Archive for the ‘Tech Toys’ Category

I Have Drunk The iPad Kool-Aid, And I Like It

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

I finally succumbed and bought myself an Apple iPad a couple of weeks ago. I had told myself that I would resist until such time as Adobe Flash-based web sites could be properly viewed on the iPad, but my willpower was not sufficient to allow me to wait that long (which some have suggested might be around the time hell freezes over).

The real purpose, or so I convinced myself, of getting an iPad was to have an instant-on device on which I could comfortably write, organize, research, and check e-mail, as well as otherwise stay connected with the myriad projects I am always working on.

After two weeks, for the most part, that seems viable. In the process I have found some rather irksome things on the iPad, as well as some great ones. So, I figured I would share.

First, let me explain that I am not a Mac user. While I have an older MacBook, I use it merely for testing. I am a committed Windows users (it pains me to admit that though), as well as a user of Linux (but mainly via command line instead of a graphical user interface). And, due to my extensive commitment to various applications programs, scripts, hardware configurations, and work methodologies, I have no interest in switching to being a Mac user. Further, in the iPad, I was looking for a device that did not require me to be tethered in any way to another computer in order to be productive.

I mention that because there is a decidedly Mac-orientedness when it comes to the Apple-originated software that either comes with the iPad or is available at extra cost from Apple. And the Windows software support, namely Microsoft’s Outlook, is not something I care to use.

iPad users are strongly urged via a number of mechanisms to tether their iPads to an external computer running the iTunes application. That all comes as something of a disappointment to me, but is not wholly unexpected.

Anyhow, let me first share the things I really do appreciate about my new iPad (I got the 64GB 3G version, incidentally, as that’s the only model the Apple Store I went to had in stock).

1. Instant-On. It really works. After a couple of decades where Instant-On has been repeatedly promised, the iPad is a device that finally fulfills that promise.

I can put my iPad in standby with a simple press of a button or by just leaving it on for a while without any input. And, pressing another button followed by a short flick of my finger on the screen brings it all back to life, right where I left off, with whatever connectivity is available. From standby to usability in a couple of seconds. Even my cell phone (an Android-based G1 phone) is not that responsive. The battery life of the iPad while in standby appears to be extensive (I’ve been told that it could be as long as a month, and I believe it). Combined with the 10 hour or so battery life during active use, it makes the iPad a wonderful platform for being able to perform all the tasks I had set out to use it for, in places ranging from my perch high upon my, er, throne, to when I’m lying in bed and struck with yet another bit of ingenious insight, or even at the dining room table (obviously not during a meal – my wife would never tolerate that).

2. A great variety of supplemental applications, and the iPad will also run iPod Touch/iPhone apps too. I will post another entry with my top ten favorite iPad apps, because there’s a lot of detail to share there.

3. A good base set of applications. The built-in Safari web browser is decent, although it is also lacking in a few areas (see below). Same for the e-mail client. The calendar software is a bit weak in its features, but otherwise quite usable.

4. Instant-On. Okay. I really like this feature. Can you tell?

5. The ability to use an external keyboard, like the wireless bluetooth keyboard I’m using to write this entry. The touch screen keyboard is surprisingly usable too, something I had not expected.

Of course, there are a bunch of annoyances, as I hinted at above.

I’ll get to those in my next blog post.

Not So Smart Advice On What Not to Buy in 2010 From SmartMoney

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

I just came across an article on the MSN SmartMoney web site about 10 Things Not to Buy in 2010, and while some of the items discussed are ones I would agree with in principal, I think the authors at SmartMoney suffer from a very narrow weltanschauung (world view). Some might even call their views elitist, or perhaps on the other extreme, clueless.

Two of the ten items on the “don’t buy” list I vehemently disagree with are external hard drives and compact digital cameras.

With respect to external hard drives the author suggests that because of the convenience and cost of online backup services like Carbonite and Mozy, there’s no reason to spend money on external hard disks, which the article points out can crash (which is true, but rare).

But herein lie a number of serious flaws in reasoning.

First, Internet connection speeds are a real problem. Only a fraction of Americans, and an even smaller percentage of those outside the U.S. have high speed connections sufficient to upload the many gigabytes or even terabytes of data stored on their computer systems. For myself, I have multiple terabytes of data – that’s trillions and trillions of bytes of data – and if I were to try to upload all that data to a remote site for backup it would take me years, literally. Even with “only” 20-30 gigabytes of data, the average residential user would be looking at weeks for back-up initially.

Second, and perhaps an even bigger issue for most people, is that once you have actually gone and committed to backing up data to an on-line service, you have no guarantee that such services will remain in business. I have personally seen this happen with a number of photo sharing web sites that people had uploaded thousands or even millions of photos to, only find the sites shutting down with no real recourse to keep their photos stored remotely. What happens if the remote on-line backup provider packs it up suddenly, with all of your data now inaccessible to you?

A third issue is data privacy. While on-line backup providers may have certain mechanisms in place to prevent most hacking attempts, it’s difficult to protect from all possible attacks as Google and a number of Silicon Valley software companies discovered over the last few weeks at the hands of apparently well funded and coordinated Chinese hackers. So, if your on-line backups include sensitive material, like banking information, that data could be at risk if it is stored in the “cloud”. Of course, should the government get interested in you, then they can subpoena the on-line backup service directly, without getting your permission, since you are not in charge of your data – the on-line backup provider is. While you can try and work around this with encrypted storage and the such, that becomes a bigger hassle to work with too.

All three of the above issues are better addressed by external hard drives. With an external hard drive you’re in full control of your data. You can put it in a safety deposit box, or perhaps a safe, or in your sock drawer. Plus, over time, an external hard drive will be cheaper than the recurring subscription fees you have to pay an on-line provider. I just bought it a number of ultra portable one terabyte hard drives for photo backup for approximately $180 each. And to account for the unlikely possibility that the hard drive crashes, I have extras. Plus, with an external hard drive, a lot more storage is immediately accessible. You don’t need a fast Internet connection to access your files either – it’s all there, under your control, any time you need it.

The other thing I disagreed with was the suggestion that one should not buy compact digital cameras. SmartMoney suggests that since DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras – you know, the big honking cameras with big honking lenses – are dropping in price, that it’s just better to buy one of those instead. That argument, however, ignores that a major selling point of compact digital cameras is that they are compact! I don’t know about you, but we have several compact digital cameras around our house, tucked away, but ready for use at any time. And I always carry a compact camera with me when I travel, even when I also have my DSLR with me. All because the compact digital camera is compact. Granted, a DSLR takes better pictures, but it’s just not as convenient.

The other recommendations for things not to buy in 2010 include DVDs and CDs (partially right), but until all media is available electronically and everyone has fast Internet connections, physical media will stick around. And while the suggestion of Netflix is a nice one, it doesn’t work outside the U.S., as I know first hand. SmartMoney also comments on gas guzzling cars, home telephone service, also-ran smart phones (anything other than iPhone or Blackberry, apparently), newspaper subscriptions, and a couple of other items I won’t bother going into.

Ultimately, this list of the “Ten Things Not to Buy in 2010” is much like any other advice from pundits – full of opinion and pontification, but rarely with any in depth thinking about the ramifications of following such advise. All in all, take such advice in consideration, but assume it’s probably flawed unless you personally discover otherwise.

Sidekick LX 2009 is Disappointing

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

I’ve been a user and fan of T-Mobile’s Sidekick mobile phones since the original Sidekick because of several features – specifically the complete 5-line keyboard (numbers along the top instead of via a function key like on Blackberry phones) and the ability to use a secure terminal application (SSH) to manage my servers remotely.

Newer models over the years have become smaller, added additional communications bands (quad band now), better camera capabilities, and occasionally better connectivity.

The Sidekick is developed by a company called Danger, and manufactured by Sharp. However, Danger was acquired by Microsoft in the last year. I don’t know if this is the cause for the complaints I have with the latest Sidekick, the LX 2009, which shipped last month, but it’s possible.

In comparison to last year’s Sidekick LX, the new Sidekick LX 2009 adds 3G data services (which don’t appear appreciably faster than the prior 2.5G EDGE support), a higher resolution camera (which is definitely an improvement), GPS (also a nice feature), and proclaims to have Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace support built in. However, at least for Facebook and Twitter, which I have recently started using, the support is pretty poor. I only follow a few people on Twitter, but consistently get error messages about memory overflows on the Sidekick LX 2009. For Facebook, the content is rarely up to date relative to what I find through a web browser, and notifications almost never match those that are on-line waiting for me.

And perhaps even more annoying is that none of the applications I had relied on in the previous version of the Sidekick have been made available on the Sidekick LX 2009, including the terminal program I need for server management. And accessories for the phone, like belt holsters, are non-existent (the ones for last year’s model have been discontinued).

All in all, the Sidekick LX 2009 has great potential, but I am under the impression that the phone has been released well before the software was truly ready. Maybe in a few months, but it’s not ready for prime time at this point.

On The Richter Scale the Sidekick LX 2009 gets a 5.0 out of a possible 10.0.

ASUS Eee PC 1000H – Quick Review

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

One of the things I find frustrating when I want to write my articles, blog entries, and book chapters is that my handwriting sucks. It’s not unusual for me to have to spend more time deciphering what I wrote by hand than it took me to write it. That’s one of the many reasons I really prefer to type on a computer keyboard. But the problem with that is that it’s not generally been convenient to lug a notebook computer around with me due to size and battery life, never mind boot times.

I have tried using a Palm T/X with a separate keyboard, and while the size is great, the text editing controls via the keyboard are lousy. I’ve also been playing with using my iPodTouch 32GB, but fast typing on the touch screen with my big fingers is nearly impossible without serious typographical errors. And about 10 months ago, I bought an Asus Eee PC 4G – a tiny little notebook computer running on Linux, with a 4GB solid state hard disk. The keyboard and screen ended up being too small for me, the battery life was modest, and the boot process was too long for my needs (and I sold it to a friend who appreciated it much more than I – thanks Angela!). I also ended up realizing I needed a lot more than 4GB of storage.

In late August I purchased the Asus Eee PC 1000H. This is a 10-inch notebook with an 80GB hard disk drive, running Windows XP Home. That’s a nice bit of storage. The machine cost $549 back in August, and is now available from reputable on-line stores for around $469.

At first blush, the Eee PC 1000H is pretty much what I was looking for. It’s got a 6-7 hour battery life and it boots (and resumes from hibernation) in about 15-20 seconds on average. Plus, I was easily able to upgrade it to Windows XP Professional SP3 and get secure networking capability so I could use it on my in-home network. It also has 3 USB ports, and works great for VoIP (Vonage X-Phone and Skype) and even video and music playback. There is no DVD drive, but you can attach an external drive.

The Eee PC 1000H also comes with Microsoft Works, and it’s simple enough to install OpenOffice on it as well. With the native XP support I was also able to install software to run my Sprint data service USB device for easy connectivity in most U.S. metropolitan areas, and with the built-in WiFi, the notebook is usable in any place with accessible WiFi service. And for backup, it has an Ethernet port. Not too shabby. There’s also an SD/MMC Card slot.

I should note, however, that my new, in-the-box Eee PC 1000H seemed to have been used at Asus HQ or some Asus repair facility, as it already had a registered user and some additional software installed on it, as well as a digital video version of an Asus service manual. Not a problem for me, but I would hope that this was an anomaly instead of standard practice.

At the price I paid (and even lower now) this is a pretty decent notebook, with about the same performance as the 3 year old Sony VAIO TX690 I had been using before I got my Fujitsu Lifebook back in March. The Eee PC 1000H is smaller than the VAIO TX in width and depth, but a little thicker in height and a little heavier too. And the screen’s 1024×600 resolution is challenging with some programs and web sites which were not designed with that aspect rate and height in mind (in contrast to the much higher resolution VAIO TX). But it’s also a fifth of the price I paid for the VAIO TX, which also makes it cheap enough to replace in case it gets broken or stolen during my travels.

My only annoyance with the Eee PC 1000H is that the nice big hard disk came pre-initialized in two volumes instead of one large volume (which has always been my preference), but that it a minor issue on the whole.

In any event, the Eee PC 1000H is a pretty nice little piece of hardware, and I plan to put it to good use during our upcoming travels in the Canadian Maritimes and New England starting Sunday. I give the Asus Eee PC 1000H an 8.0 out of 10.0 on The Richter Scale.

Commodity Obsolescence – Hewlett-Packard z565 Digital Entertainment System

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

For the last 20 months or so, we’ve been enjoying the use of a Hewlett-Packard z565 Digital Entertain System in our living room. I purchased it at the end of 2006, but only got around to installing it a month or so later because I needed to wait for a new TV to arrive too.

The z565 is a full XP Media Center-based PC with HDMI output and we have Amazon’s Unbox software, Slingplayer (to play content from the Slingbox located up in New Hampshire), as well as a TV tuner so we can record and time-shift cable TV content. We’ve even got iTunes running so we can watch TV shows purchased from Apple’s iTunes store, although that’s now been superseded by a new Apple TV box.

So, imagine our disappointment a few days ago when we go and try and turn on the z565 and see the blue power light blink on for the barest moment only to shut off and stay dark. Turns out that the power supply is dead. I should note that we kept the z565 off when not in active use because we didn’t want it to burn out due to the warm temperatures in our Caribbean home. Ironic.

We figured this would be easy to resolve, so we contacted Hewlett-Packard’s support department via on-line chat, got the part number in question, and then discovered that the power supply for the z565, a machine which was less than two years old, had already been discontinued and Hewlett-Packard no longer sells the part either.

And, on top of that, I then discovered that the part number that HP support provided turns out to be different from the part number on the actual burnt out power supply itself.

An on-line search for the part turns up several companies that sell “pulled” (extracted from overstock/returned systems) and/or refurbished power supplies. And they aren’t cheap either. I have ordered two of them just to have a spare after I install one of them. We’ll see how that works out. And it’s not possible to use just any PC power supply due to the form factor and low decibel design of the HP z565.

However, the main point to this long and winding story is that I find it ludicrous that a machine that was promoted as state of the art by Hewlett-Packard less than two years ago is no longer supported with available parts. Of course, I could have “solved” this problem by scrapping the old system entirely, but I did not want to upgrade to a digital entertainment PC running the nightmarishly obtuse and slow Vista operating system, or build a new system from scratch with an old XP license.

It’s a sad statement on the commoditization of technology when an expensive, task specific computer can literally become a giant paper weight so quickly. At least I could find refurbished power supplies from third parties, at least for now. 

Best Buy’s New Premier Black Service Already Lacks Quality

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

I received an e-mail today from Best Buy telling me that I had been welcomed to the “Premier Black” level of the Best Buy Reward Zone program, telling me I was one of Best Buy’s best customers. I was surprised as I had not shopped at Best Buy for some months (Amazon.com is my go-to place for most gadgets and games these days), but I know I had spent a fair bit at Best Buy over the last year or two, so maybe that counted.

Turns out my surprise was justified. When I clicked on the link to “Locate Your Premier Black Concierge” I ended up at a username/password prompt which obviously did not work properly. And when I clicked on the link to get into the Best Buy Reward Zone Premier site, I found that I was a mere Premier Silver member.

Talk about a tease. The promise was that my Best Buy Premier Black Concierge could help me get out-of-stock items – and I’ve been looking for a third Wii Fit without success (this one’s for my neighbor). Guess I’ll have to try more ordinary routes.

Turns out I’m not the only one to get this bait-and-switch e-mail. Apparently it was mailed out to all of Best Buys Reward Zone members – see Best Buy’s Premier Black Service For All – Oops.

I must say they really blew their roll out of this service. They certainly are not inspiring me with faith in the quality of their Premier service when they make mistakes this massive. What’s next? Accidentally sending out client confidential information? Sheesh.