Migrating to Capture One Pro

In the time since I penned Goodbye Lightroom, I first evaluated and then started to use Capture One Pro in a somewhat prolonged migration from Lightroom to Capture One. During this transition I made notes covering Capture One’s strengths, decisions I had to make to move my photographs from Lightroom’s library to Capture One’s catalog. My hope with the notes was they’d be a good source of information for others like me who want to switch away from Lightroom.

Having drafted those notes into a post and almost hitting publish I realized they would be far more useful on a platform such as Photograhy Life. That post now sits here.

Goodbye Lightroom?

Lightroom 6, the last free-of-subscription version, was released in early 2015, over two and half years ago. Its age shows and an update to it has been long overdue. An update came earlier this month, but not one I was hoping for.

Lightroom 6 is discontinued. Its successors are Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic CC. Neither is offered as a standalone version, which is something I prefer for a number of reasons. So naturally, my first instinct was to stick with Lightroom 6 for the next year or more. After all, what ain't broken need no fixing. But upon further thinking, this option doesn't seem too feasible.

Apple's High Sierra came out last month with several under-the-hood changes - a new file-system, a new API, Metal 2, used across the system and more. These made the upgrade to High Sierra a more dangerous affair than usual. With such fundamental, platform level changes in the operating system, complex apps usually need some work before they become rock-stable. I held off upgrading my machine to the point-zero release, instead opting to wait for the point-one or even the point-two release.

In light of Adobe's announcement, this means when I eventually upgrade to High Sierra, my installation of Lightroom 6 could potentially be rendered unstable or at worst, unusable. My plan is to stick with my setup for now and for the next few months lay the groundwork to make my transition as easily as possible.

  1. Trim my library - Over the years, my library has bloated with unused, out-of-focus and in general low-quality images, mostly because I'm a pack rat loathe to deleting stuff. Whichever software I opt for, a smaller library will be easier to migrate and manage.

  2. Try out software - The next few months, I'm going to be installing trial versions of as many software as I can - Capture One Pro, RawTherapee. I'll copy over portions of my library into each and see how well my workflow suits them. Is the software capable? Is it performant enough? Do outputs look good? How easy is it to manage a catalog? These are some aspects I want to explore.

  3. Research, research, research - Adobe's roadmap has left a lot of photographers unhappy and several are exploring other options like me. I expect several posts and blogs reviewing Lightroom alternatives and describing their migration strategies. These will help.

Hopefully by the time macOS 10.13.1 or 10.13.2 is out I'll have decided my next photography software.

Tale of two photos

Every monsoon Kharghar, a scenic node in Navi Mumbai, becomes home to dozens of waterfalls. Most of these can be viewed along main roads, making even short drives a pleasure. We were hoping for such a scenic drive when heading out to Kharghar this weekend.

Sadly, the sight we actually saw was a bit different. Over the years Kharghar's falls have only grown in popularity and in India it is mostly a bad thing...

What a chaotic mess!

Local municipal authorities are surely well aware of the popularity of this area during the rainy season (if not that is another failure in itself), but they haven't yet thought of placing a single trash can to collect waste. Building stalls and renting them out to street side vendors to keep the place neat and also generate some money (to maintain the area, not pocket!) has also not crossed their mind.

Of course, the lack of civil responsibility on the part of the public needs to be called out too. Nevermind non-existent trash cans, surely people could abide by the simple rule to pack-out what they pack-in. It's high time people stop expecting 'someone' to always clean up after them.

Traffic discipline is (and has always been) a bane across India. Due to the number of people essentially pulling over on a main road to take in the view, this section of the road is a bottleneck for regular thoroughfare. As is the norm, any traffic hotspot is accompanied by screeching and honking. So much for serenity!

Having pulled over, orderly parking seems too much to expect. Cars, bikes and pedestrians all on criss-crossing paths fight for inches of space.

Indifferent governance and indifferent public. I wish this place never became popular...

Times of India - Indias #1 Product Catalog

Like most lazy weekend mornings, I absentmindedly picked up a newspaper and settled down in my favourite spot on the sofa with my cup of tea. Turns out, I had the Times of India in my hand. Immediately I realised, the Times has transcended its role as India's #1 Daily - this Diwali onwards, it is India's #1 Daily Product Catalog too! Headlines are history, its all about full page ads. Yes, thats what we need every morning.

For over a year, Times of India had been trying to find its identity - "Am I a daily? Am I a catalog?" - and we readers suffered all the more for it with half-ad, half-news pages.

What the hell is this? Neither ad nor news...

This Diwali, the Times has finally found its identity. Congratulations! *sheds a happy tear*

The cover page... Gimme more!

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Pages 4-5...Another awesome ad, what'll it be next? I'm tingling with excitement!

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Stay true to your identity Times of India. I want more ads - only 8 pages of ads wont do! I want to flip through the 'newspaper' admiring the colours, the shiny products and awesome offers. Ah well, maybe by next Diwali you'll be comfortable with your new role.

Who is a Real Programmer?

I read this essay the first time several years back and bookmarked it immediately. However, like all bookmarks, I forgot all about it. Recently while killing time online, I found a link to it and re-read it; the essay is still as funny as it was the first time. So obviously it warrants a better bookmark. It includes gems like:

Unix is a lot more complicated of course -- the typical Unix hacker never can remember what the PRINT command is called this week -- but when it gets right down to it, Unix is a glorified video game. People don't do Serious Work on Unix systems: they send jokes around the world on USENET and write adventure games and research papers.

...and...

One of my favorite Real Programmers was a systems programmer for Texas Instruments. One day, he got a long distance call from a user whose system had crashed in the middle of some important work. Jim was able to repair the damage over the phone, getting the user to toggle in disk I/O instructions at the front panel, repairing system tables in hex, reading register contents back over the phone. The moral of this story: while a Real Programmer usually includes a keypunch and lineprinter in his toolkit, he can get along with just a front panel and a telephone in emergencies.

...and...

There are several Real Programmers building video games at Atari, for example. (But not playing them. A Real Programmer knows how to beat the machine every time: no challange in that.)

...and...

The Real Programmer is capable of working 30, 40, even 50 hours at a stretch, under intense pressure. In fact, he prefers it that way. Bad response time doesn't bother the Real Programmer -- it gives him a chance to catch a little sleep between compiles.

The whole essay basically is an endless collection of punchlines. A great read, highly recommended!

Nokia Lumia 920 - Thoughts

It has been three months now with the Lumia. Its been an interesting device to own, not the least because its always a fun journey to make with a new fledgling ecosystem - an underdog really - that has just started to spread its wings. The phone and the OS both are head turners. I'm pretty much the only person I know to own a Lumia(or a WP device for that matter) so always stand out of the crowd when it comes to the phone. More than a few people have asked me about it - how good is the phone? is the camera better than the one in the iPhone or S3? Windows Phone looks great, but does it have enough apps? is it stable? My answer is usually a Yes to these all. The hardware is absolutely brilliant - there are a few reviewers out there who crib about the Lumias 'plastic' body; I don't agree the Lumia plastic is in a different league when compared to the Galaxy plastic. Pick them both up, feel the phones and you'll see what I mean.

The camera is brilliant, for day shots its just as good as the iPhone or the Galaxy S3(white balance tends to be off sometimes, but when it gets it right it nails it; its not as noisy as the other two either) while for night or low light shots its on a different plane altogether. Windows Phone is very fresh - the main reason it still retains this quality, I feel, is because iOS and Android are still rooted in the old icon grid paradigm for their UI. Apps are a very subjective topic - whats enough for me might not be enough for others; my needs are met adequately. In sheer number, it lags behind both iOS and Android and some of the big names are still not there in the WP ecosystem. The prime example is Instagram - its become a kind of joke really, I have a few friends who cite its unavailability on WP8 as a big minus, yet they don't use it on either iOS or Android. The only reason it needs to come out now is to silence people. Stability is about on par with iOS, better than Android which is to say very good.

We've come a long way from feature phones where a devices chance of success or failure depended upon the length of its feature list. Nowadays almost all smartphones have the same set of features and it is the small things that matter - how consistent is the UI? how good does it do media management? how responsive is the phone? how well does it multitask? how does it handle mails and calendars? how does it manage contacts? how well does it integrate with social networks?

I started this series in an attempt to highlight such niceties and irritations that come with the Lumia. This is probably the last one of the series, mostly because WP8 itself hasn't received any update from Microsoft since Portico(which my phone came preinstalled with) due to which most of the quirks remain. As to the nice things that I used to come across on a regular basis earlier during my day to day interaction with the phone, these have pretty much dried up - my explorations have gone down with a regular workflow set in for most tasks.

Like the earlier two posts, this one carries forward the same format. Some of the sections are understandably empty.

Things I love:

  • I don't know what's different but when I use the Lumia as a hotspot my Kindle connects to it just fine. On my iPhone this was not possible, Kindle flatly refused to connect to it.

Things I need to adjust to:

  • As well adjusted as I can ever be.

Things I dont like and wish Microsoft changes soon:

  • I don't think Microsoft enforces developers to submit meaningful descriptions for app updates which means App store updates don't always tell you what new features were introduced or bugs fixed. In most cases, there is just an app description.
  • The Music player is borderline useless, more often than not I use Nokia Music even for playing songs and playlists save on device. When you tap on a song, almost always its not clear whether it will play just that song or queue an entire songlist/album/artist. Long pressing a song and choosing 'Add to now playing…' seems to be the only reliable way to play only the chosen song. Editing existing playlist is impossible. Can't even change the order of tracks! This is a borderline dealbreaker.
  • Songs downloaded from Nokia Music sometimes play at a fixed volume in the default Music app(it works fine if played in Nokia Music though). I'm not sure if it is Microsofts fault or Nokias. There seem to be several variants of this issue not limited to the Nokia Lumia 920 - check this out for instance. My problems are a lot less serious than some being faced by others.
  • The Peoples app is very rigid with tags - I can have only 2 mobile numbers, categorized as mobile and mobile2. All other numbers are treated as landlines. The Phone app which is integrated Peoples app has implications because of this. Suppose I have saved the work mobile number of a contact as the work phone, then when I receive a call from this number I cannot decline and reply with a text message.
  • If I pause Music, leave earphones on and receive a call then when I finish talking the music resumes playing even though it had explicitly been paused before the call started. Looks like when wp8 hands over the token for music controls back to Music, it resumes playing.
  • There is no way to show Me tile notifications on lock screen. Something like a combined Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin notifications count. At least one other guy agrees with me and wants this feature.
  • I can't get store updates and Bing wallpaper to work correctly when my region is set to India. Bing itself behaves slightly different, those little popover tips that you see below don't show up in India.
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    Setting it to the US makes them work perfectly like clockwork, on a nightly basis it checks for updates and refreshes the lock screen wallpaper. I haven't seen too many report of this specific issue online anywhere so it must be only me.

  • When an app or the OS itself crashes, I usually want to look for logs or diagnostic files to try and understand what caused it. I don't see a way to see such logs or diagnostic reports anywhere in WP8. Its trivial on the iPhone(Settings>General>About>Diagnostics).
  • This was something which was not highlighted by too many people which surprised me. Microsoft and Nokia make a big deal about OTA updates, which is all good. What they fail to mention is that there is no way to update your phone using your computer. This realization came to me when I was in a remote location with no Wifi and no 3G connectivity and the 1308 firmware rolled out. I had my laptop with a wired connection, but with no way to update my phone!
  • The infamous 'Other' storage problems have hit me finally. About 4.7GB of my storage was last to the void. A firmware update later, after running Nokias 'Storage Check'  utility, it came down to 3.3GB. Not a great saving, but somethings better than nothing.
  • Calendar updates are not stable, several times i ve entered an appointment only to have it disappear. Entering it again works. This is something that happens 9 times out of 10. I did a quick search online, but looks like I'm the only one who faces this.

Things I don't like and hope App developers notice:

  • There seems to be a disconnect between toasts and live tiles. Admittedly I ve observed this only on Whatsapp so it might be an application problem. I receive a toast, tap on it and address the message right away. Yet the live tile for the app shows me an incremented message count.
  • Some apps tend to 'take control' of the music controls despite music playing in the background. Whatsapp is the worst offender in this regard. To understand what I mean, try this - start playing some music, exit to the start screen and open whatsapp. Now if you use the volume controls, you'll see that the small dropdown at the top of the screen is owned by Whatsapp. What this means is that if your music gets paused(say due to an incoming call) you will not be able to resume it from here. Like I said, this is plain stupid and needs to be fixed asap.

Things I miss:

  • There is a dearth of good productivity apps in the App Store. I guess over time as the ecosystem matures and more developers move in we'll something along the lines of Omnifocus.

Dealbreakers:

  • None

Overall the only disappointment has been Microsoft itself with its strategy. I think it is still sticking to its old ways to roll out large updates every 6 months or every quarter(I don't know honestly, nothing has come since Portico with no release date for the next point update yet). I don't think they are doing themselves any good - a quick run through Reddit shows the frustration of a lot of people due to Microsoft. Nokia on the other hand is very proactive with its firmware updates - since the Lumia 920 release there have already been 3 firmware updates to address a lot of issues and to roll out improvements. The 'Other' storage space issue was acknowledged by Microsoft but got a fix from Nokia instead - which is, to put it lightly, a shame. It leaves all non-Nokia WP8 device owners stuck with a phone on which they can install any more apps. Lumia is a great platform, mostly due to Nokia and a little due to Microsoft. This year, Microsoft is expected to release two more updates to Window Phone 8, before the much awaited and hyped Blue. It should be an exciting year ahead.

On the Samsung Galaxy S4

I missed out on following the Galaxy S4 release event live and by all counts it looks it would have made for an epic comical pastime. The entire show is available here in case you want to have a good time - classy Samsung ain't. Samsung even put up a new global website for the S4, which looks just as unprofessional as its launch event was. Take a look at the opaque shadows behind that corny text:

Galaxy_S4

To talk about the phone itself, I could essentially rehash my thoughts on the S3 - the S4 too is disappointing. Its got improved specs, a higher resolution screen, is thinner & lighter and has more sensors. Going by sales, Samsung seems to be doing all the right things; but for a technophile and for a person with finer tastes it still isn't on the right track.

Take the look and feel of the device. Over the past year, I've seen countless S3s and each time I'm struck by how discordant the rectangular screen and the round frame are - the two just don’t go together. The S4 retains the same shape as the S4, with ever so thinner bezels - the rectangle sits closer to the circle so to speak. Samsungs new flagship also retains its cheap plastic casing - when you dunk in a thick wad of cash for a phone, it should feel premium in the hand. The S4 misses the mark by a mile.

Samsung has done a great job of marketing the S4 as an Octa-core phone - which it is. What it doesn’t make clear is that at any given time only 4 of those 8 cores will be active. Essentially, the Exynos 5 series chip on S4 consists of 4 pairs of processors - each pair has a fast core(high power requirement) and a slow one(low power requirement). Depending on the workload on the phone - playing a game, surfing the web - either the fast core or the slow core in each pair will be active. Theoretically it should improve battery life, but it all depends on how efficient the software - Android(and Samsungs Touchwiz stack) - is.

Android lately has adopted a clean and understated UI, which is quite beautiful in its own right. Samsung loads its own UI, Touchwiz, on top of this with its garish colors and cartoonish iconography. I don’t understand why. If being a differentiator in the large Android market were raison d'etre, Samsung would do well to go Nokias way - keep stock Android on the phone and have an app store with real quality services which they nurture over time.

Samsung has, since the S3, loaded its flagship devices with a whole bunch of S-features. These are great as bullet points increasing the feature list of the phone, but practically useless. I suspect this is the main reason why Samsung does so well - a lot of smartphone users are first time users. To someone having a feature phone, a smartphone with the longest feature list is likely to be most attractive. It will be an interesting exercise to see how many current Samsung Galaxy owners are second time owners of a Samsung phone.

On the S4, the feature list runs quite long..

  • S-Voice - a Siri clone, introduced with the S3. Just as useless as Siri but with fewer updates, enhancements and lackluster integration with services
  • S-Translator - it could be a genuinely useful feature, but going by their history, Samsung will forget about this by the time the S5 comes out
  • S Health - the S4 is chock full of sensors to monitor your health. Samsung didn’t give much detail on how it works and if it works. We'll just have to see how this one plays out once the phone gets into peoples hands
  • Smart Pause/Scroll - pausing a video when you look away and scrolling a webpage or ebook when you tilt the phone. Neither does much to improve the smartphone experience and besides a lot of people had trouble getting them to work on launch day
  • Sound & Shot - along with a pic, the phone records an audio clip. I don’t see a use case for this at all and I suspect this will be playable only on the S4
  • Story Album - a clone of iPhoto events; yet another custom format
  • Samsung Hub - Sounds good, but knowing Samsung it will pretty much languish over time. They just don’t have the know how to grow a service
  • Air View/Gesture - hover your fingers over the screen or make motions in front of the screens to interact with your phone. This has to be amongst the dumbest ideas ever, especially gesture.
  • Drama Shot - it captures scenes from both cameras, pretty useless in my opinion
  • Group Play - you can play a song in sync with upto 8 connected S4s. Gimmicky..

In short, the Galaxy S4 is a busy phone with too many features packed in that I suspect very few will ever use. I cant help but think Samsungs fall will be as quick as its rise to smartphone domination.

The Nokia Lumia 920 - two months on

Now close to two months on and the Lumia is still going strong. My honeymoon period with it is not yet over; there are a few challenges, but as of now the freshness of the WP8 weighs the scales to the positive quite comfortably. Things look up at the moment, with rumors of as many as 3 updates from Microsoft (and also to a lesser extent Nokia) this year. As in my last post, I ll simply be categorizing my notes - I ll keep the headers the same. If any point that I noted the last time has changed or if the situation that led me to make such a note has changed, I ll include them here with comments. The old observation is within quotes. Things I love:

  • Nokia Maps and Nokia Drive+ are true life savers with their offline capabilities.  On a recent trip with no data connectivity I was pleasantly surprised to see that driving directions and places of interest work in offline mode. Maps were generally very accurate and I had no trouble getting a quick GPS lock while outside on the street.
  • The loudspeakers are fantastic, much improved from my old iPhone 4S. The microphone is very good too, with recorded videos having a much better audio profile(purely subjective) than those from the 4S.
  • The screen is fantastic - readability in the sun is extremely good. There is an option for improving legibility under sunlight and it works well giving slight halos to edges. Nokia advertises the screen as Puremotion+ which to me seems to be just a buzz word. There is no tangible improvement that I can spot while moving things around on screen.
  • The camera is in low light nothing short of fantastic - OIS does a marvelous job in keeping the shutter open for that much longer. When light is not a problem, then it is no better than most of the competition - in some cases its worse with slightly fuzzy details and an off white-balance.

Things I need to adjust to:

  • "Keyboard with its narrow keys; I make quite a few mistakes and miss the spacebar too often" - I've pretty much adjusted to the keyboard and type almost as fast as I used to on my iphone. WP8s dictionary also seems to have adapted well to my patterns with its suggestions having a pretty high hit rate.
  • "Sometimes the UI can get too swipe-heavy – both horizontal and vertical – especially inside hubs" - the apps certainly havent changed but I've warmed to this. Instead of tapping to switch tabs on iOS, I swipe. Its no big deal now.
  • "The cursor to choose letters between words is not as intuitive as the magnifying glass in iPhone. The cursor starts hovering a line or two above the one I’m pointing at" - I've mastered this now.

Things I don't like and wish Microsoft changes soon:

  • "Keyboard autocorrect is not as good as that of the iPhone – seems to suggest based on first key typed, not on the relative position of keys all the time" - It is different yes, but not worse. The keyboards hit-rate is much improved now - easily on par with the iPhone.
  • "No smart dial in the number pad" - I don’t miss it much now; I almost always call from the Peoples app. Besides I've got different groups for the people I'm in touch with often, so calling them from a hub isn't too many more steps.
  • "Background tasks settings are not very intuitive – I’m still not clear whether blocking an app in Settings>Applications>Background Tasks prevents its live tile from updating every 30 min" - This whole concept is unnecessarily complex! After some quality time online, I think I've figured it out.  Live Tiles can be updated in two ways - either by the apps background task which lets it update the tile once every 30 min  or by the system when the app has registered for a push notification service. Nevertheless, the whole thing is far from intuitive. Take for example Screen>Applications>Background Tasks>Advanced - this takes me to a screen with no settings I can change. The text here is equally ambiguous - "These apps can run in the background, and you may not be able to block all of them". Nuts!
  • "get by reasonably without a notification center simply because most of the apps I use on a regular basis have Live Tiles which are quite informative." - Now that I've used the phone for some time and have quite a lot of apps on it I need a notification center.
  • Overall the battery life is quite poor. I have to ration my usage very carefully to get a full day of use. It is the cellular radio which sucks battery(my network has a pretty weak signal where I stay adding to my woes) - verified this on a recent trip where I switched to flight mode and turned on the WiFi when required(almost all the time) and got incredible battery life. Dropped approx. 20% in 24 hrs!
  • WP8 should allow pinning of individual settings
  • The Store is not very good at figuring out when my apps have updates available. On several occasions, I've read about a released update and have had to open it up on the Store and then trigger an update installation. Also sometimes Store updates are not very reliable. Updating the Kindle app to version 2 broke it; simply wouldn't open! Had to uninstall it and redownload it
  • Calendar needs a week view(a 5 workdays view should be fine)
  • Internet Explorer is fast, but compatibility with several sites and webapps is an issue. To add to it, Readability/Instapaper are unusable on it - fonts, font size etc can't be changed since 'hovering' isn't possible over drop down menus, Safari used to automatically convert hovers into clicks.
  • IE10 doesn't have an option to open links in a new tab. The way I read heavily referenced articles, open in new tab is a mandatory option for IE to be useful. Hope Microsoft adds this real soon. While they are at it, perhaps they could add a 'Reader' option to present only the required text in a good reflowable format.
  • I cant upload/backup full resolution pics from my camera roll to Skydrive1. This is a huge downer. All photos from the camera roll get backed up at a resolution of 1278x720 only, plainly too low. Microsoft should let me decide what resolution to upload the pics in! After researching this a bit more, turns out US customers get this ability. Switching the region in phone settings to US has worked, it changes my app store to the US one as well.

Things I dont like and hope App developers notice:

    • Google support is abysmal! Look at the screenshot to get an idea of how google+ albums are rendered in IE. Terrible!

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  • Page scrolling in webviews inside of apps like Baconit is choppy. Opening the same page in IE results in a smoother experience. Surprisingly, the website renders differently between the two. Not quite sure why(page width is the same).

Things I miss:

  • "Not being able to use controls on existing headsets – this is an adoption issue and should get better over time; still it is irritating that Nokia didn't follow the iPhone standard here" - turns out the double tap works fine(from my Bose headphones). The triple tap doesn't.

Dealbreakers:

  • None yet.

 

Updates

  1. Yay, Microsoft has enabled full resolution pic backups to all regions around the globe. Now, the only reason thats still making me keep my region set to the US is Bing (look at the pic in this post, I miss such spotfacts about the daily picture in India).

Nokia Lumia 920 & Windows Phone 8

Its been a week since I jumped on to the Windows Phone bandwagon, with the Nokia Lumia 920. Windows Phone 8 and the Lumia complement each other perfectly -  the OS has zero skeumorphism and a slick minimalist UI while the phone itself is a thing of beauty. The body of the Lumia reminds me of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a seamless black slab which feels indestructible in the hand. Walk into a store, pick it up, feel its heft in your hand, look at the way the screen curves into the body and you'll know what I mean. Most reviews that I read online broadly come to these conclusions - the hardware is solid(some reviewers complain that Lumia 920 is too big, while the HTC 8X is not premium enough; but these are comparatively fewer), Windows Phone 8 is 'fresh', there are too few apps. All of these reviews start well but end on a negative note; which inevitably doesnt help the platform.

Instead of adding to this list of reviews, I'm going to do something different. I noted down observations and broadly categorised them into 6 categories. Over time, I plan to revisit this list, add to it, tick the fixed gaps and hopefully have a good idea of how well the platform evolves. Also there are several features which I haven't yet touched(Maps, Drive, City Lens etc.) which means I haven't had a chance to use them in a real situation yet.

A small explanation is in order - though the list for missing features/broken experiences is longer than the list of praises, it doesn't imply anything about the overall usability of Windows Phone 8. A checklist of features does not make an OS. Unless anything listed below is an absolute deal breaker for you, it shouldn't detract you from going ahead and trying out WP8.

Things I love:

  • The hardware - screen and build are second to none
  • OS has a very catchy design and very responsive to touch, I havent yet experienced stutters or dropped frames while navigating around
  • Nokia Music is an awesome service; unfortunately is available only on Nokia devices
  • Built in Facebook chat; super seamless
  • Skydrive integration is superb, I prefer it to iCloud. Online access gives me more control. If the limit on individual file size(50MB only) is removed, it could replace dropbox for me
  • Peoples hub is slick, the ability to link up contacts from different sources like FB, Twitter, LinkedIn is neat
  • Live tiles are great, far more informative than static icons and less intrusive than widgets
  • Downloadable maps in Nokia drive which can be used offline without any mobile connectivity
  • Lack of apps aside(which is overblown in my opinion), the Microsoft app store is quite nice, with the ability to push purchases to the phone
  • OneNote and Office integration with Skydrive

Things I need to adjust to:

  • Keyboard with its narrow keys; I make quite a few mistakes and miss the spacebar too often
  • Sometimes the UI can get too swipe-heavy - both horizontal and vertical - especially inside hubs
  • The cursor to choose letters between words is not as intuitive as the magnifying glass in iPhone. The cursor starts hovering a line or two above the one I'm pointing at
  • The stack concept of multitasking, while it works, is slightly unintuitive when coming from other platforms; I'll probably give this some more time to see if I get used to it

Things I dont like and wish Microsoft changes soon:

  • Keyboard autocorrect is not as good as that of the iPhone - seems to suggest based on first key typed, not on the relative position of keys all the time
  • Start screen becomes way too long too soon, I don’t expect it to scale well when the number of apps I install increases. Need more hubs(user created would be nice) or folders
  • The Settings list is very long too, several toggles are unnecessarily two levels deep and can instead be grouped together in a separate area
  • The status bar auto-hides, so its not clear at all times whether I'm connected to EDGE or 3G. The 'Wait' indicator(rows of buttons sweeping from the left, collecting in the center and swishing away to the right) is always at a constant speed. It could slow down or speed up like in iOS' indicator of the rotation gears to indicate network speed
  • No smart dial in the number pad
  • The Windows Phone App/Connector for PC/Mac is lacklustre. Its not even a rudimentary media management tool, infact it depends on itunes for management of playlists!
  • The top half of the phone heats up quickly when 3G data is active; Wifi works fine though
  • App purchases are not as smooth as they could be - I had to login into my banks credit card account twice to authorize the transaction. Arguably safer though.
  • Installing minor updates takes too long - installing a language pack in settings>keyboard took 15-20 min with a reboot and a scary 4 step 'user data migration'
  • The peoples hub should automatically create groups based on the existing lists in Facebook, since the two are essentially analogues
  • Apps inside hubs don't seem to propagate notifications up to the tile for the hub itself, games especially are a problem
  • When switching to a tombstoned app from the app switcher, Microsoft displays the text 'Resuming...'; perhaps its better to display a screenshot during the loading process to give the impression of not waiting to the user
  • Monolithic volume controls are a pain, I need to remember to reset the system volume each time I'm done listening to music just so that I can hear the ringer next time someone calls me
  • Managing and maintaining playlists is crazy, its an impossible task. Too many problems here to list. Best way would be to do all playlist management on a comp and transfer it using windows phone connector.
  • Background tasks settings are not very intuitive - I'm still not clear whether blocking an app in Settings>Applications>Background Tasks prevents its live tile from updating every 30 min
  • The stack system which the Back button is based on is not as intuitive or clear as I'd like. In Internet Explorer, the Back button loses meaning - pressing it repeatedly first takes you through your browsing history for the session, then exits Internet Explorer and then finally backs out of the remaining apps stacked below. Could be improved
  • I get by reasonably without a notification center simply because most of the apps I use on a regular basis have Live Tiles which are quite informative. A simple scroll of the start screen is enough for me. But I can imagine why a lot of other users need one - as noted in a later section 3rd party apps are still not very good at making full use of live tiles
  • The Calendar Live Tile currently doesn’t list out to-dos, making me enter the app and swipe over to the to-do list
  • Tapping the status bar to jump to the top of a list - this could be implemented at the OS level so that all apps benefit automagically from it
  • Auto-rotate toggle - there is no global control, each application handles it individually(some don't which is a pain)

Things I dont like and hope App developers notice:

  • Even though notification delivery from a web service to app on WP8 works differently than in iOS, some apps which have been ported over haven't ensured to do this correctly. Words with Friends is the most egregious offender - when your friend makes a move, the change is delivered to the app. But when you launch it, even though you can see the most recent word played, the app 'fetches updates' and unnecessarily keeps you waiting. This is classic iOS programming, where a notification is just that, the app has to fetch updates on launch
  • Several 3rd party apps don’t make full use of Live Tiles; a lot of them don’t even support the 3 tile sizes
  • The platform is seriously lacking some good productivity apps - something along the lines of Omnifocus or Things

Things I miss:

  • Auto volume regulation via iTunes which happened automagically in iPhone; choosing the start time and/or end time of songs in iTunes was also neat, which is not possible here
  • Google+, Gtalk, Hangouts
  • Not being able to use controls on existing headsets - this is an adoption issue and should get better over time; still it is irritating that Nokia didn't follow the iPhone standard here

Dealbreakers:

  • None so far :-)

Samsung Galaxy S III - Initial thoughts

Samsung announced the Galaxy S III on 3rd May amid fanfare great and in the face of rabid speculation from all. Like several others, I was hooked on to several liveblogs which were covering the event as it unfolded. My first thought at the time was, the entire event was very Apple-esque in its content, structure and scope - which is a good thing. By the time the event ended however, I was left slightly underwhelmed by Samsungs new flagship device. The Galaxy S III goes back to the design style of the first Galaxy S, with smooth curves, more rounded corners and a chrome ring around the front face. It is a quite good-looking phone, managing to look new while bringing the curves back.

A major criticism of all previous Galaxy devices has been their construction - they all have a plastic body. Unfortunately that doesn't change this time too. Although durable, plastic bodies don't give a phone a premium feel. A Rs. 38000(~$700, initial rumors) phone flexing in your hand is never a good feeling. It doesn't give the phone an indestructible feel. Look at the competition - Apples iPhone 4S feels like a brick with its metal and glass construction, HTCs One S/X phones with their Aluminium bodies are slim and strong, and Nokia Lumia 800/900 are in a class of their own with their polycarbonate bodies. Samsung really missed a trick here. They remain the manufacturer of a cheap feeling premium handset, which is a shame really.

Each Galaxy S phone that came out had raised the bar in terms of configuration for Android devices and the S III, to my mind, falls a bit short there. When Samsung introduced the Exynos SoC in the Galaxy S II, it offered truly next-generation performance. It took other phone manufacturers several months before they could come close to offering the performance of Exynos, let alone beat it. In the Galaxy S III, Samsung decided to go for a quad-core Exynos which is an improved iterative design of the one in S II. It is fabricated with a better 32nm process which reduces the die-area and power consumption while doubling the core count. This is no easy task, but the chip is not next-generation like Qualcomms S4 which is inside HTCs One S. On the graphics front too, Samsung went with the same Mali-400 MP4 GPU as on the Galaxy S II, with much higher clocks than anything on the market now.

Preliminary benchmarks bear this out - S4 gives the Exynos stiff competition in the CPU department(the tests where is leads the competition by a long way is in the browser tests which are heavily dependent on browser optimizations) and the GPU is well ahead of the rest of the pack. So while it takes the performance crown comfortably for now, it might not stay at the top for too long with impending launches of Mali-5xx, Adreno 3xx and PowerVR 6xx GPUs later this year.

Since the advent of the original iPhone and the whole touch-screen revolution, screen size and display quality are important criteria now. Because of the distinctly thinner bezel than other phones, the large 4.8" display doesn't result in a proportionately larger device. The display is a Super AMOLED one, with a 720x1280 resolution. This also means that instead of the RGB, it has RGBG pentile sub pixels. At such high resolutions and pixel density this should not matter, but human eyes have a way making displays look worse than they actually are once a better one comes along.

This time around Samsung put a lot of effort on the software running the Galaxy S III. It comes with ICS loaded(I hope going forward, Samsung will be more regular in updating their devices with the latest Android release). In the demo and from the hundreds of hands-on videos, it seems to me that Touchwiz is not very obtrusive this time around. A lot of buyers will not be replacing Touchwiz with a different launcher by default this time. They also introduced new standards and protocols like S-Beam(which builds on Android Beam, using TouchWiz?) to transfer data between S III handsets. They now have DLNA based screen mirroring too. Samsung also made a huge deal about a Siri look-alike called S Voice. I am not sure how well these will catch on.

Also, Samsung has focused more on the small touches, the tiny details. I especially liked the feature where you can take a photograph while shooting video. Lifting the phone to your ear while texting a contact to call them is also nice(how it will work while group texting remains to be seen, a conference call?). Another interesting touch is that Samsung uses the front-facing camera to track your eyes - if you are looking at the screen it will override the power settings and keep the screen bright so that you don't have to tap the screen regularly while reading. It also uses facial recognition to identify contacts in your photographs against tags in social networks and link them up. The video pop-up feature lets you view videos while browsing or while running other apps sounds a bit gimmicky. In day to day use, I think these small features will end up mattering more than the headline features.

Besides the device, Samsung also announced several new services and accessories with which they hope to establish an ecosystem around the Galaxy brand. They added a Scan & Match feature to their existing Music Hub - this basically works like iTunes Match. Your hard drive is scanned and songs found are matched against those in Samsungs cloud which are then made available to you over the cloud essentially making your music collection device agnostic and available everywhere. A S Pebble mp3 player links up with the the Galaxy S III to play music - I'm not clear about the use case for this. An interesting accessory announced is the Allshare Hub. It connects to a TV over HDMI after which you can play media on your S III on the TV wirelessly. That sounds cool!

I like the services and the accessories Samsung announced, it should give them a solid foundation to build upon in the future as they expand the Galaxy brand. On the whole, however, I'm a bit unenthusiastic about the ecosystem Samsung is trying to establish. Here is the thing - all ecosystems are basically lockdowns. If you start off in one and consume services steadily, then over time you end up with a sizable investment in an ecosystem which makes it difficult to move out in case something better comes along. Suppose you have a hundred dollars worth of apps on your idevice, would you spend another hundred to get the same or similar apps in Android were you to get a Galaxy phone? Now, Samsungs ecosystem is an ecosystem within the larger ecosystem that Google has already built for Android. So this makes it doubly worse. Somehow Android needs to simplify this, a model where ecosystems sit on top of ecosystems is not good. Things are a lot better on the Apple side, where the hardware and OS are manufactured by them.

Another aspect of ecosystems is integration. How well the services of an ecosystem integrate with each other and with the device is an important factor in deciding its success. Samsung now has an excellent offering of devices - phones, media players(Galaxy Player), TVs, laptops. It remains to be seen whether the current offering of services will expand to cover all these devices and give the consumer a great experience. Compare this to the other side of the fence, with Apple, who have a similar product range. With them, the more i-devices you buy the better the integrated experience!

As I alluded to at the start, the device as such left me underwhelmed - but I'm probably biased because of my expectations pre-launch. It looks a solid device in terms of features and Samsung has a nice offering of services and accessories to make owning and using a Galaxy S III a great experience. Lets wait and see how well they succeed at that.

Interesting Case Study - Duplicate Invoices in SAP SD

I work for SAP Labs and every once in a while get great problems to work on with our customers. One such customer recently had come to us asking for a root cause and solution to an intriguing problem they faced in their production SAP ECC system. I blog about it to highlight some of the very interesting issues that arise in a large SAP installation due to various reasons - end-user behavior, slow performance and deep technical issues. The issue was in the standard shipment process in SAP SD. In the customer system, the process in question started with the end-user running transaction VT01N to create a Shipment. After a few days, once the necessary paperwork was completed, the user would call transaction VT02N to perform PGI and Invoicing. This setup used to work fine till about a couple of months back when, on a completely random basis, a few shipments ended up with duplicate delivery and invoices. This caused a problem with the customers credit management system and hence became very critical indeed.

To begin analysis, we had few clues to start off with. No common characteristic or pattern was observed between the affected shipments. We had a look at all the user/customer exits and BAdIs to see if customer code was the culprit. Zilch, we didn't find any z-code which might play havoc with the standard flow. And since the whole problem was not reproducible, we did not have much possibility to debug. A few initial attempts at debugging the whole shipment->delivery->invoice process were efforts in vain.

Our first hint for root cause came from ST03N which we pored through religiously. We could see that around when the problem actually started(ie. when the customer started observing skewed Credit Management figures), there was a substantial dip in overall system dialog response. More specifically, the Database Time in the Dialog Response was almost double of what it was earlier. This was because of a new database(Oracle 11) which the customer had upgraded to, which was not well tuned.

Ideally, SAP standard will lock and update the Shipment first in its own LUW. Once the shipment has been updated, it will start another LUW for the delivery and invoice creation. Once these follow-on documents have been created, the Shipment status will be updated to reflect its closed status. Therefore, this much was clear to us from the very beginning - the issue was arising either due to some inconsistency in the creation/sequencing of LUWs(Logical Unit of Work) or because of enqueue problems.

To make some headway towards resolution, we started to monitor STAD records closely. As soon as we got news of a duplication(the customer had now started to monitor duplicate invoices very closely), we jumped into STAD to see all the reports/programs that were involved. We observed that the program which actually creates the delivery and invoice (VTFAKT) was getting executed twice! And that too by the same user. It wasn't a case of different users tampering with the same shipment and somehow screwing with the locks.

Some more investigation into the code flow gave us a better picture of how standard SAP actually creates the delivery and invoice (when configured so in the activity profile). To start with, VT02N is called manually by the user. He makes the required changes to trigger follow-on documents creation (most likely updates the shipment status) and hits 'Save'. The program then first locks the shipment and processes the shipment data. It internally CALLs TRANSACTION VTFAKT, which is responsible for delivery and invoice creation. Therefore VTFAKT is called in its own LUW. Once VTFAKT COMMITs its changes and returns control back to VT02N, it finishes the job by COMMITing (and hence passing the locks to the update task) the shipment status changes so that no further follow-on documents can be created. Logically the flow of the entire process seems sound. Surely, there is little chance of something going wrong with the two LUWs involved.

We spoke to the users who had created the duplicate invoices to understand whether they had observed any discrepancy while running VT02N. To our surprise, yes they had. The end users told us that sometimes when they ran VT02N, the transaction would seem to hang and not give them any response. To the end user, who were extremely untrained in SAP, the expected 'response' from the system was the printing of the invoice just created at one of their local printers. Becoming impatient, this user would then end the session and rerun VT02N to receive the printout for the invoice successfully this time.

This clarified the situation a lot. Now we were able to figure out what was going wrong, everything - poor database performance, end-user habits & expectations, enqueues and LUWs - came together beautifully.

Lets go through the same process again, this time talking about what happens to the enqueues and LUWs involved. The user runs VT02N, which creates a lock on the shipment document. The user then changes the shipment and hits Save, which starts LUW1. Inside of LUW1, we have a CALL TRANSACTION to VTFAKT which starts the second logical unit of work, LUW2. Note two things, LUW2 is contained within LUW1 and that the shipment lock created earlier is not passed to the dialog work process handling LUW2. Therefore, VTFAKT, which is called from VT02N runs making the assumption that the shipment is locked (since the transaction VTFAKT cannot be invoked manually, this is a fair assumption to make). Now if there is a sudden spike in database response, LUW2 will take time and the end user becomes impatient and cancels the session.

Looking closely, there are actually two distinct stages during LUW2 processing - first when the processing is with the dialog work process and second when the COMMIT happens and the update work process processes all the update function modules called in stage one. If the user cancels the while processing is still in stage one, LUW1 and LUW2 are both cancelled. However, if the session cancellation happens during stage two processing, LUW1 ends but not LUW2. This is because there is no link between the update work process of LUW2 and the dialog work process of LUW1. What this means is that the shipment is now unlocked (dequeue happens when LUW1 is cancelled) and that the shipment status is still open since this update is supposed to happen in LUW1 after LUW2 is completed successfully. So when the same user runs VT02N, he is inadvertently starting another update to the same shipment and hence ends up creating a duplicate set of delivery and invoice.

Now that the root cause had been identified, we needed a solution too. We had two options, tune the database so that there are no performance slowdowns or to make the whole shipment more robust in the standard itself. Naturally, the second option was preferred which we managed to pull off by setting the update task of LUW2 as local. This is done by the ABAP statement SET UPDATE TASK LOCAL in the program which calls all the update function modules. The result it has is that all of the update processing of LUW2 is handled by the same dialog work process that processed this logical unit of work. So when LUW2 gets cancelled (which happens when LUW1 gets cancelled), the update never takes place. This change was released to the customer as a pilot Note released to no other customer as of writing this - no other customer has come to us with a similar problem yet.

Interesting issue eh!

P.S - The Note which we created to solve the issue is in pilot release, hence have not linked it here.