Friday, December 17, 2010

Just Became a Gingerbread Man - My Nexus S Upgrade

I received an unexpected gift yesterday, the latest and greatest "pure Android" phone, the Google Nexus S and its interesting curved screen. When it was announced a few weeks back I wasn't sure if I was going to upgrade or not - I had planned to drop by a local Best Buy to check out a demo unit. But receiving a freebie certainly solved that dilemma for me...and boy, now that I've used it a bit I would have gladly paid for the upgrade myself.

Probably the biggest improvement is the overall speed of the device. My Nexus One was and still is no slouch in this regard, but the Nexus S puts it to shame in just about every way. I'm not sure if it's the upgraded hardware or the optimizations that were made in the latest Android version (Gingerbread) that made the big difference - probably a combination of both. But routine tasks such as web browsing and downloading/installing applications are much faster than ever before.

The other major improvement is the substantial increase in the amount of available "Internal Storage". The Nexus S ships with 16GB of flash memory and devotes a portion of that to "internal storage", which hold apps and app-related data; and the bulk of it to external "USB Storage" - this is in lieu of allowing for a user-replaceable SD card. Some people have griped about the lack of an SD slot, but 16GB is quite a bit of storage and so I don't think this is a very big deal. But what's really nice about this is that the amount of internal storage the Nexus S sets aside (~1GB) is so generous that I never have to worry about overloading my device with apps and running into the dreaded "low memory" errors. On the Nexus One I always tried to always stay above 20MB of free memory so that I didn't run into this problem, but after setting up the Nexus S and installing the exact same set of apps it showed me that I still had over 800MB of internal memory available. So now I can go on my merry way and start installing new apps with reckless abandon again!

Some of the other niceties on the Nexus S are:
  • The Super AMOLED screen is not only gorgeous but actually usable in bright sunlight. This was one of my biggest gripes with the Nexus One's screen, especially when attempting to shoot daytime photos and videos.
  • The call quality through the headset seems to be stellar, better than on the Nexus One.
  • Real (vs. quasi) multi-touch capability allows me to take advantage of some of the newer apps such as the uber-cool Google Maps V5 with its 3D rendering.
  • The new Gingerbread keyboard works better and is more user-friendly than the prior Froyo version, though probably still not in the same league as the iPhone 4.
  • Built-in support for 3rd-part VoIP (SIP) providers - this is useful mostly for geeks like me, but now I don't have to install a separate SIP application when needing to do Wi-Fi calling while traveling overseas or if I'm in a bad reception area.
  • Near Field Communication (NFC) support. This is the first device I'm aware of that supports NFC, so we'll wait and see how useful this will be over time.
  • Oh, did I say the Nexus S is fast? :-)
Okay, now a few Nexus S downsides:
  • The omission of an LED light and a trackball/trackpad - the latter is not a big deal to me since the only time I ever used the Nexus One's trackball was when I needed to position the cursor within a block of text - Gingerbread handles this pretty well now without that need for it. I do, however, miss not having the LED notification as it was a very useful way of letting me know when I received an email or text without having to turn on the screen.
  • Because it uses a plastic vs. metal backing it doesn't feel quite as solid as the Nexus One, but I don't find this as bothersome as some of the other reviewers. Also, taking off the back cover in order to get to the battery or SIM card takes more work than on the Nexus One.
  • Lack of 4G support - This is the major reason why I would not have purchased the phone on my own. Though 4G availability on T-Mobile is not yet widespread, it would have been nice to include this support in order to make the device more future-proof. On the other hand, 3G speeds are pretty good and noticeably faster than on the Nexus One, and I guess not having 4G saves me the $15/month that T-Mobile inexplicably dings their customers for using that service.
Overall I'm very happy with the device and will definitely hold onto it for awhile.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Late to the iPad Party

Since I've been hating on Apple for quite awhile now, it should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I did not "invest" in the iPad when it came out back in April. But truth be known, I came very close to buying one back then, and mainly didn't because of the lack of Flash support and the omission of a front-facing camera - two "gotta haves" in my opinion back then. Since that time I've reconsidered this decision numerous times, then as the months progressed I told myself that rather than purchase one now I would instead hold out for the next-gen model - it still wouldn't have Flash, but for sure it would have the built-in camera plus the latest and greatest multi-tasking iOS version...and maybe even some other neat bells and whistles.

Well, after 6 months of pondering I finally caved in and bought one a few weeks ago. What was it that finally put me over the edge? Well, for one thing a few of my friends had recently purchased or considered one and that got me more interested, and as a result I spent more time playing around with the iPad and fell in love with some of the applications. In particular I can't say enough good things about the amazing Flipboard app, which takes content aggregation and formatting to a whole new level. I particularly like how it aggregates and displays Twitter and Facebook feeds in a more user-friendly and consumable format...great stuff!

I also wanted the ability easily read or watch videos while laying around the house or in bed. Sure, I can do that already with my regular laptop, but in reality I rarely do so because it's a bit too clunky and inconvenient, and I always have to worry about running out of battery. The iPad does a fantastic job of this. Both the iBooks app and the Amazon Kindle app work great for reading books, the built-in Safari browser does a formidable job in rendering web content (although I prefer the 3rd-party Atomic browser), and the free Netflix app as well as the overly expensive SlingPlayer Mobile player do a fine job in streaming TV shows and movies. And the iPad's battery life is simply out of this world...I can last a full week on a single charge using the device a an hour or two each day.

Lastly, I wanted something more lightweight than my normal laptop which I can tote around with me wherever I go and still have access to the internet as well as any applications I might need to use. My netbook was supposed to serve this purpose, and though I previously raved about it I soon came to realize that it really didn't do anything particularly well...I've since given up on it. The iPad's form factor and light weight make for great portability, and though its lack of a physical keyboard as well as support for some of the more common desktop applications prevent it from being a full laptop replacement, I feel that at least 80% of my computing needs can be fulfilled by it. The iPad is hands down the best reading device on the face of the planet, and let's face it - most computer users, including myself, spend the majority of their time simply consuming content - email, web browsing, social networking, watching videos, etc. As for the other 20% of my computing (including writing this blog article) I'll still have to go back to my laptop, though by using a nifty remote desktop app such as Desktop Connect I can even get away with using the iPad for accessing some of my Windows-based applications.

Is the device perfect? No, like anything else it does have its share of flaws. The biggest annoyance for me is the lack of multi-tasking, which I hope will be addressed with an iOS update that supposedly arrives here in November. Too often I find myself having to break out of the current application I am using (sometimes even forced out), then when I come back to it later it reloads rather than resumes where I left off. And boy it would be nice to have Pandora running in the background all the time. I also find both the CPU and graphics rendering to be pretty sluggish at times, but not nearly as bothersome as with my netbook. And though it is the quintessential reading device I do find the iPad to be a bit on the heavy side, especially when compared to the pure e-readers such as the Kindle and Nook. The lack of Flash support is also a bummer, though it seems like many sites have aggressively moved to HTML 5 in recent months - so it hasn't been as big of a problem as I thought. And finally....a front-facing camera would sure be great for video conferencing and the like, but now that Chatroulette is on its death march I guess I can live without it :-)


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

New Job, New Tivo

This is just a quickie update to let folks know what I've been up to lately. First and foremost, I am happy to announce that I started a new gig last month as CTO for a cool (and profitable!) startup called Cypher Media. They are in the online marketing business, and in addition to that there are some major plans afoot to evolve the company in some new and potentially game-changing stay tuned!

I also recently purchased the new Tivo Premiere box that came out earlier this year. It wasn't a conscious choice on my part to buy the new unit, but my trusty (and recently out of warranty) Tivo HD all of a sudden crapped out one day and refused to boot up. I'm almost positive it was a hard drive problem, and I'm sure that given some time I could have hacked into the Tivo and replaced the hard drive myself. I also had the option of paying Tivo $149 for a refurbished replacement, but that would leave me DVR-less for at least several days. That may have been okay under normal circumstances, but the timing of the failure couldn't have been any worse because it occurred right during the middle of the Tour de France! So unless I was willing to wake up at 5am each morning to watch the live coverage (NOT!) I needed a quick fix, and that quick fix was to just buy a new Tivo Premiere and get it shipped overnight from Amazon.

As usual, setting up the Tivo was a very painless exercise, and props to Tivo for making this as easy as possible for the average Joe. Getting things setup properly with Comcast is an entirely different story, usual it took a couple of calls plus a lot of wait time on the phone before the CableCard "pairing" process successfully completed and I was able to access all of my channels - for some reason HBO always seems to be a problem.

There's been a fair bit of discussion regarding the new Premiere and how it differs from the previous generation of Tivo's. Quite honestly, the differences are relatively few, and so if you are a happy Tivo Hd or Tivo XL owner then I don't think there's enough new functionality to justify the switch. The major new "feature" is the revamped, Flash-based "HD" user interface, and quite honestly it is a mixed bag. If you have an older Tivo you probably have seen what this looks if you've tried the Tivo "beta search" feature, which lets you search for content not only within the Tivo guide but across the various internet sources that Tivo supports - Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, etc. The biggest problem with the UI is that it is incredibly SLOW...the system often hangs and hangs when switching between menus. And the UI is still not complete, i.e. some of the menus sport the new UI but a good number of menus are still using the older UI - making for a very disjointed user experience. There are two very nice things I like about it, though: 1) the Now Playing list (aka "My Shows") now displays the percent utilization on the hard disk for programs that you've recorded and saved; and 2) within some of the top-level menus you can still see what's currently playing on your Tivo via a small window on the upper right corner of the screen. I always found it annoying with the old UI that as soon as I hit the Tivo button whatever I was watching got instantly preempted...the new UI allows you to keep watching that program while navigating within the menu.

The other really nice improvement is the increase in speed when transferring content to or from the Tivo. I can now transfer HD content via PyTivo at a rate nearly equivalent to real-time, i.e. I can start viewing the content almost immediately and not have to worry about getting ahead of the file transfer itself. SD content has never been a problem, but with HD content you're talking 5x or so more data and the old Tivo just couldn't transfer data fast enough to keep up when I wanted to play something "on demand".

Hopefully Tivo will address the UI sluggishness issues before too long. The Premiere also contains a dual-core processor, but my understanding is that the second core has been disabled by Tivo due to some multi-threading problems that were encountered during testing. Perhaps if they can fix this and enable the second core that may help speed up the UI as well.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I'm Loving my Froyo

Being the Android fanboy that I am, I was eager to install the latest and greatest 2.2 release (aka Froyo) that just became available over the weekend onto my Nexus One. After several days of playing around with the release I have to say that there are some really nice new features and enhancements, but most of them are relatively small and so I wouldn't say the release is a "must have" for everybody. However, for those techno-geeks like me it is a worthwhile upgrade. Among some of the niceties are:
  • Built-in tethering support: This is the feature I've been eagerly anticipating. You can now configure your Android device to be a MiFi and save yourself the 50 bucks a month you're currently spending with your carrier. You can also tether to your device via USB, and if you're using Windows 7 then it just plain works without your having to install additional software or drivers...and no cheesy Dial-Up Networking config either.
  • The home screen has a few subtle but useful changes. Shortcuts to the phone and browser apps now appear on the lower section of each home screen, making it easier to launch both apps without having to search for their specific icons. The search bar has also been enhanced to allow you to limit your searches to just websites, applications or contacts.
  • Voice search appears to be quite a bit more accurate than before. You also now have the ability to select several different languages/dialects for voice search.
  • Battery life seems to have improved a bit as well, although it's hard to quantify.
  • The entire OS seems a bit more responsive than before. I've read some benchmark reports indicating that Froyo is up to 5 times faster than Eclair (2.1). I'm certainly not seeing a 5x improvement, but nonetheless the speed improvement is noticeable and appreciated.
  • You now have the option to auto-update any of your downloaded/purchased apps when new versions become available.
  • For those like me who are rapidly turning grey, the Gmail app finally supports scalable fonts. Why you can't use pinch-to-zoom across all apps is still beyond me, though...come on Google.
  • Flash support: Finally! And it seems to work pretty well as best as I can tell.
  • I also found out about this send-to-phone Chrome extension and Android app that let's you instantly send a web page or Google Map from your PC to your Android device, a la Jack Bauer on 24. Very cool indeed!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Is the Point and Shoot Digital Camera Dead?

As much as I enjoy personal technology, it's rare that I'll walk into an electronics store such as Best Buy and just look around. But I happened to do just that over the weekend, and while there I spent a few minutes browsing around all the different departments, looking at the latest and greatest they had to offer. When I went over to check out the digital cameras I marveled at how far they've come's hard to believe that they keep getting smaller but even more feature rich, and at prices that are lower than ever before - here's an example of the one of the newest Canon's about to be released. But what was even more striking is the fact that during the time I was looking at cameras, not one other customer wandered over to that department. Now granted, I was there for only about 5 minutes or so, but if you've ever walked into your local Best Buy you know just how much foot traffic those stores generate, especially during weekends. But the lack of camera interest from other customers was very enlightening and confirms what I had already been thinking for some time now....Point and Shoot digital cameras are a dying breed.

I've mentioned in previous blog entries that we now live an era where accessibility is often more important than functionality, and taking pictures is another great example of that. I used to keep my trusty Canon SD700 packed permanently in my briefcase, in case I ever felt the urge or need to take a picture. But several months ago, after realizing that I was using my camera phone for pretty much all spur-of-the-moment picture taking, I decided to unpack it and it rarely has been touched since then. If you go out on the street today and see people at restaurants, sporting events and family gatherings you'll notice that the majority of them are now taking pictures with their camera phones instead of with standalone cameras. And they are doing so because: 1) it's easier not to have to carry around an extra device; 2) the emergence of killer smartphones such as the iPhone and Nexus One; 3) camera phone technology keeps getting better and better (btw the Nexus One's built-in camera is pretty stellar); and 4) within a matter of seconds the picture or video you've just taken can be uploaded to Facebook or YouTube and instantly shared with anyone. Now, before someone starts declaring that camera phones are not intended for serious photo use, please note that I am only talking casual use here...and that is why I focus specifically on the point and shoot variety of cameras.

Need more proof? I recently stumbled across this great webpage from Flickr which breaks down camera usage on their site by type, brand, etc...I've taken the liberty of including some of their screenshots here:

The graph above shows the most popular cameras being used across all of Flickr, and as you can see the iPhone is already at the very top, with a number of digital SLR's taking up the other top positions.

This graph shows the most popular point and shoot cameras. You can clearly see that the popularity of these cameras is waning over time.

Much like the standalone GPS companies, camera manufacturers should either focus on partnerships with handset manufacturers or concentrate their efforts in competing successfully in the DSLR or other "high end" camera categories. Traditional point and shoot is going to be dead before you know it.

What do you all think?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Goodbye Blackberry - Hello Nexus One and Android

I've been a pretty devout Blackberry user these past 10 years, starting with the original, clunky pager-looking model and ending with the Curve 8900. And between that time I must have cycled through half a dozen other models including the 7100T, 8700 and 8320. The main reason I've stuck with Blackberry so long is because it does a few things really well, push email being at the top of the list. And if you happen to be using the combination of Microsoft Outlook/Exchange on your desktop then the integration with Blackberry is rock solid and hard to beat.

So...what's finally gotten me to make a move after all these years? Well, three things really. First off, the popularity of the iPhone and other newer smartphones has certainly made me think of all the functionality I am losing out on by sticking with Blackberry. Though the Blackberry has made good strides to close the gap, I feel it's quite stuck in the stone ages by comparison. Secondly, as I mentioned in my last blog post my dependency on all things Microsoft has been drastically reduced over the past few years, corresponding with my increased dependency on Google-based apps. And finally, one year after the launch of Android there's finally a device cool enough that captures my imagination and allows me to migrate without having to switch cell phone carriers - that device is the new Google Nexus One.

I ordered the Nexus One on the day of the official launch and received it promptly the next morning via FedEx. Setting up the device was an absolute breeze, especially since I am a Gmail user. I entered the credentials for both my work and personal accounts, and it automatically began syncing all my email, contacts and calendar with my new phone. No software installation, no tethering of the device in order to sync...very painless! I then configured some of the preloaded applications such as Facebook, Google Voice and Google Maps...the latter is simply awesome, BTW. Finally, I downloaded a number of my "must have" applications including Yelp, OpenTable, Pandora and an RSS reader. All were downloaded and installed painlessly from the Android Market. I was actually quite surprised (in a good way) at the abundance of good applications already in the Android Market.

How do I like the phone? Well, I have to say that I love it and I'm never going back to the Blackberry! In addition to do all the normal phone sorts of things the apps themselves are highly functional, and the built-in browser is quite good as well. I'm one of those types that always likes to be near my computer in case I need to have access to something, and with the Blackberry I never felt that it could replace much of the functionality of my computer except when it came to email. But with the Nexus One I feel that I'm not compromised much, if at all, when using its browser or applications in lieu of my PC. In fact, being less dependent on my PC now feels quite liberating.

Inevitably there will be questions regarding the Nexus One and whether or not it is an "iPhone killer". There is plenty written about this already, so I'm not going to even make an attempt to tackle the topic. I suspect that most people will feel right now that the iPhone is still a better device, mainly because of the thousands upon thousands of cool apps that have already been written for it. But I also think that with the emergence of Android, along the hype surrounding some of the latest Android-based phones such as the Nexus One and Motorola Droid, that the gap will start to diminish rapidly. But there are a number of other reasons why I feel the Android platform has a good shot at beating Apple in the long run:
  • Carrier independence - In the US you can already purchase Android phones that work on the T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint networks. And AT&T just announced upcoming availability of several Android-based phones by this summer. With the iPhone your choice is currently limited to AT&T and AT&T...lousy 3G and all. Yes, there are rumors floating around about some deal being cut with Verizon, but nothing official just yet.
  • Device manufacturer independence - If you're an iPhone user you've got just one single handset choice. Yes, it's a great handset. But what if your requirement is that you need a hard keyboard, or maybe a flip-style phone? Sorry folks, you're just out of luck. But with Android you can already purchase handsets made by a variety of manufacturers such as HTC, Motorola and Samsung...and more are on the way. Device independence also allows for things that we sometimes take for granted, such as the ability to expand memory or replace the battery. Sorry, you can't do either of these on the iPhone.
  • Developer frustration - The iPhone application approval process has been a source of consternation for many developers, and many have expressed their disdain over the sometimes draconian attitude that Apple seems to impose. As an open source platform I feel that Android is much more developer friendly. Yes, being more open can have its drawbacks too, but overall I think in the long run both the developer community as well as the end users are better served by an open model.
  • Background applications - Being able to run Pandora in the background while using another Android application is pure joy. Part of the reason Google Voice works so well on Android is because it also runs the background. Apple claims that background applications can negatively affect the user experience, so that's why they don't allow it. Well, I say screw their lame excuse and tell them to get on board with every operating system that's been in existence since the 1950's.
Apple is this decade's version of the "Microsoft Monopoly". That monopoly has started to crumble apart, and I can foresee the same thing happening to Apple if they continue with this display of arrogance. It's good for them that their products are the ultimate in "cool" at the moment, but at some point the luster will wear off and they will have to start playing some ball.