Sony Xperia M4 Aqua Review

I recently had to send my regular phone in for repair (I got it back today!  Quick service, Rogers!), and received a Sony Xperia M4 Aqua as a loaner unit so I could still function in the real world.  Here’s a review of the device and my short time with it.

The Screen

My “daily driver”, as the tech junkie parlance goes, is a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, which sports a 5.5″ screen.  It’s capable of displaying what Samsung calls WQHD or something.  Either way, it’s a really good screen, so this is the first thing I noticed on the Sony Xperia M4 Aqua.

The Xperia’s screen is 5.0″, so not significantly smaller than what I’m used to.  The resolution is only 720×1280, a rather large dropdown from Samsung.  But everything on the Xperia is bright and generally looks good.  This probably sounds strange, but everything looks “flat” but that works for the device build (which I’ll get to).

The adaptive brightness seems to work really well, and really quickly.  I was outside BBQing Monday night, in bright sunlight; at first it was hard to read the screen but within seconds the brightness dialed up and I was able to read it no problem.  Admittedly it’s probably a tad slower than most high-end devices but it’s good enough for me.

Software

I was happily surprised to see that the device launched with Android 6.0.1.  I was expecting to see Android L, as I knew pretty much nothing about the Xperia line.  For a 2 year old device, that kind of OS software support is pretty good.

It looks like Sony has kept a mostly stock Android feel to the device, unlike Samsung which layers on its TouchWiz experience that makes their version of Android look very different from stock.  The only reason I recognize the stock look of 6.0.1 is because I briefly used Cyanogen on my old Galaxy SIII a couple of years ago, and it looks pretty much like what I see on the Xperia M4 Aqua.

I quickly installed Nova Launcher on top of it though, so my user experience was almost identical to what I’m used to on my S7.  I wasn’t really a fan of Sony’s default interface, and they install a lot of bloatware.  Luckily I was able to ignore or disable most of it to be able to dive into actually using my device.

Performance

I noticed some sluggishness with the phone – but that’s going to happen when the chipset used is significantly inferior to what I’m used to.  I don’t understand the full differences but suffice it to say, it is noticeable.  However, there were only a handful of times when I felt annoyed by the lag on the device, so overall I’d say it’s acceptable.

Plus, I turned on Developer Options and turned off all of the animations – and that made a huge difference.  Cosmetic perhaps, but it worked for me.

It was a bit slow to open the camera on demand, so quick pics are probably not going to happen easily.  But I didn’t get many photo ops while testing the device, so a very minor knock against the unit.

Speaking of which…

Camera

I own a Sony DSC-H300, so I was looking forward to some “camera synergy” with the Xperia M4 Aqua.  I wasn’t able to dig too deep with the settings but most of the familiar camera modes were there, including a pretty robust “Pro” mode, which I was happy was there.  I took a few shots – I think the quality is good, but not great.  Much better than the other reviews I read of the phone.

They definitely look better on a proper display than how they showed at the time on the device.

View post on imgur.com

View post on imgur.com

View post on imgur.com

Phone Build

Here’s where I felt the phone suffered.  It felt very cheap, like it was just a piece of plastic and not a phone.  It’s very light.  On the other hand, the device is apparently fully waterproof and features a dedicated camera button so you could take pictures under water if you wanted to!  That’s pretty neat.

I count this next app as a hardware “tick” because it requires physical components to work.  The Xperia has a built-in FM radio!  Yeah, not a big deal when you can stream things all the time…but sometimes I just want good old FM radio.  I used to have a Nokia phone that had a built-in FM tuner, and it was great.

Overall Impressions

You can probably tell from the body of the review that I enjoyed using this phone.  I was expecting something lacklustre, but was (marginally) blown away by the quality under the hood, even though it looks and feels like a cheap phone.

I would most definitely recommend this phone for someone who needed a cheap replacement, but it’s definitely not going to compare to a flagship device.  I might also consider finding a cheap unlocked version of my own to use as a backup / media device.  I was that impressed with it.

Waze – A New Appreciation

For the longest time, I avoided using Waze.  I tried it – a large amount of people online suggest this app for their daily commute.  But I didn’t like the user interface – it seemed childish and unrefined.  I much preferred the look and feel of Google Maps.  After all, Waze gets its map data from Google Maps, so why would I use an inferior product?

I decided I’d give it another chance a few weeks ago, when there was a serious accident on the major highway that I use to get home every night.  I had heard that the biggest plus to Waze was that it was smart about suggesting alternate, faster routes; basically, I needed it to give me a detour.  Unfortunately it wasn’t too helpful in that regard (it wasn’t aware of the accident that closed the highway).  BUT this is not where the story ends.

More User Data Improves the Experience

I opted to try it out a little more when I was working in a different city on business last week.  I could see a world of difference.  Obviously, Waze works much better when there are more users on the road.  It didn’t really give me any crazy alternate routes, but one feature I found neat was that it gave me a pretty good approximation of how long I’d be stuck in a current traffic jam.

You can see more details at this link: “Waze knows how long you’ll be stuck in traffic”, complete with a relevant screenshot.  Basically, it gives you a little bar, reminiscent of a health bar in a video game, that tells you how long you can expect to be stuck in the current traffic jam.  It really helps to put your time spent on the road in perspective.  What maybe feels like forever, because you’re barely moving, might only be two minutes.  Relax.

The ETA Is Very Accurate

What was most helpful for me – because the routes I take are generally straightforward and don’t benefit from alternate routes – was the ETA.  Generally speaking, the ETA that Waze gave me was incredibly accurate.  The accuracy comes from a combination of user data and your GPS positioning.

For example, when you plug in your route it will calculate your estimated time of arrival based on current road conditions and road speed limits.  But it keeps updating this based on your GPS position & speed – giving you a surprisingly accurate ETA.   I assume that it also takes into consideration your previous driving habits, but I’m not too sure about that.

I find the ETA that Waze provides to be a lot more useful than the estimated duration that Google Maps gives you.

Drawbacks

The major issue I have with Waze is that it largely requires user input to report accidents, speed traps, and so forth.  In my home province, it is illegal to interact with devices (other than one or two buttons to answer a call), so being encouraged by the app to use the app while driving doesn’t sit right with me.

And like I said before, the main use of the app comes from having other “Wazers” on the road.  If you’re in an area that doesn’t have a dense population, or doesn’t have a lot of people using Waze, it might not be much more useful than just using Google Maps.

I much prefer the look and “feel” of Google Maps, and it already gives you traffic data.  So living where I do, which falls under the category of “not densely populated without a lot of Wazers”, Waze isn’t going to get a lot of use from me.

Overall – A Good App

I hesitate to call this a great app, but it is definitely a good app and useful.  I can get past the cartoon-y UI (which I feel has actually improved a bit since the last time I used it), accepting the fact that it’s partly because it’s optimized for a driving experience.  If you’re interested in shaving a few minutes off of your drive, or staying updated on what’s going on along your regular route, Waze is definitely going to help you.

Next week on the blog: not so much tech!  Some book and TV reviews next week.

#myAndroid

Over the weekend I caught wind of a neat little toy released on Android.com called “My Android” (colloquially, #myAndroid).  The basic idea behind it is to show you how many different ways you can customize your Android set-up beyond the stock screen that you get when you first turn on your Android phone.

How does it work?

Once you head over to the #myAndroid website, and click on the ‘Find Your Match’ button, you’re guided through a series of (mostly) binary tests.  They want you to react, not to think, as you make your selections.

Some of the options are obvious, but there’s a test near the end that asks “Hot dogs or legs?” that is pretty funny, but I’m not sure what results are derived from it.

What does your match give you?

After you complete the little quiz, you’re shown three home screen options that are tailored to your tastes based on your selections.  A quick animation gives you an overview of what your home screen might look like.

Scroll down a bit further and it gives you some more details about each home screen: the launcher (this is the “skin” or “theme” layered on top of Android – more info here), icon pack, wallpaper, and keyboard (more on that in a second).  Along with each item there’s a direct Play Store link so you can download them.

Problems with the process

I mentioned that I’d get to the keyboard suggestion; that’s where there’s at least one problem with the whole process.  Every time you complete the test to find your match, every keyboard recommended is Gboard.  I’m not saying that Gboard is a bad keyboard (it’s the one I use, in fact), but it seems a bit disingenuous that no matter what, the #myAndroid website will suggest it every time without fail.  There are a lot of different keyboards out there, and different styles will suit some more than others; this test should just leave the keyboard match out completely.

The wallpaper suggestion leaves a little to be desired too.  It will give you one of two options: Backdrops or Zedge.  It will show you the suggestion based on your test selections, but won’t give you the name of it or what to search for in order to find it in the selected app.

Lastly, I’d also love to be able to sample some of the launchers in a virtual environment before trying them.  They give you a very brief animation but to me that’s not enough.

Overall impressions

This is a great tool, for both new and experienced Android users alike.  I’ve even seen mention on the Android subreddit from iPhone users that this has helped convince them to switch.

I’ve found two new launchers – Evie and Smart Launcher 3.  I’ve used Nova Launcher for almost the entire time I’ve used Android, but thought I’d try something new based on the suggestions given here.

I use Evie on my Galaxy S7 edge, and Smart Launcher on my Galaxy Tab S2.  Both have their advantages/disadvantages, and so far I feel that Smart Launcher works better on my tablet and I wouldn’t really like it on my phone.  Similarly with Evie, I find that it works great on my phone but isn’t something I’d use on my tablet.

Even if you just want to shake things up a little, I recommend taking the #myAndroid test to find your match.

On a side note – I finally have a set publishing schedule!  Enjoy new posts from me every Tuesday and Thursday from here on out.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 – A Non-Technical Review

I was playing Blades of Steel using a Logitech USB Gamepad.

Most of the reviews I looked up when trying to get more info on this device were heavily technical in nature.  Great for comparisons, but a lot of the terms and numbers went over my head.  I’ve since purchased the device (and I’m writing this post with it, in part!), so I thought I’d give a more practical hands-on review.

Display

The display on this thing is absolutely amazing. It is what’s called “Super AMOLED”. I’m not really sure what that means, other than that it’s optimized to not light up the screen when black pixels are present. And it’s a super version of that.

Last night, I watched the highlights of the Ottawa Senators win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the display quality was noticeably better than what I’d get on my TV.  The tablet also has a 4:3 aspect ratio, which means that when I watch Star Trek: The Next Generation in HD, it plays in full screen.  It’s amazing.

Physical Input

I didn’t know how to label this section – but this is the best I came up with.  The device inputs are your standard touch screen inputs – your fingers.  But I also bought a Logitech Type-S keyboard case to go with it, which is how I was typing with earlier in this post.

But it doesn’t stop there.

I was playing Blades of Steel using a Logitech USB Gamepad.
I was playing Blades of Steel using a Logitech USB Gamepad.

As you can see in the above photo, I was able to hook up a Logitech Gamepad I bought years ago for my laptop and play NES games with it.  Specifically I was playing Blades of Steel.  I’m hoping that some of the other games I have will support it (such as Knights of the Old Republic).

But that’s not all, either.  I then hooked up a USB mouse/keyboard combo and was pleasantly surprised to see that those worked as well.  There’s even a mouse cursor / pointer when you attach a USB mouse to the tablet.  Essentially, this is going to act as a pretty decent laptop replacement.

Unfortunately, my USB mic did not work when I connected it to the tablet.  I have to figure that one out still – but I have some ideas for that.  One thought is that my USB mic is technically a Rock Band mic, so that could be a mitigating factor right there.

Software

Nothing out of the ordinary here; out of the box it was running Android 5 (Lollipop) but immediately after I set it up, there were software updates to bring it up to Android 6 (Marshmallow).  So, it’s functionally the same as my S7 edge in terms of the operating system – and both devices should be getting an update to Nougat (Android 7) “soon”.

What I was happy about was that it wasn’t over-loaded with software bloat; my previous tablet, the Galaxy Tab 4, came with a bunch of stuff I never used and just took up precious space.  I haven’t fully explored everything, but from what I can see there wasn’t too much extra.

A welcome pre-installation was Microsoft Office Mobile.  Waiting for me to sign into my Microsoft account were OneDrive, Word, Excel, and other mobile Office suite apps.  I’ve used them before, but when used on the Tab S2’s 9.7 inch screen they actually look and feel closer to their desktop counterparts.

Also pre-installed is Samsung’s SideSync, which allows you to remotely control your phone and transfer files.  It’s a pretty nifty feature to have, though I have yet to make full use of it.  It’s definitely fun to play with!

Overall impressions

Overall, from just one weekend with the device, I’d give it an 8.5/10.  I love the size of it, and having the extra input options just put it over the top.  It loses points based on the fact that you kind of need these additional input options to get good solid use out of it.  I feel like it should be able to stand on its own – which it mostly does, but not completely.

The Tab S3 is coming out in 2017 so now is the perfect time to jump on the S2 bandwagon.  It’s amazingly fast, display quality is top notch, and gives you everything you can do with Android, plus a few extras that only Samsung can give you.