Galaxy Note Edge: Why the Edge?

September 11, 2014   Comments
Galaxy Note Edge - Source: Engadget

By Allan Pulga

I meant to blog about this last week, but didn't get a chance. Have you seen this phone? Does it need an edge?

Engadget's Brad Molen did his best to explain its value (Sept. 3):

"Since the whole point of the phone's very existence is the screen, Samsung made sure to add enough functionality to put it to good use," he wrote. "In fact, it serves many different purposes, and once developers have access to the SDK (which Samsung says should come out very soon), there will be plenty more ways to take advantage of it.

"The UI of the bar is straightforward and basic, since there isn't much you can do with a narrow strip of display space. Often, what's shown here will depend on the app: If you're in the camera or watching videos, this strip becomes a sidebar containing all of your shortcuts and settings so they don't take up other valuable screen space or get in the way. However, you can still access a plethora of different types of bars, whether in or out of the app; notifications, weather info, stock tickers, clocks, news feeds, quick shortcuts and even games are available from nearly every screen."

Molen notes that the edge is tailored to right-handed users. Samsung says it's fine for lefties too, as they can flip the phone and use it upside down. Molen responds that it's still "a huge inconvenience if you plan on using the home button or making phone calls at all."

Gizmodo's Darren Orf  pointed out (Sept 3) the Edge comes with its own SDK (i.e. app developers must develop for it specifically, not Android "edge" phones in a general sense). "Samsung says it isn't incredibly hard, but a unique SDK means adoption will be a slow-going process, so don't expect functionality for all your favorite apps anytime soon…or ever."

That sucks.

VentureBeat's Devindra Hardawar called the Edge "stylish yet awkward" (Sept. 3). "The Note Edge looks cool, to be sure, but after spending a few minutes with it today, I’m not sure why anyone would want to use it. Its curved edge makes it even wider than the already-wide Note 4, which made it impossible for me to hold comfortably. And no, I don’t have small hands."

That's my inclination too: The additional edge looks neat and I could see it having value for things like notifications or a live ticker for sports scores or stock prices, but from a UX standpoint, it just seems cumbersome. Do you accidentally open apps and settings, when you quickly grab the phone to answer a call? It doesn't seem useful. To me, it's just a gimmick.

A Wrap-Up of Yesterday's Apple Announcements

September 10, 2014   Comments
iphone-6-and-6-plus - Source: BGR

By Allan Pulga

Much was made of Apple's product announcements yesterday. The iPhone 6 and the new Apple Watch stood out, but what else?

I asked my iQmetrix colleagues (UX Architect/BA Collin Prior and Director of R&D Garett Rogers) for their highlights (full article here). Some excerpts below:

  • Apple Watch: Collin says Apple has "nailed it" in terms of making a smartwatch with mass appeal (shown below). Garett notes that 90% of a smartwatch's functionality is based on "telling time and receiving timely updates," so people should judge the watch mostly on that than on its extras.
  • Apple Pay: Apple's user base alone should tip NFC tap-to-pay into the mainstream, Collin says. Garett warns that it's still uncertain Apple Pay will work with existing NFC pay terminals, but if it does, "it's a huge win."
  • iPhone 6 Hype: Most of the rumours were accurate (except for the full sapphire screen, unfortunately). The larger form factor (both iPhone 6 models) is significant, of course. Also, at over $1,000, the 128GB iPhone 6 Plus price tag exceeded the hype.
Apple Watch - Source: CNET

The Difficulty in Calling One Phone 'The Best'

September 5, 2014   Comments

By Allan Pulga

Forbes tech columnist Ewan Spence wrote an article a few weeks ago (Aug. 13), saying he won't recommend the iPhone 6, the Galaxy Alpha, or any other smartphone. Why? "Mostly because I find one of the hardest questions to be asked online is 'which phone should I buy?'" he writes.

"It’s a question that doesn’t have an easy and honest answer. There are safe answers, but that’s not necessarily the best answer."

Spence says safe answers are an iPhone (if they own Apple products) or a Galaxy S5 (for everyone else), but admits the best phone for someone depends on what that person wants the phone to do.

Such a conundrum reminds me of a blog post a colleague of mine, Collin Prior, wrote back in May on The Commoditization of Smartphones.

"Phones are going through a similar period to what laptops went through a while ago," he wrote. "There are few things to dramatically improve upon in smartphones as they appear today."

A month before that, I made a similar statement in my video review of the Galaxy S5: "Everyone I know has a high-end smartphone now, so it's that much harder for manufacturers to impress us with new phones." Back when we were upgrading from a feature phone (or no phone at all) to a smartphone, it felt like a quantum leap. Nowadays? Not so much.

To conclude, I'll quote (as Collin did in his blog post) WIRED's Mat Honan (May 18): "It’s gotten easy to get blasé about high end flagships," Honan writes. "The processors, cameras, screens, and, increasingly, the apps are all very, very good. We’ve reached the point of incremental improvements. They have parity. You basically know what’s coming, year after year."

That parity is what makes it so hard to recommend a single phone as "the best."

 

HTC One M8 Runs On Windows Phone

September 5, 2014   Comments
Windows HTC One M8

By Allan Pulga

In case you missed it, a couple weeks ago, HTC released a Windows-Phone version of its One M8 flagship phone.

The phone is sold exclusively through Verizon, at a promotional price of $100 through Verizon's website. "The phone will be preloaded with Verizon’s NFL Mobile, allowing free streaming of games, and will support Verizon Messages via Wi-Fi. Users can also pay $29.99 per month to buy the phone through Verizon’s Edge service," wrote PC World's Mark Hachman (Aug. 19). "Windows Phone’s recent update will support HTC’s Dot View cover, as well."

Hachman said HTC didn't disclose how long it took to transition the device's hardware to Windows Phone, or the cost involved. Microsoft certainly helped though.

"Porting existing hardware to Windows Phone would seem a simple, relatively inexpensive way to grow the Windows Phone ecosystem," he wrote. "At this point, the One (M8) for Windows is an experiment, but a very interesting one."

The Verge's Dan Seifert pointed out you can get the Android M8 in a variety of colors, but the Windows model only comes in graphite gray (shown above). He says the Windows M8 "could be a compelling option for a select number of people interested in Windows Phone but looking for something other than Nokia’s offerings."

The New Moto X Has Arrived

September 5, 2014   Comments
Moto X photo - Source: Engadget

By Allan Pulga

Not two months ago, BGR called the LG G3 "Android's New King." Now it says the new Moto X "may be the best Android phone on the planet."

The new phone was unveiled today and here's how BGR's Zach Epstein described it: "The new Moto X is everything its predecessor was… and then some... The display on the new model is a 5.2-inch full HD 1080p screen, and there is now a 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor powering the Moto X along with 2GB of RAM. The edges are now a single piece of metal that wraps around the device and services as the antenna, much like the iPhone 4."

Epstein notes Motorola invented new technology called "dynamic tuning" to avoid the iPhone 4 "Antennagate" fiasco. As you can see below, the new Moto X has a variety of back panel finishes (four wood and four leather options), which can be purchased online through the "Moto Maker" customizing website.

Moto X photo - Source - BGR

The phone retails for $100 on-contract and $500 unlocked. Engadget says it is "remarkably affordable for what is ostensibly a flagship phone from a major manufacturer," adding that, in the U.S., the phone will "likely be (on) AT&T and Verizon." The phone should be available later this month in markets all over the world.

Spotify Arrives in Canada: Is It Better or Worse than Rdio?

August 21, 2014   Comments

By Allan Pulga

Let’s be straight here. When I got an email invite to a free one-month trial of Spotify last week, I was excited. But I wasn’t approaching it with a clear head. I’ve been a happy Rdio user since July 2013.

Rdio was the first online music streaming service of its kind to arrive in Canada (we still don’t have iTunes Radio, Beats Music or Pandora; Google Play Music launched here May of this year) and as my colleague Alexander James aptly put it, Rdio has been a game changer for Canadian music lovers.

Spotify is a welcome addition to a (delayed but) growing music streaming market in Canada.

Spotify’s arrival to Canada is welcome news because more competition is good for the consumer, right? Founded in Sweden in 2008, it has over 40 million users (10 million paid subscribers) – Spotify is the world leader in music streaming. Rdio was also born in Sweden, launched in 2010 by Skype founders Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis. Rdio, however, is a little cryptic about its user base totals (in a February CNET article, Rdio CEO Anthony Bay completely dodges the user base question). Nevertheless, late last year, Rdio reported service in 51 countries (at the time, Spotify was serving 32 countries), but Rdio still did not report a global user total.

Spotify vs. Rdio by the numbers:

 

Spotify

Rdio

Catalog

20 million songs

20 million songs

Bitrate

320 Kbps

192 Kbps

Platforms

Android, BlackBerry, iOS, OS X, Windows

Android, BlackBerry, iOS, OS X, Web, Windows

Price

$10/mo.

$5/mo., $10/mo. mobile, $18/mo. family

Source: Time, March 2014

In the above Time article, author Matt Peckham says Spotify’s desktop interface "could do with a radical overhaul,” while noting Rdio offers "one of the friendliest interfaces of the bunch.” After comparing both for the past week I would 100% agree. But before we get to UI…

Catalog, Sound Quality and Bitrate: Equal

Because the library sizes between Spotify and Rdio are identical*, and upon testing both the desktop and mobile sound quality of each app (they sounded identical as well), the only difference in this category appears to be bitrate.

*Nearly every song/album I found on Spotify was also available on Rdio. One exception being The Beatles, which have 17 albums on Rdio (6 of interviews only) and 1 single, and 3 albums 2 singles on Spotify. A couple albums I searched (Bonobo - Dial M For Monkey and Meek Mill - The Wolverine) weren’t available on either. One single (Alt-J - Every Other Freckle) arrived on Spotify Aug. 13; it arrived on Rdio Aug. 14.

My testing was limited to desktop/mobile Wi-Fi use and 3G or 4G coverage on my iPhone 5s and although Spotify advertises a much higher bitrate, I noticed no difference in streaming performance.


Discovering New Music: +1 Spotify

In its "Browse” section, Spotify has "Genres & Moods” you can choose from for streaming options. Types include: Mood, Party, Pop, Workout, Focus, Rock, Chill, Club, Dinner, Sleep, Urban… 23 in total (see above photo). Within each of these categories are a seemingly infinite number of playlists to choose from (many of which have tens of thousands of followers).

This is a great way to discover new music. And it works like Songza in that you just pick a mood and it plays you music. You don’t need to know what you’d like to listen to before you launch the app. Rdio does nothing of the sort**. While Rdio does allow you to play "Stations” based on a given artist, genre or a user’s history, it does not curate based on mood.

**Sept. 4 update: Rdio just announced it will allow free, ad-based streaming, along with Songza-like mood curation. See Mobile Syrup article.

Spotify is better than Rdio for discovering new music, but its UI needs work.

My friend Beth is an avid Songza user and has been trying Spotify this past week as well. She says an advantage over Songza is that Spotify lets you navigate back to a song you like, even if you accidentally skip forward.

Spotify is by no means perfect, however. In "New Releases,” for example, Spotify does not indicate the number of songs on an album, so you can’t differentiate between singles and albums. Rdio lists the number of songs. Rdio also lets you drill down in "New Releases” by Overview/This Week/Last Week/Two Weeks Ago. Spotify does not.

Even when you click through to an album/single in Spotify, it only lists the year it was released, not the date. Rdio lists the date, which makes it easier to identify just how new something is. Also, when you go to an artist’s page, Spotify does show you "Latest Release” and lists the release date. When you click through, however, it only shows the release year. Lame. "This would drive hipsters crazy,” a buddy of mine noted. It would.


Desktop UI and Web Access: +1 Rdio

As Time’s Matt Peckham pointed out (see above table), Rdio has a web app. Spotify does not (see below screenshot***). Spotify’s desktop app must be installed to whichever computer you plan to use it on. Rdio, on the other hand, lets you log in via your browser, so it’s more convenient that way.

***To be fair, I’ve been using Spotify on a Canadian pre-launch trial, so perhaps the web app is still on its way.

Correction (Aug. 22): The Spotify web app is indeed accessible from Canada. Although the site says Spotify hasn't yet launched in Canada (see below screenshot), pre-launch users are able to log in by entering their username and password. 

Spotify web app in Canada

Spotify’s background is all black and Rdio’s is all white. I don’t have a preference either way, but it’s funny how they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum.

What I do have a preference for is explicit versions of songs and Rdio does a better job of indicating them, with a red E in a red box. Spotify doesn’t typically indicate the explicit version, rather the clean version is labeled "edited.”

When you look up an artist on Rdio, it lets you view Albums/Songs/Biography/Related Artists. Spotify lets you view Overview/Related Artists/Biography – to see albums, you have to scroll down in Overview (see above "Lil Wayne" screenshot). You can view them by album cover or by full track lists. Spotify also isolates Singles versus Albums. Rdio just lists all (Singles or Albums) as Albums, which is annoying – you have to note there’s only one song on an album to know it’s a single. Interestingly, artist biographies are the same on both Spotify and Rdio. Overall though, Rdio’s "Artist” listings are more user friendly (shown below).

A nice feature in Rdio is "Autoplay,” which plays a song similar to what you were listening to when the previous song ends. To my knowledge, Spotify does not autoplay you anything when the album/single/playlist you’re listening to finishes. The song ends. Silence. Feels like a missed opportunity on Spotify’s part.

Simply put, Rdio offers a superior user experience, both on desktop and mobile.

Mobile UI: +1 Rdio

In this era of awesome phones with shitty batteries, it might be worth noting that the Spotify app has a black background versus Rdio’s all-white background – I didn’t test this, but I suspect it helps save battery life to a certain extent.

Another advantage to Spotify is it lets you access "Local Files” on both desktop and mobile, meaning you can play whatever music you have on your device (e.g. iTunes, Google Play, Windows Player, etc.) right in Spotify. For me, this was cool because playlists I’d created years ago in iTunes were automatically accessible within Spotify. In Rdio, for instance, I’d have to recreate them track by track.

Rdio vs Spotify - Sync to mobile

But here’s where Rdio’s mobile app design is superior, in my opinion: Syncing music to your mobile device. On Rdio, you indicate on the desktop app which music you want to sync to your mobile phone. On your phone (while connected to Wi-Fi, mind you), you select "Sync” from the app menu and it will upload the previously selected music to your phone, so you can access it in "Offline” mode (which reduces your mobile data use).

To sync music on the Spotify app, it requires an additional step. You "Save” music to "Your Music” on desktop. Then, on your mobile device (Spotify lets you sync via Wi-Fi and cellular), you have to find the albums/songs you want synced, open them and toggle them to "Available Offline.” This is a pretty annoying, manual process – particularly if you do it often (I do) to manage the amount of memory this music occupies on your phone.

The Rdio mobile app also wins in that you can switch from online to offline mode directly from the main menu (see "Go Offline” in the above photo). On Spotify, you have to go Settings > Playback > Offline Mode. I also switch between modes often, so this got tiresome really fast.

Social and Mobile Integrations: +1 Spotify

Spotify is definitely the frontrunner in this category, as it connects directly to Facebook. I fully acknowledge this may not be for everybody, but I thought it was pretty cool. (I will note that it is stupid that your Spotify user profile auto-populates your Facebook profile pic, so if you don’t connect it to Facebook, or if you’re not on Facebook, you don’t have a profile pic.) What is cool, though, is being able to find fellow Facebook friends within Spotify, follow them, see what they’re listening to, etc. On Rdio, you’re finding your friends from scratch.

Spotify has more 'extras' than Rdio, likely due to its larger user base creating more partnership opportunities.

One of my buddies in Vancouver converted from Rdio to Spotify because he prefers its mobile UI and also because of a feature that alerts of him upcoming local tour dates of artists he follows.

Shazam integrationRdio used to boast an exclusive integration with Shazam, which is great because you can Shazam a song and while in the app, select "Listen with Rdio” and jump straight to Rdio to hear it. Turns out Shazam previously connected to Spotify, removed the integration, and just last week brought it back (along with a Beats Music integration for U.S. users; see right photo).

Spotify also has a "Private Session” option while streaming, which is nice because my Rdio friends mocked me when they saw I was listening to En Vogue (it was only via Autoplay, I swear).

Support: +1 Rdio

This is just a one-off, but I emailed Rdio Support about a minor bug in their system (I couldn’t remove an album from my collection, for some reason). When the steps they outlined for me failed to resolve my issue (the album is still there), the rep I was dealing with emailed me saying, "I’m sorry this didn’t work for you. Please enjoy one free month of Rdio Unlimited on us to make up for this trouble. I just applied this month to your account, so listen away!” OK. That is just awesome.

Meanwhile, my friend Beth had an issue with Spotify via mobile: She was unable to upgrade from a basic trial to a premium trial on her Android phone ("Canada” does not appear from the drop-down list of countries – again, this may still be coming). Anyway, she sent an email to Spotify Support and the rep emailed her with tips (copy-and-pasted directly from the website’s FAQ section) telling her to ensure her user country and billing country match. She sent the rep screenshots showing that Canada was not an option via mobile. The rep then told her to simply upgrade while using the desktop app. And that was it.

The Verdict: Rdio Defeats Spotify 3-2

At the end of the day, both apps are pretty even and the slight edges I’ve reported are either anecdotal or a matter of preference. As I mentioned, I was on Rdio first and I can tell you: Learning a new music streaming interface is kind of a pain in the ass. 

That being said, I would recommend Rdio mostly because of its design. It’s more seamless and user friendly than Spotify, on both desktop and mobile device. By comparison, Spotify is less intuitive (making it harder to navigate) and clunky at times (e.g. extra step when syncing to mobile).

I will concede that Spotify is a better option for people that have a hard time deciding what they want to listen to. Its "Genres & Moods” feature is enough to tip the scale in its favor, especially for people already hooked on services like Songza.

Spotify is also a winner in terms of its ancillary services – things like local concert listings and its social/mobile integrations. There are simply more "extras” to Spotify, which are probably a result of its larger user base increasing its opportunities for partnership.

How about you? Have you tried both? Which do you prefer? Please post your comments below.

 

 

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