A New Flickr

Very impressive! Flickr received a massive overhaul today, and immediately, my inclination to post there has increased many-fold. There’s the 1TB of storage space (not that they expect everyone to use it, of course), full resolution photo support, no more paid subscription required to display more than ~100 photos and a nicer, although still somewhat clunky, photo viewing experience.

But more than all that, it’s resulted in a lot of buzz, and hopefully a rejuvenation of the audience on the social sharing site, as a result. After all, posting camera-phone photos to Facebook isn’t because it’s the best photo sharing experience, but rather due to the fact that it’s where everyone is already during their online time.

Feel free to take a look at my album, and expect new photos to appear in short order. Large photo backlogs from trips to Grand Canyon and Death Valley await.

2014 Mazda 6 Test Drive

I recently took a new 2014 Mazda 6 Grand Touring out for a test drive. I’ve been looking forward to this car, since it was unveiled at the Moscow auto show last year. My Volkswagen CC lease is coming due in a few months, so I thought I’d get an early start at checking out the options.

  • For right around $30k, the car is well-equipped
    • Navigation
    • Moonroof
    • Bi-Xenon headlights + LED running lights
    • Heated leather seating
    • 19″ wheels
    • Blind spot monitor, rear view camera
  • On the inside, the thick, small-diameter steering wheel with paddle shifters indicates its sport character
  • The interior is gigantic. Although only 2.5″ longer than the CC, the wheelbase is nearly 5″ longer. The result is much more rear legroom. Also, because the roof isn’t as sloping front to back, or side to side, there’s more rear seat room, enough for 3.
  • Both the gas and brake pedals have pretty linear response
    • That means the brake is far less grabby and boosted compared to my CC
    • The gas is a bit twitchier, likely because the CC takes quite a bit of throttle before ramping up the RPMs
  • The white leather seating surfaces were gorgeous to look at, brightening up the interior significantly. Unfortunately, I’m not sure they’re practical, with so many opportunities to short any speck of dirt.
  • Bluetooth music streaming works with my Lumia 920 and a friend’s iPhone. If you have a Pandora app, you can even hook that up!
  • On the road, the car is balanced, and although there’s road noise from the lowish profile 19″ wheels, it sounded no worse than the CC’s 17″ wheels. The larger wheels didn’t rattle my teeth any more over uneven pavement, either.
  • The suspension feels significantly more taut than the CC’s. I’ve found that the CC, for all its “sporting” design has an awfully wafting suspension tuning. Going over speed bumps at any speed results in multiple oscillations before returning to neutral. The Mazda 6′s suspension tuning is much closer to what I’d like in my next car.
  • Straight line performance gives up a little compared to the CC. The Mazda 6 is down a little power and torque along with a turbocharger. The CC is quicker off the line. I could feel some difference, when merging onto the highway. The CC is effortless, with oodles of torque at low RPMs, while the Mazda definitely had to rev. I’m guessing the CC does 0-60 in ~7 seconds while the Mazda 6 does it in closer to 8 seconds.
  • Gas mileage is likely significant better than the CC. Mazda rates it at 26/38, while the CC is rated at 22/31. Around town, around 50/50 local roads and highway split, I get in the range of 22-23MPG with the CC. During the test drive (albeit shorter in duration than is needed to truly make a determination), the Mazda 6 achieved just over 32MPG is the combined local and highway loop.
  • The suite of safety technologies are welcomed. This isn’t a small car, so having a backup camera to fit into tight parallel parking spaces is helpful. The blind spot monitoring system flashes as a car comes up beside you on either side. It then beeps if you signal in that direction, say to change lanes.
  • The Mazda 6 grabbed my attention due to its exterior styling, in the first place. There are a couple too many swoops than I would ideally like; however, it’s easily offset with the steady stance, long bonnet lending it a RWD appearance, aggressive front end and longer wheelbase. I’m a fan.

2014 Mazda 6
Without question, at roughly the same price as the baseline VW CC is today, the Mazda 6 Grand Touring is far better equipped, rides better, and I prefer the appearance (especially after they toned down the CC in the recent model year). The Mazda 6 stays on the list of contenders!

End of Vacation

Another holiday break draws to a close, as I prepare myself to wake up at the ungodly hour of 4am to catch a flight back to Seattle. The break has accomplished its goals. I feel well-rested, itching at my unproductiveness over the past 1.5+ weeks and eager and energized to get back to work in earnest. These have become the closest thing to a summer holiday, since high school for me (I never get to experience them again, due to co-op through university), and I’ve truly forgotten what it’s like to wake up naturally for an extended period of time. Even still, my body is telling me with no sleep deficit to make up, 8 hours is sufficient and natural.

Coming home (I still call it that, after 2 years?) is all about seeing family and friends. My university years are such a huge part of who I am today, and the people I met and interacted with there are the elements that guided my flow through that quarter of my life, at the time. We’ve all grown up, but it’s nice to be able to fall back a little bit into the days of yore, picking up just about where we left off, and generally being nostalgic (speaking of nostalgia, I found out that Red Alert is now freeware! http://redalert95.tk/)

It’s also an opportunity to drive my parents’ BMW 528xi, which I thoroughly enjoy. It also reminds me that despite my Volkswagen CC’s claim to be a 4-door “sport coupe”, it in fact is saddled with body roll and imprecise steering out the wazoo. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to have a well-damped response to hitting a bump in the road. I’m very excited to test out the plethora of choices in the automotive industry, later this year.

I best be going to sleep now. I have a long day of flying and time change (gain 3 hours, yay!) ahead of me. I’ll write again, soon.

2013

I can’t believe we’re heralding the year 2013 already. The days have flown by, I wrote all of 17 posts over the past year (absolutely dismal), and the world didn’t end a couple weeks ago. We made it!

It’s been an exciting and fruitful year, for me. I’m getting well-established in my new role in the Windows Ecosystem group, have moved to work directly with Intel on all manners of new projects and relationships, and spent a wonderful year with my fantastic girlfriend. All in all, between personal and business, things have going about as well as I could hope for. Perhaps one of the few things lacking is sufficient exercise throughout the year; sounds ripe for a New Year’s resolution.

I’m back home with my parents for two weeks over the holidays, but aside from that, it’s been a year lacking in vacation. That said, I’ve had the chance to experience some new places, to travel to Los Angeles and San Diego, saw Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon (breathtaking, another trip is in order, hopefully in 2013) and spent some time driving around the interiors of Washington and Oregon. I’ve become more and more taken with a good drive, so it’s only appropriate that as I come up to the end of my three year lease, later in 2013, on the Volkwagen CC, I’m considering whether I should try a different car. Definitely a topic for a different post, I’ve been eying everything from a BMW 3-series to a Volvo S60 to the surprising 2014 Mazda 6.

I’m still very much excited about all the new technologies and gadgets coming out in 2013. Certainly, for where I work, it’ll be exciting to see how we extend the momentum of numerous product launches late in 2012 through early 2013. In particular, on the phone side, inklings of hope are appearing, especially as we get more competitive on hardware and software experiences. Forgetting the high end (where the Lumia 920 I’ve been using since early November has been an absolute treat), the real volume will be carried by more and more Windows Phone 8 devices like the HTC 8S and Nokia Lumia 620, in the $200-$300 MSRP range.

On the home front (literally), I’m starting the investigation into what to do upon lease end; continue renting or look at buying? Given the magnitude of the decision, it’s something foreign and I have a lot of digging ahead of me. A friend recently bought a place, and it was a wonderful feeling experiencing it even vicariously, so there’s definitely a part of me that itches for some permanency.

There is a lot to look forward to in 2013. I wish everyone well in it!

Lumia 900 (mini) Review

On the eve of Nokia’s expected launch of Windows Phone 8 devices, I thought it’d be fitting to briefly review my past several months with a Lumia 900.

Chassis

The Nokia N9 ushered in a new design direction for Nokia’s smartphones, with its unibody, polycarbonate design. The Lumia 800 took that design, nearly as-is, and applied the Windows Phone treatment. Then, before bringing it to North America, Nokia expanded the display to 4.3″, to cater to this demographic. The design is unique, especially in the two less frequently seen colours on other phones, magenta and cyan, and feels extraordinarily solid and high quality in-hand. The chassis wraps around the internals and display in an elongated oval shape, pinched off squarely at the top and bottom. Taking the most conservative route, I chose a black copy.

The combined large sheet of glass and relatively thick polycarbonate shell makes the Lumia 900 relatively heavy. Compared to a Samsung Galaxy S II, also a 4.3″ display smartphone, the Lumia 900 is nearly 40% heavier (albeit also including a larger battery). The battery is not removable, and there’s no back cover at all. Buttons protrude from the right side of the device and headphone, micro-USB, and micro-SIM adorn the top. FCC and other certification notices dot the bottom, leaving the back a smooth landscape, aside from the camera surround brightwork.

It’s not perfect (but nearly is). The bezels (both top/bottom and sides) are wide, so the footprint of the device is larger than it could otherwise be. I’ve become accustomed to it, but picking up the Samsung Focus (4.0″) recently was surprisingly positive, for both size and weight. Furthermore, unlike the Lumia 800′s absolutely stunning curved display, which flows effortlessly from the curved chassis, the display on the 900 is flat, and furthermore, it’s bordered by a raised, plastic edge, which appears to be needed to help hold the display in place, within the chassis. For the side-to-side flicking that’s a significant part of Windows Phone (the panoramic apps), it makes itself painfully apparent.

Here’s to hoping the future phones trim the bezels and, at the very least, remove the protrusions around the display.

Display

The Lumia 900 has a 4.3″ ClearBlack AMOLED display. It’s a WVGA (800×480) panel, with a standard RGB subpixel structure. Compared to the multitude of high end phones with 1280×720 displays recently, it’s not as sharp, but the regular subpixel matrix helps sharpness, and I prefer it over the same resolution, but Pentile 4.0″ AMOLED display of my Samsung Focus. Perhaps once we have 720p displays, it’ll be a case of trying to go back to an iPad 2 from the new iPad’s display (i.e. you cannot), but for now, I’m content with the display quality.

The polarizer that plays a part in the “ClearBlack” naming makes outdoor use more than tolerable. However, as a result, it appears to impact how close the panel itself is to the surface of the glass. Especially since I have a Lumia 800 to compare against, the 900 doesn’t showcase the same effect of the picture nearly “floating” on the surface of the glass. Thankfully, it has some resistance to fingerprints and only requires a quick wipe (or some time riding in a pocket) to be cleaned.

Overall, the display is pretty nice, colours are oversaturated, but, as a result, make the Windows Phone tiles pop, and the AMOLED nature makes the blacks meld into the bezels, creating a nice, seamless display effect.

Camera

I’m a photo junkie, so I’m always interested in the photography capabilities of the cameras in these smartphones. The rear one in the Lumia 900 isn’t so impressive.

Part of that has to do with the sensor itself. While I haven’t been able to dig up the actual part number to take a look at its exact characteristics, empirical evidence shows that it’s likely a fairly small one, replete with poor high-ISO performance (and even noisy shadows at low ISO). It’s apparently not backside-illuminated, like the iPhone 4S’s, for example, and despite the Carl Zeiss branding, the lens (no matter how good) can’t elevate the sensor’s performance to above average.

With the recent 8779 Windows Phone update and the associated Nokia update, two issues are fixed. 1. exposure is now weighted around the focus point, during touch-to-focus. 2. white balance seems to be significantly improved.

However, several issues remain. Autofocus accuracy tends to be poor in difficult lighting conditions. For example, when photographing a peach on a tree, with a shadow across it, I could not get a single in-focus shot, after trying perhaps 5 or 6 times, instead, focusing on the leaves well behind it (both normal and macro modes attempted). Dynamic range is limited, so taking photos in bright conditions usually results in blown-out skies or very dark foregrounds. If you’re careful with the direction of the photo (versus the sun) and now that exposure can be weighted around the focus point, it’s possible to get some pretty good shots.

This is one area I’d love to see improved on future iterations of Nokia’s WP lineup. If the PureView rumours have any grounding in reality, I will be extremely excited.

Performance

Windows Phone isn’t setting any benchmark records, and its hardware is now a couple generations behind leading edge. That said, Windows Phone has a penchant for making good use of the hardware at its disposal, producing fluid animations, little delay in action-reaction, and enables a good experience on reasonably-priced hardware.

The Windows Phone soft keyboard consistently remains one of the best typing experiences I’ve ever had on a touchscreen. Autocorrect is active, but not overwhelming, unintentionally “correcting” words. The IE web browser is good, but sometimes get tripped up by headers, paragraph styling. You can sometimes see this in odd-looking font sizes, for example.

Compared to my Samsung Focus, which uses a Qualcomm QSD8250 1GHz SoC, the Lumia’s QC MSM8255 at 1.4GHz (and not to mention a GPU nearly twice as quick) is noticeably faster, especially when it comes to loading applications and scrolling through lists in some applications (e.g. Facebook).

While the day to day operations of phone are rarely hampered by the quick single core SoC, the generational leap to something quite a bit more powerful with this first generation of Windows Phone 8 devices will unblock the few remaining obstacles to a completely fast and fluid experience.

Wrap Up

No, the Lumia 900 (nor any current generation Windows Phone) will not get an upgrade to Windows Phone 8. It’ll be stuck on WP7.8 for the foreseeable future. However, at its current $49 price on contract, it simply represents a solid phone with a unique design and quality. Windows Phone’s guidelines and closer software-hardware integration means you’re getting a high quality smartphone experience.

Next for Nokia, whatever they launch on September 5 (looks to be a Lumia 820 and Lumia 920), I’m hoping they add a bit of polish to a solid product. The unibody design is fantastic to hold, lends durability, and looks great (not to mention, can be made into all sorts of wacky colours). Simply by the capabilities enabled by Windows Phone 8, a number of hardware features will reach at least parity with other operating system (multi-core SoC’s, high resolution displays). Hopefully the PureView rumours pan out and the smartphone camera reaches new heights of photography.

Not much longer now.