Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Gadget Goodies 27 -- The Side Experiment

image used under GNU Free Document License, photo supplied by Shenmuelll
Windows and Linux are complete, full featured OSes.  Anything else, not so much.  Which, for the most part, is OK. One doesn't expect a phone to do all that a full blown computer can.

I started with several Windows Mobile devices, had several Blackberry phones, then proceeded to Android.  That included a Blackberry Playbook tablet, a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, and a Nexus 7 2013.

The mix of smartphone and tablet may be their own corner of hell.  Not that having both was a necessarily a bad thing.  But, it generated its own mindset that was never fully satisfied.

After the switch to Linux Mint 13 on my ASUS netbook turned out not to give me the tablet features I wanted, I started looking at tablets.  The Playbook turned out to be a dead end device, Blackberry promising more than it was going to deliver.

With all my Android devices, there wasn't the dichotomy of over promising based on under performing devices.  My Note 2 was great.  The Tab, while having limitations, went as far as the hardware was designed for.  While it no longer keeps up with newer devices, it still works well for reading and as a music streaming device.  The Nexus was almost a perfect device.  Despite Steve Jobs disliking 7" devices, the Nexus has a great screen, better battery life than many, and enough processor power to be competitive a year later.

With all the phone/tablet combos, unless one device had notably better hardware, I liked to have as similar as possible software on both.  That way, I could use the larger screen when I could rely on wifi.  Despite the fact that both devices have similar software, they never seem to be 100% in sync, without a manual nudge of one device or the other.  Which got me thinking about what would happen if I pared down to a single device.

The one device for everything idea was my experiment in that direction.  Gadget Goodies 21, back in April, explained my choice of the Xperia Z Ultra for that.  The following two posts highlighted my choice of accessories.  It's now four months later and we can look at what works and what doesn't.

First, the 6.4" screen.  It really is the sweet spot between smaller, "normal" smartphone screens of 5.5" and below, and what I consider the ideal for portability, the Nexus 7" screen.  At 6.4", the Z Ultra has a really clear tablet like screen.  And the size of the Z Ultra is perfect in the hand. Especially with the cases mentioned in Gadget Goodies 22 and 23, plus a few others I never got around to reviewing.  The Z Ultra is like the fashion model you describe as painfully thin.  It's well designed and looks great, but I like a little more meat, front to back, on my phones.  All the cases I use do that, without adding much to the width.  So, screen size and holdability (Is that a word?) are both good, after an assist.

Sport coats, jackets, and some of my slacks have deep enough pockets to make the Z Ultra pocketable without requiring cargo pockets.  But not my jeans. Unless I use a back pocket.  Not a good idea if I want to come home with the phone I left home with.  I know, that last sentence may be the worst in the English language.  But it makes the point.  The Z Ultra is not the most convenient to carry without drawing attention.

So far, one plus, one minus.  When I was carrying two devices, I got used to there being some apps I had on the tablet because of screen size and others that were on the phone because they were more appropriate there.  Using one device, that divide disappeared.  Which meant more software in a single space.  Add some wallpapers and widgets and space can be at a premium.  Unfortunately, the upgrade to KitKat 4.4.4 prevents moving files directly from internal storage to external SD cards. That's true with any device, but it doesn't help my situation.

Since I hadn't fully thought out the space and the KitKat "quirk" couldn't have been foreseen when the phone was made.  Neither could be counted against the phone, but they are issues to consider. We'll leave those as a neutral, rather than a plus or a minus.  What does deserve a plus is also app related.  Whether it's Sony's hardware, KitKat, or some combination of the two, none of my apps has had a problem with the Z Ultra's larger, higher resolution screen.  So, two neutrals and a plus.

The Z Ultra has no flash for the camera.  That limits the usability of the camera.  There are camera apps that better control the the camera, which can give images that look like a flash was used.  But that isn't true for all low light images.  If the camera and flash are an essential, it's likely to be a minus one for the camera.

I left battery life till last on purpose.  Obviously, it's important that your phone battery lasts.  Either by recharging at the right time or by having exceptional battery life.  That's where the Z Ultra gets interesting.  Phones are notorious for less battery life than tablets, if only because of the extra radios for cell and data signals.  And then the Z Ultra has a monster, high def screen, another battery drainer.  So, where does the Z Ultra stand on battery life?

Remembering that I've combined phone and tablet use into one device, you can imagine that I can do a good job of draining my battery.  Sony is prepared.  First, there are a number of different energy saving settings to help.  Some are to make it harder to get to a low battery state, others to stretch things if you do get to a low battery.  How successful each of those levels is will depend on the individual.  Each has a variety of things that can be configured to suit our needs.  For instance, you can lower screen brightness to somewhere between 10-20%, which will decrease battery drain.  At the same time, screen brightness doesn't visually appear to be that great and colors stay fresh.

I have a number of email addresses that have different purposes.  To keep track, I have all of them coming into my phone.  But I also realized that some are very low priority and only needed to be polled once a day.  Others, while more important, could go 3-6 hours between polls.  And even the most important accounts could go once an hour.  Anything of immediate importance could be handled via Hangout, BBM, or text.  Adjusting email schedules accordingly has saved battery.

On quieter days, where Facebook and Google+ are quiet, too, I can go 7am to 6-8pm before needing to recharge.  Really active days will require a charge in the afternoon.  I've mentioned the CP12 spare battery cover in a previous post.  While it adds bulk and weight to the phone, it's the best configuration to keep using the phone while it charges.  Charging from the cover at 40-50% will bring the phone back to 100% and it can be in use from 7am to 1am.  Between the spare battery case and the power management, I'd give Sony and the Z Ultra three plusses.

So, what conclusions have I reached from my experiment?  There are several things.

  1. There's probably no ideal single device solution.  But the Z Ultra is as good a choice as any. Probably better than most.  The stock phone may have less bloatware than most phones and is well supported.  There's a "Google Experience" version, with a Nexus like version of the OS, but less well supported for updates.
  2. Personally, I'm in no rush to switch to a different device.  I like the Z Ultra that much.  It's a fun device to use and it handles all the professional needs a smartphone user would normally want.  There appears to be no Z2 Ultra in the works.  But the Z Ultra is still right up there with newer smartphones on how well it works.
  3. When I do switch phones, I will likely buy another smartphone.  But with a 5.5" or smaller screen and more pocketable.  That's just more realistic in dealing with most circumstances.
  4. I spent the last two Wednesdays talking about my linux powered tablet PC netbook.  Android and iOS are good, but the reality is that both lack the capabilities of Windows, linux, and OS X.  While present day tablets and phablets do a lot, duplication of functions is probably not the most efficient way to go.  A division of duties is not necessarily a bad thing.
  5. Having a smaller laptop (preferably able to do tablet PC functions) with one of the computer OSes and software with greater capability still trumps the portable basic functionality of modern tablets.  Portability is great.  And perhaps most people can get by with a tablet OS. But there are still going to be those of us who need to get more complex things done on the go.  And, if there's a device to handle those easily while not tied to a desk, the phone or phablet can be comfortably high functioning without having to do everything.  
  6. All of the above is based on what's presently available.  Developments of OS and hardware could easily change all that in even as little as a year.  But maybe not.  Something like Google Glass connected to a smartphone capable of handling a full powered computer OS, and having a foldable full sized keyboard could change the tech landscape.  But how soon that's likely is anyone's guess.
All of this points out a reality.  There's a lot of great hardware and software out there.  As a result, there's really no such thing as a best choice.  Only what's "best for me".  And it sometimes takes time and a lot of trial and error to find that.  What works best for you, today?

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