quarta-feira, 29 de maio de 2013

The Samsung Galaxy S4 and its flaws

I've been using the international version of the Samsung Galaxy S4 (GT-i9505, with the Snapdragon 600 processor) for about a month now, and I am generally happy with it, despite a number of annoying flaws.

I guess that by the end of the day, the HTC One had flaws I couldn't live with, while I can live with the ones on the S4. They may be deal breakers for you though, so I will lay them out and let you be the judge. After all, it's an expensive piece of equipment, you want to know what you're paying for.

As always, this review will be focusing on the stuff they're not telling you on the mainstream websites. The stuff you notice on your everyday use. If you think this review is not comprehensive, you are right - I'm not trying to be. If that's what you're looking for, you'll probably be better served somewhere else.

1. The S4 lags and stutters

The S4 uses the exact same processor as the HTC One, but it's overclocked to make it run faster (1.9 GHz against the 1.7 GHz on the One). Both phones pack 2 GB of RAM and have full HD 1080p screens.

Yet, when it comes to performance, the difference is night and day. Seriously, it's actually ridiculous. I mean, I don't even understand why this is not being completely overblown everywhere.

The One's operation is super smooth, while the S4 lags and stutters at almost everything it does. And I can tell you for a fact that I don't own a defective unit, as I've seen many other users reporting the same issues in several forums.

But what's even more surprising is that the S4 is considerably slower and has much more performance hiccups than the Samsung Galaxy Note II, which was launched 6 months earlier and packs much more modest hardware. I had to make a video, otherwise I know you wouldn't believe me:

Regarding this test, I should add that:

- power saving mode was disabled on both phones (just in case you were wondering, since this mode underclocks the CPU)
- the lag while launching apps may seem petty business - after all, it's only a slight difference. But believe me, you will notice it on your everyday use, specially if you've used snappier phones before. It is annoying as hell.
- Subway surfers, the game I launched, doesn't suffer only from slower booting time on the S4. The overall performance has a lot of hiccups. A lot. On a side note, my score on that game is 7.6 million. Beat that! :)

2. It freeezes!

In one month of use, the freaking phone froze at least 5 times, while using applications as diverse as the camera, the browser, and the game Need for Speed Most Wanted (which by the way I got for free - it was a freebee for the first 100.000 S4 owners).

When I say "it froze", I mean I had to reboot the damn phone to make it work again. Not cool, man.

3. The screen has an annoying glitch

You will notice this specially when the screen brightness is low and whenever you have something black moving on your screen. Whether you're scrolling through your settings menu (black background) or watching a video with anything black on it, or even scrolling through a white webpage with black text, you will notice that black stuff leaves a trail as it moves. I searched around and many other people are complaining about this. They call it smearing/ghosting and it's kind of hard to capture on camera, but you will definitely notice it when using the phone:

It's not terribly bad, but it's frustrating because it's one of those things that immediately make you feel there's something wrong with your phone. No matter how much you try to be apologetic, this wasn't supposed to happen.

Where it will bother you the most is with text (white text on black background or black text on white background), because the text will blur while you scroll and you won't be able to read it while scrolling, at times. I know, unacceptable.

Someone found a fix, but I don't like it. It involves downloading an application like Screen Adjuster, and moving the Red, Green and Blue dials from zero to a value between 5 and 10.

What this will do is change your screen's "black value" to something that's not black, but still pretty close to black, so you won't notice a difference. Except you will.

The beauty of an AMOLED display is its infinite contrast ratio. Contrary to LCD displays, that have a backlight behind the screen which always produces some glare even when displaying black, on an AMOLED, each pixel emits its own light. This means that when you're displaying something black, those pixels are actually switched off. They're truly black. This not only saves battery, it's also one of the features that makes images look stunning on an AMOLED.

By using this fix, you will effectively get rid of the smearing, but you'll be downgrading your screen in the process, giving up the deep blacks that make it so awesome. Too big a price to pay for me, I learned to live with the smearing.

4. All those special features are utterly useless

Air-view? Air-gesture? Smart-stay? Smart-scroll? Group play? Dual camera recording? Forget about it, it's all useless, just switch them off and do yourself a favor, at least you'll save some battery by disabling all those useless sensors.

Not only it's kind of pointless to try to scroll with your eyes when you can use your finger, it doesn't really work properly most of the time. The same stands true for all those other features. Don't buy this phone for these so-called innovations, you'll be seriously disappointed.

5. The back cover is tasteless

As you saw on my video, I have the black version of the S4, never liked white phones.

I like the front of the phone a lot. Big screen, small bezels, nice pretend-metal frame (it's actually all plastic). It's really thin and it feels very pleasant in the hand. It's much more comfortable to hold than the Note 2 or the HTC One, and it's very light as well.

But the back cover looks cheap and tasteless. I am eager to find a replacement that I like because I can't stand how ugly it looks, with its dotted pattern and glossy finish.

6. I'm finished with the bad stuff, now the good

To give credit where credit is due:
  • The camera's picture quality is AWESOME. It wipes the floor with the HTC One in this department, I don't care how many times you tell me "ultrapixels are better", I have never seen such amazing picture quality on a phone. Just look at the crazy amount of detail:
Don't just look at it, click on it, save it to your computer and zoom in. It's amazing. And no matter what you tell me or how much proof you show me, I've had the two phones and I like the S4 photos better in ALL lighting conditions, even in low light.
  • Battery life is quite good, even with intensive use. Definitely much better than the HTC One.
  • The big screen is great for consuming content. The resolution is stupendous. Every single person who holds my phone gazes at the screen in pure amazement.
  • 4G LTE is super fast. You'll never want 3G again.

7. The S4 vs. the Note 2

I won't compare the S4 to the HTC One because the One is out of my favorites list for reasons I explained in another post. But I said before that the Note 2 sets the bar for smartphones for me, and it was the best phone I ever had. How do I feel about it, now that I've used the S4 for quite a while?

Well, in my opinion there's absolutely nothing that would make me jump from a Note 2 to an S4. Nothing. I only did it because I didn't have to pay for the S4 and my girlfriend was in love with my Note 2, so I let her keep it.

The Note 2 has a bigger screen (great for consuming content), faster and smoother performance (from my tests), a clearer speakerphone and a slightly better battery life.

The S4 has better screen resolution, a better camera, 4G LTE (even though there's also a Note 2 model with 4G, mine doesn't have it) and it's much more pocketable and comfortable to hold.

But the Note's camera and screen are already pretty great, really. When it comes to screen resolution, the 720p of the Note 2 are more than enough to produce an extremely crisp image at normal viewing distances. And because the screen is larger, your eyes will naturally be further away from the phone, where you won't be able to discern any pixels. It's really not a decisive factor.

Weighting everything together, I would have to say that the only decisive factor between these two phones is really their size.

Do you value a big screen more than anything else, as long as you can fit it in your pocket? Go for the Note 2 (it's not always comfortable, but it will fit in most pockets).

If you think the Note 2 is too big and you want something more manageable and comfortable to hold, the S4 is a great choice that I don't think you'll regret.

8. Final words

Guys, sorry for the time it took me to post this review, I've been really busy in my professional life (this blog is just a hobby). I really appreciated your feedback on my HTC One review, so please leave your thoughts on this one in the comment section. Any questions you may have, I'll be glad to answer them. Also, feel free to subscribe to my mailing list to receive an update when I post something.

Hope you found this review helpful, have fun with your gadgets! :)

sexta-feira, 5 de abril de 2013

Why I am returning my htc One

Beautiful hardware ruined by dreadful software - a tragic tale

I got my new HTC One last week. After 7 days using it as my main phone, I've decided to return it.

There are tons of reviews on the internet about the phone, so I won't waste any time talking about its cool design, the powerful processor, etc - if you're reading this, you probably already know about all of that. The hardware is in general quite good, it's the software that ruins it above everything else. I will focus only on some of the little (big) things I couldn't stand about the phone and that ultimately made me decide I didn't want it.

This is not to say that everything's bad. There's plenty of good things, but you can read about those somewhere else.
1. The hedious "menu" bar

If you read the reviews, as I did before I got the phone, you know htc decided to ditch the menu/app switcher button (you only have 2 softkeys on the phone: "back" and "home") and as a consequence, some apps which aren't yet updated to the most recent android standards, will display a black "menu" bar at the bottom of the screen.

The dreadful black "menu" bar shamelessly robbing screen estate from my geocaching application

The reviewers dismissed this as a minor problem, that only appeared in very rare circumstances. Well, it turns out that it is there in almost every single third party app I've downloaded. It's absolutely maddening.

The black bar kindly shrinks the amount of map I can see on my satnav application.

My last phone was the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, so when I grabbed the One for the first time, I immediately felt I didn't have a lot of screen estate, by comparison.  When you have a relatively small screen, I don't think you want to see it being wastefully used like this.

The reviews I read gave me the impression that only some obscure apps would be plagued by the black bar. But it's there on Facebook! On freaking Facebook!! Come on, reviewers, seriously?

It should be clarified that once app developers update their apps to the latest android standards, the black bar should disappear, since the menu button is meant to move to the upper-right corner of the screen, as it already happens with all the native google apps, like youtube, for example:

The problem is that you don't know how long it will take for developers to redesign their apps to conform with the new standards. Actually, you don't even know if they will bother to do it. Facebook is probably one of the most downloaded apps on the android market, and it doesn't seem to care about those standards at all.

Can you imagine something more annoying than playing games with that ridiculous black bar stealing screen estate from you? It drives you insane!

The black bar is definitely the main grudge I have with this phone. But it is not the only one.

2. The notification area is a barren wasteland

There are no connectivity toggles on the notification area of the HTC One.

Seriously, how do you expect me to live without these?

These toggles from the Samsung TouchWiz interface are incredibly useful. And you can see more of them, just by swiping your finger across.

There's no such thing on the HTC One. And please don't tell me I can just get a third-party application to put them there. Because I did. And this is how the best application I could find looks like:
The toggles are placed below all the other notifications, which means their position on the screen keeps varying depending on how many pending notifications I have at a given moment. On top of that, functionality is very limited - on my Note 2, I could tap the wi-fi toggle to switch wi-fi on or off, and if I gave it a long press, I would be presented with a list of all the available wi-fi networks - very useful. Here, there aren't long press functions. Also, some of the toggles actually open settings menus (so they can't really be called quick toggles). What a shame.

3. The home button responsiveness sucks

The home button is a soft key on the HTC One. I was used to a physical button on the Note 2 and on the S2 before it. After a week of trying to get used to this small soft key, I still get frustrated very often with the lack of responsiveness of the damn thing. More often than not, it won't respond to my touch at the first try.

4. Sense 5.0. is not customizable enough

I like Android because, unlike IOS, Android acknowledges that you're an individual with individual preferences. It understands that every person is different and what is important and useful to one person may not be as important or useful to another. It does this by letting you customize your interface to your needs. It gives you a lot of freedom to let you change it as you please, instead of telling you how you should do everything, like IOS does.

Sense 5.0. is the interface skin that HTC overlayed on top of the Android OS. It comes preloaded on the phone, and you can't really remove it - only work around it. It savagely destroys the beauty of Android customization. Like Apple does, it takes your freedom away from you and tells you how you're meant to use your phone. Like Apple, it does this for the sake of simplicity. If I wanted simplicity, I would buy an iPhone. I'm not a fan of android because of its simplicity. I don't expect it to be simple, I expect it to let me do whatever I want. And Sense doesn't.

 Sense 5.0. is senseless

For one, I could immediately see that the list of settings I have on the HTC One is much shorter than what I had on my Galaxy note 2. The things that bother me may be completely different than the ones that bother you. But the fewer options we have, the more likely it is that neither of us will be able to do anything about them.

In my case, these were some of the things that bothered me:

- I'm not a big fan of Sense's system font. In my Galaxy Note 2, I could easily change the system font. Nothing I can do about it in the One.

I find Rosemary to be a terrible font choice. But I am sure someone out there likes it better than the stock font, and I am a defender of their freedom to have horrible font taste.

- I almost never open my app drawer, because I put everything I want on my home screens. As such, I find it pointless to have a shortcut to the drawer on my dock. Sense doesn't let me remove such shortcut, though. It's not the only Android skin guilty of this sin and that may be one of the reasons why third-party launchers are so popular. This reason alone made me immediately install the Apex launcher. I never got to experiment Sense's Blinkfeed because of that. One way or the other, the fact that Blinkfeed can't be removed is another lack of freedom that drove me away from Sense's launcher.

That shortcut to the app drawer, right in the middle of the dock, can't be removed

- If you like to use the app drawer (which I don't, so it doesn't really bother me), Sense made some of the poorest design options in the history of ever for its layout. I can't even begin to describe how awful it is. The app grid is 3x3, wasting most of the space. There's a clock on the top of the screen, wasting even more space. The dock stays there when you open the drawer, which manages the feat of wasting even more space.

The ridiculously wasteful app drawer.

5. Disappointing camera, messy gallery

I won't go deep on this because there's already a lot of controversy around the htc One's camera on the internet and more than enough samples and technical analysis were made for those who want to check them out. I will just say that I wasn't impressed with the camera in any way.
But much worse than the camera, is the gallery app. It's a mess. Not intuitive at all. It keeps filling my screen with photos from my facebook friends, something I never asked it to do and that I can't disable. It's always hard to find the photos I'm looking for.
Zoe takes photos like a machine gun, and then leaves you alone when it comes to managing them. It creates stacks of photos that look the exact same. Browsing your gallery is a painful experience, there's absolutely nothing enjoyable about using that app.


The Galaxy Note 2 was the best phone I've ever had. I would gladly swap the htc One, with its better specs, for the mighty Note 2, with its gargantuan screen and battery life. 

For now, I will send the htc back and try the new galaxy S4, to see how it fares against the Note 2, which sets the bar for smartphones, in my opinion.