Sunday, May 12, 2019

Bubble Counter floats above other apps

This app makes it easy to count something (reps, in my case) while using any app. If it looks familiar, it's because I previously reviewed an almost identical app that differed in how you closed the bubble and reset the count. I like the gesture based interface of this version better. The picture at right shows the settings but to be clear after you close that the green counter remains for you to position where you please. Free/no ads, but there's a paid version with more features which you should probably buy to support the developer!

Bubble Tally Counter (0.1MB, $0.0)

Excellent scientific calculator, free no ads

The android OS has a very basic calculator built in, but it's pretty lacking. I really like this one, which has all the normal scientific calculator features you'd expect, a good history display, and puts commas after every 3 digits, like a good little calculator.

No ads, no nags. There is a paid version for $1 that adds some features that frankly I don't miss. But it's probably worth supporting high quality work like this one.

CalcTastic Scientific Calculator (3MB, $0.00)

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Samsung Galaxy J7 Sky Pro: a nice mid-range phone but no flagship like the S7

Specs: 5.5" LCD, 2GB RAM, 9GB free storage, Android 6, 3300mAh battery.

The Samsung J7 Sky Pro is a mid-range option from tracfone; I purchased a refurb unit from them and it only cost $60, which is a pretty good deal. The refurb quality was excellent: I couldn't tell it from a brand new phone except that it shipped in a white box. No scratches, or marks, and it appears to come with a brand new battery.

With a name like "J7" it seems particularly appropriate to compare this to another Samsung phone: the S7, which just happens to be my primary phone. I'll also compare to an LG stylo, another "phablet" that's closer in price to the J7.

Body. At  152x76.2x7.6mm the phone is large but not painful by any means. One handed use is possible, but doesn't exactly make my thumb happy. I prefer the S7 in that regard, which is only 70mm wide. The J7 has .4" larger LCD, so that extra width (and height) is necessary. The J7 is noticeably smaller than the Stylo 3 (155x80x7.4mm), even though the LCD is only 0.2" smaller, so they did a pretty good job of fitting a large LCD into a small package. Furthermore, the J7 has a hardware home button and back buttons, so the USABLE LCD is actually slightly larger on the J7 than the Stylo. Well played, Samsung. The J7 has a removable back cover, and behind that is a removable battery. It's not clear how much deeper you could go as there are no screws revealed, but I suspect the phone is nonetheless more repairable for it. The back of the phone also has a lightly grippy rubber finish that feels good in my hand, kind of like the old Moto X2 "soft touch" model. I don't want to oversell this: there are definitely more grippy cases out there, but out of the box the J7 is nicer to hold than most glass-covered or metal flagships (such as my S7). Phones are getting more and more alike with every day, so it's nice to see something different, and the J7 is just slightly different, IMHO for the better. A-.

LCD/display. The IPS LCD is bright and has great viewing angles, and the color looks good. It only runs at 720x1280 but text was plenty sharp and clear. Compared to the OLED S7 the blacks weren't as dark, but for an LCD it actually had great contrast. There's no ambient light sensor, so you'll have to manually adjust how bright the screen is. Kind of amazing they left that out.

 I tried to compare how much more you could see on a 5.5" LCD than on my S7's 5.1", and found it difficult. It seems that the phones have rather different ideas of how larger text should be scale in chrome and elsewhere. While both the J7 and S7 feature settings sliders to scale interface elements up or down, setting the J7 to the minimum didn't result in the same text density that I've grown to prefer on my S7. Thus you see less text on the J7's larger screen! I'm starting to wonder if this is a tracfone thing, since several of their phones seem to err on the side of oversized text/UI. Nonetheless the difference isn't a big deal.  B.

Performance. With a Snapdragon 625 and 2GB of RAM I had decent hopes for this. And indeed, it was good enough. Chroming around the web was perfectly pleasant. Scrolling felt smooth and page time loading was fine, even though I'm accustomed to the S7, which according to benchmarks should be amazingly more snappy. Speaking of benchmarks: Geekbench single core 648, Multi 1696. My S7 turns in 1720/3900, but certainly doesn't feel 3x faster. No doubt I would always choose the S7 but the J7 is fast enough.  This was my first time with the 625, and I was expecting it to be faster than the equivalent 400 series CPU, but benchmarks didn't agree. My Stylo 3 has a 425 and it gets 649/1815. B.

Multimedia: Youtube video was stutter free. The only speaker fires out the right side of the phone which is very odd. And unbalanced. Not that the standard bottom firing speaker of the S7 is really any less "balanced", except that we have all become used to "bottom heavy" sound, not sound biased to the left or right of the screen. Actually, hold on - flip your phone into landscape mode and your "bottom" firing speaker is now a right side speaker. So I think it comes down to taste, and nothing more. The speaker is (very) loud and clear and even has a hint of bass. And the 3.5mm headphone jack provides a much preferable alternative to dongle-land a la Steve. A.

OS/software. It runs Android 6.0 and has most of the same Samsung tweeks that my S7 does, despite my S7 running 7.1. I felt at home and didn't miss anything from the newer OS releases. All the settings and apps I was used to on my S7 were there. So if you like the Samsung Way, this phone delivers. 6.0 might seem like an old OS but nothing really important has changed in a long time in Android and indeed some of the changes in 8.0 are back-steps if you are a power user. So I'm 100% ok with the software as provided. Some bloatware was also installed but nothing major, and "OK Google" support was also good. B.

Camera. Without a doubt the biggest sacrifice on budget phones these days is the camera. If you've ever looked inside a phone you'd see the camera hardware is tiny and just plugs into the motherboard, suggesting that user swappable cameras would be possible in an alternate reality. I'd certainly pay for another S7 camera to install in my Stylo 3, for instance. Esp. since they should be dirt cheap on the used market given the age of the S7.

The J7, being a more mid-line model, does better than the cheapo budget phone. Let's compare it to the Stylo 3 and S7. In this high contrast Xmass shot the J7 and Stylo are nearly tied, and the S7 looks fantastic as always. Note: photos are cropped to show more of the fine detail you would see when zooming about 2x into your photos.

What about lower light photography? Here the J7 does seem to pull ahead of the Stylo 3, providing  higher contrast and more natural colors, but not really more detail.

But excuse me for a second while I fall in love with my S7 all over again. I mean there's no comparison. Detail, color, contrast. All so much superior. 

Given how little improvement the J7 is over the Stylo I'm just going to show two last sets of S7 vs J7 shots. J7 on the left, S7 on the right. But if you forget, just assume that whichever photo looks best must be the S7. 

Actually... With lots of light the J7 does just fine on this comparison. Extreme dark and light detail are lost, but the overall photo looks good. 

The cat looks pretty good in either photo, so I guess the J7 is Cat Certified and good to go! But what about those barrels in the back? That home depot orange really shines thru in the S7, whereas the J7 completely overexposes it. I mean, both cameras took a good photo of what you really care about here. Unless maybe you work in construction...

Overall camera rating: C+. Better than the worst budget shooter, but not much better than the average $100 phone.


I liked this phone, but not so much the camera. As a budget model it delivers as well as any other phone in the $100 price range, but with a bigger (effective) LCD than average. As long as you ignore the camera this phone will certainly do the job for most folks but it's a long way from being flagship class, even when compared to the flagships of 2016 (the Samsung Galaxy S7).

Saturday, November 3, 2018

LG Rebel 2: hands on with a decent super-budget phone (lgl58vl)

Specs: 5" IPS LCD, Snapdragon 210 CPU with 1GB RAM, 3GB usable storage. 

This budget phone lists for $40, but a refurb that looks 100% like new cost me $10. It's locked to tracfone, but they aren't a bad budget provider. I didn't use there service so I'm only reviewing the phone here. I'm generally pretty hard on it, but of course for $10 it is actually quite fabulous compared to any other $10 tech device that isn't a phone. Of course that's because phone economics are pretty crazy and because tracfone surely subsidizes the price.

It runs Android 6 (marshmallow) which is old but it really that doesn't matter much - any app you care about will be written to work all the way back to 4.4. I'm sure they made that choice because marshmallow is less resource intensive.

Shape: It has a removable plastic back, a removable battery, and fits nicely in your hand(73x144x8 mm). The back has a pleasing texture that makes it nicer to hold than most flagships. I prefer the feel of the Motorola G3, and perhaps even the ZTE Majesty ProPlus since both are a bit more gripy, but this is good too. Under the removable back are actual Philips screws, so you could disassemble this pretty easily (such as to replace the screen). The bezels are as large as $10 predicts and while there's plenty of space for hardware home/back buttons, they insist on wasting valuable LCD space instead. It continues LG's odd choice of power in the back, but also supports double tap on/double tap off, which works well. A-

Storage is mediocre with only 3GB free. There is a SD card slot, but the phone only supports it as portable storage (not adoptable), meaning you will have to install all apps to internal memory and then cross your fingers that you can move them to the SD card (many won't). C

Performance was OK. Webpages loaded much slower than my S7, depending on complexity, sometimes taking more than a second. But some webpages are pigs. If you didn't have a flagship phone to compare to, you'd still probably wish it was faster, but it's certainly usable. Once the page loaded scrolling was smooth - unless the page was busy loading advertisements and running complex java-script, in which case there were certainly hiccups. The modern web is an insult to the hypertext aspirations of the 90s. Interestingly, the LG actually rendered JPGs in chrome faster than on my S7. It turns out I hadn't updated chrome in a while, and after addressing that the S7 again won, though by a smallish margin. Good code maters.

With only 1GB of RAM, switching between apps was slow too. Not unusable, but certainly very noticeable coming from the S7.  Well, maybe learn to multi-task less. It's probably good for your brain. Or maybe look for lighter apps? If only the play store also factored efficiency into the rankings...

But enough about how it performs in real life - what about benchmarks?! Everybody loves benchmarks. The CPU is a lowly snapdragon 210 4core at 1.1ghz. Geekbench 4 reports 392 single/ 900 multi-core. That's about what other 210-based phones get, if perhaps a little low on the multi-core. Let's compare that to the LG Stylo 3, a 'dragon 430, which gets about 600/2500, which most people would also say is a low score, but is a pleasure to use as long as you don't compare it directly to my Samsung S7. To sum up: the synthetic benchmarks agree this is a slow phone. B-

The LCD is reasonable, at 5" diagonal, 854 x 480. Yes, it's IPS, so the viewing angles are good. On some webpages it seemed like faint lines got washed out, but viewing full-color high saturation photos everything looked fine. I decided to pit it against my Samsung S7, a fair comparison if ever there was one ;-). Amazingly, the S7 didn't always look better when viewing photos, though it frequently came out on top. It took extreme viewing angles (70+ degrees off normal) for the S7 to clearly win. Reading text at arm's length (~1ft) everything looked good and my visual acuity was more of a limit than screen resolution. At 0.5ft or less the grid of pixels started to be faintly visible producing a mild screen-door effect. I've used other low-resolution phones like the LG Volt and not had this problem, so I suppose there may be a tiny amount of space between the pixels. You get use to it and it never interferes seeing whats on the screen, but it's another mild reminder of the budget nature of this phone. A- (but read on)

One much more unfortunate aspect of the phone is that the default text size and icons seem to be too large by a significant amount - as though this is a phone for grandma (no offense!). Compared to a Moto G3, for instance (the same size screen), everything is just too big. Given how giant everything looks, I think this might actually be a bug. You can adjust the text size under settings but it doesn't scale the rest of the interface so you end up getting silly things like menus with tiny text and huge amounts of white space above and below each line. There is a fix, which is to change the DPI, which changes all display elements, not just text. But LG didn't make this available under settings, unlike other phones I've used.

Luckily there's a method to change your DPI using ADB (no root required!). If that sounds like gibberish then this probably isn't for you. Read the link for the details, but if you already know all about ADB, here's the relevant command to scale everything properly: adb shell wm density 200 (the default is 240).  The screenshots below compare the default to density 200. And good news: this setting survives between reboots.

See how a tiny change in scale almost doubles how much of the conversation you can read? That said hangouts is a particularly bad user of screen space, clearly designed for premium phablets, not 10 dollar phones for the masses.

It's not just hangouts. Using the default DPI the screen feels much smaller than it is really, almost as cramped as a 4" screen,  though most apps are not as bad as hangouts. Unless you have bad vision, or know how to ADB, it's hard to recommend this phone. You might say it's a small issue that I've overblown, but recall there are thousands of phones out there. Why choose one that's fundamentally flawed? To me the crampedness is much more an issue that some tiny LCD issues or the rather slow CPU performance. F-. OTOH, it's fixable for the techies. A-

Now that I've "failed" the phone it seems silly to spill to many more pixels, but since the DPI can be fixed, let's also check out the camera. Cheap phones always have a hard time with low light so let's look there first. Below is the Rebel2 vs the Samsung S7, a top performer of it's time. To compare I'm showing a crop at original resolution (the actual picture is about 2x wider/taller). The rebel can't handle the dynamic range or dark detail very well, and it's notable less wide-angle. But actually it does kindof OK here, since there's not much detail to see anyway.

 This bookcase shot, also low light, really shows how bad the Rebel is. Since there's absolutely no comparing the detail level to the S7, I also added the LG Stylo3, a mid-range phone which can't hold a candle to the S7, but absolutely destroys the Rebel2. Note that all photos were taken at the same resolution, from the same spot, so the difference in scale is due to how wide-angle the lens is. You can certainly see more if you don't "Rebel" (again?).

Maybe a well lit indoor shot will do ok? This next photo was taken right under a skylight. Indeed, it may not be too dark, but boy is it blurry.

Ok I'm a horse torturer. Lets move on to an outdoors shot where the Rebel has enough light to "shine" (ha, ha).  Actually I'm quite surprised how bad it does here too. There's just no detail even when you have tons of light. I was expecting something closer to the Stylo 3: No S7 but tolerable. But the Rebel is a mess. Blurry nearly everywhere, no shadow detail, just yukkk.

The specs claim 5MP, but I suspect it's really much lower and has digital scaling applied. Even for a budget phone this is really bad. But it probably beats my first digital camera from 2001, for one 40th the price. Progress! I mean, I'd use this instead of nothing, and I'd be glad to have it. But you'd have a hard time finding worse sold today. D+

To conclude: This phone is everything you should expect for $10. That's not even a decent meal, anymore. I'd much rather be pleasantly surprised rather than have my expectations fulfilled, but for all my whining this is actually probably a good value for the price. But oh my goodness you could do better.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Redmi 6A Review: screen, performance, & camera evaluated

Specs: 5.45" LCD, 2 Ghz CPU, 2GB RAM, 8GB free storage, unlocked GSM, Android 8.l

This phone looks relatively premium but only cost $100 direct from China (but I did have to wait a full month for delivery). It features the tall + narrow form factor (18:9) first popularized by the Samsung S8, but without the curved LCD edges. At 147.5 x 71.5 x 8.3mm, it is only 3mm wider than the S8, and otherwise identical in size, but because the LCD doesn't curve around the edge of the phone the display is a full 0.3" smaller, at only 5.45". The phone body/back is made of plastic and is perhaps slightly slippery, but no more so than your typical phone.  For the price it's an impressively large LCD in an impressively small and easy to hold phone.

The LCD looks great, with great viewing angles as is the norm for IPS. It's plenty bright for indoor use, but perhaps a bit dark in full sunlight outside. The resolution is only 720 x 1440, half of the S8, but frankly that's plenty sharp. I think higher resolution screens are mostly specsmanship, and I'm glad Xiaomi "cut" that corner in the name of price. Even the tiniest of fonts are completely readable and appear sharp. What more do you want?

On the flip side, the tall+narrow form factor allows a published screen size of 5.45" which sounds quite large, but doesn't deliver as much screen area per inch compared to the 16:9 form factor older phones. In this photo I'm comparing the 6A (left, 5.45") to the Samsung S7 (right, 5.1"). The red lines connect the respective corners of the two screens, showing just how much taller the 6A LCD is. Yet the S7 shows about 3 more lines of the webpage (green line). To be fair, it looks like the Chrome defaults result in a slightly larger font on the 6A, so with font tweaking the 6A might at least match the S7. To be even more fair, however, the 6A isn't showing the android navigation buttons, which I turned off for fun. Put those back on and the S7 wins hands-down due to it's hardware buttons that never occupy LCD space. While the 6A has a fairly narrow bottom bezzle there's clearly space for hardware home/back buttons down there. So while the the 6A has a very nice form factor that fits in my hand perfectly, it's no better than the older-style S7, which is 1mm narrower, less tall, AND has larger top/bottom bezzles, but still manages more usable screen space. All hail hardware buttons?? Ok, maybe it's just me that feels that way.

To conclude on the screen + overall form factor: it's very nice, a solid "A". In this price range it's very hard to beat. The differences between this and the "dated" S7 design clearly come down to taste. Xiaomi did a great job here, though if I were in charge of design I would have made different tradeoffs.

The Xiaomi android skin is called "MUI9" and I had heard many not-so-nice things about it. But in fact it's perfectly fine. Perhaps its been toned down, but it's really not so different from stock android and only in neutral or positive ways so far as I can see. One nifty feature is gesture navigation, which turns off the screen-wasting ever-present back/home buttons. Swipe up from the bottom to go home, or swipe up and hold to get to recently used apps. Swipe from the screen edges inwards (either side) to go back. It mostly works, though "go back" is not always recognized and can instead cause apps like maps to scroll around and lose your place. I'm giving it a solid try but I'll probably go back to on-screen buttons.

Another nice feature is that you can have the phone display the current bandwidth consumed in the taskbar. It's interesting to see how much data is being pulled down all the time even when I'm looking at a "static" webpage. In general it seems like MUI9 mostly just adds tweaks that you can choose to enable or not. So I'm going to rate it "A", too.

Ironically for a "phone" review I almost forgot to discuss call quality. Well it's fine. Just as good as any other phone I have used with T-mobile.  Clear and plenty loud. I didn't want to burn thru all my data for the month but it did seem like the data speeds were slower than my S7, which makes sense: the 6A does not support as many GSM bands. On the other hand I don't have great T-mobile support at my house, despite living in a city. In general this is a weakness of the 6A: even though it's a GSM phone it doesn't support every band that a domestic phone would. And no Sprint/Verizon support at all.  I'm giving the phone a tentative "B" here - more testing would have been nice, but since my main carrier is Sprint I don't have the option.

From here on out things get less positive. What about performance? The MediaTek A22 (mt6762) quadcore runs at 2ghz, but those of you that recall the Pentium 4 know clock speeds are not all. The geekbench score is 816 single core, 2382 multicore. Interestingly, that's about the same as the snapdragon 800, also a quad core. For a more modern comparison, the snapdragon 430, a 8-core cpu, gets about the same mulicore performance from just 1.4ghz. Actually, I'm impressed that it benchmarks so well, because I find the webpage scrolling a bit jerky. Not slow exactly, but it stutters and the term "butter" doesn't come to mind. But hey, I'm comparing to a Samsung S7 here. Not fair! But I also have a LG Stylo 3 with a Snapdragon 425, and that's smoother too. That's a pretty fair comparison, and one that on Ghz alone you would expect the 6A to win. To be clear, this is a webpage issue only: scrolling in apps or the home-screen is indeed "buttery". And furthermore, the loading of webpages is perfectly snappy. The geekbench renderscript result, 1686, which measures GPU performance, was halfway between a snapdragon 425 and 430, which doesn't explain the jerky scrolling one bit. Conclusion:  For the price it's quite good. But certainly not premium. "B".

How about multimedia? Youtube works smoothly and glitch free. Full-screen playback doesn't actually fill the screen, however, leaving black bars on the sides, because of the 18:9 aspect ratio. Yet another way in which 5.45" isn't really, but closer to a 5.0" display. Not to say the actual full-screen experience is too small, nor is this any different than for any 18:9 phone. Volume is satisfying - at max maybe too loud. But it's a bit tinny, my s7 has somewhat better bass, not that any phone does very good at that. Without going back and forth between them you'd never know. Unlike many "flagship" phones there's a real 3.5mm headphone jack, thank goodness. Overall, "A-".

What about the camera? Here I'll compare to the S7, which had best in class performance back in 2016 when it was released, and the LG Stylo 3, an mid-line/budget phone with a camera to match. These are cropped ~3x zooms, meaning you are seeing the full resolution each camera, at least when viewed at 1920x1080.

In full daylight the 6A does OK, but decidedly softer than the other two. Daylight is easy, though.

In moderate indoor light, the S7 creams the 6A, but the 6A is still usable.

In near dark, the 6A does horrible, the Stylo slightly better, and the S7 "shines", at least for a cell camera.

Recall that these are zoomed in photos, so the poor resolution and high blur is highlighted in these comparisons. Just looking at the photos on your phone without zooming and you'll see it too for lower light photos but not as much, and for full daylight photos everything looks fine.  Consider these two unzoomed, uncropped photos.

 These are all the front facing camera. The back facing camera is actually a bit of a pleasant surprise. Depending on how much you like seeing your wrinkles, the 6A might be superior here.

To conclude: in daylight the 6A camera is certainly good enough for social media pics. Indoor  lighting, less so. Be prepared to take multiple photos and save the least blurry ones. And in low light, forget about it! Side note: the Stylo 3 performs a lot better than I expected though nothing like a S7. Oddly enough, it seems today that the biggest difference between flagship and cheapo is the camera.

There's an MicroSD card slot, a 3.5mm headphone port, and it uses the older microUSB connector. Like many Chinese phones it supports two nano sim cards, and refreshingly, there's still space for the MicroSD card slot when both sim cards are installed!

To conclude: for $100 it's very nice. Walking into a best buy or Walmart you won't find anything nearly this nice for $100 and what you do find will be a  pre-paid phone locked to some MNVO or another, whereas this phone is unlocked The biggest downside to the price is you have to wait a month to get it from china.

If you'd like to see some video of the Redmi 6A check out this video on youtube.

Monday, October 1, 2018

World of goo: tapioca bridges make a great physics puzzle game

Price: $5 regularly, $1 sale (fairly often).

This very old game dates back to the Wii but is the perfect fit for a larger screen Android (do they make any other type these days?). A bridge building puzzler set in a nicely rendered fantasy world, this game mostly tests your wits as a structural engineer and general problem solver using the most unlikely building blocks: Cute good blobs joined by semi-rigid protoplasmic girders. The levels are often variations on how high a tower or how long a bridge you can build, factoring in many constraints from the environment of the level. The game keeps it fresh by throwing in some clever puzzles where the solution is far from obvious, but completely logical. There's also a decent story line and varied level graphics and designs. In the end it feels over too soon, after maybe 4 hours.

Friday, September 28, 2018

ZTE Majesty ProPlus: a budget phone to avoid

Pro Plus specs: 4.5" TN display with hardware buttons, 2GB RAM, 10GB free storage, snapdragon 210, android 7.1. Pro (not plus): 1GB Ram and only 2GB of free storage.

This phone is super budget and they cut the one corner I cannot accept: it uses a TN display instead of IPS. That means the viewing angles are crap, and just the slightest wiggle of your hand results in significant color shifts and contrast reduction. Yuk. The resolution is actually high enough given the size, but with such ugly colors you won't care. And since it uses hardware navigation buttons you get to use the whole 4.5" for content. So that's something.

If not for the LCD it would be a decent ultra budget phone for $30. Although it only has a quad core 1.1ghz cpu (snapdragon 210), it does have 2GB of RAM. Thus it's certainly slow, but it is usable. The geekbench score is 403 single, 1058 multi. That's almost a perfect match for the much older Snapdragon 400, a 1.4ghz 4-core chip. So at least it's more efficient at being slow!

Youtube performance was fine if you can get beyond the crappy screen. The loudspeaker was loud (almost painful), and perhaps a hint of base at max volume, but also noticeably harsh. There was no problem with dropped frames.

Website performance was fine - slashdot took forever to load but once loaded was actually reasonably smooth and loading a single smaller article view was in comparison snappy. In comparison to itself, that is. Any mid-level phone would do better and don't even think about comparing it to a flagship.

The camera is crap, as you would expect. Even in good lighting it's dark. I'm not going to bother with an example photo. 

The phone has a removable plastic back made of a pleasantly textured and grippy rubber. In this one way it's actually far superior to ALL flagship phones. It's a bit reminiscent of the Motorola G3 back cover. Under the cover you can access the sim card and the MicroSD card. The battery is not removable which is disappointing in theory but in practice you'll not want to keep this long enough that it will ever mater.

Model number ZTE Z899VL