Android, Nexus and Verizon

Android cake image from Tama Leaver on Flickr

I want my cake and to eat it, too
Picture by Tama Leaver on Flickr

Hello. My name is Aaron, and I’m a rabid Android fanboy. I write this post while perched high on one of my favorite soap boxes. This is the back story to the review that I will post later this week of my Google Nexus 6 smartphone that I’ve been using for the last four months on Verizon.

There’s nothing more refreshing than a pure Android experience, free of the bloat that is frequently installed by manufacturers or carriers. I’ve spent many hours of my life installing custom ROMs on my phones and deactivating apps for friends and family in order to make phones easier and cleaner to use.

Modern versions of Android have made removing the junk from phones easier, as most apps can now be deactivated from the app info screen. Installing the Google Now Launcher from the Google Play Store now makes it easy to remove a big chunk of the problem of manufacturer overlays such as TouchWiz and Sense. While these tweaks can make phones usable for most people, it’s just not good enough for me. I want a phone that I don’t have to root to remove all traces of manufacturer and carrier interference between me and my Android experience. I don’t want to have to take the step of deactivating the Amazon App Store or NFL Mobile to get them out of my app tray.

I live in a rural area and am stuck on Verizon. There are so many phones I’d like to try, from manufacturers such as Blu and OnePlus, but because Verizon must pre-approve each device, I’ll never get to try them. I’ve tried other carriers, specifically AT&T and Sprint, but their networks simply don’t cover my farm.

Google knows how good vanilla Android can be, even while they tolerate the manufacturers and carriers adding junk to Android in order to differentiate themselves. To that end, they created the Nexus program, wherein they partner with manufacturers to create Google-branded phones that have the pure Android experience that I – and many others – crave.

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

I was a huge fan of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. It was the first Nexus device on Verizon, and I bought it when my original Motorola Droid finally died. I wasn’t excited about it, as I’d always loved Motorola phones, but it was the best option available at the time. I wasn’t aware how amazing the Nexus program was until my Galaxy Nexus died and I bought a Samsung Galaxy Note 3. I’ve written before how horrible the Note 3 experience was. I longed to be able to use another Nexus phone, but resigned myself to the prevailing wisdom at the time that Verizon would never again allow a Nexus device on its network.

Last fall, I’d heard rumors of the next Google phone. It was to be huge and made by Motorola. It was to be the first phone running the latest version of Android, Lollipop. Knowing I’d never get the opportunity to use the Nexus 6 on Verizon, I reluctantly ordered an LG G3. I was really happy with the G3, as I’ve written earlier. What I didn’t know was that the biggest part of the Nexus 6 announcement was that it would work on all four major US carriers – including Verizon.

I was with Alltel when it was acquired by Verizon. Before that, I was with Kansas Cellular when it was acquired by Alltel. I don’t change plans or carriers frequently, and I’m still grandfathered into my unlimited data plan. Because Verizon will force a plan change if I buy a new phone with a subsidy, I’ve been paying outright for every phone since they eliminated their unlimited data options.

Nexus 6

Nexus 6

Because I knew I would pay full price for my Nexus 6, I didn’t have to wait for an official release by Verizon. I knew from forums that the phone should work with any preactivated nano-SIM from Verizon. I set out to be one of the first to get the phone, which was plagued with supply problems. It would go on sale for a few seconds at a time each Wednesday, starting on October 29, on the Google Play store. I tried and tried, but wasn’t ever successful. I finally got lucky ordering directly from Motorola on November 6. When I saw that I was able to add one to my cart, I pulled over to the side of the road and could not enter my credit card number fast enough on the order page.

From reading the forums, I was one of only a few who was successful at making the purchase. My Nexus 6 arrived on November 17. I inserted my SIM and crossed my fingers. It worked perfectly. Check back tomorrow for the review of the Google Nexus 6 on Verizon.

Posted in Android, Apps, gadgets, reviews, services | Tagged , , , , , , |

Auction Video Podcast – 15 – Auction marketing innovation

I had a great conversation today with Russ Hilk from WaveBid, Daniel West from Auction Method and Dwayne Leslie from Global Auction Guide about Auction Guy, Every Single Auction and LotNut, as well as social media and other technology issues. Enjoy!

If you have comments, or have suggestions for the next episode, drop me a line in the comments below.

Posted in advertising, community, Podcasts, theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

Podcasting hardware

After the Auctioneer Crosswalk video call last month, I received a question about the hardware I use to record podcasts. I spend a fair amount of time each month recording commercials, as well as Purple Wave’s Auction Podcast, so I’ve done a fair amount of research, mostly through trial and error, about the best way to setup a home studio without breaking the bank. While I’m always looking for ways to improve, here’s a look at the hardware I’m currently using and why.

Battlestation - my podcasting workstation

Battlestation – my podcasting workstation

Overview
The goal of any audio recording is low noise and high control. The software is outside the scope of this article, but the requirements of the hardware are to record separate sources at the highest quality and lowest noise possible. When recording a commercial or a podcast without a guest, one computer is sufficient. I’ve found, however, that when recording a call, making the call and recording the call from the same computer is tricky. For that reason, I always use a laptop to run Skype or, now that Skype no longer works well, Google Hangouts, and I connect it to the desktop computer that will be recording the caller and my voice separately.

Microphone
The first thing every auctioneer is going to ask about is the microphone. When I first started recording the AuctioneerTech Auction Podcast in 2008, I used an ART USB Dual Pre and a Shure SM57 microphone. The SM57 has a much more favorable frequency response than the more popular SM58, and the Dual Pre let me record two sources separately.

The Dual Pre worked great under Linux, which is what I used to record at the time, but as I moved away from Linux I found that using the Dual Pre under Windows introduced a significant amount of noise. I decided to try to simplify my setup, so I ordered a Samson G-Track, which has a built-in USB interface. It worked well under Windows, and I used it for several years. It had a line-in that let me record and monitor the sources separately from the mic itself, which made it a better choice for recording calls than other USB mics. It’s still the USB mic I’d recommend to anyone looking to find a decent quality and simple podcast recording setup as cheap as possible.

While the G-Track worked, it was still a consumer USB mic. The noise floor was better than the Dual Pre, but it still wasn’t as low as I wanted. I wanted a professional, large diaphragm dynamic microphone. I found the Heil PR40 and I love it. There are definitely better microphones, but the PR40 strikes a balance of extreme quality, great sound and a still somewhat reasonable price. If you’re lucky enough to have your own desk, splurge for a swing arm – you won’t regret it.

Heil PR 40 microphone with optional pop guard

Heil PR 40 microphone with optional pop guard

Console
The PR40 is not a USB mic. It has an XLR output, which means I need a recording interface. I’ve always used a console to control the sound around my desk, and I decided it was time to ditch my rickety old board and get a new one that had a USB interface built in. I initially tried a Behringer XENYX X1204USB. It simply didn’t work the way I wanted it to work. It would record just fine, but there wasn’t an easy way to use headphones and my speakers simultaneously. After being frustrated with the Behringer for months, I broke down and traded for a Mackie ProFX8. It’s the perfect console. The USB interface works great and features a ridiculously low noise floor. The inputs and outputs make sense, and I can use headphones, speakers or both and effortlessly switch between the two.

Mackie ProFX8 has the right amount of inputs and a USB interface

Mackie ProFX8 has the right amount of inputs and a USB interface

Preamp
While the PR40 works fine running directly into the ProFX8, the output of the PR40 is low enough to justify a preamp. I found a budget preamp, that also has a compressor, in the ART TubeMP/C. A compressor is an audio circuit that reduces the dynamic range of a signal. It’s used, for example, to prevent equipment or hearing damage caused by auctioneers who yell into the microphone by automatically reducing the volume of loud sources while not reducing the volume of normal sources. I don’t use the compressor when I’m recording podcasts, as I prefer to apply compression with software, but it’s going to be very valuable when I stream auctioneer contests at state association conventions.

IMG_0683

Headphones
Headphones are crucial to any recording, and even just for a computer call or conference. I’ve sat through a hundred calls that are ruined by the echo caused by someone who doesn’t know better or who thinks he’s to cool to need headphones. For normal commercials and podcasts, I like the Sony MDR-7506 reference cans that I’ve had since college. They’re comfortable and easy to take on and off. When video is involved, however, you don’t want to be the dork that looks like he’s in a sound booth at a radio station. Any set of noise-cancelling in-ear monitors will work, but I like the Westone UM Pro10 for their balance of comfort, sound quality and price. I’ve tried both Shure in-ears and generics on stage in the Aaron Traffas Band, and the Westone are definitely my favorite. However, if the $150 price tag isn’t in the budget, the MEElectronics M6 are an attractive alternative that’s nearly as comfortable.

Video
Any off-the-shelf USB webcam will work for podcasting and video calls. Look for anything that’s widescreen 1080p for the best quality. I have the Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920. More important than the choice of webcam is the placement of lights. It’s crucial to light yourself well from the direction of the camera. As you can see in the picture below, the camera is above the monitor on the left. I have two lights on swing arms that can be easily positioned between the camera and me whenever I turn on my webcam.

Lights on swing arms allow easy positioning for optimum video podcast lighting.

Lights on swing arms allow easy positioning for optimum video podcast lighting.

Software
I’m not going to get too deep in software, as there are a ton of different options. I like Cakewalk Sonar X3, as that’s what I’m used to using to record music. Audacity is a free and open source tool that I’ve also used in the past. The point isn’t that a specific software is better, but that whatever software you use, make sure to record each source separately. Separate tracks allow compression and equalization and other effects to be applied appropriately.

There is no right way, but this is my way. Do you have a better way or a suggestion for improving my setup? Please let me know in the comments.

Posted in gadgets, hardware | Tagged , , , , , |

Auctioneer Crosswalk for December 30

Thanks to Carl Carter, we had a nice conversation about Internet auctions, Bitcoin and other payments, and specialization within auction firms. Sorry about the video quality issues – we’ll do better next time. Enjoy!

Posted in Podcasts, theory

Sony Xperia Z3v is stylish with a great camera

I’ve never owned a Sony phone. I’ve honestly never considered purchasing another Sony device after their long track record of horrible products in the early 2000s – remember the MiniDisc, Mavica and Memory Stick? However, I figure I’ve held that grudge long enough, so when Verizon offered to let me spend a few weeks with the new Sony Xperia Z3v, I jumped at the chance.

Sony Xperia Z3v

Sony Xperia Z3v

The Xperia Z3v is a Verizon exclusive version of the popular Xperia Z3 that Sony released to other carriers. The Z3v is slightly larger than Sony’s Z3, though the screen is the same 5.2 inches on both versions. The shape of the phone feels great. It feels longer and narrower than most phones I’ve used recently, which is a welcome change. It’s got glass on both the front and the back, which is also a design approach I haven’t felt before. While the dual glass construction makes the phone harder to hold, it does convey an impression of solid build quality. If I owned the phone, I’d have it in a case anyway, so the back glass isn’t a problem for me.

The phone features a micro-SD slot, which is great, but the battery isn’t upgradeable, which isn’t so great. Flaps cover all the ports, providing water and dust resistance, and Qi charging is built in so it’s possible to never need to open a flap during normal usage. It has a volume rocker next to the power button in the middle of the right side, right next to your thumb or index finger as you would hold the phone, so there isn’t any awkward reaching for volume while you’re on a call. It also has a dedicated camera button which can launch the camera app and then functions like the button on a point-and-shoot camera – hold it halfway down to focus, completely down to take a picture.

Side view shows the buttons

Side view shows the buttons

The camera is probably the most attractive feature of the Z3v. It’s a 20.7MP sensor that takes very, very good pictures, even though it lacks optical image stabilization. I’ll show a few unedited pictures in the gallery at the end of this post, but here are a couple side-by-side comparisons against the camera on the Nexus 6. The Z3v is on the left in each of these shots while the Nexus 6 is on the right. I left everything on auto and tried to take pictures like most general consumers would. You can zoom in if you like by viewing the original from the link on the attachment page.

The Z3V seems to capture colors much better here.

The Z3v seems to capture colors much better here.

The Nexus 6 seems too dark, though the colors on the Z3V don't seem as rich.

The Nexus 6 seems too dark, though the colors on the Z3v don’t seem as rich.

The colors are more rich on the Nexus 6, and the background is more focused, but the Z3V seems more accurate here.

The colors are more rich on the Nexus 6, and the background is more focused, but the Z3v seems more accurate here.

The Z3V seems to handle the contrast between sunlight and shadows better than the Nexus 6.

The Z3v seems to handle the contrast between sunlight and shadows better than the Nexus 6.

I do like Sony’s camera app. Not only does it make it easy to take great automatic pictures, it offers manual controls for exposure and white balance. It also features myriad effects – not filters – that can allow you to stream video to YouTube, take time-lapse video, shoot panoramas, use augmented reality and much more. They even offer the ability to download additional camera apps. Next to Motorola’s smart apps, the Sony camera ecosystem is probably the best example of a positive manufacturer enhancement to an Android device.

Glass back of the Z3v

Glass back of the Z3v

As good as the camera app is, the rest of the software experience on the Z3v isn’t great. It’s not as bad as TouchWiz, but it’s still an unnecessary layer on top of Android. The phone is fast, but there’s definitely some lag when moving home screens in the Xperia Launcher that comes installed on the phone. Most of the software issues can be fixed by installing the Google Now Launcher and SwiftKey, but you’re still left with Sony’s notification shade customizations as well as unnecessary apps for Sony-specific music and media.

Overall, I had a good time with the Sony Xperia Z3v. I’m not wild about Sony’s software customizations or the lack of an upgradeable battery, but I’d recommend it for anyone who wants a fast, uniquely stylish phone with an amazing camera.

The pictures below are unedited.

Posted in Android, gadgets, hardware, reviews | Tagged , , , , |