Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff

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31
Jul

RIP PhatBox

I am fortunate to have a 2002 BMW E46 M3 convertible. It’s a great car that I love to drive. Unfortunately, it has auto electronics circa 2001 (when I actually purchased the car). About a year into owning it, I decided that the trunk-mounted CD player just wasn’t going to cut it. I had a huge number of ripped CDs and even though downloadable MP3s weren’t quite readily available yet, I knew that they would be broadly available soon. In searching for a way to play MP3 files through the standard radio interface of the car, I found the Holy Grail. Well, it seemed that way at the time. A removable disk-based MP3 player that used the existing BMW wiring to connect to the standard head unit in the dash. All praise the PhatNoise PhatBox.
PhatBox
The idea was great, a device with a removable disk drive (20GB!) that used the same cabling as the target vehicle. In my case, a 3-Series BMW. The drive could be removed from its semi-permanent home in the trunk of my car, inserted into a docking port connected to my computer and synced with my MP3 database of tunes. What could possibly go wrong, right? A spinning disk in an enclosed space without any climate control and subject to the shaking, rattling and rolling of a tightly sprung sports sedan. Perfect conditions for a fast-spinning disk drive . . . Not.

Well, this device has been a rock-solid stud. Almost never a skip or a missed beat, even on washboard New England roads in 90 degree heat and equal humidity. The PhatBox never failed to play all my favorites. On call, all the time. Along the way, I lost the docking station and stopped updating the music on the PhatBox. No matter really, since I mostly listen to classic rock and there’s not a lot of that coming out these days by definition.

The PhatBox is a seriously great product. Not only did it put up with being in the trunk of a car for the last dozen years, for its day, it was an exhibitionist of great engineering. PhatNoise dealt with the limited interface on the BMW Nav/Infotainment unit by synthesizing voice directives so that they could use the limited number of buttons available to multiplex several functions. When a button is pressed once, the PhatBox announces, “the current playlist is XYZ.” When pressed again, the next playlist is announced. Easy smeazy. The synchronization app worked flawlessly – much better than Apple’s abomination, iTunes. No muss, no fuss and it didn’t even cost a lot. Yeah, sure, I had to fabricate a mounting bracket for it so that it fit where the old CD changer was mounted, but that was just a few hours of work. Unfortunately, it appears that PhatNoise couldn’t keep up. They appear to still be in business, but no longer sell the PhatBox. The solid state, iPod dominant ship came ashore and sailed and PhatNoise didn’t get on board.

PhatBoxSo, today, the PhatBox got lovingly removed from the M3 (these photos are of my PhatBox after removal from the car). It’s brought me loads of joy over the years, but my inability to update it – a man can’t live on classic rock alone, after all – has forced me to move on. I replaced it with an Audiovox Mediabridge that uses an external iPod or USB memory stick loaded with MP3s. It also has a Bluetooth connection and can wirelessly connect to my phone. It’s not like landing on Mars or anything, but it is an advance in technology.

PhatNoise created a terrific product that has brought me loads of enjoyment over many years. It’s too bad that they couldn’t make a go of it and bring all their great engineering prowess into the present. I have incredible respect for the people who built the product. It’s been a total blast to use for all these years.

Thanks, PhatNoise.

 July 31st, 2014  
 Will  
 Cars, Gadgets  
   
 9 Comments
01
Jun

Activity/Fitness Monitor Showdown

OK, I admit it. I’m a data junkie. I just totally believe that you can’t improve what you can’t measure. So, I want to measure everything. Although, it’s even better when someone or something does the measuring for me. With this in mind, I recently decided to figure out what was the best way to measure my physical activity – movement, calories, weight lifted, stairs climbed, etc. Unfortunately, some of this data remains hard to come by. While machines in the gym – treadmill, elliptical, stationary cycle, etc. all generate some types of data. This data isn’t normalized across machines and, generally, cannot be exported for tracking.

The answer seemed to lie in the new crop of activity monitors available. The small devices worn on the wrist or kept in the pocket to track the steps one has taken, the calories burned, elevation climbed and so forth. Unfortunately, the current crop of activity monitors don’t really even try to cover some of the data I was looking for. Even worse, I had heard that many of the facets of activity they claim to cover are not all that accurate. Since my interest in gathering activity data was bordering on a need rather than desire, I had to find out what my options were. So I tried several trackers out.

My pseudo-scientific test included most of today’s popular devices plus one monitor that runs on my Android phone (there are other Android apps and, of course, iOS apps as well, especially for Apple phones with the M7 processor).

  • Withings Pulse
  • Fitbit Flex (thanks Brad Feld)
  • Garmin Vivofit
  • Jawbone UP (thanks Shawn Broderick)
  • Moves App

Activity Monitor Comparo

There are several more, of course, but my arms are short. I wore these devices daily for about a month. It was still cold outside so I could hide this embarrassing electronic armband with the sleeves of a shirt. There are lots of features of these devices that I don’t cover here. If you’re going to make a purchase, you should hit the companies’ web sites for complete information.

I need to note that I didn’t test all types of activities that these monitors track. Since these devices are for the arm or pocket, cycling isn’t accurately tracked (nor is it claimed to be) and I am not a runner, so I didn’t even test for running. I also didn’t test the sleep functions of any of the trackers. I move around a reasonable amount each day, I frequently spend time on an elliptical trainer and in the gym lifting weights or doing body-weight exercises. I am a reasonably fit and active person. The question is, would the data reflect this.

Let me get right to the bottom line: These devices measure some activities moderately well and others either poorly or not at all. They all greatly depend on a certain type of body movement that their accelerometers (motion detectors) can pick up. A person who has a hard-pounding walking style will register more activity than one who floats over pavement, for example. If your primary activities are non-aerobic (weight lifting), these devices are useless. And even if they are aerobic, but only involve smooth movements (e.g. cycling), very little data is acquired. They are, basically, walking and running monitors. Additionally, the data gathered is best used as a comparison of the user’s activity over time because the absolute accuracy of these devices is questionable.

Here are a couple of examples that bear this out . . .

The reports below are generated by each of the devices. The first three – by the Garmin, Withings (side-by-side) and Fitbit (below), respectively – are clips from their web pages. Unfortunately, the next two – from Moves and Jawbone – don’t provide a graphical web interface. The data is only available on a computer by downloading it into a spreadsheet via the web. All the devices have phone apps that display the data graphically. While it’s nice to be able to access the data on a phone, I much prefer being able to see and manipulate the data with a computer on the web. Personal preference.

Activity Montior - 5-10-2014

Moves - 5-10-2014

Jawbone - 5-10-2014

This is the data from May 10 – a randomly chosen day (I did the test on the elliptical 14 times during the month). All devices were worn throughout the day. You can see that the data on number of steps varies wildly.

Device

Steps

Garmin 4,218
Withings 9,715
Fitbit 4,548
Moves 8,786
Jawbone 7,059

All reported correctly that the primary movement started at about 7:30 pm and lasted for about an hour. During that time I was on an elliptical machine which can very accurately track the number of steps taken. The elliptical reported, roughly, 6,500 steps were taken, making the reported values of less than 5,000 for the whole day a bit suspect.

The distance covered also varies a lot between devices. It ranges from 2.09 mi (Fitbit) to 4.19 miles (Withings). Regardless of what distance I actually traveled during the day, the 2x difference in range makes me question all of the data. FWIW, the elliptical claims I ran/climbed more than 6 miles during that session.

On another day, I did a similar test on the elliptical with all devices in my pocket instead of on my wrist. The results were different – all values were higher, but the variance was just as high.

The data from April 21 is below in the same order as previously reported. Unfortunately, there is no Jawbone data for this day. This was a moderately active day with a concentrated weight lifting session from 2:30-3:30 pm. Note that none of the apps register much activity during this time. For most of the day, I was just moving around, doing whatever I needed and wanted to do without actually “exercising.” For this, most of the trackers were more aligned, however, there is still almost a 2x difference between the lowest (Moves) and highest (Garmin) in step count.

Clearly, the lack of activity reported during a very active weight lifting session shows that these trackers are not a reliable way of tracking this type of activity data.

Activity Montior - 4-21-2014

Moves - 4-21-2014

Some thoughts about each of the trackers . . .

Withings Pulse:

Pros –

  • Device fits in pocket nicely or on the wrist with a watch-like band
  • Great display of all data, scrollable to see results from other days
  • Touch sensitive screen for scrolling through data
  • Micro-USB port on device for charging (this is a pro because as an Android user, I always have a micro-USB charger with me)

Cons –

  • Hard to read display in sunlight
  • Not water resistant

Garmin Vivofit

Pros –

  • Replaceable battery lasts for a year (others need recharging after 10-14 days)
  • Bright display easily readable in sunlight
  • Red reminder indicator to get your ass off the couch
  • Water resistant
  • Data is combined with that from other Garmin devices to give a bigger activity picture

Cons –

  • Bluetooth syncing failed frequently
  • Web site is difficult to negotiate

Fitbit Flex

Pros –

  • Small, easily moves from wrist band to pocket
  • Water resistant

Cons –

  • No data display – just some LEDs showing progress towards the day’s goals
  • I found the wrist band hard to put on even after a couple of month’s usage
  • Requires USB dongle for recharging

Moves

Pros –

  • Runs on phone so has optional access to GPS data – knows how fast your moving and where you are
  • Runs on phone so it’s almost always with you

Cons –

  • Runs on phone so it consumes battery power
  • No graphical data available on the web

Jawbone UP

Pros –

  • Looks the most like jewelry
  • Water resistant

Cons –

  • No data display – just a colored light to tell you when you’ve achieved your goal
  • No graphical data on the web
  • No wireless communication – must connect to computer to download data (newer version of hardware apparently has Bluetooth)
  • Requires USB dongle for recharging

Where do I go from here . . .

None of these devices are perfect or, for that matter, even very good in an absolute sense. As I said earlier, they do a decent job indicating your relative activity from day to day and in that way, they can disclose and track some valuable metrics. Many of these devices have other features that may increase their value to the user as well. The Withings Pulse can also track your pulse and blood oxygen levels and the Garmin Vivofit always shows the current time, for example.

For me, I think I’m going to move to a combination of devices. Perhaps Moves on my phone because it’s so transparent for daily activity (I’m carrying it anyway) and either the Garmin Vivofit or Withings Pulse for when I’m purposefully exercising. I’m then going to use the HumanAPI to combine the data so that I can track my overall activity in one place. Or, perhaps I’ll get some help with my OCD-ish need for collecting data and drop the whole thing altogether.

 June 1st, 2014  
 Will  
 Gadgets, Health and Fitness  
   
 5 Comments
30
Jun

Gadget Review–Thinkpad X220

This is my third Thinkpad – first from IBM and now Lenovo. They have been my laptop of choice for as long as I can remember. An X40, then an X60s and now this new baby. Not as stylish as those unibody Macs that almost everyone I know uses these days, but I’ll take function over form any day (well, mostly – although my kids strongly disagree, I’m not entirely without style). These computers have been rock solid over the years and I’ve been able to continuously extend their lives, upgrading batteries, disks, memory and versions of Windows – eeking out more from these machines than IBM and Lenovo probably ever intended. They have been no-muss, no-fuss workhorses and I fully expect the same from the X220.

The configuration I purchased isn’t even all decked out. I selected the options that best met my needs – Sandy Bridge i5, 2.5GHz, 6GB of memory, 128GB SSD, 1366X768 IPS 16X9 12.5” display and Windows 7 64-Bit (oh yeah, baby). While that’s still a formidable laptop setup, faster processors, more memory and bigger disks are available to drive this thing faster and further.

CPU-Z-X220

The system boots fast and resumes from standby instantly. The screen is really sharp and the computer executes everything quickly. Best of all, battery life is completely outstanding. I can pound on this things for 5-6 hours without refueling. If I’m just watching videos, it’s a couple hours more than that – excellent for long plane rides.  I’ve stopped carrying my iPad. At 1.0” thick (there is another 0.25” bump where the battery is) and weighing in at about 3 pounds, it’s light and goes almost anywhere my iPad went and I like the keyboard way better.

As with most things, not all is perfect. The machine comes with IBM/Lenovo’s classic TrackPoint device, which I’ve always loved. It also comes with a touchpad. You can set the machine to recognize one or the other or both. Problem is, the touchpad sorta sucks. It doesn’t track consistently and trying to use it alongside the TrackPoint requires manual dexterity that genetics hasn’t quite yet refined. So, I have the touch pad turned off. The other problem is with the display. While it’s bright and sharp and colors are superbly reproduced, 768 pixels filling the, roughly, 6.25” screen height just doesn’t cut it. As much as media wants to go widescreen, productivity apps still long for good ol’ 4:3. Or, at least a physically taller display so that what’s displayed is easier to read. There’s just not enough vertical information displayed when trying to get real work done or even just browsing the web.

Do these problems detract from the experience? Perhaps. Everyone needs to decide for themselves. For me, the screen height thing keeps this from being a perfect, do-everything computing device, but it’s just not enough of an issue to spoil all the advantages that it offers. I suggest you take a look at one before buying to judge for yourself, though. It may be a more substantial issue for you.

The battery life on its own makes this computer terrific. Add to that the speed, great keyboard, bright display, Windows 7 and upgradeability and I think this will be my laptop for many years to come. Even if I have to do a lot of vertical scrolling.

 June 30th, 2011  
 Will  
 Computers, Gadgets  
   
 Comments Off on Gadget Review–Thinkpad X220
27
Jun

Gadget Review–Windows Phone 7

Yeah, I’m pretty late to the game here. That said, I bet I’ve played with this (thanks Shawn!) before most of the people I know or who read this blog. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most of the people I know never intend to ever giving it a try (so why are you still reading?). Well, if you’re one of those people, you owe it to yourself to at least give Windows Phone 7 fifteen minutes of playtime at your favorite phone store or, even better, a 15-30 day trial from your favorite carrier. It’s still a 1.x phone and, therefore, is missing some of the polish and completeness of it’s iPhone and Android competition, but I think it’s a fresh, cool approach to the smartphone category.

As a current Android user and a former (reformed?) iPhone user, I have a pretty good feel for what I use the phone for and what’s most important to me. I don’t play games on my phone. It’s a communication device primarily, a synced data access device (think Evernote and Smugphoto) secondarily and web browsing device tertiarily (did I just make that up?). I run a handful of apps that don’t fit into these categories, but they’re icing on the cake rather than the cake itself. In that light, I found Windows Phone 7 surprisingly satisfying and quite a bit different from the other platforms.

The first thing you notice is how fast the UI is. Everything runs smoothly without pause. Even on mediocre hardware, the OS feels quick. Add to that the constant visual feedback and animation in transitions and the experience is just cool. Also out of the shoot, Microsoft’s choices of fonts and font sizes make the display clear and easy on the eye – almost playful. The tiled, mosaic home page makes getting to what you want quick and painless. Since I use just a few apps, most of those being native to all leading phones, I can always get to what I want fast. That seems to be the goal of phone and one which it achieves . . . in a 1.x sorta way.

Email is my primary app when using a smartphone. Setting up the stock email program to work with my Gmail account (including contacts and calendar) was as easy as setting things up on Android. I’m still a bit unsure if Windows Phone uses all the correct labels from Gmail for spam, trash, etc. There’s also no basic “Archive” button, which I have become quite used to in Gmail. Also missing is threaded messaging. For some, that’ll be enough of a deal killer. Apparently, MS is going to add it in a later rev of the software. Moving between messages is easy and reading them even easier. With threaded messaging and a little more Gmail integration, this email app could blow away the stock Android app. For example, it’s much easier to move a message to a folder (change its label in Gmail-speak) than on the Android Gmail app.

Contacts get a little weird. If you’re big into email like me, your contact list is critical. Windows Phone sucks down your contacts from Facebook and merges them with your other contacts. I don’t like that at all. Segregation of contacts is important to me. I have Facebook “friends” who shouldn’t be allowed to mingle with my real friends, if you know what I mean. Apparently, there’s a way to sorta separate them, but there’s still bussing between the lists. Funny enough, Twitter followers or followees are not allowed to participate here – at all. Word on the street that this will be addressed in the next version.

As you’d expect, there aren’t many apps available. Important ones like Evernote are, but other basic ones aren’t yet there. One gets the idea that they’re coming. Just very slowly. If you’re an app hound, the list may never be long enough on this OS for you. For me, I think the key apps will be there shortly.

Perhaps the biggest current failing of the phone is no multi-tasking. Actually, I shouldn’t say that there is no multitasking, the native apps seem to do it just fine. Zune runs in the background, mail downloads in the background, etc. It’s just not available to third party apps. MS has to rectify this or this phone will be a total loser. Again, apparently they’re workin’ on it. Funny, it seems like they should know something about implementing multitasking, huh?

Browsing is fast and efficient. SMS is more than reasonable. Oh yeah, the phone works great, just like a phone should.

I was pleasantly surprised with Windows Phone 7. Can Microsoft pull it off and become a contender? I hope so. Not only because I’m a MS fan, but because I’d love to see more competition driving this market.

 June 27th, 2011  
 Will  
 Gadgets, Mobile, Software  
   
 1 Comment
08
Sep

Gadget Review: Axis Q1755-E Network Camera

Axis-Q1755-E-Network-Camera

In the last few years I’ve acquired several network cameras from a variety of manufacturers and have never been truly happy with any of them. Earlier this summer, I started a project that required a network camera and I tried to capitalize on the wisdom gained from my previous poor choices with a list of features and functions I wanted.

I only had two features that were actually required. One was that the camera be ready for outdoor use in wide-ranging conditions – temperatures as low as -20°F and as high as 100°F; precipitation – sun, rain, and snow; and other environmental factors like pestilence and locusts (it’s in New England after all). The other requirement was that it had to be powered through the Ethernet cable (PoE). The camera was to be installed over 300 feet from the router/switch (more on this later) and there was no AC power available anywhere near there.

There were, of course, other desired features. These greedily included:

  • I preferred if the cold weather operation functioned without the use of a heater inside the enclosure.
  • Pan and tilt was an option, but a zoom lens was desirable (10X optical zoom was my goal).
  • An autofocus (or really wide aperture) lens – once I installed it, I didn’t want to have to open up the case to focus the lens
  • A wide angle lens – to get as much of the scene in as possible without being a mile from it.
  • HD image quality – 720p/1080i while still having decent frame rates over the network.
  • Support of Motion JPEG was my primary goal, but H.264 would be great for future use.
  • An FTP client so that still photos could be transferred somewhere else.
  • An API or some type of macro function inside the camera so that I could schedule certain actions.
  • Finally, and this really was more of a requirement than an option – no need for specialized, proprietary software to view the feed from the camera. I should be able to view the stream from any web browser and be able to easily include the feed in any web page that I want.

While there are loads of cameras out there, the only one that met my needs at the time – all of them, actually – was the Axis Q1755-E. Well, I should say that there are other cameras that met all these needs, but they were substantially more expensive. That’s not to say that this camera is cheap. It’s not, but it’s much cheaper than other cameras in its class. I’ve had several low-end Axis cameras in the past. While I haven’t always liked their performance, their in-camera software was much better than most other cameras that I have played with.

I’m very happy with the performance of the camera. Live broadcast over the internet has something to be desired, but I imagine that my installation is hampered by cable length issues (see below) and by a crappy network service provider. The picture is sharp and clear and big. HD makes a huge difference. Low light operation is OK. I’ve seen better. The picture tends to get a bit blurry when the sensor doesn’t have enough light. Perhaps the thing I like best about the camera is its handling of background lighting. The camera does an excellent job of managing images with a large range of lights and darks without blowing out the lights or hiding the darks.

Under normal circumstances, installation of the camera would have been a breeze. In my case, the camera was being installed at a construction site with no power near where I needed to mount the camera. The closest power and Ethernet drop was over 300 feet away. I decided to use PoE to power the camera and eliminate the need for bringing an AC line to it. With or without power, the Ethernet spec states that the cable should not be longer than 100 meters. As such, I was pushing things pretty hard. I first measured out 326 feet of gel-filled cable (gel-filled because it handles harsh outdoor conditions better – I also ran it in PVC tubing the whole way). Once connected, nothing worked. My cable tester was showing no life. I cut the cable back to 310 feet and then everything worked. I must have been on the hairy edge.

Camera mounted on 4X4 PTWith the camera showing signs of life, I decided to mount it on a 10 foot 4X4 pressure treated post. I planted it in cement to make extra sure that there would be no movement whatsoever. Unfortunately, I neglected to consider that the post, itself, might twist as green lumber tends to do. The image from the camera slowly moved to the right during the weeks after installation. It took me a while to figure out what was happening. The camera was mounted in the housing well and the housing to the post. I even considered that the sensor might be moving as it heated up. Eventually, it occurred to me. When you look at the post now (click on the image), you can see that the top of the post is at a slightly different angle than the bottom. Next time, I’ll use something synthetic.

I’m happy with the camera, its features and flexibility. It would be great if low-light performance was a bit better, but the HD image and clarity are range topping for the price point, IMO. The ball joint used to mount the camera is also somewhat problematic. It’s a bear to get the camera even with the horizon and pointed exactly where you want it, especially when it’s 10 feet in the air. Because of the ball joint, you can’t make changes in a single axis – the camera just flops around until you tighten the bolt. Lot’s of trial and error required. It’s not a cheap camera, but it’s very flexible and should last a long time. I recommend it if you have similar requirements.

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 September 8th, 2010  
 Will  
 Gadgets  
   
 3 Comments
15
Apr

Yet Another iPad Review

Here at 2-Speed labs, I made an executive decision to forgo an acquisition of Apple’s latest uber-gadget, the iPad. The decision was made because of the product’s strange and questionable position in the computing spectrum between a phone and a laptop and because I always question whether an acquisition of yet another closed product from Apple is good for me or the world. Like I have any influence . . .

The argument on both counts was removed when I was given an iPad by the cool folks at AccuRev as a parting gift – I’m leaving the board there after five years. Thanks AccuRev, it was a very thoughtful gesture.

Like any gadget guy worth his salt, I have been playing with the device constantly since I got it 48 hours ago. While it’s position among the array of computing devices I have is still in question, the massive array of apps available out of the chute in combination with a slick piece of hardware make it, at the very least, a functional and cool toy. But I’m thinking that it’s more than that. Here’s the summary.

Cons:

  • It’s heavier than I would have expected, I can’t imagine reading a book on it. It would be uncomfortable to hold aloft very long. Additionally, the back is sorta slippery and the iPad easily slips from one’s grip if not held tightly.
  • Many (most) apps available are formatted for the smaller screen of the iPhone/iPod Touch. This is not an issue for some, but others don’t work well on the larger screen. The apps can pixel-replicated to the larger size, but they don’t look good. This should be resolved over time.
  • The keyboard layout is less than ideal. This is, of course, a preference thing, but like all things Apple, you get it with their preferences not yours. The apostrophe, for example is not on the main QWERTY keyboard page. That’s OK for texting, but not OK when entering longer text. I am typing this post on the iPad and it’s a bit painful.
  • The battery isn’t replaceable and there’s no Flash support. Duh, it’s an Apple product.
  • The glossy display makes reading text somewhat of a challenge in some lighting situations. The Kindle and Nook get this right – a matte screen is better for reading text.
  • Pros:

  • I’m surprised this isn’t mentioned more often – the battery life on this thing is simply amazing. I watched 3 hour long videos and did some web browsing and email and only used 10% of the battery (as reported by the device). Subsequent usage indicates that this level of consumption remains consistent.
  • The screen is 3 bears size. Not too large and not too small. Just right. Big enough to get a great view of media and small enough to be a reasonable size for convenience.
  • Most apps made for the iPad do a great job using the additional screen space (over what the iPhone offers). Many compromises made for size are abandoned leaving smartly laid out and functional applications.
  • Photos and video on the device are fantastic. Good screen size, lots of storage and a high resolution and glossy display make the visual experience a winner.
  • I think that the iPad is going to fill two roles for me. The first is as a way to show off my photos and to view videos when traveling and such – the media role. The second will be as a convenient device for reading email, checking blogs, perusing feeds and web browsing – the time vampire role. I can see using it when watching TV or just hanging around away from my desk. Is it necessary? Totally not. A laptop can do all that stuff. Would I buy one now knowing what I now know? Nope. It’s still not differentiated enough from a small laptop to make it worth the money. Since I already have one though, the combination of it’s convenience and it’s virtually infinite battery life make it pretty fun to use untethered and I’m gonna keep playing. Another Apple victim.

     April 15th, 2010  
     Will  
     Gadgets  
       
     4 Comments
    16
    Nov

    Gadget Review: Motorola Droid

    I have a hate/love relationship with my iPhone.  It does so many things right in a way that only Apple has been able to perfect.  Easy to use and manage, consistent UI across all apps, and everything about it looks and feels good.  And the apps . . . the term “app” has becoming synonymous with “iPhone app” already.  Some six trillion available for download, or something like that (if this number is a bit high, check back in a while and it will eventually be correct).  It’s a very nice package.

    Of course, it’s nice if you want things exactly the way Apple says you want them.  A substantial part of Apple’s magic comes from the fact that its products are closed with Apple being the wizard behind the curtain conducting their operation.  The iPhone is single-sourced hardware (from Apple) running a single-sourced, single-tasking OS (also only from Apple), layered with applications that have to be approved by Apple and which can’t compete with Apple-supplied applications.  The hardware has a non-interchangeable battery, non-upgradeable memory and no keyboard – because Apple doesn’t think you need any of those features.  It even has a proprietary connector to recharge and communicate with it.  All of this fixed to the so-bad-I’m-surprised-each-day-I-continue-to-use-it AT&T network.  Oh and did I mention that the phone can only run one of the zillion apps it can carry at a time (yeah, I think I did)?

    For sure, all of this obsessive control over their products helps and, in fact is required for, Apple to be exactly who they want to be.   It’s very difficult to create the level of consistency and ease-of-use that is part and parcel of an Apple product without dominion over the entire platform.  This product oversight has, in fact, made the iPhone the phenomenon and market leader that it is.

    Having a fundamental problem with being Steve Jobs’ stooge (I’ll show him), though, I jumped all over the Droid the day it was released and have been an active user – my iPhone remains dormant on my desk – for the last 10 days.  Does it blow away the iPhone . . . not yet.  But it’s a pretty damned good smartphone and it has tremendous potential.  Here’s the summary.

    The first thing you notice when you hold the phone is its weight.  It’s heavier than the iPhone.  It’s also thicker, although not by a lot.  In my experience, these are not noticed when in my pocket, although I thought they would be.  Not that the perception of built quality is at issue with the iPhone, but the Droid feels like it’s built like a tank.  Width and height are about the same as the iPhone.  The Droid wows even non-technical users when they slide out the keyboard.  Motorola did a great job fitting a sliding keyboard into such a small device.  Nice engineering.

    Pros:

    • Speed – I don’t spend much time waiting for responses, even when I’ve got a load of apps running
    • Multitasking – Ahhhh, I had blocked out how much I missed having it.  You may not think you want it, but the next time you cut and paste between apps and the iPhone makes you completely restart the target app, losing your original state, you’ll know you want it.
    • Google Voice – Banned on the iPhone, it’s become the cornerstone for my SMS and phone messaging.  If I could just port another number to it, it would take over for all my phones.  Except my iPhone, of course, because it’s banned.
    • Integration with Gmail/Contacts/Calendar – Seamless.  I put in my Google account information before I left the store and I was completely synced up by the time I had walked a couple of blocks.
    • ActiveSync – Don’t use Gmail?  That’s cool.  The mail app covers any POP or IMAP server.  It also has an easy to use ActiveSync client for Exchange Server integration built in.
    • Free Turn-by-Turn Directions – What can I say?  Works great and it’s free.  Sorry Garmin and Tom Tom.
    • Virtual On-Screen Keyboard AND Physical Keyboard – While I’m still trying to get used to the physical keyboard (it’s far from perfect), it’s there as an option (with much easier navigation within text).  The virtual keyboard works like the iPhone’s (see this in cons as well), although I like the word selection options and spell check much better than the iPhone’s.
    • Fixed Buttons – Instead of chewing up screen space with functions common to all apps, the phone has four fixed touch-sensitive buttons to do things you often need to do – back, home, search and options.  I’m strangely finding it difficult to convert from the way the iPhone does it, but it makes loads of sense.  I’m sure that once I get used to it, it’ll be second nature and more practical.  The back button really takes you back, even to previous applications (which are still running, of course).  Nice.
    • Interchangeable Battery/Memory and Standard (Micro USB) Connector – As God intended them to be.
    • Verizon – AT&T isn’t all bad.  It’s just mostly bad.  While I’ve had problems with their customer service, I’ve never had any disaster stories like others have had.  The thing that makes me like Verizon better is that it’s simply available in more places.  And, I don’t mean only 3G (“we have a map for that”), I mean voice, 2G, etc.  I can get a signal of some kind in way more places with Verizon than with AT&T.

    Cons:

    • Weight and Thickness – See above.  Minor issue IMO, but it might be a bigger deal for you.
    • Physical Keyboard – Not quite enough tactile feedback to distinguish between keys and to tell if you’ve pressed a key.  Some of this is just getting used to it, I’m sure, but I’m relying more on the on-screen keyboard to enter most text.
    • Battery Life – This one could be big.  Several nights I’ve had the phone run short of power fairly early.  Some of this is because I’m tinkering with it often and some is because I have a load of background apps running trying things out.  There is a nice app that tells the user how much power each piece of hardware and each application is consuming.  It tells me that the display and phone app are usually the biggest culprits.  I’ve turned down the brightness of the display.  We’ll see how it works out. 
    • Rendering of HTML Email is Screwy – Several messages in the Gmail app don’t render correctly with some text extending beyond the right side of the display.  This seems to only happen in portrait mode and is not a problem in landscape mode.  Feels like a bug.
    • No MultiTouch – I don’t use it much on the iPhone, so I don’t really miss it.  You can still zoom in the browser by double-tapping a column or using the zoom buttons.
    • It’s Not Very Pretty – Both hardware and apps are less pretty than their iPhone comparables.  The messaging app is utilitarian and works fine, but I miss the little voice bubbles.  Hardly a deal breaker.
    • Must Tap on a Field Use the Keyboard – This one’s taking me a while to get used to.  To enter text, even if the text entry box is highlighted on the screen and should be the default, you have to tap on the entry box to display the on-screen keyboard or to use the physical keyboard.  If it’s the default, just let me go right to the keyboard without making me take another action.  The iPhone does this well.
    • On-Screen Keyboard Could be Better – For some reason, the Android folks decided to leave a gap between each of the characters in the virtual keyboard.  This makes the keys smaller than they need to be.  If they filled in the gaps by making each key larger, it would be easier to type on.
    • Email Address Suggestions are in too Large a Font – Sounds like a nit, but it’s a real problem.  Looks like the font that’s chosen to display email address suggestions (from your contacts) is sized to be appropriate for the display when in landscape mode.  It’s too big when in portrait mode and you can’t see all the address – a real problem when the person you’re looking for has several similar addresses.
    • Android’s App Market Doesn’t Hold a Candle to the iPhone App Store – For me, almost everything I care about on my phone is already available.  A decent newsreader (NewsRob), a good Twitter client (Twidroid), Evernote (beta), OpenTable, Shazam, FaceBook, SportsTap, WeatherBug, etc.  That said, there are many missing “apps-for-that (are you listening, Yelp?).”  It seems like there are a lot of people working on porting their apps to Android, though, and I’m hopeful the decent ones will be available soon.

    I’m concerned about the power consumption and I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the physical keyboard.  Since the virtual keyboard works pretty well, this second issue really amounts to not wanting to carry around the extra size and weight of a physical keyboard that I don’t use.  Most of the rest of the issues are just software and I suspect that they’ll be addressed to some extent relatively soon.

    Bottom line is that there is a lot to like about this phone, but it’s not a slam-dunk upgrade from an iPhone yet.  I’m pretty sure I’m going to keep the phone, but I fully believe that there will be a boatload of new Android 2 based phones flowing from manufacturers in the coming months.  Unlike Apple, with only a single hardware platform, there will be many manufactures creating new phones and actively competing in the space – all enabled by Android (and Google, of course).  This ecosystem is going to move fast and issues will be addressed quickly as companies close holes to create differentiation. 

    Apple’s Berlin Wall-like, communistic approach to the product line isn’t likely to fall any time soon or ever, in fact, but for those looking for more features, flexibility and options, Android’s capitalism is here to stay.  I’m looking forward to it.

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     November 16th, 2009  
     Will  
     Gadgets  
       
     23 Comments
    24
    Aug

    Using RunKeeper for Cycling

    Early this summer, I promised Jason Jacobs, the founder of FitnessKeeper (the creators of RunKeeper), that I would try RunKeeper for cycling.  Well, it’s been a crazy summer and I just got around to it (sorry, Jason).  When we spoke, Jason told me that the company’s focus today is on running, although they plan to add more cycling features in the future.  For now, you can setup RunKeeper for cycling, but it lacks several features available in other cycling computers, namely, cadence, heart rate and power (the first two are widely available, power is more rare).  The lack of these features make RunKeeper less than ideal for cycling right now.

    RunKeeper and Garmin 705 That said, the display is big and clear with useful speed, timing and map information.  I rode with my iPhone mounted next to my Garmin Edge 705, which I’ve tested against other cycle-computers and have found it to be very accurate.  The speeds shown by RunKeeper were generally close to the Garmin, but were sometimes a bit higher and sometimes a bit lower.  I would assume that’s an iPhone 3G issue.  The average speed for my 30mi ride was slightly below the Garmin’s reported speed, but pretty close.  Total distances were virtually identical.

    I liked how RunKeeper presented the data.  Very easy to read in sunlight.  In fact, I found I was looking at the RunKeeper display more often than the Garmin’s display.  That might have something to do with the screen’s size, but it seems like the gang at FitnessKeeper has put a lot of thought into how one reads data quickly while exercising.  There was no comparison when it came to reading a map.  RunKeeper was waaaay better.  Of course, RunKeeper is online and uses Google  maps, the Garmin is not connected and has all its map info on board.  The Garmin map data is also displayed on a much smaller screen.

    Even better than the application itself, the RunKeeper website (which gets its data via automatic upload from the phone – cool) is really nice.  Much nicer than Garmin Connect, Garmin’s attempt at cataloguing similar data.

    RunKeeper

    Mounting an expensive phone on the handlebars of a bike that vibrates on crappy roads scares people, including me.  I used the RAM Mounts RAP-274-1-AP6U to hold the phone.  The mount is very stable, holds the iPhone like superglue and is cheap (I think I paid about $15 on eBay).  On the downside, it comes with no instructions and it’s pretty bulky.  See pictures.  It wasn’t exactly rocket science to install.

    RAM iPhone Mount  RAM IPhone Mount

    I know that runners have been downloading the app like hotcakes.  It really is very nicely done.  For cycling, it still needs some work and some help from extra hardware for cadence, heart rate and even power data inclusion.  I don’t know if Apple has opened up the phone enough for this type of hardware to be added (a little ANT+ Sport dongle anyone?).  I’m looking forward to a real cycling version.  It sure would be nice to have ride data, phone and music all in one device.

     August 24th, 2009  
     Will  
     Cycling, Gadgets  
       
     10 Comments
    16
    Feb

    Gadget Review: VuDu Box

    vudu I have been intrigued by VuDu for a while now and succumbed to my curiosity, picking up a VuDu Box a few weeks ago.  For those unfamiliar, VuDu streams movies (and a few other online video services) over the net and into your home.  Unlike some, VuDu doesn’t require a computer in the loop and hooks up to your existing home theater equipment very easily.  What makes VuDu a bit different is it’s massive title list, including virtually every new title as soon as it’s available on DVD and, more importantly, its streaming of “HDX” content – your favorite videos in 1080p (yes, that’s a “p”) at 24 frames/second.  There are no monthly fees and the price per movie is totally reasonable.

    The company and the product do an amazing number of things right and only a couple wrong, as far as I can see.  Since the plusses far outnumber the minuses, I’ll start there.  First, the box is very small and very sleek.  Mine sits on top of some other stuff in a rack in a closet, but the unit would fit nicely into anyone’s exposed media equipment stack.  Second, VuDu has just about the coolest remote I’ve ever seen.  It’s tiny, with a scroll wheel and a few buttons.  It isn’t backlit, but there are so few buttons, it’s hard to get lost.  At first, I thought that there was no way the remote could easily handle all its chores, but in combination with the great user interface, it works like a champ.

    The box has a 250GB disk in it and downloads movies to be watched or while you’re watching.  SD and HD movies are playable immediately, but HDX movies – obviously much larger – need to be queued up a couple of hours before being viewed.  VuDu has an iPhone app, so if you leave the house and forget to queue something up for viewing later, you can do so remotely.  Movies are rented, for the most part, and need to be completed within 24 hours of starting them.  Some movies are also available for purchase.  Keep in mind, though, they are permanently bound to the VuDu Box.

    So now, the downside.  While the box has the standard output ports – composite, component and HDMI, what comes out of them is limited.  My projector, about two years old, only takes component connections.  Contrary to what many think, component can handle 1080p content without breaking a sweat.  Yet, the VuDu doesn’t pump 1080p content out of it’s component ports.  1080p is only available via HDMI.  If your television doesn’t have HDMI, or its HDMI ports are used up, you may have a problem (there are HDMI switchers if you have at least one HDMI port).  Apparently, the VuDu Box’ big brother, the VuDu XL does, in fact, push 1080p out its component connectors.

    When I ran into this problem during installation, I immediately considered returning the box.  After watching several movies in lower def, though, I’m impressed with the quality.  Even in SD, the picture looks as good as any HD television broadcast.  It appears that the box is doing an upscaling of the 480p content to at least 1080i.  There are no strange artifacts, though, and each pixel looks unique.  It’s certainly not like Blu-ray, but it’s damned good.

    The VuDu Box is now available for $150.  When I bought mine, several retailers had them for sale for $300, including a $200 movie rental credit.  Even in a world where the number of home video portals is expanding faster than Jessica Simpson’s gut, I think the VuDu represents a huge, high-quality value.

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     February 16th, 2009  
     Will  
     Gadgets  
       
     9 Comments
    27
    Oct

    Bought an iPhone. I hate Myself.

    I hate myself for loving you,
    Can’t break free from the things that you do.
    I wanna walk but I run back to you
    That’s why I hate myself for lovin’ you.”

    – from the song, “I Hate Myself for Loving You” by Joan Jett

    After my good friend and fellow iPhone detractor/commiserator, Shawn, caved in a bought an iPhone a couple of weeks ago I felt alone in the world – the last iPhone holdout and bastion of defense for all those trying to avoid the Apple consumer electronics vortex.

    But alas, late last week I succumbed to His Steveness of the mighty land of Cupertino and handed over my self respect and a wad of cash to acquire an iPhone 3G (black, 16GB).  I love it and I hate it all at the same time.

    I hate it because . . .

    • First and foremost, it’s a totally closed environment – both hardware and software.  You can’t change the battery or add memory.  You can add any program you want to it, as long as Apple approves of it and the developer gives a piece of the action to Apple.  Oh yeah, it can’t compete with anything Apple provides and you have to download it through their exclusive portal (iTunes).  Hey Steve, you might think of seeking some help for this control obsession.
    • It only has partial Exchange support.  In a typical Apple too-weird-to-be-true fashion, the company decided, after paying Microsoft for an ActiveSync license, to only support some Exchange functionality.  Not only are Tasks and Notes completely ignored, but basic functionality like message status (sent/reply/forward) is never set on the server and categories are totally absent.  See The iPhone Exchange Issues List for more.
    • The iPhone assumes that’s it always connected to the internet and, as such, acts alone and abandoned when a signal can’t be found.  Some apps just wait around forever, calling home in their best E.T. fashion, some crash, and others just don’t work as expected.  Why, for example, can’t I read my email when I’m not tethered to the ether?  Because the mail app only downloads a few lines of a pushed message.  You don’t get the rest of the message until you select the header and you only get that if you have a current connection.  Doesn’t anyone at Apple fly on planes?  They’re really not a bad place to read email.
    • The phone’s OS can deal with precisely one task at a time.  At least from an application level.  Want to download email and check stock prices simultaneously?  Buy two iPhones.  3G is nice, but even when you can get a 3G signal, it’s not instantaneous.  Viewing a complex web page can take time.  Why can’t I go do something else while it loads?
    • It lacks some little stuff that other mobile phones have been doing for a while.  There’s no cut/copy and paste, no landscape email, and no Flash.
    • The virtual/on screen keyboard (or whatever Apple calls it) is only redeemed by the truly amazing dictionary function that corrects the word you are typing while you type it.  Otherwise, recipients of my email would think my messages are from “qo;k” instead of “Will.”  A physical keyboard is way better.
    • Did I mention it’s completely closed?

    So, if you made it through all my whining, you’re asking yourself what could have possibly redeemed the iPhone enough to make me purchase it.  In the end, it’s mostly the lack of competition and my crack addiction-like need for new gadgets.  If there were a Windows Mobile phone (a Mobile OS that has been around for a while and has none of the flaws above) that had a big screen, a touch UI that worked with adult fingers and a great or rapidly growing infrastructure like Apple’s App Store, I would never have even considered the iPhone.  Similarly, if RIM (who knows business phones better?), which is aggressively pushing into this segment with the Blackberry Storm, the Blackberry Bold and their own app store were to finally deliver the devices and clean up more of their UI act, I would happily go that direction.

    In the mean time, the popularity of the device and the cool apps being added on a minute-by-minute basis (many of them exclusive to the iPhone) make it marginally functional as a business phone and exceedingly interesting as a toy.  I’ll be thrilled when someone steps up and unseats the current king from its thrown.  Android/Google, Microsoft, RIM are you listening?

    . . . I will not become an Apple or iPhone fanboy . . .

    . . . I will not become an Apple or iPhone fanboy . . .

    . . . I will not become an Apple or iPhone fanboy . . .

    . . . I will not become an Apple or iPhone fanboy . . .

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     October 27th, 2008  
     Will  
     Gadgets  
       
     24 Comments