• Reviews and Hands-on

    by Published on 07-25-2017 07:30 AM
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    It's not the first Xiaomi phone to support American and Canadian LTE bands (that honour would, I think, go to the Mi 5S Plus) but the Mi Note 2 is Xiaomi's first global phone to get an extensive review by the western tech press—XDA, to be exact. Unfortunately the phone is not officially sold here; the review unit was provided by GearBest, a grey market importer based in Hong Kong.

    I'll provide a few highlights here, but if you're interested in this device or in Xiaomi products in general you should definitely check out the source.

    Specs

    5.7 inch FHD screen
    Snapdragon 821 processor
    6 GB of RAM / 128 GB of storage
    22.56 MP rear camera / 8 MP selfie cam
    4,070 mAh battery, Quick Charge 3.0
    Dual nano SIM support

    ROM

    The Mi Note 2 runs MIUI 8, based on Android Marshmallow. This will likely be the most polarizing feature of the phone. Unfortunately Xiaomi doesn't have the best track record at releasing kernel sources, so if you wanted a device for custom ROMs you'd be better of with the Mi 5S Plus—which at least is supported by Lineage OS.

    Note that because this version of the phone originates from Hong Kong it will ship with both Google Play and Mi Services on board.

    Why You Should Care

    It's inevitable that Xiaomi will one day sell unlocked phones in North America; there's already a trickle of devices and accessories from third-party sellers on Amazon. The company's growing portfolio of products will hopefully spur other smartphone OEMs to up their game. The North American market doesn't need another $1,000 phone, but it could certainly use some competition at the $500 price point.

    Source: XDA

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    by Published on 07-04-2017 07:15 AM
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    Mobile wallet fatigue. It's a thing. And perhaps my only excuse for glossing over the announcement of Paytm in Canada this past spring. Over the long weekend I finally got the chance to download the Android version of the app and have a look. In its current form it's nothing like what users in India would enjoy, but it does hold some value for Canadians.

    The homeland version, viewable at Paytm.com, looks like an Indian equivalent to WeChat—that is, an entire m-commerce ecosystem where you can pay bills, buy goods online, pay for physical goods at a store and send money to friends or family. I can best describe the Canadian version by comparing it to another Canadian Fintech innovation, Plastiq.

    Plastiq is a service that enables the payment of utility bills, taxes and almost any professional service by credit card. It does this by issuing and mailing a cheque on the user's behalf and charging their supported card for the same amount, plus a transaction fee. If you've ever wondered how yours truly can afford to travel so much, a big part of it is my almost fanatical obsession with earning points on my credit cards—and thanks to Plastiq I'm now earning those points on my property taxes and even condo fees.

    The only problem is that Plastiq's commission is pretty high, up to 2.5% on each cheque they cut depending on which credit card you charge it to. And this is where Paytm swoops in to save the day: as part of their launch promotion you can currently use it to pay most of the same bills without incurring any extra fees. Plastiq does give you the ability to manually add a payee yourself, but Paytm has an impressive payee list of its own. So far I've been using it to pay my mom's utility bills while my brothers and I figure out what to do with her house.

    Some additional factors that might sway you towards one service or the other: Plastiq is currently available in app form for iOS only (Android users can use a mobile or desktop web browser), but Paytm offers no browser login whatsoever—it's app-only for Android and iOS. And while both Paytm and Plastiq are available in Canada, Plastiq is the only available option for our friends in the USA.

    Links: Paytm Canada, Paytm.com, Plastiq

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    by Published on 04-28-2017 07:00 AM
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    Lots of Asian cities have what I call "tech malls"; in this part of the world technology just doesn't have the same geeky stigma that it does in the west. But Japan? Well, Japan is on a whole other level. For anyone who's ever endured a visit to their local Best Buy, what follows might blow your mind just a little bit.

    To set the stage, I'm in Kyoto, and it's just before lunch. The girlfriend and I have just transferred our bags to a new hotel, but we can't check in until mid-afternoon, so we walk towards the train station in search of something to occupy us for the next couple of hours. We soon come across the Kyoto branch of Yodobashi Camera. To call it a camera store doesn't do it justice; they sell cameras there, to be sure, but there's so much more to it than that.

    We head up to the 6th floor where the restaurants are. I'm not talking about a food court here—there are no less than nineteen places to eat, each with their own kitchen and dedicated seating area. There's also a coffee shop. And a bookstore. And a travel agency if you need it. We decide on a ramen joint but could have also picked sushi, tempura, yakitori, curry and rice, shabu-shabu, even Italian. The eating establishments here are apparently legit; by the time we finish eating the entire floor is packed with locals on their lunch breaks.

    It's now time for yours truly to hunker down and do some serious shopping; my camera bag is annoying me and I'm looking for a new one. "No problem," says the girlfriend, "I'll be at Uniqlo." She won't be leaving the building, as the 5th and 4th floor of Yodobashi are devoted entirely to clothes and footwear. Later I will meet her on the 3rd floor in the capsule toy section; I didn't count but it seemed to me that there were about a hundred different machines there, so it will take a few minutes to find her. But keeping in touch isn't an issue, even with only one of us being in range of our rented mobile hotspot. This is because Yodobashi also offers its customers free WiFi on all floors.

    On my way to see camera bags I take the escalator past the 2nd floor (home theatre and audio, also musical instruments and bicycles) to the ground level. I get a little overwhelmed by the three full aisles of camera bags, so I head over to the watch section to check out the just-released Casio WSD-F20. Then I take a deep breath and descend into the basement level dedicated to mobile phones (and also PCs); here every carrier has display units, flyers, full catalogues and dedicated staff at your service.

    At this point both the girlfriend and I both need to sit down, so we walk just outside the front doors to the street-level entrance to Délifrance, a chain of cafés that I know from Hong Kong. We grab some coffee and a couple of pastries and take a seat on the patio to watch the world go by. And we're not done yet—before we leave the complex we pick up some supplies at the supermarket in the second-level basement.

    Bic Camera is a separate electronics chain that offers a similar experience; chances are you'll find at least one of each in every major Japanese city. For a female perspective on shopping at Bic and Yodobashi check out this 2014 report on The Huffington Post.

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    by Published on 04-05-2017 07:45 AM
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    Missing from the image above is an animated blue dot that's surprisingly hard to screenshot...

    Had you asked me a week ago I'd have told you that I couldn't care less about Android Wear 2.0; so long as I had a good-looking timepiece that showed me notifications and allowed me to reply to IMs and texts by voice I'd be happy. But now that the wearable devices in my possession all run the updated smartwatch OS I can appreciate what the fuss is about.

    Everyone will have their own favourite features of Android Wear 2.0—feel free to add yours below. Here are three reasons why I'm a fan:



    1. This pull-down menu.

    If you can believe it, these four functions—airplane mode, theatre mode, do not disturb and settings—used to be on separate screens. So to get to settings, for example, you would have to swipe down and then swipe over three or four times. This new layout makes so much more sense.



    2. Only the watch faces I actually want.

    The old Android Wear gave you the option of choosing from the first-party watch faces that shipped with your watch, Google's own watch faces plus any random watch face from the apps on your phone. Google's faces aren't entirely horrible but the third party ones—from 500px and The Weather Network, for example—are of dubious value at best.

    With Android Wear 2.0 the user has control of which watch faces appear as options on their device. Huzzah!



    3. This keyboard.

    I knew there was a software keyboard on Android Wear 2.0 but I didn't expect it to be actually usable. But it is! It's a welcome alternative to voice replies, and very handy when, say, you're trying to co-ordinate grocery shopping with your girlfriend at opposite ends of a busy supermarket. In a scenario like this yelling into your wrist isn't exactly considerate—you may feel like **** Tracy but to everyone around you you're just an inconsiderate *******.

    So those are my favourite features of Android Wear 2.0 so far. Again, feel free to add your favourites (or least favourites) below. And if you're still checking your watch for updates, hang in there—it'll be worth the wait!
    by Published on 01-06-2017 07:00 AM
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    Yesterday I posted a video by Mr. Mobile about the BlackBerry Mercury; today I'm doing the same for the other phones announced at CES 2017, courtesy of an extensive list published by CNET.

    The only problem with that list is that they've made it into an annoying slideshow to sell more ad space. So, as a public service to you, I went out and found a video for each phone from my favourite YouTubers—for lip service's sake, the first video is by CNET themselves. Enjoy! ...
    by Published on 01-04-2017 07:30 AM
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    One of these things is not like the other...

    Over the weekend I tried out an ASUS ZenWatch 3. You'll notice from the photo that the plastic screen protector is still on it; that's because it's going back to Best Buy—a decision I made almost immediately after putting it on my wrist.

    Keep in mind that these harsh words coming from someone who, over the latter part of 2016, has somehow become a smartwatch snob, if such a thing even exists. I have a growing appreciation and respect for traditional watches but I also want notifications on my wrist.

    Through that very specific lens I'm going to bash this ASUS, and bash it hard. ...
    by Published on 12-14-2016 07:30 AM
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    Here's a quick tour of the Android Wear-powered Casio WSD-F10, with some random observations along the way.

    I'll say this right off the bat: my first impressions of this smartwatch were not great. That screen is an LCD panel, and in this photo it's actually in standby ("always on") mode. That can't be great for battery, and it isn't—the watch won't even last two days on a single charge. You'll also notice the flat tire at the bottom of the screen; it is not an ambient light sensor, and is instead there to make room for the microphone assembly (I think), which includes the black plastic slot up against the strap.

    There's one more thing that, once I show it to you, you won't ever be able to unsee. Look at the notches between 10 and 11 and notice the air bubble there. I thought it was a manufacturing defect, but it's actually present in every photo I've ever seen of this watch. Do a Google image search if you don't believe me.

    And now some surprising news: I actually do like the WSD-F10, mostly because it's the closest thing you can get to a G-Shock in a smartwatch. ...
    by Published on 12-07-2016 07:30 AM
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    For the past week I've been sporting this gargantuan custom-made Nixon Mission on my wrist. Here's a quick tour of the watch and software, with some thoughts and observations along the way.

    This particular watch marks my return to Android Wear from Pebble. I was, as you can imagine, looking for something a little more substantial—and I specifically wanted to try a smartwatch made by a traditional watch company. I don't consider Michael Kors to be a watchmaker by any means, nor am I a fan of the flat tires on those products. Ditto for the offerings from Fossil.

    I am, however, a fan of big sporty watches like Casio's G-Shock line, and when I saw an actual Mission on display in the company's Hong Kong store, I was sold. I ordered my watch from Nixon's Canadian site that evening from my hotel room, paying a little more for this custom colour combo—a brushed steel bezel in the gunmetal finish on a grey body, with blue on black straps. I was expecting the blue on the strap to be a little darker, but overall I'm happy with what I got. ...
    by Published on 12-01-2016 09:26 AM
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    I’ve been using my iPhone 7 Plus for a few weeks now and since I don’t have time for a full review, I thought I’d share some observations and compare it with my 6s Plus.

    First off, Apple finally ditching the 16GB base model. These days, you can do so much with a Smartphone, it’s irresponsible to sell such an expensive phone with such a skimpy storage configuration. It’s like selling a minivan that only has 1 seat in it.

    Models start with 32GB which is a useful start. The other configurations have 128 and 256GB of storage, up from the 6s Plus’ 64 and 128GB respectively, at the the same price points, which in a way, makes them a better deal - if you could call a $1000+ phone a good deal.
    ...
    by Published on 11-29-2016 07:30 AM
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    Over the weekend I finally paid a visit to one of these Google pop-up shops that I've been hearing about. Mobile Syrup reports that there are 14 of them across Canada; I went to the one in the Best Buy at Bramalea City Centre.



    What especially piqued my interest was this video documenting Marques Brownlee's visit to the NYC store. Pretty swish, right? Well, here's what the Bramalea version looks like:



    Don't forget the audio!

    I counted five Pixel phones, a Chromebook, Chromecast and a VR headset that was glued shut. Immediately next to this display were others of equal size from Samsung and Rogers. And directly behind was a much larger area devoted to Apple products. I should also point out that Google's efforts went mostly unnoticed by Black Friday/Cyber Monday shoppers.



    This was my first interaction with an actual Google iPhone (aka Pixel), as the Best Buy downtown has no Pixels on display. So what did I think of it? "Meh" is the only word that comes to mind.

    Its build quality is on par with last year's Huawei Nexus 6P. Google's ROM and launcher seem snappy enough. I didn't get to do much with the camera under Best Buy's horrible lighting, but I will say this: for the exorbitant price it's just not an attractive phone. You can argue that it doesn't matter once you start interacting with the screen, and I'll disagree—you can still feel the thing in your hands, and it doesn't feel (or look) anything like a Galaxy or iPhone.

    The best thing I can say about the Pixel is that it wasn't as disappointing as the pop-up store itself. That's certainly not saying much!

    Link: Best Buy and Google to open 14 Google Shops across Canada

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    by Published on 11-24-2016 08:00 AM
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    Spoiler alert: it's maybe not quite as great as the title of this post would suggest.

    If you're visiting Japan, especially with someone else, a portable WiFi hotspot rental is a great idea. Rather than line up at an airport counter for a local SIM and futz with radio bands and APN settings you can get a hotspot delivered right to your hotel, complete with a return mailer so you can hand it to the front desk when you check out.

    For my recent trip to Osaka I rented a hotspot from Global Advanced Communications, whose name always seems to pop up when searching the likes of TripAdvisor and Yelp. I went for the "Super Premium" option, and upon arrival at our hotel was handed a package containing the ZTE 303ZT you see here. ...
    by Published on 11-17-2016 10:58 AM
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    I just checked out Motorola’s JBL Soundboost speaker, and Easy Share Projector Moto Mods for their Z series phones. Next up is their camera accessory; the Hasselblad True Zoom.

    Hasselblad is known for their professional grade medium format cameras. So what is their logo doing on this decided un-professional looking camera? Did they really help Motorola develop a camera accessory or did they just have a bunch of extra Hasselblad stickers laying around?
    ...
    by Published on 10-31-2016 07:00 AM
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    So I'm going to be away for a few weeks—after I post the news round-up later today you won't hear from me again until Monday, November 21st. As a parting gift I'd like to share an excerpt from a fantastic book I've just finished, Losing The Signal: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of BlackBerry. Whether or not it qualifies as a Halloween ghost story isn't for me to decide.

    I'll set the stage for you: The year is 2010, and a delegation of RIM executives is at Mobile World Congress to meet with Verizon, their biggest carrier partner. Their relationship by that point is already strained, and Verizon is doing quite well with the Moto Droid. Anyway, in preparation for the rollout of their new 4G network the carrier is meeting with OEMs to see what 4G-capable hardware they have available.

    To borrow a hackneyed phrase from BuzzFeed, you won't believe what happens next! ...
    by Published on 10-24-2016 07:00 AM
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    Marques Brownlee—aka MKBHD on YouTube—did a thing, a side by side comparison of Siri on the iPhone 7 Plus vs. Google Assistant on the Pixel XL.

    Having not used iOS that much I was struck by how visually striking Siri's results could be, even if Google was more accurate overall. Let's face it, though, only a marketing person for Apple or Google would dare to call either of them "AI". I don't think we have to worry about the singularity anytime soon.

    BONUS VIDEO! ...
    by Published on 10-19-2016 01:49 PM
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    I’ve been playing with the Motorola Moto Z and some Moto Mod accessories for it. I recently checked out the JBL SoundBoost Speaker Moto Mod. Initially, I was unsure of how much sense a proprietary accessory would make, but Motorola managed to make it work and I loved the SoundBoost.



    Next up is their Moto Insta-Share Projector. It’s a pic projector that attaches to the back of a Motorola Moto Z family phone (currently there are 3 compatible Z family phones with presumably more to come). There are pogo plugs on the back of the projector which mate to connectors on the back of a Moto Z. It uses magnets to hold it in place which I assure you, hold it very securely. ...
    by Published on 10-19-2016 07:00 AM
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    Some embargo must have been lifted yesterday; around lunchtime my RSS feeds and YouTube queue were suddenly filled with reviews of Google's new iPhone, like the video you see here from The Verge's Dieter Bohn.

    This morning's plan was to post some links for your reading pleasure, but this longtime Nexus fan couldn't resist the urge to throw in his own snarky comments along with them. Let's start with Dieter, who says that the Pixel phones go "toe to toe" with the iPhone, and that the Pixel "doesn't fall down". This gets right to my fundamental problem with Pixel. It copies the iPhone so much, from its exorbitant price right down to the long-press actions on app icons, that it begs the question: Why wouldn't someone just buy an iPhone? ...
    by Published on 10-18-2016 07:00 AM
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    Okay, enough griping about Google iPhone wannabes... Here's a new video by Michael Fisher featuring five pretty great mid-range phones—actually, this one only really focuses on three, as the Moto Z Play and OnePlus 3 have already been reviewed on that same channel.

    Rather than just share the video and be done with it I'm also linking to some other reviews of these same devices and, as a bonus for my fellow modders, bootloader unlock information where available. Enjoy! ...
    by Published on 10-13-2016 08:44 AM
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    I’ve been playing with a Motorola Moto Z and a few Moto Mod accessories for a few days and thought I’d share some thoughts on how they work together.

    But first off, I have to mention what really jumps out about the Z is just how thin it is. I mean how can something this skinny pack flagship specs? What’s more impressive is that they managed to do this without having to resort to a gigantic bezel or skimping on the battery capacity.



    They didn’t skimp on features either, on the back are series of 16 pogo pins which allow you to attach a variety of add-ons called Moto Mods. Motorola isn’t messing around either, they sent me 4 different Mods with the Z including:


    • a serious sounding speaker from JBL
    • external battery pack for extended Pokemon Go so I can finally catch enough Dratini to evolve it
    • Camera with 10x optical zoom from Hasselblad
    • Pico Projector so the wife and I can watch Brooklyn Nine Nine on the ceiling




    These can all attach to the back of the Moto Z using magnets. In case you’re wondering; Yes, they attach very securely - they won’t come off unless you want it to and even then it takes a bit of coaxing.



    As it turns out the thinness, allows the Z to stay manageable even when you have a Moto Mod attached.



    So, far the one I’ve used most is the JBL speaker. I’ll talk more about the other mods in another write up. It’s considerably thicker than the Z and at 145g it basically doubles the weight of the package. Fortunately it’s very sculpted so it doesn’t feel too strange in my hand when I have it connected.
    ...
    by Published on 09-23-2016 10:36 AM
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    I was very excited when Pokemon Go launched, I really enjoyed playing the original Pokemon games 20 years ago, and was really looked forward to being able to play the latest version with my 6 year old daughter.

    The 2 of us have managed to make it up to level 28 mostly because I play a lot when she’s not around. However playing a lot of Pokemon Go causes 3 problems. Can the Pokemon Go Plus solve them? ...
    by Published on 09-06-2016 07:30 AM
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    [For any non-Pebblers reading this, I ask that you watch this less than two-minute video primer before proceeding...]

    So last week my Pebble Time Steel was the sudden recipient of a major software update—seriously, I had no idea this was coming, as the new Pebbles aren't due in Canada until mid-October. Anyway, my verdict on the new OS is that it delivers a very Apple-like experience. And that's not a compliment; what I mean is, the new software seems designed to necessitate a new hardware purchase, because it's made my current hardware much worse than it was before.

    I'll go through the new features step by step, in the order that they are demoed in the video above. ...
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