Would the last user of Windows Mobile please turn out the lights? (2/3)

If you haven’t arrived here from what brought me here, you might want to start there.

Without rehashing what came before, in leaving Windows Phone I find myself at odds with my ecosystem and being pulled back in to Google’s data black hole.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Windows and what it was/could have been. UWP and Windows 10 and x86 apps on ARM are exciting. I dislike Android and respect myself too much to buy in to Apple.

Call me old-school. But I can’t be alone. For a phone, I just want it to be fast, good looking, be easy to use (so a physical keyboard) and be reliable and secure. The industry is careering towards exactly the opposite. Apps suck battery power and require Octa-core performance, all phones I can see are just slabs, no phones (bar one) have a physical keyboard instead relying on increasingly “smart” (annoying) autocorrecting on-screen keyboards and the most secure platforms (Windows Mobile, BlackBerry) are essentially dead in the water. Even the respected brands for build quality and security, Nokia and BlackBerry, have failed and are now retooling as façade-brands whilst the same Far-Eastern-manufacturing-factory-drones as everyone is using are charged with trying to maintain the trust, build quality and heritage of former platforms – but cheaper, much cheaper.

So, I switched.

The industry has failed me, producing nothing interesting, differentiating or exciting. It’s all just a bunch of black slabs differentiated only by the marketing wrapped around what is otherwise the same phone.

Except, maybe BlackBerry. BlackBerry have moved to Android (probably a smart move) and they’ve tried to transition the established trust they have developed in their brand (key of which is security) towards what is the most insecure platform available for mobile phones. They’ve sort of succeeded, too. Add on a physical keyboard and you get to the BlackBerry Priv. Alas, it looks like this was the first and last phone users could trust for build quality, as their production is now handled by the same Far-Eastern-manufacturing-factory-drone previously mentioned. But this isn’t a Priv review.

But, it’s a struggle.

I don’t know how you people manage on this platform.

  • No Live Tiles. Widgets and tiny overlays on a grid of icons just don’t come close
  • You have to turn your screen on to see the time, no ‘Glance screen’
  • Fussy, inconsistent UI. Notifications about everything, delivered inconsistently. Only sometimes do I get told of my email, more often I get told I unplugged my headphones (yeah, I know, because I just did it with my own hands)
  • I’ve had to reboot every day. Rebooting was almost unheard of with Windows Phone 8.1, though became a regular requirement for Windows 10 – but not daily.
  • Things just stop working. APN settings, my primary email account four BlackBerry Hub. Then, they start working again.
  • Settings, settings, settings, everywhere. With great configurability comes great confusion.

About that Priv …

  • Poor screen in daylight. Almost invisible.
  • The radios (particularly Wifi and Mobile Internet) aren’t that great. I seemed to get better reception for both on my Windows Phones.
  • Headphone socket on the bottom of the phone. Even worse, just to one side. Result is I have to put my phone in my pocket upside down to listen on headphones and can’t expect to extract it without the lining of my pocket.
  • Going back to wired charging is like going back in time. And Micro USB to boot.
  • But, …
    • It is secure. So secure I had to factory reset when I locked myself out after forgetting my unlock pattern!
    • The slide is reminiscent of the old Nokia N95-2 (one of my favourites)
    • The BlackBerry software is neat, particularly the Hub. All the things in one inbox. It’s how I like to work. One app to rule them all, and in the inbox combine them.

Next job, trying to recreate my Microsoft ecosystem comfort zone, in someone else’s world

Would the last user of Windows Mobile please turn out the lights? (1/3)

Nokia Lumias 920, 930, 950 XLOk, I’ve finally given up the good fight. I tried, I evangelised, I contributed development effort, I bought 5 phones; but one man on an island cannot save Microsoft’s total lack of effort or enthusiasm for their own mobile strategy. I was an island on an island.

I’ve endured mockery, lack of support from broadcasters, companies and governments, absence of interest in support from peripherals (try to find a pair of headphones that has inline controls that work on a Microsoft Mobile phone); now even my partner has left (not me, the platform).

What went wrong?

App -gap. I’m not a fan of “apps”. They’re expensive to develop, inconsistent to use and difficult to support. Until the industry realises that the world’s best and most compatible app has always been available (it’s called a well written site on the internet), we’re stuck with native apps and companies who develop on one should develop on them all – or leave a percentage of customers (Windows Mobile) in the cold. Unless your app has good reason to be native, such as games or requiring access to hardware, all you’re doing is replicating what your mobile site is probably already doing – but worse. As app developers came and went, the reason to stay reduced. It was SmartThings what done it, in the end.

Windows 10. Windows 10 was an abomination when it first landed on our computers. Every aspect of its launch was a botch. Overly aggressive deployments of an operating system that was clearly not ready for market do nothing to help users. The idea is a grand one, and one which is appreciated, but some things must remain stable and reliable. Windows 10 is essentially always in beta. It’s much better now (though still wide of the mark of what Windows 7/8.1 was), but that first public version was Vista-in-miniature. The effect on hardware that demands performance and reliability, mobile phones, was even more acute. Older phones were left out in the cold, effectively abandoned; battery life suffered and apps were downright buggy. Yet, the Universal Windows Platform is awesome and very exciting for developers – but why are people like SmartThings not even bothering despite its benefits and ease of development? It’s a vacuum into which Google will fit with its Chromebooks.

Microsoft. I’ve often said there can be no greater curse on a Microsoft product than Microsoft itself (Silverlight, Windows Media Centre). They create awesome platforms and applications which identify key user requirements, yet successfully damage and burn their own products. Windows Phone launched in an aggressive marketplace and had to stand out, and it did. Not always in a positive way, but that would be improved, it brought a unique experience to the market: Live tiles, deep social media integration, Groups, Rooms, Kids Corner, Apps Corner, the list goes on. As the platform struggled, instead of doubling down and making a big deal of these unique selling points, each of these was strategically extinguished. Now, what used to be a unique platform with limited uptake has become yet-another-hamburger-menu platform with an even more limited uptake.

Nadella. Since Satya Nadella took over Microsoft, there has been a fundamental shift in Microsoft’s strategy, and one which is both welcome and exciting. Open-sourcing of Microsoft code with contribution from the community, free development products and cross-platform support of key Microsoft assets such as Office, SQL Server and Visual Studio have all been welcomed by the industry, even by the haters. But it is unfathomable when the apps developed for Android and iOS are better and updated more frequently than on their own platform. They are subscribing to the very same logic that has cursed the Windows Store: there’s not enough people to warrant the development effort.

Of the 10 people I know who have used Windows Phone/Mobile, only one remains with the platform, and I don’t suspect that is down to choice alone.

And now, I’ve left too. I held out, through the Nokia purchase (Nokia phones were always awesome, even before they were involved in Windows Phone), through the marked decline in product quality as Microsoft took hold of the Lumia line and into the “nothing to share” phase; waiting, always waiting for that distant Surface Phone to be realised into an actual product. But why? They want to redefine the Mobile platform, but when and how? All we have to look at is a patent filing. I’m not interested in a foldable phone, or a phone that is a hologram or anything else. I want a phone that works. If a Surface Phone was released tomorrow (or more likely, at this year’s MWC), there would still be a lack of support for it. It’s already dead.

So, I have chosen

My free Monster Purity HD headphones for the Nokia Lumia range

In deciding what to do about getting a new Windows Phone 7 phone, in particular, investing in Nokia, a key element in the decision was the Free Monster Purity HD Headphones offer worth £199. A phone for £350 plus a free pair of headphones mitigates the risk of missing out on an upgrade of the phone to Windows Phone 8. After some headaches in applying for them, they are here, and …

… the headphones are excellent. I’m no audiophile, but I can appreciate a solid, rich sound and these headphones definitely deliver that. This time, the marketing superlatives on the back of the box stand up. “Amazing”, “incredible”, “quality”, “rich” and of course, we cannot forget “dynamic”. Okay, maybe this is just some marketing executive justifying his salary in difficult times. Once on, background noise is minimised. Equally, and more importantly, unless driving the headphones at exceedingly loud volumes, there is no leakage. When you are working in an office, this is essential. You don’t even need to “drive” these headphones, a perfectly adequate and safe listening experience can be had at 14/30 on a Nokia Lumia 800. If I was to have one complaint, it is the inteference with the radios of the mobile phone itself running through the wire, resulting in the inevitable blipbippbipibipibpbibibippbip. This, however, is more likely due to the design of the phone. Again, the Lumia 800 may be a beautiful phone, but elements of it just don’t work. Screening of the audio hardware seems to have been neglected.

Headset offer

I mentioned “headaches”. The offer certainly put up “barriers of eligibility” which challenged you legally and emotionally to make sure you that you were not only eligible for the offer, but could also be bothered to complete the process. Cashback offers from HP Servers have a similarly typical onerous process, requiring all documents in place and submitted correctly for the offer to be processed. After having started the final stage of the application, by entering my IMEI into the offer web-page, I was told that the “IMEI is not valid”. Alarm bells. I then called Nokia Customer Services, who although they tried their hardest, I suspect their hardest was really nothing more than blocking my call and passing it off to another department. With the greatest respect to out-sourced call centres, this was an abonimable experience. I was told, in a heavy Indian accent, that I was speaking first to “Mike” (indeed, the only person in the entire team with that name) and then “Sophie”. After failing to explain the simplest things, including coming up with my own phonetic alphabet in a desperate attempt to spell my name (“Panda-bear”, “Language”, “Elephant” … ok, maybe I was just enjoying winding dear “Sophie” up), I was just told it would be “processed”.

As with most things regarding customer service, you just need to speak to someone who knows what they are doing, have access to the correct systems and procedures and cares enough about their brand to take ownership of the problem. So I tweeted @NokiaHelps, and they took it on. Indeed, 5 days later, I now have the headphones! Lesson to all companies: if you use out-sourced call-centres do not insult my intelligence by giving people English names and make sure they are well versed with the entire customer service requirements. And make damn sure you have an alternative channel of support, in this case, Twitter.

But why are they offering this rather generous promotion?

Clearly, £200 is a retail value and Nokia would not be paying anywhere near this amount to provide this promotion. But, the company is still in dire straits both financially and with regards its increasingly insignificant market position. So how can they afford it?

Maybe it’s factored into a percentage of Lumia sales’ profits. Some people will buy the Lumia with no knowlege of the offer. A smaller percentage would buy the Lumia and although they know of the offer, they do not opt to use it. A smaller percentage again may apply but for whatever reason pull out, possibly due to disqualification or maybe due to the onerous requirements of the offer. That leaves a relatively small number of people whose applications may be financially viable.

Another possibility could be the proximity of the Windows Phone 8 devices. Nokia have done an awesome job of marketing Windows Phone 7 and grabbing people onto their phones as opposed to the more established models of their competitors. All this, knowing that Windows Phone 8 is around the corner and probably also knowing of the limited upgrade opportunities for the current generation of handsets due to the different OS core. While the headphones are compatible with other operating systems, they are distinctly aimed at Nokia Windows Phone 7 devices – a nice change having to wade through hundreds of i*-only products. By enticing users into a distinctly Nokia-based experience and branding (even down to the 90-degree angle on the 3.5mm plug on the phone-end), maybe they are hoping to secure users’ upgrading to a Nokia Windows Phone 8 rather than a competitor’s model?

Lumia 800 – my hands-on

It’s here. It’s in my hand. The reputed saviour of Windows Phone 7 as a platform. The Nokia Lumia 800.

If you hadn’t guessed, I’m a big fan of Windows Phone 7. (See the tiles on the right hand side?) I feel like I’ve been the unofficial, unrecognised and unrewarded one-man marketing department of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 on the Isle of Man due to the shocking support previously shown by our local Telco’s. Microsoft are crap at blowing their own trumpet, and it took someone like Nokia – and the precarious position they are in – to jump in and back the platform, despite the naysayers. And they have done a really good job, transforming even the idea of a black-slab Smartphone to a chiselled, striking and robust design. Now we have hardware as great looking as the operating system!

Throw away your prejudices of Microsoft’s mobile phones, and close the “technical journalists'” blogs that spout doom for Redmond’s efforts. Empty your mind, and just have a play with the phone. You might not like it, but you cannot deny it is striking and is just what the market needs.

I was practically sitting on the doorstep of Manx Telecom’s shop when Windows Phone 7.0 was launched and soon bagged myself an HTC HD7. Not having used an HTC before, I was dubious. I was also dubious of the total touch-screen interface, but the device and the operating system were a dream. But, after 18 months of heavy use (including being dropped through the TT Grandstand seating from 10 foot up onto concrete) it was time to move on. Besides, the curves on the Lumia were … curvy.

But which Lumia? 800 or 900? Get the 800 and the price would be marginally cheaper but the phone was smaller than I was used to. Get the 900 and pay full whack at launch, but then even Siri agreed it was the Best Smartphone on the market. The elephant in the room is Windows Phone 8, which is due out at the end of the year. As a developer, I “need” to get hold of one of these phones, but that would immediately cut 6-months of life off the phone I was about to buy. The seemingly endless delays to the 900 coming over due to he huge demand in the US was also causing me concern. So, I decided to go for the 800, which has had time to be bug fixed and dropped in price slightly, and redeploy it to a grateful owner in 6 months time.

Nokia Lumia 800 phonesOverall, I’m very impressed with the phone. It is sleek, damned sexy and it just wants to be held. No operating system could look as good on the device, and no other device looks as good with the operating system. It is a perfect match. A problem Microsoft may find in their [rightful] clamping down on customisations and modifications to the OS, however, is that as all phones will essentially only be differentiated by slight hardware differences or external appearance, the urge to upgrade an existing Windows Phone 7 is somewhat reduced.

In the same breath, if a user upgrades their Windows Phone 7 handset to another Windows Phone 7 handset, they should expect a very similar experience. Bar a few OEM apps and hardware modifications, there should be no difference.

Alas, not so with Nokia – and not in a good way. I left Nokia because they had made a perfectly good operating system (Symbian) into a hideous mess after taking a controlling interest in it. But making a hideous mess isn’t necessarily going to mean the death of the platform (look at Android); failing to realise what the market is crying out for will. Their phones were largely incompatible (“app” writing was often in C++, a fairly high barrier of entry that other platforms didn’t have) and the processors in the phones often performed extraordinarily poorly after a few months’ use. On the other hand, they did get one thing right which still eludes Smartphones: battery life!

Letting down Windows Phone 7

Using the Nokia Lumia 800 has been mostly a pleasurable experience, but for one thing … and this is the killer as far as a pleasurable Windows Phone 7 experience is concerned: the display has a tendency to lag. Swooshing and swiping those tiles and feeling the inertia as you hit boundaries is a fundamental part of the Metro experience. As soon as your finger disconnects from this [almost] kinetic experience, the feeling is lost. And when the screen does not work at all for touch? Well, the phone is now totally useless. This tends to happen after a day’s use, often when plugging in the power on an evening. I suspect this is to do with the synchronisation with Zune Windows Phone 7 does transparently in the background when plugged in with a known WiFi connection. But this is transparent, and should not be noticable to the user. It certainly wasn’t for the HD7. The only thing that has changed is the handset.

Reliability of the phone is also less than great. I know a three others with Lumia 800s and while they praise the phone’s look and feel and operating system, they all have similar – or worse – experiences:


After just 4 days’ use, the phone crashed. My HTC HD7 crashed once in 18 months, and even then it was with a Beta version of the “Mango” operating system – and you expect that to crash! With the HTC HD7, it’s simple, you pop the battery and you’re back up and running again. But the Lumia 800 is a sealed unit, and as such, you cannot pop the battery – or anything else for that matter. So it was straight to me HTC HD7 to look up on the internet how to reset my Lumia 800. Ah, good old black slab HTC HD7. Sexy you are not, but sometimes the most unsexy is the most reliable.

The touch-screen occasionally fails to respond. This seems to be due to a CPU issue, as it sometimes comes back to life once it has completed processing whatever it was doing. Now don’t get me wrong, Android users; this is NOT due to a single-core processor. The same operating system works flawlessly on my HTC HD7 and the HTC Trophy. It is a hardware deficiency. Now here’s the problem for Nokia: my HTC HD7 had a 1GHz processor, but the Nokia Lumia 800, has a 1.4GHz processor. Something is very wrong.

Nokia Lumia 800 phonesOverall, the phone has crashed about 6 times in the last 3 weeks. I have now turned off Wifi synchronisation when I plug in the power and the phone is a lot more reliable. So, Nokia, you broke something.

Person #2:

Equally impressed with the phone, this user was keen to take it out and road-test it by tracking his progress around his many hikes on the island. While he does have frustrations with regards the task switching – or lack of – in the navigation apps he uses, he has a largely positive experience. But then, the phone crashes. His phone has crashed a number of times, probably occurring about once a month and typically when using GPS applications.

Person #3:

Having switched from BlackBerry, this user was expecting great things from Nokia and Windows Phone 7. Initially very pleased with the device, he was keen to show it off to help me in my own buying decision. Then, the phone stopped updating his social media updates. He tried rebooting. Now the phone is completely dead and is requiring to be switched out by the operator.

So, Nokia, that is 3 out of 3 failures. Based on users I know who are succesfully using HTC, LG and Samsung devices, this is a horrendous record. I left Nokia because of their wrecking of Symbian. And now it seems they are about to take a perfectly good operating system and wreck that, too. Maybe it’s a symptom of having rushed the Lumia 800 to market. It certainly was not without teething troubles, but these were swiftly addressed through software updates.

But I need to be clear. The phone is very nice and the Lumia 900 has gone down a total storm around the world. The Nokia Drive application is brilliantly simple AND FAST. I was very pleased that Nokia jumped on board the Windows Phone 7 wagon, it was the push it needed to succeed and I’ve evangelised about both Nokia and Microsoft’s contribution since launch. More importantly, this in no way implies anything about the quality of Windows Phone 7. The beauty of having a “locked down” OS is that the experience should be the same across handsets bar minor customisations. It’s about setting expectations, and maintaining those across not only difference mobile phones, but with XBox 360 and Windows 8. Now, I feel I have been let down and I have let down those users I suggested look at Nokia and how they have received a negative impression of an awesome OS.

But if you’re still undecided, check out my  “No sexiness required” guide.

Selecting a mobile phone for you … a simple guide that is free of religion, politics and sex

There is another highly religious topic in tech other than “Are you PC or Mac?”. It’s “are you iPhone or Android?”. Did you notice anything wrong with that sentence? Given a market which comprises of 4 key smartphone operating systems, there is the distinct absence of both BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7. I am a big fan of Windows Phone 7 and I am always evangelising about it (after all, Microsoft are crap at telling us about their own products) but I do try to remain unbiased when people ask me which phone should they buy.

I can achieve this position by having them answer a few questions.

Do you have Apple devices in your house and/or are you a frequent iTunes user?

While a phone may be the best phone in the world, if it does not fit within your lifestyle/ecosystem, it is just a clever gadget without connectivity. If you have already invested in an Apple lifestyle, then the odds are iOS is best for you, so get an iPhone. You can use your iTunes, and the user interface will be pretty similar to what you’re used to. Coupled with the iPad, and you get yourself a really cohesive user experience.

Are you a tinkerer? Do you like to install apps, play with your phone for hours?

Android is an “open” source operating system. I’m saying “open” because I’m using the Google implementation found on mobile phones as the benchmark, here. And not all of it is open in the truest sense. If you like to play with your phone, hack it, configure it, tweak it, update it and hopefully avoid bricking it, then Android is a great choice. For most users, it’s simple enough to just work.

Do you have an XBox, with an XBox Live profile (Silver or Gold)? Do you want your phone to “just work”?

In this case Windows Phone 7 is a gem. It does not get in the way of what you need to do. It is not trying to be clever, it is trying to help you use your phone for what it is good for: making calls, texting and interacting on social networks. If you have an XBox, you can use your XBox profile on the phone and enhance your Gamerscore through XBox Live achievements. If you have Zune (that’s Microsoft’s poorly marketed iTunes competitor), you can listen to music on your phone, your XBox and your PC. It really does “just work”.

Are you interacting with your workplace/colleagues regularly?

BlackBerry may be on the wane, but it is undeniably a strong OS with regards enterprise integration. If you demand secure communications with your office, BlackBerry is a tough act to follow. However, whether the relevance of BlackBerry is on the decline as a result of the failure of the OS to keep up or changing user requirements is not clear. While BlackBerry is a strong contender, it isn’t necessarily a contender that will be around for long.

Under the covers, all these phones are the same. They are all running the ARM processor. They are all able to make calls, send messages, browse the web, etc. So it is not about “what phone is better”, it is “what phone best fits your lifestyle”. They all have application marketplaces, games, music players, etc. Some phones may do it better that others, but this is always relative to your own requirements.

For example. If you have iTunes at home, an Android is not going to play your iTunes.

If you have an XBox, an iPhone is not going to help you increase your Gamerscore

If you like to tinker, Windows Phone 7 is going to work against you.

On the other hand …

If you use Office a lot, maybe have a SharePoint of Office 365 scenario, Windows Phone 7 integrates seamlessly into this. All phones can read/write Office documents, but which one works naturally and fits best for you?

If you have high principles regarding software ownership, then Android is by far the winner. All phones have an established API and can be “hacked” to different levels, but how deep do you want to dig?

If you want to keep up with the Joneses, then an Apple a year will keep the stagnation away. There are a huge number of phones available and being made available month on month, year on year; but which one is the one to be seen with?

Hopefully this will help to separate vendor-religion, community politics and marketing sex from the mechanics of choosing a phone. It’s all about you and what works for you, as under the hood, they’re all the same.

Plantronics Backbeat Bluetooth Headset

Plantronics BackBeat headphonesI’m a big fan of my HTC HD7 Windows Phone 7, and particularly of the Zune Player application on it. Unfortunately, I am not a fan of the crappy headphone set typically supplied in the box with high-value smart-phones. They’re neither use nor ornament. Previously I have been using some Sony Walkman wired headphones, which had really good reproduction of sound. Unfortunately, and inevitably, the microscopic cabling was going to fail sometime and now I have no right-ear speaker. So a replacement is in order.

I have been struggling to find a suitable set of earphones that provide good sound reproduction, with minimal sound leakage to avoid annoying my colleagues and with phone headset controls so I can answer the phone without forgetting than my headphones are masking the microphone. Surely there would be some good quality wired headphones suitable for use with the HTC HD7? Seems not. If you want all the above, it’s all iPhone. This is very frustrating and discriminatory for an open market. Understandably, there are a lot of i* devices out there, but surely there could be some compatibility struck?

I asked at XDA Developers Forum for suggestions and I was suggested to get a pair of BlueTooth headphones, specifically the Plantronics BackBeat 903+ Stereo Bluetooth Headphones. I was reluctant to try BlueTooth headphones out because my previous experience with BlueTooth (albeit v1 of the specification) was very poor and the last thing I need is yet another battery I need to remember to charge. But they came highly recommended so I gave them a try.

They paired really well with the HTC HD7, the Metro UX makes it an absolute snap. Getting the headphones on and off your head can be a little tricky as they need to fit around/through your ears for a good and secure fit. You’ll get the hang of it, over time. If you wear them for longer periods of time, however, they do start to make your ears ache. This isn’t an audio ache, more of a physical ache associated with having to bend your ears around the headphones. Maybe I’ll get used to them in time. Interestingly, they also repeat ambient noise so you still hear around you, and having just heard the phone ring while listening to music, seemingly during playback. It’s not a distraction as such, I guess it reduces the opportunity of you ignoring your colleagues. But what about the music quality?

They do block out noise (at sufficiently high volume), though have no noise cancellation. They don’t seem to leak, having had no complaints from my colleagues. The music quality is … okay. I’m not an audiophile, but I get wound up by poor quality in audio reproduction – particularly when I know the source is good. Most songs are fine on these headphones, but some songs do exhibit deficiencies. Specifically:

  • Elbow: Some Riot (3:20 in)
  • Elbow: Friend of Ours (2:16 in)
  • Take That: The Flood (1:30 in)

These were listened to on volume level 16 of 30. Not sure how high the headphones were, but I prefer high amplification in the source, low amplification in the speakers.

So while they are acceptable for most music, I do find that there are more variables in play when it comes to streaming the music than if I used wired headphones. But where was the deficiency creeping in? Was it BlueTooth bandwidth? A deficiency with the original source? Or maybe the headphone speakers were poor quality?

Consider the following stages we identified in a typical audio playback:

  • Bandwidth of the original recording, about 44.1Khz (CD quality)
  • Down-conversion during ripping of CD to 192Kbps on a typical MP3, resulting in loss of definition. (I use 320Kbps MP3 at home, and down-convert MP3s to 192Kbps WMA for the phone, to match the Zune-sourced music quality)
  • MP3 Player application (Decompression of source)
  • Amplifier in mobile phone
  • BlueTooth transmitter (v2.0 practical is 2.1Mbps, theoretical 3.0Mbps) and compression for over-the-air. It seems that a stereo 192Kbps audio stream is on the very edge of practicalityfor BlueTooth.
  • BlueTooth receiver (Decompression)
  • Re-encoding of data stream back to audio by DACon headset
  • Speaker capabilities (bass reproduction, definition, etc.)
  • Location of phone in relation to headset (metallic cases or your head may attenuate the signal!)

Plenty of opportunity for problems to creep in. It seems that the overlaying of the 192Kbps source, with the BlueTooth bandwidth creates a combined effect as a result of the headphones being unable to compensate for errors in transmission from the original, already lossy source.

That said, putting other sources such as Björk through them did work quite well. Björk is always a good test for audio quality, though it can often be difficult to pick out deliberate distortion and incidental distortion in her work.

So I think it might come down to application. I’ll probably use these headphones for walking to work, where background noise is sufficient for me to not be bothered by very minor deficiencies in the audio and a wired set at my desk for total immersion (Have a set of Sennheiser MM70’s on my desk waiting to be tried). If you’re not as unnecessarily fussy as me, buy them, they’re a great set for most music. Just keep in mind that extra battery to keep charged!

Update: Having now listened using the Sennheiser earphones (the control test), the quality is much better on the wired set. proving my assertion that BlueTooth adds unnecessary processing stages to the detriment of audio quality. The wired headphones work well with the HTC HD7, I can play/pause music and answer/end calls using the control button on the headphone lead as you would expect. The volume buttons and track advance controls don’t work, however, which is to be expected on i* headphones, I guess.

Once again, I’m not an audiophile, nor am I anything more than an amateur physicist. If you can clarify or improve my modest findings, it would be appreciated.

Changing the way I consume media

“Owning” media used to be about buying the CD, or the DVD and adding it to your collection. I have a large CD and DVD collection as a result. Even when people were raving about downloadable music, I always went out to buy the CD. If it wasn’t “in the collection”, it didn’t feel mine. I also appreciate the finer things, such as the sleeve design, etc. Same for DVDs, buying a box-set feels a special experience, particularly if the box-set has had some thought put into the design.

But, there is an awful lot of media out there, and I only have so much money and space. Buying every film you hear may be good is one thing, but affording it and storing it (if you even watch it again) is another.

The model was “want it, own it” or “not interested”.

So our household has been switching models. Firstly, we decided to stop buying DVDs on recommendations/whim/preference so we don’t unnecessary bloat to an already bloated collection. We get a lot of recommendations for films, we miss out on an awful lot of films that are regarded as “required viewing” for film fans, so we decided to switch to a rental model. We currently use LoveFilm for this. This was a revelation, now we only invest in DVDs as part of a series (say, Doctor Who), special box-sets (the latest Alien HD box-set is awesome) or because we truly believe we will get lasting value from watching it (Chris Morris’ Four Lions is excellent). For £7ish a month, we get 5 DVDs.

But times are changing. Now, consumer devices are fighting to give the next level of media consumption: internet-based content. Whether you choose to buy (eg. iTunes music downloads), rent (download a film from Zune Video to watch within the defined period) or stream (true video-on-demand), people are changing and companies need to change with them.

I’ve always been a firm fan of buying CDs. Having digital copies of CDs feels like it weakens my relationship with the artist and the product itself. Having the designed case feels like I have bought something and the physical CD is at least a back-up of my music. Add to that the maze presented by variousDRMmodels and downloadable music in /MP3 or .WMA form becomes a minefield. If I buy music, I want to be able to use it on all my devices (PCs, portable MP3 players, XBox 360, Blu-Ray player).

Having just bought a Windows Phone 7 and – more importantly – Zune Marketplace launching in the UK, the model has changed.

The model is now: “have (love)”, “have (interested)”, “don’t want”.

Using Zune Pass, I can download just about anything and keep it while my subscription lasts. I benefit from being able to listen to “non-essential”, possibly mediocre music without contributing to my collection or bank balance. I can listen to Take That’s new album without buying it because, frankly, I’m not a fan. But I appreciate good song-writing and love him or hate him, Gary Barlow is [mostly] very good at what he does. If I really like an album, I’ll buy the physical copy from Amazon. I’m keeping the music industry alive using both the new and old-skool models.

That just leaves films. While I really like LoveFilm rental, the waiting period often lasts months for films and a film is often not there when you need it. The only realistic modern option is to be able to download or stream it. Zune Marketplace also provides this and having previously streamed HD through my XBox 360, I can confirm it is a very sleek experience. But it’s expensive and is not covered or subsidised by the Zune Pass agreement. The catalogue is also limited.

What is needed is LoveFilm (or even NetFlix) to provide streaming services to the UK market. LoveFilm do provide streaming services, but their output is reported to be poor quality, DVD-quality at best and being computer based really spoils what should be an 11-foot, surround-sound, large screen experience. Yes, they have launched their offering on PS3 machines, but this is now a walled-garden. Why should I invest in a console worth £200+ just to watch LoveFilm films? I have no interest in gaming other than the casual gaming I already enjoy on the XBox 360.

So while I enjoy Nightwish, Take That, My Chemical Romance, Talking Heads and anything else I can get my hands on through Zune, I will be forced to wait for an equivalent offering for films. LoveFilm have said they are “Looking into other devices” but I don’t hold my breath. They seem to have got in to bed with Sony and Samsung and Microsoft consumers (with their already otherwise complete media experience) will be forced to suffer. Alternatively, Zune could increase their catalogue and decrease/subsidise their rental price through Zune Pass. Either way, in austere times, it’s not looking good for LoveFilm unless they act soon.

Looking forward to gadgets

It’s been a good couple of years for Microsoft in terms of products. After the Vista debacle and Office 2007 ribbon complaints, they’ve really turned a corner. They’ve listened to users of all skill levels to produce some cracking products. Yes, I am a Microsoft shill, but unapologetically so. They are a developer company, and I’m a developer – it’s a natural fit. Windows 7 was sublime, Visual Studio 2010 is “just right” and Office 2010 seems to have finally grown into its new ribbon UI (shame it has only just seen to supporting open data formats such as oData and .ICS).

There’s more to come, though. I’m excited about 2 products in the pipeline.

The first out is Windows Phone 7. What was the Windows Mobile platform suffered from Microsoft’s insistence that they should put the desktop on a mobile phone. Clearly, they were wide of the mark and it is odd it took them so long to realise this. Arrogance, I guess. The only benefit I can see of the iPhone – kicking innovation into what was becoming a stale market. The Windows Phone 7 platform is integrated with Facebook, is developer friendly and offers integration with XBox Live. Oh and Zune finally makes it to the UK – a DRM model that I could just get on with. The hard part is waiting for the right model to be launched – with a keyboard. If you want me to spend anytime with your smart phone, it needs a keyboard. Having seen the reviews and videos of the device, I look forward to that “Oh, that’s very cool” moment. Many phones offer integration with social media and a rich experience, but are scuppered by lack of support for Flash (need I say?), awkward user interfaces (BlackBerry) or under-powered processors (Nokia). Windows Phone 7 seems to be a best alternative to these and offers an open development platform, which is a refreshing change.

The second product is Kinect, formerly “Project Natal”. This has been in gestation for a few years both within Microsoft and in the original product developer, 3DV Systems. Microsoft have struck gold in their XBox Live and Arcade gaming platforms, gaming is now no longer just for the serious gamer. Buy an XBox and you can immediately start playing cheap and highly-playable games from the Arcade and involve the entire family. The so called “casual gamer” represents a serious opportunity and I regard myself in that group as someone who loses interest in games as soon as it gets hard! Even so, with the traditional Control Pad input mechanism, it still feels like a special language is needed to play the games. Kinect removes this barrier, allowing interaction with the games using your body as a controller. In truth, we’ve seen this before, the Playstation Eye Toy was a great product and a smart web cam to boot (if you could locate the drivers for Windows). But that’s not where Kinect is going to stay. Steve Ballmer was reported to (possibly annoying other product departments) say that Kinect is the most significant development for Microsoft this year, maybe because while Kinect is starting out in the home, it will soon become integrated into your Windows and Office experience. Authenticating and controlling Windows suddenly becomes more accessible for the disabled and “regular” user, Office becomes easier to navigate through large spreadsheets, PowerPoint slides, etc. and video conferencing gets better thanks to the directional microphone-array (captions over people’s heads, anyone?).

That’s not to say Microsoft haven’t missed the mark or opportunity on other products, though. The Kin phone was a surprise and seemed to be a typical example of the company competing with itself. Luckily enough, it was canned weeks after but not before a shuffle of senior management. The XBox 360 has recently been redesigned to give it a fresh image in line with the Kinect. The price is attractive, the hard drive bigger and it has wireless – but so what? Still no Blu-Ray player, a real shame as Blu-Ray is starting to get traction – because of the PS3. Sony are giving the same kick to the Blu-Ray market as they did with the DVD market when they included a DVD player in the PS2. Clever – and obvious. And where are the Windows 7 slates? Seems odd considering Windows 7 is touch optimised in so many ways. Maybe (and probably) it is because putting a desktop OS on a battery-powered device is never going to work, surely one of Microsoft’s several embedded OS implementations would suffice? I sometimes feel like I should apologise for the stupidity of Microsoft in its product launches, but I guess when you’re as big as Microsoft, it’s slow to move and competing products within its mass would be inevitable.