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From ‘Halo’ to Miles Davis: One woman’s life behind the scenes

A long, winding drive through Lucas Valley leads to the wooden gates of Skywalker Ranch. Inside George Lucas’ exclusive estate, well-manicured gardens blend in with the sweeping wilderness of California’s Marin County. Past an empty baseball field and multiple rows of grapevines is a red-bricked “technical building” that houses Skywalker Sound, a state-of-the-art studio where Hollywood’s most iconic soundtracks have been created.

Inside the building, the hallway that leads to the scoring stage is dotted with a couple of dozen framed Grammy nominations. A large analog console covers the front of the control room. Three Bowers & Wilkins speakers tower over hundreds of tiny knobs and buttons that line the breadth of the dashboard. A glass window separates the room from a recording stage that’s big enough to house a 125-piece orchestra. At the head of the console is Leslie Ann Jones, Grammy-award winning director of music recording and scoring.

Behind the Mixing Board at Skywalker Sound

As a mixing and recording engineer, Jones has mastered the tricks and turns on the console over the last four decades. Her abilities don’t just keep the scoring stage busy; they also bring in accolades. This year, Jones is up for her fourth Grammy. She’s nominated in the Best Engineered Album category for Laura Karpman’s Ask Your Mama, a multi-genre project that’s been in the making for the last seven years.

Jones’s exhaustive catalogue defies genres. As an engineer, she’s recorded with jazz legends like Miles Davis and has worked on unforgettable scores like Apocalypse Now and Requiem for a Dream. And for the last 19 years, she’s been at the helm of the recording studio at Skywalker Sound, where she’s recorded massive symphony orchestras and worked on game scores like Gears of War and Halo.

She credits her ability to understand the minutia of any kind of music to her lineage. Her father Spike Jones, the legendary bandleader of Spike Jones and The City Slickers, put a satirical spin on popular songs in the ’40s and the ’50s with mundane objects like tin cans, cowbells and whistles to create his own genre. And her mother, Helen Grayco was a singer who often performed with the band on The Spike Jones Show, a famous variety series at the time.

Growing up, Jones often went on the road with her parents. “I always felt bad we couldn’t go to summer camps or family vacations but I think we got the better end of the deal,” she says. “When we’d be in [Las] Vegas, the only thing to do at night was to watch my parents’ shows. I sat and watched my mother singing every night. I really got a great education in what it is to be a great singer and that’s helped me a lot in my career.”

The exposure to the inner workings of the music world shaped her early choices. At the age of fourteen, she started out playing the electric guitar in a band. But she quickly realized she’d never be as good as the players she admired. She switched to recording other bands on an assembled PA system. “There was something about getting a small console and putting my hands on the fader and being able to turn somebody up or down that gave me a feeling of much more control over the outcome,” she says as she moves the fader on the massive Neve 88R console that she now controls at Skywalker Sound. “Turn an EQ knob and change the sound of someone and affect it in a positive way. That, to me, was a much better use of my musical skills than trying to be a great guitar player.”

Over the years, she went on to become the first female engineer at ABC Studios in New York before moving to San Francisco in 1978 for a stint at The Automatt, where she worked with legends like Herbie Hancock and Carlos Santana. A few years later, with the shuttering of The Automatt, Jones moved on to find work at Capitol Records in Los Angeles. A decade later, in 1997, she brought her expertise to Skywalker Sound.

The scoring stage that she oversees is a shape-shifting room. The sidewalls of the 60-feet wide room are scalloped with concrete pillars. Behind each hard surface is a soft, adjustable panel that’s made of absorptive material to keep the sound from bouncing back. “By pulling them out we can change the sound of the room,” says Jones as she slides a 30-foot high purple panel out using both her hands. The panels in the high ceiling are motorized.

Most engineers at other studios need to rely on software to artificially create a reverberated sound. But Jones can adjust the size of the scoring stage to change the acoustics. The movable panels change the reverb time – essentially the echo and the time it takes for a sound to fade to silence – from 0.6 to 3 seconds, a range that maintains the integrity of the natural sound so it doesn’t seem like an effect. The flexibility of the architecture has allowed Jones to record large orchestras as comfortably as a string quartet or even a solo musician in the same room. It has also made it easier for her to accommodate the nuances of different genres like jazz, rock or classical orchestra music.

In a recording studio designed for a multitude of music styles, it takes a highly trained ear to differentiate between each sound. “I think the biggest challenge is trying to figure out the idiosyncrasies of different genres of music and not taking a cookie cutter approach to it,” says Jones. “I like to think people ask for me to do their projects because they know I’m going to deliver what they want. When it comes out of the speakers and they walk in and go, ‘Oh that’s exactly what I thought it would sound like’ – that to me is the best compliment.”

Her ability to do that has made her the go-to engineer for some of the most multi-layered projects from many of the leading names in the industry. “When it comes to orchestral music, the way Leslie spatializes the orchestra within the stereo spectrum is second to none,” says Tommy Tellarico, composer of Video Games Live, an ongoing concert series that has been turned into multiple albums at Skywalker Sound. “In my recordings, there are hundreds of instruments all going at the same time. If you don’t know what you’re doing it can sound like a bunch of flat noise. Her artistry lies in taking each of those instruments and creating something that sounds big but distinguishable.”

When Laura Karpman, an Emmy-award winning composer, started work on Ask Your Mama, one of her most complex works to date, she turned to Jones. Karpman had taken on the task of translating Langston Hughes’ poem Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz into a multimedia live show. She interpreted the music instructions that accompanied Hughes’ masterpiece through a multitude of contrasting genres including orchestral music, opera, hip-hop and jazz.

“To move in between pre-recorded sounds and [live] music in a fleeting moment, I had to have somebody who understood all of those genres but also knew how to move among them,” says Karpman. “[Leslie] is a very exacting person. She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it. Everybody else needs to respect that and fall into that kind of disciplined environment. That’s where I thrive and it’s one of the reasons I love to work with her.”

Together, along with legendary soprano Jessye Norman, The Roots and other iconic musicians, Jones and Karpman performed sold out shows at Carnegie Hall, The Hollywood Bowl and The Apollo Theater before turning the project into the Grammy-nominated album that was recorded at Skywalker Sound last year.

Given the multiplicity of sounds on this project, Jones’s work on this project wasn’t contained to recording the orchestra, a task she performs on a regular basis. It demanded a deeper understanding of techniques, too. “The stuff Laura asked me to do was stupidly difficult,” says Jones. “But she’s such a great composer and if she thinks it can be done, fine I’ll do it. You’ve just got to say yes when the opportunity presents itself or you’ll never grow.”

Jones exudes a sense of self-assurance that comes from having seen all sides of the music business. She’s one of the few women who has pushed through what continues to be a largely male-dominated industry. She understood the challenges from the beginning. “Phil Kaye, the guy who hired me at my first studio job said ‘I’ll hire you but we’ll have to see how the clients react to having a woman in the control room’,” she says. “That was fine, I was expecting that.”

Even so, she remembers an instance from the ’70s when she was assisting a Barry White recording and she answered his wife’s call in the studio. “I got fired from the gig because I was a woman,” she says. “You realize there will be people who will think about that and be uncomfortable. I kept going.”

She also recalls artists who asked her when the engineer would show up. But she’s quick to add that an hour or so into the recording session, she’d see people coming around. “It’s almost like they had less expectations of the job I could do, but once I could do it, there was no stopping,” she says. “Then it was ‘can you do my next record?’”

Despite the challenges, she says she came into the industry at the right time. She was neither expected to know the technology — “I didn’t have to know, I could just read about it” — nor was there a need to be social media-savvy. But she realizes she did things a little differently that helped set her apart. “A lot of women I knew were trying to prove that they could do it all or trying not to be any different than men,” she says. “But I asked for help when I needed it.” She believes that helped her find mentors who developed a vested interest in her success.

“It’s really important to make people feel comfortable…You can learn the technology but it’s really a people business. We’re there to support the artist and allow them to do the best performance they can possibly do.”

Decades later, Jones’s success has turned her into a role model for many aspiring engineers. And the longevity of her career has become her biggest draw. “A lot of mixers work only in the digital world,” says Tellarico. “But Leslie does it both ways. She’s been around for so long that she understands the analog world as much as she does the digital one. The warmth and the effects that she’s able to pull out of the board can take the music from sounding like a community orchestra to Beethoven.”

Jones picks the precise location for every instrument, decides placements for all the microphones and controls the room full of gadgetry with the flick of a button. But she doesn’t always have all the answers. “Sometimes I do think how the hell am I gonna do this,” she says, raising her eyebrows beyond the brown metal rim of her glasses. “I just have to think about it really hard and figure out what the best way is to achieve what somebody wants. It’s really important to make people feel comfortable and let them know you care about them and what they’re doing. You can learn the technology but it’s really a people business. We’re there to support the artist and allow them to do the best performance they can possibly do, that’s why they’re coming here in the first place.”


Talk Android Apps of the Week: February 14, 2016


It’s Sunday, the time of the week when Talk Android brings you a report on some of the very best applications we’ve been using over the course of the past seven days. Today we’re focusing our attention on a fantastic reading service, a great photo-editing tool, an incredibly easy-to-use QR scanner and last, but not least, an addictive survival game.

Amazon Kindle


If you’re a bit of a book worm, you’re going to love the first application we’re looking at this week. The official Kindle application for Android is home to over 1.5-million books, which are all available to download and save to your device’s built-in storage at any given time. One of the best things the Kindle app incorporates is its support for Dictionary, Google and Wikipedia — so if you stumble on a word or phrase you’re unfamiliar with, you can take to the Internet to pull all the information required to gain a better understanding. If you already own a Kindle Tablet, you’ll be glad to hear that you can read whatever book you’re reading across multiple devices, and your progress will synchronise automatically.

Play Store Download Link


Pic Collage


I’m sure frequent Instagram users will agree with me when I say that collages are one of the most effective ways of getting your message across when it’s a friends or loved one’s birthday. Combining several years worth of memories into one large image creates a truly treasurable picture that is guaranteed to make their heart melt. The best way to create these iconic square-grid snapshots is by using Pic Collage. The application enables you to import photos from your gallery, Instagram and Facebook accounts. You can then rotate, resize and edit them any way you please. If you have a particular theme in mind like love, for example, you can open one of Pic Collage’s integrated templates to create a great looking themed portrait in a matter of seconds.

Play Store Download Link


QR & Barcode Scanner


It’s impossible to walk down the street nowadays without spotting a QR code. However, Android doesn’t integrate support for a QR Scanner — so if you want one, you’ll need to take to the Play Store to find an application to decode the barcodes. The best tool I found to do the job goes by the name of QR & Barcode Scanner. All you have to do is point your smartphone at a QR, and the app will automatically detect it, then refer you its link. There’s no fancy user interface, which is probably the reason why I’m so fond of this particular offering. As soon as you open the application, you’re presented with a camera to scan the code. That’s really all there is to it.

Play Store Download Link


Bouncing Ball


In keeping with tradition, the final application we’re looking at this week is an entertaining survival game. The aim of Bouncing Ball is simple: tap the screen to make the ball bounce over any obstacles in your path. As the clock ticks, both the size and frequency of the hurdles will increase — so you’ll have to tap your handset’s screen faster than ever to keep up. If you do happen to come into contact with an obstruction, your ball will disappear, and you’ll have to start all over again. Progress is recorded in accordance the score you obtain, so the longer you go without colliding with something, the more points you’ll be credited with.

Play Store Download Link


Previous Apps of the Week editions:

Come comment on this article: Talk Android Apps of the Week: February 14, 2016


Airmail might be the perfect email app for your iPhone

Airmail is a well-known, well-received email client on Macs. But when you have a huge screen, keyboard and mouse, a good email app on the desktop doesn’t have to try so hard. However, making a good email app on a smartphone is a whole different can of worms. So here’s Airmail for iPhone, which launched last week. It gives you all kinds of ways to deal with (or delay) the email problem, and it’s claimed a space in my hallowed four-space iPhone dock. No more Mail, and no more Gmail.

I have two email accounts: my personal Gmail account and my Engadget address (which is also powered by Google). While I don’t have many inboxes, though, I do have a few legacy email addresses that auto-forward to the main Gmail address. It’s not a complicated or elaborate setup, but I lean heavily on email for work, travel, organizing app-based notifications (Twitter, Facebook, Amazon etc.) and communicating with folks back home. (I live overseas.) And because I deal with email throughout the workday, I’m willing to pay to make it easier. Specifically, $4.99 for the download. I’m likely to be in the minority, however.

It’s hard for email apps on the iPhone to make it big. Given that the preinstalled email app doesn’t do a bad job, and there’s no shortage of challengers, it’s hard for any single contender to break through, much less one you have to pay for. We’ve seen Dropbox’s Mailbox appear and disappear despite a handful of clever ideas, and Google’s Inbox-made automated responses aren’t perfect — and then you’re already splitting a fraction of users away from the Gmail app itself.

Airmail’s appeal on the iPhone is simply how much freedom you have to customize the app. This is particularly true for things that I constantly do. When immediately dealing with email from my lock screen, I can customize the two options. Want to star important emails before you’ve even opened them? Snooze for later? Archive that newsletter right now? You choose. You can toggle off starring functionality or sharing from the menus, or, when in the app itself, you can choose which folders (from which accounts) to have in the swipe-to-the-right lineup. You can even add tasteful spacers (gaps between folders, filters and accounts) if your design aesthetic demands it. If you’ve got one of Apple’s latest phones, you’ll also enjoy 3D Touch support for previewing emails. As it happens, I use a mere iPhone 6 Plus myself, so I didn’t get to test that out.

Within the settings, you’ll also find one of the most useful features: the sheer number of compatible apps you can pair with Airmail. Dropbox, Google Drive, Trello, Google Tasks, Pocket, Evernote and plenty more can all be connected to your inbox. Select an email and choose “action list” (or make it a swipe if you want to) and you can instantly create a PDF file of your email, load remote images or send it to Dropbox, among other tricks, all of which are usually several more touchscreen presses away. It’s not the easiest app to use, but it’s set up in such a way that the option you need is right where you expect it to be — or is duplicated in several places, so you can’t miss it.

Are there useless features here? Subjectively, yes. I don’t care if my inbox is labeled in icons or colors, as long as I can distinguish one account from another. Do I really need to reorder each divider of my email accounts (sent, unseen, drafts, spam)? Nope, but it’s there if I or, more important, you want the feature. That is the best thing about Airmail: It is what you make of it.


The After Math: Love is in the air

Scientists just confirmed the existence of gravitational waves — actual ripples in the fabric of spacetime — but who cares about unravelling the secrets of the universe, Valentine’s Day is coming up. To pay respects to the most high holy of made-up bullshit holidays, here are seven of the most heart-string-tugging posts from the last week.


Facebook Messenger lets you send a heart-wrapped Valentine

To add to today’s Valentine’s Day celebrations, you can now send a fun little Valentine-themed missive to your friends via Facebook Messenger. For today only, you can choose to wrap up your message — be it text, sticker or GIF — in a little present simply by selecting the heart with the arrow next to the compose field. When your loved one sees it, they can tap the heart-wrapped box and it’ll burst into a flurry of hearts as the message is revealed (You’ll see we chose an adorable otter sticker here). It’s pretty cute, though it probably won’t be enough to salvage you if you still haven’t booked your dinner reservations.

Source: Facebook Messenger (App Store), Facebook Messenger (Google Play)


5 Android apps and games you shouldn’t miss this week! – Apps Weekly

paralign Android Apps WeeklyParalign

[Price: Free]
This week’s Android Apps Weekly show is brought to you by Paralign. Paralign is a social media style application that keeps things really simple. You can post various things, assign them a mood, and then send them into the ether for others to read. Others will, in turn, send stuff out that you read. You can show interest or even message back if you want to make a new friend.
The app has a simple and colorful design that is both easy to use and pleasing to look at. It’s a great way to get some stuff off your mind or just write down whatever comes to you. The app will also try to pair what you say and your mood with similar thoughts and moods if the app can find some. For now, it’s a completely free download with no in-app purchases. Check it out and show your support for the Android Apps Weekly show!
Get it now on Google Play!
paralign Android Apps Weekly

Welcome back to Android Apps Weekly! Let’s take a look at the biggest headlines from the last week:

  • Facebook Messenger is primed to get a huge Material Design update in the near future. However, that’s not all its getting. Testers of the app are reporting that Facebook is also working on multi-account support as well as SMS and MMS integration, which is kind of funny considering Hangouts abandoned that feature just a few weeks ago.
  • Twitter is now trying out a new Facebook-style algorithm that will try to show you relevant tweets instead of a chronological order. So far, the reaction has been polarizing because some people love it and others hate it. However, if you end up with it, you can disable it in the settings menu so at least it can be turned off.
  • Telltale Games announced this week that they’re going to be releasing a new episodic adventure based around Michonne’s character in The Walking Dead. If it’s anything like their prior games based around the series, then this one is going to be awesome. The release date is February 25th.
  • ASICS, the well-known sportswear company has announced that they’re going to buy Runkeeper. This followers in the footsteps of other sportswear companies such as UnderArmor acquiring Endomondo and ADIDAS buying Runtastic. We don’t know how much they paid for it or what’s going to happen to the app, yet.
  • It was rumored this week that Opera, makers of the famous browser, could be bought by Chinese investors for $1.2 billion. This comes on the heels of another announcement about an exclusive premium apps club where subscription members can download all the apps they want for a price. The service is kind of awesome and we’ll let you know more when we find out.

For even more Android apps and games news, don’t forget to check out this week’s newsletter! There we have well over two dozen stories that we didn’t get to here. If you’d like, you can sign up for the Android Apps Weekly Newsletter using the form below and we’ll send it directly to you every Sunday!

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GTA Liberty City Stories Android Apps WeeklyGTA Liberty City Stories

[Price: $3.99 (for now)]
GTA Liberty City Stories is the latest Grand Theft Auto game to hit the Play Store and this one is the first one designed specifically for mobile. It plays more or less like your usual GTA title except this one has shorter, more streamlined missions along with improved mobile controls from prior games in the series to create a better mobile experience. It’s suffering from some release day issues but those will be fixed eventually. It’s $3.99 which is 40% off.
Get it now on Google Play!

chromer Android Apps WeeklyChromer

[Price: Free with in-app purchases]
Chromer is a fun little application that lets you use Chrome Custom Tabs on applications even if the developer doesn’t support it. It’s not necessarily a new application but it received a huge update this last week that added webheads, which opens links in bubbles similar to Flynx and Link Bubble. The new feature works really well and seems to blend in well with the existing functionality. The app is free to download and it’s worth a shot if you’re looking for another bubble web browser.
Get it now on Google Play!

Alto's Adventure Android Apps WeeklyAlto’s Adventure

[Price: Free with in-app purchases]
Alto’s Adventure is a new 2D infinite runner with a simple premise. You are to ski down a mountainside, collect llamas and coins, and perform awesome tricks. Of course, there are also obstacles to avoid. It’s a simple game and most of your controls involve either tapping or tapping and holding to get desired results. It looks good and it plays well which makes it worth checking out. It’s free with in-app purchases, just like most infinite runners.
Get it now on Google Play!
Alto's Adventure Android Apps Weekly

MyShake Android Apps WeeklyMyShake

[Price: Free]
MyShake is a fun little application developed at the University of Berkeley and it was built to detect earthquakes. It’s true that normal people will get next to no usage from an app like this, but if you live in an area prone to earthquakes, it could be a good idea to have something like this around. It measures shakes, includes safety tips for surviving an earthquake, and keeps a log to see how many there have been. It’s entirely free and it’s really cool that Android has an app like this now.
Get it now on Google Play!

Final Fantasy IX Android Apps WeeklyFinal Fantasy IX

[Price: $16.99]
Square Enix continues their torrid pace of re-releasing classic Final Fantasy games with the release of Final Fantasy IX. This game takes you on the journey of Zidane and Garnet as they stop the evil queen who is doing all kinds of terrible things. It features a 30+ hour experience with a long story, plenty of side quests, and some of the most lovable characters from the Final Fantasy franchise. It has some release day issues, but otherwise it seems to work well. It has a steep price tag at $16.99 but at least there are no in-app purchases.
Get it now on Google Play!

Related best app lists:

If we missed any big Android apps and games news, tell us about it in the comments! To see our complete list of best app lists, click here.


Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 review

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When you are on a budget, one of the biggest questions you must answer is which features you are willing to compromise on. Whether it’s a lower resolution display, less RAM, less capable cameras, poor build quality, or perhaps an underpowered processor, these are all things you must consider. There’s a host of budget smartphones to choose from, and most tend to compromise at least one area. Here in the United Kingdom, the Moto G (2015) is often viewed as the go-to device for people with limited budgets, but perhaps there’s an alternative, the Smart Ultra 6 that is available from Vodafone UK for just £115. 


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The Smart Ultra 6 has a unibody design. But, before you get your hopes up with thoughts of the HTC One M9 and its beautiful aesthetics, without being too blunt about it, the Smart Ultra 6 is fairly bland. While many unibody designs will strive for a smooth, sleek appearance without a noticeable seam along the length of the device, the Smart Ultra 6 has gone the other way.

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For some reason, the designers went out of their way to put a fake seam on the Smart Ultra 6 that makes it appear as if its has a removable rear panel, except it doesn’t. It isn’t the worst thing you’ve ever seen on a smartphone, it’s just a little odd. On to the dimensions, and the Smart Ultra 6 is 154 x 77 x 8.35mm and weighs 159 grams. For a 5.5-inch handset, it’s quite pocketable, being a couple of millimeters narrower than my Samsung Galaxy Note 4. The bezels aren’t the thinnest you’ve every seen, but then again, they aren’t the biggest either with the handset having a screen-to-body ratio of 70.3%.

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The silver volume and power buttons are both on the right-hand-side of the display. The power button is in the middle of the phone, which is far too low for my personal liking but that’s just my preference. The buttons themselves are responsive, easy to find, and reward each press with a satisfying clicking sound. Navigation achieved by way of the on-screen buttons, and there’s a neat blue LED light for notifications that also serves as the Home button.

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There’s a speaker on the rear of the handset, along with the Vodafone logo. Up top is the 3.5mm audio socket, with a microSD card slot on the left-hand side of the phone. On the right-hand-side is the SIM slot, just above the volume buttons. As you might expect, the micro-USB port is present on the bottom end of the handset.Vodafone_Smart_Ultra_6_TA (7)

When I say the Smart Ultra 6 is bland and inoffensive, don’t get me wrong. The build quality is good, the handset doesn’t creak or bend, and the glass feels sturdy enough. The Smart ultra 6 isn’t a terrible looking handset either, unlike some budget devices that are around. But it is bland, albeit inoffensive. The grey metallic plastic is not unpleasant to hold, the material isn’t terribly slippy in the hand, and it serves its purpose. Thankfully, a case can definitely smarten it up and add some bling if needed. If grey isn’t your thing, the Smart Ultra 6 is also available in silver.


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The Smart Ultra 6 features a 5.5-inch Full HD (1920×1080) IPS LCD display, Snapdragon 615 octa-core processor, Adreno 405, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage, a 13MP rear camera, a 5MP front camera, a 3000mAh battery, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n, and Bluetooth 4.0.


4G LTE (3, 7, 20)
GSM (850, 900, 1800, 1900)



The Smart Ultra 6 is nippy. The Snapdragon 615 is a mid-range processor with 8 Cortex A53 cores providing enough grunt to play the high-end games such as Asphalt 8 with acceptable frame rates. While the Smart Ultra 6 isn’t going to set new benchmark records, it will do the job, without noticeable strain. The rear of the handset doesn’t become overly hot, but it does get warm after playing Asphalt 8 for around 30mins. Although the Snapdragon 615 does its job well, it is possible to make it stutter now and again. For reference, the Smart Ultra 6 scores 2359 on Geekbench 3, and 31192 on Antutu.

Where some affordable handsets fall down when it comes to the display, here the Smart Ultra 6 carries on going. It’s 5.5-inch Full HD LCD display, with In-Plane-Switching (IPS) technology allows for impressive viewing angles and vibrant colours. I think it’s safe to say that you won’t find a better display on a similarly priced handset. Possibly the only letdown with the display is the lack of an automatic brightness option.

The speaker on the rear of the handset offers a rather middling performance. Its single driver sounds a little thin and isn’t anything to write home about, but, it is acceptable and delivers its top volume without distorting. Call quality is also at a good level, with callers able to hear you talk clearly. You won’t be scratching your ears off, but you also won’t want to be using the Smart Ultra as a portable speaker for any length of time.

While the handset is naturally locked to the Vodafone network, it is possible to unlock the Smart Ultra 6 with a minimum of fuss thanks to the unlock codes found on Ebay, which only around £4.


On to the battery and here the 3000mAh battery really helps the Smart Ultra 6 stand out. Despite having to provide the juice for a large 5.5-inch Full HD display, the battery manages to hold out for around 2 days with light usage. For normal usage, most users should manage to get through the day without having to charge. I found that by 9 PM, I had around 15% left, after the usual notifications, calls and texts, social media, checking accounts and emails, 20-30 mins gaming, and around 20 minutes of YouTube. As with pretty everything else about the Smart Ultra 6, it’s a good result. Not fantastic, not terrible, but firmly in the middle. On average I managed around 4 and a half hours of screen-on time.


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Quite often we see these overbearing custom UI’s on Android handsets, whether they are cheap or expensive. Thankfully, Vodafone has refrained from putting its stamp on proceedings, leaving an almost stock Android 5.1.1 Lollipop experience. On that topic, there’s no word as yet when, or if, an update to Marshmallow is forthcoming.

While there are a few pre-installed apps present, that would appear to be the extent of Vodafone’s meddling. Even the wallpapers are stock Android, which is no bad thing. One feature that is missing, however, in common with stock Android, is the ability to see the battery percentage in the status bar. One way to get around it is by installing an app such as Circle Battery Widget from the Play Store.

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Let’s get to the pre-installed apps. While the apps themselves are no blight on the handset, Vodafone has somehow decided that these apps are to be front and centre when opening the app drawer. There are seven apps pre-installed, and luckily you can uninstall 5 of them while the other two can be disabled. Other than possibly the Smart Tips and Smart Flow apps, you’ll probably find the pre-installed apps to be fairly pointless.

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Pre-installed apps:

  • Updates: Lets you install more Vodafone applications
  • Direct Access: Links directly to Vodafone’s accessory store
  • Message: Vodafone’s free messaging app.
  • Discover: Helps you discover other Vodafone services
  • My Web: A shortcut to a Vodafone web page
  • Smart Flow: A wallpaper app that cycles through images. When it works it’s ok
  • Smart Tips: Helpful hints on how to use the Smart Ultra 6, and its features


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It would seem that almost all the mid-range budget phones are using a 13MP sensor for the rear camera, and here the Smart Ultra 6 is no different. Features such as HDR, Panorama, Smile Detection, Multi-Exposure as well as the option to add a filter to your masterpiece are present. You can choose between three modes: Manual, Automatic or Mode which gives you access to the features previously mentioned.

As to the quality of the images, that can be a bit of a mixed bag, but for the most part, the sensor copes adequately when taking pictures in good lighting. In low-light conditions, however, the sensor does struggle to give sharp, detailed results, and can look a little washed out. For a £125, the camera is more than acceptable, so long as you are okay with chucking out the odd photo here and there. You can check out the sample shots I took with the Smart Ultra 6 below.

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Vodafone partnered up with ZTE to develop the Smart Ultra 6, and the result is a handset boasting an impressive array of components for a very affordable price. Yes, the design is somewhat uninspired and nondescript, but it isn’t terribly offensive, and you can always put a case on it to add a bit of excitement. No, the camera is not going to compete with the Galaxy Note 5, and yes, the Snapdragon 615 can stutter at times when you are racing through the apps. But for a handset with a Full HD display, a beefy battery, and competent cameras that usually costs just £115, it’s downright appealing.

I would say that the Smart Ultra 6 is the definitive budget smartphone in the UK at the moment. If you are on a tight budget, this is the mobile phone you should be looking at. For £115, you just can’t go wrong.


Come comment on this article: Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 review


Inhabitat’s Week in Green: Tesla’s most affordable EV, and more!

Tesla just announced plans to launch its most affordable electric car next month. The Model 3 is expected to cost $35,000 and is set to debut on March 31st — but it already has competition. Chevrolet showcased the Bolt EV at the start of the year, and Volkswagen confirmed that it’s working on the world’s first mass-market electric car. Meanwhile, Google is developing electric cars that drive themselves, and soon they’ll be able to charge wirelessly. In aviation news, Easyjet announced plans to trial the first hybrid hydrogen plane, and Elon Musk is considering building a vertical take-off and landing electric jet.
Solar-powered homes are nothing new, but what about homes that run on hydrogen fuel? A new community in Thailand is powered by a hydrogen system that allows it operate 100 percent off-grid, rain or shine. You don’t have to rough it to live off the grid, Jeff Hobbs built a tiny sun-powered home that’s completely self-sufficient and packed with luxurious features. And for those who really want to escape civilization, the Bolt is a lightning-proof tent that will keep you safe in a storm.

This week astronomers made one of the most important discoveries of the decade. While listening to the sound of two black holes colliding, the LIGO observatory detected gravitational waves, confirming Einstein’s last unproven theory. In other science and tech news, MIT is close to cracking the genetic code that could eradicate mosquitos spreading the Zika virus. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley developed a clever app that uses your smartphone to help predict earthquakes. And an inventor developed a prosthetic arm that kids can customize with LEGO pieces.


Spotify will make a playlist out of your Valentine’s love note

Back in the day, people had to painstakingly make carefully curated mixtapes for the apple of their eyes. Then we all moved on to making playlists. Now, Spotify is making it even easier for bashful, lovestruck folks to send V-day messages to their crushes. See, all you’ve got to do is visit the Love Notes portal, choose a color scheme from cool (blues) to hot (reds) and pick three music genres. When you type in a message, the website automatically makes a playlist using songs that begin with the letters you use.

In the sample below, for instance, typing in “I love you” gave us I Don’t Have The Heart by James Ingram, Lay You Down by Usher, Off the Wall by Michael Jackson, and so on and so forth. You can sign the note or leave it anonymous and copy a link to share privately or post on your social media accounts. It makes for a cute enough gesture for a love interest or an SO, though you can pair it with something else like Skype’s Valentine’s video cards if you want to put more effort into your gift.

Source: Spotify


Kanye West’s new album is streaming exclusively on Tidal

Music icon (and owner of perhaps the weirdest account on Twitter) Kanye West has finally delivered his highly-anticipated new album, The Life of Pablo. West has been teasing the album on Twitter for weeks now, changing the title and adding tracks at will. But now the full album (18 tracks, with four of those considered “bonus tracks, if you’re keeping count) is streaming exclusively on Tidal for the next week. If you don’t want to sign up for Tidal, you can also purchase a digital version for the eye-raising price of $20.

It’s undoubtably the biggest exclusive for the service thus far, though it’s not entirely surprising given that he was one of the service’s biggest supporters when it relaunched last year under Jay-Z’s stewardship. Tidal’s exclusivity period is planned to last for a week, both in terms of streaming and outright purchasing — we imagine most major streaming services will get the album this Friday, and you should be able to buy it from iTunes or Amazon then as well for a more reasonable price.

It looks as though that “tweak the album until the last minute” strategy cause The Life of Pablo to be a little later than anticipated — West said the album would arrive on February 11th. It technically did, in the form of a huge listening part at Madison Square Garden, but the album wasn’t available to the masses on Friday as expected.

But following yesterday’s performance on Saturday Night Live, West was finally ready to take the wraps off his creation — now we can stop paying attention to his ludicrous tweets and start debating over whether the album was worth the wait. Not to mention which of its many album titles was the best (I was partial to Waves, myself). We’ll also have to see how much interest this drives in Tidal’s service. Its last big exclusive, Rihanna’s new album, briefly put the Tidal iOS app near the top of the free download charts.

Source: Tidal

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