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Will your Android phone allow someone to hack you?

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment
Image by  Jared Tarbell  used under creative commons license

Image by Jared Tarbell used under creative commons license

When a new undisclosed (0 day) vulnerability is used to hack a target's device, the media jumps all over it and create a small panic. Government intelligence and organized crime are always looking for new creative ways to break into target devices and are willing to pay top dollar for new unknown hacks. Vulnerability brokers (companies that are willing to sell 0-day vulnerabilities) are paying to dollar for these rare and very in demand weaknesses. Zerodium is now paying $1.5M for a good complete IOS attack.

Although these are troubling, the truth is the majority of attacks (and malware/virus') still exploit time tested and patchable vulnerabilities. This is why keeping your computer, smartphone and tablet operating system/apps updated is so important.  This is one of the reasons Microsoft switched to an automatic forced update model with Windows 10.

Apple's products are opaque and I do not believe in security through obscurity. I wish they allowed for more scrutiny of their mobile products but when something is discovered, they release updates very quickly and make it immediately available to all supported devices worldwide regardless of the carrier it was acquired through. 

This is one of the chief complaints against Android. Most Android devices are never updated once they ship and the ones that do receive updated typically get them slowly and infrequently. Check out the Android Platform distribution statistics:  

Only 0.3% of Android devices support the latest version (Android 7.0 Nougat) 1.5 months after release. On the IOS side, 60% of devices had updated to IOS 10 a month after release.

Only 0.3% of Android devices support the latest version (Android 7.0 Nougat) 1.5 months after release. On the IOS side, 60% of devices had updated to IOS 10 a month after release.

Even top tier manufacturers like Samsung (Note 7 issue notwithstanding) only update their most recent flagship products and that is if your carrier decides to allow it. 

Right now, as I write this, I have an Apple iPhone 6s Plus and and Google Nexus 6P sitting next to me. I  love android and find many of the features in the most recent Nougat release better than comparable Apple features. Don't call me an Apple fanboy or Google hater. The moral of the story is you shouldn't buy any Android phone where the manufacturer has not committed to delivering (quickly) the OS updates and the monthly security releases

As it currently stands, the only android products I can recommend are those sold directly by Google (Nexus or Pixel).

Buy an unlocked Nexus or Pixel product directly from Google to make sure you receive all of the updates quickly. 

Questions

Q A question I will likely receive is what about [insert brand / model here]?

A I expect emails asking me about the OnePlus 3, ZTE Axon 7, HTC 10, LG V20, Motorola Moto Z, etc. None of these manufacturers have committed to providing the OS and security updates quickly. The answer therefore is no. I love the price / quality proposition of the ZTE Axon 7 and the OnePlus 3 but without a commitment to updates, its a no go for me.

Q. Aren't iPhones more secure?

A iPhone's are slightly more secure because of the way the operating system is designed and applications are sandboxed. This doesn't mean it is unbreakable and the attempted hack of Saudi human rights activist Mansoor proves it( Read this article by CitizenLab

Both platforms can be used safely if you ensure you don't break their built in security (rooting on Android and Jailbreaking on iPhone) and you ensure you only download "real" apps from the official app stores. 

A. What else can I do?

Q In addition to using the "right" device, it is important to think about your privacy and security. Use the right apps for the right job.

  • Use encrypted communications apps like Signal. Signal's encryption has been reviewed by leading cryptographers and has been given a big thumbs up.
  • When browsing the web, use Tor to protect your identity (easier on Android) with a browser like OrFox. You can even configure Facebook and Twitter (on Android) to use Tor via OrBot.
  • Every picture taken with a smartphone contains "hidden" information called Exif information. This is information like the type of camera used, the settings used to take the picture, etc. It also contains the GPS coordinates of where the picture was taken. If you send this to someone, they can extract this information and use it to pinpoint the location the picture was taken. Send it to a social media site and they will start building a travel pattern of you. Make sure you remove EXIF information, using an app, before posting. There are tones of apps, just search the app store.
  • Uninstall apps you no longer use. Remember that apps are sometimes sold and the new buyer may push out an update that adds unwanted features "like tracking or recording". If you no longer use an app, get rid of it.

HTC Desire 530 Android Smartphone review

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment

Customer

Reading most online device review sites will make you dizzy. It seems reviewers (professional and amateur alike) are chasing the next big phone. They want you to buy the beefiest phone currently available with crazy specs and a crazy price. Truth is that not everyone needs the latest and greatest, especially when it typically costs $800-1000.

I know a bunch of readers purchased the Motorola MotoG 2015 last year when I recommended it and this phone competes in that space. It is a decent mid-range phone for someone that wants a basic smartphone to browse the web, watch videos, listen to music and read the occasional PDF or Amazon book.

And it can be purchased online from HTC unlocked with minimal bloatware.

Specifications

  • 5" 720p display in the front
  • 1.1 GHZ quad-core Snapdragon 210 processor
  • 1.5 GB of RAM
  • 16 GB of internal storage
  • Micro-SD card expansion (up to 2TB)
  • 8MP camera in back
  • 5MP camera on the front
  • 2200 mAH battery

If you want a slight spec bump, you can always opt for its bigger brother the Desire 626 which comes with some small and welcome improvements.

Let's get physical

The Desire 530 is a mid-range budget smartphone with a polycarbonate body and has a design reminiscent of previous desire phones. HTC is using a unique "pain splash" on the back they call MicroSplash. Microsplash is said to be unique for each phone and is a way to make the phone look unique and hip. 

Microsplash means each HTC Desire 530 will be slightly unique design on the back

You can add lanyards since the phone comes with a lanyard loop hole (a grey one is provided in the box). 

The power button is orange and nicely textured which means you can identify it with feel only. The plastic volume rockers feel very plastic but are functional and tactile.

The SIM and SDCard slots are behind a plastic flap (on the left hand side) and the flap feels flimsy and I was worried about breaking it. Ultimately being careful, It came off and was put back on without a hitch but you have to be careful. 

HTC is known for its impressive sound quality. Although the HTC Desire 530 has 2 speaker grills on the front, the top one is the earpiece (for phone calls) and the bottom is the speaker. This is where I had high expectations. For me, good sound is a signature feature of HTC devices and here I was a bit disappointed. Whether I was playing OGG, MP3, local videos or clips streamed from youtube, the internal built-in speaker sounded very tinny with little bass (even for a smartphone).

The screen has a black border which makes the screen feel bigger than it actually is. I handed the phone to a bunch of friends and colleagues and many of them liked the smaller size of the phone. Many preferred the easy to hold one handed usability of this device compared to the gargantuan monsters being peddled by Samsung and Apple. I'm a big guy with big hands so I prefer a slightly bigger screen on my everyday carry devices. There is an option in the settings that allows you to hide the navigation buttons so you recover some extra space that way.

The screen is 720p and ultimately this isn't necessarily a bad thing. A lower display resolution means you should get better battery life (which is more important to the average user) but don't expect to use this phone with Google Cardboard. Additionally even at full brightness, the colors left a lot to be desired but it isn't any worse than the Motorola MotoG. 

The HTC Desire 530 allows you to use the SDCard as flexstorage (aka Adoptable storage) on Android Marshmallow. This means you can add the SDCard capacity to the built in 16 GBs... well... sort of.. kind of.. This is an Android issue. Apps aren't all automatically copied on the SDCard (even if you use a fast one) and there were times when I filled the internal memory and the adoptable storage had GB of free space yet the phone kept giving me out of storage space warnings.My recommendation for all Android devices is to use SDCards as external storage to host large collections of music, movies and pictures.

Having used the HTC Desire 530 as my primary device for a couple of days, I noticed that there was slight lag when browsing a web page, scrolling a home screen with a couple of widgets. Opening apps takes a bit longer than I would hope and the phone slows down a bit with multiple apps are open in the background. 

I tried playing a few games and the experience was ok. Strategy and role playing games worked well once loaded but more complex games like car racing either weren't supported or didn't work well. 

Using the phone like a typical mid range consumer (some emails, some web browsing, some music with the screen off and a handful of calls) meant the device lasted a full day (8am - 9pm). This is probably the result of the 7209 screen and lower end processor. As long as you don't play too many games, the device should get you through the day. A clear win. 

The stock camera app is basic with selfie, normal, panorama, HDR modes and video modes. I could complain that it isn't very customization but most users want to click a button and take a picture. Pictures taken in low light indoors or outdoors come our noisy and grainy. Images taken outside in good light are flat and not very engaging. I'm sure HTC can improve this with some software tweaks. 

Software

The phone I am holding in my hands is running Android Marshmallow 6.0.1 with the June 2016 security updates. Security updates make me happy. HTC has layered their SenseUI on top of Android and it will be familiar to anyone that has used an HTC phone in recent years.

SenseUI has the vertical scrolling app drawer, blinkfeed and a relatively clean user interface. 

I then loaded my Google tools such as the Google Now Launcher and Google Keyboard.. which is how I prefer to use Android devices. SenseUI isn't bad but nothing is quite as good as vanilla android.

The phone I received had no bloatware... None... Nada... Ziltch... Way to go HTC. This is something that can't be overstated. I love clean phones and love the fact chose this route. They could have made some extra cash by crapping up the phone with garbage apps but they didn't. Thank you HTC!

I asked HTC PR 2 questions:

  1. Will HTC delivery Android Nougat to the Desire 530? If so when?
    "We have not made any announcement re Nougat to HTC Desire 530."
  2. What is HTC's commitment to delivering Android Security Updates?
    "We are aligning resources around our most popular products where the most customers will benefit, and the roll-out may vary by regions and operators."
     

Conclusion

So what is my overall verdict? I think this is a decent phone for the price ($US179 or $CAD199). I know many people that have smartphones without any additional apps installed and that are looking for something affordable and usable. The HTC Desire 530 is a decent option for these people. 

A second market could be travelers that want a second unlocked phone that can be used with a local SIM at the destination.

My other gripe is that we don't know if the Desire 530 will receive Android N (Nougat) or how regularly it will receive security updates. Security updates are more critical for me than an upgrade to Nougat.

How Android N will save you money on your monthly data plan

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment
Image by  Gord Webster   used under creative commons license

Image by Gord Webster  used under creative commons license

Android N (Nougat) has a handful of new very useful features but nothing catches my attention like a feature that can save you cold hard cash. This witchcraft is a result of a feature called Data Saver. 

One thing most mobile carriers are good at is charging you top dollar for any data overage you incur. This is true whether you are at home and especially abroad. It is true whether you are in Canada, the US or Hong Kong.

Most of the time users don't realize they busted their data cap until it's too late. Overage can happen because of excessive streaming (music or movies) but it can also happen because some apps aggressively update data in the background without you realizing it....

Google wants to help you tame the data monster intelligently. Instead of just reporting on data usage or cutting off data at a certain threshold, Data Saver can prevent background processes from downloading data when on a metered connection. 

Data Saver is a feature that users will have to enable but luckily it isn't an all or nothing option. By turning it on, it prevents almost all background apps from consuming metered data but you can add apps to a whitelist if you want.

There are some apps, by their very design, that must connect in the background to function (think of instant messaging apps, VOIP, etc). For these special cases, developers will be able to ask the user to be added to the whitelist during installation. 

Hopefully developers will make these Android N (Nougat) changes intelligently and modify the operation of their apps to minimize background data usage when they detect Data Saver is enabled but they are granted a slot on the coveted whitelist. Unfortunately we'll see some lazy developers just ask for the permission then continue as usual and hopefully users will uninstall those apps sending a strong signal to the developers.

As a Canadian, I am envious of my american friends on one of those beautiful Sprint or T-Mobile unlimited plans. They can ignore this new feature and continue guzzling huge amounts of glorious data.  For the rest of us, we should turn this feature on immediately. 

My main phone has been an iPhone since the iPhone 3G days (even though I always have other phones available). Until recently, IOS was still superior to Android but not anymore. With the latest changes introduced by Google in Android N (Nougat), I truly feel Android has become a more cutting edge platform and Data Saver is a clear example of that. Hopefully most of you are on devices that will eventually receive Android N. 

I can already see the emails flying in asking what devices will be upgraded. We won't know for sure until a manufacturer publishes a statement but here is my bet:

  • Samsung - Expect most devices since the Samsung Note5/Galaxy S6 to eventually get updated.
  • LG - LG G5 is probably the only one
  • Motorola - All 2016 devices will get upgrade and probably the 2015 Moto G
  • OnePlus - Expect the OnePlus 3 to eventually get updated but don't expect it soon. My guess is sometime mid next year.Don't expect other OnePlus devices to receive Android N
  • ZTE - The ZTE Axon 7 seems to be a huge hit (I'm trying to get one to review). I expect it to receive an Android N update but like the OnePlus 3, I wouldn't expect it soon

 

Is the LifeProof waterproof iPhone case worth it?

technologyEdward KiledjianComment

 

LifeProof isn's a new company but interestingly I receive a handful of reader emails every week asking whether the $89.99 investment is justified. The questions I see the most are:

  • Does the Lifeproof case work?
  • Does the Lifeproof case leak?
  • Will the Lifeproof case protect my iPhone from my toddler

Interestingly reviews on the the internet are split. There are large organizations and hard users that swear by Lifeproof cases and then there is a vibrant boisterous anti-Lifeproof community that tries to have its voice heard everywhere. 

So this review is my attempt to answer the simple question: Is the Lifeproof waterproof case for iphone/ipad/samsung/Motorola worth the $90 asking price?

The first rule of Lifeproof

Remember that you are asking the case to protect your $900 smartphone. For most, this is the most important piece of technology. So why do so many buyers avoid reading the manual then complain that something went wrong? I don't know but please... pretty please... read the damn manual.

The first thing the manual says is to test your case in the sink using a tissue paper inside the case to check for leaks. Lifeproof does test every case in their warehouse but considering it will be wrapped around you smartphone, invest the 30 minutes to test it with tissue paper (or using the fake cardboard iPhone provided in the packaging) first in the sink. 

The most popular version is the Nuud which basically seals around your devices glass screen itself. People choose this because it allows you to enjoy the wonderful retina display without looking at it through a cheap think plastic film. But in order for this to work, your phone should be relatively intact. Deep screen scratches or cracks could make your device non waterproof.

The internet is complaining

I read hundreds of comments from users and it seems the biggest complaint is that condensation forms on the inside of the speaker mesh. Most complainers said the phone continued to work but that they had to have Apple replace the speaker. 

I contacted 12 of the most vocal complainers about this issue asking if they had first sink tested their case before first use. 2 answered saying they had not.

Food for thought.

The warranty 

So Lifeproof provides 1 year of warranty from the date of purchase (link).  Buying it with some gold credit cards may allow you to extend this to 2 (your results may vary). I contacted their warranty support service (as a test) and the agent was extremely helpful and willing to quickly send out a replacement piece. [I claimed it was leaking]. 

Additionally many stores will offer you 30/60/90 days of in-store warranty.

I am a scuba diver and have scuba certified camera cases. For those cases, we typically apply a special silicon lube (link) to the O Rings before each day starts. You could use this same lube on the O Rings of the Lifeproof but it would likely invalidate your warranty so I wouldn't do it.

My field tests

I love my smartphone and it is with me 24x7x365. Subjecting my beloved iPhone to torture testing breaks my heart everytime. For these tests, I dropped the phone (in case of course) on jagged medium size rocks from 6 feet and all that happenned was some small case scratches. 

I then tested the phone in a 1 meter tank for 60 minutes and the phone worked great. 

Touchscreen's don't like water and therefore may not respond when wet. The traditional Lifeproof with cheap plastic screen protector allows you to use the phone in fairly wet conditions because ultimately the screen is dry. Not so for the Nuud. Because the original screen is exposed in the Lifeproof Nuud case, the touchscreen becomes unresponsive when wet. This is something you will have to think about before you get the screen wet. As an example if you want to take pics, start the camera app before the device get's wet and use the volume button to snap pics. The home button will work but screen presses will likely go unanswered by IOS.

Lifeproof Total Water Protection Program

Lifeproof has a program called the TWPP and describes it as:

TWPP is a limited warranty that is included with your purchase of a LifeProof Case when purchased through select retailers. The TWPP Limited Warranty includes coverage of your electronic device as a consequence of water damage due to a material or workmanship defect of the LifeProof case.

the important point here is to register your TWPP warranty as soon as you buy your case from an authorized provider (link to register) , otherwise you forfeit this protection.

The accessories

There are now a bunch of accessories you can buy. The most interesting one, if you spend time around water, is the LifeJacket.

Basically it is designed to work with the Lifeproof case and make your device float and of course makes it super visible. I wouldn't walk with the Lifejacket on the beach but would use it while boating.

Verdict

It is not perfect. It makes the device just a bit bigger (not much but still noticeable). It basically covers the beautifully crafted aluminium smartphone in a much cheaper plastic case. You will need a special adapter to use headphones (link). Some IOS accessories won't work because of the added thickness around the lightning port which means you'll have to give up on those accessories or buy one of those third party lightning port extenders.(link)

I think this is a fantastic option for the right consumer. Who is the right consummer? It is someone that spends enough time around water or situations hazardous to their smartphone, to make this investment worthwhile. Someone that needs this protection once a year shouldn't spend $90 for this case.

It's cool using your smartphone for everything but I have taken a step back. For situations where I want to take pictures in wet or hazardous conditions, I use my though, waterproof, dropproof, freezeproof Olympus TG-2 (link). (they are up to TG-4 now). 

For situations where I am carrying my smartphone (or documents or other electronics) and just want to protect it against unintended splashes or water, I store it inside a reusable, extremely though and easily accessible AlokSak waterproof bag (link).

Having used many waterproof cases, I find them too clumsy to use and they distract from the beauty of my devices. Personally I would rather endanger a device made to be thrown or bathed like my Olympus TG-4 Though camera or a GoPro. If however you work in a job where you need your phone AND it is hazardous for the device then this is a fantastic option. It is one of the sleekest and most usable waterproof cases aroound. 

Amazon App store offers 31 Android apps worth $100 for free

technologyEdward KiledjianComment

Amazon a running a fantastic promotion in their Amazon App store (link) right now (for 2 days). They are offering 31 decent popular apps and games for free. Outside of this promo, these would cost you $100 to buy. So this is definitely a download it now type of promo.

Some other promos typically include 1 good app and 20 horribly designed crap but this is a decent list worth looking at.

Apps like : Pinball Deluxe, Splashtop Remote HD, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Plex, Informant 3, and many more