Monday, November 10, 2014

Top 5 Android Phones in the Rs.30,000 range

I have done a lot of posts in the past on the best budget Android handsets. With a growing number of first-time smartphone users, budget smartphones (which I define as sub Rs.15000) will always enjoy a huge demand in India. So do mid-range Androids, which I define as being in the Rs.15,000-25,000 range. The Samsung Galaxy Grand is one of the best examples of a mid-range phone which does fantastic business.

But there are a growing number who, without spending on top end flagships, still want to push their budget to get a better phone. Sometimes they are looking at a specific aspect, like a better camera or a better display. Sometimes a specific phone in this price band catches their fancy, like the Nexus 5 or the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact. Flagships start at Rs.40,000 and upwards and not everyone is ready to push their budget so far. But many people rightly believe that you can get a good phone if you spend a little extra.

Here are the top 5 phones that you cannot afford to ignore in this category

1. HTC One E8

Available for Rs. 32,000 online, the HTC One E8, which I blogged extensively about recently, is a great value for money phone. You sacrifice the metal finish and a few bells and whistles (Barometer, IR Blaster, Dual LED Flash, anyone?) while retaining the heart of the flagship HTC One M8. I'm referring to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 (MSM8974AC) chipset (2.5 GHz, Krait 400, Adreno 330 GPU), the 5 inch LCD Panel topped with Gorilla Glass, and the Boom Sound delivered through dual front speakers. And you also get a much higher resolution 13 MP primary camera and a 5 MP front shooter. 

2. Motorola X (2nd Generation)

Motorola has been a much-admired brand for people of my generation who remember them for their design panache as well as their solid build quality. The Razr was an iconic phone, and the once-popular clamshell design was pioneered by Motorola. 

The Motoroloa X 2nd Gen is one of the most exciting phones that the company has produced in recent times. With its distinctive looks and choice of finishes (bamboo, leather), the Moto X makes a strong design statement in a staid market. But what attracts geeks like me is the almost vanilla Android experience. Simplicity is  the hallmark of a great UI and both HTC and Motorola are experts in offering this minimalistic, clean interface that makes a phone a joy to use. The Moto X is not lagging in the specs department either, it sports the same processor as the HTC One E8, gives the additional advantage of a larger and brighter 5.2 inch AMOLED screen and offers a dual LED flash. I have been told that the camera is not the best in class, and the battery life is average which is why it's No.2 behind the HTC One E8. 

The Moto X starts at Rs.32,000, and is a Flipkart exclusive in India.

3. Lenovo Vibe Z2 Pro

Lenovo is one of the few laptop makers who have achieved some measure of success with their foray into phones (Sorry Apple - almost forgot you - but yes, you're up there too). Lenovo recently powered their way to one of the top smartphone brands in China and must be looking for a similar success story in India and other Asian markets.

The Vibe Z2 Pro has a lot of things going for it - a 6 inch QHD IPS LCD, a Sony-made 16 MP Camera with the much prized Optical Image Stabilisation and 4k video recording. However, with the same processor as the two phones listed above, The Vibe Z2 is underpowered considering its giant high resolution display. Therefore, it manages only an an average performance compared to other phablets like the Galaxy Note 4 and the iPhone 6 Plus. That's also the reason why it drops to No. 3 on my list. 

A nice thing is that Lenovo has stayed close to stock Android in terms of keyboard, major apps and overall UI, which keeps the interface simple and clean. And the giant size 4000 mAh battery with tons of power management settings helps to squeeze out more productive hours from the device.

The only things you really lose out on here is the slight performance lag and the lack of expandable memory. At Rs.33,000, this is one phablet that fully deserves to feature on my list. 

4. Google Nexus 5

I don't feel good that the Nexus is at the bottom of this list, but the Nexus 5, like the Nexus 4 has failed to live up to the expectations that I had from it. It was launched a year ago and obviously the hardware is outdated compared to newer smartphones but what keeps the Nexus range ever fresh is the first access to the latest Android updates. And they are always fabulous value for money.The only strike against the Nexus 5 is its average camera and less than average battery life. You will hear mixed reports around, but the consistent factor is that no one says the battery life is stellar. You will be pulling out your charger in the course of the day, more often than not.

If you want to pick up the Nexus 5, you need to act fast, because Google will pull it out of the market soon. You can still get it on most online sites for Rs. 25,000.

5. Sony Xperia Z1

I am completely confused by Sony's smartphone nomenclature - as badly mixed up as I used to be figuring out the Galaxy line up some time ago.But I have managed to figure out that the Sony phones you are looking at in this price range are the Sony Z1 range. They are already more than a year old, and the newer Z2 and Z3 range are already in the market, but they are at price points that put them outside this review.

The Z1 sports a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 Chipset (MSM8974) which is fast enough, and has a beautiful 5 inch hi-res display. Perhaps the most striking feature - it boasts a whopping 20.7 MP shooter and has a large 3000 mAh battery. It's also waterproof and dust resistant, if these features matter to you.

Sony offers this phone in two sizes - a Z1 Compact with 4.3 inch display and a Z1 with 5 inch display. All other specs are identical, and the Z1 will come in at approximately Rs.30,000 with the Z2 Compact a little cheaper.

This phone figures in the list because it brings in Sony's heritage to offer an awesome camera and music player. The camera is the same one as the later Z2 model and it's pretty much one of the best that you will find in a smartphone. Definitely nothing else at this price point can match it, unless you consider the now defunct Lumia range. The battery life is decent too.

If you are ready to put up with a slightly older model and mobile photography is your passion, then at Rs. 30,000 on Flipkart, this is the phone for you and you can happily ignore my other recommendations.

There are a few phones that have not made it to this list, that I would like to mention. One is the iPhone 5 C. The 8 GB and 16 GB variants both fall within this price range and I cannot figure why they are not more popular!  The Oppo Find 7a and Oppo N1 are both good phones though for me they did not make it to top 5. Oddly enough, Samsung has nothing in this segment, though you can pick up old handsets like the Galaxy S4 and Note 2 for around 30k or less.I wonder why the market leader has left this gap? But if there is a demand, there won't be a gap for long. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

HTC One M8 vs. HTC Eye vs. HTC E8 - digging for the real differences

If you are like me, you might have gotten fairly confused between the HTC One (M8), the HTC One M8 Eye and the HTC One (E8). Of course, it's easy to figure out the obvious differences. This post is intended to bring out the more subtle differences in processor speed, features which are omitted or modified and believe me, you will have to hunt to find all this information in one place. That's why I am creating this post.

The obvious facts:

The HTC One (M8) is the oldest of the trio, it is still the flagship phone and it sports the highest price tag (approximately Rs. 42,000 INR). 
The HTC One M8 Eye is the most recently launched. At Rs. 38,000, it replaces the M8's low-pixel (sic. Ultrapixel) camera with a regular 13 MP shooter.
The HTC E8 is the cheapest of the three at Rs.34,000. It has literally all the features of the M8, with a 13 MP camera, and has a plastic body vs. the metal body of the other two phones. As such, it is  the value offering in the HTC One stable.

Here is the other stuff that I have dug up from manufacturer specs, reviews and comparisons posted on sites like Phone Arena to bring out the differences between the three:

1) Processor Speed
The HTC One M8 and HTC E8 sport identical, top of the line Qualcomm 2.5 GHz processor Snapdragon 801 2.5 GHz chipsets (MSM8974AC). This appears to be the case only in Asia - internationally, the M8 uses the 801 2.3 GHz chipset . The HTC One M8 Eye has the older Snapdragon 800 2.3 GHz Chipset (MSM8974AB). Jury's out on whether the 200 MHz difference in processor speed gives the Asian version a huge edge, but probably it does make at least a slight difference in daily use.

Basically both the older M8 and the E8 have a faster and newer processor than the latest HTC Eye Model. In layperson's language, this should translate into faster data transfer, browsing speeds, image processing and gaming. Does this mean that the HTC Eye is slow? No, thanks to HTCs Sense UI, any HTC phone feels smooth, fast and light to navigate. 

2) Cameras
Both the HTC E8 and the HTC One M8 Eye feature 13 MP primary camera paired with 5 MP front camera, which gives them a respectable point of comparison with other top end smartphones.  The HTC One M8 on the other hand, continues to sport HTCs UltraPixel technology powered camera on the rear, with a higher-res 5MP front camera for selfies.

Reviews which compare the phones will tell you that the E8 and M8 Eye will smoke the older flagship in image quality, but this is not the full story. The 13 MP snappers, with triple the pixel count, obviously offer brighter and sharper images in daylight. 

When I look at image comparisons, I find that the M8 ultrapixel camera still does a better job in low light. It also has a wide angle lens in the front that somehow makes it a better selfie camera.

The M8 Eye has better camera functionality than the E8 and pulls in some of the best features of the original M8 too. It shares the dual LED Flash, duo camera and HDR recording features of the M8. The dual LED flash allows a more natural illumination in photos, the Duo Camera on the rear of the phone allows a better sensing and rendering of depth in images.

In a nutshell, the E8 is the worst of the bunch.

3) Connectivity
HTC One M8 offers USB OTG/USB Host connectivity, NFC with Android Beam, and supports the new 802.11 ac wireless standard. If you still care about it, it also has an FM Radio.

All these are absent in the HTC One Eye.The E8 does offer NFC and is also the only one of the three to pack a dual SIM.

All three allow expansion of memory by adding a Micro SD Card.

In practice, the USB OTG connectivity is what you would miss the most. NFC based payments have not taken off in India the way they have abroad. Here, we use this feature mainly to make two phones talk to each other (by placing them back to back) and this is more of a gimmicky feature than a real one. Of course, with Apple Pay being launched and more pressure put on local retailers to inaugurate mobile PoS systems, the scenario can change. But I don't see it changing soon.

4) Sensors 
HTC One M8 includes a barometer and an IR Blaster; both of these are absent in the One M8 Eye and the E8. I have both and I still have not figured what the barometer does. And I do not find that the phone is a better way to control my TV than the regular remote.

4) Finish
It should be noted that all three models sport Corning Gorilla Glass 3 to ensure better screen protection. The E8 has a plastic body compared to the premium metal finishes that make the HTC One phones such a joy to hold, use and flaunt. Yet, in your hand, the E8 feels solid and not cheap. If you are not enamoured of the metal finish (seriously, who isn't?) then the E8 is actually the pragmatic buy. 

5) Battery Life
Both the E8 (27 Hours talktime on 3G) and the M8 Eye (24 hours talktime on 3G) promise more than the 20 hours touted by the original M8. These figures are lifted from HTC's website and real-world usage may tell a different tale. What is curious is that despite identical innards, the HTC E8 can offer such a bump in battery life over the M8. Maybe the metal case vs. plastic plays a role here?

So after this intense sum up, which one do I recommend? Each of them has its merits.

M8 Original - the geeks who want the absolute top of the line. And people for whom photography is not a core purpose of using a phone.

M8 (Eye) - photographers who are keen to use an HTC phone. This may not be the best phone for photography, but it's the best one in the HTC stable. Your need for photography should outweigh your need for speed.

E8 - pragmatists on a budget. You really get most of the best features of the M8 at a price tag that's nearly Rs.10,000 cheaper. Nor is the phone cheap looking in its design. It's a great value for money. For people with a 30k budget range, this stacks up very well against rival offerings from Samsung or Sony.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A tale of a broken HTC handset and Customer Service

This story starts nearly three months ago, when I had the misfortune to drop my HTC One handset on the tarmac at a wrong angle. Even as it fell, I had a premonition that this was not going to be good. Somewhat like I had  when I twisted my ankle a few years ago and knew, as I was falling that it was a fracture.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the screen cracked in one corner. I was too traumatised to take a photo (and anyway I had no phone camera) so here's a picture off the net which shows approximately what happened to my phone. 

It was still working but it was a little sluggish and responsive. As there was no update on the HTC website, and no one answered the call centre number, I had to call Ask 8 to get the nearest customer service centre. And I trudged to Thakker Mall, Borivali (West) with my shattered handset and a low end Sony smartphone replacement that I already disliked. 

The service centre accepted my handset, telling me the repair estimate was Rs.10,000 at maximum. I already knew this, from Googling screen replacement for HTC One M7. The ever helpful IFixit told me that the phone is built upon the screen assembly so you have to dismantle the whole phone to replace it. It has a repairability score of 1/10 and the message is clear - try to not break it, or repent forever. 

I received an online estimate for repair after two weeks. I clicked on the link and I fainted. It was Rs.21,000. At one glance, it appeared that they proposed to replace everything except the phone itself:
The screen
The body
The battery
The camera
The speaker

HTC has a helpline which no one answers, but in any case, mail is the best medium for the exchanges that I needed to have with customer support. I put down a request for the repair amount to be contained within Rs.10,000. I was out of warranty and I could not even find the bill. This would have to be about goodwill.

The exchange with customer support lasted for two more months. I have written them at least 15 times and been on 4-5 calls with customer support without getting my request answered. I mainly wanted to know why so many parts needed to be replaced. Finally, they agreed to send me a partial repair estimate.

I asked a friend to give me the CEOs email address and wrote to him. I did not receive a reply but two days later, I got a call confirming that my handset would be repaired - at Rs. 10,249. I again received an online estimate and after approving it, my handset was ready within 2 days. I went to collect it and was mildly shocked. Unless I am wrong, this is a new phone that I have got. I could be wrong. In any case, if they replaced all the things they said they would, it would virtually be a new phone. 

The point I want to make is, it was a long wait, but I did get what I want. I am happy to have my M7 back and I intend to look after it carefully henceforth. And the customer service was patient and responded to me (slowly but steadily) till the issue got sorted. From what I read, HTC is not really doing well in terms of sales at this point - but that did not stop them from doing the right thing. And this post is to say thanks. I am happy that I bought an HTC phone and my next purchase will be from them too.