Looking for a new phone…

I’ve had 4 phones in the past 4 years:

– Samsung Focus in 2011, which was my gateway to try Windows Phone.
– Nexus 4 in late 2012, which was my gateway to try Android 4 (and I gave the Focus to my mom as her 1st smartphone).
– Lumia 620 in mid-2013, after I decided I hated Android and missed Windows Phone.
– Lumia 920 in early 2014 after I gave the 620 to my mom (who desperately needed to ditch WP7 and move on to WP8).

The first three phones were always temporary. I was trying systems, seeing what I liked (I had had an iPod Touch with iOS 4 before the Focus so I knew that system well already) and what I did not. With the occasional fall, my usually not-too-useless hands did a good job at not dropping these puppies too much. They all survived well, with some nicks in the back or sides but mostly fine. And then I decided to get serious with Windows Phone and buy a 920. It had a great camera, great screen, 1GB RAM, fast CPU… I was excited. The happiness has lasted for 6 months in which I enjoyed WP8, the creation of the Dev Preview program and finally the incredible quality jump that is WP8.1 with Cortana and Cyan firmware. I was certain I was going to keep using this phone for 1-2 years, easily, since I knew it would be upgradeable to WP9 when Threshold becomes official in Spring 2015. And then… it happened.

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Well, of course. The phones I really didn’t care about that much, the cheapo ones that I didn’t really make much effort to protect because I could just get new ones from Amazon immediately, those survived perfectly. The one I was intending to keep for 2 years? That’s when I’ve lost my “virgin” status in phone cracking. What’s hilarious is the way it happened: while my cheaper phones fell out of my hands and into the ground and lived to tell the tale, I innocently left my 920 on a bathroom’s sink surface. Well, apparently that darn thing wasn’t as perfectly perpendicular against the ground as it seemed, and exactly 20 seconds after I let the phone rest, I heard a SMACK! I had no idea what the noise was, what could’ve caused it, until I saw the phone, screen down, laying on the bathroom’s tiled floor. That’s impossible, I thought, I left it securely on that flat surface, it couldn’t have slipped unless a ghost pushed it. I lifted the poor 920 and there it was: a glorious mega-crack extending through the upper left corner. Upon further examination, I realized that this crack was exacerbated by a previous tiny, microscopic nick caused by a light drop months ago. This tiny nick evidently created a weak spot and when the phone smashed onto the ground that weak point surrendered to the forces imposed by gravity, originating the huge crack that expanded through the upper left area of the screen.

Incredulous, I inspected the bathroom surface I had left the 920 on: no water to facilitate phone-suicide, but upon lowering my eye-point I noticed the damn thing was indeed not fully flat. It had just the slightest curvature to it towards the edges, precipitating my 920 early demise. I cursed bathroom designers everywhere and after my initial denial and anger phases, bargaining kicked in to accept the loss and I raced to acceptance (I skipped depression because, let’s face it, it’s just a phone and I have a life, so this isn’t such a huge deal. Huge enough to make me write a blog post about it to entertain myself, though). I can’t avoid the thought that, had this phone not been a unibody design, it would have survived without a hitch: non-unibody frames tend to “shatter” upon impact, opening up the case and separating the case, battery and the rest of the phone. Much, I repeat, much of the impact energy is released on this separation process, minimizing damage to all three components. Unibody designs don’t have this advantage: on the contrary, the impact energy travels from the shock point through the body frame and cannot be released anywhere, thus exacerbating the pressure on the body’s materials and releasing un-suppressed energy in the only way it can: by breaking material for energy to be let out. Hence the huge crack in my 920, facilitated by the tiniest nick that created a weak point. Had this been my 620, it would have shattered in 3, I would have put all three parts together again and voila, ready to go without a scratch.

This is why I tend to prefer non-unibody phones. Besides, there is the matter of price: a 620 would cost about a third of a 920. However, there are other extras: the 920’s camera is brilliantly excellent and I’m now spoiled as I’ve gotten used to having a great camera in my pocket at all times with which I can instantly share through LTE. The 620 had no such great camera nor LTE (the latter I can live without, though).

So, now, I’m faced with a choice: upgrade sooner than I had planned or keep using the cracked 920 – it is completely, perfectly functional, after all, but the cracked area is quite annoying as it obscures a good %15 of the screen. There are now three considerations: price, camera and construction. Queue the announcements of the 730 and 830 just 3 weeks ago and the decision making process gets quite muddy:

920: Expensive. LTE. Great camera.                                        VS      Unibody. Thick, heavy, old. No health tracking.

635: Cheap. Non-unibody. Health tracking. LTE.                       VS      Bad camera. No front camera. No ambient light sensor. Low-res screen.

735: Semi-unibody. AMOLED screen. LTE. Decent camera.        VS      Price? Health tracking?

830: Health tracking. LTE. Great camera.                                 VS     Unibody. Price? Health tracking?

So, the decision seems to be centered around the 635 and the 735 as they have the least compromises. The 635 is quite hampered in the camera and sensor departments… but the thing is literally $99. With no contract. That’s no money, at all.  The 735 has a high-res AMOLED screen which pretty much guarantees it’ll be beautiful to look at with great color and deep blacks. It has 2 decent cameras, front and back. LTE. The only question is, how much will it cost? If it releases at around $250 this would be a no brainer as an unlocked device. If released through Tmobile as no-contract, $200 is the max I’d pay (keep in mind the 635 is going for 99 as no-contract so it’s hard to justify more than $100 price difference). Any more than that and we have a problem: if the 735 gets closer to $300, then a) this is unjustifiably expensive for a mid-low range device using a mere Snapdragon 400 and b) at that price, the 635 becomes 1/3 of the price and one has to seriously evaluate if the shortcomings are such a big deal for the ridiculous $99 price.

So, that’s the quandary I find myself in right now. Not wanting to upgrade but not wanting to use a cracked phone, not being able to decide on what would be an appropriate upgrade path. Anybody cares to weigh in? I even made mockups for both phones to see how they’d look (seems like I’ve settled on the orange models). Which one do you like best?

Lumia 635

Lumia 635

Lumia 735

Lumia 735

Thinking Windows 9

It’s March 23rd today and we now only have a bit more than 10 days for Build 2014, in which Microsoft will be unveiling some “vision” for Windows 9. As has been mentioned before, that will imply some further fusion between the Modern environment and the traditional desktop. Many have taken the opportunity to shout to the winds about the predictable return of the Start menu to fuel their hatred of the Start screen and by all accounts, a merger of both environments into a more cohesive whole does seem like the most likely path for the company to follow.

Now, the problem with people commenting on this line of thought is that they are expecting something along the lines of this:

mockupStartMenuOld

Yeah, OK. A) It’s never going to happen because B) that would look horribly disconnected from the flatter aesthetic that Microsoft has taken – with the rest of the world following very clearly. Now that we’ve established that, we can accept that Modern (formerly “Metro“) is the UI framework that will be used in the future. When you think about it, the fatal flaw of Windows 8.0 was that it was a beta product. Yes, millions bought it, yet it was an unfinished mess of an OS to ship that happened because something, anything needed to head out to market. In hindsight, it may have been much better to wait it out 1 year until 8.1 and release that as the .0 version: negative reactions would have most definitely been more subdued as the OS would have been more polished and respectful of touch and keyboard-mouse first users. 8.1 did much needed good to this new Modern environment but because of this focus it kept ignoring traditional desktop users, hence why 8.x adoption is still low around Vista-era levels. Now all hopes are clinging on 9.0 to retell the tale of 7.0’s success while fueling the uncomfortable coincidental reality that validates a figurative good-release/bad-release/good-release cadence within Microsoft.

Now, how does a further synergized desktop/Modern world look? For starters, it shows launched apps combined whether they are win32 or WinRT and it allows for the taskbar to bleed into the Modern world as a vestige of times past. When I first saw this I thought it was the most hideous thing ever done. Alas, this is still the case, yet once I used 8.1 Update 1 I came to realize the taskbar is only there when I mouse to the lower end of the screen. Even then, if I’m in a Modern app, priority is given to whatever menu that app may have, and only upon further going down does the taskbar show up (and immediately disappear when the mouse is taken away from it). Now, seeing this in action, this change is much less obtrusive than I originally envisioned. Yes, it does occlude whatever Modern app tools may lie below the taskbar, but if I’m making the effort to get to the taskbar I’m not looking at those Modern controls, thus, no usability is hindered. This is a positive direction to fuse desktop and Modern and I expect 9.0 to bring further cohesion to the Frankenstein that 8.x is.

With that out of the way, let’s get back to that start menu. It’s happening, mainly because old people keep complaining about it not being there and how hard it is to get used to all these new changes. Never mind they are able to pick up an iPad, which has nothing to do with OS X, and understand immediately how to use it, proving that they are adaptable creatures. No, the problem here is that they see a product called Windows and have certain expectations from it, which when changed into a Modern environment, throws them back into a field of negativity. But I digress. Without getting into why the Start screen is clearly a superior way to organize/find/initiate apps, let’s have a look at how I expect things to go in 9.0. As a reference, my current Start screen:

It is quite easy to imagine how a Start menu would work in the desktop while still respecting the UI design principles stipulated in the Modern framework. Use the same flat aesthetic, keep the Start menu tiles live just like in the Start screen and make this menu just as capable of personalization as the Start screen: you have a winner. Lighter users that use less apps could have a very unobtrusive Start menu that gives them all the app links they need while not occluding anything from view:

In my case, I would expect my Start menu to look along these lines:

Of course, the Start menu should be extendable to whatever one has picked in the Start screen, and the dimensions should not be limited to a certain specific screen space like pre-8.0 Start menus: remember, 9.x should be as focused on touch as it is on keyboard-mouse, so we can’t expect users to touch on tiny arrows to go up and down, or move through lists that frankly make no organizational sense in 2014. There is no reason why this menu can’t grow throughout the screen as more tiles are added while not occluding any tile from view:

This seems like an evolution that would satisfy heavy desktop users’ main complaint: they hate the Start screen because it launches them into a fullscreen experience that breaks their flow. This design would allow these people to access all the apps they have without ever leaving the desktop and losing whatever they’re doing from view. Of course, this assumes that by 9.0 we’ll be able to launch Modern apps in windows inside the desktop, which seems like the best compromise, otherwise, launching a fullscreen app basically negates the benefit from having a Start menu that doesn’t occlude anything else. While thinking of this design I was tempted to add a search box to the menu and decided it does not need one, since search would work just like it does in pre-8.x versions and the Start screen: hit the Windows key and start typing. However, there’s many people who again need to be educated and in a transition towards a Modern world will need visual cues, so adding a search box just like the one that was added to the Windows Store wouldn’t be the end of the world:

Even better, if wanted, this Start menu could still be organized in groups resembling the Start screen organization, though I would assume it wouldn’t be designed to show as many tiles as the Start screen otherwise it would occupy much of the desktop space and thus defeat the purpose of having a Start menu:

mockupStartMenuGroups

There, quite unobtrusive yet still helpful for those who require visual cues. The one last “problem” we would have to fix is when we get the Start menu and when we get the Start screen. This, again, is easily fixed: If a user clicks or touches the Start button with a mouse or finger, launch the Start menu. If a user clicks or touches the Windows logo on the charms bar or uses the hardware button on a tablet, launch the Start screen. 2 identities, desktop and Modern, accessible in similar ways yet always consistent with what’s expected from the user: desktop traits are linked to desktop use and thus the Start menu while Modern traits are linked to the Modern use and thus to the Start screen. Easy peasy!

So, those are some of my thoughts when thinking about Windows 9. This, however, is nowhere near enough: it’s just the main vocal point that will be argued to exasperation in blogs and forums during the next year. I expect Microsoft to converge far, far more by Windows 9 and bringing x86/ARM/WP8 systems together is not enough. There needs to be one store. It has to be possible to buy one app once and use it in any desktop/laptop/tablet/phone signed into the same Microsoft account. Desktop and Modern need to fuse much further; from two completely independent entities into a more cohesive unit that operates as a whole but has two moods if you will, a productive mood (think desktop) and a consumption mood (think Modern) that still act, react, look and feel like one. Desktop and Modern need to be melded into one whole environment for different uses and achieving precisely this goal is what will mark 9.0’s success.

At least, Microsoft is not boring anymore – it’s easily the most exciting company right now as they figure out who they are and who they want to be. Now let’s wait and see what “vision” Microsoft reveals on Build.

My phone history – updated

Well, it happened again.

As happy as I am with my Lumia 620, the truth is that my mom’s Samsung Focus WP7 is now about 4 years old and she is completely outdated. While she likes the phone, WP7 development has been virtually abandoned as WP8 is completely based on actual Windows 8 and not Windows CE (which is not really Windows at all) like WP7 was. So, in preparation for her next birthday, I’ll be giving her my like-new 620 so she can leave the past behind and come back to present modernity. Of course, most likely she’ll half-joke half-complain that I’m giving her a used phone that I no longer want (which is untrue) while not realizing this will be the most expensive and high quality phone she has ever owned, but oh well… such is my destiny and I’m used to it. At least she will stop complaining that Whatsapp/Skype and other apps don’t work properly (obvious, since they haven’t received updates on WP7 since the beginning of time…).

Anyway, I was waiting for MWC2014 in Barcelona this end of February to see what WP8.1 devices Nokia/Microsoft release, most likely quadcores with 2gb RAM. I was on the fence about what I would upgrade to, the new devices or just last year’s 920 since it has that fantastic Pureview camera. If I were limited to be with one carrier, I’d get the 1020 with its 41mp camera and not look back, but since I travel back and forth to Europe, I need to be able to swap microSIM cards, which means I need unlocked devices. Which are WAY more expensive than locked ones. Since what’ll be announced at MWC won’t be 64-bit SOCs – those won’t be coming until the fall – I figured it wouldn’t really matter what I decided to buy. Coincidentally, as I was doing this process in my head, WPCentral released this article about 920s being available on eBay, unlocked, for a miserly $200. I couldn’t order one fast enough, this is a crazy good deal. Last year’s phone, sure, but also last year’s flagship phone, which means it’ll still be supported pretty much for the next year or maybe two. Even when it gets to the cutoff for future OS updates, its camera will still laugh at 95% of what the market offers. So there you go, 920 is on its way towards me from California, refurbished (so basically new, while technically not exactly “new”, yet legally has to be sold at as-used price). Queue the obligatory update to my phone history for the annals of history:
My%20phone%20history

This 920 should last me at least 2 years, great phone, flagship specs, best-in-class camera (let’s face it, that was my main draw, photography), support for at least 1/2 years. Other than discovering an unknown love for all things matte, this situation also made me think that I/people in general buy phones at a much faster rate than before. My 1st phone lasted 3 years, 2nd phone another 3, same with the 3rd phone… had the 4th for 1 year, 5th for 1/2 year, 6th for 1/2 year… though the last 2 don’t really count as I hated the Android OS and the 620 will be handed to my mom, those are exceptions (if mom didn’t need a new phone I’d happily keep using the 620). I don’t think we can blame this on consumerism as some do, although it’s certainly a factor in this accelerating trend.

I’d say the main factor is that technology is getting much better much faster. My Alcatel, the brick that vanquished my fears of being mugged at night because it essentially constituted a weapon, lasted so long because screens didn’t get any better for a while. Sure, the Nokia 3310 was a welcome upgrade but the increase in resolution wasn’t THAT big a deal, the main thing with that one was the lighter package. The 6500 was even smaller and had a color screen, but note how that more noticeable change took about 10 years to occur. From then on, technology has improved at a much faster pace. The Samsung Focus had a brilliant AMOLED screen but lacked in resolution. 2 years later the Nexus 4 had a great HD screen. 1 year later the Lumia 620 was the upgrade to WP8 that I wanted since the unlocked 920 was crazy expensive. I’m positive the WP8.1 devices in MWC2014 will absolutely trump and laugh at my 920, but the trick here is that the 920 is already beefy enough to withstand an upgrade to WP9 if that happens next year. Yet, as you see, everything is getting so much better so much faster, which is welcome news, but we need to try to calm down with the purchasing rate/pace. If the 920 supports WP9 as I fully expect it to (other 512MB RAM Lumias I’m much more doubtful about…) and it doesn’t die (meaning I drop and break it), I expect to be using this device for a long, long time, 2 years minimum, 3 years probable, 4 years unlikely but possible (by then we might have flexible 2K resolution AMOLED IGZO panels and, as Steve Jobs used to say, you don’t even know how much you really want them yet).

To conclude, here’s a couple shots of my new best buddy to help me traverse the treacherous waters of life:

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My laptop history – updated

I’ve broken my track record of one laptop per year. No, I did not lengthen the cycle, I shortened it. This is not the plan going forward – I hope! I was not planning on getting anything new, I was waiting for the Microsoft Surface 2 to be released and eventually come down in price. The Surface is a great device for somebody like me: an academic professional whose job mainly consists on MS Office work that is used for teaching/grading. All the fun stuff I do in this device is Hulu/Netflix, that’s about it, because let’s be honest: there is no respectable gaming mobile device. Gaming is done in the desktop, period. Everything else is a joke.

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So I sold my Asus VivoTab RT and got myself not a Surface 2, but the original Surface since it is no longer outrageously overpriced at $600 and got the tablet plus the tactile touch-cover, all for $340 factory refurbished from eBay. Great deal – and I already have friends who want to buy it from me next year because, let’s face it, I’m obviously going to buy a new hybrid when that time comes. The Tegra 3 ARM SoC CPU works like a charm, it’s not the fastest around but it’s fast enough (which is why the Surface 2 isn’t attractive to me, because Tegra 4 doesn’t have that noticeable an improvement in performance to warrant spending the extra cash). Apps will load in 2/3 seconds instead of the 1 second it would take on Surface 2 or the latest iPad Air: I really can live waiting 3 seconds for an app to load, it’s really not a problem (#firstworldproblems). I use Surface to teach all my classes with pictures, PDFs and PowerPoints just like I did with the VivoTab, but now I look much cooler doing it :D. Surface feels great, is sturdy, has a beautiful screen and is an overall fantastic device, specially since the Windows 8.1 update. I’m looking forward to replacing this one next year with the sure-to-come Surface 3 (which will be based on Tegra 5 that will use a 64bit ARM v8 instruction set paired with a Kepler GPU architecture, now that  is what I’m talking about) but for now, the Surface 1 is a fantastic little machine for work and play to complete the latest iteration of my laptop history (I might have to rethink the title of this evolution, since these are no longer laptops, but hybrids).

My laptop history

My phone history – updated

I tried, I really did. No matter how much effort I put into it, I cannot stand Android. It makes no sense. It’s a mess. There’s no coherence at all. Every app does its own thing and none of them communicate with the others. Google is obviously trying to improve design with Android 4.2/4.3/4.4 but everything still feels way too segregated to make any sense to me. The Nexus 4, however, is beautiful to say the least. Gorgeous screen, thin and light, it really is a beautiful device. I wish I were able to install WP8 on this Nexus device. That is never going to happen though, and so I sold the Nexus and bought an amazing Lumia 620 for $200, fully factory unlocked, contract free, which as always, remains conditio-sine-qua-non for somebody who travels to Europe like I do. Not only does the non-reflective yellow case cheer me up every day with its vibrant energy, but it feels great in the hand and what can I say about WP8, it’s the perfect platform for me. Everything is integrated logically, there’s coherence to make the experience pleasant and the Windows Phone platform has unbeatable beautiful design (plus, white-on-black text, need I say more…). 2 months with the 620 and I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time. Extra points: got a magenta case original from Nokia for a miserly $3 and free shipping on eBay, so this 620 will be ready to become my mom’s during xmas 2014 when I will surely upgrade to a newer device. Win-win!

My phone history

Extra plus points: the case is translucent and so not only does light bleed through it making it shine when outdoors, but when using the flashlight at night this phone glows! LOVE.

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