The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for the 'Portable Computing/Gadgets' Category

Inexpensive/Disposable Video Cameras

Posted by Deliverator on 16th March 2011

Five and a half years ago I started fooling around with “disposable” video cameras being sold through the CVS pharmacy chain. These video cameras were meant to be one time use equivalents of the cardboard box disposable still cameras still sold at many stores throughout the world. The idea was you would pay around $30 for the camera, go out and take some footage and then bring the camera back and they would give you a DVD with your video on it, but keep the camera. The pharmacy would then wipe your unit and sell it again to someone else. The CVS cameras were small, built robustly and powered by simple AA’s and inexpensive. Naturally, the hacker community went to work on the cameras and quickly figured out how to download the video without the pharmacy’s help, making them reusable. These were great cameras for use in places you wouldn’t want to risk a “real” camera. People attached them to model rockets, helicopters, planes, placed them next to hot things, explody things, etc. They were cheap enough that you wouldn’t think twice about risking the camera on the off chance of capturing some cool footage. Naturally, I bought half a dozen.

Over the years, I’ve attached them to robots, glued fisheye lenses on them, put them in zip-lock bags and used them underwater. I’ve captured some real fun footage because I was no longer risk adverse about risking the camera. In the process I’ve destroyed two cameras outright, permanently modified two for niche uses and one is good for only spare parts. Only two escaped my abuse entirely unscathed. Today, I threw them all away.

Why?

Quite simply, the magic economic equations surrounding gadgets + mass market demand + capitalism + time has rendered the old CVS cameras obsolete. For under $50 I can now buy a camera from Kodak that is quite a bit smaller, holds more video and at higher quality than the CVS cameras, and is mildly hardened for rugged and underwater use. If you shop around, you can get this camera for more like $40 at stores like Best Buy, but I just got mine at Amazon. There are similar form factor cameras from other makers, but most are significantly more expensive HD capable units that are designed more for people wanting a cheap, small, everyday camcorder or for technophobic people looking for a very easy to operate video camera. These units (Flip for example) tend to be more like $100.

Tomorrow, I am going to strap one onto a robot and watch things go crunch. If the camera survives, great! If it doesn’t, the camera’s Micro-SDHC card is small enough that I can find it intact in the twisted, shattered remains and I probably got some great footage for $50. Photography and videography is at its most interesting when people are willing to push boundaries and experiment. The technology has finally gotten cheap enough that “that would be really cool but I don’t want to break this expensive piece of equipment” is no longer part of the equation.

Some thoughts on the Kodak Mini Video Camera:

-Captures at 640×480 at 30 fps as an AVI file using an MJPEG video codec and 16 bit PCM audio at 11khz. At this setting you can fit about an hour’s video on the included 2 GB Micro-SDHC card. You can also do QVGA at 60hz and take stills as well. There doesn’t appear to be any image stabilization, but what can you (currently) expect from a camera that is under $50. Give it a few years though…

-The camera has a built in rechargeable battery. The unit has a pop out full sized type A USB connector that pops out of the side for charging. You will need to use a USB extension cable (not included) to plug it into a PC to charge. My unit did not show up as a USB mass storage device when I plugged it into a computer running the 64 bit version of Windows 7. Other users report it coming up as a drive letter and forcibly installing (without prompting) some piece of software called Arcsoft Mediaimpression SE which also seizes control of most video/photo file extensions. I was glad this was not the case with my unit.

-Because my unit doesn’t show up as a USB mass storage device, I had to pop the Micro-SDHC card out of the bottom of the unit. I had to use itty-bitty tweezers (thanks Tweezerman!) to grab onto the card as there is no ejection mechanism for the card. A 2 GB card was included with mine, but this camera is sometimes sold without a card.

-The camera is exceedingly easy to use, with just an on/off button, 4 way arrow buttons and center selector and a “settings menu” button. The simple control scheme should make this a good camera for micro-controller driven operation, if someone wants to strip it down to just the circuit board for use on a rocket, kite, balloon or something.

-The whole unit is smaller than a pack of cards.

-I am not sure if I would entirely trust the built in waterproofing on the camera. The only point of entry for water is through the base, which hinges open to reveal the USB connector and card slot and potentially around the membrane rubber buttons. The base does have some rubbery gasket material to seal against water, but it is pretty minimal. I would recommend coating the area with a thick grease/vaseline, etc. before submersion in water beyond a few feet.

 

Posted in Photography, Portable Computing/Gadgets | 1 Comment »

Belated thoughts on the Nokia N900

Posted by Deliverator on 9th April 2010

I’ve been using a Nokia N900 as my cell for about 4 months now. I usually write about new gadgets in my collection much sooner than this, but with the N900 I wanted to take some more time for emotion to dampen down and to see how the platform matures before giving my take. Here are some thoughts:

Hardware

-The n900 is a big beautiful brick of a device. It feels very solid and well engineered cradled in your hands. I don’t worry much about accidental damage when I purchase a Nokia device, which is a big consideration for me, as I am a bit of a clutz.

-The screen is bright, beautiful, and daylight viewable. The resolution on the Iphone and similar smartphones is a joke compared to the screen on the n900. I wish Nokia had stayed somewhere in the 4.1 inch range or even gone a little larger, rather than shrinking the screen to 3.5″, which is a bit squint inducing to my eyes these days. The screen surface is a bit softer than those of the previous Nokia tablets, enough that I felt the need to purchase a screen protector. The screen also gathers fingerprints to such an extent that I was whipping it off multiple times a day with a microfiber cloth.

-The resistive digitizer is ultra-precise and has never needed any sort of calibrations. I’ve never had a problem with a touchscreen on a Nokia device. I’ve never found multi-touch to be much more than a gimmick in terms of usability and don’t like the other trade-offs from using a capacitive touchscreen. I really prefer using a stylus, or the edge of a fingernail in most situations due to better precision and not adding fingerprints to the screen.

-I don’t like the positioning of the slide-to-unlock switch or stylus silo. The n900 is really designed to be a two handed, horizontal orientation device and the positioning of these two components is less than optimal. Having the stylus in the lower right also forces you to pickup the phone to draw the stylus when you have it propped on its stand on a desk.

-The headphone and charging ports are located on opposite ends of the device, which makes the N900 awkward to use in a lot of circumstances while charging.

-The charging port is a Micro-USB port, rather than the standard round Nokia connector found on pretty much every other Nokia phone and all previous Nokia Internet Tablets. This forces people to buy new accessories, which is a small but non negligible issue. The bigger problem is that Nokia chose to use a surface mount micro-usb connector with no mechanical stabilization other than a few solder pads and wishful thinking, rather than a proper through hole connector. A large number of users have managed to pull this connector right out when detaching the charging cable, or place enough strain on the connector to stress the solder joints, resulting in intermittent or total loss of charging ability. Nokia’s response to user with this issue has been less than forthright or consistent. This is a design and manufacturing error, period, and is not a result of improper treatment by users. Users who experience this issue either in or out of warranty should receive a priority replacement of their device and not be forced to wait 6-8 weeks. I am absolutely dreading that this will happen to my N900 at some point. I am being extremely careful when attaching and detaching my charger and have taken the additional step of filing down two overly large metal nubs on the tip of the Nokia supplied charger, which are designed to prevent the charger from slipping out accidentally, which exacerbates the issue by requiring much greater force to be used to detach the charging cable. Most other Micro-USB cables I have also have these two nubs, but they are much less prominent than on the Nokia official charger. Just to be safe, I filed the nubs on all my cables down to almost nothing.

-The kickstand integrated into the N900’s battery cover plate is a bad joke, especially when compared to the excellent, full device width, adjustable stands built into the N800 and N810. The N900’s stand only has one viewing angle, and it is one which is suboptimal in almost any use case for the device. It is located so far to the extreme left of the device that virtually any pressure on the screen causes he device to wobble or fall over. This is a major step back in design for Nokia. It would have been better to leave it out entirely, rather than leave it there for everyone to comment on in virtually every review I’ve seen. A laser cut stand designed by a member of the Internet Tablet Talk community has proven to be a hot seller.

-The bezel around the otherwise excellent 5mp camera is chrome and allows light to reflect into the camera, especially when using the flash. This causes many pictures to have a nasty haze to them. There is also a piece of blue plastic that is too close causing many pictures to have a bluish tinge. This issue can largely be fixed with a sharpie marker, but I am surprised it slipped through QA. A cell phone accessory manufacturer could make a lot of money selling replacement backs for the N900 which fixes this issue and includes a better stand.

-The battery life is pretty abysmal. I find myself hard pressed to get through a full day without throwing the N900 back on the charger for an hour. For the first time in my life, I’ve purchased a car charger for a phone. I also bought a portable external battery from iGO for those times when I just know I won’t be able to plug in during the day. The included battery should really have been about 50% higher capacity, even at the cost of additional size/thickness to the device. Mugin, a 3rd party battery manufacturer, appears to be making an extended capacity battery along with a replacement backplate, but the backplate appears to be extremely basic and doesn’t appear to have a stand.

-In general, I LOVE the guts of the N900. The processor is an extremely zippy OMAP which provides enough ooomph for substantive applications to actually feel fluid. 256 MB of ram and a large pagefile make for useful multitasking. I often times have 6+ applications running simultaneously on my N900. 32 GB of flash gives plenty of space for my media files, and there is also a Micro-SD card slot for expansion. The n900 has a 3d accelerator powerful enough to play Quake 3. There is both an FM radio receiver and transmitter. The GPS unit is much better than on any previous Nokia device Ive used and gets a lock quickly and maintains a lock in more challenging locations than the one in the N810 or N95. It isn’t as good or as accurate as the MTK chipset Bluetooth GPS I got to use with my N800 and N810, but it is good enough that I haven’t felt compelled to carry the Bluetooth GPS, either. The N900 also has TV-out, Wifi, Bluetooth, etc….

Software

-The N900 UI is quite fluid and easy to navigate. I like the concept of multiple virtual desktops on which you can organize your various widgets, application shortcuts, etc. I generally keep my most often accessed program shortcuts on one screen, keep all my phone and communications related widgets and shortcuts on another and keep a screen-full of iconized website bookmarks on a third.

-I LOVE the multitasking experience on the N900. I often times have a half dozen or more applications running on the N900 simultaneously and rarely experience anything like a slowdown. This undoubtedly is part of the reason for my dreadful battery life, but I ultimately have the choice of how I want to use my device.

-The Nokia Internet Tablets have always offered what I consider the best pocket-able Internet experience out there and the N900 is no exception. The browser is as close to a desktop level browsing experience as I have found in a device this size. Broadly speaking, all those rich Web 2.0 sites just work. The n900 is also one of the few phones with real Adobe Flash support. Go ahead, use Youtube. For all you social networking types, the multitasking abilities of the N900 let you stay constantly connected to Twitter, Facebook, IM, RSS feeds, etc. all the time without needing to manually switch back and forth between apps as with some of the single tasking or pseudo multi-tasking alternatives out there. The N900 is also the first cell phone to receive a officially sanctioned/produced mobile version of the Firefox browser, complete with plugin support (Weave Sync, Adblock Plus, etc.).

-The Maemo 5 OS powering the n900 offers very close to the full Linux desktop stack of libraries and frameworks, making it very easy for Linux developers to write and port existing apps to the platform. Additionally, because ARM is already a target platform for Debian (the flavor of Linux from which Maemo shares its roots), a lot of existing Debian tools and apps work essentially out of the box. There is a project called Easy-Debian to make installing a full Debian environment alongside Maemo even easier.

-I really like the combined approach of having a commercial app store (Ovi Store) alongside the traditional Linux application repository approach. Nokia has also developed a multiple repository approach by which users can choose from application sources based on how much testing they have gone through. There is no need to “jailbreak” an N900. You can install and run anything you like. On the flip side, as a developer, you can write anything you like and not have to worry about having your application being rejected by the boys in Cupertino for some unclear, unstated reason. Maemo is quite simply by FAR the most open phone platform for phones as of this post.

-The commercial application market for the N900 is still quite new, but community developed applications have filled most of my mobile app needs at this point. Here are a list of just a few of the apps I routinely use on my N900:

Firefox – Firefox on the N900 is still a bit slower browsing option than the default Microb browser, but on the other hand it supports tabbed browsing and a decent subset of the full desktop version of Firefox’s plugins. I love using the Weave plugin to sync my bookmarks, passwords, etc between my desktop and N900. I also highly enjoy not having to look at ads on a mobile device thanks to Adblock+…

VNC, SSH & Remote Desktop – I frequently use these to check in on servers I administer while out and about. This can be a real lifesaver when you need to fight a fire at an awkward moment.

Pidgin – I use this for my mobile IM needs, although there are now plugins for the built in conversations application that probably make this unnecessary.

Witter – This is an excellent twitter application that is actually better than most desktop twitter clients I have used.

Gpodder – Nice podcasting client

Xchat – Cause all the people / Turing AI’s worth talking to still hang out on IRC.

FM radio app – Lets you use the built in FM radio tuner.

Canola – This was probably the best overall media player for previous Maemo devices. It works on the N900 as well, but there are some significant bugs/gotchas that the authors have been slow to fix.

Maemo Mapper – This is an excellent mapping/gps application that can use a variety of map sources. Was one of the killer apps on the previous Maemo devices. The n900 version was a bit slow out the door, but seems to be in rapid development now.

FBReader – Excellent ebook reading software which supports a wide variety of file formats and is highly configurable

Wizard Mounter – Lets me mount windows file shares on the N900. I transfer most of my media wirelessly this way.

Battery-eye – Lets you see a detailed view of battery status / discharges rates and helps you figure out if a particular application is draining battery at a abnormal/unacceptable rate perhaps due to a bug.

DialCentral – DialCentral is a client for managing and making phonecalls through Google Voice.

Skype and Sip VOIP support – I can’t think of another phone that gives you as  many options for making low cost VOIP calls out of the box and in such a highly integrated way. Making a VOIP call is just as easy as any other phone call on the N900.

Posted in General, Linux, Operating Systems, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Changes Apple needs to make to the Ipad if they want my $500+

Posted by Deliverator on 7th April 2010

Much has been written about the Apple Ipad and its pros and cons. I got a chance to play with one for a while today and I found it quite compelling in a lot of ways. I believe it to be  an early representative of a fundamentally new class of computing devices. I also don’t think that the present device does enough or enough better to justify purchasing one for the vast majority of current computer users. That said, I am sure Apple will sell a ton of them. Here is what they would need to do to sell one to ME:

-For me, the Ipad at present is an extremely niche product. This isn’t a bad thing. I own a LOT of niche products and tend to use the device that is most appropriate to the task WHILE AT HOME. Out and about, I am limited in what I can or am willing to carry and I can’t see myself lugging this along when I have other devices like my Lenovo X300 which are more broadly suited to a wide range of purposes. At home, I can see myself using this as a media consumption “appliance” to read books, listen to music, etc. while chilling out on the couch in front of my projector. As a “couch computer,” one of the blatantly obvious uses for an Ipad would be as the ultimate universal remote control, yet the Ipad lacks the inexpensive infrared hardware necessary for such functionality.

-One of the most compelling uses that my dad and I both agreed upon was viewing photos. The Ipad, due to its beautiful, bright, wide angle screen and extremely fluid photo browser, makes the best digital photo frame ever. Unfortunately, the Ipad doesn’t have any kind of media slot and one has to transfer pictures to the device through Itunes. An SD slot is an absolute no-brainer in a device like this, but Apple probably wants to bilk people out of $200 extra for the 64 GB version rather than give consumers an inexpensive option for expansion. They do sell a “camera connection kit” but I sure as hell don’t need another external, easily lost dongle.

-Include a good quality 1-2 MP webcam for video calling use and Apple would not only get my dollars, but a huge potential market of people looking for something they could give to the elderly as a “grandma safe” limited use computer.

-I insist on user replaceable batteries in all my products. My experience with virtually all rechargeable batteries on devices I frequently use is that the batteries all exhibit severely diminished capacity within a few years. I view the Ipad as a computing “appliance” and when I buy an appliance I am willing to pay for quality, but it has to last more than just a couple of years. I would only be willing to plunk down $500 for a device like an Ipad if I could reasonably expect ~5 years of use from it.

-USB port for connection to external peripherals & HDMI for video/audio out. The proprietary dock connector is not an acceptable alternative to me.

-Good quality GPS chip.

-Multitasking. The technical arguments against multitasking on a device like this fall flat and the user experience arguments are intellectually dishonest in the extreme.

-Something closer to a real file-system and more options for getting files/content onto and off the device.

-An end to the walled garden mentality that is the Itunes/App store ecosystem. I am capable of chewing gum and walking at the same time and am an adult capable of making my own decisions on what constitutes appropriate content. I don’t like the degree of central control that Apple exerts over what you can do with a device that you have after all purchased and own. Ownership is a term that has pretty broad meaning to me. I believe that Apple is acting in an extremely anti-competitive fashion in their control of the app store approval processes and there are a great many Apple products that I would have bought if Apple didn’t constantly try to manage every aspect of my device usage / user experience. I just can’t stand  paying to be a captive consumer and so I don’t.

Do I think Apple will address many of these issues and gain my $500? No, not really, but someone is likely to build a tablet running Google Android that offers almost as good as a user experience as the Ipad, with a lot more versatility and at a fraction of the price. I wouldn’t count Microsoft out either. They have a long history with tablet style computers and with the forthcoming release of Windows Phone 7 have shown a willingness to dump the tired Windows WIMP user interface metaphor for something more appropriate to the way people would ideally interact with a tablet.

Posted in Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves | No Comments »

A brief rant about ebook readers

Posted by Deliverator on 24th March 2010

I’ve been reading books electronically in one form or another since 1996 (on a USR Pilot 5000). Since then, I’ve owned ~8 devices on which I regularly read ebooks. Several of those devices have been dedicated, purpose built devices, ostensibly for reading ebooks and little else.

I currently do most of my electronic reading on a Sony PRS-505 with a Sony front light wedge/leather case accessory. I’ve been enacting a boycott on purchasing Sony products since the Sony Rootkit Debacle, but received the reader as a gift. Since receiving the Sony reader, Sony has released 3-4 new readers.

This year, it seems like hardly a day has passed when the tech news sites haven’t covered the release of a new reader product from some company or another. In some cases, this latest batch of e-ink readers represent 3rd, 4th or even 5th generation products. One would expect a pretty fine degree of design refinement from a 5th generation product, especially one devoted to such a singular task. Yet, virtually all the readers, announced or on the market today, fail to address 3 fundamental user experience issues. I seldom see these issues brought up to any great degree in product reviews, either. Yet, for me, these issues are key to enjoying an electronic reading experience:

  1. An ebook reader should be comfortable to hold in one’s hand (notice the singular there) for an extended period of time and without risk of slipping or dropping the device due to positional fatigue, accidental jarring, etc. Virtually all the readers on the market are thin, rectangular shaped devices and are often made of slick plastic or metal that provides for an actively slippery surface when combined with sweaty palms. Additionally, the above should apply in both horizontal and vertical orientations for both right and left handed individuals.
  2. Regardless of screen orientation, the next page/previous page buttons should lie under one’s thumbs. Simple turning of the page is by far the most frequently accessed function on any ebook reader. It should just be there without need to reach or place the reader in a stressful/uncomfortable position. The next page button in particular should be over-sized. A D-pad is not an acceptable substitute.
  3. This last is going to be somewhat controversial. The vast majority of day to day recreational reading (novels and the like) is done in the evening and at night, often times in less than ideal lighting conditions, especially for those who share their beds with a partner. Ebook readers need to incorporate some form of front or back lighting into their designs or offer well integrated official lighting accessories. This is a somewhat unpalatable task with the current crop of E-ink displays, where adding front lighting generally consists of placing an edge lit piece of clear plastic in front of the display. Adding another layer in front of the display diminishes the clarity and contrast of the display. And the high contrast, paper-like nature of E-ink displays are a good part of the reason that ebook readers use this sort of display in the first place instead of LCD, OLED and other display technologies.

The only reader I’ve owned which has come close to satisfying these requirement was the Nuvomedia Rocket eBook.

Nuvomedia Rocket eBook

This was one of the first electronic book readers sold and yet in many fundamental ways it was more enjoyable to use than devices made over a decade later in a far more mature & technologically advanced marketplace. It had an ergonomic, curvy wedge shape that was easy to cradle in the palm of one’s hand. Later versions of the device included a rubberized backside to make it even easier to grasp. The page up/down buttons were over-sized and comfortable to actuate without moving one’s hands in the portrait orientation for both right and left handed users and weren’t too bad in the horizontal orientation, either. The screen resolution doesn’t really compare to modern readers, but it was a high contrast B&W LCD and had decent back-lighting for night reading. Astoundingly, 10+ years later, a variant of this original device is still being sold as the eBookwise 1150 for ~$100. My personal experience with the later revisions of the Rocket eBook (post Gemstart acquisition) is that they used much lower quality displays, but I would be interested in opinions from more recent users.

In conclusion, I would really like for Sony/Amazon/B&N or SOMEBODY to make a comfortable to use ebook reader.

Posted in Books, General, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves | No Comments »

Really Digging the Lenovo X300

Posted by Deliverator on 14th December 2009

I was at a Cameras West in Bellevue searching in vain for the cable accessory kit for a Canon D10 when I spotted a real steal of a deal sitting unnoticed on a high shelf behind the counter hiding amongst a crop of netbooks, a new in box Lenovo Thinkpad X300 for a mere $800. This laptop was selling for ~$3000 a year and a half ago. While this notebook has been replaced in the lineup by the moderately updated X301, the X300 is still one of the best constructed, no compromise ultra-portables around. The specs of my unit are as follows:

-Core 2 Duo L7100 at 1.2 GHZ
-2 GB DDR2-667
-60 GB 1.8″ Samsung SSD
-1440×900 13.3″ display
-DVD Burner
-Wifi, Bluetooth
-3x USB ports, VGA, Gig Ethernet
-3 cell battery

My unit came with XP Pro installed, which I promptly ditched for Windows 7 64bit. Lenovo has official drivers for Windows 7 on the X300 and their complete gamut of system utilities available for download from their website, but most of the hardware is supported out of the box or via a quick Windows Update, so most of the Lenovo downloads are unnecessary. I also upgraded the ram to 4 GB, which only required the addition of a single SO-DIMM. The two ram slots are behind a thoughtfully provided access door which makes upgrading a breeze. The two ram slots make it possible to upgrade to as much as 8 GB, although 4 GB modules are currently hideously expensive. Two of them will cost you about $370!

What I likes:
-Heavy duty Thinkpad “brick” construction, yet only 3 pounds. This includes things such as rigid internal metal frame, keyboard spill tray/drain holes, metal block hinges, latching screen, etc. This thing just oozes quality construction that few other laptop makers even come close to matching.
-The typically brilliant full sized Thinkpad keyboard we have all come to know and love.
-This thing has both a track stick and a trackpad. Some of Lenovo’s newer, cheaper ultraportables only have the trackstick.
-The Thinklight on the X300 does a much better job of illuminating the keyboard than the one found on my Thinkpad Z61m.
-Did I mention this thing is only three pounds?!?!
-The USB ports are separated from each other by enough space to plug in bulky adapters without blocking anything, something overlooked in a lot of laptop designs.
-The fingerprint reader does a much better and quicker job of reading my fingerprints and logging me in than the one on my Z61m
-The system feels very snappy in all the tasks I have thrown at it. I’ve read a few reviews that have balked at the mere 1.2 GHZ, but this 1.2 GHZ Core 2 feels a lot snappier than the 1.8 GHZ Core Duo in my Z61m. For the type of tasks I do on the run, the processing power in this machine more than satisfies me. I have my Core i7 desktop at home for games, etc…
-The SSD in this machine provides faster transfer rates and lower seek times than any conventional laptop HDD I’ve used. I will probably replace it with a Lenovo X18-m or similar TRIM supporting SSD once they get cheaper, which will make this system even snappier.
-From the ever so slightly rubberized feel of the casing to the silky feel of the keys, this machine just begs to be touched. Thinkpad’s black on black color scheme might get lost in all the flashy neon and metal trim you see on other laptops these days, but for me it is understate, classic minimalism at its best. This is one sexy beast imo.
-The relatively full complement of ports and optical drive mean this is one ultra-light you can actually do meaningful work on.
-The screen is pretty much the perfect resolution for the size and has a beautiful LED backlight. Way brighter and nicer looking the my Z61m.
-I can use it in my laptop and there are barely any warm, much less hot spots.
-The keyboard is absolutely rigid. I can type on it at speed with no slop whatsoever.

Not so much:
-The X300 doesn’t have the now standard x-in-1 media reader, which is disappointing as I intend to use this for culling photos on trips. It also doesn’t have an ExpressCard slot, so I can’t add a card reader or much of anything else by anything other than USB. I’m considering switching to micro-SDHC in my cameras and carrying one of those so-tiny-they-are-barely-there readers on my keychain, so that I don’t have one more easily lost adapter/cable/widget in my daily carry bag.
-The 3 cell battery that the unit came with only gives 2-3 hours of useful work. I will definitely be picking up the 6 cell battery and possibly the 3 cell bay battery which can be easily swapped with the DVD drive to give me a closer to a full workday’s use without needing to plug in. This is really a necessity for me as I am often times bouncing around town seeing clients with little to no opportunity to plug in for any length of time, save for the possibility of recharging in my car.

I really love the X300 and hope I get as many years of active use from it as from my Z61M, which is still chugging along in Thinkpad style despite all my abuse.

Addendum:

I have since picked up the 6 cell extended length battery and 3 cell “bay” battery which replaces the optical drive. In doing so, I encountered the first of what I consider real faults in the X300 design.

Swapping the optical drive for the bay battery is fairly easy, but not convenient in the field. Unlike the “Ultrabay” system found on most Thinkpads, swapping in/out the optical drive/battery requires the removal of a screw. The optical drive is itself quite fragile and really needs a hard shell case of its own if you plan on carrying it with you in a bag. I feel like a hard plastic carrying case to hold the battery/optical drive and tiny screwdriver should have been included in the price of the battery.

Additionally, the X300 drains power from the bay battery first instead of from the main battery. In my opinion, the bay battery should have been the “reserve” battery, as it is not hot swappable. If the drain order had been reverse, one could drain the main battery and still be able to swap in a charged one without needing to stop working, shut down the computer, swap the battery and reboot. If you are a long haul air traveler, you get the importance of this feature.

Posted in Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff, Windows | No Comments »

Nokia N900 – To Buy Or Not To Buy

Posted by Deliverator on 25th September 2009

Ive owned all three Nokia Internet Tablets (Nokia 770, N800 and N810) and all three have been part of my “everyday carry.” Each upgrade decision has not been easy for me. Some design changes between models were extremely offputting for me. For instance, I really liked the extremely tactile, discrete buttons on the 770, which made it easily the best ebook reader of the bunch and the metal screen cover which made me feel at ease when jamming it in a pocket full of keys, coins and god knows what else. Still, each new generation has, imo, at the time of its release, offered the best pocketable “full fledged” Internet experience of any device on the market.

As soon as this week, Nokia is releasing their new N900 device to the US market and I am finding myself more reluctant to buy than on any previous release. Here are some of the main reasons why:

Failure to create an attractive developer ecosystem

– The N900 will come in at more than $620 after taxes/shipping to my location in the US. There is no carrier subsidy option for US consumers. Making the device this expensive instantly relegates it to a niche, “premium user” market category, which instantly makes it less attractive to commercial application developers. Smartphones like the Iphone 3g and various Android handsets all have robust app marketplaces in part because they are getting the devices into the hands of users through lower price points and are making more of their profits on the back end. Even relative latecomers like the Palm Pre are seeing app marketplace growth. Pricing is key to attracting developers.

– Nokia has announced that future versions of the Maemo OS will be based around a different graphical framework than is currently used (QT vs GTK+) which, given previous release cycles, only gives commercial developers about a year’s time to profitably exploit the current platform. Nokia has not even committed to releasing future Maemo OS versions for the N900 and has a poor trackrecord of supporting previous NIT devices post sale. This provides a further disincentive to both the consumer to make an initial purchase and for developers to target the platform.

Too many conflicting design imperatives to make this either a good phone or a good internet tablet-

-Nokia has done away with the 4.1 inch 800*480 screens of the previous NITs and is trying to cram the same resolution into a screen which is only 3.5.” This resolution was already highly squint inducing on the previous devices. Although a device mounted stylus is thankfully included, almost all Maemo UI elements have been significantly enlarged to be more finger friendly. All this ultimately means less useful information displayed on screen and in an increasingly smaller space. At the same time, there are now a fair number of pocket-able, competing devices which carry 1024*600 resolution screens in a similar size to the original NITs.

-The D-Pad has been done away with entirely and the keyboard is now a three row variety placing many commonly used keys on second functions or pop up symbol menus. The spacebar is shrunken and extremely awkwardly placed to the far right of the keypad. There are many better keyboards available on competing devices.

-The innovative full width  integral kickstand of the N800 and N810 has been done away with and replaced by an off center one under the camera which likely won’t work at all on non-rigid surfaces and offers extremely poor viewing angle options for watching video (which seems to me one of the better selling points of the N900)

-Almost all the applications on the device can only be used in landscape mode, which pretty much necessitates two handed use for most common functions. This will make using the device as a phone extremely awkward imo.

-The browser only supports flash 9.4. While this is better than almost any other phone, it isn’t current. I have lost confidence in Nokia releasing significant updates to Maemo devices post sale, particularly when it comes to proprietary, licensed components. I don’t feel like when I purchase a Nokia devices I am going to get a meaningful, up to date, web experience for years to come.

-The N900 does not support MMS. The Iphone has been HEAVILY criticized for this and to not differentiate on this point is just stupid imo.

Misc Hardware Criticisms

– The N900 has only an internal micro-SDHC slot for expansion. While it has 32 GB of built in storage and it shows up as a USB mass storage device, I have found transfer rates via this mode to be soo slow that I’ve found it far more efficient to pop out the memory card and use a USB reader to transfer music, movies, etc. The N800 really had the ideal situation, with not one but TWO SDHC card slots. This made the N800 supremely useful as a portable device with which to work with photos from a REAL camera.

-The USB port on the N900 can be used for charging (yay!) but uses a crappy micro-usb connector. It sounds like the N900 has even less support for using the USB port in host-mode. Previous Nokia devices were fairly popular among the linux/custom hardware crowd due to it being one of the smallest Linux devices you could meaningfully hook up to a variety of USB devices.

I don’t mind the N900 being a phone. I would LOVE to move from my current N95+N810 two pocket solution to just one. I just think the N900 compromises too many of the Internet Tablet aspects of the equation in order to do so. I would like to see a device similar in size or even a little bigger than the current N810 with both phone and tablet functionality, a better range of tactile buttons, a full size hostmode USB port and an externally accessible “press to eject” SDHC card slot. From what I can see, moving in that direction would appeal to the vast majority of current NIT users (read purchasers) and I just don’t think the direction they are heading will create broad appeal in new market segments anyways.

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Extreme Disappointment Regarding Nokia N900

Posted by Deliverator on 26th May 2009

Let me state first off that I’ve owned and been an active, everyday user of all three of Nokia’s Maemo-based Internet Tablets (Nokia 770, N800 and N810). A couple days ago, Mobilecrunch.com released substantial amounts of leaked info on the next generation Nokia N900. The basic information provided has since been verified by sources associated with Nokia on the Internet Tablet Talk forums who have proven spot on accurate through several past product release cycles.

MobileCrunch wouldn’t release photos it had of the device due to apparent watermarking, but asserted the following image as an accurate representation of the device.


Is this the Nokia N900???

CELLPASSION on the other hand had no compunction about releasing a photo of what it claims is the N900. The photo is low resolution, but basically matches MobileCrunch’s depiction.

Is this the Nokia N900?

The biggest shocker about the N900 is that it will in fact be a phone. Previous internet tablets had bluetooth connectivity for data connectivity through a phone and several VOIP platforms were supported officially and through 3rd party installable software, but this will be the first Nokia Internet Tablet with direct cellular connectivity. The device supports quad band GSM and 3 band 3g data. T-mobile was mentioned as a release partner and it is quite possible that this device will be provider locked and possibly subsidized, at least initially. If this device is truly T-mobile only and not independently purchasable unsubsidized and unlocked I will be extremely disappointed. I’ve purchased several Nokia phones due to them being one of the few sellers of high quality unlocked, carrier scourge free GSM phones.

The good:

-OMAP3430 500/600 Mhz processor will be amongst the fastest on market. The Palm Pre is the only other phone I know of at the moment using this fast of a processor.
-5 megapixel camera with dual LED flash and sliding lens cover. Can capture high resolution video and save in h.264 format.
-built in GPS and accelerometer. The GPS built into the n810 and N95 were absolutely terrible, with extremely long lock times and poor reception. Hopefully Nokia has learned from this and included a decent chipset from MTK or Sirf and the GPS isn’t just thrown in to fulfill another marketing bullet point.
-32 GB of flash with room for even more expansion via micro-sdhc
-256 MB of ram (up from 128 MB in the N810) with ability to set up to a 768 MB page file (up from 256 MB on N810). I had hoped for a little more headroom, especially since a lot of the added frameworks in Maemo 5 are going to eat up some of this working memory.
-This will be the first Linux based phone from a major manufacturer with nearly the full compliment of Linux libraries and frameworks built in. Maemo is now on its 5th major revision and is a mature, stable platform. With a huge complement of open source apps available plus the newly announced Ovi app store, this could be the best (for the consumer) combination of both open and commercial application development. The closed “apple knows best” nature of the Iphone and the crappy hardware thus far released for the android platform have made both unattractive to me. Finally a decent alternative.

The bad:

-The n810 had a 4.1″ 800*480 screen which was already at the limits of my squint abilities. With the N900, Nokia is making the screen .6″ smaller while keeping the resolution the same. While this makes the device a little more pocketable, it make it much less useable.
-Nokia has done away with the 4 way D-Pad entirely, several other hard buttons and apparently the stylus as well (although the last is somewhat uncertain at this point). The Maemo 5 interface has gone off the deep end towards oversized buttons, fonts and other UI elements. It is obvious that they want you to use your big fat greesy fingers for everything. I absolutely hate this for a wide variety of reasons. The ability to interact with programs in a variety of ways was a big selling point of the Maemo UI and device controls in previous versions. From what I have seen of Maemo 5, I am VERY doubtful that Nokia is going to be able to implement as fluid a user experience as the iPhone with an exclusively finger oriented Maemo UI. Nokia is doing a really good job of eliminating their strong points and trying to fight the iPhone on its own turf.
-Nokia has replaced the 4 row keyboard of the N810 with an inferior 3 row one which places a lot of common characters on second functions. I am seeing MASSIVE numbers of negative comments on this one. WTF were they thinking?
-No mention of Bluetooth functionality at all. Previous Nokia tablets could tether with a phone for connectivity, use of Bluetooth keyboards, headsets, etc. Have they eliminated this functionality in their phone inclusive tablet because with Linux as the basis it would be too easy to write a bluetooth tethering application to share out the device’s data plan?
-The N900 is reported to be somewhere in the vicinity of 185 grams. This is substantially heavier than either the Palm Pre or Iphone 3g which weigh in at ~130 grams or even the G1 Android phone which weighs in at ~160g. For all that weight, extra radios and processing power, the N900 has a fairly low battery capacity of ~1300mah. The G1 garnered a LOT of complaints about its poor battery life and I can’t imagine a similar debacle would be good for Nokia’s reputation or the future of such a device.
-A lot of similarities between this device and the N97 which is being released in a couple of weeks in the US. Having two such similar devices is likely going to undercut the market for both.

I really want a Maemo Linux based phone to succeed in the market, but find a lot of the design decisions apparent in the N900 to be actively repulsive. I can’t see this device being nearly as useful to me throughout the day as my current two pocket solution. The compromises in overall functionality of the N900 vs a two pocket solution are just too much. I know without needing to even set my paws on the device that the smaller screen size, bad keyboard, button and UI decisions are just too much of a deal breaker for me. Even in this economy, I would have gladly up-ended my wallet for a straight forward refresh of the N810 with more ram, storage, faster processor and integrated (carrier agnostic) cellular functions, but as it is, I just can’t see this device as proposed fitting into how I want to live my life.

I went ahead and ordered a new Mugen extended life N810 battery. I’ll try and get a few more years of use out of my N810 and if Nokia hasn’t impressed me by then, I will probably move to something like the Viliv S5 for my mobile internet needs.

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Compelling Hardware, Crappy Service

Posted by Deliverator on 20th May 2009

After 2 years and a couple hundred accidental falls to the floor, my Nokia 95 is on its last legs. It has been remarkably resistant to my abuse, but a recent fall killed the volume buttons. This hasn’t been a huge issue, as I use OggPlay for music playback and it controls volume via the 4 way hat, and in most other applications and during phone calls I can adjust the volume with my Jabra BT3030 headset. Unfortunately, another fall also seems to have caused damage to the power receptacle and the phone frequently locks up when I insert the charging adapter. Yet another fall broke a locking tab off the battery door and now the door is prone to falling open and spilling the battery out. My extended length Mugen battery now has a tiny dent in its side. Given the tendency for Lithium-Ion batteries to explode when damaged and the totality of other issues, I think it is high time for a new phone.

Some thoughts on possible replacements:

Palm Pre: There is a lot to like about the phone, but I am not big of CDMA devices (or rather Sprint’s increasingly abhorrent service plans) and the lack of a memory expansion slot is a deal breaker for me.

Iphone 3g: A lot of my original criticisms still hold for the second generation Iphone. ATT’s 3g service has oft been noted for being spotty in coverage and easily overwhelmed. There have been frequent complaints of hoards of Iphone users at conventions and other concentration points basically overwhelming ATT’s network. My biggest issue with the Iphone is its extremely closed nature and Apple frequently exercising its control over what applications can be used on the device and micromanagement of application features. The recent launch of the Slingplayer client without 3g support is one recent example. The inability to run applications as background tasks is a major deal breaker as well.

Nokia N97: Extremely high resolution screen, tons of memory built in plus micro SDHC slot, 5 megapixel camera, slideout qwerty keyboard and worldwide GSM support. Downsides = WOULD COST A FREAKING FORTUNE – $600-700! Nokia’s firmware support on US model phones has been extremely lacking compared to EU models. The US has simply not been a major consideration for Nokia.

Android Phone: I really like Google’s Android platform. It is much more open than Apple’s ecosystem. Unfortunately not many handsets are available yet and the ones that are cheap plastic PoS. I’ve had a fair amount of hands on time with the t-mobile G1 and did not come away impressed. It might pay to wait for a higher quality Android handset to be released.

Use my Nokia N810 Internet Tablet and VOIP: I would need to keep my Cradlepoint cellular to wifi router running all day for this to work, which would require a large external battery pack. My N810 also isn’t making it through the day on its end of life original battery. I could pick up a Mugen extended life battery for my N810. With an extended battery on the Cradlepoint and N810, this would be workable, but it would be two large jacket pocket solution to be sure. Novatel is making a much smaller wifi to EVDO router called the MiFI which will soon be available on both Sprint and Verizon. My guess is the firmware on these provider locked MiFi devices will be significantly inferior to the excellent provider neutral Cradlepoint firmware and the battery only lasts ~4 hours. The MiFi is impressively small and I can see a lot of people liking it for that fact alone. Unfortunately, the data plans on which it is available are more abhorrent than usual. Not only do these things have the typical crappy 5 GB cap, but they have now instituted a ridiculous 5 cents per MB overage charge. That is $51.2/GB which can add up quite quickly. I am sure they are quite proactive at notifying you when you approach that limit, too. Fall asleep with Slingplayer running and wake up to a $1000 phone bill. Sprint in particular seems to be offering less and less value with every passing year. Coupling exceedingly low GB caps with extortionate overage charges might net Sprint a one time cash hijacking, but will likely result in the loss of a customer to say nothing of the opportunity cost of the customer that won’t sign up in the first place. There are more than a few reasons why Sprint is hemorrhaging customers at rate that is measured in millions/year at a time where virtually all the other major players are increasing their customer base, but poor data plan terms, extremely poor customer service and limited handset selection are certainly high on the list.

I think there could be a huge upside to one of the major carriers overbuilding their networks for a change and actually offering superior service and fair terms of use instead of trying to back their customers into a corner and mugging them.

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The Coming Age of the Super Capacitor

Posted by Deliverator on 6th March 2009

Whether you are talking Lead-Acid, Lithium ION, Lithium Polymer, NIMH or NiCd you are constantly confronted with a simply expressed truth. Batteries suck. Different formulations suck in different ways. How do I loathe thee, let me count the ways:

-Self Discharge (the tendency for batteries to drain themselves over time)
-Diminished capacity over time
-Operational lifetimes on the order of several hundred to a few thousand charge cycles. Even less in batteries that exhibit “Memory” when not charged/discharged in the correct way.
-Risk of fire and explosion
-Toxic, caustic or environmentally damaging components.
-Long charge times and poor ability to dump stored energy quickly
-Performance variation at low or high temperatures

New improved formulations and manufacturing techniques have offered incremental improvements in recent years, but not on a grand scale. Batteries still suck, they just suck slightly less.

There is one energy storage device which does not suffer from the various ills which afflict batteries, namely capacitors. Capacitors can be charged and discharged quickly, can be charged a near infinite number of times and offer relatively temperature invariant performance. The problem, historically, has been that capacitors of all types have only been able to store a near infinitesimal amount of energy compared to a battery. In recent years, there has been an increasing amount of interest in what are usually called Ultra or Super-Capacitors. Although underlying technologies vary, in the last few years capacitors with energy densities within an order of magnitude of the best batteries have hit the market and have found some niche uses due to their unique properties. There are super capacitors commercially available now with energy densities similar to lead acid batteries (~30 Watt Hours per Kilogram) and capacitors have been publicly demonstrated with energy densities of 3 times that amount. That is within spitting distance of the best batteries available today with almost none of the drawbacks! Companies like EEStor are promising even higher energy densities, but their claims have not undergone scientifically independent verification and duplication. If their claims prove true, it will spark a technological revolution on the same order as the advent of the microprocessor.

In the meantime, real honest to god super capacitors are starting to trickle onto the market in actual, purchasable consumer products. I recently purchased my first, a Coleman branded electric screwdriver. While Coleman doesn’t claim their product is able to sink as many screws in a row as a lithium ion powered counterpart, one can recharge their screwdriver in a mere 90 seconds and get right back to work. They claim they can sink far more screws / hour than a lithium on the premise that the lithium battery and a presumed spare in rotation will both be sitting idle needing a long recharge while you can just keep going till the cows come home with their super capacitor (they call it Flashcell for marketing purposes) powered unit. Ridiculously high replacement battery prices for cordless power tools make the near infinite cycle capacity of the super capacitor a very attractive proposition. It is quite possible that capacitor powered electronics could be passed down as geek heirlooms which far outlast their owner’s lifetime! I hope to have my unit soon and promise to put it to a thorough testing and report back with any personal observances.

Posted in General, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | 3 Comments »

Poor Man’s IronKey

Posted by Deliverator on 22nd October 2008

I recently had a chance to play around with an IronKey for a few hours. IronKey is a USB flash drive with a twist. The Ironkey incorporates a hardware encryption chip to keep your data safe from prying eyes. The chips are epoxied in place inside a solid metal casing, making the Ironkey extremely rugged, waterproof and tamper resistant. The chip has an internal “wrong password guessed” register which increments each time a wrong password is entered. If the wrong password is entered 10 times in a row, the Ironkey erases the flash memory. As an anti-brute forcing technique, it sounds very effective, although I can also see scenarios where your data might get permanently wiped accidentally. Supposedly the crypto chip itself incorporates silicon design features which make even advanced microscopic examination techniques impossible. The device is reasonably cross platform (Linux and OS X are both supported), although it must be initialized on a Windows system. On XP and Vista, the UI for unlocking the secured storage on the device comes up automatically and doesn’t require administrator privileges and doesn’t install any drivers. Certain versions of the Ironkey come with a pre-installed suite of portable applications such as portable firefox, email and backup applications. I view this last as a fairly nominal feature.

The IronKey does have its downsides. It is physically quite a bit larger than most USB flash sticks. It is definitely not something I would want to carry around on my already overcrowded keyring in a pants pocket. IronKey is currently only available in capacities from 2-8 GB, which is far smaller than many flash drives available cheaply at market. Lastly, the price per GB is quite high, with the 8 GB model costing $275 as of this date via Amazon. A 32 GB Corsair USB flash drive currently sells for ~$90 at Amazon, giving you 4 times the storage for 1/3rd the price. With a little effort, that 32 GB Corsair offers almost as much data protection as the Ironkey and a whole lot more storage at a fraction of the cost.

The first thing you will need to do is to download and install a copy of Truecrypt. Truecrypt is one of only a few products on the market today that can encrypt your whole hard drive and it is free to use and open source. It is worth check out for that reason alone.

Once you have Truecrypt downloaded and installed, Format your USB flash drive using NTFS. The default filesystem which many USB drives are formatted with from the factory is FAT, which while widely recognized by many systems and comparatively free of patent encumbrances, unfortunately has a number of drawbacks which makes it inappropriate for our uses. In particularly, FAT doesn’t allow for filesizes larger than 4 GB. If you are only going to be using a 4 GB or smaller USB drive, than you might be able to get by with FAT.

Once you have your USB drive formatted, start Truecrypt and start the Volume Creation Wizard from the tools menu. Create a “file container” type volume on your memory key. Make sure your container doesn’t take up all the available space on the USB drive. You will probably want to leave some space free for non-private files that you just want to access quickly without having to type in a password. You will also need a fairly nominal amount (30 MB is more than enough) of space free to install a mobile copy of Truecrypt, which it calls “Traveler Mode.”

Next, click on the tools menu in Truecrypt and click Traveler Disk Setup. Create the traveler disk files on the root directory of your USB drive and chose the Automount Truecrypt Volume and select the file container you selected earlier. Click create and you should now have a secure USB key which will prompt the user for the password to be unlocked when you insert it.

Disadvantages of a Truecrypt USB key compared to an Ironkey:

-The traveler disk feature appears to be Windows only, which means that you will need to have Truecrypt installed to use your secure volume on a Linux or OS X machine.

-For the auto-prompt for password on insertion feature to work, your Windows machine must have auto-play enabled. You can manually launch Truecrypt from the USB key and select the container file, but this is much less convenient.

-The account with which you are using it must be an administrator level account, unlike the Ironkey. This may make it difficult to use a Truecrypt protected USB drive on a library terminal or corporate computer, where you often do not have administrative privileges and where autoplay is often disabled by group policy.

-The encrypted volume resides as a container file on the unencrypted portion of the USB key. If someone were to momentarily gain access to your drive without your knowing it, or if it were lost, they could copy off this file and subject it to brute-force password guessing methods. The Ironkey in this scenario would self destruct after a mere 10 bad guesses. In practice, so long as your password is sufficiently long and complicated (uses upper and lowercase characters, numbers and punctuation symbols), the best supercomputers in the world could guess passwords from now to eternity without unlocking your data. Of far greater risk is your plugging an Ironkey or Truecrypt encrypted drive into a malware infected machine with a keystroke logger present. This risk is currently equal for both methods, so I declare a tie on this account.

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