Reviews


I wanted to spend a little time writing a review of my phone. I had a little money and wanted to splash out on something new. I loved the size of my Samsung Galaxy Note 2, but loved the appeal of having a bigger, waterproof phone and the Xperia Z Ultra was too good to resist. It had a hefty price tag, but with the ‘free’ Sony SmartWatch 2 and bluetooth headset and £50 of ‘free’ content I managed to justify it to myself.

Here, a few months later, are my thoughts…

It’s 6.4 inches; massive in other words. It barely fits in my pocket. Even in my manly (baggy) jeans with man-sized pockets

It’s a very good phone, but there are some flaws…

The first major one is the camera. In short, it’s rubbish.

There’s no flash and the lens is utterly poor, so in anything other than perfect light you get mega grain and digital noise on photos

Also I found on older firmware the phone freezes every now and then and needs reseting. Luckily that’s stopped since 4.3.

xperia-z-ultra-smartwatch-2-620x300-13bb443ede05dcff4e98c2dab1dbe855

Upsides

  • The screen is awesome. Size, brightness, colour and quality are all great. Just what I wanted for browsing, videos etc
  • The build quality is awesome. It makes Samsung ones seem pants. It feels solid, strong and durable.
  • It’s waterproof to 1.5 meters for 30mins – which opens the potential for underwater photos but also means you can use it in the bath without worrying about destroying it if you accidentally drop it.
  • The battery life is quite good compared to my old phone (Samsung Galaxy Note 2) and there’s Sony settings like ‘Stamina mode’ and ‘Low Battery mode’ that improve it’s life in sacrifice of things like wifi and data sync (though I don’t use these and still get good life).
  • Blue tooth and Nfc works really well with the Sony Smartwatch 2
  • Sony don’t use launchers like Samsung’s touchwhizz, so you almost get vanilla (standard) Android with a few apps and improvements. This generally keeps the phone as Google intended Android – quick, clean and customisable how you want it.
  • OS Updates are meant to be more regular from Sony. Ask me if that’s true next year!

Downsides

  • The camera (see above)
  • The size (it sticks out of my pocket and I have deep pockets)
  • There’s an anti scratch coating on the screen which basically means it’s permanently covered in fingerprints. Also, for some reason if picks up particularly greasy fingerprints and water drops as actual finger presses and starting opening apps and doing strange things when you don’t want it to. A quick wipe and it’s back to normal, but it is an annoyance.
  • There aren’t many roms for it at the moment if you’re thinking of customising it.
  • Everyone is constantly taking the mickey out of me for having such a massive phone and I often get asked if I always carry my tablet around with me.

Summary

It’s a great phone, fast, fun and simple. It has a great build quality (something Apple fanboys are always pulling out to say is pants about Android phones). But has a poor camera and some other frustrations. Honestly, based on my experience I WOULD buy another Sony phone, but if I had a time machine I’d buy a Xperia Z1 rather than the Ultra – mostly because of the superior camera, but I’d miss the big screen.

That’s a quick run down as I don’t want to spend ages covering ground other people have. My recommendation is to go to the phone shops and check it out in person. The quality of the screen and the build has to be seen, felt and held to be believed. But be warned, the camera is really poor. I can’t say that enough.

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SmartWatch2

This is the Sony SmartWatch 2 – a marvel of modern technology that’s had a variety of mixed reviews and feelings around the web. Opinion is split but I think we can all agree that ‘wearble tech’ is certainly about to take off in a big way. Everyone is jumping on the smartwatch badwagon. Samsung has the Galaxy Gear, there’s the Pebble, the Qualcomm Toq and rumored wrist-based devices coming from the likes of Nokia, Google and Apple.

So there’s clearly a market for this sort of tech and people want it in their lives. Some people I know have turned their noses up at smart watch technology – “What’s the point?” I hear them cry. They seem to think they’re a gimmick and perhaps they are. But when you look at the potential features, it’s hard not to imagine how you too could become James Bond – packing GPS navigation, a torch, a camera and even a laser into a little bit of kit on your wrist. Ok, so that’s a little exaggerated, but there’s potential there for sure.

Sony’s SmartWatch 2 is the second in the line (the clue is in the name) and is relatively well-priced compared to the other models on the market. At around £120 (ish) it’s an entry level model compared to the Galaxy Gear which has a whopping £299 price tag (at the time of writing). Sure, it doesn’t have the same features, but all smart watches have their pro’s and con’s. Yet, it is a Sony product, so don’t turn your nose up just yet.

The SmartWatch 2 has a smart design and quality of build that you’d expect from any Sony product, it looks great, has a modern appeal and fits nicely on the wrist.

Flexibility & Use

So, for those that don’t know anything about how smart watches work I’ll quickly summarise.

The Sony SmartWatch 2 is basically a clever watch that connects to your phone via bluetooth and allows you to both remotely control your phone and to receive updates directly to your wrist. For me, this was instantly appealing before I even got my hands on the watch. I liked the idea of being able to see incoming notifications without having to get my phone out of my pocket (or out of its pouch or unlocking it). Sure, I wouldn’t be able to reply to them, but I could instantly see if they were spam or less-than-important messages that could be dealt with later. And this functionality worked exactly as I had expected and has bought new joy to my life.

I am a competition fiend. I love signing up to competitions and as a result I’m signed up to a million newsletters, some which I care about, some I don’t. This means I get a lot of emails during the day, but most are unimportant. Now my phone (and wrist) buzzes and a quick glance and I can see there’s no point in unlocking my phone – I’ll deal with/delete that email later. So my watch is now saving me time as well as telling me it.

Email Notifications

This notification feature works for most things (especially once you have the recommended apps installed (see below)). So even things like calendar updates, incoming calls and SMS messages will appear on the watch. You can answer or dismiss calls, but you can’t actually talk to your wrist just yet.

Remote Control

The next appealing feature for me was the ability to control my phone remotely using my watch. Something as simple as being able to skip tracks, pause music or find an new album to listen to without having to reach into my pocket and get my phone out (or unlock it) is instantly appealing. I have since discovered that apps are also available for doing things like using the SmartWatch 2 as a remote viewfinder when taking photographs from the phone (which could have interesting applications).

Remote Music Control

Life Changing

The Sony advertising claims the SmartWatch 2 is “life changing” – I wouldn’t necessarily go that far. It has certainly improved my digital experience and made life easier to some degree (or at least more convenient) but it’s hardly changed my life drastically. Having said that, it is certainly better than I expected and certainly better than the other reviews it has been given.

Honestly, the features aren’t mind-blowing. But then if you’ve read reviews or looked at the spec you won’t be expecting them to be. You can’t take photos or make calls using it and you can’t easily browse the web (though there is a browser if you’re mad enough to try).

The Basics

There is some basic functionality of the SmartWatch 2 that’s worth highlighting. Again, it’s the simple things that make the watch appealing. For instance, you can change the watch faces to suit your mood and style. There are only a few to choose from, but they include both digital and analogue style  faces. As default the display is slightly dimmed to conserve battery life, but you can still easily see the time with a quick glance. If it’s dark, pressing the power button brings the brightness forth for easier viewing, then you can press the home button to access the main apps on the watch.

WatchFaces

(Most) installed apps are available on the watch for easy access and you can scroll through notifications and messages without having to delve into your phone. Sony recently improved this with a firmware update and it’s a simple feature that works well.

Beyond that, most other features are as a result of apps you choose to install. See further down this article for recommendations on those.

SonySmartWatch 2

Here’s a quick summary of the up’s and down’s of the SmartWatch 2.

Downsides

  • Rudeness – with my wrist regularly buzzing, I quickly became aware that people might think I’m bored, clock-watching and have somewhere more important to be as I keep looking at my wrist while talking to them. It becomes a natural thing to do so though, as my wrist vibrates, I look, if only through habit. I then find myself explaining why and what I’m looking at so they don’t get offended.
  • Geek Factor – people see your wrist buzzing and they know your’e a geek. My watch went off in the middle of a meeting once and a client asked ‘Is your wrist ringing?’ – I then had to explain that yes, it was.
  • Waterproof? – there is some confusion among reviewers about the waterproofness of the device. Some say it is, some say it isn’t. I’m inclined to believe it isn’t and I don’t plan to test it out. This is disappointing though, especially considering I got it free with my Sony Xperia Z Ultra and that’s waterproof in upto 1.5 meters of water for half an hour. The Sony website says it’s “Splash/rain resistant. NOT suitable for showering, bathing, swimming, diving, snorkeling, water related work and fishing.
  • Cheap Strap – the standard watch comes with a rubber strap that’s a bit naff honestly. Comfortable, but it leads to a sweaty wrist. I’d recommend splashing out on the metal strap version instead.

Upsides

  • NFC & Auto-Connection – turn both phone and SmartWatch on and, as long as bluetooth is switched on, they both connect automatically. No hassle, no fuss.
  • Battery Life – is more reasonable than you’d expect and being small it doesn’t take long to charge.
  • Apps – there are apparently over 200 apps available that work with the SmartWatch 2.
  • No Tethering – I was worried before I acquired the watch that it would get data and notifications via tethering and thus use my data (and breach my contract for no tethering). But it doesn’t data is provided essentially through a tunnel. Apps for the watch are installed on your phone and filter through to the watch. So there’s no need to worry.

Apps

 Recommended SmartWatch 2 Apps

There are a few ‘essential’ SmartWatch 2 apps that are worth discussing as part of this review. Out of the box, the SmartWatch 2 has some pretty limited functionality, but there’s also a lot of potential as well. The downside of the Samsung Galaxy Gear is there’s only about 20 compatible apps, on the other hand, the Sony SmartWatch has far more available apps to play with, some free, some paid.

Smart Connect

Not really an app that does anything mind blowing, the Sony Smart Connect app basically “allows you to decide what happens when you connect your smartphone to another device.” (i.e. the SmartWatch). You can choose time for events and delve right into customisation. It’s certainly a handy app to have.

Smart Connect

SmartWatch 2

An app by the same name and another official Sony app – this one allows you to quickly and easily find apps that are compatible and install them. As I mentioned previously, apps aren’t directly installed on the watch, they go on your phone then just work with the watch once they’re connected. So if you need to tweak app settings you’ll have to do it on your phone, through this app – so it’s pretty much an essential download.

Smart Watch 2 app

WatchIt!

Although there are a hodge-podge of available apps out there that will notify you for things like email, Facebook updates and other things, there’s not something for everything. But there is WatchIt! WatchIt is a great little tool for getting notifications on your wrist. It’s fully customisable and you will need to tweak it or you’ll get updates from everything, including things you don’t want. As an example, I just installed Spotify and had that running, every time a new track started playing my wrist buzzed with a new notification. I soon set WatchIt! to ignore notifications from Spotify. But for things like Hangouts that don’t have notifications as standard for the SmartWatch it’s a great solution.

GPS Map2

This app pretty much does what it says on the tin – you open it up, it loads a map and shows you where you are. There’s nothing fancy like actual navigation or directions on it (yet) but it’s still quite cool.

GPS Maps 2 For Smartwatch 2

Vfinder

I like Vfinder, though it’s clearly a bit gimmicky. Basically this app turns your watch into a remote view finder for your phone camera. You can then press the screen to take a photo. It has a few limited possibilities – like setting up your phone somewhere and taking a posed photograph or taking selfies with the standard camera rather than front-facing, without the hassle of trying to work out where the capture button is, that sort of thing. It’s quirky and fun, but it is sluggish.

Vfinder

 

Slideshow

Another photography related app, this one simply lets you browse your photogallery from your watch. Nothing special, as let’s face it the screen is tiny, but cool nonetheless.

Music Player

This is a handy app that’s easy to use – play music from your watch. Notice I said ‘from’ not ‘on’ because it’s basically a remote control for music on your phone. But it’s a great app for skipping tracks, pausing music and browsing your albums without actually having to use your phone or get it out of your pocket. Good stuff.

Other than these, there’s a few standard apps you might like to install, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

So the conclusion? The SmartWatch 2 is a good watch and a step in the right direction for wearable tech. If I didn’t have it, would I buy it again? Yes, I probably would.

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netflix

I was initially going to add Netflix to my paid app recommendations. But since it’s not technically a paid app, but instead requires a monthly subscription to use, I thought it was worth it’s own article.

When we moved our home broadband provider over to TalkTalk, we discovered that there was an option to have a 12 month free subscription to Lovefilm. Great! That sounded good. I’d heard good things about Lovefilm but had never really tried though through lack of time, money and enthusiasm. But who can turn down free things? I gave them a spin for a while, but soon made my way through the ‘good’ films and was stuck in a rut. I then contemplated the possibility of mobile streaming. I had a phablet and an hour to kill on the train every day, so streaming films and TV shows seemed like a logical step forward. But Lovefilm, in their infinite wisdom, had decided not to make a streaming app for mobile devices. There was one for iPads, but not Android. Boo! Down with them.

Then I discovered that Netflix did do a streaming system. So I thought I’d give it a go. I was not disappointed.

Initial impression was a mild of disappointment in the utter lack of ‘pre-loading’ options that I’d so enjoyed when renting films on Google Play but otherwise a good selection of content with plenty of viewing options.

There’s not much to say about the Netflix app, especially if you’re already familiar with Netflix in general. You login, you watch films and other content, you rate and get recommendations for the future. It works on both mobiles and tablet devices and over mobile data connections or WiFi. Obviously it goes without saying that if you have a limited data plan then streaming Netflix is probably a bad plan, but if you have unlimited data (as I do) then it’s great.

£5.99 a month is a perfectly reasonable price for what you’re getting. Think about it, you could easily spend that much on one film alone – rental or purchase. Yes, you can’t get the latest content on Netflix, nor indeed can you get ALL the films that were ever made, but the catalogue is pretty comprehensive and enjoyable and with the VPN trickery below you can get access to even more content.

Rooting

If you’re an Android fan, then you might well have rooted your phone. If you’ve done that then you’ll probably be aware of the issues with streaming content. Many of the traditional catch-up or streaming app like BBC iPlayer, Sky Go, etc, etc will refuse to work on rooted devices for security reasons. Not Netflix. No, Netflix theoretically works just fine on rooted devices and they appear to be happy for it to do so. Which is yet another tick in their favour.

However, if you’re lucky enough to be running Cyanogenmod or a Cyanogenmod-based rom then you might have come across problems streaming. Usually this problem mostly occurs on Samsung devices and doesn’t result in any error or warning messages but instead just makes the app looking like it’s constantly loading the film or show you’re trying to stream – quite annoying!

Xposed-Framework-for-Android

Fear not, there is a nice workaround. The XDA Developers Forum has a neat little Xposed Framework Module that will get it working without issues. You just need to make sure you have the Xposed Framework installed and the module loaded up and active.

Foreign Content – Unblock-Us

If you live in the UK, one of the grumps around Netflix has always been the small (some would say ‘poor’) catalogue of content compared to the Lovefilm or to the American version of Netflix. The good news is, there’s help at hand here too. For a small monthly fee (or nothing if you’re less scrupulous) you can use a great service to tweak your DNS settings to allow you to access any Netflix content for any Country around the world. This means that you can get the American, Australian, Canadian or even French Netflix and get access to an entirely different range of content.

The American Netflix obviously has more up-to-date films and the latest episodes of their TV shows, which is appealing in itself. But you can also jump between Countries to make the most of the content both in and outside of your own Country.

Setting up is easy and you can just change the DNS settings on your device (to be specific to just that machine) or to your router to give access to your entirely household.

Questions around the legality (or breach of terms of service) are left upto you to find out; but it is a good service for just $4.99 a month (around £3).  Check out http://www.unblock-us.com/ for a free trial and decide for yourself.

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If like me you have ever lost your phone you know how annoying it can be. Yes there’s insurance but its more than just a phone isn’t it? It’s a photo album, a copy of all your communications with your loved ones via text and email. It’s a window into your soul, and even with all the security locks available to you on droid, a lot of people, myself included, don’t use a screen lock. For me this is for two reasons. 1 if the phone is lost, some kind soul might find it and decide to ring the contact who is most often contacted by myself, my girlfriend, thus returning the phone. Secondly im a lazy sod. If a kind soul doesn’t find my phone and return it to me what should I do? That is where Cerberus comes in. image With this nifty app you can, via a webpage log into the Cerberus dashboard and find your phone using your phones GPS signal, even if GPS is switched off on your device. image So if you’ve lost your phone you can find out where it is. You can also see details about the phone like the nearby wi-fi spots, phone number of the current sim card etc. More options within Cerberus online are the option to hide the app from your phone, delete your phone/sd storage, add an unlock code and more. I think my favourite part is the ability to remotely take photo and video via the devices forward facing camera, letting you see who it is who has your device and alert the police and hopefully get your mobile back. If you have an unlock code it will take a photo when the code is entered wrong too. image Theres also the ability to send a message to your device, which when dismissed will take a photo too. image image image image image The app is free for a week and only €2.99 for a lifetime licence. No monthly fee. You can add 5 different Android devices to the one account so for £2.57 (when I bought it) ive got a lifetime of peace of mind for my mobile devices. image Overall I think its a godsend and a must have app. Get it here

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This is the first in a new series of posts, App100. The premise is simple. Periodically I shall look at the “Top New Free” Section of the play store, scroll to 100 and review that app. Here is App100 post number 1…

Thor: Champions of Asgard

Thor: Champions of Asgard

Brief Intro

I have always been a fan of tower defense games, although admittedly find that they have limited longevity. Although it describes itself as stylised, it is not obviously a tower defence game and takes on a very similar edge to the classic Golden Axe – without the jumping.

Gameplay

You can choose one of several classical Norse characters to play the game, and the concept is simple. Using your chosen Hero and a variety of increasingly hard assistants you need to defend the spawn point on the left of the screen from an increasing number of hard enemies spawning on the right side. All the while you can push to the right and destroy the enemy spawn point. As you do so you collect coins which help you upgrade your army. The drop rate is pretty low and you get into a bit of a grind mentality as you play the first few levels, and as I can not find a way to replay complete levels it can feel like you get stuck if you don’t improve your strategy enough to win straight away. However, when you reach the first special level, you can repeat that so if you can win it you can grind out some coins.

Additional Content

Although this game is free, they have obviously created the game to make some money – and so they should! This offering is funded by in app purchases, and is in most games at the moment that takes the form of buying coins and gems to allow early upgrades. I have read reviews of this game in the play store that moan that you need to spend money to get anywhere, but this is simply not the case. Although it obviously makes your army stronger much more quickly, if you like these games and are prepared to put the time in then you can easily make good progress in time.

Thor: Champions of Asgard UpgradeHints and Tips

  1. For me the best tactic by far is to release the allies in waves, as the enemies do to you. One guy can easily get cut down on his own.
  2. I tend to rush my hero at the start and just keep him/her out of range of the enemy attacks. Hopefully they can see off the first wave while you save up enough mana to upgrade your mana generator straight away.
  3. Consider your upgrades carefully if you dont want to spend money on ingame coins.

Thor: Champions of Asgard

If you like tower defence games then you will probably like this. I know it is not a true TD game, but it is a good interpretation with nice story lines and some good artwork. The interface is a little clumsy and takes a little getting used to, but I recommend giving it a go. If you do, please stop by and let us know what you thought and pass on your hints and tips.

One minor annoyance is that the game loads so quickly that you don’t have time to read the handy hints that they include, but now I’m just being picky…

Head over to the play store and grab it.

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Flow_freeThere is no point in beating around the bush – I love free games, and I love this game. Building on the success of its predecessor (Flow Free – also well worth a download), Big Duck Games have taken a winning formula and made a seemingly small, yet inspired tweaked and produced another catchy little game. Admittedly Flow Free Bridges is more of an extension than a game in its own right, but that does not detract from it’s fun.

Gameplay

The premise is simple – connect the dots. Simply draw a line from one dot to the other of the same colour and the only point that they can cross is the bridges. Oh, and you have to fill every square in the grid. It sounds easy, and to be honest I found this easier than the original incarnation but no less fun. I don’t think I found even one board that connected all the dots without filling the board which I think is welcome and in stark contrast to the original.

Additional Content

Like many games these days I find myself annoyed by the ads and the persistent (albeit understandable) requests to review the game – but they are out to make some money so the least I can do is review in the play store. Unlocking the additional levels (which you will be very tempted to do) will also remove ads so it is my own fault that they are still there.

Hints and Tips

  1. Look for the long paths round the outside of the square first
  2. If a dot is right next to a bridge it must go over/under it. Obvious – but it still took me a while to figure it out!
  3. If you really cant see a way through, memorise one of the longer routes that you are sure of and start again, putting that in first. It’s amazing how different things look on an empty board.

Flow Free Bridges

There are many rubbish free games that are slow, unresponsive and not worth the (admittedly small) effort of downloading. Flow Free Bridges is not one of them and is well worth your time. Go download it in the play store now and enjoy.

 

 

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