About Ewan Spence

Ewan Spence

Ewan Spence is a blogger, author and writer based out of Edinburgh, Scotland. In addition to his own blog, he has contributed and contributes to BBC News, BBC Magazine (online), The Stage (UK Arts and Entertainment Newspaper), Computing (VNU), iProng Magazine, IT Pro, O’Reilly’s Make Magazine, Palmtop Magazine, Podcast User Magazine, UK Tech and UK Mobile Blognation, PDA Essentials, Mobile Messaging 2.0 and All About Symbian.

He wrote the book Rapid Mobile Enterprise Development for Symbian OS and has audio program commissions for BBC Radio 5 Live – Through the Night and Pods and Blogs, Computer Outlook Talk Radio Show and Talk 107. He also regularly speaks at and moderates panels at high profile technology conferences around the world.


Latest Posts by Ewan Spence

A Look At The Slick Sony Xperia Z1 Compact

February 2, 2014 by  

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Sony debuted the Xperia Z1 Compact at CES in January, noting that the consumer who prefers to have a smaller device does not want fewer features.

Could Sony take the experience in their flagship smartphone and pack it into a much smaller package without reducing the functionality?

In the marketplace, the relative power of a phone in terms of specifications and capability seems to be dependant on the screen size.

The more powerful phones will have the larger screens, while the smaller phones (at a lower price) will not be a match for the larger brethren. It’s not a perfect rule, but in general it holds across a manufacturer’s product range.

Let’s put aside the point that a 4.3 inch screen is not a ‘small’ smartphone in the history of the smartphone, because Sony have actually done something I have been looking for in the last few years – a ‘small’ smartphone that has the same specs as the larger handsets.

With a 2.2 GHz Quad core Snapdragon 800, 2GB of RAM, 16 GB of storage, microSD, and a 4.3 inch TFT IPS screen, the Xperia Z1 Compact is a little bit of a pocket rocket.

Sony has supplied me with a review handset ahead of its general availability.

Sony’s research shows consumers asking for a powerful phone in a smaller size. I will be very interested to see if the demand seen in the survey matches the demand in stores and through online channels. I hope it does, because I am in the group that prefers the smaller form factor, and I want to see more options and competition.

But if I was recommending the Xperia Z1 Compact, I would not be focusing on just the size. The battery life on the Z1 Compact is immense for such a capable Android device. The smaller and more efficient screen, the extra volume allowing for more capacity than other ‘mini’ devices, and Sony’s aggressive yet functional battery software have created an Android device that can run smartly all day without having to worry if you’ll make it back home to your charger.

This is one of the best performing Android devices for battery life of this generation of smartphones.

The full review is posted on Forbes.

Photo credit: Sony Mobile.

The Jolla Handset & Sailfish OS, A Linux Smartphone With Promise

January 19, 2014 by  

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A few weeks after receiving Jolla’s first handset (called, er, the Jolla), I’ve posted an in-depth review of the Linux powered smartphone over on Forbes.

All of that said, the Jolla handset has me excited. I’ve been following the project for some time, I ordered my device in May 2013 as part of the first wave of orders, and I knew that when it was delivered to me in December I was not getting a finished product… just a Finnish product. The Sailfish OS at the core of Jolla’s vision is delivering a stable environment and handles the mid-range specs of the Jolla handset relatively well.  With another six months or so to iron out the bugs, improve battery life, and polish the user interface the core experience will be ready for the consumer market, as long as the first party apps are updated with the same attention to detail.

An unboxed Jolla updates the OS over the air

Jolla is not finished, but what is on offer now is going to be very appealing to the hackers of the smartphone world. It’s a phone that is more for geeks than mainstream travelers, but there are many a’ geek among the traveling nomads I know.

Jolla was formed in late 2011 from a number of former Nokia Engineers who had been working on a number of Linux-based operating systems and handsets (including the Nokia N9). Just over two years later, their first handset (the self-titled Jolla) shipped with their Sailfish OS. I’ve been using the Jolla handset since mid-December, and it’s time to look at the handset in some more detail.

The Jolla’s  OS (Sailfish OS) is the key reason to buy this handset, and it still requires a lot of work to bring it up to modern UI standards in terms of flow, connectedness, and ease of use. But it is a handset that Finland should be proud of. It has shipped, it broadly works, and there is a feeling that Jolla the company is constantly at work to improve their handset every day.

Over the air updates are very easy to install, and I’ve seen three of them now – one of them simply to update a few store certificates. There’s no feeling of being left alone with this handset to get on with it, there is a strong focus on interaction with the company, and with the growing Jolla community.

At 960×540, the qHD screen, much like the camera, is acceptable but not stunning, the IPS LCD display has quite a tight viewing angle and the colours can wash out a touch. Those with sharp eyes may spot the pixels, especially with Jolla’s chosen font being rather thin.

The camera in the handset is a passable 8 megapixel shooter at the rear, and a 2 megapixel forward facing camera for video calls. If you are in daylight, or somewhere with strong light, then you’ll get a decent reproduction but low light performance is not a strength of the Jolla handset.

While the handset does have the hardware to run 4G LTE, this is an area where the OS is not yet ready to make use of it. The current build of the SailfishOS is limited to 2G and 3G connectivity while out of Wi-fi, but 4G LTE support is on the roadmap. Here’s the positive and negative of the handset in one breath. It’s not ready yet, but it will be, and when it is you’ll have it delivered to your handset over the air.

If that sound fun, cutting-edge, and something you want to be involved in, then the Jolla is the handset for you.

The Jolla handset (picture: Jolla.com)

The Jolla handset (picture: Jolla.com)

Design-wise I’m enjoying the split nature of the Jolla. Holding the device it looks as if there are two thin sections of plastic together (the screen itself is the now expected Corning Gorilla Glass). The front of the handset is black plastic, with a flat short edge and rounded longer edge. The plastic to the rear has the flat and rounded edges switched around, and in the case of this first retail variant, it came in plain white.

An unboxed Jolla updates the OS over the air (picture: Ewan Spence).

The Russian Reversible Smartphone

January 12, 2014 by  

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With an LCD screen on one side, and an e-Ink screen on the opposite side, Yota’s prototype smartphone was one of the big winners of CES 2013. Now, a year later, the handset is now on sale in a number of European territories. I’ve taken a closer look at the handset over on Forbes:

The easiest way to think about the e-Ink screen implementation is that it is related but subservient to the main interactions on your smartphone. To set up one of Yota’s applications on the e-Ink screen you need to ‘send it to the back’ from the LCD screen…

 

In my time so far with the Yota Phone, the answer is yes. By virtue of being e-Ink, the second screen is always on, drawing very little power, and Yota’s customizations of Android and their own apps which use the screen prove the concept works. With just the e-Ink screen I’ve been able to navigate around Edinburgh, check my diary and upcoming appointments, follow my favourite websites via RSS, read a number of eBooks, control the playback of music on my smartphone, and naturally see what the time is. All without powering up the battery hungry LCD screen on my smartphone.

It’s still a generation one product from a company new to the smartphone world (but not to telecoms, Yota have a strong background in routers and modems), and while I’m excited to see what they come up with next, the first handset out of the gate is a worthy handset that is practical in day-to-day use.

Reviewing The Pebble Smart Watch After 4 Weeks Use

December 16, 2013 by  

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Four weeks on the wrist, and I’m all set to go Charlton Heston on you if you try to pry it off. The Pebble smartwatch cracks the challenge of the smartwatch, and while it’s not the final iteration of the wearable technology, the Pebble reminds me of the promise of the early Psion and Palm devices I used.

The Pebble reminds me of the early days of the PDA, with many limitations in the hardware and software being overcome by smart hacking. The limitations of size and interface are obvious, while others are down to the hardware design (the Pebble watch currently has space for just eight third party apps, be they watch faces or apps accessed from the Pebble menu). But the small Pebble team are doing their best to harness the community, get them involved, and improve the product through their efforts. That’s paying off.

Should you buy the Pebble? If you’re in the market for a smartwatch, it certainly has to be one of the watches to consider. Of the current watches on the market, it is the one that I would buy for myself.

As for recommending it, anyone looking at the Pebble has to remember that it is on the cutting edge of wearable technology, and it’s not going to be perfect. But it’s the smartwatch that I feel has the most promise, will have the most development and support, and will never be a chore to charge and wear.

 Because the Pebble watch makes a number of different design decisions to the big boys which all have a positive impact on the watch, and none more so than the screen. It’s one of the smaller screens on a smartwatch, at just 144×168 pixels. It’s also monochrome.

Strictly speaking it’s a transreflective LCD screen with a backlight, and while many people have labelled it as an e-ink screen (similar to eBook readers such as the Amazon Kindle) it’s important to stress that Pebble is marketing the screen as e-paper, not e-ink. It does not suffer the slow response rates or shadowing that you see on eBook readers, and will happily run at 30 fps with no blurring if an application demands it.  

The Pebble also forgoes a touchscreen, instead relying on four buttons around the edges of the watch. On the left of the screen is the ‘back’ button, while the right side has three buttons, a cursor up, cursor down, and a forward/choose button. These all require a positive action press, and I doubt you’ll trigger any of them by accident.

The USB cable is only for charging, all your communication with the Pebble watch will be over the Bluetooth connection on your smartphone. The Pebble supports Android and iOS devices with Bluetooth 2.1, and can also support the low energy Bluetooth 4.0 profile. The core Pebble app is available in both the Apple iTunes App Store and in Google Play, and will allow you to update the firmware on the watch, as well as provide the ability install watch faces, apps, and send notifications from your smartphone’s applications to the Pebble screen.

More in-depth thoughts on Pebble over on Forbes.

Photo credit: Get Pebble.

 

AirBNB, A Kubrick War Room??

December 9, 2013 by  

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I know it’s the artistic choice, but anyone with a passing knowledge of Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb” will know that The War Room set was decked out in green baize so it resembled a poker table, even though it wouldn’t show up in the black and white prints. Looks like AirBNB went for the best picture possible, rather than accuracy, when they decked out their board room in the style of the Ken Adams set.

I think there’s a pun somewhere in that mix about the AirBNB service…

San Francisco magazine says the room, which has its own Foursquare listing, is all part of the “arms race” for inspirational office space so you will never (ever ever) stop working. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bubble—just don’t forget how this movie ends.

The cinematic homage isn’t the only affect in Airbnb’s new offices at 888 Brannan Street in Soma. It also features a Skee-Ball machine. An infantilizing extravagance? Hardly, saysMetropolis magazine. It’s a riff off an early listing that tried to sell a Skee-Ball machine as sleeping quarters, making Airbnb new workplace “game section” muy authentico.

There’s even a replica of “the living room of the founders’ original Rausch Street apartment, faithfully copied down to the lucky red velvet Jesus statue,” in case you were wondering whether Airbnb’s cofounders gave themselves enough credit.

The architects behind this wallpaper war sound every bit as self-aggrandizing as their clients, by San Francisco magazine’s account:

“There were times when we were challenged as architects to push the limits more than other clients would ask us to,” says Lisa Bottom, a principal at Gensler, the global design firm behind the Airbnb and Facebook offices. “But our job was to be an enabler of their company’s culture.”

After all, when work-is-life-is-work, getting compensated for your labor is a secondary concern:

“It’s not enough to give employees a big paycheck and a Ping-Pong table anymore. You can only throw so much money at people,” says David Galullo, chief executive officer of the branding and design firm Rapt Studio.

The architects brush off the memory of abandoned ping pong tables and Aeron chairs rolling down the hills of San Francisco:

“A lot of gimmicky design—silly furniture for silly furniture’s sake—came out of the last dot-com boom,” says Collin Burry, design director at Gensler. “That world is kind of trite now; that irrational exuberance is tired.”

All that effort put into Airbnb’s headquarters and no one installed a mirror.

To contact the author of this post, please email nitasha@gawker.com.

[Image via Metropolis magazine]

Testing The iPhone 5S Out As a Traveler On The Road

December 7, 2013 by  

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One of the interesting quirks of my trip to San Francisco last week was I spent the time using an iPhone 5S in anger, as opposed to my regular Windows Phone device.

Cards on the table, this is not going to be a forensic review of the iPhone 5S. Seven weeks ago it reached the hands of the public, and since then Apple has struggled to keep their latest flagship smartphone in stock. It’s hard to disagree with those sort of sales numbers, and after spending two weeks with the iPhone 5S I haven’t found any reason to even try. The iPhone 5S is the best all-round smartphone on the market right now.

Yes, that’s a statement that’s going to raise a lot of eyebrows (and I can imagine the comments are already being mentally composed). There is a lot of choice in the smartphone market right now, and there is no right answer to the question of ‘which is the best phone to buy.’ Every handset and every operating system is a collection of compromises, and the iPhone is compromised in a different way to an Android, Windows Phone, or BlackBerry handset.

You can read the full review of the iPhone 5S over on Forbes.

Photo from Engadget of 5S versus the iPhone 5c.

Playing With Sony’s SmartWatch Version 3

November 20, 2013 by  

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As wearables continue to be the big tech trend going into 2014, I have taken a look at Sony’s third version of a smartwatch, the snappily titled Sony SmartWatch 2:

I actually found it really useful when writing, Because the email is flashed up on the screen I could simply tilt the wrist and decide if that email needed to be dealt with immediately, or if I could mentally defer it and keep writing, with almost no break in my typing. It’s also a discreet option when in meetings or in situations where you wouldn’t feel right going to your smartphone.

The smart thing about this smartwatch is that it was designed with a rigid idea of the function it would fulfil. Couple that with very little feature creep on the product, and Sony has a product that works incredibly well in the role they have defined for it. While some companies struggle to build a watch that will do everything, only talk to their own hardware, or try to do far too much with not enough battery power and watch that looks like a prop from a 1970′s British dystopian space opera, Sony’s minimalism and iteration has resulted in a product that works in the real world.

Unlike certain other smartphone products (principally the Samsung Galaxy Gear), the SmartWatch 2 can be used with any Android device, although I’m sure that Sony would prefer that you use one of their Xperia handsets. I’ve been using the SmartWatch 2 for the last fortnight with an Xperia Z1.

On the hardware side of things, Sony has managed to find a good mix of form and function. Even more than a smartphone, the size of a smartwatch determines almost all of the functionality, and the two primary considerations are battery life and the user interface.

 

Starting with the screen technology, the SmartWatch 2 has a 220×176 transreflective LCD screen, which is touch sensitive. Given the nature of this watch you’re not going to need to make precise inputs with your finger, so the interface is driven by finger sized icons and a blend of swipes across the screen to scroll through lists.

One gesture that is missing from the SmartWatch 2 is the pinch gesture. Sony previously employed this as a gesture to take you to the home screen, but this has been depreciated since their first smartwatch design in favour of something more familiar to Android users, namely the three soft keys under the screen. You have a ‘back’ button, a ‘home’ button, and a ‘menu’ button. These don’t light up, but are marked with a silver colour to stand out against the black fascia of the watch. Along with Sony logo top centre of the watch, this is a smartwatch that on a second glance is clearly ‘more than a watch’. Wearing it out and about, it has caught the eye of many people with an excited “what’s that?”

Read the full review over on Forbes.

USB Spectrum & Rubber Key Mat

October 28, 2013 by  

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One-off Etsy design of a USB keyboard in a ZX Spectrum housing. Its almost as expensive as the original ZX Spectrum. Part of me hopes that the guts of the Spectrum donated for this project are being hardwired into an Apple Bluetooth keyboard to make a futuristic iSpectrum.

Travel back to the 1980′s with this original Sinclair ZX Spectrum converted to work as a fully functional USB keyboard. Inside, there’s a controller board running my custom software which transforms the Spectrum’s keyboard into a USB keyboard. This will work anywhere a normal USB keyboard would, most laptop and desktop PCs, and some tablets. No software is required to run on the PC end, just plug in and go.

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