Tech review - Livre d'Or

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Tech review
Tuesday, 19 July 2016 at 10:25 pm

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Some months ago, I asked for some advice about mobile phones. And then everything went to pieces and I didn't get round to telling you what I decided, so:

So I learned that the battery in a Samsung Galaxy Note is totally user replaceable. Unfortunately I got skittish and decided to pay someone with more experience to do it. I started out by asking Timpsons, who I think of as being expensive but reliable when it comes to mobile phone repairs, and they said that the Note II was too out of date for them to deal with, and to try the dodgy little mobile accessories shop up the road. The guy in the shop replaced the battery with an off-brand one, giving me a week or so of a phone that was not exactly as good as new but held its charge for at least a few hours rather than not at all. So initially I was pleased, but then the phone bricked itself. Or at least, it got into a state where it would restart constantly, and I tried all kinds of things like draining the battery, taking the battery out altogether, running it plugged in to the mains, and just couldn't get to a state where it was powered, but not constantly restarting, so I couldn't try any of the recommendations the internet or friends suggested for intervening in the boot cycle.

With my phone actually unusable rather than just problematic, I didn't have time to go for one of the non-standard options; either the Fairphone or the Wileyfox Swift would have taken weeks to reach me. Lessons for the future: one, it's safer, not riskier, to buy a branded replacement battery from the internet and fit it myself than to put my phone in the hands of a dodgy mobile shop. Two: I probably need a cheap backup phone so that if my phone breaks catastrophically again I will have time to think about getting it repaired, or taking my time to choose a replacement. Three: I should probably have back-ups, at least of my contacts; I don't generally keep important files on my phone, so I wasn't too worried, but losing my address book was really quite annoying.

So in this situation, I bought the Motorola Moto G3 for £120, plus a 32GB MicroSD card for £12 since I correctly predicted that 8GB of internal storage would get me nowhere. So in a lot of ways I traded down, but the fact that it's three years newer means I don't feel deprived. I thought that less than 2GB of RAM might feel underpowered but actually I've never noticed the phone being at all slow, though it does run kind of hot sometimes. The smaller 5'' screen I have barely even noticed; everything, including the tiny fonts I prefer, and high graphics games, is crystal clear. And I like its light weight; having a phone whose weight is literally negligible is kind of amazing after my big chunky Galaxy Note. The spec says 155g; anyway, subjectively it's small enough that I don't notice it in my handbag and I can hold it in my hand basically indefinitely. It's not especially sexy but I do like the matte back and particularly the way it's easily removable. The biggest negative for me is that the physical buttons (power and volume) on the right edge of the phone are exactly where I most comfortably want to rest my fingers while I'm holding the phone in my left hand. I suspect it's been designed for purely one-handed use, but my hands are too small to do that comfortably even on a smaller screen. Battery life is fine; I get a day of regular use and several hours of intensive use out of it, which is as good as almost any smart phone, I think.

The main feature I miss from the Note is its built-in stylus. I was able to acquire a generic stylus for basically pocket money, but unlike the Note one that has a fine, hard point, generic styli have a soft squishy point about half a cm across. I have currently lost mine and I still find it annoying to have to use my finger on the touchscreen, so I should replace it. Also I kind of miss LED notifications. I'm disproportionately annoyed by the lack of any clear signal that the phone is connected to the power; you have to actively check whether the tiny icon of a battery has an even tinier icon of lightning inside it. I don't miss the weird touch-activated buttons in the frame of the phone; having back and home be purely part of the software is much more sensible.

To my astonishment, I actually like the camera on this phone! I mean, I don't think it's anything to write home about in terms of optics (though it does have more megapixels than my "real" camera). But the software is just nice. As a literal point and click thing, it takes consistently acceptable photos, and it's just tipped over the threshold of being usable to take snaps of whatever, which I found just too fiddly and too poor quality on my old phone.

A lot of my gripes with the phone are that I'm not fond of Android Marshmallow. Motorola have done a thing I approve of, which is just giving me a plain Android phone and not trying to impose their own branding and bloatware on it. There are improvements; I find the settings menu better than in whatever old version I had, JellyBean I think. And I like that you can easily switch WiFi, data, GPS, Bluetooth etc on and off, just by pulling down the top bar, rather than going several layers deep into obscure settings menus. Though they still haven't fixed the incredibly irritating thing where the alarm icon appears in the top bar but you can't actually interact with it, you have to open the clock app separately to turn off the alarm. In theory I like Marshmallow's new fine-grained permissions, but I find they don't work very well; I keep turning off notifications for gaming apps only to find the games turn their annoying "play a loud sound at random times to remind you to play the game" thing back on again. But Marshmallow makes it far more obvious than the 4.x OSes did that you're Google's prisoner. It took active effort to let me look at my own email without routing everything through Google, and even now it just won't let me look at the mobile version of Gmail as if it were a web page, I have been forced to connect my work email address to the phone, which I had been avoiding doing. It's probably not worse than older Android versions, but it's more in your face and it's enough to push me over the edge and break out of the Android ecosystem next time I get a phone.

The other thing is that it's really really hard to change the default place to save downloads. There's not much point having an SD card with four times the space of the phone's built-in memory (well, eight times really, since the OS takes up half the available storage) if everything, including large apps, has to be downloaded to the main phone first. It turns out you have to enable USB debugging using an obscure, hidden Konami code, and then use some software that gives you a command line on a computer. [personal profile] cjwatson has the software available, but when he tried it it claimed that you couldn't change the default storage location without rooting the phone. Though in fact it actually did work, so who knows? I also can't find any way to get my computer to recognize the phone as a USB drive and eg transfer my photos off it, but that might possibly be a problem with my computer and not the phone, not sure.

And to go with the phone, I treated myself to a Misfit Flash activity tracker. I had been thinking of getting a Fitbit again, but actually the Flash is half the price of the cheapest Fitbit and has all the features I want. I like that it is basically an accelerometer, with the smartphone app doing all the actual computation and data display (and social features if you like that kind of thing, but I was grateful to find it's easy enough to turn that stuff off). Its main downside compared to the Fitbit is that it doesn't have a display, other than a series of LEDs representing progress towards your daily goal. I also like that the actual device is just a small circle, a little bigger than a pound coin. It came with a watch strap and a clip it can snap into, but you can also put it into jewellery made by other companies if you want. In appearance and feel it is, honestly, a bit tacky, like a cheap children's watch, but at the price I'm not complaining.

Anyway, it works. It has a slightly annoying tendency to convert everything to arbitrary "points" when I'd rather have a direct step count, but on the other hand it's pretty good at giving you more points for moving faster. So far, in three months, it hasn't made any glaring errors, either mistaking vehicle travel for exercise, or failing to record my exercise. It's not very good at recording cycling, even if I follow the advice to wear it on my foot rather than my arm. But most of my actual exercise is walking or running, so that's fine for me. (Its distance measurements are nonsense; unlike the Fitbit it doesn't have a calibration mechanism to be able to teach it how many steps of walking or running add up to 1 km. But I just ignore that.) It's also surprisingly good at recording sleep; pretty much always its impression of how well I slept matches with my own memories, and it can cope just fine with biphasic sleep or sharing a bed with another person. And I'm a giant nerd and I want more data, things like rolling averages and the ability to attach notes to activities and so on, but actually the amount it's giving me is adequate for actually tracking my exercise, not just playing with the data for the sake of it.

And it works psychologically, too, quite a few times I've got home from work and checked it and it's motivated me to go back out again and walk for another twenty minutes to meet the day's goal. It was pretty easy to make it shut up about weight, though I think you can use it for tracking weight and possibly food as well, if you like that sort of thing. It seems to be doing a good job of giving me rewards (from flashing lights when I meet my goal, to medals for streaks and records and so on), without a lot of punishment. Also, when I first got the device I couldn't get it to link to my phone, and without much hope I emailed customer services and got a prompt, informative, literate reply. (Turns out that you need both Bluetooth and GPS turned on to make Bluetooth work, which is a little odd, but hey.)

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