Tuesday, May 7, 2013

New Android Devices 1:A Samsung Phone Clone

I decided to finally dip my toe into the Android world a few months ago with the purchase of a new Android phone. I should have done this over a year ago, at least, but I decided to give a Blackberry phone a try, first. Boy, what a disappointment and waste of time that was!

So I went looking at different phones and their prices. I was looking for something on the economy end of the scale at first, but as time went on and my BB convinced me I really needed to just pull the trigger as even a low-spec candy bar feature phone would be less frustrating, I upped my commitment to the point where I was looking at bigger displays.

To stay within the price range I was looking at (less than $200 at the end, though originally I had been thinking less that $100), I went looking at clone phones from China.

Not My First China Phone

Those of you who've been reading here a while may recall a series of articles about a prior phone I owned, a Sciphone G2. This was a Java-based feature phone that had been skinned to look like Android. It was an excellent phone, and it's use of Java was a big advantage for me, as there were plenty of good Java phone apps and I could write my own J2ME apps as well. Calling it a mere "feature phone" was an insult, in fact, as I'd rather have one of these than any of the contemporary iPhones that were out at the time.

In fact, after mine went to the eWaste recovery site in the sky, I wished I still had it every day that I was using my Blackberry 8900.

When I went to get another, new China phone, I returned to where I'd bought my G2, hoping to find something equally good. Unfortunately, when I returned to the BlueLans site, I found more clothing than electronics. Their phone selection was ridiculously out of date. Yes, at the time, with the BB 8900 on my belt, I really did consider buying another SciPhone G2.

So I went looking for another supplier. I tried getting a phone from PandaWill. But that turned into a fiasco. It never even got past customs. I ordered a phone from them with a version of Android on a 4" display for about $80. It would have been a good deal, if it had been for real. Unfortunately, they sent me some runaround about not being labelled properly to be shipped with the shipper I chose. They wanted to change shippers, and from what they were saying it didn't sound as if the phone was what it had been represented as on their web page, as well.

Round and round we went. After over a month past the promised delivery date, still no phone. Still some incomprehensible messages from them that made no sense. I tried to cancel the deal with them. They said the phone was in transit (though they also said it wasn't, and that they wanted to change shippers. How can they change shippers if it's in transit? I know there's a logical explanation, and I can think of several possibilities, but they refused to be clear in their communications.) Finally I demanded cancellation of the deal or I'd dispute with Paypal. That did the trick. Suddenly, all their excuses for why the deal couldn't be completed as they told me it could until I actually paid my money disappeared and they cancelled it.

Stay clear of them. If they're not entirely dishonest, they're at least shady enough you don't want to have to sort out a problem with them. If there's a problem of any sort, they'll make it your problem, and my experience they'll at least lie through omission to do so.

Attempt 2

For the second try, I decided to go through a supplier on Amazon with a good track record and Amazon fulfillment. That would at least give some shielding against what I'd just been through with the first place. Initially, I looked for the phone I'd tried to order before. But, it had been a bit longer, and I decided to go with something with a newer version of Android and a larger display (there had also been several more checks deposited to the bank since my first try. I guess that's one good thing about the delay.)

The phone I finally opted for was an SIII clone. It has a display just short of 5", and claimed to be running the Jelly Bean version of Android. Fortunately for me, I didn't care if the phone had Jelly Bean or Ice Cream Sandwich.

When the phone arrived, it was running 4.0, ICS. The About This Phone page had been programmed to lie and say 4.1 (Jelly Bean), but the interface was clearly not JB, the phone reported 4.0.x when I hooked it up to my PC with the Android development software, and the "Easter Egg" on the phone is the ICS easter egg, not the one for JB.

Nevertheless, it's a great phone. The display is really good, the responsiveness was good. It had the right amount of memory and the processor and all the other technical bits were as promised on the Amazon page.

In fact, it was good enough I bought two more. I got one for my daughter about a month after I bought mine. Hers came with a version of ICS with more of JB hacked into it. The interface was more JB, and it had the JB Easter Egg. I guess someone saw my post on Amazon and updated the things I specifically mentioned. It even reported that it was 4.1.x to my PC with the Android Development System. There were still some pieces of ICS in it, though. But it still ran great.

About two months later I bought another for my wife. This time the OS really was Jelly Bean. 100%. And it was a different phone, though the mold lines were about the same. My wife's phone has a much brighter an more vibrant display. That's the first thing I noticed. Inside, the layout of SIMs and memory card is different, as is the battery. And while I had to buy the back with the flip cover screen protector as an add-on for the phones for my wife and daughter, it came in the package with my wife's phone.

One thing to note--while I ordered the same model of phone for my wife, the original supplier I bought from for myself and my daughter had stopped listing that model of phone, so I went with another source. Another source, a different phone.

I'm not disappointed, though, on any count. Everything important about each of these phones was as I wanted it.


Bottom line: This is a great phone. The actual phone interface in Android isn't everything I could want in the way of usability, but that's an Android problem (and each version varies.) Once you get used to the Android Phone application, they work well as a phone. The important functions for me, beside the usual calling and logging, are speaker phone ability and good reception in marginal areas. While my old, lamented Nokia 3650 was a better phone in both these respects, the SIII clone has been better than any phone I've owned since the 3650. It certainly beats out my "name brand" Blackberry, which was purchased in large part because it was lauded on these points.

The MTK6577 processor is really what's in it, and it's a great processor for a phone. I would say my tablet blows it away, but my tablet needs to drive a whole lot more screen, so as far as my feeble human perception is concerned, they're both fast.

It's a phone. There's never enough, especially when you're like me, loading oodles of memory hog techie apps like the Spartacus Rex Terminal Emulator. That said, it provides easy and immediate use of the MicroSD card memory when you put one in. Unlike, say, Samsung, which treats MicroSD as "something else". If an app allows itself to be loaded on the SD card, this phone will let you put it there and execute it from there. (For those not familiar with some other Android devices, they only use the SD card as data memory, and won't execute apps off of them, or move them to them.)

Programmers take note: making your app run off an SD card takes nothing more than a single line in your manifest file for the app, unless you're doing something on a very short list of things that require the app to be on the phone's main memory. (In which case, write a small helper app that does that in the phone's memory, then put the bulk of your app in another package on the SD card, dangit!)

It's great. My wife's phone is "wipe your chin, the drool is showing" beautiful, but the ones on my phone and my daughter's are very nice and sharp. Here's an oversized image. The colors are stronger and sharper than in this image, I did my best with the camera:

USB works great for recharging as well as for mounting the phone as a file system to Linux, Windows 7 or XP, and Mac OS X. I haven't tried Win8, nor am I likely to unless I have a powerful incentive deposited to my account.

The Wifi is also excellent. I've had several devices with disappointing Wifi, some that cost many times what I paid for this phone. It hooks up easily, and gets good reception no matter what mishandling I'm engaged in with the phone while browsing or whatever. I depend on Wifi, as I'm way too darned cheap to pay for phone-based data services ever since T-Mobile screwed me out of my grandfathered plan after lying to me when I changed service plans.

Both SIM slots work fine, and like most clones, this phone functions fine without a SIM if you're not planning on using it with a phone service. It has two SIM slots, I use one, but plan to add a second SIM card since we have a county nearby where normal phone service from outside the county doesn't operate.

The phone does not include Near Field Communications or IR, but it does have Bluetooth. This works well with headsets and for data file transfers. It's easy to set up and connect to devices, and the antenna on this phone is good enough to get it a good range (I send photos to my computer when outside and around the house without a problem.)

I picked up the flip cover to keep the screen protector from being scratched. My phone came with the screen protector already on, as did my wife's phone, but my daughter had to put hers on. Since mine floats around in my pocket now, and I occasionally put metal things in there before I think to pull them out and move them to the other pocket, I decided to get the flip cover.

The flip cover comes as a new back for the phone. The new back has the cover attached.

At first I found the flip cover annoying whenever I had it open and in my hand. It can get in the way of your fingers, or press into them when you're gripping the phone. After a while, the area around the hinge of the flap gets softened, and this problem becomes pretty much unnoticeable. At first, however, it's a pain in the tookus.

Covers made for the Samsung SIII don't fit, there is enough difference in the forms of the two phones that even the soft "jelly" covers don't fit this phone. So don't plan to add anything specifically designed for the SIII if you get one of these.

Needless to say (I hope), you'll also want to add a MicroSD card to the phone. It's good for up to 32GB. I've got a 16GB in mine, loaded with books and apps, but with still about 9GB free. If I put much music on, that would probably fill it. Personally I recommend the smallest size you think you can live with, as larger cards tend to respond more slowly, especially if you have lots and lots of files in a single directory. This is aside from the concern about speed of the MicroSD. Get the fastest you can find, at least Class 6, if you don't want to hate your phone because you bought a slow MicroSD (I used mine with a Class 4 until I bought a Class 10 for it, and the difference when the new card went in was like someone opening the windows in a stuffy room.)

Wrap Up
Finally, if you don't have a phone with a recent Android OS (4.0 or newer), I highly recommend getting one. It's a solid OS with plenty of tools to let your smartphone be really smart rather than just a parasite living off your PC or a toy trapped inside other people's apps. Load up a real file manager (I recommend ES File Manager, for a start, but get several as each will have its own strengths), a terminal program (several will do the trick without "rooting" your phone), one of the Scripting Languages for Android (which work through SL4A) and a cool old system emulator or two. You'll have a phone that you can really compute on.

This phone is the best pocket-sized device I've had since my old HP 200LX. Believe me, I've blown over a couple of thousand trying to replace my old 200LX with other mobile devices, trying to get something that I could do with a mobile computer from 1994. Now I'm there.

In fact, things went so well for me with this phone, that I decided I'd pick up an Android tablet, too.

But that's another story.

Google's "Upgrades"

My apologies to those who follow my posts, but who've had nothing much to follow lately. Google has been "upgrading" their services lately--that is, making them unusable for my purposes--by rolling everything into the cobbled-together stinking heap they call Google Plus. That means I haven't been able to build posts with images in my usual way. So I've been hung up waiting for a chunk of time to appear when I can try to sit calmly at the computer and put together a new process.

Hopefully I can manage it now, as I've got a backlog of posts that have been waiting on this.

I tell ya, though, Google 2013 is looking a terrible lot like Yahoo 1999. Services are poorly integrated, changes only make things worse, search results stink. *sigh* I don't want to have to shift everything off their services, but they're darn well pushing me that direction.

Enough of that, let's get back to the fun stuff...

New article coming online in 3...2...1...