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Now-TV stick, walled garden

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I took the opportunity to try out another smart TV stick following my previous post. The Now UK stick is based on the Roku stick specifically adapted (i.e. locked down) for the Sky platform and is sold at a  subsidised price. In return, it has far fewer apps available for it – I counted 46, a very limited range. The instruction manual, such as it is, has a page stating that you have bought the stick but not the software and you are not allowed to change it. Sounds like a challenge. I did find a couple of hopefuls after a bit of googling. There is also a Now TV community backed by Now TV providing mutual aid. The Roku platform, if not the stick, also gets a mention on XDA, well known in certain circles, but I haven’t found anything concrete. I have not found a way to get into the “developers’ menu”, Now TV has reportedly blocked access to it.  Too bad for those who want to play around with network settings for example 

The first time you set it up, it scans for WiFi networks, sets up the remote to work with the TV and logs in to the Now TV account. None of these steps are optional. That means you can’t start using the device until you have set up a Now TV account and entered your bank card details. That gets you the first month free, but nevertheless, it’s nothing doing until you have entered a bank card even though the first month’s bill is for £0.00. You have to remember to cancel before the month is up. A standard marketing ploy, but irritating nevertheless. 

The video resolution settings available are 720p, 1080p and auto. 

If your really want it, there’s also voice control. You press the voice button and speak into the microphone on the remote control. The remote control is all you need to operate the device, no need to go to your computer or mobile other than for the initial setting up. 

The stick comes with the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, Roku TV, Youtube apps already loaded. There is an app store but the range of apps available is very limited indeed. I counted 46. TED is there but I was disappointed that many apps that are available on Roku (reportedly in the thousands) aren’t available for the Now TV stick, such as RT’s Portable TV.  If you want to add apps for international channels (it would be nice to have my UK and French channels as well as streaming platforms on a single source), tough! Not surprisingly, the stick doesn’t have integrated Chromecast, unlike the outwardly similar Xiaomi Mi TV stick. 

Pricing and the alternatives

Priced at between £19.95 and £39.99 depending on what passes are included on various web sites and retailers. For example, Argos has three deals with this stick plus various packages such as one month of Sky Cinema plus Sports Day for £29.99 or with three months of Sky Cinema Pass for £39.99. It does have the advantage of being the cheapest way of adding the various services that is completely stand-alone. Miracast is by far the cheapest (dare I say nastiest?) solution at around a tenner, but involves streaming content directly from your mobile phone or tablet and can be rather fiddly and ties up your mobile phone/tablet the whole time you are streaming. Google Chromecast is more expensive than the Now stick and certainly than the Miracast  as it does a hefty amount of processing on the stick rather than on the phone. It just needs the mobile device to initiate the streaming, after which it can be left to itself and you can use your mobile for something else. Caveat emptor, many of the Miracast sticks deliberately look very similar to Chromecast and it  is very easy to mistake one for the other unless you look very closely at the packaging or the wording of an advertisement. 

Pros and cons

Low price

Easy to use – it fit the bill perfectly for the decidedly anti-tech person I was staying with in London. 

Excessively closed environment. You get what Now TV decides you can have, that’s it!

 

Xiaomi Mi TV Stick, Android TV 9

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Xiaomi has just released released a TV stick of its own, the Mi TV Stick. Its characteristics looked attractive and it fitted in with what I was looking for at an attractive price during the pre-launch promotional phase. So I ordered one. Not a freebie for once, Covid oblige!

The instruction manual, badly in need of a magnifying glass, simply tells you to plug it in and play. That’s all. You have to make your own way through the navigation system which takes quite a bit of getting used to.

You connect the stick to your home Wi-Fi, with Bluetooth linking the remote control. Then hey presto, you have a stand-alone Android 9 TV, which looks  similar to Android on a mobile phone or tablet. You can use the unit just through the remote control, no need to use your phone/tablet/laptop.

On the other hand, if you prefer to use your mobile,it has Google Chromecast built-in, so you can use it almost exactly the same as you would a Google Chromecast stick. I did find one major difference with regular Chromecast – since the stick has a Netflix application built-in, if you try to Chromecast Netflix from your phone, you get asked to log in with the same account on the stick. I can think of a few occasions where this could be a problem, so it needs to be mentioned.

Apps

Youtube, Netflix and Amazon Prime etc are pre-installed. Adding new apps is via the Google Play store, Logging in with my French Google account gave me access to the various French TV apps. BBC Iplayer was not available on the French Play  store, so I sideloaded the APK file using the Send Files to TV app. The Iplayer app then installed but wouldn’t work. I’ll keep trying. In the meantime, Iplayer works perfectly well be chromecasting from my phone.

Netflix works from the built-in app after you have entered your log-in details. However, if you try to Chromecast Netflix from a phone, you get a message that the TV stick needs to simultaneously be logged in to the same Netflix account.

Update Chromecasting BBC-iplayer while abroad was slightly more involved. You can in fact change the stick’s network settings to run with a proxy or smart DNS service, which is not always the case with Chromecast sticks. The phone used for casting does not need to have its DNS changed, but of course it must be on the same Wi-Fi network.

I also tried casting Netflix using a phone with a different account than the one stored on the stick. The stick then switches to its Netflix account and you can control it via the remote control.

No UK version

When you set up. it first asks you to choose a language, which includes various versions of English (US, India, UK etc). But when it then asks you to set a region, UK is not included among the options. You can install apps from the Google Play Store, but even logging in with a UK Google account does not give access to the preferred apps like BBC iPlayer and All4. ITV hub is available, but when you try to run it you get an error message.

Specs

HDMI output. Video resolution 1080p/60, 1080p/50, 1080p/24, 720p/60, 720p/50, 1080i/60, 1080i/50, 576p/50, 480p/60. Too bad for fans of 4k. The picture was nevertheless impressive.

Internal storage 5.1 Gb.

Bluetooth for connecting speakers and remote control.

Voice control – just click and speak into the remote control

Why bother

Most homes, at least in this country, have media boxes from their broadband provider and a very substantial proportion of the TVs are so-called “smart TV”. The fact is, the media box from my ultra-low-cost broadband service Red is just simply appalling. As for my smart TV, the manufacturer, Toshiba, hasn’t bothered to keep the system up to date. Even the basic channel catch-up services aren’t all implemented. When set to French, it includes Arte but not the France Televisions channels. When set to UK, it has the built-in BBC. But there is no way to add apps so you can have both. So the need for an external stick.

Price

I got it at the special price for a a tad under €30 during the pre-launch phase.That makes it actually cheaper than the Google Chromecast while it does a lot more. The device is now on sale at various different, much higher, prices depending on the web site or outlet.

Some vendors

Xiaomi

CDiscount (France).

Amazon UK

The competition

The Amazon Fire Stick is well known and includes Alexa, but not everyone likes the Amazon universe. In the UK there is the Now TV stick, which is linked to the Now TV platform, and the Haier TV Kit 2 (sadly not currently available) and Roku. I haven’t tried them, so I’ll just mention the ones I have tried personally.

No need to present Google Chromecast, which just works, provided of course you have a suitable handset.

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Orange Clé TV 2

Not so well known is the Orange stick. I was given the Orange Clé TV 2 a couple of years ago as a freebie. The dongle and remote control are virtually twin brothers If you get your broadband from Orange, you just insert your ID and password and the dongle doubles as your media box, providing full TV access, along with replay, pause and cloud record. Useful as a second screen and when you are on the move, where the broadband doesn’t even need to be from Orange. It conveniently comes in a very nifty travel bag. On the other hand, if you don’t have an Orange ID, this unit is of no use whatsoever. For some  reason, Orange gave one of these to all the international visitors to an event it held in Paris. I would think very few of the attendees had IDs for French Orange broadband.

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Miracast dongle

A number of very cheap Chinese media sticks are available using the Miracast protocol. Some of them are extremely similar in appearance to the Google Chromecast series of products, which can be confusing for the casual buyer. Miracast protocol predates Chromecast and its use is rather different. The Miracast dongle has  two modes of functioning. It links to your phone via Wi-Fi , after which you can either stream media content stored on your phone onto your TV or else you can duplicate your phone screen on your TV. Both of these are useful functions, but are different from the Chromecast and media-box functions.

Living with slow, intermittent internet

I recently spent a few weeks at the beach resort of Kribi in Cameroon. Great weather, delightful surrounding and our hosts introduced us to a huge variety of local personalities. But the local internet access was anything but high speed. One neighbour was rumoured to have optical fibre, but that was never confirmed. Internet over the hotel WiFi very occasionally reached 10 or 12 kb/s and was subject to frequent outages. Not even the performance we used to get from a 56 kb/s dial-up modem. A local SIM card gave 3G connectivity with very similar level of performance. So I find it difficult to commiserate when I read media reports of areas in the UK where broadband is “only 1 Mb/s”.

Parkinson’s law

My first use of computer communication (apart from trying out the Arpanet at a North London college back in 1971) was with an acoustic coupler in the early 1980s, almost a decade before the world wide web. For the benefit of younger readers, an acoustic coupler consisted of a pair of rubber cups with a built-in microphone or earpiece that linked respectively to the earpiece and microphone of a telephone handset. The computer data was converted to a series of screeching noises and so sent down the phone line. Temperamental to set up, it generally achieved data rates of 300 BITS per second. Nevertheless, since we were sending plain text, we could live with these less-than-snail-like data rates. The downside, of course, was the excruciating command-line query language.

Technology developments gradually improved speeds. The first wired modems (remember the Minitel in France and Prestel in the UK boasted asymmetric speeds of 1200/75 bits per second and the early versions of AOL, quickly followed by modems managing 29.6 and later 56 kb/s. Then came other new technologies like satellite internet, cable broadband, the US’s “video dial tone“, microwave internet, ADSL, Wimax and others, culminating in optical fibre. Not to forget the various iterations  of mobile data.

The outcome was no surprise to anyone acquainted with Parkinson’s law – usage (and abusage!) expanded, and continues to expand, to fill the newly available capacity. Graphics, photos, videos, music, HDTV. And of course increasing amounts of advertising from external web sites.

 

Why is this important

Back in Cameroon, the speed worthy of the early 1980s meant that it was difficult to do anything at all on line. Even basic text-based e-mail is barely possible. It became more complicated when Yahoo wanted Captcha-based confirmation. It took so long to download the pictures I had to identify that the process timed out and I had to start all over again. The only way to sort that out was via a friend in Paris!

Any kind of streaming is of course out of the question. You have to download your programme or podcast and listen later, something that can take longer than the programme itself.

A disturbing trend is the number of mobile apps that do not have a proper off-line mode, something that is particularly important in news apps. It’s good to be able to download your news when the connection actually works so you can read it at leisure. That works for some news apps, but disappointingly they are on the way out. A particularly disgraceful case is BBC  News. The old version of its android app used to update all its stories when a network becomes available. The new version only updates a handful of stories in a specific section. So I carefully re-installed the older version from the APK file. But then the BBC in its ‘wisdom’ deliberately disables the old version when the phone has a data connection. Hardly in keeping with its mission statement!

On the other hand, I liked the approach of The Guardian Anywhere app, which attempts to get round precisely this problem. Unfortunately it doesn’t actually work particularly well.

Finally, I waved goodbye to my hosts in Kribi, leaving them to deal with their shining new Windows 10 computer. I am still wondering what they will do when Windows 10 tries to download its massive software updates.

No internet at all?

While painful, slow intermittent internet is a far cry from absolutely no internet at all. A few years ago a UK court banned a computer hacker from any access to the internet whatsoever. Interviewed in the Guardian tech podcast, he described how the ban affected his day to day life. He was barred from doing almost everything that is now part of modern life. He could not even apply for almost any job, buy train or theatre tickets online, use GPS, take out a mobile phone contract or anything else that requires validating online. An online search reveals a substantial number of similar cases, making fascinating reading.

 

 

Maria Caulfield accuses science community of widespread cheating

The MP for Lewes Maria Caulfield (Conservative) interviewed by journalist Sima Kotecha on Radio 4’s PM programme on Saturday defended Jeremy Hunt. She accused the scientific community of wholesale fraud. Specifically, she said “That [referring to cherry-picking of evidence] happens in science all the time. Scientists cherry pick the evidence they want to use“. Later on in the interview, she says “You can cherry-pick evidence“.

This interview is an episode in the tussle between UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the medical community. It started when the word went around that death rates are higher for patients entering hospital at the week-end than during the week. The data and its interpretation have been widely disputed, not least by members of the British National Health Service (NHS) as well as statisticians. Nevertheless, Jeremy Hunt pounced on the rumour, using it as a stick to beat the junior doctors into accepting a new contract.

Stephen Hawking published an opinion piece in The Guardian as well as giving a speech to the Royal Society of Medicine in which he accused the Health Secretary of cherry picking the evidence. Jeremy Hunt retaliated Trump-like in a series of tweets. The story has been widely reported. Here is one account.

 

The interview with Caulfield is available on the BBC web site here for the next few weeks, so you can listen for yourself. The interview is ten minutes into the programme.

Here is my transcript of the interview, as the BBC version is only available for one month. It has been slightly edited to tidy it up. Judge for yourself.

Sima Kotecha: Not too far from here at New Broadcasting House in West London, Stephen Hawking is giving a speech at the Royal Society of Medicine conference. The Cambridge University scientist, who has motor neurone disease, will be outlining his concerns about the NHS and more personally about the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. He will accuse Mr Hunt of cherry picking research to give weight to his arguments, in particular to the state of hospitals at the week-ends. The scientist said he’s giving the speech because he’s grateful for all the treatment he’s received from the NHS and he wants it to be the safest health service in the world.

Now I’ve been speaking to Conservative MP Maria Coldfield (sic) who’s a practicing nurse for the NHS, about his comments.

 Maria Caulfield:I am slightly disappointed in what he said because because what Jeremy Hunt has been trying to do over the last few months and years really is to try and get a consistent service across the NHS every day of the week, and I know from my clinical experience, having worked many night shifts and weekends that there is a different service if you’re admitted to hospital at the weekends. You know a good emergency service is provided in A & E but if you’re there in the wards during the week [I think MC meant week-end here] certain tests aren’t available even if you have those tests the results aren’t available and the full team that would be there during the week aren’t there…

SK: Well Jeremy Hunt tweeted Stephen Hawking is a brilliant physicist but wrong on lack of evidence for week-end effect. Do you think that that is disrespectful for somebody who is renowned for their mind and intellect?

MC: Oh no, I think, you know, that with all science the way it can be interpreted can affect the outcome. You know there is evidence that if you are admitted the week-end you may have different outcomes than if you are admitted during the week because on the whole the type of patient admitted over the week-end is often a different type of patient to those admitted during the week..

SK: But it’s not necessarily what he’s saying but the way he’s come to that conclusion that Stephen Hawking is disputing. I mean let me just tell you what he’s saying. He’s saying the Health Secretary who claimed that 11,000 patients a year died because of under-staffing of hospitals at weekends. He’s saying that four of the eight studies cited by Hunt were not peer-reviewed and that he ignored thirteen papers that contradicted his statements. So can he really say that this is happening and that is scientific evidence if you like?

MC: You know, coming from a scientific background, my background was in research in cancer nursing before being admitted, I know you can interpret science and evidence in many ways and come out with a number of different outcomes. So, you know, there is some evidence out there that there is a week-end effect and I know from my clinical experience that there’s a week-end effect …

SK: But there’s an implication there that you can do whatever you want because if you’re not looking at the evidence in its entirety, how can you come to a valid conclusion?

MC: There is evidence, as Stephen Hawking said, four out of the eight studies haven’t been peer-reviewed, but the other four out of the eight have. So there is evidence out there. You know, Jeremy Hunt has a responsibility to patients and to staff because it’s very hard as a member of staff working night-shifts and week-ends when there isn’t the support services. I welcome the fact that the NHS should be the same whether it’s a Monday or whether it’s a Sunday …

SK: But it’s still not clear there that he is including all the evidence. That’s what I’m disputing here, that if you are given a bulk of evidence and that you’re cherry picking, in Stephen Hawking’s words, surely that’s not accurate?

MC: Well I would dispute that. That happens in science all the time. Scientists cherry pick the evidence they want to use. When I’ve been in breast cancer research and we’ve been looking at new drugs coming through the system, you can do one study, for example, that shows you a new drug that will help patients in their treatment for breast cancer and you do another study and it will show exactly the opposite. That’s why medicine changes over time because studies evolve over time and what was shown in one study may not be repeated in another study. You can cherry-pick evidence. We know that science isn’t fool-proof ….

SK: Surely this is someone with good intentions though, somebody who says he understands the NHS because of his experience. Would you not say that his argument is valid?

MC: What I would say, as someone who’s worked for over twenty years in the NHS, I’ve got substantial experience myself, as have many other colleagues on the Conservative benches, we’ve got many doctors on the Conservative benches, there’s four nurses, there’s people who’ve worked in the scientific labs doing these tests and they all support having a seven day a week NHS because they have got clinical experience of looking after patients at week-ends when there is a shortage of support services. Stephen Hawking has a huge range of experience, both scientific and of using the NHS, as do others.

 

Update Stephen Hawking published a scathing response to Jeremy Hunt’s in The Guardian.

Update 2. A few days later, Jeremy Hunt published a reply to Stephen Hawking’s in The Guardian. 

Accumulators should be replaceable

I have always contended that rechargeable batteries should be user-replaceable. Not only laptops, tablets and smart-phones, but also a whole range of gadgets use rechargeable batteries: MP3 players, cordless headphones and ear-buds, mini-speaker units and mice, to name but a few. Not to mention electric water toothpicks, vegetable peelers, flour sifters and who knows what other gadget.

While some nominally non-removable batteries can be replaced with a few simple tools, some manufacturers go to extreme lengths to prevent that. Even to the extent of gluing the batteries in place, and having very fragile connections near the battery.

Remember, lithium-ion batteries have a short life, after which they will suffer a loss of capacity. You can generally count on three years. You could be lucky and get more, it’s a matter of luck. Once the battery can only hold a reduced charge, possibly none at all, replacing can become a major task. Although replacement batteries and a tool kit can sometimes be obtained from third party (mainly Chinese) suppliers, the manufacturers do not take a kind view of it. And sending the equipment to to the manufacturer can be expensive – just to change the battery! Not surprisingly, most people just decide to replace the equipment.

In fact the European Commission issued a directive to say as much, way back in 2006, subsequently updated and came into force at the end of 2013. The Member States were supposed to transpose it into law within two years. Not that anyone cares any more.

The EC’s reason is environmental. After all, it points out that every year 160,000 tonnes of consumer batteries enter the EU every year, not to mention the 800,000 tonnes of automotive batteries and 190,000 tonnes of industrial batteries. “Not all of these batteries are properly collected at the end of their useful life which increases the risk of releasing hazardous substances and constitutes a waste of resources,” the EC points out.

A related phenomenon is manufacturers making the accumulator specific to a particular piece of equipment. Over the years we have become accustomed to having to buy specific  accumulators for laptops, phones, cameras and so on. Yet another way the manufacturers keep control.

Here are the main arguments for and against, in no particular order.Naturally, everyone makes their own decision on which points are important and which are secondary. And of course some advantages for consumers are disadvantages for manufacturers and vice versa.

Please feel free to contact me with any additional points you would like to add.

For removable batteries

  • Can carry a spare with you
  • Enables you to perform a hard reset.
  • No need for an expensive manufacturer intervention when the battery loses capacity.
  • You can be sure a phone really is switched off and not spying on you are recording your location.
  • Replacing a battery prolongs life of the device. Many items are simply thrown out when the battery can no longer take a charge. So it is easier to sell on the second-hand market.
  • Easier and cheaper to replace a battery than to recall a phone. Remember the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 fiasco!

Against removable batteries

  • No need to carry a spare with you. You can use a power-bank. Changing a battery would necessitate restarting the device.
  • The battery can be integrated into the manufacturing process and adapted to suit the construction. Devices can be smaller and lighter.
  • Easier to seal a phone hermetically and make it water and dust resistant.
  • Replacing a battery prolongs life of the device and makes it easier to sell on the second-hand market, so potentially eating into the market.

 

Since writing this piece, I have come across this article on Quora with some additional arguments, mainly that it is deliberate built-in obsolescence by phone manufacturers.

 

 

Asus Z380 tablet accessory tablet battery glitch

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The Asus Z 380 is a nice tablet tablet with excellent audio (for a tablet). It’s a handy 8 inch size with a 1280 x 800 res 8 inch screen.

A feature is the range of clip-on accessories. Not only light plastic backs in a variety of colours, but  there is also a clip on hard protective cover. The full monty was  one that I thought I would like the most: a combined stand, speakers and extra battery. Great for when you go on a long trip.

But I was disappointed. It turns out that the tablet uses the internal battery in priority, barely calling on the clip-on battery. This continues until the internal battery runs down to 1% and then, even if the clip-on battery is well charged, the tablet powers down. When you recharge the whole thing, the clip on battery climbs up to 100% first, the internal battery afterwards. Then when you start using it, it’s the internal battery that is used, with the internal one staying at near 100%.

This looks not so much as a software bug as a design fault. I contacted Asus helpdesk about the issue, but their only suggestion was that the battery must have developed a fault and to return it. As the accessory was brand new, and seemed otherwise in good order, this is not likely unless Asus have a very major quality control problem. My own feeling is that it is a screw-up at the software design stage. This tablet has been on the market for almost a year and a half, and there is still no sign of a patch.

The details and manual for this accessory is on the Asus web site here

In short, DO NOT BUY this accessory!

Asus Zenfone 3

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The Zenfone 3 drawer can take one micro SIM and a micro SD card or a nano SIM

 

 

I got the chance to thoroughly try out the Zenfone 3, one of Asus new autumn range.

First, some specs (thanks Antutu)

Model                                   Z017D

Android                               6.0.1 (64 bit)

CPU model                         Qualcomm Snapdragon 625

Cores                                      8

Frequency                             652.8 – 2016.0 MHz

Display Resolution             1080 x 1920, 480 dpi

Rear camera                         12.2 mega pixel  4656 x 2620

Front camera                        8.0 mega pixel 3264 x 3488

RAM total                              3670 MB, available 2427 MB

System storage total           52.66 GB  available 50.49 GB

Dual SIM- one micro SIM and one nano SIM or micro SD memory card.

There is also space for a micro SD card, but it must be placed in the nano SIM slot. So, two SIMs or extra memory, you must choose. To be fair, the onboard 64 meg is more than enough for most people. The choice between micro sim and nano sim slots is no problem, as most sim cards come in pre-cutouts for both formats. If you only have a nano sim, you can always retrieve the plastic border from a discarded pre-pay sim. The SIMs and/or SD card are held in a pull-out drawer, a nifty way to enable the user to change cards without opening the phone. It means you can change SIM cards without rebooting the phone, which surprisingly didn’t cause any problems. Presumably it helps with waterproofing too.

Also features the new reversible  USB-C  connector. Personally, I’m not in favour, as it means I have to take an additional cable with me on holiday. It may well be a good thing in the long term, but at present my own count of gadgets is way in favour of micro USB. When my partner and I go on holiday, the count is something like: 2 tablets, 2 phones, 2 power packs, ANC headphones, sound unit all use micro USB. Not to mention the OTG adaptor, flexible camera, and who knows what else. Our Nikon camera with its quirky connector is the only exception. Of course the OTG adaptor will no longer be any use. A new one needed.

Very soon after switching on, the system updated. This went through very smoothly, taking about ten minutes.

Fingerprint reader

I confess I have always considered this little piece of innovation an irrelevance. The trouble is, you can use the PIN or other security code to override the fingerprint detector. So if a thief can extort your code from you, he/she can have access to your phone. In any case, after a restart the phone asks for the main authorisation. So the fingerprint reader is really only for fast access. A fraction of a second, compared to just about a second to enter a PIN. In fact you get used to the fast switch-on after a while.

General handling 

The phone has a very nice feel to it. Cool metal, compared to the distinctly plastic feel of the Lenovo K3 Note I reviewed recently. Yet the two weigh in at a very similar: 144 grams for the Lenovo and 146 grams for the Asus, although the Lenovo has a marginally bigger screen.

The unit is fully sealed. The only orifices are the micro USB, the earphone jack and the cover for the SIM and SD cards. You need a paper clip to take off the cover, which pulls out a little slide in which you can insert the SIM and memory cards.

The downside is that that the battery is not swappable. The pros and cons of this have been widely aired. My own very personal preference is for a removable battery. Samsung has recently found  another downside to non-removable batteries, with extensive media coverage. In the two weeks I’ve been using this phone, I found no evidence of overheating whatsoever. In fact it ran quite cool and lasted well. Two full days of normal use, or several days of light use. Rather less with heavy video viewing. Best make sure you pack the right charger cable when you go away for a few days. On a recent trip, I used up 40% the first day before I noticed I had the wrong cable with me. Then I managed to eke out 4 days of parsimonious use. Won’t be long till these cables become generally available at knock-down prices.

The 5.2 inch full HD screen is very comfortable too. The slightly smaller size than the Lenovo is barely perceptible and text is easily readable due to the high definition. The tough glass seems very rugged, but I haven’t personally tested the manufacturer’s claims about the drop test.   My Lenovo, au contraire, already has a cracked screen. I really must be more careful.

Lenovo K3 Note, Chinese version

Verstions

K50 T3S (China)

K50a40  (India)

K50 T5  (rest of world)

Not to be confused with the Lenovo K3 Lemon, which was released in December 2014 and has a 5 inch 720×1080 display and lower specs.

There are several versions of the Lenovo K3 Note, as I found out when I decided that this phone fills my current needs. It features a Mediatek  octa-core, 5½ inch full HD (1920×1080) display, dual SIM, removable battery (opinions differ on the desirability of a removable battery), 2 GB RAM, 16 GB onboard memory, SD card slot, 4GLTE etc. I came across a particularly good deal on the AliExpress web site – a tad over €90 for the T3s version or €120 for the T5 version.

“FM Radio” app that is not an FM radio

One of the pre-loaded apps is misleadingly called “FM Radio”. It turns out in fact to be an Internet radio with an FM-like interface, giving access to the local stations. The trouble is, it is useless when you don’t have an Internet connection. Annoying, because the phone does have the necessary hardware for a real FM radio.

A bit of googling came up with the solution. The APK file for an app that really is an FM radio and uses the phone’s hardware is available to download from

http://www.mediafire.com/download/p2p0wj18y7kgdnj/com.lenovo.fm.apk

But just what are the differences? You won’t find out from the official Lenovo web site, so I’ve pieced together, drawing from all the sources I could find. The best informed source is undoubtedly xda-developers.com but it involves lengthy trawling through all the forums.

As far as I can gather, there are two main differences: the language and FDD/TDD compatibility. FDD and TDD are frequency and time division versions of LTE technology. It appears that the T3s version only features TDD while the T5 can do both. But the seller offers to flash the T3s with a custom ROM that enables the phone to do both. According to a posting on XDA-developers, it  appears that the hardware is basically the same, but the Chinese version only has TDD enabled because that is the standard in use there and so avoids paying royalty for FDD. I have not been able to find any confirmation of this theory.

So I took the plunge and ordered the T3s. When it arrived, the start-up menu was in Chinese. So I installed a Chinese reader (Waygo) on another phone to read it. It turned out to be the set-up menu. Once I had set it to English, I had more-or-less standard Android 5.1, complete with Google Play. One thing missing, though, was the system update facility. The LTE was available in both FDD and TDD versions. Also, according to the K50 specs SIM slot 1 is 4G/3G/2G while SIM slot 2 is 3G/2G. But the software supplied enabled both slots to do 4G.

The LTE frequency bands available are: 1, 3, 7,  38, 39, 40 and 41.  Note that this does not include band 20, the new “digital dividend” band in Europe.

The software supplied includes the Google apps store, which I understand is not available on the original Chinese version.

Since the OTA update is not available, upgrading to Android 6 would have to be done manually.

In fact, this phone has been very popular, particularly among hackers, as it combines good specs with a low price. So not surprisingly, activity on the forums has been very high and a large number of ROMs are available, with a wide range of features, and bugs. There is even an Android 7.1. and there are patches or workarounds for most of the bugs. I tried about half a dozen of them, including the Android 7.1, but rolled back to Android 6 because I couldn’t find a way round the bug that stops the phone accessing the micro SD card memory correctly.

Useful links

Characteristics

http://www.gsmarena.com/lenovo_k3_note-7147.php

K3 note help

https://forums.lenovo.com/t5/K-and-Vibe-Z-Series-Smartphones/bd-p/lp02_en/page/7

http://forum.xda-developers.com/k3-note/help

http://forum.xda-developers.com/k3-note/general

How to root Indian version

Needrom

http://www.needrom.com/download/lenovo-k50-t3-vibe-ui/

Flash firmware with SP Tool

Flash firmware using SP Flash Tool

Secret codes

http://mobilespecs.net/phone/codes/Lenovo/Lenovo_K3_Note.html

Guide to flash

http://guidebelajar.blogspot.fr/2015/08/guide-to-flash-install-firmware-android_18.html

Flash Cyanogen

Lenovo Lemo K3 Note – Recovery, Google Service

Freedompop, has it lived up to its promise?

A year ago, the there was a fair bit of buzz among UK savvy mobile users about the awaited launch of Freedompop, looking longingly across the Atlantic where the company had been operating a very similar service for some years.

And very understandable too. The UK offer looked very enticing indeed, and much simpler than the US offer. After a one off price for the SIM and postage, you get 3 hours 20 (UK users prefer to count in minutes, so that’s 200 minutes) plus 200 MB of data free every month, for life (or at least, the life of the company, or until your account gets suspended through a screw-up, whichever is sooner). FP use the classic freemium model, earning their living by selling various kinds of add-ons like premium voice and various data and voice packages.

For 5 pounds a month you get 8 hours 20 (500 minutes), 500 texts and 500 MB a month; for 9 pounds you get 16hours 40 (1000 minutes) and 1 GB with premium voice thrown in. There are more packages and options, listed on the web site – but you have to already be a customer to actually see them!

According to Freedompop, about 50% of users take one or other of the options, which hopefully covers their costs and a bit more. The other packages seem pitched at a very reasonable price.

The UK launch was initially due in Spring 2015, later Summer. In the end, it actually got going in late September in what was described as a “soft launch”.

Freedompop worked at keeping the buzz going, particularly in social forums. Its user group was active, its members giving each other technical and operational tips of all kinds. It was helped along with FP’s ‘friends’ system, whereby users could gift unused data allowance and pick up bonus allowance. Forum members set up ways of optimising the way they gifted data to each other as their respective billing cycles came to an end. But activity on the FP forum is now barely a dribble.

At one point, FP were giving their SIM cards free of charge. The first spy-spoof comedy film Kingsman comes to mind. An enjoyable film, by the way, in which the bad guys inundate the world with free SIM cards, but of course the parallel ends there. There now appears to be a moderate charge, but that can change from one day to the next as FP make occasional special offers to boost take-up.

Technology

FP uses a combination of VOIP and data, i.e. it has an arrangement with an existing telecoms operator (“MVNO”) for the use of their data network and uses it to place the voice calls via the SIP protocol (one of the ways of using the Internet to make telephone calls). When you’re in range of a wifi signal, you can use that for the call and save on your data allowance.

It works with specific apps for Android and i-phone handsets that hide the underlying technology.The FP app is particularly closed and takes over some of the telephone’s functions, in particular, the dialer. In addition, FP have imposed quite strict geographic conditions on the Play Store (I haven’t checked for the case of i-phone and it s not available for Windows Phone). Since I had set up my Google account some years ago while I was in France, the Google store simply informs me that the app is not compatible with my phone. So, I had to resort to sideloading it.

It is in fact possible to extract the SIP identifiers to use a regular SIP app, but the operation really is very fiddly. A Google search came up with the method. It involves using a rooted phone, extracting an archive version of the app and running it through a  database programme. Hats off to the genius who figured it out. It worked!

I was then able to place  a call using a SIP app on a desktop computer, but the operation was hardly worth the trouble. In fact, I had wanted to be able to use my tablet to place calls via wifi. FP do have a specific app for use with tablets but it is not available for the UK. Not only that, the app is designed to be rejected even if you sideload it onto a non-US-registered tablet. So the only solution is to use a standard SIP app (I use Sipdroid, but others are available) and key in the horrendously long identifiers.

In the end, I just used an old Android phone that was lying unused in a drawer. I first thought it could be a good use for my ZTE Skate which only runs Android 2.2, but it didn’t work. So I used an Ice-Phone mini with Android 4.4.

FP’s app uses the SIM card to check the identity and set up automatically. The new version of the app allows you to enter a much shorter code.

Post code lottery!

When you apply to FP for a free SIM card, you first have to enter your address to “check the coverage”.  Somewhat surprising for what is intended to be a mobile service. After all, when at home you can use the service via your home wi-fi (assuming you have one), and when you’re not at home, the signal coverage is a different issue.

The same goes for the FP “global data SIM”. This SIM is gives you a basic 200 MB a month free in several countries. But last time I looked, it was only available to US addresses. So make sure you get one well before you start your travels. We’re still waiting for it to be available in the UK.

Problems and mishaps

My own experience with FP was that after a good start, there was a catalogue of mishaps. The first SIM arrived reasonably quickly. I plugged it in and got a data and phone connection and made good quality phone call as the first month comes with free premium voice calls, i.e. routed over GSM when the network is too poor to use VOIP.

You’re supposed to install the app only after you put the SIM in your phone. But I wasn’t able to download the app from the Google store. The reason is the only time I ever paid anything by bank card on Google was about ten years ago; I was in France at the time and used my partner’s credit card. So Google consider my account is French. But it seems FP have included geographic limitation on their app, which is why I couldn’t install it. I eventually got round that by putting the SIM into a friend’s phone, installing the app, extracting it and then sideloading it onto my phone.

My question is:  why does Freedompop impose a geographic restriction on the app?

A while later, I ordered a second SIM for my partner. That’s when the problems really started. Freedompop send out their SIMs in packaging that looks just like junk mail. So, it was treated as junk mail by someone else in the household who picked up the post that day, and duly binned. No problem, the customer helpline was very helpful and sent out a replacement SIM card free of charge. But instead of cancelling the account of the lost SIM, they cancelled the one that was still working. Too bad that I had built up a fair-sized network of “Freedompop friends” and a sizeable monthly data bonus. I ordered more SIMs for other members of the family when there was a special deal, but the problem only got worse. In the end a total of seven SIMs were sent out either as replacements or second orders. Four arrived, and just two worked. The problems were compounded by the quirky billing and discrepancy between the information on the web site and the app. This blog post is already too long, so I’ll spare the details.

The verdict

The impression is of a smallish company run by a bunch of newby nerds and are making much of it up as they go along. According to a press handout, they have over over 80 employees, are based in California and have picked up a fair amount of venture capital funding. But you really feel you are driving a beta version at best.

In use, the service has not always turned out to be reliable. The 200 MB a month free data allowance is fine for my needs as most people have wifi at home and at work  and free wifi is widely available. Out in the street, when I’m on the go I only need to check bus arrival times or book a cab or an electric car in Paris.

I found it useful to be able to call UK mobiles and send texts free using wifi while I am abroad. But with roaming charges tumbling and other communication channels around like Skype, Whatsapp and Viber, there is not as much need these days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Archos Helium 55 plus, disappointing

For various reasons I needed a new phone back in January. So when a major online seller put the Archos 55 Helium Plus on special offer I decided to take a closer look.

It seemed to be what I was looking for, ticking all my own particular list of boxes. Five and a half inch IPS screen with 1280 x 720 resolution, reasonably good  13 M pixel rear and 5 M pixel front camera, quad core, 4G, dual SIM (1 mini and 1 micro), Android 5.1,  micro SD card slot, 8GB/1GB memory, removable battery and so on. I don’t want to go anywhere near NFC. The phone had only been available since last summer. Add to that the phone is shipped with a 16 GB memory card, which the Archos Fusion software merges into the phone memory (a feature that is standard in the latest Android). With the special offer, it was priced like an entry level phone. Plus I like the idea of supporting a French company.  So I went for it.

Now for my gripes. First the dual SIM. One mini and 1 micro. Not a big deal but at least it saves fiddling around with adaptors. But it turns out that while the micro SIM is 2G/3G/4G, the mini SIM is only 2G. For the way I use my phones, it means it is all but useless.

But, much more annoyingly, despite its quad core Mediatek processor, I found it extremely sluggish. I tried removing the more power-hungry apps, making something of an improvement.