Belle's Hell

We’re talking about Finnish engineering, so here’s a picture of Helsinki’s central metro station

All right, I’ve been in Finland for well over a week and so far I’ve avoided the N-word. The time has come, we have to face up to this.

Nokia – are they completely buggered?

You wouldn’t think so to look around here. There are Nokias everywhere. After that, the iPhone and maybe Blackberries. Though Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S III is being advertised on every vertical surface, I haven’t seen one in the wild – don’t see many Android phones at all.

Well, why use an imitation of the iPhone when you have the thing the iPhone imitated? Nokia were making smartphones years before Apple after all. And even today their Symbian operating system is in many ways…

No, I can’t do it. Much as I like the company, much as I like Finland, much as Symbian was once a really great operating system for smartphones, Nokia lost it there. It might have been said a year or so ago that they were at a crossroads. Today, it would be charitable to say they’re on a roundabout. Nokia now make phones with five different operating systems.

There’s Maemo/MeeGo. OK, that one we can pretty much write off as a noble experiment. There are S30 and S40, the systems for low- and mid-price phones respectively. There’s Windows Phone, the one Nokia is betting on to restore it to the leading edge of phone technology. And then, we have Symbian.

Poor Symbian.

Well actually we don’t, not anymore. The company clearly considers the name a liability, so Symbian^3 Anna (releases now have girls’ names) was superseded earlier this year by what’s known simply as Nokia Belle.

I just upgraded a friend’s phone to this latest (last?) iteration of the world’s first real smartphone OS. Aside from it coming with free Angry Birds, we hoped that it would be nicer to use than Anna. Despite being a Finn, my friend had never had a Symbian phone before and she thoroughly disliked it. Compared to her previous S60 one it just seemed needlessly complex.

An assessment I agree with – I’ve never understood why they felt that the controls had to be buried in folders within folders, divided into often confusing categories. You can spend ages on a Symbian phone trying to find how to change the ring tone, on the way passing all sorts of settings and features you never knew you needed – because you probably don’t. A little adventure really, but it also speaks volumes about the strengths and weaknesses of Symbian. It is incredibly mature, and over its twenty-odd years of development – if you trace back to its origins on the PDAs made by British company Psion – has accumulated a huge range of capabilities. But also, much now-unnecessary complexity.

For what it’s worth, Belle is an improvement. What Nokia have done – showing signs of desperation – is make it look and work a lot more like Android, even copying the ‘tray’ that slides down to display notifications and major settings. Gone are the layers of folders. But for people like my friend who upgrade to Belle it just makes the unfamiliar even more unfamiliar. And for new buyers, a resemblance to Android is hardly enough. If Symbian had been as close as this a couple of years ago, it might now have the momentum to rival Android for apps. But it appears inevitable that it will be phased out completely in the next couple of years – not just in name.

So is there any reason to choose a Symbian/Belle phone now?

Yes. The fact that it was designed from the start for the limited hardware of portable devices – indeed, the far more limited hardware of an earlier generation – means that to this day nothing can compete with a Symbian phone in terms of battery life. Plus it runs far better on low-end hardware than Android does. So if you need smartphone functionality and you don’t want to pay very much, seriously consider a cheap Nokia smartphone over a cheap Android such as Samsung’s dreadful Galaxy Y. In the year or two you might have it, that could add up to a couple of hundred fewer times you need to find a charger.

It’s sad perhaps that they won’t be keeping Symbian on just to fight that corner, but now is the time for Nokia to concentrate. They have S40 for good cheap “dumb” phones and, in Windows Phone 8, a smartphone OS that looks like it genuinely can compete with Apple and Google. Nokia I think will be all right – indeed, great again one day. It’s just sad that they have to sacrifice so much independence, and so much history.

Sayonara, Symbian.

And here’s a Finnish bridge

Galaxy Note With Ice Cream Sandwich 2

Some Screenshots:

Multitasking, something of an afterthought until now, becomes integral in Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Hold the home button and every app you’ve used recently is there waiting to take up from where you left off. Well I say recently; presumably it’s limited by available memory, but it seems able to hold dozens.

That “Deck of Cards” view in Google Chrome Beta for mobile, allowing you to flick through your open tabs. This is a really good idea.

Another feature of the new Chrome browser – preview of search results. Touch a small magnifying glass icon in the results and screenshots are spread out for you. It’s remarkably fast too.


In short, I love this browser! It’s not perfect yet; it crashed once, and it took me a while to coax it into allowing me to upload those screenshots. (Tip: Zoom out. When screen is magnified, WordPress can get confused about which link you’re pressing.) But I created this post using it exclusively, a real-world challenge involving complex JavaScript-heavy pages and devilish floating input panels. The only mobile browser to even barely pass before this was Nokia’s MicroB, which is essentially desktop Firefox for Linux in a mobile guise. To finally surpass this is high praise indeed – and an indictment of other mobile browsers when you consider that they’re still behind a standard Nokia set three years ago.

Anyway, the take-home here is that mobile browsing finally works right. Well done, Google.

Galaxy Note With Ice Cream Sandwich

image

The latest version of Android is at last available for Samsung’s Galaxy Note!

Well, kind of. If you live in certain parts of Germany, and perhaps downwind. No one is sure when carriers will actually make it available in their location.

Tired of waiting I cracked, and installed Ice Cream Sandwich myself. A caveat then: As far as I know the version I am using is precisely the one that Samsung released to carriers in Ireland¹, but there may be more to be done with it before the networks roll it out. Particularly, while it appears to be the latest version of Android (4.0.3) complete with Samsung’s “TouchWiz” top layer, not all of the much-publicised Premium Suite seems to be present.

(The only obvious inclusion in fact is S Note, which seems to be a more capable replacement for the – already very useful – S Memo note-taking and sketching app.)

Anyway, that’s all beside the point. What’s it like!?! The initial impression might be a little disappointing – it hardly seems to have changed at all. But that’s because the front end is still Samsung’s TouchWiz customisation. Look closer and you begin to see quite the opposite – everything has changed. There hardly seems to be a single element of Android that hasn’t been either subtly or radically improved. This really is a new OS. It shows best perhaps in an improved tightness, in a great many more options and details, more fancy transitions. All in all, just a nicer overall experience.

For me of course, what matters most is the pen functions. And the good news is, my hopes are realised. That little dot appears on the screen to show it tracking the pen tip, so you know exactly where your line is going to appear when you draw. As odd as that might sound to those who haven’t tried it, this makes drawing far more spontaneous and intuitive. And the pen seems to have become even more responsive too. As you can see above, it gives you a natural, ink-like line. I can say unequivocally now that this must be the best pocket-sized electronic sketchpad you can acquire.

The wider public I think will be more impressed by something that doesn’t actually come with Ice Cream Sandwich, but requires it: The beta version of the new mobile Chrome browser. On a big screen like the Note’s you can set it to act like a desktop browser, and it can deal with complex, JavaScript-laden sites such as editing WordPress.  Clever pop-up magnifications help you choose small menu items, and it employs a metaphor that stretches back to PalmOS, the lost rival mobile system, and even all the way to the original WAP mobile browser – that of a “deck of cards”. Open tabs can be viewed almost as if they were a poker hand, and unwanted ones can be flicked away. It’s all very cute and fluidly animated, basically making other mobile browsers – even Apple’s – look crude and unfinished. And it’s still in beta.

This alone makes the upgrade something to look forward to. Hang on, it can’t be much longer now! And if you are thinking of buying a Samsung Galaxy Note, be assured that the bits that seemed rough on release are now smooth. The fabulous tablet-phone just got more fabulous.

As well as Vodafone, The Samsung Galaxy Note is now available in Ireland from 3 and O2.

 

  1. For the more technically inclined reader: The ROM I installed came from here; to flash it I used Odin, a simple process that doesn’t even require you to root.  Note that I am NOT recommending you try this yourself. It almost certainly voids your warranty, and there is a non-zero chance that it will irretrievably destroy your phone. 

The Missing Kies To Android Phone Syncing (2)

The MyPhoneExplorer Settings dialogue. Don't be scared.

When I told you about MyPhoneExplorer, the software that does for free what Samsung and other Android phone makers seem incapable of doing for money, I mentioned that there were helpful, comprehensive instructions. I did not, however, tell you where to find them… Here they are. There’s also a forum where you can ask any questions you might have. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s in German, it’s an easy language to pick up.

Oh OK, the English section is here.

What follows are a few things I discovered for myself that may help you set it up right. It’s worth noting first that there are two parts to the software – a desktop application for Windows, and a phone app available from Google Play. Don’t bother downloading the latter though. On first using the desktop version, go the the Settings dialogue in the File menu and tell it that your phone is an Android and that you connect by USB (or set it to Autodetect the connection). Then when you plug the phone in it will install the Android app itself.

All I wanted to do was back up my photos and other files, without having to remember. Backups that need to be remembered are backups that don’t get done. Not when I’m in charge. MyPhoneExplorer can sync over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but as I often recharge my phone by plugging it into a PC I thought the most dependable way would be to do it automatically whenever the USB cable connects.

For this to happen of course, the program must be running on the computer. So I searched through the menus trying to find the checkbox that would make it launch on startup. And searched, and searched. To save you some considerable time, there isn’t one. You have to do it the old-fashioned way by creating a shortcut in the Startup folder. (Find the MyPhoneExplorer folder in the All Programs menu, click and hold the program icon and drag it to the Startup folder.) You know it’s freeware when the author finds the simple way just too boring.

There are other options for you to play with. Many, many other options. For example, you can choose whether to sync your contacts with Outlook or some other program. Under the menu item “Advanced 2” you can select the folder where your photos will be copied, so if you’ve already set up Kies to put them in a certain location you may as well use the same one again. Several copies of your pictures on different computers = Good management. Several copies on the same computer = Pointless (but pretty normal).

The crucial settings for syncing though are under the menu item “Multi-Sync” (see picture). A Multi-sync is what it calls a pre-set choice of items to sync all in one go. You can select exactly what you want to be copied, and where to. And while all the usual ones are available – photos, contacts, calendar and so on – the great thing for the power user is that you can create custom file syncs. For example, I copy across podcasts I’ve downloaded to the PC during the day. In the opposite direction, I have it transfer things I drew or wrote on the phone.

The crucial one here though, if you want things to happen all by themselves, is “Start Multi-sync if connection is initiated automatically”. Once that is checked the program should detect when you’ve plugged the phone in and start to sync, making backing your phone up as easy as putting it on charge.

If it doesn’t start, I dunno what you’ve done wrong. Try poking things randomly.

The Missing Kies

More Non-Fun With Samsung. It is amazing that a company rumoured to be the world’s No.1 phone maker can provide their customers with synchronisation software as enjoyable to use as being punched repeatedly in the face. Samsung Kies is slow, unstable, and just ill-conceived.

I decided to give it a thorough troubleshooting today, by removing anything on the computer that might have even a remote chance of interfering with it. My old Nokia syncing software, the crap that Apple piles on when you install Safari or iTunes – anything that might use Media Transfer Protocol basically – before removing and reinstalling Kies. It was a long shot, but it seemed to do some good. At least it will show thumbnails of photos now. That’s… something.

But I must confess – I discovered eventually that Kies wasn’t really failing to accomplish a basic task as I’d thought. It simply doesn’t do that task. Foolish me. Why would I think that a function with a name like “Sync Photos” would sync photos? My naïveté just appals me sometimes.

You see I wanted it to copy the pictures I’d taken with the phone and save them to the computer. On most parts of planet Earth that would mean creating a folder on your computer that always contains the same photographs as the phone. In, as we call it, sync.

For Samsung’s Kies however, syncing photos means copying them from the computer, to the phone. Because that’s what you want to do, isn’t it? Un-backup your pictures. Samsung it seems are so pleased with their phones that they think we’ll want to put all our photos on them, to show them off to their best advantage.

More seriously, they’re envisaging the phone as your central device, your hub. Things move to the phone, not away. All nice in theory, but complete crap in practice. The reality is that both for the sake of convenience and of  backing-up, you want the same files on both your phone and your computer. Synchronisation, as the name suggests, should be a two-way street.

(The cloud? If you have an Android phone you may have found it automatically uploading your photos to your Google account. The way of the future, right. The problem with the cloud is it’s altogether too nebulous. I’m not at all happy entrusting every picture I take to someone who mysteriously doesn’t even want paying for the service.)

So Kies won’t copy my pictures to the computer as a part of an automated syncing process. I have to do it manually. Which means I have to remember to do it manually. This is not good enough. All I want, ideally, is software that will copy my photographs. As well as synchronise any new contact info and events with my computer’s address book and calendar. Maybe copy over other important data too, like sketches I make on it. In the other direction, possibly copy any newly-downloaded podcasts to the phone so that I can listen to them on the move. And it would be nice if it could do that all automatically when I plugged my phone into the computer to charge. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Nope, not thanks to the Austrian guy who developed MyPhoneExplorer. This is everything that Kies should be but isn’t. On top of that it has some interesting features that Kies doesn’t think to include, like the facility to use your phone from your computer when it’s connected, making and taking calls and even typing texts on your keyboard. Plus it can archive your text messages, or indeed keep any data or application on the phone backed up.

It may take some time to set up – read the very useful help pages – but that’s because it can be made to do precisely what you want. And it’s free, though it does ask you to donate. You should. The amount of heartache it will save you is well worth a few euros. He has made life better.

Update: I should have mentioned that when installing it offers to give you a couple of other freeware programs. You can decline these though, and on principle I recommend that you do.

Works on most Android phones, not just Samsung’s, as well as Symbians from Sony Ericsson.

http://www.fjsoft.at/en/downloads.php

The Galaxy Note In Depth – 1. Form Factor

Not how Google Earth looks on the average phone. Click to appreciate the full-size image

It isn’t yet possible to definitively review the Samsung Galaxy Note. We still await Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich), which has the potential to make huge differences.

Some of you have phone-buying decisions to make right now though, so I’m going to start at the finish and try to answer questions potential buyers might have. Questions like “Well, should I get this phone then?”

Yes, unequivocally. I can quit early today.

Oh all right, some more detail. Matthew already gave us a thorough run-down of the Note’s hardware and features, so I’ll try to talk more about personal impressions.

So what have you heard about the Note? That it’s big. Huge. Unwieldy even. Some reviewers said it would be difficult to use, even predicted that you would drop it all the time.

They were all wrong. There is nothing impractical about the Note’s size. It feels strange to hold at first, and you will worry you might drop it. But without wanting to tempt fate, a month has gone by sans fumble. Maybe it helps that I bought a case for it, but – though I certainly would recommend getting a case for a piece of glazing like this – I think it’s more just a matter of getting used to it.

You find yourself using it in a more two-handed way than you would a phone of less unusual dimensions – if you have tiny paws like mine at least. Since launch Samsung have actually added the option of a smaller number pad offset to the side to make it more usable with the thumb, but I dial a number so rarely these days I’m perfectly happy to do it with my other hand.

Some reviewers said people would point and laugh at you if you made calls on it in public. That was nonsense too. The public is used to big-screen phones like the Galaxy S II or Droid Razr. The Note is bigger again, sure, but not startlingly. I don’t think I’ve had even a second glance so far. Kind of disappointing really…

So there is very little downside to the the sheer vastness of the Note. The upside is out of all comparison. It’s just… so damn beautiful. (Look at the screenshot of Google Earth above. And remember, that’s been scaled down to fit in here. Click on the image to see the actual pixels.) And yet, also practical. The extra real estate makes everything work that bit better. Browsing, reading, using apps, watching video, entering text on the screen keyboard. The Galaxy Note is an ideal satnav device for example, its big screen allowing you to check out your route at a glance. Plus you can use it in portrait mode, which when you think about it is the way that satnavs really should have been designed in the first place.

Any faults? I don’t think so. Some said the colours were oversaturated, but I find them fine; perhaps Samsung tweaked that. It’s pentile instead of ‘proper’ RGB which means it has a lower effective resolution, but the pixels are so tiny you really can’t tell. It’s small for a tablet, yes. Some tablet-specific apps are going to be impractical, especially when Ice Cream Sandwich allows those written for Honeycomb to run on it. But it’s the biggest tablet you’ll ever get in your pants pocket to bring with you all day.

And yes it’s perfectly comfortable in your pants, despite every other review warning that it is “only for those with bigger pockets” or words to that effect. We learn from this that a lot of technology writers are either (a) surprisingly wary of new things or (b) tiny.

Next time, we’ll get to grips with that pen.

Excellent Gadget Time

I was saying that by turning off the always-on data connection, my Android phone will get through a full day with plenty power to spare. And that’s not jealously husbanding the battery either, but fully indulging what the phone can do. Including 3G data – when I actually want it.

Pretty neat, but what when I want to really rip it? Actually spend a whole day browsing, for example. While simultaneously live-streaming geotagged video. Desire expands to meet the limitations of the battery.

And yet, there is a way to have effectively endless battery life. How? It’s simple. Charge one battery while you use another.

You own a spare battery, right? Oh, you have an iPhone. I’m sorry. I suppose you can charge a spare iPhone.

There are a number of solutions to charging a battery while it’s not in your phone. This though is quite the tiniest I’ve ever seen. I saw some of them – different brand, but identical device – in my local electronics shop on clearance for 60 cents each. What to lose, I thought. A couple of days later I came back and bought all the ones they had left.

It works for many common phone and camera batteries. You adjust its prongs to match the contacts (an LED tells you when they’re right), clip it on, and plug it into any USB socket. It’s really about as no-frills as charging can get, and it weighs a barely-perceptible 11 grammes. Worth carrying just as an emergency backup in case you lose, break or forget your normal charger. It even has key ring!

I’m fortunate in that Samsung provided a collapsible travel charger, so I can fit that, a short USB-to-microUSB cable, the spare battery and one of these chargers all into an old glasses case. Plus headphones and spare stylus pen. That’s all I need to charge the phone or the battery. Now I can travel forever.