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Notebook 2017

Continuing from a post from just over a month ago here. The month of March came and went past without Microsoft making a formal announcement on the highly anticipated successor to the Surface Pro 4. Insider information though revealed that the SP5 was going to largely see an upgrade from its processor to that of the Kaby Lake series, but not much else. Pretty disappointing.

I was also rethinking what my use cases for a new laptop was going to be. For certain, the 2.5 year old Surface Pro 3 isn’t  keeping up anymore to what I use it for (note to self: never ever again buy a Windows laptop that comes with just 4GB RAM), and its general responsiveness seem to worsen with the recent Windows 10 Creators Update.

There were two scenarios. Either the replacement laptop will be for home use, or it will replace the Dell XPS 13 and bring that home to replace the SP3. My preference was for the latter, on account that the 256GB SSD on the XPS 13 was also straining under work use. I use a lot of media files when I teach, with my eyes starting to struggle with screen sizes of 13.3″.

So, with that, my couple of requirements for a work notebook replacement were:

Preferably a 14″ screen or larger for my old ‘Uncle’ eyes

8GB RAM + 512GB SSD, or at least end-user replaceable

USB Type-C support and preferably with Thunderbolt 3 support

Windows 10 Pro

At least 2 years warranty

On this, there are two nice benefits of being an educator. Purchases of personal IT equipment are partially claimable from work, and we also separately get great large discounts with selected notebook manufacturers, especially from Acer, HP, Asus, Apple, and Lenovo. The discounts offered from Acer, HP and Asus are routinely isolated to specific models however numbering usually 4-5 from each manufacturer, while Lenovo and Apple offer educational discounts on most if not all of its notebooks.

After several weeks of the usual reading-up and tabular comparisons,  the choices came down to:

Apple MacBook Pro 13: a factory refurbished configuration of 16GB RAM/512GB SSD is about SGD2.6K, with new units sold through its educational store a few hundred dollars higher. The general build and quality of Apple’s MacBooks continue to be second to none, but I am pretty uncertain of its butterfly-type keyboards on both the 13 and 15s’ even after spending a good amount of try-outs at the various Apple resellers. The number of complaints of spoilt keyboards on these new MacBooks is also unsettling. The non-Touchbar MacBooks comes with just two ports – both Type-C’s – which would have made using all my USB 3.0 Type-A peripherals, including a ton of flash drives, portable drives and hubs, a real nightmare. The Touchbar version is going to stack an additional SGD400 to the asking price. Drivers to make full use of the Touchbar are still absent for Windows 10 too. Finally, adding Apple Care – a must after my old MacBook Pro 15 went bonkers after one year of use – is going to be another SGD300 too. So, tempting as owning a current gen MacBook is, it was just way more than what I was prepared to spend.

Lenovo Yoga 910: the Yoga 910 is rated by many sites to be one of the two best convertible laptops right now – the other is the HP x360 Spectre 13 (see below) – with both machines offering Energizer Bunny-like battery life of > 8 hrs under typical  use, premium builds, and support for USB Type C. Lenovo Singapore educational store is also offering very tempting discounts for this lovely machine: somewhere to the tune of about SGD500 less. And for a comparatively low price of SGD1679, one would get 16GB RAM/256GB SSD with 2 years warranty, with the storage drive being end-user replaceable. The screen is also a healthy 13.9″ size. In comparison, the HP Spectre x360 13 is going for slightly more at SGD2189 for a 8GB RAM/512GB SSD configuration, but with 3 years warranty. Both tempting options!

The x360 Spectre 13 vs Yoga 910.

Lenovo ThinkPad T470s: was also in the final reckoning. There are very few reviews for this just recently released laptop too. None of the usual local computer stores I checked had it on display. The one web site that had the T470s reviewed in detail was clearly impressed with its general build quality and battery life, though the full-HD screen seemed to be a hit and miss affair over its rated screen brightness levels. The laptop also comes with a very welcomed suite of Type A and C ports too – a feature set that is absent on the Yoga 910 and x360. The notebook isn’t actually as light or svelte as the Yoga 910 or x360 though, but its close enough. Unlike either too, the T470s and the X1 Carbon (below) are built for enterprise use. A 16GB RAM/512GB SSD/i5-7300U/WQHD screen configuration is SGD2477 after educational discounts.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon: the fifth generation of Leonvo’s top of the line notebook for Enterprise use. The X1 notebooks are basically like the ThinkPad T series: just lighter, smaller, and even better engineered. This model has been widely reviewed, with many sites uniformly praising its build quality and feature set, though not its asking price – it’s Lenovo’s most costly line of notebooks! Lenovo’s educational discount however is significant: for a 16GB RAM/512GB SSD/i5-7300U/FHD configuration was SGD2677.

I’ve always liked ThinkPads, though the current one my workplace gives me is the X230 with its tiny and not elderly friendly 12.5″ screen. After weighing the pros and cons of each, the choices narrowed down to these two ThinkPads: T470s and X1. And several more days of agonizing later, the X1 Carbon it is. Coming in a fortnight (hopefully), with the Dell XPS 13 to come home in a swap. More posts about it to come soon!

Huawei Mate 9 – Part 4: Final Notes

Last couple of posts of the Huawei Mate 9 here, here and here.

Many of the larger Android phone manufacturers routinely load up their new phones with a lot of bloatware. Sometimes, it’s useful – like additional storage space on Dropbox – but a lot of other times, it just isn’t. The difficulty becomes even worse when you can’t actually remove those built-in apps from your phone. Attempting to Uninstall the app will fail. At most, you can replace the app with factory version, so these apps will remain on your device and likely also an eye-sore.

Huawei isn’t different from Samsung in this regard; the Mate 9 came with several of its own apps that I didn’t have a use for, except for one: a Truecaller program that I’ve not seen before. A check showed what this app is about: it’s a cloud-based solution to that attempts to check the IDs of all incoming calls. In other words, CallerID on steroids! Truecaller doesn’t just display the phone number, but searches in crowd-contributed databases where the phone number really is from.

Here’s a case in point. For several months now, I’ve been getting calls persistently from a local mobile number, and – as a creature of habit – I routinely ignore numbers that I do not recognize and when I’m not expecting a call either. But after using the Mate 9, the Truecaller was able to identify the number as coming from a Piano Tuner:

The Tuner’s full phone number masked out in this picture of course.

That’s real neat! Our Yamaha U30BL piano package comes with two free piano tunings in the first year, and I reckon the fellow has been calling to try to make appointments for it.

Another quirk of the Mate 9: the phone’s rear fingerprint sensor works a little too well. It’s responsive and instantly unlocks the phone. And I’ve never had a single instance of print rejection over the two weeks I’ve had the phone. Totally unlike the iPads and Samsung Note 5 which can take a couple of tries for the phone to unlock. But the Mate 9’s fingerprint sensor is also so sensitive and responsive to touch that even lightly brushing the sensor with my finger – e.g. something as innocuous as just holding and not using the camera in my palm while I’m walking – is enough to unlock the phone.

Many of the top-tier phones from manufacturers today also use slightly curved glass along the long sides of the display screen. The Mate 9 isn’t different from the Note 5 nor the Mi Max in this regard: all three have the same screen characteristic. While this makes for a more premium product, finding tempered glass protectors that cover the entire screen edge to edge is annoyingly tough, as it’s not easy to, well, manufacture at low price points thin glass pieces that are slightly curved along edges. Most tempered glass protectors deal with this difficulty simply by not covering the entire screen. Alternatively, the protector might come with black borders that run along its edges – which will cover the entire phone screen, and at the same time mask the fact that the protector doesn’t actually curve neatly along the display screen edge. The down side of this is that you’re likely to lose a tiny bit of display area – but for many users, including myself, it’s the best of what essentially are non-ideal situations from a design limitation.

Still. The 4000 mAh battery is absolutely incredible in making me assured that I don’t have to be near a USB Type C cable and charger every half-day. Part of this I suspect is the hardware and Android 7.0’s ability to sparingly sip power when the phone is in standby mode. It’s not unusual for the phone to be disconnected from the charger at 11PM before I turn in, and 7 hours later – battery power has dropped by only 1% or at most 2%.

All in; the Mate 9 isn’t the best phone I’ve had – that honor still sits safely with the Samsung Note 5 – but it’s ‘good enough’ for the moment. Until the real successor to the Note 5 comes along. :)

Huawei Mate 9 – Part 3: Imaging

I don’t think I’ll ever feel entirely at ease with the smartphone as a handy camera. A large part of it has to do with handling and ergonomics. Smartphones as a direct result of their form factor simply do not permit you to have a good hand-grip when you’re trying to compose a picture, so much so that I’m constantly fearful of accidentally dropping the phone while taking a shot. With the exception of my two Mi phones – which don’t produce very good pictures to begin with – the smartphones we’re using routinely cost upwards of $600-700; a lot more than cheap compact cameras. $600-$700 is a lot of money to throw away if phones kiss concrete!

Still, the old adage tells us that the best camera there is is the one you have with you at that moment. I carry my m4/3 cameras whenever we’re out with the kids, but that’s not all the time – while our phones are always with us. And beyond convenience, smartphone cameras also offer a whole bunch of other neat features, including:

Full-screen viewing with easy pinch in-out zooms to check focusing points and composition. Those 3″ LCD screens on compacts are no match for 5.5″ screens on phones! At high resolutions of 1920×1080 pixels and more too.

USB charging. No need to bring around an external battery charger for the camera.

Filters, picture modes, and decent image editing baked into firmware. And if that’s not enough, you can easily install Adobe Photoshop Express on the phone to get your pro-tweak fix.

Connectivity. Most entry-level compacts won’t include the kind of connection possibilities you’d find in smartphones, while even the cheapest smartphones will have these features. They include picture postings to social media sites, or backing up to cloud services if your data plans permit it. And if you’re on a 60 day vacation across the length and breadth of Europe, auto Geotagging would be really helpful too. You’d need to move up to pricey premium compacts to get all those fun connection options.

Though then again, compacts have got more than a couple of tricks:

Better image quality if you’re willing to spend a bit more to get compacts with 1″ sensors. I’m still hoping to get a 1″ compact camera at some point this year.

Optical stabilization and zooming, though we’re also increasingly seeing the top-tier smartphones offer these features too. And no current smartphone is going to get you good quality zoomed-in pictures when you’re on vacation. Some smartphones can go up to 5-6X, but only through digital zoom – and you really don’t want that.

Handling in odd weather and conditions. Most of us won’t take our cameras to shoot in extreme conditions (ever), but if you want to take pictures in the swimming pool of kids swimming, you’re out of luck with the majority of smartphones. On the other hand, there are waterproof compact cameras abound, and even underwater casings – like the waterproof case for the Canon Ixus, a combination we use to take pictures of our kids swimming.

Better ergonomics and handling. You can easily attach a wrist strap to your camera. Not your 2017 smartphone, unless you get a smartphone case with eyelets for such.

All that said though, the general feeling in the photographic industry is that entry-to mid level compacts are a twilight market segment now. In fact, long-standing photography sites like DPReview and DxOMark have also been including smartphones in their product reviews. I reckon the premium and travel-zoom compacts will still continue to hold their own for at least several more years, since it’s a lot harder to build larger than normal imaging sensors into dense smartphones already jam-packed with fragile electronics, let alone the requisite glass elements that’d permit you to do long optical zooms.

So – onto the Mate 9. Here is a sample for pixel-peepers. Taken on a hot, humid and very sunny Saturday just before noon at our parents’ place. JPG compression was set to 90% quality level.

You can probably feel the sizzling heat just by looking at this picture. Click on the image to get the full-sized JPG image (ISO50, f2.2). Click on the above for the full 5120×3840 pixel image.

A 800×600 pixel crop at 100% of the upper left corner.

A 800×600 pixel crop at 100% at about the image center.

I reckon many people will be happy with these pictures – the Mate 9, like many of the other top-tier phones from manufacturers, take decent pictures. The outdoor pictures only don’t look so good when you’re peering at them at 100%. But really, only pros and gear heads seeking absolutely perfection in their optical equipment will do that, ever. The real challenge is in low-light, and on that, the laws of physics governing small image sensor prevails – the Mate 9 isn’t so great in low-light, and the output differences compared to m4/3s is pretty visible.

So in summary. Is the Mate 9 dual-camera setup any good? It’s pretty OK if you’re comparing it against compact cameras, and/or are taking pictures outdoors and in good light. But it’s also not going to replace my m4/3s anytime.

Next and also last post in series here.

Creative Sound Blaster Roar Pro + iRoar Mic – Unboxing

One of the all-time job hazards of being an educator – here at least in Singapore but I expect it to be a challenge elsewhere too – is that we’re especially vulnerable to throat irritations and sore throats. This is on account of the amount of voice projection we have to do when we teach. And when educators have to teach in this fashion for 20+ hours a week, the strain put on throat muscles can be significant. And on the same and ironically too, many educators I know of prefer not to use microphone setups if they can help it. I myself prefer not to too, but if I’m teaching a session in a large lecture theater, then audio-enhancement systems are a must.

Truth to tell; for years I’ve been keeping an occasional eye-out for small-enough microphone systems that I can carry around. Unfortunately, many of them are either too bulky – like those portable Public Address systems , or ungainly belt-worn ones with wires dangling everywhere.

In itself, Creative’s Roar and iRoar products belong to the category of portable Bluetooth speakers, a product type that has seen all manner of manufacturers filled up with wide ranging models. The models are differentiated along battery life, output sound quality, and additional features like support for storage devices, more exotic audio connectors. But they all fundamentally do the same thing: connect via Bluetooth to a mobile device (e.g. smartphone, laptop), and play back sound. I actually already have one such – the critically praised Logitech UE Boom – for several years now, and I use it as a portable audio playback device for all my classes.

These Bluetooth speakers lack the one feature that the Creative Roar Pro and iRoar products offer though: support for a wireless microphone connection. And this is where Creative’s solutions are really quite interesting. Basically the Sound Blaster Roar Pro is a portable Bluetooth speaker that can also double-up as a public address system when paired with an appropriate accessory – Creative’s iRoar Mic in this case. The Roar Pro is normally sold for about USD200, and the iRoar Mic USD75. But Creative Singapore regularly throws up big discounts on its line-up at the IT/Computer/Technology show here every quarter, so it was just a matter of waiting for the right week where the big discounts are in-play. So, at last weekend’s IT Show, I made an order for the Roar Pro and also iRoar Mic at the Creative online store for a total of SGD278. Much cheaper than if I’d ordered from Amazon – what a shocker. Hooray for homegrown Singapore companies! :)

The big box arrived from local courier just a few days after placing the order, and here’s the outlay:

The Roar Pro and iRoar Mic in similarly designed boxes.

The Roar Pro comes with the speaker, a standard audio cable, the power adapter and cord with multiple pin-type inclusions, a user guide. Er – it does not come with a 62mm lens cap (forgot about it!). The speaker unit itself is a hefty rectangular black metallic box that you could use as a weapon! The package did not come with a carry case for the speaker though.

The top right panel buttons. From left to right: the charging port, Aux in port, a full-sized USB port for the speaker to also work like a powerbank, a micro-USB charging port, and micro SD slot to playback WMA/MP3 audio files.

The top left panel buttons. From left to right: Mic on/Mute switch, record/playback buttons, playback modes and buttons, audio profile switch, the Tera Bass feature that apparently intelligently drives up bass, and finally also a mode switch.

Contents of the iRoar Mic:user manuals, a lanyard, cover for the microphone, and the microphone itself.

The iRoar Mic isn’t as small as some of the wearable though wired microphones around, but it’s not oversized larger.

This Roar Pro and iRoar Mic is specifically intended for work and when I have no voice to project to a large group of students, and I haven’t put the set through extensive use at home yet. From initial tests at work though, the Roar Pro seems better able to produce loud enough audio to fill a small lecture theater (around 90-100 seating capacity) and I hadn’t pushed the speaker to its limit yet even. Still, the UE Boom’s bass seems at least clearer than the Roar Pro. But more notes to come soon enough once I use it to teach.

Or maybe I should just keep it up at home and use it to thunder at Peter with several factors of audio multiplication when he misbehaves LOL.

Windows Utilities V – 2017 Edition

The 2017 edition of a long-running if infrequent series of posts on Windows utilities that I have on our work and home computers. The previous post in this edition is here.

MP3 Tag Editor: another long-lived software that I use! I’m still a subscriber to the eMusic store, and every month, buy about a dozen classical music albums. Normally, there’s no consistency in the way many of the MP3 files in music albums are tagged, and when that happens, an MP3 tag editor program is needed to rename those tags en masse. This software, created and maintained by a team of German developers I reckon, does that trick.

Revo Uninstaller: the older iterations of Windows operating systems didn’t always do a thorough job when it came to uninstalling software that you no longer needed. In fact, over time, little bits of data, registry entries and other program elements would remain in the program files folder and registry. Most users would never have realized these bits of litter were left, much less even bothered with them. 

Not the detail-obsessive though, and there were programs aplenty around that purported to do a more complete job of completely uninstalling programs. The more recent and current versions of Windows today I think do a better job at removing programs but if you still want to be sure, there’s Revo Uninstaller. This software will scan the program’s folder and attempt to remove everything. There’s one annoyance in this program though: and that’s the persistent reminders for you to buy the Pro edition.

Ninite: this is a nifty web site that lets you select from a list of popular and free software, and proceeds to automatically install them in the background. As a special bonus, the installation scripts will avoid installing all the extra ‘freebies’ that you really do not want (e.g. Toolbars from Yahoo LOL). Very useful not only when you’re setting up a new PC, but you can also run the software thereafter periodically to mass update all your apps too.

Just a portion of software that can be installed using Ninite.

Adobe Digital Negative Converter and Adobe Photoshop Elements: most people are perfectly happy with JPG pictures that come out from compact cameras and smartphones, but serious enthusiast photographers routinely shoot in RAW. Granted – it takes a lot more time to process RAW images, but you simply can get much better images editing a RAW than a JPG image. I’ll probably do an updated post about processing RAW files soon. The problem with RAW files though is that each camera’s file format is proprietary, which makes it difficult for RAW image editors like Adobe Photoshop to keep up. 

So, Adobe’s very novel solution is this: rather than come up with frequent versions of Adobe Camera Raw and make customers keep buying new versions of Photoshop just to read RAW files of new cameras, they’ve come up with a Digital Negative Converter. Basically, the application converts the RAW files into a common and open format so that it can be read by more image editors. The key advantage, using industry lingo, is ‘archival confidence’.

The RAW and DNG image editor software I’m currently using is Photoshop Elements. It’s for two reasons: I’d rather not have to pay a yearly subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud just to edit RAW/DNG files, and the feature set offered in Elements is more than sufficient for my needs. And Elements I think remains perpetual license software (and I hope for indefinitely!), so once you buy a version, you can use it for as long as you need to – as long as you still use DNG Converter to convert newer RAW files to their format.

Adobe’s DNG Converter.

Microsoft Image Compositor: I haven’t been taking as many panoramic shots during vacations as I once did, and largely because it’s much harder to methodically set up shots when you’re vacationing with children! And many modern cameras today offer a built-in panoramic shot feature. Still – for those of us who prefer to take panoramas the old way, Microsoft Image Compositor is a nifty application that lets you construct such from a series of photos.

Advanced Renamer: the last software item in this Windows Utilities edition, and a real boon for enthusiast photographers. This software allows you to easily mass rename files (e.g. image files!). This software is highly customisable, supports all manner of name amendments – and it’s free.

That’s it for the 2017 edition. I probably won’t wait nearly as long a period of 8 years before I do a next update in this series!

Huawei Mate 9 – Part 2: Usage

Continuing from the last post. Well:

It’s Huawei’s current flagship, and it especially shows through its choice of processor and camera functions. The Mate 9 feels well-built, dense and of good heft without any creaky joints. I doubt if it’s of the same level of construction as the Note 5 – whose sturdy frame makes me never worried about stuffing the Note in my back pocket and sitting on it – but the Mate 9 doesn’t look as though it’ll break into two any time from normal usage.

Three of the four phones we use: from left to right, the new Mate 9, XIaomi Mi Max, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 5.

For those of us who do not use protective cases with our phones, the Mate 9’s matte surfaces will keep your fingerprint smudges at bay. Though then again, there are many others who prefer the all metal and glass premium builds of the Note 5.

The phone comes with a pre-fitted film screen protector and also a thin phone case in the box. The film screen protector is the clear type. It doesn’t seem to have a smudge-resistant coating, so attracts fingerprints easily. The thin plastic case is fine protecting the phone from scratches when when you have your keys, coins and the like alongside the phone in your pocket – but it doesn’t look nearly sturdy enough to protect the phone if it gets dropped. Either omissions wouldn’t have bothered me too much, since the film protector will come off as soon as the tempered glass protector I purchased arrives. But these inclusions are an awfully nice gesture on Huawei’s part, and are helpful for people who don’t intend to buy any additional  accessories for it, or would like to use these as placeholders while they (slowly!) decide what accessories to buy after getting the phone first.

The 64GB built-in memory is useful, and it’s also fast becoming the standard amount of storage in new smartphones. And if you need more than 64GB, the second SIM card slot dual purposes also as a micro SD card slot. I can finally bring my entire 223GB collection of classical music MP3 files on the go now LOL.

It’s the first device I’ve used with Android v7.0 Nougat. This new version of the Android OS includes better task switching and multi-tasking, though if you primarily use the phone for just mobile communications and browsing, most of these new features might not mean much to you. A couple would definitely though: bundled notifications where users who receive incoming messages across apps non-stop will appreciate, and a new data saver utility for those of us on who’re heavy data users on stingy mobile data plans.

The Mate 9’s fingerprint scanner is like Xiaomi’s – more reliable and quicker than either the Samsung Note 5’s, the iPad Mini 4 or iPad Air 2. Having experienced my two Mi phones’ rear fingerprint scanner and now this Mate 9’s, I’m now convinced that the fingerprint scanner belongs to the back of the device and not the front.

It’s touted machine learning feature is interesting, but any benefits won’t be seen until you’ve used the phone for a while. Morever, I’m doubtful if it’ll improve my personal experience of the phone: my usage of the phone will be fairly low-intensity (basically mobile communications and web browsing), and the phone is already quick enough as it is.

Type C charging and data port. Certainly the way of the future – just maybe not now.

Fingerprint sensor right where it should be – at the back of the phone.

The Mate 9 (left)’s screen is visibly larger than the Note 5’s – but once you take on board the space occupied by the row of on-screen buttons, the actual physical display area between the phones is about similar. And once you consider also the lower resolution screen, the Mate 9 simply does not display as much info on the screen as the Note 5.

And now we have mobile devices using three completely different and non-interchangeable charging connectors – ugh. There aren’t a lot of 3-in-1 adapters in stores. This one from j5Create – works like a charm, thankfully. These are sold at Challenger (with member discounts applying) and also at Popular for example.

The 4K video capture does not seem to benefit much from optical stabilization, and videos come out quite shaky. This will be a real issue in our June trip – it looks like I’ll have to use Ling’s Note 5 now to take videos.

The audio jack produces sufficiently loud sound – important for those of us who listen to music in noisy environments like MRT trains, if slightly muffled at the bass levels compared to the Note 5. Oddly too – there is no built-in graphic equalizer to fine-tune audio, so one will have to go with third party Google Play apps for that.

And on the flip side:

USB Type C charging. The new USB standard might indeed be the way of the future, but I’m not sold on whether it’s ready for mainstream yet. It’d at least mean that I’d have to bring yet another charging cable for our June vacation to Western Australia. That the phone box includes a microUSB adapter is helpful though.

The built-in notification LED is both a little too small and also limited to be of much use. The LED sits on the top right corner of the phone and doesn’t emit sufficient light for one to easily notice it. Unlike the Note 5 too, there doesn’t seem to be any way for the LED to be customized to display different colors to signify different types of events.

I’ve said enough of the Mate 9’s Full and not QHD screen. Color and contrast wise, it’s ‘good’ enough, and like the Note 5, the Mate 9’s maximum screen brightness is high enough for me to see what’s on the screen when outdoors.The default color is very slightly on the warm side, but an equally small shift to a cooler temperature helps. Still, photos still look better on the Note 5 though, no doubt because of its technologically superior Super AMOLED screen.

Using the Mate 9’s color temperature adjuster.

So there we go. The next post on some observations about using the Mate 9 as a cam-phone.

Huawei Mate 9 – Part 1: Decisions

One of the nicest things about living in Asia is access to a wide range of mobile technologies, more so with China’s emergence as a leading tech giant. The large telco providers invariably bundle their subscription plans not only phones from mainstream manufacturers – e.g. Samsung, LG, Apple, Sony – but also from equally large manufacturers that are normally not sold bundled with Western carriers, e.g. those in the US . These manufacturers, often from China and Taiwan, include Asus, Oppo, Huawei, HTC, ZTE, Xiaomi, Leagoo and so on. And that’s not counting the other less-known manufacturers that are sold directly from retail shops, usually without manufacturer warranties but with in-store support instead. It’s as one YouTube reviewer of Huawei’s phones mused: that some of these Chinese manufacturers are capable of producing really crazy good smartphones that are sold much cheaper than the well-known ones. But despite their advertising dollars spent, these phones are still largely ignored by the American consumer sector as they simply aren’t bundled with carrier plans.

I was initially intending to change phones only in June when my current contract makes me eligible for a re-contract without the early termination fee. As luck would have it, Ling’s phone contract had already expired, and after some discussion about what she’d want for her next phone, my Note 5 would go to her. On account that she wanted a phone with a stylus, that she didn’t want to pay much for it, and the phone can’t be larger than her Note 3 (something about not fitting into her handbag pouch LOL).

So, I’d be out of a phone earlier than I thought. Between the couple of phones I listed in the recent post:

Samsung Galaxy A9 Pro: was out of stock.

Oppo R9s Plus: would had been my next choice, were it not for the fact that it does not support NFC – i.e. no Android Pay. Too bad. The relative lack of reviews and commentary about this phone also made me a mite less confident about it.

Huawei Mate 9: reviewed in a lot of sites, and for the most part quite well-received with reviewers noting its decent build, great battery life, brisk processor and speeds, and decent cameras if still slightly under the Note 5 in terms of imaging quality. And on the flip-side, OK screen only and not QHD (not as nice as the Oppo’s or Note 5’s), and on-screen buttons only (matter of personal preference).

Huawei Mate’s Advertising.

So, it was the Huawei Mate 9. And for once, switching to this phone from the Note 5 actually feels more like a downgrade than an upgrade LOL. The Note 5 is superior in just about every aspect that I care about: screen quality, resolution, stylus-support, imaging, build, and that it runs for even longer on its 3000mAh battery despite it being smaller than the Mate 9’s 4000mAh. The only thing that the Mate 9 has going for it in comparison is the very slightly larger screen – and that it’s new LOL.

Still – unboxing pictures for the phone that just arrived, with notes on actual usage to come later!

This is the nicest packaging I’ve yet seen from a smartphone package. Huawei packs the Mate 9 in a premium and oversized gift-styled box.

User guide, a slim translucent case, quick charger, USB Type-C cable, and microUSB adapter. The earphone’s still in the box.

More in the next post.

Windows Utilities IV – 2017 Edition

It’s been 8 years since I last did a new post on Windows utilities, with the previous ones here, here and here. So, time for a 2017 edition of some of the Window tools, applications and utilities I routinely load all computers with. Interestingly, several items from the 2009 series of posts continued to live on our Windows computers – certainly a good testimony to the dedication of their developers to continue improving these software over time. There are lots of new software to talk about, so there will be a couple of new posts in this series.

FastStone Image Viewer: I’ve tried a bunch of image browsers over the years, but none have supplanted FastStone’s offering. It still continues to be my default image viewer. The software is in version 6.2 now and still is regularly updated, remains brisk, oozes with features, features a decent set of image editing functions, supports batch processing for the more basic edits, and – importantly – can read JPG images that are embedded into RAW files.

PDF Split and Merge: ever had a PDF file that is hundreds of pages long but you only need an except? Or you have a whole bunch of small PDFs that you want to merge into a single one? And do you have a non-duplex scanner that can only scan one side of a stack of pages, and now need a tool to alternatively merge odd and even pages into one PDF file? PDFSam provides all these and more – and is also open-source and free for use. The software’s user interface is clean and intuitive, and there’s also a commercial version that adds more functionality too.

PDF Split and Merge’s main dashboard.

Greenshot Image Capture: this one’s a screen and region-capturing software that I use a lot both at home and at work. In fact, the various application illustrations included in this and the next post were captured using this app. The configurable hotkeys – especially Capture Region – make capturing and processing segments of your desktop a cinch. Free and open-source too.

Dropbox / Google Drive / OneDrive: at this point, aside from the amount of storage space that comes included with free accounts, the main cloud-based storage providers aren’t really different from one to the next for most end-users. All three are well-supported with dedicated apps, basic synchronization features, and also apps for mobile devices to access your files while on the go. Of the lot, Google Drive is probably the one that has the best integrated functionality if you use Google products a lot, but it might mean that a good portion of the space you get on it gets also used up by other services. OneDrive on the other hand is especially generous with storage space, and educational institutions might also have arrangements with Microsoft that give its staff and students more space than you’d ever need.

K-Lite Codec Pack: most users won’t ever need additional video codecs on top of what is already supplied on Windows. But if you have loads of video files from older formats, then obtaining this codec pack is one way of ensuring your media player continues to be able to play those files. This is one of those software that I install when setting up a new Windows PC, then forget it’s ever there until the occasional pop-up appears informing that there are codec updates.

HandBrake: while 4K video support still isn’t a common inclusion in smartphones, the top-line models – e.g. Samsung Galaxy notes – do. 4K video files are huge though, and unless you have loads of storage space, at some point you’ll seriously feel tempted to re-encode those 100Mb/s files into something more manageable. The video transcoder software I’ve been using for some years now is the open-source HandBrake. Worth a look especially if you’re wrestling with large video files.

Customising video transcoding parameters in Handbrake.

KeePass: we use the cloud for its services far more today in 2017 than ever before. There are several advisory cautions that are constantly issued on the use of cloud services: one is to always activate 2 Factor Authentication when it’s offered, and another is to not only use strong passwords (e.g. those that do not contain common or recognizable text strings) but never to recycle passwords across services too. Really – what with incidents of password database leaks becoming almost daily news now, the last thing you need is for one provider to lose a password that you are using across multiple services. But if you have difficulties remembering different passwords across the services you use, then you need a password manager like KeePass.

More in the next post of this series!

Smartphones 2017

Many technology enthusiasts here look forward to a special occasion every 2 years – expiration of our mobile phone subscription contracts! When that happens biannually, we get to shop around for a new smartphone to go along with contract renewals. Oh, it’s possible to be on a mobile plan without being tied down to a two year contract, but who would pass up an opportunity to renew with a new phone? And one nice thing about Singtel -is that its customers are eligible for re-contracting after 1 year 9 months and not 24 months without having to pay an early recontract fee.

My current plan with Singtel is ending in a few months. Funnily, and for the first time since I’ve been on biannual mobile contract plans, I actually don’t feel a particularly strong compulsion to upgrade this time. It’s a nice opportunity to that I’ll likely still take up. But the Samsung Note 5 I’ve had for coming to two years now still looks as pristine as it did at purchase – a characteristic that we routinely associate more with Apple products than other manufacturers’ products. Specification-wise, the Note 5 was as high-end as one could buy back then, and it still holds its own today: Quad HD and Super AMOLED screen, still decent battery life, RAW support for its camera, 4K video recording etc. Incredibly, the Note 5 is still sold on retail in large part I suspect because of the Note 7 fiasco, and its prices haven’t dropped by too much either.

From last year’s post – the Mi Max with the Note 5.

Still, it’s a chance for a new phone – so why not. The Mi Max – which has only been lightly used since picking it up last year – might had been a suitable replacement were it not for the fact that I prefer my main day to day device to have a Quad HD screen – the full HD screen on the Max struggles against its 6.4″ huge screen – and better video/imaging abilities. And so:

At least equal or larger than the Note 5’s 5.7″ display;

Either 64GB built-in storage or support for a microSD card expansion. I’m not a smartphone gamer, but the phone does triple-up duty as a video recorder and also MP3 player, functions which gobble storage space.

Decent imaging that’s on par with the Note 5’s;

4000mAh battery or higher. Those huge displays suck juice;

NFC support for mobile payment systems.

And of preferences:

Quad HD screen;

Stylus support;

Thumbprint scanner;

Dedicated capacitive physical and not on-screen buttons.

Looking at what’s currently out there:

Samsung Galaxy A9 Pro: huge 6″ AMOLED screen + thumbprint scanner + dedicated buttons + NFC + crazy 5000mAh sized battery + microSD card support + dual SIM- hooray! Full HD screen only though, and no 4K video recording. Slightly cheaper than the others below too.

Huawei Mate 9: almost a bumped up version of the A9 Pro above – large 5.9″ screen + thumbprint scanner + NFC + 4000mAh battery + microSD card support + dual SIM + 4K video recording – hooray. Reportedly fantastic dual-lens camera too. But also full HD screen only. Bleh.

Oppo R9s Plus: huge 6″ AMOLED screen + 4000mAh battery + a whopping 6GB system RAM + dedicated buttons and sharing the same characteristics and limitations as the others in the list so far. Does not support Android Pay – oh no.:( And lastly, it’s a pretty new phone, so there aren’t many reviews of this phone out there at the moment.

Asus Zenfone 3 Ultra: humongous 6.8″ screen that’s even larger than the Max’s. 4600mAh battery + 4K video recording. But just too large for it to be pocketable!

Going with the list above, I’m leaning towards the A9 Pro followed by the R9s Plus. The A9 Pro – if I go with that later – won’t actually be a significant upgrade from the Note 5 though, on account of its lower resolution screen, lack of stylus and support for wireless charging, and 4K video recording.

But it’ll still be a new phone, so a decision to make in the next couple of months!

 

Watching the Surface Pros

Many of us would be hard-pressed not to think of ‘Apple’ if asked to list a prominent technology trendsetter. To be fair, their first and early iPhones, iPads, iPods and MacBooks did turn their respective industries on their heads. Of late though, Apple’s ability to set such trends have come under severe pressure from other tech giants. Apple is no longer regarded as the undisputed market leader on several product fronts. In fact, as far as smartwatches and smartphones are concerned, companies like LG, Huawei and Samsung of late seem to be real innovators, with Apple’s line-up routinely having to play catch-up.

Likewise for laptops. Apple with its late 2016 iterations of MacBooks still steadfastly refuses to provide touchscreen or stylus support in their refreshed lineup while other manufacturers have already gone ahead with it (e.g. Microsoft, HP, Acer, Lenovo, Dell). Though as these things go, if they do eventually put it in, their marketing pitch will likely make it sound like they are the first to do it properly. And don’t even get me started on the USB Type-C only ports which basically forces owners to purchase additional adapters just for them to work on Apple’s new MacBooks.

Of the two laptops I bought two years ago in January 2015 – the Dell XPS 13 and Surface Pro 3 – the Dell remains my main driver at work, and it’s borne up very well without issues of any sort. Not a small feat considering it’s used 11-12 hours a day, brought from place to place, and chucked into my haversack everyday to/fro home. The SP3 however is just that much more enjoyable to use! The first intentions for it last year was largely as a casual machine. But I liked it so much in its first year of use, that the somewhat modest storage and RAM included in it (4GB RAM/128GB SSD) became a quick limiter to all the stuff I was putting it through.

Hannah on the SP3 last year. She looks visibly more baby-face than she is today a year later!

The second year of use evolved, and especially so after getting the Aftershock S17 last April. The SP3’s primary functions now include Hannah using it for homework and to access the suite of learning systems her school puts out, as a musical score display device when I’m on the piano, as our primary laptop when we travel out of the country on vacations, and occasionally at home in the dining room. Of the latter; the S17 just doesn’t offer enough battery juice to run for 2 hours if it gets carted out from the bedroom to the dining room, and its power brick is every literal sense of that word. Oddly too; the SP3 since the middle of last year has been emitting a lot of heat even under fairly low intensity use (e.g. web browsing), and the metallic back plate near the sole USB 3.0 port has very slightly deformed too. Related?

Circled the part where the metallic backplate on my SP3 seems to have very slightly warped.

Microsoft has put out the SP3’s successor – the Surface Pro 4 – more than a year ago now, but the new iteration received mixed feedback at launch. On the up side, the SP4’s display was better on several counts (color, resolution, and even size), but its battery life – according to some Internet reviewers – was poorer than the SP3’s. Even more worryingly was that the SP4 suffered from serious firmware issues. After a series of updates, much of it seems to have finally been resolved, though battery life remains middling.

There are imitators to Microsoft’s trendsetting Surface Pro-type convertibles of course, and they include (with indicative pricing):

Asus Transformer Pro 3: (SGD1898, i5-6200U, 8GB/256GB) larger screen than SP4’s (hooray!!!), but pricey for comparative specifications and more so given SP4’s recent price-drops. And poor battery life.

Acer Switch Alpha 12: (SGD1298, i5-6200U, 8GB/256GB) very attractively priced right now with seasonal discounts, good range of ports, supports USB-C charging, and runs silent. But also poor battery life. Screen smaller than SP4’s.

Lenovo Ideapad Miix 510: (SGD1499, i5-6200U, 8GB/256GB ) good array of ports, but lousy battery life – again.

Samsung TabPro S: (SGD998, M3-6Y30, 4GB/128GB) thin bezels, dirt cheap with seasonal discounts, stunning AMOLED screen, and long battery life. But stuck with entry-level specs of 4GB RAM/128GB SSD and no other options. Awkward tablet/keyboard configuration too.

Huawei MateBook: (SGD1788, 8GB/512GB) thin bezels, lovely form, good pricing, but yucky keyboard and like Samsung’s above – awkward tablet/keyboard configuration. And if that wasn’t enough still, awful battery life to top it off.

HP Spectre x2: (SGD1299, M7-6Y75, 8GB/256GB) amazingly low price now after the list price for this convertible nose-dropped recently. Battery life about where the SP4 is, good screen, LTE support (nice!!) and premium design. Would had been a real alternative, were it not for its smaller than SP4’s screen, thick bezels (yuck), and you have to pay an additional $79 for the stylus. The overall package price would bring it to a whisker under the SP4 below then.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4: SGD1456, i5, 8GB/256GB sans SP4 Typecover as I already have one.

What about the iPad Pro 12.9″? Truth to tell, I’ve been quite tempted by this oversized iPad for months now, and seriously considered picking it up late last year when renewing my mobile broadband plan (I eventually went with an iPad Mini 4 instead). What held me back was that while the iPad Pro 12.9″‘s base unit price is OK, you’ll pay a lot more for the additional keyboard and Apple Pen just so to have it operate like a convertible.

So, it seems that the SP4 for all its flaws remains still the most balanced tablet PC in consideration, followed closely by the Acer Switch Alpha 12 and the HP Spectre x2 from a price-point at least. But with the expected release of the SP5 just around the corner, lots of rumors have come about though Microsoft itself has been quite tight-lipped about what the new machine will feature. My wishlist for it would be for it to:

Offer a 8GB RAM/128GB SSD option. Right now, the SP4 is available as 4GB RAM/128GB SSD and 8GB/256GB SSD configurations – but not in between.

Keep the micro-SD card slot (so that additional storage can be added for cheap.:)

Keep the mini-display port and USB 3.0 port, but also add a USB 3.1 Type-C port that supports power charging

Keep the current physical form factor, so that I can still use back my current Surface Pro 4 Typecover.

But increase the display width. The 12.3″ display on the SP4 is already slightly larger than the SP3’s, but I hope it gets larger still as the screen’s bezels are still fairly thick. I reckon the display can go up to 12.6″ without making the overall unit larger.

Use Intel’s 7th generation Kaby Lake processor. The improvements performance-wise are minor, but the new processors are more power efficient.

And offer better battery life, definitely!

Hopefully something comes up in the next month or two so that it can be considered for our June trip! And if not, the SP4’s recent price drops alongside the educational discount I’d get do make it quite attractive at this point too.