Review #52: Tale of three (make that five) 3-in-1 cables

Cables are like humans, more than one can imagine. Looks can be deceiving and it is what's inside that matters. However, one can only perceive what one can see and hence the truth lies largely concealed. Thankfully, that is where the similarities end since marketing buzzwords like "gold plated", "tinned copper", "braided nylon" wouldn't really work well as complements for humans.

My tryst for the holy grail of cables started some time back when I started off with the Flome 3-in-1 cable, which, for the record, left me thoroughly disappointed. I have resigned myself to the fact that as long as reputable brands don't get in to the game, the possibility of expecting the ultimate phone charging cable to come from no-name brands in China is as large as catching the unicorn at the end of the rainbow. However, that hasn't deterred me from trying.

Since my last look at charging cables, I have added a couple more 3-in-1 cables, one from Baseus and another from "Fake Mi". The Baseus brand has proliferated quite a bit and I had my first go at it when I purchased a tempered glass for my iPhone. As it turned out, the mention of glass for the product was an euphemism but even then, the brand gets full marks for design and half for deception. I had a good experience with Mi's 2-in-1 cable which I had received with the Mi Power Bank Pro and although there is no mention of a 3-in-1 cable on Mi China's website, I went along for the ride by placing an order for the "Fake Mi" 3-in-1 cable. In this case, it was better to judge the cable by its cover since the package was branded as "Zaofeng" but the product could easily pass off  as an official Mi one.

Along with these three "the last cable you will ever need" cables, I have roped in two "not so in name but in function" pseudo 3-in-1 cables in the form of the Mi 2-in-1 and the EasyAcc Micro USB cable. In case you are confused, then don't be, as technically any Micro USB cable can be used as a Lightning or Type-C cable with the help of adapters. Sure, you don't get the official certifications, but it can get the job done as far as charging is concerned. In this case, the adapters came from the cannibalisation of other cables. After all, all's fair in love, war and charging.

Here's the fate of the contenders after being put through the trial with an Anker PowerPort 4 charger.

It is easy to draw some quick observations/conclusions from the above.

  • As expected, none of the 3-in-1 cables are up to much good, though the Baseus one seems to be the best of the lot. The finest option yet, as far as charging goes, is to get a good quality Micro USB cable and then use adapters to switch between devices.
  • The adapter quality can affect charging as can be seen by the performance difference of the Lightning one between Flome and Zaofeng. They are available for a few cents and can be jerry-rigged to function like a 3-in-1, though I presume at some point someone will release adapters with clasps. Cannibalisation from existing cables is always an option.
  • It is not a co-incidence that the shorter cables are usually the best. You should get a cable that is only as long as you need it to be. As I had mentioned previously, the longer they are, the easier they fail.
  • While not visible in the table above, the iPhone current draw was markedly different from the Mi devices. While the Mi devices charged flat out at the same current level irrespective of usage, the iPhone switched between 0.9-1.7A  depending on how the device was being utilised. I could draw the maximum current only by recording in 4K. This indicates that the iPhone maintains a preset charging rate for the battery while utilising additional current draw from the charger for on-screen activity. I guess these benefits come through the utilisation of much more expensive power management ICs.

Musing #50: Apple Music, Spotify and Amazon Music

Amazon launched its Music service in India earlier this week, so I thought I'd do a quick comparison of it with the other streaming services I have been using, Apple Music and Spotify. Before any one brings it up, I have trialled all the other music streaming services available locally in India (Gaana, Wynk, Saavn, Hungama) at one point or another and found them to disappointing in terms of quality and catalogue. Even Google Music didn't offer much to dislodge Apple when it launched in India, though it hit the mark with its pricing.

I didn't term this article as a review, since it isn't one. Since majority of my listening is done on the iPhone, now with my RHA MA650, Apple Music happens to be my preferred option. It offers the best integration with iOS (e.g. Siri) and has the best quality when streaming over Bluetooth. Spotify complements Apple Music really well with its cross-platform compatibility, track discovery and catalogue. On the other hand, I wouldn't really pay for Amazon Music if it existed as a separate subscription service but as yet another Prime membership perk, it is totally worth it.

I have briefly covered the features of each service in the table below along with the availability of various tracks at the time of writing this article. It should give a good idea of what each platform has to offer.

Review #50: RHA MA650 Wireless Earphones ★★★★☆

When wireless doesn't mean getting less! 

Bluetooth headsets have always been a matter of convenience for me rather than a technological evolution over wired headsets. For a long time, I preferred to use wired headsets whenever possible and took recourse to Bluetooth headsets when on the move. However, the abysmal performance of Bluetooth plug-in headsets like SBH54 and the Fiio BTR1 left me extremely disappointed and finally set me on course to finding a standalone wireless earphone.

Review #45: Mi A1 (Updated with Oreo impressions) ★★★★☆

An A1 Choice

The Android One programme was launched in 2014 with the intention of being the entry point for budget conscious users. Perhaps it was the choice of hardware or OEMs that ultimately made it a stillborn venture. On the other end of the spectrum, the Pixel hasn't quite turned out to be the iPhone killer that Google might have envisaged. However, Google isn't one to take things lying down and hence we now have the reinvigorated Android One programme. This time Google has taken a much more hands-off approach, with this being no more than a branding exercise and the entire onus of the device specification as well as updates following squarely on the shoulders of the OEM.

For an OEM like Xiaomi that is well entrenched in MIUI, it certainly came as a surprise when it was mentioned as the first partner of the new avatar of Android One. At the same time, it seemed a logical choice considering the stranglehold that various Mi devices now have at the budget segment of the market. I had already "upgraded" the Redmi Note 3 of one of my family members to LineageOS to make the device more usable and while getting another Mi device, it was a toss-up between getting a Redmi Note 4 and flashing it with LineageOS or getting the Mi A1 with stock android on board. Ultimately, the novelty of the dual camera setup as well as a manufacturer supported implementation of stock Android justified the premium.

While the review is focussed on the Mi A1, I found it a good idea to compare it with the other phones I have at my disposal which is the Redmi Note 3 and the iPhone 7. The Note 3 should be a good comparison coming from the same stable but based on a year-old higher performance chipset while the iPhone 7 acts like a good benchmark.

Review #47: Walnutt Flexible Bumper Case (iPhone) ★★★☆☆

A bump in the road!
A bumper case is a sweet compromise between using the phone as manufactured and sheathing it in a figurative armour. The RhinoShield CrashGuard has done well in this space and while price is a genuine concern when purchasing it in India, it also has its fair share of issues with its width, buttons and removal. Far cry from that is the 'Walnutt' bumper case. Going by the different brands and prices this case is sold under, it seems to be a generic case, rather than one from a specific company.

Review #46: Fiio BTR1 (Bluetooth Amplifier with AK4376 DAC) ★★★☆☆ (Updated!)

A small device with big sound on a budget.
The removal of the headphone jack on phones is a recent phenomenon but I have been dilly-dallying with clip-on, stereo Bluetooth headsets for quite some time. The excuse for doing so was convenience, at the expense of sound quality. Without putting so much as a thought, I went with Sony in those days and hence my initial experience revolved around the MW-600 and SBH54. However, while the MW-600 was a solid device for its time, the SBH54 was a huge disappointment. Hence, Sony was never in consideration for my next device.

With the iPhone 7 being my primary device, I gave some thought to using a lightning connector device prior to considering other Bluetooth choices. The 1More Triple Driver was certainly at the top of the list but the price premium for the lightning version put it beyond the price range I was looking at. Another option was to go for a 3.5mm adapter and the i1 turned out to be the most prominent among the limited options available, but it didn't take much to understand that it didn't really offer a better value proposition compared to Apple's adapter. However, it was this visit to the Fiio site for the i1 that put me on course to the BTR1.

Review #10: Sony SBH54 Bluetooth Headset (October 2017 update) ★★★☆☆

Good design, let down terribly by software and connectivity
Update #6 (Oct 30, 2017): For the first time in a long time, an update is not about the latest firmware. I recently got my hands on the Fiio BTR1, so stay tuned for that review later in the week. However, over the course of testing that device, I revisited the SBH54 and finally checked its codec support. Sony only lists support for the A2DP v1.2 profile, so the exact codec support isn't clear and I can't believe that I didn't test for it until now. Guess it's better late than never.

1. SBH54 has AAC support, so Apple Music and local AAC files are directly transmitted to the SBH54 without re-encoding.
2. The device doesn't support the optional MP3 codec, so direct decoding of it fails. Since the SBH54 also lacks aptX support, MP3 files are re-encoded to SBC prior to transmission.
3. Similar to MP3, Spotify streams in Ogg Vorbis are re-encoded to the much inferior SBC prior to transmission to the SBH54.
There you have it. The complete list of codec support includes the optional AAC in addition to the mandatory SBC. I assume that Sony also didn't include support for its proprietary ATRAC codec, but even if it did, it's redundant and doesn't have any practical usage. So, AAC (Apple Music) files are the best way to go on the SBH54 as they are played back natively, to the best of the device's ability. Meanwhile, if your MP3 collection and Spotify didn't sound so good on the SBH54, then you know why.

Musing #41: iPhone X - The new generation 5C

Every "expert" worth his/her salt has formed an opinion on the iPhone X by now, so why should this armchair expert be left behind? You will have to go back only 4 years to the iPhone 5C (remember that?) to find an instance where Apple generated a lot of divided opinions over a new product. On the face of it, it would seem preposterous to compare the 5C to the X considering how the two were positioned and yet, strategically, it is not too different.

I would be upfront about the fact that it would be sad to see Apple succeed with the iPhone X. This is coming from an iPhone 7 user. In case you are wondering, I absolutely miss the headphone jack. The Lightning EarPods suffer from poor fit and low volume. The adapter is one ugly umbilical cord having the same volume issues. I hate having to charge (and pair) my Bluetooth headset. To add to the misery, there are no real (read, value for money) alternatives available as far as Lightning connector earphones are concerned. In short, I feel like a doofus in having spent a small fortune in affirming Apple's opinion about the headphone jack. At the same time, I absolutely love the solid-state Home "button" coupled with the Taptic engine and the stereo speakers. My major focus was on security and privacy which could have been served with any iOS device but it was certainly worth getting the iPhone 7 over the 6S.

So, why ought the X not succeed? Simply because it will set a new benchmark for the pricing of smartphones. The price certainly doesn't justify the features you are getting over the 7 or 8 or the Plus variants, but it would indicate the customer's willingness to accede to Apple's pricing experiment. Yes, the X is pretty much an experimental product in the same vein as the 5C. Why else would Apple need to accompany it with a "safe" incremental option? It is because Apple is unsure whether it is heading in to the right direction. It is no longer a Jobsian case of "customers don't know what they want" but rather a case of "Apple doesn't know what the customers want". The "new" iPad was a case of Apple bowing to the consumers and embracing the X will be subverting to that cause.

Pricing issues aside, the X doesn't really follow Apple's vision of simplification. It certainly does so from the hardware perspective but it is trying to make up for it using software, resulting in the most grotesque of usability issues. The 7 certainly was a step in the wrong direction but the X is in an altogether different league. The fingers continue to be the primary means of interaction with the iPhone and hence having Face ID precede that step doesn't make things any easier or faster. Apple made it a point to emphasize, using probability, that the face is far more unique than fingerprints. Yet, I can't help think of nefarious ways in which I could surreptitiously use an acquaintance's face to unlock the device. Identical twins and law enforcement would perhaps have it easier compared to Touch ID. Similarly, swiping up to unlock or stopping midway to access the app switcher or bringing down the control centre from the top right are convoluted mechanisms that are not Apple-esque. I can see Face ID being much more useful when the user interface completely shifts to gaze tracking, but right now it is an impediment. Apple has tried to compensate for it by utilising the TrueDepth camera for Animojis, AR and selfie portraits, but they are pure gimmicks to indulge the user who has already bought in to the X. Personally, I was impressed by Portrait Lighting but that isn't exclusive to the X, though it might do a better job with the f/2.4 aperture telephoto lens.

The irony is that the major appeal of the X can be attributed to Samsung's OLED display, apart from the notch for which Apple can claim full credit. One can only imagine that describing the features of the new display must have been killing Apple from the inside as against showering praise on the Apple-designed components. There is no denying that this is the first edition device of a larger strategic roadmap. In that sense, it bears semblance to the first iPhone. It is not meant to have the features that would logically make life easier for Face ID users. Instead, these "revolutionary" updates will "magically" appear at a later date in forthcoming iOS devices which, as per my gut feeling, won't go beyond X as far as nomenclature is concerned. After all, it seems that tech companies are obsessed by the 'X' factor, going by the erstwhile Mac OS X and the current Windows 10. Thus, in more ways than one, the X is the new avatar of the 5C, but I specifically hope for it to be closest to it in sales. The world at large will of course have other ideas and we may have to resign ourselves to the power of the masses, even if it leads down an abyss.

Review #43: The One Device

As a technology enthusiast, there was no escaping this book. I refer to technology rather than a company because I have never been an ardent Apple or Google fan, having only recently switched from Android to iOS. At the same, it wasn't a case of eagerness to read the book as it was the fact that I was bombarded with references to the book wherever I went, be it on podcasts or tech sites. Hence, I was able to put the book further down my reading list until I finally came across it a few days back.

Going by the book's name and the timing of its release, it would be valid to presume that it has the blessings of Apple and would offer candid insights from the who’s who of the iPhone team. However, as the book makes it clear upfront, Apple's veil of secrecy extends to the extent that no current (and some former) employee can share their story on the record. Hence, the book instead relies on the recounting by other industry stalwarts as well as anonymous Apple sources. This kind of anonymity can impact the credibility of some of the stories but in this case, it can't be helped and it certainly seems to fit the narrative. The other aspect is that one may be beguiled in to thinking that the book would only be focussed on the immediate story of the device's inception, however that is thankfully left to the eponymous last chapter of the book. As a result, the book is able to tell a much more holistic story than would have been possible if it had been focussed on the device alone.

As soon as you start reading the book, it becomes evident that the author is extending a thread from Steve Jobs' biography with his allusion to the "lone inventor" and the author admits to as much. While being repetitive, it is essential to do so because one must see past the mist of Steve Jobs to understand the significantly substantial efforts put in by thousands of others. In fact, the hard headedness of Steve meant that others had to put in far more onerous efforts to help him see the light of the day, only for him to take all the credit. At the same time, Steve paved the highway to success that few other leaders can, bogged down by the immense bureaucracy within the company.

The initial chapters of the book make it amply clear than the iPhone was a significant evolution than the revolution it was proclaimed to be. Another case of standing on the shoulders of giants. This is essentially the premise of the book as it unearths the origins of all that made the iPhone possible. It is humbling to think that century-old satire rather than science fiction accurately portrayed the state of affairs in the 21st century. Even then, the patent arts littered throughout the book indicate how ideas have to wait for years in order for technology to catch up and portray them as revolutionary.

A couple of topics that have always been associated with Apple and the iPhone are conflict mining and the state of working conditions in factories. Both these aspects are covered in detail in the chapters "Minephones", "Lion Batteries" and "Designed in California, Made in China". It is in a way mortifying to think of the people, especially children, whose livelihood depends on cheating death daily to ship the materials for the iPhone. The book is even replete with an adventure in Foxconn City, a humbling insight in to the human price of the iPhone. Of course, Apple has taken steps to ensure better working conditions but that doesn't help those who continue to work in abject conditions for other manufacturers, especially Chinese ones that have less regard for human rights.

As much as users may be pedantic over the iPhone's appearance, it is heartening to see the same level of attention being shown to its components by the author. Hence, the later chapters focus on the origins of Gorilla Glass, multi touch, image stabilization, sensors, processors, antenna, Siri and security enclave. This makes for an interesting read and again emphasizes the notion that the iPhone was more evolutionary than revolutionary as it managed to reap the benefits of miniaturization over the decades and integrate them in a rather appealing package. At the same time, it seems that the author tries a bit too hard in associating modern technology with erstwhile relics like the volvelle because it fits the narrative from his perspective. The book also captures the once prolific jailbreaking scene which has since slowed to a crawl with incremental feature and security updates in iOS. Nonetheless, it was great to hear from the various personalities involved in it as my exposure was simply limited to running the tools bearing their name.

As I have glossed over previously, those expecting an origin story of the iPhone, ought to find solace in the last chapter of the book. Of course, the build up to it is scattered across the chapters, without which you wouldn't be able to identify the characters involved. However, the emphasis once again is on the sacrifice of the unsung heroes involved in the creation of the device. While the sufferings of the designers in US might not have been at the same level as those involved in mining and assembly, there isn't denying the fact that the one device has claimed its fair share of victims along the way.

Reflecting on the book, it is apparent it was meant to be a reference on the iPhone and not so much about an iPhone. It is historic in context and therefore will stand the test of time as an accurate reflection of the iPhone's legacy on its 10th anniversary, much more than Apple's pretentious photo book. However, the book is by no means a page turner and could have benefited significantly from being tauter. While a good story has certainly been told, it hasn't been done in a particularly engaging manner. Still. this is a recommended read for anyone interested in technology and smartphones, rather than just the iPhone.

Musing #33: iOS 11 - First Look

It is that time of the year again when Apple provides its first peek at non-iPhone hardware and of course, the next version of iOS. As a first time iPhone user with the iPhone 7, this happens to be my first major OS update and hence I couldn't resist trying out the first beta. A forewarning though - this release is absolutely deserving of the "beta" tag and there are bugs all over the place that should be enough of a deterrent to not use it as a daily driver.

1.  The first boot to the lock screen immediately gives a glimpse of the new design language. I prefer this translucent button look over the outlined circles in iOS 10 and the reversion to the signal bars is a welcome change. However, for some reason, I had Bluetooth enabled on my first boot, the first indication of a bug.

2. Diving straight in to one of the major changes in iOS 11 - the Control Centre. The full screen control centre, with its default setting, looks rather bland with all the empty space at the top. Moreover, some of the controls are counter intuitive. For example, the Bluetooth control cannot be used to switch it on but only gets activated when a device is connected and the volume control only affects media playback rather than the ringer volume, even when no media is present.
The benefits of 3D Touch has always been arguable, but here it expands the controls further. The ability to quickly toggle off mobile data is much welcome.
The Control Centre is finally customizable, but it only impacts the bottom row of controls. If you want to go overboard with it, this is how it looks. Obviously, Apple has a lot of work to do here.

3. A focus on simplification - the iMessage shortcut bar. It is good riddance too as the previous interface was very poor for discovery. The shortcut bar appears by itself on the opening of an existing message even if it is not an iMessage. Recalling it with the keyboard open takes some effort as you have to make sure it is an iMessage and then click on the App Store icon. So, there are few things to be sorted here as well.

4. The dialler follows the new design language as well but with the backspace button at the bottom, next to the Call button. I think that is a more practical placement in terms of making correction to an entered number.

5. The new App Store design is interesting to say the least but it requires quite a lot of scrolling and has very little information density. Funnily enough, while Apple showcased the new Safari feature of blocking the annoying autoplay videos, it has embraced the same in the App Store. The second screenshot here is actually a gameplay video that auto plays on scrolling, though thankfully the video is muted by default, much like Steam.

6. The notification shade is now a replica of the lock screen. I would rather have it not hiding my notifications because that is precisely the reason I am swiping down.

7. I can seldom get Siri to understand my needs, but it was worth a try. Although Siri speaks "Chinese" and not Hindi, the point is moot for there is no support for translation from "Indian English".

8. Apple hasn't re-embraced skeuomorphism, but the calculator is a hark back to the days of old with its colour scheme.

9. Finally, the all new Files app. It is barely functional at the moment and doesn't even find a place in the Settings menu, but a file manager is certainly welcome even if it is limited in functionality compared to other OS.

10. Lastly, the benefits of HEVC should be quite apparent, especially when shooting in high resolution. However, I went with shooting slo-mo at 720p/240 FPS and the resulting video on iOS 11 simply wouldn't play back on any other device. Curiously, considering the same subject and settings, the video size for the 10-sec clip was higher at 61 MB on iOS 11, compared to 48 MB on iOS 10. I assume it is just another quirk since normal videos have been reported to be of half the size and playable with any H.265 compatible media player.

Review #36: Egotude iPhone 7 Case

A case of reality not matching to expectations

The renders of the product, complete with poor Chinese translation is a common feature across all manufacturers selling cases with this design and I must admit that it makes the product look much better than it really is. I had resisted purchasing a case with this design on AliExpress a little after the launch of the iPhone 7 since I was unsure of its quality, even though it was priced at half of what it is being sold for on Amazon India. The ‘Egotude’ branding and mention of ‘Swachh Bharat’ on the package does nothing to hide the true origin of the product which is essentially a “case” of wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Amazon’s one-day Prime shipping and easy returns meant that I could finally judge the case for what it is rather than what it appears to be. Unfortunately, the product left me disappointed on several fronts which I shall list below:

1. The fitting of the case is far too loose to provide any real protection or even to keep out dirt. As you can see in the attached image, it comes off at the side if you simply slide your fingers along the front surface. The top as well as the bottom of the case squeaks when you press upon it, affirming the fact that the case is not fit for the purpose.

2. The moulding of the rubber part of the case is quite inconsistent. If you run your fingers around it, you can easily feel the jaggedness along the surface.

3. The cut-outs are very poorly done. The attached image indicates how misaligned the cut-out for the mute switch is. Similarly, the cut-out for the lens wasn’t a precise circle, featuring serration on one side. It is as if the machine failed to punch out a complete circle in the rubber casing, following which someone manually pulled it out manually.

4. Quite inexplicably, the transparent back of the case features a hole at its bottom right which you may be able to make out in the attached image. It is not as if there is a noise cancellation microphone present at that location, so it doesn’t make any sense, unless it is a manufacturing defect.

5. Even if everything else was perfect, the back is most likely a thin plastic sheet and definitely doesn’t possess the flexibility of TPU. It also happens to be a huge fingerprint magnet since it lacks protective coating of any sort. In my case, to make matters worse, I had something stuck between the rubber lining and the back which simply couldn’t be scraped away.

I will admit that the case gives a glimpse of how attractive it could have been, had it been as good as the renders. However, poor production quality and seemingly non-existent quality control makes it a really bad proposition. It is to be expected at this price point and I have experienced worse with “premium” products. Ultimately, it is a case of what pleases the eyes of the beholder. It is quite possible that you may be able to look past the imperfections of the case in favour of its overall looks. But for me, this case was a return on first sight.

Click here to check the product on Amazon India

P.S.: You have my apologies for the terrible image quality of the attached images, always an issue when the iPhone is the one being pictured instead of taking the picture.

Musing #28: Impressions of Samsung Galaxy S8

Samsung took the wraps off the Samsung Galaxy S8 yesterday and considering prior leaks there wasn't much of a surprise element to it. However, it is quite gratifying to see Samsung make the current design language its own, distinct from other manufacturers. In fact as an iPhone7 user, I would say that Samsung has surpassed Apple in the design department for the last few years. I suppose Jony Ive isn't sitting idle, so it would be great to see what Apple brings to the table later this year on the eve of the iPhone's 10th anniversary.

The impressive aspect of the S8 that strikes you first is the size of the screen compared to the phone itself. While impressive, it is not astonishing as it is more of an evolution of the design that Samsung introduced with the S6. Also, it shoudn't come as a surprise that the "Edge" variant is the default now since I assume most people were only purchasing the non-curved variant only on account of its lower price. Having to fit the phone within the palm of the hand while also being able to fit a large battery has led to manufacturers going for tall designs. This has led to some weird aspect ratios in recent times and the S8's 19.5:9 is no different. I already struggle to reach the status bar on an iPhone 7 with a single hand, so I am not sure the S8 is going to make that task any easier. At least, the 2960x1440 Super AMOLED display makes more sense considering that Gear VR is a very interesting proposition for mobile VR.

Ditching of the physical home button was long overdue but Samsung's solution of integrating an always-on "Force Touch" as the Home button along the bottom of the screen is particularly elegant. The absence of the physical button also means that the fingerprint sensor has been moved to the back and I will admit that I have never been a fan of having it at the back. It is natural to have the screen facing the skin for protection and this leads the fingerprint sensor open to inadvertent activation when the hand is inserted in the pocket. Samsung's placement is particularly egregious since it is bound to lead to smudging of the camera lens time and again, besides being a stretch for most hands. I assume that in the S8's case, it must have been done to keep the lower back area of the phone from hardware in order to fit the battery. The back placement also makes it impossible to glance at unlocked notifications when the phone is on the table. Samsung seems to have mitigated this to an extent through the presence of the iris and face scanners but then again it requires the phone to be at the face level.

My last experience of Samsung's Touchwiz was a long time ago when the S3 happened to be my primary device. During that time it was particularly strenuous on the hardware limited by processing and RAM capacity which inevitably led to a deteriorating experience, even though I liked the various tweaks added by Samsung. Both hardware and software development has come a long way since then and Samsung seems to have come to grips as far as organising the plethora of options is concerned. I am still not a fan of the colour schemes and I am afraid that Samsung's design language will always be at odds with Google's latest designs and significantly at odds with app designs that may or may not cohesively follow either. My hope is that all things aside, Samsung's stated optimisation of the camera software is better considering that the sensor for the back camera has remained the same since the S7, which was too aggressive in sharpening the images.

A big focus on the software side, over the long run, will undoubtedly be on Bixby since it hasn't been long since the acquisition of Viv. Samsung is trying to project is as a "do anything on the phone" assistant rather than an online search one and that presents an interesting use case. Even at the best of times, even when completely isolated, I feel awkward speaking to Siri, so I am unsure whether voice will see an increased usage over the hand in time to come.

On the platform front, it will be interesting to see how the Snapdragon 835 stacks up against the Exynos 8895 in the international variants. On the CPU side, Qualcomm seems to have gone with only slightly modified A73 cores allowing for competitors to close in or even surpass on the CPU side of things, though one expects the Adreno 540 to be ahead on the GPU side. Also, gigabit LTE doesn't seem to be the sole domain of Qualcomm, so things are going to be really interesting as far as the internal hardware is concerned.

2017 is once again shaping to be an exciting year for flagships after a somewhat disappointing 2016 which featured an uninspiring iPhone design (fancy I should call it that as an iPhone 7 owner) and exploding batteries. So, hold on to your seats and enjoy the ride!

Musing #27: Applified! (iOS App)

Even as I finished writing the last sentence of the previous post, I couldn't resist taking up the challenge of creating the iOS app for the website as soon as possible. The result is my fastest follow-up post. I must admit that not unlike the Android app, I was only aiming at a WebView app that would utilize the current mobile responsive theme. More than anything else, it was about crossing another item off my bucket list.

However, the task was easier said than done. I had only installed XCode a few hours prior to try out what I have covered in my earlier post. While I settled for the Cydia Impactor approach for Kodi, creating the app meant firing up XCode, learning its basics, coding and then compiling the app in a matter of minutes. Hence, I was more than happy in churning out an app just a little later and having it running on my phone, even if it was ornamental more than anything else.

The last thing left to consider before publishing this post was deciding on the post title. The Android one lent itself very well to word play, but doing so with iOS wasn't very practical. Hence, I decided to go with "Applified" which plays on Apple as well as the process of app creation. The app itself can be accessed from the 'Download App' section and installed using Cydia Impactor on a non-jailbroken device.

Tutorial #13: Installing (sideloading) Kodi and other open source apps on iOS without jailbreak

Apple is renowned for its walled garden which has its upside in terms of security but prevents users from accessing apps that are not on the App Store. Thankfully, Apple opened a small gate in the fence a couple of years ago which allowed open source applications to be signed and installed by the user for personal use. This opened the door for the sideloading of apps like Kodi and emulators like nds4ios which would otherwise never make it to the App Store.

The long way to do this would be to download the source code for the app, compile it in XCode and then transfer the app to the phone. The catch here is that you need a Mac for it or in the least a Hackintosh, besides some patience. However, this is also the only way to run all available open source applications, a handy list of which is available at this link. The official guide to compiling Kodi can be accessed here.

A much easier option is to use Cydia Impactor. It is much less time consuming and easier to execute, as illustrated in this guide. Again, the rider here is that you need the already compiled IPA files to sign them with your own certificates. Many of the prominent ones including Kodi and most emulators are available here.

With Apple, there is always "one more thing" and it is true here as well. The free developer certificates last only a week, so it means that the process of sideloading the app has to be repeated every week. It is definitely an inconvenience but by design as it reduces the scope for piracy and bypassing of the App Store. The pain can be alleviated if you go for a paid developer account ($99/year) which allows the app to be installed till the certificate expires at the end of a year. Lastly, if you fancy coughing up $10/year, then you can go along with the BuildStore which allows you to directly install select apps from the browser with the certificates lasting for nearly a year.

Of course, apart from accessing Kodi and emulators, this option also allows one to create and test one's own apps without coughing up anything which is incentive enough for me to have a go at creating an iOS app as well for the website.

Musing #24: Mobile World Congress 2017 with Nokia

MWC is upon us and it is not hard to get excited by the latest and greatest. Except, that isn't quite the case this time around. In the past, MWC provided the first glimpse of the next big thing through the unveiling of a plethora of flagship Android devices. However, it is not the case any more, not because my personal allegiance is to the iPhone, but because of the lack of the other big names in the Android space, most notably Samsung and to a small extent OnePlus. This left LG to hold the fort and while the G6 seems to be a really solid an practical device (more so compared to the G5), it isn't going to set the stage alight with its specifications. Sony, on the other hand, managed quite the contrary by being on the top of the specification game but low on practicality. Of course, one can argue that the specs game no longer works and value is in the mid-segment with the Motorola G5s, so it is for the market to pass a judgment over the course of the year.

For me then, the focus of the show was Nokia. One may argue that HMD Global's Nokia is that only in name, but it is the essence and principle of the brand that matters rather than its ownership. In that sense, it is good to have Nokia back rather than have the name obliterated in the consumer mobile space. Nokia too doesn't seem to be playing the specs game with the Snapdragon 430, but the general uniformity of the specifications across the three devices (Nokia 3, 5, 6) must be a small price to pay for getting the "pure" Android experience along with the latest updates. Since I do not have the need for a flagship or a mid level device, the star of the show for me was the "one more thing", the 3310.

Back in the day, I never owned one even though it was hard to miss its presence amongst one's social circle. The legendary durability and battery life is what cast it in to a myth and it is nice to see that its reincarnation hasn't strayed too far from that philosophy. A colour screen is pretty much needed in this day and age. I assume that in some markets the phone itself might outlast the connectivity since 2G (with EDGE) networks are slowly heading towards the sunset. It seems to be the perfect spoil to today's smartphones, all of which possess a battery life measurable in 2-digit hours rather than days. Is there a need for this phone? I guess not. But would any Nokia fan want one? My guess is yes for the price it comes at. The perfect "life" phone that will help you survive the apocalypse.

Speaking of apocalypse, for the time being, it is another "Nokia" in my collection that holds the mantle for the highest battery life even at 9 years old. It is bruised, battered and compromised, but still twists and refuses to lie down. Nokia FTW!

Review #31: dbrand Carbon Black skin for iPhone 7

If you have come down the road of a dbrand skin, then I assume that looks and profile are a priority for you. At least that is how it has turned out for me. I went from a shock-absorbing case to a slim case to a point where I no longer wanted the bulk or ugliness of a case.

I already have a 3D tempered glass up front to account for the screen shattering experiences, so at the back it was all down to the grip and scratch protection more than anything else. dbrand was on my mind since long when I purchased my previous phone - OnePlus One, but purchasing from their website wherein the shipping was more than the product price itself made it an improbable prospect. I settled for the bamboo case with the OPO, but this time I got the opportunity to apply it on the iPhone 7 due to its availability on Amazon India.

Since there are cases of some fake skins being sent for some other phone models, I should clarify that I purchased it from Jindal trading who happen to be the importers for the product. As a result, the price of ₹490 (and additional cashbacks amounting to 25%) made the skin much cheaper than what it is available for on the dbrand website itself. The product received was the original one, though it had a slight fold to it, probably on account of how it was handled during shipping. It contained the "precision fit" back skin with a cutout for the Apple logo and wraps around the camera.

For someone applying a skin for the first time, the installation, at least as seen in the official video, can seem to be a bit daunting. However, once you start applying the skin, you realize that it is nothing more to it than applying a sticker with the added fun of using a hair dryer. The lining up the cutouts with the ports, buttons and logo takes some effort and patience but it certainly works out well if you go through the application process systematically. As is the case with self-application of any skin or tempered glass, there is bound to be some variation resulting in a small gap or bulge but for the most part such imperfections are seldom visible.

While my idea of elegant protection for the iPhone 7 seems to be evolving with time, this is (as Apple would put it), my best decision till date. The feel of the material is really good, resistant to scratches and looks every bit as a part of a F1 chassis. I will leave you with a picture depicting the end result of my latest dalliance.

Musing #23: Elegantly protecting the iPhone 7 (Cafele Thin case and G. D. Smith Tempered Glass)

Lately, a lot of references to the iPhone have been creeping in to my posts. I guess that is bound to happen when it's your first iPhone, lending itself to some experimentation. It undeniably costs a small fortune, especially in India and hence the need to protect it as an insurance against paying the immense Apple tax when it comes down to repairs. It is true that the IP67 protection of the iPhone 7 helps against environmental factors but it can do nothing to compensate for human stupidity and clumsiness.

I have already reviewed my first choice of "protectors", the ones I had purchased along with the phone. I have already documented my disappointment with the Nilkin 2.5D tempered glass protector, though the Spigen case was more up to the task. However, the case's protection comes at a cost, namely, it makes the phone a bit unwieldy to use with one hand. It also causes obstruction when typing characters on the edge of the keyboard and as I had already predicted in my review, it has already started yellowing at the edges.

This made me revisit the idea of how the phone ought to be protected. After a little bit of deliberation, I decided to look out for a minimal case that would provide grip and scratch protection. To account for screen-shattering human clumsiness, I decided to go for a full screen tempered glass protector. Even with this in mind, it is not easy to make a choice due to the plethora of options available for the iPhone. Instead of going with over-priced products that are re-sold in the local market, I purchased directly from AliExpress. My choice included the following:

1. Cafele Thin Case: My idea was to go with something like the Spigen Air case but it would be an understatement to mention that it is over-priced. The closest thing I could find on AliExpress is this case. Surprisingly, I received the product fairly quickly (within a fortnight) by AliExpress standards. The quality of the product too is quite good. In fact, I would go on to say that it has a better fit and design than the Spigen Air case being used by my brother on the iPhone 6. Initially, I didn't like the rough matte feel of this case compared to the rubbery feel on the Spigen Air case, but it has been slowly growing on me. One thing to note is that the case isn't as transparent/translucent as the pictures on the website would depict (I picked grey) and the Apple logo is barely visible.

2. G. D. Smith 3D tempered glass: Rather than browse around like I did for the case, I searched for this by name. To be more accurate, I searched by the name "Godosmith" since that was the one I had purchased a couple of years previously for my OnePlus One. Back then, it was more of a necessity since there were no tempered glasses available locally for the OPO. Having been satisfied by its performance (shattering at the edges after a couple of chair and floor hits but keeping the screen intact), I decided to go with it once again. The full screen protector was significantly easier to apply as I only needed to line it up with the home button and then lay it down. Getting rid of the air bubbles took a bit more time and effort since you have to do so using a thin gap present between the tempered glass and the ABS covering at the sides. However, after a few days things have settled down just fine though I will admit that the tempered glass isn't as smooth as the iPhone's glass surface and is more of a fingerprint magnet.

With this duo, my objective is complete. The iPhone now definitely looks like an iPhone and is a joy to use with a single hand while offering protection against most human calamities. I can't imagine going back to "rugged" cases, but if you have a personal preference, then do share so in the comments.

Review #21: Spigen Ultra Hybrid Case for iPhone 7 Crystal Clear

Spigen has made a name for itself by the quality of its cases and this one is another exceptional Korean product. When I purchased the new Black variant of the iPhone 7, one of my priorities was to ensure its protection without ruining the looks. The Ultra Hybrid case fit the bill perfectly, though I must admit that it hurt a bit to have to pay Rs. 1099 for a case that sells for less than $11.

The case comes covered in thin film on both sides which you have to peel off. This ensures that there are no scratches on the case itself out of the box. However, the film was not attached to a tab which meant I had to put my fingernails to use in order to find a point from where I could begin peeling off the film. Also, instructions on the web state that the case should be left to aerate for about 5 minutes before application to avoid air bubbles and I paid heed to that advice without any issues.

The case itself ticks off all the right boxes by having an impeccable fit. It is reassuring to hear the phone snap in to the case at every corner. The cut-outs align perfectly with the port, grills, slider and the camera lens. The raised lip around the edges as well as the lens ensures that no part of the phone sits flush with the surface thereby reducing the chances of scratches.

The primary reasons, however, to purchase a case, especially for the iPhone are grip and fall protection. This case offers plenty of the former and is easy to use with a single hand. As for the latter, I don't intend to test the 'Air Cushion Technology' intentionally but I trust it to offer some sort of shock absorption in case of a drop.

While the case certainly looks crystal clear right now, I have no clue about the long term prospects. It already has few micro scratches after a week of usage though it is only visible under close scrutiny. It is also a minor fingerprint magnet though that doesn't matter at all since you can swipe it off easily. What's really unknown is whether the case will end up yellowing after some time which is the bane of most clear cases. I sure hope not.

To sum it up, if you are on the lookup for a clear case for the iPhone 7, then this should be your default option.

Review #20: Nillkin 2.5D Tempered Glass for Apple iPhone 7

I must admit that it is not easy buying a tempered glass for even the cheapest ones are marketed as having 9H hardness, 2.5D coverage and 99.9% transparency. Nillkin as a brand has some recall value for me, having encountered it in the past when surfing for tempered glasses. It is simply then just a case of familiarity that made me go for this one as against the ocean of other tempered glasses, most of which are also of Chinese make. Nillkin seems to have made some sort of a name for itself to the extent that it has had to implement a counterfeit check on its website against other Chinese imitators (the irony!). In my case, the serial which is to be scratched off the package turned out to be a genuine one.

Speaking of the package, I had assumed that I would come across some amount of professionalism considering that the company has been involved in this business for quite some time, but it was not to be. The instructions in English are the typical "lost in translation" ones which makes little more sense than Chinese itself. The pretense is let go completely in the inner packaging which is in Chinese. This package contains the wipes (wet and dry), anti-static/dust sticker, the tempered glass and circular stickers that I imagine can go with the Home button and/or the camera lens depending on your preference.

The thing with the iPhone 7 is that the bezels are curved, so all the 2.5D tempered glasses have a width that is exactly equal to the width of the display, leaving no margin for error at all. I decided to apply the tempered glass with my phone switched off which meant that the display blended perfectly with the black bezels, a mistake in hind sight. I lined the glass using the speaker grille, front camera at the top and the home button at the bottom. Like is normally the case, most of the air bubbles escaped as soon as the glass settled down with pockets of air remaining only at the bottom. I was quickly able to remove the ones to the left of the home button through swiping while the ones to the right refused to go away. I went to the extent of lifting up the glass from that side in order to let the air escape but the air bubbles again settled it at the same spot which gives me the impression that the glass had some manufacturing defect causing it to not sit flush at that small region. However, worse was to follow when I switched on the phone and discovered that the alignment was less than a mm off to the left at the top while being fine at the bottom. This meant that the edge of the glass lined up a tiny fraction inside the display leading to light from the edge being diffracted and giving off spectral hues. The tempered glass not covering the entire front face also meant that the edges brushed against my fingers whenever I swiped up the Control Centre or swiped across the home screen. It was particularly irritating when taking calls as the edge would brush against the ear as well.

You may be wondering why I am mentioning this glass in the past tense. It is so because all the minor irritants that I mentioned above adversely impacted my experience of using the phone leading me to remove the glass within 24 hours of applying it. Some may call this move irrational but I choose to term it "courageous". Jokes aside, the clarity of the glass and the 3D Touch response were fine, so if you have no issues with a tempered glass covering the front face partially, then by all means go for this one. If you are a little bit more pedantic, your response might end up being the same as mine.