The Smartphone Deception: You (Probably) Don’t Need the Latest Phone

Microsoft's new flagship, the Lumia 950
Microsoft’s new flagship, the Lumia 950

A few days ago Microsoft announced its new flagship smartphones. They are impressive devices which left me wishing I was a bit wealthier. Those who know me know that I have something for Windows devices.

I’m looking for a new phone since my old (flagship lol) Nokia is now old and is starting to have some annoying battery issues.

A friend also wanted to buy a new phone, he felt for some reason that his S4 was too old. So he wanted the Moto G, an affordable Motorola that’s probably the best phone in the $200 range.

He later bought a very nice Acer for a reasonable price but he was saying he should have waited for the new Nexus phones which were recently announced. There’s nothing wrong with his new phone, in fact it’s quite impressive but he’s likely fallen victim to advertisers’ tricks.

While I can’t question his economic sense, after all he’s knows more about money than I do and runs a personal finance blog, I think most people end up buying expensive high end smartphones they don’t really need.

Device manufacturers spend a lot of money to trick us into buying their latest offerings. You only need to look at the hype their “events” create.

We’re told that the new processor is faster, there are more pixels per inch, the colours are deeper, there is Near Field Communication (NFC), a better version of Bluetooth, and some other garbage most people don’t understand. We are told about benchmarks and tests and how there’s the latest picture taking technology, a fingerprint sensor, iris recognition and a slew other things we don’t use. The RAM is much bigger, the manufacturers say, and the latest $800 flagship is 1/100 sec faster than its $700 predecessor from six months ago (which you got a month ago on credit).

These specifications are true, of course. The processors are usually faster and newer, the cameras are better and the RAM is bigger. Yet these impressive specs mean less and less in real life usage. Sure your S6 Edge+ has 3Gig Ram, but is it really that much faster than a $200 Xiaomi Rednote in everyday usage? Maybe, but $500 faster? I doubt.

Electronic and Computer Engineering students learn about what’s known as the “common case fast law” in Computer Design and Architecture.¹ It basically says if you make a computer fast for those purposes for which it’s most frequently used then it becomes fast. Common sense right?

Well more and more manufacturers are getting the common case law right. Most phones are now very fast for common things like music, Facebook, twitter, texts and calling. I challenge anyone to really show me how the faster processors lead to a faster calling experience. These new, expensive, fancy flagships are of course faster, and perhaps even more in some specialised, niche applications such as gaming or those benchmarks.

The question therefore is : Do you really need 4 Gig RAM, the latest processor and other fancy bits of silicon to play Temple Run, go Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp?

Truth is you end up paying a lot of money for hardware you do not use. When was the last time you used NFC, or the speech recognition feature besides the one time you were showing off to comrades at the bar?

Another thing is that your “latest”, “fastest”, “fanciest” and other “ests” device will be dethroned in a few months (or even weeks) by some other device.

And of course there are some other trade-offs such as battery life and size. Today’s phones are getting bigger and bigger and to power such powerful processors requires even larger batteries. In the rare smartphones where the battery doesn’t suck it’s usually very big.

In his rather condescending book, The Millionaire Fastlane, MJ DeMarco spends some time talking about why people in the Slowlane and Sidewalk (aka the poor, me, you and 90% of the world) like buying stuff they probably do not need or cannot afford². He says the problem is that we look at these things from a consumer’s view.

Instead DeMarco says we should try to think like the producers, for example Apple, Samsung or HTC. Their goal is to sell as many units as possible. What better way to do it than to make you think your perfectly fine phone is a slow, heavy and ugly thing. In a few months another device is released and the cycle repeats.

Nowadays there are very few things a $200 smartphone cannot do. In fact I can’t think of anything I do on a regular basis that an affordable midrange smartphone cannot do (and I’m a techiee). Especially with the emergence of Chinese manufacturers such as One Plus, Xiaomi, and others which are often as powerful as- or better than- your $800 iPhone 6 or the latest HTC.

There’s really little need for a flagship now. The smartphone world has reached a point where the major differences are in our minds.

Of course if you have a lot of money or just like showing off, you may just decide to get the latest phone. But you’ll be falling victim to marketers and worse, you’ll be paying a lot of money for hardware that will be old in a week or month.

I’m getting a new phone but I’ve resolved that instead of saving for a flagship I’ll just buy something I can afford, for example the Lumia 640 LTE which costs less than $200 but can do everything I need.

In this fast paced, silicon driven world, no matter how much you run you cannot keep up.

Notes:

  1. In a very influential Computer Architecture text, making “the common case fast” is one of the “8 Great Ideas In Computer Architecture” — Patterson, D.A and Hennesey, J.L, Computer Organization and Design The Hardware/Software Interface, 2014
  2. DeMarco, in The Millionaire Fastlane, predicts that the people who spend too much on fancy stuff while living from paycheck to paycheck, end up poor. He calls this way of life the “Sidewalk”, as opposed to the “The Slowlane” which leads to mediocrity and ” The Fastlane” which leads to wealth.

Windows 10 Mobile (Preview): First Impressions

I almost ruined my phone trying to install the Windows 10 Mobile Preview build for Insiders. From Monday afternoon I tried unsuccessfully to restore it but it was unresponsive, only showing a lightning bolt and a cog. I finally succeeded in installing a new firmware and got back to Windows 8.1.

I say this at the start so you know what you’re getting into should you want to try out Windows 10.

Anyway today I finally successfully installed Windows 10 Mobile on my Lumia 920. And what a beauty it is. To try it out (with considerable risk) download the windows Insider app, sign in and then download the updates. This’ll take some time depending on your internet connection. When it’s done it’ll tell you to install the update. This may be the point where your phone dies- possibly never to wake again.

So just to show you what the new OS looks like. It looks great, much better than Android or Ios. This is the smartphone experience!

wp_ss_20150826_0004

 

The default homescreen
The default homescreen
A new look notification area
A new look notification area
Texts display differently too
Texts display differently too
My new homescreen
My new homescreen

 

This is what we’ve been waiting for. Amazed.

God may live in Africa but the internet doesn’t

Chances are that you think your internet connection is slow. This feeling is stronger if you’ve spent some time in places like the US, UK, Germany or South Korea.

Of course it might just be that your service provider provides crappy internet or the signal is weak where you live or maybe you are on the lowest priced data plan but the depressing (or perhaps comforting?) fact is this: Wherever you are in Africa the internet is slower than, say, Germany.

There are a number of factors which cause this inequality but possibly the most important is the issue of hosts. Two months ago at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport a Google employee, one Mr David Weekly, noticed that his internet speed was noticeably slower than what he got when in the US despite the excellent signal. He wrote a “mildly technical” post about it on his Facebook page.

Without getting too technical let me briefly explain what David discovered. When a person goes on the internet, and tries to access Facebook, Twitter or perhaps search for images of Robert Mugabe’s mustache what happens is that a request is send to another computer called a server which stores your favourite videos and, indeed, pictures of Bob’s mustache.

In simple (and very simplistic) terms the data from that host computer is then transferred to your computer’s browser which interprets it and turns it into moving things on your screen. . For a page to fully display a number of trips between your PC and the host where the data is stored  may have to be made.

A simple pingback reveals that it takes over 200 ms for data to travel between my computer and
A simple pingback reveals that it takes over 200 ms for data to travel between my computer and Facebook’s servers. The round the trip time is as much as 300ms.

This delay – termed “latency”- is usually very small because of the incredibly high speeds at which the data is transferred, which while significantly slower than the speed of light, are still very very high. In fact, when a delay is less than 100ms users will feel as if the responses are instant. However if distances are very long the effect becomes noticeable, particularly when you try to load a “big” page. You’ve probably noticed latency when speaking to someone in South Africa over the phone.

The problem here is that most of the data we access is hosted in the US or UK, or other places that are really far away from your flat, local internet cafe or the village where I grew up. So it obviously takes less time for a person in London to access a webpage hosted in London than it takes me to access the same page from here.

One way of solving this problem is for huge internet companies like Facebook and Google to put some of their servers in Africa. This would help but the companies themselves have no economic incentive to do so because only a tiny fraction- about 3%- of the world’s internet traffic is from Africa.

Perhaps a more sustainable, and economically beneficial, solution is for us Africans to host our sites locally. This will reduce the latency and also help African firms which provide hosting services. It might also start a virtuous cycle of increased speeds, greater internet usage, cheaper data and so forth.

So the next time you want to pull your hair out after a YouTube video stops buffering, remember that while Will Smith allegedly  famously said “God lives in Africa and sometimes visits other places”, the Internet lives in North America and Europe, sometimes visiting Africa.

God may live in Africa, the Internet certainly does not.

Something good from Yahoo- Until you lose your smartphone

Yahoo email users will have a new way to login in to their accounts that will no longer require them to remember a traditional password.

The tech giant introduced on-demand passwords, where users can have new passwords sent to them via text message every time they need to log in and check out their inbox.

The service is optional, so users interested in on-demand passwords go to Settings, then Security to set it up.

USA Today

I could use this service. I have scores of passwords and every day I forget at least one of them.

Of course I could just use one of the password management software around but I just cant be bothered. This is more secure and more convenient.

Until someone steals your smartphone.

The Wonders of Science: Britain’s Poo Bus

The Guardian reports that the “poo-bus” will soon go into service. This bio-fuel bus will be powered by human waste.

Britain’s first “poo bus”, which runs on human and household waste, goes into regular service this month. Powered by biomethane gas, the Bio-Bus will use waste from more than 32,000 households along its 15 mile route.

Operated by First West of England, the bus will fill up at a site in Avonmouth, Bristol, where sewage and inedible food waste is turned into biomethane gas.

The bus, which can seat up to 40 people, was unveiled last autumn. First is showing the bus in Bristol on Tuesday before it starts operating four days a week from 25 March.

Via the Guardian

This is good news. The world needs to come up with more sustainable energy sources.

We recently saw the poop water Bill Gates drank and now we got a bus whose fuel is something humans have been trying to get rid of for millenia.

There is no end to the wonders of science.

(I wonder, though, how a bus like this would be received in these parts)

Time I got an Android Phone

The Moto G is an amazing phone  (Image from TechRadar)
The Moto G is an amazing phone
(Image from TechRadar)

I’ve been using a Lumia for almost three year now. Different Lumias certainly but Lumias all the same. The only time I didn’t have one was when my Lumia 720’s screen cracked and I used the Huawei Y220, a small useless limited phone which I used for a couple of months.

I also had an old HTC as my second phone last year until I sold it. So as you can see my Android experience is not that much. But I’m going to change that soon. I want an Android mobile phone now though not because I no longer want my Windows Phone.

I just want a different experience and- I’ll admit- the richer app  selection is pretty alluring. However I’ll keep using my Windows phone and look for a cheap but good Android phone, like the Moto G which I’ve heard so many good things about.

Maybe owning an Android device will push me to develop Android apps which is something I’ve always wanted to do but lacked the willpower.

WhatsApp comes to the Web

Whatsapp comes to the web. Awesome
Whatsapp comes to the web. Awesome

Last night it was announced by WhatsApp on its blog that the popular chat client can now be used within browsers instead of just on mobile phones (Or using some mobile phone OS simulators such as Bluestacks, Visual Express or the Android development kit)

Said the post:

Today, for the first time, millions of you will have the ability to use WhatsApp on your web browser. Our web client is simply an extension of your phone: the web browser mirrors conversations and messages from your mobile device — this means all of your messages still live on your phone.

To activate this web app you simply go to http://web.whatsapp.com and then scan the PR code there using your mobile phone. The latest versions of WhatsApp have been updated to give you the option of scanning the PR code.

I just did it on my Windows phone and it works like a charm.

On a Windows Phone make sure you have the latest version of Whatsapp, open Whatsapp then click the 3 dots for menu and you’ll see a new addition to the usual items:

Select "whatsapp web"
Select “whatsapp web”

Click on Whatsapp web and it’ll open the QR code scanner interface. Scan the code generated on your browser (has to be Google Chrome for now) and it’ll work. Just like that. If you’re using Firefox you’ll be met with the following message:

WhatsApp Web is not available for Chrome yet
WhatsApp Web is not available for Firefox yet

You do have to keep your phone connected to the internet though.

Great development I must say, though it makes it easier for spam message creators and the fellas who make very long stupid jokes. I could literally copy and paste a whole book and send it to someone. Just to see what happens.

Why I want the Lumia 930

The Lumia 930
The Lumia 930

I’ve just watched an awesome video of a National  Geographic channel reporter shooting a video of the Victoria Falls using his Lumia 930. Man, it’s an amazing phone, and I want one now.

Those who know me will know that I’m a bit biased towards Windows and I always have a Windows device. But bias aside, the Lumia 930 is an amazing gadget. I want it.

So alongside the bicycle, this phone has made it to my wish list.

You can now send and receive smells

This is a few months old but still interesting:

“Harvard Professor David Edwards and a former student, Rachel Field, want to harness the evocative power of smell, not just to bring us back, but to bring us closer.

Field and Edwards, the Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Idea Translation at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and core faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically-Inspired Engineering, today demonstrated a smell-based device called an oPhone, which aims to add another sense to digital communications.

The pair bridged the Atlantic Ocean during a New York news conference this morning when Edwards sent a sniff of a New York breakfast — fresh bread, orange juice, and strawberries — to Paris, where colleagues returned the favor, sending the fragrance of champagne and macaroons wafting back.”

– via The Harvard Gazette

Ah, isn’t this wonderful? And the potential uses…..so vast, so exciting. Perfumes, food industry, wine manufacture etc can all use this new “oPhone”.

But I’d get it just to smell my mother’s kitchen. Ha, to be taken to the village in an instant. That’s the beauty and joy of technology.