Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Former Flagships: From LG G3 to Sony Xperia Z2

Several months back I accidentally dropped my LG G3 and had the screen replaced, but unfortunately it now seems to be becoming glitchy, so I decided to replace the phone with something different/better.  On my limited budget, I went for a one of the G3's competitors (of the era), a Sony Xperia Z2 as it has a 20MP camera, 3GB RAM, decent size battery, shatter-proof screen and waterproof (IP58 certified) body. I found a decent secondhand one on eBay at a reasonable price. It only has a few marks on the rear glass back, the rest is in great condition, including the 5.2 inch 1080p screen.

First impressions when I picked it up out the box was it's feels reassuringly heavy and robust, particularly the metal sides and buttons. Booting up, the device led me through the setup wizard, including creation of a Sony account. When I had finished I realized I could have used their backup/restore tool to restore straight from my G3! The default look isn't a stock look, the icons and widgets look a bit toy-like to me, so I installed Nova and replicated a cleaner, nearer stock look, with Marshmallow icons, in the same way I did with my G3. Like the LG, the Z2 has Knock To Wake (but not Knock to screen off), it just needs to be enabled in the settings. It might take me awhile to really get used to having the buttons on the side of the phone again, especially as the Z2 has the Power button and Volume rocker in the centre of the side of the device.

The Z2 currently runs Sony's version of Lollipop 5.1.1 (my LG G3 only has 5.0.2), it feels quick and I have so far not felt any lag, likely helped by a lighter UI and 3GB RAM. My G3 used to underclock itself when it got hot so it sometimes lagged briefly. All Z2s will get Marshmallow at some point, and there's a beta currently available for some. There's quite a few extra apps I am not sure I actually need, mostly camera effects, and some can be 'uninstalled' but at least it's easier to make it look stock than with LG. For example, Sony does not skin the Quick Settings so they're not ugly like LG's. However if you do not disable these extra apps, particularly Facebook and Twitter, you will find they bloat up to huge sizes as each update adds to the original size of the app and the 16GB version quickly feels too small.


The Sony Z2 has a 20MP camera that can record video at 2160p@30fps, 1080p@60fps (compared to 30FPS on my G3) and 720P@120fps. It does not have Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) which the LG G3 has. Slightly annoyingly HDR mode is buried in the stock camera settings, so it is not convenient. In fact most advanced features are only available when you set it in manual mode such as resolution and shot type. Luckily there are plenty of decent third party camera apps. Marshmallow will apparently bring the Z5 style camera interface to the Z2. I like the physical camera button, which can take you to the camera app when you hold it for 1 second, wherever you are in the OS or from the lockscreen. I do kind of miss the Quick Look case though. There's a ultra-quick burst mode setting, and you hold down the shutter button to activate it.

I'm a bit disappointed in the low light sunset shots by the Z2, as no matter which app I tried, I could not get a decent shot, as the white balance and contrast seems to be all out of whack, even when using HDR mode in other apps. I shall have to experiment further with settings and other camera apps to see if it can do better.

By default, the Sony camera app seems to use 8MP at 16:9 ratio, but I prefer to set it to Manual mode and 20MP at 4:3. I think the LG G3 has a greater dynamic range. On one very sunny day in Lincoln, I tested out the camera and found I got the best results, or at least to my tastes, using A Better Camera's HDR mode at 20MP, 4:3. The app used to suck the battery life out of my G3 but works just fine on the Z2. Here's a few examples:

You can find more photos from the same day here.

Here's another sunset shot, on a different day, that came out very well:

Battery Life

I am already noticing that I get far better battery life with the Z2 than I did with my LG G3. I used to have to charge my phone at some point in the early evening and then put on charge when I go to bed. The Z2 on the other hand seems to last me all day without that evening recharge, depending on usage. This is probably due to a combination of the larger 3200 mAh battery (the G3 one is 3000 mAh) and lower resolution screen. The G3's 1440p display might be larger, and pretty with it's tiny bezels, but it really does suck up more power.  I also actually find the Z2's display more pleasing to my eyes and easier to see in bright sunlight. The G3 does have a removable battery, unlike the Sony, but it's not as convenient and obviously requires the purchase of a spare battery. I also like that I can remove the MicroSD card from the Sony without having to shut the phone down.

Call Audio Quality

When I first tested the Z2s in a call, the caller at the other end could barely hear me, as my mic audio volume seemed to be really low. However, I found out that disabling Microphone Noise Suppression (Settings > Call Settings) solves the problem. After a reboot, it's now perfectly acceptable, though in Skype it is still a little bit low so I think I shall be using my Bluetooth headset for that.


Overall, despite the slightly better camera performance on the LG G3, I prefer the Sony Xperia Z2 as it doesn't lag at all, or get as hot. One time I awoke to find my LG G3 was really hot and about to shut itself down. I had to leave it off for about 20 minutes or so until it had cooled down before attempting to use it again. The Z2 also feels more durable and can apparently survive a splash or a dunking, though I'm not going to test that myself on purpose! The G3 is a great device when it's working fine, but I much prefer the Sony Z2's reliability, better battery life, and solid performance as a daily driver.    

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Kubuntu 16.04 Pre-Release Review

I was getting a bit tired of Mint KDE 17.3 on my main HP Z400 workstation (Quad core 2.5Ghz Xeon, 6GB RAM) like the way it holds back updates, plus for some reason it has been feeling rather sluggish and the final straw was Mint's user forum and main site getting hacked. If I cannot get help through their forum without them exposing my personal details then I will look elsewhere. The question was which distro should I try?

Well I wanted to stick with KDE and switch pretty quickly. I did consider Kaos Linux which is an interesting ground-up built distro that uses the package system and rolling release method from Arch. However having tried it in a VM, I would have had to spend a lot of time researching how to get all my favourite apps to install, and I needed to switch quicker than that. I'd also probably have to backup and format my Home partition. Plus 'bleeding-edge' distros are not really my cup of tea, I prefer stability over the latest apps. I know my way round apt-get and dpkg commands so well, I decided to go for Kubuntu 16.04. However since the final release is not due until the mid-April, I took a risk and installed a Daily build. This also made things easier because I could keep my old Home partition, so all my settings (bar the KDE ones) would stay, and I won't have to reinstall when 16.04 is finally released.

Installing took no time at all, as per previous releases, and the install went without a hitch. Upon rebooting I logged into the new KDE Plasma 5 desktop. By default on Nvidia cards 'buntu releases run using the open source Nouveau drivers, which are surprisingly good, apart from slightly fuzzy font rendering, but I could use it on my dual monitors fine while I sorted out getting the proprietary drivers installed. I tried installing the latest drivers manually using the PPA, but ended up with blank screens, until I remembered that my card is an old passive-cooled Geforce 210! Since Kubuntu's Driver Management Module doesn't see the old Legacy cards, I checked on NVidia's site which ones I needed, installed Synaptic, and looked for the nvidia-340 drivers. Once I installed them and rebooted all was well again. I then installed all my usual apps such as Gimp, Gmusicbrowser, Clementine, VLC etc. I also installed a couple of meta-packages, kubuntu-restricted-extras (for extra non-free codecs etc) and build-essential (for compiling apps).

The only remnants of my old settings I had to fix was some of the Places in Dolphin file manager were orphaned (since I changed the mount point of one of my drives) so it was just a case of editing those in the sidebar. Incidentally, I like the cleaned up look of Dolphin now, just remember that a lot of settings are now under the "Control" button.

My only slight problems are with virtual machines. Virtualbox won't install as it has dependency issues and (my admittedly old version of) VMWare Workstation needs patching again due to a newer kernel than it expects.I am sure these will be sorted at some point but it's not too much of a problem since I can always try VMs on my server (which has much more RAM anyway) and remote into them. Also I had to re-enable bash auto-completion which is not on by default for some reason.

I have changed the hideous Kubuntu default wallpaper for a couple of my favourites. It would be nice if KDE could span one wallpaper between two desktops, but KDE treats each workspace as separate. I have also tweaked the desktop/panel layout, switched the Desktop Theme from the default Breeze Light to Breeze Dark and installed Conky, so this is how my desktop looks now:

One thing I really love in Plasma 5 is the new Media Player widget, which now even recognises Gmusicbrowser, which it never did before, oh and the keyboard media buttons now actually work with Gmusicbrowser! Hovering over the widget on the panel shows artist/song info and album cover, clicking on the widget opens up the media controls. It might not seem like much but it's little things like this make things easier. Incidentally, Clementine player still uses a lot of resources - it is the top item in CPU and Memory usage in System Monitor, above Chrome!

The main thing I love about Kubuntu 16.04 is it's speed, it feels lightning fast compared to my old Mint KDE installation, even on a mechanical hard drive. Chrome feels really snappy, even with quite a few tabs open. Being a Daily build, there's a whole bunch of updates to install every day, when I login and even though it's still in beta, it is really stable, I've not had any application crashes yet, so hopefully it should be rock solid when it is finally released.

Update 6th March 2016
There's been a few little crashes, including once with Plasma desktop crashing and another with mouse settings, but nothing that a quick logout/login or reboot hasn't cured. Being a pre-release there are bound to be a few little bugs so I wouldn't recommend putting on mission critical situations until the final release, but at least there's not too long to wait.