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.

Reviewing a trio of Blaupunkt products

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I recently got a trio of products from Blaupunkt which comprised of a car charger, a lightning cable for iDevices and a wired earphone. I got to use the cable during a couple of my recent outstation trips, and the car charger during a trip to Bangalore. I’ve also been using the earphone pretty regularly with my iPhone and Mi 4 for the last few weeks. Here are some thoughts on each of the products.

Lightning cable

I got a white cable with subtle Blaupunkt branding that’s about a metre long and it worked flawlessly with my iPhone and iPad. One thing to note is that the plastic portion on the lightning connector is thicker than the regular Apple cable and thus may pose some difficulties to people with snug cases. That said the quality of the cable seems to be more robust and should hold up better than the Apple ones. The milky white colour is unlikely to hold up with prolonged use though.

Car charger

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The car charger was also designed pretty interestingly and promised 3 in 1 features by providing a seat belt cutter and glass breaker as part of the device. In terms of the core feature, it has 2 USB ports that are set at an angle and can thus pose a bit of a problem if your car port is placed in an enclosure like in the photo, thus rendering one of the ports unusable.

They do have another model where the 2 USB ports are placed at the rear, so you may want to check the location of your car port before deciding which model to get. As for the charging itself, there were no issues and it charged my iPhone 5s pretty quickly using the cable reviewed earlier.

Earphones

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The earphones have been my most used of the 3 products and I’ve been using them regularly when viewing Netflix and Amazon Video on my iPhone and Mi 4. The cable is flat in nature which lessens the chance of it getting tangled when stored and there is a mic with a play/pause button. There is also a separate volume slider at the Y junction that works independent of the device volume, but ensuring that it works on both Android and iDevices (or any other device for that matter). It was supplied with 3 different sized eartip pairs to enable better fitting for your ears. There is also a white colour available.

As for the sound output, it has decent bass and mid range, but the top end is definitely lacking. This makes it quite good for voice calls and also video watching, but not necessarily for music. I compared it to the staple Apple earpods and my 4 year old Soundmagic E30 (around 3x the price of the Blaupunkt set, but without a mic) while listening to some of my favourite tracks. The Blaupunkt model easily best the earpods which is not a difficult feat, but falls well short of the Soundmagic model which has a different level of clarity thanks to the better treble output.

Overall, the earphone should be a decent buy if you are going to use it for voice calls or video viewing and the flat cable and universal volume control adds to the value. However, if you primarily want to listen to music, there are better options in this price range.

Tamasha or Corsican Cheese

Watched the movie in the night show yesterday and went in with my expectations low based on the feedback from my family and friends. The first half turned out to be pretty decent albeit composed of recycled Imtiaz Ali material, while the second half was definitely better than Rockstar. I’m really beginning to wonder whether we’re part of a really confused generation whose parents spent the better part of their lives to ensure a comfortable living for us for it to only give rise to a set of new problems. 3 Idiots was really onto something and seems to have been a trendsetter along the lines of HAHK & DDLJ. That said, the performances of the leading pair was pretty good.

Nonetheless here go my customary observations:

  • They really used the iPhone to establish the movie timeline with the Corsica episode from 4-5 years ago featuring an iPhone 3G or thereabouts and the present jumping to the iPhone 5s & 6. I wonder whether Deepika Padukone had something to do with this given her handling of the iPhone in Piku.
  • Asterix in Corsica was the first thing that came to my mind when they showed the place label and within 5 minutes the heroine was referring to it as her inspiration to visit the place.
  • The movie is targeted squarely at my generation right from the way they depict the childhood scenes and pastimes, to the corporate life.
  • The Catch-22 book featured has a symbolistic charm of the yesteryears.
  • It’s a mini miracle of sorts to have a thriving library of the kind shown in the movie in the current times. Then again, something of the sort might exist in Delhi that I may not be aware of.
  • Quite a few sequences from the first half brought back memories of Jab We Met (it easily remains my favourite Imtiaz Ali movie and one of my all time favourites as well) but with the hero & heroine roles reversed.

iOS 9 on the original iPad mini & iPhone 5s

I updated to iOS 9 on my iPad mini and iPhone 5s within the first week of launch, and been using it for nearly 2 weeks now. The update was a lot easier this time due to the space optimisations and I managed to do an OTA update on the iPhone unlike last time.

iOS 9 comes with its share of tweaks and optimisations that are supposed to improve performance on older devices, but I haven’t noticed much difference in terms of performance on either device which is in line with the observations of others. That said a few games like Limbo that were crashing on startup on my iPad mini (even after device restarts) seem to be at least working now.

While the iPhone 5s gets pretty much all the new features introduced in iOS 9 barring the ones that require special hardware, the iPad mini is left out of practically all the marquee features like content blocking, Siri-Spotlight search improvements and all of the split screen features. That said the iPad keyboard is improved and sports the cut-copy-paste & undo-redo buttons and also supports the two finger cursor navigation gesture. iOS 9 also brings back the 4×4 grid of icons in folders on the iPad, so it is not a total lost cause.

Battery life also seems to be in the same ballpark, though the iPhone seems to be exhibiting a slight improvement in the last few days. Of course that is hardly sufficient to last me a full day even with the new Low Power Mode. The additional details in the battery usage section of settings is also quite useful as it shows the screen on time and overall active time for each item as well.

I also noticed that iPhone only apps when run on the iPad no longer show the top status bar as a part of the app, but leave it on the top of the screen. This is possibly a result of the split screen multitasking capabilities introduced in iOS 9.

A gotcha to keep in mind on the iPhone is the Wifi assist feature (something that’s been on Android for a while) that’s on by default and tries to use the mobile network when the wifi is poor. This can easily burn through your data plan and is best left turned off on limited data plans.

There are also some features like app slicing that are currently disabled due to glitches, but should improve the storage situation on all devices. This is one of the features I’m really looking forward to on my 16 GB iPhone.

Overall, the experience has been quite good though the iPad mini is beginning to show its age. Pretty evident why Apple pulled the device off the market earlier this year. This year also marks a complete 64 bit transition for Apple’s entire device lineup starting from the iPod Touch to the iPad and Apple TV.

The Rusty Sword of Justice

I managed to watch Talvar on its release day thanks to the holiday yesterday. It was a pretty sad commentary on the state of the investigation organisations, judicial system and society as a whole. The performances all around were excellent as expected. The organisation dynamics (or politics, if you prefer) depicted in the CDI could just as easily be representative of your organisation.

The movie does not leave any ambiguity on the theory it prefers. Personally, I would have preferred some degree of subtlety and the graphic violence to have been off screen. Nonetheless, the movie leaves its mark on you, and shows the importance of forensics.

As for my regular tech thoughts:

  • The mobile phones shown in the movie are pretty much used to establish the period of the events.
  • They managed to get hold of laptops with old Intel logos as well. Then again this may not have been by design given the slow down in laptop replacement cycle.
  • The so called back stabbing video of police brutality captured on the mobile phone was a bit of a stretch given the poor lighting conditions. Most of today’s phones would struggle in those conditions and a Blackberry from 5-7 years ago would’ve captured a blurry unidentifiable mess.

Upgrading to Windows 10 on a 4 year old laptop

Upgrading to Windows 10
Upgrading to Windows 10

I finally bit the bullet and upgraded my 4 year old Acer Aspire 5750G laptop to Windows 10 from Windows 7 thanks to the free upgrade offer. I managed to wait for a couple of weeks after the release before pulling the plug. The machine is quite reasonably specced with a Core i5-2410M processor, 4 GB RAM, 1 TB HDD (upgraded from 500 GB) and the NVIDIA 540M GPU, and barring the slow hard disk is well equipped to run Windows 10.

The upgrade process was itself quite painless – took a good amount of time to download on my 2 Mbps connection, but the installation itself took around 1.5 hours. There were a few updates including one for the touchpad, and they installed without much fuss either. I also updated the NVIDIA graphics drivers to the Windows 10 version.

The OS itself is quite easy to use and I find the interface an improvement over Windows 7 and agree with my most read reviewers. Compared to Windows 8\8.1 that I’ve used intermittently over the last few years, the experience is definitely a marked improvement particularly on laptops.

The overall experience is pretty much as it was in Windows 7 for me as there are not that many useful Windows Store apps yet, and the laptop is without a touchscreen to make use of full screen apps. The improvements to Explorer, Task Manager and rest of the OS are of course welcome, but would definitely have not been a compelling reason to upgrade were it not free. Cortana has unfortunately not yet released for India, and some of the newer security features require newer hardware.

Having used a MacBook Air for over a year and a half now, I do find some of the new features like multiple desktops quite useful but the experience is hampered by the poor touchpad. Then of course there is the HDD vs SSD performance chasm that puts a big dampener on the Windows usage. If you are eligible for an update, don’t hesitate to pull the trigger (unless you have some incompatible components of course). I’ve also signed up for the Insider builds for some more excitement and quicker access to new features.

The next few months should be interesting with the touch versions of Office for Windows being released and the next generation of Intel processors showing up in devices. Maybe a compelling time for an update…

Pebble Time: In hand and First impressions

I was one of the late backers of the Pebble Time smartwatch, and finally received it today. I backed it after the Apple watch event in early March and deciding that the first gen Apple watch was a bit too expensive for me. I also got lucky with the Pebble Kickstarter campaign and managed to switch my initial pledge of $169 to the early bird $159 when people had started backing out towards the end of the campaign.

The shipment was delayed by nearly a month, but that’s not too bad by Kickstarter standards, and as I had opted for the expedited option with prepaid duties and taxes, I received my package within a week of dispatch. I did have to stay in regular touch with the DHL support, first for the KYC documents and then for the description letter to the customs team. There was also the currency goofup on the invoice with labels in EUR though the payments had been in USD. This was something many of the Indian backers who received their packages before me had observed on the campaign portal. Fortunately for me, the DHL team seems to have managed to sort out these issues with the customs to ensure that I received the package just a day later than their estimate.

Anyway, coming to the Pebble Time, it is definitely quite lightweight and pretty comfortable to wear. The silicone strap seems quite comfortable as well and the material feels just like those silicone cupcake moulds and other similar kitchen accessories that one sees in stores. As for the display, it is fairly colourful, but a bit dim even with the backlight as many reviewers and users have observed. It is especially problematic in the current monsoon season with cloudy skies most of the time. That said, I’m sure app and watchface developers will start optimizing their products for the display in the coming months to improve readability. The double bezel is also on the thicker side by modern gadget standards, but haven’t found it to be very distracting so far. As for the coating on the steel frame, I suspect Pebble might be facing the same durability challenges as Apple did with the iPhone 5 black version, given the scratch reports from early users.

I opted to pair the Pebble Time with my iPhone 5s instead of the Mi 4, and loaded a bunch of apps and watchfaces on it including the PebbUp watchfaces that I’d backed on Kickstarter. The notifications have been trickling in since the pairing as well and the vibration is fairly gentle. I’d already done some notification management on my iPhone, so haven’t been getting flooded thus far, and even cricket scores are showing up thanks to the ESPNCricinfo app alerts.

I also did a full charge of the Pebble while installing the apps though it was well over 60% when I got it. It charged up pretty quick even from a laptop USB port. Also, no faulty cable.

Some of the other things I’d like to test in the coming weeks are Android support and voice replies, fitness tracking (already installed some apps), usage at work (currently working from home with a broken arm) and of course the battery life. In the meantime, checkout the unboxing and initial setup photos below.

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The camera that’s taking over from my DSLR aka a year with the iPhone 5s

I ended up with a broken screen on my beloved Nokia Lumia 720 over a year ago, and thus began my search for a new phone. After lots of deliberation and the delayed launch of the Lumia 930 with its mixed reviews, I ended up with a 16 GB gold iPhone 5s that had just received some price cuts thanks to the iPhone 6 launch. It’s been a very satisfying photo taking journey with the iPhone thus far barring some hiccups. It is a very versatile shooter that gives amazing results even in its auto mode. Then of course, there are the manual controls introduced in iOS 8 that hand over the reigns to the photographer. Plus the entire photography workflow from shooting to editing to publishing and backing up can be performed on the same device.

The iPhone 5s has been my primary camera for nearly a year now, and there have been only a few occasions like stage shows that I’ve used my Canon EOS 550D. I carried the DSLR with the 15-85 mm lens on my Goa trip in March but hardly shot with it, and then altogether skipped it on my last trip to Kolkata. In fact, I’ve been giving away some of my DSLR accessories that I rarely use over the last few months.

In terms of reliability, the iPhone series easily beats its Android counterparts as the camera app launches in a jiffy and the focusing speed and shooting latency are top notch. These parameters have been thoroughly tested in the last one year thanks to my daughter who’s 2 1/2 years old now.

Processing and sharing photos is also a breeze with the numerous apps, and this is one part of the workflow that has been completed integrated with the photo taking effort unlike in a standalone DSLR. Then of course there are the automatic backups through iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Photos, Flickr et al that ensures that the memories remain intact. It’s only natural that Microsoft and Google are trying to automate the album creation and tagging process on their photo storage services given the huge volumes we’re shooting.

The only fly in the ointment has been the storage space as 12 GB of usable is barely enough to hold all the photos after you’ve loaded a few apps. Then of course there are the videos which are all full HD and pretty enormous in size. I’ve managed to make do thanks to the iCloud photo library introduced in iOS 8 that automatically backs up and removes old photos from the device. In fact, I have gone beyond the 5 GB free tier and upgraded to the 20 GB one.

Then of course there’s the loss of variable focal lengths and being stuck with a wide angle lens. I do have a personal preference of shooting medium telephoto lengths with the 50 mm prime being my DSLR favourite. Cropping manages to take care of some of these issues when the lighting is good, and I like to think of the iPhone 5s as a camera with a wide angle prime lens.

When it comes down to image quality, I’ve found it good enough compared to my DSLR except in very low light situations. The focus speed can be a bit slow compared to the DSLR as well and this is one aspect that’s been upgraded in the iPhone 6\6+. Video quality is of course superb and the electronic stabilization makes a real difference, but the storage space gets in the way for longer videos.

There are of course other features like slo-mo 120 fps videos that are just not possible on the DSLR, and shooting time lapses or hyperlapses is a breeze compared to the elaborate setup required with the DSLR.

So, do you want to buy a DSLR? Please don’t – just get an iPhone (or even one of the Android flagships like LG G3\G4 or Galaxy S6)

Mi 4: 2 month usage review

Xiaomi Mi 4 unboxed
Xiaomi Mi 4 unboxing

I finally replaced my Galaxy S3 in April after almost 3 years of service. It had begun to show signs of aging for a while, and I had managed to extend its usability for a few months by flashing Cyanogenmod on it last year. The gadetitis relapse hit me in March this year and I began scouting for my next Android phone in March. After lots of debate, it boiled down to the 64 GB versions OnePlus One and the Xiaomi Mi 4, and the Mi fan festival ensured that price was not going to be a factor when choosing between the two. In the end, the smaller form factor and IR port of the Mi 4 won and I even ended up renewing my Flipkart First subscription to get the phone in a day.

In terms of build quality, the Mi 4 has a very premium feel to it with its steel frame and from the front it has a striking resemblance to the iPhone 5\5s. The back though is a lot more mundane plastic, but there is a faint pattern visible under direct lighting. When it comes to the specs, it is pretty much a Nexus 5 in a prettier package. While it is missing NFC, it does have an IR port that can let you control TVs, ACs etc.

The camera, while pretty decent, pales in comparison to the iPhone 5s that I also own. Colours can turn out a bit oversaturated in shots and the video stabilization has its own issues resulting in jitters if you pan around quickly with shaky hands. I also discovered that the Carousel app from Dropbox can prevent you from shooting videos if you enable the camera overlay option in that app. I missed quite a few video opportunities before I was finally resolved the issue.

The on board storage of 64 GB for the price is the real icing on the cake, and this makes a difference over SD card slots when you have a huge library of games like I do thanks to the Humble Mobile Bundle sales. The 2014 flagship class specs comprising of a full HD display powered by the SnapDragon 801 ensure that games fly on the device. It is definitely a lot faster than my iPad mini that’s based on the aging A5 platform. I haven’t faced any heating issues with the phone so far, and the only time it heats up is when the signal is weak or while charging a severely depleted battery.

On the software front, MIUI also adds a touch of iOS-ness to the usability with some of its design philosophies and then some. Though it’s based on KitKat (without ART support at that), there are also a lot of thoughtful additions that MIUI brings that has kept me from switching to the Google launcher and making Google Now a first citizen. Lack of Lollipop is a bit of a downer, but ART brings its own set of compatibility issues with many games, and I’m quite happy with the phone’s performance and usability for the time being.

The missing NFC hasn’t bothered me much so far, and it was a rarely used feature of my Galaxy S3 as well. However, with Android Pay around the corner, NFC is bound to become a must have feature. That said, it will be at least a year or two before there’s any significant penetration of the service, and that always leaves room for a phone upgrade.

Battery life has also been quite good for me and it easily lasts a day even with some gaming and maps usage. During days of lighter usage, it even manages to stretch to 2 days. In fact, it easily beats my iPhone 5s in the battery life department and I can rely on it to get me through a busy day unlike the iPhone. Overnight discharge is also minimal – around 5-6%, while charging is also quite fast and I can get through a day by charging the phone for an hour in the morning.

Overall, I’m quite happy with the phone and don’t find any compromise or downgrade unlike some of my earlier purchases. It represents one of the best value devices on the market currently, though the Mi 4i is arguably better value if you’re not too fussed about metallic builds and IR ports.