Samsung’s latest move may leave you seeking Alpha

In the business world, “seeking alpha” generally applies to measuring a business’s return on investment. But now for smartphone buyers, “seeking alpha” means searching eBay for the first – and so far the only – Samsung Android device that actually looked and felt as good (almost) as the iPhone. Less than six months after its availability, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha is being put out to pasture.

Samsung released the Galaxy Alpha this past Fall as a pricier, yet more attractive alternative to its Galaxy S5 smartphone. The Alpha dropped the typical plastic-on-glass construction typical of Samsung devices, and instead used a beautiful metal frame like Apple’s latest iPhones (sans of course the iPhone 5C).

However, this premium construction comes at a premium price, and rumors are that amidst poor sales, Samsung is shuttering production. The company is looking to focus on more affordable (a.k.a. made with cheap plastic) devices. On the other hand, perhaps Samsung is killing off the Alpha’s metal construction as to not compete with a metal Galaxy S6?

Time to fire up your eBay accounts and get to bidding, or sit tight for another month or two to see what the GS6 will bring.

Android users getting their first lick of Lollipop November 3

October has been the month of Apple, but November is shaping up to be a sweet month of Android. In a note to Android app developers obtained by Android Police, Google announced the Android 5.0 “Lollipop” Software Development Kit (SDK) is now. The same note concludes by definitively stating that Android 5.0 will launch to consumers Monday, November 3. This date coincides with Google’s announcement that the Nexus 6 and Nexus 9 (see our Nexus 9 and iPad Air 2 comparison here) will be available in early November. Both of these new devices will ship with Android 5.0 preinstalled.

But what about the rest of the Android world? Fragmentation is still very much a big issue with the Android ecosystem, and the rollout of Android 5.0 (codenamed “L” at Google’s I/O Conference in June) will compound the issue. As always, Nexus owners will be treated first to Android 5.0 – Google has confirmed the Nexus 4, Nexus 5, Nexus 7 (both first and second generation models), and Nexus 10 will be upgraded to Android 5.0 – but owners of non-Nexus Android devices may be waiting for some time. HTC has confirmed that they will upgrade the HTC One M7 and M8 to Android 5.0 within 90 days of its official release, pinning it sometime likely in January or early February. Motorola will update its Moto X and Moto G smartphones to the latest version of the OS sometime by the end of 2014. One noticeably absent manufacturer in these rollout schedules is Samsung. My bet is Samsung will wait until the debut of the Galaxy S6 early next year before even offering Android 5.0, and even then there’s no guarantee the Galaxy S5 or Galaxy S4 will receive the upgrade.

Android 5.0 Lollipop is the biggest overhaul since Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Google has moved to what they call they a “Material Design”, revamping the way Android looks and feels. Notifications are now shown in cards, much like Google Now, and the UI uses much richer colors and more white space. On the performance front, Android 5.0 features a new battery saving mode and better management of multi-tasking with apps.

Android users should be happy about Apple Pay

Android fans, you should be singing Apple’s praises. Apple has finally given your phone manufacturer and carrier the kick in the rear it needed to do the one thing they’ve hesitated to do – support Google Wallet.

With the launch of Apple Pay yesterday, mobile payments have become the flavor of the week, especially if you’re wielding one of the tens of millions of iPhone 6’s Apple has sold. Suddenly everyone – banks, merchants, and most importantly, consumers – want in on the tap-and-pay phenomenon.

But this is nothing new. In fact, it’s been around for years for Android users. The problem was (and still is) that your average Android user either doesn’t know about it, or can’t use it. Google Wallet was on the leading edge of mobile payments, but a combined lack of marketing, lack of hype, and lack of availability have left it as a niche feature only available for a tiny percentage of Android users. Unless you own a Nexus device you’ve probably never seen Google Wallet on your device. And even if you’re the adventurous type and attempt to download it from Google Play, unless you’re on Sprint your carrier won’t support it on non-Nexus devices.

But that’s all about to change Android fans, and you can thank Apple for it. Customers want their cake and eat it too. They want to be able to use their Galaxy S5’s and Moto X’s wherever, whenever, and most importantly however they wish. Isn’t that the golden promise of Android, an open and free world not bogged down or shut behind “walled gardens” like those people toting phones with a fruit on them?

What Android users often fail to see is that you’re just as much in a walled garden as iOS users. Google may not control what you can do, but your carrier does. Until it starts affecting their bottom line.

Android has the answer to Apple Pay, it’s just you can’t use it … yet. But you will be soon. As Apple Pay continues to make mobile payments mainstream, carriers will be forced to concede and allow Google Wallet onto devices.

However, Google has some work to do. Wallet, while safer than the swipe-and-sign method, is still less secure than Apple Pay. Apple Pay creates a one-time use token that is passed to credit card companies for approval, and it does not include the user’s account number. Google Wallet also doesn’t pass along the user’s credit card number, but instead creates a virtual card number that is passed along for authorization. Google will likely need to update Google Wallet to the same token system in order to garner the support of credit card companies.

Further, Apple does not see any transactions made via Apple Pay, where as Google gets its eyes onto every transaction made via Google Wallet. That won’t bode well for users who already feel Google knows way more than it should about them. Google stepping aside and not collecting user data will be a huge deal for a company who makes its billions on you.

Plainly put, Apple Pay is now the de-facto standard for mobile payments security, and any other competition will need to adopt similar systems and measures. But I fully expect Google to make these adjustments, and quickly, to stymie the Apple Pay rise.

So hold on Android users, Google Wallet is coming soon to a Galaxy phone near you. But if you’re the impatient type, this is just yet another reason why a Nexus 6 needs to be on your wish list.

1:06 PM: Updated to clarify that Sprint supports Google Wallet on non-Nexus devices

5.9-inch Nexus 6 could arrive before Note 4

Begun, the phablet wars have. A class once reserved for Samsung’s Note series of phones, now it seems everyone wants in on the phablet – phones that generally exceed 5 inches of screen size – trend. Apple entered the market this year with its 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, and Samsung is supposed to release the Galaxy Note 4 later this month on US shores. Now Google and Motorola are ready to respond, and in a big way. The Nexus 6 will launch later this month according to sources familiar with the matter, and it will include a whopping 5.9-inch display.

And in all reality the Nexus 6, not the Samsung Note 4, could be the only real competition the iPhone 6 Plus faces. Nvidia has recently asked for a sales ban on Samsung’s upcoming Note 4 and Note Edge, as the companies are now locked in an ongoing patent suit where Nvidia is accusing Samsung of copying propriety, patented Nvidia technology in their GPUs. Whether or not the ITC rules in favor of Nvidia in time for the Note 4’s launch, or of at all, is yet to be seen. But if Nvidia does win their sales ban, that puts the Nexus 6 and the HTC built, Nvidia Tegra powered Nexus 9 as the only real competitors to Apple’s new iPhones and iPads this holiday season.

If this scenario plays out – and somewhere deep down I’m hoping it does due to my love for the purity and power of Nexus devices that often get ignored at mass market – it would signal a bunch of firsts. The Nexus 6 will be the first Motorola-built Nexus device (earlier Nexus phones have been built by HTC, Samsung, and most recently LG), and it will be the first time Samsung may not play a major factor in Android sales. Philosophically, it will also be the first time two “vanilla” or “pure” (the way Apple and Google intended them to be) iOS and Android versions get a chance to go really head to head in the market.

This fall is shaping up to be a very interesting one for smartphone buyers, and competition has never been better.

Android L coming to Samsung Galaxy S5 unfortunately with TouchWiz

Google’s promises don’t apply to Samsung I guess. Android L was touted by Google as a unified experience, finally going the dare-I-say better way of iOS and limiting manufacturers and carriers from junking up an otherwise beautiful OS. But unfortunately it seems the rules – or at least promises – don’t apply to Samsung and its majority of Android users.

SamMobile has leaked what is an early (and still very buggy) build of Android L running on a Galaxy S5. That alone gets every GS5 user excited. Then it mentioned one more thing, and not the one more thing that really is exciting like Apple’s Watch, but instead TouchWiz, in my opinion one of the most uninspiring Android launchers on the market.

You can check out an eight-minute long video below of Android L in action on a Galaxy S5. However, you’ll immediately notice that everything that made Android L, well Android L, has essentially been stripped away by Samsung and replaced with a UI and feel that resembles more of KitKat.

What a shame.

Huawei Ascend Mate 2 Review

Huawei may not be a household name here in the United States, yet, but the Chinese company has released some impressive low-cost Android devices. It’s latest device, the Ascend Mate 2, puts Huawei into the phablet market with other devices like the genre-defining Samsung Galaxy Note and LG’s G3 or HTC’s One Maxx.

I’ve spent the last few weeks with the Huawei Ascend Mate 2, and walk away somewhat impressed, but more hopeful that the US market will continue to see devices from Huawei that continue to offer great alternatives for Android buyers.

Hardware

At first glance there’s nothing original about the look of the Ascend Mate 2, save for perhaps the huge screen. The phone’s screen is huge at 6.1-inches, and frankly too large for most consumers. At less than one inch from the size of the Nexus 7, the Ascend Mate 2 is rather difficult to place comfortably in any pocket. Huawei has squeezed a lot of screen real estate into the device by reducing the bezel significantly; Android navigation buttons are moved onscreen rather than being soft keys below the device.

But if a giant phone is your fancy, Huawei does impress with the display itself. Huawei uses a LCD display with HD resolution on the Ascend Mate 2, and the use of LCD makes this phone perform better under bright light than Super AMOLED displays like those found in Samsung’s Galaxy devices.

On the right side of the device you’ll find the volume rocker and power button, which is a godsend if you’re a southpaw like myself. The bottom of the device features a Micro USB charging/sync port off-center to the left, and the top includes a standard headphone jack. On the rear side of the device is a camera with flash near the top, and a mono speaker at the bottom. The placement of the speaker is disappointing since setting the phone down face up during speakerphone calls or while listening to music essentially renders the rear speaker useless.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment, and yet my biggest expectation, with the Ascend Mate 2, is the heavy use of plastics. The device unfortunately feels cheap, and the smooth rear plastic side makes it even more unwieldy. Smooth plastics may keep costs down, but they also mean potentially more costs to users who, without a case, will likely have their device slip out of their hands and fall to an early death.

Performance

Where Huawei skimmed some with the use of plastics, the Ascend Mate 2 makes up for it on performance. This phone is quick and powerful, and can handle just about any task you throw at it. Battery life is exceptionally good for such a large phone. Huawei utilizes a 3,900 mAh battery that’s rated for about 60 hours of use, and in our tests the Ascend Mate 2 was able to power through a heavy day of usage with no recharge needed, and during lighter usage periods could last easily two full working days before needing a recharge. Unfortunately, the battery is non-removable.

For all you spec junkies out there, below is a full rundown of the tech specs for the Ascend Mate 2:

  • CPU: Quad-core Cortex A7 @ 1.6 Ghz
  • Internal Memory: 2 GB RAM, 16 GB ROM
  • External Memory: MicroSD card slot up to 32 GB
  • Wi-Fi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac with Wi-Fi Direct
  • Bluetooth: Bluetooth 4.0 LE/EDR
  • Wireless: GSM (UMTS, HSPA, HPSA+, LTE)

Camera

Megapixels doesn’t mean better photos, and unfortunately the Ascend Mate 2 proves this statement. Despite have a Sony 13 megapixel rear-facing camera, and 5 megapixel front-facing camera, I was left wanting so much more from the camera. This rang true especially in low-light situations. While certainly the Ascend Mate 2 isn’t the only smartphone with poor low-light capabilities, with such attention to detail on the performance end and utilizing Sony parts, I expected more. However, I was left instead with photos that seemed to have trouble with lighting and color in low-light shots.

Perhaps the biggest upside to the camera feature set on the Ascend Mate 2 is the impressive front-facing camera. Besides ratcheting up the megapixels, the front-facing camera includes a very generous 88-degree viewing angle from the front, meaning no more crowding together uncomfortably for group selfies.

Software

Huawei has set its own custom UI over the Android 4.3 OS, which is completely unfortunate. I found myself confused more than delighted by Huawei’s changes. The whole UI felt unrefined and clunky. While Google’s services are easily accessible, Huawei has made the unfortunate move to make their own browser the default (although it can be changed to Chrome).

Overall there’s not much to say about Android 4.3 that hasn’t been written. Perhaps my biggest discontent with the device is the Huawei UI, and I would definitely recommend downloading and installing the Google Launcher from the Play Store on this device.

It’s also somewhat disappointing that Huawei didn’t include Android 4.4 KitKat with the Ascend Mate 2.

Network / Call Quality

One of the biggest beauties of owning an Ascend Mate 2 is that the device is unlocked, which means it will work with any GSM carrier. In the United States this means that T-Mobile and AT&T are supported, as well as their LTE bands. I tested the Huawei Ascend Mate 2 on AT&T’s network in my area, so note the following is based on AT&T’s network performance and depending on your area, your experience could vary.

The Huawei Ascend Mate 2 worked like a charm on AT&T’s LTE network, and I consistently saw high-speed connections. After simply installing the SIM card into the device, it automatically detected AT&T’s network and I was connected within minutes.

Call quality on the Huawei Ascend Mate 2 was better than average, approaching great. Calls were clear and loud, and the device was able to drown out background noise well using the active noise canceling microphone. Overall, the Huawei Ascend Mate 2 can compete on AT&T’s network with the best – and more expensive – of the bunch.

Value

Enough can’t be said about the good value Huawei offers for an unlocked device. At $299, it’s cheaper than the Nexus 5 with a larger screen and similar performance. Owning an unlocked device gives more than just carrier freedom with service, it means that updates aren’t controlled by your carrier as well. Ask any Nexus owner who regularly gets updates weeks, if not months, ahead of other Android users due to carrier constraints, testing, and slow rollouts.  If you’re an Android user on a budget who doesn’t want to sacrifice too much, the Huawei Ascend Mate 2 is a worthwhile choice.

Google removes Disconnect app from Play Store

As the world turns to mobile devices as their main computing platform, so does users’ concerns about privacy. One Android app in particular, Disconnect, attempted to ease users’ concerns by blocking apps and websites from collecting data on users. However, that doesn’t sit well with Google, whose business model revolves on collecting user data for targeted advertising, and in response Google has removed Disconnect from the Play Store.

Disconnect has responded stating that Google provided little specificity as to exactly why Disconnect was removed from the Play Store, other than that Google stated it violated the Android 4.4 Developer Rules. Google has long had rules surrounding the use of apps that include ad-blockers, for obvious reasons, and Disconnect feels Google’s removal was done without regard users’ privacy.

As plainly stated by Disconnect, “So why were we targeted and why didn’t Google provide an explanation? Although we may never know Google’s true motivation for removing our app, it seems likely that they determined it threatened their tracking and advertising based business model, which accounts for over 90% of Google’s $66 billion in estimated 2014 annual revenue. Put another way, we think Google mistook us for an adblocker.”

Disconnect then places a call-to-action to all mobile users further stating, “But our mobile product (like our Desktop product) is not an adblocker. Instead Disconnect focuses on protecting people from invisible tracking and sources of malware, and all too often these threats come in the form of advertising. In fact, some of the most privacy invasive data collection online happens through ads, which see you even if you don’t see or interact with them. And worse, ad networks (including Google) are increasingly being used by “advertisers” to spread malware. This increasingly popular tactic, called malvertising, is currently being investigated by the US Senate, and Disconnect Mobile is the first app to directly address it.”

Data collection of users, if done correctly, can be achieved safely without violating users’ privacy. It’s been going on for over a decade now. However, unfortunately there are some apps or websites out there that attempt to use personal data in malignant ways. And online identity theft has grown into a multi-billion dollars a year business for the bad guys, and a multi-billion dollar a year fight for the good guys.

And as for consumers, we have to stop wanting our cake and eating it too. Every time you choose the free version over the paid version of an app, or every time you love posting photos or videos on Facebook or Instagram, you’re feeding the ad machine. Consumers often forget the amount of money it takes to run these servers, or pay the talented people who code these extraordinary apps.

Disconnect also understands that advertising drives our world stating, “The fact is, we are not opposed to advertising and think advertising plays a critical role in the Internet economy.” However, Disconnect, like everyone else, is just trying to fight the “bad guys”, going on further to state, “But we are 100% opposed to advertising that invisibly tracks people and compromises their security.”

Hopefully Google and Disconnect can come to some sort of happy medium. Google needs to, as Android is unfortunately a big target for malware due to the open nature of its code, and that app developers are allowed to access the core OS unlike more closed ecosystems like iOS and Windows Phone.

Disconnect has launched an identical app for iOS, which is currently one of the highest grossing utility apps on the App Store.

Google can spin the terms and agreements argument until their blue in the face, but the fact that an identical app exists on iOS, especially considering the known scrutiny Apple puts developers through, further proves the real motive for Disconnect’s removal from the Play Store. Google is essentially protecting its bread and butter at the expense of its users.

Ignore No More app for Android: A teen’s nightmare and parent’s best friend

Parents, do you hate it when your teen ignores your calls or texts? Wish there was a way to make them check in with you? Now there’s a solution, and it’s the Ignore No More app for Android.

Developed by Sharon Standifird, a Texas mother and veteran, came up with the idea after spending an entire day attempting to reach her son Bradley to no avail. Thankfully Bradley was safe, but the whole experience inspired Standifird to come up with a solution so that other parents wouldn’t have to deal with the fear (and anger, let’s be honest) of not being able to reach their children.

“[Parents] need to develop an app that just shuts their phone completely down and they can’t even use it. And I … literally just started researching how to develop an app.” After several months of development, Sharon Standifird unleashed Ignore No More for Android unto the world.

Teens, you better call your mama or else…

Raising a teen is tough enough. As parents we like to enforce rules under the guise that we can take away their phones at any given moment. However, as we know, taking away your teen’s phone also means that not only can their friends not reach them, but you can’t reach them.

Ignore No More is the most genius solution I’ve seen to date for this problem, and a no-brainer for any parent.

Ignore No More is quite simple. The app is installed onto your child’s Android smartphone, and if your calls or texts go ignored, as a parent you can essentially disable their phones until they check in. When activated, Ignore No More doesn’t just disable calling or texting, it disables the entire device – no emails, texts, calls, apps, or instant messaging until the phone is unlocked by a code.

And the code is with guess who, Mom and Dad (or anyone else deemed as a caregiver). Parents set up the service at ignorenomoreapp.com, and install the app on each child’s smartphone. If the child becomes untraceable (whether it’s intentional or not), parents can then activate Ignore No More on their child’s phone. One account can be set up per household to oversee multiple devices, a very nice touch. According to the website, setup takes less than 10 minutes.

Once activated, the app will only allow the phone to dial a preset list of numbers (Mom, Dad, or another caregiver) who then upon contact provide the child the unlock code to deactivate Ignore No More. Children can still call 9-1-1 when the phone is locked by the app.

At $1.99, you can’t beat it

Listen, as parents we would pay anything to ensure the safety of our children. At $2 per smartphone, there’s seriously no reason why any parent wouldn’t install this onto all of their children’s devices. While not as fancy as a GPS tracking system, it certainly does one thing, and does it really well, it changes the attitude of rebellious teens who are more worried about checking in with their buddies than checking in with Mom or Dad.

Part of parenting is changing and molding our children’s behaviors. And Ignore No More is a perfect example on how one creative mother used the technology available to help parents everywhere change the conversation around responsibility with their kids and their smartphones.

You can download Ignore No More now on Google Play for $1.99 per device. Ignore No More requires Android 3.0 or higher. An iOS version is in the works, but not specifics on when that will be released.

Google Now Launcher on Play Store: Sweet Vanilla Android without the calories

There’s nothing more beautiful than the pure simplicity that is Google’s stock Android UI. Unfortunately, most Android phones come with some sort of manufacturer designed UI or launcher; you probably have already heard of the famous ones like Samsung’s TouchWiz and HTC’s Sense. These launchers are usually full of bloatware, crappy design elements, and duplicative features, which is really starting to piss Google CEO Larry Page off.

But how do users escape these manufacturer designed UI’s and get the clean and simple Google stock – sometimes called “vanilla” – Android UI? There were three options: download a third-party launcher that’s close enough but not the real deal Google launcher, root their devices and flash the Google Play Edition ROM on their device (if supported), or buy a Nexus device.

Now there’s a fourth option, and it’s the best option yet.

Google has released their Google Now launcher, which is the same launcher used by Nexus devices in stock or “vanilla” Android, as a download for free on Google Play. The launcher is designed to bring the entire look and feel of a device running stock Android to almost every Android device out there. All Android devices running Android 4.1 Jellybean or later can install the Google Now Launcher.

Get that Nexus Home Screen look and feel without the hassle of rooting.

Besides giving your Android a makeover aesthetically, installing the Google Now Launcher also brings you other UI enhancements from Google. After installation, saying “OK Google” when on any home screen will immediately launch Google Now. This was touted a lot with the release of the Moto X as “your phone is listening always”, and generally is a pretty handy feature when you can really be hands-on with your smartphone.

Google Now has a permanent home with the Google Now Launcher, and isn’t buried behind some “S” branded inferior alternative. Swiping up from the home button will open Google Now, or it will be available one of its own home screen as well. Google Now’s voice commands rival, and in many cases surpass, that of Siri’s on iOS, and the information available through Google Now is astounding compared to Siri or Cortana.

Other features of the Google Now Launcher include a translucent menu bar for more viewing space, a really easy to use app drawer, a better wallpaper picker, and other niceties. You can check out the full list on the Google Play page for Google Now Launcher.

If you’re looking for the Android stock or “vanilla” experience, but like me aren’t willing to risk your several-hundred-dollar smartphone with rooting, then the Google Now Launcher is that perfect compromise. It won’t necessarily delete the carrier or manufacturer crapware and bad UI designs, but at least it will hide it.

And out of sight, out of mind, right?

Android finally tops iOS in mobile traffic

It’s a known fact that Android crushes iOS when it comes to market share in terms of total devices. But despite its second place seat in devices, iOS has maintained king of the mobile traffic realm…until now.

According to Net Applications, Android’s narrowly out-trafficked iOS in July. Android captured 44.62% of all traffic, up from 43.75% in June. That increase was just enough to edge out iOS, who actually saw traffic decline from 45.61% in June to 44.19% in July.

However, with the launch of the iPhone 6, and possibly new iPads, just around the corner, this victory could be short-lived for Google’s Android OS. With such a narrow margin between the two, iOS could easily reclaim the top spot in August, even before the launch of the iPhone 6. The 4.7-inch iPhone 6 is expected to be launched in the second or third week of September, with a 5.5-inch model possibly releasing in November.

There’s still victory in defeat.

Even in Apple’s loss there’s still victory here. The fact that Android has such a sizable lead in market share, but can only muster enough traffic to beat iOS by the hair on their chinny-chin-chin is a testament to iOS’s prowess in the mobile space. You can sell a billion devices, but if nobody is actually using them then what does it matter? iOS still remains the platform of choice for many developers, for many other reasons than mobile traffic, but don’t think for a second this isn’t also considered.

On a side note for those who care, hats off to Microsoft for breaking the 2% mobile traffic mark in July. As for BlackBerry users, there wasn’t enough to even measure (sorry?).

Do you think iOS can regain the top spot in mobile traffic? Or is Android only going to increase its lead? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on our Facebook or Twitter page. Follow us on both to be a part of this conversation and more daily.