Thursday, 1 November 2018

From Moto Z Play to Google Pixel XL

Although I liked my Moto Z Play, I was never quite satisfied with just a 'good' camera, And it had to be stock or close to stock Android. I really wanted a great camera, so when I had the opportunity to upgrade this year, I chose the best I could afford, a device that was top of the DxOmark list when it was released, the Google Pixel XL. And although they both came out in 2016, the Pixel XL had a faster, newer gen CPU, its screen has Gorilla Glass 4 instead of 3 and 4GB RAM instead of 3GB RAM. It really is a flagship whereas the Z Play was more mid-range.


I managed to find a 32GB XL fairly cheaply secondhand. It has a few marks on the body, has no box, and it came with a Samsung charger, but everything seems to work well. The screen has no obvious marks on it.


First impressions

When I first picked up the Pixel, the weight of the device was the first thing I noticed. It feels heavier than my Z Play was, even though it actually weighs only a few grams heavier, and generally feels much more like a premium device than the Moto. The screen is the same size but has double the resolution and looks more vibrant. The Volume rocker and Power Button both feel reassuringly firm, no wobble in them. It's easy to see why this was a more expensive device.



Software

My Pixel arrived with the Android P beta, so I upgraded it to Pie. The Z Play was on 8.0 (rather than 8.1) and I wasn't confident it'd get another OS upgrade. One main change from Oreo I had to get used to was the app switcher shows apps side by side, rather than vertically. I've installed Nova Launcher as I'm not really much of a fan of the stock launcher, I like a bit more customisation and I still prefer having a button for the app drawer. It's also easy to backup and restore my config between phones. As with the Z Play, I love having an AMOLED screen with Ambient Display as it uses minimal power to display notifications. It too has Lift To Wake but no hovering over the screen to wake it up. Instead you can double tap the screen to wake it. I've also set Nova to lock the screen when I double tap again.


Although my Moto Z Play had a fairly clean, close to stock Android experience, it had 4 or 5 Moto specific apps added. The Pixel of course comes with bone-stock Android out of the box. I have not had a Google branded device since the Nexus 5 and as expected, the Pixel XL is buttery smooth in usage. I also like that you can make some of the UI dark themed now, though it would still be nice to have a proper dark theme for the entire OS (without rooting). Google has introduced a dark mode for YouTube and Android Messages, and I think they should have a dark mode for all their apps.



Camera

The camera on the Pixel is just amazing compared with every phone I have had previously, it takes such pin-sharp photos, and far quicker than the Z Play could do. The Moto used to sometimes have trouble focusing on the right area and it struggled in low light, I had HDR mode on all the time to try compensate. The Pixel is fantastic even in fairly low light and the Auto HDR+ mode works very well.



On my Z Play I used Moto's own camera app but also had Google Camera installed via an APK, and it would not run the very latest version. I am impressed enough with how much better the current version is on my Pixel that I'm not even bothering with any third party camera apps. Google Camera also recently started supporting external microphones.


All first gen Pixel devices get unlimited uploads to Google Photos at full resolution forever, unlike gen 2 and 3 devices which get until 2021/2022.


One thing I miss from the Moto is gestures - double twist of the wrist to open the camera from the lock screen (although that was often hard to get right) and double-chop motion to open the flashlight. However, you can still get the camera to open from the lockscreen by double tapping the power button. I'm also still getting used to the rear fingerprint sensor, as opposed to the front sensor on the Moto.

The front facing 8MP 'selfie' camera is very good too. Here's an unedited photo I took the other day, just as the sun had gone behind a cloud.


Google have recently unveiled the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL along with a new version of Google Camera with some neat features such as Night Sight for low light shots which will be officially coming to first gen Pixels like mine. If you would like to try Night Sight early, there's an APK for that thanks to XDA Developers. I tried it out and the results are quite impressive. The first image below is without and the second is with Night Sight:




Every time I get a new phone, I worry that it won't cope with loud volumes at gigs, but thankfully there's no issues with the Pixel on the audio front. I recorded videos recently of a classic rock covers band called Inertia, and they were quite loud but on the recordings it's nice and clear, no distortion. And it coped reasonably well with the awful lighting of the gig.


Here's a video in bright sunshine - I've been sticking to 1080P as I find 4K isn't worth the hassle of having to upload such a large file size. Also I recommend not using 60fps at all as the video quality is awful - all blocky and looks like low resolution.



Battery Life

One area where my Pixel XL seems to lack slightly, at least currently with Android Pie, is with battery life. And at first I was worried that my battery was dying as I went out on one of my very long walks and took over 200 photos, 3 videos and used Google Maps with GPS a lot and it ran out stone dead 7 hours into the walk. If I had had my Z Play with me I think it would have lasted until I got back. However, since I had only just updated it to Pie stable, I decided to cycle the charge from full to flat a few times and it has since improved. Battery life has since improved somewhat and I've been monitoring how well it's been doing with Accubattery over the last two months, I'm currently averaging around 14 hours with around 4 hours screen on time on average usage days, though this is still not as good as the Z Play.


I've done a couple of 4 or 5 hour walks with lots of GPS and videos/photo taking and had around 30% left on getting home. I'm not the only one that's had shorter battery life on their Pixel devices after upgrading to Pie.


I think part of the reason the Z Play could get such amazing battery life, apart from not running Pie (and probably never will get Pie!), is it had a slightly bigger battery, a lower resolution screen, older slower CPU, and was really quite aggressive in killing background apps.


Conclusion

Other than the lesser battery life, I've had no real issues so far. I had a slight issue with Google Maps Timeline not working but it seems clearing it's cache and settings seems to have fixed it. My only other issue is when I needed a case ASAP. I bought a cheapo £10 flip wallet style case and I have had to cut back some of the material around the camera area so it did not intrude on photos. I'm still looking for a better flip case but it's hard to judge what they are like from listings on Amazon.

So unless something catastrophically goes wrong with the hardware, I think I will be keeping this phone for at least a few years, as it has a great camera, unlimited Google Photo uploads at full quality, forever, and it still has a headphone jack!

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Turn KDE to The Dark Side - Dark Theme All The Things!

When Apple announced at WWDC2018 that macOS 10.14 Mojave would have a Dark Mode, my first thought was that in the Linux world, completely dark themes have been around since forever. Anyway, whilst you can make Gnome look almost exactly like Mojave with themes, I have no wish to do that though, or to use Gnome either. KDE has been my desktop of choice for over a year now and it's far less restrictive and more customisable, and has a far better file manager in Dolphin.

I've been using KDE Neon for about awhile now, having previously used Debian Testing before that. It's currently based on Ubuntu 16.04 but with the latest KDE software, so it's more up to date than Kubuntu 16.04 and still has a newer version of KDE than Kubuntu 18.04. The image below is how my desktop looks right now. I think I found the wallpapers on this subreddit but then I found out they are from iOS or macOS, but they work well on OLED/LED/AMOLED screens. And yes I do have an odd arrangement of a 27" landscape orientated monitor and a 22" portrait orientated monitor, which makes screenshots look quite odd too. Sadly I had to swap my right hand monitor for a non-LED monitor as the old one died. I take donations... ;)


I use Breeze Dark desktop theme which you can find in the Theme settings, and my choice of icons is Papirus Dark. Breeze Dark icons work well too. You can start typing what you need in the K Menu to quickly find anything. For a macOS-like dock, I use Latte dock, which is highly configurable and is far less buggy than Cairo Dock.


For Google Chrome, I found a good dark theme that goes well with the desktop theme, appropriately named Dark Theme V3.  To make every website in Chrome dark, I found a good dark mode extension in the Chrome web store called Dark Reader.  I found it recently and was the first one I found that doesn't mess up how Google Photos and some other app-like sites work. My only slight issue I've had with it is I cannot see the cursor input in YouTube comment boxes. The good thing is all my Chrome settings are synced to my other Chrome installs so I have these on my Chromebook too, which is nice. It's particularly good with Facebook and Google Plus which are far too bright normally.


And that's pretty much it. It certainly is easier on my eyes than without all the dark themes, particularly as I use my computer in a mostly dark room. Let me know in the comments about your dark themes and desktop tweaks.





Sunday, 1 July 2018

Microsoft Band… Is It A Good Replacement For A Pebble?


I have been a wearer of the original Pebble smartwatch for a number of years, but with their demise and my Pebble starting to fail I looked around at something similar to replace it. I ended up with a first gen Microsoft Band, but how does it compare and is it a good replacement?

The first gen Pebble was released via Kickstarter in 2013 and the Microsoft Band was released in 2014.

You can read my full review of the Microsoft Band first gen here.

The smartwatch world is full of touch screen all-singing all-dancing devices and in comparison the Pebble looked a poor option, but it came with some major advantages.

I loved the simplicity of the Pebble. It featured a mono e-Paper screen which was always on and readable in any light. Its lack of fancy screen meant battery life was amazing at between 7 to 10 days on a single charge.

The Pebble is really just a notification device. It shows system wide notifications and phone calls, but it did feature changeable watch faces and you could even install apps on it and a few games, controlled by the three physical buttons on the side.

The Pebble was well built and I found the rubber watch strap very comfortable - although I know a few people who found it irritating. A bonus was it uses standard strap pins so you could put any watch strap on you like.

It was also waterproof and I wore mine 24/7, even showering and swimming. It was great for controlling music on my phone whilst soaking in the tub.

But like all good things, mine began to fail. Pebble had a great replacement policy. If yours broke they would swap it for a new one. However, now Pebble are no more this isn’t an option any longer.

So I wanted a similar alternative and the first gen Microsoft Band looked good.

The Microsoft Band is both a similar and totally different device to the Pebble.

The Band falls in to the fitness band and smartwatch genre. It sports a colour touch screen around a rigid band strap laced with numerous sensors. The Pebble has a mono screen and no sensors.


The colour touchscreen offers more control on the device, but it does mean it is hard to read in direct sunlight. The higher quality screen impacts on battery life, meaning you get around 2 to 3 days between charges vs the 7 day plus out of the Pebble, but both the Pebble and the Band charge very quickly.

You cannot customise the watch face on a Band, but you can change the colour of the background and menu system.

The Band doesn’t allow you to install apps - other than tiles for further controls, but no games and only a few extra fitness based tiles.

Both devices are controlled via an app on your smartphone, but the Band can be used without but does come in to its own when paired with the app.

Both devices offer phone notifications - the main reason I wear such a device - and both vibrate, both performing equally as well at this.

The Pebble doesn’t have a microphone, but the Microsoft Band does - although for use with Cortana this requires a Windows Phone - I haven’t found any other use for the mic yet which renders it a bit pointless.

The Band has a lot of fitness controls due to its extra sensors, which the Pebble lacks - but if these aren’t for you then it is a pointless addition.

Both devices have their advantages and disadvantages. The Pebble is a basic device with incredible battery life. The Band is a more advanced device with reasonable battery life.

Is it a good alternative to the Pebble? For me it is. I like the notification options of both, but I am loving the colour touch screen and fitness features of the Band even though it reduced battery life.

For all you Pebble holdouts out there, the Band is a good alternative.

FitBit took over Pebble and have not produced anything that replicates the simplicity of the Pebble. The Microsoft Band first gen can be bought for a tiny amount. I paid £15 for mine and it was brand new and sealed and at that price it is a bargain.

I am loving my Band and all it brings, but I do miss my Pebble.

Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal

Microsoft Band Review

Microsoft like to dip their feet in many pools and the smartwatch scene is no exception. In 2014 they released the Band, a fitness and smartwatch in one.

When looking for a replacement for my dying Pebble, the Microsoft Band looked a good option at a good price, so I bought a first gen Band.


Out of the box, the Microsoft Band feels a sturdy device. They come in three sizes and I bought a medium. It was a good choice. It fits very comfortably without irritation. The clasp is an excellent design (unlike early Fitbits) that clips in the end of the strap and can be adjusted whilst on your wrist.


Underneath the screen is the magnetic charge port and underneath the clasp are the sensors for heart rate etc.

Once charged the initial setup screen is simple as most is controlled via the Microsoft Band app on your phone - available for Windows Phone, Android and iOS. Pairing is simple and it worked first time. It is one of very few smart bands/watches that will work across all three platforms.

The Band is controlled via a small touch screen which mimics the Windows 8 tile interface and works very well on such a small screen. The tiny touch screen is very responsive, very bright and it doesn't take long to work out the layout. Being colour it can be a little tricky to read in sunlight.


It has two physical buttons. The larger one is the power/wake/lock button and the smaller one is a select button.

The screen isn't always-on but it can be set to display watch mode all the time if required (although this would impact on battery life). Once awake swiping left scrolls through tiles such as notifications, messages, social media, fitness and settings. Main control over tiles is handled on your phone.

I have been using it for about two days and it offers a lot more functions than my Pebble. Calls and notifications display bright on the screen. A neat feature for notifications that are longer than the small display is the 'read’ feature. By pressing the smaller button it will scroll through the words in large print making it easy to read.

It displays all notifications from the Notification Centre - with the exception of the eBay app which just doesn't show up on the Band for some unknown reason, yet everything else does.


The vibrate levels can be controlled and it offers a great buzz on your wrist - which is the main function I look for. It means I don’t have to pull my phone out of my pocket each time.

I didn't buy it for its fitness features, but it is nice addition. The sensor detects steps, distance, calories burnt and heat rate on the main watch screen. It can also monitor sleep and offer a summary in the morning. I have already found these new features interesting.


Out of the box it doesn't support music control playback (that was saved for the Band 2), but there are a few third party apps that can do it. I installed Media Controller and that does fine.

Additional tiles and features can be added and social media can be turned on. There is a small amount of customisation available with background colour and pattern being an option and the tiles can be rearranged to suit you.

This is no fully fledged smartwatch like the Apple Watch or Android ones, but it isn't supposed to be. This is a fitness and notification device similar to newer Pebble watches.

Battery life is obviously depending on use. I am averaging between two and three days and charging the device is quite quick.

I am not Microsoft's biggest fan and that initially put me off buying a Band. However I have a new approach to tech, if it doesn't what I need then it's suitable. Brand loyalty gets you nowhere and is just for show.

I have been very impressed with this Microsoft Band so far. It has excellent build and functions and battery life is as expected.

Unfortunately after the Band 2 Microsoft ended it's venture in to that market. It is a shame as they are great products.

I tried not to compare it to my first gen Pebble watch, - which it is hopefully replacing - I am saving that for another article.

Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal

Friday, 22 June 2018

Oreo just landed on my Motorola Moto Z Play

Well I have been waiting quite a while but now I've finally got the official Oreo update on my Moto Z Play, which is better late than never! It was around an 1150MB update and I did a wipe and set it up again, since the launcher would not start after the update. Sometimes it's best to do a fresh start anyway.


I am also now using this version of Google Camera which is a bit more up to date than the one I was using. It's a bit annoying that you cannot just install Google Camera from the Play store, since I like using it for Photospheres. The updated Moto lockscreen and Moto widget looks nicer than it did on Nougat.


I also love the way the music Notification blends with the album cover, I've missed all the little things from Oreo since that brief time I had a Nexus 6P in October last year.  Another little change I like is the new incoming call screen, looks much neater. Notice from the screenshot above that Ampere now sits in the dropdown to remain open, it never used to be there in Nougat. I think I'd probably notice even more changes if I was using the Moto or Google Launchers but I prefer Nova Launcher Prime. once I had all my apps back i restored Nova from a backup on my SD card so i had it back to how I had it before. As you can see, i prefer the old style Google search box on my Home screen and I'm currently using "Pixel Icon Pack" from the Google Play.



My favourite feature introduced in Oreo is Autofill API, a system wide store of form data, which is like the way Chrome remembers your email and password for sites, this remembers them for apps and all around Android. It made setting up my phone again a lot quicker and easier. I'm sure I'll continue to find other new little things here and there, there's lots of things introduced in Oreo I haven't tried such as Picture in Picture in apps, Instant Apps etc. Overall my Z Play feels just as smooth as it did under Nougat and hopefully battery life will be just as good too, I'll see it how it goes over the next few days and weeks. 

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Goodbye Linux Mint... Back to macOS

I have spent the last 6 weeks in the world of Linux, by running Linux Mint 17.3 Cinnamon on my MacBook Air. I have had an interest in Linux for a long time, but for me macOS is where it is at.


I gave it a good shot, but gone are my days of tinkering. I am more a user now. I just want something that is going to get what I need done in the shortest and easiest time.

After 20+ years of using a Mac at home, it has become second nature to me. I know MacOS/OSX/macOS inside out. I know the software, I know the hardware and I like the 'it just works' approach they have.

I feel a little disappointed that I have pushed Linux aside, but why learn a new OS, new way of operating and a bunch of new software - when I have 'old faithful' that I know.

So today I took the task of removing Linux Mint from my MacBook Air and giving the partitions back to macOS. On a Mac that is not an easy task. While creating partitions was easy, removing them was not. I had to clone my Mac partition to an external drive, boot from it, wipe the internal and then clone back.

I will keep my finger in the Linux pie and if I ever found myself without Apple hardware, it would be my first choice over Windows, but whilst I have a Mac - and one that is more than capable of running the latest offering from Apple - I might as well carry on using it as the Cupertino giants intended.

Goodbye Mint, its been a fun ride, but I am now back in the Apple camp.

Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal



Tuesday, 5 June 2018

A Month With Linux Mint… On A 2012 MacBook Air

This is a follow up article to my ‘7 Days With Mint’. A month in and I am still running Linux Mint 17.3 ‘Cinnamon’ on my MacBook Air 2012. It is dual booted with macOS Sierra, but in a month I haven’t used macOS.

I had a few teething troubles which seemed specific to Apple hardware, some of which I have ironed out.

The heat issue seemed to calm down shortly after writing the previous article. I am not sure if it was settling in or drive indexing but I now have a quiet cool MacBook Air again.

The poor battery life has been improved, by installing PowerTop and turning everything labelled ‘bad’ to ‘good’. Battery is still not as good as under macOS, but it has drastically improved.


I discovered a problem watching online videos - from various sites - with the video flickering constantly. This was resolved by installing the Intel video drivers, which were in the Driver Manager tool rather than the default ones.


Two issues I still haven’t resolved and may never is the very sensitive mouse tap, which still causes me to accidentally send my mouse pointer to places I don’t want and it still doesn’t always wake from sleep with I lift of the lid, although this has also improved since tweaking PowerTop.

I am getting used to the feel of Mint, slowly the new keyboard shortcuts are becoming more natural rather than having to think for a second before remembering I am not in macOS. The same with general navigation, I now look to the bottom right automatically for the clock rather than top right.

I have ventured a little further in to apps, slowly installing items that I would use everyday in macOS. I have installed software so I can edit the websites I maintain (gedit, gFTP and GIMP) which I managed to do and upload successfully.


I need to dig deeper into tools for music management and video conversion for me to feel totally happy.

I am pleased how the journey is going. Day by day I am learning more and feeling more comfortable, but there is still so much to learn - especially if something goes wrong.

However it has certainly opened my eyes to the possibility of leaving the Apple world behind and when it comes to the end of life for my MacBook Air, it would be a non-Apple laptop I look for next.



Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal