Why I switched to Android (again)

I’ve been using Android on and off since 2008. Generally, I’ve found Android good in the sense that I can customise the user interface along with the general flexibility of the OS. However, on balance I’ve leaned towards iOS – purely because I prefer the consistency of the experience. That consistency, or rather lack of it, is one of the biggest frustrations I’ve had with Android hardware.

Worse still manufactures such as Samsung seem to insist on adding their own flavor to the particular version of Android running on their phones. Ultimately I felt short changed. Not only because of the inconsistencies and bloatware, but also because buying a phone running Android was (and still is) a bit like playing Russian roulette. You could spend a chunk of money and never really know if/when you’ll get the latest security patches and OS upgrades. For me that was a barrier. As someone who loves the latest tech, the thought of no guaranteed updates was a non starter. So in recent years, I settled on iOS.

iOS is a solid operating system. Apple are generous with their updates and support hardware for as much as 5 years. I value that. However, lately I’ve just found ioS to be stagnant. Even iOS 13 doesn’t over much change either. In short, it’s dull and doesn’t seem to offer enough to keep my interest.

So after a lot of consideration I decided to move back to Android as my primary phone. However, it was clear in my head from the beginning that if I was to move back to Android I would want to get a phone that guaranteed updates, patches and the purest Android experience I could find.

Introducing the Google pixel 3a

It wasn’t a difficult decision. One of the best Android phones I had in the past was the outstanding Google Nexus 5. The Pixel 3a is essentially a modern take on it – but better. Way better. It draws heavily from its more expensive Pixel 3 brother and has an identical camera – a signature feature of Google’s Pixel range.

However, the main difference compared to the more expensive Pixel 3 is that the 3a processor is (on paper) slower and it has a polycarbonate body. I’m incredibly impressed by the phone. In many ways, it almost feels like the iPhone of the Android market. Being a Google product, they have clearly been able to integrate the hardware and software together to give an outstanding user experience. The specifications don’t matter. That’s a good thing. It doesn’t feel slow – it’s stable and, above all, it provides the very latest google OS and updates for at least 3 to 4 years. This is something that no other manufacturer can offer. And that camera, oh that camera. It’s a game-changer. I’m blown away by just how good it is. Frankly, I’ve not had a camera as good as this on any device. But what is the biggest feature of this phone? The price. It currently costs….wait for it….£349.99. I’m hard pressed to find anything remotely close to it for the price. In short, if like me, you’ve been an iPhone user for years and are looking for a change then I highly recommend the Google Pixel 3a. It won’t disappoint.

Tech and Travel revisited

Having done quite a bit of travelling over the years, I wanted to share some tips on some of the tech, tools and life hacks which make journeys that bit more bearable…

Apps (ioS and Android):

AppInTheAir: Back around 2009 I started to use the excellent travel itinerary app called TripIt. It was a greatway to organise all aspects of my travel into a single place – such as flights and accommodation details. However, over the last few years I’ve been using an even better itinerary organiser app, call AppInTheAir. It works on both iOS and Android plus it has the additional benefit of being able to important any TripIt data you may have accumulated over the years too. In short what the application does is import any of your flight details into the app. Once inside the app, you get some incredible dashboards and stats from your flights. It will do things such as tell you how many flights you took during a given year, plus the types of aircrafts and airlines you flew on. Additionally, it will plot all your flights on to a map. Another feature that’s nice is that you can compete with other friends/app users on a leaderboard. At the end of each year you can also generate a fun little video which runs through all the flights you did that year. But the best feature is that it automatically generates a globe with all your flights and you can view it using augmented reality through your phone (iOS only I think for now). It’s free – but there’s a paid upgrade which I opted for (I’m a big believer in compensating developers for their work).

Evernote:  I’ve been using this note taking app since 2008. Despite strong competition from the likes of OneNote, I still feel that Evernote just about has the edge. It’s quicker than others and I like the way the tags work. It also plays a bit better than competitors when offline – which is important when travelling. I put my life in it and it’s something I always use when traveling. For example, I have copies of all my key documents such as passports. Another feature I really value is the OCR capabilities (which I feel are still way ahead of competitors). For example, I can scan in business cards and Evernote will extract the details, such as the name and email address and add it directly into my phone contacts.  Another killer feature is the ability to email notes into Evernote. So ahead of any trip, I’ll often forward any information I need to Evernote. Arguably the UI is not as intuitive as, say, OneNote – but I tend to value less design over speed. The app is free, but I pay an annual subscription which gives me more functionality.  Worth adding, that you can migrate your Evernote notebooks to OneNote (which I recently did). As I type, I’m currently experimenting with OneNote – so I may end up switching after-all. Watch this space.

Tile (hardware and an app): One of the biggest fears travelers have is losing their luggage. I’ve experimented with different hardware solutions over the years (such as Bluetooth receivers on luggage belts) but they were all pretty hopeless. Then I discovered Tile. In short, a Tile is a small Bluetooth device which you can put in your suitcase (or in anything for that matter). Whilst Bluetooth has a limited range, the nice thing with Tile is that it crowd sources across it’s massive user base. So using a combination of Bluetooth and crowd sourcing, the app will give you a nice update as where your suitcase is.  It”s a comfort to know exactly where your suitcase is and, importantly, whether it made it to your destination. Highly recommended. Just make sure you go for the slightly more expensive Tile Pro which comes with a swapable battery. There’s a competitor to tile I’ve played with called TrackR – I don’t recommend it.

The Bellroy ‘all conditions essential pocket’

Cables/gadget case. I always travel with a small cable/gadget case. This goes with me everywhere (not just on planes). The nice thing with this case is that it’s small and compact. So ahead of sitting down on a long flight, I’ll take it out of my bag and keep it with me for the duration of the flight. One of my ‘things’ in life is wallets/cases. Specifically, compact ones. I love them. This case is from an Australian start-up called Bellroy. They are incredible. They may a range of compact, quality and elegant wallets all with outstanding industrial design.  This model is called the All Conditions Essential Pocket and I love it. It also includes a tiny/slim pen too. So perfect for completing immigration forms onboard.

Cables and gadgets:

I always travel with these items in my Essential pocket (pictured):

  1. Small Anker 5100MaH battery. This is enough to charge all smartphones at least once over.
  2. iPhone lightening cable: standard, with another length (important if you want to charge your iphone/ipad on the USB port on your seat).
  3. MicroUSB cable: again, a standard length.
  4. MicroUSB to type C adapter: connect this to your microUSB cable and you have a type C charge cable.
  5. 3.5mm phono to phono cable. Useful if you want to plug your headphones into the entertainment system onboard.
  6. Phono to two pin phono adaptor: to plug your headphone cable into the flight entertainment system.
  7. Two Kenu tripods (lightening adaptor and type C). These simply plug into the port of your smartphone and you instantly have a stand. Typically I’ll use them when I’m watching a film, show or podcast on my phone on the flight tray.
  8. Lastly a short combined microUSB cable with a lightening adaptor. Just in case.

Mu: fold-able UK travel charger : This gadget is great. It’s a UK 3 pin charger with 2 USB ports and folds up, making it easy to slip into your carry-on bag. It goes with me everywhere, and I can easily pull it out when I’m traveling through airports/lounges – plus it serves as my main charger when I’ve arrived. Highly recommend.

GUARD Worldwide Travel Adapter, 4 USB Ports Universal Travel Adapter International Power Adapter Plug Adapter Converter UK USA EU AUS Asia China Ireland Thailand 150+ Countries – Blue : I quite like this adapter as a solution to countries using different sockets to the UK. It also has the benefit of 4 USB ports.

The Bellroy Passport wallet – I never travel without it

Passport wallet: I use the excellent Bellroy passport wallet for carrying my passport. Bellroy is all about compact form factor wallets – and this wallet is no exception. In addition to carrying my wallet, I use it to carry my various airline cards – plus it can easily hold cash notes and boarding passes. It also comes with a tiny pen built  in – very handy for filing in immigration forms onboard.

Headphones: Generally, I will always travel with two sets of headphones. Firstly, a set of wired Sennheiser earbuds and secondly a set of over-ear noise cancelling headphones. In terms of my noise cancelling headphones , I’ve recently invested in the outstanding Bose Quiet Comfort 35 (series II). They aren’t cheap, but from my experience of buying a set of JVC headphones which literally fell apart – I’m hoping I’ll get what I paid for. So far so good. I’m very impressed with the audio quality and the sound cancellation is incredible.

VPN: Up until very recently I used the excellent VPN service called MyPrivateNetwork, but they sold out to a new company LeVPN (which haven’t been great). I also ran a VPN service on a Asus N66U router I hacked during my time overseas and the service was excellent. Additionally, I had it running on my various hardware when I was off the network. Why do I recommend a VPN service? Simple. Security. I’m generally slightly paranoid connecting to the internet through any local ISP (including the UK). In some countries, services such as WhatsApp might also be blocked. Secondly, a lot of services such as BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime and Netflix ‘geo fence’ their services. Essentially what that means is that you are often unable to access these services outside of the UK.

A VPN service routes your internet traffic securely through UK servers – and ‘tricks’ the service you are connected to into thinking it’s in the UK.  Most importantly though is that it’s a lot safer to connect to secure services such as banks etc via a VPN.  Most recently I’ve been testing a new VPN service called X-VPN. I’ve been impressed, it plays nicely with BBC iPlayer and NowTV. Just remember if you do have Amazon video or Netflix – disable any VPN service first. 

Thoughts on the new iPhone line up

At this point in the regular cycle of iPhone releases, there’s very little point in talking specs. In summary it’s simple – iPhone XS/Max is faster and better than the X, no surprises there. The addition of a new Max line (why did they call it that) with a whopping 6.5″ display is compelling; and probably marks the end of the road for the iPad mini. However, apart from that model there’s nothing really to note with the new lineup up.

The fundamental issue for me (yet again) is price. As a life time Apple fan and power user – I’m yet again priced out of the market for a flagship phone. Take the XS Max for example. I can see that fitting perfectly into my workflow. With such a big display I could justify it on the grounds that I’d use it to replace my iPad. A key task for me, for example is my weekly podcast production on my iPad Pro (12.9″). It would be possible now with a big 6.5″ iPhone to actually do the show, relatively comfortably on an iPhone. That’s genuinely a breakthrough for me.

However, if I was to do that – it would mean forking out a minimum of £1249 for the 256GB model. That is simply unaffordable. An alternative could be the 6.1″ displayed iPhone XR priced at a more reasonable £799 for the 128GB model. On paper it’s interesting. A big display and the same processor as it’s expensive XS cousin. However, the other specs make it too much of a comprise. I was shocked it doesn’t even feature 3D Touch (which I use all the time) plus the screen resolution is a measly 326PPI – that’s worse than my iPhone 7 Plus at 401PPI. (See the excellent table below from 9to5mac.com

 

 

What next?

So for the first time, the genuine question I have is what next? Do I finally abandon the iPhone and go all in on the OnePlus line? This is, without a doubt, my favourite Android hardware. If I’m honest, doing so would be a compromise. I’d miss Apple messages and the overall superior quality of iOS apps verses Android. But the jury is out for now. I still maintain that iOS offers a better experience than android.

The tragic irony is that most users who can afford flagship iPhones these days tend to buy them as fashion accessories – power users like me are now beginning to feel abandoned by Apple.

The Fitbit Versa – early thoughts

I’ve just bought the latest smart watch offering from Fitbit, the Fitbit Versa.

I’ve been a big fan of smart watches, my first being the original Pebble watch which I bought back in 2013. I’ve also owned the follow up Pebble watch, an original Apple Watch, an Apple Watch series 2 and now the Fitbit Versa. In between these , I’ve also owned various fitness bands including the UP bands and various Fitbit hardware.

I’ll say from the outset that in my opinion, overall the Apple Watch is by far the best smart watch on the market for most people. Whilst it falls short of being a outstanding health tracker, it makes up for it in general functionality. Some of its features are unrivalled including the ability to make and receive calls, send sms/ messages and also watchOS has a plethora of supported third party apps.

So why did I get the Versa? Three reasons :

1. It’s a far better health tracker than the Apple Watch. Aside from more accurate step monitoring, the Versa is an outstanding sleep tracker (one of my areas of interest). Apple Watch has been non existent in this space. Some third party apps support it , but the data is inaccurate and nowhere near the accuracy of Fitbit ie REM, light and deep sleep detection.

2. Cross platform: I hate being locked into Apple’s ecosystem. I’ll be moving back to Android soon as a primary device and I want to be able to use my versa with it.

3. Two becomes one: until I bought the Vera , I was using a Fitbit Flex (for steps and sleep) and an Apple Watch. Now I’ll just be able to use a single watch. Which, by the way, is a much lighter and compact form factor compared to the Apple Watch .

So far so good. I’m very happy with the Versa. Time will tell (no pun intended) which device wins out for me. Currently I’m missing some of the Siri features from Apple Watch (such as voice controlled timers and Apple Pay) but there’s no doubt the heath tracking features are far better on the Versa.

Why I quit Facebook – permanently

I have stopped using Facebook. Let me rephrase that. I never really used Facebook that often – but I have deleted my account. Permanently.

In short, I don’t miss it. I had never really got much value out of it. The issue for me is broader than the recent controversies around how Facebook uses your private data. Let’s be honest – if you are genuinely surprised that facebook uses your data in shady ways then, frankly, you probably shouldn’t be online at all. I see no philosophical difference between how Facebook uses your personal data than how a supermarket store card does. In fact, at least Facebook has the decency to tell you it will use it.

No – the issue for me is around three areas: trust, manipulation and attention.

1. Trust. I do not believe that Facebook’s leadership can be trusted with my data. This is an organisation that has consistently pushed their terms of service to the limit. By design they make managing your public and private data extremely complex. The numerous privacy settings are a minefield to navigate. For average users, understanding what is public verses what is private is next to impossible. At best it’s just a sloppy UI – at worse it is complexity by design.

2. Manipulation – this is where Facebook excels. A proprietary algorithm working behind the scenes gets to decide what you see and read in your feed. This may be fine if family photos and status updates are all you care about. But for many, Facebook is broader than that. It has become the basis of how many people consume news and public opinion. I’m concerned that rather than bring people together, it divides people. Left verses right. Liberal verses conservative. Without balanced news, I see Facebook as one of the root causes of our increasingly divided society.

3. Attention – Facebook, like many other social media needs your attention to survive. Eyeballs on the screen is essentially how it makes money. The algorithms it uses, the adverts it runs and the content you get to see in your feed are deliberately designed to take your attention. It’s easy to dismiss this and blame the users – but just look at just how many people you see out there with their faces glued to their smartphones. These people aren’t coding or creating content, they are catching up on the latest gossips from their feeds.

So thank you Facebook, but you’re not for me. I’m out.

Out with TuGo in with the new…

Occasionally I dip into some of the key web services I depend on to test the market to see if there are better alternatives. For example, as part of my move away from a number of cloud services I’ve come to heavily rely on I shifted across from the likes of Google Apps to my office-suite on my Synology server. Occasionally, I am forced to move from a particularly service because it’s either changed its terms and conditions – or the provider has stopped running it. One recent example of this is O2’s TuGo service. Until the end of last month I had been using TuGo since it launched almost 4 years ago. It was excellent. It gave me the ability to make and receive UK calls via my existing 02 mobile number anywhere in the world using the TuGo app and an internet connection.

When O2 decided to scrap the service last month I was devasted. But every cloud….

Introducing Freedompop

After a bit of digging around I’ve discovered a new entry into the UK mobile market – Freedompop . They seem to be a new Silicon Valley start up that’s launched in the UK. They run off Three’s network and offer monthly sim only tarrifs starting at a bargain £7 a month. But what sold me was that they are completly VOIP based and SMS/calls can be made and received via their excellent iOS or Android app. So, intrigued,  I quickly signed up. I’m expecting my sim to arrive at my home in the next few days and I’ll soon begin the PUK transfer across. However, in the meantime my temporary mobile number was instantly up and running via their app. I’ve successfully tested it and it works a charm. What’s particularly satisfying is just how much better the service seems to be compared to 02. Tarrifs vary – but all are very good deals. UK data allowances seem a bit on the low side – currently the maximum amount is 4GB. However, unused data does roll over.

So far so good. Like I said every cloud…. I’ll report back once my PUK transfer is complete.

 

The future of Sonos

For the first time ever I’m beginning to question the strategy behind Sonos. This was always a company on the bleeding edge of innovation and I’m genuinely concerned about their future. The signs are there:

  1. They promised integration with Amazon Echo over a year ago – there’s still no sign of even the beta software update.
  2. Amazon have innovated and, in my opinion, overtaken Sonos in terms of features in their Echo range of products. They release updates weekly, support more and more third party services and are just simply easier to use. Only just last week they quietly rolled out a group feature – enabling speakers to be listened to at the same time.
  3. The reliability of my Sonos network has deteriorated lately. Unreliable internet is no longer a problem on my network – so that’s ruled out. But I’m finding that radio (TuneIn) frequently drops out and speakers struggle to connect to my music library at times.
  4. The app is hard to use. It’s something I’ve long been critical of, but in an era of voice commands the interface is feeling tired and awkward to use.

I love sonos and have been an advocate for years. I’ve even been an official tester of their software (under a NDA). However, I’m concerned about what’s going on with the company. With the growth of Amazon Echo and undoubtedly the future success of Apple HomePod, Sonos needs to nail their Echo integration as soon as possible and combine it with a major tech overhaul.
Having quality speakers is not an argument anymore for them – I’d argue that’s made them complacent. The Amazon Echo approach is based on flexibility. For example they allow the speakers to be paired with any Bluetooth speaker you want (getting around the speaker quality issues). Plus, there are already reports coming in that Apple’s HomePod sounds superior to the Sonos Play 5 flagship speaker.

I hope I am wrong to be this concerned. I also hope the Sonos upcoming October announcement offers up something special. But for the time being I’m not buying any more Sonos speakers until their future becomes a bit more clear.

Taking back control of my data

With a number of recent high profile hacks combined with my growing sense of caution about storing my data with third parties online, I have decided to start an ambitious project of shifting over my entire cloud data to a NAS.

It’s not going to be easy but I’m increasingly not convinced that my data is secure online anymore.

Sure I take precautions, I run two factor on all my main online services and use LastPass. I also trust many of the companies I store my data with; such as Google, Apple (especially), Dropbox and Evernote. But the issue for me is more about ownership and control of my data. Post-Snowden, I no longer have the confidence that these companies will, in the long term, be able to guarantee that my data will be securely held and not be vulnerable to Government agencies, third party companies and others.

In short, I want to know exactly where my data is, how it is secured and who is accountable for its security.

Evolution

These are not new concerns for me. When I bought my first NAS in 2015 (ReadyNas 214) my plan back then was to pull all my private media such as videos and music into a single location. The objective then though was slightly different. It was about bandwidth management and designed to reduce my dependency on online media streaming. It worked well – it still does. My entire music library plus other media sit comfortably on a secure server on my network.

But that’s only part of the picture. What the setup lacks is a viable alternative for file storage, secure notes and other more private data I wish to retain ownership of.

What I’ve realised is that my Netgear ReadyNas 214 is not the right product for my needs, given my desire to move away from third party cloud services. I have outgrown it.

The solution

I’ve been reading and hearing great things about Synology NAS hardware. They offer quality hardware but most importantly run an incredibly powerful OS with hundreds of well supported apps.

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I have just ordered the Synology DS 216+II two bay NAS. From what I have researched and heard, this looks like the ultimate solution for what I’m trying achieve.

Synology OS and hardware supports multiple apps which offer Evernote, Dropbox and photo storage equivalents – but with the fundamental difference of data storage being on my own server. If the project works really well, I also plan to run my own mail server and map over my domain name to it.

So the project has begun. It won’t be easy. But I’m excited. Because above all else I’m determined to pull back all my cloud data to where it belongs – with me.