First impressions of Spotify in India

The service launched yesterday in India in the midst of the Warner music conflict, but it seems to have a pretty decent catalogue in India. The recommendations engine is also top notch as I experienced it first hand by feeding in my preferred artists across different genres and it right away created a bunch of playlists with some of my favorite songs. Definitely the best experience of all the music streaming services so far for me.

I’m currently on the free tier which doesn’t lose out much other than the highest audio quality and offline storage. The ads are bearable for now. It also seems that Amazon is holding back with their Spotify support on the Echo line in India as seen in this mail from customer support.

The premium pricing is also in line with Apple Music though quite a bit more expensive than the Indian services like Wynk or Saavn. It also doesn’t seem to support in app purchases on iOS as evidenced below.

I’ll probably go for the premium subscription once the Echo support kicks in or I require the offline access. For now, happy with the free tier of Spotify and making do with Amazon Music on the Echo.

Amazon Echo Plus in India – first impressions


Got my first smart speaker, the Amazon Echo Plus yesterday and it seems to be nicely Indianised. It seems to be using the Raveena voice based on Indian English or a variant thereof from Amazon Polly (AWS’s text to speech service). The Alexa app itself is also pleasantly adapted for India with the appropriate command suggestions and services available.

Some of the India specific commands to try

I had pre-ordered the device and it was delivered within a day of the dispatch. The setup process was quite smooth and once done, I promptly went about installing a bunch of skills ranging from the utilitarian to the time pass ones.
As a music player, the sound quality is decent but nothing spectacular as many reviewers have noted. As for the music catalog, it seems to be using Saavn exclusively though it does Amazon music as one of the options in the app. Saavn itself has a decent catalog and Alexa has again been Indianised sufficiently to understand some Hindi song names. I  tried “Play the song ek main aur ek turn” and it actually started playing the song from Saavn though it did pronounce “main” the English way.

Alexa understands Hindi!

The flash briefing skill is quite handy to get a quick bulletin of your areas of interest once you have set it up with your desired sources. It can also give you cricket score updates without any skill installation as I tried out during today’s India – New Zealand match.


I installed the Uber and Ola skills to check the overall utility factor. While Alexa seems to be able to book an Uber including picking up your location, the payment mode defaults to cash which is a dealbreaker for me. Then there’s the Zomato skill I installed and tested. It seems to know your last 3-4 orders and you can reorder as well but didn’t go beyond browsing for the moment.

The alarms and timers work pretty well too and I conveniently set a sleep timer to stop playing the music while going to bed.

Then of course there’s the whole reason why I got the plus instead of the regular model which is the smart home hub built into the device. A solo Philips hue bulb is what I ordered next and setup today. It was again a pretty simple process with the Echo detecting the bulb in a few seconds. Controlling the bulb by voice is also quite easy right from switching it on and off to changing the colour and brightness. The app however has just the on/off switch and brightness control at the moment and as many reviewers have noted, the functionality of the smart devices using just the Echo Plus is considerably limited when compared to using the devices with their respective hubs. This is definitely one area of improvement and given the kind of coverage you see for smart homes on the Amazon Alexa pages, it should improve sooner rather than later.


Apart from all this you can also use the Echo as a Bluetooth speaker and pairing it with my iPhone was quite simple. That said, all the sounds from the phone start getting carried over to the speaker and this interrupts any song or speech playing on it directly. Due to this, I ended up keeping the phone disconnected unless I wanted to play something from my phone.

One thing I couldn’t find is the voice profiles option that lets Alexa identify the person speaking and customising the responses accordingly. Possibly a feature not yet rolled out to the Indian market as it seems to depend on the Amazon app that didn’t seem to have this option in my case.

A smart speaker is a family device but my wife is not very enthused by the idea while my 4 year old daughter would like to play with Alexa but hasn’t yet gotten out of her initial shyness phase to begin talking freely to her. It didn’t help that Alexa couldn’t answer many of her queries and also the fact that she was trying to get Alexa to identify the colours of the crayons she was holding in front of the device – a perfect case for Google Lens and Assistant.

This is of course just what I’ve been able to check out in the first 24 hours with the Echo Plus and I’m sure there’s lots more already available and also coming in the near future.

Amazon Primes for a 2 front war

Finally got a mail notification for the launch of the Amazon Prime Video service in India that’s bundled with the Amazon Prime subscription. As if the price (Rs 999 per year for now which includes a bunch of benefits for the ecommerce side vs Rs 500+ per month for Netflix) was not lucrative enough, they’ve beaten the Netflix catalogue on many fronts.

Not only are there a bunch of recent movie releases on the Amazon platform but also a bunch of popular TV series including Indian ones. The Amazon Video app also supports offline videos, a feature that was recently added to Netflix and remains a bit spotty regarding support for Android phone models (doesn’t work on my Mi 4). Amazon also offers a bunch of regional Indian language subtitles and audio tracks for some of the movies. It is quite clear how much of a difference Amazon’s Indian presence in the Indian market for the last few years have made.

Amazon also has more bandwidth friendly streaming options giving you more bang for your data pack bucks as well. The lowest quality setting on Amazon uses about 90 MB per hour of video vs around 250 MB for Netflix. Those with a Windows 8 or 10 machine like me are out of luck on the app front with Amazon though there’s always the browser. This is one area that Netflix has an advantage.

There is some overlap of the catalogue between both the platforms. Of course, there are quite a few Netflix originals that will not be on Amazon and vice versa. Netflix is also a bit better organised on its UI with different seasons of a TV series getting clubbed together when browsing the catalogue.

Then, there’s the matter of the situation that Amazon’s other competitors like Flipkart and Snapdeal find themselves in now that the Prime membership has multiplied in value. 2016 started with the Netflix entry and ended with an even bigger bang thanks to Amazon Prime video.

 

Changing an iPhone 5s battery for Rs 600

My 2+ year old iPhone 5s battery had been behaving quite erratically in the last few months and it used to switch off with the battery levels in the 40s. I finally bit the bullet and decided to replace the battery last week on my own after lots of contemplation on whether to go to an Apple authorised service centre or one of the local Heera Panna like outlets. I did a bit of reading and online tutorial watching which made the whole process seem quite simple and decided to go ahead on my own.

Amazon turned out to be quite useful for the DIY crowd with the battery and toolkit available at throwaway prices (Rs 450 & Rs 140 each). The items arrived pretty quickly as well and I started off with the video open for reference.

What the video fails to convey is the really miniscule size of the screws and the fact that each screw is of a slightly different size. Nonetheless, I managed to take things apart.

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Taking things apart

Yes, those tiny specks you see in the pink bowl are screws, and they are of slightly different heights, so if you are planning a similar endeavour, lay them out in the right sequence with the protection cover to make life easier when putting things back.

Removing the battery was another ball game altogether. I ended up following the method shown in the embedded video and prising the battery off. This is not as easy as it looks in the video as the tape holding it to the body is quite strong. I ended up pretty much deforming the battery when taking it out.

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The old deformed battery next to the new one

Some online tutorials do recommend taking out the tape before removing the battery, which is probably a better option. But you would need to have some tape handy to hold the new battery in place.

Either way, putting things back was even tougher (did I mention the tiny screws?), but I managed to get things done and the phone switched on. Touch ID was the major casualty though the sound from the loudspeakers was also not working at first. I opened up the phone once again as per suggestions online for Touch ID, but to no avail. The loudspeaker fortunately started working after plugging in a headphone and removing it as suggested in this thread.

A week on, the new battery seems to be holding up pretty decently though it’s still not enough to get me through a whole day without a mid-day top up. Still, it’s a lot more reliable than a phone that switches off at 45% charge. Life without Touch ID is also liveable given that there’s no Apple Pay in India or on the 5s.

The Kindle Paperwhite and Store: An Indian perspective

Amazon has been on a relentless journey since the Kindle launch in 2007, steadily making improvements to the product range to arrive at the perfect e-book reader. In the current era of pervasive LCD screens, the e-ink screens in the Kindle readers make for a paper like reading experience (albeit grayscale). This is the USP for dedicated e-book readers in the current tablet and smartphone era. The Kindle devices (apart from the large screen Kindle DX) have stuck to 6” screens that seem to be the ideal size, resembling your typical paperbacks. The devices started off with physical keyboards in the pre-iPhone era, and gradually evolved to a more compact form factor letting go of the keyboard in the Kindle Touch and 4th generation Kindle.

Hardware

The Kindle Paperwhite is the culmination of Amazon’s pursuit over the years, combining the essentials of an e-book reader with an attractive price point. Introduced in 2012 and upgraded last year, the Kindle Paperwhite is a near perfect e-book reader. The Pearl e-ink screen is of the de facto standard 6” size, with a 200+ dpi resolution resulting in print like readability and is the best of the current Kindle readers. There is also a special LED and fibre optics based backlight that can be adjusted to enable reading in poor lighting situations. In fact you can either turn off the light completely or turn it up to get rid of glare in most situations. While the first generation device had some complaints due to the non-uniform lighting in some devices, the second generation device has addressed this issue. Then there is also the touchscreen that makes for speedy navigation and organization of your collection. There are however no physical page turning buttons unlike the other Kindles, and this remains a bone of contention for some users. The touchscreen itself is not capacitive, but IR based due to which it can be activated by inadvertent contact with objects. It also supports multi touch (only 2 points though), and this can be used to adjust font size.

The device as a whole is quite lightweight (a little over 200 g which is around 50% heavier than a typical smartphone) and feels quite good in hand even though it is made of plastic with rounded edges. This also means that in case you doze off while reading on the bed, you are less likely to end up with injuries than your metallic tablets like the iPads. The Kindle Paperwhite has just one hardware button that functions as the power button. Apart from this the micro-USB port is the only discontinuity in the body. The device comes with just a USB cable in the box, and Amazon assumes that you have sufficient adapters at home to take care of the charging. Any standard USB adapter should do the trick for charging, and this is something that you will not need to do very often. Unlike smartphones with their daily and tablets with their near weekly charging requirements, the Kindle Paperwhite follows in its predecessor’s footsteps and gives a battery life of a month or more depending on usage. It’s been about 2 months since I bought my Kindle Paperwhite and have charged it twice thus far while having read over a dozen books.

The on device storage is just 2 GB with 1.25 GB usable for storing books. While that seems paltry by smartphone and tablet standards, e-books are typically text only and require very little storage space and the device should be able to comfortably accommodate hundreds of books, if not over a thousand. The Kindle Paperwhite also comes in 2 variants – Wi-Fi only and 3G, with a 20-30% premium for the latter. The 3G model is useful if you want to get hold of books on the go, but there are limits on the amount of data you can use per month since it comes with the connection built in (effectively Amazon subsidized) and you do not need to put in any SIM to use the network.

Getting content on the device is quite simple – just purchase your books from the Kindle bookstore. You can also side-load your own books into the device by connecting it to your PC, and add online articles and documents through mail.

Software

The Kindle Paperwhite user interface is pretty simple to use and there is a brief walkthrough of the features on your first power up. The home screen can be configured to display the covers of your book library or just a title list. The interaction is mostly gesture based with the screen split into 3 tap zones while reading – the top brings up the menu, the right 2/3 for page turning and left 1/3 for turning back. You can also swipe up-down\left-right to progress through lists. You can also organize your library into collections, which is particularly useful for large libraries. The top menu serves as a navigation system with a home and back button, a button to adjust the backlight, open up the Kindle Store and other menu items including font settings. There is also an experimental browser that you can use for web browsing in a pinch, along with social media integration to share snippets from the content you are reading.

The X-ray feature is also quite useful, particularly when you are reading books that have lots of characters and places. X-ray gives you snippets on the characters as they appear in the book along with visualization of areas where they feature. The second generation Paperwhite also has GoodReads integration for additional information on books, page flip that allows you to literally flip through the book without moving away from the page you are reading. You can also look up definitions of words and phrases in the built in dictionary and refer to Wikipedia as well. The touchscreen is quite handy for this purpose, and can also be used to highlight portions of the text.

The software on the whole is quite non-intrusive and fades into the background once you get reading and turning the pages which is precisely the reason for getting an e-book reader.

Amazon Kindle Store

The Kindle Paperwhite and other Kindle devices are but one side of the Amazon value proposition. The real reason why Amazon is producing the Kindle devices and selling them at a nominal profit is to rope you into their ecosystem which in this case is the Kindle bookstore. In fact, Amazon does not mind you using a different device like your smartphone or tablet as long as you are buying content from their bookstore. This is the reason they have got a Kindle App for every major platform including iOS, Android and Windows Phone. The devices and apps also sync your reading progress through the cloud, so you can continue reading from where you left off as long as you are signed in to your Amazon account.

Amazon has tuned the Kindle Store experience to minimize the amount of time you need to wait to start reading the book of your choice. Not only can you buy books directly from the Kindle Paperwhite when connected to a network, but you can also buy from the Amazon website and have it delivered to the device of your choice. In case you are unsure of the book content, you can also sample the first few pages for free. While this may not be a perfect substitute for flipping through a book in a physical store, the overall experience is a comprehensive improvement. Just the way Amazon revolutionized e-commerce, the Kindle Store lets you sample, buy and then start reading the book of your choice in the matter of a few minutes without stepping outside of what you were doing.

The Kindle US Store has been around for a while, but the Indian version launched only last year with e-books priced very aggressively – well below paperback editions. Many a times you will find bestsellers and popular books including new releases available at a fraction of paperback costs. The range is also extensive, and includes a good variety of Indian authors in addition to the typical international catalogue. There are also a range of photo heavy books available along with comics and graphic novels. These are however consumed best on large colour screen tablets due to their fixed layout. To round off the content availability, you can also subscribe to blogs, newspapers and magazines.

Conclusion

Amazon has completely transformed the way we purchase and read books over the years. It started off as one of the first successful online stores selling books, and then made e-books mainstream through the Kindle e-ink readers and the Kindle Store. Granted that a dedicated e-book reader may not be for everyone, especially when it is priced around Rs 10,000. This is the reason that Amazon also has the regular Kindle priced at a little over half of the Kindle Paperwhite for budget conscious readers. That device sacrifices the touchscreen and backlight along with some software features. In case you are looking for a general purpose device that also serves as a reader, Amazon has got you covered with the Kindle Fire devices that start just above the Kindle Paperwhite’s price.

That said, the Kindle Paperwhite in tandem with the massive collection in form of the Kindle Store makes for a very attractive value proposition. The device has an excellent backlit, sharp, paper-like screen with a multi-week battery life in a compact and lightweight form populated by the best bookstore in the world. If you have the budget, the Kindle Paperwhite is the best reading experience you can buy this year.

Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in On the Rox magazine

Wenger 16999 Swiss Army Knife Giant

Giant all right, and weighs just 7.2 pounds. The Wenger Giant Knife includes 87 implements for almost any situation:

  • 2.5-inch 60% serrated locking blade
  • Nail file
  • Nail cleaner
  • Corkscrew
  • Adjustable pliers with wire crimper and cutter
  • Removable screwdriver bit adapter
  • 2.5-inch blade for Official World Scout Knife
  • Spring-loaded, locking needle-nose pliers with wire cutter
  • Removable screwdiver bit holder
  • Phillips head screwdriver bit 0 Phillips head screwdriver bit 1
  • Phillips head screwdriver bit 2
  • Flat head screwdriver bit 0.5mm x 3.5mm
  • Flat head screwdriver bit 0.6mm x 4.0mm
  • Flat head screwdriver bit 1.0mm x 6.5mm
  • Magnetized recessed bit holder
  • Double-cut wood saw with ruler
  • Chain rivet setter
  • Removable 5mm
  • Allen wrench
  • Screwdriver for slotted and Phillips head screws
  • Removable tool for adjusting spokes
  • 10mm Hexagonal key for nuts
  • Removable 4mm curved allen wrench with Phillips head screwdriver
  • Patented locking screwdriver
  • Universal wrench
  • 2.4-inch springless scissors with serrated self-sharpening design
  • 1.65-inch clip point utility blade
  • Phillips head screwdriver
  • 2.5-inch clip-point blade
  • Club face cleaner
  • 2.4-inch round tip blade
  • Patented locking screwdriver
  • Cap lifter
  • Can opener
  • Shoe spike wrench
  • Divot repair tool
  • 4mm Allen wrench
  • 2.5-inch blade
  • Fine metal file with precision screwdriver
  • Double-cut wood saw with ruler
  • Cupped cigar cutter with double honed edges
  • 12/20-gauge choke tube tool
  • Watch case back opening tool
  • Snap shackle
  • Mineral crystal magnifier
  • Compass
  • Straight edge, ruler (in./cm)
  • Telescopic pointer
  • Fish scaler
  • Hook dis-gorger
  • Line guide
  • Shortix laboratory key
  • Micro tool holder
  • Micro tool adapter
  • Micro scraper, straight
  • Micro scraper,curved
  • Laser pointer with 300-foot range
  • Metal file
  • Metal saw
  • Flashlight
  • Micro tool holder
  • Phillips head screwdriver 1.5mm
  • Screwdriver 1.2mm
  • Screwdriver .8mm
  • Fine fork for watch spring bars
  • Reamer
  • Pin punch 1.2mm
  • Pin pinch .8mm
  • Round needle file
  • Removable tool holder with expandable receptacle
  • Removable tool holder
  • Special self-centering screwdriver for gunsights
  • Flat Phillips head screwdriver
  • Chisel-point reamer
  • Mineral crystal magnifier
  • Small ruler
  • Extension tool
  • Sping-loaded, locking flat nose needle-nose pliers
  • Removable screwdriver bit holder
  • Phillips head screwdriver bit 0
  • Phillips head screwdriver bit 1
  • Phillips head screwdriver bit 2
  • Flat head screwdriver bit 0.5mm x 3.5mm
  • Flat head screwdriver bit 0.6mm x 4.0mm
  • Flat head screwdriver bit 1.0mm x 6.5mm
  • Magnetized recessed bit holder
  • Tire tread gauge
  • Fiber optic tool holder
  • Can opener
  • Patented locking screwdriver
  • Cap lifter
  • Wire stripper
  • Reamer
  • Awl
  • Toothpick
  • Tweezers
  • Key ring

Wenger 16999 Swiss Army Knife Giant – Amazon.com.

Most Reviewed Amazon Book?

I was wondering which was the most reviewed book on Amazon and came across this list on the site (been a while since its been updated though). It seems that the first Harry Potter book is most probably the most reviewed product with over 7000 reviews of which nearly 6000 are 5 stars. Interestingly, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix had more reviews at the time the list was last updated (in 2008).

Wonder whether there are any other books\products with a higher number of reviews…

Amazon.com: Customer Reviews: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Book 1.

Amazon enters the retail store business with Kindle Fire

It’s not about tablet wars anymore and the past year has shown that you can’t treat the tablet market like the PC hardware one. From the hardware side Apple is the one who’s going to be profitable for the near future, and the tablet as a PC replacement will really take off once Windows 8 enters the fray.
Until then Amazon & Apple are going to be the ones making money through tablets. The one who should be really worried is Google, as there Android tablet strategy is falling apart. Looks like Microsoft & Amazon are the ones who’ll be making money from Android. Google really needs to leverage its Motorola deal and go for vertical integration.
Tablets are more like consumer appliances and that’s the way Amazon is treating the device. So, just like a brick & mortar retailer would rent our buy its shop floor, Amazon is using a tablet to setup its own shop and eliminate the middle man (PCs, browsers etc). Apple is the only one with a similar strategy, albeit across a wider range of devices that are technically more open to competitors (kindle app). Then again their primary revenue is from the hardware sales, while Amazon is all about selling you stuff.
This will of course change once the tablet market matures & saturates, but that’s a long way away. Apple is the one setting itself up for this future, while Amazon will be there come November.

What if Apple released a second iPad this year…

and it were a 7″ version that had the same 1024×768 resolution as the current 10″ model? For one, they would be able to reach a lower price point, now that the kindle fire is in the scene. Secondly, it would make a good replacement/upgrade for the ipod touch. Thirdly, they do have the content offering along the lines of amazon.
Of course they lose the economies of scale associated with an iphone-ipod touch combo. It would also help Samsung say that Apple copied them for a change. But, this would pretty much slow down the kindled fire…