Sunday 27 August 2023

The Android Vanilla Club

I do realise that this title for my unofficial, informal group of Android devices doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny as all OEMs (even Google with Pixels) go their own way to some degree these days. I think that the closest we get to AOSP is probably with the Nokia devices now (and maybe FairPhone) - but I won’t let this bunch of technicalities put me off my stride! Pretty much everyone includes their own Camera app/software, so we’ll give that a pass. So here’s my list of devices (in roughly ‘distance away’ order) that I consider to be ‘vanilla’ enough to at least retain the feel of the AndroidOne Programme in 2023…

Very, very clean and as Google intended, back a few years ago. Depending on the model, they do add some stuff (like the Red Button on the XR20) but otherwise the experience is as close as it gets.

A very close second, though by definition, the hardware has to meander off in order to make it ‘modular’. But beyond that, the software experience is very close to AndroidOne/AOSP.

Probably a close-ish third, though we do now start to get ‘padding’ - in a Nokia Red Button kind of way, here with the whole Glyph thing. The UI in software is also fairly heavily skinned with their so-called NothingOS, but look beyond that and it doesn’t stray too far and does indeed somehow retain the look and feel. It’s also kind-of British!

Depending on the model, Moto tends to leave much of the Vanilla intact. There’s a very consistent bunch of stuff they do add, which somehow doesn’t feel like it gets in the way of the feel of the pure experience. MyUI adds functions which are generally useful and helpful rather than toys or bloat. Like Ready For, the Peek Display, three-finger screenshot, chop-chop for torch and twist-twist for camera.

Sony Xperia
A little further away, Sony tinkers with the experience more - but usually with, like Moto, very useful functions and ability. We know the oft’ quoted list of the camera, video and music apps, 3.5mm audio-out socket, microSD Card support and HDMI-Out, but there’s also the fact that FaceBook and LinkedIn continue to be stuck in ROM, AlbumArt on the AoD is great (at least for now), LED Notification Light (at least for now), some of the ways in which Settings are offered - and little things like using Samsung’s 10 minute screen time-out maximum rather than the ‘standard’ 30 minutes. So yes, Xperia phones do retain the look/feel to a large degree - but we are meandering further away now.

Google’s Pixels
Surprisingly far down my list is, yes, what Google offers. It is ‘clean’ in the sense that it’s what the original developers of Android are currently doing, but there are loads of bells and whistles, Pixel-only exclusive functions, apps and services which move it away. There’s also the whole UI which has ‘stuck in place’ elements (like Search and At A Glance) which is really not in keeping with the original idea of Android, forcing the discontent to install 3rd party launchers. But most Pixel users (other than me) consider all this to pale into insignificance as they focus on the camera and AI-driven photographic capabilities, clearly Google’s main USP.

The Prices
The big question then is what price are users prepared to pay (in terms of distance from Vanilla) in order to get the cool bells and whistles offered by other manufacturers. Edge Panels and Galaxy Stores, GoodLocks, super-zoom lenses, Ready For and DeX, price (as in money this time) with BBK Group and other far-east challengers cutting price and corners (in some cases) to get stuff out there into people’s hands. For the open-minded user willing to compromise, embrace, enjoy and make the most of these embellishments (and much more), well, perhaps they consider the view at the destination worth the bus-fare. The obvious contender, in this case, seems to be Samsung - for those willing to dwell in their world and make the most of the amazing functions and capabilities.

Now, there probably are some outliers which I have not got in my list (after all this was only a lazy Sunday afternoon thought experiment) - like maybe ZenPhones and OnePlus (though that get’s more ColorOS by the minute rather than Cyanogen). I wonder what you think.

Thursday 3 August 2023

Space Q45 SoundCore by Anker Headphones

I have fancied a pair of these since they were released about a year or so ago but always shied away as I already have a Sony XM4 unit and didn't really see the need for both. I'm very pleased, therefore, to now get a loan pair so that I can share my thoughts.

Just to be clear, I'm no audiophile or sound engineer so my observations here are based on my (pretty much) layman's experience - though I have been using headphones of all sorts, shapes and forms for most of my (teen/adult) life - so over 50 years!

The value proposition can't be ignored here and as usual China's Anker's daughter firm SoundCore have knocked it out of the park with regards to features and value. The Sony XM4 unit on release were nearly £400 and these, £150. As we will discover, the Q45s are not as 'smart' as the XM4s but they still have loads of features which generally defy the price-point.

In the box we have a 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable for listening the old-fashioned way, a USB-C to USB-A cable for charging, instructions booklet (for which one might need a magnifying glass) and the headphones themselves. I think there is a carry-case in the original retail unit, but it's not available here. The earcups fold on aluminium hinges 'both ways' so 'back/flat' for turning and placing on shoulder-blades for a break and 'up/in' on themselves for 'as small as possible' storage/transport - much like the Sony ones. There's a subtly-coloured SoundCore logo on the outside of each cup.

The headband is mostly hard plastic with a 'soft' area to line up with the top of the head, between the two side-sliding sizing controls. They seem comfortable in use, even for long-term, much like the XM4s. The actual cushions are very similar in terms of comfort, though the Sony's ear 'shape' is more elongated. The Q45's cushions/cups are more 'round' but certainly not circular - those with very big ears might be better with Sony but I have reasonably big ears and they seem comfortable in both. The two headsets feel about the same weight in the hand (and on the head) and are equally well built/made.

They have a distinctive look, which are not as 'sleek' looking as the XM4s but it's a style symbolic of the brand now with futuristic, yes, spacey, look/feel. There's a secondary circular 'island' on the outside of each earcup with access to buttons and ports. I rather like the styling. On the left 'ring' there's the power/bluetooth/multipoint button, USB-C port and ANC selector. On the right, there's a volume/next/previous track rocker, 3.5mm audio-out port and play/pause button. They all feel firm, solid and like they will last the lifetime of the headphones/battery. These are in black, but you can get them in blue and white too.

The basic controls are fairly obvious, pairing up in the usual kind of way, so next job is to install the SoundCore App on your phone (Android, iOS) and tinker with all the fine controls. The ANC can be engaged and customised on a slider-of-effect from 1-5, ambient sound can also be switched to 'transparency mode' (so off, I guess!) or there's a middle ground dubbed 'normal'. On day of testing it's quite windy outside. Transparency mode lets me hear everything around me quite clearly (depending on the volume level of course), set to 'Normal' most of that 'specific' noise around me (like trains and seagulls making a right old racket!) are hugely reduced but I can still hear the low hum of the wind and set to Noise Cancellation (on slider 5) all that wind goes away and it's pretty silent.

Silent shouldn't be a variable term really, but the XM4s do make it even 'more silent'. That's a market-leading high bar, however, and that very small difference is why they are so well thought of, reviewed and cost so much more. But don't get me wrong, the Q45s are still very, very impressive in terms of NC. Just, as one might expect, not quite the same class as the (arguably) world-leaders. Is that slight difference worth £200 more (RRP)? That's for the user to decide. I'd say categorically no! You can also switch between the ANC/Normal/Transparency modes by using the button on the left cup which rotates between them with each press. There's a (whacking great big) Widget (for Android) if people want to take up half a home screen with it!

More controls in the app relate to equalisation, all sorts of pre-sets which (for a change with this kind of software) actually are very effective and make for a great range of options and changes to listening. There's a HearID Sound function which, like Samsung's tool, leads you through a quite detailed 'hearing test' then offers you a listening experience based on that, should you wish to use it instead of any other equalisation options. Bluetooth v5.3 is included here (multipoint works between two devices, switched by a double-press on the power button or automatically when detected) and LDAC, SBC and AAC for use with supporting devices.

Based on the above, the sound output is of good quality indeed. Setting the most bass available via the controls is not as bass-heavy as the XM4s but for me, I don't have the Sony unit set to anything like the most bass, anyway! Those days are gone and the Q45 sound suits me more as an overall profile and set of options. Others, who blast their ears with brain-crunching bass (watch out for that later in life), might well prefer the Sony sound. The stereo reproduction is nothing short of excellent (testing here with YouTube Music and Motorola Razr 40 Ultra), soundstage wide, separation delightful and no distortion even at top volume and BassUp selected in the app. As always with these tests involving multiple devices you never know quite which is to get the most credit, but the resulting sound in my ears is quite excellent.

The 3.5mm audio seems to work very nicely too, hooked up and tested here with various devices including my Windows PC and Sony Xperia 5 Mk.IV. Using the headset with a cable completely disconnects the bluetooth-paired device, seemingly switching off the headset too - when going back to bluetooth the headset seems to need powering on again.

Officially, the battery life can stretch to 65 hours of use - but that's with ANC off. For most people using ANC, that's 50 hours (45 with LDAC in use and 37 with ANC and LDAC) which compared with many out there (including the XM4s) is a great performance in longevity. The 3.5mm cable route can be used even if the battery is depleted, as indicated above. Quick Charging ensures that if you're stuck, the firm claims you can get 4 hours of (presumably medium volume) use with a five-minute power-up! Normal charging time for the depleted batter would seem to be about an hour and a half or so.

The Google Assistant feels a bit absent with the Q45s, but she's there! It's just not very obvious. The play/pause button on the right needs to be double-pressed to invoke her, but unlike with the Sony offering, she then doesn't say anything! So you just go ahead in the silence and say what you need to say, hoping it's the right time and she's listening! If you're listening to music it stops of course, so that's the time to talk, but if using the headphones just for ANC it's not that clear. Anyway, once engaged it's as expected and works fine.

Taking and ending calls is a breeze as that play/pause button doubles (trebles) up as an answer/end button. Tested here on a phone call and the range away from the phone seems very good (60 feet plus), call quality fine - hearing the other person and them hearing me. The cherry on the cake would have been Sony's automatic pausing of audio when taking the headphones off, but, again, something has to give with cost.

Depending on whether or not you want to use swipes and gestures or hardware buttons will dictate which of these systems you'll prefer (and how much cash you have). The Sony is all swipes (across the outside of the face of the earcup) to control volume, tracks, stop/start and as previously mentioned, the Q45 is physical buttons. Both systems work well enough but there is no denying that the Sony feels more advanced and modern, especially with the Assistant integration - but, again, I point to price. The Q45s may not be quite as polished in some of these ways, but for those on a budget, they're incredibly capable and sound fabulous.

Tuesday 1 August 2023

PodHubUK Podcasts for the Month of July 2023

...a roundup of our month of podcasting. Links to the team, communities and podcast homes on the net at the foot, so scroll down!

Phones Sho
w Chat
Episode 755 - Everything Else
Sunday 1st July
Steve and I scoop up all the stuff we had to talk about including the ThinkPhone, Zenfone, Pixels, Sonys and iPhones

Phones Show Chat
Episode 756 - A Pixel Fold Special
Sunday 2nd July
Welcome to this last weekend's Part 2, er, kind of! It's morphed into an enticing chat about Garry Clark and his first-hand experience with the new Pixel Fold, a few days in. PSC can add to the 101 other views/reviews out there now!

Whatever Works
Episode 188 - Mr Pink's Red Hot Tip!
Wednesday 5th July
Aidan and I are back once more with our fortnightly roundup of Whatever Works from us and you! Plenty of time-wasting clap-trap as usual including a blind dog who walks from Lands End to John O'Groats every day, a chicken farmer who is branching out into nuclear physics and we hear from a man from Pisa who intends to move the Eiffel Tower 10 feet to the right. All good fun, so join us for one of your valuable hours!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 757 - Living in the Future
Saturday 8th July
Steve and I welcome back the ever popular Ben Wood to join us this week for a chat as we Defy Honor and Sony, Magically Thinking Folds! Loads of stuff as always - including the declaration of the Photo of the Month winner for June - and great reports from various tech events Ben has been/will be attending. Do join us for an hour or so.

Tech Addicts Podcast
The Close Knit Community of Threads
Sunday 9th July
Gareth and I are back again with our fortnightly tech tinctures. This time it's Pixel Fold prices, Meta's Twitter Clone Threads, eye wear with TCL NXTWEAR S, Razer streaming earphones, Netflix prices, the AI Camera on the Honor Pad X8 Pro, Samsung Galaxy Unpacked, OnePlus Open, Nord 3, Red Magic 8S Pro and fear for Plex. Why not tune in and enjoy!

Projector Room
Episode 142 - Severance of Destiny
Wednesday 12th July
Gareth, Allan and I are back again with this fortnight's roundup of all things film, cinema and TV. This time we get all claustrophobic with Charles Bronson, consider an Impossible Mission, get Sick of Blood & Gold in a Silo and even inject some Indy! Available in all the usual places, so do join us as we natter for an hour or two!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 758 - Google Bash Special!
Saturday 15th July
Nirave Ghondia is the guest this week as Steve and I chat with him, twisting and turning as he opens up about foldables - and not just from the main players! There's the Gold Standard of Samsung of course, but also plenty more from the likes of Moto, Honor, Oppo and even <ahem> Google. Available in all the usual places, so do join us for an hour.

Whatever Works
Episode 189 - Turbo Toothpaste!
Wednesday 19th July
Aidan and I 
are back again - he, ringing one (Bell!), as we have a right old natter for an hour about this, that and t'other! Lots of Whatever Works stuff from you, and a bunch of crap too! Available in all the usual places, so do feel free to have a listen. Unless you have something better to do. Like watching paint dry.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 759 - Watch, Health Computer or Phone?
Saturday 22nd July
Steve and I are back this weekend with Tom Stuart. We chat about what devices he's using, meander into Smartwatches, look forward to the Sony 5 Mk.V and celebrate the arrival of Motorola updates! Plenty more as always, so do join us!

Tech Addicts Podcast
Pixel Leaks and Tab S9 Prices
Sunday 23rd July
Gareth and I, here again with our fortnightly roundup of stuff that's caught our eye in tech. Plenty to tinker with including hands-free driving, new Samsung hardware this week, trains blazing through Italy, Sony's Project Q, a glut of Google glimpses and much more. Do join us for an hour or three!

Projector Room
Episode 143 - Quicksand Hijack
Wednesday 26th July
We're back again folks with another roundup of all things film, cinema and TV. Gareth, Allan and I bring you thoughts and reviews of what we've been watching, interspersed with yours! Cary Grant gets scrutiny in Themed Treats, we focus in on the currently-running Hijack, lose our way in some Quicksand and end up Dead to Me! We round things up with some dubious retro French filth, sorry, arthouse, as we turn to our Willie Wonka!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 760 - Listener Feedback and Contributions
Saturday 29th July
This week we mop up a bunch of stuff which has been lurking around, taking the opportunity with no interesting guest to thrill you. Loads of Samsung/Watch talk, Moto's resurgence, Sony leaks and PureView testing alongside the Pixel Camera on Fairphone. It's all here, so do dig in for an hour. With stalwart Steve.

The Podcasts
PodHubUK - Phones Show Chat - The Phones Show - Whatever Works - Chewing Gum for the Ears - Projector Room - Tech Addicts

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