What's in your bag Matteo Doni?

From tomorrow, I will be attending Mobile World Congress in Barcelona for Skyscanner.

As most tech websites with people attending events, I thought I might as well show off the gadgetry I will be taking with me in the image below.
Tesco's version of camouflage Crocs and a selfie stick.
If you hadn't already got the reference, this is a homage to Matthew Inman (aka The Oatmeal) and his selfie stick shopper guide.

On Tuesday night (Wednesday morning for me) I will also be a guest on All About Android talking about a device I have been reviewing and what's happening at MWC.

Will you be at MWC 2015 and want to meet up to talk mobile tech? Feel free to leave a comment below and we'll see if we can meet up amid the madness.

Tesco Hudl 2

It's been just over a year since UK retailer Tesco launched the original Hudl, their own brand tablet which delivered a close to stock Android experience and excellent value for money. This review reflects my own personal views of the Hudl 2, which I purchased from Tesco. For full disclosure, Tesco is also my part time employer as made clear in the todoleo.com about page.
The original Hudl was a hit in the UK. At the Hudl 2 announcement Tesco proudly announced the fact that they had sold over 750k of their first generation Hudl. In late 2013 it offered an excellent spec sheet for less than half the price of similar Android tablets. With the Hudl 2 Tesco aims to have a similar hit on sale in their stores and online channels. The spec sheet is as follows (Hudl 1 spec in brackets for comparison).
  • 8.3" 1920x1200 LCD display (7" 1440x900)
  • Intel Atom CPU Z3735D 1.83 GHz - Quad core (Rockchip RK3066 1.61 GHz - Quad Core)
  • 2GB RAM (1GB RAM)
  • 16GB Internal Storage + MicroSDHC expansion slot (16GB Internal Storage + MicroSDHC expansion slot)
  • WiFi 
  • 5MP primary back camera (3MP primary back camera)
  • 1.2MP secondary front camera (0.8 secondary front camera)
  • 410g (370g)
  • 128 x 224 x 9.15mm (128.8 x 192.8 x 9.9mm)
  • Colours: Black, Blue, Purple, Red, Aqua, Pink, Orange and White. (Blue, Black, Purple, Red)
 At launch the Hudl 2 retails at £129 ($205), but can be £65 ($103) in Tesco Clubcard vouchers as part of the Clubcard Boost scheme. I chose to go for the blue colour option described as "Jazzy Blue" and get a red soft touch case in red so as to have a bit of a clash going on (I obviously do fashion because I'm Italian, right?).
The device itself is of solid construction and feels lighter to hold copmpared to the Hudl 1. Soft touch plastic (similar to the back of the Nexus 7 2013) covers the back, sides and edge of the bezels on the two sides when held in landscape mode. The back has perforated grilles for the Dolby optimised speakers and the camera, while volume and power controls are on the top edge. The microUSB port is on the right side, and the standard 3.5mm audio jack is on the right. On the bottom side you have the MicroSD slot and MicroHDMI port. The Hudl 2 has a simple but well thought through design language going on. No fake metals or pleather in sight, you get the feeling this is a well built utilitarian device.
The Hudl 2's screen is the same size and resolution of the LG G Pad 8.3 and is very pleasant to use. Colours are crisp and the contrast ratio is comparable to that of the Nexus 7 2013. Great for watching HD videos and editing photos in Snapseed for me.
One of the reasons I liked the original Hudl was how close to a stock Android 4.2 experience you got, with a minimal spattering of Tesco bloatware which could be disabled. The Hudl 2 increases the bloatware slightly, but remains extremely close to stock Android 4.4. The increase in bloatware is mainly in the form of the Google Now inspired Hudl launcher and more apps/services Tesco can bundle with the device
Tesco are aiming the Hudl 2 at the UK families, and to make this a better option than other tablets on the market (Amazon Fire cough cough, iPad Mini cough cough, Archos splutter!) parental controls are a main feature. Much easier to use than the Fire HD's FreeTime, with the Hudl 2's "Child Safety" app you have pretty granular control over profiles you set up for your little munchkins. As well as time limits for device use and web filtering, the whitelisting of apps is made simple and easy to apply. "Child Safety" leverages the user profiles functionality of Android KitKat, the Hudl 2 just has a really easy way of setting it all up and managing it.

Earlier I mentioned bloatware, and it is fair to say that the Hudl 2 has quite a bit of it although very little of it is launched by default and runs in the background all the time. Out of the box you get 9GB usable storage (not much when the internal storage is supposed to be 16GB). Tesco have bundled their full suite of apps for shopping for groceries, non-foods, media and banking. Blinkbox is the Tesco brand family for online video, books and music, and all three apps come pre installed. Before I made the leap to deauthorising one of my other devices to use Google Play Music All Access, I tried out Blinkbox Music and found it quite good. Sadly there was no Jennifer Paige on the service so I'll need to bite the bullet and use up one of my deauths. The Blinkbox and Blinkbox Music apps both support Chromecast, so that is a really good feature I can see many UK households making use of.
 The Hudl 2 is powered by a quad core BayTrail Intel Atom Z3735D chip and 2GB of RAM. For a device at this price point that is quite impressive. Tesco say this is a 3x performance improvement over the original Hudl, and after having used it for a few days I am inclined to believe them. I only occasionally experienced lag, and only in the Hudl launcher. Even demanding games like GTA Vice City and F18 Carrier Landing II run smoothly, while a few other apps are running in the background.
A chip with that much grunt seems to have an adverse effect on bettery life though. In similar use to the way I use my Nexus 7 and original Hudl, the battery life seems to be lower. I don't have any hard data at the moment, but as time goes by my logs will be more complete and I'll be able to back this up with real data. This post will be updated accordingly.

I've had almost a week with the Hudl 2 and enjoyed it. For review purposes I tried to live as close to the Hudl experience as most Hudl buyers will (no system changes and a few extra apps). I would definitely recommend this tablet, as the few flaws it has are easily remedied with a few settings or app changes. I will be using this as a daily driver, mainly for media consumption and light social networking. HDMI output as well as storage expansion are a huge plus over my Nexus 7, especially when travelling. I have concerns over Tesco and Intel's plans to update firmware and OS after the Android L release, as this is unlikely to happen (I've been burnt in that area by the Orange San Diego and the original Hudl, but I hope they prove me wrong). The Hudl page at Tesco is here: http://www.tesco.com/direct/hudl/

At time of publishing, Paul O'Brien has let us know on Google Plus that he has managed to root the Hudl 2. As Simon Osborne tweeted, it is just a question of time before someone gets the Hudl 2 to dual boot Ubuntu as well.

Tomorrow I'll disable the Tesco bloatware I don't want or need, and go all in on a customised experience that suits me best. That is after all one of the main reasons I love the Android platform and ecosystem.

Archos Gamepad

I've had a soft spot for Archos since my first proper Android tablet computer, the Archos 80 G9. Since the release of that device in 2010 the market has changed drastically. Archos used to rule the sub £200 segment of the market with devices of questionable build quality and software support. Now the French company is in a very crowded market where even Google compete on price with the excellent Nexus 7 (2012) and the Nexus 7 (2013). This month I spent my pocket money on an Archos Gamepad, so lets see what £104 of your hard earned cash gets you.

Archos realise that the market segment they used to rule in Europe and the USA with their inexpensive and relatively good value for money tablets has changed and they now have to differentiate their products. With the Gamepad they have done just that by adding hardware gaming controls to a basic seven inch tablet.

The tech specs are as follows:

Display: 7" 1024x600 capacitive (5 point multitouch)
Processor: dual-core ARM Cortex A9 running at 1.6GHz
GPU: Quad Core Mali 400 MP
Storage: 8GB expandable with up to 64GB MicroSD
Camera: Front facing only
OS: Android 4.1 JellyBean with full access to Google Play Store

On paper the tech specs look good and as well as the usual Android software sets with full access to the Google Play Store Archos include their own media player software (which is excellent) and Gamepad mapping tool. The good news is that it is practically stock Android with no Archos XperiaWizSense.

The screen seems to be a standard LCD unit very similar to the one seen on other first generation Android Honeycomb (3.0) tablets or the current crop of low end Android ICS or JellyBean devices. At 1024x600 it is relatively nice and sharp but the pixel density enthusiast in me does not rejoice. Colours and brightness on the screen are passable, and there is definitely a bit of a contrast ratio issue which seems to be out of control when you change brightness levels. Viewing angles on the screen are barely acceptable, if just one person is using the device once their line of sight goes off a perpendicular trajectory to the screen things go all funky and almost flip to negative.

In terms of gaming hardware you get "Gaming Wings" on each narrow side of the device in landscape orientation. These have a analogue joysticks on each side, directional buttons, action buttons and trigger buttons (on the top edge of the device). These controls are great for gaming and can be easily customised to any game or emulator running on the Android OS. The "Gaming Wings" also house the front facing stereo speakers, which for a device in that price range are better than average.

The front facing camera does the job it has to for video calling using Google Hangouts or Skype, but the lack of camera on the back means you can't show off your foot on the bus and are mostly limited to selfies to upload to your favourite social networks. Not so good if your main occupation is uploading pictures of cats to the internet.

Android 4.1 runs the show, and keeps the Archos Gamepad mostly smooth and responsive throughout the device. I am impressed with the Archos button mapping tool. As with most other Android devices there are plenty of cool games in the Play Store, but the main reason I purchased the device was to play classic video games in an emulator. The gaming controls were the main selling point to me and I was pleasantly impressed by how the buttons were already mapped to my favourite emulator's on-screen buttons.

Playing Nintendo 64, Playstation One, [etc. etc.] games is not that straightforward, but once you get the knack and use the right emulator things get real fun. Native Android games such as my favourite, Carmageddon, are fantastic too.

Battery life is acceptable on a device of low price point but if used with full screen brightness and emulator gaming, don't expect to get more than 3 hours gaming from a charge. In "normal" tablet use, when not gaming, the Archos gamepad gets a respectable 6 hours battery life. The only problem is that it is not suited for normal tablet use in portrait mode since the "Game Wings" get in the way.

The excellent Archos Music and Archos Video apps support the majority of file types and codecs and come preinstalled on the device. I'm particularly impressed by the Archos Video application which can play back HD video streams form my UPnP server through my WiFi home network. It's a shame the low quality screen affects how you view the content. I've noticed that is quite difficult for two people to watch a video at a same time because of the poor viewing angles.

Here's my conclusion: if you can put up with the pants screen and the short battery life and want a gaming device to run emulators on as well and have expandable memory, the Archos Gamepad is the device for you. If on the other hand you want to use the device as a "normal" tablet maybe look at getting Archos' other devices which can be less expensive and offer a slightly better experience. In my dream world Google (or Archos) would release a gaming edition of the Nexus 7 (2013) with Archos' form factor and then I would be hooked.

The Archos Gamepad is available at time of posting for £104 from Tesco Direct and in larger Tesco stores. It is also available from a variety of other online and bricks and mortar retailers.

As usual, feel free to leave comments and/or questions below.

Technika Smart TV Box - Not Good Enough

This is my review of the Technika Smart TV Box. A quick disclaimer before you read any further: I work for Tesco, and the Technika Smart TV Box is a Technika product. Technika is a Tesco own brand. I have not been paid by Tesco to review this item, and I purchased the device at my local Tesco store. It is not a review unit, it is a standard retail unit, and I have been as impartial as I can while reviewing the device.
Smart TV boxes are devices you connect to your television to be able to use internet based streaming services, social networking services and play back media files which usually need a computer to play back (such as compressed video files). Smart TVs are televisions with these functionalities built in, and tend to be more expensive than standard TVs. Recently there has been a series of smart TV boxes and BluRay players launched on the market by different companies, which add Smart TV functionality to existing "Dumb TVs".

The Technika Smart TV Box offers to "Bring you the best of the internet to your TV" on the signature Technika green and black packaging. The Blinkbox, YouTube and BBC iPlayer logos are prominent on the front of the retail box, hovering above a sleek looking black rounded device with the Technika logo on the front. One thing I find interesting is that there have been some corrections of the device features on the packaging itself: at the "Access photos, music and videos..." feature, a sticker has been placed over the end as a correction and it completes the feature with "via USB". I wonder what is under the sticker.

Inside the rectangular green and black box you find the Smart TV Box itself, well padded in plenty of white plastic foam, with the wireless dongle already inserted into one of the two USB ports at the back. Beside the Smart TV Box in white foam, there is a cardboard enclosure with a power adapter, a remote control, a 1m HDMI lead and the quickstart guide, manual and Blinkbox offer leaflet. I'm pleasantly surprised to find an HDMI lead inside the box, usually this sort of device (just like set top boxes and disk players) does not come with a cable included.

The hardware setup is straightforward: power adapter into a mains socket and plugged into the appropriate input in the device, batteries into the remote control and HDMI lead from the Technika Smart TV Box to the TV. As I mentioned earlier, the wireless dongle was already in the device when I opened the packaging.

When turned on, you are greeted by a starry sky background with the Technika logo. The software and network setup are as straightforward as the hardware: through the guided prompts you setup screen resolution output (in my case 1080p), you opt in or out of the remote access support on the device, setup network connection (wired or wireless), if necessary enter your passphrase for the network and then check the name for the device.
All was well with my setup, apart from the passphrase for my network. When entering the passphrase on the Technika Smart TV Box the default case for letters is capitals, while most passphrases are in lower case. I should have known better, and entered a higher case passphrase so my Virgin Media Superhub refused a connection. After having re-entered the passphrase with lower case letters everything was fine though.
Lower case, I should have known better...
The remote control to the Technika Smart TV box is simple and pleasant to use. I particularly like the dedicated buttons at the bottom for the iPlayer, YouTube and Blinkbox. The rubbery directional navigation buttons have a reassuring click to them and aren't too stiff.

The homescreen on the Technika Smart TV Box is simple to navigate with the remote control. In the upper half you are presented with a large promotional button for Blinkbox content (Tesco's own movie and tv show   pay per view on demand streaming service), and at the bottom you have a carousel of options including iPlayer, YouTube, My Pictures, My Music, My Video. For My Music, My Pictures and My Video, you have to connect a form of USB sotrage with content on it. I have tried both a USB flash drive and a portable hard drive and it seems to recognise content on them (I say "seems to", so read on to understand why).
The Technika Smart TV Box homescreen
My first impression of the device was excellent. Value for money the device seems very good. For just under £50 (US$80) you get a relatively sleek bit of hardware with some useful streaming services. Sadly not all was well in everyday use: streaming YouTube, iPlayer and Blinkbox was unreliable and kept crashing in the middle of programmes, USB media playback worked fine on many different types of compressed video files, even some of the more exotic ones but would crash when pausing or fast forwarding through them.
I assumed that the crashing of streaming services was due to my network connection. (I have a 100Mbps cable connection through a Virgin Media Superhub). I tried connecting the Technika Smart TV directly to my superhub through an ethernet (standard RJ45 connector) cable, but still had the same problems.
iPlayer homescreen
In the support section of the settings of the Technika Smart TV Box I was advised to log onto the Tesco Tech Support website and follow the instructions there. The Technika Smart TV Box does not seem to have a firmware or manual section on the website yet, so a DIY firmware update was out of the question. I contacted the Tesco Electrical Helpline and a very helpful chap guided me through resetting the box, checking network connections and so on, but I still had the same problems with streaming and the occasional crash when playing back content from USB storage devices.

The advertised services on the Technika Smart TV Box are great, but limited to that. There is no option to add channels or services as there is on a Roku box or on other Smart TV services. So the usefulness when compared to a Sony Bluray player or a Roku box is very limited in my view.

I'll just summarise the pros and cons in bullet points:

  • Good value for money (if it works for you)
  • Included HDMI cable
  • Sleek looking hardware
  • USB media playback
  • Many different codecs supported
  • £5 free Blinkbox credit (if you can get it to work)
  • Excellent remote control
  • Wireless dongle included
  • Easy to navigate UI
  • Youtube (if it works)
  • Ethernet port for wired connection
  • Channels limited to iPlayer, Blinkbox and YouTube
  • Limited support over helpline
  • Crashes mid video on both streaming and USB playback

I was looking forward to enjoying the Technika Smart TV Box and was considering it as an alternative to the Roku LT (at the same £50 price), but sadly the crashiness and lack of support have really put me off the device. I hope Tesco/Technika can push a firmware update to solve the problems, but I'm afraid I'm not going to stick with it.

These are my personal views and experiences with the Technika Smart TV Box, as usual feel free to leave comments and/or questions below.

Tesco Kindle Covers

For a few months now the UK retailer Tesco has been selling the Amazon Kindle in its larger stores. As well as the Kindle, in both the WiFi and WiFi+3G variants, Tesco have also been selling cases and accessories for Amazon's e-book reader.

Yesterday I spotted two new reasonably priced accessories in my local Tesco Extra store. Amusingly they are both Tesco own-brand products.
Tesco Neoprene Sleeve and Tesco Finest Leather Folio Case for Kindle.
First up is the Tesco Neoprene Sleeve for Kindle. Currently priced at £4.97, this sleeve is a basic neoprene sleeve. As with most Tesco own-brand products good value for money and not too expensive.
Tesco Neoprene Sleeve for Kindle.
A step up in the market is the Tesco Finest Leather Folio Case for Kindle. Currently priced at £7.97, this folio case has been blessed with the Tesco Finest branding. Tesco Finest is Tesco's premium/luxury own-brand, which still has an affordable pricing. This case is made of soft leather and does have a good feel when held.
Tesco Finest Leather Folio Case for Kindle.
The fact that Tesco is selling own-brand Kindle accessories is interesting to me for many reasons. Firstly it shows us how deeply Tesco is moving into being a serious non-food retailer in consumer electronics. As well as selling the Amazon Kindle, Tesco also sells the Sony e-readers and on Tesco Direct (the online service) the Bookeen e-book readers. Tesco obviously sees potential in the e-book reader market.
Secondly, the fact that Tesco has started selling own-brand accessories means there have been enough Kindles sold to make it worth while offering cases and pouches. This is also an indicator of the fact that the Amazon Kindle is a very, very successful device and platform.

I myself now have an Amazon Kindle and will be releasing a series of blog posts about the Kindle device and services and how to make the most of them.

A quick disclaimer: I do work for Tesco, but am in no way remunerated or rewarded by Tesco for writing content on my personal website about the company or its products. I would also like to point out I was not given a Kindle as a freebie, I bought mine. Disclaimer over and done with, we can avoid any Leo Laporte vs Mike Arrington moments in the comments section.

As usual, feel free to leave comments and/or questions below, and if you want to go ahead and Google +1 this post.

Orange San Francisco/ZTE Blade - Budget Android Rocks!

I recently purchased an Orange San Francisco (ZTE Blade) to prepare for someone who wanted to have a simple Android smartphone set up and ready to use.

The Orange San Francisco is a UK network branded version of the Chinese manufacturer ZTE's Blade Android smartphone. (As is the Dell XCD35 in other parts of the world)

The best source of information for rooting/unlocking and installing custom versions of Android on the Orange San Francisco is the MoDaCo Forum related specifically to the device: Blade.MoDaCo.com
A screenshot of the MoDaCo Forums
Another simpler and more "I'm afraid of computers" resource for customising the device is orangesanfrancisco.co.uk
A screenshot of orangesanfrancisco.co.uk
Using the resource on the MoDaCo Forums as soon as I had unboxed the device, I network unlocked it, rooted it and installed ROM Manager. It was then time to say goodbye to Orange's horrible Android 2.1 ROM and apps and hello to a  newer version of Android by Fibblesan called FLB (Faster Lighter Better). I've been a fan of Fibblesan's since he was putting together FLB Mods for the T-Mobile Pulse and would recommend his Android Mods to whoever would like the most stock version of Android possible on a non Google Experience device.

After the FLB Mod was up and running, I installed a few of my favourite apps to make the user experience a little more pleasant. First off it was the Zeam Launcher which is my favourite because of its dock and lightness on system requirements. Then I installed the MIUI Digital Weather Clock. After that was done I installed a theme from the Unified Theme Thread on the MoDaCo forums.

Currently FLB Mod is based on Android 2.2 FroYo, which means it is faster, more responsive and you have the facility to use the WiFi hotspot feature.

For a sub £100 device this is excellent value for money. If you would like a powerful smartphone but don't want to dish out too much cash, I would definitely recommend it. It is easy (and free...) to network unclock and use with any sim card, it has a decent camera and is easily upgradeable and customisable. 

I would like to thank Fibblesan, Frankish and everyone else involved with MoDaCo forums as well as the author of orangesanfrancisco.co.uk for making the personalisation of this device so relatively easy.

Feel free to post comments/questions. I'll reply asap.

Something Is Rotten In The State Of Android Tablets (In The UK)

Last week I wrote and published my blog post about the Samsung Galaxy Tab. In it I pointed out how Samsung and other manufacturers (Archos, Toshiba, Advent, etc.) would be on their own with their devices and left behind in a bit of a mess when it came to the longevity of their products and ability to provide firmware updates.

A few events over the past week show how some of the main retailers in the UK offering these "early" Android tablets are maybe having a case of cold feet (no weather pun intended during this cold snap...).

On Saturday, Tesco, the UK supermarket chain which has a rapidly growing electrical and non-food department, marked the Samsung Galaxy Tab as "discontinued" and reduced the price by an other £30 to £469. (At launch the price was £529 before being reduced a week later to £499 and then to £469).

During the past weekend, PC World (part of DSG) has "pulled" the Toshiba Folio 100 (a 10" Android Tablet) by raising its price from £329 to £999.99 (making it unsellable). This is apparently after negative feedback from customers and high return rates.

A Toshiba Folio 100 at PC World on November 15th 2010.

Maybe jumping in at the deep end of the Android tablet pool without Google's support is going to hurt brands (Samsung and Toshiba) as well as retailers because of disgruntled customers and their negative impression of Android on tablet computers. As usual, often it is the first impression that counts, especially with computers and user interfaces. Hopefully there will be the long awaited launch of Android Gingerbread (Android 2.3) soon, and we will know which manufacturers and devices will be left behind and which will be able to march on with their Android Tablets in their jacket pockets...