Technology refresh; new smartphone

Phablets by Maria Elena

Phablets by Maria Elena

It became apparent by late 2013 that archaeogeomancy communication tools needed updating. Working on my PhD and commercial contracts from all over the place and having access to apps on the move became critical and, put simply, my Nokia E7 was struggling. A new smartphone was required.

Out with the old

Nokia E7

Nokia E7, one of the last Symbian phones and also the last ‘communicator’ with its hardware keyboard

My hand was forced when my E7 packed up. This was the second E7 I have owned, the first having ultimately been replaced for a new E7 under warranty after much fuss. The second has also failed previously, the micro-USB port gave up and and this flimsiest of connectors had to be replaced (under warranty). And now they have partnered up with Microsoft, it seemed a move away from Nokia was the way forward.

I’m not overly knocking Nokia; I’ve had many good Nokia phones since the late 90’s. But simply, their confusion over Symbian vs Windows combined with ever deceasing reliability and build quality has put me off. Here’s wishing them the best of luck but I don’t like their current range one bit. So au revoir.

In with the new

I looked at what was available through UK outlets and one thing was obvious: the way in which phones are bundled with long contracts makes them very expensive, despite the façade of lower monthly charges and subsidised handsets. Combined with my rather specific requirements, this meant what I wanted was either unaffordable (too high a price upfront and/or high monthly fees) or strangled by a paltry amount of inclusive data.

gvSIG on the Play Store

gvSIG on the Play Store

ArcGIS on the Play Store

ArcGIS on the Play Store

As regards OS, it really comes down to Android vs Windows right now, with folks like Firefox and Ubuntu on the periphery whilst Nokia have pretty much killed Symbian. Apple’s iOS looks pretty but the cost of hardware and the restrictions on software development put me off.

Android seems to be rising as a solid platform for serious geospatial technologies. gvSIG is present as is ArcGIS. And with the SDKs available, it won’t be long before mobile GIS arrives in force on the Android platform. With such a broad range of (cheap) devices ranging in size up to 10″ tablets, the use of Android devices for mobile data collection as well as just navigation and viewing maps is very promising. Especially for poorly funded archaeologists.

So, having trawled the internet, the rise of the Chinese clone phones was obvious. Their specs and prices are incredible. Some of the top end models rival the high end Samsung, HTC and other phones. Factoring in price, they give far more bang for your buck. So a supplier was sought and the upgrade process began.

Selection

Having looked at various phones from Jaiyu, Goophone, Zopo, Neo, Cubot and others, a wishlist emerged. It’s very easy for feature creep to set in as there is always more available for just a few dollars more… Favourite on this front was the Zopo ZP990 which has everything plus a kitchen sink but is just a bit too expensive and large for everday use. But unbelievable spec!

So I focussed on the processor, RAM and technical specs and compared. I was aware I would be unable to check build quality before delivery. I also didn’t want something too small to be usable (think Samsung Galaxy S3 mini and its ilk) or too large (think Samsung Galaxy Note 3).

So, I aimed for the following essentials:

  • Quad Core processor, fast as possible
  • at least 1Gb RAM
  • Nice display
  • SD expansion
  • c. 5″ screen
  • decent camera
  • decent battery

On the desirable list went:

  • Gorilla glass
  • Really nice camera
  • FullHD

The Cubot One

Cubot One

Cubot One, shown here in red. Mine is the white edition.

The Cubot One was my preferred choice. A good specification, good price and (importantly) a UK based supplier to avoid problems relating to ordering/shipping from China.

So, for my £125 I received a well built phone featuring:

  • a beautiful hi-res screen; 720p display (1280×720)
  • Mediatek MT6589T quad core processor (Cortex A7 @ 1.5GHz)
  • 1Gb RAM
  • 8Gb ROM
  • 2200mAh batteries (x2)
  • Android 4.2.1

Positives:

Cubot One

Cubot One

Construction is good. Every bit as good as any other phone on the market, including those costing many times as much (eg Samsung Galaxies). It comes with a rather neat rubber case which clips on the back and keeps the corners safe from knocks.

It is fast and responsive. An Antutu score of 16409 is fairly respectable and puts it at the top of the distribution of Chinese phones, although still floored by devices like the Galaxy Note 3. The 1Gb RAM is just about enough, more would be good, but with Android better at memory management these days, the phone typically runs at 75%, even with loads of apps and widgets in action. This should also improve if I can KitKat installed but Cubot have no plans for such upgrades.

This is by far the cheapest phone to use the faster Mediatek chip.

The GPS is fast to start and accurate.

Battery life is excellent, even with the GPS and Bluetooth on (eg for driving with headset attached and navigation running).

Dual Sim is such a great idea. Allows for one sim on a major provider with excellent coverage and a second sim for unlimited data. Or one for home sim, one for work sim. Why don’t all phones now come with two sim slots?

8Gb ROM is plenty for installation of apps but do see one small problem with this phone.

Nice image quality from camera.

1 year warranty (although I really hope I don’t need to use it!)

Really good sound quality.

Very fast internet browsing over WiFi through wireless N.

Negatives:

The ROM is partitioned to give a 1Gb ‘data’ partition only. This is easily filled with just a few apps. The remainder of the internal SD (some 5.5Gb) is then available for storage but not app installation. To remedy this, it is necessary to root and repartition the internal SD (as I have) to give around 6.2Gb ‘data’ partition.

SD cards up to 32Gb only are supported. 64Gb would have been nice.

No home button, only the Android soft buttons. This means the only button to wake the phone up is the power button. I hope it will take the strain.

Cameras stated to be 12MP (back) and 5MP (front); actually 8MP (back) and 5MP (front). Autofocus in FullHD video mode a bit sluggish. Camera view does occasionally go stripy requiring a reset, seems to be associated with using some of the fancier features such as image stabilisation. There’s something funny here but rare and not really an issue, more a minor bug.

No Gorilla Glass on this model. But then it does have a lovely neat factory fitted screen protector and I am very careful with electronic devices.

The ROM is not public. This limits what developers can do and isn’t very helpful. Particularly, it makes using ROM tool such as ClockWorkMod problematic and pretty much rules out using other ROMs such as Cyanogen, at least for the feint-hearted!

Updates to the OS are not planned although 4.2.2 is rumoured to be on the cards. Updates are issued using Chinese file sharing sites with minimal UK instructions (thank goodness for babelfish!).

Only a few sensors are included (Proximity, Light and Distance according to Antutu) so I can’t check the altitude or humidity, but then, why would I want to…? 😉

Root

As the phone needed to be rooted to repartition the internal storage, this opens up a whole new world of customisation and ‘tweaks’. I am using the xPosed Framework to customise the phone to make it work just how I want it to. The GravityBox and XBlast Tools modules in particular provide additional sidebars and pies (if that’s your thing) to launch apps and well as some essential notification, quick settings tiles and status bar tweaks. Nice!

Conclusions

I for one probably won’t be buying a UK phone again. Even the spangly top of the range Chinese phones are considerably less than half the price of UK models from the big names and in many cases, the Chinese phones have better specs and reviews.

Assuming it continues to work, I think I’ve done ok. If I had bought it as part of a UK deal over a 24 month contract, the phone would be costing around £5/month which isn’t bad. Plus I’m free to upgrade anytime I like. The tethering capabilities on the sim-only One Plan from Three look to give me everything I need from a mobile workhorse, plus the Office365 apps availability means I can connect my uni docs easily. Of course, the core Android loveliness includes all things Google too so I can maintain/update my various websites and check on usage whilst backing up all my photos and videos to the cloud behind the scenes.

The necessary reconfiguration of the device storage was a little hairy, being my first foray into anything like this on Android. I was amazed at how *nix it all is under the bonnet: nice :-). This need to furtle deep may put some people off as the factory config is less than ideal and really does need sorting. Adding a decent 32Gb SD card has also given me plenty storage for music, pictures and FullHD videos in addition to the over 6Gb  application storage, making the phone really useful.

So, right now, I would thoroughly recommend giving such a phone a go next time your contract is up for renewal.

Links:

Many thanks due to the folks at xda developers for the wealth of info, tips and tools.

  • Framaroot – Get root access on your phone (NB will invalidate many warranties)
  • Meteos ROM edit tool apk – nukes existing partitions and sets up new partitions according to menu choice selected
  • MTK Droid Tools – the Swiss army knife for Mediatek Android devices, includes backup/install/flash/manage ROMs, formatting, etc

These links are provided for information only; I have used them successfully but that is not to say they will work for you. Beware such activities may brick your phone. Always back up before attempting any such activities. I am in no way responsible for your actions and am not advocating the use of these tools/apps: DO SO AT YOUR OWN RISK!

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *