Flipping on tablets

In my previous post I discussed the irrelevance of tablets. Well, they say that you got one standpoint until your take another; so go ahead and laugh 🙂

What happened?

This year I am having a logistically inconvenient summer. Usually my daily commute to work last about an hour, with 40 minutes spent on a train. That works very well, with nice little walks sandwiching a long, uninterrupted stretch of time where I can read or write; work or relax, as I please. However, this summer the train line is closed for three months, with the comfortable train ride replaced by a much longer bus ride. While not quite as horrible as I expected (some of the buses are OK, while others seems to have been pulled back out of retirement), y commute still takes 30-45 minutes longer each way and since I have kids that must be brought to daycare in the morning and picked up again i the afternoon, things get difficult. Fortunately I have a very accommodating employer and I can get a lot of my work done in the evenings when the kids are sleeping, but even then, I prefer to be online and do most of my work while my colleagues are at work as well.

To do this I need a device that lets me work on emails, Skype and document reading and (basic) writing, and be connected to company resources during my commute. Usually my company laptop is just fine for this job, but within the confined space of a bus seat on a bumpy ride it doesn’t work well… Long story short, the actual need to own a tablet computer has caught up with me. I do not claim to be an early adapter.

Much has been written about the rise and stagnation of tablets – just this morning this was in my news feed and I shall not comment further on that. However, here comes a personal perspective.

A brief history of me and tablets

So, it is not like that I haven’t noticed tablets before. I remember the early hype surrounding the first iPad and I remember doing early research on Android tablets as far back as 2011; and I think that after reading lackluster reviews of for example the HTC Flyer we decided that we didn’t need such a thing. The benefit just didn’t justify the cost – paying the price of a laptop computer for a device that could do less than a laptop, when we did have enough laptops at home, didn’t make sense. And so time passed.

The Galaxy age

What finally motivated us to acquire the house’ first tablet was that my wife was expecting our first child in 2012 and eventually sitting with a laptop became so unconfortable that an alternative solution made sense. We were already then a happy Android family, so we looked into the Android options and at that time what looked best for us was the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2.

Shortly after I also thought about getting a Nexus 7, which was getting a lot of positive hype at the time. Some “pro-active” dental care stopped that.

The Tab 2 never really did it for us, and ICS + TouchWiz was not a good mix for user experience. Being a user improved significantly when I replaced the OS with CyanogenMod and I remember using it on my daily commutes pretty much until I got my new HTC One phone and then quickly found that with a BIG 4.7″ screen I had little use for a tablet. Eventually my 1½ year old daughter took over the tablet. She later passed it on to our youngest and it remained in use until an unfortunate drop to the floor last year cracked the screen.

The Lenovos

The kids and the Samsung Tab 2 all grew older and in early 2016 we went looking for another tablet for the kids. Being cost conscious in general and in particular when it comes to hardware that a kid can bread in a moment’s distraction. We settled on a modestly priced Lenovo Tab 2 A10-30, which works just fine for simple games and watching movies both from storage and streamed from Netflix. I haven’t really used it for anything myself, because even though it is 3+ years newer that our first tablet from Samsung, the screen is much worse (resolution on both are 1280×800). But they work for the kids and as long as they sometimes forget their computers lying on the floor, that is just fine.

Tablets now

The selection of Android tablets these days is not exciting and it may not get better any time soon (or ever, who knows). So I also considered the alternatives.

First of all, the newest iPad does look good and at quite a reasonable price too. I almost did it, but at the end just couldn’t get myself to step into the Apple world.

Next I thought about the Microsoft Surface series, but it looked like I would be paying a lot for a miniaturized touch-screen laptop, and that isn’t what I am after.

Finally looking over the Android offering I decided to focus on Samsung, whose KNOW devices I knew would comply with BYOD guidelines. With different tiers available it was then a straightforward matter to balance specs and budget. Later may be greater, but I don’t want to pay extra for something I don’t really need. I therefore went for the middle tier – a Galaxy Tab A 10.1. Not a great device and already past the support period from Samsung (at least it runs Android Nougat), but for a tablet-skeptic like me who only need the device for a few months it should suffice and one of the kids’ tablets is also due for replacement soon. However, I must admit that I am quite a satisfied customer, being able to do my daily work mails and document reading on the go, just as needed; and I see my wife taking a liking to it also.

And so my new standpoint is that tablets can be pretty nice devices. I hope the Android variety stays around for a while still.

Updates

  • Got excited about Steam link for Android, as an interesting idea to play PC games away from desk and give my Nexus TV. Streaming worked fine, but games are not for touch screen and while pairing a controller with a phone or 10″ tablet is possible, it doesn’t work well (no surprise). I also tried it with my Nexus Player which was underwhelming. That may have been the last straw that prompted me to ask for new TV.
  • I finally watched Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, which is the 42nd in the line of classics and in my opinion one of the better ones. I can related well to both the troubled child and it is funny how a monster that is genetically engineered to cause nothing but destruction can remind one of a three year old.
  • Had another repair made on my OnePlus 3 – this time the camera glass was broken, but happily a replacement glass was very affordable and the replacement took 20 minutes for a specialist and Fixed camera glass on was done while I was looking.

Smartphone X-excitement

Spring has taken hold, with all longer days and the useful spring stuff happening: singing birds, blooming flowers and the first mowing of the lawn coming up.

That also means that the prime season of Android phone enthusiasts is coming to an end. The big trade shows CES and MWC are long over and most of the key players have announced their 2016 lineup. The only one waiting is HTC, who will (I hope) confirm the leaks and their own Twitter hype this Tuesday Apr 12. I have been looking forward  to this, since my current phone is up for replacement and I am particularly fond of their products. Of course, with all the leaks there isn’t  much left to be surprised about – the  only thing I still feel I need to know is whether there the camera has OIS or similar functionality.

Other than that (i.e. some details about the camera) there isn’t much about the specifications that gets me excited at this time. The hardware specs will be pretty much the same as all the other phones in that tier, since they all use the same components: The SoC will be from Qualcomm, the camera from Sony, the screen from either LG or Samsung. Gone are the days where the decision which model to buy could be made looking at specs alone; so if you don’t buy into marketing stuff of “life companion“-ship and  “Life is good when you play more“, then event’s aren’t really interesting. It is only when you hold the device in your hand that you Know.

I think it is a good thing, because it means that focus can shift away from tweaking specs and over to something that actually make a difference in every day us like ergonomics, call quality and battery life (and camera features, although the cameras on most new phones is probably good enough for most purposes, unless you are one of those who must have RAW images, and in that case it won’t be as good as the DSLR you want anyway).

Feeling this un-excited I also understand why smart phone sales are starting to decrease. The devices are still getting better, but not better in a way that makes a big difference, and if your current device is good enough, there is little reason to upgrade, except for security updates (or if you did like me and bought a device with less memory and worse camera than last years model had). For example, a relative of mine is happy with his 2011 HTC Sensation, which does everything he needs it to do (calls, calendar, SMS, mail checks and a few simple apps).

It is the same falling trend as seen with tablets and (because we still use our iPad the same way we did when we got them, so why update) and PCs. It is probably not a coincidence that smartphone sales are leveling out now that the specs of the high end phones are comparable to mainstream PCs (2 GHz Quad Core, 4 GB RAM…). After all, they are used for the same purposes, and while hardware architectures may be wildly different, an email client is an email client, and many web pages the same regardless where you view them.

The time has come for something new and shiny to be excited about. Probably Virtual Reality.

In the meantime, it is good to know that the smart phone that I have come to rely on for planning, news and communications is a mature and reliable devices without too many surprises.

Related Posts

The Declining PC Sales, Follow-up

PCs and Diversification?

MIUI Follow-up #2

Some of my first posts on this blog documented a test run of MIUI – a customized version of the Android smartphone operating system, developed by the Chinese company Xiomi (part 1, part 2, follow-up).

Time has passed, and while I haven’t spent much time with the OS since then (I only tried a never version briefly on an HTC Desire X which was plagued by bad headphone sound so that it couldn’t be my daily driver), it is interesting to see how Xiaomi and their products are beginning to get attention in mainstream media, like these articles (in Danish) from the Danish national radio’s website:

(they comment both on Xiaomi’s growth and how they are inspired by other products).

I haven’t seen a Xiaomi phone in real life yet, but look forward to getting the opportunity one day. It probably won’t change my own product preferences (too Apple-like), but that consumers in general get more than one choice is a good thing (and everybody having iPhones or Samsungs soon gets boring)

Silverlinings

My wife’s phone recently started running out of storage space, making most app updates impossible. It was not the right time to shop custom roms, so the solution was to swap phones. Farewell to HTC One, Hello to old Desires and great expectations to the 2014 lineups.

With launch events and actual availability quite a while away, next step was to get the best out of my “new” phone, an HTC Desire X. It looked like a good deal when it came out and we were looking for an Android phone with dual core and 4″ screen. Nice price too. But also flaws, first and foremost the 4GB internal memory that filled up surprisingly and disappointingly fast. Nothing that can’t be fixed by installing a custom rom with support for the excellent Link2SD app though. Unfortunately, I found no good AOSP based rom, but then I had an opportunity to revisit MIUI in a newer incarnation. Interesting and quite a polished, different experience. That could all have been good, if only the earphone sound quality had been better: I have a forty minutes daily commute by train, so that matters. Maybe my unit was faulty, maybe it is a general issue with this device. I suspect the custom roms I tried had an issue with Beats Audio. In any case, I started carrying another phone too, just for the sake of Music.

So my old Desire S was turned on once more, running CM7.2 Gingerbread well, but looking dated. Great to find out that much more recent rom versions are available too and eventually I ended up with a 4.2.2 Andromadus build. Great. Still, I know of why the device officially only runs Gingerbread. The minimalistic CM UI still doesn’t run entirely smooth, and as more apps and accounts were added, the phone would start freezing more and more often. Specs do matter, but having tasted Jelly Bean I am not going to downgrade. Instead, this slightly underpowered device is quite an interesting test platform to see him when different apps affect system performance, with any bad performer being able to tip the balance and make an acceptable experience useless. First app to go was Facebook, the next LinkedIn followed by Google Hangouts. It seems everything that touches the contacts list has trouble running on a low resource system. Not surprisingly I guess, since the contacts list is far more complex than a more list of names and phone numbers. And when several social apps are added to the system, each with its own list of contacts with contact info, photos etc, and the contacts list trying to handle duplicate contacts, it makes sense that an overstretched system gets in trouble.

However, it turns out music is more important to me than social network apps, so now the Desire S is my private phone of choice (got a BlackBerry Curve for work too). Well, metal beats plastic too and the Desire S is a lovely device IMHO…

So several lessons learnt here. They may not beat having an HTC One, but I am as happy an Android user as ever. And there may be more to come. There is some still one Desire left in the drawer – an original Bravo. It did not handle Jelly Bean well, but its 576MB RAM is more than the minimum required to run KitKat. The first pre-alpha builds are already out there, so perhaps I may even get there before Wifey.

Using Outlook.com and hotmail with Android and iphone/iPad

I read an article today that compared the different webmail services Gmail, outlook.com and yahoo (-> link). Nice one, which, however, can be improved on one point: it states that mobile availability of outlook.com is limited to Windows Phone and a not too great app for android. This is not correct (except the part about the Android app): outlook.com (as well as hotmail and the related MS domains) is in fact supported natively on these devices, via the Exchange ActiveSync setup, and includes not only mail, but also calendar and contacts.

Here is how to set it up on Android devices:

  1. In the ‘Settings’ list, select ‘Accounts & sync’ and then ‘Add an account’
  2. Select type ‘Exchange ActiveSync’ or ‘Corporate’ (name depends on the Android flavor – those are the twos that I have encountered on HTC Sense and CyanogenMod respectively)
  3. Select ‘Manual setup’ and enter the following:
    ‘Email address’ = xxx@outlook.com
    ‘Server address’ = m.hotmail.com (that is hotmail regardless of the domain part of the email address)
    ‘Domain’ = xxx@outlook.com
    ‘Username’ = xxx@outlook.com
    ‘Password’ = your password to outlook.com
    ‘Encrypted SSL connection’ should be checked
  4. Tab ‘Next’ and select data to synchronize and update settings
  5. Tab ‘Next’ and assign a name to the account and indicate if it is the default mail account
  6. Done

An illustrated guide is also available here at komodocontacts.com: -> link.

I have done this on Android versions Gingerbread, ICS and Jellybean, with Samsung, HTC, MIUI or CyanogenMod flavor, and it always works without problems. I even did it once for a friend iPhone too, and expect it to work on iPad as well.

Since the outlook.com mail/calendar/contact services also work with the free Windows live Mail, Windows 8, Outlook 2010 (with connector plugin) and Outlook 2013; this service really ties things together.

Regarding the outlook.com app for Android, it is worth considering for the calendar synchronization. Setting up Exchange ActiveSync will synchronize the standard calendar, but it does not include special calendars like holidays, birthdays or shared calendars. This will work if the outlook.com app is set up (which means that the standard calendar becomes available twice, so one of them should be hidden). Synchronizing contact data with this app should be avoided, since it only includes synchronize name fields. The mail experience is similar to the Web client, but I tend to disable the notifications and use the standard mail application instead.