Smart Smartphone Shopping This Christmas

What smartphones should you be buying this Christmas? Lukasz Porwol gives some sound advice.

Christmas is coming! What should I buy for a rebellious teenager, my better half or my dear old dad? The answer is obvious …a smartphone! And even more obvious: the iPhone!

But isn’t it far too expensive? Isn’t the Samsung Galaxy S4 actually better? And hold on a sec …Sony has the waterproof Xperia Z! They are still quite pricey and someone was telling me the Nokia Windows phones are pretty awesome. And while I’m at it, the technical slang spouted by so many salespeople doesn’t exactly help! What are they talking about?!

These and similar questions will bother thousands in the run up to Christmas. In this short article we intend to help desperate gift buyers to find the perfect solution that will not be rejected outright by their nearest and dearest. Here we won’t focus on fuzzy technical details but rather on user experience, which is what matters the most!

The first and most pressing concern when Smartphone shopping is the budget; it boils down to how much we want to invest versus what we actually expect from a smartphone in terms of functionality, style and choice.

I want something stylish and I don’t care about the money!

Here the answer is usually very typical: Apple is synonymous with style. It is rather
undeniable, especially seeing as how the brand new 5S is also available in GOLD!
It feels great in your hand. It is solid, fast, brilliant; quality all around. But if you are intent on purchasing an iPhone then stick with the 5S. Don’t waste your time for 5C; it’s like deciding to holiday in style by going out and buying a Ferrari caravan.

But style is subjective and not everybody wants to drive a Mercedes S class even if money is not a problem.

Okay, something less ostentatious please. I like to see where the money is going!

What about something stylish but more practical, sporty with a bigger screen and a decent camera? The Sony Xperia Z1 sounds like a good choice here. Sleek and lean with a gorgeous glass design, the Z1 has a huge full HD screen for watching movies while traveling. It also has great sound along with a super camera (5S level) and a waterproof and dust-proof heavy-duty body. Phew! It sounds like a right bargain when it comes to pricing (just below iPhone).

But hang on a minute – isn’t the Samsung Galaxy S4 available in the Active waterproof version as well? I cannot lie, it does and the price is almost the same. Technical parameters are also pretty close. So it comes down to a matter of taste. There’s also the (slightly older) Xperia Z, which is still a great smartphone offering at only minimally less bells and whistles than the Z1 for with significant cost saving.

Our subjective ranking here (with an analogy to the car market):

  1. iPhone 5S: Mercedes S class Gold
  2. Sony Xperia Z1: BMW 7 L
  3. Sony Xperia Z/Samsung Galaxy S4/Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Audi A8

Come on! I need something to enter the smartphone world but I’m on a bit of a budget!

Welcome to the world of Windows Mobile! Surprised? You shouldn’t be because for decades Microsoft has helped mainstream laptop producers to supply us with midrange-priced computer systems. And this is being repeated in the mobile market with Nokia and the new range of Windows 7 and Windows 8 Phones.

If you’re being especially budget conscious and want to go the route of a secondhand phone Windows 7 is a solid option but if you’re in the market for a shiny new handset go for Windows 8. The reason is simple: Windows 8 is a more mature and much improved mobile operating system and will be increasingly supported by apps developers in the future.

The winning Windows 8 phone has got to be the Nokia Lumia 520 which can be found priced at about €90 on Pay As You Go (SIM-free it costs €110). In other words for the price of one iPhone you can buy several Lumias in colours to matching all of your outfits! Actually you don’t really need this anyway because the Lumia 520 has exchangeable covers available in yellow, blue, white and red. A real bargain! The phone itself is solid and offers plenty for the price.

So what’s the catch? Surprisingly, there are few catches. There isn’t anything bad to say aside from the absence of a flash. So no taking pictures when you’re down the local – unless somebody brings a torch! If you’re willing to upgrade to the Lumia 625 for about €150 you’ll get the flash.

Another good feature across all Windows 7 and 8 Nokia handsets that must be pointed out is the free turn-by-turn GPS navigation included; it comes with offline maps so you can navigate around the world while traveling without incurring a whopping great phone bill!

And do not be afraid of the Windows system: it is incredibly simple, handy and very fast. It actually performs better than Android and could be considered a better platform if only more apps were available.

Some general advice if you want to spend more than €250: go for midrange Android phones from Samsung, HTC or Sony (whatever matches your taste and your pocket). Nevertheless if your budget is less than that Windows is the way because Android handsets below that price tag are usually slow, relatively smaller and, in general, annoying.

Our subjective ranking here (with an analogy to the car market):

  1. Nokia Lumia 520: Volkswagen Golf VII
  2. Nokia Lumia 625: Audi A3
  3. Nokia Lumia 710 (Win 7): Volkswagen Golf V
  4. Mid-range Android handsets from Samsung, HTC or Sony: Hyundai i30

What about smartphone security?

While many people opt for smartphones with the best looks, widest range of apps or nicest pricetag, there are those of us who will shop according to how secure these handsets are when handling sensitive data such as online banking. In fact, I think we’d all like to shop and Whatsapp without the NSA spying on us!

According to many mobile security firms Apple is the clear winner here. This is down to the iPhone having the best (hardware-based) encryption systems. Windows Phone is a close second (surprise!). The bad news for the those attached to the popular Android operating system (popularity comes with a price) is that a determined hacker can enter the system in mere seconds.

Our subjective ranking here (with an analogy to the car market):

  1. iPhone: Mercedes S presidential panzer-limo
  2. Windows: Audi A6 with a good alarm
  3. Android: a Zip car (shared car)

And the overall subjective winners are:

  • Premium model: iPhone 5S
  • Silver: Sony Xperia Z1
  • Bronze: Nokia Lumia 520

Okay, now run to the shop and get what you need while there is time! Enjoy and merry Christmas!

You can follow Lukasz on Twitter @porwolluke

Reviewed: Samsung Galaxy S4

There was a point in the late nineties when the shrinking size of mobile phones no longer served as a mark of innovation but pointed towards a bare bones phone that couldn’t serve up those cool WAP webpages. As we head in the other direction some are beginning to debate how big is too big. On paper the Samsung Galaxy S4 screen sounds a bit oversized at 5-inches but in reality it works just fine. Besides, it’s noticeably lighter (3g) and thinner (.7mm) than its predecessor and the screen size is the least innovative aspect of this feature-packed smartphone.

Screen

Before we get to the new additions of Smart Scroll and Air Gesture we’ll take a look at the Super AMOLED display with 1920 x 1080 resolution. For comparison the S3 has a resolution of 720 x 1280 and the iPhone 5 has 1136 x 640 on a 4-inch screen. So it’s big and it displays deep, vivid colours.

The Kindle app rarely gets an outing on my iPhone, however, I couldn’t help but linger over my eBooks on the S4; my actual Kindle device is getting a well-deserved rest. Netflix is another app that showcases the S4’s best asset. You would think that a bigger screen isn’t a game changer, and you’d be right, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive or desirable for media consumption and comfortable web browsing.

It only loses marks for its poor performance in direct sunlight; it’s quite difficult to read text or see pictures clearly. The auto brightness setting is also a bit off; the screen seems dimmer than it should be in certain light conditions.

Camera

The 13-megapixel camera shoots gorgeous images. I tested it out with some foodie shots (below), which demonstrated crisp, clear close-ups due to a good macro function with nice depth of field. The landscape shots (also below) also produced vivid images with stunningly rich blues and greens and nice shadow definition.

There are plenty of clever camera modes: ‘Beauty Face’ sounds cheesy but it detects and focuses on facial features, softening and making more attractive in a Photoshop-lite kind of way. There’s also a group shot one that shots a series of pictures for rearrangement later in order to get one group photo where everyone looks decent! The drama shot is also pretty enticing as it captures movement across the screen and arranges it in a series of still images; a nice way to capture your children playing at the park or a sports event. The video camera holds up well too, with full HD (1080p) playback.

Processor

The S3 has a 1.4GHz quad core processor so the S4 easily outpaces with 1.9GHz. I only had an iPhone 4s to hand to test against the S4 and didn’t find a noticeable difference in terms of loading webpages but there is s difference when it comes to multitasking. Downloading apps, updates, receiving alerts and switching between apps does feel rather zippy, something I didn’t appreciate until I’d swapped back to using the 4S.

US reviews have been talking lots about the Exynos 5 Octa chipset but this isn’t what we’re getting in Ireland and the UK. Whereas the S4 GT-19500 is on sale in the US, what we have is the GT-19505 version with the Snapdragon 600, a quad-core microprocessor. So that whole “fastest smartphone in the world” thing? Yeah, the Americans are getting that, not us. Still though, the Snapdragon is not to be sniffed at. For comparison the iPhone 5 has the A6 – a dual-core 1.3GHz chip (See comparison at CPU Boss).

Design and user interface

Samsung’s smartphones have always been plastic, with a cheaper look and feel than its competitors. The S4 has a lightweight polycarbonate plastic backing so no surprises there. It’s got a slightly better finish with a crosshatched diamond design underneath the smooth plastic finish but you’re essentially looking at the same old approach. I’ve always loved the glass and metal combo that Apple and HTC bring to the table and Samsung continues to lose out in the design stakes. It might be the most beefed up, powerful smartphone out there right now but it’s wearing a cheap suit.

Speaking of cheap suits, the custom TouchWiz UI skinned over Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean is also a little birght and chunky (but a huge improvement on Samsung’s earlier Android skinning). I couldn’t help but be appeased by the beautiful HD screen and found TouchWiz pretty tolerable.

From the perspective of an iPhone user it can be difficult to adapt to any new non-Apple designed user interface but a couple of days into testing the S4 and it felt like home. This was for a few reasons, the first being the overall good navigational design and well-laid out interface but most importantly because Google Play has leveled the playing field in terms of the availability of smartphone apps.

It’s now possible to make the transition from Android to iOS and vice versa with the wealth of cloud-based, platform agnostic apps that demonstrate the same high quality user experience no matter what the mobile OS. Despite coming packed with native apps (and widgets galore) I went straight for the familiar Spotify, Evernote, WhatsApp, RunKeeper, Netflix and so on.

Samsung encourages this kind of behavior from the moment you switch on the handset. You’re asked to add your Google, Facebook and Dropbox profiles at set-up, which comprises of the trifecta of mobile computing for the majority of people: finding stuff, communicating with people and storing stuff.

Smart View and Smart Scroll

Smart View and Smart Scroll work by using front facing sensors positioned at the top of the phone. These sensors detect your face (in combination with the natural tilt accompanied by reading text on screen) in order to scroll down through an email or webpage as you read. The result is mixed. Sometimes it doesn’t detect your presence due to lighting conditions and at other times the text whizzes by before you have a chance to read. Like a lot of extras on this device, it might be a feature you slowly get used to and enjoy or simply one you switch off without regret. Unfortunately, there’s no option to train this feature to recognize your face or reading habits. I do, however, like the fact that it recognizes when you’re facing the screen, which prevents auto dimming. This works for when you’re watching video too: if you turn away from the screen it automatically pauses, well, most of the time anyway.

Air Gesture and Air Touch

Air Touch detects your finger hovering over the screen and responds in kind. It can be set to highlight text or act as the hover function of an onscreen cursor and bring up options without actually clicking through. It also leaves a trail of sparkles in its wake on the lockscreen. Pretty!

The Air Gesture (positioned at top of screen) recognises gestures from a distance of under 7cm at normal speed. When it’s working (as with Smart View and Smart Scroll) the icon will appear (and light up) on the status bar. This was particularly useful for flicking through pictures in a photo album with the wave of a hand and also for motioning a webpage up or down. It can be set to answer the phone too: waving a hand back and forth across the screen will automatically answer an incoming call and switch to loudspeaker mode.

Verdict

I suppose there are three main players in the high-end smartphone arena right now: the iPhone 5, the HTC One and the Galaxy S4. I haven’t tested the HTC One, had a brief love affair with a HTC Hero (industrial design heaven!) but I’ve been using the iPhone ever since it first came out and therefore have invested a lot of time and money in apps, integration with my other hardware and so on.

Other than that I don’t see a reason not to pick one device over the other. I would easily recommend the S4 to a first time smartphone user but with one caveat: beware of overload. You won’t need half of the features of this device but it’s nice to see that they are there just in case. It does superbly on the essentials and, lets face it, you won’t regret owning a 13-megapixel camera with a 5-inch HD screen and 1.9GHz processor.

Pricing: From €99 on Three.ie