Sunday, 14 July 2013

My current smartphone recommendation (Xperia SP)

It was finally time to find a new phone, and the one I chose is the mid-range 'Sony Xperia SP' (if you're looking around for one, not to be confused with the 'S' or 'P', which are model numbers for different series Xperia phones).

The main things I needed, which this phone delivers well (so far...) are:
  • medium-sized - although on the larger end of 'medium', I can operate the phone single-handed and fit it into most of my pockets
  • front camera (for video calling and easy self-portraits)
  • High-ish quality rear camera good enough for my everyday shots, and a hardware camera button
  • memory card slot (mainly so I don't have to worry about photo and music storage, I usually find modern phones like this one have enough space for apps on their internal storage but always useful to have an extra storage option for those too)
  • good battery life* (Sony have a particularly good 'stamina' mode, which can 'pause' un-needed applications when the screen's off - you can configure as required)
  • good music player which is good both in terms of audio quality and usability which the Sony 'walkman' app does (and I haven't been impressed with the Google Play music player on other Android phones)
  • Sound recorder*, stopwatch* and timer* - I consider these essential applications and have been irritated in the past when I've had to try and find a 3rd party one to download on other smartphones (and a free reliable voice recorder proved tricky to find last time I was looking)
  • FM radio - nowadays this isn't a deal-breaker for me, but good to not have to stream radio using up my data allowance
  • generally good performance in terms of speed of response, viewing images/video etc and, of course, quality of phone calls
  • Android 'Jelly Bean'. It's unclear whether an update to the very latest version will be provided [UPDATE 25/07/2013 - looks like it'll be getting the new v4.3 http://blogs.sonymobile.com/2013/07/25/on-android-jelly-bean-4-3/]  but the important features for me that it would deliver - a panoramic camera function, stopwatch/timer and a 'swipe' keyboard option - are covered by software that Sony's included anyway. There is also an alternative keyboard available from Google via the free 'Google Keyboard' app (available for Android v4+), so the version of Jelly Bean on this phone is absolutely fine.
Other considerations were that it needed to have nice ergonomics, and I like a good range of connectivity. The phone scores highly in both regards and (if my understanding's correct) is ready for '4G', should my network provider start offering it.

It also has 'NFC' (for emerging tap to transfer files etc functionality) as well as the mostly standard GPS and wi-fi.

Notes

In use, I find this phone excellent: responsive and good ergonimics.

The screen is really good - not in the 'super hi-res' category of the flagship Xperia and some other phones, but in practical terms on a phone this size and for my use, I really struggle to notice the difference and find it top-notch for using apps/generaly functionality and when viewing pictures/watching videos.

My only slight reservation was that the battery is non-removable (by the user at least, I think it may be replaceable relatively easily by a service shop but check before you buy if this is a concern). However, I haven't replaced batteries in any of my previous phones ever (the last time I tried, given the age of the phone and cost of a genuine manufacturer replacement battery, it wasn't worth it anyway). UPDATE 25/07/2013 - now the phone's 'bedded in'/gone through a few charge cycles I'm getting a good couple of days out of it in normal use before it needs charging (with a similar usage pattern, this is about half a day better than previous smartphones I've had).

Sony are one of the makes I've found to have very good longer-term battery longevity historically so in combination with the later Android versions being, in my experience, pretty good battery drain-wise in conjunction with the Sony 'Stamina' features I have high hopes for this one.

External Links

Comments on 'Android' phones

I've chosen Android, as I've found that the more recent versions - when run on decent hardware - deliver good functionality/performance and range of apps. They also integrate well with other google services (in particular, I'm a heavy user of gmail, google calendar and the G+ 'Photo's' feature, which I have the phone setup to auto-backup to when on a wi-fi connection).

Other systems (the mainstream contemporaries being iOS[iPhone], Blackberry and Windows phone) may suit you better, and my advice is to make a list of 'must have' and 'would like to have' requirements (including what existing content/services eg music/video, specific email services etc you're already using on computers/tablets/portable devices) before taking a trip to some phone shops - ideally ones which have demonstration handsets on hand - to discuss your requirements.

An important difference between Android and some other smartphone Operating Systems is that it's run on a very wide range of hardware from many different manufacturers. This means that even within a given manufacturers range/s, two different phones can be vastly different.

Because of this, referring to 'Android' phones as generally good or bad is not in my opinion as meaningful as, for instance, someone recommending iOS/iPhones, or Blackberrys which have far fewer models and are produced by single companies with greater consistency at any given point in time.

In addition, some manufacturers of Android devices will add custom interfacing or features - as with the Xperia SP which includes a customised Sony launcher and some non-standard applications like the ones mentioned earlier (and the latter are part of what makes this particular Android phone a good choice for me).

Ethics/environment

If you're after an ethical phone and don't need it right now (as it's not out yet), the 'Fairphone' may be worth waiting for/pre-ordering. Their website is: http://www.fairphone.com/ and based on available information looks as thought it may be a viable option for the ethical consumer.

In lieu (as far as I could tell) of an available 'actively ethical/environmental' option, the Xperia SP seems well built and has a decent spec/range of features so barring accident/theft I hope will have a long useful lifespan so at least shouldn't be ending up in the landfill too prematurely.




Xperia SP setup tips/Android app recommendations

Having got my shiny new Sony Xperia SP (my thoughts about this are in a post here) - which I'm finding great - there are a 3 quick tips that I wanted to share to help people get started quickly with this/similar phones. You may also find my short list of suggested apps useful at: http://ref.domstips.info/technology/mobile-apps-android

1. Sound recorder

I was scratching my head looking for this as it didn't seem to be on the regular menus. Fortunately it is there, and easy to access - it's a 'Small App' which is accessed via the 'Tasks' screen as shown below.

To access saved recordings, open the 'Notes' application (via either the main apps menu, or the 'Small apps' one) and you can select/play the recording. You can also activate recording directly from the menu in the 'Notes' application.



2. Stamina battery mode

This is a Sony feature which 'pauses' most apps activity when the screen is switched off to save battery. The phone will still receive incoming calls and texts, and play music if you're using the Walkman app. You can add applications that you'd like to remain active when the screen's off (eg if you're using 'MyTracks' to track your location, I think you'd need to add this if you've enabled 'Stamina' mode).

By default, alarms set via the 'Alarm and Clock' still go off when Stamina mode has been enabled (assuming you haven't switched the phone off - Androids don't 'wake up' for alarms when switched off!). Obviously check this is the case on your phone before setting an alarm that you're going to rely on! 

To enable Stamina mode, go to Settings, then 'Power Management' and switch it on. Select the words 'Stamina Mode' to take you to configure further (ie apps that you don't want to pause).





More information about Stamina mode is available from Sony at: http://developer.sonymobile.com/2013/04/03/how-sonys-battery-stamina-mode-works/

3. Stopwatch/timer

These can be found in the 'Alarm and Clock' application (accessed via the regular applications menu)

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Windows 8 setup tips for desktops/laptops

UPDATE: In addition to the original info, there are various utilities that give you more control over your Windows 8 system, including the two below that might be of interest:
There are also some updates scheduled to Windows 8 that change the interface a little, which should automatically arrive later this year and may meet your needs without installing anything else - see http://blogs.windows.com/windows/b/bloggingwindows/archive/2013/05/30/continuing-the-windows-8-vision-with-windows-8-1.aspx for more info.
------------------------------

Original post:

This weekend on a family visit, I was tasked with sorting out a new Windows 8 laptop which a family member was having trouble using. Time was very limited, and I don't currently have a Windows 8 machine to produce screenshots from, but thought the following notes from memory would be useful for others in a similar situation/my own reference in future (apologies for any mis-namings or steps missing but I think anyone reasonably able at using previous Windows desktops should be able to work things out from this if you couldn't already...).

The problem: If you've used Windows 8 on a desktop/laptop device you'll appreciate that by default, things are rather different to before(!). In this case to the extent of the user having trouble with previously simple tasks like accessing web-based email (which on their old PC was accessed via a desktop shortcut) and shutting the computer down.

The goals: Familiar access to email and web, and straightforward shutdown. Things like needing an (online) Microsoft account for an app store, having to use an app store in the first place, and having applications behave substantially differently to before were neither required, nor desirable, so I was basically aiming to get things closer to previous contemporary Windows usability without undergoing complex re-configurations (given time available, and the possible need to explain this over the phone subsequently) and ideally without installing any 3rd party applications (I believe there are a number available which will make Windows 8 more Windows 7-like but I didn't have time to try any out in any case)

The outcome: The machine was left with the tiled Windows 8 interface essentially acting like a full-screen, prettified version of the old start menu with one-click to open, on the familiar desktop, the desktop version of Google Chrome (with Google Search set as the home page) and one-click to open Google Mail in an application window (ie a web browser window with no address bar or navigation controls present). To shutdown: power button reconfigured from the ever-confusing (to me) default of 'sleep' to, erm, switch the computer off - like what power buttons on almost anything that isn't a computer do! This was achieved in less than an hour, so I haven't explored the advantages of Windows 8 yet...

Following an initial 'Ooh, err, what's this?!', by the time I'd finished I was more-or-less indifferent (tentatively!) to using Windows 8 vs 7 - once I'd configured the tiles as a full-screen desktop start menu it was actually rather nice to use (and I think on touch devices, including 'hybrid' touch/keyboard eg laptops it would be great), and I'm sure there is/will be good potential to adding/configuring 'live tiles' and having an integrated app store available. But that's to explore another time...

The solution/tips


Useful before I started...


The following bits of knowledge/discovery helped me out... (the 'Windows Key' is usually present two keys to the left of the space bar/next to ALT and generally has a little 4-pane Windows symbol on it)

  • The old-style desktop can be accessed using the regular shortcut of WINDOWS KEY (held down) + D
  • Pressing (and releasing) the WINDOWS KEY will display 'Start', which is the TILED WINDOWS 8 SCREEN
  • Another way that you can get back to the 'start' screen is to move the mouse to the bottom-left corner of the screen and click when the mini-start screen graphic appears
  • To bring up the 'Charms bar' and hence settings, the mouse can be dragged to the right (top-right, I think) of the screen and 'Settings' selected. While writing this, I did a quick Google and it looks like you can use WINDOWS KEY + C for the charms bar, and WINDOWS KEY + I to go straight to settings. 
  • A google search turned up a rather handy blog post listing a load of shortcuts at: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/hyperyash/archive/2012/08/28/windows-8-shortcuts.aspx (NB, I haven't checked this out-was the first one I found and looks good)

Preparing/Clearing 'Start' (the initial/main screen with all the tiles on it)


A tile is basically a fancy icon - click on it to go straight to an application, but also some applications use it to display related information (eg live news feed previews).

By default, this had loads of tiles on it, which you could scroll using a bar towards the bottom of the screen. Apart from leaving some potentially useful/pretty tiles in place, I cleared most of the default ones (from the tiled home screen, I didn't bother to uninstall much). This is simple...
  • Right click a tile to bring up some options at the bottom of the screen
  • 'Unpin' the tile, and voilĂ  - it's not longer there! 

...leaving 'Start' ready for populating with what we actually wanted.


Installing applications


We just wanted Google Chrome, and then a Chrome 'application shortcut' to load GMail as described earlier. So I:

  • Accessed the Desktop (WINDOWS KEY + D)
  • Used Internet Explorer (installed by default) to download Chrome (from https://www.google.com/chrome/ if you're interested)
  • Installed Chrome (just the regular Desktop version, didn't look for anything to do with Windows 8 tile 'apps', which may well also exist)
  • Importantly, the Chrome menu has an option to 'Relaunch...' in either Windows 8 or Desktop mode. We wanted 'Desktop mode' as this presents windows in the familiar Windows manner (resizeable, draggable etc)

Adding shortcut icons to the desktop


This technique can, I believe, be applied to anything that exists as a 'regular' icon or shortcut icon on the Desktop. It also means that if you shortcut to the Desktop, you can just access many things (double-clicking and what-not) like you use to much of the time.

First, I switched to the Desktop (WINDOWS KEY + D), then...

Setting up shortcuts very easy - for GMail, I first needed to create an 'Application Shortcut' for GMail*
  • Open Chrome, and go to www.gmail.com
  • Via the Chrome menu icon (immediately to the right of the address bar), select TOOLS > Create Application Shortcuts...
*You can do this for any website, although if you want a 'normal' web browser window, you'll need to create a web shortcut - which will open in whatever you're using as the default browser - instead: drag the little icon that sits within the Chrome address bar immediately to the left of the web address onto the desktop and name it as desired

Placing applications/icons on the tiled 'Start' screen


Anything that exists as an icon appears to have potential to be placed on 'Start'. I did this to Chrome itself, and for the GMail application shortcut:

  • On the desktop (WINDOWS KEY + D)
  • Right-click the icon you want to add, which brings up a menu
  • Select 'Pin to Start'
  • Repeat for whatever you'd like to add
When you return to 'Start' (WINDOWS KEY), you should see anything you've pinned, accessible via a tile icon. These can be re-arranged to suit. When you click things added via the route above, they will be launched on the Desktop, looking much like they do on my Windows 7 PCs.

Additional Chrome setup


Chrome can of course be configured to suit too, so in this instance I wanted Gmail and the Google Search page to always be available. This involved:
  • Make the bookmark bar visible (Chrome MENU ICON > Bookmarks > Bookmarks Bar)
  • Navigate to a page you'd like to show on the bookmarks bar (in this case, GMail, then repeated step for Google Search)
  • Right-click the Bookmarks bar, and select 'Add page...', ensuring that when you do, 'Bookmarks bar' is highlighted before you click 'save'
Any existing bookmarks in the bar can be deleted by right-clicking and selecting 'delete'

This meant that Chrome, whether launched from the Desktop or 'Start' always had search and email available.

Shutdown/Power


You could add a shutdown button to 'Start' by creating a shutdown shortcut on the Desktop (a Google search should turn up the required info on doing this if you're keen) and pinning it as previously. 

We just wanted the power button to shut down so this, as with previous recent Windows versions, was simply achieved by locating 'Change what the power buttons do' (or similar), which as far as I remember was still under something like 'Power Options', which was under 'Hardware and Sound' in the Control Panel. I switched it to 'Shut Down' instead of 'Sleep'.











Thursday, 30 August 2012

What's happening on domstips.info?

So with everything busy busy at the moment (organising social activities, devising games, working on creative projects. Oh yeah, and work!) not much time for updates here!

But...

http://ref.domstips.info/ still holds previous tips/notes, and I'm working on a plan for a slightly different focus to Dom's Tips in 2013 alongside some other exciting projects so hope to share the resulting notes/tips in the new year :)

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Non-facebook signup to netflix

Don't want to use your facebook account when signing up for netflix (UK)?

If you're a facebook user, you probably can't see the non-facebook signup option. However, if like me, you don't want to use your facebook account, this can be overcome fairly easily using one of the two methods below:

1. Use a different web browser

On the computer I used to signup, I usually use Google Chrome. So switching to Internet Explorer (which I've never accessed facebook in on this PC) for signup gave me the option to signup using email address just below the facebook stuff.

I was then able to return to netflix on chrome and sign-in using my email address and password via the 'Member Sign In' button at the top-right of the page.

2. Clear your cookies

Alternatively, closing all web browser windows, opening your home page and then clearing all cookies should do the trick. If you know what you're doing, you should be able to only remove facebook ones. This has the disadvantage that you'll need to re-sign in and/or reset preferences on whichever sites have set cookies (which if you're like me will affect many sites you visit).


Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Android phone app favourites (updated)

My first update for a while (busy with work/plans, and also much fun stuff :) is some more favourite apps that I use on Android phones.

I've added a few tips including links to a remote phone wipe app, text message backup and a selection of alternative web browsers. Hope you find them useful! As usual, they can be found in the reference section of my website at: