Monday, June 17, 2013

What's the best Android phone your money can buy?

Recently, I have gotten a lot of calls to ask which is the best Android phone to buy. If you remove the constraint of budget, there are many exciting Android handsets this year - HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4, Galaxy Note 2 and Sony Xperia Z are some of the names that come to mind. Here are my views on getting the best Android for your buck:

1) A smartphone with the Nexus Experience 

Till recently, Google has been putting stock, vanilla android only on their own phones - first the Nexus One, then Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus and the latest, the Nexus 4. These phones have always done well with the geeks but have never been mainstream.

In 2013, things have started to change, with Google attempting to push the 'Nexus experience' to more handsets - notably the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4. The Nexus phones are separate from the original phones skinned by the manufacturers. But the Nexus experience is a step in the right direction - what if you had a choice to keep the manufacturer's skin, or load vanilla Android on your phone.

My recco - buy the S4 or HTC One, and if the Nexus experience becomes a reality, you will have a fantastic piece of hardware married with the latest and best Android updates - truly a marriage made in heaven.

And if the manufacturers and Google don't get their act together on this, the folks at XDA surely will. 

2) The screen size debate

The giant sized (5 inch plus) 'phablet' phone is a category created by Samsung and now everyone wants  a piece of the action. Phablets from Micromax, Karbonn etc. are available for as little as 10,000. Even Samsung has realised the potential of the budget market for phablets and introduced the Galaxy Grand. I do not recommend cheaper phablets (including the Galaxy Grand) unless the screen resolution is really good like the Micromax Canvas HD Pro. Simple rule of thumb - the bigger the screen, the more important it is to have a hi-res display. A large screen will show up a poor display very badly. 

So spend the extra bit for the Galaxy Note 2 and remember to budget for the portable charger because you are going to need it. Every day.

3) The older crop of top-end phones are a bargain

Hesitant to spend more than Rs.30,000 on a smartphone, but still want a good deal? The Samsung Galaxy S3 at Rs. 27,000 on Flipkart, is still a fantastic deal while it is in stock. And the low profile LG Nexus 4 at Rs. 26,000 is not at all a bad phone. The Galaxy S2 is also not a bad buy by any stretch of imagination. All these three phones stand out as best buys in the Rs. 20,000 + segment.

4) And finally, is the S4 or the HTC One, the best Android phone?

I never get into such subjective statements. I think both are fantastic phones, but if I had to buy one of them, it would be the HTC One. What holds me back is the risk factor - HTC is not doing very well and one does not know at this stage if they will continue in the smartphone business. Then there will be a question mark over service, warranty, exchange value etc. If these things don't bother you and you just want to own a phone that's gorgeous inside and out, then go for the HTC One.

So my list of phones is:
Galaxy Note 2
Samsung Galaxy S4
LG Nexus 4
Samsung Galaxy S2

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bye Bye Google Reader, hello paid RSS reader!

It's not the first time that Google has pulled the plug on its users and it won't be the last. They will be shuttering Google Reader on July 1st. I have been a victim of their shutdowns in the past and I usually take it philosophically but this one has hit me very very hard. I am very invested in Google Reader. Here's why. 

My job as a digital consultant requires me to be on top of the tech news. I keep track of 40-50 tech websites and blogs on a regular basis. It's not possible to go through this list everyday. Increasingly, I catch up on my reading in a few spare minutes in a taxi, while waiting at a coffee shop. And it's almost exclusively happening on mobile devices. 

 Initially, I was lured by the exciting magazine like appearance of Pulse, Zite and Flipboard. And on my iPad, Flipboard initially lured me. But with time, I felt these options did not work for me. I used to keep missing interesting articles from certain subscriptions.  I did not need a glossy magazine. I needed a school bag with clearly labelled text books. And that is exactly what Google Reader is - a vanilla interface designed to make sure you see every article and know exactly what you have read, or need to read. 

It is ok, but not fantastic on mobile, and non-existent on iPad so I tried out different readers. Finally, I settled for the paid Mr. Reader app on my iPad. The iPad is the device where I read, and from where I tweet the most, and Mr. Reader has a fabulous user interface to facilitate it.

The shutting of  Google Reader has taught me a valuable lesson - it's really not safe to keep your data in a 'free' place. Yes, Google always gives enough advance notification when they close a service and they faciliate easy export of data, but I would not trust a smaller service, it might close down any time.

When I started looking for alternatives, I realised that the best ones are paid, and not free. Paid Google Reader alternatives charge subscription rates averaging $12-$19 per year. They also offer the advantage of being ad-free and keeping your data confidential. Though they cannot rival Google's huge server advantage, they also do their best to maintain reliability and uptime. Most importantly, a service which takes your money, will owe you a responsibility to inform you and save your data if they plan to close down.

I also realised that it's important for me to choose a Reader alternative which has a Google compatible API as it will enable me to keep using the mobile apps like Mr. Reader. I can compromise on my desktop experience, but its extremely important to have a mobile RSS reader app with an excellent User interface. It really saves time and effort.

I am currently evaluating 3 paid RSS readers - BazQuxFeedly and Feed Wrangler. I have to admit that all of them have done a great job of giving you the comfort of the familiar Google interface while making heaps of improvements, the most important one being better mobile access, and easy sharing and saving.

I have a 30 day free trial ongoing with each of these services, and I will update at the end of the period which one I decided to go ahead with.