Chink in the Armor

Armor android

Hello tech.geniuses and the world at large. Thank God it’s Easter, more significantly as a reminder of the purpose of the season as it relates to the destiny of mankind, but also the respite the holidays provide from the rigors of everyday Lagos commuting. Providing quality time to sit and put together thoughts which I’ve had swirling in my head for many many weeks now, transformed by numerous events which have occurred in my daily routines and the world at large. Finally, I present to you a mash-up of gimcrackery and airheaded cerebrations coming forth from yours truly in the form of – Chink in the armor.

Being a relatively newcomer in the Android world, a noob saibot, I believe going by the Android community slang, I’ve tried to put together a story of my journey so far. It all started while I was dancing to Joey Tempest’s Final countdown in the bathtub and my Nokia N97 mini phone dropped with a ghastly thud, but I don’t intend to dampen the tone of this write-up with the grim story of the giant turned dwarf. Rather I’ll start from somewhere charmingly simple and serene.

Welcome to Midgard, a quotidian realm characterized by the ordinariness of mere mortals, separated from Asgard, the realm of gods by Bifrost and even lower than Jotunheim, the land of the giants. It’s far beneath the far more alluring higher lands of Asgard – the home of the true gods, where dwells the insanely powerful, the glamorous and the order of the kingly, yet idyllic this middle realm is. I want to call it the realm of opportunities, what am I quipping about you wonder? It’s the plane of the mid-range smartphones.

What’s with the theme of this write-up? It’s the Chinese invasion of this realm particularly in our local environment! How easy would it be for you as a tech.genius to proudly hold out a chinco phone in public, potentially taking in a chink in that all so precious armor which is your techie image?

Help! There’s a chink in my armor!!!

I fortuitously (my damaged N97 mini, being cash strapped and uncharacteristically walking into a phone shop just to ask for prices on android phones in stock) got a Tecno N3 without much premeditation and I discovered it wasn’t all bad, might I dare say it was an interesting experience.

On the earlier question, would you take a chink in your armor (not applicable to Asgard gods – Odin doesn’t rhyme with Ody just by chance ;-))? I did and I got mixed reactions, and usually with my closer friends this was the usual pattern of conversation:

Me: I use a Tecno phone

<Slight pause, before friend gets a chance to respond>

Me: it runs the most widely used version of the Android OS and I can do some cool stuff on it.

Friend: Uhhh?? What??

Me: <long epistle on the uniqueness and freshness of the android experience>

Tecno-N3

Tecno N3 Dual-SIM Android phone

Now we talk about flagship phones for major phone manufacturers, given the marketing push for the N3 which runs Gingerbread 2.3.5 (cool soccer advert on supersport, really big billboards and its currently splashed across the Tecno website homepage), personally I might laughably consider it to be a flagship phone for Tecno, well until the N7 came around. Is it that good a phone? I’m tempted to say yes given its price. I picked mine for N12500 on an evening I wasn’t really thinking of buying a phone. It’s sleek, with a 3.5 inch screen with cheap plastic parts and a 3 MP camera. Having partaken in the death/extinction and fossilization of the Symbianosaurus, I needed a taste of that Android experience and starting from the very edges of Midgard, threateningly close to lower worlds with the N3 proved worthwhile. Without making much of a case for myself, here’s my verdict: Given the tweak-ability of the android platform and the price of the N3, I’d say it’s a darn good bargain (again, more later)! Within hours of procuring it I wasn’t missing the barren lands of the Symbian S60 with my Nokia N97 mini (ok, maybe I missed the carl zeiss camera). But before I proceed, is the Tecno N3 really a chinco phone? Yes it bears characteristics, considering the price range, and being manufactured by a traditional chinco phone maker. But wait, is it one really? What really is a chinco phone?

Shin Chong Ch’ing, I am a chinc! The Invasion of the china phone

I think it was about 6 years ago when I first saw one; it was still the age of the Laptop PC (at least here) with the idea of the smartphone as we now know it still in the not so distant future. Bright colorful touch screen with stylus pointer, implausibly loud and unfiltered speakers, it looked like the real deal…that was until we saw one drop, then another which was an imitation of one well-known brand or another. Within a short period these phones had become infamous and they earned the reputation which most of us still identify them by – unreliable and cheap.

                        china_mobile_phone_anycool_i98     images

So what were these china phones? They were generally devices that ran on the earliest MediaTek firmware. MediaTek Inc (MTK) is a big fabless semiconductor company from Taiwan (outsources fabrication, just design, R&D and sales). They supplied system software/firmware for their chipsets helping the Chinese phone manufacturers to cut cost. This was why all these phones looked the same from the inside (I mean software now), you could usually pick a knock-off and within 10 sec of probing, you’d know it was a china phone. Though the firmware was based on the same code, it was customizable. Unfortunately, since they ran on firmware, there was virtually nothing like installing apps or the likes. Later versions of MTK chipsets came with Java support compiled in their firmware, like a JVM that allowed installation of a number of java apps (like some Tecno phones). While the MTK platform wasn’t all that bad what we saw was from the Chinese phone makers were a bunch of phones with crappy hardware and lazy modifications of the MTK firmware.

These MTK chipsets had features not seen on their counterparts from other areas of the world; remember some of the earliest dual-SIM support, analog TV, even tri-SIM support.

url

Interestingly MediaTek has grown in leaps and bounds starting off in 1997 producing chips used in CD & DVD players to digital TV, GPS, digital home entertainment systems before venturing into the Mobile communications space in 2004. And now is a big gun in System on Chips (SoCs) for smartphones (now making dual-core and quad-core processors). In the future may pose a curious challenge to American semiconductor giant Qualcomm, who currently sit at the top.

System on Chips (SoCs) – In the case of cell phone is like a chipset containing modem for cellular communication, the application processor and the graphics processor all integrated. For example, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon platform with Scorpion/Krait processor, Adreno GPU, and modem all on-die. Others SoC makers are ST-Ericsson, Nvidia, Renesas Mobile, Texas Instruments etc. In some cases like Samsung, we can have the proprietary Exynos SoC (containing CPU & GPU) and a Qualcomm modem. Higher end Snapdragon chipsets have additional on-die Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth chips.

Needless to say, as we are witnessing, the face of the china phone is changing! Still in doubt? Check out this dossier of MediaTek SoCs from those on the earliest China phones to their latest products which I copied from Wikipedia.

MediaTek Smartphone application & modem processors / SoCs

  • MT6235: ARM9 CPU at up to 208 MHz
  • MT6516: ARM9 (ARMv5) CPU at 416 MHz / No GPU (very slow software rendering) / not 3G compatible
  • MT6573: ARM11 (ARMv6) CPU at 650 MHz / GPU: PowerVR SGX 531 / 3G,HSPA compatible.
  • MT6513: ARM11 (ARMv6) CPU at 650 MHz / No GPU (slow software rendering) / not 3G compatible
  • MT6575: Cortex-A9 (ARMv7) CPU at 1.0 GHz / GPU: PowerVR SGX 531 / 3G,HSPA compatible.
  • MT6515: Cortex-A9 (ARMv7) CPU at 1.0 GHz / GPU: PowerVR SGX 531 or Mali-300 / not 3G compatible
  • MT6577: Cortex-A9 (ARMv7) CPU at 1.0 GHz dual-core / GPU: PowerVR SGX 531 / 3G,HSPA compatible
  • MT6517: Cortex-A9 (ARMv7) CPU at 1.0 GHz dual-core / GPU: PowerVR SGX 531 / not 3G compatible
  • MT6577T: Cortex-A9 (ARMv7) CPU at 1.2 GHz dual-core / GPU: PowerVR SGX 531 / 3G,HSPA compatible
  • MT6517T: Cortex-A9 (ARMv7) CPU at 1.2 GHz dual-core / GPU: PowerVR SGX 531
  • MT6589 (previously known as MTK6588): Cortex A7 (ARMv7) CPU at 1.2 GHz quad-core / GPU: PowerVR SGX 544 at 300 MHz / 3G, HSPA+, TD-SCDMA compatible

Now for just a quick moment checkout this short review on an Android phone with the MTK 6575 SoC. Also just for extra perspective, the Galaxy S4 Exynos 5 Octa 5410 chipset has the following specs: CPU – Quad-core 1.6 GHz Cortex-A15/quad-core 1.2 GHz Cortex-A7 and GPU PowerVR SGX 544MP3. I’m not an expert but don’t think MTK is too far behind, though a little research did show that the MT6589 is not in the league of the truest high-end processors. Also there’s no LTE support yet.

Interestingly, the current MediaTek MTK6577 chips with Cortex-A9 architecture, dual-core with 40nm technology, are now the mainstream chip in many brands like Lenovo and Huawei. The waterproof Lenovo LePhone A660 phone running on the MTK 6577 with ICS in shown below and it goes for $199 on fastcardtech, not too sure if that includes shipping costs.

Lenovo LePhone A660

The Lenovo LePhone A660 waterproof Android Phone

My point is this – a shift in Midgard is definitely on the way, it’d be premature to say the grip of Nokia and the likes on the lower middle-range rung, particularly in Africa (with the Asha/S40 platform) is going to be shattered but the threat and possibility is definitely not non-existent. A N12500 Tecno N3 smokes a Nokia Asha in the same price range, also with a China phone with fairly decent hardware like that in the review, running a cool OS platform like the Android, I don’t think any Nokia (or even Samsung phone) in the same price range would stand a chance. The question still stands though; can you take that chink in the armor even though it translates to a superior smartphone experience, better than your current N-series phone or your qwerty Blahberry? You’d also agree that Lenovo or Huawei are less of chinks in your armor.

How about the global market? Telecoms expert Tomi Ahonen for this year predicts a stable and modest rise for the likes of Huawei (3rd largest smartphone maker), ZTE (biggest of the remaining major Chinese smartphone makers), Coolpad (now in top 10, having displaced Motorola) and Lenovo (11th). Read the entire story here.

Considering of the mid-range WP8? China no dey carry last, with Huawei’s 4Afrika initiative, we are set to see affordable Windows Phones with very decent specs. The Huawei 4Afrika WP8 sports a 4-inch display, a dual-core 1.2GHz processor, 512mb RAM and 5MP camera for just about $150, how’d they pull it off? Never underestimate the Chinese though something might just give as it’s hardly ever too good to be true in the IT world.

Huawei-4Afrika-Blue_thumbHuawei 4Afrika

Huawei 4Afrika

So is the Tecno N3 a chinco phone? I’d say an evolved one made by a phone manufacturer pushing hard to rebrand itself and penetrate emerging markets like Africa (which it is really succeeding at). They’ve also released the Tecno N7 which has a 5-inch screen, with a 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 SoC running Android 4.0 ICS, a friend of mine picked his for N30000 and the price should drop expectedly.

A little more on my brief experience with the N3

The Tecno N3 was my first Android phone (yes, I’m a habitual late comer when it comes to tech gadgets), largely because my Nokia N97 mini croaked though it came back to life (Nokia phones resilience is no myth). But by then I was tired of the S60 5th Ed. Platform. I had updated the Nokia maps, tried the newer look Evolve theme, even tried Xtron – an app than overlays your UI with a Windows phone style UI…same story, this was a dying dog, When it fell in the bathtub, the final straw had been laid.

With the Tecno N3, I missed the cool hardware and qwerty keyboard from my N97 mini but that was just the first few hours. Better browser, advanced UI, rich app store, customizability, PDANet for using phone as modem, Adobe reader problem from S60 phone non-existent, full access to social network apps – I didn’t have twitter on my S60 and that partly explains my lack of presence on the platform etc, I never looked back. But with a few days of use, its limitations became clearly apparent – Its internal memory (about 200mb if I remember well) and of course the RAM (160mb or so). While gingerbread ran seamlessly, it was clear there were limitations to the apps I could run on it…not a true joyride I’d say. I stuck with the low-end fun games like gyro, fruit ninja, ninjump, paper toss though cooler games like Jetpack Joyride and Pixel twist ran well (I later came across a list of HD games that it could support on Nairaland much to my surprise). While I couldn’t do anything about the RAM or the quality/weight of apps, I had to deal with the memory issue.

tecno n3

The commonly displayed Tecno N3 splash banner advert – currently on the Tecno homepage

I found a way to root the phone thanks to this guide by Bolorunduro Timothy on tecno android spot. Then I did a little research and found an app called Link2SD, which creates a symbolic link of your apps on the phone memory and moves it entirely (lib files, cache etc) to your SD card which you must have partitioned. That partition remains transparent to your phone; it’s like creating a shortcut and placing the tiny shortcut file in the phone memory while the entire app and all its files exist in a partition on the SD card which is hidden from your phone. Upside – lots of free space (almost equivalent to adding more internal memory, 1.6GB in my case) as partitioned from your SD card. Downside – you have to root (not a biggie really), and your phone startup time becomes a real issue as it has to load Superuser which in turns grants Link2SD root privileges to do its thing, I got to a point where I had tons of apps and had to wait for 5 min after rebooting before I could use my phone for anything meaningful.

While it was matched and was better than my S60 experience it limitations, my technolust and its chinco origins left me with much dissatisfaction. I needed to move on…still the N3 is a very decent phone for its price and once you can try the above mentioned procedures, believe me…it’s a giveaway!

A Sojourn to Jotunheim

Jotunheim from Norse folklore is the land of the giants still on middle earth. By my own attempt at facetious classification, Jotunheim is the land of the once upon a time flagship phone – the previous Galaxy S series (S3 is still Asgard quality to me), HTC sensation, desire HD. LG Optimus 3D, Motorola Droid, Sony Xperia Pro etc, basically pre-2012 phones that can still hold their own.

This was the next obviously accessible realm for me ( well, though I had found out about the Tecno N7, I wasn’t too sure about its memory details, you often find sites giving you wrong info on specs) and after a quick look out on OLX, I found a seller willing to trade a HTC desire HD which was shipped with Gingerbread for just under N30000, UK used of course. I jumped at the offer and procured the phone within 24 hours. It almost turned out to be a one-chance trip as desire HD (or Ace as it was codenamed during development) phones shipped with Gingerbread or having being updated OTA are virtually unrootable. The only option was to downgrade to Froyo before being able to root. The major tool which could help was the Advanced Ace Hacking Kit (AAHK) which I discovered had been retired just a week before I got the phone by the developer, who created had created it.

htc desire hd 2

HTC Desire HD

After a few days on trying alternatives I resorted to downloading the hack kit and its components from alternative sources and after a few unsuccessful attempts at rooting it I took two days off to read and watch videos to understand what I was really trying to do. Long story short, it was downgraded and rooted on an Ubuntu live CD session, and with some internet guides and extra perspective from Ody’s tutorial, I downloaded two customized Jellybean ROMs for the phone and upgraded it. I’m currently running one (CynanogenMod 10.1) now without any issues.

So there you have it, from the Tecno N3 to the Desire HD running Android 4.2 Jellybean. More quality apps, more space, greater power…I’m moving ahead slowly eyeing Bifrost, the flaming rainbow bridge to Asgard and the android space has proven to be every bit worthwhile. Below are some of my very casual utilizations.

RF2012a  RF2012b

Real football…well almost

Screenshot_2013-03-23-20-20-32

Anime tracks on PC radio internet radio app

The Data Gremlin

Usually I use 260mb 1-month data bundle offered by Etisalat at N1000 for a little under a month on my N97 mini. Just after my transition to the Tecno N3, it would last for barely a week. The android platform is that much data-intensive.

Data usage

So what are the alternatives? Gaining popularity are the blackberry BIS packages with data caps useable on other platforms.

  • The Airtel 1GB blackberry monthly offering for N1400 was the one I started with (BCM to 440)
  • Glo monthly and weekly blackberry packages (Coweek and Comonth respectively to 777) at N400 for 700mb weekly and 1400 for 3GB monthly (with APN settings changes)
  • MTN’s own offering I think requires some extra tweaking so I steered clear
  • Nothing yet from Etisalat that I know of.

The Glo blackberry package with default setting – APN: blackberry.net, username and password fields blank, stopped working but for some strange reason after I tried the following settings – APN: glosecure, username and password: flat, it worked unlimitedly, with my 3GB intact but it always disconnected abruptly. Better than nothing especially when there’s apparently no cap.

No way you’re that smart!!!

Rounding off this write-up, I thought to mention a thing or two about the so-called Nokia Asha smartphones series as it stands as the direct competition to the Android China phones in the Midgard range. I think the smartphone tag is technically defective, while functionally it remains arguable, but even Nokia in its classification in its 2012 Q3 report lists the range as” feature phones and devices with more smartphone-like features such as full touch devices”. Definitely you must have seen posters or Lagos BRT bus banners advertising the phones as Asha Smartphones, so it has to be a marketing ploy. In its Q4 report though the Asha line was listed under along with the Symbian and Windows phone in the total smartphone shipments for that quarter, a ploy to boost sales image and keep the investors happy?

nokia asha 311   nokia asha 201 dualsim

The Asha 311 and the 201 dual-SIM phone

The question is how to you determine what a smartphone is? Feature phones more commonly run on proprietary firmware, with third-party software support through platforms such as Java ME. The S40 is an embedded software platform and development is limited to Java software and web apps. A true smartphone should run a full blown operating system like the Android. With some Asha phones you do get full touch screens, numerous apps and services such as instant messaging, maps, web browsing, social networking, games, email etc., but that doesn’t change the underlying fact – it’s not a smartphone platform even if it shares similar functionalities as true smartphones.

We’ve seen the meteoric fall of Nokia from the top of the smartphone perch to the bottom rung. Want to know how bad it is? There’s no better place to look than Nokia doomsday’s analyst and industry expert Tomi Ahonen’s blog. Check out his just one of his posts – Tomi Ahonen on Nokia 2012 Q4 sales drop.

What do Ronaldhino and Nokia have in common? We’ve seen them both at their peaks and they were both a joy to watch but both experienced massive slumps and are now trying to make fruitless attempts at getting back in the big stage. After Microsoft’s bastardization of Nokia – two things are clear, Nokia’s slump sure did the Chinese phone’s manufacturers more good than harm and for Nokia, the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire!

ronaldinho-triof

Thanks for the heads-up dinho…I think we can all see the obvious

Okay tech.geniuses that rounds-off this write-up. I hope it may as proven insightful even in the slightest. I’m not saying go buy a china phone. Decent phones with nice specs can be ordered at the sub-200 dollar range, we may see a push into the mid-range for the android china phones, Tecno has started it locally, Huawei and Lenovo should also help that cause as they are bigger brands, just don’t stick with the lesser platforms because Asgard appears to be beyond reach or justification at the moment. The Chinese are here and they are here to stay.

5 thoughts on “Chink in the Armor

  1. Wow! Awesome piece. You’re good.

    Nokia should have seen this coming. They invited me and some other developers to come and learn how to develop applications for the new S40 platform. I was excited at first but as I discussed with other Devs and industry experts that attended, we realized that the moment Android fell into the hands of the Chinese guys, or more importantly, the moment their hardware was strong enough to support android, It would be over for Nokia.

    The reason is simple and the handwriting has been on the wall for a while. Nokia’s Symbian/S40 simply can’t compete with them on software and price which is what those users are looking for.. Not specs. If they wanted specs, they would be looking for higher end phones.

    Nokia should have embraced android for their lower end phones and used Windows Phone for their high end stuff if they still want to be stubborn about it.

    That’s what I love about Samsung. They never leave anything to chance. They’ll try android, windows phone, tizen e.t.c and see what sticks and in return do more of that

    • I guess you’re right on the handwriting, though the S40 is still very strong locally and in the emerging markets. I reckon it will be for a while particularly if you consider the demographics. Non-techies who won’t give a hoot will stick to the S40 for its simplicity, they don’t care about multitasking or data bundles…15mb a week will be just OK. the younger hippier generation might think otherwise… so maybe in the future, but like you said, the handwriting is on the wall.

  2. Good one. I couldn’t have written it better (actually, I could, but let’s be fair, you’re only human ;) ). I especially like the bit about the Asha series. My sister has one and it’s barely better than my old Sony Ericsson K800i. Only the wireless, email, Facebook and other such features trump my phone. You can’t even multi-task on those things! Again, good one.

  3. Pingback: How Do You Hype A Brand Like Tecno?

  4. Pingback: How do you hype a brand like Tecno? | YNaija

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