Saturday, September 25, 2010

An American in Paris Says Au Revoir to His Laptop

Can you live with just an iPad on a working vacation?

Walt Mossberg, Wall Street Journal, has a positive experience when he takes an iPad to Paris in lieu of his laptop. I will hazard that as the apps for iPad mature and expand, this will become very common indeed, faster than everybody, including me, had expected.

"Overall, my attempt to substitute a tablet for a laptop was a big success, and I’d do it again for a short trip or working vacation. As tablets get better, this will only become easier. For instance, Microsoft is working on a touch-based tablet version of Windows that could make the slates even better laptop replacements."

The Streak vs the iPad

[Provisional rating: one out of five stars. I expect this will rise significantly if and when they ever fix the issue with downloading from the "Market" (Android app store).]

OK, so I took a leap and got the Dell Streak. Even though it's currently priced about the same as the (much bigger) iPad, and will surely fall in price. Wha'ever.
You should understand, I don't do this to get another toy! I do this because I take my role as researcher for you very seriously!!

So far, my impression is positive. The Streak is nice and sleek, very responsive, userfriendly, and has a nice screen.
About two negatives so far: the large battery cover is fiddly to get on and off, and only held in place by several very tiny curved flaps of steel. Hmmm.
And I'm trying to download ebook readers for it, this was after all my main purpose in getting it. And I found them (Kindle and Adiko) in the Market, and the device claims it's downloading them, but for over thirty minutes now it's been stuck on "starting to download", with no indication of any actual progress, despite it having both wifi and 3G access. Even rebooting the device has not changed the situation. I don't know what the heck is going on there. (Update: it's been hours now, and despite trying some things from the forum, it still has not downloaded one byte. This is getting crazy, the iPad is not perfect, but Apple products don't have flaws as severe as this.) (Update next day: it's a very odd situation... I've been having it just sit there trying to download, hours on end, and most of the few apps I've selected are still hung, but occasionally one will just slip through and be installed. I've never seen anything like it.) (Update two days later: all six selected apps have finally appeared...)

People talk about that it matters what Google account one is logged in with. But I can't even find any settings for the Market app, or how to log out!
(From the Android Market forum, it seems it may be a quite common problem with the Market app store. Not the Streak itself, but that hardly matters to me if I can't get hold of any apps for the durn thing. There are so  many threads asking when this problem will be fixed. Quite a beauty spot on the platform.)

You need a Google account to access the Market. It seems you need a durn Google account to do anything these days, I have decidedly mixed feelings about that.
(Also, I logged in with my usual account, and it seemed to accept it, but then I also had to create a new Gmail account in order to continue. So I'm not even sure I logged in successfully or what. Strange.)

On the pictures the Streak may not look much larger than a normal phone, but then I'm 6.4 with the hands to match.  

I'm pleased that I can use it with wifi without a SIM card in place. It would have been just like companies today to demand an active phone card, even if you don't need it. But then of course I paid full price, unsubsidized. (450 Pounds Sterling ($700), gasp! Crazy pricing when you can get an iPad for the same price, or for $500 in the US. Such is the penalty for living in comfy ol' Europe, where you don't risk ending up in tent cities without water or electricity if you lose your job. C'est la vie.

We'll see how it goes over longer time. But if there are not too many of these hiccups, I think the Streak could be quite successful. I love my iPad, and its size (9.7 inch screen) is great for many things, but the Streak with its 5 inch screen is very hand-hold-able and pocket-able, and yet more useful than the usual 3.5 inch phone screen, so I think it might be a very good compromise.

The iPad has a very simple interface, but I don't mind the Streak's either, so far. The hardware button on the front are unusual: they are not simply electronic so they would react to the merest butterfly touch, but neither are the push-buttons so you have to really push them willfully. It's something in between. It does feel nice, but I think I might have preferred real buttons which would not be activated accidentally just by you handling the device.

The screen keyboard is much more full-featured than the one on the iPhone, but this also means the keys are quite small, I find them pretty tricky to hit right. 

You can't, unlike the iPad, wake it up by touching the screen. You have to press the powerbutton on the side, which you pretty much have to look for to find, at least in the beginning. And while the iPad has a slider to avoid accidental activation, the Streak use the Menu button for this, I guess almost as effective.

The unnamed browser seems very nice, and unlike Safari on iPad, has actual settings!  (Sometimes Apple does go a bit overboard in their love of minimalism.)
I'm a bit surprised though that they haven't (yet) adopted the very useful gesture of double-tapping on a column to have it fill the screen. But at least pinch/spread zooming is easy and precise. And again, the screen is very nice.
It's nice that you can change the size of text in the browser, but unfortunately it seems it's only in settings, not per-page. Also, like often happens, the size steps are simply too crude to be really useful. If the text is just slightly too small, the next step up will be way larger. Smaller increments would be much more useful. (This is also true for many other apps, like the Kindle app on various platforms for example.)

Update: After several hours of this BS, one app was suddenly downloaded! (Only one, others are still hanging.)  And fortunately it happened to be the Kindle app, the one I bought the machine to use. Apart from the oft-mentioned too-crude steps in text size, it works nicely. (Oddly though it does not seem to sync my place in a book, unlike the Kindle app on my other devices.)

So far I'd say that both the Streak and Android seems really nice, except it is irritatingly buggy. This is, I guess, the predictable downside of an open platform. That's where Apple has a big advantage, they control both the hardware and the software, so it's a much smoother experience.

The camera though, while five megapixels like the one in the iPhone 4, has nothing like the quality of the iPhone's. The iPhone 4 I will cheerfully use for serious photography (and I have), the Streak's camera I'll only use if I have nothing else.

These are the two text sizes I use in Kindle on Streak.

I think that if the iPad had not existed, the Streak would be a very good reader, at least to rival the Kindle or better (unless one prefers the greyish e-paper and reading in the sun). But if the rumors are right and there will be a seven-inch iPad, maybe even with Retina display, the Streak is down for the count.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Café again (iPhone, iPad, foldable keyboard)

I went to get a haircut today. I like it very short. Just practical I guess. After I went to a lunch place, a basement restaurant I'd never tried before, and had barely noticed, though they said it's been there for thirty years. Had a pretty good lunch, coffee and chocolate cake, which was very nice, usually they are too heavy.

I've been listening to the audio book version of William Gibson's new book Zero History, and also reading it in the Kindle app on my iPhone. Now I am sitting in a café, writing on the iPhone in the app My Writing Nook (soon to be renamed due to pressure from B&N), and with a ThinkOutside Stowaway keyboard*. I wonder why they make so few foldable keyboards these days, because this one works really well. When it's folded, it's barely larger than an deck of cards**, and yet I can type-touch quite fast on it, even with my large hands. (Really. Pianists squeak with envy when they meet me.) (And ladies with joy. I don't have the heart to tell them that the old saying is bull.)

Only downside is that the app I'm using, Blogpress, tends to not show the text on lower half of the screen. Maybe I'll have to blog from a browser when I do this.

I have such a childish delight that I can blog from a café, and on two devices which fit in shirt pockets.

*These are sold for quite high prices on eBay, I think they are not in production. I have just bought a second one to make sure I have one. But somebody really should jump into this market, particularly with the iPad now being a hit, it's even more obvious for writing on than smaller handheld devices.

**Hmmm... I haven't played cards since I was a kid. Maybe it's closer to two decks of cards, I dunno.  But I'm sure it's about as small as you can make a good keyboard for touch-typing.

How to carry your iPad/reader?

If you like gadgets, you may wonder how to carry them when going out. One good solution I found recently is my Scottevest.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Writing out (and portable writing devices)

I love writing in cafés. (Which is one of the reasons I'm so interested in tablets.)  But it happens much less than I'd like. I just had a realization though: I'd had a sense of Doing Something Important with it. But that doesn't work for some reason. Fine. But if I love doing it, it should be something I do for pleasure. Funny that that never occurred to me before. That's a very different perspective.

Looking for data about whether the Dell Streak might be a good ebook reader, I stumbled over this article. He says some pretty, uh, doubtful things, for example he totally rejects the iPad because he doesn't like iTunes and because so far there's no software for it which allows comments in Word documents. But he does not have to use iTunes (much) (many writing apps allow online sync), and any reasonable feature in software is likely to happen any day, it being missing presently does not mean iPad is no good for work, that's sloppy reasoning. (He also can't understand why anybody would want a physical keyboard with it. Huh?)

But he does say an interesting thing, which I have also been wondering about for about twenty years: why have nobody ever made a good portable device, smaller and lighter than a laptop, meant for writers? It's so strange. The closest thing, and very good, is the Alphasmart Neo. But it has such a tiny, low-contrast screen, it's a pity really. And the Neo is meant for kids, not for writers.

It's just strange, in the sheer profusion of portable devices which have appeared in the past couple of decades, why have nobody ever made one meant to be good at just one thing, writing?

The key thing would be solid buy simple word processing software, compactness and lightness, a good but not large screen, and a full sized and really good keyboard (which the Neo has).

Upcoming tablets

[Does anybody know if a Dell Streak can be used without a SIM card?]

Wall Street Journal has an article about upcoming tablets, amongst them one from RIM, the maker of the enormously popular Blackberry device. This tablet may be interesting for not running Android. Also not running Android will be the one from HP, who bought Palm earlier. I'll look forward to see what interface they come up with. (I'm a little bit tired of iOS's evenly ordered icons, which you can't change in size or anything.)

Let us see what choices we have for e-readers and tablets in a year's time. I hope just a couple of them are really good. It's really amazing that one can even say that, because with cars or cameras, most of them are pretty good. But it seems with this new field, most we have seen so far, with one or two exceptions, are slow and clumsy.

I tend to lump e-readers and tablets together. Maybe I shouldn't. I guess it's because for me, a tablet is mainly a reading device.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

foldable keyboards

Here's an upcoming bluetooth foldable keyboard.

Does anybody have experience with such from other brands? Especially some made for the new generations of handheld devices.
I have large hands, so I prefer full-sized keyboards.

Cheap apps! All good?

Seriously, iPhone and iPad apps are now ridiculously cheap! Just see this app, for instance. It's an app which allows for numerous interesting effects to apply to your photos, many of them for a vintage look. The price? Two dollars!

And that's not unusual. Very few apps cost more than five bucks. But I'm actually in doubt whether it's viable in the long run, for the profitability of the developers. OK, it's true that many of the best apps are done for fun or for "conviction", but also, many cost a lot of money to develop, and at these prices the only way they can make the money back is if they happen to be one of those mega-hits we hear about sometimes. And the chances are small.

I think iPhone/iPad users have in a very short time gotten used to expect that any app should cost less then five dollars. Maybe ten if it is really special. But I think it might be good for the platform if those expectations were modified a little bit. How much software can you get for Windows or Mac for ten dollars? Not friggin' much.

Sure, a little game or a flashlight app or something, two dollars, fine. But to expect to pay five or ten dollars for any and all apps, even those who cost tens or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop, that's silly.

Not that I'm blaming the users, I got into those expectations myself too, very quickly. But I think that Apple could take a little responsibility in this area, by sometimes featuring premium apps, and perhaps educate everybody a little about these issues. It will only be good for the platform if mature, premium apps are also available. Apple can afford to sell a full, mature app like iWork very cheaply, because it helps to sell the hardware, but other developers don't have that luxury.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Videos on iPad etc

This video is not brand new, but it's interesting.

(I found while looking for another version of this video, which won't play for me. Does it play for you?)

Re the first video (Charlie Rose), it is indeed an interesting conundrum for the publishing industry: Apparently Apple demands that Apple gets 30% of subscription sales, plus they keep all the contact to the customer base.  It must feel a bit like a tiger being trapped in a burning jungle, being offered a way out, but only by being carried away in a cage... what will happen? What kind of people will he be leaving with? Is there even any other way at all?

The guy from NYT says that the $500 price "is a total fake-out", everybody will want to upgrade and get a "bigger" one. Well, not me! I bought a wifi and 16GB model, the cheapest, and it works wonderfully. What do you need to keep on there anyway? You don't think 16GB worth of books and videos will get you through a vacation? I think the cheapest model is perfectly workable.  I also think though that many people think they need more, just because it's available, to Apple's profit.

By the way, I have a wifi portable device which gets me plenty of bandwidth for 15 Pounds Sterling a month ($25). And it can support up to five devices running off it at the same time. And it also works as a backup connection in case my Internet at home goes down. (It's also surprisingly speedy, way faster than a traditional phone modem connection, it does actually feel like broadband speeds, even though it's a 3G connection. I get download speeds around 100kB/sec, which is over 20 times as fast as a phone modem but not as fast as really good broadband.)

iPad subscription services soon?

WSJ article.

That's good news. iPad is clearly the first device of the kind I've been expecting for over ten years: the eventual replacement for magazines and newspapers. But it natually needs a good subscription service to be able to do it!

And it needs to have reasonable prices. Not five dollars per issue. I hope many will follow in the footsteps of National Geographic: Twenty dollars for a full year!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Kindle DX resolution

I took these photos to give an impression of the resolution of the screen of the Kindle Dx (that's the large, expensive one with more than double the screen size of the K3.)
Click for big pic.

Kindle picture viewer

Thanks to BlogKindle:
"Kindle has a picture viewer easter egg. In order to use it: create “pictures” folder in the root directory of the Kindle USB drive, create some sub-directory there and fill it with pictures. Once in home screen, press Alt-Z to make Kindle 3 rescan picture folders. Subfolders of “pictures” folder that have JPEG, GIF, PNG or BMP files in them will be visible as books and images will become pages."

I'd say it's barely worth it though, unless you have a Dx.

The same site also has an interesting page of Kindle photos and data

Larger keyboard on iPhone

I am getting press releases for the iOS platform and I just one for Easy Typing. It's an app which uses almost the whole screen on an iPhone to make typing easier. I bought it, and I like it. It even mails or sends an SMS (a text) from within the app with no problems.

This may be peripheral to ereaders, but actually many use an iPhone or iPod Touch as an ereader, and they are not bad, particularly if you get the new models with the high-resolution Retina screen.
The fact that they work pretty well as ereaders is why I am hoping for a smaller iPad variant, a "Goldilocks" model. If it were the size of the Kindle 3, it would fit in many (most?) pockets, but the screen, if high-res, would be excellent for reading.

Use Kindle 3 as news reader

Here is an excellent trick to turn the normally painfully clumsy web browser on the Kindle into an excellent newsfeed (RSS) reader. It only works on Kindle three, though, not even on the Dx, I've tried.
Here's a bit of the article:
"First, log into your Google Reader account and use the awkward cursor control to navigate your feed list. Then hit the “right” cursor to enter the news articles themselves. Then comes the trick: just press “f” to enter full-screen mode, instantly turning your Kindle into a custom newspaper. You can scroll through the article with the Kindle’s page-turn buttons, and – using Google Reader’s keyboard commands – press “j” and “k” to page through articles."

It really is an excellent trick, it seems. Normally it is sloooow to navigate on web pages on the Kindle, because you have to move the cursor around one little step at a time with the four-way button. But this makes navigation way faster, and makes the pages much more readable too, especially if you zoom the text 150% or 200%.

The article says  "this works best with images turned off in the kindle browser”, but for me there doesn't seem to be much of a penalty to having them turned on, neither in speed nor screen estate.

I found this by accident, I was actually browsing for  photos of the Kindle, and got intrigued by a screenshot and the URL, and followed it.

I am not yet sure if the larger navigation (finding a particular site on your list) is as easy, but all in all, this makes the Kindle into a different beast, since it's the only speedy way I'm aware of which lets you read the web/RSS on the Kindle in real time as things happen, even on the road. Without this, it is pretty much only a reader for archived things which have to be transferred to it laboriously.

Update: eagles-view navigation is done pretty easily by pressing F again, coming out of full-screen mode. The browser works entirely differently in the two modes.
Also, alas, the usefulness seems a bit hampered by the Kindle browser not supporting multiple windows, since when it comes to a link coded as opening in a new window, it just throws in the towel, can't do it. I think it could at least offer to open it in the same window. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Better alternative for Safari on iPad

One of my most important iPad niggles has been that Safari on it can't change font size (nor really has much of any settings at all), and that changing pages is very slow, involving a couple of clicks, selecting, and reload.  And that it does not have a Find feature.

So I'm delighted to have found the "Perfect Web Browser". It has:
  • A scroll bar for faster scrolling on long pages. 
  • Changable font size. 
  • Real tabbed browsing, with instant change to the older page, instead of Safari's tiresome reloading! (I thought that was necessary because of too little memory, but that seems not to be the case...)
  • A find feature for big pages! 
I only just started using it, but unless it has some egregious fault I haven't found yet, I may have a new favorite browser on iPad.

A dream Kindle

I doubt it'll happen this way, but I can't help but think: man, a Kindle just like the Kindle 3, but with a touch-screen like the iPhone 4, high resolution, great in all ways. I could even live with it being greyscale. It would also be great if the device was yet a bit faster. Doesn't need to be very much, but all in all this would pretty much make it the ultimate portable reader.

 (My "artist's impression" of such a device. I took two photos and combined them. The tricky bit was coordinating the perspective.)

Of course you could go at it "from the other side" by "simply" shrinking an iPad. It would be a challenge to make it as light-weight as the K3, but I really hope somebody will come close soon, the Kindle 3's weight (10 oz/300 grams) is fantastic.

Or for that matter they could make a six-inch iPhone, as it were. (iPhone's screen is 3.5 inches, the iPad's is 9.7.) Again the weight would be the issue. I've heard the metal is needed to dissipate the heat.

Many engineering challenges in that, I'm sure, but it's only a question of time. Particularly how much time. A year? Five?

By the way, I would advice makers of eReaders to concentrate on quality rather than quantity. For instance I saw a review of Pandigital's Novel reader, and it has a lot of features I will never need, but then the screen is not very responsive (and not multi-touch), and the reader app only has four levels of text size. Not great.

In fact, the "Novel" seems on the surface to be just what I'm wishing for here... except it just is not very good.  Very slow, clumsy and unresponsive generally, poor screen, etc. So maybe I should have included "good" in the definitions, but in my world it pretty much goes without saying...

A roundup of clock apps for the iPad

A roundup of clock apps for the iPad, article.

I use both Night Stand HD and Clock Pro HD, and they are both very advanced and beautifully designed. (See my photos of some of Night Stand's faces.)
The amazing clock face below is one of the newest features of Night Stand.

(When you start the app, the vacuum tubes slides up from the bench!)