About Robin Lim

Lawyer on weekdays. Mountain climber on weekends. Aspiring tech blogger and writer with whatever time I have left in between. For some odd reason I am enamored by operating systems. Android, BlackBerry, iOS, Linux distributions, Mac OS X, Symbian and mobile and desktop variants of Windows. I can find merit in them all. What can I say, I like to try new things. Android is particularly memorable. From customizing a default ROM, flashing third party ROM's and writing my own scripts, Android has been both highly functional and tons of fun. It also has been the biggest game changer in terms of bringing affordable computing to all.

Website: https://mobileraptor.blogspot.com/
Robin has written 84 articles so far, you can find them below.

While the focus is on Android versus Apple, Windows Phone is starting to knock at Apple’s door

Nokia-Lumia-520

We might all be a bit too transfixed on the Android versus Apple battle for market share, and miss the real battleground looming on the horizon. It is not about the fight for first place. Android has secured that position for the foreseeable future. It is about the fight for the world’s second most dominant mobile ecosystem. Interestingly, it is Windows Phone that is now holding second place in several markets.

In Latin America, Windows Phone now holds second place in Mexico, Peru and Columbia. Windows Phone actually managed to take a good 25.6% of the market in Columbia. Moving over to Asia, you have Taiwan where Windows Phone has moved into second place taking 2% of the market. That does not sound like much, but when you consider that Android holds 97% of the Taiwan market, it does mean that Windows Phone is now outselling Apple’s iPhone by a ratio of 2:1. Set your sights a bit to the North, and you will find Windows Phone also in second place in India, with a 5.4% market share. Android holds 91% of the market in India, with Apple’s iPhone holding 2.3% of the market.

Europe is another place where Windows Phone is making serious headway. Windows Phone now accounts for a 9.2% share of the market in Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Spain. Windows Phone has hit double digit sales share figures in France and Great Britain with 10.8% and 12% respectively, and coming within 1% of Apple iOS in Germany.

Windows Phone still does not have a significant share in key markets like North America, China and Japan. More alarmingly, Windows Phone actually saw its market share halved in China, going from 4.7% in a three month period ending August 2012, to 2.1% in the same period in 2013. Notably, Apple has also lost market share in China during the same period, both operating systems being battered by a strong surge of Android phones in that market.

There is a key change that might affect all this. Nokia Lumia Windows Phones are soon to become Microsoft Lumia phones. We will have to see how well Microsoft fares running a hardware company and how well the Microsoft name will be received. If things go they way they have been, Windows Phone could be the second most dominant ecosystem in three years time.

 

Processors: Dual Core, Quad Core and the Microprocessor

Snapdragon-800

When smartphones moved from single core processors to  dual core processors in 2011, owners of these new dual core smartphones felt a dramatic improvement in performance. Having a dual core central processing unit (CPU) means that one of the processor’s core can work on one task, while the other core works on a different task. Basically, one core can run the operating system, while the other core can run the app.

Having a dual core CPU can also improve performance by splitting one task breaking the task into two smaller processes, and assign each process to one CPU. This results in work being done in parallel, hence completed sooner.

Going to the quad core yielded a less spectacular change in terms of the perceived increase in performance. Apps will have to be coded to actually take advantage of the third and fourth core. Android smartphones are now almost all migrating to multi-core processors. You will find quad core Androids starting at as low as US$80. Most other Android phones have dual core processors. Because of this, you may find more developers who will code their apps to take advantage of the two additional cores. Basically, the hardware has to be available before the software will support it.

In many cases, more than two cores will yield no benefits. For many apps, there really is no point to breaking up the task into different process units. If all you are going to do with your phone is run around in a maze or through obstacles, there is no advantage to dividing the work performed by the CPU over several cores. For games, it is really the graphics processor which does the heavy lifting, and not the CPU.  How much of an advantage quad core processing and beyond will bring depends largely on whether today’s smartphones will be used to perform more complex tasks in the future.

As an alternative to adding more cores, you are now also seeing the addition of microcontrollers. A microcontroller is a separate low power CPU. These microcontrollers  are designed to be able to handle simpler less intensive tasks. Doing so allows you to free up the main CPU from some of its workload. At the same time, these low power CPU’s consume less power.

You will see this technology on the Texas Instruments OMAP version of the BlackBerry Z10, which uses two 266 MHz ARM Cortex-M3 microcontrollers in addition to its dual core 1.5 GHz GHz ARM Cortex-A9 processor. I am not really sure if the BlackBerry 10 operating system actually takes advantage of these microcontrollers optimally because the Qualcomm version of the BlackBerry Z10 does not have microcontrollers. I do get the impression that the buttonless BlackBerry Z10 might use one of these microcontrollers to monitor for touch screen input when the screen is off in the TI OMAP version.

On the other hand, the Motorola Moto X uses a pair of Texas Instruments microcontrollers very efficiently. One is used to listen to voice commands, the other to power the touchscreen while the phone is on sleep mode for the Active Notifications function. Apple iPhone 5S also uses a microcontroller, called the M7, which appears to be designed to continuously measure motion data with the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass. One use of this is to allow the iPhone 5S to run fitness apps more efficiently.

The way forward is more cores. Just do not expect immediate benefit. Apps are coded to run on older technology. Early adopters have to wait the longest to benefit from new technology. Hardware manufacturers have to seed the field with the latest technology, and the software will follow.

Now, do not read this the wrong way. I am not saying that you should not buy a quad core smartphone. A top of the line quad core like the LG G2, Samsung Galaxy S4 or HTC One will not really cost you more than a top of the line dual core phone like the Apple iPhone 5S, BlackBerry Z30 or Nokia Lumia 1020. But once you start going down the line to mid-range and entry level phones, other features, like amount of RAM, camera quality or a better graphics processing unit, are things you should look for first, and not prioritize paying for a third and fourth core.

Image Credit: Qualcomm

The Samsung Galaxy Round: Why the Curved Smartphone Display is Truly Innovative

F_006_Dynamic2_Black-610x424The world’s first curved smartphone display is official: The Samsung Galaxy Round. Looking at comments on the new odd looking new design, I realized how little some people understand why these flexible OLED displays are truly innovative.  The Samsung Galaxy Round has a flexible OLED display which cannot be bent by the user. Samsung bent the display around a curved case to highlight the technology. They could have placed it on a flat design. Still, the new display is lighter, thinner and much more durable compared to glass-based displays. The new flexible OLED on the Samsung is just 0.12 mm thick. Just as thick as the thinnest layer of purely protective Corning Gorilla Glass 3. And yes, it should survive a drop test much better.

With Samsung’s current design, the front glass will be less likely to impact a hard surface should it fall and hit a pavement. At the same time, the display itself is inherently more resistant to shatter damage. When the technology is perfected, these flexible OLED displays will be virtually shatter proof. Combined with water and dust resistant technology and impact resistant materials, you may soon see the coming of virtually indestructible devices that do not rely on 5 mm of plastic and rubber to keep them safe.

At the same time, the flexible OLED display will eventually allow smartphone manufacturers to make devices a bit narrower and ergonomic. At present, the Samsung Galaxy Round appears to be a bit wider than the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, both of which have 5.7-inch displays. But this is a first generation device. Still the Galaxy Round is thinner and lighter than the Galaxy Note 3.

In terms of ergonomics, with today’s flat glass front panels, you have thin designs with flat back panels. While thin and flat is impressive to look at, it really does not sit ergonomically well with our curved hands. Motorola did a good one with the Moto X by curving the back of the phone resulting in a not so sexy 10.4 mm thickness when you read the specifications sheet. But really, the 10.4 mm Moto X is actually more comfortable in the hand than those 6-7 mm designs you see with slab sides and flat backs. The curved OLED displays allow you to combine thin and light, with ergonomic.

Later generations of flexible OLED devices will allow the user to actually bend or even fold the display. This will bring a whole new set of possibilities to mobile device design. It is pretty much a certainty that smart watches and other wearable tech will benefit from flexible OLED displays.

That being said, do not be so eager to dismiss the new technology. Most likely, in one or two years’ time, your favorite smartphone will be sporting a flexible OLED display.

Image Source: Samsung Tomorrow

Is HTC Doomed?

Is HTC doomed to follow the fate of Motorola, Sony-Ericsson, Nokia and BlackBerry? Motorola was saved by Google, Sony-Ericsson by Sony and Nokia is in the process of being saved by Microsoft. BlackBerry is still in search of its white knight.

A few days ago HTC posted an operating loss of US$101.3 million, the first operating loss of the company since it went public in 2002. In a market where 260 million smartphones are sold a quarter (that is almost 2.6 million per day) HTC sold only 6 million handsets in the previous quarter. But a one hundred million US dollar loss is not a debilitating loss for the Taiwanese manufacturer which has total assets estimated at about US$7 billion. It is really more of a question of where it goes next.

Between Samsung’s dominance, a resurgent LG, and a revived Sony on the one hand and low-cost Chinese manufacturers on the other, HTC is being squeezed out of the market. Several review sites have hailed the HTC One, as the best smartphone in the world today. Despite this, consumers gobbled up the Samsung’s Galaxy S4 and the Apple iPhone 5S instead. It has been three years since HTC’s Desire was crowned by some as the best smartphone in the world. The return of the award of this title by several distinguished reviewers to HTC has not changed the company’s fortunes.

HTCOneWhile many would dispute that the HTC One is the best smartphone in the world, few would dispute that it deserves a place in the top five. The problem is that there seems to be only room for two: an iPhone and the top Android.

While pundits predicted that an Android handset with a premium build was what the market demanded, consumers themselves were not averse to plastic. Interestingly, HTC did not just build a smartphone from premium materials, it went as far as innovating in 2013. HTC came up with the low light-friendly Ultrapixel camera, Boom Sound, BlinkFeed and Zoe which differentiated it from its Android competition. HTC launched a Facebook-centric phone and is now coming out with a China-centric Android operating system. However, on the road to building the HTC One, HTC dropped the expandable storage and user replaceable battery which many Android owners value in 2012. It also lost in the megahertz war. Basically, HTC built iPhone-like smartphones for the Android world.

HTC is not ready to throw in the towel yet, and the company will have another turn at bat. If HTC wants to survive, it has to go back to its roots. It is an Android smartphone manufacturer, first and foremost. Android buyers and Apple buyers are very different creatures. Sealed batteries and built-in only storage go against the Android buyer’s psyche. It has to put the largest display, highest clocked processor, and biggest battery into the slimmest and narrowest phone it can build which can still fit in a hand. It has to have an HDMI port and support USB on-the-go. Then it has to pray that it beats what Samsung, LG or Sony has to offer.

 A writer I highly respect calls all this “MOAR”. A good friend argues specifications do not matter, it is the experience that counts. As true as all this may be, that is not the Android way. People who buy a Ferrari neither buy it for a comfortable ride nor to race it on a track. Seriously, driving a Ferrari is not a practical way to commute. They buy a Ferrari because it is a Ferrari. The top Android has to be a Ferrari. That is the Android way. HTC is not Apple, but it does have a Rolex-like appeal. If HTC does not realize that and manage to use it to their advantage, well, then it really is doomed.

Image Credit: Tech Radar

SunSpider Benchmark: Heralded, maligned and misunderstood benchmark

If you read the comments to smartphone reviews, you will find comments maligning the use of the SunSpider benchmark. There is nothing wrong with running SunSpider benchmark on a mobile phone. It is the way it is used. Using the SunSpider benchmark to declare a phone as the fastest in the land is erroneous.

SunSpider benchmark results are used out of context

SunSpider is a “benchmark (that) tests the core JavaScript language only, not the DOM or other browser APIs. It is designed to compare different versions of the same browser, and different browsers to each other.”  The SunSpider benchmark is designed as a web browser benchmark. It was never intended by its developers to be used to compare the performance of different mobile phones. The SunSpider benchmark is also specifically a JavaScript speed test. It is not a test to determine how fast a web page will load.

JavaScript is used in a web browser to create image rollovers or those online for calculators you see embedded in web pages. Not all websites use JavaScript, especially mobile websites. Using the SunSpider benchmark as a basis for determining smartphone performance, is using one small aspect of smartphone to determine which is the fastest.

Still, does this mean that it is not a good test of smartphone performance?

The SunSpider benchmark is not a hardware stress test

I conducted some SunSpider 1.0.1 tests from an Apple iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4 i9505. Here are the SunSpider benchmark results I obtained from these two phones: (Lower is better.)

Apple iPhone 5

  • Safari – 699.7 ms
  • Chrome – 3684.4 ms

Samsung Galaxy S4 i9505

  • Stock Webkit Browser – 1041.4 ms
  • Chrome –  1146.1 ms
iOS-Safari
Apple iPhone 5 with Safari
iPhone-Chrome
Apple iPhone 5 with Chrome
i9505-webkit
Samsung Galaxy S4 i9505 with Stock Webkit Browser
i9505-Chrome
Samsung Galaxy S4 i9505 with Chrome

Okay, I will leave it with you to try to make heads or tails of these results. I should note, despite the disparity in the SunSpider 1.0.1 benchmarks on the iPhone, I really cannot tell much of a difference when browsing the web. Both web browsers seem fast. If anything, I get the impression that Chrome is actually faster. On the other hand, it is easy enough to understand if we accept that SunSpider really is neither a hardware stress test nor a Web page loading test. What you are really testing here is the efficiency of different browsers in rendering JavaScript. That is really all the SunSpider benchmark is testing.

SunSpider optimization is not a bad thing

Some reviewers have started saying that SunSpider is not a useful smartphone benchmark because it has become the target of optimization. There is nothing wrong with smartphone manufacturers, or more specifically web browser developers, in optimizing for better SunSpider benchmark performance. That is why the benchmark was created in the first place.

Better SunSpider benchmark performance is an indicator of better JavaScript performance. Take it for that and nothing more. It really was never intended to be a benchmark of smartphone performance or Web browser page loading time.

Samsung Cheating and the Benchmarking Brouhaha

For the second time this year, Samsung has been accused of cheating on benchmarks. Now Anand Lal Shimpi and Brian Klug have discovered “optimization” devices from more Android OEM’s. I do not find anything surprising here. When you see devices, with the same hardware having statistically different synthetic benchmark results, well, that should raise some eyebrows. History shows us that for as long as there have been synthetic benchmarks, manufacturers have been optimizing for them. Seriously, this has been going on since the 1980’s.

IMG_00000001Modern computers, like smartphones, do not run their processors at full speed at all times. Some even shutdown processor cores to conserve power. The best made devices will deliver only as much power as needed to run an app, and not more. This provides a balance between performance and battery life. Without going into details, several manufacturers have been optimizing their Android operating systems to detect benchmarks. When a benchmark is detected, the processors run at full speed during these benchmarks, rather than the way they would operate under normal conditions. This skews the benchmark result.

One example of this was the Exynos version of the Samsung Galaxy S4. It would only allow games to run the PowerVR SGX 544MP3 graphics chip at a maximum speed of 480 MHz instead of its full speed of 533 MHz. This decision was probably a balance between performance and heat output. However, it would allow a few apps and gaming benchmarks to run at 533 MHz. Some would call cheating too harsh a word. Whatever you call it, it does mean that the benchmark does not represent real world performance. A 3D game would run at 480MHz. A gaming benchmark would run at 533MHz. I think we should just call a spade a spade. In fairness, it should be noted that most games in the market right now would run at the same speed on 480 MHz and 533 MHz, with smartphone displays or the game itself, capping frame rates.

Optimizing for synthetic benchmark does not improve user experience. So why do manufacturers do it? Well, it is simple really. Reviewers use synthetic benchmark to rank smartphone performance. This is not what benchmarks were intended for, and they should not be used this way. More on that later.

Anand Lal Shimpi’s solution to all this is “to continue to evolve the (benchmark) suite ahead of those optimizing for it.” Unfortunately, and with all due respect, this is the solution of a reviewer drunk on benchmarks. No offense to Mr. Lal Shimpi, who is well regarded in the industry, but he should know best. The real solution to all this is to stop relying exclusively on synthetic benchmarks.

No one has really bothered to benchmark the benchmarks. Does a better GFX Benchmark score equate to a faster performance in Modern Combat? Does the SunSpider Benchmark accurately mean faster webpage loading times?

Apple’s iPhone is a good testbed for this kind of comparison. It has been around for six years, longer than any other current smartphone line. PCMag has compiled Web browser benchmarks of the original iPhone up to the iPhone 5. A comparison of the original iPhone to the iPhone 5S would be more difficult because of changes in the benchmark suite used.

iPhone

  • Sunspider (lower is better) – 46579
  • GUI Mark 3 – 3.35
  • Browsermark – 8839

 

iPhone 5

  • Sunspider (lower is better) – 947
  • GUI Mark 3 – 58.1
  • Browsermark – 189025

 

The GUI Mark 3 benchmark would seem to indicate that the web browser on the iPhone 5 performs 17X faster than the original iPhone. The Browsermark benchmark would would indicate the improvement is greater, by a factor of 21X. SunSpider indicates that the iPhone 5 browser is 49X faster than on the original iPhone. Combining the three together, that averages out to 29X. The result, a web page that takes three seconds to load on my iPhone 5 today would have taken one and a half minutes to load on the original iPhone!

Now, this the wrong way to interpret these benchmarks. Even using three benchmarks yields give little indication of real world performance. Synthetic benchmarks have their use. Benchmarks mimic a particular type of workload on a component or system. Synthetic benchmarks do this by using specially created apps. Application benchmarks run real-world apps on the system. Application benchmarks are what should be used if you want a much better measure of real-world performance on a given system. Synthetic benchmarks are useful for testing individual components and are great for diagnosis and locating system bottlenecks. Combining synthetic and real world benchmarks would also allow a reviewer to understand better why a device performs a certain way. Presenting tallies of the benchmarks scores of several devices on several benchmarks really says nothing.

Basically, using a synthetic benchmark is like using a cars horsepower rating to determine speed. How fast a car can run would depend upon multiple factors like weight, aerodynamics, drivetrain and a dozen other variables. The car would generally run as fast as the slowest component would allow it to run. It is the same with electronic devices. In a given task, a device would run at the speed of the slowest relevant component, and not the fastest.

Running real world benchmarks, like measuring how long a smartphone takes to load a game, process a picture, or maybe even trying to measure the actual time it loads a webpage would be more useful to the consumer. If reviewers want to keep using these synthetic benchmarks, then it should be presented with an analysis of how these benchmarks impact on real world performance. This would make benchmark optimization useless, and could also be used to ferret out bad benchmarks. This, I submit, is the best solution to this benchmarking brouhaha.

If you want to find out how fast a car is, take it to several test tracks, pull out a stop watch and measure lap times. Trying to figure out a car’s performance by comparing horsepower, 0-60 MPH acceleration tests, drag co-efficient, braking and roadholding tests is really not the way to go.

 

FCC Shutdown: Tweet Your Anger

fcc-logoWith the shutdown of the United States Federal Government, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency that tests and approves those mobile devices we are all so fond of is temporarily and indefinitely closed. About 1,700 full time FCC employees are going on forced leave without pay until the US Congress can agree on a budget. The FCC prudently did prepare a shutdown contingency plan.

How exactly does this affect the mobile phone market? Well, for one, the shutdown will also affect companies with products pending approval for release to consumers. Given that we are approaching the Christmas season, I can imagine there are a fair number of new smartphones and tablets awaiting approval from the FCC. The delay in the release of these new products will probably have adverse effects on the companies that make them, and their employees, not only in the USA, but around the world.

The FCC may not be the most important agency whose operations have grounded to a halt. Other functions like food safety inspections,  and protecting the environment are certainly more important. As pointed out by The Verge, the seasonal flu vaccine won’t during the shutdown.  Moreover, the number of FCC employees is a small part of 800.000 government employees affected. But you have to love your own. This is a tech site, and those 1,700-strong FCC employees are part of this community. It is the second day of the shutdown, and that is already two days too long. So, pick up your favorite mobile device, email your Congressman, Tweet your disdain, post your thoughts on Facebook. Do something. All this mobile technology we are so fond of now makes it easy for everyone to be heard. So get to it. Eight hundred thousand people do not know when they are getting their next paycheck.

 

The Motorola Moto DVX: Lower cost Moto X, but don’t expect too much

A cheaper Motorola Moto X is on the way, and that is tipped to be the Moto DVX. Even back on the launch date of the Motorola Moto X it was revealed that a cheaper version of the Moto

Moto X Feature

 X could be in the works. This was touted as the version that could be released internationally. Motorola’s Texas plant only produces 100,000 Moto X phones a week. That is not really all that many to go around for an international release. A cheaper Moto X would be manufactured in China where it could be built in larger quantities and with a lower cost of assembly.

How much cheaper would a Moto DVX be? The Bill of Materials (cost of parts) or BOM, plus manufacturing costs for the Moto X is estimated at US$226. This is a bit on the high side. To put things into perspective, the Apple iPhone 5S has an estimated BOM and manufacturing cost of US$199. The Samsung Galaxy S4 has an estimated BOM and manufacturing cost of US$237.

Motorola could cut manufacturing cost on Moto DVX by not including the two Texas Instruments co-processors designed to facilitate the touchless control and active notification features of the Moto X. With active notification removed, there would be no need for a Super AMOLED display, and a less expensive IPS panel could be used. These changes would really just cut the Moto DVX BOM by about US$10~15. More savings will come from manufacturing in China, but this would apparently just be additional savings of about US$8 per unit.

In order to get more substantial reduction in costs, this would have to be generated by producing phones, and ordering parts, in larger quantities. In that respect, Motorola will not be able to match Apple or Samsung which order parts for more as many 10 million units for the most popular models in a single quarter. Basically,cutting costs is not all that easy. Temper your expectations and you will be much happier when you finally see the Moto DVX.

I would not expect anything like a US$299 Nexus 4. Well, not unless Google decides to subsidize the Moto DVX. If it is not subsidized, I would expect an off-contract price of aroundUS$449. I did not make that estimate by computing actual cost. I did not pull that figure out of a hat either. All things considered, that is the price Motorola needs to hit to place something in competition with the Apple iPhone 4S and Android “mini”  phones.

 

Component Manufacturers: Unsung Heroes of Smartphone Innovation

A particularly interesting discussion started today on Google+ about smartphone innovation. One thing often forgotten is the real heroes of smartphone innovation are the component manufacturers. Apple is often credited with having invented the modern smartphone. Credit should be given credit to two companies: Apple and LG. Back in December 2006, LG unveiled its KE850 Prada which utilized a capacitive touchscreen display. A month later, Apple announced the iPhone. The LG KE850 Prada hit the market in May 2007. Apple offered its iPhone for sale a month later.

The LG KE850 Prada.
The LG Prada. The worlds fiThe LG KE850 Prada. Unveiled in December 2006, it was the worlds first capacitive display touchscreen phone capacitive display touchscreen phone.

There has been much debate, and even an accusation by LG that Apple copied its design. Unless you have access to the confidential internal communications from both companies, I do not think anyone will be able to really ever answer that question.

My own view is that it was inevitable. You had the advent of capacitive touchscreen technology, and two manufacturers who understood its potential. The discussion is particularly apt now, since we may be seeing another innovation in smartphone technology which, while not as groundbreaking as the capacitive touchscreen, looks to be a significant change in smartphone design.

Two months ago, Motorola announced its new lineup of smartphones featuring X8 technology. Basically, this technology incorporated two low-powered processors which do very specific tasks. By doing this, the phone can run certain functions while in idle or sleep mode without having to use the more powerful but more power-hungry primary processor. This might change the way smartphones will operate in the future. Basically, they will do more while their screens are off, over and above waiting for calls, push notifications, and checking for updates in the background. This new technology will probably be used in making your smartphone a more efficient tool for communicating and integrating with other devices like smartwatches and other wearable tech like Google Glass. It will also see your smartphone becoming more integrated with things like your car and appliances.

This month, Apple revealed that their new A7 processor on the iPhone 5S also incorporates the “M7”, a separate low powered processor. I think most of us will agree that the announcement of the new technology, and the launch of the two devices in the market is too close for either company to have copied the other. New technology is available and some will decide it is the wave of the future and others will not.

The new technology was actually developed by component manufacturers and was integrated into their designs by smartphone manufacturers. Motorola’s X8 uses a pair of Texas Instrument processors. Apple’s M7 co-processor is built by NXP Semiconductors. Innovation from the device manufacturers is actually the ability to recognize newly available technology and find uses for it in consumer products. Maybe a more accurate view is smartphone innovation is a concerted effort. So while we hail smartphones manufactures for innovation, or pan them for not being innovative enough, we should remember that their ability or inability to bring forth something new also lies in the hands of lesser known companies.

Image Credit LG

The Phablet May Define What is the Ideal Android Phone

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 pre-orders
Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Samsung Galaxy Note 3

The phablet will define what is the ideal Android phone. I can hear the shrieks of horror already. These ungainly 5.3-inch or larger smartphones, labeled phone tablets, must surely be a niche market product. I mean, who wants to hold a platter to their ear? Think what you might, Samsung has sold over 30 million Samsung Galaxy Note II’s. That is three times more than the 10 million first generation Galaxy Note’s sold.

Disbelievers, mainly other Android manufacturers are now shaking their heads, as Samsung laughs its way to the bank. Disbelief in the phablet, gave Samsung a two year window in the market where it was not challenged. It is only this year that other Android manufacturers are entering the phablet market in full force.

The 30 million Galaxy Note II sales figure is pretty significant. I do not have Android sales figures for the current quarter yet. Using figures provided by Gartner from the last quarter of 2012 to the second quarter of this year, a bit over 478.8 million Android smartphones have been sold. Extrapolating a bit, over 700 million Android smartphones have been sold during the period that the Samsung Galaxy Note II has been in the market.

Basically, 1 in 23 Android sold was a Samsung Galaxy Note II. That is a little bit over 4% of all Android sales for the period. That figure is significant when you consider that the Galaxy Note is Samsung’s most expensive product. This year, with everyone entering the phablet market, you will find low cost phablets starting at over US$100. I would not care to estimate what proportion of Android sales will be phablets.

Being one of those Samsung Galaxy Note naysayers, I am shocked. For someone interested in tech, I was terribly myopic. Maybe, it is because I do not use a tablet, so I have never felt the burden of having to carry a smartphone and a tablet. Still, how could I have failed to realize that browsing the web, visiting my favorite social networks, viewing and editing photos, scribbling notes and watching YouTube video’s is best done in 5.7-inches Full HD?

For those wondering when the next big innovation in mobile is coming, it is already here.

 

The Android Junk Smartphone Market and Why It Has Apple worried

“There’s always a large junk part of the market. We’re not in the junk business.” Apple CEO Tim Cook said this in an interview with Bloomberg, speaking on the proliferation of cheaper smartphones. That is a lot of tough talk or trash talk depending on who you look at it. Going beyond the bravado of that polarizing junk smartphone statement, Tim Cook realistically acknowledges the rise of, what Bloomberg’s Sam Grobart calls, the “low cost manufacturer” . Apple’s strategy is simple. It will not be competing for a slice of lower priced smartphone sales. Apple feels that the market is big enough for Apple’s iOS devices to thrive without going after market share.

Most analysts have recommend that Apple should release a cheaper iPhone. You really cannot blame Tim Cook for not following this advice. In 2012, Apple released a cheaper iPad, the iPad mini, and it did not stop Apple from losing its majority share in the tablet market. Analysts have predicted Apple to hold a steady 17-18% share in the smartphone market for the next four years. We will probably see analysts adjusting those figures.

Apple’s rival, Samsung, said in its January 2013 earnings statement that the “furious growth spurt seen in the global smartphone market last year is expected to be pacified by intensifying price competition, compounded by a slew of new products.” Whether you take Samsung’s cautionary response or Apple’s bravado, both companies acknowledge that the low cost manufacturer will take a significant portion of the market.

Each has responded to the new threat in its own way. Apple, was able to engineer a marketing coupe by announcing the sale of 9 million new iPhone’s in its launch weekend, a new record. However, as pointed out by the Verge, year on year comparisons are not possible since Apple changes its launch markets each year. Notably, the iPhone 5S and 5C are the first iPhone’s made available in China in its opening weekend. Also, in previous years, in reporting new iPhone sales, Apple would report only the sales the top of the line model. This year, Apple’s flagship and second tier model are both new, and lumped into the 9 million sales figure. Last year, buyers who opted for a new iPhone 4S were not counted in the company’s opening-weekend sales tally. Only iPhone 5 sales were tallied. Note that the this year’s iPhone 5C occupies the same price point occupied by the iPhone 4S last year.

Even with all that, it appears that the actual sale of both models is closer to 7 million than 9 million. Morgan Stanley’s Katy Huberty released the following statement on Tuesday:

“We estimate the breakdown of the 9M [9 million] first three days’ sales as: ~3M iPhone 5s sell-through (with real demand closer to 6M), ~4M iPhone 5c sell-through, and ~2M iPhone 5c non-Apple retail inventory build (representing 1-2 weeks of inventory).”

Apple sold 5 million iPhone 5’s alone last year.

It does look a bit like smoke and mirrors. But what matters more are quarterly sales figures rather than opening weekend sales.  It is still a brilliant marketing move. Apple is counting on high sales reports, while goading you not to buy a cheaper phone by labeling them “junk”. This tough talk (or trash talk), seems to be motivated by the fact that, in terms of technology, Apple really has little to talk about. These “junk” smartphones are getting pretty good. It is inevitable that as the pace of innovation slows down, those who started further back in the line start to catch up.

Xiaomi Mi-3
Xiaomi Mi-3

Two years ago, when I saw the first premium “low cost manufacturer” offerings, they looked like awkward attempts at creating a smartphone. Junk smartphone would have been a good description. Today, things are very different. Xiaomi, one of the most interesting names in mobile these days, recently launched its Android-powered Mi-3 in China. For US$327, they are offering a 5-inch Full HD smartphone equipped with Qualcomm’s latest S800 chipset and a Sony MP camera. Basically, something to rival Apple’s iPhone 5S or Samsung’s Galaxy S4 at half the price.

In the end, all the competition is beneficial to the consumer. The big players might be getting a bit too rich, at our expense. After all, Xioami seems to be able to build superphones, too, at half the price. As one reader of a small blog I maintain commented: This “(S)martphone race to the bottom is awesome.

Image Credit: Android Authority

 

Apple’s TouchID Hacked – The Sky is Falling!

fingerprint-sensor

The Chaos Computer Club has claimed to have hacked Apple’s TouchID.

“The biometrics hacking team of the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) has successfully bypassed the biometric security of Apple’s TouchID using easy everyday means. A fingerprint of the phone user, photographed from a glass surface, was enough to create a fake finger that could unlock an iPhone 5s secured with TouchID. This demonstrates – again – that fingerprint biometrics is unsuitable as access control method and should be avoided.”

The system demonstrated by the Chaos Computer Club in the video does not require any special technology.

Most any password system can be hacked. The four digit code which is used to lock Apple’s iPhone is not all that secure, giving you a maximum of 10,000 permutations. A “secure” password should have at least 8 alphanumeric digits and mixed uppercase and lowercase letters. Even then, you would want to back it up with two factor authentication. A four digit passcode is already rather inconvenient for many people. A lot of people would rather simply leave their phones unlocked. Unless you work for the NSA or are with the R&D department of a company, you certainly are not going to want to use an 8-digit alphanumeric passcode.

Whether or not TouchID can be fooled, I think we can still all agree that it is a sufficient level of security for unlocking your phone. A phone unlocking system only needs to be secure enough to give sufficient time for you to discover that your phone is missing and take appropriate measures. What should you do? Contact your carrier so they can cut your SIM card and disconnect it from your cloud services. For good measure, some of you may want to do a remote wipe if you kept anything particularly interesting on your phone.

Again, unless you work for the NSA or are with the R&D department of a company, somebody who steals your phone will just want to do a factory reset and hawk your phone to a buyer.  What is worrisome is not someone stealing your phone and being able to unlock it. It  is someone using a different device to mimic you online.

So a fingerprint scanner is useful to secure a device, even if it can be fooled. It has been used to secure laptops for years. But really, you should not rely on TouchID to secure iTunes, or to replace passwords for your email account, cloud services or anything involving money. Fingerprints are poor “passwords,” for the following reasons:

1. Depending on where you live, they are probably on file in several places.

2. You leave them wherever you go, including your missing phone.

3. They cannot be changed. You have ten fingerprints you can rotate at most. Only four are ergonomically comfortable to use.

The advantage of the traditional password is that it is only in your head, some secure password vault, or maybe scribbled on a piece of paper in your night stand.

Motorola dabbled with fingerprint scanners on their phones a few years back. I am not sure that Android manufacturers will adopt fingerprint scanners for security wholesale. Android already has a convenient way to unlock your phone: pattern lock. I can unlock my Android in two seconds with pattern unlock without ever looking at the screen. It really does not offer more security than a four digit or five digit passcode, but is a good balance of security and convenience.

No authentication system will ever be completely secure. But most people do not need absolute security and a fingerprint scanner is a good balance between convenience and security. Even than, old  advice should be heeded. Do not use one universal key as your password for various accounts and services. If you need top grade security, the Chaos Computer Clubs TouchID is not it.  “We hope that this finally puts to rest the illusions people have about fingerprint biometrics. It is plain stupid to use something that you can´t change and that you leave everywhere every day as a security token.”

 

Are quad core smartphones useless?

qualcomm

It started with benchmarks being posted showing the dual core Motorola Moto X outperforming quad core smartphones. With the Apple iPhone 5S being released with a dual core processor and performing rather well in benchmarks, the question is being raised again. Are quad core phones useless?

The answer is, it depends on which benchmark you use. If the benchmark is not CPU intensive and is not multithreaded, then the benchmark will show that a quad core processor brings no benefit. AnandTech recently conducted benchmarks on both the LG G2, HTC One, Motorola Moto X, Samsung Galaxy S4 and the last three generations of iPhones using a new mobile benchmark 3DMark. To the old hands, 3DMark is familiar and used to be the standard in determining PC gaming performance.

While 3DMark is primarily a graphics test, taken to the mobile world, it is also rather CPU intensive. Anand Lal Shimpi wrote: “As we’ve discovered in the past, 3DMark is far more of a CPU test than GFXBench. While CPU load will range from 6 – 25% during GFXBench, we’ll see usage greater than 50% on 3DMark – even during the graphics tests. 3DMark is also heavily threaded, with its physics test taking advantage of quad-core CPUs.”

During the graphics test, the top three phones in terms of performance were the iPhone 5S, LG G2 and Moto X.

Image Credit: Qualcomm

When it came to the physics test, the quad core phones crushed the dual core phones. Predictably, the LG G2 came out with a score almost twice as high as the Moto X and iPhone 5S. Coming in at second and third place behind the LG G2, were the other two quad core phones tested, the Galaxy S4 and HTC One. Actually, in the Physics test, the iPhone 5S and Moto X really do not perform better than an iPhone 5.

I am deliberately not putting the scores here. AnandTech conducted the tests and you should really visit AnandTech to get the breakdown.

But we don’t buy our phones to run benchmarks. And the question is: Are quad core phones better in day to day tasks or even gaming? The answer is: Today, not really. In the future, maybe.

I still have a pair of old single core Androids from late 2010, a Samsung Galaxy Tab and HTC Desire HD and they run most apps on Google Play well enough. While I am not into gaming much, I did try Minion Rush on the Samsung Galaxy Tab and it ran fine. The reason why an old device can still run new apps is because few developers, if any at all, do not develop apps which will only run well on a Galaxy S4 or iPhone 5S. The smartphones in the market are comprised of three to four generations of Android and iPhones. With older phones still in circulation, app developers want their apps to run on older devices, too.

Quad core phones and Apple’s latest A7 are not useless, but the higher performance is really more for future proofing. In many tasks, older dual core devices will run just as fast as a quad core phone. Getting the fastest devices today, does mean you will be happy with them longer.

Convergence in User Interface Design: Apple’s iOS becomes Android like

Playing with Apple iOS 7, I could not help but notice how with each generation its User Interface is starting to look more and more like Android. The most useful feature of the new iOS 7 User Interface is the Command Center. Command Center gives you access to some frequently used settings, like flight mode and rotation lock. Android users would refer to this as Quick Settings. The similarity are so obvious, you will come across many articles on the net comparing the User Interface of Android and iOS. Business Insider has a good set of screenshots comparing the two. One particularly scathing visual comparison was made by 9GAG.

9GAG-iOSbecomesAndroid

Android and iOS implementation of “Quick Settings” are still different. To invoke Quick Settings in the Android User Interface, you swipe down. To invoke the Command Center in the iOS User Interface you swipe up. Android launchers will allow you to access the Quick Settings by swiping up, too. You cannot customize Command Center.  Android allows you to customize Quick Settings. I do suspect you will see the ability to customize the Command Center come with iOS 8.

Still, you cannot credit Quick Settings to Google. Quick Settings was available in HTC Sense and Samsung Touchwiz User Interface long before it became part of stock Android. Actually, Apple’s implementation of Quick Settings comes closest to how Samsung implements.

like-on-android-multitasking-on-ios-now-shows-a-preview-of-each-running-application

Similarly, iOS 7 task switching now looks eerily like Android.  Both User Interfaces display thumbnails that can be selected with a tap, or swiped away. iOS 7 displays them horizontally with a vertical swipe to dismiss. Android displays them vertically and a horizontal swipe dismisses them. Actually, the implementation of task switching on iOS 7 looks pretty much the same as the HTC’s implementation on Sense 4.0 and above. Although, if you are looking at who should take credit for this innovation, it would be WebOS.

There are other features now where iOS 7 feels distinctly more Android-like from multi-tasking, to dynamic wallpaper and the ability to swipe anywhere from the lock screen. I suspect that Apple will go the Android route in terms of system-wide file sharing in the future.

These User Interface changes, follow previous areas where Apple OS has become more Android-like. The most notable of which was the notification panel. Looking at it from the other way around, you will find areas where Android has become more Apple-like with the four or five customizable icons on the lowest panel.

Who copied who, and whether the two copied someone else is for a more diligent researcher. You will have to go back to Symbian OS, Symbian UIQ and Blackberry OS.  It looks like, there are only so many ways to design a User Interface.  At some point in time, they all seem to look more and more alike.

Windows Phone really needs to be given credit for taking the mobile User Interface to a new direction. Both Android and iOS have followed Windows Phone’s lead in some respects, with the flat interface. Google went with the flat interface with Ice Cream Sandwich. Now iOS 7 goes the same route. On the other hand Windows Phone also took some cues from the WebOS User Interface. In fact, rumor is, Windows Phone is coming out with a Notification Center in its next update.

There are still areas where each operating system is unique. These relate to fundamental differences in the operating systems. Android is designed as a stand-alone device which can interface with other devices. Apple iOS is tied to iTunes. Ultimately, the iPhone and iPad are designed to be used in conjunction with a laptop or desktop.  Android allows for more customization. Android is designed to allow the user to select what apps he or she would prefer to use as default apps. The Apple system is more controlled.  Certain areas like the keyboard being exclusively the province of Apple.  The iOS default Web Browser is always Safari. These aspects will probably not change. It goes down to the fundamental difference between open and closed systems.

A year or two down the road, the only thing separating how Android, iOS and Windows Phone look might be widgets, live tiles and icons. I guess the question has to be asked: Are we seeing the end of innovation in the user interface, or is there really one best way of doing things?

Image Credit: Business Insider and 9GAG