Friday, 20 November 2015

Review of Amazon Fire 7: A good value second tablet

If you come with the realistic expectations then the Amazon Fire 7 is a good value tablet. In terms of performance, the device runs well for watching films, reading e-books and light games. Fire OS 5.0.1 is an improvement to Fire OS 4.5.5; the carousel, finally, is gone and now you have a simplified interface that looks more like Android. Instead of categories above the carousal (e.g. shop, books, music, videos etc.), you swipe a different screen to access most of the same categories. At the same time, each of these categories appear as an icon, with other installed applications, on the home screen. Also, instead of a carousal for recent activity, there is now a separate screen listing these same activities. Battery life is not bad and with medium to light usage, e.g. reading e-books, you should get the advertised seven hours. An Amazon Prime subscription, which offers more than Netflix, complements this tablet well; it offers access to Amazon Prime content and you can also download Prime content to a SD Card to be viewed offline. There is also integration between the Fire TV Stick and Fire tablets, syncing applications and video content.

Another positive, and this is consistent with Amazon devices, is the identical firmware features across devices. What this means, whether you are using, for example, the Kindle Voyage or Kindle (the entry-level model), the firmware will be near identical in terms of features. The same applies to tablets, with the Fire 7 coming with the same operating system as the Fire 8 HD and Fire 10 HD. In all, the compromises made were just about right i.e. generally good performance, expandable storage and acceptable display. However, there are draw-backs that may have been considered:

(1) The screen is one of the low-end IPS displays that you also find with entry-level smartphones e.g. Microsoft Lumia 535. Understandably, with its low cost, the device will not have the colour vibrancy or accuracy of more high end hardware. Nevertheless, there is some difference between vibrancy and the low contrast and muted colours. Increasing the contrast makes a difference and can help with a relatively low resolution; for example, Amazon's entry-level Kindle, still boasts a higher contrast e-ink screen and this works to offset problems with its lower pixel density. This makes a significant difference and compared to other e-readers, with identical resolution, e.g. previous generation e-readers, the text is more legible and with darker blacks.

(2) The display is 'sticky' and a finger print magnet. For example, a stylus will not glide smoothly on the screen or even register a touch. Something simple like anti-fingerprint coating might help here.

(3) Why the cameras? The cameras, both back and front-facing, are mediocre. The Kindle Fire 7 HD (2013) offered no back camera and, in this case, it would be more justifiable not to include one. A trade-off between a needless camera with improving the display quality would have been the better option.

(4) Scaling - I think this has something to do with the aspect ratio. The device is fairly narrow and this means the scaling is off (the feel you get when you alter the resolution of a monitor from its recommended settings); what results is squeezed text in portrait mode and stretched text in landscape mode (Georgia, for example, comes out the worst in this). The only reason I can think of for the narrow dimension is to do with the intended use of this tablet for Amazon Prime video content. Turning the tablet in landscape, to watch a film, is probably the only thing that works with these dimensions.

With this being said, the Fire 7 offers a lot for its cost. As noted, other than offering identical features compared with Amazon's higher end tablets, there are other perks available. First, there is Amazon Underground - this offers many paid applications for 'free'. There are some good choices here e.g. Polaris Office, Quick PDF Scanner, Monument Valley, ezPDF, Office Suite Pro and much more. Also, as Fire OS 5.0.1 is essentially closed Android Lollipop, then external applications, from Google Play, can be installed on the device. There will be problems with some applications, e.g. Google native ones, that require the installation of Google Play. However, even for that, it is possible to install Google Play and turn the device into a more featured Android tablet. Second, this is also a good educational device for children, more so with Fire for Kids Unlimited. However, in my opinion, something like the entry-level Kindle would be better suited, with its distraction free reading and e-ink display (more healthy for the eyes and easier to read).

Overall, this is a good device for its price and would make a good secondary tablet or as an educational tool for children. It is not the hardware that makes the tablet a sensible choice, it is the all-round developed features and perks offered.  

Monday, 16 November 2015

The limited functionality of the Nook Glowlight Plus

Barnes & Noble introduced their first dedicated e-reader in two years. In terms of hardware, expectedly, the device compares to the Kindle Paperwhite and the Kobo Glo HD. However, it sets itself apart in that the device is both waterproof and even dust-proof; Kobo Aura H20, on the other hand, is waterproof only but this is Kobo's premium seven inch e-reader. The Good e-Reader and The e-Book Reader reviewed the device and praised its excellent display; however, as is predictable with Nook e-readers, there is no serious re-vamping of the firmware functionality. The device still runs a closed version of Android (the use of closed Android has been the case since the Nook Simple Touch), which in itself should not be a problem, but without any significant added firmware's features. In fact, judging from reviews, the interface is familiar from previous generations, including the Nook Simple Touch. There is the addition of the 'ReadOuts' feature, on the home screen, while useful is not a substantial improvement. Yet, even with some additions, the Nook e-reader platform remains considerably behind both Amazon and Kobo. What we have is the repetition of past Nook e-readers - good hardware but firmware that is both buggy and with restricted features. Even the previous generation Nook e-reader (Nook Glowlight), with its poor build quality, still bettered Amazon and Kobo for display quality.

In regards to tablets, I previously posted that the release of the Samsung S2 Nook (a premium device) was an attempt to add further variety to an existing range of Samsung Nook tablets. The speculation was that Barnes & Noble were not looking to further add to their current budget range, considering an existing inventory of Tab 4 Nook tablets offered. However, the Samsung Tab E Nook 9.6 was released, before the Nook Glowlight Plus, and this replaces the Samsung Tab 4 Nook 10.1. I don't understand Samsung's rationale behind their tablet range (has it ever been clear?); in term of specifications this tablet, it appears, replaces the Tab 4 range but there is no Tab E 7 to replace the Tab 4 7. At this time, the Tab 4 7 Nook is still offered as Barnes & Noble's default smaller tablet. Whatever the case, unless deeply invested in the Nook eco-system, Amazon's Fire 10 HD is the better option and sells for less. What you get with Amazon is not only a better and more extensive eco-system, with consistent and good firmware, but also all-round better features of the tablet as an e-reading device. However, both tablets offer sub-standard resolution with 149 ppi, which translates into significant pixelation of text. Something like the Nexus 9 would make a better choice, in every way, even with Amazon discounting their Fire HD tablets.

Friday, 13 November 2015

The ultimate e-reader?

The Good E-Reader is aiming to produce an 'ultimate' e-reading device, running Android, that offers all the premium features desired by dedicated e-readers. However, the product concept puts forward a device that already exists - albeit through niche and lesser known sellers. Icarus, Onyx, Hanvon  and Boyue, for example, all offer open Android firmware on dedicated e-readers. Another point is that Android, in my opinion, is not suitable for an an e-ink device. Most dedicated e-reader applications, available through Google Play, are designed for tablets and e-ink refresh rates render the use of these applications bothersome, to say the least. Also, the proposed device misses the point in regards to firmware - the problem with re-branded e-readers from Chinese manufacturers (sold by, for example, Icarus and Onyx), before the adoption of Android, was poor functionality and an overly complicated and unintuitive interface.

To develop an 'ultimate e-reader' requires not only the bulk ordering of hardware with premium specifications, but also, more importantly, the development of dedicated firmware that would compare and even surpass the experience available on the Kindle. This is problematic as Amazon offers a user experience that is difficult to match - this includes everything from extensive cloud syncing, send-to-Kindle and free conversion to mobi file format. However, there is a workaround to this through the integration of third-party applications into an operating system; this may include existing cloud storage services such as Evernote, Onenote and Dropbox. For example, Kobo offers the option to send web articles to their devices through Pocket, though this lacks the all-round versatility of Amazon's send to Kindle features. The point here is that Android is not a platform that works with e-ink; dedicated e-reading devices require the development of firmware that makes use of the unique strengths of e-ink, while considering its current limitations.

I do think the project of an 'ultimate e-reader' is a good idea but it needs something more extensive and collaborative. May be an alternative direction would be to crowd fund, at first, a project to develop a dedicated operating system for e-readers. Delivering on this means whatever iteration follows from this 'ultimate e-reader' would already have an existing firm basis. The trajectory of Android, as a mobile operating system, and its uses by other manufacturers for their own purposes, demonstrates this. Ultimately, this would be a bigger project but something that is sustainable beyond a one-off premium e-reader; further it may offer variety, in the future, beyond six inch devices that dominate at the moment. Of course, this does not solve the problem of cost that comes with ordering hardware for larger devices but it might, at least, kick-start the process for an initial six inch reader. If this synergistic experiment of both excellent firmware and hardware works, then this may be expanded to larger e-readers.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Apple, the future & iPad Pro

Reviews for Apple's iPad Pro are skewed, as is often the case with Apple products. Too many reviews accept Apple’s framing that this is the future – a large tablet that is finally a post-laptop device. It is now a cliché with Apple products to uncritically take their marketing line to then frame reviews. For example, Techradar notes that using this device makes you an early adopter, with Apple again, supposedly, setting the trend:
The iPad Pro might, in the future, be seen as normal, in the same way that a 5-inch screen on a phone is viewed as regular now, where just five years ago you looked like a mental early adopter holding a massive device to your ear to use such a thing.
This is similar when Apple recently introduced their Macbook that was marketed as light years ahead! In response, reviews tended to take that line. For example, a salivating review by 'The Verge' termed its features as "inventions" and the future for laptops. The only thing is that we are not there yet, to make use of these features; hence, again, we are made to believe the aura of Apple's visionary trendsetting status.

The point with the iPad Pro is that it is not a new concept at all. Samsung introduced a similar large tablet device with productivity features i.e. the Samsung Note Pro 12.2. What Apple tends to do, as is the case with near all major manufacturers, is to work off ideas that already exist and make the end product better and then over-charge. In this case, the iPad Pro might be the same concept as the Note Pro 12.2 but it is a far better product for the same purpose.

The Surface Pro, on the other hand, which is compared to the iPad Pro, is a different device. The Surface Pro is a laptop replacement that is not restricted to mobile apps. It runs full desktop software and does it on excellent hardware. The problem, I believe, is that Microsoft does not differentiate its operating system, across devices, adequately. The Windows Store is scarce, as full blown Windows isn't a serious platform to develop mobile applications. At this moment, it would be inconceivable to see a comparable device to the iPad Pro released by Microsoft, as there is no dedicated operating system comparable to iOS or Android.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Choosing Kindle cases & covers

Choosing a Kindle case shouldn't be an after-thought; some cases are truly awful with poor stitching, glued parts coming out and that PU leather feel. Other than the official Amazon case, Incipio, Nupro, Golla, Jonathan Adler and Verso all make very good cases. For value, the M-Edge Trip and Go! Jacket covers for the Kindle 4 are highly recommended and fit the more recent generations of the Kindle (both Paperwhite and Touch) and most 6 inch e-readers. The materials used are high quality and this applies, specifically, to the stitching and binding. Another nice feature of the M-Edge covers, is a slip in pocket for the M-Edge illuminator book light (useful with the basic Kindle due to no front light). The only problem, as is the case with cases with straps, is the absence of an auto-wake function. Other notable mentions include Paperchase's Nordic Nights and Marware's Atlas cover.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Amazon's first bookstore

Amazon's first physical bookstore has attracted attention. Dan Kurtz, working in independent publishing, fixated on 'human contact' and the curation of content, found the store bizarre. I don't think there is anything bizarre here; this is another calculated step by Amazon to buttress demand for their on-line services. Sam Machkovech, at Ars Technica, I believe, gets it right - this isn't a bookstore in the conventional sense. Amazon is showcasing their hardware and a selection of books, to attract users to buy into their on-line empire. This is consistent with Amazon's hardware strategy of developing hardware as a conduit for, for example, Amazon Prime; selling hardware, in itself, isn't the objective. Hence something like the Amazon Echo can be a bluetooth speaker but also a means to listen to a purchased book from the Amazon owned Audible or to order soap from Amazon.com. The Amazon Fire Phone, which flopped, was criticised for being a window to buy products from Amazon and then a phone.

This showcase approach to the Seattle bookstore is the opposite strategy to a traditional bookseller like Foyles. In the case of Foyles, on-line presence is secondary, if that, and only there to guide customers to their physical store. Foyles know they can't compete with Amazon for price, so focus on in-store experience such as a cafe or organising readings by hosting authors. Amazon, on the other hand, direct customers to utilise their on-line presence, in every conceivable way, including when looking-up the price of items. What we have is the opposite of what many booksellers would view the purpose of a bookstore but that is the point of Amazon's experiment.