Monday, 14 August 2017

The Fire 7 is still a good secondary or child friendly device

The Fire 7 gets the basics right - a capable device for streaming video content, checking email, reading e-books, listening to audio books etc. In other words, it is an affordable and compact medium to access Prime content and more. Below is a short review of the updated Fire 7 in comparison to the previous generation (released late 2015):
  • Performance is adequate but can be frustrating when multi-tasking, switching between applications and loading content (the device comes with only 1GB RAM); once content is loaded then the Fire 7 generally runs smoothly.
  • Amazon advertise the updated Fire 7 with "higher contrast and sharper text" and this is no marketing gimmick. The screen on the 2017 Fire 7 is better than the previous generation. The resolution is the same but contrast levels and colour saturation are increased.
  • Battery life is slightly better and gets a full day of mixed use. If it is used for reading e-books or listening to e-books then it lasts longer.
  • The device is light-weight, compact and makes a good travel companion.
  • For the same price, the updated Fire 7 gets you more tablet; with this being said, since Amazon slashed the price of the Fire HD 8 late 2016 and again mid-2017, the pricing between the Fire 7 and Fire HD 8 makes the latter the better value and choice. The difference between the Fire 7 and Fire HD 8 is now only £30 (it is even less when discounted) and for that you get a better processor, larger HD screen, stereo speaker output, longer battery life, more RAM and twice the storage. It is not surprising, considering the Fire HD 8's overall better value, that the tablet is a best seller on Amazon.com. 
  • Yes, the Fire HD 8 is the better overall option but the Fire 7 has its use-cases. For example, it is the better option for children or a useful secondary light-weight device to take when commuting or travelling.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Chuwi stands-out in the budget category

Chuwi, this year, released two interesting laptops - the Lapbook 14.1 and Lapbook 12.3. Both these laptops are priced in the budget category but bring mid-level and even premium display specifications. The Lapbook 14.1 comes with a full HD IPS screen and the more expensive Lapbook 12.3 comes with a more premium 2736 x 1824 Surface Pro-like display. Both models are further equipped with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage and a more powerful Apollo Lake N3450 processor. I think the Lapbook 14.1 is the more interesting option, as the lower resolution full HD screen should work better with a low-end Apollo Lake Celeron processor. Overall, on paper, both these laptops can be used as frustration-free primary computing devices. Reviews are good and Windows Central recommends both devices (see here and here).

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Why Kobo is the best option for larger e-readers

If you are looking for an e-reader larger than 6 inches then Kobo is the best option (Kobo sells devices at three different sizes - 6, 6.8 and 7.8 inches). Below are some reasons that make Kobo e-readers the right choice:
  1. Quality hardware - Onyx and Boyue screens are hit and miss; the biggest issue is a lack of contrast and issues with screen refresh (text appears greyish black). In comparison, with Kobo, you are assured of a screen with good enough contrast. 
  2. Easier returns - A common problem with front-lit e-readers is light bleed; Kobo's larger scale - owned by Rakuten - means device return is easier if there is a display defect. 
  3. OverDrive integration - You don't need to install an Android application, designed for tablets, to access OverDrive. Further, e-books may be borrowed and read using Kobo's software. 
  4. Cost - Larger e-readers are a niche product in an e-reader market dominated by the six inch form factor and so pricing tends to be inflated. For example, the eight inch ONYX BOOX I86ML is priced near £220 and the 6.8 inch ONYX BOOX T76 Plus is priced at £160. Kobo, in comparison, price the Aura One at £190 and the previous generation Kobo H20 (6.8 inch E-Ink Carta display) at £130.  
  5. KOReader - It is possible to install third-party e-reading applications on Kobo e-readers; this is a good thing, as Kobo's PDF support is poor. KOReader remedies the problem of poor PDF support and optimises PDF reading on a relatively small 7 - 8 screen.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Review of the 8th generation Kindle: The best budget six inch e-reader

Amazon’s 8th generation Kindle is priced similar to other entry-level e-readers but what makes it, in my opinion, the best budget e-reader is its refined operating system. The device itself is very capable and there is no skimping on performance. The compromise is in the absence of a front-light and a lower 167 dpi E-Ink Pearl display. Compared to the Kindle Paperwhite there is a clear difference in clarity and sharpness; however, there is an upside with the lower resolution with the entry Kindle's better text scaling (clarified below). The E-Ink Pearl screen itself has good contrast and is superior to, for example, the previous generation of the Icarus XL with its E-Ink Pearl screen. Further, fonts are given more weight, to appear darker, and off-set the lower resolution.

The absence of a front-light, for some users, might be a deal-breaker; if that is the case then the Paperwhite – the overall choice six-inch e-reader – would be the better option. Personally I find the absence of a front-light a non-issue, as zero light emission is the primary reason I choose to read on E-Ink screens. Front-lights, in e-readers, still generate less eye strain compared to back-lit LCD screens and are useful in low-lit environments.

What I prefer in the entry Kindle is the superior text scaling, compared to the higher-resolution Kindle models. It seems the higher dpi of the Paperwhite means more text appears on the screen for each font level. However, the Paperwhite's scaling is problematic in that the difference between each font size level is too high. Thus, the third level is too small but increase the size to four and it is too large; this is a signifiant issue with the limited screen estate of a six inch e-reader. In comparison, the entry Kindle’s size increase is more balanced – level three is a balanced medium setting that works well (see picture below for font scaling comparison between the Kindle and Kindle Paperwhite). As will be clarified below, in regard to software, this issue may be resolved by providing the end-user with greater control over reader settings.

Finally, another positive, is the device’s light-weight compared to the Paperwhite; the device’s light-weight (161 grams) makes it ideal for one-handed reading.


Font size at level three - the entry Kindle is the white e-reader (please click on image to enlarge)
Font size at level four (note the Paperwhite's large increase in size between levels three & four)

Software 

As noted, the hardware is capable and the display is good-enough, considering the lower dpi, but it is the software that makes this the choice entry e-reader. Amazon’s software is near identical across its Kindle devices and so the software used in the entry Kindle offers near identical features that you get with the premium Kindle Oasis. First, some negative issues need to be flagged:
  • There is no way to organise content in collections through folders created on the device’s local storage. Further, for a personal document to be stored in the cloud and synced across devices, it needs to be sent to the user’s designated Kindle email. Greater flexibility and integration between local storage, device collections and cloud synchronisation would simplify the process of organising user content. 
  • There is limited control over text; in comparison, Kobo’s operating system (Nickel) provides superior features. Nickel gives the user greater control over font size, text alignment, margins, line spacing and the further option to side-load fonts. For example, expanding reader settings features might resolve the problem of scaling that comes with a higher dpi screen. One possibility might be to allow the user the option to increase font size by selecting an exact font number (Android e-reading applications, e.g. Moon+ Reader and Bookari, support this feature). Greater control over reading settings and a the absence of a larger Kindle, in my opinion, are the two central issues that Amazon needs to change. 
  • An odd quirk with Amazon’s Kindle software is the extension of selected reading settings from one document to another. Thus, settings selected in one e-book/PDF document is then applied to the next document opened. For example, change screen orientation to landscape, to read a PDF document, and the same orientation is applied in the next e-book opened. It is a small issue but there is no reason why this problem should persist. 
  • There is no page number support; instead, there is location number or percentage of book read. Again, Nickel is better in this area; Kobo allows the user to display page number in reference to the current chapter or entire book.
Below are some positives; these are not exhaustive but, overall, they are examples on why the entry Kindle is the best budget e-reader:
  • Good PDF support – Both Barnes & Noble and Kobo e-readers offer poor PDF support. Amazon’s Kindle software, in contrast, does consider PDF reading and allows the user to highlight text, annotate, look up definitions, write notes and search in a PDF file. The only problem is that there is no Kindle model beyond six inches to optimise the different use-cases of these features (seven inch is the minimum size to read PDF documents comfortably in landscape mode). 
  • Exporting notes and highlights – Amazon allows users to export their annotations and highlights for both Kindle e-books and personal e-books. There is further control on the format of the notes and highlights exported (citation styles include APA, Chicago Style, MLA or none). The exported document produced even categorises the annotations and highlights in reference to e-book location and categorises the output in its relevant chapter and section. 
  • Touch response is excellent; this applies both to the user interacting with menus/settings and highlighting. 
  • Sync support for non-Amazon personal documents – Amazon synchronises personal e-book if they are emailed to the Amazon cloud; this means notes and highlights are available across devices and may be exported via a Fire tablet or Kindle application. 
  • Vocabulary builder – Look-up words and they are then archived for later access; this feature and Word Wise (Word Wise provides simple definitions for potentially difficult words) are useful for learning. 
  • Wikipedia support – If WiFi is turned on the user is able to select a key term and look up it in Wikipedia.
Overall rating: 8/10

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Re-branded Onyx Boox N96 available on Indiegogo

An Australian company (cOmpanion) announced an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to release a re-branded Onyx Boox N96 (the version with no front-light) e-reader (the device is named nextPaper); a 'prototype' may be purchased for $280 (I would expect the official production unit to be priced over $300). The device comes with a 9.7" 1280 X 825 E-Ink Pearl screen and a dpi just over 150. Of course, the display specifications are underwhelming. Also, cOmpanion advertise that the device is cross-platform and allows the user to access Kobo, Nook and Amazon e-books. Technically this is correct but these are essentially Android applications designed for tablets and are unusable on e-readers.

Onyx produce different devices that aim to maximise on the potential use-case scenarios for E-Ink. Similar to reMarkable's 10.5" note taking e-reader - priced at $480 - there is Onyx's soon to be released Onyx Boox e-Note 10.3". Further, Onyx announced a 13.3" inch note-taking e-reader, an E-Ink laptop/typewriter and an E-Ink Carta refresh of their 9.7" N96 e-reader.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Review of Blu Life Max: A capable budget smartphone but with some compromises

This blog focuses on entry-level technology – many Chromebooks, though not all, being examples – and asks the question if an entry-level/budget device offers a good user-experience to meet the intended user's needs. I am impressed with Amazon’s Echo Dot, Kindle, Fire TV Stick, Fire 7 and Fire HD 8, in that they are case-examples of good budget devices. There are no gimmicks or branded hardware with these devices, just something that is genuinely useful and affordable. Just a few years ago it would be inconceivable to purchase good hardware below the £100/$100 threshold. For example, before the release of the first generation of the Moto G, many entry-level Android smart phones were almost unusable out of the box due to poor processor performance, storage and memory.

In this post I will be reviewing a budget smartphone – the Blu Life Max. Blu is a US based company that sells a range of phones but with a focus on the budget end of the smartphone market. Recently Amazon.com started to sell subsidised budget phones to Prime users (another incentive aiming to gain more Prime subscribers). These are phone that come with Amazon's 'special offers', similar to Amazon Fire tablets, and with pre-installed Amazon applications. One of the featured phones in this venture, in its two variants, is the Blu R1 HD. The less capable version of the Blu R1 HD - with 1 GB RAM and 8 GB storage - sells for just $50 unlocked.

After using the Blu Life Max for over two months, below are my impressions:

  • The Blue Life Max is an example of a budget smartphone that offers good performance, 16 GB storage and 2 GB RAM. The key differential between the budget end and mid-tier to premium end of the Smart phone market is now camera quality. The Blu Life Max's mediocre cameras substantiate this point. The camera needs optimal conditions - with no zoom - to generate good photographs. In other words, don't expect the Blu Life Max to be your primary camera. The camera is also passable, in lighted conditions, to work as a document scanner with the right Android application (I use Cam Scanner).
  • The device is named ‘Max Life’ to emphasise the larger 3700 mAH battery. The battery is replaceable and does get you an estimated two days of moderate usage (if you are streaming videos, the device will need to be re-charged more frequently). Despite Blu over-selling battery life – to differentiate the phone from its competitors – you still get better battery than many phones in the budget category. I did find stand-by time disappointing, with the phone's battery draining quickly after a full charge; I would estimate close to a 20% discharge over a period of eight hours. 
  • The display is serviceable. You get a 720 X 1280 screen across a 5.5 inch display. Of course, this doesn’t compare to flagship devices but I always thought anything beyond a full HD resolution to be excessive and even pointless on smartphones. Further, Apple's iPhone 6 comes with a slightly higher 750 X 1334 display; of course, Apple’s panels, expectantly, with the price differential, are superior, with far better colour reproduction/vibrancy and contrast. A more relevant comparison would be Wileyfox's Spark+, a device whose display I thought superior.
  • As this is an e-reader focused blog, I like the phone’s larger 5.5 inch display. The larger display makes it a viable e-reader for short reading sessions, especially in crowded places. Also, the larger display makes the phone a very portable mini-tablet to stream video content and read archived articles via Pocket.
  • The phone's processor - a 1.3 GHZ quad-core Mediatek processor - offers good performance for most tasks users expect from a smartphone. Further, The 2 GB RAM makes multi-tasking smooth and the 16 GB storage, considering this is an Android phone, doesn't restrict the user (8 GB being the previous benchmark for entry-level smartphones). 
  • Yes, there is a finger print scanner. I find finger print scanners to be a little gimmicky but not many phones - in this category - come with this hardware feature.
  • Overall, I like the Blu Life Max. However, I don't think it is a stand-out in the budget category. At the moment, it is possible to find phones with similar specifications at a similar price (under or close to £100/$100). I would recommend searching Amazon's Warehouse deals for further options. A good alternative would be Wileyfox's range smartphones – e.g. the Spark+ and Swift 2 – that are similarly priced to the Blu Life Max. You may not get a 5.5 inch display or relatively large battery size but you do get better build quality, display and significantly superior camera. Whatever the case, there are different options at the budget end of the market to obtain an unlocked capable smartphone for around £100/$100.