Category Archives: hardware

TalkTalk’s new Sagemcom FAST 5364 Router and WiFi Hub

TalkTalk has a new router available to its 4 million broadband customers in the UK. The router is made by Sagemcom and called the FAST 5364. The company will sell you one for £120 here but it comes for free if you get the Faster Fibre Broadband package; or for £30 with the Fast Broadband package.

TalkTalk’s previous router was the Huawei HG633 or for some luckier customers the HG635, or perhaps a DLINK DSL3782. The HG633 is a poor product with slow WiFi performance and 100 Mbps Ethernet ports. The FAST 5364 looks like an effort to put things right. It is not worth £120 (you can get a better 3rd-party router for that money) but it is well worth £30 as an upgrade.

The router comes in a smart box with a big emphasis on the step-by-step guide to getting started.

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The router itself has a perforated plastic case with a flip-out stand. On the back are four Gigabit Ethernet ports, a WAN port, a VDSL/ADSL Broadband port, a WPS button and an on-off switch. There is also a recessed Reset button.

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A handy feature is that the WiFi details are on a removable panel. The router admin password is on the back label but not on the removeable panel – better for security.

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Getting started

Presuming you are a TalkTalk customer, it should just be a matter of connecting the cables and turning on. In my case it took a little longer as I am not a TalkTalk consumer customer. I connected up, then logged into the admin at http://192.168.1.1 to enter my username and password for the internet connection, following which I was online. An LED on the front turns from amber to white to confirm.

There is an oddity though. The FAST 5364 has a red Ethernet port marked WAN. This should be suitable for connecting to a cable modem or any internet connection via Ethernet. However when I tried to use this it did not work, but kept on trying to connect via ADSL/VDSL. Either this is deliberately disabled, or this is a firmware bug.

Performance and specification

The good news is that performance on the FAST 5364 is good. Here is the spec:

Antennas: 4×4 5GHz and 3×3 2.4GHz

WiFi: 2.4GHz Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n) and MU-MIMO 5GHz Wi-Fi (802.11 a/n/ac)

Broadband: ADSL2+ & VDSL2

A point of interest here is that the WiFi supports a technology called Beamforming. This uses an array of antennas to optimise the signal. It is called Beamforming because it shapes the the beam according to the location of the client.

In addition, MU-MIMO (Multi-User, Multi-input, Multi-output) means that multiple WiFi streams are available, so multiple users can each have a dedicated stream. This means better performance when you have many users. TalkTalk claims up to 50 devices can connect with high quality.

Features

The FAST 5364 is managed through a web browser. Like many devices, it has a simplified dashboard along with “Advanced settings”.

From the simple dashboard, you can view status, change WiFi network name and password, and not much else.

If you click Manage my devices and then Manage advanced settings, you get to another dashboard.

Then you can click Access Control, where you get to manage the firewall, and set the admin password for the router.

Or you can click TalkTalk WI-Fi Hub, where you get more detailed status information, and can manage DHCP, Light control (literally whether the LED lights up or not), DNS (this sets the DNS server which connected clients use), DynDNS (which supports several dynamic DNS providers, not just DynDNS), Route for adding static routes, and Maintenance for firmware updates, logs, and setting an NTP server (so your router knows the time and date).

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Or you can click Internet Connectivity so you can set a DNS server to be used on the WAN side as well as username, password and other settings if you cannot connect automatically.

Firewall and port forwarding

The firewall in your router is critically important for security. Further, users often want to configure port forwarding to enable multi-user online gaming or other services to work.

Dealing with this can be fiddly so most modern routers support a feature called UPnP which lets devices on your network request port forwarding automatically.

Personally I dislike UPnP because it is a security risk if an insecure device is present on your network (cheap security cameras are a notorious example). I like to control which ports are forwarded manually. That said, UPnP is better in some ways since it allows the same port to be forwarded to different devices depending on what is in use. It is a trade-off. Ideally you should be able to specify which devices are allowed to use UPnP but that level of control is not available here. Instead, you can turn UPnP on or off.

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On the Port Forwarding screen, you can add rules manually, or select Games and Applications, which automatically sets the rules for the selected item if you specify its IP address on the network.

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You can get to this same screen via Connected Devices, in which case the IP address of the selected device is pre-populated.

The Firewall management gives you four levels:

Low: Allow all traffic both LAN->WAN and WAN->LAN. Not recommended, but not quite as bad as it sounds since NAT will give you some protection.

Medium: Allow all traffic LAN->WAN. Block NETBIOS traffic WAN->LAN. This is the default. More relaxed than I would like, presuming it means that all other traffic WAN->LAN is allowed, which is the obvious interpretation.

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High: Allow common protocols LAN->WAN. Block all traffic WAN->LAN. A good secure setting but could be annoying since you will not be able to connect to non-standard ports and will probably find some web sites or applications not working as they should.

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Custom: This seems to be the High setting but shown as custom rules, with the ability to add new rules. Thus with some effort you could set a rule to allow all traffic LAN->WAN, and block all traffic WAN->LAN except where you add a custom rule. To my mind this should be the default.

Most home users will never find this screen so it seems that TalkTalk is opening up its customers to a rather insecure setup by default, especially if there are bugs discovered in the router firmware.

I am asking TalkTalk about this and will let you know the response.

Missing features

The most obvious missing feature, compared to previous TalkTalk routers, is the lack of any USB port to attach local storage. This can be useful for media sharing. It is no great loss though, as you would be better off getting a proper NAS device and attaching it to one of the wired Ethernet ports.

Next, there is no provision for VPN connections. Of course you can set up a VPN endpoint on another device and configure the firewall to allow the traffic.

I cannot see a specific option to set a DHCP reservation, though I suspect this happens automatically. This is important when publishing services or even games, as the internal IP must not change.

There is no option to set a guest WiFi network, with access to the internet but not the local network.

Overall I would describe the router and firewall features as basic but adequate.

TalkTalk vs third party routers

Should you use a TalkTalk-supplied router, or get your own? There are really only a couple of reasons to use the TalkTalk one. First, it comes free or at a low price with your broadband bundle. Second, if you need support, the TalkTalk router is both understood and manageable by TalkTalk staff. Yes, TalkTalk can access your router, via the TR-069 protocol designed for this purpose (and which you cannot disable, as far as I can tell). If you want an easy life with as much as possible automatically configured, it makes sense to use a TalkTalk router.

That said, if you get a third-party router you can make sure it has all the features you need and configure it exactly as you want. These routers will not be accessible by TalkTalk staff. I would recommend this approach if you have anything beyond basic connectivity needs, and if you want the most secure setup. Keep a TalkTalk router handy in case you need to connect it for the sake of a support incident.

Final remarks

TalkTalk users are saying that the new router performs much better than the old ones (though this is not a high bar). For example:

“this is a very very good router with strong stable wifi. It is a massive upgrade to any of the routers supplied currently and its not just the wifi that is better. I get 16 meg upload now was 14 before”

That sounds good, and really this is a much better device than the previous TalkTalk offerings.

My main quibble is over the questionable default firewall settings. The browser UI is not great but may well improve over time. Inability to use the WAN port with a cable modem is annoying, and it would be good to see a more comprehensive range of features, though given that most users just want to plug in and go, a wide range of features is not the most important thing.

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

Review: Orbitsound Dock E30 one-box audio system with wireless charging aims to fix the problems of stereo

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It is simple but appealing: one small box instead of all the clutter of a conventional hi-fi system. Orbtisound’s Dock E30 is also designed for today’s audio ecosystem. It supports wireless playback with Apple AirPlay, Spotify Connect, Android audio streaming over Wi-Fi, and also Bluetooth aptX and wired input via analogue or optical digital signals. There is an app for iOS and Android, and you can even dock your phone either by sitting it in the groove provided, handy for seeing cover art. You can also charge a phone using the built-in Qi wireless charging (as used by Apple), or by connecting a cable (not supplied) to a USB-C charging support. For wireless charging though you should lay the phone flat on the charging plate rather than standing it up.

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Wireless charging aside, this is all what you expect from a modern audio system; but the Dock E30 has something distinctive. This is the technology called Airsound. Orbitsound says that the problem with conventional stereo is that you have to sit in a sweet spot dead centre between and in front of the speakers to get a true audio image. “We have managed to overcome this inherent limitation in stereo by doing away with the idea of left and right channels,” says Orbitsound. What they have come up with, explained to some extent here and here, is a three-speaker system, where the sound of the main front speaker is modified by two “spatial” side speakers to give, it is claimed, a stereo experience wherever you sit. There is said to be a particular advantage when you have more than one speaker connected.

Orbitsound’s explanation of Airsound is sketchy, to say the least, but it helped me to understand the results of my listening tests. I set up the Dock E30 in my living room and tried it using various types of connection from both iOS and Android. For the main listening test though I settled on wired input for maximum consistency. I compared the E30 with several other speaker systems, including the slightly more expensive Sony SRS-X9 (now replaced by the similar SRS-X99).

First impressions are good, with a powerful bass reinforced by the passive bass radiators on the back of the unit. The power output is not specified, but I got plenty enough volume for my smallish living room. I tried walking round the room and found a good consistency of sound, though frankly the SRS-X9 which uses conventional stereo speakers was also pretty good in this respect.

How does the sound compare to that from the Sony? I found my notes contradictory at first. I felt the sound, while decent, was smoother and better defined on the Sony than on the Dock E30. At the same time, I could sometimes hear details on the Dock E30 more clearly than on the Sony. One example was the delicate guitar in the background during the intro to Steely Dan’s song Peg (which is beautifully recorded). It was more prominent on the Dock E30, even though overall I felt that the Sony had more clarity.

Pondering Orbitsound’s claim of a true stereo image wherever you sit, I pulled out a handy test track, Paul Simon’s Cars. In the middle of the track there is a little stereo effect. “You can drive them on the left” comes out of the left speaker, then “you can drive them on the right” from the right. Then Simon resumes singing in a central position.

I have to say, the Dock E30 made a complete mess of this effect. Bizarrely, the “on the right” vocal projected to the left of the image. On the Sony, everything was as it should be, so no, I had not got the channels reversed anywhere. Bear in mind that the Dock E30 only has one front-facing speaker; the other drive front-facing driver is a passive bass radiator.

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Audio processing: pros and cons

In the end this is all about processing. Orbitsound is trying to get a sense of room-filling stereo from a small box. It does this by munging the stereo signal into a mono part on the main speaker, supplemented by two spatial effects speakers that fire outwards from the left and right ends of the Dock E30, using some kind of algorithm that is not really designed to give you a true stereo image, but rather to create an illusion of depth.

This I believe explains why I found the sound perplexing at times. Some details might be brought out more prominently, others not.

You can adjust the Airsound effect by holding down mute for three seconds on the remote, then spinning the volume dial. If you adjust it for minimum Airsound, you get something close to mono. This is not a bad thing; I love my mono Squeezebox Radio. If you adjust for maximum Airsound, the sound become echoey and phasey, something which is not to my taste but might be an effect you enjoy.

Setting Airsound to minimum is close, but I would like to see an option to disable it completely and simply have mono, though that would be rather a waste of three speakers.

Don’t worry, just listen?

Listening to the stereo effects in Cars is an edge case. I found the Dock E30 enjoyable to listen to with music from classical to jazz to pop and rock. It has good bass extension, which can be excessive at times, but is easily controlled using the tone controls on the remote. Most people are not going to worry about the processing and can just listen.

Personally though I am more purist. I favour a less processed sound and prefer the clean, honest clarity of a system like the Sony XRS X9.

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A good buy?

Leaving aside the Airsound debate, the Dock E30 offers good sound quality with exceptional bass for its size.

The design is subjective of course, but while it is not objectionable, there are better-looking speaker systems in my opinion. The groove on top may trap dust, and the controls on the front are not beautiful.

On the other hand, I am very happy with the flexibility of the unit. It has a generous range of inputs, both wired and wireless. The remote with its tone controls and mute button is excellent.

The ability to charge your phone is a nice bonus.

Unfortunately I am not convinced by Airsound or that this is the best use of three speaker drivers; but at the same time it is good to see some innovative thinking. I recommend that you audition before purchase.

Specifications

Frequency response: 70Hz-17.5kHz +/- 3dB

Tone controls: Bass and treble, +/- 8dB

Drivers: 3 x 48mm neodymium drivers, 3 x 90x60mm passive bass radiators

Optional subwoofer

Removable magnetic grille

Remote

Dimensions: 291x150z114mm

Weight: 4kg

Colour: Black, Bamboo or White

Server shipments decline as customers float towards cloud

Gartner reports that worldwide server shipments have declined by 4.2% in the first quarter of 2017.

Not a surprise considering the growth in cloud adoption but there are several points of interest.

One is that although Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) is still ahead in revenue (over $3 billion revenue and 24% market share), Dell EMC is catching up, still number two with 19% share but posting growth of 4.5% versus 8.7% decline for HPE.

In unit shipments, Dell EMC is now fractionally ahead, with 17.9% market share and growth of 0.5% versus HPE at 16.8% and decline of 16.7%.

Clearly Dell is doing something right where HPE is not, possibly through synergy with its acquisition of storage vendor EMC (announced October 2015, completed September 2016).

The larger picture though is not great for server vendors. Businesses are buying fewer servers since cloud-hosted servers or services are a good alternative. For example, SMBs who in the past might run Exchange are tending to migrate to Office 365 or perhaps G Suite (Google apps). Maybe there is still a local server for Active Directory and file server duties, or maybe just a NAS (Networked Attached Storage).

It follows that the big cloud providers are buying more servers but such is their size that they do not need to buy from Dell or HPE, they can go directly to ODMs (Original Design Manufacturers) and tailor the hardware to their exact needs.

Does that mean you should think twice before buying new servers? Well, it is always a good idea to think twice, but it is worth noting that going cloud is not always the best option. Local servers can be much cheaper than cloud VMs as well as giving you complete control over your environment. Doing the sums is not easy and there are plenty of “it depends”, but it is wrong to assume that cloud is always the right answer.

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.

Farewell Nokia X? Not quite, but the signs are clear as Microsoft bets on Universal Apps

I could never make sense of Nokia X, the Android-with-Microsoft-services device which Nokia announced less than a year ago at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona:

If Nokia X is a worse Android than Android, and a worse Windows Phone than Windows Phone, what is the point of it and why will anyone buy?

Nokia X is Android without Google’s Play Store; if Amazon struggles to persuade developers to port apps to Kindle Fire (another non-Google Android) then the task for Nokia, lacking Amazon’s ecosystem, is even harder. Now, following Microsoft’s acquisition, it makes even less sense: how can Microsoft simultaneously evangelise both Windows Phone and an Android fork with its own incompatible platform and store?

Nokia X was meant to be a smartphone at feature phone prices, or something like that, but since Windows phone runs well on low-end hardware, that argument does not stand up either.

Now Nokia X is all but dead. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella:

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Second, we are working to integrate the Nokia Devices and Services teams into Microsoft. We will realize the synergies to which we committed when we announced the acquisition last September. The first-party phone portfolio will align to Microsoft’s strategic direction. To win in the higher price tiers, we will focus on breakthrough innovation that expresses and enlivens Microsoft’s digital work and digital life experiences. In addition, we plan to shift select Nokia X product designs to become Lumia products running Windows. This builds on our success in the affordable smartphone space and aligns with our focus on Windows Universal Apps.

and former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, now in charge of Microsoft devices:

In addition to the portfolio already planned, we plan to deliver additional lower-cost Lumia devices by shifting select future Nokia X designs and products to Windows Phone devices. We expect to make this shift immediately while continuing to sell and support existing Nokia X products.

Nadella has also announced a huge round of job cuts, mainly of former Nokia employees, around 12,500 which is roughly 50% of those who came over. Nokia’s mobile phone business is no all Windows Phone (Lumia) and Nokia X. In addition, it sells really low-end phones, the kind you can pick up for £10 at a supermarket, and the Asha range which are budget smartphones. Does Microsoft have any interest in Asha? Elop does not even mention it.

It seems then that Microsoft is focusing on what it considers strategic: Windows Phone at every price point, and Universal Apps which let developers create apps for both Windows Phone and full Windows (8 and higher) from a single code base.

Microsoft does also intend to support Android and iOS with apps, but has no need to make its own Android phones in order to do so.

My view is that Nokia did an good job with Windows Phone within the constraints of a difficult market; not perfect (the early Lumia 800 devices were buggy, for example), but better by far than Microsoft managed with any other OEM partner. I currently use a Lumia 1020 which I regard as something of a classic, with its excellent camera and general high quality.

It seems to me reassuring (from a Windows Phone perspective) that Microsoft is keeping Windows Phone engineering in Finland:

Our phone engineering efforts are expected to be concentrated in Salo, Finland (for future, high-end Lumia products) and Tampere, Finland (for more affordable devices). We plan to develop the supporting technologies in both locations.

says Elop, who also notes that Surface and Xbox teams will be little touched by today’s announcements.

Incidentally, I wrote recently about Universal Apps here (free registration required) and expressed the view that Microsoft cannot afford yet another abrupt shift in its developer platform; the continuing support for Universal Apps in the Nadella era makes that less likely.

Speculating a little, it also would not surprise me if Universal Apps were extended via Xamarin support to include Android and iOS – now that is really a universal app.

Will Microsoft add some kind of Android support to Windows Phone itself? This is rumoured, though it could be counter-productive in terms of winning over developers: why bother to create a Windows Phone app if your Android app will kind-of run?

Further clarification of Microsoft’s strategy is promised in the public earnings call on July 22nd.

Microsoft StorSimple brings hybrid cloud storage to the enterprise, but what about the rest of us?

Microsoft has released details of its StorSimple 8000 Series, the first major new release since it acquired the hybrid cloud storage appliance business back in late 2012.

I first came across StorSimple at what proved to be the last MMS (Microsoft Management Summit) event last year. The concept is brilliant: present the network with infinitely expandable storage (in reality limited to 100TB – 500TB depending on model), storing the new and hot data locally for fast performance, and seamlessly migrating cold (ie rarely used) data to cloud storage. The appliance includes SSD as well as hard drive storage so you get a magical combination of low latency and huge capacity. Storage is presented using iSCSI. Data deduplication and compression increases effective capacity, and cloud connectivity also enables value-add services including cloud snaphots and disaster recovery.

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The two new models are the 8100 and the 8600:

  8100 8600
Usable local capacity 15TB 40TB
Usable SSD capacity 800GB 2TB
Effective local capacity 15-75TB 40-200TB
Maxiumum capacity
including cloud storage
200TB 500TB
Price $100,000 $170,000

Of course there is more to the new models than bumped-up specs. The earlier StorSimple models supported both Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service) and Microsoft Azure; the new models only Azure blob storage. VMWare VAAPI (VMware API for Array Integration) is still supported.

On the positive site, StorSimple is now backed by additional Azure services – note that these only work with the new 8000 series models, not with existing appliances.

The Azure StoreSimple Manager lets you manage any number of StorSimple appliances from the Azure portal – note this is in the old Azure portal, not the new preview portal, which intrigues me.

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Backup snapshots mean you can go back in time in the event of corrupted or mistakenly deleted data.

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The Azure StorSimple Virtual Appliance has several roles. You can use it as a kind of reverse StorSimple; the virtual device is created in Azure at which point you can use it on-premise in the same way as other StorSimple-backed storage. Data is uploaded to Azure automatically. An advantage of this approach is if the on-premise StorSimple becomes unavailable, you can recreate the disk volume based on the same virtual device and point an application at it for near-instant recovery. Only a 5MB file needs to be downloaded to make all the data available; the actual data is then downloaded on demand. This is faster than other forms of recovery which rely on recovering all the data before applications can resume.

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The alarming check box “I understand that Microsoft can access the data stored on my virtual device” was explained by Microsoft technical product manager Megan Liese as meaning simply that data is in Azure rather than on-premise but I have not seen similar warnings for other Azure data services, which is odd. Further to this topic, another journalist asked Marc Farley, also on the StorSimple team, whether you can mark data in standard StorSimple volumes not to be copied to Azure, for compliance or security reasons. “Not right now” was the answer, though it sounds as if this is under consideration. I am not sure how this would work within a volume, since it would break backup and data recovery, but it would make sense to be able to specify volumes that must remain always on-premise.

All data transfer between Azure and on-premise is encrypted, and the data is also encrypted at rest, using a service data encryption key which according to Farley is not stored or accessible by Microsoft.

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Another way to use a virtual appliance is to make a clone of on-premise data available, for tasks such as analysing historical data. The clone volume is based on the backup snapshot you select, and is disconnected from the live volume on which it is based.

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StorSimple uses Azure blob storage but the pricing structure is different than standard blob storage; unfortunately I do not have details of this. You can access the data only through StorSimple volumes, since the data is stored using internal data objects that are StorSimple-specific. Data stored in Azure is redundant using the usual Azure “three copies” principal; I believe this includes geo-redundancy though this may be a customer option.

StorSimple appliances are made by Xyratex (which is being acquired by Seagate) and you can find specifications and price details on the Seagate StorSimple site, though we were also told that customers should contact their Microsoft account manager for details of complete packages. I also recommend the semi-official blog by a Microsoft technical solutions professional based in Sydney which has a ton of detailed information here.

StorSimple makes huge sense, but with 6 figure pricing this is an enterprise-only solution. How would it be, I muse, if the StorSimple software were adapted to run as a Windows service rather than only in an appliance, so that you could create volumes in Windows Server that use similar techniques to offer local storage that expands seamlessly into Azure? That also makes sense to me, though when I asked at a Microsoft Azure workshop about the possibility I was rewarded with blank looks; but who knows, they may know more than is currently being revealed.

CES 2014 report: robots, smart home, wearables, bendy TV, tablets, health gadgets, tubes and horns

CES in Las Vegas is an amazing event, partly through sheer scale. It is the largest trade show in Vegas, America’s trade show city. Apparently it was also the largest CES ever: two million square feet of exhibition space, 3,200 exhibitors, 150,000 industry attendees, of whom 35,000 were from outside the USA.

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It follows that CES is beyond the ability of any one person to see in its entirety. Further, it is far from an even representation of the consumer tech industry. Notable absentees include Apple, Google and Microsoft – though Microsoft for one booked a rather large space in the Venetian hotel which was used for private meetings.  The primary purpose of CES, as another journalist explained to me, is for Asian companies to do deals with US and international buyers. The success of WowWee’s stand for app-controllable MiP robots, for example, probably determines how many of the things you will see in the shops in the 2014/15 winter season.

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The kingmakers at CES are the people going round with badges marked Buyer. The press events are a side-show.

CES is also among the world’s biggest trade shows for consumer audio and high-end audio, which is a bonus for me as I have an interest in such things.

Now some observations. First, a reminder that CEA (the organisation behind CES) kicked off the event with a somewhat downbeat presentation showing that global consumer tech spending is essentially flat. Smartphones and tablets are growing, but prices are falling, and most other categories are contracting. Converged devices are reducing overall spend. One you had a camera, a phone and a music player; now the phone does all three.

Second, if there is one dominant presence at CES, it is Samsung. Press counted themselves lucky even to get into the press conference. A showy presentation convinced us that we really want not only UHD (4K UHD is 3840 x 2160 resolution) video, but also a curved screen, for a more immersive experience; or even the best of both worlds, an 85” bendable UHD TV which transforms from flat to curved.

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We already knew that 4K video will go mainstream, but there is more uncertainty about the future connected home. Samsung had a lot to say about this too, unveiling its Smart Home service. A Smart Home Protocol (SHP) will connect devices and home appliances, and an app will let you manage them. Home View will let you view your home remotely. Third parties will be invited to participate. More on the Smart Home is here.

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The technology is there; but there are several stumbling blocks. One is political. Will Apple want to participate in Samsung’s Smart Home? will Google? will Microsoft? What about competitors making home appliances? The answer is that nobody will want to cede control of the Smart Home specifications to Samsung, so it can only succeed through sheer muscle, or by making some alliances.

The other question is around value for money. If you are buying a fridge freezer, how high on your list of requirements is SHP compatibility? How much extra will you spend? If the answer is that old-fashioned attributes like capacity, reliability and running cost are all more important, then the Smart Home cannot happen until there are agreed standards and a low cost of implementation. It will come, but not necessarily from Samsung.

Samsung did not say that much about its mobile devices. No Galaxy S5 yet; maybe at Mobile World Congress next month. It did announce the Galaxy Note Pro and Galaxy Tab Pro series in three sizes; the “Pro” designation intrigues me as it suggests the intention that these be business devices, part of the “death of the PC” theme which was also present at CES.

Samsung did not need to say much about mobile because it knows it is winning. Huawei proudly announced that it it is 3rd in smartphones after Samsung and Apple, with a … 4.8% market share, which says all you need to know.

That said, Huawei made a rather good presentation, showing off its forthcoming AscendMate2 4G smartphone, with 6.1” display, long battery life (more than double that of iPhone 5S is claimed, with more than 2 days in normal use), 5MP front camera for selfies, 13MP rear camera, full specs here. No price yet, but expect it to be competitive.

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Sony also had a good CES, with indications that PlayStation 4 is besting Xbox One in the early days of the next-gen console wars, and a stylish stand reminding us that Sony knows how to design good-looking kit. Sony’s theme was 4K becoming more affordable, with its FDR-AX100 camcorder offering 4K support in a device no larger than most camcorders; unfortunately the sample video we saw did not look particularly good.

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Sony also showed the Xperia Z1 compact smartphone, which went down well, and teased us with an introduction for Sony SmartWear wearable entertainment and “life log” capture. We saw the unremarkable “core” gadget which will capture the data but await more details.

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Another Sony theme was high resolution audio, on which I am writing a detailed piece (not just about Sony) to follow.

As for Microsoft Windows, it was mostly lost behind a sea of Android and other devices, though I will note that Lenovo impressed with its new range of Windows 8 tablets and hybrids – like the 8” Thinkpad with Windows 8.1 Pro and full HD 1920×1200 display – more details here.

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There is an optional USB 3.0 dock for the Thinkpad 8 but I commented to the Lenovo folk that the device really needs a keyboard cover. I mentioned this again at the Kensington stand during the Mobile Focus Digital Experience event, and they told me they would go over and have a look then and there; so if a nice Kensington keyboard cover appears for the Thinkpad 8 you have me to thank.

Whereas Lenovo strikes me as a company which is striving to get the best from Windows 8, I was less impressed by the Asus press event, mainly because I doubt the Windows/Android dual boot concept will take off. Asus showed the TD300 Transformer Book Duet which runs both. I understand why OEMs are trying to bolt together the main business operating system with the most popular tablet OS, but I dislike dual boot systems, and if the Windows 8 dual personality with Metro and desktop is difficult, then a Windows/Android hybrid is more so. I’d guess there is more future in Android emulation on Windows. Run Android apps in a window? Asus did also announce its own 8” Windows 8.1 tablet, but did not think it worth attention in its CES press conference.

Wearables was a theme at CES, especially in the health area, and there was a substantial iHealth section to browse around.

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I am not sure where this is going, but it seems to me inevitable that self-monitoring of how well or badly our bodies are functioning will become commonplace. The result will be fodder for hypochondriacs, but I think there will be real benefits too, in terms of motivation for exercise and healthy diets, and better warning and reaction for critical problems like heart attacks. The worry is that all that data will somehow find its way to Google or health insurance companies, raising premiums for those who need it most. As to which of the many companies jostling for position in this space will survive, that is another matter.

What else? It is a matter of where to stop. I was impressed by NVidia’s demo rig showing three 4K displays driven by a GTX-equipped PC; my snap absolutely does not capture the impact of the driving game being shown.

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I was also impressed by NVidia’s ability to befuddle the press at its launch of the Tegra K1 chipset, confusing 192 CUDA cores with CPU cores. Having said that, the CUDA support does mean you can use those cores for general-purpose programming and I see huge potential in this for more powerful image processing on the device, for example. Tegra 4 on the Surface 2 is an excellent experience, and I hope Microsoft follows up with a K1 model in due course even though that looks doubtful.

There were of course many intriguing devices on show at CES, on some of which I will report over at the Gadget Writing blog, and much wild and wonderful high-end audio.

On audio I will note this. Bang & Olufsen showed a stylish home system, largely wireless, but the sound was disappointing (it also struck me as significant that Android or iOS is required to use it). The audiophiles over in the Venetian tower may have loopy ideas, but they had the best sounds.

CES can do retro as well as next gen; the last pinball machine manufacturer displayed at Digital Experience, while vinyl, tubes and horns were on display over in the tower.

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My last server? HP ML310e G8 quick review

Do small businesses still need a server? In my case, I do still run a couple, mainly for trying out new releases of server products like Windows Server 2012 R2, System Center 2012, Exchange and SharePoint. The ability to quickly run up VMs for testing software is of huge value; you can do this with just a desktop but running a dedicated hypervisor is convenient.

My servers run Hyper-V Server 2012 R2, the free version, which is essentially Server Core with just the Hyper-V role installed. I have licenses for full Windows server but have stuck with the free one partly because I like the idea of running a hypervisor that is stripped down as far as possible, and partly because dealing with Server Core has been educational; it forces you into the command line and PowerShell, which is no bad thing.

Over the years I have bought several of HP’s budget servers and have been impressed; they are inexpensive, especially if you look out for “top value” deals, and work reliably. In the past I’ve picked the ML110 range but this is now discontinued (though the G7 is still around if you need it); the main choice is either the small Proliant Gen8 MicroServer which packs in space for 4 SATA drives and up to 16GB RAM via 2 PC3 DDR3 DIMM slots and support for the dual-core Intel Celeron G1610T or Pentium G2020T; or the larger ML310 Gen8 series with space for 4 3.5" or 8 small format SATA drives and 4 PC3 DDR3 DIMM slots for up to 32GB RAM, with support for the Core i3 or Xeon E3 processors with up to 4 cores. Both use the Intel C204 chipset.

I picked the ML310e because a 4-core processor with 32GB RAM is gold for use with a hypervisor. There is not a huge difference in cost. While in a production environment it probably makes sense to use the official HP parts, I used non-HP RAM and paid around £600 plus VAT for a system with a Xeon  E3-1220v2 4-core CPU, 32GB RAM, and 500GB drive. I stuck in two budget 2Tb SATA drives to make up a decent server for less than £800 all-in; it will probably last three years or more.

There is now an HP ML310e Gen 8 v2 which might partly explain why the first version is on offer for a low price; the differences do not seem substantial except that version 2 has two USB 3.0 ports on the rear in place of four USB 2.0 ports and supports Xeon E3 v3.

Will I replace this server? The shift to the cloud means that I may not bother. I was not even sure about this one. You can run up VMs in the cloud easily, on Amazon ECC or Microsoft Azure, and for test and development that may be all you need. That said, I like the freedom to try things out without worrying about subscription costs. I have also learned a lot by setting up systems that would normally be run by larger businesses; it has given me better understanding of the problems IT administrators encounter.

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So how is the server? It is just another box of course, but feels well made. There is an annoying lock on the front cover; you can’t remove the side panel unless this is unlocked, and you can’t remove the key unless it is locked, so the solution if you do not need this little bit of physical security is to leave the key in the lock. It does not seem worth much to me since a miscreant could easily steal the entire server and rip off the panel at leisure.

On the front you get 4 USB 2.0 ports, UID LED button, NIC activity LED, system health LED and power button.

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The main purpose of the UID (Unit Identifier) button is to help identify your server from the rear if it is in a rack. You press the button on the front and an LED lights at the rear. Not that much use in a micro tower server.

Remove the front panel and you can see the drive cage:

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Hard drives are in caddies which are easily pulled out for replacement. However note the “Non hot plug” on these units; you must turn the server off first.

You might think that you have to buy HP drives which come packaged in caddies. This is not so; if you remove one of the caddies you find it is not just a blank, but allows any standard 3.5" drive to be installed. The metal brackets in the image below are removed and you just stick the drive in their place and screw the side panels on.

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Take the side panel off and you will see a tidy construction with the 350w power supply, 4 DIMM slots, 4 PCI Express slots (one x16, two x8, one x4), and a transparent plastic baffle that ensures correct air flow.

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The baffle is easily removed.

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What you see is pretty much as it is out of the box, but with RAM fitted, two additional drives, and a PCIX USB 3.0 card fitted since (annoyingly) the server comes with USB 2.0 only – fixed in the version 2 edition.

On the rear are four more USB 2.0 ports, two 1GB NIC ports, a blank where a dedicated ILO (Integrated Lights Out) port would be, video and serial connector.

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Although there is no ILO port on my server, ILO is installed. The luggage label shows the DNS name you need to access it. If you can’t get at the label, you can look at your DHCP server and see what address has been allocated to ILOxxxxxxxxx and use that. Once you log in with a web browser you can change this to a fixed IP address; probably a good idea in case, in a crisis, the DHCP server is not working right.

ILO is one of the best things about HP servers. It is a little embedded system, isolated from whatever is installed on the server, which gets you access to status and troubleshooting information.

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Its best feature is the remote console which gives you access to a virtual screen, keyboard and mouse so you can get into your OS from a remote session even when the usual remote access techniques are not working. There are now .NET and mobile options as well as Java.

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Unfortunately there is a catch. Try to use this an a license will be demanded.

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However, you can sign up for an evaluation that works for a few weeks. In other words, your first disaster is free; after that you have to pay. The license covers several servers and is not good value for an individual one.

Everything is fine on the hardware side, but what about the OS install? This is where things went a bit wrong. HP has a system called Intelligent Provisioning built in. You pop your OS install media in the DVD drive (or there are options for network install), run a wizard, and Intelligent Provisioning will update its firmware, set up RAID, and install your OS with the necessary drivers and HP management utilities included.

I don’t normally bother with all this but I thought I should give it a try. Unfortunately Server 2012 R2 is not supported, but I tried it for Server 2012 x64, hoping this would also work with Hyper-V Server, but no go; failed with unattend script error.

Next I set up RAID manually using the nice HP management utility in the BIOS and tried to install using the storage drivers saved to a USB pen drive. It seemed to work but was not stable; it would sometimes fail to boot, and sometimes you could log on and do a few things but Windows would crash with a Kernel_Security_Check_Failure.

Memory problems? Drive problems? It was not clear; but I decided to disable embedded RAID in the BIOS and use standard AHCI SATA. Install proceeded perfectly with no need for additional drivers, and the OS is 100% stable.

I did not want to give up RAID though, so wondered if I could use Storage Spaces on Hyper-V Server. Apparently you can. I joined the Hyper-V Server to my domain and then used Server Manager remotely to create a Storage Pool from my pair of 2TB drives, and then a mirrored virtual disk.

My OS drive is not on resilient storage but I am not too concerned about that. I can backup the OS (wbadmin works), and since it does nothing more than run Hyper-V, recovery should be straightforward if necessary.

After that I moved across some VMs using a combination of Move and Export with no real issues, other than finding Move too slow on my system when you have a large VHD to copy.

The server overall seems a good bargain; HP may have problems overall, but the department that turns out budget servers seems to do an excellent job. My only complaint so far is the failure of the storage drivers on Server 2012 R2, which HP will I hope fix with an update.

Lenovo’s bundled Start menu: more OEM trouble for Microsoft

Lenovo and SweetLabs announced a deal yesterday whereby the Pokki app store and Start menu replacement will be pre-installed on Windows PCs.

This has been widely interpreted as a response to user dissatisfaction with the Windows 8 Start screen, which replaces with the hierarchical Windows 7 Start menu with a full-screen tiled view of application shortcuts. The press release, though, focuses more on the app store element:

Apps are dynamically recommended in the Pokki Start menu, app store, and game arcade to users by SweetLabs’ real-time app recommendation system, which matches the right apps with the right users. This system has already served one billion app recommendations this year, and the addition of Lenovo substantially extends the reach of this distribution opportunity for app developers looking to be promoted on brand new Windows 8 devices.

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In other words, this is not just an app launcher but also a form of adware or if you prefer a third-party app store; the apps it installs will not be Windows Store apps running in the tablet-friendly Windows 8 environment, but desktop apps.

Microsoft could benefit I suppose if users concerned about missing the Start menu buy Windows 8, but in every other respect this is a retrograde step. Users who do want a Start menu would be better off with something like Start8 which will not nag them to install apps, which makes you wonder if Lenovo’s motivation is more to do with a lucrative deal than with pleasing its users. Microsoft’s strategy of building momentum for its own Windows 8 app store and platform will be undermined by this third-party effort.

Once again this illustrates how the relationship between Microsoft and its OEM partners can work to the detriment of both. The poor out of the box experience with Windows has been one of the factors driving users to the Mac or iPad over the years, and this is in large part due to trialware bundled by partner vendors.

Windows 8 is a special case, and there is no doubting the difficulty long-term Windows users have in getting used to the new Start screen. The new Start button in Windows 8.1 will help orient new users, but Microsoft is not backing away from Live Tiles or the Start screen. Lenovo’s efforts will make it harder for users to adjust, since they would be better off learning how to use Windows 8 as designed, rather than relying on a third-party utility.

Microsoft has Surface of course, which despite huge writedowns is well made and elegant, though too expensive; and this has not pleased the OEMs who previously had Windows to themselves.

It all makes you wonder if the famous gun-wielding cartoon of Microsoft’s organization chart should now be redrawn with the guns pointing between Microsoft and its hardware partners. After all, Windows Phone might also have gone better if the likes of Samsung and HTC had not been so focused on Android.