Monday 26 August 2019

Samsung Galaxy S10e

I'm back again box-ticking! Just can't leave Samsung alone it seems, knowing that of all the Android phones out there they alone are providing hardware that takes (most of) the best features from all the others, scoops them up and blends them together. The usual question now rears its head, however, whether or not I can, this time, live with the Samsung compromises, and enhancements, to the Vanilla Experience.

One of the special reasons that I'm drawn to the S10e is the physical size. I have found most phones these days to be too big - as a phone in my pocket - though of course, great for all sorts of other reasons. The only phone in stock here that comes close to the size of the S10e is the Nokia 8 Sirocco (even the little Pixel phones are bigger). This is the same height as the S10e, pretty much, but wider, to accommodate the 16:9 screen. I'm likely to compare the S10e experience with that, then, as I move along, no doubt focusing on the Samsung vs Vanilla differences, but also the key extras Samsung offer - microSD Card expansion, wide-angle camera (instead of 2x Zoom), stereo speakers and 3.5mm audio-out socket. Here's a handy GSMArena Comparison.

Eastern Promise
The unit I got my hands on here is second-hand incidentally, originally bought from Hong Kong, so has the Snapdragon chipset instead of Exynos and dual SIM. There's much talk about the differences between the two and depending on whose bench-testing you read or whose real-world use results video you watch, it seems to me that the average user really won't notice the difference. If you're a gamer, it seems, or power-user, you'll get more performance and maybe even battery-life from the Snapdragon - but for my use, I fully expect that it wouldn't matter a jot! I don't have the other to compare here, so can only report on what I find with this one.

Phone Sized Phone
This really is a dinky phone. A real phone-sized-phone, pocket-dwelling unit. My problem with small phones has not been so much diminutive content view, but rather effective use of the keyboard. The Sirocco is wider, so I've been fine with the keyboard there, but I do struggle with that on the smaller Pixel phones. I have recently reviewed the Motorola One Vision which is pretty much the same width as the S10e (but taller). During my review period I didn't have any problems with the keyboard, so maybe I'll be alright here. What might help is that the screen certainly fills the front - right out to the edges almost, differently to Pixel.

Weight vs Premium
One of the aspects I recognised immediately was that the Sirocco feels much heavier. It's 177g and the S10e, 150. That's quite a difference, and depending on your view about whether or not heft and weight = premium feel, you might count this a plus or minus. The IP rating for both is about the same, good for 5ft in fresh water for half an hour, and both a Gorilla Glass 5/metal sandwich - S10e aluminium and Sirocco, steel (which no doubt accounts for some of the weight difference). Whatever your view about weight, the S10e feels absolutely premium in the hand, very much like an iPhone-clone from the near past, curved edges and pebble-like. The Sirocco differs here and feels premium in a different, almost industrial way, with sharper edges and 'pointy' construction.

On the right side of the phone there's a pill-shaped capacitive fingerprint sensor which doubles up as a power button. Click in for power or touch to open up the screen and get past the lock (with an option in Settings to assign it to swipe-down the Notifications bar). This is a diversion from the under-screen version in the bigger S10-series of Samsung phones, but it works perfectly well and for me, having got used to the Moto Z3 Play and Razer Phones, more than acceptable. Unlike the Moto, but the same as Razer, clicking-in as power works much more effectively than a separate power button. Capacitive buttons still work more quickly and reliably than under-screen, whichever tech they use, in my experience. Some are saying that the sensor is too high on the side of the device for comfortable use, but I'm not finding that at all - I do have big hands, and can understand the issue for those with small ones. The Sirocco similarly has a capacitive sensor but it's round the back, which means you really have no choice but to pick it up to use it. Supporting the arrangements for opening things up is a staggeringly well executed face-unlock so if you do pick the phone up, and have that enabled, by the time you want to do anything, you're in!

On the top of the phone we have the SIM Card Tray which, in this case, is a Dual-SIM version (or single SIM/microSD Card) so if you need that function, check before you buy as other units with other chipsets for other regions, may vary. The tray is plastic, though doesn't feel flimsy like some, but the Sirocco wins here with a premium metal tray (though there was no dual-SIM version of that ever made). On the left is a volume-rocker and Bixby-button, both of which feel solid and premium. The Bixby button can now be remapped to anything you want and I have chosen the Google App. As Samsung One UI doesn't offer the option of right-swipe for my Google Cards pane, as Vanilla (and indeed the Sirocco) does, this is an acceptable replacement - maybe even preferable - with the added bonus of hiding Bixby!

On the bottom of the phone we have the USB-C port, which works perfectly with OTG and HDMI-Out, invoking Samsung's DeX desktop experience optionally when plugged in. It also passes my 2TB External SSD test with flying colours, speedy read/writing. Next to this is a 3.5mm audio-out socket, which will invoke a 'hurrah' still in some quarters! For me, I don't use it much, but great to have rather than not. I note that in some upcoming Samsung devices, this is something that (even) they are looking at moving away from in favour of universal Bluetooth. I won't weep, but I know some who might! The downwards-firing speaker of the 'stereo' pair is there too and I'll come to sound later.

I have a black unit here and the back glass has a kind-of shimmery-effect, which almost looks blue in some lighting conditions. Towards the top is the two-camera island, which I'll come back to, a Samsung logo and nothing much else. It's very smooth and slippery, but doesn't seem to be a fingerprint magnet. There's no TPU in the box (with this unit) so you'll need to grab one. Or maybe not! It's a gorgeous looking/feeling device and I can imagine many people wanting to show it off as-is. The OCD in me, however, wouldn't allow! What I have noticed, moving to a Samsung from a less-popular manufacturer's model, is the depth and range of accessories and cases available. I guess that stands to reason. Popular.

Flat Glass
The front glass is flat. The screen displays minimal bezels with a slightly larger one on the chin. That's good if you're going to use the supplied Gestures for Navigation. Yes, flat. Unlike the Sirocco's wildly curved screen - and most of Samsung's flagship devices in recent years, including the rest of the 10-range. I think that's a good thing. It may not look so futuristic and gorgeous as the Sirocco's screen, but certainly navigation is simpler and viewing media doesn't lose you content around the edges! There's the other speaker of the pair up the top, doubling as an earpiece for calls, and a Selfie-cam punch-hole cutout top-right (portrait). Controversial it seems, cutting holes into front glass. We dwell in an era where manufacturers are actively seeking alternatives to that and coming up with creative options like pop-ups, swivels and under-glass. We'll see where that goes, but for now, most people, including myself, claim to 'not see it' after a while of use. The Sirocco defies all these problems by having a 16:9 screen, big chin and forehead, where all the sensors are hidden from view. How you feel about that will depend on what you think about screens completely filling the front of your phone.

Dynamic Screen
Staying with the screen, it's lower resolution than the Sirocco's and the rest of the Samsung flagships at 1080p (438ppi) but because it's a smaller phone, it works just fine - at least for my 56 year old eyes! It's amazingly sharp and bright (up to 803 nits in Auto) and colours are vibrant, adjustable and as punchy as you want them to be - and still supports HDR10+ content. We wouldn't expect anything less from a Samsung 'Dynamic' AMOLED screen. They make the best, as we know. It's 5.8" (curved) corner-to-corner with a 19:9 ratio. The insignificance of the lower-resolution screen provides a welcome boost to battery-life, of which I was unduly concerned.

Power Matters
A good place to continue from, then, the battery is a 3100mAh unit. After testing over the course of half-a-week, I'm pleasantly surprised. In my 'continuous reading' test 10% battery was used in just over an hour. I test all devices in the same way and the best ones seem to get me an hour and a half for 10%, but the 'acceptable level' I have established is an hour. Anything less is dismissed. So just over an hour is a good return, not quite as good as the Sirocco at 1hr 20min, but fine. The 'in normal use for me' test, a mixture of all sorts of use through and average day, doing average things, it looks like equalling the Sirocco, returning 24-30hrs between charges, 5-7hrs SoT, adaptive battery and brightness. It's not an exact science and different devices have different demands going on, of course, but as far as I'm concerned, the same conditions are applied to all phones. Like the Sirocco, there's also Qi Charging available (fast 15W, with a switch in software to slow it down) but unlike the Nokia, Samsung provides 9W Wireless PowerShare. This allows you to not only use the power in the Samsung's battery to charge another Qi-enabled device, but also allows you to charge the Samsung at the same time by cable, for those occasions when you only have one cable and two phones to charge! But seriously, like the 3.5mm audio-out socket, better to have than to not have. These are the little additions which give the owner a warm feeling that their outfit are including useful stuff that others don't bother with - and to some degree justify the cost difference. How many times we rue the missing of one feature or another and muse about how little adding that would have cost. Box ticking! There's a fast-charging 15W power brick in the box which can get you about a third charged from flat in about 25 minutes when needed - again slow-switching in Settings.

Under the Bonnet
This unit has 128GB Storage (my new minimum) and 6GB RAM, the same as the Sirocco. Unlike the latter, however, the Samsung continues to support microSD Cards. I have got used to living without this now (as long as I have 128GB onboard and USB-OTG) but, again, better to have than not have. Transferrable content is a great bonus for ease of moving media between devices. As for the chipset, the SnapDragon 855 flies through every task! Nothing seems to slow it down, darting between apps and services with loads of stuff keeping running in the background (unless you tell the system not to in order to save battery). I'm not a gamer (and wouldn't know where to start) so you'll need to look elsewhere for an appraisal of how this phone performs (particularly against the Exynos version) from those who know about gaming and do it!

Always On
Android 9 is present out of the box and this unit is updated to July 2019 Google Security. I have heard it said that the SnapDragon version doesn't get these updates as quickly from Samsung as the Exynos version, but we'll see. We're almost at the end of August now, so potentially we're almost two months behind, for what it matters. What Samsung are good at, is updating their own software of course and that's where I'll head next, starting with the superb Always On Display. This is market-leading as far as I'm concerned. The options, colours and functionality are not equalled. LG come close to emulating it, but others lag behind, either by the aforementioned aspects or by not being truly 'always on'. Samsung have done it right, even down to interactive controls via the AoD itself, for example, changing the brightness, independently of any other brightness controls, by providing a slider after double-tap. Kudos. They also include the Edge Screen options, even on this flat screen, which are a joy to use for notifications.

System Apps?
Samsung have started not pre-installing many of their apps, including Samsung Music and Video. This move is great, and during setup you get the choice to say yes/no to installing those. The net effect is more choice for people in the know, but for Joe Bloggs who has no idea about such matters, they might bemoan the loss of various apps and services that they're used to seeing as a part of the system. No prizes for guessing which camp (you and) I pitch up in! There are still some irritations. Two of which are no-choice 'system apps' of Facebook and LinkedIn! System apps? Really? You can't uninstall them, only disable - and when updates to the apps come along, if you have auto-update enabled in the Play Store, they just update and become enabled again so you have to go and disable again. If you don't have auto-updates switched on then they sit forever at the top of the Updates list reminding you what a nonconformist you have become. I guess it's only 2 apps and you can get the UI to 'hide' them, but it's disproportionately annoying here! Why do Samsung just assume that everyone buying their phones also use Facebook, I wonder. If we're going on popularity, why not Twitter or WhatsApp! I guess it's a monetised deal. Like Samsung need money!

I'm not going to pick apart the oodles of bells, whistles and options in Samsung's One UI again (particularly if you choose to exploit Bixby) as I have done it before. Here's links to my previous reviews and musings. Samsung Galaxy Note9, Samsung Galaxy A50. Bottom line is that One UI is the best looking, most-Vanilla and pleasant front-end UI that Samsung has created so far. The system-wide dark theme drills down into corners that most others get nowhere near, the adjustments for one-handed use (not needed here with such a small device of course) are well thought out and the homescreen settings and options much more useful. There's a plethora of options in Settings, little things that many others don't think about or implement, often later being adopted by Google for base-Android. It seems that Samsung have great ideas which they're not afraid to throw in the pot - and make sure that they work well! The downside of this of course is that for the casual user of phones, moving between manufacturers' devices each time they get a new phone, it can be confusing and present a huge learning-curve. Samsung helps with that by supplying suggestions and Search in Settings, but it might be better for people, much like Apple users, to get into Samsung - and stay there!

It's a Gesture
One of the excellently implemented aspects of One UI is the Gestures. You can switch Home and Recents if you like, have three buttons if you like, or use the full-gesture option which enables sweep-ups from the bottom of the screen, Back/Recents on the sides and Home, centre. You can choose to see the 'hints' at the foot of the screen (thin bars taking up a few pixels) or turn them off. Now, I've been playing with the Android Q (10) Beta builds during the summer and enjoying the new navigation controls which are going to be baked-in to the forthcoming version. Swipes in from the left and right of the screen, particularly on a one-handed device, is a real boon and has been baked into recent Huawei devices as an option. It'll come along as part of Android 10 (when Samsung get round to updating) but in the meantime, I've uncovered a Samsung App called One Hand Operation+ which does exactly the same thing - and much more! Trust Samsung to have got it sorted ahead of the game!

Sound One
The S10e, unlike the Sirocco, has a 3.5mm audio-out socket which of course means simple plugging in of, not only headphones and earphones, but also a wired connection to other equipment like speakers. This is the primary use for me, so I don't have to fiddle around with bluetooth. Having said that, once hooked up, the Bluetooth 5 works flawlessly with aptX, producing a great sound. In the box there's a pair of (nasty-looking) AKG-branded ear-plugs which, according to those who could bring themselves to put them in their ears, sound excellent - so I'll take their word for it! Built in to the phone is a 32-bit DAC and the sound through my AKG K701 reference headphones is loud and meaty. There's Dolby Atmos built-in too. Like some (but not all) other Samsung devices, it's on by default but can be turned off. Adjust between Auto, Voice, Music and Film. Differences can be detected and there's also a Custom setting available for headphones and speakers (to work on top of whatever Dolby Atmos setting is applied). Nice to see some more control available for sound, particularly, unlike many, as it includes speakers.

Sound Two
Talking of Speakers, I selected what seemed to be the closest likely contenders here to pitch the output against - the Google Pixel 2XL (with similarly faux stereo) and Razer Phone 2 (with 'proper' stereo). The volume of the S10e holds up very well, right with both of them and only lags behind the Pixel slightly in richness and quality but, as we might expect, by a margin with the Razer. Maybe that was unfair - indeed, pitching the Razer against any other phone! The Samsung produces a fabulous sound for my piano and jazz and is only tiny degrees behind bigger devices in the S-series range (presumably because of space inside the tiny body for assistance). It packs a great punch for volume and quality, very comparable to the Pixel. Only a true audiophile would complain - speakers on phones are getting better. I'm so pleased. The stereo is not particularly wide or effective, as you might expect with such a tiny body - the speakers are too close to each other! It really might as well be Mono (which can be switched to in Settings) as by the time the phone is far enough from the head for reasonable listening/viewing, it's all lost. But yes, shut your eyes, put the phone in front of your nose and it works perfectly! By the way, there's also an FM Radio included in the SnapDragon model which works perfectly well, records and plays through speakers with something plugged into the 3.5mm audio-out socket. Sadly, it seems, missing from the Exynos version altogether.

Flagship Cameras
I'm going to point you to Steve Litchfield to get a feel for the camera's capability, as usual, in his coverage over the months of all of Samsung's flagship cameras, starting with Phones Show 365 in which he declared the S10e top of the picks for May 2019 in his Top 5. Steve has done loads of tests of the Samsung hardware both for The Phones Show and over at All About Windows Phones. Go fish around and dig in! Here are the basics, though. The S10e has got two rear cameras, an (auto) variable aperture 12MP f1.5-f2.4 main unit with OIS supported by a 16MP f2.2 unit for wide-angle shots which also acts as a depth data module. The bigger brothers in the range have telephoto lenses too, but something had to give here on physical size! The Selfie snapper is a 10MP f1.9 unit and there's tons of fun and functional stuff to play with in the camera app for both front and back cameras, as you'd expect! You can shoot in RAW if you fancy and there's 'Pro' options aplenty, though I wasn't too impressed with minimum focus - nowhere near 'proper' Macro. Low light shooting is handled beautifully well by the auto-options. I have experienced excellent results with the cameras, perfectly good for almost all non-pro, non-nit-pick uses - and a beautiful screen on which to view them.

Just because the Galaxy S10e is smaller than the brothers in Samsung's family, don't mistake it for anything less than a flagship. It is! An area previously near-dominated by Sony, so it's great to see someone else doing it. Particularly someone who's going to tick even more boxes! I maintain that it was a fair comparison to make with the cleaner, more vanilla Sirocco - and was fully expecting to pass over this Samsung as I have many before it, on the grounds of software. I'm not sure what it is particularly about this tiny phone which has made me shift, but shift I have. I can see a growing admiration for this phone and what Samsung are doing already and I'm only in week one. Yes, the microSD Card expansion is important for many, take your pick between the S10e's wide-angle camera or Sirocco's 2x Zoom, but the big difference for me is sound. The much bigger sound of the Samsung wins me over, whether stereo or not - it's streets ahead of the Nokia's output - and I have to admit that the 3.5mm audio-out socket is useful.

Pure Enough
However, Dame Vanilla is a comely mistress and I wonder how long it'll be before I'm hankering after a cleaner, purer experience again, close to the beating heart of what Google are doing with the Pixel range. With Android 10 (proper release) due to drop any minute, the draw of the Pixel might just be too much! In the meantime, this is as close as I have ever got to adopting a Samsung and taking it seriously. It's a beautiful little phone with amazing capability and very highly recommended even, I imagine, the Exynos version. It just ticks every box apart from one - the software - and that's so incredibly close now for this reviewer to think again. It's a delight to use and great value for the six hundred-odd quid, or even better if you're brave enough to have a SnapDragon one imported.

Monday 19 August 2019

Red Joan

Everyone seems to be up in arms about this story being untruthfully based on the life of Melita Norwood, who worked during WWII under the Official Secrets Act but was giving away nuclear development secrets to the Soviet Union. Actually, author of the Novel of the same name Jennie Rooney was very clear about it being a fictitious account, weaved around, loosely, the person in question.

Having got that out of the way, it's an excellent yarn which starts with the arrest of Joan, in her 80's, in England - and the rest of the film is shot in flashback, depicting the events of the story with occasional returns to the police interview room where she's being grilled. Joan is played as the old woman by Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children). She doesn't have much screen time, but what she has, as you might expect, she injects class.

As we flashback to her early life as an employee of the British development team, her role is taken over by Sophie Cookson (Kingsman) who does a splendidly stiff-upper-lip job portraying a well educated and privileged young lady, out of Cambridge University, back in the era when 'nice' people were frightfully well spoken! She makes for compelling viewing as she pretty much rules the roost throughout. One to watch. Whilst Joan was at Cambridge before WWII, she hooked up with a couple of communists, Leo and Sonya, who were, at the time, trying to stand up against the upcoming fascism infiltrating world politics. She didn't really go along with what they stood for but had fallen for Leo and wanted to please him with her non-resistance. Leo is played by Tom Hughes (Victoria) very convincingly, leaping in and out of Joan's life teasing her with shades of long-term commitment.

Sonya is played by Tereza Srbova (St. Trinian's) reminding me very much of Kristin Scott-Thomas straight out of The English Patient. Again, very confident, tall and in-control female of the day. As her role and actions unfold, we learn much about her behaviour and position in relation to Leo. The story plays out much more as a love-centred one between the main players amidst a backdrop of the aforementioned difficulties. Joan stumbles into 'spy' behaviour based on her unhappiness about having been instrumental in helping to develop bomb technology, when she sees what happens in Hiroshima. She believes that by leaking the details of development, the Soviets will be able to create an equal threat to the world, so all parties will neutralise the risk to more human catastrophe because of fear of counter-attacks of equal measure.

There's a few surprises along the way as the story develops, which has been held together by director Trevor Nunn (Lady Jane) very ably. The photography is interestingly executed taking in the atmospheric sets which depict the time and era perfectly. Those little tearooms, straight out of Dad's Army, dark interiors with low lighting, perfect costumes for the day and outside, vehicles that you would expect to see on roads with people milling amongst buildings also suitably reflective. It's an excellent little film and story, one of those great British films about WWII antics such as The Imitation Game in which you can expect to see some super home-grown talent in all departments. Recommended.

Tuesday 13 August 2019

Aspectek - Fly and Insect Killer

At last, I had a chance to try this thing out with some pesky trespassers this week! My test samples were moths and flies. For some reason, during the two blasts of heatwave we've endured this summer, I was not inundated as I thought I would be. Until now!

Anyway, here it is! It's a 20W UV light wielding unit which you'd typically see on a kitchen wall. It's pretty bright, so you certainly wouldn't want it in a bedroom. In the kitchen then, all other lights off, two flies and a moth roaming around, within 10 minutes it had zapped all three! And blimey! What a noise! Another reason you'd not want it in the bedroom! When an imposter meets its fate, you really hear it - with a loud bang, enough to wake the dead! Well, unless you'd been zapped of course!

Two bulbs emit ultraviolet rays and the grilles (apparently) serve up a 2,800 volt shock! (Doesn't sound very likely, does it!) Dead insects are caught in an easy-remove tray. It comes with a chain if you want to hang it, but I have a place it stands happily on its base. There's obviously a protective grille around the zapping elements. It's about a foot or so wide, 9 inches or so high and about 3 inches fat. Wherever it comes from they supply a UK plug and a cable about 5ft long. Apparently you can get replacement bulbs from the same supplier - so we'll see how long they last!

I'm not convinced that it would be much use in daylight hours or outside, but that's not what I want it for - I'm looking for the last hour before bedtime.

Seems to do the job. Not cheap at £35, but I've had cheaper ones before and they're nowhere near as powerful and effective as this one. Recommended.

Monday 12 August 2019

Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources

Two films in one from French director, producer and actor Claude Berri (The Two of Us, Hunting and Gathering) and two halves of a story well told by all involved. It's dramatic, tragic, funny and sad in equal measure. It's a story of revenge, but also one of old fashioned goodies vs baddies without necessarily a formulaic evolution into comeuppance!

The two films are set in the same village and surrounding countryside in rural France shortly after WWI and involve the reliance by everyone on water, the supply thereof, coming down from springs and hills supplying various properties. An old man played by Yves Montand (The Wages of Fear, Let's Make Love, Kelly's Heroes) and his not-so-bright nephew, depicted by Daniel Auteuil (Caché, Un Coeur en HiverThe Widow of Saint-Pierre), are eyeing up a property to exploit in order to set up a money-making business. Just at the wrong time (though partly by their interference), the owner drops dead and leaves it all to his relative, a hunchbacked tax-collector from the city, embodied by Gérard Depardieu (La Vie en Rose, The Man in the Iron Mask, 1492: Conquest of Paradise). The tax-collector decides to make a life in the countryside and breed rabbits, accompanied by his wife and small daughter, Manon!

The two mischievous voyeurs hatch a plan to cut off his water supply without him knowing, destroy his efforts and force him to return to the city. But the hunchback is made of stronger stuff and holds out for much longer than they think he might. When one plan fails, there's another up his sleeve! Eventually there's tragedy and here ends the first half of the story. (It's hard to write a review about a two-parter without giving away plotlines in the second, from the first!)

The second half moves some years later on, when there's no tax-collector or wife around but the daughter has grown into a young lady who makes a living as a goatherd but lives a reclusive life having stayed put after the fist film. She is played by the gorgeous 23-year old (at the time) Emmanuelle Béart (L'EnferUn Coeur en Hiver, Mission: Impossible) and certainly in one scene, reveals much of herself! She's not quite sure what went on back in the day, but overhears conversations which confirm to her that the tragedy from the first film was cooked up by the two scoundrels. So she's now out for revenge - and what better way to exact it than to use control of the water supply! Not realising what's going on, the not-so-bright nephew falls in love with her and seeks to marry.

The story then opens up with reveals about the past, twists and turns as we find out more about who's who and what's what. It's delivered gently, there are no outrageous shocks, but there are certainly interesting turns which the viewer needs to keep an eye open for in order to patch things together before they're revealed. There are moral dilemmas throughout but the goodie/baddie question gives way to the tragic elements and whether or not justice will be served, regardless of wrongdoing.

It plays out much like a Greek Tragedy, elements in both films, but don't let that spoil things for you by knowing - there's so much to enjoy here. The first film is generally more comic with the two 'baddies' playing off against each other like a double-act, whereas the second film moves more into a dramatic unfolding of events, a love story, revelation of the truth from the past - from the first film and beyond. There is much bad feeling between most of the characters as events become darker and further removed from the frivolous tone of some of the first film.

The films are a joy to consume, generally. The actors play their parts beautifully and with real conviction dealing with the tragic events which come along. Depardieu plays a big character who puts a cheerful face on everything, not letting his physical appearance get in the way, Auteuil becomes the 'village idiot' with convincing appeal, Montand offers up a huge range of emotional flexibility and Béart, though her lines are few, uses her facial expression and big eyes with great impact. She isn't just here as the sex-symbol and has much to offer as she darts about the hillsides hatching her revenge.

There's loads going on in these two films for the audience to milk and enjoy. It's much more than a simple country tale - there's deep enjoyment to be gained by immersing oneself into the story. The photography is superb and atmosphere created markedly well with the hot baking summers of rural France - where people rely completely on water to farm their land and have to be flexible when it's not there. On the face of it, it might sound a bit of a dull tale, but I would recommend getting stuck into it - you will be rewarded with satisfactory outcomes and rich character depiction. Highly recommended.

The Other Man

This 2008 film is a smarter-than-average thriller-cum-mystery about a woman who was married to a man very happily for 25 years, then suddenly after a philosophical discussion one evening with her husband, she's gone! Don't switch off though and assign this to a missing-person-chase, as it's much more intelligent than that.

Peter is an Irishman living in Cambridge and married to Lisa, both successful business people. Lisa often visits Milan on business. It's clear that husband and wife love each other dearly and their grown-up daughter Abigail makes up the nuclear family. When Lisa has gone, Peter is distraught and tries to find out more about her life by following clues in her laptop, photos and written notes about her life. He finds out that she had a secret lover in Milan for the last 10 years, Ralph, who she also seemed to love dearly, too. But more significantly, she seems to have purposely left these clues for him to find.

Peter heads off to Milan to try and track down Ralph and kill him! When he gets there, however, he decides to play a game of cat-and-mouse, finding out more about him and his love for his wife by pretending to befriend him. They spend much time exploring that and both their stories come out as they spend long afternoons playing chess and drinking coffee. Over time, his quest to kill the man gives way to an understanding of how it seems that one woman can indeed could have had a deep and meaningful love for two men in her life. There are some twists and turns to come, keep your eyes open for clues as to what's going on as you head towards the last third of the film.

Director Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal, The Children Act, Iris) pulls off another interesting film, making the most of the story (which he helped to pen) and actors involved. This 'missing person' thing is common territory for Liam Neeson (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Schindler's List, Husbands and Wives), but actually he excels in this one, slightly off the beaten track for him. He plays the main lead with command as you'd expect. Antonio Banderas (The 33Frida, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) plays The Other Man and does so with style and class, though he is overshadowed by the other two, especially Laura Linney (Ozark, Kinsey, Lorenzo’s Oil) who steals the show for me. She has less screen time, but what she has, she makes the very most of, is the most convincing of the cast and applies the glue holding things together.

It's a thinking person's missing-person yarn, done very well here, excellently portrayed by all involved, within lovely Italian and English settings. Dark and atmospheric interiors add to the overall feel of the locations and Eyre pulls the whole production together very nicely. Very good film which I recommend.

Sunday 11 August 2019

From the Land of the Moon (Mal de pierres)

Nicole Garcia is a French actress-cum-director and writer and has been instrumental here in creating this 2016 film based on a short story by Italian writer Milena Agus. The setting has been switched to France (from Italy) and story tweaked for the big screen.

It's the story of the troubled Gabrielle in 1950's rural France and covers her life from teenager to older woman as she negotiates love, insanity and her place in the world. She seems to have a screw-loose generally and since being rejected for love by her teacher earlier in life, starts to behave eccentrically, like a drama-queen. Her family are at a loss to know what to do with her, so pretty-much arrange a marriage for her. She makes it clear to her new husband that she is not interested and that he must be nuts to go along with the plan when she knows that there's a loveless/sexless life ahead for them both. For reasons of his own, he still complies.

Gabrielle feels horribly constrained by society's expectations of place, position and behaviour and just wants to live life her own way, or not at all. My thoughts at this point went to the plight of T. S. Eliot's wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot as depicted in the excellent film Tom & Viv as we discover that at least a part of Gabrielle's problems are explained by the undiagnosed kidney-stones from which she suffers. This does eventually come out and off she goes to a clinic in Switzerland for treatment. The treatment now seems archaic and puts me in mind of Alan Parker's 1994 film The Road to Wellville with Kellogg's health-farm!

She meets a recovering soldier at the clinic and falls madly in love with him. They spend much time together and she imagines a passionate and love-filled future ahead of them together. He's not doing too well though and it's not clear how long he'll be around to enjoy it, even if she was able to get him to run off with her. He then abruptly disappears one day and she returns to her husband. She announces that she's pregnant and tells her long-suffering husband that it's not his and is the result of a passionate affair at the clinic. She writes to the soldier every day for years. He never replies. She settles into a traditional life of wife/mother and I'll say no more in terms of plot as this is where some reveals and flashbacks make the viewer realise that maybe all is not quite as it seemed, nor how it is now.

The visual impact of the film is significant. Photography of interiors and colourful landscapes are well thought out and executed in the way it seems only European cinema can do. It is, at times, a work of art in this respect and as is often the case, many frames from the film could make a fine picture for the wall. The sets are very typical rural France as you'd expect in the hot summer in the villages, much wooden furniture and bare upholstery, dark rooms with small windows, shuttered to control heat - think 'Allo 'Allo! Excellent atmosphere created by the use of silhouette, lighting and shadow.

The two leads play their parts very convincingly, though maybe it would have been an idea to not have to age the very experienced Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Contagion, Midnight in Paris) through quite so many years and use a younger actress for the teen! The less world-famous Alex Brendemühl plays the husband with style and captures the quiet and passive man nicely. The film is a thoughtful one which could so easily have meandered off into Lady Chatterley territory, but it holds itself back, applying a smart edge. A moving drama but also, as it turns out, a bit of a mystery with some twists, turns and reveals along the way. Recommended.

Sunday 4 August 2019

Siumir Sisal Soap Bag with Drawstring

I hate using liquid soap so have always stuck with old-fashioned bars. However, I've also always been annoyed that when bars get too small to continue using, what's remaining is wasted.

Enter the Soap Saver Pouch! Chuck all your old bits in it, draw the string closed and rub between hands for quick foaming and use for the soap. If you like it, you can even just put new bars in.

It has a slightly 'rough' texture on the outside (but no worse than a sponge, I don't think) and I understand some use for exfoliation of skin and the like. I don't think, once foaming, it's too rough to use on the skin and works really well.

You can also then hang the bag so that soap is not swimming about in a watery dish deteriorating before next use. The soap and foam dry out in the air and excess fluid drips away.

At 2 for £3.50 it's as #cheap_as_chips and in the long term saves loads of cash buying soap. Recommended for old-fashioned types like me!

Friday 2 August 2019

OnePlus 7 Pro

Recent dabblings with fabulous value budget phones is set aside here as we head straight back into flagship territory and a look at the highest spec'd phone I ever handled! Many thanks to Jon Trimmer for the review loan. So does the OnePlus 7 Pro with 256GB Storage and 12GB RAM live up to the hype and justify digging deeper for more, I wondered.

The Samsung Galaxy Note9 with 512GB Storage was to date the best specified phone I've ever reviewed and with which I tried to live! I reviewed this in multiple parts last year as I tackled speakers, the S-Pen and finally the whole experience. I also enjoyed my time with and reviewed the OnePlus 6T which had 256GB Storage (and remains my most popular blog post). We've talked a lot on PSC about not having to pay £1000 for a phone when a £200 model will do 95% of the same jobs, but this unit is slightly different in that, if you don't want the mega-specs on display here, the phone can be bought (as I review) in a 128GB/6GB RAM version for £649, rather than the £799 on show here. You can also buy the non-Pro version for even less, but that's a very different phone indeed - more of a 6T update than this, which is treading new ground for OnePlus.

The Big Tour
Physically the phone is gorgeous in the hand. It looks and feels to me very much like a Galaxy phone - and maybe that's what they were after. The glass front and back curve around the edges to meet the aluminium surround - and the shimmering Nebula Blue back colour is a delight. Shame that there's no way it could be used without a case to protect! Fortunately OnePlus have not been tight-fisted and included a very good clear TPU in the case. It's very good quality and could easily be priced at £10-£15 out there if buying. I can just about meet my thumb and finger around the phone's waist but not with the case on. This is a big phone! On the right are the power button and knurled 'alert slider', on the left, volume rocker, bottom speaker, SIM Card Tray and USB-C port and up-top, the pop-up selfie camera. On the back there's various logos, an LED flash and triple-camera island arranged vertically and centrally. In the hand, naked, it feels amazingly premium and, as I say, very big! In comparison to the already-big Pixel 2XL, it's about the same width and thickness but a little taller. It's also heavy - you know you're carrying it with the weight up in the Razer Phone department, at over 200g. OnePlus don't seem to be claiming any official waterproof rating, but it seems like that's to save money on the certification, bizarrely, claiming that the phone is bucket-of-water-dunk safe, but not offering guarantees!

As I fire it up, it's clear that the 'fluid' AMOLED screen is just as gorgeous as any Samsung phone's screen, bright, vibrant colours, sharp and Gorilla Glass 5 (better get a protector). It's a giant 6.67" screen that defies the size of its frame by filling itself right out to the edges providing almost no bezel at all - no wonder they supplied a TPU for people to have somewhere to hold! This is quite a size when you think that it's only just shy of a 7" tablet, though I do accept that the shape/ratio is different of course. The ratio is 19.5:9 which accounts for the tall but disproportionately (for the size) narrow body. The screen has 1440 x 3120 pixels making 516ppi. What 'fluid' actually means is a bit of a mystery and maybe just marketing hype, the claim being it makes the most dynamic use of all hardware and software resources to keep things 'fluid' including HDR10+ content support and a 90Hz refresh rate...

Refreshing Change
Another first for OnePlus is having introduced a screen which has a 90Hz refresh rate. I've been using a Razer Phone here with a 120Hz refresh rate for a long time now and as reported elsewhere, I can't tell the difference! Gamers with much younger eyes than mine will no doubt disagree and those who say 'once experienced, no way back' - well, I just don't get it. But each to their own. Clearly OnePlus are having a go at attracting Gamers and keeping up with Asus/Razer with their offerings in this department. Fortunately for the likes of me, you can switch it back to the 'normal' 60Hz and save some battery into the bargain! OnePlus do say that when 90Hz is engaged, it is switched to and from dynamically, so not always engaged, depending on what you're doing. The resolution of the 1440p screen can also be switched to 1080p for, again, those who can't tell the difference and to save even more battery. There is an Auto setting which, again, adjusts depending on application.

Let Me In!
The Optical under-screen fingerprint scanner of the 6T started off in a very flaky manner. My Nokia 9 PureView is still pretty much a nightmare in that respect. The ultrasonic versions seem to just work better, but are more expensive to implement at this stage under the glass. So here we have the latest attempt by OnePlus to stick with Optical and actually, the tech seems to have evolved very nicely. It works very well indeed, I would give it 98% of the time. It's very close to perfect, even upside down and the target is nicely low-down on the screen where your thumb would naturally be placed. Maybe Nokia could borrow some of the tech! This is backed up by Face Unlock, which was really fussy to register. It got there in the end but clearly doesn't like full-face beards, nor glasses. When it eventually got with the programme, it gives options to either make you swipe the screen to invoke the face unlock, or to bypass that - however, both of these methods are only available once the power button is pressed on the side, not just the screen being on via double-tap or lifting, which means you might as well really just use your finger. The pop-up Selfie camera (which I'll come to later) slides up each time you want to unlock using this method, quickly up and very quickly down again.

Bolt-On Power
I've mentioned the battery a couple of times now and this unit does come provided with a 4000mAh unit, OnePlus' biggest yet - over the 3700 of the 6T. I'm finding that the battery is getting me fine through a day plus a bit, for my average use. There are concerns out there in reviewland about the extra demands of the screen tech and size on power, some reporting poor results - however, that's not what I'm finding. The truth about that will only come, I guess from those who can use the phone longer-term and not via a short review period. Sadly, OnePlus have opted not to include Qi Charging in this unit, which is a great shame. At this price point I would have thought this should have been a given and suspect very strongly that there will be a 7 ProT along any minute to fix that! Fortunately, I have tested the phone with a USB-C Qi Charging Receiver and it works perfectly (unlike some phones) so Qi can be bolted on! Don't forget also that there's Warp Charging with the brick in the box for a quick fix. This is what used to be called Dash by OnePlus and the 30W (5V/6A) charging claims to get you 50% from flat in 20 minutes, 60% in 35 minutes and so on. We've come to be more cautious these days than routinely using such fast chargers, fearing for the long-term performance of our batteries, but it's certainly useful when needed.

The 7 Pro is powered by a Snapdragon 855, so top of the pile for now and here, with the absurd 12GB RAM, the speed around the UI is, as you might expect, flawless. It makes you realise how slow other phones are, even though they felt perfectly good at the time! One example of that is USB-OTG. With other phones, when I plug in my Samsung Extreme 2TB SSD, it chugs away reading the content - in some cases for minutes - before being available for use. Here, plug it in and within 10 seconds it's all been read and raring to go. Amazing difference. But for most people, for most uses, of course they probably won't notice. Nice to have that poke under the bonnet when needed. HDMI-Out also works perfectly, with an adapter and cable, whatever you're doing on the phone is echoed on the TV/Monitor and with my TV, the sound also makes it through to the set instead of staying with the phone.The SIM Card Tray is a Dual and they've placed a space on each side of it for the two cards. Neat.

Robust Storage
Talking of Storage, the fast UFS 3.0 256GB here is not complemented by microSD expansion, but with OTG working perfectly and that amount onboard, even I am acknowledging that this really is more than good enough for the vast majority of people. Something else that, as it turns out, Apple got right. I have to admit that the Storage being built-in must be more robust, less complicated and system-set so that everything works together out of the factory - instead of hoping that microSD Cards will play ball (as the tech around those change too). I'm very pleased to see the survival of the Alert Slider, assuming as I was that sometime soon it'll be gone with the 3.5mm and shutter release and so on. Genuinely useful for sleeping/meetings and anywhere else where instant DND is needed without fiddling around in menus.

Speaker Sounds
My favourite topic of course and I'm very impressed! Firstly there are two speakers, one at each end (downwards firing at base and front-firing at top) which do produce a stereo sound. I've tested it with all my normal methods and media and it's easily as good as the top-end Samsung devices, I might even say better - somewhere between them and Razer. The only negative thing I'd say following that appraisal is that it's a little bit tinny just for top-end frequencies at full volume, but this can be fixed nicely by using a dedicated Music app rather than Google Play Music or relying on the limited Dolby Atmos options of Dynamic, Film or Music. These don't make huge changes and are always-on, so you have to choose one of them. The stereo separation is not as good as some but certainly works, even though, unlike Razer, these are not true stereo speakers (depending on how you choose to define stereo). The left stereo channel stays on your left when the phone is turned upside down, which is rarer than you might think! The Equaliser setting has been stripped out of Google Play Music so you have to head for Settings and Sound to get to Dolby. There's not even a button in the drop-down Notifications Settings array.

There's also no 3.5mm audio-out socket which means that the user needs to rely on a USB-C to 3.5mm converter, but that's becoming pretty common these days anyway. There's not even an adapter in the box, so you're on your own finding a solution if you're not happy with bluetooth. Bluetooth does support aptX HD but it's clear that OnePlus are not prioritising sound here with no Quad DAC built-in, for example, which needs to be grabbed via an adapter too. I'm again surprised at this price-point that this isn't just a part of what's going on - a nod to the future of bluetooth dependence. Talking of which, the aptX sound over bluetooth via my Marshall Major II headset is fabulous as-is. There are some additional controls in Dolby Atmos which pop up with headphone use (by bluetooth or wired) which build on the Dynamic/Film/Music/None with a 'Style preference' providing further Balance/Warm/Nuanced/None. Switching between them makes little difference except, to my ears, the amount of bass. It's certainly loud though, but not so much when wired with a basic dongle/adapter. Switching to my AKG K701 reference headphones the sound is good, but nothing like it is via bluetooth. Plug in my Razer Phone dongle with all its power and the sound is transformed, as you might expect. Shame OnePlus didn't do like LG and, again, at this price-point, provide decent sound for wired output.

Tanked Up Android
The phone is supplied with Android 9 Pie and as I had it in my care, on 1st August, security updated to June 2019. Not far behind the cutting edge with an improving track record which OnePlus fans are pleased to be able to enjoy. OnePlus has, as usual, tanked up Android with their OxygenOS, now up at version 9.5.9. Again, OnePlus seem to pay close attention to timely updates and are forever pushing through tweaks and improvements to their software running the show. It bodes well for the future and confidence going forward. The phone feels so much more vanilla than others out there, particularly Samsung, and if only they'd left the Launcher as stock, I'd have not felt the need to even consider Nova. Unfortunately, they've stripped out the right-swipe vanilla Google App and replaced it with their own mess, called Shelf. A bit like HTC's Blink. So claustrophobic and limited with widgets and very few selected services like Parking Location, Memo, a Toolbox of limited shortcuts, recent apps, recent contacts, a control-panel dashboard, a travel-card replacement and a 'nanny state' Zen Mode which, when executed, locks down your phone so you can't use it for 20 minutes! Designed to make you take a break, but it'll still let you use the camera! Anyway, all of this, plus near infinite amounts more, are available via the right-swipe Google App cards and services, which they've stripped out for no purpose at all, that I can see. It doesn't sit with their usual approach to keeping things clean. Anyway, there is it. This alone invokes the need to add Nova with the Companion App - or at least to turn off the Shelf and keep a Google App shortcut on the desktop.

Enough negativity, though because Oxygen is generally fabulous to use. Full of useful features and additions to baseline Android. The Pie design language survives through to the Notification Panel with round buttons, greyed out when not in use, swipe-away Notification cards, full editing options for the first panel with left-swipes for more. Pull down Notification Panel from anywhere on the screen, pull up for App Drawer from anywhere on the screen. Options galore for Navigation at the foot, from full-gesture control with swipes from bottom, swipe-pause, swipe from left-bottom, swipe from right-bottom - the gesture controls work well and the only thing missing, now present in Q Beta is the 'back' swipes from right and left of screen. If you'd rather, you can have the standard Pie navigation or even legacy three-button, so choices all round. There are some limited layout options for the desktop but also access to Icon Packs via the Play Store. Long press the home screen for a bunch of other controls and options for look and feel of the general environment before heading into Settings proper!

Apart from all the standard Pie additions to settings, adaptive stuff et al, Reading Mode turns off colours (per-app if you want), there are loads of ways to adjust how the screen colours look including a manual slider, a video-enhancer function (though I can't see any difference in use), controls for the 'ambient display' - meaning AoD of course. There's a few choices for clock/date and content layout for the AoD but not as many as Samsung's, and switches for DTTW, nudge/pickup phone to wake - once again, at this price-point, I expect a proper AoD. One that stays on! If Samsung and others can do it, then so should OnePlus be able to. I hope this is switchable in software and enough OnePlus users hound the company to add it. Theme can be switched to 'dark' which survives across all settings and some apps, but not all - and you can even change the accent colour for your system dialogues' headings etc.

...and there's more...
Then there's the Motorola-style 3-finger screenshot option and a whole range of assignable gestures from the off-screen, like music controls with a > or opening camera with an O or torch with a V, or any other apps or functions you want to allocate to O, V, S, M and W. Neat idea and pleased that they're sticking with it. Supporting the 90Hz refresh rate screen there's also a Gaming Mode which can be switched on to enhance game-play in a whole bunch of ways including various aspects of DND controls and even a 'fnatic' Mode which, when selected, pretty much shuts down most other functions and apps on the phone in order to allocate absolute maximum hard/software resources to game-play. You can even auto-switch this on, when certain apps/games are launched! They seem to be making some effort in trying to attract Gamers here and challenging, as I say, other phone makers treading that path. Parallel Apps is still present, allowing double-installation and sign-in of various services as is the Locker, to hide those apps and services users don't want anyone to know they're using! Scheduled power on/off I think is a great function - I don't think it hurts to schedule a reboot a couple of times a week and this can be assigned to whatever time you like, so a good idea for 3am routinely. I'd like to see what Samsung have done here, also allowing a choice of days. Maybe it'll come in an update. Other additional apps are kept to a minimum and I really wouldn't call them bloat. A video screen recorder, voice recorder, weather, file manager, calculator and clock. Users can choose whether to use these or ignore them in lieu of the Google standard apps.

In my usual way, I'm going to invite you to join Steve Litchfield in The Phones Show 370 for a much more useful analysis of the camera setup on the phone as he puts it through its paces, testing functions and performance. There's a triple camera setup here with a 48MP/12MP pixel-binning f1.6 unit in the lead with OIS allowing for 2x lossless zoom, supported by a 3x hybrid-zoom in the 8MP f2.4 secondary camera, again with OIS and a 16MP f2.2 wide-angle shooter bringing up the rear! (Using UltraShot you can now shoot JPG images using the full 48MP of the sensor incidentally). There's a 16MP pop-up Selfie camera which pops out of the top of the camera, as I said earlier, on demand and ensures that there's no need to for cut-outs or notches on the screen. It's a solution - and OnePlus claim to have tested the robustness of the component exhaustively. I guess the average user will still be concerned about longevity. My favourite function is close-up shots with the secondary camera at 3x zoom. This combination gets me really close to subjects and heads towards feeling like real Macro, remaining sharp enough for me at minimum distance. I've had great fun with that, much more than any other functionality! Second favourite is the wide-angle, which I always wow about - and it's as excellent here as other phones' cameras which employ similar. Makes me want to go out (and stay in) and actually use it, like I would a proper camera. The camera app is fun to use and is full of modes and manual overrides galore, including optional AI, JPG/RAW and spirit level. Low light performance is very good and most of the bells and whistles make it through to the 16MP Selfie, which actually produces 16MP shots unlike some phones I've tested lately! Anyway, I'll leave you with Steve there.

Near Perfect
This is a terrific smartphone and feels like a true flagship. It's as fast as lightning, is stuffed with the best hardware, has enough interesting stuff going on to make it less boring than a Nexus/Pixel. At the same time, there's enough 'vanilla' retained so as not to make the user feel as though they're off on some tangent from Android which would have to be learnt afresh (and probably hated). If only they would update the software to include an AoD - and had, at the outset, added Qi Charging, this could have been my perfect phone. It's not cheap for this model packed with the highest specs, but when you use it it somehow feels like it's worth the extra cash. I've never used a phone which works quite as fast and, as OnePlus might say, fluidly. Highly recommended if you can afford it. Thanks again to Jon Trimmer for the loan.

Abigail (2024)

A bunch of lowly hoods are brought together in the typical nobody-knows-each-other style, not supposedly sharing anything about themselves, ...