All posts by Long Zheng

Hands-on with Samsung’s curved future: Gear S and Galaxy Note Edge impressions

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Samsung Australia is officially opening a new “Experience” store in the heart of Melbourne tomorrow. This morning it gave media the chance to try out some new unreleased products including the Gear S, Galaxy Note Edge, Note 4 and Gear VR which the public will also be able to preview at the store.

The company’s obsession with curved screens this upcoming product cycle has intrigued me from a usability point of view to say the least. After spending a few minutes with them I admit there’s no doubts there’s some part technical “look what we can do” gimmick, but having said that you can’t completely rule out some practical benefits too.

Gear S

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I’ve been following the wearable smartwatch category pretty closely and Samsung is a notable player with three generations of watches already under its belt. Undeniably the Gear S stands out from the competition with its curved screen but also for running the Tizen OS, not Android Wear.

(Ignore the bulging silver block at the top in all my photos. This is part of the obnoxious but necessary anti-theft security since the watch is removable from the strap.)

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Putting the Gear S on the wrist makes a very compelling argument for the curved screen. No doubt the screen is big looking at it front-on (and I have tiny arms), but the fact that the screen is curved actually minimises its profile from the side. To put it another way, if the screen this size was not curved than it would have been an unwieldy bulge on my arms.

The curvature was also not an issue when it comes to swiping gestures (which you do a lot of) or visibility. The AMOLED screen had excellent brightness and viewing angles that negated any effects of glare of distortion caused by light bouncing from more angles on the curved glass.

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The Tizen OS and third-party apps are surprisingly responsive. Even pinch to zoom in the Nokia HERE Maps app worked without lag or jitter. I do worry about the wearable apps ecosystem outside of Android Wear but we can only wait and see how developers handle cross-platform wearable apps.

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The Gear S is also one of the first smartwatches with both onboard GPS and cellular (Micro SIM), making it possible to use without tethering to or carrying a phone (otherwise it still supports WiFi and Bluetooth). This enables the ability to get directions, track runs/heartbeats and share the result directly, but it’s yet to be seen if this is practical with the already limited battery life of smartwatches.

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Furthermore, because the Gear S has an independent cellular connection, the companion Android manager app can also be set up to forward all calls from the phone to the watch.

In summary, I’m quite excited for the Gear S. Although I think it would have been a much more compelling device running Android Wear, its feature-rich hardware and screen in particular is actually a remarkable piece of engineering and design.

Galaxy Note Edge

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A lot of people including myself was and maybe still are skeptical of the edge. The truth is even the Samsung staff think it’s “edgy” – they admit this isn’t going to be for everyone if most people.

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Putting the Edge in the palm for the first time is certainly a different feeling to every other phone. It’s actually not the curve that’s the issue but the sharp right angle it makes at the edge which is a little bit awkward (especially for a right-handed user) but not overwhelmingly bothersome after getting some used to.

Using the edge is fairly straight forward. By default on the homescreen you have access to a dock of application icons that can be used to launch apps. You can also swipe left and right to other customisable widget/notification-style panels like news, sports, weather and Twitter. Swipe from bottom gives you quick access to a ruler, stopwatch, timer, flashlight and microphone.

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Two of the apps demoed utilising the Galaxy Note Edge SDK were the camera and note-taking app. Both of these apps take on the approach of shifting UI buttons to the edge, leaving the main display an unspoiled canvas which any minimalist would appreciate.

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For apps that do not have any support, the screen automatically shows a black strip with subtle faint text which can be personalised. You can still swipe to access the panels as you can on the homescreen. As a very minor nitpick, you’ll notice that such apps actually extend a little bit into the curve instead of being fully contained on the flat surface.

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Disappointingly the panel does not rotate when the phone is lying flat on a table, which makes it difficult to read from the right side. I was secretly hoping it would transform into a stock-ticker for unread notifications.

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In conclusion, I think the edge concept and implementation is certainly interesting but I’m skeptical of widespread third-party support since even Samsung’s own app support is quite sparse. If nothing else, it’s a really cool ruler.

Review: Bellroy Note Sleeve “slim wallet”

A little owl banner ad has been stalking me around the web challenging me to slim my wallet. Their ad targeting is incredible since my wallet is indeed uncomfortably bulgy so I was eager to find out exactly how much a difference just a wallet can make.

The people behind the ad is an Australian company called Bellroy. These guys pride themselves on creating slim wallets and even own slimyourwallet.com. The idea is simple, their wallet is specially designed to stack cards using less room than other wallets.

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Bellroy doesn’t believe in the one-size-fits-all strategy. Their range of six wallets is split between folded bills and flat bills, combined with a range of card-fitting capacities.

I opted for the Note Sleeve (above) which claims to fit flat bills, coins as well as 4-11+ cards.

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To start my experiment, this is what I carried when I made the switch. 12 cards. Cash and coins. (I must admit I carry more cards than I should. Bring on Apple Pay.)

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And this is how all those things fit in my previous standard leather wallet. Although the leather and stitches have lasted about 6 years, it was certainly bulgy and uncomfortable in tighter skinny jeans. Definitely function over form.

On to the Bellroy.

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From the first impression of an embossed owl on the cardboard packaging, it’s clear this is a company that takes its materials and craftsmanship very seriously.

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The wallet from the outside is modestly clean with only a small emboss of the logo. The silver stitching stands out quite well on this slate-colored leather. Oh and it also has that nice real leather smell.

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Splitting open the inside reveals a primary card slot on the left, two primary card slots on the right and the pouch for all infrequently used cards. (More on the little tab later)

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More fine stitching and a little owl.

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Since this wallet fits flat bills, there’s plenty of room for bills of most Western currencies. There’s two little pouches at the bottom, one with a flap (right) and one without. Both fit coins but I’ve found the one without the flap easier to access.

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The little tab is Bellroy’s secret sauce for fitting lots of cards in a stack but making it still (relatively) easy to access. This means you can push in a stack of 6 cards deep into the pouch, and the tab allows you to easily slide out all of the cards for picking.

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And this is what it looks like after I’ve put in all my cards.

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I put 2 cards in each of the three slots and 6 cards in the pouch. (Side note, I have different NFC cards in each side so I can scan my card by just opening it on one side. Of course it won’t work closed since multiple cards will interfere with each other.)

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My old wallet measured around 3.2cm from the thickest side.

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And the Bellroy measures 2.4cm from the thickest side. A saving of 0.8cm which equals to a 25% reduction over the original! Not bad for changing only just a wallet.

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To get a better sense of where the savings come from, this picture of the two empty wallets side by side gives you a good idea just how thinly crafted the Bellroy Note Sleeve is.

What’s not picture is also how light it feels. Since there’s only minimal layers of leather, the wallet feels considerably lighter in the pocket as well.

I also found getting the wallet into my pockets was much easier. I believe this is because the edges are tightly threaded forming a thin hard flap which helps the wallet slide into pockets like a hot knife through butter.

In conclusion, I’m convinced Bellroy’s slim wallets work. And it’s not just me who’s convinced – when I asked people on Twitter for wallet recommendations, there was an overwhelming praise for Bellroy wallets that’s hard to dispute. At A$89.95, the Note Sleeve is a wallet worth investing in.

Disclosure: Bellroy provided the wallet at no cost for the purpose of this review.

Optimising for the 0.33%

I was browsing Apple’s new website today when something grabbed my attention. One of the screenshots on an iOS 8 page had an Australian address. “Oh that’s cute” I thought. As a designer, I understand the pain and effort localisation requires and I always appreciate the extra attention to detail, especially when it comes to localising bitmap images.

I quickly started to wonder just how much localisation does Apple actually do for the Australian website (which caters to just only 0.33% of the world’s total population). So I docked the AU and US sites side by side and started to browse.

I was pleasantly surprised.

If you ignore all the plain-text localisations, as you’ll see from the side-by-side examples below, I have never seen this depth of localisation for bitmap images before.

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(Left: Australia, Right: US) Common in all of these screenshots, the time has lowercase periods and the date is in the D/M/Y format. More notably, the address is changed from “12921 Elm Road, Palm Springs, CA 94920″ to “6/182 Acland Street, St Kilda, VIC 3183″ (which is actually a real address in Melbourne). Many of the names below are also changed, although I have no evidence to suggest “Marissa”, “Jess” or “Claire” are more Australian.

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(Top: Australia, Bottom: US) Australian slang shortens “university” as “uni”. We also use the “enrolment” spelling. The iPad in the background also mentions “Byron” instead of “Vegas”, in “km” instead of “miles”, and “petrol” instead of “gas”. The words “tanned” and “tan” are also changed.

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(Left: Australia, Right: US) The location “Sydney” is used instead of “Santa Cruz”. “Favourites” instead of “favorite”.

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(Left: Australia, Right: US) Subways aren’t that common in Australia so it is changed to “train”.

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(Left: Australia, Right: US) “Mum” instead of “Mom”. Metric unit “metres” instead of “feet”.

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(Top: Australia, Bottom: US) “Appointment” instead of “meeting”. “Cricket”, an Australian favourite instead of “baseball”. “Wentworth Park” is also a real Australian sporting complex instead of “SFDS”. Naturally the calendar has “Australian Holidays” instead of “US Holidays”.

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(Left: Australia, Right: US) Even though the words are the same here, the number of app reviews and app price is appropriately adjusted for the Australian App Store.

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(Top: Australia, Bottom: US) “Holiday” instead of “vacation”. “Glasses” instead of “frames”. We also don’t have number-based street names so “Roberts Street” instead of “21st Avenue”.

Surprisingly however, the United Kingdom Apple website which serves the second largest native-English market (0.88% of the world’s population) does not seems to get any special regionalisation treatment. For example no effort has been put to localise the Palm Springs address from the default US one. (Update 22 Sep: the UK website now seems to have received a localisation update as well).

Perhaps there’s some special connection Apple has with Australia which could explain why Apple launched iTunes Radio in Australia only second after the US.

Whoever did this at Apple, I tip my hat to you.

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The user experience of blowing hot air

As someone who enjoys paying a lot of attention to detail and user experience, I’m always delighted by “they thought of that” moments when I come across it. This one took me 9 years to notice.

A couple of days ago I was in a 2005 BMW 3-series and I noticed something different about the climate system. It’s winter here in Australia so the temperature was set to the highest and the car was obviously warm, but there wasn’t any hot air blowing out of the face vents.

I was slightly puzzled, did a blower stop working? I toggled the face vent override button and it definitely blew hot air from the face vents, so I was slightly relieved it wasn’t broken, but turning off the button defaulting to automatic distribution definitely stops the air coming out of the face vents.

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In this car, the air distribution can be independently fine-tuned to provide about 5-degrees of intensity for each of the windscreen, face and feet vents.

Looking at the air distribution configuration screen, it confirmed that the face vents were indeed off for some reason. At 28C (82.4F), some air went to the windscreen and most air went to the feet.

This was extremely odd because I was very confident the car used to blow air onto my face with the default setting.

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After a bit of experimentation, I then noticed when I turned down the driver-side temperature, the air distribution changed along with the temperature. Huh?

At 16C (60.8F), most air went to the face and some went to the feet. This was what I had remembered to be normal.

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Changing the temperature more confirmed this behavior.

But now I was curious, why does it do this? Unfortunately neither the BMW user manual or website made any references to this.

I then come across several anecdotal forum posts. According to those people, this is actually a subtle BMW safety feature to ensure hot air is not constantly blown on the driver’s face which might lead to driver fatigue and increases the likelihood of falling asleep at the wheel.

Although I’ve tried to get in touch with someone at BMW to confirm this, I’ve yet to hear anything back. (Note: If anyone knows someone at BMW, please pass this on.)

In the meantime, I’m inclined to believe this because I know just how much attention to detail BMW engineers put into their cars and this sounds like something they would have thought of.

The 12 step process to download Microsoft SQL Server Express 2014

The Microsoft SQL Server team has many goals. One of them is to create an industry-leading, high-performance, scalable and resilient database software. The other is to make said-software difficult to download.

In previous years, the team has employed the confusing file-name strategy. But this year, with SQL Server 2014, they have done their best work yet.

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Step 1: I guess I want to “evaluate” SQL Server 2014 Express.

The hip developer guy not using his ergonomic Aeron chair instead opting for a standing desk certainly looks like he’s enjoying his SQL Server.

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Step 2: Good to see there are now explanations for each of the download versions, but the “download” button turns out to be a con. Every single one of the five buttons all link to the same URL. (Hint: it’s not the actual download URL)

The two guys at the front of the office seems to be enjoying their Aeron chairs. They’re not having any of this standing desk business.

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Step 3: This is definitely not the download page but there’s a green button so I must be on the right track. I get another chance to read about all the different versions of SQL Express in case I’ve changed my mind from a second ago.

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Step 4: Wait, I have to log in to download this?

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Step 5: Why am I filling out a form with my name and email address? No I don’t want any marketing emails from Microsoft or Microsoft’s partners. Of course this is fruitless because they’ll email anyway. “By Downloading SQL Server 2014 Express software, you may receive emails from Microsoft with SQL Server 2014 Express resources”.

And at the top of the page “if you do not want to submit your information, click Cancel” might sound like a good deal but you’ll just get sent back to the previous page without a download. It’s Microsoft’s way or the highway.

Oh and don’t forget which version of SQL Server Express you want to download. Of course there’s no description of what the versions contain on the page that actually matters.

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Step 6: I want the 64-bit version. I have no idea what version “Other” might be and at this point I don’t care.

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Step 7: For some reason this list selects the first item by default which happens to be “Chinese (Simplified)”. I had to double back to this page since I assumed English would be the default, like most people I would imagine. 我的中文不是很好。

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Step 8: Yes! I’m done with the forms. Wait, where is my download? I need to download Akamai what? Why can’t you just serve the file over HTTP like a normal web server?

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Step 9: The ultimate bait-and-switch. You thought you were downloading SQL Server, now you’re downloading Akamai NetSession. And “my_downloader_installer.exe” totally sounds like a virus.

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Step 10: More button clicks.

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Step 11: Of course this inconspicuous app wants outgoing firewall access. And I finally get to choose where to save “SQLEXPRWT_x64_ENU.exe”, using the legacy Windows save dialog without the handy sidebar.

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Step 12:

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Even after installing the almighty “downloader”, I have to track the progress of this download on a web page. What!?

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Update 18/6: Microsoft’s Scott “Handyman” Hanselman has taken matters into his own hands and registered downloadsqlserverexpress.com which points to a simple page of the different versions and direct HTTP download links.