Sunday, 17 November 2013

Using a Softbank iPhone 5 LTE SIM with the Google Nexus 5

Google's Nexus 5, at 39,800 Yen from the Google Play Store, is a steal. The phone will run the latest version of Android for the forseeable future (~next 2 years anyway), comes with Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor, an improved camera over previous Nexus phones, and the deal-maker: LTE connectivity. The Nexus 5 (international version) supports LTE Bands 1/3/5/7/8/20. Band 1 will give you connectivity on both Docomo and Softbank; Band 3 will give you connectivity on Softbank, and in future on Docomo too. Japan Mobile Tech has some good info on how to use the Nexus 5 with a Docomo Xi LTE SIM, so I am going to provide some info on how to do the same with Softbank LTE.

The main problem with Softbank is they will NOT sell you a SIM-only contract that does LTE. You can get a SIM-only 3G contract, which gives you access to the "plus.softbank" APN, however it is not possible to add LTE to this contract. Therefore, the only way to get LTE with an unlocked phone on Softbank is by getting a phone from Softbank that already connects to their LTE network. In my case, I had an iPhone 5, and this article will discuss using the iPhone 5 SIM and APN settings on the N5 (it also applies for the iPhone 5S or 5C).


1. Take the nano SIM out of your iPhone. Make sure you are signed out of iMessage first, if you were using that; otherwise your SMS's will go to iMessage and you won't be able to pick them up on your Nexus 5. You will also need a nano-SIM to micro-SIM adapter, which you can get from Amazon or in Akihabara. Pop the SIM into the Nexus 5 using the adapter.


The phone will prompt you to reboot in order to access the mobile network. I was surprised about this, as with most of my other phones, it has been possible to "hot-swap" the SIMs without a reboot.


After the reboot, go to Settings / More / Mobile Networks, and first uncheck the "Data enabled" setting (I always do this to avoid connecting to some horrendously expensive APN by mistake while setting up the phone). Then select "Network Operators", and you should see the list above. Choose Softbank this first time. After that, select the "Choose Automatically" setting to avoid getting an annoying notification every time you lose the Softbank signal in the subway etc.



Next, still in the "Mobile Network Settings" menu list, select "Access Point Names". You will see an APN named "Application" with the address "plus.acs.jp". This is the Softbank APN for SIM-free 3G phones. DO NOT use this APN. Touch the APN name to edit the details, then select the overflow 3-dot menu from the top right, and DELETE the APN. You do not want or need this APN on your phone. Back in the APN list, which should now be blank, touch the "+" button at the top of the screen, and you will be taken to the "Edit Access Point" screen for a new, blank APN. Fill in the details for the Softbank iPhone 5 4G LTE APN as shown in the screenshot above (please do not ask me for the password, as I will not be publishing it on this blog. However I am sure you can find it for yourself).


In the lower half of the APN settings, set the authentication type to "PAP", and set the Bearer to "LTE". Also set the APN type to "default,supl,mms" to make this APN your default connection for all data transmission.

From the 3-dot menu, select "Save", and go back to the APN list. Select your new APN with the radio button beside it. Go back one menu and check "Data Enabled".


If all has gone well, you should now be connected to the iPhone 5 LTE access point, and be able to enjoy Softbank's blazing fast 4G speeds!

Saturday, 21 September 2013

An Android Fanboy's Impressions of a Week with iOS

In my last post, I explained how I went through the procedure of getting an iPhone 5 in order to get an LTE - compatible SIM card and contract to use with my SIM free HTC One. After testing to make sure it worked, I decided in the interests of journalistic research to spend a week with the iPhone as my primary device to try and understand what the fuss is about. I spend enough time eulogising Android, so I thought it would help to know the competition a little better.

Hardware:

There is no disputing that the iPhone 5 is a beautiful device. It has a really premium build quality and feels great in the hand. On the other hand, the screen is absolutely tiny and I often found myself wishing it were bigger, especially when reading long articles on the Web or checking attachments from work mail. On the other hand, despite the sub-HD display, text was crisp and extremely readable.

Battery life didn't seem dramatically different from Android. When streaming music and tethering to my tablet, the battery seemed to die just as quickly as on my HTC. On the other hand, the iPhone may have a slight advantage in Web browsing, probably due to having to power a much smaller screen.

Software:

The iPhone keyboard is pretty decent. Corrections are surprisingly good, and it is really nice to be able to switch languages including Japanese with a single button, rather than having to load a totally different keyboard like on Android. On the other hand, Android offers freedom of choice to choose any keyboard you like, and I can type a whole lot quicker with SwiftKey Flow's swiping method than tapping away on the iPhone, even with its superior corrections. I also really missed being able to long press keys to access numbers and special symbols without having to navigate to a separate keypad, and it seems very counterintuitive to display capital letters on the keys at all times, even when typing in lower case.

The home screen was a real disappointment coming from Android. It was really difficult to get rid of some of the icons for Apple's pre-installed crap (what the hell do I need to have Newsstand on my home screen for?) and in some cases these couldn't be hidden away in folders even (this seems to have been improved in iOS 7). The same with the icons in the dock, although again this seems to be fixed in iOS 7.

The Notification Centre is pretty, but nowhere near as functional as Android's. For example, I can't delete unwanted mails straight from the notification shade without opening the app. Also, while notifications seem to push to the device fine, when you open the the actual app, the notification content still needs to be downloaded (except first-party apps). This is particularly annoying in IM type apps.

One of the biggest gripes for me is the file system, or lack of it, and sharing system. This whole experience feels really crippled compared to Android. For example, sharing: if I try and share a photo directly from the Photos app, I basically get a choice of Facebook and Twitter, plus a couple of other apps I will never use. What about photo editing apps? What about Google Plus, or Gmail? The whole construction of the system, which is based on a whitelist of apps, is so inflexible compared to Android's system of intents, where any app can register itself for a particular action such as handling a photo. Similarly, I can't seem to send any kind of attachment other than a photo with Gmail, and the only app that offers to send things other than photos is the built in Mail. I can't tell the system that I want to use Chrome for everything Internet related, as it will only acknowledge the existence of Safari. Files saved in one app can't easily be accessed by another app because there is no file system as such. On Android, I have a normal directory structure, can plug into a PC and view this directory structure as though it were an external hard drive, and can even browse my company network from my phone. Coming from Android, it is hard to believe that this kind of restrictiveness and inflexibility still exists in 2013,and makes it very unlikely that I would consider or recommend an iDevice for any kind of serious work purposes.

Minor quibbles: I turned off the function of notifications lighting up the screen when locked. I don't find that very private. On the other hand, doing this made it hard to tell when I did have notifications, as there is no notification LED. Can't play Ingress on iPhone (the only game I do actually play). No way to delete messages more than one at a time in Mail. In iOS 7, the PIN number input on the lock screen has a lovely fade-out glow effect that makes it super easy for anyone watching to see what your PIN was.

And a big one: there is really no quick way to access search. And I don't mean the drivel that is Spotlight (what the hell do I need to search my device for?) I mean good old Google Search. This is one of my most used functions, and on Android, a quick swipe up from the home button on any screen will open the search app. On iOS, I need to switch to the home screen, find and open the search app, and then search. It feels a lot more tedious and long-winded than it sounds. And by the way, Siri is terrible compared to Google Now.

I have managed to survive a week using my iPhone. It won't become my main device, but neither did the world end. I experienced a few frustrations, but I saw not left tearing out my hair. The core features of smartphones are becoming more and more similar across platforms, so for day to day use, it really comes down to a matter of preference. To work quickly and efficiently, however, you won't see me give up my Android any time soon.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Using a SIM-free phone with Softbank LTE

I have been using unlocked phones from overseas (Europe) on my Softbank 3G contract for around 2 years now. Softbank's 900Mhz and 2100Mhz frequencies match up nicely with what most European spec phones are compatible with, and Softbank do not (at the time of writing) restrict their Opensoftbank APN by IMEI (the Andglobal APN does seem to be filtered however), making it a relatively simple procedure of slipping in the Softbank SIM card and setting up the APN correctly.

Last year I was using the fantastic and much underrated HTC One S, and this year in April I upgraded to the HTC One, which is hailed by many reviewers as the best smartphone made so far.

With the HTC One comes LTE support, but on my old 3G contract, there was no possibility to get LTE data (it may have been possible by setting the APN but charges would have been by the packet, so I never thought to try). So in the last month or so I started thinking how I could get LTE in Japan.

From a hardware point of view, the One supports LTE 800MHz(Band 20),  1800MHz(Band 3) and 2600MHz(Band 7). With LTE more so than with 3G, it is important if possible to check not only the stated frequencies but also the band names, as there are multiple bands in and around the same frequencies that may or may not be compatible.

In Japan, Docomo supposedly offers LTE at 800MHz. However, this is not Band 20 but Band 19, which operates on slightly different frequencies. Not only this, but Docomo's rollout of 800Mhz LTE is said to be extremely limited at this time.

Next up, Softbank. As with Docomo, Softbank's main LTE frequency is 2100MHz (Band 1), but they also have some (?) LTE coverage at 800Mhz; however, this is once again not Band 20, but Band 18 (the bands overlap to an extent, but the best outcome that could be expected is you get only one of uplink or downlink working, which everyone knows means no connection is practically possible).

KDDI is out, as always, since even if they had a compatible LTE band (they don't), their 3G network is CDMA, meaning it is incompatible with the GSM HTC One (or pretty much any unlocked phone you will import from abroad).

Finally, E-Mobile. E-Mobile offers LTE at 1700MHz, which is actually the 1800MHz band, AKA Band 3. Bingo! Just one problem: E-Mobile doesn't have any 3G frequencies that match the HTC One.

At this point, Softbank CEO Son-san comes to the rescue. Earlier this year, Softbank bought E-Mobile's parent company, E-Access, and gave Softbank LTE users access to E-Mobile's LTE frequencies as well as their own, marketing it as "Double LTE". This means, with the right Softbank contract, I can use Softbank's 3G network and E-Mobile's LTE network, where available.

So, how to get an LTE contract with Softbank? Easy! Get an iPhone! (Not a suggestion you are ever likely to hear me make again). Actually, Softbank now has quite a few models which support LTE, but I knew for sure that the iPhone would give me access to the "double LTE" I needed, plus the Japanese blogs I researched had all done the same thing with an iPhone SIM, not an Android 4G SIM, so there may be a chance that the Androids use a different, more restricted APN or frequency set.

Plan decided, I went to the nearest Softbank shop. The LTE compatible iPhone 5 should be cheap now, since the 5S and 5C go on sale in a week, I surmised; and indeed, the 16GB model was 1,680 a month over 2 years, with a special discount of, you guessed it, 1,680 a month, i.e. it was free!

I filled out all the paperwork, made my colour choice (black, of course), and listened to the lengthy explanations of tedious optional Softbank services that I will never want to use. I signed everything, then finally was asked for my ID to confirm that I was, indeed, myself. I produced my "Zairyu Card" (Foreign Resident's Card), and was shocked to be greeted with that Japanese sucking-air-through-the-teeth sound that always means whatever you just requested is less likely to happen than a month of Sundays.

"Sorry, we can't give you a 2-year contract. The payments run until 26 months from now, and you only have 25 months left on your Visa."

"But... I've been here 10 years, I work for a Japanese company, I'm paying with a Japanese credit card..." [i.e. I'm hardly likely to do a runner before the contract is up ]

"Yes, I see. Computer says no." (Or words to that effect. I was fuming at this point)

"So what does this mean? What can I do to get the Shiny Phone?"

"You'll need to pay the 40,000 yen price of the phone up front, and you don't get any discounts".

I didn't bother to try and reason with her any further, and just walked out without saying another word.

To cut a long story short, I then tried the Softbank counter in Yamada Denki / LABI in Oimachi. They again asked me for my Resident's Card. I offered my driving license instead, but they insisted; apparently since when I originally signed up to Softbank, I used the Resident's Card (actually Alien Card back then), I need to use that as ID forever more. So I proffered the card and waited nervously. "Thank you, here's your iPhone". Success! It seems that the visa rule is not really a rule, and different Softbank shops have their own interpretation of what is and isn't allowed. My hints to anyone trying to get a contract with Softbank would be: first, try and use any other form of ID possible if they will let you (one that doesn't show your visa status), and second, if you fail at one shop, try again at a different one.

Finally, I had my iPhone. Plus, Yamada threw in a FitBit Flex wristband, although I only later found out that this only works with Softbank's own "Healthcare" app, not with the normal FitBit app. Of course, the Healthcare app is only on iPhone, and requires a subscription (first 2 years are free though). So we'll see how much use that gets.

And... The main result: The HTC One works with Softbank LTE, and of course with 3G as before! I bought a nano-SIM to micro-SIM adapter in Akihabara, found the APN information for Softbank iPhone 5 LTE via Google, and that was it. 7 GB of 4G goodness a month to enjoy.

Softbank LTE Speed Test on the iPhone 5

Softbank LTE Speed Test on the HTC One - faster than the iPhone 5

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Thoughts on the HTC One "Google Play Edition" and AOSP

Hello reader(s),

Long time no see. The rise and rise of Google+, as well as the ingress of Ingress has meant I haven't had the time, or felt the need, to blog very much lately.

Today's post is not really related to Android in Japan, rather just some thoughts on Android in general.

Back in April, I picked up a HTC One SIM-free in Germany. I won't go in too much detail here, as there are a plethora of reviews out there on the Internet, and a great deal of them agree with how I feel about this phone: it is quite simply the best Android phone ever made. The hardware is absolutely beautiful, and the combination of Jelly Bean (Android 4.1), the latest* iteration of Android and HTC Sense, now in version 5, is the best software experience I have ever had on an Android phone.

So to the crux of this post. HTC Sense. Sense is often called a "skin" over Android. It replaces some parts purely cosmetically, and some parts with rather more different functionality than stock Android. Most notably on the One, the Sense camera blows the stock Android camera out of the water, with functions like Zoe (photos as 3-second movie clips), burst shots, slow motion video, action sequences etc, etc. In the gallery, the Zoes come to life like a photo album in Harry Potter, and the phone composes delightful highlight videos with transitions and music without any user prompting needed.

Nonetheless, Sense polarises opinion, especially among those who haven't used it for a couple of years. Sense 3 was slow, heavy and bloated, with cartoonish graphics and unnecessary features that slowed down the hardware of the day. Put AOSP on a Desire era HTC phone and the speed rocketed up. Plus there was lots of idealistic talk of AOSP being "pure" Android, as Google intended it to be, in a pseudo-religious fashion, and a lot of people were "AOSP or dead" types. Finally, there was very little functionality in skins like Sense that you couldn't replicate with an app.

June 2013. Enter the HTC One Google Play Edition. Yes, there were enough AOSP purists out there to put a movement together to get Samsung and HTC to put out versions of their flagships with pure Android on them, unadulterated by these abominable manufacturer skins. And who can blame them? 2 fantastic phones come out, while the last time AOSP fans had anything to get excited about was the Nexus 4, seemingly oh so long ago. Who wouldn't want to get pure AOSP on the latest and most gorgeous hardware?

So of course, I had to give it a go. In Android lingo, I'm a "flashaholic". That doesn't mean I like showing my bits to innocent young ladies on the street, it means I can't resist flashing the latest custom OS (ROM) to my phone every few days, just to try something new. This morning, the Google Play Edition ROM came out, and I flashed it right away. At first, I was struck by the beauty, simplicity and speed of Android stripped down to its bare bones. But slowly, I started to wonder, "is this all there is? What is all the fuss about?"

One of the things I used to dislike about Sense was the launcher (the Android desktop). It was severely lacking in functionality and customisability. I always used to replace it with a custom launcher, recently Nova Launcher, which mimics the standard Android launcher in looks. Now, however, I found the standard Android launcher to be lacking in functionality. I still needed to install Nova even though I was on stock Android - so no better than Sense (in fact, recently I had even been using the Sense 5 launcher; it is much better than it used to be. In particular, you finally have full access to all 5 slots in the dock bar).

What else? The camera! The Nexus camera includes Photosphere, a function for taking 360 degree panoramas. Awesome! But - oh, the same day the Google Play Edition comes out, the camera becomes available to all devices, including Photosphere functionality. And where are my Zoes? My HDR video? My burst mode? All gone, sadly.

The AOSP menus (settings) look a little nicer than Sense, still with its white background and over-designed icons. But Sense brings Facebook integration, so almost all of my contacts have a profile photo associated with their contact entry (so much nicer than the blank head icon - let's face it, still very few people have a Google+ profile); Sense has Bluetooth 4.0, Sense allows tethering to and from a PC; oh and, the HTC One with Sense can be used as an IR blaster - a remote control - handy for couch potatoes and hilarious / incredibly useful in bars with a TV. Also gone with Google Edition.

Honestly, I can't remember what was so awesome about AOSP. Yes, updates are promised quicker, but I was already on 4.2.2 with Sense so at the moment that doesn't matter. And Google is in the process of uncoupling improvements in functionality from OS versions so this should be less of an issue in the future anyway.

I'll be flashing back to Sense in the morning. In my opinion, the need for "pure" Android is diminishing, especially on HTC devices. HTC has done a magnificent job with their latest software.

If anyone can come up with some more reasons to be on AOSP, please let me know in the comments. Otherwise, the next time for me will be when 4.3 comes out. Of course I won't be able to resist giving that a test run.

*I know 4.1 is not quite the latest but the changes to 4.2 are minor and it's still JB

**I'm also aware that I misuse the term AOSP throughout this article; however there is no real name for the version of Android on the Google Play Edition.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Nexus 7 - Google's 7 inch Android Tablet

On my last trip to Europe, I picked up a new Google/Asus Nexus 7 tablet at the airport. If you don't know what that is, it is a 7 inch Android tablet, made by the Taiwanese manufacturer Asus, with the latest version of Android from Google, 4.1 Jelly Bean. The "Nexus" branding means that it runs "pure" Android as Google intended it - that means no manufacturer skins or overlays, no carrier-installed bloatware, and always the first to receive the latest software updates directly from Google without any third parties in between - in software terms, then, the closest thing in the Android world to an iOS device.
*at the time of purchase, the tablet wasn't available in Japan, so I thought I had pulled off a bit of a coup, but as luck would have it, while I was away, the device was also released in Japan, at a slightly cheaper price!

Hardware


The first thing to talk about with the hardware is the size. 7 inches. I saw an iPad owner on Twitter today commenting that he thought 7 inches would be too small. I say it's the perfect blend of portability and viewability. It is small and light enough that I can hold it in one hand when browsing Flipboard, for example, but large enough that Web pages and text are clear and easily readable. IPad users will want to note that pretty much every other tablet in the world, including the Nexus 7, have a 16:10 aspect ratio, not 4:3, and as such lend themselves more to be held in portrait orientation rather than landscape. Much like a Kindle, it's about the same shape and size as a paperback book. Of course, for watching movies or YouTube content, you can flip it on its side and get proper wide screen content without letterboxing.

That brings me nicely to the screen. The screen is a 1280x800, 216ppi IPS panel. This means you have HD on a 7 inch device, and while the pixel density does not quite qualify as "retina", it comes pretty damn close. Text is sharp and crisp, and movies and photos look fantastic. Being IPS, colours are not as warm and saturated as AMOLED displays, so those coming from Samsung devices may find it a little washed-out, but they are probably more true to life. Whites are certainly plenty white enough, and blacks are deep and rich.

Build quality is otherwise solid; the back is textured plastic, but it gives you a decent grip without feeling cheap. There is one adequate but not stunning speaker on the back, and the tablet is heavy enough to feel solid in the hand while still being light enough to use for extended periods of time. I haven't yet had the opportunity to really push the battery yet, but using the tablet in the morning before work and most of the evening after coming home leaves me with plenty of battery in reserve. There are no hardware buttons, other than a small volume rocker and power button on the side; OS functional buttons appear automatically on screen at all times except when in full screen apps like video or games.

There is a front-facing camera for Skype etc, NFC connectivity so that you can "beam" files directly to other Android devices, and Bluetooth to talk to your car stereo, headphones, or portable keyboard.

The one drawback for some may be that at the moment, the tablet is only available in a wifi version. There are rumours of a 3G version, but at the moment, they are just that, rumours. I'm primarily using mine at home, in the office, and in hotels while travelling. Outside I have had to be a little more creative, finding free hot spots in airports or cafes where possible, or using the Wifi Hot spot mode on my phone if I am stuck and really desperate to use the tablet. In general, though, this device is seeing a lot of use for reading/gaming/blogging/viewing on the sofa or lying in bed, simply as a more comfortable alternative to the phone. Using 3G on the move in Japan is not a great experience anyway, and to be avoided if possible in my opinion.

The tablet also comes with "only" 16GB of storage on board, and no way to expand it. However, as it is a wifi only device, most of the time you will have access to cloud or streaming services, so it shouldn't be a problem. For my 12 hour flight from Europe back to Japan, I loaded 3 movies onto it with space to spare; you will run out of battery before you run out of storage.

Software


The tablet runs the latest version of Android, Jelly Bean, and this is simply a fantastic OS. Google have really got their act together with this one, and the stock apps work really well on the tablet. The larger size of the screen is used nicely with split-screen views for the stock email client and the Gmail app, giving you your folder list on the left and mails themselves on the right.


The launcher allows up to 6 apps to be placed in the dock at the bottom for easy access, and to simplify placing of widgets and shortcuts on your home screens, icons now move out of the way if you give them a little shove with whatever you want to put in their place. Widgets from Google, notably the calendar widget and email widgets, are now fully resizeable, so you can shrink or stretch them as you like to reveal more content. This is great if you have a full schedule or lots of mails that you want to keep track of without having to continually open the app.


A big addition in Jelly Bean is Google Now. I plan to write more fully about this, but in short, Google Now is intelligent information, based on your location, search history, and calendar. I found it really useful on my travels, with it providing me with reminders accessible from the notification bar at all times of: the time back home in Japan, the exchange rate for the country I was in at the time; journey time in current traffic to places I had searched; and reminders and travel times of upcoming appointments. I find it less useful at home, where it is mostly "reminding" me about the weather, but it does at least give me a reminder whenever a Tottenham game is coming up, and tell me the time it will be on in Japan.


One thing that Android fanbois used to crow about when scraping the bottom of the barrel for advantages over iOS back in the day was support for Flash. That, however, is no more, as Flash is not compatible with Jelly Bean. That's why decision on Adobe's part, as they have decided to cease development of mobile Flash, so just like our Apple friends, we will have to learn to live with it.

Price


The Nexus 7 is available online directly from Google through the Google Play Store, which you can access from any browser (not just from Android. In fact, if you access from Android, you can't buy hardware). The Japanese retail price is 19,800 yen, and this is perhaps the most appealing thing. You can buy it pretty much as an impulse purchase and it won't make a serious dent in your wallet. It may just change the way you consume content and use your phone though.

*until October 30th (activation), you also get a free 2,000 yen credit for the Play Store to spend on apps, books, or movies. Definitely worth doing to get some premium apps or tablet-specific versions. And don't forget, you can install your purchased apps on all of your devices, not just the one you bought them on.

Overall rating: 4.5 out of 5 A fantastic little machine, only really let down when you are stuck without a wifi connection.




Friday, 21 September 2012

Softbank trade-in campaign, aka Why I won't be getting a new iPhone 5, Part II

Yesterday I talked about why the hardware on the new iPhone 5, even if another steady step forward from the iPhone 4S, was not enough to convince me to switch from my current Android phone. However, phones are about more than hardware, and the main part of the user experience is created by the software. Android's last two evolutions, Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0) and Jelly Bean (4.1) have brought massive changes and vast improvements to Gingerbread (2.3), which, while satisfying enough to most of us geeks, certainly lacked a lot of the polish of iOS. In fact, we are now at the point where the feeling is definitely that Apple is playing catchup on the software front as well as the hardware front. So, how does iOS 6 rate against the latest Android software?

  • Home Screen: We'll start here, as it's where you naturally start with the phone. In iOS 6, your only option for the home screen is a grid of icons. As it was in iOS 5, and iOS 4, etc... If you are on an iPhone 5, you get 1 more row of icons on your grid. Whoopee!
    The Android desktop allows you to leave entire screens blank. You can put icons anywhere on the grid you like. You can add widgets, such as weather displays, clocks, music player controls, calendars and pretty much anything you can think of. If you don't like the home screen ("launcher"), you can replace it with a custom one from the Play Store. Of course, if you want, you can just line up rows and rows of icons and make it look like an iPhone. But why would you do that if you had a choice?
  • Turn-by-turn navigation: Built into Android since 2008. Next.
  • Panorama mode in the camera: Has been part of the Android camera since ICS (released October 2011)
  • Siri: Last time I had a look at Siri in person was on the iPhone 4S with iOS 5. At that time it was most definitely a beta product, and of little use here in Japan, even when it did manage to recognise what you were saying. From what I hear, it has improved a lot in iOS 6, with new functions as well as improved speech recognition. On the other hand, Google has also made vast strides with their Voice Search and Google Now. It is not a full personal assistant like Siri, but will carry out a range of searches and commands when commanded by your voice. The voice recognition is excellent, and you can now download the recognition files (about 20MB per language) for voice recognition even when offline. Obviously you won't be able to search if you are offline, so this is mostly useful for voice typing. The usual "shootout" videos between iOS 6 Siri and Jelly Bean Google Voice Search will no doubt be cropping up on YouTube soon enough; in the meantime, though, I will call this a draw, while also adding that I have never seen anyone using Siri or Google Voice Search (I only use it when there is no one else in the room myself!)
  • Maps: iOS 6 removes Google Maps and replaces it with Apple Maps. I'm not going to go into great depth about this here, but particularly outside of major US cities (hello Japan), it seems to be a bit of a disaster, with streets, stations and major landmarks missing, in the wrong place, or wrongly named. Google Maps was always better on Android, and now Android has a big advantage in this department. As if to rub it in, Google released an update to Google Maps today - for Android only of course.
  • Facebook integration: iOS can now sync your Facebook contacts with your phone contacts, giving you a boatload of extra info for all your friends, accessible directly from your phone book. This is a cool, if non-essential feature. Standard Android doesn't do this (it did, until Google and Facebook fell out - sound familiar?), but some custom Android skins, such as HTC's "Sense", which runs on top of Android on all HTC phones, provide this additional functionality. You can also use the "Haxsync" app to duplicate it on stock Android.
    The other useful addition to iOS 6 is the ability to share to Facebook from any app. But this is another place where Android has a big advantage over iOS: while the list of possible outside apps to share to is decided on an app-by-app basis in iOS (decided by the developer), in Android, every app that is capable of accepting a particular type of share (URL, photo, message, phone number etc), registers itself with the system, and then is available in every other app as a share destination. Meaning you get the full list, every time.
  • Reply to a rejected call with a text message: When you can't take a call, you can now reject it and send a pre-baked text message to explain why. This is just a feature copied from Android, to be honest.
  • Add a photo to an email, from inside the email app: Frankly, I'm just astounded this is a "new" feature. It should be just common sense. In Android you can add any file, at any time, to your emails, and you have always been able to do so. Android also has a proper file system and a proper file browser, giving your phone storage a lot more power than the restrictive Apple version.

Unfortunately, as an Android user, there is really nothing to get excited about here at all. In fact, there would be a lot more that I would miss from Android than I would gain from iOS if I were to change. Apple has played catchup, but to me it is still not enough. And the world's expectation of Apple is not that they play catchup, but that they lead with new features and innovations. None of that has happened this time round. Perhaps they were too busy suing Samsung.

In conclusion then, I am going to be an Android user for at least another year. If you are on Android 4 or above, I would recommend you too to stay with it. For users on Android 2.3 or lower, whose phones have no chance of getting updated (you are probably coming to the 2-year upgrade stage anyway), the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 are definitely up there with the best Android has to offer. But I'm pretty certain that they are not better.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Softbank trade-in campaign, aka Why I won't be getting a new iPhone 5, Part I

This is primarily an Android blog, so I haven't made much of the release of the new iPhone 5. However, today, I briefly considered - then rejected - the idea of seeing what the fascination was about for myself.

Today, Softbank announced that they would be offering trade-ins of old smart-phones for anyone signing up to a new contract or changing contract to "Any 4G/LTE smartphone". Funnily enough, Softbank currently only offers one "4G/LTE smartphone", and that is the iPhone 5. We can but hope that the floodgates are opened to the plethora of choice that is out there - but I digress.

Very few smartphones are eligible for the trade-in. Why? Basically, because what Softbank is going to do is SIM-unlock them, then sell them on overseas; most likely for more than what they paid you for it. Trust me, you can get more money for your old phone on Craigslist or Yahoo Auctions than you can from Softbank:

iPhone 4S: 20,000 (64GB), 18,000 (32GB), 16,000 (16GB)
iPhone 4: 12,000 (32GB), 10,000 (16GB), 8,000 (8GB)
iPhone 3GS: 5,000 iPhone 3G: 4,000
X06HT/X06HTII (HTC Desire), 001HT (HTC Desire HD): 3,000
001 DL (Dell Streak), 101DL (Dell Streak Pro): 2,000
(Source: Softbank Mobile)

Especially the HTC's are a joke. With the ease of unlocking them yourself, and the fact that once you do so, you can still upgrade them to the latest version of Android (4.1 Jelly Bean), they have a lot more aftermarket value than that.

Anyway, before I had gone on the website and found out how little Softbank were actually offering, for a brief moment I considered it. Trade in my old HTC Desire - which is currently sitting under the TV, running on WiFi and purely acting as a Google Play Music player connected to my stereo - for a sparkling, shiny new iPhone.

Then I thought: I already have a pretty new smartphone (HTC One S), which was released in April this year. OK, Apple has 6 months on it, but things can't have changed that much, can they?

So, the question was, what would the iPhone do for me (or other Android users), that my current Android phone wouldn't? I set off to do some more in-depth research on the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 to make sure there was nothing really cool that I was missing.

The new features, as I see them, are as follows:

iPhone 5 (hardware)

  1. Thinner and lighter: The iPhone 5 weighs in at 112g and 7.6mm thick. My HTC One S is a full 7 grams heavier at 119g, and 0.2mm thicker at 7.8mm. Definitely not a game changer here.
  2. Bigger Screen: Up from a mighty 3.5 inches to 4 inches, Apple have finally admitted that people might want a little more screen real estate. On the other hand, good luck finding an Android phone with such a tiny screen. I chose mine because of the relatively small screen size, and it is 4.3 inches. Even then, Apple only got this by stretching lengthways, and the screen didn't get any wider before. Plus, apps that haven't been optimized yet will have ugly black bars top and bottom until the developer gets round to updating them. Win for Android.
  3. 4G (LTE): From a crippled HSPA+ speed in the iPhone 4S (see my last blog), the iPhone 5 becomes capable of super high speeds on Softbank or au's fledgling 4G networks. OK, this I am a little jealous of. My phone reaches up to 14Mbps on HSPA+, but gets smoked on speed by LTE. On the other hand, LTE connectivity is still fairly sparse, especially outside Tokyo. And LTE phones have been out on Docomo for the best part of a year now, so Apple is really only playing catchup. Still, I'll score this one to Apple.
  4. New "Lightning" connector: Every other smartphone in the world charges and transfers data over standard micro-USB cables. Of course, Apple had to be different. They always have been different, but this time they have screwed over their own customers by forcing people already in the ecosystem to either buy all new accessories for their phone, or buy an expensive adaptor. And still not be able to share everyone else's charger when in a bind. Major fail for Apple here.
  5. Camera: I'm concentrating on hardware only here, as well as features that can actually be compared. So "quality" is out of the equation here (although the HTC One S is consistently reviewed as having one of the best cameras of any smartphone). Thus, the main hardware improvement to the iPhone 5's camera is that is is faster than its predecessor. However, it is still nothing compared to the HTC, or Samsung's Galaxy S III. Not only do the latest Droids also have "zero shutter lag", the HTC can take up to 100 pictures in "Burst Mode" simply by holding down the camera button at a rate of around 4 exposures/second. Eat your heart out, Apple.
  6. New Processor: The iPhone 5 uses a new A6 processor. Details on this are scarce, but it is probably the fastest mobile processor out there right now. Win for Apple; but the HTC One S has the second fastest mobile processor out there (Snapdragon S4 "Krait", faster than Nvidia Tegra 3 in most benchmarks), so I'm not crying into my jelly beans just yet.

As far as big new hardware features go, I think that's it. Nothing here to really convince me so far. LTE is tempting, but I spend most of my time on WiFi anyway, so I hope I won't miss it too much. Hopefully by the time I get my next phone, LTE will have improved to the point where LTE roaming abroad is possible.

This post ended up a lot longer than expected, so I'll deal with iOS 6 vs Jelly Bean in Part 2 tomorrow.