Tag Archives: electronics

Google Pixel Hot Take (72 Hours)

TL;DR after the jump.

The Pixel is a good phone with flaws, but that shouldn’t stop anyone because there are no perfect phones. Every phone has some flaws, and any claim of “best” is to be taken not just with a grain of salt but a confirmation of bias in the opinion. After all, there are only ‘better’ phones, and no perfect phone yet. I got the Pixel on a Monday (but didn’t open it till Tuesday) and I like it a lot, as I have no regret changing from a Nexus 6P. But you need to be cognizant of your own requirements and preferences before going into any high end smartphone purchase decision.

If that sounded a defensive way to open up a phone review, it’s because ultimately I feel the Pixel is a flawed phone. The ideal Google Phone probably won’t emerge until next year. Reason why here. But compared to other phones on the market, the Pixel is still the best or almost the best Android phone you can get.

The only real concern about the Pixel is the cost versus the value you get. I think at some level it’s hard to justify any phone over, say, $500, just because alternatively you can get a Nexus 5X or 6P or OnePlus 3 or something, and get on with your life. The extra $200-400 go pretty far and it’s up to each person to figure out if that distance covers the difference between the newest Pure Google experience and their best alternatives.

To help with that fundamental calculus, let me offer another delta-value, which is the difference of having a Nexus 6P when it was the newest Pure Google experience a  year ago, and the Pixel today. I can’t really speak from a place of who may be coming from a more “mundane” device, like someone who wants to upgrade from an iPhone 6 or your garden variety Android phone of 2 years+ vintage. I can speak to that this shiny New Google Device experience is better than the last one. How much better?

  • The 6P has good hardware, but it’s not Huawei’s best bet, just one of their better ones. The Pixel might be HTC’s best phone.
  • Software-wise, the biggest advantage to Android 6/7 was the power management. The Pixel takes it up a notch (FWIW Pixel XL owners were reporting 1+ day batt life across the board).
  • Arguably the best camera although what really shines is the HDR+, much like Nexus 6P but better compared to rival phone cameras.
  • The new on-board features, such as live help and unlimited Google Photo storage @ full size, are of some value. I don’t even count the assistant integration, although that’s nice.

The real driving reason to buy a Pixel is because this is Google’s first start-to-finish product. That allows them to innovate in the software in a way that has only been possible to see in iPhone and the Microsoft Surface (and the Surface Studio is a prime example of it), because they can control both the hardware and software in the minute. I can say that Google delivered a little of that in this first iteration. A lot of the above bullets are more “business” reasons in that some of Google’s strengths are their ecosystem/services, and it would be more kosher to embrace a phone that didn’t belong to an Android OEM. For that, you have to look at the camera–i is the crown jewel of Android integration and Google engineering.

Which is to say, it’s kind of like a Nexus phone in that the Pixel has some breakthroughs, but it also has some rough edges. It’s just that, by far, the Pixel is the most polished Nexus phone if it was one. Which is good, because you expect that given the price gap.

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Pebble Time Steel First Month Look

It’s actually only 3 weeks, oops.

I got the Pebble Time Steel gold version. My friends got the steel grey and black ones. They were definitely not as cool looking as the gold one. From a looks perspective the red leather band is a home run, paired with the gold. Black bezel also even looked OK like this.

And here we get to the heart of the problem with the Pebble Time Steel, and Pebble Time in general–that display just does not look good. Colors are dimmed and contrast is like 3/4 of what it was on the original Pebble. Why? Because the new display is a TFT LCD where the crystal layer has to be semi transparent in order to work passively and work with a backlight. When light is filtered partly by the LCD layer, this is how you generate different colors. The original Pebble is B&W, so it either completely blocked light or none at all, giving you better contrast than the Pebble Time screen. Both old and the Pebble Time has so-so viewing angle but the Time really loses out in the dark versus the original Pebble.

The Pebble Time Steel has the added problem of, I think, really demure styling. This watch would work well for women, if it’s a tad on the big side. But that also means it’s quite small as far as smartwatches go and great for people who doesn’t have manly wrists. It looked definitely more stylish than the original pebble, which is something people who dig the Pebble Steel might not prefer–that one is bigger and manly.

I think it does not lose to the Apple Watch on looks, side by side. It definitely does not look as manly, though, without that large crown and less angular styling. I think if you are the stereotypical urban hipster tho, it will look good.

Pebble recently unveiled the Pebble Time Round which looks wicked, but if it follows the same design language, it will be for people looking for a wristwatch for women or people who want something that’s design-wise smart but not aggressive. We don’t know what display it will have, but looks like it’ll be the same as the other Pebble Times.

Pebble Time’s display is slightly worse than Pebble Time Steel’s display because the steel forces the way the glass bond to the display to be closer. It improves the viewing angle and slight ups the contrast. I think this makes Pebble Time Steel a no-brainer choice over the Pebble Time pretty much all around. The styling isn’t even that different between the grey or black ones. They are really two watch lines that aren’t different enough design-wise to be saying you prefer one over the other, especially given the extra $150 you can get more battery life and more durability, and slightly improved display.

To be honest, functionality is already pretty OK for the Pebble. What has to be improved is the looks. I don’t think the Pebble Time and Pebble Time Steel has achieved enough to call it that. Maybe the PT Round? It is definitely differently looking.

As for the software, it’s faster and less buggy. It uses a different companion app than the Pebble/Pebble Steel. I run it on android, and it’s solid. What I don’t like is the timeline interface, because it’s kind of useless and I don’t want to be pressing a lot of buttons on the watch. Maybe once devs can hook better Pebble apps into it?

The new reply and voice dictate is definitely nice and I appreciate it, even if I don’t see myself using it just because it takes a little getting used to and I’ll have to force myself into doing it. Not a killer app but definitely cool once someone figures out how to integrate it into Google Now.

Battery-life-wise it’s great. Seven days minimum with a wonky PlexFit on it even.

I can get a Pebble Time Round for $200. I might bite. I don’t know. I dig that white one. Maybe for Christmas to give to somebody?

Moto X Pure Edition (Style) 2015 First Week Look

Received it last Friday, so I’ve had about 9 days with the phone as of this writing.

My last phone was the 2014 Moto X, so this is an incremental change. My biases are well-stated on this blog, but to sum it up: I don’t like phablets, I hate TouchWiz, and I am used to the vanilla variety of Android.

I haven’t really paid attention to CPU specs on phones. I still remember having a discussion with a friend about how he and his coworker dissed on people who wanted phones with good hand-feel, and would rather compare specs. I guess I’m biased against that kind of thought, because 99% of the use cases don’t even require that much processing power. My mom’s Moto G first generation still runs like a champ even browsing the web. Instead, increasingly it’s about the UX, starting from the build quality, hand feel, and the user interface and the stuff you put in there to satisfy use cases.

Let me just quote this:

Smartphones have become boring to me these days. They all can do the same thing; resolutions are high enough that they don’t really matter anymore; processors can handle everything you throw at them; batteries last nearly all day; and some of the latest cameras on Android handsets have essentially caught up with the iPhone

The funny thing is I jumped on the Moto X 2015 version because of CPU specs and better display. Enter IDOLM@STER Cinderella Girls Starlight Stage (DereSute for short, or SS). The spiritual successor of IDOLM@STER Shiny Festa married with Love Live School Idol Festival, this game does real-time rendering of 3D models dancing, and will take a chunk of not just your battery life but CPU. Plus since DereSute is a rhythm game, the interface is extremely unforgiving to any performance hiccups. Comparing the performance of this game on the 2014 Moto X and 2015 Moto X, the improvements are well worth it:

  • Moto X 2014 can run at full visuals (there are 4 levels you can choose from) for maybe 10 songs before running out of power, the 2015 version can do so about twice as long (I haven’t tried).
  • Moto X 2014 lags a good deal at highest level, Moto X 2015 not really at the second highest, and barely so at the highest.

Both Moto X features Qualcomm’s fast charging technology, so stick that 3.0A charger in there for 50% @ 15 minutes. It comes really handy for DereSute. But to put things into perspective; if I played Project Diva on the Vita and it uses up all the power after 20 songs, I’d think something is wrong with my Vita. So something is odd about this phone? For normal every day use I get through a day no problem, but I think I played DereSute everyday so it’s not a good measure.

Back to you regular programming. The new TFT screen takes getting used to; the contrast difference is the first thing that strikes me. I think it takes getting used to because I have to invert a lot of the app’s skins so it’s black-on-white rather than white-on-black as you’d with an OLED display. OTOH if people tell you 1080 is enough on a flagship phone display they are drunk or have never seen a good QHD screen on a handheld device. Maybe if your screen is 1/2 of the size of this one? The pixel density is highly appreciated. I think when those 4K screens comes out in a few months (Sony, LG, the Huawei Nexus) we’ll have some actual opinions to press against.

The size and heft of the 2015 Moto X is squarely in phablet territory. I have hands that are not very big–big for an Asian but not big for average White guy, so this thing is a challenge to use one-handed. The 2014 Moto X was already not quite an one-handed phone with the bumper, and the 2015 Moto X is just something I’ll have to get used to.

I opted for the leather back. it’s nice, and even more so if you take some time and put some oil on it… My dad put some special seed oil on it that he reserves for his hair and it actually changed the color tone of the thing, which makes it much closer to pigskin brown than the lighter brown you associate with autumn fashion…

I think the leather back makes the phone more slippery than if you opted for some grippy plastic, and with a big phone that’s recipe for drops. This year’s Moto X Pure Edition package comes with a bumper which is something you should put on immediately for this reason. BTW that bumper is not the greatest, but right now you don’t have a choice (I plan to swap it out soon I guess).

The camera is indeed much better than the 2014 X, but that doesn’t say a lot. I think we finally can call this camera “flagship” quality, but it doesn’t compare to what the latest iPhones can do. I’m going to ignore the “Siri” type functions, but Moto X has always been pretty good about this, including the latest iteration.

Dual speakers make playing DereSute nice and handy. If the phone is not plugged in my hand can get in the way of the ambient sensor and change the backlight, something to think about in general for all these phones. But this is where LCD screens kind of suck versus OLED screens, at lower brightness…

So, to sum it up:

Pro: It’s fast. Clean Android UX, Moto maker. With key accessories included it’s even more affordable than you think.
Con: Phablet and weighty, still can be faster and have more battery life for DereSute.

Apple Watch for me

I’m one of those people who backed the original Pebble and lived the smartwatch-enabled life for over 2 years now. In that sense, I’m intensely interested in the Apple Watch not so much as some kind of dumb tribalism behind various platforms (or software idologies) but evolution of the wearable in the populace.

My alma mater formally started a wearable computing department the year before I graduated, and I graduated a long time ago, by 2015 standards. So gargoyles ala Snow Crash (to date myself further) is not some strange thing for me. What was more strange was people walking in campus with a neck-and-chest strapped platform so they can use their Macbook Pro 17″ laptops while walking between classes. That’s real dork in a school full of them.

The Apple Watch, by all 5-6 reviews I’ve read yesterday so far, seems just like a very fancy but less functional Pebble. It does beg the question as to what is the point of the smartwatch, and that’s a question all makers of smart watches ought to answer to an extent. And this is where I think that will, at least in the first iteration or so, determine which one is worth buying.

The first thing about the reviews I’ve read is that many of them precisely struggle with this question. It’s rather unlike the iPod and iPhone and iPad launches where the use cases are pretty compelling. A big portion of Apple’s success is in its way of marketing things beyond the technical specification an d use cases; what makes luxury desirables worth a lot of money and got people to buy them is behind the Apple Watch’s DNA. That alone is something both besides the point of the first smartwatches and a core part of why Apple’s personal electronics business is so successful.

“Very fancy” is already a desirable. In that sense the Apple Watch is the best smartwatch. But of course to a nerd like myself (as opposed to the average internet commenter) it’s not just a spec sheet, or how smooth and how it tempts me to rub my face on it, but how good it is at satisfying use cases. Pebble (especially with the current iteration via Android Wear APIs) is actually the best game in town. People may think the Moto360 is actually the best game in town, but none of those people actually own one. The commenters I’ve read that did all thought it lacked something, which most reviews (and more importantly, sales numbers) agreed. Not a surprise for anyone following the scene, because anyone who knew smartwatches know it’s just too nascent, and only one watch line came anywhere close to nailing what a smartwatch was initially imagined to be. No Pebble bias here–just ask any long-time smartwatch user whose smarthwatch ran out of battery and was wearing a useless thing on their wrist.

It’s both exciting and frustrating to read these apple watch reviews. For one, they tend to be flipping the flags for prime-time reviews of prime-time gadgets, with pull-quotes that mean nothing but obfuscate the real value in their reviews. I understand it, that’s the business of writing online professionally (as I sometimes do). It’s exciting because all these reviewers are trying hard to verbalize the value prop behind smartwatches, and I care more about that. A lot of praises for the Apple Watch across all the reviews I’ve read hedged against a non-smartwatch, which means the Apple Watch doesn’t actually differentiate from the Pebble or even Android Wear items. Or it was comparing how this or that use case is improved by not pulling your phone out of your pocket. It (vague pronoun here as I don’t know if I meant Apple Watch or Apple Marketing) was making a case for smartwatches, much like how iPhones did for smartphones, that it ought to be purchased and used. It frustrates only because these articles pose no good comparison with the Pebble, if any other smartwatches.

But i think it’s a good thing. If wearables are to be economically successful, I hope it’s because of the utility they provide and it makes our lives better, regardless of what drawback there may be. To have a big splash in the category is good for everyone, even if you may not be interested in wearable computing at all, or even if you are an Android/other/troll/etc.

The Pebble smartwatch: 72 hours review

As a 4/12 backer (this is how people identify themselves on the shipping ranks over at reddit or the Pebble forums–those with earlier dates lord over those who have later dates as they’re likely the ones with a pebble over those who don’t. For the truly curious, you can look at this chart and think about what you are curious about.) I got my black Pebble just before Chinese New Year. CNY is important to Pebble backers because China goes into holiday mode for a week or so during CNY, and little gets done. Which means if you aren’t within the allotted 16k or so watches that were made and shipped to the distribution centers before CNY, you’ll have to wait that extra week. I guess I’m also within the first 5000 black pebble backers!

Gloating aside, the Pebble is sort of hyped, but it probably does not deserve the hype. What is really interesting about it is that it is an e-ink smartwatch. It’s not the first nor the last nor the best looking out of the lot. (Okay, the CST watch is probably too unique-looking for me; now if they made it in silver…) It is the first one with e-ink. The point about e-ink is that you can get some extraordinary battery life out of an e-ink display and designing the gadget around that low-power concept. I think this applies to mechanical and typical battery-powered watches just as much, but nobody wants to run out of juice on their watches. If you tell me I have to charge my watch every night I would not be a happy camper, even if I can live with it. The Pebble strikes a comfortable compromise at about 7 days of battery life. Throwing in waterproof at 5 ATM (as far as I know no other smartwatch does this either) you got a sale. It helps that I swim.

But anyways, the thing with smartwatch is about designing a personal electronics thing that does not rely on a feature set. This is something, sadly, that the industry as a whole suck at. Watches are not a new fangled thing. It’s about marrying new technologies together to do something pretty ordinary. Which is to say, Pebble does very little else besides as a watch with an e-ink watchface. Its most boasted secondary feature is that it funnels notifications from your phone, so if you get an email or text, it will let you know. Maybe you can even read off it. But if you were expecting the Pebble to do something special, you might be disappointed.

What e-ink offers is that you can have an always-on watchface that you can develop and customize. Pebble actually does promise this, but they haven’t released the watchface SDK (which is different than the general SDK I guess) so there are about only 7 watch faces you can choose for the time being. It defaults to the text watch watchface, and I think that is a big reason why I took a liking to back the Pebble early. There’s a widget on my phone that displays the time and date basically in the same way; I see the pebble being the wristwatch extension of the same.

For details on the hardware, I think various gadget sites like Verge and Engadget covered it well. It’s not a pretty thing but it looks durable enough and functional. The display is NOT retina, and the viewing angle is not the greatest, and it’s a not matte screen. HAHA matte screen oh man I wonder if anyone dislike the glare on your watch HAHAHAHA. Anyway, the display is not the best because it’s pretty low resolution, and if you look at some of the smaller font stuff on the watch (such as when the watch is in phone mode) it makes you feel like you’re operating a budget LCD watch. The construction is what you’d expect for a waterproof 5 ATM watch. It’s glossy, but since it lives under my sleeves most of the time, it doesn’t get any fingerprints anyway.

If there’s a knock on the construction it would be the way the buttons work. They require a good hard press, but the covering for the buttons feels loose laterally; they don’t move, but when you push down it is not a solid feeling. It’s like they’re spring-loaded but the touch trigger is just a bit aways further in. The design for the buttons could also be better–they could be a little smaller I think, and for a left-hand wearing experience, the button on the left side could be placed better. I kinda get why they put it towards the top, but it’s hard to press.

If you watched the Pebble presentation at CES, they demonstrated the accelerometer-triggered backlight. It’s nice, but it doesn’t work super well by tapping (tapping lightly doesn’t quite always do the trick), but if you flick your wrist it turns on. Which means it turns on when my left hand does anything quickly. Not a problem, but it is something I wish I could turn on or off. Other semi-important things the Pebble is missing includes the lack of a battery level display. I think if it runs out of juice, it just stops working. Having the Pebble for 3 days (after a full charge) I didn’t get to see this.

The current UI design for the music player just doesn’t work. It takes way too many presses (on those hard buttons) to get to the music app. But in the music app you can’t tell time! Actually it takes just as much work to switch back to the watchface. Ugh. And personally I prefer a volume control dial on the watch more than forward/backward, but oh well. It’s all software, so something hopefully can be fixed (or maybe more like, changed) in the future.

I won’t cover anything about iOS on the pebble, because I read it works entirely differently than Android. The Android Pebble app lets you feed some basic notification to the watch, like phone calls, texts, calendar updates. It uses the accessibility service hook to grab the texts from some app updates, like FB, Google Talk and Voice, FB, default email app, and WhatsApp. It requires authentication to use Gmail, which means you have to give it your password. Which is more than what is comfortable for me. Plus I use 2-step so that means extra-extra work. Thankfully someone wrote a Tasker-based plugin/app hybrid that simply repeat the “pipe accessibility updates to pebble” feature that the Pebble app does, but for all your apps, and I found that works a lot better since you can use it to pipe any app’s update with an easy scroll list of checkboxes. The downside is that unless you fine-tune the notification traps, you might not get all the updates you want, and you can’t fine tune anything with this 3rd party app alone. For example, I use TweakDeck, and it sends a update when it tries to send a tweet; this means sometimes it notifies the Pebble when I don’t want it to. But it’s all I can do right now, versus getting no updates from TweakDeck at all. I suppose the development work on Pebble’s part is to write that bit of the notification trap code to ignore certain notifications for that specific app. It’s something you can do with the full-blown version of Tasker, DIY, if you write that bit of the code to go with the Pebble plugin for Tasker.

I remember my Casio LCD watch I wore as a kid…I had that thing for like 6 years on one battery! It was probably also almost $100 (adjusted for inflation). (And no, it was not a calculator watch…I was not that nerdy.) So I guess that is not unreasonable to expect of the Pebble, especially since all we’ve considered is its basic functionality as a watch, and maybe how it can vibrate to remind you of a incoming text or phone call. The true promise of a Pebble is its extensive SDK crap that they haven’t delivered fully. It has the hardware to replace a Fuel Band or Fibit, it can even do other things unimaginable yet. Well the SDK is not out yet, so this is all just invisible gravy. If you’re interested in a Pebble, consider preordering, because the current pebble is just a watch. A watch that can notify you of your phone’s doing, sure, at the expense of your phone’s bluetooth power draw, but it’s still just a watch.