Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Former Flagship: Motorola Moto X Second Generation with Marshmallow


After a month or so of using the Sony Xperia Z2, I have returned it, because of a dead pixel on the camera, plus really poor audio quality in calls and sub-par low-light photo quality. Also, because of the bloatware Sony decided to include, I found I was running out of internal storage space all the time. I decided to replace it with a second gen Motorola Moto X, since I have experienced the near-stock Android experience of Motorola before with the first and second gen Moto G devices. I did not really have the budget for the X's successor, the Moto X Style or a Nexus 6/5X/6P. I also went for the second gen X because it has already received Android Marshmallow when the Z2 and G3 were still yet to get it.


I found a very good condition second gen Moto X on eBay that looks practically new, other than a few barely noticeable marks on the outer edges. It's a device that was originally ordered from Moto Maker, in white with blue detailing and beautiful walnut back.  It arrived in it's original box with booklets, Sim tool, unused charger and USB cable, still in their wrapping.


Once I'd unboxed it, setting up was simple as restoring from the backup stored by my previous device. I could also have restored from a previous Motorola device, but it's been ages since I had one.


Screen

The second gen Moto X has a beautiful 5.2" AMOLED screen (as opposed to the IPS screens on the Sony Z2 and LG G3) at 1080p but it has a bigger screen to body ratio than the Sony, which had a quite a big chin and forehead. Instead of using Knock-To-Wake like LG, you can wake the X by hovering your hand near it, I never get tired of this Jedi mind trick! I also really like Moto Display that only lights up the clock and notification bubbles on the lockscreen to save power. You can also quickly peek at notifications depending on privacy settings. AMOLED does not need to light up individual pixels when displaying black images, so using a very dark or black wallpaper should also save battery life.


Build

The Moto X is slim (helped by the lack of a MicroSD slot) and feels great to hold and about the same weight as the LG G3, but also lighter than the Sony Z2. It felt a bit of a shame to enclose the beautiful water resistant body, with it's nice walnut rear, in a leather flip case, but even then, the device is slimmer than my LG G3 was with the Quick Circle cover. The SIM cover and headphone jack is at the top and the buttons are all on the right hand side.



Software

The second gen X has the latest Marshmallow OS from Google that does not include lots of duplicate apps of Google apps, and the only notable Motorola apps are it's camera, useful gallery app (I find it better for dealing with locally stored images than Google Photos). The granular control of permission in Marshmallow are a great addition to Android, it offers fine control on a per app basis as to what each app can access. Google Now Launcher is installed by default but I prefer the smaller icons and customisability and features of Nova Launcher Prime. You may also notice I have made the battery percentage appear in the battery icon, using the tweak found here. This device is the smoothest Android experience I have had since I had since my Nexus 5. There is also considerably more storage space left for apps than I had with the Sony Z2 and LG G3.

 

Camera

In the past Motorola devices have sometimes suffered from poor quality cameras, but all that changed with the second gen X, which has a superb 13MP shooter with similar specs to my LG G3. It produces great sharp images and great low light shots. Here's a very low light shot of the very last embers of a sunset.


I have found Motorola's simple Camera app is great for taking a quick photo of something, but sometimes I get better HDR shots using A Better Camera, the only problem is it tends to use way more battery than the stock camera, as it did on my LG G3 too. One thing I miss from the LG is holding down Volume Down to get straight to the camera and the Sony Z2 had a hardware Camera button. Motorola's solution uses a gesture instead, a double flick of the wrist, which takes a little practice to get right.



  You can find some other photos I have taken with the Moto X here.

I have also found audio recording quality in videos, and in calls, to be excellent and far better than that of the Sony Z2. I recorded a quick test video of a busker on the high street to try it out, at the default 1080p settings. I have yet to try the slo-mo and 2160p settings out.



Battery Life

With only a fixed 2300MaH battery, the second gen X reportedly gets mainly average battery life, but still on a par with what I got from my LG G3, which had a 3000MaH battery but had a True HD screen which impacted on battery life. Marshmallow's Doze should improve battery life over previous Android versions and I will find out how things go in the coming weeks, since I have only had this device for a short time.

Conclusion

So far I have found this to be the best Android device I have owned so far, with it's smooth near-stock Android experience with only minimal tweaks from Motorola. I love Moto Display and the beautiful screen, and that it fits better in my pocket than my LG G3 (or the Sony Z2) did even with a leather flip case on it. I also like the crystal clear sound quality, including in Skype calls. Hopefully I shall keep this device for a good long while, as long as it continues working well. The second gen Moto X is still a great device, particularly since it received marshmallow.





Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Former Flagships: From LG G3 to Sony Xperia Z2


Several months back I accidentally dropped my LG G3 and had the screen replaced, but unfortunately it now seems to be becoming glitchy, so I decided to replace the phone with something different/better.  On my limited budget, I went for a one of the G3's competitors (of the era), a Sony Xperia Z2 as it has a 20MP camera, 3GB RAM, decent size battery, shatter-proof screen and waterproof (IP58 certified) body. I found a decent secondhand one on eBay at a reasonable price. It only has a few marks on the rear glass back, the rest is in great condition, including the 5.2 inch 1080p screen.

 
First impressions when I picked it up out the box was it's feels reassuringly heavy and robust, particularly the metal sides and buttons. Booting up, the device led me through the setup wizard, including creation of a Sony account. When I had finished I realized I could have used their backup/restore tool to restore straight from my G3! The default look isn't a stock look, the icons and widgets look a bit toy-like to me, so I installed Nova and replicated a cleaner, nearer stock look, with Marshmallow icons, in the same way I did with my G3. Like the LG, the Z2 has Knock To Wake (but not Knock to screen off), it just needs to be enabled in the settings. It might take me awhile to really get used to having the buttons on the side of the phone again, especially as the Z2 has the Power button and Volume rocker in the centre of the side of the device.


The Z2 currently runs Sony's version of Lollipop 5.1.1 (my LG G3 only has 5.0.2), it feels quick and I have so far not felt any lag, likely helped by a lighter UI and 3GB RAM. My G3 used to underclock itself when it got hot so it sometimes lagged briefly. All Z2s will get Marshmallow at some point, and there's a beta currently available for some. There's quite a few extra apps I am not sure I actually need, mostly camera effects, and some can be 'uninstalled' but at least it's easier to make it look stock than with LG. For example, Sony does not skin the Quick Settings so they're not ugly like LG's. However if you do not disable these extra apps, particularly Facebook and Twitter, you will find they bloat up to huge sizes as each update adds to the original size of the app and the 16GB version quickly feels too small.


Camera

The Sony Z2 has a 20MP camera that can record video at 2160p@30fps, 1080p@60fps (compared to 30FPS on my G3) and 720P@120fps. It does not have Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) which the LG G3 has. Slightly annoyingly HDR mode is buried in the stock camera settings, so it is not convenient. In fact most advanced features are only available when you set it in manual mode such as resolution and shot type. Luckily there are plenty of decent third party camera apps. Marshmallow will apparently bring the Z5 style camera interface to the Z2. I like the physical camera button, which can take you to the camera app when you hold it for 1 second, wherever you are in the OS or from the lockscreen. I do kind of miss the Quick Look case though. There's a ultra-quick burst mode setting, and you hold down the shutter button to activate it.


I'm a bit disappointed in the low light sunset shots by the Z2, as no matter which app I tried, I could not get a decent shot, as the white balance and contrast seems to be all out of whack, even when using HDR mode in other apps. I shall have to experiment further with settings and other camera apps to see if it can do better.


By default, the Sony camera app seems to use 8MP at 16:9 ratio, but I prefer to set it to Manual mode and 20MP at 4:3. I think the LG G3 has a greater dynamic range. On one very sunny day in Lincoln, I tested out the camera and found I got the best results, or at least to my tastes, using A Better Camera's HDR mode at 20MP, 4:3. The app used to suck the battery life out of my G3 but works just fine on the Z2. Here's a few examples:




You can find more photos from the same day here.

Here's another sunset shot, on a different day, that came out very well:


Battery Life


I am already noticing that I get far better battery life with the Z2 than I did with my LG G3. I used to have to charge my phone at some point in the early evening and then put on charge when I go to bed. The Z2 on the other hand seems to last me all day without that evening recharge, depending on usage. This is probably due to a combination of the larger 3200 mAh battery (the G3 one is 3000 mAh) and lower resolution screen. The G3's 1440p display might be larger, and pretty with it's tiny bezels, but it really does suck up more power.  I also actually find the Z2's display more pleasing to my eyes and easier to see in bright sunlight. The G3 does have a removable battery, unlike the Sony, but it's not as convenient and obviously requires the purchase of a spare battery. I also like that I can remove the MicroSD card from the Sony without having to shut the phone down.

Call Audio Quality

When I first tested the Z2s in a call, the caller at the other end could barely hear me, as my mic audio volume seemed to be really low. However, I found out that disabling Microphone Noise Suppression (Settings > Call Settings) solves the problem. After a reboot, it's now perfectly acceptable, though in Skype it is still a little bit low so I think I shall be using my Bluetooth headset for that.


Conclusion

Overall, despite the slightly better camera performance on the LG G3, I prefer the Sony Xperia Z2 as it doesn't lag at all, or get as hot. One time I awoke to find my LG G3 was really hot and about to shut itself down. I had to leave it off for about 20 minutes or so until it had cooled down before attempting to use it again. The Z2 also feels more durable and can apparently survive a splash or a dunking, though I'm not going to test that myself on purpose! The G3 is a great device when it's working fine, but I much prefer the Sony Z2's reliability, better battery life, and solid performance as a daily driver.    

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Kubuntu 16.04 Pre-Release Review

I was getting a bit tired of Mint KDE 17.3 on my main HP Z400 workstation (Quad core 2.5Ghz Xeon, 6GB RAM) like the way it holds back updates, plus for some reason it has been feeling rather sluggish and the final straw was Mint's user forum and main site getting hacked. If I cannot get help through their forum without them exposing my personal details then I will look elsewhere. The question was which distro should I try?

Well I wanted to stick with KDE and switch pretty quickly. I did consider Kaos Linux which is an interesting ground-up built distro that uses the package system and rolling release method from Arch. However having tried it in a VM, I would have had to spend a lot of time researching how to get all my favourite apps to install, and I needed to switch quicker than that. I'd also probably have to backup and format my Home partition. Plus 'bleeding-edge' distros are not really my cup of tea, I prefer stability over the latest apps. I know my way round apt-get and dpkg commands so well, I decided to go for Kubuntu 16.04. However since the final release is not due until the mid-April, I took a risk and installed a Daily build. This also made things easier because I could keep my old Home partition, so all my settings (bar the KDE ones) would stay, and I won't have to reinstall when 16.04 is finally released.


Installing took no time at all, as per previous releases, and the install went without a hitch. Upon rebooting I logged into the new KDE Plasma 5 desktop. By default on Nvidia cards 'buntu releases run using the open source Nouveau drivers, which are surprisingly good, apart from slightly fuzzy font rendering, but I could use it on my dual monitors fine while I sorted out getting the proprietary drivers installed. I tried installing the latest drivers manually using the PPA, but ended up with blank screens, until I remembered that my card is an old passive-cooled Geforce 210! Since Kubuntu's Driver Management Module doesn't see the old Legacy cards, I checked on NVidia's site which ones I needed, installed Synaptic, and looked for the nvidia-340 drivers. Once I installed them and rebooted all was well again. I then installed all my usual apps such as Gimp, Gmusicbrowser, Clementine, VLC etc. I also installed a couple of meta-packages, kubuntu-restricted-extras (for extra non-free codecs etc) and build-essential (for compiling apps).


The only remnants of my old settings I had to fix was some of the Places in Dolphin file manager were orphaned (since I changed the mount point of one of my drives) so it was just a case of editing those in the sidebar. Incidentally, I like the cleaned up look of Dolphin now, just remember that a lot of settings are now under the "Control" button.


My only slight problems are with virtual machines. Virtualbox won't install as it has dependency issues and (my admittedly old version of) VMWare Workstation needs patching again due to a newer kernel than it expects.I am sure these will be sorted at some point but it's not too much of a problem since I can always try VMs on my server (which has much more RAM anyway) and remote into them. Also I had to re-enable bash auto-completion which is not on by default for some reason.


I have changed the hideous Kubuntu default wallpaper for a couple of my favourites. It would be nice if KDE could span one wallpaper between two desktops, but KDE treats each workspace as separate. I have also tweaked the desktop/panel layout, switched the Desktop Theme from the default Breeze Light to Breeze Dark and installed Conky, so this is how my desktop looks now:


One thing I really love in Plasma 5 is the new Media Player widget, which now even recognises Gmusicbrowser, which it never did before, oh and the keyboard media buttons now actually work with Gmusicbrowser! Hovering over the widget on the panel shows artist/song info and album cover, clicking on the widget opens up the media controls. It might not seem like much but it's little things like this make things easier. Incidentally, Clementine player still uses a lot of resources - it is the top item in CPU and Memory usage in System Monitor, above Chrome!

 
The main thing I love about Kubuntu 16.04 is it's speed, it feels lightning fast compared to my old Mint KDE installation, even on a mechanical hard drive. Chrome feels really snappy, even with quite a few tabs open. Being a Daily build, there's a whole bunch of updates to install every day, when I login and even though it's still in beta, it is really stable, I've not had any application crashes yet, so hopefully it should be rock solid when it is finally released.

Update 6th March 2016
There's been a few little crashes, including once with Plasma desktop crashing and another with mouse settings, but nothing that a quick logout/login or reboot hasn't cured. Being a pre-release there are bound to be a few little bugs so I wouldn't recommend putting on mission critical situations until the final release, but at least there's not too long to wait.



Saturday, 16 January 2016

REVIEW: XCSOURCE Qi Wireless Charging Case for LG G3 and Quick Circle apps



Just recently I accidentally fell over and smashed the screen on my LG G3 and the only protection I had was a Spigen TPU case, which did not protect the screen and so I had to send it away to be repaired. In the meantime I had to use my old LG optimus 2X (the first ever dual core smartphone) and a Sony Xperia Miro that I just picked up for music playing. Both are hideously slow for modern apps compared with what I am used to these days.


I wanted to protect my G3 more once I got it back, so I ordered a laminated screen protector and an unofficial "Quick Circle" type case, called an XCSOURCE Circle Window Case Cover. I was a bit disappointed with the screen protector as the screen wipes were rubbish and were starting to leave marks on the screen, so these were ditched and I used some I already had elsewhere. I love the Quick Circle case though, it not only looks very smart it also works well too. They make it for the G3 and G4, in either pink, grey, silver or black. Mine is in black grippy plastic with no logos on (unlike the photos on the Amazon listing).



The back part replaces the original battery cover and instead of being smooth it has a slightly grippier finish which makes it easier to keep hold of. Just like the LG official case, the front flap that covers the screen has a circular hole that shows a clock or other little apps through. When you open the flap the screen automatically turns on. The clever thing is since the only part of the screen showing brightly is the circle,  it should save battery life. Also since when you close the case the screen shuts off fairly quickly, which should also save battery life. I tend to tap the screen to wake it to show the time, then swipe to the right for a circle of other apps, such as a flashlight, music player, etc which you can add to from the Play store.




One cool feature of Quick Circle cases is if you open the camera app by holding the Volume down button for 2 seconds, the camera view appears in miniture inside the circle while the case is closed! Then take a photo with the a quick press of the same button, so you don't even have to open the case to take a photo.




LG devices that support Quick Circle cases have a section under settings to configure the apps:





Quick Circle Apps



My favourite on Play is Quick Circle Apps which is actually a nice little bundle of various open source Quick Circle apps.

* Quick Torch - torch application for Quick Circle and regular torch app
* Quick Music - music application for Quick Circle that enables you to use any music player (unlike LG's one)
* Quick Calendar - show your next events in the Quick Circle
* Quick Notifications - mirror your notification, so you'll be able to see them without unlocking
* Quick Toggles - Control your Wifi, Mobile data, Brightness... without unlocking
* Quick Stopwatch - Count time with one click
* Quick Calculator - Calculate stuff fast
* Quick news - read the important news from your feedly feed
* Quick Compass - find the north
* Quick Dialer - call without unlocking
* Quick Dice - roll a dice
* Quick scanner - scan QRCode


Quick Remote

Quick Remote uses the inbuilt TV Remote functions on the device.


Overall I love this case as it pretty much does the same job as the official LG Quick Circle case at a cheaper price and still looks very smart. I'm protecting the screen with the added bonus of having QI wireless charging, which I shall try as soon as I get a charging pad. The Quick Circle apps mean quick access to little utilities like flashlights and music player controls without using the whole screen,  it should hopefully save battery power.




Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Peppermint Linux on a Samsung N145 Netbook

I have not really used Samsung N145 netbook in ages since I got my HP Chromebook 14 but I was playing around with Cloudready and couldn't get it to install. Since I had already wiped Xubuntu I decided to try something else. A friend of mine reminded me that Peppermint Linux is still around, and I had not tried that in ages either, so I thought I would give it a go. Peppermint is a heavily customised version of Ubuntu/Mint Linux and LXDE desktop with a smart dark default theme and nemo file manager. Install is in the same sort of way as most Ubuntu-based installers and I had it installed without a hitch. On using it installed for the first time it does feel quicker than Xubuntu and now the screen brightness keyboard shortcuts actually work!


Peppermint default desktop showing the screen brightness shortcuts working!

Peppermint comes with a minimal set of locally installed apps - just the basics - Chromium browser (with DuckDuckGo search as per Mint), VLC media player and nemo for file management. It has the same update system as Mint. Peppermint also have added some web app tech to "... put web applications on an equal footing with locally installed apps by allowing them easy integration into system menus, and delivery to the desktop via SSB's so they mimic locally installed applications." I have installed Chrome, Firefox, Gmusicbrowser, Guake and Filezilla so far and moved the main panel to the top where I prefer it. It feels lighter than Xubuntu and much more polished than LXLE, I'd definitely recommend this distro as a possible Windows replacement for old netbooks like this one and for other low end PCs.



Monday, 28 September 2015

Former Flagship: The LG G3 - Still a great device?

Photo from LG

Well after having had terrible audio recording problems on my Nexus 5, I decided I needed to replace it ASAP and on a budget. I did not have the cash for a Nexus 6 or second gen Moto X, which would be my ideal replacements, but I had enough for an LG G3, which suits my needs. My requirements were a half-decent camera, 16GB+ storage, not too much bloat and not too pricey! So when I spotted an LG G3 at a good price and in fantastic condition, on Vodafone, I jumped at it. It still has it's original charger, lead, earbuds (with spare buds), it really looks hardly used. The 5.5" 1440 x 2560 (~538ppi) pixel screen still looks amazing, with no scratches or blemishes of any kind. The dark grey back on mine kind of looks like polished aluminium from a distance but is actually plastic, but it still feels like a premium device. It's so slim and easy to hold despite having a removable battery. The back is smooth so be careful on inclined surfaces as it may slide off, takes a little getting used to after the rubberised back of the Nexus 5.




The volume controls and power button are on the back of the device under the camera. You can also unlock the device by tapping on the screen in a pattern, instead of using a pin or pattern, even when the screen is off. Also 2 quick taps turns the screen on. It takes a little getting used to but after a few days of use it has become practically second nature, and I keep accidentally trying to use Knock To Unlock and feeling for buttons on the back on my other devices that don't have them! It's also arguably more secure than a pattern since it means there are less marks on the screen to show where your fingers have been. A pin unlock is used as a backup in case you forget your knock code. Also I noticed sometimes it asking for my backup pin for some reason, maybe because something in my pocket has tapped on the device too many times, I have not been able to track down exactly why it has been doing this and have disabled knock to unlock.

Photo from LG

Software

Starting on KitKat when it was released in mid 2014, LG updated the G3 to Lollipop 5.0 later in that year. LG's skin isn't too bad compared with such monstrosities as Touchwiz (at least the last time I used it) and I like the way you can choose which extra LG apps you want at setup time, such as the FM radio app, Calculator and rather handy QuickRemote (TV remote control using the IR) app that I installed. Amazon, Kindle and Ebay apps were all preinstalled.




I've installed all my usual app choices and made it look a little more like stock Android using Google Now Launcher. It's good to see the LG Gallery app is much like the one that used to be stock in KitKat or Jelly Bean. While we are on the subject of versions, it is rumoured that the LG G3 might actually skip out 5.1/5.1.1 and go straight to Android 6.1 Marshmallow. Update: T-Mobile now lists the G3 in the first wave of Marshmallow updates.

Despite having LG's minimal skin - most visibly noticeable when you pull down to see your notifications - it really is just as buttery smooth with Lollipop as it was on my Nexus 5. I have not encountered any annoying lag yet and I like some of the extra features such as the Dual Window mode where you can run two apps at once - just about usable on a 5.5inch screen. I've not used that since Samsung's implementation on the S3 I had, though this feels much smoother.  One little thing I miss from stock Android is you cannot access the quick settings drop down from the lockscreen.


LG's launcher on the left and Google Now Launcher with my customizations on the right.


Camera

The G3 has a 13MP camera that can record video in up to 4K resolution! Not that you would want to do that too much, since it takes up a lot of storage space, you'd probably want to get a 128GB MicroSD if you plan on doing that! The LG camera app shows advanced features when you tap the little 3 dots, so you can enable various modes. Here's a screenshot showing G3's fancy laser focus:




Of course you don't have to use the default LG camera, there are plenty of alternatives but they might not use the laser focus. I have installed Google Camera, mainly because the LG app has a Panorama mode but cannot create Photospheres, but for most of the time I think I will use the LG camera app. Unfortunately the G3 is not compatible with Manual Camera, whereas my Nexus 5 was compatible. The G3 has a 2MP front camera which has a very wide angle for getting more people into a shot. It can also recognize gestures, for example if you open and close a fist it starts a timer so you don't need to touch anything to take a shot.

Quality wise, photos seem to be similar in colour reproduction as my Nexus 5 was, but with 13MP over the it's 8MP, there's definitely more detail there. The G3's optical image stabilisation and laser focus mean it focuses very quickly, quicker than the Nexus 5. It is also great for close-ups.






One neat feature I like is you can get straight to the camera from screen-off by holding the Volume Down button for 2 seconds, ideal for quickly taking photos. Also if you hold the on-screen shoot button it turns on burst mode. When these are uploaded to Google Photos, these get "Autoawesomed" into animated gifs.



You can find also view these photos and more on Flickr.

Video quality is great too. I recorded the following video at 1080p (30fps) and I am impressed with the image and especially the sound quality from the built-in stereo mics.



Battery

The LG G3 has a fairly sizeable 3000mAh removable battery (compared with the Nexus 5's 2300mAh fixed battery), but it also has that vivid 1440 x 2560 pixel 5.5inch screen to power, that's a lot of pixels to push, so it kind of balances out. Today I went for a 4 hour walk, taking photos (and using GPS for maps) and a few videos, came back and let Carousel and Google Photos upload them all. I also listened to a little music, browsed a little, and installed some more apps. I still have 16% battery after just over 12 hours and an estimated 2 hours battery left. I also liked that it warned me that Pushbullet was using too much battery so I could stop it. Of course, unlike the Nexus 5, you could carry around an extra fully charged up battery for emergencies. Having said that I tend to carry a 10,000mAh battery charger just in case I get low on battery.    





Conclusion

Overall, so far, I am really happy with the LG G3, I love it's beautiful quad HD 5.5 inch screen, generally buttery smooth operation, IR and great camera. I'm definitely sold on large screen devices now, aka "phablets"and 5.5 inch isn't too cumbersome, especially with it's slim profile. I am considering getting a suitable case to protect it, possibly a Spigen as I liked the one I had on my Nexus 5. The ability to use a MicroSD (up to 128GB) and removable battery could be handy for long photo taking and/or HD video recording sessions. The only downsides to the phone I can see so far is some of the LG UI is ugly, and you can't remove some of the preinstalled apps, at least not easily, luckily there are not too many. Alternate ROMs exist for the G3 but you then lose the laser focus on the camera and IR remote functions. Hopefully LG will update it to Marshmallow anyway.

So, if, like me, your budget can't stretch to one of the newer flagships like LG's own G4, or a Nexus 6, or the second gen Motorola Moto X, then the LG G3 might be a good choice as it is still a fairly decent phone. Feel free to share your experiences with the G3 in the comments below.