From the time it was announced, I was relatively the sure the Samsung Galaxy Nexus would be my next phone. The Nexus lines of phones are developed by Google with a manufacturing partner and are used to introduce each major revision of Android, in this case version 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, which is one of the most significant changes the OS has gone through. As a result separating a review of the phone from the new software is almost impossible, so for the most part I won’t try.
Most immediately striking is the screen, an incredible 4.65″ 720p high definition display. Despite the size, the phone’s slim, curved build means it doesn’t feel large or unwieldy as I had feared. Many reviewers have criticised the plastic housing, but it keeps the handset lightweight and the textured back provides easy grip. The build quality is high and the moment the screen lights up, the handset feels anything but cheap.
The biggest UI change is that the front now boasts zero buttons, not even the capacitive ones that have become standard on most Android models. Instead soft keys are built into the OS, with the advantage that they can rotate based on orientation and disappear entirely for full screen video. The deep blacks of the Super AMOLED display is perfect for this, so you would be forgiven for mistaking them for old-style capacitive buttons. It’s no secret that I am proponent of buttons for their tactile ease of use without looking at the handset, but there is no denying the beauty of the flawless obsidian slab when the phone is off. The only thing I really miss from my HTC Desire is the optical trackpad for swiftly relocating a text entry cursor by a space or two.
Android has undergone a major visual overhaul that streamlines the UI while making the experience more consistent throughout, which will hopefully influence third party apps. The larger screen means more elements in the notification tray can be visual, with incoming texts and emails identified by sender photos. Multitasking is brought to the fore, with a dedicated app switching button (items can be dismissed from the list with a simple swipe). Elsewhere, such as the new People app, design cues have been taken from Windows Phone 7 with swipe-able panels. All the slick new visuals are smooth and responsive thanks to the dual core processor under the hood.
The only real negative is for those who use their phone as a primary camera. While Samsung’s own Galaxy SII has arguably the best mobile camera on the market to date, the Nexus camera does not stack up against its siblings. Its speed is certainly impressive, now boasting zero shutter lag, but the quality of the 5MP sensor is average. For my part I rarely use the camera on a phone so this one drawback did little to dissuade me.
Extra features? The lack of removable storage may ruffle some feathers but the 16GB included (with a 32GB model on its way) should suffice for most, though it does mean you may not be able to carry around your entire music library. NFC is present even though mobile payments have yet to take off in a meaningful way. Finally, face unlock is Android’s “Siri” — a feature that is great in marketing ads but a total gimmick when it comes to real world use (broadly it works but it’s likely to be slower, fails in dim light and can be duped by photographs). After a week’s use, battery life is as one would expect from any top-end smartphone: you’ll eke out a day but don’t expect more, and if you hammer it with video playback on a commute you may find yourself needing to charge up at work.
The Galaxy Nexus is without a doubt the best Android phone to date and, in all honesty, the best phone I have ever tried. There is, of course, not one ideal phone for everyone. Those who rely on their phone’s camera or need extra space for their music may be better served by the Galaxy S II, which will see an Ice Cream Sandwich update in due course. For those who are seriously into touchscreen gaming on the go, the growing Android library of games still lags behind the iPhone at present. For everyone else, I cannot recommend new Nexus, with its unrivalled combination of beauty and features, highly enough.
Pure Reason Revolution got their hooks into me from the moment I first heard them almost five years ago to the day. There are only a handful of bands that I feel compelled to see live repeatedly, and PRR I have seen every single year but one in the intervening period. Through auspicious timing they were also the band that initially got me into gig photography. So it was a strange experience to find myself holding an understated ticket for Wednesday’s gig which read simply “Pure Reason Revolution – Last Ever Show”. Part of me wondered illogically whether, if I didn’t go, it would mean they kept making music. Of course, they had announced earlier in the year that, after three studio albums and two EPs, the band was coming to an end with a farewell tour in November. And Heaven seemed a remarkably fitting location for their final performance.
It was the first time I have been to a gig knowing it will be the last time I ever see a band play, the last time I will hear each song live, which gives the whole experience a very different edge. They played two one-hour sets including their seminal album The Dark Third straight through in its ethereal entirety. Hearing an entire album live is a rare treat and there is no better way PRR could reward their fans — it was as close to a perfect aural experience as I can imagine. The only slight issue was that the sets arguably were the wrong way round. After leading with what is generally considered to be their finest work there was simply no way to top it, even when selecting the best tracks from the rest of their catalogue. Overall, however, it was a stunning send-off and I thoroughly deserved the complaints I received from my neck muscles for the following two days.
Every time I see PRR I bump into Jon, usually with Ian, Philly J and James in tow. Breaking with tradition, this time we met up intentionally beforehand: good practice since Jon and I will have to start making real plans to see one another in future… or find a new band. In the meantime, excuse me while I relive the Scala gig with this live DVD.
You would be forgiven for checking it’s not early April upon seeing a post by me on a newly acquired tablet. I have been an open tablet sceptic and overnight this has not changed. However, when Sony kindly sent a free Tablet S my way, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to see whether there really is a place for one in my life without taking a £400 gamble.
Some criticise Sony for taking over a year to bring their tablet offering to market, but I applaud their more thoughtful approach rather than merely churning out another “me too” device. The first thing you’ll notice is the tapered “folded back magazine” design, which is excellent for holding in portrait mode for lengthy periods, particularly as the weight distribution ergonomically falls down the “spine”, but less useful in landscape mode. It does mean you need to rotate the entire tablet to switch hands, but the display will smoothly reorientate automatically. The screen is vivid and, while many reviews suggest the housing does not feel sufficiently “premium”, the choice of materials allows for easy grip when carrying it around. You’ll need to decide for yourself whether such aesthetic considerations trump usability. It sports the tablet-optimised Honeycomb flavour of Android, with resizeable widgets, a new notification system and a multitasking app switcher.
What’s it good at? Tablets are, of course, for media consumption rather than creation. Reading email and RSS feeds (via Pulse) is slick and comfortable. Magazines look great too, but with a backlit screen rather than e-ink I can’t see myself reading e-books for long periods. Web browsing is crisp and fast, though as on phones I prefer Dolphin Browser to the default. Music works well enough, but at home I have a full speaker setup and when travelling I have better sounding, smaller PMP so it will likely get zero use. With a good front-facing camera it makes a really neat portable Skype device (slight volume issues notwithstanding) that doesn’t keep you stuck in one place. I can control my home theatre system with it as a giant remote, though in practice it’s only for browsing the library and selecting shows since a dedicated remote is swifter for quick actions.
Where does it fail? The tinny internal speaker is somewhat inevitable given the slim nature of tablets and, although it’s adequate for embedded news clips, even YouTube videos suffer. Hiding the power button and volume controls under the edge looks tidy, but they are positioned too closely so you’ll often find yourself accidentally turning off the screen and, depending on the current orientation, they can be hard to reach. Despite access to the PlayStation store, the lack of PS3 controller support is a real shame and means this just isn’t really a gaming device — at least until I can get OnLive running on it with a dedicated controller. Touch controls may be intuitive when games are specifically designed for them, but shipping with Crash Bandicoot was a mistake since it tends to be more frustrating than impressive. Fruit Ninja draws more excitement from visitors.
How do I find myself using it? Primarily it’s to check email and Facebook, and to browse IMDb while watching films, without having to fire up my laptop. I can see it slotting comfortably into my daily routine – checking email, news and weather when I wake up and before bed. These are all things I would otherwise do with my smartphone, but they are far more comfortable on the tablet. Watching a short videoclip while holding a tablet is fine but for anything longer you need to dock or balance it somewhere (and its asymmetry makes the Tablet S harder to prop up than others), whereas angling a laptop screen remains much more comfortable. When docked it can also serve admirably as a digital picture frame.
The deal-breaking moment for me was when I found myself reading an email on the tablet and then, wanting to respond in more than two sentences, I got up from the couch walked into my bedroom and typed the email out on the PC instead. SwiftKey Tablet X is a fantastic thumb-friendly predictive touchscreen keyboard designed for tablets, but it seems even that wasn’t enough.
Verdict: This is a thoughtfully designed tablet and a worthy competitor to the other high-end products on the market. Beyond perhaps the internal speaker I have very little negative to say about the Tablet S by comparison to the competition. It seems there is a space for a tablet in my life but it is not “filling a need I didn’t know I had”. Ultimately it’s nice to fire up my laptop less frequently but £400 is still a lot of money for what a tablet does. Still, it’s a hell of a lot better than a netbook.
In closing, my personal views on tablets take nothing away from what Sony has produced and, if you are in the market for one, this is a model you ought to give serious consideration. However, I would highly recommend first holding one for yourself to decide whether its unique shape works for you.
Lenka arranged a group “retreat” to a lovely converted barn in the Norfolk countryside to celebrate her, Kate and Viktoria’s birthdays. This sounded like it would be a relaxing, civilised affair. Of course I ought to have known better given: (a) the above average number of Saffers in the group; and (b) the barn in question, I swiftly realised upon recognising an all-too-familiar roadsign, was just down the road from where this transpired nearly three years ago. While there was certainly some drama, as with the trainee weekend away what happens in Norfolk remains firmly in Norfolk. The highlight was the Saturday night masquerade accompanied by a veritable feast put on by Lenka and her sous chefs. As I was handed the mantle of official photographer, a larger-than-usual Birthday Barn gallery is available for your perusal (those masquerade money shots are, naturally, at the end).
This year nearly passed by without a single film review. This is primarily a result of severely reduced cinema attendance, although it was coupled with a rise in home viewing so my actual film watching remained roughly even. However, I am hopeful this trend is reversible, not least since I am now in possession of Picturehouse membership for the first time since leaving university. This partly due to the convenient proximity of both the Clapham Picturehouse and the Ritzy in Brixton, but also the fact a deal meant the membership sold for less than the value of the three free bundled tickets. My reviewing return begins with the excellent The Ides of March.
Meanwhile some changes at the site. The Questions section has, once again, become woefully out of date. I have rolled through updating across the board to the current v2.0 beta and, as with all betas, that means I invite feedback: specifically, as always when this section receives updates, any questions? I just might answer them. The major change you may notice is that the site’s content now bears a Creative Commons licence which allows copying and derivative works for non-commercial purposes, so long as an attribution is included, which better suits my general opinion that most information on the Internet ought to be freely to be shared (in other words: it makes me less of a hypocrite). It does not apply to to the Gallery, not for commercial reasons but primarily because many of those photos feature friends or family who have not consented to — and may be uncomfortable with — such reuse. For photos I continue to direct people to the royalty free images shared via my morgueFile profile.
Two years ago developer Rocksteady released its critically acclaimed breakout game Batman: Arkham Asylum, eschewing the typical cash-grab film tie-in for a meticulously constructed licensed game that owes more to the animated series and Batman’s comicbook roots. Its strength lay in its premise: placing Batman inside Gotham City’s asylum for the criminally insane allowed the team to roll out a rogue’s gallery of famous and lesser-known villains. The problem was that while Arkham Island was fully explorable, movement was constrained by the way in which it was broken up into contained areas.
I had concerns about the sequel‘s proposed open world approach, but again Rocksteady found the ideal conceit: a controversial response to crime has led to a section of Gotham City being closed off and all Arkham’s undesirables dumped inside. Batman can grapple, glide and swoop across large areas making traversal now as much fun as the brawling combat. Interludes as Catwoman intersperse proceedings (controversially requiring extra payment unless you buy the game new) providing a lithe new way to move and fight. Meanwhile a plethora of side-missions are available throughout, and after completing the main story. Its careful construction (traverse, explore, sneak, assess, fight, repeat, well-choreographed boss fight) means it never feels like anything but a game, yet it is one of the finest, most distilled gaming experiences of this generation.
Mark Hamill returns for his final outing as The Joker, having announced his retirement from the character which he has also voiced in countless animated productions. But what a high to go out on! Great as Heath Ledger’s performance may have been, The Joker is a role that Mark Hamill owns. Without spoiling the story itself, Arkham City‘s central plot focuses on my favourite aspect of the Batman mythos: not the rivalry between The Dark Knight and The Clown Prince of Crime but rather their co-dependence. While Batman donned his cowl in response to Gotham’s criminal element, Arkham City mastermind Hugo Strange reprimands Batman, arguing these criminals now exist because of him. Whilst there are other heroes and villains in Gotham, ultimately, bitterly fought as their battles may be, the lives of Batman and Joker would be emptier — almost meaningless — without one another. Approaching this in a videogame format marks another notch in the move towards conceptually mature narratives.
I’ve mentioned Bitter Ruin here several times: they’re an unsigned Brighton duo whom I’ve shot many times in the past. Their theatrical stage performance blends acoustic guitar with startling vocals and dark lyrics that are often structured as duel-like arguments. Most agree their best song to date is Trust, for which they finally released a great music video a few months ago.
Now these talented upstarts have decided they want to chart. Reaching the UK Top 40 is actually an alarmingly achievable goal, but the industry makes it considerably more difficult if you don’t have a big label promoting you. So the band are relying on word of mouth and social networking, aiming to prove these tools are sufficient for independent music to gain commercial success. The deal is simple: buy Trust this week and, if you feel like it, tell other people about it too. For 79p you’ll be helping to get some fantastic independent music into the UK charts, which I’d love to see, as well as supporting two incredibly friendly, talented individuals.
I also want to highlight a couple of trailers:
Premium Rush, about a bike messenger being pursued across the city by a dirty cop, wouldn’t normally pique my interest except that Joseph Gordon Levitt has had an incredible eye for good scripts. It’s not that I don’t like films about cyclists, it’s just that several years dodging blissfully unaware Cambridge cyclists tends to breed a healthy distaste for that species.
The Raid, set in the Jakarta slums, is the ideal adrenaline-fuelled action movie trailer that just doesn’t let up. I don’t watch a lot of pure action films these days, but this is the sort of trailer that makes me take notice.