Galaxy Fold is a failure? Don’t think so.

For the last 2 years, smartphones have been a rather “boring” product category. Sure, the cameras are getting better, the chips faster, batteries last longer, the screens get brighter, … but those are (welcome) evolutions. Nothing too exciting report.

Arguably, a similar thing can be said about tablets and laptops as well. Those form factors are mature and the technology is mostly plateauing.

A folding phone is pretty exciting in that context. It really does present a different form factor that needs its own user experience. It is both a challenge on the hardware as well as software level. The latter is made more complex given that neither the OS nor the third-party apps are under Samsung’s control.

Given these challenges, it would have been a sheer wonder, in my opinion, if everything had worked perfectly. One could argue that at the price point, it should have worked perfectly, but I am not sure I totally agree. If you buy a first-gen foldable phone, you should realise that there are things to iron out. Not everything will be perfect. You sign up to be a beta-tester… you pay to get a front row seat to see how this new form factor evolves.

Where I do draw the line, and so does Samsung, is that after a few days of “real-life” usage, the screens start to fail. That clearly is not something users sign up for. As a result of this failure, Samsung has started to re-call the review devices and is postponing the launch. In my book, whilst not a great PR story, that certainly is not the end of the world.

Could Samsung have avoided this? Probably. And they will be paying a high price for not having avoided it. However, this will not be the end of it. The initial experiences with this new form factor had reviewers excited, and I trust Samsung can redeem itself from this. Some people wrote Samsung off after the Note 7 debacle, and we should have learned to never count out Samsung.

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Huawei Mate 20 X: a new paradigm in large screen phones?

Large phones have always interested to me. I purchased the first Galaxy Note when it came out and have had the Note 3, 4, 8 and now 9. I think the Note 9 has already a pretty large screen, but I am always wondering how much larger manufacturers can go whilst continuing to deliver a device that can used for everyday smartphone tasks. Rumours are that the Note 10 will have a 6.66 inch screen (probably the same screen as the Galaxy S10 5G), but I am curious what it is like to have an even larger screen.

Late last year, Huawei announced their Mate 20 line up. I always keep an eye on these phones as they are the closest competitors to the Samsung Galaxy Note phones. Well, during the announcement Huawei presented, pretty much out of left field, the Mate 20 X. This phone has a 7.2 inch screen! Now that seems like a phone that could just be too big for its own good. I just had to try and see how it fits into daily life and whether it can be more than just a phone.

Specs

For detailed specs, check out this GSM Arena grid, but these are the hightlights:

  • 7.2 inch, 1080p AMOLED screen
  • 128GB of storage, 6Gb of RAM and a Kirin 980 processor.
  • Dual SIM, with the second SIM slot being able to be used for external storage
  • 5.000 mAh battery
  • Triple rear camera set-up from the Mate 20 Pro
  • Nice stereo speakers and a headphone jack

The only thing missing is better water proofing (only IP53 instead of IP67/68), but that is not too much of an issue, in my opinion.

Design and form factor

For its screen size, the phone is as compact as it can be, with close to 90% of the front being screen. However, it is a big screen and therefore a big phone. There is no way of getting around that. With the size of the screen and size of the battery (about which more below), the weight of the phone is up there as well, with aprox 230 grams.

One of my main worries was the ability to use it comfortably during the day… use it one-handed when necessary, slipping it in and out of pockets, easy to unlock, easy to reach buttons, etc. Well, I was pleasantly surprised in this area. Whilst this is certainly the biggest phone I have handled yet, I was able to do so without too many issues. Once in a while you can’t reach with one hand where you want to or its fit in your pocket is less than ideal, but that happens just once in a while. I found that it can fit in pretty well with my daily routine, while not completely without compromise, of course.

The fact that I can use it, certainly doesn’t mean it is for everyone. It is big and it is heavy, and it may simply be too much phone for you. These two defining characteristics of the device make it a niche device, by definition, and your millage may vary.

Besides this, the design of the phone is really nice and the build quality feels great.

Performance

This is one of the areas where this phone excels, in my opinion, and one of the main reasons to get it (besides wanting a big screen).

  • Screen: It is just so ample! It makes it really comfortable to read text, view pictures, type text, play videos, etc. It really is a device that you want to use for many tasks.
  • Battery: Wanting to use it is great, but having to charge it the whole time wouldn’t be. Well, the battery life of this phone is simply out of this world. I have never seen anything like it. On a normal day, with 4 hours SOT, I go to bed with 55-60% remaining. Even on a weekend day with 7 hours of SOT, I still had around 35% left at the end of the day.
  • Speakers: Real stereo speakers that can be turned up quite loud.
  • Fluidity: The UI is really responsive and there were no slow-downs. Very nice performance!
  • Fingerprint scanner: The scanner is comfortably positioned and really fast with few failures to read.

Software

The device comes with Android Pie out of the box, which is a great feat. The Samsung Galaxy Note 9, that was released about a month earlier, had to wait 3 months to get it. Hopefully, Huawei will keep it up to date for at least 2 years… the performance of the phone certainly indicates there is enough head room.

The software itself is fine. Everybody talks about how much EMUI has improved, and I am sure they are right, but for me it is just OK. When comparing it to what Samsung is doing, I feel like it is 1-2 years behind Samsung’s One UI. EMUI is functional and fluid, but lacks elegance and refinement.

Huawei has introduced navigation gestures in this version of EMUI. I immediately turned it on and didn’t look back. They work well enough, particularly when using it one-handed as you don’t need to reach for navigation buttons. In fact, when compared to the gestures on Samsung’s One UI, I think I prefer Huawei’s implementation.

Camera

The rear camera unit is made up of 3 cameras:

  • 40 MP, f/1.8, 27mm (wide), 1/1.7″, PDAF/Laser AF
  • 20 MP, f/2.2, 16mm (ultrawide), 1/2.7″, PDAF/Laser AF
  • 8 MP, f/2.4, 80mm (telephoto), 1/4″, 5x optical zoom, OIS, PDAF/Laser AF

These three cameras make for an extremely versatile and creative camera phone. I loved using all three cameras and have been overall impressed with the quality of the pictures as well as the camera app itself. The only think I didn’t like was that the AI often times tried to “force” portrait mode (when it sees faces) when I didn’t want it, which made for a picture with poorer quality. I figured out that you can hit the X when it tries to apply Portrait effects and then it’ll turn to taking a “normal” photo, but I didn’t like that I had to do that. Particularly as the Portrait mode is just a swipe away, if I want to use it.

I certainly look forward to more manufacturers incorporating ultrawide lenses on their camera units, and they should look at Huawei’s implementation for inspiration. Well done, Huawei, on a great camera experience!

Conclusion

One of the main questions I wanted to answer for myself is whether this phone allows for new use cases for a smartphone. The screen is pretty much the same size as Google’s Nexus 7 (mini) tablet of 2012-13, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to wonder whether it can substitute a tablet. Also, with its PC mode, can it substitute a PC? In summary, is this THE all-in-one mobile and connected device I have been waiting for?

  • The home screen launcher does not turn into landscape, which is a real omission for a device that can potentially double as a tablet.
  • None of the first-party apps that I used make use of the additional screen real-estate, in my opinion. This screen should allow for apps to use one column in portrait, but two columns/panes in landscape, as do the larger iPhones where even third-party apps adopt that app design paradigm.
  • I have a Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard that I have connected to all sorts of Android, Apple and Windows devices without issue, but I can’t connect it to the Mate 20 X. Don’t know why. I realise it is nerdy, but being able to use this as a little laptop with a mouse and keyboard would have been great. The screen real estate and the battery life make this a very compelling idea, for those that are interested in it.
  • The PC mode is OK, but I found it seriously lacking in comparison to Samsung’s DeX and even DeX can’t really compete with a “real” desktop experience. For occasional use it is OK, assuming you manage to connect a bluetooth keyboard, but don’t count on it replacing a desktop.

So, in my experience, it is not great as a mobile mini laptop, a desktop or a mini-tablet. It is simply a large smartphone. However, just being larger does have its advantages. Normally, I can’t really use my Note 9 as a video player in the kitchen while doing stuff as the screen is too small. The Mate 20 X has a large enough screen to make the experience considerably better and the speakers were loud enough to overcome the noise in a kitchen. But, admittedly, that was really the only new use case that this device allowed me to have beyond what I already get from, e.g., a Note 9.

In summary, the Mate 20 X is certainly competitive with the Galaxy Note 9 in my experience, but in the end I would prefer the Note 9. The Note 9 has more mature software features and a more refined software experience (in addition to the included S-Pen). In terms of hardware, the Note 9’s screen is better and the phone is easier to handle when on the go.

However, if you are into big screen phones, you owe it to yourself to check out the Mate 20 X. It’s a very solid device (great performance, long-lasting battery, versatile cameras and ample screen real estate) at a great price. And I hope Huawei will continue to develop this model as they are onto something.

One UI on the Galaxy Note 9 – Great experience!

Samsung presented late last year the new One UI. It has been in beta for a few weeks now, but I finally have it on my Galaxy Note 9 right now (release version). Here are some thoughts about the work that Samsung has done.

Gestures

One of the first things I tried on the new UI were the gestures. The navigation buttons have felt like wasted space since the introduction of navigation gestures on iOS and some Android versions from other manufacturers.

The Samsung version is pretty straight-forward, really. Instead of hitting a button, you swipe up from the place where the button used to be to activate that action. There are, optionally, three little lines on the bottom of the screen that help you locate where to swipe. When you swipe on an area, the little stripe that you see goes up and bounces back. A nice animation. Also, in order to activate Google Assistant, just swipe from the centre and hold.

In addition, if you swipe right from the bottom centre stripe, you elegantly switch to the previous app (here I have found a bug, as it doesn’t do it anymore the way it is supposed to… in fact, the behaviour is currently very random).

In my opinion it works nicely overall and I haven’t turned it off. It of course gives me a bit more screen real estate, but mostly it just looks better and the gesture navigation system sort of feels more elegant.

A recent poll on SamMobile had 66% of the people that can use gesture navigation use it, so clearly I am not alone. Worth giving it a try.

There are only two disadvantages that I experienced:

  1. When you need to go “back” multiple times, hitting the back button multiple times is easier than swiping the back area multiple times.
  2. Also, if you were into split screen, you could previously long-press the task switcher button and it would put the active app in multi-tasking view. That doesn’t work anymore.

Night mode

The Galaxy Note 9 has a gorgeous OLED screen and what better way to appreciate it than with a Night Mode where the whole system and system apps get a black/dark background.

I had read that in some beta versions you can configure it for a certain time interval or have it turn on with sunset and off with sunrise. This is not yet available in this version.

I like Night mode so much that I have turned it on and not turned it off since, practically. I am sure that in the summer time, here in Spain, I would need to switch it off during the day to increase readability, but so far, so good. The next obvious thing is to have all third-party apps that have dark/night modes hook into the system setting and turn on as soon as the system is set to Night mode. That would be pretty cool.

Look and feel

The look and feel has really been changed. There are really too many things to mention, and it is probably a good idea to have a look at a hands-on video on YouTube.

In general, I really like it! Rounded corners and the like are pretty good looking. It looks also very modern and up to date. Just a very nice looking UI!!

One-handed mode

One of the main objectives with One UI was to make the UI easier to use on large phones. In the Samsung universe, it doesn’t really get any larger than the Note 9. So, does it really improve one-handed use? Before answering that question, I should note that even before One UI, I didn’t really have much of an issue handling the phone in one hand.

The whole viewing and handling areas make a lot of sense. The top most item to hit is around the middle of the screen, and my thumb can very easily hit it. One could say that you lose out on information density this way, but with one little swipe the screen is filled with contacts, messages, or settings options, so I never experienced that as a problem. I would encourage other apps to play around with this paradigm, because there is really something to it in this tall-phone-era

Moving the tabs/sections of an app to the bottom makes common sense and probably should have been done earlier, but better late than never. Although the placement is now good, I don’t really enjoy what the tabs look like.

System stability

Last year, I updated my Galaxy Note 8 to Android 8.0 immediately and I regretted it for 2-3 months. There were so many big bugs (including battery drains and system crashes). Eventually they got there and the current Android 8 version on the Note 8 is great.

I have to say that with the massive update that this version entails, it is actually really stable and there are only very small hick-ups here and there, but nothing frustrating. It has only been a few days, but I feel that perhaps battery life has taken a little hit. Maybe. Still, I think they will get this sorted. All in all, well done, Samsung.

Other bits and bobs

  • Always on Display can now be set to turn on for 30 seconds when you tap the screen. This is the way I have it set now, and I really like it.
  • The sound when you connect the phone to an outlet to charge has changed and is lovely.
  • You can turn on Raise to Wake, which means that the phone wakes when you raises it and immediately tries to scan your face. Quite nice.

In summary

We had expected manufacturer updates to speed up with Android’s project Treble, but we still had to wait for this update until January. It may seem a little late, but taking into consideration the size of the update, the stability and that the Galaxy Note 8 Oreo update was February/March, I really can’t fault Samsung.

It looks great and works great and is a real improvement. Keep up the great work, Samsung!

Google Pixel is far from a success, in terms of sales

More than a year ago I wrote about how Google Pixel’s value proposition and sales strategy didn’t look like a winner. Although, I really like what Google is doing with the Pixel line-up product-wise, it is clearly not a winner in the market. According to IDC, they only sold 3,9 million Pixel phones in 2017.

Clearly there are still some things to work out for Google:

  • The Pixel 2 is not exactly a cheap phone, particularly the XL version which is up there with the iPhone X and Galaxy Note series in terms of price.
  • The Value Propostion of the phones is solid, though, basically being the iPhones of the Android world, with a very slimmed down software offering, fast and simple user experience, solid hardware, regular software updates.
  • However, where Apple has the brand image (as well as support, physical stores, …) to charge the prices they do, Google does not. Which means that the phones appear (too) expensive.
  • Lastly, the sales channel strategy is not helping. With a lacking awareness and an expensive price point, in order to generate sales you need to have a presence with the operators… putting phones in front of potential consumers. Except for some exceptions, generally this is not the case.

We have heard rumours of Google developing a mid-range device, and perhaps that could help with some of the issues I point out above, but quite frankly I am not sure yet. I guess we’ll have to see what the device is like and what the sales channel strategy is about.

Google Assistant is leaving the door open for Bixby

When Samsung announced the Galaxy S8 and S8+, it also announced its new voice assistant called Bixby. In fact, the S8 models have an actual dedicated hardware key to invoke the assistant. Many people have criticised Samsung for going down this road instead of just embracing Google Assistant. Personally, I am hopeful and I actually think that Google Assistant is leaving the door wide open for Bixby.

Google Assistant is arguably the best of the voice assistants out there, mainly due to Google’s advances in natural language models and search technologies. However, it completely relies on server-side technologies and you sharing absolutely everything with Google. This is where I believe lies the opportunity for Samsung.

I personally don’t like sharing everything with Google and have the following activity controls turned to off:

  • Web & App Activity
  • Location History
  • Device Information
  • Voice & Audio Activity
  • YouTube Search History
  • YouTube Watch History

Turning these things off, though, means that you loose out on all functions from Google Now/Assistant. Some are understandable, but many also don’t seem at all understandable and in fact are a bit frustrating. On this site you can see many different commands that can be given to Google Assistant. I have tried several that should simply work with all the Activity Controls turned off, but don’t:

  • Navigate Home: in order to ask it to take you home, you need to turn on Location History. This makes no sense, as I have configured in Google Maps my home address, so it should simply take me there, but instead requires me to give it access to all my movements.
  • Baby Driver: looking for information on the film Baby Driver. It could just launch Google with this search term, but instead needs access to web & app activity, voice and audio activity and device information.
  • Set an alarm for 17:00: again, it needs acces to the same things, while this is a purely on-device action.

Apple is betting that people want functionality like this, but are not willing to give up their privacy. Sure, as a result, it is slower rolling out features, but Siri is actually quite feature-rich already. Perhaps, Samsung should be the Apple within the Android ecosystem, focussing on an on-device Assistant that respects the users’ privacy.

I am certainly going to look into this, once Bixby is more widely available, as I don’t know currently how Samsung deals with the privacy aspect. I admittedly worry that they’ll want to have access to it all, just like Google, but a part of me hopes it will respect the data of the customers that just spend 800 euros on a phone. I’ll keep you posted.

Apple’s new iPhone, a strategic mistake?

This article is based on rumours, but I felt it was worth writing about it.

If we believe the latest rumours, then we can expect Apple to launch in September two updated iPhones – iPhone 7S and 7S Plus – as well as a completely re-designed iPhone – iPhone 8/X/whatever (I’ll call it iPhone 8/X below). iPhone 7 and 7S Plus are expected to be evolutions of the current models, whereas the new iPhone is expected to be substantially different. If you wish to know about all the latest rumours, I suggest you check out iMore .com’s article .

rumoured-iphone-8

On the one hand, it is exciting to see that Apple is finally pushing design innovation after 3 generations of upgrades, but at the same time I can’t help but think it shapes up to be an unfortunate move. Allow me to explain.

The current iPhones are already expensive phones. People pay for them, because they prefer to use them, but their biggest complaint is always price. When compared to the rest of the smartphone world, you can see below that the current iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are already quite a bit above what an Android user pays. And the new iPhone may well start above 1.000 dollars.

smartphone-price-ranges

I would argue that iPhones do command a premium – given their good user experience, quality hardware and top-notch after sales service – however, on the design front I am afraid that they are not state of the art anymore. If the current iPhones need anything at all, it would be a reduction in their footprint, i.e. improve the screen-to-body ratio.

samsung-galaxy-s7-edge-vs-apple-iphone-6s-plus

I was fortunate enough to try out a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, and wrote about the experience here . Although I think iPhones have great build quality, nice materials and so on, they can’t compare to what Samsung brings to the table. I found my iPhone 6S Plus dimensions/design to be very outdated.

I realise that with the regular iPhone 7 this is less of a problem, but the iPhone 7 Plus is quite an unweildy device. It would greatly benefit from shaving 4 mm of the width and 6–8 mm from the length. This would certainly result in a better user experience (all else being equal, of course).

Fortunately, it seems Apple agrees that they can do better, but it also seems that the “regular” iPhones will not benefit from this effort. The new design would be reserved for the new iPhone 8/X. And this is the reason I am calling this possible development quite unfortunate.

“Regular” iPhone users already pay a premium in the market. Is it not reasonable to expect Apple to update the design of these immensely profitable phones after 3 generations of limited changes? And not just expect a re-designed iPhone for an even higher price. I think that development would be disappointing.

I realise that Apple can get away with it, but I just wish it were different. I am very keen to see how this all plays out.

BeatsX review

I like using Bluetooth headsets. It is great not to have to worry about cables, and the slight loss in audio quality does not really bother me. With the new generation of Bluetooth headsets – Apple AirPods, Bragi the Headphone, Sol Republic Amps Air, … – I am exploring which one to get. So far, on paper, there does not apear to exist a product without compromises, so I have started to think that I’ll just have to try them.

I have started with the BeatsX headphones, from Beats by Dre. I have been using them for about a week and the experience has been very interesting.

beatsx-2

Likes
* Design
* Stays very well put on my neck
* Fast charging with lightning cable
* Battery life
* Presence of inline controls

Dislikes
* Cable noise (microphonics)
* Bass is hardly present if the earbuds are not perfectly fit
* I have found it hard to get a nice fit, despite the 4 different earbuds
* I am unsure about how they look when wearing them the whole day everyday

User Experience
Apple gets full points from me when it comes to the user experience. All the daily activities required in managing/using the headphones work very well. Consequently, it makes it very pleasant and hassle-free to use:
1. Charging is done with the lightning cable, which is great as I can then use the same cable for my phone and earbuds.
2. It charges really fast, which is very convenient. Fast fuel is not just a silly marketing term, it does work in practice.
3. Battery life is acceptable for me, and I use it a lot during my workdays. I just charge it in the morning for a moment.
4. They are very easy to pair initially and they connect/disconnect with a simple press of the button.
5. They sit very nicely on the neck and when not in use, the little buds stay together with magnets.
6. The carrying case is minimal, but actually works quite well.

The only thing it has me wanting is that it automatically turns off the audio when I take out the earbuds or link them with the little magnets. I guess that was just a bit too much.

Sound quality
The user experience is very important, but they are headphones, and they should sound well. So how do they fair?

I am no audiophile, but as long as you can get a good seal, the sound is good, rich while still being balanced. Similarly, when the seal is good, the passive noise cancellation is spot on. If the seal is not complete, though, I found the bass to lack quite significantly.

Given the importance of a good seal, I should point out that the earbuds come with 4 different tips. I managed to get a reasonably good fit with one of them. The tips are mostly the regular ones, with nothing fancy. The issue, for me, is that when I found a good seal, I started to hear certain sounds very amplified, such as my own breathing, swallowing, even the blood in my ears, which is not pleasant. Also, they really block you out from the world around you.

Therefore, it seems that with these headphones I have to choose between good sound or a comfortable experience. That is not really a trade-off I would like to make.

Also, there is another important drawback that I would like to point out. The earbuds, while bluetooth, have quite a bit of cable. On the one hand that is very convenient (see my user experience notes above), but when I was wearing button up shirts (or a coat), I would get a lot of microphonics (or cable noise) and movement of the cable would slightly loosen the earbud, causing me to re-adjust the fit a bit too frequently for my liking. With t-shirts this happened a lot less, but it is something worth taking into consideration.

Comfort
They are in-ear earbuds, so if you don’t like that, you should not even try them. However, for being in-ear, I think they are reasonably comfortable. They did not end up hurting, but I guess like all headphones, fit is very personal. In any case, for me they fit better than the Apple Airpods.

Conclusion

These ear buds have quite a bit going for them: the user experience and the sound quality are good to very good. However, for the price, I am not sure I would like to accept my two major drawbacks: 1. the trade-off between a comfortable listening experience vs good sound and 2. the presence of microphonics.

Like I said, in this segment there are few head phones without compromise, so up next are the Bragi the Headphone.