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mobile

Galaxy Fold woes deepen for Samsung

Samsung has postponed high-profile Galaxy Fold launches in Hong Kong and Shanghai. That’s after review phones sent to journalists had screen failures.

Samsung can ill-afford a second major phone launch disaster. In 2016 the company’s Galaxy Note 7 had battery problems that caused the phone to explode. There were two product recalls. Samsung had to withdraw the phone.

The most humiliating aspect of this came every time an airplane took off. Cabin crew would remind passengers of the explosion danger.

Lasting brand damage

If the Galaxy Fold fails on the same scale, and it looks as if it could, there could be long-term damage to Samsung’s brand.

This is a pity. Folding phones were the star attraction at this year’s Mobile World Congress. If they work as promised, they will give the business the biggest shake up since Apple’s first iPhone.

When folded, folding phones look much like today’s premium phones. The difference is they can fold open to give you a much bigger, tablet-like screen. This makes reading and working on a phone far easier.

Galaxy Fold expensive

Foldability comes at a high price. When, or if, they hit the market the early models will cost the thick end of NZ$4000.

Samsung and Huawei both had models on show at MWC. Some other brands demonstrated folding phones that are still in the pipeline.

Huawei gave New Zealand journalists a brief Mate X demonstration. It was long enough to get a feel for how the phones look. The display is impressive, but you do have to live with a slight crease or line down the centre of the larger screen. The hands on session wasn’t long enough to test the phones in any meaningful way.

Across the aisle, Samsung displayed its Galaxy Fold phone in a glass cabinet. There was no opportunity for the adoring crowds to get closer.

Samsung Galaxy Fold, part folded

Folding phones are impressive

At first sight both phones looked impressive. When folded they are at the large end of the phone spectrum. You could fit one in a jacket pocket. They weigh a few grams more than premium other phones. Opened, they are about the size of an iPad mini.

Most modern phone have toughened glass screens. Samsung covered the Galaxy Fold screen with a protective, flexible layer of plastic. The idea is that this stops the screen from getting scratched. If necessary, Samsung can replace this without the need to replace the rest of the screen.

In some cases review devices failed because journalists pulled off this protective layer. This left the screens vulnerable and easy to break.

Battle of the Galaxy Fold bulge

Yet that only accounted for some of the review screen failures. Journalists reported other screen problems. Some has models where half the unfolded display stopped working. At the Verge, Dieter Bohn’s review phone developed a bulge. This broke the screen.

Samsung cranked its communications machine into damage control mode. It issued a statement saying it durability tested phones to withstand 200,000 folds. It also said the problems were with a limited number of early samples.

If that’s true, the company still has a sizeable public relations disaster on its hands. Sending out half-finished breakable products is, at best, irresponsible. Remember, this is the company that once risked airplanes with exploding phones. Samsung should have learned to take extra care with launches.

Huawei Mate X

Meanwhile Huawei is prepping its Mate X for sale. If the company is prudent it will give the first batch extra testing before sending phones out. After all, Huawei has its own publicity problem caused by incompetence to deal with.

It’s starting to look as if Samsung could have a serious cultural problem. It’s not clear if the problem is engineering, marketing or management. One criticism is that management is rigid and unwilling to listen to warnings when things aren’t going well. Staff fear being punished for “disloyalty” and say nothing.

The company is capable of delivering stunning products. Every so often it can claim to have the world’s best phone. Yet, the Galaxy Fold and the Galaxy Note 7 have not been the only missteps. They happen to be bigger and more noticeable.

Otherwise impressive

The incident is disappointing on another level. Folding phones are amazing technology. They are a sight to behold.

I’m a hardened old campaigner when it comes to new products. Often at product launches I’m the grouchy one who isn’t impressed by demonstrations of slight improvements. Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than an enthusiastic employee inviting me to praise a product when I’m working hard to stifle a yawn.

Folding phones weren’t like that. They charmed and impressed me. Sooner or later I’m going to want to own a folding phone.

It’s a cliché in the tech business to say that Apple is often late with the newest ideas, but that when it moves it gets things right. Yet, if Huawei’s Mate X fails to take off, we may have to wait for the iPhone Fold before folding screen technology is ready for prime time.

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mobile review

iPad Mini review: Size is its charm

Apple’s fifth generation iPad Mini packs the power of the iPad Air in a smaller case. That compact size is the secret of the Mini’s appeal.

You may wonder if there’s a market for a 7.9-inch iPad when you can buy a 6.5-inch iPhone. After all, the iPhone XS Max is almost a tablet.

Apple say iPad Mini sales have been steady since the format was first introduced. It’s not for everyone, yet some people who like the Mini are fanatic about their favourite tablet.

One reason is the cost. At NZ$680, the base model iPad Mini costs less than one-third the price of the cheapest iPhone XS Max. It’s not the cheapest iPad, but it’s good value.

Sweet spot

Price is not the only explanation for the Mini’s popularity. The size hits an important sweet spot.

At 7.9-inches, Apple’s 2019 iPad Mini comes in about halfway between the iPhone XS Max and the 10.5-inch iPad Air.

While having a bigger screen than a phone is an advantage, the iPad Mini is still small and light. It weighs 300 grams. It’s handy and very portable.

At a pinch you can fit it in a pocket. OK, a big pocket. Cargo pants could come back into fashion to accommodate iPad Minis. It also slips into a handbag or any other bag. You can hide it in a car glove compartment.

Pythagoras understood

We measure screen sizes across the diagonal. Thanks to Pythagoras’ theorem a 7.9-inch display has 50 percent more viewing area than a 6.4-inch screen. In other words, it’s a big leap.

Among other reasons, the iPad Mini is the right size for people who work on the move. Think of police officers or health professionals. It helps that most people can grip it in one hand.

IPad mini fits one hand

I also find typing on the larger iPad Mini glass keyboard is easier than tapping on a phone screen. That’s because I’m a big bloke with big fingers.

Thumb typing

Apple’s bigger 12.9-inch iPad Pro keyboard works well when laid flat. The Mini keyboard is at its best when vertical. If you hold it up with your hands and hit the keys with your thumbs.

The action is like phone typing, but there’s more room.

This is an effective way of typing when you’re on a crowded bus, train or airplane. I haven’t had the chance to test it on a plane yet. I’m sure if I did I could be productive even in a cramped seat.

The extra screen real estate makes it better than a phone for reading complex information and maps or for inspecting photos. It’s roughly the same size as an e-book reader like the Kindle.

iPad Mini beats phone for web

There’s no question the iPad Mini does a better job of displaying every kind of web or app content better than a phone.

Although you can, at a pinch, run side-by-side apps on the iPad Mini, that’s not its strength. In practice I found I only ever used one app at a time.

In all other respects except the screen, the new iPad Mini uses the same technology as the current iPad Air model. It even has the same A12 chip as the iPhone XR. That means there’s a lot of computing power.

There’s a laminated screen, support for Apple Pencil and True Tone. The last of these means the iPad will adjust screen whites to compensate for lighting conditions. Apple says you get 10 hours battery life. We found that’s about right when we tested the Mini.

Lightning strikes

A couple of quirks: there’s a headphone jack and a lightning port for charging. New Apple devices don’t all have the jack and prefer USB-C over Lightning.

At times the Mini feels more like a big phone than a small iPad1.

The new iPad Mini costs NZ$680 for the basic wi-fi model with 64GB of storage. Boosting the storage to 256GB takes the price to NZ$929. Adding cellular puts another NZ$120 on the price. You might also consider the Apple Pencil at NZ$160.

iPad Mini verdict

My few niggles with the 2019 iPad Mini are minor. The design is the same as seven years ago. There’s less screen and more bezel, the case edges around the screen, than on more modern looking iPads. It also supports the old first generation Apple Pencil, not the new version.

Should you buy the iPad Mini? It’s not the right thing to buy if you’re looking for a laptop replacement. If that’s your goal, get an iPad Air or a iPad Pro model.

If you want a tablet for reading and writing while you’re on the go, it’s ideal. The iPad Mini is a good choice for taking notes and consuming media. It’s also a great upgrade for owners of long-in-the-tooth first generation iPad Minis. I suspect this will follow its ancestor to become another classic.


  1. For perspective, Huawei’s Mate X folding phone has an eight-inch screen. ↩︎
Categories
mobile telecommunications

2degrees almost unlimited mobile plan looks the deal

A new unlimited mobile plan from 2degrees can be yours for as little as NZ$40 a month if you are on a shared account. If only one person pays the bill it’s NZ$85. This makes it the best bang-for-buck mobile plan in the country, but there are fish-hooks in the small print.

Unlike rival unlimited offers from Spark and Vodafone, the new 2degrees unlimited plan allows hotspots and tethering.

Yet a sensible journalist might suspect something is up when a press release comes with a footnote attached to the word unlimited.

That’s because unlimited has a non-standard meaning in the 2degrees English dialect. While you may think the word means all-you-can-eat data, at 2degrees it stands for 40GB then the data hose becomes a dripping 1mbps tap.

On top of that, the small print warns: “hotspotting speeds may be reduced further during periods of network congestion”.

So, it’s not unlimited in any usually accepted sense.

That said, the new 2degrees unlimited plan is generous. It is also a better deal than you’ll get from the big mobile carriers.

A monthly 40GB data cap, that’s what we’re really talking about here, is more than you’re likely to need if you use your phone for mail, browsing the web and running everyday apps.

It’s also plenty if you hotspot or tether for similar use. Laptops and iPads can often get through more data than phones.

The 40GB cap is not going to get you far if you watch a lot of streaming video. Even if you stick to modest resolution video, you’ll get through your entire month’s allowance in a couple of days. Choose high-definition video and 2degrees will throttle your connection before the sun goes down on day one.

Small print aside, the 2degrees unlimited mobile plan is beyond competitive. Assuming you get decent coverage on the network, it’s a bargain. The deal is especially good for families sharing a single account. That 40GB cap is per person. Which means you can get all the phone and mobile data four family members need for NZ$160.

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mobile review

AirPods 2: Apple’s clever wireless headphones get tidy tweak

Longer battery life, new charging case, hands-free Siri. AirPods 2 are a refreshed version of Apple’s popular wireless earphones.

From the outside, you’d be hard pressed to tell Apple’s updated AirPods from the model they replace. The two look identical.

Identical looks mean they also have an identical fit. If AirPods didn’t sit comfortably in your ears last time around, the new model changes nothing. Likewise if you had a problem with them falling out your ears, that’s still going to plague you1.

There’s also no discernible difference between the sound on the new and old models when it comes to playing music. You still get a full, clear sound.

A single AirPod

AirPods 2: Good sounds

The bass is not too heavy and the treble stays under control. You don’t get mentally exhausted by jangling highs. All the music I tried sounded crisp. The AirPods pick up a surprising amount of detail. They cope well with a range of musical genres.

There’s no active or passive noise cancellation and the AirPod design does little to block out excessive background noise. I haven’t had an opportunity to test them on a flight yet, but they work well on public transport.

When AirPods first appeared, I passed because recently purchased fancy noise cancelling over-the-head headphones. While the headphones are still more comfortable for long listening sessions, upwards of, say a couple of hours, the pods are so light and unobtrusive that, at first, it’s almost like you’re not wearing anything at all.

Upgraded chip

Apple says the newer AirPods 2 have an upgraded chip which improves performance in some areas: Longer battery life for voice phone calls, faster switching between devices and lower latency.

Because I’m new to AirPods I can’t tell you if the experience is better. What I can tell you is the experience is easily as good as I’ve had from other bluetooth speakers, earbuds and headphones.

With the earlier AirPods you had to double tap to launch Apple’s Siri voice interface. Now you can start the app by saying “Hey Siri”. This is how it works with the iPhone, iPad and Mac. While I’m too embarrassed to do this in public, it works well. Telling Siri to play your music choices is a useful feature when your hands are busy.

Like the earlier AirPods, your music will automatically pause if you remove one from an ear.

Qi charging

The wireless charging case work with Qi. This is a standard, you’ll find it on some iPhones and Androids. It means you can use the charging pads you already have to give your AirPods more juice. In practice it works well, although it isn’t fast.

It takes between three and four hours to fully charge the AirPod case using wireless and around two hours if you stick with the lightning connector.

AirPods show the best of Apple’s approach to technology. In use they are radically simple, so simple and easy to use they merge almost seamlessly into the background of daily life. After a few days you almost forget what life was life before you had them.

AirPods 2 verdict

There are few reasons to upgrade from first generation AirPods and even fewer if you’re not going to use wireless charging. That said, there are stories that ageing AirPods suffer from worn-out batteries, so there will be upgraders.

If you’re the kind of person who aims to impress by owning the latest fashionable kit you’ll be disappointed. While AirPods are something of a fashion accessory, there’s no extra kudos showing off the latest version.

One weakness; AirPods don’t fit everyone and they can fall out of your ears if you are active.

They’re not cheap at NZ$350 for a pair of AirPods 2 with a wireless charging case or NZ$280 for the non-wireless case. Yet, you’ll struggle to find better wireless earphones. They have plenty of battery life and the sound is as good as you’ll find anywhere else.


  1. If you are new to AirPods and wonder if they will fit, there’s an easy way to find out. The earpieces are more or less than same size and shape and those on the wired earbuds that come with iPhones. So long as they fit your ears, AirPods will be fine. ↩︎
Categories
mobile

Questions remain as Moutter moves on

Spark New Zealand managing director Simon Moutter is retiring. From 30 June customer director Jolie Hodson will take over.

Moutter remade, rebranded and renamed Telecom New Zealand.

He inherited a Telecom NZ that was not of his making. Moutter was the company’s chief operating office between 2003 and 2008, then spent four years as Auckland International Airport. He returned to Telecom as managing director in 2013.

During his absence, the government reformed the telecommunications industry. This triggered a set of moves that saw Chorus demerge from Telecom to win UFB fibre contracts.

From vertical integration to retail telco

The Telecom Moutter left was a vertically integrated incumbent. The Telecom he rejoined was a retail telco forced to a level playing field with 90-odd rivals.

His first challenge was to make sure the business survived the changes. His second challenge was to put it back on the path to thriving. Moutter achieved both these goals with distinction. Today’s Spark is a vibrant, competitive telco.

It remains New Zealand’s leading telco by size. Spark also leads its rivals on innovation. At the time Moutter joined Spark was number one in broadband connections. It still is, although its market share has dropped a little.

Mobile success

Back then it was number two in mobile behind. It has since caught up. You could even argue it is now the market leader. It definitely has a technical edge. Spark is leading the way to 5G mobile networks.

Moutter was in charge when the business changed its name. The move told the world it was no longer a telecommunications company. Since then it has moved into the media sector. It has a sizeable streaming TV service and has made significant investments in streaming sports media.

We don’t hear much about it, but Simon Moutter has done much to make Spark a more equitable workplace. Spark won the Rainbow tick. Moutter has also spoken out against race or gender discrimination. He has pushed Spark into the 21st century.

There’s lots to admire.

Jolie Hodson
Spark customer director Jolie Hodson takes over as Chief Executive in July.

It appears that Moutter planned his resignation and handover to Hodson some time ago. Yet the timing is a problem. Moutter leaves Spark while huge and risky projects remain unresolved.

This unfinished business may explain why investors pushed the company’s share price down 3.5 percent immediately on hearing the news. At the time of writing the share price has fallen further and ahead of the market. It is down a total of 4.5 percent since the announcement.

Spark faces three challenges

First, the Rugby World Cup. There are stories that people inside Spark are becoming ever more nervous about this project.

Even if everyone involved with fibre network connections works long hours, there still isn’t enough time between now and the RWC kick off to install fibre to all the customers who want it. This problem could blow up as the event gets closer.

Spark Sport’s app fell over last weekend. The company emphasises the software is still in beta and failures are expected. Even so, the wheels fell off. That’s ominous.

My contacts tell me there is widespread pessimism about the apps’ ability to deliver inside Spark.

Spark prestige

It’s not just about money. Spark Sport and the Rugby World Cup are high profile, prestige projects. If Spark succeeds it wins both money and kudos. If it fails, the company’s reputation is at stake.

Spark’s second challenge is 5G. Moutter set a target of getting a 5G network up and running in time for the America’s Cup yacht races. They start next year.

Delivering on that narrow promise isn’t hard. Spark can borrow necessary spectrum in a small area around Auckland’s harbour. Installing half a dozen 5G towers is no big deal.

On paper there is the unresolved matter of Huawei building the 5G network. No matter, Spark has other options.

A more pressing issue is an Auckland Harbour-only 5G network might not satisfy customers elsewhere.

Rival mobile companies are not yet in a position to invest in 5G. Getting there first is important. It would cement Spark as the mobile leader without question. A prolonged delay on a wider roll-out could see customers and investors lose confidence.

Agile

Spark’s third challenge flies under the radar. Moutter lead Spark in a move to Agile working.

While all the official noises from inside the company say it has been a success, that’s not the message that’s circulating elsewhere in the industry with Spark employees keen to find employment elsewhere. There is still time for this to go wrong.

It’s normal for a leader to leave a company without drawing a line under big items, but Moutter’s personal brand is associated with all three of these. There may be nothing to it, but investors and analysts are not convinced. Moutter and Hodson have three months to show otherwise.