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Review: Synology Embedded DataStation EDS14

Posted in Technology

Review: Synology Embedded DataStation EDS14

Introduction

Small enough to fit comfortably in the palm of your hand, the diminutive Synology EDS14 is unlike any other NAS appliance you’re likely to come across. Not least because it doesn’t have room inside for any disks, just a couple of USB ports for external disk attachment and a slot to take high-speed flash memory cards.

It’s also fanless and very rugged, allowing it to go where other NAS servers can’t. Moreover, add one or more IP cameras and Synology’s Surveillance Station software, and it makes a robust and very usable video surveillance platform.

Something of a Tardis

Don’t be fooled by the lack of inches as inside the EDS14 there’s room for a 1.2GHz Marvell Armada 370 processor plus 512MB of RAM. There’s also space for a pair of Gigabit network ports as well as those two USB ports, one of which is USB 3.0. Okay, it’s not a mind blowing spec, but it’s good enough to run Synology’s tried and trusted DSM operating system and enable us to use it to share out files and printers over our LAN – just like a full-size NAS appliance.

Synology EDS14 back

You can’t expect much in the way of performance but although only single-core, the Marvell Armada processor isn’t the main limiting factor. Indeed the throughput you get will be mainly down to the USB ports and the disks or SD card used.

For our tests we plugged in a 500GB Samsung USB 3.0 M300 Portable disk and connected up a Windows client over a Gigabit network connection. Using this we managed to read data via the EDS14 at up to 52MB/sec with writes a little slower, averaging out at around 40-45MB/sec. Reading and writing to an SDXC card was slower still, on average, about half as fast as our USB disk.

Synology EDS14 with disk

These figures are nothing like what you might expect to get from a conventional NAS box but then USB disks aren’t exactly the fastest kids on the block, and top-notch performance isn’t the goal here.

The aim is to be able to put a NAS server in places that would otherwise be out of bounds due to lack of space, remoteness, extremes of temperature and so on. To this end the EDS14 is fanless and silent and, although it runs quite hot, able to work in temperatures from -20 to +50 degrees Celsius. It can also work off an input voltage of 7-24V enabling it to be powered from a variety of sources including a car cigarette lighter and, importantly, 12V supplies like those run to surveillance cameras.

Synology EDS14 front

On the downside, at around £160 inc. VAT (around US$275, AUD$295) the EDS14 looks a little bit expensive compared to most entry-level NAS appliances, including others in the Synology DiskStation family. However, it’s not really competing with those products but is designed to fill a specific niche in the market, and it’s not until you add Synology’s Surveillance Station into the equation that you start to appreciate just what this little box is all about.

Surveillance to go

Put simply, installing Surveillance Station transforms the EDS14 from a simple NAS box into a self-contained network video recorder (NVR) and monitoring centre. Moreover, Surveillance Station is available for free, just like most other packages for this, and other, Synology NAS boxes, from the Synology package centre.

That said, there is a cost implication. A license for one camera is included free of charge but if you want more (the EDS14 can handle up to five) additional licenses are needed. A pack of four will cost around £170 inc. VAT (around US$290, AUD$310), effectively doubling the cost of this box. However, that’s the only extra required and it should work with most IP cameras on the market. It certainly had no trouble at all discovering and automatically configuring either our elderly Linksys (Cisco) camera or a brand new D-Link dome camera on our test network.

Synology EDS14 with camera

The Surveillance Station software also proved fairly easy to get to grips with, enabling us to view live video feeds through the web-based interface, setup recording schedules and configure the EDS14 to capture video in response to motion detection and other external triggers. Alerts can be sent out by email, SMS or Skype in response to these events, and also whenever a new camera is added or communication with a camera lost.

Synology EDS14 surveillance station

Remote access to the EDS14 and Surveillance Station via the cloud is another useful option together with a mobile app to view both live video feeds and recording from a smartphone or tablet (Android or iOS).

There’s even a power outlet on the side of the EDS14 (hidden away behind a tiny rubber bung) to enable Surveillance Station users to control door locks and gates, and turn other devices on and off remotely.

Verdict

It may not be the fastest or cheapest NAS box around, or the best specified when it comes to storage, but the EDS14 makes up for that in a number of ways. It’s silent, rugged and can be installed in places you wouldn’t dream of putting a conventional NAS and, when teamed up with IP cameras, makes a great little small business or edge surveillance platform.

We liked

The small size and rugged format are key selling points with the EDS14, enabling it to be tucked away out of sight in public locations, such as shops and meeting areas, where it might be tampered with. Another option would be installation in a bus or coach. Extremes of temperature shouldn’t be a problem either, although it will need to be protected if located outside as the casing isn’t weather-tight.

Where the product really scores, however, is as an NVR both for small businesses and larger distributed organisations. Indeed, with its ability to handle up to five cameras (additional licences are required for more than one) we could see it being used to monitor and protect satellite offices, warehouses and yards with optional central control. The ability to record to SD Card is another useful feature for secure recording of surveillance video, albeit limited in capacity.

We disliked

The EDS14 isn’t particularly quick and, although you can add wireless networking by plugging in a dongle, with only two USB ports this is far from ideal, and a built-in Wi-Fi interface would be better. We would also have preferred to run the latest DSM 5.0 operating software. At the time of testing, however, we had to make do with DSM 4.3 which was disappointing as the update is needed to support some of the features claimed for this device. On the plus side, however, we are assured an update to 5.0 is imminent.

Some buyers could also be put off by the lack of RAID capabilities but with only two USB ports this is understandable, and if it concerns you then you’re really looking at the wrong type of product.

Final verdict

Looked at as a conventional NAS, Synology’s compact EDS14 has a number of limitations, but as a rugged storage appliance and, more importantly, a self-contained video surveillance platform it has a lot going for it. Able to reach the places other NAS boxes can’t and especially when teamed up with IP cameras it becomes a lot more useful and interesting, filling a real niche in the market where the NAS-specific limitations are of little concern.


Hands-on review: Updated: PlayStation Now

Posted in Technology

Hands-on review: Updated: PlayStation Now

Introduction and game library

Update: We’ve had even more time with PlayStation Now ahead of its public beta launch. Check out page three for our initial impressions from CES 2014 and for more information.

A lot can change in two years.

On July 2, 2012, Sony bought the then-barely-known cloud gaming service, GaiKai, to the tune of $380 million (£242 million). The decision was met with tepid excitement and heaps of skepticism.

The excitement made sense. Though a foreign idea at the time, game-streaming sounded like an ambitious way to replace the derelict brick and mortar rental stores. (Sorry, Blockbuster!) The skepticism, however, was also understandable.

How could the average user expect a stable, quick connection for an entire gaming session? And how could Sony price it so that both consumers and developers get a fair deal?

It’s with these questions in mind that we fast-forward to July 2014, wherein the fruit of that union is finally ready for harvest. It’s called PlayStation Now, and if you haven’t heard of it, it’s kind of a big deal.

PlayStation Now review

Until today, the private beta was only open to a select few. Now, the beta’s open to the North American public – exclusively on the Sony PS4. (Unfortunately, UK and Australian users will have to wait until later this year to try the service for themselves.)

What follows is my experience with the service and fly-by-night phenomena many didn’t believe could even work two short years ago.

Great expectations

We had hoped back then, perhaps somewhat naively, that PlayStation Now would be the Netflix of video game streaming. That we could shell out a paltry $8.99 a month and access any game we choose forever – so long as we didn’t let our subscription lapse.

What we got isn’t the evolution of Netflix. That’s not to say it’s bad, mind you. It’s just … different.

Let’s start at the beginning. PlayStation Now’s interface is incredibly subdued. There are only four tabs: Welcome, All Games, Connection Test, and My PS Now Games.

Exploring the Welcome tab reminds you to use a wired connection for the best results and, before you begin streaming a title, test your connection. (If you’re wondering, yes you can pass the test if you’re using a wireless signal. We managed to pass the test on Wi-Fi, though that may not have been an accurate assessment.)

Sony promised close to 100 titles before the beta goes live, among them first-party behemoths like The Last of Us, God of War: Ascension and Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus.

PlayStation Now review

Game Library

Sony delivered. Sort of.

I counted nearly 85 games during the private beta in the All Games tab, with 15 to 20 of them being stand out or must-play games. None of them though, at this point, are PS4 games. There was a distinct lack of first-party titles, too. Not to say that this can’t or won’t change as soon as the beta switches from private to public.

But the good titles are worth the price of entry – which I’ll get to soon enough, don’t worry. Games like Saints Row 3, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Darksiders and Catherine are all up for grabs. And, if Sony’s promise of first-party titles is to be believed, we’ve got a lot to look forward to in the coming months (e.g. The Last of Us, God of War: Ascension and Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus).

Sadly, some of the 85 games are discount bin fodder, and have been for the past few years. I don’t know anyone lining up to play Heavy Fire: Shattered Spear or Jimmie Johnson’s Anything with Wheels. But the variety offered here should be enough to please a diverse set of tastes.

Pricing, stream quality and early verdict

Pricing

PlayStation Now could offer the biggest and best games from the company’s 20-year foray into game consoles, but if the pricing is wrong, none of it will matter. Nailing down exactly what PlayStation Now’s pricing is and how this will shake out, however, is a little tough.

From what I can tell, games are divided into four rental periods: four hours, seven days, 30 days and 90 days. The price between the first two typically only differs by one to two dollars, but there’s a major jump in cost that happens between the 30 and 90-day levels.

However, once you purchase time with a game, you can’t buy additional time. Ideally, you should be able to buy a four-hour demo for $2.99 and, once you’ve decided you like it, unlock 7-day access by paying the difference.

As it stands, you’ll need to wait out the four hours and pay the full 7-day price. There’s no way to transition from one to another without waiting out the time for which you paid.

Thankfully, the rental period begins the first time you play the game not when you purchase it. However, you must start your game within 30 days of purchasing the rental or, I’m assuming, that money is wasted.

Here’s a table of three games, one early PS3 game; one PSN game; and one more recent PS3 game displaying not only the difference in price over each time period, but the difference between games altogether as well:

  • Metal Gear Solid 4: 4 hours – $ 3.99, 7 days – $7.99, 30 days – $12.99, 90 days – $14.99
  • Mega Man 9: 4 hours – $2.99, 7 days – $3.99, 30 days – $5.99, 90 days – $7.99
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution: 4 hours – $4.99, 7 days – $6.99, 30 days – $14.99, 90 days – $29.99

Taken at face value, these don’t seem so bad. Reasonably, this is what brick and mortar stores used to charge for rentals, and while the upper-end seems a bit too high, it may make sense once more recent – and better – games fill out the catalog.

But dig in a bit deeper, and these logical prices stop making sense.

Take, for example, Metal Gear Solid 4: it’s $7.99 to rent for seven days – not a terrible price when it’s isolated without a comparison. But when this game goes for $6.99 used at GameStop, it seems a lot less sensible. Though, the point can be made that you would need an actual PS3 console to play that disc, thanks to the lack of backwards compatibility on the PS4. So, this argument can swing either way.

Where I can see PlayStation Now finding some traction is with gamers supplementing their PS4 experience with rentals – or, crazier, users giving up their physical media collection completely. This depends largely on how quickly games come to the store. But, in a perfect world in which games launch simultaneously on retail and PS Now, you could be playing the week’s biggest game without leaving your couch for the pittance of $6.99.

There’s a lot of potential here, but the pricing model – especially when compared to the recently announced EA Access’s $5 per month for all you can play – isn’t all that consumer-friendly.

Stream quality

Games take about 15 seconds to load up, and seem a hair faster than they were at CES. Single player worked seamlessly in Guacamelee!, and local multiplayer wasn’t a problem either.

I also noticed that since CES, there was little to no signal degradation. Everything came through in crystal-clear HD or not at all. The only time I saw some stuttering and screen tearing was during an intense, input-heavy game, like Dead or Alive 5.

PlayStation Now review

Whether PlayStation Now can support multiplayer games online, however, remains to be seen. I can only imagine that a signal being relayed from a local PlayStation 4 to a PS Now server then to the game server and back would be too slow to play online. Whether that turns out to be true, though, remains to be seen and is something that requires confirmation from Sony.

What I do know is that you really want to heed Sony’s advice on an ethernet cable. A lost connection to your router will boot you from the game whether you’ve saved 10 seconds ago or 10 minutes ago. I got booted from games multiple times due to a bad connection. Though, this may have to do with the amount of dedicated servers for the beta, and not something indicative of the final service.

It’s hard to judge the service on this brief, partial display. Once more server space becomes dedicated to PlayStation Now, many of these complaints may become a moot point.

We liked

As promised, Sony delivered a slew of games. Picking which one of the 80-plus games to download first is a difficult decision, and this is only the beginning. Plus, rentals don’t take up any space on your hard drive, and there’s zero download time – just a quick 20 second setup before you play each game.

Finally, while the service is only available now on the PlayStation 4, it will eventually span the entirety of Sony’s gaming and media devices as well as possibly expanding onto smartphones.

We disliked

It would’ve be great to cut yourself off entirely from a console, but that doesn’t seem possible with PlayStation Now in its current state. There’s just not enough of a selection without getting the latest releases on there every week, and even if they were, the prices add up quickly.

Games can sometimes be more for a seven day rental than their retail price. Frankly, I wish PlayStation Now would borrow EA Access’s better, consumer-friendly pricing system.

Early verdict

Sony has time to fix the problem with its PlayStation Now pricing model, lack of flexibility, and has plans to step up the amount of content available to stream. There’s a lot to look forward to with the service. That is, so long as Sony can adopt a better model to attract the most gamers to the platform.

Hands on: CES 2014

Backwards compatibility may have gone the way of the dodo but now Sony has introduced a way to play its last-gen games, and you don’t even need a PlayStation 3 or 4.

PlayStation Now could be the Netflix of video games. Through a subscription or a la carte rental payments players can stream PS3 games in 720p, no console required.

Solid Snake on your iPhone?

When the service launches this summer it’ll be exclusive to Sony Bravia TVs, the PS4 and PS3. Sony plans to expand compatibility to the PS Vita handheld and Sony Xperia Android devices.

YouTube : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVMC6y1j2e8

PlayStation Now won’t be exclusive to Sony products forever. The Japanese electronics behemoth has said its goal is to support a “broad range of Internet-connected devices.” This includes non-Sony TVs and smartphones.

At Sony’s mega booth at CES 2014 I spent a little hands on time crushing mythological monsters and skulking through the apocalyptic wasteland.

PlayStation Now review

My demo used a Sony Bravia TV with DualShock 3 controllers connected directly to the TV. A Sony rep told me that Bluetooth is the only requirement to get controller playing with a TV. At launch, only the PS3′s DualShock 3 will be supported for direct television play.

Four games were playable at the CES demo: God of War: Ascension, Puppeteer, The Last of Us and Beyond: Two Souls. I played the first three and was impressed with the latency of the controls, which showed zero lag.

However, the visuals were a bit of a downgrade. God of War and Last of Us, known for being real system pushers, looked noticeably fuzzy at times. There were also some pretty big initial load times.

PlayStation Now review

The opening load time on The Last of Us, known for being pretty epic, came out to a minute and thirty seconds, according to my iPhone’s stopwatch. That could be due to the internet being slammed by convention-goers, or just the early nature of the Now service. Either way I’m hoping performance improves by the time its opened to the public.

The cloud advantage

While latency could be an issue, Sony is saying that a 5 Mbps connection is all that’s required for PlayStation Now. Basically, if your internet connection can support Netflix, Now shouldn’t be a problem.

And having your data up in the cloud will mean your saves will follow you across your devices, wherever you choose to log in from.

You’ll also never need to worry about patching, since the server will always be dishing up the latest version.

A lot is up in the air

Even though Sony was letting people try the service, there’s still a lot it won’t say about PlayStation Now. First, there’s the price.

Sony has said that users will be able to choose between subscription and per title pay-to-play rentals. It hasn’t said how any of that will be priced, or if subscriptions will provide unlimited play, or be tied somehow to PS Plus.

Also, Sony has yet to divulge what games will be available at launch, or down the line. Reps at CES couldn’t even confirm that the four titles at the demo would be ready to stream. They also wouldn’t say anything about PlayStation 2 and original PlayStation games, just that they were “a possibility.”

Early verdict

Despite all the unknowns and the graphical half step backwards, PlayStation Now is one of the most exciting bits of gaming news to come out of CES. As a life-long gamer, I sorely miss backwards compatibility. Having Sony’s amazing back catalog at my disposal would be incredible, especially for a flat fee.

This could be the HBO GO of video games, and I’m excited to hear more about the lineup, and when I’ll be able to play The Last of Us on my Vita. Sony has a closed beta planned for the end of January; expect more news once that kicks off.

Originally contributed by Alex Roth

Hands-on review: UPDATED: Oculus Rift

Posted in Technology

Hands-on review: UPDATED: Oculus Rift

Hands on at Comic-Con and GDC 2014

Update: Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 is on its way to game makers and it’s also now being used for by movie studios, so we revised our hands-on review.

As Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 starts shipping to pre-order customers this month, we have gotten more face time with the virtual reality headset at Comic-Con and, before that, GDC 2014.

Codenamed Crystal Cove, the updated Oculus Rift DK2 costs $350 (about £207, AU$373). That’s $50 (about £30, AU$53) more than the first-generation developer kit.

However, the improved specs make it well worth the price bump if you’re a developer with a passion for cutting-edge technology and the patience for beta hardware.

The face-worn display outfits developers with an HD screen that’s 1080p or 960 x 1080 per eye. It finally meets our next-generation gaming needs.

Oculus Rift DK2 drops the first interation’s control box in favor of integrating the guts into the headset itself. Only a single cable – HDMI and USB woven together – dangls from your face.

The new kit also comes with a motion-tracking camera, which allows for greater movement within the world of the Rift. It looks a bit like a webcam, and a lot like a PlayStation Eye camera from the PS3 days.

It features a blue “on” light and an Oculus logo, but its true power isn’t visible to the naked eye. It uses forty infrared LEDs on the headset to track your head movements and integrate them into the game. These LEDs were visible on the version we tried at CES 2014, but not anymore.

Oculus Rift review

In the demos we saw at GDC 2014, this meant players could lean in for a closer look at in-game objects and characters. These were the same demos we saw at CES, with the exception of a new one by Epic Games, which integrated the player into the game a unique way.

The game was a one on one battle between two sword and shield wielding avatars. It takes place in a living room, where players can see representations of themselves seated in the room, controller in hand. To keep an eye on the fight we had to swivel our head and crane our neck.

Oculus Rift review

The Rift was a surreal experience as always; when our opponent turned his head or leaned forward it gave his neck a stretched, snake-like appearance. And when one of the battling avatars leapt up onto your lap, you half expect to feel his little feet on your legs.

Oculus Rift review

If you’ve used the previous Rift, know that Crystal Cove is a night and day difference. The higher resolution makes all the difference in the world; it’s like going from Skyrim on a four-year-old PC to one from last year.

Oculus Rift review

Note that we say last year; the Oculus Rift still isn’t sporting visuals that you could call next gen. There are still jaggedly rendered objects, but the immersive nature of the experience trumps graphics any day, and is one you need to see to believe.

Oculus Rift review

Movies come to Oculus Rift at Comic-Con

Oculus Rift review

Comic-Con 2014 provided a different sort of experience – with entertainment at the forefront – and maybe one we can expect more of now that Facebook owns Oculus VR.

Both Twenty Century Fox and Warner Bros. were backing new Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 units at the cosplay-filled San Diego convention with demos for their X-Men and Into the Storm films.

The X-Men Cerebro Experience provided the more surreal experience as attendees slipped into the wheelchair and saw through the eyes of mutant leader Professor Charles Xavier. He, fittingly, donned the just-as-snug brain amplifying mutant detector Cerebro on his own head.

The concept involved seeking the shapeshifting mutant Mystique by looking 360 degrees in any direction. She was hiding in a Comic-Con crowd that was fictitious and barren – it would have been cooler if it used augmented reality here.

The actual hunt was automated and fairly boring, but Professor X’s replica wheelchair at the Fox booth provided developers with the opportunity to predict the location of our limbs and torso. It accurately overlayed his body onto our own.

Obviously, this demo didn’t call for much movement and that worked to the movie studio’s advantage. It could easily trick your mind into thinking that the Professor’s subtle finger tap on the armrest was your own with a “Wait, I didn’t just do that!”

Oculus Rift review

Oculus Rift review

Into the Storm upped the energy level with simulated tornado winds inside a small glass both built by Warner Bros. Through the first-person perspective, we saw three characters hunker down behind a gated sewer entrance, truck-sized debris smash against its ironclad bars and pipes burst with gushing water.

It didn’t have the advantage of a stationary wheelchair-bound character to map our bodies and there was no interaction whatsoever, but Warner Bros did aptly demo its new disaster movie with this terrifying scene recreation. It also messed up our hair.

Both X-Men Cerebro Experience and Into the Storm also gave us insight into how big-name movie studios intend to use Oculus Rift to invent new ways of enjoying theatrical experiences. Video games were just the beginning.

Hands on CES 2014

Oculus Rift gets more impressive every time we see it, and the futuristic virtual reality headset’s appearance at CES 2014 was definitely no exception.

Since E3 2013 Oculus VR has gained impressive talent and raised an extra $75 million in funding, and the result is the Oculus Rift Crystal Cove prototype (named for a state park in southern California). It’s significantly easier on the eyes than older versions of the headset and, by extension, closer than ever to the Rift’s final, fully functional, consumer-facing form.

The two game demos Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell showed us in a private meeting room at CES were designed to showcase two new features: positional head-tracking and low persistence, both of which help make the virtual reality experience more immersive and address some users’ complaints with the headset, including motion blur-induced nausea.

The head-tracking is the most obvious improvement. The new white studs on the Oculus Crystal Cove prototype’s face are indicators that communicate your head’s position to a new external camera, mounted near your monitor. As a result the full movements of your upper body, not just the sideways and up/down movements of your head, are detected and translated to the game world.

That means you can lean forward while playing CCP Games’ extremely impressive 3D space-shooting game EVE: Valkyrie, bringing your in-game face closer to your space ship’s various monitors and switches so you can better read their warnings and instructions. Since the very first demo Oculus Rift has inserted players into virtual worlds, and with this addition it’s a more immersive experience than ever.

Get low, low, low, low

Second and more subtle is the low persistence, which makes the Oculus Rift’s somewhat notorious motion blur a thing of the past. Now the graphics remain more clear and sharp even when you move your head around rapidly. There’s still a tiny amount of blurring, but it’s a massive improvement over the previous version of Oculus Rift.

To prove it Mitchell turned low persistence off and then on as we moved around, and although the image became darker with it on, it almost totally alleviated what was previously one of the Rift’s biggest issues.

EVE: Valkyrie

The tech behind the low persistence is somewhat complex, but Mitchell explained the gist of it. Essentially the new “Crystal Cove” Oculus Rift’s OLED display has zero latency, so it takes the pixels no time at all to change color.

Even then, Mitchell said, there was some blurring, but Oculus alleviated it even further by programming the pixels to consistently but imperceptibly flicker on and off, only turning on when they have “good” data to display.

That new OLED display is also full HD 1080p, just like the prototype Oculus showed off behind closed doors at E3 2013. That of course helps as well.

Wizard Chess

We played EVE: Valkyrie at E3 2013 as well, though on the older, lower-resolution Oculus Rift. In 1080p, and with minimal motion blur and the new positional head-tracking, it was even more immersive now than it was back then – and that’s saying something, because even that first time it was totally mind-blowing.

Piloting a space ship with an Xbox 360 controller while you look around the cockpit and target enemies with the motions of your head is one of the most impressive gaming experiences ever created. It feels like the first time you played Super Mario 64, or Halo, or Wolfenstein – completely fresh and like it has the potential to change the world of gaming. And right now it’s only a demo.

Oculus Rift demon

The other software Oculus had at CES was a very basic defense game built by Epic Games in Unreal Engine 4. It’s an evolution of one of the original Oculus Rift demos Oculus showed around – the one where users simply walked or floated around several beautiful but interaction-light Unreal Engine 4 environments, including a snowy mountain and the lava-filled lair of a scary-looking demon lord.

Now, that demon sits on his throne across from you, the player, he being your apparent opponent. Around you is his cavernous, fiery lair, and before you is something like a 3D board game with moving pieces. He sends tiny dwarves marching inexorably toward your goal, and you press buttons on the Xbox 360 controller to fire arrows, cannonballs and flamethrowers at them.

There are two views: one overhead and one from closer to the game’s level, almost like you’re leaning down toward it to put on your thinking cap. And thanks to that positional head-tracking you can actually lean forward to peer into the game and examine the little dwarves up close. You can look into their faces as they’re pinned with arrows and crisped with fire.

The experience of playing a game inside a game world is not unique to Oculus Rift. This little game, though still very basic, could conceivably be a mini-game within some epic, sprawling RPG. But like with everything else, playing it on Oculus Rift makes you feel like you’re really there.

Early Verdict

Mitchell said the camera that enables the positional tracking may be only a temporary solution. But whatever Oculus settles on to make sure the final version of Oculus Rift features full six-point head-tracking will be included with the unit, whether that means bundling a camera in or something else.

There’s still no projected release date or final pricing for the consumer product that the Oculus Rift Crystal Cove prototype will eventually become, despite rumors of a Christmas 2014 goal that Mitchell would neither confirm nor deny. And the conspicuous indicator lights on the Crystal Cove’s front aren’t final either, Mitchell revealed, even if they do look kind of cool.

Mitchell and his colleagues at Oculus VR seem to think the Rift still has a long way to go. That may very well be true, but the fact is the Oculus Rift is the coolest product in the world right now, and it gets better every time we see it.

Alex Roth also contributed to this hands-on preview

Earlier previews

Update: It’s E3 2013, and it’s been several months since TechRadar last saw Oculus Rift. The virtual reality headset has undergone two major changes since January: a new prototype now comes with full HD 1080p visuals, and it’s now got something resembling an actual video game.

We went hands on at the show to check out what’s new with Oculus Rift, and we came away extremely impressed.

Catching snowflakes

Oculus VR is now using Epic’s Unreal Engine 4 to demo its Rift headset. Specifically, the company is showing players the lava and snow demo that debuted in videos in late March. Wearing the standard-definition headset (similar to the one we saw at CES, but with an extra top strap for added comfort), we felt like we should be able to catch a snowflake with an open mouth when we looked up at the virtual sky.

It’s that real-looking, and when we put on the brand new prototype HD Oculus Rift that sensation was only heightened.

Oculus Rift is incredibly immersive, and part of that is thanks to its true stereoscopic 3D. The two screens inside the goggles become extensions of your own eyeballs, and your brain quickly adapts to the point that you’ll raise your arm and expect to see them in the game world. You can truly sense the world’s depth, and despite knowing it’s an illusion it feels very real.

Oculus Rift E3 2

We didn’t experience any nausea, but we only used it for a few minutes. We did get a touch of vertigo as we looked down from the top of a virtual mountain, though.

The consumer version of Oculus Rift, which Oculus VR Vice President of Product Nate Mitchell said is coming in “months and not years,” will likely come in HD like the prototype we saw at E3. As you can imagine it’s absolutely a superior experience.

Mitchell was hesitant to divulge too many specifics, though, mostly because they’re always subject to change. “We want to continue to improve the hardware,” he said. “Display technology keeps getting better. Sensor technology keeps getting better. We’re adding new features and things like that, a lot of which we haven’t announced.”

He said they want to keep the price point around $300 (about UK£191, AU$312), though.

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To infinity (and beyond)

The other big development in the world of Oculus Rift came not from Oculus VR itself, but from EVE Online developers CCP Games. The first development kits for the headset went out a few months ago, and in that time CCP built an impressive demo that they showed off at E3 this week.

In it players fly a spaceship using an Xbox 360 controller while the Oculus Rift tracks their head movements. This works incredibly well because just like when you’re controlling a vehicle in real life, you can look around and move independently.

The multiplayer demo – which unfortunately is just that, a tech demo – allowed multiple players to fly around in a large outer space environment while shooting lasers and missiles at one another. We could shoot lasers straight forward while targeting other players above and to the sides of our ship by simply moving our head and visually targeting them.

Oculus Rift E3 3

The sense of space in this demo (no pun intended) was simply astounding. Tilting our head down, we could see our knees in the game; we found ourselves moving our arms and expecting our in-game avatar’s arms to move as well.

That sensation caused some dissonance as our brain tried to differentiate the virtual body it was seeing from the body it’s attached to. That could be solved with a Kinect-style sensor that tracked your arm movements used in tandem with Oculus Rift, though Mitchell said they don’t have plans for anything like that.

The dev kits are out there, though, and it’s not impossible. In fact, it seems we’re just beginning to explore the possibilities of Oculus Rift, and if what we’ve seen so far is any indication then it’s time to get very, very excited for what’s in store.

Original article: Oculus Rift made headlines last year for its wildly successful Kickstarter project. The enterprise to create a commercially viable virtual reality headset raised $2,437,429, and at the pre-CES 2013 Digital Experience event, TechRadar got to experience Oculus Rift eyeball-to-eyeball.

The VR headset has been through several iterations, but the one we saw at CES was the most refined. It isn’t perfect (and as we found out, it might not ever be perfect for some players) but it’s undoubtedly superior to any previous attempts at a virtual reality display.

OculusRiftReview

Instead of a clunky skull-encompassing helmet, Occulus Rift is more like a set of ski goggles, with room inside for small eyeglasses if you wear them.

Inside are two lenses, which each feed a separate 640 x 800 image to your eyeballs. Combined, they form a unified 1280 x 800 image.

Motion tracking means it responds to your head movements, as though you’re looking around an actual 3D environment.

Oculus VR (the company behind Rift) showed off its remarkable new kit with the Epic Citadel demo – a standard video game input (in this case, from Xbox 360) in first-person view.

This plunged us into a medieval marketplace populated by humble townsfolk and knights in armour, with snow softly settling around us.

Wear it well

The first time we moved was rather perplexing and disorienting. It’s almost like walking for the very first time.

However, the visuals seem extremely fluid and natural. And in less than a minute, we felt that Oculus Rift really could be the new face of playing games.

Unfortunately, not long after that TechRadar’s motion-sickness susceptible reviewer began to feel something else. He was only able to tolerate ten minutes before nausea spoiled the party.

Oculus Rift

The time it takes for sickness to kick in appears to depend on the game’s frame rate, camera system and other factors that have yet to be isolated.

But surprisingly, while Oculus VR’s representatives say this initial reaction is common among first-timers, they also report that most (though not all) players subsequently become accustomed to the experience.

Early verdict

There is still no target release date for the final product, let alone price. At CES, two versions were shown: the somewhat rough prototype, which is covered by black tape; and the developer kit, which looks far more polished.

But whenever it appears, Oculus Rift seems set to mark a big shift in gaming. Clearly, though, there’s work to do if the headset is to fulfill its potential – we can’t see it becoming truly popular if it gets a reputation for making players sick.

Review: Sony Xperia E1 review

Posted in Technology

Review: Sony Xperia E1 review

Introduction

The Sony Xperia E1 is a cheap phone – about as affordable as Sony makes. It’s small, doesn’t have all that many cutting-edge features and can’t afford to be quite as stylish as its big brother the Sony Xperia Z2.

However, there are benefits to a phone like this. As it is not covered in glass you don’t have to worry so much about it shattering should you drop the thing.

And even if something bad does happen to the little Xperia E1, you won’t have to cry for too long. You don’t need to take out a mortgage to buy one of these.

It slots in right at the bottom of Sony’s Android Xperia range, below the Sony Xperia M2 and the top dog Xperia Z2.

There’s quite a lot of competition in this just-under-£100 area, though. The pick of the bunch is the Motorola Moto E, a phone that doesn’t quite have the brand credibility of the Sony Xperia E1 but really does ace the basics better than the E1 – the screen, the body, general performance. Sometimes rejecting the biggest brands pays off.

Sony Xperia E1 review

But how much will you really have to pay for the Sony Xperia E1? SIM-free the phone can be found for around £85 (about US$139, AU$149). A PAYG model will set you back around £80 (about US$136, AU$144) .

If you want to pay monthly then the phone is free for as little as £8.50 (about US$14, AU$15) a month. However, phones like this really make more sense as mobiles to buy outright – on contract you might as well pay a tiny bit extra to get a higher-end device.

Sony Xperia E1 review

There are no different varieties of Xperia E1 to worry about when buying. The phone just comes in one flavour – 3G with 4GB of internal memory. It does come in white, purple or black shades, but the actual hardware is the same.

Sony’s higher-end phones are some of the slickest mobiles around – even the fairly affordable Xperia M2 has the same sophisticated glassy look as Sony’s top-end Xperia Z2. However, the Sony Xperia E1 is a lot more conventional.

There’s no glass (or glass-look) rear here. The back is the same sort of curved, removable plastic battery cover seen in most budget mobile phones. At 12mm (0.47inch) thick, the Xperia E1 is a chubby phone, but it is still little.

Sony Xperia E1 review

As it has a pretty small 4-inch screen, carrying a little extra weight isn’t really an issue. The phone is very easy to use in one hand thanks to its small stature and I can’t imagine even kids’ hands having too much trouble with the phone.

This kind of ergonomic accessibility is great, but the Sony Xperia E1 does feel quite cheap. Where Sony’s other mobiles put a lot of effort into feeling high-end, the roughly textured finish here doesn’t impress the fingers, and a few rough design edges don’t impress the eyes either.

Things like the camera lens being clumsily recessed behind the battery cover, the rather over-egged speaker grille on the back and that the textured finish goes a bit shiny with wear show the Xperia E1 up. It doesn’t look or feel more expensive that it is.

Sony Xperia E1 review

There are some little extras some of you might appreciate, though. Like Sony’s old Walkman phones, the Xperia E1 has a dedicated music button up top.

Hold it down and it launches the music player app. It can also be used to control music playback while you’re listening, like the remote control seen on many pairs of headphones.

Are headphone remotes more useful? Yes, absolutely, but I do think the Xperia E1 button will come in handy for those who like to hold their phone while going out for a run.

I’ve said that the Sony Xperia E1 doesn’t share a great deal design-wise with the higher-end Sony phones, but you do get the Sony-staple Omnibalance power button. This is where the button is placed slap-bang in the middle of the phone’s side for easy access. In a phone this small you could pretty much put the button anywhere, but it’s handy nevertheless.

Sony Xperia E1 review

The phone’s back pops off pretty easily too, and gives you access to the battery, the full-size SIM slot and the microSD slot. You get just 4GB of internal memory, less than a gigabyte of which is ready for you to play with. If you want to put more than a few music tracks on the Xperia E1, you’ll absolutely need a memory card.

Screen quality

We’ll see lots of little cuts like this in the Sony Xperia E1, and some of the clearest are seen in the screen. The phone has a 4-inch 480 x 800 pixel display, giving 233ppi pixel density.

That’s not enough to give you the kind of supreme sharpness of more expensive phones, giving text a slightly rough look. This is pretty much the standard at the price, although the Motorola Moto E does get you a significantly sharper screen.

Sony Xperia E1 review

Contrast and colours are pretty good for such a low-end display, but a few other aspects leave the Sony Xperia E1 screen as nothing more than just OK. First, it doesn’t use an IPS panel, and as a result viewing angles are pretty average.

The screen also appears recessed and lacks the anti-reflective design needed to make using a phone outdoors remotely fun. Top brightness is a fair bit better than some at the price, though, so the Sony Xperia E1 shouldn’t make you want to throw it against a brick wall as soon as the sun comes out.

Sony Xperia E1 review

One other pretty rubbish element of the screen is what it’s made of. Phones over £100 often use Gorilla Glass 3 for their top screen layer. It offers great scratch resistance and a lovely super-hard surface.

Sony says the Xperia E1 has a glass top layer, but on first using it I assumed it was plastic. There’s a good deal of flex to the screen, giving it a slightly spongy feel and causing screen distortion should you press down too hard on the display.

It doesn’t feel as nice to use as the Motorola Moto E, which does use Gorilla Glass for its screen.

Key features

Sony calls the Xperia E1 the “best smartphone in its class”. They’re big words, but you really need to look a bit deeper to see how limited this bold claim actually is.

It’s based on the phones that were around in November 2013, and leaves out many of the mobiles you might consider Xperia E1 rivals – there’s no comparison to the Motorola Moto E, ZTE Blade V, Nokia Lumia 630, and not even the Huawei Ascend Y300. If not flat-out unfair, it’s at least out of date.

The moral of this story – don’t believe the hype.

However, the Sony Xperia E1 is pretty aggressively priced, and leaves out most of the right things in order to keep the cost low. This is a no-nonsense 3G phone.

You miss out on 4G, in a time when this faster kind of mobile internet is starting to filter down to ultra-cheap phones like the Alcatel One Touch Pop S3 and the EE Kestrel. Are people who want to buy a cheap phone likely pay the premium for a good 4G contract though? I don’t think so. A 3G-only phone still makes sense at this price point, for now.

Sony Xperia E1 review

Other bits chopped out include ac-grade Wi-Fi, NFC and an IR transmitter. Just like 4G, though, I can’t image these being particularly high priorities for someone looking to buy a phone on a very tight budget.

Why? They all require other bits of (generally pricey) gadgetry to be particularly useful. You’d need an ac-compatible router to make use of Wi-Fi ac, an NFC speaker or pair of headphones to make good use of NFC now that it isn’t used all that much for wireless payments. And you need a good home entertainment system to warrant using an IR transmitter to turn your Xperia E1 into a universal remote.

Sticking to the basics instead, the Sony Xperia E1 gets you n-grade Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth 4.0 and 21Mbps HSPA (its fastest 3G standard). This is actually more than enough for most people, not just those out for a cheap phone. Crucially, it should mean you could use the phone with an Android Wear smartwatch like the Moto 360 or LG G Watch should you want to invest in one of those further down the line.

The hardware is basic but solid, but what about the software? The Sony Xperia E1 runs Android 4.3 Jelly Bean with the same style of custom interface seen in Sony’s other Android phones.

Sony Xperia E1 review

Android 4.3 is not the latest version of the Google mobile OS, and hasn’t been for a while now. Sony has confirmed that the Xperia E1 will get Android 4.4.2, although I wouldn’t expect such updates to turn up quickly.

Why did the phone ship with an already-old version of Android? I imagine it’s down to the extra work needed to get Android 4.4.2 and the custom Sony interface working on as low-end an engine as the Xperia E1 has.

The phone uses a Qualcomm MSM8210 Snapdragon 200 processor. It’s a low-end dual-core 1.2GHz chipset, but can provide perfectly good performance in my experience.

The real limitation is the phone’s meagre 512MB RAM. It’s very difficult to get a phone with this little memory running smoothly on Android 4.4 and Android 4.3 doesn’t run perfectly either.

Several phones around the same price do have a solid 1GB of RAM, including the Alcatel One Touch Pop S3, the Motorola Moto E and the ZTE Blade V. Trying to ‘get away’ with 512MB is a misstep on Sony’s part.

Interface and Performance

The Sony Xperia E1′s hardware is not perfect, but I do find the Sony custom interface to be one of the better ones you can get at this low price point.

At this cheaper end of the scale, UIs can often be produced by price-slashing phone makers that don’t always ‘get’ what makes software work.

Sony knows how to make its software look good, and its custom Android UI largely subscribes to the ‘keep it simple, stupid’ mantra. It’s a good one.

The Sony Xperia E1 doesn’t mess around with the basic layout of normal Android, and while the soft navigation keys are built into the screen rather than having their own hardware, Sony has made sure they’re not too big. They also look good, something that’s not always the case in cheaper phones.

Sony Xperia E1 review

You get five homescreens, although you can add an extra two if you want. Sony’s app menu is pretty good too.

Flick to the far left of the menu and you can bring up another menu that lets you quickly uninstall apps and rearrange your app treasure trove. The Xperia E1 also supports folders, making it easy to hide away anything you don’t like (although there’s no actual ‘hide app’ option).

Like other Sony phones, the Xperia E1 has a few pre-installed apps, and not all of them are too useful. Having a Sony movie player and Sony Walkman app is handy, as they look quite good and these areas are generally neglected in cheaper mobiles – you often only get Google’s default apps.

Apps

I could live without things like Xperia Lounge, Xperia Care support, Smart Connect and Sony Select, though. While they’re there to help out, they are also bloatware, and who need a third-party app store like Sony Select when Google Play is pre-installed? They’re part of the reason why the Xperia E1 has so little spare storage.

This bloat is minimal though, and some other elements of the interface are refreshingly pared-back. The notifications menu is the best example.

Where some UIs fill this all-important notifications screen with brightness sliders and features toggles, leaving little room for actual notifications, the Sony Xperia E1 makes sure phone updates are given priority. And it still manages to fit in buttons for features and brightness, plus a clock. It’s careful design in action.

Sony Xperia E1 review

For all the thought that has gone into the interface, though, it’s not tremendously quick. While not consistently slow, you do have to put up with a lot of pauses and stuttering as the Xperia E1 struggles to keep up. It’s all down to that lacking 512MB of RAM – its the grease that makes the cogs of any computer system run smoothly, and 512MB isn’t quite enough these days.

Until quite recently, that sort of spec was something you had to put up with in an entry-level phone. But now several offer 1GB of RAM, you can get smoother performance elsewhere. Having experienced these smoother phones, most notably the Motorola Moto E, the Xperia E1 can be quite frustrating to use

In benchmarks and games, the Xperia E1 fares a bit better as deficiencies in RAM are clearest when multitasking, or at least hopping between apps. The phone scores a pretty lowly 606 points in Geekbench 3, but it’s around the figure I’d expect from a phone with a Snapdragon 200 CPU – it’s dead on the score of the Motorola Moto E.

Sony Xperia E1 review

The phone can handle some 3D games fairly well thanks to its low screen resolution too. But storage is a huge issue.

You only get a few hundred megabytes of free data to play with from the initial 4GB, and as most games can’t simply be installed to an SD card right off the bat, the Xperia E1 makes a pretty terrible gaming comparison. It’s the same deal with many 4GB storage phones.

If you’re a gaming fan, think about upgrading to the excellent Motorola Moto G, now available for around £100 if you shop around.

Battery life and the essentials

The Sony Xperia E1 has a 1700mAh battery, which is a fairly good size for a phone with a 4-inch screen. However, actually battery performance isn’t so hot.

In the standard TechRadar video stamina test, which involves playing a HD MP4 file for 90 minutes at maximum brightness, the Sony Xperia E1 lost 29% battery, meaning that it’ll only last for around five hours of looped video off a charge. This is a fair bit worse than the comparable Lumia 630, which only dropped 23%.

This kind of unremarkable stamina is seen in general use too. An hour’s web browsing will lop around 20% off your battery’s life, and with a little bit of gaming and browsing every day, the Xperia E1 will be nearly-dead come morning. This is not a particularly long-lasting phone.

You do get some tools to improve stamina, though. Like the Sony Xperia Z2, the Xperia E1 has a bunch of different modes that can seriously improve battery life.

In the settings menu you’ll find three different power-saving modes. Given the phone’s generally mediocre battery performance, I strongly recommend using them.

Stamina mode is probably the one to check out first. What this does is to stop any apps from running processes and accessing mobile data while the screen is off. So when the screen goes black, your Xperia E1 really does go to sleep.

Sony Xperia E1 review

It may sound extreme but you can also select apps that are exempt, making it a good way to stop errant apps from ruining your phone’s longevity. You might want to ‘allow’ Gmail and Whatsapp, for example, which could mean the stamina mode would have little or no negative effects for many.

The next power saver is low-battery mode. This kicks in when your phone reaches a certain battery level, turning down brightness and switching off connections like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to save a bit of juice. It’s an emergency mode designed to drag out your phone’s life should you find yourself away from a charger longer than expected.

Location-based Wi-Fi is the most interesting of the power saving modes, though. What this does is to only switch on Wi-Fi when you’re in range of a saved network. It’s probably a good idea for people in cities, where the sheer number of Wi-Fi networks can leave a phone scrambling about, constantly searching for open networks you’ll probably never even consider using.

The essentials

The Sony Xperia E1 doesn’t have a great number of bells and whistles. It’s not what the phone is about.

It’s build does seem to suggest its internal speaker is good, thanks to that great big rear grille and its use of a Walkman button on top. However, the actual sound quality doesn’t quite hit the mark.

You get a mono driver that fires out of the back of the Xperia E1, and it has the same sort of fragile-sounding, thin, bass-light sound you’d expect from lower-end phones. Without the mid-range body of better-sounding speakers, including the Motorola Moto E’s one, voices tend to sound quite harsh, or at least recessed.

Apps

Call quality isn’t anything to brag about either. The speaker is a little low in volume, meaning you may struggle with calls in noisier environments, although there is a noise-cancelling mic on the back to make things easier for the person on the other end.

The one other basic thing to consider is that on a 4-inch screen the keyboard can feel a little cramped. While phones like the Motorola Moto E are just slightly larger at 4.3 inches, that extra space does make regular typing more comfortable.

You should have no issues if you switch to gesture typing, though. where you draw a line over the various characters in a word rather than tapping on characters individually.

Camera

Sony has pulled out exactly none of the stops with the Xperia E1 camera hardware. It only has one camera sensor, just the rear one, and no flash.

You get a 3.2MP camera that’s about as basic as they come in terms of core capabilities. With no autofocus and no manual metering, you have zero hands-on control over your photos in traditional terms. You can’t pick a subject for your photos and can’t choose whether to expose the photo to suit the sky or the foreground.

Sony Xperia E1 review

For photography fans, these are all big no-nos. What the Sony Xperia E1 offers instead is an unusually generous crop of extra modes and filters. It’s a cut-down selection of what you get in an Xperia M2 or Xperia Z2.

As well as HDR and panorama, you get nine creative filters, some of which are a little more creative than the norm. The two Sony specials are the Harris shutter and kaleidoscope. A Harris shutter exposes different colours at slightly different times, letting you produce pretty funky results if you move the phone a bit while shooting.

Sony Xperia E1 review

Actually using the Sony Xperia E1 camera isn’t masses of fun in a more basic respect, though. It’s pretty slow, lacking that immediacy that is at the heart of mobile photography. There’s no focusing delay as there’s no focusing to be done, but there is shutter lag and processing lag.

Image quality is quite bad too, as you’d expect from a 3.2MPsensor. Detail is fairly low and dynamic range is pretty bad – that’s the camera’s ability to bring out detail in bright and dark areas of a single scene at the same time. There is an HDR mode to remedy the dynamic range issue, but it’s far from the best.

Sony Xperia E1 review

If you care about photos at all, this probably isn’t the phone for you. The Nokia Lumia 520 is the most obvious choice at the same price for a phone with a significantly better camera, being one of the few truly low-cost auto focus cameras.

The Sony Xperia E1 isn’t much cop for video either. Capture quality maxes out at 480p, which isn’t really worth bothering to upload to Facebook, let alone keeping for posterity.

Harris Shutter Sony Xperia E1 review

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Sony Xperia E1 review detail shot

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Sony Xperia E1 review close up

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Sony Xperia E1 review

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Sony Xperia E1 review HDR

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Hands on gallery

Sony Xperia E1 review

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Sony Xperia E1 review

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Sony Xperia E1 review

Sony Xperia E1 review

Sony Xperia E1 review

Sony Xperia E1 review

Verdict

The budget mobile market is now a seriously competitive one, and the Sony Xperia E1 really has its work cut out even before it’s out of the box.

Sadly Sony has made a few too many cuts to a dinky dialler which does the basics, but little more.

We liked

Buying the Sony Xperia E1 is a non-scary prospect, which may matter a lot for people looking for a second phone they can lose or break, or one to give to a younger person

You also get to sidestep some of the software wonkiness here that you might see if you went for a phone from a company like Huawei or ZTE. The interface is pretty good, even if the version of Android behind it is currently out of date.

We disliked

While going with Sony has positives, there are knock-on effects too. The brand seems to be used as a way to side step having to provide quite the baseline quality of hardware you get with something like the Motorola Moto E. There are a lot of cuts you need to live with.

The body doesn’t feel too great, the screen quality is fairly low and with just 512MB of RAM, day-to-day performance really isn’t too hot.

At the price I can live with a bad camera, and limited storage is to be expected but the Xperia E1 loses out in a few too many areas.

Verdict

The Sony Xperia E1 is a cheap phone, and it both looks and feels like one. Unlike some rivals it hasn’t quite made enough right moves to ensure it brings a solid core experience to the table, while still including some fluffier elements like a dedicated music button.

Thanks to the decent interface it’s a reasonable low-cost option, but it’s solidly beaten by the Motorola Moto E, which costs as little as £10 more.


Review: Updated: OnePlus One

Posted in Technology

Review: Updated: OnePlus One

Introduction

The Google Nexus 4, the Google Nexus 5, the Motorola Moto G, and now the OnePlus One; this 5.5-inch bolt from out of the blue (well, China) joins an exclusive list of smartphones that offer an awful lot of smartphone for not a lot of money.

But having used the OnePlus One as my primary phone for several days, I’m wondering whether it needs to be placed in a category all of its own.

Here is a device that rivals the HTC One M8 and the Samsung Galaxy S5 for raw specs, but at a cost of just £229, $299 (around AU$320). That’s less than half the price of those aforementioned big hitters.

As such, much of my early time with the phone was spent warily turning it around in my hands, like some kind of mysterious artefact of unknown origin, not quite ready to believe what was being promised of it. There has to be some compromise here, right?

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Well, yes there is. In fact, there are several. But it’s staggering how small they seem when weighed against that double-take-inducing price tag.

An issue to get out of the way early on is the availability of this handset. OnePlus is persisting with a slightly strange invite-only system, limiting the number of people who can order a handset.

That’s probably so the startup firm can keep on top of production, but means you’ll have to hunt around for an invite – find someone who has already purchased a One and they may be able to sort you out.

Usually when a cheap smartphone boasts specifications that bloody the noses of the big boys, it’s the design that suffers. It’s far harder to make a solid, stylish, and hard-wearing mobile device than it is to throw in the latest off-the-shelf chip from Qualcomm.

However the OnePlus One is a pleasure to hold and to use. Okay, so it lacks the HTC One M8′s gorgeous metallic sheen, and you won’t turn any heads when you take it out of your pocket like you would with a golden iPhone 5S. But show me the phone that does.

OnePlus One

The OnePlus One nevertheless feels great in the hand. It’s primarily made up of a quality matte plastic shell that extends around the back and sides of the device. This isn’t a unibody construction, and this rear panel can be removed for customisation purposes, but it’s firmly fixed in place with minimal creaking or flexing.

There’s a metal-effect plastic rim that separates this rear cover from the glass front, which cheapens the effect ever-so-slightly, but it’s thin and unadorned. It does mean that the aforementioned glass frontage appears to stand out rather than melding into the body of the phone, but it’s not an unpleasant effect.

All in all, it looks and feels like something of a cross between the Nexus 5 and the Nokia Lumia 1520.

OnePlus One

The OnePlus One is not a particularly slim or light device, but then nor is it an absolute brick. At 152.9 x 75.9 x 8.9mm, its dimensions make it only slightly larger than the LG G3 and Sony Xperia Z2, the latter of which has a smaller 5.2-inch screen. What’s more, the OnePlus One is three grams lighter than the Sony at 160g.

Of course, this is still a monster of a phone when you compare it to older or smaller devices. I always thought of my trusty old HTC One X as a bit of a beast, but the 4.7-inch phone feels positively dainty next to the OnePlus One. Meanwhile my iPhone 5S looked like a (rich) child’s toy when held next to it.

OnePlus One

I’ve mentioned it a few times now, but the OnePlus One’s 5.5-inch display really is quite the specimen. At 5.5-inches it’s bigger than both the One M8′s and Galaxy S5′s, though it has the same 1920 x 1080 Full HD resolution. Admittedly that makes it a little less pixel-dense, but with 401ppi I defy anyone to call it anything but sharp.

If you’re thinking that OnePlus may have cut corners with the quality of this display, then think again. It’s an IPS display, which means it’s sharp and accurate even when viewed from an angle, and it’s made by JDI, the company responsible for the One M8′s excellent screen.

The default brightness seems a little weak, but crank it up and you’ll get a picture that truly pops, with impressively deep blacks.

Badlands

Perhaps the best illustration of this is to boot up the gorgeous Badlands game with its inky-black silhouettes layered over detailed amber backgrounds.

It hasn’t been plain sailing for the OnePlus One’s display though, with a few users taking to the web complaining of a “yellow hue” at the bottom of the screen. OnePlus sent TechRadar two handsets, and having used both I can either that neither have suffered from this issue.

Around the back of the OnePlus One is the vaguely oblong black camera element that houses the lens and dual-LED flash. This has been allowed to jut out slightly, its flat surface peeking above the curved shell. I quite liked the effect, especially in concert with the funky OnePlus One logo situated below.

OnePlus One

OnePlus has housed a tiny pair of stereo speakers on the bottom edge of the device – as held in portrait view – with two telltale rows of machined holes either side of the microUSB port.

Button placement is strong, with the power key situated two thirds of the way up on the right hand side and the elongated volume rocker opposite on the left hand side.

This is ideal for a device as large as the OnePlus One, as they always fall under a thumb or finger, whereas a top-mounted button would have required some finger contortion to reach single-handed.

OnePlus One

OnePlus has also included permanent capacitive hardware keys underneath the screen, which proves to be a mixed blessing. There’s a menu key, a home key, and a back-up key in that order. I found it very hard to see these keys, particularly in daylight, as they don’t light up very much at all.

They’re also mapped a little oddly by default, with multitasking set to an awkward double-tap of the home button.

On the plus side, you don’t have to use these keys at all, and you can also remap the keys to your liking. We’ll discuss the OnePlus One’s impressive customisation potential in greater detail over the next few sections.

OnePlus One

Just about the only glaring weakness of the OnePlus One’s external design comes in the form of its SIM tray. It looks to be made of a cheaper, rougher form of plastic, and I found the access hole to be an absolute pig to use with my iPhone tool (which I had to use as the OnePlus didn’t come in its packaging).

Indeed, it seems as if this SIM accessibility was a problem for whoever used the phone before me, as the hole had a tatty and worn look to it, like it had been hand-drilled with a Black and Decker and a cheap drill bit.

This is the only external sign that you’re dealing with a new manufacturer’s first attempt at a high-quality smartphone.

Key features

I’m always interested to learn which processor is powering a new smartphone, but the truth is that it rarely matters all that much. Modern multi-core processors are all capable of running the latest operating systems, multitasking, 3D gaming, HD video and more without breaking a sweat.

But in the OnePlus One’s case, the processor type truly is a noteworthy spec. It’s a 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801.Homescreen OnePlus One 

That’s remarkable not so much for the performance it produces (which we’ll discuss in the next section), but because it’s the very top end chip in the Qualcomm roster.

Just to reinforce that point, it’s the exact same chip that can be found powering the Samsung Galaxy S5, one of the most capable, and expensive, phones on the market.

We’ve never seen a device that provides truly class-leading performance for just £220 before. It’s simply unheard of. Even though Google doesn’t bother with things like profit margins on its hardware, it still had to charge to £300 when it released the Nexus 5 with (at the time) top-end hardware.

The other key feature of the OnePlus One is its operating system. Again, we’ll go into the precise details of this in the next section, but the very fact that the OnePlus One runs on CyanogenMod is reason enough for special mention here.

Based on Android 4.4.2, CyanogenMod 11 is a popular open source custom firmware project that modifies and opens out Google’s operating system. It’s several steps beyond the usual heavy-handed manufacturer skin we’re used to getting, and it’s perfect for you tinkering sorts.

Homescreen OnePlus One

CyanogenMod is all about giving the power of customisation to the end user rather than forcing them to put up with excessive bloatware and a restrictive interface.

Previously you had to root your Android phone in order to install CyanogenMod – a relatively tricky and risky proposition only really suited to those with a little technical knowhow (and an expired warranty). The OnePlus One is the first ever phone to ship with CyanogenMod as the default OS.

I’m one of the first to complain when yet another Android phone ships with a nonstandard take on the Android OS, as they’re invariably inferior to stock Android. But CyanogenMod is different. It feels a bit like Android in God mode, with a level of unprecedented granular control that’s there if you want it.

There are subtle tweaks to the interface, but they’re almost always tasteful and thoughtful rather than simply change for change’s sake.

One obvious example is something we hinted at in the previous section. If you’re not enamoured of the OnePlus One’s fixed capacitive keys (as I’m not), or hardware keys in general, you can deactivate them and revert to the standard Android software solution.

This means that back, home, and multitasking keys occupy the bottom section of the screen, sliding out of view where appropriate.

On Screen Buttons OnePlus One

After all this overwhelming positivity, I feel I should point out a rather surprising omission. While OnePlus has gotten things almost perfect on the spec front, the OnePlus One is a little lacking when it comes to storage.

You only get 16GB of internal capacity here, which, once you’ve taken the 4GB or so required for the system and OS into the equation, doesn’t leave a lot for apps, media, and photos. Of course, 16GB wouldn’t be a problem if there were a microSD slot, but there isn’t one.

It’s one technical area in which the OnePlus One falls well short of its pricier rivals. Given that the device has evidently been pitched with Android enthusiasts in mind, we’re more than a little baffled at its exclusion.

There is a silver lining though – the One Plus One also comes in a 64GB variant. And it’s more good news in the pricing arena, as it’ll set you back just £40, $50 more than the 16GB model. There’s no huge price bump that you get with the likes of the iPhone when moving from 16GB to 32GB to 64GB.

It leaves me wondering why anyone whould bother with the 16GB option – just splash that extra bit of cash and you’ll be set.

The other set back for the OnePlus is its 4G connectivity. While it does arrive with 4G capabilities, in the UK you’ll only be able to take advantage of the superfast connection on two networks – O2 and Three.

That means if you’re on EE or Vodafone you’ll be stuck with 3G speeds, which is a bit annoying. The reason for this is the LTE chip only supports a selection of frequencies, so coverage will vary from country to country.

Interface and Performance

The OnePlus One’s CyanogenMod software is, by it very definition, an amateur effort. But don’t let that fool you.

It has significantly fuller-features and is more polished than the vast majority of Android-based skins I deal with from top handset manufacturers.

Notification Settings

At a base level that’s because Android has been allowed to shine through bright and clear. CyanogenMod’s developers and custodians evidently realise that Google’s OS is already a thoroughly refined and pleasant-to-use operating system, and that layering a bulky UI on top of it isn’t just unnecessary – it’s downright detrimental to the experience.

Pick up the OnePlus One and briefly browse through its home screens and app menu, and you won’t notice a massive difference from the stock Android experience found on the Nexus 5. And that’s a good thing.

There’s that familiar dual drop-down menu set-up that enables to you access your latest notifications and a settings shortcut menu with a directed swipe. There’s also a familiar multitasking menu that offers thumbnail shortcuts to the most recently accessed apps.

The default lock screen is a little different and, in dropping Android’s radial app shortcut system, a little less useful to boot. But once again, you can change that back in the settings menu.

It’s in the settings menu where CyanogenMod really shows its hand. You can tweak everything, from the function of the hardware buttons to the colour, pulse, and purpose of the notification light.

Lockscreen OnePlus One

You can customise the hue, saturation, contrast and intensity of the display, change the nature of the pulldown notification menus, and switch to a different default font.

This level of customisation is never thrust in your face, and it never confuses the OnePlus One’s day-to-day usability. It’s all just there, tucked away in the bowels of the OS, ready to be discovered or ignored as you see fit.

Oh, and credit must go to yet another manufacturer implementing a double-tap to wake system. On such a large phone without a physical home button, it’s a massive plus.

On the slightly negative side, I found that the OnePlus One’s gesture shortcuts, which initiate certain functions by drawing patterns on the screen, were a little too easy to set off inadvertently.

On a couple of occasions I found that Google Music started playing my most recent track whilst putting the phone in my pocket or laying it down. This is done with a two-fingered downwards swipe, which seemed to be a little too easy to do during normal handling.

Settings menu

The same thing happened with the torch app, which flicks the camera flash on when you draw a ‘V’ shape on the screen. Again, it’s easy to activate by mistake.

As is the case with most software features here, though, these two gesture shortcuts (along with the ability to jump to the camera app by drawing a circle) can be turned off in the settings menu if you find them to be over-responsive.

If you’re not a fan of the style you can always switch the look and feel of the UI via the Themes Showcase app, where you’ll be able to download a variety of paid-for and free themes.

The OnePlus One already comes with a second, slightly more colourful, theme installed which you can switch to in the settings menu. If you don’t want everything to change you can select aspects to tweak in the interface including backgrounds, fonts, sound packs and app icons.

Because CyanogenMod has left the Android UI relatively unmolested, it feels extremely fast. And with that Snapdragon 801 CPU on board, backed by a generous 3GB of RAM, it is fast.

In my GeekBench 3 tests, the average multi-core score was 3050, which is a little higher than both the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the HTC One M8, both of which run on the same chip, but with only 2GB of RAM compared to the OnePlus One’s 3GB.

Those impressive performance figures are shown in general use too. Everything moves along smoothly, whether you’re gliding between home screens, watching HD videos, or surfing the web.

On the latter point, booting up the full TechRadar site took just six seconds. That’s everything, including adverts, fully loaded up. Your average Android phone would take around ten seconds to achieve that.

Battery life and the essentials

If you’re fearing that the OnePlus One’s battery might be the thing to trip it up, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. This is a phone with some stamina.

It’s easy to see why. At 3100mAh, the OnePlus One’s battery unit is more capacious than the LG G3 (3000mAh), Samsung Galaxy S5 (2800mAh) and HTC One M8 (2600mAh), and it only just trails behind the Sony Xperia Z2 (3200mAh).

Back off OnePlus One

It’s a shame that you can’t replace the battery, especially given that the rear cover is removable (with some effort). However, most people will simply be happy that they can venture out for a full day without worrying about being away from a plug socket for too long.

Sure enough, our standard HD video test yielded some strong results. Running a 90 minute 720p video with the screen brightness cranked right up left 83 percent left in the tank on average.

That’s better than the One M8 and roughly the same as the Galaxy S5 and the iPhone 5S – two of the previous strong performers in this particular test.

Battery OnePlus One

In general usage, I was able to get a day and half out of the phone. That involved watching a couple of brief HD videos, playing a couple of games, dealing with a number of emails and SMS messages, and plenty of fiddling with the phone’s options and menus – all with the screen brightness at its top setting.

I left it on in Airplane mode overnight during my testing period, which seemed to drain the battery by three or four percent come morning time.

It’s a good job the OnePlus One has such strong battery life as standard, because CyangoenMod is yet to implement a battery saver mode. Such energy-sipping settings have become the norm on other Android skins, so it’s a little odd that it’s been omitted from this “everything but the kitchen sink” effort.

Of course, you can take the appropriate steps manually, such as switching off Wi-Fi, lowering screen brightness, and switching off push notifications. But a simple shortcut would have been appreciated here.

The essentials

Calling OnePlus One

During our initial review one area in which OnePlus appeared to have taken its eye off the ball with the OnePlus One was in its most basic function. Thankfully things have improved since then with a series of software updates.

Signal strength was strong enough during my test period and call quality has significantly improved. Speaker volume has been adjusted so you can now actually hear the person on the other end of the line.

Dropped calls did not feature during my review time with the OnePlus One, and post-software upgrade I had no complainants from those on the other end of the line.

I did find that the OnePlus One could be a little sluggish reconnecting to a network after losing signal – such as when going through a tunnel – but it isn’t a real problem and only occurred from time to time.

Otherwise, the calling experience is pretty much classic Android 4.4 KitKat, with the same crisp Phone and People apps.

The same goes for messaging, with both the default Messaging app and Google Hangouts present. Once you’ve updated the latter, you’ll be given the opportunity to make it your primary messaging app, which allows you to merge your SMS messages with Google’s instant messaging service.

Hangouts Emoji

It’s flashier, but not necessarily more streamlined, so it’s nice to have the option of the two.

CyanogenMod has wisely stuck with Google’s own keyboard here, which offers intelligent words suggestions and a Swype-like joined-up-typing system alongside an intuitive layout.

It’s everything you need from a modern smartphone keyboard, though as always with Android, other options are available on the Google Play Store.

One input method that didn’t seem to work well at all was the OnePlus One’s voice wakeup system. Similar to the Motorola Moto X, you can wake the phone with a spoken command – in this case “Hey Snapdragon.”

Here you can set which app or function you want to boot into, whether that’s the default Google Now search, the camera, or anything else you can think of.

Keyboard OnePlus One

Unlike the Moto X, however, it doesn’t work very well.

Even at the voice training stage, I struggled to get the three ticks necessary for the OnePlus One to learn my voice. I tried speaking from a variety of distances, in a variety of quiet locations, and using various enunciations of the key words. But I couldn’t get through the training process without repeated retries.

Once completed, the phone wouldn’t respond to my commands. However it did, on several occasions, wake up to a random sound.

One time seemed to be when I’d made an extended hissing sound (I forget why), and another was when the phone was sat next to my laptop while I was silently typing out this review. Very strange, especially when you consider that saying “OK Google” and conducting a voice search from within Google Now seems to work pretty well here.

I’ve already mentioned that web browsing on the OnePlus One is an extremely zippy experience, and it’s also a pleasant one thanks to that 5.5-inch 1080p display. You’ll still need to do a bit of panning and zooming on content-rich web pages, but not nearly so much as on, say, the iPhone 5S.

Camera

There’s good news and there’s bad news when it comes to the OnePlus One’s camera. The bad news is that it doesn’t take as good pictures as the Samsung Galaxy S5 or the Nokia Lumia 1520.

The good news is that it’s a £229/$299 phone, remember? And when compared to something equivalent like the Nexus 5 or the Motorola Moto X, it takes very decent pictures indeed.

Those two mid-range champs utilise 8MP and 10MP snappers respectively, whereas the OnePlus One boasts a 13MP unit.

Its Sony Exmor BSI images sensor and f/2.0 aperture also knocks the Nexus 5 (which is arguably the OnePlus One’s most direct rival) camera out cold.

Of course, the proof of the camera is in the taking, and my test photos showed up a reasonably capable camera.

Camera

There are annoyances in basic usage, such as the positioning of the lens right at the top of the device, which means you have to hold it in a slightly unnatural pincer grip if you’re to avoid getting your fingers in the shot on landscape snaps.

I also picked up on a general sense of sluggishness between pressing the shutter key and the OnePlus One’s camera taking the snap, which seems to be attributed to a slightly ponderous auto-focus system.

But the results are quite pleasant. Images taken in good light were sharp, with fairly accurate colours. When focusing on nearby objects, they really tended to pop with detail against the defocused background.

Even daytime indoors shots were decent enough, avoiding that excessively murky and desaturated look that you find on many lesser smartphone cameras.

There’s a reasonably effective HDR mode too, though there’s a familiar sense of falseness to the resulting pictures, and one or two strange marks on areas of extreme brightness.

Camera Interface OnePlus One

CyanogenMod has its own custom camera interface, and it’s pretty intuitive. In particular there’s a nice mode select system that involves swiping up and down on the main viewfinder, which is how you select HDR. Alongside this and the default Auto, which should have you covered for most situations between them, there are 10 additional shooting modes.

These range from Smart Scene, which appears to actively switch to the appropriate scene for the current conditions (if it detects a lot of movement or low light, for example), to the self explanatory Steady Shot, and through to commonly used filters like Aqua and Sepia.

Camera HDR OnePlus One

You also get three permanent shooting control circles along the right hand side of the screen – one for pictures, another for video, and a third dedicated control for panoramic shots.

Along the left hand side you have four additional controls. One switches to the 5MP front camera, while another is for flash control. A third provides branching manual settings menus for things such as white balance, a timer, and additional shooting modes.

There’s also a settings control here if you want to delve into image sharpness, ISO settings, burst modes and touch focus duration.

Camera Settings OnePlus One

It’s not quite the dauntingly comprehensive camera interface of the Samsung Galaxy S5, but then again nor is it the overly simplistic stock Android effort found on the Nexus 5.

Video is 1080p Full HD, as you might expect. It’s pretty crisp and smooth, though the sound pick-up seemed a little harsh. Playback of that sound seemed to be pushed entirely through a single sound channel, another issue that will hopefully be fixed in a future software update.

Sample images

OnePlus One

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OnePlus One

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OnePlus One

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OnePlus One

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OnePlus One

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OnePlus One

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OnePlus One

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OnePlus One

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Media

With the level of hardware that the OnePlus One has at its disposal, you’d expect it to be a decent media player. It doesn’t disappoint.

Whether you’re watching 1080p video, streaming your new favourite album, or playing a GPU-stretching game the OnePlus One handles it all with almost dismissive ease.

Google Play OnePlus One

That’s not to say that OnePlus or Cyanogen has added any particularly noteworthy media bells and whistles here. But that’s because Android is already perfectly well stocked for such things.

At the heart of the experience is the Google Play Store, which forms the brightly hued hub from which you can purchase movies, TV shows, MP3 tracks, ebooks, comic books, and games.

A while ago Google broke this Google Play Store down into its constituent pieces for convenience purposes, so you get separate Play Movies, Play Books, Play Newsstand, and Play Music apps alongside the main app store.

Google Music, of course, goes well beyond being a simple MP3 store. Sign up to Google Play Music All Access and you’ll get a Spotify-like unlimited music streaming service.

There are tens of thousands of tracks to choose from, and you can even download albums to your device to save on data costs, or to ensure uninterrupted playback.

Even without signing up to the All Access service, you can upload 20,000 tracks from your own physical music collection to Google’s servers, enabling cloud-based playback on any device.

Google Music OnePlus One

I mention this because Google Music is the default music app on the OnePlus One, just as it for the Nexus 5. It’s very good at what it does, too, offering a quick and intuitive interface that shows off high definition album art without feeling cluttered.

It’s been worked into the CyanogenMod interface well, too. When playing a track, the default lock screen features a shortcut widget for playing, pausing, and skipping tracks, along with artfully blurred background album artwork that expands and sharpens as you complete the unlock gesture.

There’s also the typical widget present in the notification menu from the homescreen, meaning you’re never far away from your music on the OnePlus One.

When it comes to playing back your own video content, you can choose to do so through either Google’s own Photos app or CyanogenMod’s Gallery app. Google’s effort is cleaner and less fussy, but the other option is perfectly decent.

The latter also includes additional audio effect options when playing video back. You can boost the bass or add a 3D effect, though I didn’t pick up on any discernible difference from my own test samples.

No matter – the sound quality through a decent set of headphones is exemplary. It’s rich, detailed, and with ample bass. Just don’t rely on the OnePlus One’s external speakers for watching movies or gaming, as they’re weak, raspy, and they lack stereo separation.

Video Auido Effects OnePlus One

Speaking of gaming, this is one of the best Android phones I’ve ever used for the task. That 5.5-inch 1080p display shows off everything with optimal clarity, which is especially evident on vibrant 2D games like Plants vs Zombies 2, Rayman Fiesta Run, and Badlands.

Crucially, the screen finds a sweet spot between visual fidelity and control. Take a complex multiplayer first person shooter like Blitz Brigade. The OnePlus One’s display is large enough and sharp enough to minimise the effect of your two thumbs getting in the way, but is small enough that you can wield the device and reach the touchscreen inputs comfortably.

Blitz Brigade OnePlus One

And of course, such demanding 3D games run well here, thanks to the OnePlus One’s Snapdragon 801 CPU and 3GB of RAM. The handset does run very hot when it’s put under strain by advanced games, but that’s not uncommon.

The Competition

Google Nexus 5

Google’s flagship smartphone is arguably the OnePlus One’s main rival in terms of offering high(ish)end specs for a sub-£300 price.

Unfortunately for the Nexus 5, it’s both more expensive and less capable than this upstart rival. What once looked like a complete bargain at £299 now looks a little overpriced.

OnePlus One competitor Nexus 5

The Nexus 5 is still a great phone, but its Snapdragon 800 is a little older and less capable than the OnePlus One’s Snapdragon 801, it’s got a third less RAM, and its 8MP camera is inferior to the OnePlus One’s 13MP unit.

Just about the only thing going in the Nexus 5′s favour here is that its stock Android OS is a little more solid and consistent, and will be among the first to be upgraded to the next version. But then you also miss out on CyanogenMod’s unique tweaks and modifications.

Motorola Moto X

Another phone that offers a highclass Android experience for not an awful lot of money, the Moto X can be had for less than £300 these days. The trouble is, it’s still more expensive than the OnePlus One, and it’s significantly less capable – at least on paper.

The Moto X runs on an ageing dualcore Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU, sports a smaller 720p display (though some will find that more manageable), and comes with a mediocre 10MP camera.

OnePlus One competitor Moto X

Of course, the Moto X was never about the raw specs. Instead, it’s a classy phone that feels great in the hands and gets the most out of its modest specs. It also benefits from some truly useful and innovative Motorola software enhancements.

It’s these differences in approach that arguably make the Moto X a better alternative pick than the directly comparable Nexus 5.

Nokia Lumia 1520

Here’s another premium large-screen smartphone that undercuts its high-end rivals on price while offering plenty of standout features.

The Nokia Lumia 1520 runs on Windows Phone 8.1, a slick and heavily stylised mobile OS. It’s really the only other choice for those bored of Android and iOS, but it sits at the opposite end of the spectrum to the heavily tweakable CyanogenMod found on the OnePlus One.

OnePlus One competitor Nokia Lumia 1520

As a handset the 1520 is very capable indeed, with a gorgeous 6-inch 1080p display (even larger than the OnePlus One) and a quad-core Snapdragon 800 CPU, the slight inferiority of which is irrelevant thanks to that efficient Microsoft OS.

Crucially for some, the Nokia Lumia 1520 has a much better 20MP camera. Having said all that, the deciding factor could be price, with the Lumia 1520 still more expensive.

Verdict

Where did this come from? Samsung, HTC, Sony, and even Google will be asking the very same question of the OnePlus One, we suspect.

The way it takes on the very cream of the Android crop whilst charging less than half the price makes it a bargain of near Motorola Moto G proportions.

We liked

The OnePlus One has got one of the fastest processors in the business backed by a hugely generous allotment of RAM, which means that it’s a seriously impressive performer.

That performance is helped by the CyanogenMod firmware, which takes the speed and intuitiveness of stock Android and adds a load of customisation options to the settings menu, should you wish to tinker.

Then there’s the 5.5-inch 1080p display, which shows everything off as clearly as you could hope for and all for a frankly unbelievable £229, $299 (about AU$320).

We disliked

For all the OnePlus One’s high-end specs, it arguably suffers the most from the omission of a simple little microSD slot. Lack of storage is the one major bottleneck here, while some will find the lack of a removable battery equally frustrating.

Then there are the little input inconsistencies that we hope can be fixed with a software update or two, such as a flawed voice control system and oversensitive gesture shortcuts.

Verdict

The OnePlus One’s performance-to-price ratio is one of the most impressive we’ve ever seen in a smartphone, offering Samsung Galaxy S5 performance for less than half the price.

We’d almost call it the Motorola Moto G of the high-end Android world, but for a few small but significant flaws that interfere with everyday usability.

Still, if you’re after a truly top end phone that can be customised to the Nth degree, and you don’t mind accepting a few rough patches as part of the package, we can’t see a better – or cheaper – alternative.

 

Review: Dell PowerEdge T20 Mini Tower Server

Posted in Technology

Review: Dell PowerEdge T20 Mini Tower Server

Introduction

The new baby of the Dell server family, the PowerEdge T20, is designed for small businesses looking for a platform for shared storage and to host applications such as email, web and database servers. Alternatively it could be used as a departmental or branch server where it faces stiff competition from arch-rival HP with its ProLiant MicroServer Gen 8.

Small choices

The days when you could more or less specify your own Dell server from an extensive list of options are long gone, especially when it comes to entry-level systems like the PowerEdge T20. Some buyers may be disappointed by this but it does make life easier with just the one freestanding mini-tower chassis available for the T20 fitted with a single 290W power supply.

Neither as well-built or compact as the MicroServer Gen8, the Dell chassis is of workmanlike construction with a removable side panel giving plenty of access to the internals, including a compact mini-ATX motherboard mounted towards the bottom of the tower. Up to six SATA hard disks can be accommodated inside the casing with metalwork provided to accommodate two 3.5-inch disks at the bottom and two more in the top of the tower.

Dell T20 side open

Unfortunately the disks can’t be hot-swapped and the two at the top are only accessible by removing the front panel. Moreover, although a further two 2.5-inch drives can be fitted in the space otherwise used to take an optical drive, the on-board controller only has four SATA ports which means fitting an additional adapter if you want to use all the available bays.

When it comes to the disks themselves you can either source your own or have them pre-fitted by Dell, with a choice of magnetic disks up to 3TB currently available for online ordering plus a 160GB SSD. The integrated RAID controller offers support for disk mirroring and striping, but if you want RAID 5 you (again) have to plug in an extra controller.

The only other major option is the CPU and even here you’re limited to a choice of just two with buyers on a budget likely to go for the 3GHz Pentium G3220 which, when accompanied by a standard 4GB of memory and no hard disks, keeps the base price down to just £219 ex. VAT (around US$375, AUD$400). That, however, could be a false economy as the dual-core G3220 is more of a desktop than server processor, and most buyers will be better off with the more capable Xeon processor, in this case a quad-core 3.2GHz Xeon E3-1225 v3.

With an 84W TDP and accompanied by 4GB of memory plus a 1TB SATA hard disk this configuration is much better suited to the server role yet still comes in at just £389 ex. VAT (around US$670, AUD$715), rising to £445 (around US$765, AUD$815) if you add a second 1TB drive to support disk mirroring.

Growth potential

Given that the T20 is a server the standard 4GB of ECC protected memory seems a little stingy, especially as it doesn’t cost a lot to upgrade. Fortunately the base 4GB comes on just one DIMM leaving three slots free to take more. Doubling up to 8GB can be done for a shade under £50 ex. VAT (around US$85, AUD$90), and is highly recommended, with up to 32GB possible altogether should you wish for more.

Dell T20 motherboard detail

With just one Gigabit network interface some customers may also want to add an extra LAN adapter as well as a more capable RAID controller, with three full-length PCI Express slots available for just this purpose (plus an old style PCI slot).

You’ll also find USB ports all over the place – four at the front and six at the back. Moreover two of each set are USB 3.0, plus there are controls in the BIOS to turn off those you don’t need, presumably to stop rogue devices being attached.

Dell T20 USB ports

One final consideration is the need to factor in the cost of an operating system as this isn’t included in the basic price. Linux is supported if required, but those wanting to run Windows Server Essentials 2012 R2 will find it adding around £225 ex VAT (around US$385, AUD$410) to the overall cost. Alternatively it would be possible to boot straight to a hypervisor from disk or SSD, but there’s no USB or SD slot to take an embedded hypervisor as on the HP MicroServer.

Verdict

We liked

With its quad-core Xeon processor the T20 is a very nippy little server, booting from cold in just a few seconds and handling Windows Server 2012 R2 with ease. We would have liked an embedded hypervisor option, but a bootable SSD can fulfil this role and there’s plenty of room for storage to cope with the file sharing and application needs of many small businesses.

The mini-tower form factor is another plus and despite having three cooling fans the T20 is a relatively quiet little machine. Ideally it needs to be locked away somewhere but, if pushed, could be used in an open plan office without causing too much annoyance.

We disliked

Dell has clearly cut corners to keep the price of the T20 low, which is fine for customers looking for a basic file and print platform but not so good for others wanting to host more demanding applications. Extra memory is a must and we would have preferred easier access to the storage bays as seen on the MicroServer Gen8. Customers wanting an optical drive will also have to pay £35 (around US$60, AUD$65) to add one to the spec, and pay for a separate cable on top of that.

Although not a deal-breaker for most SMEs, the T20 loses out big time in the management stakes to its HP rival, relying on the Active Management Technology (AMT) built into the Intel processor (Xeon only) rather than Dell’s tried and trusted iDRAC alternative. Basic remote monitoring and power management are available through a simple browser interface, but additional software is needed to access more advanced controls. A number of tools are available from both Intel and Dell to do this, but these may be over-the-top for many small businesses.

Final verdict

A lot of server for the price of the average desktop, the PowerEdge T20 is fast and has room for lots of storage. The base configuration is a bit lean, management is lacking and for Windows you’ll have to factor in the cost of the operating system, but it’s still a capable entry-level system and good value for money.