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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Camera comparison: Nokia's new N96, N85 and N79 versus Sony Ericsson K800i

This evening, I had a chance to play with the new Nokia N96, N85 and N79 phones up close and personal. I didn't get a chance to do as much as I wanted to at yesterday's media event for the Nseries phone launch, so this was a welcome treat. And since I use the camera feature quite often on my phone, I decided to put the camera-cum-photo feature to the test.

And it was a simple test: what sort of photograph would I get from each of the phones? Given that the new Nseries phones are top-notch, my hypothesis was that they would have the best visual output (excluding image size, since they're five-megapixel cameras, while my Sony Ericsson K800i's camera has three megapixels).

All photos were taken with the default camera settings under the same indoor conditions. I've re-sized them here to fit this blog entry.

First up, Sony Ericsson K800i.
Camera phone comparison: Sony Ericsson K800i

Next: Nokia N85
Camera phone comparison: Nokia N85

Hmm, not too shabby.

Up next: Nokia N79
Camera phone comparison: Nokia N79

Err, a bit washed out?

The Nokia N96 should be better.
Camera phone comparison: Nokia N96 take 1

Wha...??? The photo looked as washed out as the N79! Okay, maybe it was this particular phone, so I tried another one.

Camera phone comparison: Nokia N96 take 2

Slightly better than the previous photo. And its flash was bright enough to capture more of the dark background.

But of the three Nseries phones, I think the N96 produced the best photo, though the photo looked over-exposed to my untrained eye. And, of course, this happened when the camera wasn't acting up. (Or maybe there were smudges on the lens? Ah, the benefit of a lens cover!)

The Nseries-taken photos also came out slightly blurry. I attribute this to a poorly-designed camera button. I don't know if it was because these were prototypes, but their buttons were difficult to press. I had to use the tip of my finger to force the button down to take a picture -- and then hold the camera in place for almost a second to save the picture!

I suspect that my hands would've shaken slightly during that time, resulting in the blurred pictures. While the K800i has about the same time lag, the picture looks clearer, which could be due to easier-to-use button and image processing.

So overall, I wouldn't bother with the N79. The changeable covers are a novelty that would wear off quickly on me. The N85 looks like a decent package overall. As for the N96, I'll say that it's a matter of luck. While it's a feature-packed phone, as seen from the photos, the quality obtained from the features would seem to depend on whether I land a good one or walk off with a lame duck.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Nokia introduces one phone in three disguises - N96, N85, N79

Modelling the N79 and its faceplates
Thanks to Nokia and Text 100, I had a chance to attend the media event for the launch of Nokia's brand-spankin' new N96, N85 and N79 phones... ok, "multimedia devices". Though I was probably the only blogger in a sea of journalists and editors, I wasn't complaining.

It was held at House, and I'd actually walked up Dempsey Road to it from the bus stop. As a result, and because I departed late, I missed most of the spiel from Grant McBeath, GM of Nokia Singapore. I don't think I missed much of the proceedings though, except for the product videos. Oh, and a video that supposedly showed DJs Glen and Ros using the N96 in public. I would've preferred meeting Ros in person, but I guess that's another dream that'll have to wait.

Setting up for CNBC filming
We were then given to try out the three phones around a small booth. The big screens showed how the phones were integrated with Nokia's Internet services, e.g. N-gage gaming, Ovi photo and video sharing, Nokia Music Store, etc.

I played a Star Wars game on the N85 and I think the only outstanding thing of that experience was the OLED screen. It was well-lit, brighter than most other high-end phones that I've used. The colours were vivid, and the lines and details were clear. On the other hand, a screen that good was wasted on the small display.

Oh, and the N85 is the first Nokia phone to supposedly have a dedicated USB charger. Err, I suppose that's useful somehow. I currently charge my Sony Ericsson K800i through USB too, though the phone-end is connected through the same power connection. So I wonder why there's a "dedicated USB charger" on the N85.

The other phone I tried was the N79. Its distinguishing feature was its changeable rear cover, which would then change the phone desktop's theme. If I snapped on the green cover, the theme would turn green. If I replaced it with a red cover, the theme would change to red.

This change-a-roo is done through little sensors on the cover and phone's innards, though it's no rocket science. On the other hand, after my experience with Sony Ericsson's Z600, I must say that I'm not the type who will change my phone's covers.

I didn't get to try the N96 much, aside from listening to its speaker quality. Which, by the way, is a universally irritating feature for any phone. In a public place, I really don't want to hear whatever trance-techno music the punk next to me is listening to. That's what earphones were invented for -- to save others from putting up with your "music".

Ok, but that's just my ranting. In addition to the seemingly good quality speakers, the N96 seemed more "solid" than its predecessor, the N95. So it seems like Nokia has also improved its manufacturing quality.

DJ Glen Ong gave away some prizes later. I don't know what the winners won, since I'm not one of them. But I got a press kit, and the swag (free gift) is a Nokia USB charger (model CA-100). This is of no use to me since I don't have a compatible Nokia phone.

Nokia N96, N85, N79

Personally, I think of these three phones as the same model but with three disguises. That's because the majority of their specifications are the same. Same form-factor, same camera lens, same multimedia features, same connectivity.

What differentiates the three phones are:

N96: 16GB removable memory card, 8 free songs from Nokia Music Store, TV-out
N85: 10 pre-loaded trial games, OLED display
N79: 3 snap-on covers

Those are pretty much what I could glean from the specification sheets. And they don't seem like much. But I suppose they are trade-offs. Including an OLED display in all three phones would probably introduce manufacturing and cost issues. So would TV-out.

And, err, I guess some people absolutely need to be able to change the look of their phones.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

SingTel tears into iPhone customers, but not as badly as 3 HK

When SingTel announced its iPhone-specific iFlexi plans, I proclaimed to a few friends that it was ripping off its customers. Coming from cynical, capitalistic Singapore, that wasn't too hard to not believe. I admittedly had not done my calculations at that time, and based that proclamation merely on SingTel's lack of an unlimited data plan (because the iPhone is more of an Internet device than a mere handphone).

A day after its launch, I decided to take a step back from the hype and hoopla and answer that tiny little question:

How big of a hole is SingTel tearing from its iPhone customers?

It turns out that while the hole by SingTel is bigger than the one by AT&T, it's not as big as the one by 3 HK. (And -- surprise! -- Rogers isn't too shabby either.)

However, this assumes that you transfer no more than 3GB of data a month (see details below). Considering all of the Internet-intensive iApps that are available, it is likely that the iPhone will be transferring data quite often. And even if these data packets are small in size, as the saying goes, little drops of water form a mighty ocean.

I browsed the websites of four operators, namely SingTel (Singapore), AT&T (USA), Rogers (Canada) and 3HK (Hong Kong), for their iPhone price plans. These operators have exclusive sale of the iPhone, therefore they are effectively monopolising the iPhone market within their home countries and do not need to engage in a domestic price war.

Based on the listed plans and bundled usage, I worked out the maximum cost that a customer would pay for the following:

  • two-year contract* (SingTel, AT&T and 3 HK)
  • 3GB of data** (SingTel)
  • 2,200 minutes of talk time (3 HK)
  • 2,500 SMS (Rogers***)
* Rogers states that its iPhone plans are available with three-year contracts, though whether that means its customers must sign up for three years is not apparent.
** AT&T offers unlimited data with its plans. 3 HK offers unlimited data with one of its plans.
*** after including the C$15 value pack.
(bracketed notes indicate which operators bundle that maximum use)

Rogers also allows customers to mix-and-match from non-iPhone-specific plans, but there are too many permutations for me to calculate by myself. (I pity the customer who does!)

Here's how the four operators stack up when looking at the least that a customer would have to pay based on the above four items:

OperatorSingTelAT&TRogers3 HK
PlaniFlexi PlusNation $69.99 + $5 SMS plan$60 + $15 value pack$498 unlimited data$268
Total with iPhone 8GB (SG$)$4,743.94$4,213.51$4,081.94$2,229.12$6,389.87
Total with iPhone 16GB (SG$)$4,902.94$4,355.51$4,216.94$2,253.96$6,533.87

And here's how they compare based on the most to be forked out:

OperatorSingTelAT&TRogers3 HK
PlaniFlexi ValueiThree Plus*Nation Unlimited$115$115 + $15 value pack$328
Total with iPhone 8GB (SG$)$6,147.39$9,728.13$5,487.96$5,091.82N/A
Total with iPhone 16GB (SG$)$6,307.39$9,728.13$5,629.96 N/A$5,247.07$6,586.07

* I included SingTel's non-iFlexi plans although they're not especially for the iPhone, because SingTel still provides them.

Take a look at my compiled findings.

Another way to look at these plans is to see how big of a difference they compare, using AT&T's expected costs as the benchmark.

Least expensive iPhone plan comparison:
SingTel iPhone least expensive plans comparison

Most expensive iPhone plan comparison:
SingTel iPhone most expensive plans comparison

So I've been proven somewhat wrong. SingTel's iFlexi plans are not necessarily grossly more expensive than, say, AT&T's. When comparing against the other Asian economy powerhouse, i.e. Hong Kong, SingTel's iFlexi plans are actually quite competitive. On the other hand, if you use the Internet a lot, expect to burn a very, very large hole in your pocket.

Aside: Rogers appears to be the least expensive overall, which is surprising considering all of the flak it had received for being heavily overpriced. Perhaps I was looking at its revised plans.

Other notes:
  1. I did not include comparisons of free/trial services, e.g. Caller ID, because these vary operator-by-operator.
  2. 3 HK will rebate a portion of the iPhone's price after 24 months, but I didn't understand how it works, so I didn't factor that into my calculations.
  3. 3 HK requires customers to bundle at least one value-added service, so I picked its $18 SMS pack.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

SingTel to sell iPhone soon... but the iPhone is buggy

iPhone 3G
In the past week, two pieces of news couldn't have come at a more unfortunate time nor with such a tremendous impact.

Firstly, SingTel announced that it will start selling the Apple iPhone on August 22. This piece of news came when the telecommunication giant announced its quarterly earnings on Tuesday, 12 August. It was definitely well received by the hordes of iPhone owner-wannabes who can't wait to get their hands on the long-awaited, much-coveted device.

Unfortunately, the news barely had time to settle in before a piece of bad news started circulating widely. This was related to customer complaints about the iPhone's 3G glitches. So far, there's only been a tonne of finger-pointing between Apple, Infineon (who make the 3G chips), and AT&T (who operate the 3G phone network in the U.S.). Of course, the one at the losing end is the phone owner.

Which doesn't bode well for SingTel's much-heralded iPhone launch in one week. There's been news that a software fix will only be available in September. Which means that SingTel will be selling buggy iPhones for a month. That can't be good news for any party.

I'm sure SingTel would like a smooth launch. Hopefully, its 3G network is up to snuff and can take care of the supposed increased 3G power required by the iPhone before the software fix is made available.