Why I Won’t Recommend a *insert-manufacturer-here* Android Phone

There is nothing worse that seeing a person get new gadget only to be disappointed in it after a while. While this post only covers a few aspects, I hope it helps inform of some things to look out for. This post is targeting more of the mid-range / high-end Android phones for several manufacturers based on some observations I’ve seen repeated over and over again.

HTC

  • Typically only dual band UMTS support: meaning you may not be able to get 3G when overseas depending on the frequency used. There is nothing worse that having a great phone and not being able to get the maximum potential out of it, just because the manufacturer decided to save a bit of money by not giving you a better radio supporting more frequencies. Acceptable for budget devices, but not for midrange / high-end ones.
  • They seem to make a new flagship phone very quickly after one another or that their flagship phone is not really clear. For other manufacturers the flagship phone is typically the highest-end phone with the most capabilities and it is pretty clear which device it is.
    • Samsung – Galaxy S, Galaxy SII.
    • Sony Ericsson – Xperia X10, Xperia Arc.
    • Motorola – Droid / Milestone, Droid 2, Droid 3

    Based on Wikipedia Announced dates of previous HTC phones which I consider their flagship device:

Sony Ericsson

  • I won’t recommend higher end phones because they have only 320MB for app storage (Arc, Neo, Pro, Ray). For budget phones like the Xperia Mini or Mini Pro this amount will be pretty good but not for mid-range or high-end phones. I think HTC has solved this problem with their higher end phones, but ask any HTC Desire owner now, and I bet they have been utterly annoyed at the meager 140MB+ free after a factor reset (now only 128MB after the Gingerbread update). Other competitors have at least 1GB, which I think is the absolute minimum acceptable.

LG

  • Bad support: i.e. no updates. As an owner of the LG Optimus One there was first talk of it not being able to be upgraded to Android 2.3 a.k.a. Gingerbread, but then in December they said it would get the 2.3 upgrade. While it seemed to be rolled out in Romania at the start of July, it is still not available to me. Note that this is their budget phone and according to the Facebook note the higher end models like the Optimus 2X will receive the update only after the Optimus One update is completed. So would this continue in the future? Higher end LG phones get updated after the budget ones?

Acer

Any Manufacturer that doesn’t use stock Android

  • This is mainly due to the fact official updates will take longer if they do not use stock Android, meaning that they have customized things such as the launcher or interface (e.g. HTC’s Sense UI, Samsung’s TouchWiz). This is due to the fact that they would have to update their customizations before pushing the upgrade. There was a long delay for the HTC Desire to get Android 2.2 which would aid the lower app storage space by allowing moving apps to the SD card.

Samsung, Motorola and Huawei are the other main Android manufacturers that I don’t really have any beef against. There is a mention of Samsung breaking some core functionality but that is for any non-stock Android device and so far there doesn’t seem to me much complaints / responses to the post so may be an non-issue or affects a small minority (or people just think Android is broken), but is is something to note.

All being said and done, while some manufacturers have issues with their devices they can still be recommended based on price and your usage scenarios. Below are some phones I do recommend based on the different price ranges.

B$200 – B$300: LG Optimus One @ B$250 (a bit old, don’t expect updates)
B$300 – B$400: Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini Pro @ B$368 (my current budget phone recommendation)
B$400 – B$500: HTC Chacha @ B$418 (no competition in this price range)
B$500 – B$600: HTC Desire S @ B$562, Samsung Galaxy S Plus @ B$578 (no flash)
B$600 – B$700: HTC Incredible S @ B$612, Samsung Galaxy Tab @ B$648 (a tablet and phone and thus bulky)
B$700 – B$800: HTC Sensation @ B$758
B$800 – B$900: Samsung Galaxy SII @ B$858

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Asus EeePad Transformer

I came to know of the EeePad Transformer’s existence in Brunei via Goh De No’s article in the Brunei Times last week. The Transformer is an Android tablet but also a ‘laptop/notebook’ with the keyboard dock that adds functionality to make this an interesting device.

Specifications

  • Android 3.1 (according to Goh De No in the Brunei Times article)
  • 10.1" IPS screen at resolution of 1280×800
  • NVIDIA® Tegra™ 2
  • 1GB RAM
  • microSD card slot
  • miniHDMI
  • Keyboard Dock provides
    • keyboard + trackpad
    • 2 x USB 2.0
    • 1 x full size card Reader (MMC/SD/SDHC)
    • added battery to charge the slate

More specification details at: ASUS’s Transformer page

Price: B$899 for the 16GB version with the keyboard dock at C.F. King in Kiulap (no non-bundled price available)

Android 3.2 is available to this device via the Transformer’s download page and thus adds better functionality and compatibility with applications developed for phones with the new ‘zoom’ mode. This should scale applications up just like the iPad does for iPhone apps. While phone apps should install and run on Honeycomb tablets, the layout may look weird or even broken and this feature should resolve it.

While I’m saddened that CF King did not offer a price without the keyboard dock, the Transformer is a device that can have some productivity uses with the keyboard dock which allows the device to be used for up to 16 hours (the other 8 hours in the day can be used for sleep!). Damien from Carrypad is actually trying to use the Transformer as an enterprise productivity device and I’m curious to see the outcome of his experiment. Coincidentally he has just posted an article about week 1 of the Transformer usage.

Another thing interesting about the Transformer is that it will have a dongle to convert the HDMI to VGA output: a great tool if you wish to use it for presentations on the move, as VGA is still much more compatible and widely available on projectors. I believe this is the only other tablet besides the iPad that has VGA output and is something I would recommend for teachers or anybody else who gives presentations and wants to have a minimal yet functional setup with them.

Read full reviews of the Transformer at LaptopMag, AnandTech, Carrypad (Part 2 here) and Engadget. If you’re interested in the device I suggest heading down to CF King and have a go at the device. One of their staff, Poh, is a nice and friendly guy there, I’m sure he could help you out.

For other innovating / whacky tablets from ASUS keep a look out for the 10" Eee Pad Slider, 7" Eee Pad MeMO 3D or the 10" pad and 4.3 phone that make up the Padfone. One thing is for sure, none of ASUS Android tablets are typical. As the fore father of the netbook with the Eee PC I salute you!

The HTC Flyer

We managed to get our hands on the HTC Flyer at Yappe Computer, Serusop, and it seems like a good 7" Android Tablet: an alternative to the older Galaxy Tab. It’s selling for B$859 (cash price) / B$886 (credit card price) for the 32GB model.


(YouTube link to video)

Specifications

  • 7" 1024×600 multi-touch capacitive screen
  • Stylus for use with the active digitizer screen
  • Android 2.3 with Sense 2.1
  • 1.5GHz CPU
  • 32GB storage (~7GB available for apps, ~20GB available as storage)
  • 1GB RAM
  • microSD card slot
  • 5MP rear camera with auto focus (no flash)
  • 1.3MP front facing camera
  • Standard micro-USB (no HDMI out)
  • Wifi: 802.11 b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 3.0
  • Audio supported formats:
    • Playback: .aac, .amr, .ogg, .m4a, .mid, .mp3, .wav, .wma (Windows Media Audio 9)
    • Recording: .amr, .aac
  • Video supported formats:
    • Playback: .3gp, .3g2, .mp4, .wmv (Windows Media Video 9), .avi (MP4 ASP and MP3), .xvid (MP4 ASP and MP3)
    • Recording: .3gp
  • Battery: 4000 mAh
  • Supports Adobe Flash

(Specifications from HTC Flyer Website, GSM Arena)

Notes on the Stylus

  • works in apps that support it otherwise touching the screen takes a screenshot that you can annotate
  • cannot be used to ‘touch’ all controls / buttons only digitizer palette brought up by touching the icon with the digitizer (not your finger)
  • requires a single AAAA (yes 4 As) battery which I have not seen in shops
  • has 2 buttons: 1 highlights text, other erases

Bundled HTC Apps

  • Notes application syncs to Evernote and allows infinite vertical scrolling. Allows text input, photo embedding, handwriting annotation as well as voice dictation
  • Reader application is a reading app linked with Kobo for in app purchasing
  • Watch application allows renting and buying of movies (but doesn’t seem available in Brunei, thus can only watch previews/trailers)

Other Notes
While it is a 7" Gingerbread (2.3) tablet instead of Honeycomb (3.x, which is the tablet optimized version of Android) it seems to be the better choice at the moment as apps will run on it with the only issue may be the way it looks. Currently is only one 7" Honeycomb tablet: the Acer Iconia Tab A100 and it was released yesterday. It is the first device to have Android 3.2 which is supposed to provide better support for 7" tablets compared to the regular bigger 10" Honeycomb tablets. However there seem to be some force close issues and app incompatibilities reported by This Is My Next and ZDnet (i.e. more work for the developer to fix problems).

On the entertainment side it supports 720p video playback, supports quite a few file formats and codecs but there is no HDMI output unless you get the dock to use with the extended microUSB connector on the flyer. The HTC Watch app is a nice feature but not being available here makes it of no use. For office use, there is support for Microsoft Office documents that allows editing with normal text entry and even the stylus (however, not all file formats are editable). Battery life seems a bit mixed with the Engadget review being impressed by it while TechRadar and CNET UK rated it has having bad battery life. BGR and Android Central give it decent battery life with typical use of 2 days per charge.

Summary
While I wished they didn’t remove the calling ability of the device, the usability of the pen to annotate and take notes is pretty appealing. A good alternative to the Galaxy Tab if you don’t plan to use it for calling. Smaller and more portable than an iPad it is made more for mobility. The main reason to get this device is the active digitizer and stylus combo or if you just wish for a tablet faster than the Galaxy Tab whose age is showing. Nice to see HTC innovate with the Flyer and hope to see more with the upcoming Puccini, their shot at the 10" tablet category.

Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini Pro – a Great Budget Android Phone?

Among my usual habits, I will check availability and prices of phones on Incomm and I was surprised to see the Xperia Mini Pro going for B$378.

This phone seems to be a phone I would buy, if I didn’t buy my LG Optimus One, as a great budget Android phone which seems to have the least compromises. Check out the video that I managed to get at Incomm as I played with the device.

Notable Specifications

  • Android 2.3 Gingerbread: the current major version of Android of phones
  • Connectivity: 3G (HSDPA 7.2Mbps, HSUPA 5.76Mbps), WiFi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1
  • 3" HVGA (320×480) screen: a bit small in size but good resolution that is widely supported by all apps
  • Slide out landscape QWERTY keyboard
  • 1GHz Snapdragon CPU with Adreno 205 GPU
  • 512MB RAM
  • 400MB for apps (according to GSM Arena): a bit small but acceptable for a budget phone and sadly (for Arc users) it is the same amount as the Arc based on Sony’s specs which says up to 320MB (Arc vs Mini Pro)
  • 5MP rear camera with autofocus, flash and 720p video recording (auto focus while recording video, recorded in mp4 encoded with h264, aac)
  • VGA front facing camera for video calls
  • Supports Adobe Flash
  • Plays 720p videos (mp4 encoded with h264,aac)
  • Can open PDFs and Microsoft Office documents (doc,docs,xls,xlsx,ppt,pptx)
  • microSD support up to 32GB
  • 1200mAh battery

Full specifications at Sony Ericsson or GSM Arena

I really like that this budget phone seems to have practically no compromises for a budget phone: there doesn’t seem to be any major show stoppers. Most budget phones will have no front facing cameras and won’t have cameras that can record 720p. A budget phone won’t have a keyboard nor a 1GHz CPU. The CPU couple with a GPU and sufficient RAM should ensure this device is smooth and usable for the regular user.

The main issue is the small 3" size of the screen (iPhone: 3.5", Optimus One & Wildfire S: 3.2", Galaxy Mini: 3.14"): a small size coupled with a high resolution may make some text small to read and will make using the onscreen keyboard a bit difficult. Thankfully there is a physical keyboard on the Xperia Mini that should help alleviate this (as long as the keyboard is good and usable). Also the smaller 1200mAh battery (vs 1500mAh of the Optimus One) may give it less battery life, but that also depends on the amount of work being done: with a better CPU, the same amount of work may require less energy from the Xperia Mini. I guess we’ll just have to wait for more in-depth reviews with battery life scores and this is the main unknown factor at the moment. Another compromise would possible be the UMTS frequency band support with it only being dual (900/2100) or triband (800/1900/2100) depending on where it is purchased but I don’t think this will affect many. Most of these issues/compromises are acceptable for a budget device.

With that said, I think I could tentatively highly recommend this phone to users but only after they take a look at it and try to use the keyboard and check to see if the text is too small on the device; and also after some battery life tests are published – all the features are of no use if the battery life is bad. From my use with it, the screen and text size seem fine but my fat thumbs did have a bit of an issue with typing. It could play 720p video, Flash video and even edit office documents. Overall a snappy device and I’m just very impressed at what Sony Ericsson managed to pack on this device hitting all the right check boxes giving the user minimal compromises. Great job Sony Ericsson, now improve your higher end devices!

Sample Photos (note front camera was covered with a thin plastic film):

Sample Video from rear camera:

Archos Gen 9 Tablets

Archos 80 G9

Archos adds new Honeycomb tablets to their line up as well as other interesting home appliances.

Notable Specifications

  • ARM dual-core CORTEX A9 OMAP4 1.5 GHz
  • Archos 80 G9: 8″ 1024×768 / 16GB: US$330 / 250GB: US$399
  • Archos 101 G9: 10″ 1280×800 / 16GB: US$399 / 250GB: US$499
  • 1080p video playback
  • 720p front camera with 720p encoding
  • USB host
  • microSD slot
  • HDMI output
  • Built-in kick stand
  • Battery life: up to 10 hours of Internet surfing / 7 hrs of video playback / 36 hrs of music playback
  • Availability: end of September (according to Engadget)

Both surprisingly run Honeycomb and there is only a front facing 720p webcam, but expect to see great multimedia playback up to 1080p. See the full specs here. Interestingly there is also a USB slot for a 3G dongle that fits seamlessly into the tablet: an interesting option.

I was pretty into the Archos 70 IT when it was announced due to it having Froyo, Flash, USB host and HDMI output. However some quality issues (some reported screens was assembled upside down and thus viewing angles were wrong: they watched videos with the device upside down) and some Android issues (low app storage space and no Market / Google apps) led me not to get one. With Honeycomb the low app storage space should be solved and hopefully they work on better quality this time around. Also the upgrade options for Archos may not be the best: they may update fixes, but looking from their device line up it seems they won’t upgrade major Android versions. Their last generation are still on Android 2.2 while some of their budget tablets are on Android 2.1, and I’m not sure if this behaviour will change with Honeycomb. So to be on the safe side; if you plan to purchase these tablets, get them for what they can provide out of the box not for what you think they can do with any future updates.

Huawei Ideos S7 Overview

I managed to stumble upon the Huawei IDEOS S7 at Yappe IT Store in Serusop selling for B$399 (cash price) and when recording the video below I noticed that quite a few of them have already been bought. Check out the video giving an overview of the device

Specifications

  • CPU: 750 MHz Qualcomm Snapdragon (source: UMPCportal as we forgot to check the processor but it seemed decent enough)
  • GPU: Adreno 200
  • 7″ 800×480 (WVGA) Capactive Multi-Touch Screen
  • Android 2.2 with custom launcher
  • Front and Rear facing 2 megapixel cameras that record in CIF (352×288)
  • 8GB storage (7.51GB available but 116MB for apps)
  • 3G Enabled (standard SIM) with dialer (can make calls and text)
  • Can run Flash (installed from Market)
  • Upto 720p HD playback of mp4 (h264, aac), wmv files
  • Device seems rooted by default (Superuser was installed after factory reset)
  • Connectivity options: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, microSD card slot, docking port, 3.5mm headset
  • Other hardware details: Kickstand, Removable battery, Optical trackpad

Pros

  • Budget price B$399: great budget device for a 7″ tablet and phone with calling ability
  • Able to run Flash for a fuller web experience (put settings as ‘On-Demand’ for better performance)
  • Android 2.2 thus you can do mobile tethering (share 3G via Wi-Fi)
  • Rooted
  • Cold boot / Restarts in about 1 minute
  • Decent Performance: it did not seem sluggish or noticeable slow but there were times where it took multiple touches to get the device to respond (could be also due to the plastic film on the device screen)

Cons

  • Only 116MB free for apps
  • A few default apps are landscape oriented and don’t rotate if device is in portrait mode
  • No Office software to read Word/Excel/Powerpoint files (doc/docx/xls/xlsx/ppt/pptx)
  • Battery life may be bad (based on Telstra T-Touch Tab reviews it only has 3-4 hours of typical use: CNET Australia, PC World Australia, Sydney Morning Herald. The T-Touch Tab is a rebranded Huawei S7 but has slightly different hardware)

I doubt this will get any future upgrades because it is an older model and Huawei is releasing an S7 Slim and also the recently announced Media Pad. The main issue with the device will be the battery life: having a removable battery aids it but then you will have to buy another battery and external charger to keep it running. I was contemplating on the device and using it as a mobile hotspot with my b-mobile Zoom! SIM card and using it as a tablet for reading and on the go computing. However with the possible battery life issues, the best bet for my use case is still the Samsung Galaxy Tab which will cost about B$250 more but you get better hardware and a better overall experience. But having said that, I believe this is the cheapest 3G and Flash enabled Android tablet in Brunei. If you’re looking for a budget all-in-one phone and tablet device, and don’t mind the possible battery life issues, this is a good deal.

Geo-Restrictions: The Biggest Problem for Android in Non-Recognized/Supported Countries

Geo-restirctions for apps in the Android Market is something you won’t hear many people talk about probably because they live in recognized countries where these apps are available. Basically what this means is that when you search for it in the Market app on your Android device, you will not find any results to install. If you use the Android market on the web you get the “This item cannot be installed in your device’s country” message when trying to select your device. This hugely detracts me from trying to recommend Android to users. While I guess many will search for the apk file online and install it, I must stress that this can be a very dangerous thing as it can be malware that you are installing on your device. You must trust your source of applications, if it is not the developer distributing the file, it could be a modified apk installer with malware installed in it.

Some notable apps that are absent from the Market here in Brunei are

As stated in their known issues under “Can’t find app” section, it states the following:

Some users are reporting that they can’t find specific apps on Market. If you can’t find an application, first try editing your search terms; the publisher may have changed the name in the application.
If you’re still experiencing this issue, please make sure that the following conditions do not apply to you:

  • Priced applications availability: Priced apps are only available to buyers in these countries. If you are not in a buyer-supported country, you will be unable to view priced applications.
  • Location: You may only view the version of Market for your country. For example, UK users may only view the UK version of Android Market from their devices. If a developer has not targeted his app to your home country, you may be unable to view it.
  • Mobile service provider: In addition to targeting for location, a developer may also target their application to specific mobile service providers. If a developer is not targeting your mobile service provider, you will not be able to view the application.

From time to time, applications will become unavailable. Publishers might remove their applications from Android Market, or applications may also be removed for policy violations.

I believe this stems from the following section when developers upload their app into the Market. If the developer does unchecks “All locations” (it is checked by default), the list of countries will be shown and the app will not be available for any country not listed below, i.e. Brunei and others.

What can Google do? They can make Brunei (among other countries) as a supported/recognized country and I presume that would require some business discussions with Brunei banks/mobile carrier/ISP. As a supported country we would probably get access to paid apps as well, but I feel that is unlikely at the moment. Alternatively they can put another check box for “Other Countries” in the listing above so that developers can choose to exclude certain countries but include others.
What developers can do? Where possible make sure “All Locations” is checked, if not host their apk installers on their own site (something that WhatsApp! does)

For an Android fan I feel pretty annoyed about this restriction and is certainly an obstacle as I can’t fully recommend Android devices to people if they have to do ’round-about-things’ such as finding an unofficially distributed apk just to install Skype. Another big issue is with tablets that are able to run Flash but don’t include it out of the box: thus the tablet is neutered to iPad Flash-less status which is sad. I had a Flash apk and installed in on the Acer Iconia A500 but because it wasn’t the latest version it could not run the videos we tested. Also without a recognized country, you can’t even update apps that have been installed previously: we couldn’t update Flash via Market post-install.

There are workarounds as listed below but some aren’t pretty:

Workaround 1: Alternate Store
This is the easiest and I suggest to find a reputable app store such as Opera Mobile Store (I managed to download Skype from here, although it was an older version), but it doesn’t have all the apps I want and thus those need to be sourced from elsewhere. If you know of any other reputable stores that have apps like Skype, do let me know.

Workaround 2: Switch SIMs to a Supported Country
I’ve done this with a Australian Vodafone SIM, and I was able to download Skype. I may even use this to download apks and self-host them for all Android users (as long as I don’t get copyright take downs)

Workaround 3: Root and install Market Enabler
Root your device and install Market Enabler which should allow you to access the apps. I presume this does in software what switching SIMs does in hardware.

Workaround 4: Buy an iPhone / iPod Touch
Yes, I said it. It is a sad but true state of affairs that it is easier on iOS if you register with a US iTunes Account. The hardest thing of registration is is just using the right US address (use Google’s address as there are no taxes in their state according to @mfirdaus). The biggest issue is getting iTune gift cards, something I am still trying to find out for a reasonable price (Places in Brunei that sell them: AV, Incomm & QQeStore). But once that is all setup, it’s all easy sailing.

So Google, I hope you can sort out this problem or Android users will be severely limited in countries that aren’t recognized/supported and would prevent them from recommending Android unless they want to start pirating apps. App developers, please show some love for Android users and host the apks yourself.

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