Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Top Budget Phablets of 2015

By definition, a phablet is a phone with a screen size that exceeds 5.5 inches. When I bought my Nexus 6, I posted about my change of heart regarding phablets. They definitely make a positive difference to the browsing, typing and viewing experience. Meanwhile, clever engineering and design ensures that they are still not too bulky to fit in your palm or pocket and give you a full day's worth of battery life.

You may want the benefit of a phablet, without spending the Rs. 40,000-plus on a Galaxy Note 4 or similar super-sized phone. Here are some great (and surprisingly cheap) workhorses that won't break the bank, but will give you a good working life.

1) The Google Nexus 6
I freely admit that I have changed my mind over this one, going from being a disappointed naysayer, to a big fan. The Nexus 6 is smooth, fast and problem free. Calls are clear and do not drop, the speakerphone works well. It is a good phone, and a good browsing device. And it falls in the budget list because Flipkart is currently running a promo as a result of which you can get it for as little as Rs.25,000 on exchange, compared to the old price of Rs. 44,000. At this price, it's a fantastic bargain, and worth a look. We can't guarantee that the sale will be on indefinitely, so rush to buy it if you are interested.

2) The Galaxy Note 3 
If the Nexus and Note 3 are in the same price range, I would recommend the Nexus, as a later piece of hardware, and for the updated Android firmware. But the older Galaxy Note 3 has an edge if you are looking for the productivity apps optimised for the larger screen size, which are missing in the Nexus 6. When it came out, it received universally positive reviews for its performance, battery life and user experience. And these factors do not change just because newer phones have come out in the market. At less than Rs.30,000, although its well over a year old, it still represents a bargain. You get the S-pen with it too!

3) Asus ZenFone 2
Asus may not have rocked the scene with laptops lately, but the Taiwanese manufacturer is quietly picking up a reputation as a manufacturer of modestly priced phones that deliver a performance way beyond their price. 'Quietly' is the operative word. Asus is like the budget counterpart of HTC, another understated company that delivers some truly awesome phones. The ZenFone 2 from Asus runs the latest version of Android Lollipop, and offers a smooth performance, full HD screen and decent battery life. You get two variants - with 2 GB RAM at Rs. 15,000 and with 4 GB RAM at Rs. 20,000.

4) Galaxy Note 3 Neo
To be honest, the Note 3 is a way better buy than its budget-priced counterpart. But at its current discounted price below Rs.20,000, the Note 3 Neo merits a second look. It is essentially the Note 3, with a slightly less powerful processor, a lower-definition screen and a poorer camera. If you are willing to trade off these aspects to save nearly Rs.10,000 then the Note 3 Neo is a decent compromise. As a bonus, it's also a tad smaller, lighter and sleeker than the Note 3.

5) The Asus ZenFone 6
An understated gem of a phone, I am constantly surprised that it does not attract more praise from users. It's truly a budget phone at Rs.16,000. It also has a nice metal finish, Gorilla Glass and a quietly efficient Intel processor that matches up to most daily user requirements without eating battery life. I speak from personal experience as my mom uses this phone. It ticks the basics like good call quality, battery life and performance. The only caveat is that it may be too large for you. The Nexus 5 does a magician's trick to make you forget that it's massive. The ZenFone is HUGE. You might want to look at its smaller and more affordable sibling, the ZenFone 5. But that's not a phablet, so it's outside the scope of this review.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Five disappointments I faced as an owner of Hyundai i20 Elite

You will be hard pressed to find too many complaints about Hyundai i20 Elite. In fact, it's one car that garners overwhelmingly positive feedback from both owners and non-owners. I brought home my own i20 Elite Asta (petrol) a month ago and overall, I am a happy owner. What I'm doing in this post is flagging off little disappointments - things that I did not register when I signed up to buy the car, but realised after I actually started driving it daily.

1. They removed the second charging socket
One of the attractions of the top end Asta variant, was that it gave two charging sockets, like the top-end Ford Titanium Ecosport. In the current i20, they have removed the second charging port, without intimation. Yeah, call it a small thing but I am still a little pissed. 

2. It is under-powered
In 2010, I compared the Ritz and the old version of i20 and decided in favor of the Ritz because it had a better engine. My decision was right then and unfortunately it still is. On paper there is not much to choose, but I miss the power and throttle of my old car. Especially on the ghat section between Mumbai and Pune I could feel the lack.

3. No option for reversing alarm
Reversing onto a crowded Mumbai street is a nightmare. Pedestrians, animals and two-wheelers pay scant heed to you unless you nearly run them over, and that's not a good idea. I found that the reversing alarm/song/noise that's part of a third party AutoCop solution is useful as it at least warns oblivious people and they are more likely to stop or get out of the way. Hyundai has an inbuilt security system without this option. They do provide the strange one-side only reversing light that seems to be the standard feature on top end cars (but really? Who needs a one-side reversing light, and what use is it exactly, to whom?)

4. Not enough storage compartments 
As a driver I miss the front seat storage options. There is no place to keep a tissue box (in the Ritz, there was a shelf above the glove box). There is no ticket holder in the sun visor above the drivers dashboard. There is no coin holder for change. These are small things but they make a difference to the driver's convenience.

5. The boot does not lock till you move away from the car

This is a potential car jacking or theft threat. While you hold the smart key in your hand and stand around the car, the boot will stay open even if you lock the car. Move away a few feet and it will lock. There is also no option to lock the boot from outside, or open it from inside the car using a lever. By default the boot can be opened from outside while the engine is running. That's a little funny. It's also not very safe.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

How I fell in love with the Nexus 6 - Phablets are GOOD!

I was one of the many people who were publicly disgusted/heart-broken/annoyed when Google announced that the Nexus 6 would be an over-sized 'phablet' (and with a 6 inch screen that made it bigger than the Galaxy Note and the iPhone 6 Plus). I have never been a fan of large sized phones. I tend to believe that a phone should behave (and be sized) like a phone and people who want something more  should pick up a tablet.

Most of Asia disagrees with me. IDC reports that in 2015, phablet volumes will hit 318 million, overtaking portable PCs (tablets+laptops) by a wide margin. This growth is fuelled by emerging markets, where the smartphone is the device of choice for internet connectivity and the large screen of a phablet is considered as an advantage rather than a weakness. And with phablet prices dropping constantly, adoption rates have also picked up.

Coming back to the Nexus 6, I ordered it with some apprehension. But I needed a phone urgently and Flipkart was offering a great exchange price against my old HTC. This was the best deal I could get on short notice (I paid Rs. 28000 including shipping) so I took the plunge. And I have to say, that I adjusted to the new phone in a suprisingly short time span.

Here are the reasons why I fell in love with it:

1) It's awesome to read on a plus-sized screen!

The arrival of the Nexus 6 co-incided with the arrival of my first pair of reading glasses. It was certainly the right time to appreciate the super large, super clear screen and the HUGE font size that it can display. It definitely made the reading experience smoother. Over the past week, I have noticed that I reach less often for my iPad or laptop, and I do more browsing on the phone. I understand now why so many people buy these giant sized phones. It certainly improves the browsing experience by leaps and bounds. My mom has an Asus Zen Fone 6 (another 6 incher) and she also confirms that she has substituted it for her tablet. 

2) It's not as big as you fear it is!

One of my biggest fears with a phablet, was how funny it would look when I used it for calls (like holding a purse to your ear, as one of my friends had derisively described it). Thankfully, the design and ergonomics of phablets are constantly being improved by manufacturers. Motorola has proved its design chops by reducing the bezel size and doing away with the physical button in favor of capacitive buttons. It may come as a revelation to you that the Nexus 6 is almost the same size as the iPhone 6 Plus while adding half an inch of real estate to the screen. Still there is only so much of bezel management you can do, and it cannot mitigate the fact that this is a massively sized phone. But Motorola has done some magic that makes the phone easy to manage. As you can see from the pictures I posted, the Nexus 6 is not so unwieldy that it becomes unmanageable. In situations where you are sitting comfortably, it's easy to type. But I have more or less forgotten about one handed typing while carrying a shopping bag! Those days are behind me.

The funny thing is, now when I handle smaller phones including the Galaxy Nexus and the HTC One that I upgraded from, they feel really small and cluttered compared to my new phablet. I don't know if I will go back to a smaller phone so soon - I know that I would miss this experience.

3) Battery Life does not suck
Poor battery life used to be one of the strikes against phablets - something that early adopters of the first Galaxy Note would remember well. Screens are the biggest drain of battery and today's super high resolution screens with qHD, Super Amoled etc. are battery sippers. One of the reasons that phablets are huge is that the huge screen also requires a super-large capacity battery to power it for a decent number of hours. Here is where the Nexus 6 really scores. Not only does it have decent battery life (provided you don't abuse it), it also charges really fast through the supplied adaptor. You can bring it upto 60% charge in 20 minutes and that is really fast. 

4) The pure joy of unadulterated Android
I have used and praised HTC Sense, and appreciated that Samsung is improving on TouchWiz. But there is nothing that can beat the simplicity and pure joy of undiluted Android, and the good news is that it gets better with each subsequent release. I used Lollipop on the HTC for a few months, but it barely gave me a flavor of the OS compared to the way it operates on the Nexus. I started out my Android journey with Ice Cream Sandwich on the Galaxy Nexus 5 years ago, and I truly appreciate how much Google has refined the operating system over time. Stripped down to basics, simple, liquid-smooth  is how I would describe it. It does not get in the way of the tasks you want to do with your phone, and that's the way it should be. Apple could learn a thing or two from Android at this stage. I have heard complaints that Google should create special apps that use the large screen, like Samsung has done with the Note 4. But somehow, I am OK if they don't do that. I am ok with the vanilla experience, because to my mind, that's the essence of the Nexus. It's for people who do not want the bells and whistles that come in the shape of fancy branded features. And if they do want them, there's a host of custom ROMs and they can pick which bells and whistles they want. Incidentally, I will not be rooting or loading a custom ROM, at least in the immediate future. I want to savor the awesomeness that Google has created. Believe me, it is awesome. And it's way better on the Nexus 6, than on the Nexus 5!