Friday, February 19, 2016

Telstra/ZTE T96 phone review

A review of a mobile phone for those out there who, like me, have bucked the smartphone trend for something a little... simpler.

Telstra/ZTE T96 with Telstra "Blue Tick". Image source: Telstra


I've owned this particular phone for almost two years now. It's been subject to drops, splashes, immersions in water, and kept on going with nary a care in the world. In short, it's done very well to put up with my careless ways.

(Feel free to skip to the last section - "Verdict" - if you'd just like the short version.)

Call quality

Very good. I've very rarely had a real issue when talking to other people on this phone to-date.

In both loudspeaker and regular mode, you can adjust the volume, which is nice, though I almost always keep it set to max anyway. The only gripe I could make here is that sometimes, e.g. when travelling on a loud bus, the volume could be just a little bit louder. Otherwise the volume is more than enough.

Construction and typing

In terms of looks, this is a pretty simple, sleek candybar design. It's relatively lightweight, sitting around 85 grams. The buttons are smooth and flat, sticking out only just enough to be able to feel which button you're about to press when typing without looking, which is nice. With that said, due to how smooth the buttons are, you will initially on occasion find yourself getting lost on this keypad when typing without looking, until you're fully used to it.

T9 predictive text generally works quite well, however the dictionary's capability for new words is a bit limited, which is a little sad.

Dropping this phone (unless you do it from a great height) is no issue. On carpet and other such "soft" materials, it just bounces a bit. On harder ground, it will usually bounce too. On the occasion it does come apart from the drop, just stick the battery back in, put the cover back on, turn it back on, and continue on your merry way, no harm done.

In terms of drops of water such as from rain, I haven't had any issue. Unless it's a heavy rainfall I won't even put it away until I'm done using it, occasionally wiping the screen from time to time. Note that it isn't actually rated for being waterproof, or even splashproof, so this is ill-advised, and as such do the same at your own phone's risk. Still, one of the great things about cheap feature phones is that I'm not too bothered by the very slight chance that some raindrops will cause issues.

Pictures/Video

The T96 has a single 2 megapixel rear-facing camera. For similar cost 3G feature phones, this is pretty good and does well enough for most tasks, but don't expect too much.

In full light or a bright room, with limited-to-no movement, the camera does well enough at capturing a moment. Add movement to the mix however, and hello blur city. Furthermore, the less available light, the less detailed the pictures will become. Daylight in an otherwise unlit room will be okay, but by no means great. For example, compare the two pictures here, one taken outside, one inside at a darker corner which gets no direct sunlight, both taken on a late, cloudy afternoon. Once you start getting into properly "dark" situations, best not to bother, as there is no flash and it will only be able to pick bits and pieces out in most of these situations.

Video is largely the same. Great to have the capability, and it allows you to take videos for as much time as you have memory to spare, but the quality is... not great (to put it politely).

In short, both the videos and pictures taken by this phone are by no means good quality. However, for when you're in a pinch and just need something to "capture a moment", the T96 does work perfectly well, and frequently I've been glad to have the 2MP camera on-hand regardless of a perceived lack of "professional quality".

Works on 3G network (requirement for Telstra)

This isn't just something which is good for browsing the internet, but will soon be a requirement for phones that will be using the Telstra network. So even if you don't want the T96, pay attention to this point, because it's very important if you're with Telstra and planning on buying a dumbphone/feature phone soon.

Telstra is retiring its 2G network as of the 1st of December, 2016. You'll still be able to use 2G if you're planning on using one of the other Australian networks, but if you want to be with Telstra, then at minimum, your SIM card and mobile phone need to be able to work on 3G or higher.

As the T96 works on 3G frequencies along with 2G, the only thing you need to make sure of is that your SIM card will work on 3G (just drop into a Telstra store to find out if you're unsure), and you're good to go!

Internet

As mentioned, this phone works on the 3G network. So while it's faster than 2G, if you're coming from 4G or above then you will definitely notice the slowdown when you move to this device. Still, the browser works well enough with the exception of one major problem.

The issue stems from the small amount of RAM the phone obviously has available. I can't find details on the processor or RAM (everything I find on that, and the operating system, just says that it's "proprietary"), but it doesn't seem to have much RAM available because some pages are too much for it to handle.

In layman's terms, what this means is that if a webpage has too many pictures, or otherwise too much "other stuff" going on, the phone (partway through loading the page) may just tell you that it ran out of memory and quit the browser.

This can be mostly mitigated by going into the browser's advanced settings and changing the "Browser Mode" from "Full" to "Simple". This gets rid of a lot of the nice formatting, background colors, and any other fancy things. But while this helps with a lot of pages (that were previously throwing the error) being accessible again, say goodbye to enjoying well set-out websites. Furthermore, some webpages can still cause the error to occur if they simply have too many pictures, too.

Social websites such as Facebook and Twitter work just fine in "Full" mode, though.

Battery life

Very good. Not as good as some other feature phones, but still good considering its low price tag and list of features.

With constant heavy use, this phone will last me up to three days from a full charge. With minimal use, over a week. Leaving it on standby, this phone is stated to last up to 300 hours, and I could definitely believe that.

My regular usage pattern includes calling my wife after work, calling various other people from time to time, texting, MMSing a bit, and occasionally using the internet. With this, the average time between charges is anywhere from four to six days, depending on the particular week. That's pretty good, especially when compared to the average battery life of current smartphones.

Finally, if something does happen to your battery (it stops working, simply stops holding charge, or something else), you can always purchase another one at the ZTE Accessory Store if you have to. I admittedly don't know and can't make any promises for how long they'll keep those batteries listed, but it looks like they have batteries still listed from some of their older models. So, here's hoping the T96 battery sticks around on there for a while to come!

Display

The screen is about what you'd expect on a phone like this. 2.4 inches, with a resolution of 240x320. It actually does alright at displaying pictures, but with a size and resolution like that, don't expect a crisp, breathtaking display when looking at pictures or browsing the web, or you will be disappointed.

In direct bright sunlight, the screen can be a bit hard to make out. A bit bothersome, but nothing that shading the screen can't fix. In any condition other than bright sunlight, including other conditions while outdoors, the display is fine.

Overall, the display is perfectly tolerable - I've personally found it to be just fine. It's better than a great deal many other feature phones out there, but if the feature phone you're looking for has to (as a personal requirement) have an amazing display, then this may not be the phone for you.

Coverage

The phone comes with the Telstra "Blue Tick", "recommended for rural handheld coverage". This phone definitely does well on this front.

I live out where Optus devices sometimes have trouble getting a reliable signal, and my T96 consistently sits at full bars for 3G. Further out "in the sticks", long after some of my friend's phones have lost coverage, I'm still normally getting anywhere from one to three bars.

In short, I've never been without coverage, except where the phone can't be blamed (e.g. when I've been far from civilisation, travelling deep cross-country, or sitting in a valley with mountains on all sides of me).

For everything else, the phone does have a jack on its back for connection up to an external antenna, if need be.

Extras

You can add extra storage to the T96 via MicroSD card, up to 32 GB. Considering there's only a stated 0.125 GB of internal storage available, adding some external storage is definitely advised.

There's a standard headphone jack at the bottom of the phone, and the phone does come with a music player too. If you don't plug in headphones, the music comes out the phone's speaker.

Charging is done via a standard micro-USB port. Through that same port, you can connect your phone up to a computer to move files (music, pictures, anything else) to or from the phone.

The T96 also has Bluetooth (2.0) capability.

There's a dedicated camera button. Maybe not a necessity, but it's a nice touch regardless.

Holding down the hash (#) button instantly changes your profile from whatever it currently is (General, Outdoor, or Silent) to Meeting. Furthermore, if you're currently in the Meeting profile, then holding down the hash button returns you to whatever profile you most recently used, before Meeting. Another small, but nice, touch.

Price

I originally got this phone when Telstra had it on sale for $49. A very reasonable price.

As of the time of writing this article, it's currently sitting at $79 dollars. Not quite as reasonable, but given how much I like this phone, and how reliable I'd say it is, I'd still pay that for this phone.

My black T96, along with my other Everyday Carry items

Verdict

The display isn't great, pictures and video are just passable, and using the internet browser can sometimes be a pain.

But let's be honest. When looking for a feature phone, a crisp display, taking great pictures and/or videos, and a seamless ability to use the internet are often features that are just not as much of a requirement as other features that this phone does well at. When these features are on a phone, they're usually optional extras, little additional niceties, not requirements.

The call quality, construction, 3G capability (since Telstra is retiring 2G soon), battery life, coverage, and extras are all good. Great in some cases. And these are usually the things that more people searching for a feature phone are interested in.

Would I buy this phone again? Absolutely, without a doubt.

If you're interested, you can find the T96 on the Telstra online store here. Or, you can find it on ZTE's website here. Finally, a manual for the phone can be found on ZTE's website here.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Sketching - My New Endeavour, and What It Can Do for your Mental Health

Drawn by me in a day, now used as my online avatar.

“The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.” - Junot Diaz
At 23 years old, and after a life devoid of creating any art since year 7 and 8 art classes (unless you count a few pieces of music I’ve created here and there), it took a little nudging from my supportive partner to give it a go.

Once I overcame that hurdle, though, I quickly discovered a new passion.

Within this article is both an account of how I got started, what it felt like to push past that mental block and finish my first sketch in oh-so-long, and the beneficial health effects of sketching (including better memory, concentration, and a generally healthier and more efficient brain).

Starting can be the hardest part

For most of my life, I haven’t drawn purely for art. This is largely due to my attempts to draw for art early on in my life and, well, sucking at it. I stank so much at drawing despite my efforts, it had an effect on my self-confidence for almost anything visual-art related. Because of this, except when I had to do art in my early college (or “high school”) years, I simply stopped creating physical or drawn art.

Unknowingly, it swiftly became a mental block. I truly didn’t even realise it was there, until just under a month ago when my partner drew my face, and then asked if I could draw her.

I froze.

I wanted to, to re-pay the favour. And I knew she wouldn’t care if it was terrible, because it was the thought that mattered in the act for her. But I could barely move – my breathing even became shallower. The reaction of mine felt weird and overly strong at the time and in retrospect. But how strange it was didn’t make it any easier to push past.

We both knew what was happening, though. And faces are hard to draw until you know what you’re doing, so we just settled on me drawing her back (from shoulders down to the hips), a much easier target to draw for a novice. We got all settled in, I took a good few minutes before I even let the pencil touch the page… and then it began. After I started, I enjoyed it immensely, and after drawing her back, I went on to drawing her crossed arms and hands, before moving on to drawing from nature (once I’m confident, I’ll have a go at sketching her face to pay her back in full). But for me to have broken through that mental block, it needed a lot of patience, and gentle coaxing. Having someone who knew me as well as I knew myself to help me through this definitely helped.

It’s funny, really, the strange mental blocks we can place on ourselves sometimes. For me, it was creating any kind of physical art, drawn or moulded or otherwise brought into this world to be enjoyed by being seen. But in case anyone’s in this same position that I was in, I urge you to just try. Start with something very simple, and take it as slowly as you need to. You might just find you enjoy it after all, as I did, regardless of the end result.

One of my first sketches, a two-dimensional tree drawn purely from the mind's eye. Like most first sketches, it’s nothing to write home about, but it was very fun to create.

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” ~William Faulkner

Health Benefits of Sketching

Sketching (and creating art in general) can come with a slew of mental health benefits. Not inconsequential either, but benefits which (if we create art regularly) may help push back many of the mental degenerative effects that commonly come with aging. These include (but by far are not limited to):
  • Creating art delays or negates age-related decline in normal brain function and psychological resilience (i.e. stress resistance). [1]
  • Drawing develops the brain in the cerebellum and medial frontal gyrus (i.e. areas associated with fine motor control). [2]
  • Drawing develops the brain in the precuneus in the parietal lobe (i.e. an area associated with creativity, visuo-spatial imagery, and other tasks). [2]
  • Finally, drawing gives you a happier brain, as drawing releases dopamine. [3]
Sources: [1-Study] [1-Article on the study] [2-Study] [3-Study] [2,3-Article on the studies]

An art therapist watches over a mental health patient during an art therapy workshop in Senegal. Source: VOA, http://www.voanews.com/english/news/africa/Art-Therapy-Helps-Mentally-Ill-Patients-in-Dakar-136400123.htm
Art Therapy session.
So sketching can help you to become a calmer person, more easily able to deal with the stresses of the world. It can help you remember more, and in more detail. It helps you to really take note of what’s around you. And in a more general sense, it can dramatically slow the natural mental decline commonly caused by aging.

Finally, it can be downright fun, as there’s no limit as to what you “have” to sketch. Feel like sketching a peaceful landscape? Cool. Feel like sketching an animal, either real or a new which no one’s seen before? Awesome. Feel like sketching a space-marine decked out in full power-armour, chainsaw-sword at the ready? Go for it. Whatever you decide on, there’s nothing to stop you, and you’ll feel good throughout and at the end of the process for having created something of your own.

So, sketching is fun, it’s highly individual, and you’ll be mentally healthier for doing it. What’s not to love?
Another one of my first sketches, a scarred bay leaf from our garden. Again, it’s certainly not about to win any awards any time soon, but it was fun to sketch, and I look forward to improving.

Something for everyone

Sketching is, quite simply, good for you. And unlike some forms of art, all you need is a sketch pad, and a pencil/pen as an absolute minimum. Both of the above pieces of mine were done, ten minutes at a time, to and from work while I was on the bus with just an A4 sketch pad, HB pencil, sharpener, and eraser. You can absolutely add more pencils, pens, or other tools, to add more shading ability, more depth, more colour, etc. (though I personally am going to get better at the basics before I move on to the more advanced stuff), but that’s also the beauty of it. You can work with everything at your disposal and create something majestic, or use the bare minimum and still create something amazing. Unless you have less than 5 minutes a day free, there’s no reason you can’t take up sketching for yourself.

And it doesn’t matter about your skill level. If you’re worried about what your art looks like, this isn’t school (where you’re graded on your work), and there’s no need for you to have to show anyone. Just make sure you’re enjoying it, regardless of the end result – skill will come in time, with enough practice, just the same as any talent.

All you have to do is get started.

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” ~J.R.R. Tolkien

(Quotes sourced from here: 150 Amazing Quotes to Feed your Creative Soul)

(Originally published, by me, on HubPages.com - 14/03/2015)

Monday, February 1, 2016

d.light S20 Solar Lantern - Two Years In Review


A while ago I decided I needed a solar lantern, or otherwise some kind of solar light. Why? I was doing well in my final year of University, had a relatively-well-paying part-time job (for a Uni student), and this is the kind of stuff I would "treat" myself to.

Something else I bought around the same time was the PowerPlus Spider mini window solar light. This was under $10 AUD at the time I bought it, and ended up being a poor choice. The light output wasn't great, it didn't produce light for more than about 90 minutes, and it died recently (about 2 years after purchase). Perhaps if it hadn't decided to quit on me, it would've found a position in a future home at the end of a hallway, attached to a window which faces the sun, to beam along the hallway when the lights went out... But for now, I'm not rushing to get another one of those.

Back to d.light

d.light is one of the many companies out there selling very affordable solar lighting solutions to be used by those who don't have access to a mains power grid (or have access to a very unreliable power grid), as well as selling their items to people like me (i.e. perfectly well-off people living in first-world countries who also want very affordable solar lighting solutions).

At the time of purchase, three of the main products offered by the company were the S2 (a small solar light for doing homework by, or other such small tasks), the S20, and the S300 (a solar panel and lantern/floodlight solution to light up large rooms or areas, as well as offering mobile phone charging from the battery). For homework and preparing for my job, I used my computer, so there wasn't much need for the S2 in my situation. And there certainly wasn't much need for a solution such as the S300 when I was, at the time, living in big-city suburbia, in a granny flat behind the main household. So, the S20 it was!

Once I got it, I immediately put it on the window sill to charge. The instructions that came with it told me that it needs up to 8 hours to fully charge, for up to 8 hours of use. One of the best things I remember about the solar panels is that they charge in daylight, not just direct sunlight. So on overcast days, it would still charge, which is great to know.

As for the light itself, it's incredibly simple to use. A small button just below the solar panels turns it from off, to on (low brightness), to on (high brightness), and then back to off. Using the lantern on high reduces the time to discharge the battery from 8 hours to 4 hours, but I haven't yet felt the need to use the high setting. That's not to say that having a high setting won't be useful in future, it's just that the low setting puts out easily enough light for almost any task a lantern is required for.

Its metal swivel-handle and slightly oddly shaped head means that this lantern can be held or placed in almost any way, allowing it to be used in most situations.

To test it out in that first year, I had many nights of keeping the house lights off to see how useful it was. I had it hanging off the shower pipe to use in the shower (where it got wet on several occasions), I've used it to make my way around the darkened rooms as well as outside, and I've dropped it (albeit accidentally) on all sorts of materials, including (but not limited to) carpet, wood, tiles, and concrete. Each time I dropped it, the S20 bounced aggressively, but to this day there is still not a crack on it. A few light scratches here and there, sure, but no cracks, and the functionality was not impaired in the slightest.

Since then I've used it in a variety of situations. Most commonly just for going outside at night to get something I had forgotten, or to do something in the garden. But I've also used it, for example, in the first winter at my wife's and my new property, where during the lead up to winter (and during winter itself), I had my pant-belt threaded through the metal handle so that the S20 was hanging off my belt, and as such I had light to chop more wood for our fireplace.

Other Features

The S20 has a small red LED light on the back of its head, which lights up when it's charging in sufficient light. It's a small but (in my opinion) very appreciated touch, as there is no way to know if the solar panel(s) are actually working on a lot of smaller, cheaper solar devices. This way, right out of the box, you can tell if everything is in order by simply placing the S20 in daylight.

It also comes with a small port to be able to charge the device with one of the old Nokia phone chargers. An odd feature perhaps, but remember that not the whole world has been swept along with the smartphone revolution yet, so it makes sense when thought about in this context.

d.light Product Warranty

d.light has a standard warranty on all their solar lighting products, too. So if you buy it from them, or from an otherwise legit supplier, then you get that warranty on your S20.

It's a pretty standard warranty that covers failure from normal use during the first two years after purchase, so assuming you haven't been abusing your product (or have been unlucky enough to be in a flood etc.), there's not much need to worry about wasting money on a faulty product.

The d.light warranty is covered here.

Final Thoughts

So, I've owned one for a little while now, used it in all sorts of circumstances, and I plan to use it for quite some time to come.

There are possibly better solar lighting solutions out there at higher prices. But for its very low price range, reliability, ruggedness, and two-year warranty, this product definitely rates very high for handheld solar lighting in my books.

(d.light S20 website)

Buy S20 on Amazon

(Originally published, by me, on HubPages.com - 18/01/2015)