Subject: Mobile
Manufacturer: Google

Introduction and Design

In case you have not heard by now, Pixel is the re-imagining of the Nexus phone concept by Google; a fully stock version of the Android experience on custom, Google-authorized hardware - and with the promise of the latest OS updates as they are released. So how does the hardware stack up? We are late into the life of the Pixel by now, and this is more of a long-term review as I have had the smaller version of the phone on hand for some weeks now. As a result I can offer my candid view of the less-covered of the two Pixel handsets (most reviews center around the Pixel XL), and its performance.

DSC_0186.jpg

There was always a certain cachet to owning a Nexus phone, and you could rest assured that you would be running the latest version of Android before anyone on operator-controlled hardware. The Nexus phones were sold primarily by Google, unlocked, with operator/retail availability at times during their run. Things took a turn when Google opted to offer a carrier-branded version of the Nexus 6 back in November of 2014, along with their usual unlocked Google Play store offering. But this departure was not just an issue of branding, as the price jumped to a full $649; the off-contract cost of premium handsets such as Apple’s iPhone. How could Google hope to compete in a space dominated by Apple and Samsung phones purchased by and large with operator subsidies and installment plans? They did not compete, of course, and the Nexus 6 flopped.

Pixel, coming after the Huawei-manufactured Nexus 6p and LG-manufactured Nexus 5X, drops the “Nexus” branding while continuing the tradition of a reference Android experience - and the more recent tradition of premium pricing. As we have seen in the months since its release, the Pixel did not put much of a dent into the Apple/Samsung dominated handset market. But even during the budget-friendly Nexus era, which offered a compelling mix of day-one Android OS update availability and inexpensive, unlocked hardware (think Nexus 4 at $299 and Nexus 5 at $349), Google's own phones were never mainstream. Still, in keeping with iPhone and Galaxy flagships $649 nets you a Pixel, which also launched through Verizon in an exclusive operator deal. Of course a larger version of the Pixel exists, and I would be remiss if I did not mention the Pixel XL. Unfortunately I would also be remiss if I didn't mention that stock for the XL has been quite low with availability constantly in question.

DSC_0169.jpg

The Pixel is hard to distinguish from an iPhone 7 from a distance (other than the home button)

Google Pixel Specifications
Display 5.0-inch 1080x1920 AMOLED
SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 (MSM8996)
CPU Cores 2x 2.15 GHz Kryo
2x 1.60 GHz Kryo
GPU Cores Adreno 530
RAM 4GB LPDDR4
Storage 32 / 128 GB
Network Snapdragon X12 LTE
Connectivity 802.11ac Wi-Fi
2x2 MU-MIMO
Bluetooth 4.2
USB 3.0
NFC
Dimensions 143.8 x 69.5 x 8.5 mm, 143 g
OS Android 7.1

Continue reading our review of the Google Pixel smartphone!

Shrout Research: Chromebook Platform Impacts Android App Performance

Subject: Mobile | May 23, 2017 - 12:25 PM |
Tagged: shrout research, play store, Intel, Chromebook, arm, Android

Please excuse the bit of self-promotion here. Oh, and disclaimer: Shrout Research and PC Perspective share management and ownership.

Based on testing done by Shrout Research and published in a paper this week, the introduction of Android applications on Chromebooks directly though the Play Store has added a new wrinkle into the platform selection decision. Android applications, unlike Chromebook native apps, have a heavy weight towards the Android phone and tablet ecosystem, with "defacto" optimization for the ARM-based processors and platforms that represent 98%+ of that market. As a result, there are some noticeable and noteworthy differences when running Android apps on Chromebooks powered by an ARM SoC and an Intel x86 SoC.

With that market dominance as common knowledge, all Android applications are developed targeting ARM hardware, for ARM processors. Compilers and performance profiling software has been built and perfected to improve the experience and efficiency of apps to run on ARMv7 (32-bit) and ARMv8 (64-bit) architectures. This brings to the consumer an improved overall experience, including better application compatibility and better performance.

Using a pair of Acer Chromebooks, the R11 based on the Intel Celeron N3060 and the R13 based on the MediaTek MT8173C, testing was done to compare the performance, loading times, and overall stability of various Android Play Store applications. A range of application categories were addressed including games, social, and productivity.

table.jpg

Through 19 tested Android apps we found that the ARM-powered R13 Chromebook performed better than the Intel-powered R11 Chromebook in 9 of them. In 8 of the apps tested, both platforms performed equally well. In 2 of the test applications, the Intel-powered system performed better (Snapchat and Google Maps).

The paper also touches on power consumption, and between these two systems, the ARM-based MediaTek SoC was using 11.5% less power to accomplish the same tasks.

Our testing indicates the Acer R13, using the ARM-powered processor, uses 11.5% less power on average in our 150 minutes of use through our education simulation. This is a significant margin and would indicate that with two systems equally configured, one with the MediaTek ARM processor and another with the Intel Celeron processor, the ARM-powered platform would get 11.5% additional usage time before requiring a charge. Based on typical Chromebook battery life (11 hours), the ARM system would see an additional 75 minutes of usability.

power.jpg

There is a lot more detail in the white paper on ShroutResearch.com, including a discussion about the impact that the addition of Android applications on Chromebooks might have for the market as whole:

...bringing a vast library of applications from the smart phone market to the Chromebook would create a combination of capabilities that would turn the computing spectrum sideways. This move alleviates the sustained notion that Chromebooks are connected-only devices and gives an instant collection of usable offline applications and tools to the market.

You can download the full white paper here.

Meet Google's Fuchsia OS

Subject: General Tech | May 10, 2017 - 04:44 PM |
Tagged: fuschia, google, Android, iot

Fuchsia is still a work in progress which has been available on Github for a while now but we haven't really seen a  demonstration of it in action.  A Texan enthusiast has been working on creating one and you can take a peek at it in this video over at The Register.  The tiny OS is design to run on almost anything, from smart light bulbs to phone and even full sized computers.  It is based on BSD with additional resources developed at MIT and will be backwards compatible with current Android libraries.

Google_Fuchsia_OS_Logo.png

"When Fuchsia broke cover last August, we noted the project's ambition. The presence of a compositor indicated it was capable of running on more than lightbulbs and routers, although the tiny new Magenta kernel also allows it go there too."

Here is some more Tech News from around the web:

Tech Talk

 

Source: The Register

Early Opinions about Android O Dev Preview Around the Net

Subject: Mobile | March 30, 2017 - 12:37 AM |
Tagged: google, Android, android o

A couple of sites have downloaded the upcoming Android preview and walked through the new features that they found. Google, themselves, published a “what’s changed” video (embed below) to their Android Developers channel, which is mostly about the specific API changes, rather than UI and feature differences.

The first couple of minutes was dominated by new limitations on background applications, increasing the privacy and decreasing the battery impact of apps that are not currently focused. “Notification Channel” interests me personally, because it allows apps to categorize notifications, which users can block individually. While good apps should have that sort of control in their own settings already, a unified implementation in the OS is welcome (if it can limit how many applications I need to outright block everything from).

As for the third-party previewers, Ars Technica has a pretty in-depth look, with screenshots for most differences (often side-by-side with the Nougat equivalent). For a second opinion, Paul Thurrott also has a brief overview with a handful of screenshots.

We should learn a lot more at Google I/O in mid-May.

Source: Google

MWC: BlackBerry KEYone Is Solid Mid-Range Smartphone Priced Too High

Subject: Mobile | March 1, 2017 - 02:26 PM |
Tagged: Snapdragon 625, opinion, MWC, keyone, enterprise, Cortex A53, blackberry, Android 7.1, Android

February is quite the busy month with GDC, MWC, and a flurry of technology announcements coming out all around the same time! One of the more surprising announcements from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona came from BlackBerry in the form of a new mid-range smartphone it is calling the KEYone. The KEYone is an Android 7.1 smartphone actually built by TCL with an aluminum frame, "soft touch" plastic back, curved edges, and (in traditional CrackBerry fashion) a full physical QWERTY keyboard!

BlackBerry KEYone.jpg

The black and silver candy bar style KEYone (previously known as "Mercury") measures 5.78" x 2.85" x 0.37" and weighs 0.39 pounds. The left, right, and bottom edges are rounded and the top edge is flat. There are two bottom firing stereo speakers surrounding a USB Type-C port (Type-C 1.0 with USB OTG), a headphone jack up top, and volume, power, and convenience key buttons on the right side. The front of the device, which BlackBerry has designed to be comfortable using one handed, features a 4.5" 1620 x 1080 LCD touchscreen (434 PPI) protected by Gorilla Glass 4, a front facing camera with LED flash, and a large physical keyboard with straight rows of keys that have a traditional BlackBerry feel. The keyboard, in addition to having physical buttons, supports touch gestures such as swiping, and the spacebar has a fingerprint reader that early hands on reports indicate works rather well for quickly unlocking the phone. Further, every physical key can be programmed as a hot key to open any application with a long press (B for browser, E for email, ect).

i1.jpg

On the camera front, BlackBerry is using the same sensor found in the Google Pixel which is a Sony IMX378. There is a 12MP f/2.0 rear camera with dual LED flash and phase detect auto focus on the back as well as a front facing 8MP camera. Both cameras can record 1080p30 video as well as support HDR and software features like face detection. Android Central reports that the camera software is rather good (it even has a pro mode) and the camera is snappy at taking photos.

Internally, BlackBerry has opted to go with squarely mid-range hardware which is disappointing but not the end of the world. Specifically, the KEYone is powered by a Snapdragon 625 (MSM8953) with eight ARM Cortex A53 cores clocked at 2GHz and an Adreno 506 GPU paired with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage. Wireless support includes dual band 802.11ac, FM, Bluetooth 4.2, GPS, NFC, and GSM/HSPA/LTE cellular radios. The smartphone uses a 3,505 mAh battery that is not user removable but at least supports Quick Charge 3.0 which can reportedly charge the battery to 50% in 36 minutes. Storage can be expanded via MicroSD cards. The smartphone is running Android 7.1.1 with some BlackBerry UI tweaks but is otherwise fairly stock. Under the hood however BlackBerry has hardened the OS and includes its DTEK security sftware along with promising monthly updates.

Not bad right? Looking at the specifications and reading/watching the various hands-on reports coming out it is really looking like BlackBerry (finally) has a decent piece of hardware for enterprise customers, niche markets (lawyers, healthcare, ect), and customers craving a physical keyboard in a modern phone. At first glance the BlackBerry KEYone hits all the key marks to a competitive Android smartphone... except for its $549 price tag. The KEYone is expected to launch in April.

i6.jpg

No scroll ball? Blasphemy! (hehe)

Unfortunately, that $549 price is not a typo, and is what kills it even for a CrackBerry addict like myself. After some reflection and discussion with our intrepid smartphone guru Sebastian, I feel as though BlackBerry would have a competitive smartphone on its hands at $399, but at $549 even business IT departments are going to balk much less consumers (especially as many businesses embrace the BYOD culture or have grown accustomed to pricing out and giving everyone whatever basic Android or iPhone they can fit into the budget).

While similarly specced Snapdragon 625 smartphones are going for around $300, (e.g. Asus ZenPhone 3 at $265.98), there is some precedent for higher priced MSM8953-based smartphones such as the $449 Moto Z Play. There is some inherent cost in integrating a physical keyboard and BlackBerry has also hardened the Android 7.1.1 OS which I can see them charging a premium for and that business customers (or anyone that does a lot of writing on the go) that values security can appreciate. It seems like BlackBerry (and hardware partner TCL) has finally learned how to compete on the hardware design front in this modern Android-dominated market, and now they must learn how to compete on price especially as more and more Americans are buying unlocked and off-contract smartphones! I think the KEYone is a refreshing bit of hardware to come out of BlackBerry (I was not a fan of the Priv design) and I would like to see it do well and give the major players (Apple, Samsung, LG, Asus, Huawei, ect) some healthy competition with the twist of its focus on better security but in order for that to happen I think the BlackBerry KEYone needs to be a bit cheaper.

What are your thoughts on the KEYone and the return of the physical keyboard? Am I onto something or simply off my Moto Rokr on this?

Source: BlackBerry
Manufacturer: PC Perspective

Living Long and Prospering

The open fork of AMD’s Mantle, the Vulkan API, was released exactly a year ago with, as we reported, a hard launch. This meant public, but not main-branch drivers for developers, a few public SDKs, a proof-of-concept patch for The Talos Principle, and, of course, the ratified specification. This sets up the API to find success right out of the gate, and we can now look back over the year since.

khronos-2017-vulkan-alt-logo.png

Thor's hammer, or a tempest in a teapot?

The elephant in the room is DOOM. This game has successfully integrated the API and it uses many of its more interesting features, like asynchronous compute. Because the API is designed in a sort-of “make a command, drop it on a list” paradigm, the driver is able to select commands based on priority and available resources. AMD’s products got a significant performance boost, relative to OpenGL, catapulting their Fury X GPU up to the enthusiast level that its theoretical performance suggested.

Mobile developers have been picking up the API, too. Google, who is known for banishing OpenCL from their Nexus line and challenging OpenGL ES with their Android Extension Pack (later integrated into OpenGL ES with version 3.2), has strongly backed Vulkan. The API was integrated as a core feature of Android 7.0.

On the engine and middleware side of things, Vulkan is currently “ready for shipping games” as of Unreal Engine 4.14. It is also included in Unity 5.6 Beta, which is expected for full release in March. Frameworks for emulators are also integrating Vulkan, often just to say they did, but sometimes to emulate the quirks of these system’s offbeat graphics co-processors. Many other engines, from Source 2 to Torque 3D, have also announced or added Vulkan support.

Finally, for the API itself, The Khronos Group announced (pg 22 from SIGGRAPH 2016) areas that they are actively working on. The top feature is “better” multi-GPU support. While Vulkan, like OpenCL, allows developers to enumerate all graphics devices and target them, individually, with work, it doesn’t have certain mechanisms, like being able to directly ingest output from one GPU into another. They haven’t announced a timeline for this.

Subject: Mobile
Manufacturer: Huawei

Introduction and Specifications

The Mate 9 is the current version of Huawei’s signature 6-inch smartphone, building on last year’s iteration with the company’s new Kirin 960 SoC (featuring ARM's next-generation Bifrost GPU architecture), improved industrial design, and exclusive Leica-branded dual camera system.

Mate9_Main.jpg

In the ultra-competitive smartphone world there is little room at the top, and most companies are simply looking for a share of the market. Apple and Samsung have occupied the top two spots for some time, with HTC, LG, Motorola, and others, far behind. But the new #3 emerged not from the usual suspects, but from a name many of us in the USA had not heard of until recently; and it is the manufacturer of the Mate 9. And comparing this new handset to the preceding Mate 8 (which we looked at this past August), it is a significant improvement in most respects.

With this phone Huawei has really come into their own with their signature phone design, and 2016 was a very good product year with the company’s smartphone offerings. The P9 handset launched early in 2016, offering not only solid specs and impressive industrial design, but a unique camera that was far more than a gimmick. Huawei’s partnership with Leica has resulted in a dual-camera system that operates differently than systems found on phones such as the iPhone 7 Plus, and the results are very impressive. The Mate 9 is an extension of that P9 design, adapted for their larger Mate smartphone series.

DSC_0649.jpg

Continue reading our review of the Huawei Mate 9!

ZTE Axon 7 Receives OTA Nougat Update

Subject: Mobile | February 8, 2017 - 07:26 PM |
Tagged: zte, axon 7, google, nougat, Android, android 7.0

Well that was quick. About two weeks ago, we reported on ZTE Mobile Deutschland’s Facebook post that said Android 7.0 would miss January, but arrive some time in Q1. For North America, that apparently means the second week of February, because my device was just notified, about an hour ago, that A2017UV1.1.0B15 was available for over-the-air update. It just finished installing.

zte-2017-axon7-nougatupdate.jpg

In my case, I needed to hold the on button a few times to get the phone to boot into the second stage of installation, but ZTE mentions it in the pre-install notes, so that’s good. Then, when the phone moved on to the new lock screen, my fingerprint reader didn’t work until after I typed in the lock screen password. I’m not sure why the phone didn’t accept the fingerprint reader until after I successfully logged in, especially since it used the fingerprints on file from Android 6.0, I didn’t need to set it up again, but it’s a small inconvenience. Just don’t perform the update if you can’t access your password manager and you don’t remember the unlock code off the top of your head.

While I don’t have a Daydream VR headset, I’ll probably pick one up soon and give it a test. The Daydream app is installed on the device, though, so you can finally enjoy Android-based VR content if you pick one up.

If your phone hasn’t alerted you yet, find your unlock password and check for updates in the settings app.

Source: ZTE

ZTE Axon 7 Nougat Update Needs More Time

Subject: Mobile | January 27, 2017 - 05:12 PM |
Tagged: zte, axon 7, nougat, Android

The German offices of ZTE Mobile have announced (via their Facebook page) that the Android 7.0 update will be coming later in this quarter, which would be before the end of March. In November, this branch announced that the update would be coming in January. This update is supposed to bring Daydream to the handset, as this was one of the big promises that ZTE made about the device before it launched. They are not confident with it in its current state, though.

zte-2017-axon7-logo.png

Our readers were asking about my opinion of the device, since I published a “Just Delivered” post about it four months ago. I said that I would wait until the Nougat release, which I was, at the time, expecting in October or November, because I had a feeling that ZTE envisioned the phone with that OS version. Since then, bugs have come and gone, most of which were relatively benign, like messing up whitespace in the lock screen’s current date. Personally, I started getting a bug where my camera would occasionally fail to focus, instead humming and blurring like it’s focusing in and out tens or hundreds of times per second until you close the app using the camera. (It started happening, off and on, just after the last service update, although it could just be a coincidental hardware issue with my unit. I’m waiting until I see it in Nougat to call customer support.)

Either way, it’s probably a good thing that ZTE is taking their time with this one. I’m guessing this update is when those who adopted the Axon 7 will begin to solidify judgments about the company as a higher-end phone vendor going forward.

Cyanogen Shuts Down

Subject: Mobile | December 26, 2016 - 02:39 PM |
Tagged: cyanogen, Android

Seemingly out of nowhere, Cyanogen, an alternative distribution of Android, begun laying off its employees last month, shutting down their Seattle office with the option to relocate to Palo Alto. At the same time, the founder, Steve Kondik, left the company. Then, on the last business day before Christmas Eve, they announced that “all services and Cyanogen-supported nightly builds will be discontinued no later than 12/31/16”.

valve-nope.jpg

At this point, I don’t really know what’s left of the company, which makes me wonder, if anyone did relocate from Washington State to California, whether they will still have a job there. The project will continue on as an independent, open-source operating system, called Lineage OS. As far as I can tell, the company doesn’t actually do anything else, so I can’t really see what they would restructure into. I'm guessing it's just done.

Source: Cyanogen