Motorola Moto G Smartphone Review

In the last few months, Motorola has returned to the smartphone spotlight with the Moto X and the Moto G. While the X currently isn’t available in the UK (though there’s a hotly-tipped press event in London this week), the Moto G follows the underrated Razr, Razr Maxx and variants that have been released since 2011, eschewing the Droid slider in favour of the candybar handset while stepping away from the carbon-fibre of the Razrs. In short, there’s a new design style in town.

Not content with a new look, Motorola are pricing the Moto G very aggressively, coming in at around GB£135 on the street, unlocked and off-contract. The Nexus line has always been competitively priced and it might be Motorola is following suit at the entry-level. I hesitate to say budget, because you’ll see that the Moto G is anything but.

Motorola lent GNC one of the pre-production handsets to GNC for review and as you’ll see from the photos, there are a few markings on the face of the phone that won’t be present on the retail versions, but otherwise, it’s what will be shipped. I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks so let’s take a look at the Motorola Moto G.

Specwise, it’s a 4.5” 1280 by 720 HD screen powered by a Qualcomm 1.2 MHz quad-core A7 processor supported by an Adreno GPU, There’s 1 GB RAM and a choice of 8 GB or 16 GB of storage. Comes with Android 4.3 out of the box with a guaranteed upgrade to KitKat (4.4) that according to some websites is already being pushed out. A 2070 mAh battery keeps the Moto G going. It’s a world-wide phone, with CDMA and  GSM variants, but no LTE. Dimensions are 66 x 130 x 11.6 mm (6.0 mm at the narrowest point) and weighs in at 143g.

Moto G

The Moto G looks good, black with chrome accents, Gorilla Glass screen and a curved replaceable back. It fits nicely into the hand and the curved back reminds me a little of the Palm Pre and its pebble design cue. The back pops off and replacement coloured backs (shells) are available for around GB£10 for those wishing to customise and there’s a flip door cover version for around GB£20 – they’re all bright and funky.

Shells

There’s definitely a bit of weight to the phone but it feels reassuring rather than heavy. The right-hand side has the on/off button and a volume rocker. There’s a micro-USB socket at the bottom and 3.5 mm audio jack at the top. The back has the rear-facing camera with flash and there’s an interesting little dimple in the back.

Moto G Lockscreen

Powering the phone up reveals two things….first the screen is tremendous and second that Motorola haven’t strayed too far from the stock Android experience. Although not a full 1080 HD screen, the 720 in 4.5″ gives a high pixel density and apps look good. Colours are strong and vibrant, and slightly richer than on the LG Nexus 4. Blacks are black and contrast is good. There’s definitely nothing to worry about here: it’s one of the best screens on a phone. No budget screen here.

Returning to the user interface, anyone familiar with a Nexus device will be totally at home. It’s all fairly standard and what Motorola has done is to tweak some of the standard apps and include a few value-adding apps which you can use or not use, as you wish.

Assist – this is a personal assistant-type app that sets up rules for when the phone needs to be quiet, based on driving, meetings or sleeping. Similar apps are available in the store but the Motorola version is clean and simple. Nice touches include exceptions so that although you might be sleeping and the phone quiet, if a call comes in from your wife or child, the rule is overruled and the call comes through.

Assist

Motorola Migrate – this app helps transfer information from an older phone to the Moto G. It covers text messages, call history, SIM contacts, media and volume settings. Innovatively uses wifi and QR codes.

Moto Care – AT first glance, this looks like a mundane help and FAQ app, but it’s considerably more, providing useful suggestions and live chat with a Motorola rep should you need it.

FM Radio – The Moto G has an FM radio built-in and there’s an app for that as well. I haven’t used an FM radio in years but if it’s something you need, the Moto G has it. As with many similar devices, the headphones act as the FM antenna so you need to have them plugged in for the radio to work. That’s a bit of a problem if you normally use Bluetooth headphones…

Moving on to the camera, I found that the camera had both pros and cons. The camera was good when the scene was well-lit and the colours came out strongly. In these circumstances I thought the camera was better than the Nexus 4. Here’s an outside shot of a nearby building plus a screenshot of a zoomed-in area.

City Hospital

Zoom City Hospital

As much as the camera worked well in good light conditions, the Moto G was almost unusable in low light conditions. The autofocus struggled to lock on and nearly all the low light shots I took were blurry. A little disappointing but perhaps something that can be fixed via an app update.

Returning to the fundamental function of a mobile phone, i.e. the ability to make and receive phone calls, there are no problems here. Call quality was excellent and both participants could hear each other well, even in areas of relatively low signal strength.

Using Geekbench 3, the Moto G clocks in at 1152 on the multicore test and the LG Nexus 4 scores 1630. In real world use, Moto G is quick when running an app: I had no problems playing Ingress, Cut The Rope, Where’s My Water?, Plants v Zombies, etc. The 1 GB (v 2 GB in the Nexus 4) meant that switching to a previously-run app sometimes necessitated the full relaunch of the app. I notice it because I’m used to the Nexus but I suspect many owners will never even realise.

Overall, this is a great entry level phone and is excellent value for money. It’s an all round solid performer that easily outclasses the lower end of the market, especially the Samsung Galaxy phones, such as the Ace and the Y. The only quibble is with the low-light abilities of the camera and regardless, you’d be an idiot to buy any other off-contract phone unless you really need the bigger screen of a Nexus 5 or an HTC One. Motorola have set a new standard and the Moto G deserves to succeed.

Thanks again to Motorola for providing the Moto G for review.

Lantronix Prints From Android and Chrome at CES

Lantronix LogoThere are times when only hard copy will do but anyone who has tried to print from a tablet will know that it’s not always easy. The main ecosystems from Apple and Google have their own printer strategies with AirPrint and Cloud Print respectively but support is spotty at best. Several printer manufacturers have gone so far as to create their own printer app which really is a pretty poor state of affairs.

Into this gap steps Lantronix with their xPrintServer Cloud Print Edition, the first Google-certified Cloud Print server which lets Android and ChromeOS devices print wirelessly to network and USB printers. Sweet.

xPrintServer

The unit is about the size of a smartphone and requires no additional software downloads or printer drivers. It’s simply a case of connecting the device to the network and it automatically finds the printers on the network, making them available to users. The xPrintServer Cloud Print Edition supports any device running Google’s Chrome browser, whether it’s a smartphone, tablet, PC or laptop. Apparently there are over 310 million active users of Chrome, so that’s quite a few people who might want to print. Business users of Google Apps are supported too. Details of the printers supported are available from Lantronix’s website.

This new xPrintServer joins the existing Home and Office Editions which provide print services for iOS devices such as the iPhone and iPad.

The Cloud Print Edition sells for an MSRP of US$149.95 and will ship at the end of February 2014. Pre-orders are being taken now and potential customers can sign up at lantronix.com for more information and availability. Of course, if you are at CES, you can pop round to their stand for a quick demo.

Samsung Reveals New Cameras for CES

Ahead of Samsung’s CES event on Monday, the Korean company has announced two new cameras to get the show on the road, the NX30 and the Galaxy Camera 2.

Aimed at the prosumer, the NX30 compact system camera extends Samsung’s NX range, though my guess is that it will replace the current NX20 model. The heart of the camera is a 20.3 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor and combined with Samsung’s NX AF System II, should provide fast and accurate auto-focussing. The shutter speed can be cranked up (down?) to 1/8000 sec and in continuous shooting mode takes 9 frames per second. NX30 has a 3″ Super AMOLED touch screen for a viewfinder which can swivel out and rotate so that it stays in view from difficult angles. Hopefully the AMOLED screen won’t wash out in bright sunlight.

There’s also Remote Viewfinder Pro function that lets the photographer control several functions of the NX30 from a smartphone, including zoom, shutter speed, aperture and taking the photograph. That’s neat and as you might expect in this day and age, the NX30 has advanced sharing capabilities and can transfer images using both wifi and NFC to smartphones and beyond.

Samsung NX30

The NX30 continues the evolution of our award-winning NX series of cameras, bringing with it new and improved features such as a better imaging processor and our advanced SMART Camera offering. Not only does this camera deliver the performance users demand, it is also easy-to-use so that moments are never missed,” said Myoung Sup Han, Executive VP and Head of the Imaging Business Team at Samsung Electronics. “The NX30 allows photographers to shoot with confidence, providing a seamless ability to capture moments and share them immediately, delivering exceptionally beautiful photographs while creating an unmatched photo-sharing experience.

The NX range also saw the introduction of a new premium S Lens, the 16-50 mm F2 – 2.8 S ED OIS and a zoom lens, the 16-50 mm F3.5-5.6 Power Zoom. Both have a focal length of 16 – 50 mm (equivalent to 24.6-77 mm in 35 mm format) but I’m not an expert in photography so I’ll point you in the direction of the press release if you want to know more.

Moving onto the Samsung Galaxy Camera 2, this is an update of the previous Android-powered Galaxy Camera. As you might expect, the focus (sorry) is on the ease of picture-taking followed by easy uploading and sharing of the photos. The camera itself has a 16 megapixel CMOS sensor with a 21x optical zoom and is paired with a 1.6 GHz quad-core processor and 2 GB of RAM. As with the NX30, the Galaxy Camera 2 has wifi and NFC transfer capabilities and 50 GB of cloud storage is provided via the pre-loaded Dropbox app.

For Instagram generation, the Camera 2 comes with Smart Mode, which lets photographers choose from 28 different pre-set modes all designed to address different shooting scenarios and for those unsure which mode they want to select, the Smart Mode Suggest analyses the scene at hand and then recommends the best Smart Mode for a perfect shot. New Smart Mode “Selfie Alarm” takes five consecutive, high resolution images so that narcissists hipsters can select their best view and share immediately on their favourite social media site.

 

Samsung Galaxy Camera 2

From the press shots, it looks like it will be available in both black and white finishes as per the current model. More info on the Galaxy Camera 2 in the press release.

“Consumers love the GALAXY Camera, and this next-generation version was designed to improve on the successful predecessor, with upgraded and new features that will enhance the photography experience,” said Myoung Sup Han, “The result is a more powerful and portable device which continues to embrace the public’s passion for the social features of smartphones, yet also provides superior image control and quality. We are dedicated to making it easier for more people to achieve great results and with the GALAXY Camera 2’s host of creative features, anyone can capture stand out images.

If you want to know more and you are at CES, you’ll find Samsung at booth #12004 in the Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Pricing was not announced but I imagine it will be inline with the current models.

Archos Helium 4G Smartphones at CES

Archos Helium SmartphoneArchos today entered the 4G and LTE smartphone market with the announcement of its new Helium range of sub-$250 smartphones. French company Archos has a long history with Android tablets and smartphones and the Helium 45 and 50 join the Platinum, Titanium and Oxygen lines. The new phones will run Android 4.3 Jelly Bean out the box with an expected upgrade to 4.4 KitKat. Both phones will have full access to the Google Play store.

Spec-wise, both phones are powered by a 1.4 GHz quad core Qualcomm Cortex A7 processor with 1 GB of RAM. The 45 has a smaller IPS screen at 4.5″ (854 x 480) and only 4GB of internal storage, with the bigger Helium 50 sporting a 5″ 1280 x 720 HD screen and  8 GB. Usefully, there’s a micro SD slot to expand the storage if needed. Other features are as expected in this price range – rear-facing cameras are 5 MP and 8 MP with VGA and 2 MP front-facing cameras on the 45 and 50 respectively. The VGA-spec is a little disappointing.

In terms of 4G and LTE, the radios support 800 / 1800 / 2100 / 2600 MHz frequencies with LTE cat 4 150 Mbps / 50 Mbps.

The smartphone has revolutionized the way consumers access information, giving them the ability to instantly view, connect and share ideas regardless of location and time,” says Loïc Poirier, CEO of Archos. “The Archos Helium 4G smartphones will once again change consumers’ mindsets by making the best possible technology affordable.

Overall, the Helium 45 and 50 look like good value entrants into the 4G smartphone market priced at a penny under $250 and $200. If you are interested in knowing more, visit Archos’ complete selection of smartphones, tablets and connected devices on display at CES 2014 in Central Hall Booth 9844.

Philips Hue Chrome App

Hue Personal Wireless LightingWhile researching the Philips Hue Android apps, I discovered that currently there is a single Hue app for Chrome. It’s called Hueful and while it’s fairly basic, it deserves a mention as (a) it’s the only app on Chrome but (b) it shows that Chrome can support this kind of hardware-oriented app. Previously I would have discounted Chrome from being an option but Hueful works fine on my Chromebook.

Hueful isn’t a very advanced Hue app, being limited to setting colours of selected lamps and colour cycling. Sometimes lamps need to be told twice to take on a setting but they usually get there in the end.

Hueful

 

Hueful is free from the Chrome store.

Philips Hue Android Apps

Hue Personal Wireless LightingLast week, I had a first look at the Hue “Personal Wireless Lighting” kit from Philips. As I mentioned in the review, Philips has opened up the lighting system to developers via an API and this week, I’ll take a look at some of the apps available, both from 3rd party developers. As you’d expect, they run the gamut from “could do with more work” all the way through to “brilliant” but broadly fall into two categories, firstly those that are primarily concerned with setting the colour of the lights, and secondly those that do more interesting things. This review covers the apps that are currently available from Google Play and there are many similar apps available for iOS.

Hue Limited Edition, Colorful, Light Control, Speedy Hue and LampShade are all variants on the “set the colour of the lights”. All offer grouping of lamps into sets and the saving of colour combinations into favourites or presets. Here are a few screenshots, showing the main screens from each. As you’ll see, they pretty much do the same thing in different ways.

Hue Limited Edition

Hue Limited Edition

Colorful

Colorful

Speedy Hue

Speedy Hue

LampShade

LampShade

Light Control

Light Control

All worked as advertised, but I found that in this instance, less was often more. If I wanted to run an app with favourites or presets, I tended to use the Philips Hue app to set all the lights at once. However to quickly set the colour of a single light, I used Hue Limited Edition, rather than anything else. Light Control came a close second and Speedy Hue gets an honourable mention for the inclusion of a scheduler which will turn the lights on and off at specified times.

Speaking of alarms, Hue Alarm Clock takes waking up to the next level. Instead of an incessant beeping, Alarm Clock gently fades in a colour of your choice to wake you from your slumber. The screenshot is from the limited free version, not the paid version which has more options.

Hue Alarm Clock

There are two apps which purport to support voice recognition, and like “Star Trek”, you too can walk into a room and say, “Lights!” and the illumination comes up. Hue Talk takes an almost canned approach to the voice recognition with the user able to predefine the voice commands for  around 20 features, from turning all the lights on, turning the lights up and down, and changing the colour. The suggested voice commands are memorable phrases, such as “Yellow Submarine” and “Purple Rain” turning the lights the respective colours. You can change the commands to whatever you prefer so there’s no real intelligence here but it works well.

Hue Talk

On the other hand, SpeechHue, looks like it supports natural language but I could never get the app to work in the way that I imagined it should work. Some of the comments in the Google Play store say that it’s good once you work it out. Sorry, if I need to work out how the app works, it’s failed. Zero stars.

SpeechHue

LampShade and Colorful (after paid upgrades) work with NFC to set the lights. In theory, each room could have an NFC tag (or tags) such that when the tag is swiped by the smartphone, the app sets the lights just for that room or mood. It’s a neat idea but I wasn’t able to test the NFC features as I don’t have any NFC tags. I’ve ordered so I may report back later.

I’ve been saving the best until last and we come to apps from IJS Design who make the best Hue apps on Android bar none. Currently, there are four IJS apps, of which three – Christmas, Halloween and Fireworks – link holidays into Hue. So for the Christmas app, which includes New Year too, you get sound effects linked into Hue colour changes and effects. Think of it as a soundboard with lights. The apps also have moods which are longer music pieces with light effects and are more atmospheric, which are especially good when the sound is passed through a hifi.

Hue Christmas

Huey New Year

And finally, IJS Design’s Hue Disco is the single best Hue app on the market (IMHO). Simply, you play music on your hifi, place your smartphone or tablet nearby and Hue Disco changes the colour of the Hue lights in time to the track. There’s loads of adjustment possible, including microphone sensitivity, transition speed, brightness, colour temperature and strobe effects. For something more subtle, there’s Mood Control which cycles the lights on themed colours, such as sunrise or Christmas. All-in-all, totally brilliant and money well spent.

Hue Disco

A screenshot can’t show what it’s like in action, so here’s a video showing Hue Disco in action. You really can have a disco in your front room and it’s fantastic when paired with a music service like Spotify. I’ve been playing Christmas tracks non-stop.

That summarises the state of the Android Hue app space which appears to be growing healthily and similar apps are available for Apple devices. For me, the keeper apps are Hue Limited Edition and Hue Disco with Hue Talk close behind needing a bit of polishing. Have fun.

Google and NORAD have Santa Trackers

Google Santa tracker logoParents of small children may find it fun to make use of a Santa Tracker. Typically, the TV news will include updates on Santa’s journey on Christmas Eve as part of their weather report. Now, you can check out two Santa Trackers right from your desktop.

The Official NORAD Santa Tracker is from the North American Aerospace Defense Command. It has a clock that counts down until Santa is on his way.

The website also lets you explore Santa’s Village at The North Pole. It has Christmas music, and a library of information about Santa, his sleigh, and holiday traditions from around the world. You can watch movies about NORAD and play several games in the Arcade.

The Google Santa Tracker also has a countdown clock. The rest of the website is filled with a bunch of Santa and Christmas related amusements that resemble Google Doodles. A couple of them are interactive games that you can play. The games are surprisingly addictive! One can spend a lot of time playing around with either of these two Santa Trackers.

Roku Gets YouTube

Roku 3Perhaps unsurprisingly given Google’s now somewhat defunct plans for GoogleTV, YouTube has been one of the glaring omissions from the Roku platform. But not any longer. Roku has announced that a YouTube channel is now available on the Roku 3 in USA, Canada, UK and the Republic of Ireland. Older Rokus will be getting the channel next year, though the exact timing is unclear. For non-Roku owners, a channel is roughly equivalent to an app on other platforms.

The YouTube channel supports full 1080p HD and the press release suggests that subscriptions will carry over from other platforms so that your favourites can easily be seen on the Roku. The new channel also features “Send to TV”, which after pairing, lets you send a YouTube video from your smartphone or tablet for viewing on the Roku.

As a Roku 2 XS owner, I’m delighted but will have to wait a bit longer until I get the YouTube channel on my device (unless Santa has a surprise for me). Sadly, it will be one less reason to turn on my Nintendo Wii, especially with the HD support on the Roku.

Microsoft Loses Top Engineer as they Scramble for CEO Closure

MicrosoftLast week I was at Ford for a press event. I got to talk directly to Ford CEO Alan Mulally (he was interested in my Google Glass). I didn’t ask about the Microsoft offer because that was covered in the press bombardment earlier — which he side-stepped the answer. But now, Microsoft is facing a new issue as a top Microsoft engineer Blaise Agüera y Arcas has announced he is joining Google. Will more follow?

Blaise has been with Microsoft since 2006 when his company (Seadragon) was acquired. Arcas was a lead software architect on Bing Maps photosynth software. In a blog post confirming his departure, Arcas said this was “The hardest decision of my life.”

Writings on the Wall?

Alan-Mulally-FordIf Mulally doesn’t head to Microsoft, the company will be in a very bad spot for the start of 2014. Most other CEO avenues have been closed up – most recently Steve Mollenkopf of Qualcomm as he accepted the CEO role there. With Microsoft being the world’s largest software maker, you don’t want to have an unidentified road map coming into Q1.

Add to that the bad year that Microsoft had. Windows 8.1 was lack-luster, the Surface tablet was not what they expected in sales, and phone sales are not even competing with the iPhone. Even the XBox One is having a hard time catching up to PS4 sales.

So with all this data, how will other employees react? Will we start to see a ship jump as the month goes on?

If Microsoft can’t get a CEO that can handle the job by January, we could start seeing employees sprucing up their resumes. Other names in the CEO hunt are former Skype CEO Tony Bates and former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop.

Some have even suggested Bill Gates come back and help in these questionable times. If the other avenues turn to be dead ends, would Gates come back?

In the meantime, reports of Ford hosting their own analyst meeting to figure out the direction if Mulally steps down. There are rumors he could step down as Ford CEO even if he doesn’t take the role at Microsoft. CFO Bob Shanks will address those issues next week.

Philips Hue Personal Wireless Lighting Review

Kevin Ashton coined the phrase “The Internet of Things” back in 1999, but a decade later most of the on-line gadgets in my house are still recognisable as being technology. My fridge is still a fridge, my front door still needs a key and my house doesn’t talk to me.

That was the situation until a couple of weeks when I received a Philips Hue “Personal Wireless Lighting” kit which lets me control the colour of light bulbs from my smartphone, both in the house and from outside across the internet. That’s the Internet of Things.

I can imagine that a number of GNC readers are going, “Huh? Why would I want to control the colour of my lightbulbs from my smartphone?” Until you see in action, you can’t believe how much fun and how cool it really is. Not only can you turn your house lights on as you drive up the road, you can co-ordinate the lighting with your mood or your decor. Want a Christmassy green and red? Not a problem. We’ll see exactly how it works a little later on.

So let’s take a quick look at what’s in the box of Philips Hue in more detail.

Philips Hue Box Exterior

Opening it up reveals two of the three main components, the wireless bridge and the bulbs themselves.

Philips Vue Interior

The bridge connects to your network via an ethernet cable and communicates with the light bulbs using Zigbee.

Hue Bridge

The bulbs are standard ES bulbs and there are GU10 and GR30 (SES) variants available as well. There doesn’t seem to be any bayonet cap versions (BC) so if you only have BC light fittings you might have to get some converters.

Hue Light Bulb

Setting up the system is very easy. Screw the bulbs into the lights. Connect the Hue bridge to the network with the ethernet cable and plug in the power adaptor. Load the Hue app onto your Android or iOS smartphone or tablet. Job done. It’s that straightforward. The first time the app runs, it looks for the Hue bridge on the network and once it’s found, you authorise the app to access Hue by pressing the button in the middle of the bridge. It’s a layer of security that stops unauthorised people or apps from accessing the Hue.

The Hue app lets you control all the lights connected to your bridge mainly via “scenes” which act as presets for each light’s colour settings. Here’s the main screen. Each mini photograph is a preset for a number of lights and it can be just one or all three.

Main Screen

Typically the settings are based on colours picked out from the picture associated with the scene. The screenshot below shows that lamp 1 will be orange and lamp 2 will be magenta.

Colour Scenes

It’s all a bit abstract until you see it in action, so here’s a short video of my controlling one lamp using a series of the scenes to run through some colour changes. It was filmed with my smartphone, so don’t expect too much! Remember too, that this is just one light  and try to imagine all three lights working together to colour a single room.

Philips have opened up Hue to developers and are steadily building an ecosystem around both their products and other apps developed by third parties. If you are already have a Philips TV with Ambilight, Hue can further enhance the experience with additional colour lighting. Light strips and Philip’s Living Colors Bloom can take the lighting effects beyond lights and lamps.

There’s a solid community behind Hue with people contributing their own scenes and I’ll be taking a look at some of the 3rd party apps in a follow up post next week, along with a further look at the main Hue app.

Philips Hue is available from the Apple Store and the starter kit used here costs a little under £180, which isn’t cheap, but compared with the costs of some of the custom solutions in this space, it’s a bargain. Note that although it’s sold through the Apple Store, it works with both iOS and Android devices.

Finally, Philips are running a Facebook competition to come up with inspirational ways of using Hue, if you want to win some Hue goodies.

Thanks to Philips for the loan of the Hue starter kit.