Notifications, which are interactive with the option to quick-reply on-the-fly. Long-press one of them and slide down to dismiss or slide up to open it up. This is where it gets clever as face-unlock is also employed in the Moto Actions app, so that if you're looking at the screen it will then bypass any lock you have on the screen which would usually make the user press the fingerprint scanner, put in code/pattern or whatever. This system gets you straight in and working. The display is not as bright as the one on the Z3 Play, presumably that's an LCD thing, but it's not far off - and great to have on an LCD screen at all.

Vanilla Pie
Once you're in, the software experience is very close to Vanilla Android. Motorola have been good at this over the years - adding virtually nothing to the Stock experience except for a few things which put their mark on the phone - and mostly those options are useful ones, not bloat. There are also adopted enhancements from Android Pie, some good, some bad. Firstly, out of the box you get the Google Feed by right-swipe. Not a given these days with Bixby this and Xiaomi that! You can have the traditional 3 buttons at the foot of the screen if you like, but far better is the 'long pill' - present on the Z3 Play but not so Pie-adjusted (yet). It's a bar that sits at the bottom, longer than Pixel's, which you swipe left for back, tap for home, flick right to switch between last two apps, long press for the Assistant and swipe up on for recents cards in a carousel. Perfect. Everyone should do it this way and Google should adopt it for Android Q. The context-sensitive back button is just not needed. You can swipe up from anywhere on the homescreen for the Apps Drawer and down from anywhere for the Notifications Tray.

Chop and Twist
In the Moto App, you get access to all sorts of Moto Actions like options to work with the off-display as mentioned earlier, lift to unlock, karate chop for flash, twist twice to fire up the camera, three-fingers on the screen from anywhere to take a screenshot (and then edit or extend-down), turn the phone over to invoke DND, attentive display, which keeps the screen awake when it detects you looking at it, music controls using the volume rocker if the screen is off, face unlock itself - we've seen it done before but it works well here too. The only caveat seems to be that (apart from the above-described dealing with incoming Notifications) if you're using a screen lock (so, most people) for some reason you also have to swipe the screen up (after you've been recognised) to get to the homescreen, which means that you might as well by then put your finger on the fingerprint scanner on the back anyway. Not sure why that step is needed and can only assume that they'll remove it in time. Seems completely pointless.

Light and Dark
Much of the settings menus follow stock Android too, with the option to use a 'dark' theme, for example, only working in some places, where Google have flipped a switch server-side in apps like Contacts, Messages, Clock, phone, but not across the UI like others have been now doing with some consistency - or at least including the option to do so. So for now, there's still lots of white around, but they'll get there eventually, I have no doubt, even if it has to wait for Q. Digital Wellbeing is present and correct along with instant greyscale, which is very handy, and Night Light for toning down colours to rest eyes.

Nit-Picking
There are somethings missing, like a battery percentage in the Notifications Tray (without a down-swipe) which is legible, not tiny and inside the icon, homescreen layout is stuck on 4x5 or 5x5 which really isn't flexible enough when some widgets just don't fit - and to make them fit, the font and/or display size has to be changed to settings that really then make it impossible for other display use. You guessed it, enter Nova Launcher! I usually end up here - though to be fair, I haven't needed to with the Z3 Play. Maybe when Pie arrives on that, the same will be needed. Thankfully there's the Nova Companion App which enables the Google Feed to be present, so workarounds meet the need.

Wow for Some
Anyway, there it is. I've been able to compare the G7 Plus with the Z3 Play to a degree here, though with the latter still stuck on 8.1, it's a bit awkward to level that out. At the end of the day, this is a terrific smartphone for the money and 95% of users would be very happy with the performance and features. Some will be bowled over by the OIS if they're into photography in a big way, audio fans will appreciate the excellent speakers and headphones output whilst others will love the near-Vanilla software experience and very smart off-screen options via (what they are now calling) Peek. For me, that makes a huge difference and to a large degree offsets the annoyance of having the fingerprint scanner on the back, for cradle, car or desk use.

Modern or Mods
The question is also about Mods. I love my battery and speakers Mods, so it will be difficult to wrench me away from that. I accept that the sound coming out the newer phone is much, much better than the Z3 Play's, but even so, being able to slap on a JBL speaker remains special and rewarding - not to mention making it sound, in turn, better by far than even this newcomer's sound. As for power, yes, it's got that great charger, but I'm concerned about the juice gobbling with all these fancy tools turned on. I know it seems to be good for 24 hours in initial testing, but there's nothing like the reassurance of a bag full of battery Mods! I'll be keen to see how the 3000mAh battery performs over a week or two.

Price Punching
We try to avoid reviewing phones on the basis of 'for the price' and this time, it's a bit simpler - because this phone punches above its weight on several points, so we can clearly say that this phone is worth much more than the asking price. It's pitched in amongst competition, of course, especially from Xiaomi, Honor and others at this price-point - and it deserves to do well, hold its head up and be counted. A terrific phone - and a drop-dead gorgeous colour! Recommended highly.

Friday, 15 March 2019

The Bookshop

There are slow-burners and then there are slow-burners! This is as slow as burners get, I reckon! This is a quiet and tranquil story of a widow who tried to open and run a bookshop of her own in a sleepy seaside town in East Anglia somewhere in the late 1950's.

I'm usually alright with slow and tranquil films as there is often something artistic to focus one's attention on, the acting, sets, drama, music or cinematography. To be fair, this has very good doses of all of these, so maybe I was just in the wrong mood! You might think that it's about books and the need for bookshops and love of books. Certainly, a part of this is that, but to some degree, even that aspect is underplayed.

The two main players are Emily Mortimer, noteworthy in a whole load of films and TV including the excellent Hugo - and Bill Nighy, who seems to have had his finger in the pie of most films that get made, everywhere! The two of them act their parts quite excellently, supported by an able cast including Patricia Clarkson (Whatever Works) as the rich local posh family head who tries to put a spanner in the works of our heroine's plans.

It's a very simple tale based on the novel of Penelope Fitzgerald of the same name, which focuses on the relationships between the local people and reaction to an incomer trying to do something interesting and different - and also social conduct and manners - in a kind of Remains of the Day type of way, in which Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson performed. It almost feels like a Merchant Ivory production, but even slower!

The sets are well done, the photography is very engaging indeed led by European director Isabel Coixet with not only long-shots of the lovely countryside and seaside town, but also interior sets where the angles and focus have been thought about and worked out well, to create atmosphere and style. The music is supplied by European Coixet collaborator Alfonso de Vilallonga and again, adds to the mood and reflective nature of the film.

It's really a very nice little Sunday afternoon film, in which the viewer needs to focus on the artistic merit rather than the slow pace of what's going on - if you do that, you'll nod off after your roast beef lunch! Certainly worth a look, but it won't blow your socks off!

Thursday, 14 March 2019

After Life

Ricky Gervais projects can be a bit hit and miss for me. I know that I'm (almost) alone not appreciating The Office much and I really didn't get on with Derek, but this six-part comedy/drama hits the nail right on the head and well worth seeking out.

Gervais plays Tony, who's wife has died. Whilst she was in hospital, she made a series of videos for him to watch after she'd gone, as she clearly had cancer - and the time to do it. Lisa, played by Kerry Godliman (Our Girl, Save Me, Mock the Week), was the love of Tony's life and throughout the six episodes as he philosophises about the meaning of life, the universe and the futility of existence, he comes close to ending it all more than once. However, the things that Lisa says on video give him pause for consideration and musing.

Tony works for his brother, who is very liberal with Tony, giving him much more rope than he should have, in the office of a local free paper. He and three key colleagues banter around the office, getting into scrapes and mini-scenes are created by he, and they, going out to interview local people with bizarre stories to tell in order to make a local headline! And some of them are just off the wall. Watch out for the lady who has her own way of making rice pudding and bread - I fell off my chair laughing!

There's a new girl in the office learning the ropes played by Mandeep Dhillon (recently of Zapped, Some Girls and Fried - and developing into a very good actress) who is very funny in her role alongside the eating-for-England slob reporter played by Tony Way (again, of Zapped fame, Game of Thrones, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) with whom Tony does most of his out and about reporting. He's also very funny and brings yet another rich character to the team. Across the office is Kath played by Diane Morgan (better known as Philomena Cunk, David Brent: Life on the Road and the excellent Rovers) beautifully observed as the made-up dappy girl who just doesn't get it!

Then we turn to the old folks home where we find Tony's confused dad, played by David Bradley (Game of Thrones, Broadchurch, Harry Potter films) who's lines have been written excellently for Gervais to play from. The nurse attending to dad is Gervais' Extras co-star Ashley Jensen (The Lobster, Catastrophe, Ugly Betty) who very attractively fulfills the role of potential love-interest but concerned bystander observing how Tony is with his dad.

And that's where the meat of the show is - the funny side of Tony not really giving a care for anything, saying what he likes to people, how he likes, doing what he likes, not caring really if he lives or dies. There's much humour to be grabbed from the premise of the miserable lead, in a sad, depressed situation - executed much more reasonably than, say, Victor Meldrew - as there's a reason and substance to why Tony's feeling, acting and behaving like he does.

He bumps into Penelope Wilton, of Ever Decreasing Circles fame, who takes time to sit by the grave of her husband, as does Tony, his wife. As the story develops, she plays a timely role in their short chats on the park bench in trying to enable Tony to see things differently and challenge his values and approach, despite the passing of his soul-mate. This, in a way that his psychiatrist, in flowering comic style, fails to do miserably. Paul Kay (yet again, from Zapped, Game of Thrones, Humans) does this excellently and is clearly having great fun with the medic's role! There's loads of bit-parts and bigger parts played by all sorts of people that you'll no doubt recognise from all sorts of UK TV, if you're a Brit. Roisin Conaty as the 'sex worker' is a scream and Tim Plester plays a sad junkie.

It's a very funny show, which is also touching, sad and bizarre in equal measure throughout. It might well make you roll on the floor laughing or indeed shed a tear. It's been written and directed by Gervais throughout and it's certainly accessible for everyone, I think, unlike some of his work as I mentioned earlier. It's well worth watching and you'll certainly binge it, as, like a good book, it can't be put down. Available on Netflix just now, as it is indeed a Netflix production. Enjoy!

Monday, 11 March 2019

Notes on a Scandal

This British film made in 2006 based on a Zoë Heller novel is a little gem lurking in the back catalogue, which the BBC dust off now and again for an airing - usually in the middle of the night - as it did a couple of weeks ago. I jumped on the opportunity to see this thriller/drama again.

As is often the case with home-grown drama, on the face of it, it's a simple little tale of people doing ordinary things, muddling through life, until someone or something goes wrong, people make poor decisions and, in this case, turn very dark and sinister.

The story is told from the view of an older lady teacher played beautifully by Judi Dench (Iris, Mrs Brown, Chocolat, Bond's M) in a London school, who is a spinster and loves to keep a journal/diary of her everyday life. A record in hundreds of hard-backed books spread over the years. She befriends a new art teacher at the school, who's come to teaching later in life after bring up a child with Down's Syndrome. She is played by Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine, The Lord of the Rings, Elizabeth) and again, envelopes the role of the confused artist.

The younger teacher is married to an older man who they've snagged Bill Nighy (Guest House Paradiso, Dad's Army, Love Actually) to perform which, as you'd expect, he does very capably (we love to see the calm exterior blow up into rage now and then!), even though his part is a smaller one. Laying aside the story, the film comes across as an acting masterclass as these three, along with other well know British actors turn the heat up, as things develop in their world, get complicated and challenge each of them. It's an excellent cast, not a poor performance to be seen. Sometimes it's certainly a case of who you don't know from somewhere in a scene!

I really don't want to give anything away, but I can highly recommend a viewing. At times it almost comes across as a low-budget made-for-TV film, which, with a short limited cinema release it may have been, but it's a pure delight to be able to watch these players perform so well. It is obvious that the director Richard Eyre is better known for stage productions, as the claustrophobic nature of the shoot blends with that experience. The sets are tight and I understand that it has also been performed in theatre. The music has been supplied by Philip Glass, composer of hundreds of wonderful film scores and soundtracks. They really seem to have had an open cheque book putting this together, gathering the best of the best.

It's a story that will surprise you as it rolls along, amuse at times, thrill here and there and when the darkness descends and you realise what's what, maybe even give you a little shudder. Judi Dench particularly draws the audience in with her expertise and holds the cast and story together. Seek it out!

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Xiaomi Mi 8 Lite

The Xiaomi Mi 8 Lite was generously sent over by the company for us at PSC to review and this Global Version arrived in a simple box with the unit running Android 8.1, September 2018 Google Security and MIUI 9.6. This was rapidly updated to December 2018 and MIUI 10.2, but no Pie. The device was released in September 2018 and now in March 2019, it might still represent a good value option for some, being around £200 to buy SIM Free.

In the simple box came a charger, USB-A to USB-C cable, 3.5mm to USB-C audio adapter, pokey-tool and minimalist smoke-coloured TPU. The unit has a very attractive glass-sheet front and back with an aluminium frame between. It's of medium weight and the same height and width as my Moto Z3 Play, though a little fatter. The dual lens camera island is slightly proud of the back of the phone and nestles up in the top-left corner next to the LED flash, though with the supplied TPU in place, this all becomes flush with the glass back. Underneath this is a round fingerprint scanner, which is on the small size, but quick and easy to set up, faultless in use.

Around the edges, we have a hybrid dual (stand-by) SIM Card/microSD Card tray (and the card is happily playing with my 512GB Samsung version) with the choice of microSD or second SIM, various antenna-breaks and microphones - and on the bottom a single mono speaker. On the front we have an LCD panel with a visible screen which is slightly off-centre, top-to-bottom, making an odd space creating a chin. This, however, is offset when the user chooses to hide the notch at the forehead, which makes you think that it was an adjustment at design stage! USB-C charging/data port is next to the speaker at the bottom, in the usual way. Volume rocker and power button on the right appear well made and are firm in use.

Yes, there's a notch! It's quite big at the top there (though not relation to the Pixel 3XL) and appears to house the selfie camera, earpiece for audio calls and LED notification light. It really could have been smaller. The screen itself is a 1080p IPS LCD sized at 6.26" with a 19:9 ratio. It's another tall'un, if you leave the notch in place. It's also a good bright panel, though nothing like the Nokia 8's gold standard. It certainly challenges many an AMOLED though it does have a slightly warm cast. You can play with 'Contrast and colors' in Settings, so change to what pleases your eye.

I'll come to the Settings in a minute, but just to say that it took me half an hour, literally, to find the setting to swap the navigation buttons around, which are the wrong way round out of the box. The buttons are simple circle/box/triangle, so that's good. The notification area is pure blue and grey buttons on white, iPhone-style. This, remember, is on Oreo so it's not a Pie implementation - it's a clear iOS copy and we'll come back to that. Plenty of options up there for editing what is in the main tray, clearly laid out and accessible.

Homescreen elements can be moved around and arranged as you like, but I can't find a setting anywhere to change the layout and arrangement to have a standard App drawer - again, it's all done iPhone style with all the apps cascading off into screens right. I can't find any way to add the Assistant Cards to the left of the homescreen - this seems to be reserved for their own 'app vault' pane of shortcuts, notes and calendar events (as long as you use their calendar and not Google's). You can turn this pane off completely if you choose. I also can't find any way to adjust the screen's time-out, like you'd expect in Display settings. It just seems to do its own thing and appears to be somewhere between 30 seconds and a minute. There's a range of widgets available from Xiaomi along with the usual array from your apps.

The home screen experience is not a bad one. I've seen worse, even if there's no app drawer option. The user can, of course, make folders and name them in the usual way. The UI animates slickly and is cute and cartoon'y in many ways, as we've come to expect from toys from the east. There is a face-unlock option which registered my full-bearded face (after asking me to 'show my lips'?! - I pouted, and done!) and works flawlessly with every attempt.

Again, as we've come to expect from such firms, there's an array of apps included which double-up the Google ones and can be used by choice if people want to. Gallery organises photos taken with the phone, but not much else. Their browser seems functional if users want to go that way and it has a reader mode. Calculator is white and bright, but perfectly good enough. Clock is dark-themed and has the usual functions - along with a world map, Psion-style(!) - when you add a City, it plots it with a blue dot! Nice. Contacts is again white and bright. I wonder, if Pie does arrive on this, whether a lot of this white will go dark.

There's a Mi Drop app to share files with other users, scanner - which scans documents or barcodes, a handy screen-recorder for showing granny how to turn off notifications - and a voice recorder which seems to do the job. The only offensive pre-installed app I can find is Facebook, and the system let me uninstall that quickly and simply. There is a system optimiser app, Samsung-style, which I was going to say doesn't aggressively bug the user to employ, but on reflection it won't actually let you get 100% optimisation as it considers not being signed into a Mi Cloud account a security risk! There are loads of other ways to use the tool, however, which are functional and reassuring.

Calendar, apart from being white, is really well thought out and attractive, with good options. Plenty of apps, then, for those who wish to use them and do things the Xiaomi way, but not, like Samsung, intrusive - pushing the user into using them at every opportunity, serving up layers of prompts and reminders. The Mi Video app picked up my RIP'd DVDs on memory card as .mp4 files and played them with no problem at all, has an array of options to fiddle with to get the picture aspect right and the Mi Music efficiently plays stored music with no fuss. The built-in speaker is mono and bottom firing and for a small quiet room, it's perfectly adequate for listening to sounds. It's not tinny if not pushed and can, in the usual way, be adjusted when using an app with software equaliser options, embracing that usual sacrifice of volume for quality equation.

There's no equaliser options until headphones are plugged in, at which point the device produces, as far as I'm concerned, fabulous sound. Loads of options and rich immersive sound. Testing here with AKG K702 Reference Headphones and Razer Phone 3.5mm to USB-C DAC dongle. There's one in the box, which doesn't produce the same, but it ain't half bad either. Point is, you can get some great sounds out of this phone with decent supporting gear, including bluetooth options, reporting aptX.

The device is driven by a Snapdragon 660, so the same as the Nokia 7 Plus, and feels perfectly fast and adequate to run demanding tasks. This review unit is the 64GB Storage/4GB RAM version, which, again, swaps between running tasks perfectly well and I couldn't get it to fall over, in that respect. I'm sure some heavy games would see to it! There's also a 128GB/6GB version out there available for those who would be not convinced. However, the target market for this device at this price-point, I can't imagine being bothered.

The cameras on the back are a main 12MP f1.9 supported by a 5MP f2 acting as a depth sensor. Again, this is perfectly adequate at this price-point and the photos I took in testing seems perfectly adequate for the potential owners of a phone like this, posting to social media. As always, Steve Litchfield will give us all a more in-depth analysis of the camera's ability or failings when I sent his unit over, along with the disproportionately seeming 24MP selfie on the front! Seems like Xiaomi reckon the average user of this phone is going to be pointing it at themselves and not taking landscapes! What I will say though is that like most firms making phones now, they've integrated the usual stuff, which actually seems to work really well - Portrait mode and AI intelligence, Manual mode in which close-focus is really quite impressive and loads of settings and other modes to play with. At this price-point, very good.

The battery is obviously a sealed one, rated at 3350mAh. This has performed well in my initial testing, bombarding it in 48 hours with review demands. I charged it up with the supplied 18W QC3 charger and it seems to be holding up very well. There's also controls you can drill down into via the aforementioned 'Security' app, where you find that Optimisation stuff, to get all sorts of analysis and information about battery state and use. On my short testing, which I know is not the same as using a phone week-in-week-out, but based on having assessed many phones in a similar fashion, I conclude that the battery will be very good for well into a second day of my average use.

Settings are, in my view, unnecessarily complicated, white and centralised - iOS and Pie-style! Having said that, there's an awful lot going on here under the hood and controls for all that, have to have a place. I guess I'm too used to the Vanilla way and so when thrown into a system I don't understand makes for a learning curve which I don't have time for here - but people buying this phone for a two year period will get used to where stuff is. Added to which, as I said earlier, the target market for this phone at this price-point will probably only go to Settings when they can't do something very specific, not like we folk who consider Settings to be a Control Panel to be tinkered with in order to push boundaries!

I do say that some stuff is missing, like the screen timeout, but I also wouldn't be surprised if that's in there somewhere and I just can't find it! But then maybe that's another price-point thing. For those of us who need an App Drawer to feel at home there's always Nova Launcher (and others) to fix that and the Companion App to supply the missing Assistant Cards, right-swipe. But actually, I'm not sure if I would.

I came into this review thinking that I was going to hate this device but actually, I really like it! Maybe my recent months with a Samsung has taught me to not be so transfixed on what I know and that everything just has to be Vanilla flavoured to be right'n'proper. If I had to, I certainly could use this phone long-term, and I'm now wondering if some of the very small omissions above would be fixed for me by going up the range a bit. The Mi stuff, even when using MIUI feels much less intrusive than Samsung's - more like an LG level - and to me, that represents a middle-ground in which I could make camp. This phone is currently just over £200 and for that money, yes, it's a congested segment of the market for Android phones, you get an awful lot of capable phone that would be far more than adequate for pretty much anyone outside of our nerdy geek circles!

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

He Loves Me... He Loves Me Not (À la folie... pas du tout)

This 2002 drama/thriller is set in Paris and centred around an art student, who is in love with a married doctor. It's one of those films that it's hard to talk about without giving anything away as it has been smartly constructed to support the gentle twists and turns as we go. So much so, that the film has effectively been split into two..!

We follow the student, Angelique, played sumptuously by Audrey Tautou, in the first half of the film and the events surrounding her love for a local heart surgeon. The doctor is played by Samuel Le Bihan who provides a solid supporting role for our star. She tries to get him to leave his wife, who it turns out is pregnant, sets up opportunities for them to be together and situations for him to be away from his wife and plan a future with her instead.

Then, unceremoniously, in the middle of the film, we start again! But this time we follow the doctor instead - through the same timeframe - and get his eye view on the events and how this whole mish-mash is impacting his life, his marriage and his forthcoming child. This is where it gets interesting and turns distinctly dark. Anyone who thought they were in for a twee romcom at this point will realise that it's something different! There are comic moments interweaved, but the main thrust of proceedings are about something quite different. And there, I should belt up!

A relatively unknown actress/director Laetitia Colombani leads us along and pulls the threads of the puzzle together very nicely, revealing just enough at just the right times to keep people on their toes. Think The Sixth Sense and you'll know that you need to keep your eyes and ears open during the first half. The photography is typically european cinema for the time with very interesting angles sought out to make the visuals appealing and the use of long-shots and defocus adding to the atmosphere, to some degree created by itself in the streets of Paris.

So it's probably best if I stop there and encourage you to watch it when you get the chance! It'll keep you entertained for the duration, particularly if you can understand french or don't mind subtitles. Tautou is a cutesy little actress and in 2002 she was performing at her most attractive and best following her cracking performance in Amélie the year before. I think you'll be pleased you gave it a go.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Circle of Friends

This charming and delightful 1995 romantic comedy drama is a Pat O'Connor film created from the novel of Maeve Binchy. It is set in 1950's Ireland and is a simple tale of three girls coming of age, led by Minnie Driver who completely steals the show.

Three girls, best friends all their lives, get to mid-teens and it's time for college, so off to the big city. Minnie Driver (An Ideal husband, The Governess, Good Will Hunting) plays the far too cute Benny (Bernadette) and excellent actress that she is, makes this look like a walk in the park. Her friends Eve and Nan are played by Geraldine O'Rawe (Resurrection Man) and Saffron Burrows (Nan Troy, Frida, Enigma) respectively. They are all well cast and come across very convincingly as a gaggle of life-long chums from ordinary working families.

Benny meets Jack at college, played by Chris O'Donnell (Batman and Robin, Scent of a Woman, Vertical Limit) who's similarly breezing through this task, but remains interested to the end. They fall in love. Meanwhile, Nan is desperately trying to elevate her social standing by trying to snag the posh son of a local wealthy landowner played by, who else, Colin Firth (Bridget Jones films, Mamma Mia films, The King's Speech, The English Patient) and Eve, who's parents had died much earlier so was brought up by a bunch of nuns, generally remains the pragmatic level-headed one of the three.

Benny's family has a business, a gentlemen's outfitters shop, which comes with family retainer, apparent devoted slimy creepy employee, who Benny's dad thinks is going to be not only the man for Benny but also the one to continue the family business as he gets older. Sean the employee, played by Alan Cumming (The Good Wife, Spice World, GolderEye) has been made up to look so very nasty - he could have easily played Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's Childcatcher and is referred to throughout by the girls as the lizard! Benny can't stand him, is in love with another anyway, but can't make the family see past the practical.

As the story unfolds, it starts to get a bit more meaty with all sorts of questions being asked about loyalty between friends, the imposed oppressive grip of religion with resulting shame, guilt and fear, family expectation, traditional values, generation gaps, family responsibilities and the move towards a more modern, liberated and forward-looking society.

The sets are beautiful, costumes for the day, vehicles in streets (particularly the delightful bus), colours and buildings. The photography and camerawork is often tight and more TV-style really with much missed opportunity for landscape and broad shots of rolling Irish countryside, but the director holds it together nicely and there are some interesting surviving visuals.

This is no award-winning drama, but it is a very nice afternoon film, almost elevating itself to non-matinee status because of the central performance of Minnie Driver. She has proved since this outing what a very good actress she is and this early project lays down the groundwork for her. It's a charming little film which has been oft' overlooked and deserves a viewing.

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...