Categories
Mobile

3 Mobile and All You Can Eat Data tariffs

3UK's PAYG add-ons, with AYCE data for £15/month

3 recently announced the availability of “all-you-can-eat” data on their Pay As You Go (PAYG) plans. For £15 a month you get 300 minutes, 3000 texts and unlimited data. That’s great value. In fact, better value than the plan I’m currently on with 3; their £15 pay monthly SIM300 plan which gives me 300 minutes, 3000 texts and 1GB data.

Pay monthly has in the past always given you more for your money, but it looks like the tables are turning. When I queried this via 3’s Twitter account, I was told that pay monthly does have an ‘all-you-can-eat’ option – at £25/month (2000 minutes, etc etc)… Now, 300 minutes is more than enough for me, I’m not much of a talker (I work from home, I have a Skype subscription), but I do have an HTC Desire, which eats data for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Data is much more important to me.

I replied on Twitter, asking “So I would have to pay £25 to get AYCE data on monthly, or £15 on PAYG? Strange! (when comparing like for like at £15)” – their response was “You can’t tether on PAYG though.”

So there you have it – if you don’t mind not using your phone as a modem/mobile hotspot, and you don’t talk a great deal on the phone, then it really is a better deal to move to PAYG. Which I can’t help but find a little odd. As someone who has had several contracts with them, and pays monthly by Direct Debit, you kind of hope that they would look after existing customers. It looks like I’ll have headed from a contract, to rolling monthly SIM only (they couldn’t give me a better upgrade deal than one they give to new customers), to PAYG, and I’ll actually be better off for my usage patterns. Which is, again, odd.

So I think that this rather rambling blog post is a bit of a complaint really, in that 3 need to look after existing customers a lot better. They weren’t able to give me a good upgrade, and now their PAYG offering is better than what I pay for month by month. The next question is, will I stay with 3 when I look around for my next phone? They’d better try a lot harder to keep me.

Categories
Android Mobile

Bye bye Symbian, hello Android

HTC Desire

Last week I waved goodbye to my trusty Nokia E71. After watching the iPhone and Android communities evolve over the last 18 months, Symbian (the operating system that runs on the E71) has increasingly felt rather outdated.

I am now the proud owner of an HTC Desire running on Google’s Android platform.

People who know me may be a little surprised, given my general enthusiasm for all things Apple, that I didn’t get an iPhone. One of the major deciding factors is the unavoidable practicality that I am stuck in the middle of a long contract with 3. I can’t justify the outlay on an iPhone as well as the £35/month contract that goes with it. I’ll get one someday, just not yet.

Putting all of that aside, I am an itinerant tinkerer. I like the freedom that goes with Android – you can tinker with the many options, set up homescreen widgets, and truly customise it. There are plenty of free apps out there to play with, and the Android App ecosystem seems pretty healthy, with the number of apps available in the Android Market steadily increasing (50,000 at the time of writing). Android is the underdog platform, and is something I’ve wanted to try out for a few years.

So what phone to choose? Initially, it was going to have to be the Google Nexus One. However, being based in the UK, it wasn’t available, and I didn’t want the hassle of trying to import one. Manufacturer HTC and Android review websites were making noises about a handset called the HTC Desire, which was mooted to be almost exactly the same as the Nexus One bar a secondary microphone and a different design (HTC make the Nexus One for Google anyway). This sounded ideal.

After a few weeks of reading reviews, and looking at sample video and photos taken by the device, my mind was made up. At the same time, my mobile operator, 3 UK, announced that they would be releasing the HTC Desire on their network. Due to huge interest in the handset they also announced that they would release the handset ahead of their own branding and customisation, so that the first batch of handsets sold by them would be unbranded, unlocked, and subsidised. Excellent! An unlocked unbranded handset means that I will get all of the necessary firmware / OS updates from HTC when they’re released. Branded handsets are sometimes never updated.

Thinking back to my post about Simply Drop, a way of recycling old mobile phones for cash, I totted up how much I could get for all my old mobiles, including the E71. Enough to pay for half the HTC Desire, and enough to convince me that this was a good idea.

After a little bit of fun trying to buy an HTC Desire from 3 (who didn’t seem to want to sell one on PAYG) I managed to get one at the end of last week.

So, two days in to using Android on the HTC Desire, what do I think? So far, it’s amazing. The HTC Sense interface which adds some extra functionality to the standard Android user interface (UI) is very slick and easy to navigate. The dark interface is cleanly designed and minimal, the capacitive touch screen is very sensitive, keyboard works well, and the 1Ghz SnapDragon processor means the whole experience is very quick with no detectable lag. I like it.

The social networking and Google integration is just wonderful. Gmail, contacts, calendar, Twitter, Flickr, all synchronise automatically. Without doing anything, I have the same information on my phone as I do on my Mac. It’s something I’ve quested to do on my old E71 since I got it, and never managed an eloquent solution. And now I have one.

Also – browsing the web is every bit as good as on an iPhone (I have an iPod Touch, so know it well). The inclusion of Flash in the browser is nice, but it’s not something I’m too bothered about really (favouring standards and HTML5).

The downsides so far are the battery life and screen visibility. This, like an iPhone, is a charge every day device. I understand that the battery gets a bit better after a few days, but I will be keeping a closer eye on battery levels after being used to the E71’s 3 day capacity. Screen visibility is poor in direct sunlight. It’s nowhere near as good as the E71. The AMOLED screen brightness needs to be set to full to see it in bright conditions. I recommend setting the brightness to auto rather than manual control, otherwise there are times when you can’t even see the brightness control to turn it up to full when you need it.

But otherwise, all good so far.

Expect a full review of the HTC Desire in the coming weeks.

Categories
Skype smartphones Software

Skype on the Nokia E71

As regular readers know, I use Skype a lot. I have family and friends scattered across the world, and it’s an essential part of keeping in touch with them. When Tehmina stayed in Rome for a two month research trip in 2005 Skype was our lifeline.

[Update] On 10th December 2009 Skype released the beta of an official Skype Symbian client. This is the best solution for serious Skype users on the Symbian S60 platform. Read my quick overview.

3Skypephone

When 3 launched their 3Skypephone at the end of 2007 we were amongst the first to get our hands on one. However, I found it an increasingly frustrating phone to use, mainly because of it’s poor text input capabilities (two separate dictionaries, no T9 word learning in the built-in Skype app, replacing words that were in the phonebook, etc). A few months ago, I replaced it with a Nokia E71, and haven’t looked back. Much.

The one (and in my opinion, only) good feature about the 3Skypephone was that Skype was built-in to the handset. It was always running, and I didn’t have to remember to launch the client. I was logged in to Skype 24/7. The one disadvantage of moving to the E71 has been working out the best strategy of running Skype, and indeed, which client to use.

3’s Symbian Skype Client

I bought my handset from 3, who offer a custom native S60 Skype client developed by iSkoot. Granted, it’s not built in, but it is supported by the network and I’m not charged to make outgoing Skype-to-Skype calls. Recently, 3 made the progressive move to allow international Skype Out calls via their updated client. Amazing. This means that I can select a contact and dial their landline, pay nothing for the network voice call into Skype’s servers, and have the international part of the call charge covered by my Skype subscription.

However, all good things come at a price. 3’s client doesn’t allow SkypeIn calls via my Online Number. And its implementation of chat is cludgy and awful. Yesterday, on a train journey home, I was trying to chat to Tehmina, but while she could receive my messages, I couldn’t see any of her replies. She had to call me and ask if I was receiving them! Other times, chats have come through, but 10 minutes after they were sent. It’s very frustrating. You also have to click a “write message” button every time (which isn’t natural “chat”) and type into a tiny box. It’s a very frustrating experience.

Fring

The other option is to use Fring. Fring can connect to Skype and allows both voice and chat. Fring doesn’t utilise the voice network to complete part of the bridge, and so is a true VOIP system. The downside is that you need a good (preferably 3G or WiFi) signal to use it. Chats come through instantly, there’s no ‘barrier’ for text entry, just a normal text entry field, SkypeIn and Out both work, and it allows attachments (e.g. photos etc) to be sent to the person you’re text chatting with on Skype. It’s rather marvellous.

3 Skype client vs Fring – some issues

However (and isn’t there always a ‘however’!), I’ve found that Fring doesn’t always connect in to the Skype network. Whilst on the train yesterday evening, I ran an experiment. I had both 3’s Skype client and Fring running simultaneously. Fring could not show any of my Skype contacts, only those logged in to Google Talk. It didn’t even show them all as offline, it simply couldn’t retrieve them from Skype’s servers. Granted, most of the time it does load them successfully, but it often incorrectly reports contacts as offline. This is especially true of contacts using a 3Skypephone (who are more often than not, always signed in). Sending them a message anyway often prompts Fring into consequently list them to ‘online’.  But if they’re not listed at all, then there’s not much you can do.

3’s Skype client took about 5 minutes to load in all my contacts (for a while, echo123 was the only contact), but eventually displayed all of the contacts that I expected, including my offline and phone-only contacts (for SkypeOut). However, sending text chats to anyone resulted in the virtual sound of tumbleweed. Replies were all lost in the cold ether of cyberspace.

Official Skype Mobile client

The third option that I have explored for Skype on my E71 has been the official Skype mobile client, which is currently in beta. However, the E71 is not listed as a supported handset. I’m not someone to let a minor detail like that stop me, so when I first got my E71, I went ahead and downloaded the Nokia N95 version, hoping that it would just work. While I could install it, the client wasn’t able to recognise the fact that I have a QWERTY keyboard. You had to pretend that you had a numeric keypad, and guess which letter corresponds with each number. Not good. So I uninstalled it and crossed it off the list.

Skype Mobile (version 0.9.26.0) running on a Nokia E71. Apologies about the poor pic - it's just a quick photo!That is until today. While looking through my copious selection of RSS feeds, I spotted a post on the official Skype blog from earlier this month announcing an updated version of the Skype Mobile client (version 0.9.26.0). Included in the list of supported handsets is the Nokia E61, the E71’s predecessor. This phone also has a QWERTY keyboard, so I thought that I would download and install it to see if it worked on my E71. It did.

Now, there are some limitations with this implementation. Receiving Skype to Skype or SkypeIn calls uses up your Skype credit. Essentially this means that if someone calls you on Skype, their server makes a voice call to your mobile, and the relevant cellphone charges are deducted from your Skype credit. If you want to make a Skype to Skype or SkypeOut call, your handset dials a geographic number in your country to route your voice onto the Skype network. If you have inclusive minutes, these are used to make this call (so it could be seen as ‘free’ if you have lots of inclusive minutes in your tariff). If you’re on Pay As You Go, you’ll be charged accordingly. Skype Chat uses up data, so it makes sense to have unlimited data included in your tariff of you’re going to use this regularly.

There’s a full explanation on the Skype for your mobile website.

So how well does it work? Skype chat works well. It connected into the Skype network very quickly, listing all of my contacts. I compared this with the client running on my Mac, and most (but not all) contacts who were online were also listed as online on the handset. Ironically, my colleague who sits behind me, who I wanted to send a test chat to, wasn’t listed online at first. I sent him a message anyway, and lo and behold, his status was changed to “online” straight away. Admittedly, I didn’t give the client any time at all to ‘bed in’ and synchronise all of my contacts’ status.

Messages sent between us were received instantly on the handset, so I’m very pleased with that. But there is still the usual ‘Java’ feel to the app. To type a new chat message you can press the centre nav button and you’re taken through to a blank text entry window that completely covers the Skype app. You then have to click “Send” to submit your message and return to your chat. On the E71, there is a delay of about a second after clicking send, which can make it feel as if it didn’t work. Clicking send a second time results in duplication of your chat entry, which is rather unfortunate. But, like many software niggles in the wider world, you get used to it.

Nimbuzz

It’s been pointed out in the comments that I ought to try out Nimbuzz as another option. And I’m glad that I have. Nimbuzz supports Skype, Google Talk, ICQ, MSN, etc.

Nimbuzz provide a native S60 client that runs nicely on my E71, and provides much the same functionality as Fring. Skype chat works very well indeed, much the same as it does on a desktop app, with no extra ‘text entry’ screens that act as a barrier to the natural flow of a chat. Sending of photos and files is built-in, and uses the Nimbuzz website as an intermediary instead of hooking in to Skype’s file attachment feature.

I was able to hold two chats simultaneously with my wife (on Skype) and my niece (on MSN) and without leaving the Nimbuzz app, take and send a photo. It was quite fun snapping away during a chat while I was out and about, so they could see where I was and what I was doing.

While Nimbuzz has a lovely interface and is very smooth in its operation, I have had some connection problems, which I intend to look into. If I go into a subway, for example, and lose mobile signal, Nimbuzz doesn’t automatically reconnect – instead it silently asks me which connection to use to reconnect, so I don’t notice that I’ve gone offline. Rather annoying, but I will look into the settings and on the Nimbuzz forums to see if I can resolve this. Fring works very well in this regard, relentlessly keeping whatever connection it can find.

It definitely shows promise!

Conclusion

The 3 Skype client is hands-down the best approach for Skype voice calls on the E71. Skype Mobile is the most reliable way of having a text chat. Fring is the best all-round compromise. There is no “holy grail” solution which works perfectly.

So which approach will I be using for my day-to-day mobile Skype use? Unfortunately I’m going to have to choose different clients depending on what I want to do. When I’m out and about, reliable Skype chat (and presence) has to be my priority. It’s an ideal alternative to SMS if chats are delivered in real-time. If I want to make a Skype call, I shall switch to the 3 Skype client. If I’m somewhere where there is excellent 3G coverage or Wifi, I will switch over to Fring.

I think that the Skype Mobile client will be what I will run most of the time. Most people I know will send me a message asking if it’s OK to call, allowing me to quickly switch clients (to avoid call charges) to 3’s client. In my current personal scenario, I think this will work, and given the relative low use of Skype voice calls when I’m mobile, a relatively low inconvenience.

If I find that mobile voice (especially via my Online Number) and chat gain equal importance, I would probably hope that Fring have sorted out any network interconnection issues or that 3 concentrate on making chat work properly on their client and allow SkypeIn (I would pay a small monthly fee for this feature – maybe a dedicated 3+Skype contract?).

Given that these are early days for VOIP services such as Skype entering the mobile market, I think that it’s reasonable to assume that many improvements are on the cards. Progressive mobile networks such as 3 are important drivers in this field. So let’s hope that this sector strengthens in the coming year, and smartphone users are offered a more complete Skype experience.

Categories
Gadgets Mobile

Nokia E71 Review: Part One

Last week I treated myself to a new Nokia E71 on the 3 network here in the UK. After suffering the crapness that is the text entry system on the 3 Skypephone, I was after something that would run Skype, but have an excellent web browser and keyboard.

I looked at many phones, but settled on an E71 for these reasons:

  • Excellent battery life
  • QWERTY keyboard
  • Decent Skype client (provided by 3)
  • 3MP autofocus camera
  • GPS
  • Symbian OS (smartphone goodness without Windows Mobile or Apple walled garden)

I won’t list all of the phones that I looked at, but suffice to say I looked at most of the advanced phones available today. I did settle on an N95, but the battery life would definitely have been an issue for me, being an itinerant fiddler when it comes to gadgets. If it has features, then I will use them. And I want to be able to use those features whenever I want, not think about what I can or can’t use because I want to make a call later. I talked to too many N95 users who too often looked depressed when I asked about battery life.

Anyway, I digress.

I will start my review with a summary, to save all but the ardent reader having to read any further. The phone is all that I hoped for given my budget. Visually, I think the E71 is a great looking device. I plumped for the white version, and with its steel chrome surround, and white LEDs, it’s very shiny. It feels solid in the hand, and there’s no creaking plastic to be found. It ticks all of the build-quality boxes that I had in the back of my mind.

Given that the phone has everything bar a coffee machine inside it, the battery life is phenomenal. As I write this, I have two bars of battery life left. Over the last three (yes, three) days since its last charge I have used just about every function for just about every purpose I could think of. And there’s still charge left. I have:

  • Taken 60 photos
  • Recorded 10 minutes of video
  • Browsed the web for about 4 hours using a mixture of 3G and Wifi
  • Twittered a lot
  • Sent some SMS messages
  • Made some calls (maybe 30 mins)
  • Used the GPS for about an hour
  • Used the streaming internet radio for about 30 minutes
  • Listened to mp3s while surfing the web (maybe about 2 hours)
  • Installed and played with 14 applications (I’ll list them in another post)
  • Played about with Qik (10 minutes)
  • Run Skype in the background for maybe 4 hours

Now, to me, that I have any charge left at all is somewhat amazing (actually, it’s just gone down to one bar as I write this). I’m fairly sure that it’ll last until I get home in a couple of hours to give it a charge. Now that’s what I call battery stamina.

I finally have a phone (well, it’s a mini computer really) that does the things what I want it to do, and has the battery life to let me do them.

I’ll be writing a series of posts about different aspects of the phone in the next few days, so stay tuned.

[Update – I took a couple of 3-4 minute calls on the way home, took a photo, and received a text on the 45 minute walk home. In the last call, the phone began to warn me about a low battery. When I got home I plugged it in to charge, and went to see if it was charged at about 8.30pm (Monday). I’d forgotten to switch on the charger! But the phone was still on, and had received a text! The thing seems to last forever. For reference, it had its last charge on Friday night.]