Monday, 25 January 2016

Alcatel Onetouch Pixi 3 introduces Windows 10 Mobile for tablets

Alcatel Onetouch Pixi 3, in my opinion, is one of the more interesting tablets introduced at CES 2016. It is a Windows tablet that runs, for the first time, Windows 10 Mobile. This is the same operating system that you get with Microsoft's Lumia phones and the LTE support means the Pixi 3 can also make phone calls. Windows 10 Mobile is a better platform for tablets (sizes between 7 - 9 inches), as it runs very well with mobile based processors and requires less processor power compared to Android. Further, what makes this the right direction is that Windows tablets, running the desktop operating system, tend to retail with 32GB storage, which is limited for full Windows 10; on the other hand, these restrictions do not apply to Windows 10 Mobile. Also, the desktop no longer takes up resources and this means, as noted, far better performance with Intel based Atom based processors.

However, there remains the problem in regards to a lack of applications, in comparison to Android or iOS, but this is also the case with the Windows Store available through the desktop version of Windows 10. Another concern would be with the translation of productivity applications, specifically Office 365, from the Windows 10 Desktop, to Windows 10 Mobile. Here the issue becomes the development of some form of continuity and differentiation of Windows 10 Mobile between smartphones and tablets, with the latter requiring more feature rich productivity applications. Even with these shortcoming, Alcatel's move to adopt Windows 10 Mobile for tablets should be the way forward if Windows 10 is to be a serious alternative to Android in the budget range of tablets.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Series on affordable entry level technology

As the price of technology is in a downward spiral, it is now possible to purchase entry level devices that are feature rich and serviceable for their use purpose. This means laptops, tablets and e-readers are available at prices that would be unfathomable only a few years before; further, entry level smart phones or laptops were hindered to the point of being unusable. Considering this, I will be introducing a series of posts on affordable technology, attempting to highlight entry level products that generally get it right and the potential uses they offer.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Will the third generation of Fire HDX tablets get Fire OS 5?

Recently Amazon sent a letter to owners of the third generation of HDX tablets, confirming an upgrade to Fire OS 5 in the coming weeks. Amazon later emailed that this letter was an error, with apologies for any confusion. I primarily use the third generation Fire HDX 8.9 and having also used Fire OS 5, with the Fire 7, I was pleased to read the mistaken letter of an upcoming upgrade (Fire OS 5 is an extensive update to Fire OS 4.5.5 that is currently used with third and fourth generation devices). Disappointedly, further feedback from Amazon indicated third generation devices would not receive the upgrade. I contacted Amazon, querying if indeed there will be an eventual upgrade for third generation devices and the answer was in the affirmative:
I'm sorry to learn about the trouble with the message you received regarding the Fire OS 5. Unfortunately, this message was sent to your device in error. I’m very sorry for any confusion caused. Your tablet ( 3rd generation) will be updated to Fire OS 5 soon. We are not able to provide a specific date right now. Once our Engineer's make Fire OS 5 available for 3rd generation devices, you'll be sent an update via email
It may be speculated that the confusion might be due to the process of porting Fire OS 5 still being in the developmental stage, at the moment, with engineers working on the update for the fourth-generation devices, let alone third generation ones. If the third generation devices are not receiving the upgrade then it might be due the cost of testing and development. I do not think it is an issue of pushing users to purchase current Fire tablets, as Amazon is focused on selling content and it is also not likely many users will downgrade to inferior hardware with the current generation.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Review of the Remix Mini

The Remix Mini is a small mini PC that runs Remix OS. Remix OS, while based on Android, overlays it with a desktop like environment. This is an innovative attempt to make a mobile operating system work as a desktop PC and in different ways, it works with the right device. However, the key is that Android is a mobile operating system and no overlay can overcome inherent limitations and problems.

Remix OS doesn't offer simple multi-tasking, running two applications on the screen, there is also the ability to run applications as desktop windows, as you would, for example, in Microsoft Windows or Ubuntu. There is also a notifications panel that you can drag from the right, again similar to Microsoft Windows, handling notifications that would appear at the top in stock Android. Keeping with the desktop theme, applications appear as icons on the desktop, with a rubbish bin icon too. Instead of a Windows start menu, you have a Remix one that leads to you to all your installed application. Again, this is the best implementation of Android to mimic a desktop environment.

However, the drawback, as noted, is that no overlay can take away that Android is a mobile operating system. You have no choice but to rely on the Google Play store and this means running mobile based applications. Inevitably, there are significant problems and the user often looks for a workaround that leads to the question if Android, considering its infrastructure, is even a feasible as a desktop PC. For example, many Android applications are optimized for touch interfaces and this, expectedly, leads to some hassle. Pinch gestures don't work, for example, and utilising the mouse for that purpose is hit and miss. Simple functions like dragging across a text to highlight, to copy or cut, is possible but not with ease as what you expect from a desktop environment. At the moment, you will find in the experimental features, available through settings, the option to simulate finger gestures through a mouse and this helps, even in its experimental mode, but it is nothing like finger gestures.

There is also the problem of scaling in regards to mobile applications that don't work well in a full desktop window; Remix OS has a workaround through re-sizing the window but often the applications do not respond to this. Further, it is counter-intuitive to re-size a window to get the right scale; once again the question may be asked here - why attempt to get Android applications to work in a desktop environment if it is clearly not intended for that use case scenario? Similarly, important applications like Chrome are seriously hindered in features compared to the full desktop version of the browser. Further, much web-related content is rendered in mobile format; it is possible to request a desktop version but, in many instances, this does not work and even when it does, the device is underpowered for full desktop browsing. Other problems include interacting with images, video content embedded in websites and filling in forms.

In terms of hardware, the Remix Mini is underpowered. It scores low in Chrome Octane tests (around 2500) and you notice this when rendering desktop versions of websites. Consequently, using desktop-based versions of Evernote, Blogger or Google Docs, inside the Chrome application, can be sluggish and compromise serious productivity. This doesn't mean the device cannot be used for productivity, as many stand-alone applications such as Evernote or Microsoft Word offer adequate performance. Yet even with these applications, the versatility of a desktop PC cannot be delivered by the Remix Mini. This does not mean Remix OS is without its use-case scenarios - in the case of the Jide's Remix Ultra-tablet, a beefier processor and a touch optimised form factor means Android turns into something more productive than something like Google's Pixel C.

The problems identified with the Remix Mini are both hardware and software related and while hardware upgrades are always possible, in future iterations of the device, the same cannot be said with the inherent limitations of Android. Considering the good design and aesthetics of Remix OS, it might have been a better idea to develop a Linux distribution with unique features. Remix OS improves Android for the two-in-one niche but this doesn't translate well to a full-blown desktop PC.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Using Amazon's newstand can be confusing

Newstand, featured in Fire tablets, is one aspect in which Amazon lags behind other providers. In comparison, Barnes & Noble excels with their newspapers and magazines e-store, offering consistency and good features. Not only is there a good selection but also many magazines and newspapers offer the feature to strip magazine pages to just their text and images, with further options to change fonts, margins and line spacing, as with an e-book. Also, the same stripped down version of a magazine syncs to your Nook e-reader, making them accessible on an e-ink screen. Amazon lags behind due to confusion with the manner they present their content and how it is then managed. The main problem is that many subscriptions are not handled direct via Amazon; this means to obtain a magazine or newspaper, the user needs to install an external application. Needless to say, external applications and their related publications are not available on a Kindle e-reader.

This results in confusion, as you get different ways of interacting and managing content. Amazon has two ways to manage subscriptions - if the magazine downloads direct via Amazon, then it is available through 'Newsstand Subscription Settings' that you will find under managing your content and devices in your Amazon account. If, on the other hand, the publication downloads through an external app, then it can be found in 'Your Apps and Devices'. Other than confusion with managing subscriptions, many external magazine/newspaper apps are near uniform, in which magazines only appear in image format; in these applications there is no option to turn a magazine page in landscape, pinch to zoom is restricted and turning pages is cumbersome. On the other hand, magazines that download direct through Amazon onto a Fire tablet, without requiring an external app, work better with the availability of landscape mode, flexible pinch to zoom and easier page turning; there is also the option for text friendly presentation of content (if you double tap an article you then get a text friendly version, in which you can change text size, font, margins, line spacing and background colour). Most publications offered direct from Amazon also sync to a Kindle e-reader, due to this availability of stripped down text versions of articles. Further, there is also the problem of some magazines, possibly by accident, being offered direct via Amazon and also as an external application.

To solve these problems, Amazons needs to introduce uniformity across newstand. A possible option would be to remove all publications offered via third party applications and then offer these same publications as a direct download, similar to an e-book. In the meantime these publications should be exclusively offered in the app store, in a specifically designated category, where they belong.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Kobo Touch 2 arrives in Europe

Kobo's entry level e-reader, the Kobo Touch 2.0, has been released in Europe. In Germany it retails for €90 and £70 in the UK. Kobo's e-reading experience offers good/unique features; this includes adding fonts, text alignment, font weight etc.. The device hardware, in general, matches the entry level Kindle but costs £10 more. The pricing is a problem, as not only is the entry Kindle regularly discounted by Amazon, so is the Kindle Paperwhite, which often sells for £90. Even the Kobo Aura can be found for £80, which comes with the same resolution as the Kindle Paperwhite 2 and with a front light (also, its form factor is more compact and with a flush display). Overall, Amazon's e-readers are the better choice but Kobo offers good hardware and a refined e-reading experience. However, there isn't much choice, at the moment, with Amazon owning the biggest share of the e-book market. Barnes & Noble's Nook is now near exclusively based in the US and Sony stopped producing e-readers (Sony was a pioneer in developing e-readers and the uniformity of the six inch display may be traced to their early models). There are other manufactures, e.g. Pocketbook, Bookeen, Tolino and  Carrefour's Nolim e-reader, but these are either based in national markets or are difficult to obtain and require importing.