iPad Annoyances

August 11th, 2010 at 8:03 am (AST) by Jake Richter

In my previous post, I described my appreciation for the Apple iPad. In this post I’ll address the top ten things that annoy me about the iPad. And there are a large number of things that annoy me about this darned device (on which I am writing this blog entry).

1. Safari is Horribly Stunted. For those not familiar with Apple, Safari is the name of Apple’s own web browser. While Safari on a Macintosh computer or Windows-based PC is a fully loaded web browser, the version on the iPad is a pale image of itself for at least four reasons.

First, it does not support Flash. Flash allows web site developers to implement greater interactivity in their web sites, and without Flash support, the iPad’s web browser is unable to present these web sites properly, thus rendering them inaccessible.

Second, you cannot upload files from the iPad from Safari. That makes it really tough to use web sites like Flickr, discussion boards where you want to upload images and attachments, and countless other sites that require uploads for interactivity. Some sites offer their own iPad or iPod Touch apps to perform uploads, but they are typically limited in functionality, and only a tiny fraction of web sites offer such apps.

Third, downloads are mostly non-functional. You can download files via Safari for which you have applications capable of using such files, but it’s awkward. And once you have files downloaded, you can’t edit them and upload them again.

And finally, you cannot easily transmit a web page in Safari to any other application (such as a printing app) – you either have to select the whole page, copy it to the clipboard, and then paste it into an e-mail which you then mail to yourself so you can print it from an e-mail enabled printing app like PrintBureau, or you use such an app with its own built-in web browser to browse to the same page and print it that way.

2. Lack of Real Multi-Tasking. Multi-tasking in computing refers to the ability of a computer to run multiple tasks (e.g. programs or apps) at the same time (or at least appear to do so). While most modern operating systems offer multi-tasking (even Android does), the iPad’s operating systm does now. More specifically, the iPad does not allow you to switch between applications and have the applications maintain their state and continue operating in the background. There are some exceptions to this (mostly with Apple’s own apps), but they are negligible. Rumors suggest that the next major release of iOS, the operating system on the iPad, will implement real multi-tasking. We’ll see.

3. No Real File System. If you only use the iPad to watch video, play music, and surf the web, you might not care about this. But if, like me, you’re trying to use the iPad as a real business tool, you want to be able to easily move files between applications as well as perform standard actions on files you are working on. For example, I want to be able to print from any app, or be able to use a file transfer app to transfer any files I’ve been working on in whatever application to a particular destination – web site, PC, or server. However that’s not possible on the iPad.

Some enlightened applications allow you to open a current file in a different program, but Apple’s own productivity (hah!) suite, iWork, and its individual applications, such as the word processing program Pages, are decidedly unenlightened. However, even when the passing of files from one application to another works, you end up with multiple copies of the file – one for each application, and that can be a nuisance too. If Apple wants to see the iPad become a business tool, this needs to be fixed.

4. No Try-Before-You-Buy. In the quest for applications that do what I need to get done, I’ve spent over a hundred dollars on applications I will likely never use because they did not fulfill my expectations and needs. Apple’s Pages program is right at the top of that list, incidentally. There’s $9.99 out the window. There should be some sort of way to be able to check out an application for a couple of hours or even a day and be able to “return” it without being charged if it doesn’t meet one’s requirements. I guess I’ve at least enriched the pockets of a few developers out there without the benefit of really using their programs.

5. No VPN Support. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and it’s a way that business people as well as security minded folks set up encrypted tunnels from their computers to remote servers. For people dealing with sensitive data on their company’s system while they travel or are just outside the office, VPN support is vital. This is another thing that Apple has to enable in order to make the iPad a viable business computer device, but my guess is that this would require multi-tasking support before it’s possible to implement, since it requires the ability to run any of a number of VPN client programs on the iPad.

6. 3G Support is Crippled. This only applies to iPads that come with 3G connectivity, of course. While I laud Apple and AT&T for coming up with a monthly, no-long-term commitment plan, I am thoroughly annoyed by the fact that I cannot download any application larger than 20MB, even if I am fully cognizant of the number of bytes my 3G plan includes and willing to pay for more. You have to use WiFi on the iPad or connect to a PC with iTunes running for downloads of that size. The download limitation also applies to other content, not just apps. For example, I couldn’t download the maps for the National Geographic World Atlas HD app over the 3G connection.

7. E-mail Software Limitations. For folks with a single e-mail account, the e-mail client built into the iPad is pretty decent. However, again, for people running a small business, where they might have a single mailbox but need to use different sender addresses (e.g. info@, jake@, sales@, support@some domain.com), it’s not easy to set that up with iPad e-mail.

E-mail clients like Thunderbird, Eudora, SquirrelMail, Outlook, etc. all let you set up multiple identities for a single mailbox, but with iPad’s e-mail software you need to have separate mailboxes for each identity. Not easy unless you manage your own server and can set up dummy mailboxes just so you can define the extra accounts in iPad e-mail. I had to set up about a dozen such mailboxes, and now the iPad e-mail client needs to check each of the mailboxes for new mail (of which there will never be any, since they are dummy mailboxes) every time mail is checked – a total waste of bandwidth. At least once you do set this up, you can then select any of the defined mail accounts as the sender for your e-mail messages.

8. Plug-in Keyboard Doesn’t Work with iPad Case. So, the sales guy at the Apple Store sold me this great iPad case which folds over to present the iPad at a good working angle and it protects the iPad from some wear and tear too. I really like the case.

I find the on-screen touch keyboard on the iPad functional enough for short messages, but not for serious typing (like these blog entries), so I decide I want a keyboard too.

The Apple guy sells me a wireless Bluetooth keyboard (which works great – I’m using that now). For use on airplanes (where they frown on wireless peripherals during flight), he offers a plug-in keyboard.

However, I soon discover that the plug-in keyboard is bulky (it has a stand for the iPad built in) and worse yet, it will not work while the iPad is in its snug case I just bought. So you have to remove the snug case (not easy) in order to plug it into the keyboard. Lame. And lamer yet is that you can only use the plug-in keyboard with the iPad in portrait mode. If they got rid of the stand and just provided a short cable it would be so much better.

I understand you might be able to use a USB keyboard via the optional iPad Camera Connection Kit, but the small USB keyboard I found at Amazon.com apparently drained too much power for that to work, and I don’t want to lug a full size keyboard with me.

9. Lack of Interaction Between Applications. Okay, so I already ranted about the lack of a file system above, which I see as a major contributor to the issue of painfully difficult (if not impossible) application interaction, but I really find the whole isolated application model of the iPad highly irksome and frustrating to deal with.

10. The iPad is Just a Giant iPod Touch. I’ve heard a number of people describe the iPad as a giant iPod Touch. And yes, in many ways it is. But it is much more, and it could be even more than that, if only Apple opened it up for better business use and greater compatibility with the world.

Regardless of the above annoyances, or perhaps in spite of them, I have found ways to get the iPad to do most of what I need. It’s not been easy or cheap to do so, but now that I’ve reached equilibrium, life is good and I’m content with my iPad.

Next up will be a list of my most useful and favorite iPad applications.

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

August 8th, 2010 at 1:17 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

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

January 20th, 2010 at 1:29 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

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.

Windows 7 Security and Mapped or Network Drives

January 11th, 2010 at 3:06 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

I’ve been running Windows 7 for a couple of months now, and while I am quite happy with this version of Windows (in contrast to Vista, which I found to be agony). However, I have had one repeated annoyance – namely not having applications recognize my mapped network drives. For most folks that might not be an issue, but I have “My Documents” mapped to one of my network drives as well, and many applications just assume they should use My Documents as a repository for their files. But I have solved the problem, finally.

The issue is that the default “protect the user from his own stupidity” settings for Windows 7 result in default network drive mappings being done in a non-Administrator mode. What that means is that any application being run as an administrator, such as pretty much any installation program, will not see those drive mappings and then spit back a cryptic error when it tries to access the My Documents area mapped to the network drive (which the application can’t see).

The solution is pretty simple – you need to run CMD.EXE as an administrator and manually map the network volumes. For example, if you map your N: to the network volume \\server\shared, you would do the following to map it in administrative mode:

1) Click the Windows “Start” button.

2) In the “Search” box, type “CMD”

3) Either hit Ctrl+Shift+Enter or right click on the CMD option and select the “Run as Administrator” option.

4) After agreeing to run CMD as an Administrator and let it make changes to your system, type the following line at the command prompt (modifying the drive letter and server volume appropriate to your needs):

net use n: \\server\shared

You should get a confirmation that this worked. Now, for the rest of your current OS use cycle (until you reboot), programs run in Administrator mode will see your mapped network drive too.

If you want that to be default behavior, put the list of “net use” commands in a DOS .BAT file, and then create a desktop shortcut pointing to the .BAT file. Then do the following:

1) Right-click on the icon for the .BAT file on your desktop.

2) Click “Properties”

3) Select the “Shortcut” tab

4) Click on the “Advanced” button on the lower part of the dialog box.

5) Put an “x” in the box which says “Run as Administrator”.

6) Click “OK”

Unfortunately, putting this .BAT file in your Start Up folder will not execute the commands, so you will manually need to run the file at start-up every time. If anyone has a better solution, please advise.

However, assuming you run this .BAT after booting Windows 7, you should not have any more problems with Administrator-level programs not recognizing your network drive mappings. Of course, if Microsoft had set network drive mappings to be Administrator-level by default, this workaround would not be necessary.

Sidekick LX 2009 is Disappointing

June 3rd, 2009 at 6:47 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

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

October 2nd, 2008 at 5:07 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

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.