Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Apple Watch is a design monstrosity, an interface from hell

Noises heard from below ground in Palo Alto...

Now, I'll get pilloried for this, no doubt, by Apple fan boys - and note that I own lots of Apple kit (Macs, iPads, iPhones), so I'm no hater - but it has to be said, the Apple Watch is a terrible, terrible design that will go down in history as a huge flop.

I'm not talking about the physical appearance - though that's rather thick and clunky if we're honest (though no more than other current smartwatches). I'm talking about the interface and operation.

This is 2014 and we want elegance, we want consistency. The Pebble smartwatches are quaint in just having buttons, but OK. Last-gen, a little limited, but great battery life (thanks to the screen tech). The Android Wear smartwatches are purely touch driven and relatively elegant as a result, though current hardware is still first generation, obviously.

Apple, of course, will get it right, we thought - show us how simple, how elegant a smartwatch interface could be. And then we saw the first demos on stage at Apple's event. What???

A higglety pigglety amorphous mass of icons that is panned around, zoomed in an out, THEN a physical knob that zooms things in and out, THEN an extra side button for doing extra things to do with contacts, THEN the knob can be tapped to action something, THEN you can swipe up from the bottom of the watch screen to bring up a new interface, which can THEN be swiped left and right, THEN you discover that the touch screen is pressure sensitive and then harder long presses do something else, and.....

Steve Jobs is turning in his grave. He would have ushered out the design team behind this interface from his office in a torrent of expletives.

At least the appearance of the Apple Watch has made my future smartwatch buying decision a lot easier - Android Wear isn't perfect yet, but it's a hundred times more elegant than the monstrosity Apple just created.

[Oh, and I bet the hardware is a lot cheaper too. And will work with a hundred times more handsets.]

PS. Video demo of the Apple Watch interface, if you haven't seen it yet....

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The budget phone contract 'scam'

Now, let me emphasise the quotes above - what I'm describing (ok, ranting about) here isn't illegal, it's simply.... misleading. And I'm not singling out any one phone network here, I'm simply using Three UK as an example - all the others do the same.

Look, I get the idea of contracts, especially at the upper end of the price spectrum - you get a nice, cheap, subsidised handset, you get more minutes, texts and Megabytes than you need, and all is rosy. You're paying £30 or more a month, but you're happy and, essentially, sorted.

However, down at the budget end, there's little or no subsidy in terms of hardware, yet there's massive possibility for swinging overage charges. Let me explain.

I'm looking at a Three UK run down of plans. They offer one at £6.90 a month. Which sounds great. 500MB of data, 200 minutes and 5000 texts. Perfect for a teenager, perhaps?

Maybe. Except that you can bet he or she will occasionally go over, with 'that' long call to a girlfiend or streaming 'that' movie. In which case, you could be looking at 300 minutes used in a month and perhaps 1GB of data used.

Only a bit over, right? You'd expect a few quid more to be charged to your card/account? Actually, the overage in this case is 45p/MB, which is £225, plus £25 for the calls.

Let me state that again. £250 overage on a £6.90/month account.

It's INSANE. Now, obviously, the networks will say that the user should simply switch to the next tiered contract, in this case at £9.90/month. Which is fair enough, but the user will have learned the hard way already, plus with data use increasing across the board, who's to say the teenager won't rack up 1.5GB, with another £225 overage charge?*

* Yes, apparently there's an option to get the network to cut off the account once the limit has been reached, but then what if there's an emergency and use is needed? It's a tough call to turn that on!

45p/minute is almost criminal and it's amazing that networks get away with it. Especially as, in this case, Three's normal pay-as-you-go rate for data is 1p/MB, on their excellent 321 plan. FORTY FIVE TIMES CHEAPER for data!

The upshot is that everyone's encouraged to go for a contract whose details include ANY possible usage. Just in case. Meaning that the margin of profit is kept high for the network, which I guess makes business sense.

Just be warned in case you're thinking about cheap contracts for members of your family. We've been there, done that, and been stung. (Thankfully not to the degree mentioned here.)

For the record, everyone in our family is now on the '321' pay-as-you-go deal. Some months my wife or daughter will go through £10 of credit, or even £15. But never £225! And some months, their balance hardly goes down at all. We average about £25 worth of vouchers for all three of us.

Comments welcome. Am I being overly critical here? Or should overage charges be a lot less severe?!

Monday, May 05, 2014

Anatomy of an eBay scam... dodged!

After a number of years on eBay, you learn the danger signs, the whiff of something not quite right. I won't quote actual eBay usernames here because I'm only 99% sure and not 100%, but I thought the procedure was still well worth writing up.

The task for me: to buy an item, in this case an iPhone 5, a high value item, we looked at it, at £190 or so with a day to go, with local collection (which was OK for us, it was only 20 mins away) and put in a max bid of £290 - the idea being that eBay would auto-increase this if needed, as other people bid on the item.

In hindsight, we rather overvalued the item and should have pitched in lower, as will become apparent.

The task for the seller: the sell us the iPhone for as much money as possible while dodging both PayPal AND eBay fees. And he almost managed it.

Here's the scam:
  1. He specified cash only on collection. Uh-oh. I queried this. It was to avoid PayPal's 3.4% fee, he said. Hmm.... OK, let's press on though....
  2. With only a few hours to go and the auction still at £190, it was pretty clear that the local collection and cash demands meant that we were the only buyers on the horizon. The seller (again, I'm speculating here, but my theories fit the facts) then recruited a couple of 'Mates'.
  3. Bear in mind that the seller doesn't know what my maximum bid is. He wants to get Mate no. 1 to bid something nice and high, forcing me over it, but he doesn't want to get Mate no. 1 stuck with the item and he also doesn't want to make all this too obvious. Mate no. 1 then starts bid every few minutes, adding £10 more until he ends up the highest bidder - and he then retracts the very last bid as a 'mistake', but not before I've been forced up against my maximum bid - entirely falsely.

  4. The next bit is even more devious. a few second before the auction finishes - remember the seller has already got me winning the item at my maximum, the seller gets Mate no. 2 to come in and put in a higher bid to 'win' the item.
  5. A few hours afterwards, the seller sends me a message that there's a 'problem' with Mate no. 2 and that I can still get the item at my maximum bid, but only by contacting him by text. The idea then being, presumably, to meet and pay cash and hand over the item, while the seller doesn't use the eBay 'second chance system' but instead reports to eBay that the transaction never went through and that there are therefore no seller fees to pay.
All very clever, if a little tortuous. We had seen too much and ducked out before completing our side of all this - thankfully. If the seller had got his way, we might indeed have got the item OK, if for a slightly inflated price. But the seller would have got the sale without paying eBay or PayPal a penny.

You may ask if I have evidence for all of this. The warning signs, other than the obvious, were in digging down into the activity of the two 'Mates'. Their activity for the last month consisted solely of bidding on one item - this seller's! Quite clearly, each had been recruited for the specific task in hand.

And, clearly, the seller thought he had stage-managed the accounts and bidding/selling process well in order to game the system. And me.

Happily, we dodged this at stage 5, having lost all confidence in the seller. But I wanted to write up how all this works in case other buyers start getting sucked in using the same scam.

PS. Again, I'm keeping all this anonymous, since I don't have 100% proof. It's possible that the other two accounts weren't friends of the seller. Possible. Just not at all likely!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

An enforced Easter break and general thoughts on Phones Show scheduling

Dear Phones Show and PSC viewers and listeners....(!)

Just a small status update regarding the shows.

PSC records on a Sunday evening and thus clashes with Easter Sunday - I think Ted and I did a show last year anyway, but this year I'll be knee-deep in family, so we're going to miss a week. I'm sure you'll have your own family time and won't miss us too much?

The main Phones Show has been hit a little by several general factors, worth noting:

  • a continued decline in the number of people financially supporting the show, meaning that I've had to take on extra writing work to make ends meet. 
  • the critically poor health of one of my parents, a factor which may well play a bigger role as the year goes on. This factor in particular has to take absolute priority, as I'm sure you can sympathise?
  • a huge number of other online video shows, often with far bigger financial resources and offering higher production values. When I started The Phones Show (as 'The Smartphones Show') in 2006, I was just about the ONLY person in the world reviewing phones in video form. Heck, even YouTube itself hadn't got going properly then. Eight years later, it's so much easier for anyone to review phones and produce video content that there are now tens of thousands of competitors.

In addition, specific to the next show, 225, in which I should be wrapping up my Galaxy S5 review by now, Samsung has essentially shafted all online retailers (e.g. Clove here), and I've been unable to get a review device yet. Immensely frustrating all round. In view of this, Phones Show 225 will be delayed by a week or two - I do have a backup review device source, hopefully delivering something mid next week.

The general factors listed above have caused me to have a rethink of the scheduling generally. I don't want to push out sub-standard shows just for the sake of it. And I also don't want to give myself a nervous breakdown trying to keep up a particular bi-weekly schedule just for the sake of it.

So, in future, Phones Shows will come out when they err.... come out! In busy times, this might be more often than once a fortnight, at other times, the gap will be longer. PSC will carry on weekly, of course.

I've asked several times whether those people who do donate, do so because of the video show or the weekly audio podcast - and the balance has been tipping in favour of the latter in recent years. I'm therefore hoping that my decision to be a bit more relaxed over Phones Show scheduling won't affect donations too much. As ever, donating to the 'Virtual Pint of Beer' club is entirely voluntary - I, and Ted, aim to provide you with quality listening (and viewing) and my hope is that enough people will recognise this and carry on subscribing.

Finally, Happy Easter and best wishes from a very sunny UK!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Pop-out batteries save the day from human error!

I've ranted before about the potential perils of sealed batteries on phones, something of a worrying trend in mobile design. Yes, I know designs can be simpler and more streamlined, but it really hurts the long term flexibility of the device.

Not least because there's precious little way back from human error. In this case, me. My error.

I charge my smartphone, like most people, with a microUSB mains charger beside my bed. Each night I plug the phone in and settle in for a good sleep, confident that my phone will wake me up at 7am in the morning, fully charged and with my morning alarm sounds.

At some point yesterday, I needed to plug something else in and so the phone's power adapter got unplugged. You can probably guess the rest, but...

As I drifted off to sleep I noticed that the usual Android 4.3 DayDream clock face (usually on during charging) wasn't showing. Yes, it was my clock during the night, but hey, I was tired and couldn't care too much. Zzzzzzz.....

By sheer chance I woke up at 6.30 anyway and pressed 'play' on my headphones, hoping that my currently playing podcast would spark back into action. Nothing.

"That's odd", I thought, so I reached out to the phone itself and pressed the screen wake button. Nothing, just a faint flash of red LED at the top of the device. Realisation dawned. The power adapter. My phone hadn't been charging at all during the night and it was now out of power.

Completely out of power. So far gone that plugging in the charger again (at both ends!!) did nothing. Just a placeholder icon on the screen. No LEDs, no sign of life, nothing. I left the charger plugged in for 10 minutes and still nothing. Clearly the battery had been forced into such a state of distress that it was now sulking.

With a sealed design, my options now would have been strictly limited. I guess I'd have played with various button combinations to achieve a reset, hoping to spark the electronics into some kind of charging action. If I was lucky. Plus, even if that worked, I'd have to go around all morning with a microUSB portable charger plugged in, via a wire, at the very least.

A nightmare scenario.

Except that the phone in question was a Samsung Galaxy Note II and had a replaceable battery (as shown above). So I strolled into my cupboard and pulled out my spare ANKER battery. I ripped the back off the Note II and stuck in the spare. The phone booted up fine and showed 62% left on the cell (not bad after several months in storage), so I was good to go for most of the day, at least.

I put the discharged cell into my mains Note II battery charger (only a few quid on eBay) and the LED glowed red/purple, indicating that it was charging happily - phew! I'd be able to swap back to my main battery (which had the add-on Qi charging coils attached) this evening.

So.... having a replaceable battery saved the day - literally. I was able to head out and about entirely as normal, with no dangling wires or power worries.

Add in the other benefits of going replaceable, like the flexibility to add in much higher capacity batteries, and you can see why I remain a fan - and an opponent of strictly sealed designs.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Automator - just one MORE reason why I use an Apple Mac....

Mac vs PC debates have raged through the ages, of course. And I can't hope to summarise the pros and cons of each in a simple blog post here. But I did want to shout about something that delighted me in recent months about my Mac and that's discovering how to use the Automator utility.

Here's the use case. I had a bunch of photos and screenshots, all of which I wanted resized to 600 pixels wide, for inclusion in a Wordpress blog post elsewhere. Painstakingly, I opened each in Seashore (v0.1.9, the older one, is the best to use, IMHO) and resampled down, then saved. There must be a better way, I thought.

I started browsing through the Mac App Store and did find a few batch resizers, but they all cost money and seemed too complicated. I wonder.... I remembered seeing Automator a few times in my app list on the Mac, so I gave it a whirl:

  1. Start Automator
  2. Click on 'Application'
  3. Click on 'Photos'
  4. Drag the 'Scale images' action to the application pane (you'll be prompted to add a 'copy' action, so as not to replace the originals - this is a good idea for most people)
  5. Change the scale value as needed
  6. Use 'File/Save' to name and save the application somewhere sensible (e.g. the Applications folder)
  7. Drag this application onto the Mac's dock

And that's it. Took all of 45 seconds. Now, when I want a batch of images scaled down to 600 pixels wide, I just drag them all en masse from Finder to the icon on the dock. A few seconds later, the OS has done its work and my images are ready.

In fact, it proved so easy that I made a second one, for resizing to 800 pixels (for the All About sites). 

Then, a month later, I had a similar problem. I was creating (and downloading) a lot of images in PNG format (from screenshots, usually) but they were all way too big in terms of byte size. What I wanted was to convert them all on an ad-hoc basis to JPG. Again... I wonder....?

Automator to the rescue again, this time using the 'Change type' action from the 'Photos' section. Again, I now just drag any PNGs onto this icon on my Mac dock and bingo, they're all JPGs.*

This facility to just 'create' utilities with zero programming knowledge, and all built into the OS, is just tremendous - and, as something of a beginner, I feel as though I've only just scratched the surface of Automator here! See here for a list of 10 top uses in more detail.

* in fact, I also often then drag these files into JPEGmini, also a useful tool!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Rolls Royce of smartphone belt cases: PDair

In a mad world where I change my smartphone almost weekly, as part of the review process, one thing has remained constant: the case I carry said smartphone in. You see, and I realise I run a huge risk of being declared uncool here, I'm a passionate believer in belt cases. As slimline and unobtrusive as possible, of course, but a belt case nonetheless.

Cynics will point to the fact that I'm already married and thus don't need to attract the opposite sex in quite the same way as younger folk might need to, and I accept that there's a certain 'geek' impression created by a belt case - but then aren't geeks supposed to be cool now too? Aren't we geeks supposed to inherit the earth, etc.?

The advantage of a belt case are:
  • you don't have to keep standing up and taking a phone out of your trouser pocket - the case is accessible in any position
  • you can't easily leave your phone behind somewhere - less lost phones
  • there's greater protection than if a phone is in your pocket - you can't sit on it or stress it by bending the wrong way

Against these 'pros' there's the con of geekiness, as mentioned above (not helped by the big key/penknife ring in this case!!), plus a possible security risk in that a thief might be able to withdraw the phone - I address the latter by swinging the case around to my tummy in crowds, so that it's far less accessible to third parties.

All of this is building up to a recommendation. If you want a belt case, get the best. PDair's range of genuine leather slip cases with really, really tough (and yet slimline) belt clips, has been my mainstay now for many years. Here are just four of the variations I've used (I have half a dozen more scattered around or lent out):

(For the sake of disclosure, I've bought about half of the 10 or so variants that I own, and the remaining half have been for review purposes.)

Every other vertical format belt clip case I've tried has been too cheap (falls apart), has a top flap (gets in the way) or (my pet hate) has a belt clip 'swivel' that makes the case stand out a mile - looking terrible and also ending up very fragile.

The latest in the series here is for the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and Note 2, but of course it's wide enough to take just about any other modern large screened smartphone too, so I don't have to keep swapping belt cases when I swap phones.

Build quality, as ever, is tremendous and I can't recommend this particular design highly enough. You can browse PDair's vertical belt cases cases here - and then follow your nose for where to buy (e.g. on Amazon here).

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Mini-review: JPEGmini (for PC and Mac)

Sometimes a product just works like magic. This is just one such....

The problem is this, you see - JPGs. Photos, screenshots, scans, just about anything graphic uses the JPG compressed image format these days. As a journalist I use a lot of JPGs and there's always this terrific push-pull going on between quality and byte size.

Not many people realise that a JPG can be any size. it's essentially a lossy approximation of your original image (e.g. from a camera or screenshot or scan), but intelligently degraded such that you don't notice any difference.

Take a 5MP photo from your phone. Uncompressed, you'd be looking at 20MB or so, but the device probably spits it out at 2MB or so, applying a particular JPG 'quality' (usually about 85% or so) - your eyes can't tell the difference most of the time, but look down at the pixel level and you'll see artefacts.

So the photo could be represented by a 5MB JPG with almost perfect 'quality' and almost no artefacts, or a 100KB image of the same physical size but terrible approximations and degradations. Where the 'quality' is set depends on the settings in your camera or software utility or scanner or whatever.

My problem is that I often want to use images that are very high quality, just in case I want to print them or crop them later - at which point I might be very miffed if I found that, deep down, they all had artefacts. So I leave the quality settings quite high in my image editors.

Yet, when I use photos online, byte size is much more important than absolute quality. So, for web page use, I'd like a lower JPG quality - yet it's a pain having to keep switching settings. And that's not counting the number of apps and devices for which JPG quality is set and unchangeable.

One option is to re-save each JPG in a utility, but I hadn't found anything useable or convenient until I came across JPEGmini, here shown running after processing some screenshot JPGs on my Mac:

Essentially, if I have a batch of JPGs (usually photos or screenshots in my case) that are all intended for inclusion in an article or post, I drag them all into JPEGmini before uploading. Each image is cleverly analysed and then optimised to the point where it has the minimum size before any visual degradation becomes apparent.

So, for example, I'd have a folder of 30 screenshots and a photo. Total original byte size would be about 8MB, meaning that anyone reading the article would essentially have to download all of these in order to be able to view the page in full. JPEGmini typically optimises these same JPGs down to about 4MB all-in, effectively halving the load on the web server and halving the download time for each user.

I do keep trying to catch JPEGmini out and looking for a photo it has optimised which looks 'worse' than the original, to no avail so far. Its secret is not to try to optimise the file size too much. So you really do get byte savings without any visual impact.

My only gripe with JPEGmini, on the Mac at least, is that you can't drop JPGs directly onto its dock icon - you have to have the app open and then drag into its window. Apparently dock integration is on the to-do list for the developer, so we'll see....

You can try one of your own JPGs online here and then give the utility a try - I can't recommend it highly enough for this sort of targeted JPG byte size reduction.