Category Archives: mobile

On Face Unlock

Face unlock is a common feature on premium (and even mid-range) devices today. Notable examples are Apple with the iPhone X, Microsoft with Windows Hello (when fully implemented with a depth-sensing camera like Intel RealSense), and on Android phones including Samsung Galaxy S9, OnePlus 6, Huawei P20 and Honor View 10 and Honor 10 AI

I’ve been trying the Honor 10 AI and naturally enabled the Face Unlock, passing warnings that it was less secure than a PIN or password. Why less secure? It is not stated, but a typical issue is being able to log in with a picture of the normal user (this would not work with Microsoft Hello).

Security is an issue, but I was also interested in how desirable this is as a feature. So far I am not convinced. Technically it works reasonably well. It is not 100% effective, especially in either bright sunlight or dim light, but most of the time it successfully unlocks the Honor phone. It is all the more impressive because I sometimes wear glasses, and it works whether or not I am wearing them.

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I enjoyed face unlock at first, since it removes a bit of friction in day to day use. Then I came across annoyances. Sometimes the face recognition takes longer than a PIN, if the lighting conditions are not optimal, and occasionally it fails. It has introduced a touch of uncertainty to the unlock process, whereas the PIN is fully reliable and controllable. I tried the optional “wake on pick up” feature and again had a mixed experience; sometimes the the phone would light up and unlock when I did not need it.

Conclusion? It is something I can easily live without so a low priority when choosing a new phone. Whereas fingerprint unlock, now that the technology has matured to the point of high reliability, is something I still enjoy.

Honor 10 AI smartphone launched in London, and here are my first impressions

The Honor 10 “AI” has been launched in London, and is on sale now either on contract with Three (exclusively), or unlocked from major retailers. Price is from £31 pay monthly (free handset), or SIM-free at £399.99.

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Why would you buy an Honor 10? Mainly because it is a high-end phone at a competitive price, especially if photography is important to you. As far as I can tell, Honor (which is a brand of Huawei) offers the best value of any major smartphone brand.

How is the Honor brand differentiated from Huawei? When I first came across the brand, it was focused on a cost-conscious, fashion-conscious youth market, and direct selling rather than a big high street presence. It is a consumer brand whereas Huawei is business and consumer. At the London launch, the consumer focus is still evident, but I got the impression that the company is broadening its reach, and the deal with Three and sale through other major retailers shows that Honor does now want to be on the high street.

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What follows is a quick first impression. At the launch, Honor made a big deal of the phone’s multi-layer glass body, which gives a 3D radiant effect as you view the rear of the phone. I quite like the design but in this respect it is not really all that different from the glass body of the (excellent) Honor 8, launched in 2016. I also wonder how often it will end up hidden by a case. The Honor 10 AI is supplied with a transparent gel case, and even this spoils the effect somewhat.

The display is great through, bright and high resolution. Reflectivity is a problem, but that is true of most phones. Notable is that by default there is a notch at the top around the front camera, but that you can disable this in settings. I think the notch (on this or any phone) is an ugly feature and was quick to disable it. Unfortunately screenshots do not show the notch so you will have to make do with my snaps from another phone:

With notch:

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Without notch:

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The camera specs are outstanding, with dual rear lens 24MP + 16MP, and 24MP front. At the launch at least half the presentation was devoted to the photography, and in particular the “AI” feature. The Honor 10 has an NPU (Neural Processing Unit), which is hardware acceleration for processes involved in image recognition. All smartphone cameras do a ton of work in software to optimize images, but the Honor 10 should be faster and use less power than most rivals thanks to the NPU. The AI works in several ways. If it recognises the photo as one of around 500 “scenarios”, it will optimize for that scenario. At a detail level, image recognition will segment a picture into objects it recognises, such as sky, buildings, people and so on, and optimize accordingly. For example, people get high priority, and especially the person who is the subject of a portrait. It will also segment the image of a person into hair, eyes, mouth and so on, for further optimisation.

What is optimisation? This is the key question. One of the AI effects is bokeh (blurring the background) which can be a nice way to make a portrait. On the other hand, if you take a picture of someone with the Niagara Falls in the background, do you really want it blurred to streaks of grey so that the picture might have been taken anywhere? It is a problem, and sometimes the AI will make your picture worse. I am reserving judgment on this, but will do another post on the subject after more hands-on.

Of course you can disable the AI, and in the Pro camera mode you can capture RAW images, so this is a strong mobile for photography even if you do not like the AI aspect. I have taken a few snaps and been impressed with the clarity and detail.

24MP for the front camera is exceptional so if selfies are your thing this is a good choice.

You have various options for unlocking the device: PIN, password, pattern swipe, fingerprint, proximity of Bluetooth device, or Face Unlock. The fingerprint reader is on the front, which is a negative for me as I prefer a rear fingerprint reader that lets you grab the device with one hand and instantly unlock. But you can do this anyway with Face Unlock, though Honor warns that this is the least secure option as it might work with a similar face (or possibly a picture). I found the Face Unlock effective, even with or without spectacles.

The fingerprint scanner is behind glass which Honor says helps if your finger is wet.

There are a few compromises. A single speaker means sound is OK but not great; it is fine through headphones or an external speaker though. No wireless charging.

Geekbench scores

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PC Mark scores

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So how much has performance improved since the Honor 8 in 2016? On PCMark, Work 2.0 performance was 5799 on the Honor 8, 7069 on the 10 (+21%). Geekbench 4 CPU scores go from 5556 multi-core on the 8 to 6636 on the 10 (+19.4%).  The GPU though is more substantially improved, 4728 on the 8 and 8585 on 10 (+81.5%). These figures take no account of the new NPU.

First impressions

I must confess to some disappointment that the only use Honor seems to have found for its NPU is photo enhancement, important though this is. It does not worry me much though. I will report back on the camera, but first impressions are good, and this strikes me as a strong contender as a high-end phone at a mid-range price. 128GB storage is generous.

Spec summary

OS: Android 8.1 “Oreo” with  EMUI (“Emotion UI”) 8.1 user interface

Screen: 5.84″ 19:9, 2280p x 1080p, 432 PPI, Removeable notch

Chipset: Kirin 970 8-core, 4x A73 @ 2.36 GHz, 4x A53 @ 1.84 GHz

Integrated GPU: ARM Mali-G72MP12 746 MHz

Integrated NPU (Neural Processing Unit): Hardware acceleration for machine learning/AI

RAM: 4GB

Storage: 128GB ROM.

Dual SIM: Yes (nano SIM)

NFC: Yes

Sensors: Gravity Sensor, Ambient Light Sensor, Proximity Sensor, Gyroscope, Compass, Fingerprint sensor, infrared sensor, Hall sensor, GPS

WiFi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, 2.4GHz/5GHz

Bluetooth: 4.2

Connections: USB 2.0 Type-C, 3.5mm headphone socket

Frequency bands: 4G LTE TDD: B38/B40/B414G LTE FDD: B1/B3/B5/B7/B8/B19/B203G WCDMA: B1/B2/B5/B8/B6/B192G GSM: B2/B3/B5/B8

Size and weight: 149.6 mm x 71.2 mm  x 7.7 mm, 153g

Battery: 3,400 mAh,  50% charge in 25 minutes. No wireless charging.

Fingerprint sensor: Front, under glass

Face unlock: Yes

Rear camera: Rear: 24MP + 16MP Dual Lens Camera,F1.8 Aperture.

Front camera: 24MP

Your favourite article on The Register, and what that says about technology and the media

I’m at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and meeting people new to me who say, “who do you write for”? I’ve been struck by several separate occasions when people say, after I mention The Register, “Oh yes, I loved that Apple article”.

The piece they mean (not one of mine), is this one by Kieren McCarthy. It recounts the Reg’s efforts to attend the iPhone 7 launch; or more precisely, efforts to get Apple PR to admit that the Reg is on a “don’t invite” list and would not be able to attend.

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Why does everyone remember this piece? In short, because it is a breath of reality in a world of hype.

The piece also exposes hidden pressures that influence tech media. There are more people working in PR than in journalism, as I recall, and it is their job to attempt to manage media coverage in order to get it to reflect as closely as possible the messaging that that their customers, the tech companies, wish to put out.

Small tech companies and start-ups struggle to get any coverage and welcome almost any press interest. The giants though are in a more privileged position, none more so than Apple, for whom public interest in its news is intense. This means it can select who gets to attend its events and naturally chooses those it thinks will give the most on-message coverage.

I do not mean to imply that those favoured journalists are biased. I believe most people write what they really think. Still, consciously or unconsciously they know that if they drift too far from the vendor’s preferred account they might not get invited next time round, which is probably a bad career move.

Apple is in a class of its own, but you see similar pressures to a lesser extent with other big companies.

Another thing I’ve noticed over years of attending technology events is that the opportunities for open questioning of the most senior executives have diminished. They would rather have communication specialists answer the questions, and stay behind closed doors or give scripted presentations from a stage.

Here in Barcelona I’ve discovered the Placa de George Orwell for the first time:

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Orwell knew as well as anyone the power of the media, even though he almost certainly did not say what is now often attributed to him, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

Still, as I move into a series of carefully-crafted presentations it is a thought worth keeping in front of mind.

Finally, let me note that I have never worked full-time for The Register though I have written a fair amount there over the years (the headlines by the way are usually not written by me). The more scurrilous aspect of some Reg pieces is not really me, but I absolutely identify with The Register’s willingness to allow writers to say what they think without worrying about what the vendor will think. 

Strong financial results from Microsoft as it aims for breadth of services

Microsoft reported a big quarter (in terms of revenue) for the three months ending December 31st, with revenue of $28,918 million.

What’s notable? Mainly the big jump in Microsoft’s recent success stories: year on year Office 365 up by 41%, Azure up by 98%, Dynamics 365 up by 67%.

Windows is flat/weak as you would expect, and Surface hardware is standing still. Xbox grew a bit following the launch of Xbox One X.

LinkedIn is growing: revenue of $1.3 billion and “sessions growth of over 20%” in the quarter. In the earnings webcast, Microsoft’s Amy Hood said that the LinkedIn acquisition has both performed better, and seems more strategic, now than it did at the time.

Hood also made reference to the company’s ability to up-sell cloud users to higher-margin services. “Office 365 commercial revenue increased 41 percent from installed base growth across all customer segments, and ARPU [Average Revenue per User] expansion from continued customer migration to higher value offers in the E3 and E5 workloads.”

This point is key and is the answer (from the provider’s point of view) to the lower margins implicit in moving from software to services. When Microsoft sells a licence for you to use Windows or Office, the margin is huge because reproducing the software, or providing it for download, costs almost nothing; whereas with a subscription there is significant cost to providing the service. However the subscription has advantages which offset this, in particular the continuing interaction with the customer that both provides data, which the customer as well as the provider can mine (subject to appropriate privacy controls), and gives opportunity for the provider to extend the relationship into new or upgraded services.

CEO Satya Nadella fielded a good question about Microsoft losing out to Sony in gaming and to Alexa and Google Home in voice devices. On gaming, Nadella referred to the PC alongside Xbox as a strategic asset. “PC gaming is a growth market,” he said, as well as software such as Minecraft now on mobile devices, giving the company a broad reach. He also remarked on Azure as a gaming back end.

As for Cortana in the home (or absence from), Nadella said that the focus is on the server-side cognitive services. He also talked about voice input and control of Office 365. The key point though was that Microsoft wants to work both with its own and other voice assistant devices so it can win on services even when competitor devices are in use. “One-turn dialogs on one speaker in one home, that’s just not our vision,” he said.

Nadella made another key point in the webcast, in answer to a question about how Azure Stack (a packaged version of Azure for installation on-premises) will impact Azure. “Computing is becoming more distributed, not less distributed,” he said. IoT and sensors play a large part in this. Everything goes to the cloud but computing on the edge (the new buzzword for local processing) is important for efficiency.

It is easy to see ways in which Microsoft could stumble. The PC will decline as the number of users who need a desktop or laptop computer diminishes. Microsoft’s failure in mobile could prove costly as competitors use synergy with their own applications and cloud services to steer customers away. There are opportunities such as home automation and payments which seem closed to the company now.

Then again, strong results such as these show how the company can succeed by continuing to migrate its business users to cloud services. It remains deeply embedded in business computing.

Here is my chart summarising Microsoft’s performance:   

Quarter ending December 31st 2017 vs quarter ending December 31st 2016, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 8953 +1774 3337 +284
Intelligent Cloud 7795 +1037 2832 +541
More Personal Computing 12170 +281 2510 -51

The segments break down as:

Productivity and Business Processes: Office, Office 365, Dynamics 365 and on-premises Dynamics, LinkedIn

Intelligent Cloud: Server products, Azure cloud services

More Personal Computing: Consumer including Windows, Xbox; Bing search; Surface hardware

Nokia 8: a phone from the new Nokia brand that you might actually want

This morning I attended Nokia’s press breakfast here in Berlin, where the main product on show is the Nokia 8 smartphone. It is not quite a new launch – there was an event in London a couple of weeks ago – but it was my first look at HMD’s first flagship device.

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HMD Global Oy was founded in May 2016 as a new company to exploit the Nokia smartphone brand. The company is “owned by Smart Connect LP, a private equity fund managed by Jean-Francois Baril, a former Nokia executive, as well as by HMD management,” according to the press release at the time. Based in Finland, the new company acquired the right to use the Nokia trademark on smartphones as well as “design rights relating to Microsoft’s Feature Phone Business” (what feature phone business, you may ask).

HMD made the decision to market a pure Google form of Android. I find it intriguing that a Nokia-branded smartphone was once powered by Symbian, then became a Windows device, and now has Google deeply embedded. The two companies are now “joined at the hip,” according to an HMD spokesperson this morning. Though it is a rather unequal relationship, with HMD having fewer than 500 employees and relying on outsourcing for much of its business.

A UK release of the Nokia 8, together with operator deals, will be announced on September 6th, I was told. The unsubsidised price might be around £600 (or Euros, the currencies being of nearly equal value in these Brexit days).

So why might you want one? Well, it is a decent phone, based on an 8-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset, 2560 x 1440 display, 4GB RAM, 64GB storage, up to 256GB MicroSD, fingerprint reader and so on.

There are a couple of special features. The most obvious is that both front and rear 13MP cameras can be used simultaneously, enabling what Nokia inevitably calls “bothies”.

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Is this a feature worth having? It is problematic, partly because taking good selfies is difficult without a selfie stick which most of the time you do not have with you, and partly because the view behind you is typically less interesting than the view you are trying to photograph.

I am not sure whether this matters though. It is a distinctive feature, and in a crowded market this is important.

I am more interested in another feature, called OZO audio. OZO is a professional cinema camera made by Nokia and the system in the phone is based on OZO surround sound algorithms. The phone has three microphones, and using OZO you can apparently capture a simulated surround effect even though the output is two-channel.

Although it seems counter-intuitive, I do believe in the possibilities of simulated surround sound; after all, we only have two ears. OZO works in conjunction with the phone’s video camera so you can capture more atmospheric audio. The demo was impressive but this is something I will need to try for myself before forming a judgement.

The other aspect of the Nokia 8 which is attractive is the company’s attitude towards Android modifications and bundled apps. Essentially, you get Android as designed by Google, plus Google apps and not much else. Operators will not be able to bundle additional apps, I was told (though I am not sure I believe it).

While I do not like the way Google constantly gathers data from users of its software, I do think that if you are going to run Android, you might was well run it as designed, rather than with additional and often substandard “enhancements”.

I hope to do a full review and will look carefully at the audio performance then.

Xamarin Challenge shows bumps in Microsoft’s path to cross-platform mobile

Microsoft ran a Xamarin Challenge over on Paul Thurrott’s site. The idea was to demo how to build a cross-platform mobile app with Microsoft’s cross-platform mobile toolkit.

The challenge was in three steps. You build a weather app, complete with crash analytics on the Visual Studio Mobile Center.

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Someone did a lot of work on this, and the app looks pretty and works nicely once you get it running.

Despite this, I am not sure that the challenge was altogether successful. It is a step-by-step which in theory involves no developer expertise as you simply copy and paste code into your project. I am not sure that is the best way to learn, but that is by the by. I doubt that learning how to code for Xamarin was the primary goal of the challenge. I’d guess it was more about showing how easily you can build a cross-platform app (Android, iOS and Windows UWP) using Xamarin, C# and Visual Studio 2017.

Well, in fact a little bit of developer expertise was required to complete the challenge, because the step by step instructions did not quite work (in my experience). I did not make a note of all the times I had to do something not in the given steps, but there were many occasions, the main issues being around using the Visual Studio Android emulator, NuGet package management, and a few small tweaks to the code itself. The code as given made no allowance for the cloud services it called being offline, or the connection to the internet not being available, but would simply crash in this case.

The challenge could be an excellent resource for Microsoft and Xamarin if the company drills down into the problems developers experienced trying to complete the challenge, recorded in this forum thread. Here are a few examples:

Myself and 5 other developers in our office attempted the challenge and none of us have been able to get past the first challenge. We are not Microsoft Visual Studio experts so we had hoped following the provided instructions would be sufficient.

The upload was failing on a discrepancy between 2 different versions of the Json package, which somehow had crept into the project. Installing over 40 updates in Nuget resolved this.

Many thanks for running this challenge –this was very useful and worthwhile. I just wish modern development did not feel like trying to dance on a mile high stack of chairs with a leg missing on the bottommost one!

I got a late start on the challenge and was able to complete part 1 pretty quickly but was only able to run the UWP locally. I cannot seem to get either the Windows mobile emulator or Android emulators to run successfully. I can’t deploy to the Window Mobile emulator, it returns an error indicating the emulator failed to start. As for the Android emulator, it launches, but the emulator does not have a connection to the network, so the application encounters an exception.

Note that those posting to the forum were more likely to be the ones with problems; there could in theory be many others who breezed through without any issues. But as one participant writes, “I’d be interested in what percentage of participants actually got to the end of the challenge with no problems.”

I like Xamarin; it does an amazing job in enabling cross-platform development with C# and it would be my tool of choice for cross-platform mobile development. It is not always straightforward though, and the kinds of issues experienced by the challenge participants illustrate what can go wrong.

If you just use the native toolkits, such as Android Studio and Xcode, you will have a smoother experience, but of course miss out on the productivity benefit of cross-platform code. That is the trade-off you make.

Blackberry KEYone launches: but we have moved on from keyboard phones

First up at Mobile World Congress is the launch of TCL’s Blackberry smartphone. TCL is a Chinese manufacturer with headquarters in Hong Kong, and has licensed the Blackberry brand. TCL also markets smartphones under its own name and as Alcatel OneTouch.

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The KEYone runs Android 7.1 “Nougat” but with a couple of distinctive features. The most obvious is the full QWERTY keyboard, though this one has extra features including gesture support, flick typing (suggested words appear as you type with one-key shortcuts), and the ability to make up to 52 keyboard shortcuts to launch applications. The spacebar doubles as a fingerprint sensor.

The other special feature is hardware-based security, based on Blackberry root of trust technology. There is also a DTEK app which monitors security and adds malware protection.

TCL says it is “the world’s most secure Android experience” though note that alternatives like Samsung’s Knox technology are also hardware based.

None of the other mainstream smartphones have physical QWERTY keyboards though. However there may be a good reason for that. I am a fan of keyboards; I am a touch typist and the keyboard is one of the things which ties me to laptops or external keyboards; I can do without a mouse, but a keyboard is hard to live without.

That said, thumb-size QWERTY keyboards miss the point somewhat, in that you cannot touch type. I suggest also that the advent of swipe-style predictive keyboards has largely removed whatever advantage these little keyboards once had. Swiping only works on a touch keyboard, and is now very effective.

The downside of a real keyboard is that you get a smaller screen.

Still, there will be some users who find a physical keyboard reassuringly familiar and the shortcut feature could be useful.

The KEYone will be available from April 2017 at around €599/£499/$549.

Quick hardware specs:

  • 4.5-inch display (1620×1080 resolution/434 PPI )
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 chipset with Adreno 506 GPU.
  • 3505 mAh battery
  • 12MP rear camera with Sony IMX378 sensor.
  • 8MP front camera with fixed focus and 84-degree wide angle lens.
  • 3GB RAM and 32GB storage
  • Micro SD slot

More information here.

Asus ZenWatch 3 prompts the question: is it time yet for smartwatches?

Today Asus launched the ZenWatch 3, an Android Wear smartwatch set for release towards the end of this year. Price was announced as €229.

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Powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100, ZenWatch 3 is a chunky affair, 9.95mm thick. “Mainly for the male market?” I enquired of an Asus PR person; “well, yes” was the response. 1.39-inch AMOLED display with 400 by 400 resolution and 287ppi pixel density, three buttons, one programmable for quick app launch, customisable watch face.

Forget all that though; the big issue with these gadgets is the battery life, which is “up to two days”. Whenever I have tried a wearable, the battery life problem is always why I abandon it. I realise you just have to get into the habit of charging it every night, but I am not used to this in a watch. A further problem with the ZenWatch is that you need the special charger with you at all times, since it has an unique charging connector:

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What about smartphones though, these took off despite their short battery life. The reason was that they added a lot of value. Email, maps, then Facebook and Twitter on the go. And if it ran out of power, at least you still had a watch.

The battery life question then is bound up with the question about how much value the smartwatch adds. There is fitness tracking, there is the convenience of glancing at your wrist rather than pulling out a smartphone to check an email or text message, there is turn by turn directions. Enough?

For me, not yet. At the same time, technology always gets smaller and more convenient. No doubt today’s smartphones will look bulky and inconvenient in 10 years time, and it may well be that the future personal communications device looks more like a smartwatch than a smartphone. You can’t beat the convenience of of something on your wrist, rather than something you carry in a bag or pocket.

That presumes, though, that either smartwatches get smart enough to replace rather than complement your phone, or that some other compelling feature turns up that will make them a must-have.

I’m typing this as the Samsung Gear 3 event is about to begin. Vendors are keen to make this work. Come on Samsung, wow me.

The battery life question then is really another question. Are smartwatches sufficiently compelling that

Sweetlabs Android App Services: what is it?

Margins on smartphones are thin, which is why we regularly hear commentary about how only Apple and Samsung are making any money from them. Vendors therefore look for other ways to monetize their business, though it is never easy, and there are plenty of examples of failed music stores and other premium services. Google can always make money, through Play Store revenue, ads served via Search, and monetizing the data it collects. But what of the smartphone vendors?

One obvious strategy is to pre-install applications, for which the app developer may pay. I say may because without inside knowledge its impossible to tell whether the Facebook app, for example, is pre-installed as a benefit to customers or because Facebook has paid something. Most users would probably install the Facebook app anyway; but fewer would install the Opera web browser, to take another example, so common sense says that if you find Opera pre-installed, it is more likely than Facebook to have paid for the privilege.

On Windows PCs, which also suffer from low margins, the pressure on manufacturers to make money from pre-installed applications has had a dire affect, significantly reducing the appeal of the product. At worst, you can pay good money for a PC, turn it on for the first time, and be greeted by a flurry of dialogs inviting you to install this or subscribe to that, along with warnings that your new purchase is “not protected”. Apple has never allowed this of course, which is one of the attractions of Macs. Another consequence was that Microsoft introduced its own brand of PC, Surface, and opened stores selling “signature” editions of PCs on which most of the foistware is absent.

The situation on Android should never be as bad. The operating system has a modern design, which means that applications are isolated and cannot cause as much damage as on Windows. If an application that you do not want is installed, it is easy to remove.

Even so, pre-installed apps on Android do introduce clutter and confusion, especially when combined with the constant requests for various types of permission which characterise the initial setup experience. I imagine that many users simply agree to everything, since the consequences of denying permission are rarely clear, and most want their new device to “just work.”

Sweetlabs is a company which specialises in monetizing app installs on Windows as well as Android. On Windows it is best known for the Pokki app store. Sweetlabs does not always present its brand overtly to users. Users are not its customers after all; its customers are app developers and smartphone vendors.

I reviewed a smartphone recently, and soon after switching on for the first time, I saw a notification inviting me to “Complete device setup” and to “Allow App Services to push messages to the n…” (I am still not sure what is the cut-off word):

If you tap this notification an app installer opens, presenting a small selection of apps categorised as either “Essentials” or “Entertainment”. You are meant to select the apps you want and then tap Finish to have those apps install, agreeing the terms and conditions as you do. Once you tap Finish, the notification disappears, though I noticed that the Sweetlabs service continues to run in the background:

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My understanding is that the service continues to run because at some future date more apps may become available. The Sweetlabs site talks about promoting apps through “multiple customer-facing touchpoints, including white-label apps and widgets that integrate into the out-of-box experience and persist through the lifetime of the device.” This can include a Featured Apps widget on the home screen that recommends apps “over the lifetime of the device.”

Is this a good or bad thing? The answer is nuanced. I dislike the way the notification implies that these optional app install are part of device setup; it is not, it is a marketing app. You can get all these apps through the official Play Store and App Services is consuming unnecessary system resources.

On the other hand, if you accept that pre-installing apps is inevitable given the low margins in this business, the Sweetlabs approach has advantages. Instead of simply dumping a bunch of unwanted apps on your device, you can choose which ones you want, if any. Therefore the company promotes itself as a better approach, even presenting itself as a fix for crapware. My review device had pre-installed apps on it as well, though, so it is more a case of putting up with both.

From the perspective of app developers, any service that helps get your app noticed in a beyond-crowded market is a significant benefit. Sweetlabs also offers an app analytics service focused on who is installing your app.

I wrote this post because I did not find much information about App Services when I searched for it after seeing the notification on my review device. If you are wondering whether you need it on your device, the answer is no; it does nothing essential, it is a vehicle for promoting apps, and you can safely disable or remove it. I recommend installing apps from the Play Store instead, where you can see user reviews and other information. It is not really evil though; it may have reduced the price of your smartphone as well as providing app developers another way to get their products noticed.

Honor 8 smartphone first look

I’m just back from Paris and the European launch of the Honor 8 smartphone.

Honor is wholly owned by Huawei though the relationship between the two businesses is a tad opaque. I’ve been told that Honor is run as a separate business focusing on a young internet-oriented market, though there is shared technology (it would be crazy not to). The Honor 8 represents a significant strategy shift in that it is a relatively high-end phone, whereas previous devices have been mid-range or lower.

One of the first things you notice about the Honor 8 though is its similarity to the Huawei P9, launched in Europe in April 2016, is obvious. That is no bad thing, since the P9 is excellent and the Honor 8 cheaper,  but the business strategy is a bit of a puzzle. Honor says its phone is targeting a different market, and it is true that the shiny glass body of the Honor 8, in a pleasing blue shade on my review unit, is jauntier than the grey metallic finish of the P9. The P9 is also a fraction slimmer. Yet the devices are far more alike than different, and I would happily pull out the Honor 8 at a business meeting. The Honor 8 also benefits from a few extra features, like the rear smart key.

The P9 has the benefit of Leica branding and shared technology for its camera. An Honor/Huawei PR person told me that this is a software-only distinction and that if you look at the hardware sensors the two phones are very similar. Should photographers therefore get the P9? Possibly, though for a casual snapper like myself I have not noticed a big advantage. See below for some comparative snaps.

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The Honor 8 (left) and the Huawei P9 (right).

To get a bit of context, the Honor 8 is being launched at €399 with 4GB RAM and 32 GB storage, or €449 with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage (inc VAT). That should equate to around £345 and £390 in the UK. The P9 was launched at £449 for 3GB RAM and 32GB storage, substantially more, though as ever real-world prices vary, and in practice a P9 today will likely cost only a little more than an Honor 8 if you shop around. The 8-core Kirin processor is the same, and the screen is the same resolution at 1920 x 1080. Both models also feature a dual-lens 12MP rear camera, 8MP front lens, and a rear fingerprint reader.

Out of the box

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The Honor 8 immediately impressed me as a nicely packaged device. You get headset, charger, USB C cable, SIM removal tool, quick start guide (not much use but does have a diagram showing exactly where to insert dual Nano-SIMs and microSD card) and a couple of stickers for good measure. I am not a fan of the headset which lacks any ear-bud gels so it not secure or comfortable for me, but tastes vary.

The glass body is attractive though shiny and easy to smear. Honor can supply a simple transparent case – more a tray than a case – which will offer a little protection, but most users will want something more.

Switch on and there is the usual Android palaver and confusion over permissions. Here I did notice something I dislike. I got a notification saying I should “complete device setup” and “Allow App Services to push messages”:

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Rather than tapping Allow, I tapped the notification and found an app installer and an invitation to “Choose the apps that come with your phone”. I tapped to see the EULA (End User License Agreement) and found it was a Sweetlabs app that “facilitates the recommendation, download and installation of third party apps.”

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This is horrible; it is deceptive in that it is presented as part of system setup and performs no useful function since you can easily install apps from the Google Play store; at least one of the apps offered by Sweetlabs (Twitter) was actually already installed. My opinion of which apps are “Essential” differs from that of Sweetlabs:

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I did not agree the Terms and Conditions. We have seen this kind of thing before, on Windows, and it is damaging to the user experience. History may repeat with Android.

Other than that, setup was straightforward.

Things to like

Fortunately, there is plenty to like. As on the P9, the fingerprint reader on the back is excellent; in fact, I like this feature so much that I sometimes absent mindedly tap the back of other phones and expect them to unlock for me. On the Honor 8 though, it is even better, since the fingerprint reader is also a “Smart key” which you can configure to open an app or take an action such as starting a voice recording or opening the camera. You can configure up to three shortcuts, for press, double press, press and hold.

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Another neat feature, also not on the P9, is the Smart Controller. This is a universal infra-red controller app and it seems rather good. I pointed it at a Samsung TV and after trying a few functions it declared a “best match” and seems to work fine.

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The camera

The camera is a key selling point for the Honor 8. One lens is RGB, the other monochrome, auto-focus is better with two lenses, and the ISP (Image Signal Processor) takes advantage by recording extra detail. There is also a great feature called Wide Aperture which lets you adjust the focus after the event.

When the camera app is open you can swipe from the left to select a mode. There are 16 modes:

Photo
Pro Photo
Beauty
Video
Pro Video
Beauty Video
Good Food
Panorama
HDR (High Dynamic Range)
Night Shot
Light Painting
Time-lapse
Slow-Mo
Watermark
Audio note
Document Scan

After just one day with the device I have not tried all the modes, but did take a look at Pro Photo which gives you control over the metering mode, ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, exposure compensation, focus mode (automatic or manual), and white balance.

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These same controls are on the P9 though with a slightly different UI and this causes me to wonder exactly what is the Leica contribution that is on the P9 but not the Honor 8. There are a few extra settings on the P9 if you swipe in from the right, including film mode, RAW mode and a Leica watermark option.

How is the camera in use? I took some snaps and was pleased with the results. I also tried taking a similar picture on the Honor 8 and the P9, and comparing the results:

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A Paris landmark (P9 left, Honor 8 right)

You can’t tell much from the full view, especially since I’ve resized the images for this post, so here is a detail from the above:

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Detail view (P9 left, Honor 8 right)

Much difference? Please do not draw conclusions from one snap but these support my impression that the Leica-enhanced P9 takes slightly sharper pictures than the Honor 8, but that a casual user would be happy with either.

Performance

The performance of the Honor 8 seems similar to that of the P9 which I reviewed here. The P9 features a Kirin 955 SoC versus the slightly older Kirin 950 in the Honor 8; the specs are similar. Both have 4 Cortex A72 cores, up to 2.5GHz in the Kirin 255 versus up to 2.3GHz in the Kirin 950. In each case, these are supplemented by 4 Cortex A53 cores at up to 1.8GHz and a quad-core Mali T880 MP4 GPU.

Geekbench 3, for example, reports 1703 single-core score and 6285 multi-core, one figure slightly worse, one slightly better than the P9. A run with PC mark came up with a Work Performance Score of 5799, below the P9 at 6387, with the difference mainly accounted for by a poor “Writing score”; other scores were slightly ahead of the P9, so something may be sub-optimal in the text handling and scrolling.

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Conclusion

I do like this phone; it looks good, feels responsive, and comes with some distinctive features, including the superb fingerprint reader, dual lens rear camera, smart key and smart controller. It does not seem to me to be a young person’s phone particularly, and I can see some people choosing it over a P9 not only for its lower price but also for a couple of extra features. Photographers may slightly prefer the P9, which also has a fractionally slimmer body and a more elegant, understated appearance. In the general phone market, the Honor 8 is competitively priced and well featured; I expect it to do well.