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“Anyone saying that Android apps on ChromeOS are a good experience is delusional.”

Google PixelbookIn Chrome OS has stalled out, Dave Ruddock says Google’s Chrome OS has failed to live up to its potential. Ruddock is a Chrome user who says he does 95 percent of his work using the operating system.

When Chrome OS first appeared it looked like the future. Or at least one version of a potential future.

It’s a great idea on paper.

Take a minimal specification computer. One that costs almost nothing to make and almost everyone can afford. Give it just enough hardware to connect to the net and handle a web browser.

Cloud power

Then let efficient remote cloud systems do all the heavy lifting. After all, that’s what most people now do most of the time anyway. Few MacBooks or Surface Books are not web-connected.

ChromeOS users mainly connect to free services. That’s a problem because in the online world free can be a high price to pay.

Large companies don’t give services away out of the goodness of their hearts. They want to advertise their client’s products or manipulate you into voting a certain way. And we all know that works. It’s an aspect of surveillance capitalism.

This gets worse.

ChromeOS uses Android apps to plug functionality or entertainment gaps. The experience is bad.

Android apps can be cheap and nasty at the best of times. They collect far too much user data. Many Android apps live at the seamy end of surveillance capitalism.

Ask yourself why you need to give someone your home address to write a document or your first pet’s name1 in order to put an interesting filter on your uploaded pictures.

Dismal

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Android app on ChromeOS experience is dismal. I can’t bear to use it.

Many apps were clearly written for phones and make little or no allowance for larger screens and keyboards. They are buggy as anything and many are a security nightmare2.

There’s something else bad about Chrome. We live in a world where technology iterates towards a kind of nirvana. Each successive line of Windows or MacOS computers is a step up on what went before. Each new generation of mobile phone has a better camera, faster processor, is packed with more oomph.

This applies even when there are two-steps forward, one step back messes like the butterfly keyboards in recent Apple laptops.

As Ruddock points out, the problem with Chrome, the OS and Chromebooks, the computers do not appear to be moving in any direction.

Going nowhere

Chromebooks are not as clunky as they were, some are nice to use. But it isn’t going anywhere. The Chrome experience has barely changed over the years. There’s little prospect of it changing in the near future.

It’s stagnant.

Sure this might not matter to school students who need a fast, low-cost route to the web. It matters to almost everyone else.

Ruddock says there are aspects of Chrome life that amount to computing barbarism. He is being generous.

Sure, a MacBook or a Surface Book might cost getting on for ten times the price of a Chromebook. But the experience is on another plane. You can do so much more. It’s a struggle doing everyday work on a Chromebook, it’s a challenge being creative.


  1. Maybe not literally. But they often ask for information they have no right collecting ↩︎
  2. Although I doubt the average Chromebook users cares much for security or privacy ↩︎

Nokia 7.1 phone

New phone models arrive monthly. Most phone product lines get an annual refresh.

Apple usually does its annual iPhone upgrades all at once.

Top Android phone makers like Samsung, Huawei and Nokia have a few product lines. Each line gets its own annual update. The phone makers tend to stagger their launches.

Add in the smaller brands and yes, we see a dozen launches of note each year.

Goodbye two year refresh cycle

Phone makers expect you to hang on to a device for at least two years even if they refresh their model lines every year.

Carriers agree. Their phone plans are usually two-year contracts. Remember carriers make money when you to buy new phones and roll over two-year contracts.
While two-year contracts remain popular, they’re less common today than five years ago.

New Zealand’s Inland Revenue Department depreciates phones at 67 percent a year. That implies a life expectancy of under two years.

We’re holding on for longer

Most of us now hold onto phones for longer than two years. No-one forces us to operate on a fixed timetable.

There’s still a difference between Apple and Android phones. Android phone users tend to keep their phones for less time than iPhone users. Apple’s sales figures reflect this. iPhone revenues peaked two years ago. Apple is now focusing on selling services to its customers to make up the shortfall.

Five years ago Benedict Evans reported Android users keep phones for under two years. Back then, Apple iPhones stayed in use for more than two years. There are interesting theories about this in the comments on Evans’ post. This also explains why second-hand iPhones hold their value better than Android phones.

One reason people hold on to phones for longer is that upgrades are more incremental than in the past. A few years ago there would be dramatic changes from one year to the next. Now the emphasis is on cameras and cosmetics.

Phone hardware can live for years

Phones can take a beating. Owners handle them many times each day. They get dropped, knocked, scratched and soaked.

Yet, in most cases, there are no moving parts to seize up.

If you look after your phone and it doesn’t pick up too much moisture, the battery is the first part to wear out. Constant use and charging cycles mean they degrade over time. After about three to four years use they hold as little as half the charge they managed when they were new.

You can replace most phone batteries, even those in sealed phones. It can be difficult, there are official repairers and a cottage industry exists.

Although it may seem expensive to pay someone NZ$100 to replace a battery, it’s cheaper than buying a new phone.

Screen life

Screens last three to ten years depending on the technology, build quality and your use. Often the screen backlighting goes first. Again, repairers can fix these problems.

There are times when a new phone model is compelling.
Sometimes move from one year’s model to the next brings a must-have feature. Even so, you can expect to get at least two years from a device. They should last for three or more. Five years is no longer exceptional.
 Of course, some users give their phones a pounding. If that’s you, or a family member, you have two choices. You could buy a more robust phone model. Or you could opt for a a cheaper model that won’t break the bank when replacement time rolls around.

At $549, the Nokia 7.2 is a decent quality mid-priced Android phone. It hits all the right notes for business buyers. For everyone else, the Nokia 7.2 is a sensible choice rather than a pocket full of digital excitement. Choose it if you view phones as tools, not toys, if you prize value over pizzaz.

Nokia 7.2 at a glance

For:– Android One is the best Android experience
– Uncluttered user interface
– Well made
– Videos look great
Against:– Battery could be better
– Camera decent enough, but pictures a touch ordinary
Maybe:– Sober, business-like looks
Verdict:Sensible choice but doesn’t stand out from mid-range pack.
Six months ago the same specification would have been sensational at the price, today it’s ordinary.
Price:$549
Web:Nokia
Reviewed by:Bill Bennett
Review date:November 14, 2019

HMD Global has revived the Nokia brand with a solid range of mid and low priced Android phones. In doing so, the company has breathed fresh life into that market.

The hardware is well made and reliable, we’ll get to how that works for the Nokia 7.2 in a moment.

Build quality is important, yet the company’s main strength lies in its partnership with Google. It is part of Google’s Android One programme.

Best Android around

In effect, Android One means Nokia phone owners get the best experience Google’s operating system has to offer.

You won’t see bloatware or other annoyances. You won’t face inconsistencies.

And you don’t run the gauntlet of risky pre-installed software. Best of all, it means the user interface is refreshingly uncluttered.

Android One is possibly the purest form of Android. Companies like HMD Global who are part of the programme agree not to change the software.

In return, Google commits to refreshing the Android operating system for two years and providing monthly security updates for three years.

In other words, you know where you are with a Nokia phone and you know where you are going. Buy almost any other Android model and operating system updates are something of a lottery. In most cases, your security is, at best, an afterthought.

If I were to buy an Android phone, I’d choose the Nokia-Android One approach.

Nokia 7.2 – good business choice

Android One is particularly good for business phone buyers who worry about security and keeping software current. Like I said at the top of this story, it’s a sensible choice but it’s not a thrill-packed ride into the outer limits of geek wizardry.

The Nokia 7.2’s hardware is more or less what you’d get elsewhere for $550. There’s a 6.3-inch screen with what Nokia calls a teardrop notch. Some Nokia phones allow you to black the top lines of the screen out giving you a square display. For some reason this is not an option with the 7.2 does.

Nokia’s PureDisplay technology means standard definition video plays beautifully. Software, I presume it is software, tweaks the video picture to make it look more like high definition video.

In practice, this is better than it sound. It is also better than you’ll find in other similarly priced midrange phones, or at least the ones I’ve seen here in New Zealand.

The display doesn’t compare with the much brighter OLED technology found on more expensive phones, but that would double the price tag.

There’s a rear fingerprint sensor. People can get agitated about the position of a fingerprint sensor. Putting it on the back makes for more screen on the front. It almost covers the entire front of the phone. Nokia also includes a Google Assistant button, if that’s your thing.

Back in black

The review phone is what HMD calls ‘charcoal’. This is marketing speak for black. The case sits somewhere on the spectrum between matt black and glossy black.

Black means the Nokia 7.2 looks more like a business phone than some of the flashy colours you can find on Chinese made phones.

The phone’s back has a pronounced camera bump. There is what Nokia calls a ‘triple lens’ camera. While that’s true in a strict sense, it isn’t the whole story. You get a 48 megapixel lens and a secondary eight megapixel wide lens camera. The third lens is a five megapixel depth sensor. It doesn’t take pictures. So, in this case ‘triple lens’ means two usable lenses.

The set up takes decent pictures, but then show me a 2019 phone that doesn’t. They aren’t outstanding, but they can be good. You’ll struggle to find a better phone camera on sale in New Zealand at this price unless you go to a parallel importer. On the other hand, you may find a set of camera features that better suits your needs.

What else?

Some observations:

  • Despite the generous (at this price) 3500mAh battery, the Nokia 7.2 runs down a little faster than I like. I haven’t pushed it to the limit yet, but suspect it might not get me from 7:00 to 23:00 on a busy running around work day.
  • 128GB of storage and 4GB of Ram seems good for a $550 phone.
  • The Snapdragon 660 processor offers the kind of performance you’d expect in this price range. If you’re coming from a premium phone you might find it a little sluggish, but that’s more because you’ve been spoiled.
  • This would be a great phone to buy for employees or younger family members who don’t feel the need for a day-glo finish.

Huawei P30 Pro screen

The US government has blacklisted Huawei. As a result Google has stopped providing and supporting the Android software used on Huawei phones. American chip makers can no long supply technology to Huawei. The Huawei blacklist is part of a wider trade dispute between the US and China. 

Does the Huawei blacklist mean I have to stop using my phone?

No. If you already have a Huawei it will carry on working as normal for now.

Could China be spying on me through my Huawei phone?

Don’t be silly. If you’re like the average Android phone user you already let Facebook, Google and others spy on you. They make money that way.

If China wanted to casually spy on you it could buy data from one of those companies. If you’re a serious intelligence target for Chinese agents they’re probably able to spy on you regardless of your phone’s brand.

Is my Huawei phone a security risk?

No more than any other Android phone. Android is more prone to malware and nasty stuff than other phones, but this changes nothing in that department.

Huawei has not always been the best at providing necessary software updates and security patches in the past. The company says it will go on supporting existing customers.

I was thinking of buying a Huawei phone…

That’s probably not a great idea although if sales slump you may be able to pick up a bargain.

If you buy a Huawei phone today you’ll get updates for the current version of Android. It’s most likely you’ll get upgrades for the next version. After that things start to get tricky.

At the moment we’re on Android Pie. The next version, Android Q is due in a few months. Huawei has had all the code for both of these.

The next version, R, should turn up in about 14 months. The way things stand today Huawei won’t get that code.

Without official support, you could be cut adrift from the Android mothership in as little as 14 months. Huawei says it will continue with security upgrades, but you may struggle to run some apps once R is mainstream.

What about other Chinese Android phone brands?

How much of a gambler are you? The recent Huawei blacklist is specific to one company, but it’s part of an escalating trade war between the US and China. If you count yourself as cautious, then wait to see how the dust settles before buying an alternative Chinese brand.

Isn’t Android supposed to be open source?

Only up to a point.

Android has a number of layers. At the top there’s Huawei’s own software overlay, that’s EMUI on the premium phones. There’s a service layer which connects to things like the Google Play store, Maps and Gmail.

There’s a low level layer that connects the operating system to the hardware. The underlying Android operating system, AOSP is open source. Huawei will still be able to use that. It will be updated as normal.

However, Google usually shares this code with favoured phone makers months before the code is made public. Phone makers pay vast sums for this.

The blockade means Huawei will now get the code on release day, so users may wait months for upgrades.

This is how AOSP works for many smaller Chinese phone makers. If you’ve tried one of those phones you’ll know the customer experience often leaves much to be desired.

Yet it’s also how Huawei’s Chinese phone business works, so the company already knows how to deal with the restrictions.

The real problem is with those services or those of us living in western countries. If Google makes changes there could be problems for existing phone users.

Will I be cut off from Google services?

No. At least not for the foreseeable future. You might not get any new services introduced from next year on.

Is any of this covered by the Commerce Act?

That’s a good question. The simple answer is you probably won’t be able to use the Commerce Act as a way of getting your money back if the phone goes on working as normal. Although there’s an interesting precedent that suggests otherwise.

In the longer term you may have a case if a lack of software updates means the phone is, in effect, rendered useless before a reasonable period of time. 

If this happens, it won’t matter if Huawei is no longer active in New Zealand (see below). The phone retailer is liable, not the manufacturer.

What does this mean for Huawei’s phone business in New Zealand?

It’s possible the spat between the US and China blows over in a few weeks and things will return to normal. If not, it will soon be hard for Huawei to sell phones here. Anecdotal evidence says customers are already avoiding the brand.

That’s a shame because Huawei makes some of the best Android phones. It is the number three phone brand here. While it may not always look like it, Huawei acts to keep Samsung and Apple competitive.

Phones account for about half of Huawei’s revenue worldwide. Half of its sales are in China where losing Google isn’t a problem. So a quarter of the company’s revenue is at risk.

On the other hand, no-one knows if Huawei make much, if any, profit from phone sales. The Huawei blacklist could lead to the company exiting the phone market outside of China. If that’s the case, it could be doing Huawei a favour.

More a pocket camera with phone features than a mobile with a camera, the Huawei P30 Pro pushes the Android handset envelope further than any rival.

Huawei’s P30 Pro is the first phone with 5x optical zoom. It’s also the first to feature four cameras on the back. That’s five cameras all up when you also count the front facing selfie-camera. You get a lot of camera.

This should not come as a surprise. Cameras have been the key battleground for premium phone makers in recent years.

That’s because it is an area that has, until now, remained ripe for further improvement. Most other aspects of phone design are starting to look like dead-ends. One notable exception to this is Huawei’s Mate X folding phone.

All phone makers emphasise their camera prowess. Huawei pushes its skill a little harder than its rivals. The company has two main premium phone ranges; the business-oriented Mate series phones and the P series which is all about photography.

Huawei P30 Pro – everything up-to-date

When it comes to photography, the P30 Pro is, in effect, a physical compendium of all the latest digital camera trends in a phone-size box.

This year’s standout feature is the 5x optical zoom. It is more than any rival can offer. The most I’ve seen to date on a phone is 2x optical zoom.

Huawei P30 Pro periscope
A periscope makes better use of space inside the phone.

Adding 5x zoom to a phone relies on a complex periscope arrangement. To get that kind of zoom you need some depth, that’s hard to find in a phone that’s only a few millimetres thick, so Huawei used a prism to build a periscope through the inside of the phone.

The optical technology took me unawares. Periscopes are hardly new, but they are often big. Who even knew it was possible to fit a useful one inside a handheld phone and still leave enough room for everything else?

Leica

Less surprising is the Huawei P30 Pro’s array of four Leica cameras. Anyone who saw what happened to the razor blade market will know that was always on the cards from the day phone makers all had three camera models. It’s a more-is-more philosophy.

Lens number four is smaller than the others. It’s a depth-sensing time-of-flight camera. It should give better results with portrait images. The depth maps do a better job of separating the subject of a photo from the background. You get a better, more natural looking bokeh effect.

Huawei says it also plans to use this camera later with augmented reality applications. At this point I should offer a few words of caution. Phone makers are often not good at delivering on “we’re going to add this feature later” promises.

The main camera has 40-megapixel and there’s also a 20-megapixel ultra wide angle camera.

Super spectrum

Huawei adds what it calls a SuperSpectrum sensor. Most sensors divide light into red, green and blue. The SuperSpectrum sensor adds yellow to the mix. This lets in a lot more light, Huawei says up to 40 percent more. More light means better performance in low-light conditions.

The 5x optical zoom does what the name tells you. But it enables more zoom options. You can work the cameras together to get a 10x hybrid zoom mode. Push things further and there’s a an option to go all the way to 50x digital zoom.

Software

What amounts to a considerable amount of advanced camera hardware is neatly topped off with a serving of clever photography software. All phone makers talk about their devices using artificial intelligence. That’s not strictly true, not in the sense that the phones are smart enough to learn how to take better picture.

Huawei P30 Pro screenWhat the clever software can do is determine what the camera is pointing at. This could be a face, or a scenic shot with mountains in the background.

Armed with a rough idea of what is in the frame, the software can then adjust the exposure and other parameters. The whole adds up to a new level of phone camera sophistication.

It means in practice that you can often get stunning photos with the P30 Pro. Of course you can still get some naff ones too. But that’s generally down to the talent pushing the shutter button. Mediocre photographers have fewer excuses.

Screen, notch

Away from the cameras, the P30 Pro is a decent premium phone. There’s a 6.5 inch OLED screen. I can’t think of the last time I saw a premium phone screen that wasn’t ‘beautiful’, but this one also qualifies. Huawei has opted for a much smaller notch to house the front camera.

Huawei P30 Pro face recognition and fingerprint reader
Huawei face recognition and fingerprint reader

Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro has 3D face recognition. It’s fast but not a patch on the version Apple uses with the iPhone XS Max. Instead of going down that path with the P30 Pro, Huawei has opted for an in screen fingerprint reader. Maybe I could warm to this over time, but in testing, I found it hard to use and spoiled the overall user experience.

There’s an interesting approach to sound. Instead of an earpiece the front of the front of the phone turns into a speaker. To me this feels like showing off more that genuine innovation. But there you go.

Battery

At the launch function Huawei talked of getting two days battery life from the phone. Well yes, that’s possible if you don’t actually use it.

Realistically you’ll get a long, long working day from it with enough juice to order a cab home late at night. It may still turn on the next day.

In reality you’ll be charging it every night just like every other phone. The good news is that it charges fast. Half an hour gets you to about 70 percent.

Should you forget to turn the power on overnight, you can give it a solid charge while you eat breakfast. Make an extra pot of coffee and go in late if you need 100 percent power.

Huawei P30 Pro verdict

At NZ$1500, the P30 Pro is a big investment for most people. It could be worth the money if you want to spend time mastering the cameras and plan to take a lot of pictures.

If that’s not you, then you’ll find better value elsewhere, including elsewhere in Huawei’s range. You might consider the cheaper and smaller NZ$1100 non-Pro P30. It has a 6.1 inch screen, the same fingerprint scanner and less storage. There are also fewer cameras, only three on the back. It can only do 3x optical zoom.

Expect talk about devices like the P30 Pro putting the final nail in the coffin for standalone digital cameras. When it comes to consumer cameras, that happened a while ago.

The P30 moves the bar a little higher for other cameras. While I’ve found it’s still easier to get better pictures on my digital SLR, I can’t stick that in my pocket. In practice it means I pack the SLR less and less often. We’re quite not at the point of rarely using it yet.

Postscript

When I reviewed the P30 Pro, I charged the phone with a USB-C cable that I already had set up for other devices. In part that was because the phone was supplied with a Chinese power supply.

While packing the phone up to return to Huawei, I tested the supplied USB-2 to USB-C cable. It doesn’t work. This is an example of sloppiness that you wouldn’t expect to find with rival brands and goes some way to explain why Huawei’s core mobile network business faces problems.