Monday 31 January 2011

HTC Desire HD - full review

It's only been two weeks, but my HTC Desire HD feels like an extra limb already and my prehistoric Nokia feels like a distant memory (it'll still be useful, though: I'll keep it by the door as something to hit burglars with).

Once you take a little while to appreciate its full functionality, it's a magnificent beast. Perhaps the best way to describe it is that it does everything you would hope a phone to do; the sort of phone that you fantasised about five years ago and thought "one day, phones will be able to do all these things..."

I was astonished to discover that it really does work straight out of the box. The 130 page PDF manual looks daunting, but it's a remarkably intuitive phone - you don't need a PHD in geekology to make the thing work, and by spending a surprisingly painless period tweaking the settings, it turns into an object combining beauty, power and common sense.

The handset itself is beautiful. There is almost no wasted space; it's all taken up by the screen. Never having had an iPhone or similar, it seems to me like a "normal" size for a phone, but there have been "ooohs" and "aaahs" wondering what it is, and admiring its dimensions. The display has been criticised for not having the same brilliance as the Samsung Galaxy S; but the resolution, to my eye, is excellent, and is bright and colourful and looks amazing...although with a pretty major caveat, of which more later.

I've seen a review of the Desire HD which advised people to think of it less as a smartphone, and more of a PDA which can make phone calls. That pretty much sums it up, but its primary purpose, for most people, will still be to make calls and send texts. Speech quality is excellent - although I have severe problems with reception in my flat, which I've never had before. Calls have cut out on more than one occasion. Texts, meanwhile, are handled in a fairly simple manner.

Contact syncing is intelligent, simple and generally good. The phone will recognise when the same contact is listed in different places (email, phone contacts, Facebook, Twitter) and prompt the user to merge them. How this will work in practice when it comes to transferring the contacts onto another phone in two years' time I've no idea, but for now, it's a simple and "quietly brilliant" system, to use HTC's own strapline. Searching for contacts is slightly clunky, and phone numbers "borrowed" from Facebook accounts are in the wrong format to call directly. Another niggle is that it's not possible to "edit" a contact that doesn't have a phone number attached; which in turn means that you can't add a phone number manually. Instead, you need to create a new contact with the phone number and then merge with the other accounts, which slightly undoes some of the excellent work done by the phone already. There is also duplication of Facebook profiles within a contact page thanks to two different Facebook applications running simultaneously (Facebook for Android and Facebook for HTC Sense, and yes, you do need them both running really), but this isn't an inconvenience, it just makes contact pages look a little cluttered.

HTC are heavily tied in with Google; so much so that I have decided to migrate from Hotmail to Gmail. It is possible, in theory, to sync with Hotmail via Microsoft Exchange, but I couldn't get it to work properly. So I took the plunge and moved to Gmail (Hotmail now allows other accounts to pick up emails automatically, which Gmail does neatly; this was the straw that broke the camel's back). In truth I'm not a huge fan of the Gmail interface on a PC, but Gmail for Android is simple, elegant and intuitive. However, I'm not convinced that emails are being picked up in anything like real time; that's a combniation of Gmail not picking up Hotmails instantly (it usually checks every 20 minutes or so, but you have no control over this) and the Gmails not being sent to the phone in real time as they should. I'm still trying to diagnose which is the greater problem, but having emails arrive an hour after they were sent is really quite annoying when the whole point of having emails on a phone should be to have them in near-real time. You can open and view Word and Excel attachments; in theory you should be able to edit them, but good luck trying to manage a spreadsheet from a mobile.

The standard Facebook and Twitter Android apps are built in and are both excellent. I'm an on-off user of Tweetdeck on a PC, but in truth the branded apps work fine. Using HTC Sense, the networks are both integrated into other functionality, via HTC Peep (the built in Twitter app) and FriendStream. The latter is essentially an aggregate feed of Twitter and Facebook; convenient and that's about it - with limited functionality to comment/reply/like etc. Notifications duplicate themselves for Twitter, too - another tiny niggle. I'm rather tempted to try uninstalling the Twitter-and-Facebook-for-HTC-Sense functionality, but there may be other implications which I'm unaware of.

Internet browsing is, quite simply, brilliant. Pages load instantly via Wireless or 3G, the automatic resizing and realigning of text is superb, and there are no sites I've visited so far that have caused any problems whatsoever. As someone to whom internet browsing on-the-go is an entirely new experience, to my amateur eye the browsing experience is almost as good as on a PC. Zooming, scrolling, and navigating are a joy.

Typing on the touchscreen is...OK. It definitely helps to turn the phone to landscape, which makes the "keys" larger, but despite the screen's size, it's impossible to get close to even a fraction of PC typing speed. I had intended to use the phone to blog on-the-go, but that'll really be a chore. On that point, it's astonishing that Google haven't built a Blogger-for-Android app; that's a serious oversight and something they need to resolve quickly as there's a Wordpress app. I've tried using Bloggerdroid which is reasonable, although it doesn't seem possible to sync with the account, meaning that part-writing a piece on the go and finishing it at a machine (or vice versa) isn't possible as far as I know.

The camera is simple to use. I haven't given it a really proper test yet, but from a bit of casual use picture quality is up there with entry-level compacts, which is all you could ask for. Video quality is seriously good, as you'd expect from a machine with the "HD" moniker. Folder management is unconvincing, however; as it uploading to a PC.

The music player is moderate - does the job, but nothing as elegant to use as my iPod Nano (and, presumably, the iPhone). The headphones, in combination with Dolby Mobile, do provide excellent sound quality, however.

There is a baffling array of mapping software - with "Maps", "Navigation", "Places", "Latitude" and "Locations". It seems that the first two are essentially Google Maps, whilst the latter three are HTC's own branded mapping system. This is confusing, but I'll be taking the advice of another review and ignoring the HTC effort in favour of Google Maps. The Google Navigation is basically a Satnav; no, it's not a TomTom, but given that it's bundled for nothing, it works very well. As an aside, it's a shame that TFL haven't released an Android app combining JourneyPlanner and Travel Alerts functionality. Here's hoping.

As for other apps: "News" is simply Google Reader. I've had an account for some months but never really got into it; it feels artificial to sit down and read a set of blog posts like a newspaper, in a structured way. Instead, I tend to use Twitter to drive interesting blog matter to my consciousness. With a mobile, however, it's a different story: public transport is the perfect time to have 20 minutes to waste to catch up on some blogs and the best thing about HTC's effort is that it caches the data offline - meaning that you can read the posts on the tube. Thus my blog habits are on the increase!

That's basically it for built in applications, although the "behind-the-scenes" functionality is extensive: voice recognition, universal search, and the ability to use he phone as a wireless hotspot (in other words, to connect a laptop to the 3G), for example, are all intelligent and work well. I haven't really got any use of HTC Sense yet, although the ability to make the phone ring remotely at full volume (if you've mislaid it) and remotely lock it or delete data is clever and sensible. There is supposedly the ability to track the phone's location via GPS - in theory, a great idea if it's been stolen - but I've had direct experience of this having met someone who'd just had theirs snatched and it didn't seem to work.

In terms of Android Store apps, I've only installed a handful. Angry Birds really does live up to the hype; Google's Sky Map and Goggles are both ace. Stupidly, the Desire HD doesn't have any obvious simple way just to jot down a note (shopping list, for example); I installed InkPad, which does the job.

So where's the catch? The Desire HD has a reputation for having a poor battery life, but it's far, far worse than I expected. With the moderate use I give it, the phone really struggles to make it through a single day. There are several solutions.

The first is to stop using so many apps, turn off unnecessary syncing and generally tone down the multitasking. This I refuse to do. There's absolutely no point in having a machine with the processor power of the Desire HD if you don't push it. Besides, as I mentioned, I like to be able to have emails and tweets coming through in  real time as if they were texts.

Next, there's an app called JuiceDefender which is, quite simply, brilliant. It intelligently manages your wireless, 3G and GPS use so that they're turned off when not needed, but will still allow connections to be made every so often to check for emails and tweets, according to your syncing settings. This works like a dream, although sometimes I'm not automatically connected to my work's WiFi - a minor irritation. While it's all customisable (more so if you pay £3), there are default settings; I anticipate setting JuiceDefender to "Aggressive" or "Extreme" for a weekend away. It's a simple, unintrusive app, which HTC should take some inspiration from. An essential installation, and the premium version is worth the investment.

However, by far the biggest juice muncher is the screen itself. This is something that you simply have to compromise on. I have the screen set to switch off after 30 seconds inactivity (which is annoying) and the brightness turned right the way down to 15% - making visibility a problem outdoors. Even so, the screen routinely uses more than half of the battery. Sorry to sound like an old man, but there's absolutely no point in having a sumptuous, high definition, colour-rich, super-bright screen, if you have to have it turned down to near-dark just to get the machine through the day. HTC really need to think about battery life and/or battery management as a matter of urgency before their next model is released, because it's very nearly a dealbreaker.

As it is, though, the HTC Desire HD is a stupendous piece of kit. Within a fortnight, it has become an essential part of my life - no exaggeration. HTC really have put usability and simplicity at the top of their priorities - with devastating effect. Connectivity ain't ever been so good.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Bunhill Fields

One of my favourite places in London is Bunhill Fields, just off the City Road, just a few minutes walk from my work, and my favourite place to have a wander at lunchtime. There are a few "celebrities" in there.

John Bunyan:

Daniel Defoe:
William Blake:

But my favourite memorial of all is a different one.
Yes, it's quite large and prominent. But it's dedicated to somebody called Henry Hunter. The epitaph is quite brilliant - so much so that I had to copy it out in full.
Beneath this Pillar, raised by the hand of Friendship sleep the mortal remains of the Rev. HENRY HUNTER D.D. who through a long Life deemed by those who knew him alas too short, served with unwearied assiduity the Interests of Religion, Literature and the Poor. In him to distinguished Talents and a capacious Mind were united Energy of Disposition, Affability of Manners, Benevolence of Heart, and Warmth of Affection. In the Hearts of those who were blessed with his Friendship is preserved the most sacred and inviolable Attachment but his best Eulogium and his most durable memorial will be found in his Writings. THERE he has an Inscription which the Revolution of Years cannot efface. When the nettle shall skirt the base of this Monument and the moss obliterate this feeble testimonial of Affection, when finally sinking under the pressure of years, THIS PILLAR shall tremble and fall over the dust it covers his Name shall be transmitted to Generations unborn. READER! Thus far suffer the weakness of affectionate Remembrance where no adequate Eulogium can be pronounced and when no other Inscription was necessary to perpetuate his Memory than HENRY HUNTER. Thirty one years he was Pastor of the Scots Church London (...) and on Wednesday the twenty seventh of October 1802 left his Family and his Church to deplore but never to retrieve his loss and silently took his flight to Heaven in the sixty second year of his Age.

They don't make 'em like that any more, do they! Saddest of all is the fact that most of the office workers are oblivious to the charms of Bunhill Fields - it's simply a shortcut to Pret. Shame on them for not even turning their heads.

Sunday 23 January 2011

No longer a Luddite

After ten years of being behind the times, I have what can ony be described as a posh phone. IT's the HTC Desire HD. It is truly a stupendous piece of kit. Some of this is old news, of course, but the ability to be able to take great pictures, access the internet, receive emails in not-quite-real time, manage Twitter and Facebook accounts, and synchronise contacts so that you can see the same person's phone number, email, Facebook and Twitter all in the same place - that's space-age stuff (hardy surprising given that the computing power in one of these dwarfs that in Apollo XI). The Android operating system is great - although heavily tied in with Google. I have taken the plunge and am slowly migrating to Gmail from Hotmail (update your address books: will reach me).

The only down side, and it is a massive downside, is the battery life. I'd been warned it was poor, but it is really abysmal. Circa 2002 the main selling points of upmarket phones were small size and lengthy battery life; nowadays phones are enormous with terrible battery life. Que sera.

All the same, it's an astonishing piece of engineering. I am very, very excited by it.

We also bought a new laptop today - not a particularly posh one, but more than adequate for our needs. A £9 copy of Microsoft Office (thanks MetBenefits) is now installed, and we're firing on all cylinders. One thing I noticed about it is that in contrast to computers a few years ago, it works straight out of the box with minimal installations and preamble required. In fact the only work that needs to be done is to uninstall all the junk that Packard Bell and Microsoft have shoved on there.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Dave Godman

The other day I had a pub conversation about "who you know who should be given the MBE". To borrow a phrase from Sir John Stevens, Gordon Brown and others (last used last night, which got me thinking) - the everyday heroes.

Mine would be a bloke called Dave Godman. I went to a primary school in Bounds Green called Rhodes Avenue. It was a pretty decent school as they come, and I was mostly happy there. One downside was that there was no organised sport whatsoever, except for rounders in PE lessons.

Dave was dad to a lad called Joe, several years below me, and set up and ran the Football Club (ironically, Joe paid no interest in football whatsoever, if I recall). It was far and away the best thing about going to school - this would have been 1991-94 for me. Every Wednesday and Friday lunchtime we'd bolt our lunch down in record time (five minutes was considered VERY slow), go down to the local rec and have real training sessions. We had everything we could ever need: cones, bibs, and we'd all get changed into our best football gear (for some reason I had a particularly hideous stripey top and nasty burgundy jacket from a jumble sale that I decided was my training top...I've no idea why). We even started to play matches against other local schools; who could forget the first competitive game, against Coppetts Wood, which finished 5-0, shortly followed by a 14-0 win over Coldfall - a fifteenth goal was scratched from the records as we accidentally started the game with twelve men! - and the home game against Copthall, which was 19-1. Sadly, I was massively crap, and didn't feature in most games - although I played most of the return match with Copthall, by which time they'd got their act together, and held us 2-2.

It's the same all over the world, but the best players sat at the top of the social tree by default. In the year above, there was Chris Condon, a really nice lad whose mum (Clare?) used to come and help out at the training - she was quietly brilliant. Chris was probably the best player we had. There was Ankeet, a powerful full back, and of course the rocksteady central defensive partnership of Shona and Eleanor. There was Johnny, a skinny lad who always used to wear an Arsenal jacket, who I used to think was brilliant. In my year there was Dillan Leslie-Rowe, who used to play up front; Dominic Hill in midfield; and my best mate Liam Charalambou, a brilliant keeper, although he used to throw massive strops whenever he let in goals - so much so that he was eventually usurped in the first team by Harry in the year below. I also remember Jonty, who was an irritating kid, but a tricky playmaker. Then there was Duncan, who famously broke his toe midway through a match but kept quiet because he didn't want to be substituted.

The school hall, where we used to hold our meetings at lunchtime and have a team talk before the training, was a sacred place. Once the doors were shut, Chatham House rules applied. We were men in there, and everyone was equal. Petty squabbles and minor bullying disappeared ("Stop screwin' around" Dave would drawl, and we'd shut up instantly). Dave would talk tactics, and we'd hang on his every word.

But there was more than that. The school actively discouraged the Football Club. Dave used to have to jump through hoops to get permission to take us out, and the school provided no support whatsoever. None. Everything that we did was organised by Dave, with Clare's help. In the sanctity of the hall, Dave would rumble about the ruling powers and how we were always on the brink of being shut down (the Chatham House rules were just as well). For us, it was an unspeakable thought, but galvanised us together. The school  never had a good word to say about football, and never lifted a finger for Dave, but made damn sure to make a fuss when we won a match.

Sometimes, without warning, Dave didn't turn up. We'd sit in the hall with increasing frustration. No Dave. Time would go on and on, until we'd drift away in bitter disappointment. Next time he's turn up saying "Sorry lads, I had to sort a guy out who's losing his job..." Never before was someone's impending unemployment met with such a lack of sympathy! We couldn't care less about Dave's trade union work; what about football training?

Dave would sometimes play himself in training, and it was honour to have him on your team. He was grizzled with a craggy face and a cheeky smile - he seemed to be a bit older than the other dads, but it didn't matter at all. He always used to bang on about the new astroturf centre which  would be the ultimate playing surface and was just around the corner. In four years we never came close to seeing astroturf!

I wonder where Dave is now and how he's doing. I hope he realises even a fraction of the extent that we respected him - he was our idol. After school, picking up Joe, he'd be surrounded by throngs of kids wanting his opinion on the latest England squad or Spurs transfer rumour, giving out his wisdom as friendly and patiently as ever. If I ever met someone who inspired dozens of people, and made them feel better about life, an everyday hero, it was Dave Godman.