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Phones & mobiles

Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini 

Update 31/7/2017: I've diagnosed the problem with the auto-brightness, which was not resolved in the long-awaited Marshmallow update. Very little chance, from what I gather, of any bug report making it to anyone useful at Samsung, but I'll explain a little here in the hope it might help anyone else having trouble with the display appearing too dim or even dead upon waking. In short it looks like it's a bug with the "super brightness" that is engaged when the ambient light is very high, typically direct sunlight, which is why the problem only ever manifests on bright sunny days. It seems that if "super brightness" is required immediately upon waking (i.e. at the lockscreen) the basic brightness is never set from zero, and the screen appears very dark or even non-functional. The work-around is very simple, though. If the screen does not wake and the ambient light is bright, suggesting this might be the cause of the issue, immediately place your finger over the ambient light sensor (next to the earpiece speaker) and a couple of seconds later the display should activate, and you can carry on as usual. Hope this advice saves some frustration or wasted trips to the repair shop. Drop me a line if it helped at all!

Having given up on Sony after simply too many reliability issues, we've slowly found ourselves migrating to Samsung devices for everything from television viewing to clothes washing, via phones and tablets in the middle. Sure, they're unexciting, and the physical design isn't typically as beautiful as Sony's, but technologically so far they are proving a breath of fresh air - and the S5 Mini is no exception.

The chassis may only be a sliver larger than the Sony Xperia M it replaced, but thanks to far more efficient use of space, the 4.5-inch display is comparatively enormous - and the lush 720p OLED pixels are just the right colours for perfect imagery. A return to physical navigation buttons beneath the screen is also welcome after the Sony, even if only the middle home one actually clicks. There's no dedicated camera button, but the camera can be set to use the volume control rocker to take pictures, so this is not as much of a compromise as it could have been - though the rocker isn't located where you might hope for that purpose. Better than nothing though, and surprisingly usable - though you still need to use the touchscreen to activate the camera in the first place so Sony still just about win on that single benefit. Like most Samsung devices, the power button isn't great, but the phone can always be woken with the home button and
Screen Off and Lock from Google Play is easily installed to allow it to be put to sleep by the same.

Round the back there's an IP67-rated waterproof cover, concealing a removeable battery. Yes! Who said you can't have both in the same package? It's not the biggest battery, so stamina isn't stellar, but at least you can swap it out easily enough if you need to. Do make sure to get a genuine battery though, especially if you hope to use the NFC functionality (Android Pay etc) since the antenna is part of the battery rather than integrated into the phone, and the cheap knock-offs often omit it. I've not tested the IP67 capability, considering such features more as an insurance policy than an invitation, and some of Samsung's ruggedised devices have come in for some criticism for falling short in this area, but it's nice to know I don't need to worry too much about a bit of rain or whatever.

The rear camera is pretty similar to that on the Galaxy S4 Mini, a competent and sharp 8 megapixel 4:3 ratio shooter with an LED flash. In auto white-balance mode the tones are generally excellent, and there's a brilliant HDR mode for tricky lighting conditions. As an everyday camera, it's perfectly adequate, and some of the photos I've taken could easily have been mistaken as coming from a dSLR. The front "selfie" camera has 2 megapixels and 16:9 ratio. It's inclined to be a bit grainy, but is a massive jump up from the lousy VGA resolution cameras I'd been used to on Sony devices.

The phone arrived with Android KitKat pre-installed and quickly demanded an update to Lollipop. Apart from the loss of the easy volume controls from the lock screen, Lollipop seems a mostly good match to the device and rarely lags or crashes. As of late 2016 there is word that an update to Marshmallow is slowly rolling out internationally, though this would probably be expected to be the last for the device, now outside its official support window from Samsung. With 16GB of flash memory, there's plenty of storage for system and user, and there's a micro-SD slot too. Some apps can be partially moved to SD, though with the amount built in that's rarely necessary for an average user like me - especially having been forced to endure my old Sony's pitifully meagre (and eventually demise-inducing, I suspect) allowance.

I've been sticking with giffgaff [affiliate link] as my network, and the S5 Mini works great with their 4G micro-SIM cards. The data speed isn't amazing, but I believe that's more down to O2's infrastructure than anything to do with the phone. I mostly have it set to 3G to get a stronger signal and save battery. GPS is pretty solid compared with Sony's, and the odd time I've tried NFC it's worked fine.

If I had one grumble, it's that the ambient light sensor is a bit flaky, at least in terms of how it liaises with the display auto-brightness. Quite frequently the phone wakes with a very dim display, and in bright daylight that can look like absolutely nothing. The light sensor should crank the display up to the max, but somewhere along the line the message doesn't get through. Running any other app that uses the sensor kicks it into action, suggesting it's a software rather than hardware bug, and I'm quietly hoping the Marshmallow update might fix it. In the meantime, the YAAB auto-brightness app on Google Play helps avoid frustration.

Rating: 4/5

Website: http://www.samsung.com/uk/consumer/mobile-devices/smartphones/galaxy-s/SM-G800FZKABTU

Sony Xperia M Android smartphone 

In many ways the logical successor to the Xperia U below, though in some notable respects it's a sideways or even backwards move rather than an upgrade. It retains the Xperia U's happy pocketability with an only slightly larger 4-inch display, though the resolution is no higher so it's a little grainier, and the colour reproduction is rather off kilter. It's still crystal clear though, so not too much of a usability issue, just an aesthetic one if your usage includes a lot of image viewing. The concave-back design is a thing of beauty, and makes perfect sense in and out of the hand - perfectly balanced to hold in use, and pretty much guaranteed not to wobble on any surface. Performance is basically good for a budget phone, with 1GB RAM which some manufacturers still don't see fit to provide, and battery life is reasonable with care - and the battery can be removed/replaced if necessary, with genuine spares on eBay for under £5 at the time of writing.

The downsides (apart from the aforementioned lurid screen tint) include the rear (main) camera simply not being as good (colour rendition or overall clarity) as the Xperia U's, despite being the same nominal resolution, the front (selfie, Skype etc) camera being utterly horrid in low light, and the internal flash storage being weedily small, with just 2GB user accessible. Yes, it will accept a micro-SD card, but emphatically does not support transfer of applications to it, so with the usual assortment of Sony bloatware there's really not much space left for anything else to speak of. In common with many modern phones, Sony have done away with physical navigation buttons, which took some getting used to but is fine in practice. They retained the proper camera button though (hooray!) and it's a softer touch than the Xperia U's, just a shame the end results are simply not as good - though still not poor by absolute standards. GPS/navigation can be a bit wobbly, especially if the "Stamina" battery saver mode is turned on, though a clear pattern is yet to be established. As an older device without active support from Sony, it is also potentially vulnerable to the Stagefright and other security issues, but the same can be said of the majority of phones in use in 2015.

That small flash memory mentioned is a mahoosive problem though. Android starts having hissy fits once there's less than about 300MB free, refusing even to update existing applications let alone install new ones no matter how tiny, so 2GB user accessible works out more like 1.7GB in practice. It's also possible that running flash memory at that level of occupancy imparts undue wear and tear on it. Flash memory works best when there's plenty of spare space, so that the load from writing information can be shared over time. Having only a couple of hundred megabytes free and every update hammering them hard is a recipe for worn out flash memory, and ours accordingly died just under two years old (so just inside warranty) and had to be sent off for repair. SBE Ltd confirmed and processed the terminal fault quickly, shipping a full replacement unit free of charge. However the replacement didn't last very much longer before freezing and refusing to respond further so gave up as a bad deal and moved on to Samsung devices.

Rating: 2/5

Website: www.sonymobile.com/global-en/products/phones/xperia-m/

Sony Xperia U Android smartphone 

Update 2/11/2015: This phone is still going strong, though with the updated versions of most applications being a bit more demanding than three years ago, it does struggle a bit. Like many Xperia U units, the touchscreen eventually failed, but was quickly repaired under warranty by SBE Ltd. Hopefully the replacement screen will prove more reliable.

Sony Xperia UMy Sony Ericsson W800i was getting long in the tooth, and I'd decided I wasn't going to buy another battery for it when its current one started to fade, so after considerable research, in May 2012 I upgraded to a Sony Xperia U Android phone, bought on a SIM-free basis rather than via a network contract. This is my first smartphone, so my opinions here should be interpreted as those of a relative but technologically-aware novice!

The Xperia U is the compact budget model in the now Ericsson-less Sony NXT line-up for 2012, but it packs a punch well above its size. Most manufacturers assume that anyone wanting a small phone will be happy to compromise on specification, but Sony have equipped the Xperia U with a dual core ARMv7 processor and a gorgeous high resolution screen. The only missing tick-box on the spec sheet reflects its lack of upgradeable storage. Altogether not bad for under £200, about half what an iPhone goes for.

The dual core architecture is not fully utilised by the supplied Android 2.3.7 system, but I understand that the second core is nevertheless used for Java garbage collection (system housekeeping, basically) and possibly other low-level processes, which does make for an overall slick and mostly responsive and judder-free experience. Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) is promised for later in the year, but 512MB RAM (of which about 376MB is accessible, apparently due to GPU overheads) may be borderline for that.

The screen definition is not quite up with the iPhone 4 "retina" resolution, but I can't see the individual pixels, so it's good enough. The 3.5-inch screen is a 16:9 widescreen format, which some may not like compared with the iPhone's 3:2, but it works well with BBC iPlayer and other video apps, and the whole device possibly sits slightly more comfortably in the palm of the hand for thumb-typing. The on-screen keyboard is narrow in portrait format, but almost all functions support landscape operation and there is the option to use a conventional phone keypad layout in portrait. A screen protector is provided but not necessarily fitted - make it a priority to stick that on before any use!

The 5 megapixel camera is pretty reasonable, though I've not used it for video other than for testing purposes. There is a physical camera button just where you'd hope to find one (but very rarely do on current phones) which has a two-stage operation but is rather stiff. Note that there is a clear plastic protector over the lens, which will need to be removed by taking the back off the phone, in order to get good results. Most users experiencing image issues have not realised to do this important step! There's an LED "flash", and I can personally vouch for LED Lamp as a free app to double this up as a torch that won't track your location, dial premium numbers, bombard you with adverts or otherwise trample your rights. My limited testing of the video has revealed it to yield poor audio volume levels since there is no automatic gain control on the microphone. Sony have confirmed this to be the case.

Oh, I almost forgot, it's a phone! Talking and texting both seem all right to me, and it pairs well with giffgaff [affiliate link] as a mobile network. When I started the phone up with the giffgaff SIM fitted, it automatically set up internet access and so on, which can sometimes be a bit of a faff. Unlike the iPhone, you can easily set the voice-mail number, by the way. No need for jailbreaking to control basic functionality on your own property!

GPS sometimes seems a bit wobbly, but a power-cycle tends to wake it up if it's resolutely refusing to lock on to any satellites and I use GPS Status & Toolbox to troubleshoot. The colour-changing LED strip at the bottom (one of Sony's selling points) isn't really too exciting, but is not as distracting as you might imagine. The interchangeable end caps (extra pink one supplied with the black phone, yellow with the white) are more or less completely pointless, though some disagree and they are undeniably distinctive. Transferring data (photos, music etc) on and off is a little more laborious than would be hoped, since the internal memory does not appear as a standard USB mass storage device, but instead uses MTP, more often used for music players. This often requires additional drivers (such as the supplied PC Companion for Windows) and lacks useful features like displaying camera image thumbnails.

I think I've had one solid crash in over a month of use, requiring a battery pull since even the power button stopped responding. A little annoying, but at least with this phone you can pull the battery if need be - it's entirely user-replaceable, either to keep another one charged if you are a heavy user (I get two to three days moderate use from a charge, for reference) or you keep the phone long enough to wear out the supplied one from too many charges. As someone who does not subscribe to the "upgrade every 24 months" industry con, being able to replace the battery was a clincher for me. The lack of memory upgrade potential (you're stuck with 2GB for apps, and 4GB for media and some apps that are compatible) is a bit of a downer, but of limited importance to me, and an increasing trend nowadays anyway.

So overall, a few niggles, but nothing really detracting from this being quite possibly the best value smartphone on the market at the moment. SIM-free, and coupled with a service like giffgaff which can easily pay for itself from month to month, there is in my opinion currently no more attractive or cost-effective route into the world of smartphones.

Rating: 4/5

Website: www.sonymobile.com/global-en/products/phones/xperia-u/

FAQ: personal.goznet.co.uk/xperiau-faq/

giffgaff mobile network 

Update 6/11/2012: The old-style £10 250-minute goodybag mentioned in this review has had its price increased to £12, still including unlimited texts and handset data browsing. The £10 goodybag has had its inclusive data element limited to 1GB per month, however this does include tethering if your mobile phone supports it. A few of the obscure call types had prices increased also, to ensure the service remains sustainable for mainstream usage.

As 2011 closes, I've been using the giffgaff mobile network for a couple of months. Although the £15 I was paying O2 each month hardly broke the bank, I was not getting particularly good value for it, and with the likelihood I would soon buy a smartphone, data charges were liable to rise substantially. Yes, I could have held off and bought a new smartphone on a 24-month contract, but with monthly outlays of the order of £30 or more for a decent call/text/data bundle, it wasn't a compelling option when I did the maths that the network operators pray you won't.

So I jumped ship from O2 to giffgaff, which was a technically safe move to make since giffgaff runs on the O2 network, so I wasn't anticipating (and haven't experienced) any particular reception issues. Transferring my number to giffgaff was painless enough, the only problem being getting the requisite PAC out of O2 in the first place since their customer service is woeful and they hate giffgaff undercutting their business.

Undercutting - yes, with PAYG calls at 10p a minute and texts at 6p, and the option to dip into month-long "goodybag" bundles when you please. There are various options for the latter, with straightforward ones like £10 for 250 minutes and unlimited texts and handset data browsing, to more exotic offerings like £5 for 60 minutes and 300 texts but with the twist that you get extra minutes when people call you. The potential catch with giffgaff is a double-edged sword: there is no customer service hotline. O2's proved worthless when it mattered, so for me that was no hardship, but some are uncomfortable with the idea of only having email contact in the event of account or billing issues. The other edge of that sword is that there is a lively and very helpful community forum, where most set-up issues and other queries are dealt with in minutes - and, still better, those helping out get paid up to £30 a month. There are also generous referrer bonuses if other people sign up via your account, making it quite possible to effectively get completely free service. Talking of free, calls and texts to other giffgaff members are free so long as you top up every three months, and 0800 numbers are free full-stop as they should be but rarely are on mobile networks.

Any problems? For me, not a jot. For others joining recently, there have been a few cases of slow number porting and issues with topping up and buying goodybags, but one has to remember that these problems afflict all networks to some extent; giffgaff by virtue of its community lays this open for all to see rather than hiding it behind faceless call centres. The website is in a bit of a state of change, and by the very nature of the service it is rather the hub of operations, so can be a little frustrating from time to time. But I should emphasise that my handset service has been rock solid from day one, and that's the main thing.

In a nutshell, I like the flexible contract-style pricing on PAYG terms, substantially limiting the financial risks should my phone ever get lost or stolen, and I love payback!

Rating: 4/5 [likely to be upped to 5/5 once website issues have stabilised]

Website: giffgaff.com [affiliate link]

Sony Ericsson W800i mobile phone 

Sony Ericsson W800iThe W800i replaced my 6210e and is about as different as you can get while remaining in a conventional "candy-bar" form - i.e. no flip, swivel, double pike or a pen to lose, and fully operable whilst in a protective case. Full colour, Java, Bluetooth, two-megapixel autofocus camera, and to cap it all, a Walkman-branded mp3/AAC media player. As a phone it seems fine, though having loads more options than the 6210e it's a little more complicated to navigate and will take some getting used to. Text-messaging in particular is somehow not quite as slick as with Nokia's software. The media player is no iPod substitute, but sounds good to excellent depending on the headphones used - the supplied (grey, not mugger-magnet white, though slightly awkwardly cabled in order to make the supplied wired hands-free usable) ear-buds essentially give highly acceptable sound with fair bass but accentuate a bit of mid-range hiss and crackle in a way that superior headphones and hi-fi auxiliary inputs etc don't, and that the equaliser on the player is unable to compensate for. I understand that the interference has come and gone with different firmware revisions, is as a result of a fix for a distortion bug, and used to be worse - though was not present in yet earlier versions. For general listening though the media player is great, and a useful touch is that it is usable independently from the telephone functionality - ideal for use on aeroplanes, in hospitals etc and in workplaces like mine with strict security policies precluding mobile phones being turned on. A USB-accessible 512MB Memory Stick Duo is provided to store music, pictures and more, upgradable to 2GB - not quite up to iPod Nano standard, alas. I have fitted a 2GB card I bought from eBay (don't pay hugely inflated retail prices!) and there's space for 40 or more albums at reasonable sound quality. The camera boasts two megapixels and, unusually, features auto-focus and a powerful LED "flash" illuminator (doubling up as a handy emergency torch!), though the quality (especially indoors with the LED) is more like what might be expected from a good one megapixel dedicated camera, and the best-quality JPEG file sizes of 300-400KB reflect this. There is also a bit of distortion at the corners of the image, but the small lenses on most camera-phones will always be a bit of a compromise. One bug that might well be fixed at some point (it has been for the essentially similar K750i) is that the camera doesn't take the photograph at the same time as the "shutter click", and momentarily displays a misleading preview - not too good when photographing moving subjects. Sony Ericsson have included their usual mini clickable joystick (dropped on later models, however, in favour of a more reliable rocker pad and separate "select" button), which takes a little getting used to and does not accelerate the user interface learning process. Some will not like the quirky cream and metallic orange colour scheme, but I do. The updated W810i is more conventionally coloured but broadly the same apart from reduced internal memory and no protection for the camera lens - the latter perhaps because the slide switch to open the lens cover on the W800i presents problems with many carry cases, including the one I have. Overall, not bad for the first "Walkman phone", though the USB connection is rather slow and they could have paid a little closer attention to details of the media player given its household-name branding.

Rating: 4/5

Website: www.sonyericsson.com

STOP PRESS: I have now installed unofficial hybrid firmware for the media player and camera, dramatically improving most of the above-mentioned issues with both and improving the camera JPEG picture quality into the bargain.

Binatone d33 speakerphone 

Binatone d33Our home office phone sometimes used to bleep inexplicably in the middle of the night, so with BT now offering caller display free of charge to residential customers as part of their commitment to privacy (though at the time of writing they still charge to block troublesome numbers), we decided to replace it with just about the cheapest brand-name phone with caller display that we could find. For the money, we also get a speakerphone, but it's pretty poor sound quality "both ways" - the microphone really isn't sufficiently sensitive, and the speaker hums a lot when increased to a reasonable volume. It also rather annoyingly takes three (an odd number in every way) AAA batteries, with no option to run from a mains adapter - and without this battery power it claims not to work at all, rather than just disabling the extra features. There is a faint audible clicking on the line that is not evident with our other telephone, but it's hard to say whether it's a problem with the phone or over-sensitivity perhaps to our ADSL broadband connection. We got it primarily for its caller display functions, of course, and they work well (much better than our BT cordless phone, though the LCD screen can be a little hard to read from some angles) although the instructions for saving incoming numbers in the phone book don't work so they need to be manually entered retrospectively. Overall, for the very low price it's acceptable, but there are undoubtedly much better models out there for not much more money.

Rating: 2/5

Website: www.binatone.com

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