The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for the 'Portable Computing/Gadgets' Category

The Next Carputer Project

Posted by Deliverator on 14th August 2008

My car was broken into in the middle of the night a couple weeks ago. It was parked right in front of my house at the time. The thief broke in through the rear passenger side window and proceeded to remove most of my car computer system through brute force. The irony is that very little of the equipment removed is likely to be operable/sellable as a great number of cables had to be clipped in order to facilitate a hasty removal. I was planning to replace my carputer this year anyways, so I am not too put off about the actual theft, save for having my none too great faith in human goodness lowered a notch. My comprehensive insurance policy took care of the cost of the damage to the car, minus a $100 deductable, but it has taken the better part of the last two weeks, and a lot of leg and phone work, to get the car itself put back in order. Oh, and of course the equipment wasn’t covered without an additional policy rider, which I wasn’t told I would need. Safeco was less than proactive in working with me to get my life back to order and I will probably be redirecting my hard earned $ elsewhere in the near future as a result.

On the positive side of things, I get to build out a new car computer. My inclination, this time around, is not to go with discrete components, requiring a great deal of wiring, but instead to base the system around a UMPC (Ultra Mobile PC). I wasn’t too impressed with the first generation of UMPC devices. They were, by and large, poor performing with a lot of ill thought out hardware design and layout issues. A lot of the first generation of devices used the anemic Intel A110 processor. Couple this with 1 GB of ram, the bloated mess that is Vista and a much higher than projected price point made them non starters in the marketplace. I think this seriously delayed the production of a second, better generation of UMPC devices, mainly in favor of Netbooks like the all popular eePC. Unlike UMPC devices, Netbooks actually managed to meet their price points and were largely based around lighter weight OSes like XP and Linux. Unfortunately, a Netbook doesn’t meet my in car needs by a longshot. Thankfully, newer, more refined UMPC devices have recently entered the marketplace.

I was particularly attracted to the Samsung Q1 Ultra Premium. It has a lot of features that seem to make it ideal for the particular challenges of in vehicle computing. It has a LED backlit 1024×600 resolution 7″ display, which should both be brighter and higher in resolution than the pricey Xenarc 7″ previous mounted on my dash. While some people prefer the active, Wacom style digitizers found on a lot of Tablet PCs and some UMPCs, the Samsung’s resistive touchpanel is more suited to my use. With an active digitizer, you are forced to use a stylus, but with a resistive touch panel, you can substitute a fingertip in a pinch. While Samsung has done little to bring the price down to anything resembling Microsoft’s original vision for UMPC devices, they have greatly improved on the original concept. The latest Samsung models have split key qwerty keyboards (the original was just a slate), improved wireless and connectivity options, a faster processor and a choice of a tablet enhanced version of XP or Vista. I figured the Q1 UP was a close enough match to my needs that I ordered one via Amazon. Not much point asking which OS I chose…

Part of my reason for choosing a UMPC over discreet components was to have something which I can remove from the car and take with me. If there isn’t something in the car, its not bloody likely going to be broken into. I’m hoping the UMPC proves versatile enough to replace my laptop while on the run. Since I started carrying around my Nikon D80 (and lenses) around all the time, my backpack has gotten a wee bit on the heavy side of comfortable.

I plan on mounting the Q1UP using a bracket from Ram Mounts. Ram Mounts is a local, Seattle company which makes all sorts of clever vehicle mounting solutions for everything from cell phones to laptops. I’ve not used them in the past, but I’ve heard good things. Their product is also specifically designed for the Q1UP, unlike a lot of generic mounting brackets which have a tendency to block access to ports.

Once mounted, the chief issue becomes how to simply and easily interface the Q1UP to peripherals. One of my chief disappointments the last time I was revamping my car computer was that basically nobody made a reasonably priced car stereo with an audio input jack. I had to use the less than ideal solution of an in-line FM modulator to get my computer audio into my car’s stereo system. Now in these scary modern times where everything has to be able to plug into an ipod, virtually all car stereos have auxiliary input jacks on their front panel. I wasn’t sure I wanted to clutter up my dash with an audio cable, as well as potentially damage the audio connector on the Q1UP from overuse, so I began looking for other solutions. Turns out that some reasonably priced car stereos now can take auxiliary audio input via Bluetooth A2DP profile, as well as Bluetooth headset profile. The Q1UP supports Bluetooth 2.0, so I’ll probably get a new car stereo, even though the thief didn’t steal my current one.

I’ll probably use my Holux M1000 Bluetooth GPS unit rather than a USB GPS, to avoid cabling. For internet connectivity, I will be using a Cradlepoint PHS300 Wifi to Cellular router, with uplink via a Sprint EVDO expresscard. I’ve been using this battery powered wifi router / cellular card combo with my laptop (and Nokia N810) for several months now and have really enjoyed being able to go anywhere and have connectivity without needing to have an obtrusive dongle coupled to my laptop as a disaster waiting to happen. When all is said and done, the only thing I should need to plug in is power. If I start needing to plug in more peripherals, I may consider a wireless USB hub.

Well, the parts are on order. I’ll try and produce some followup to let anyone who is interested know how well (or not) everything comes together in practice.

Posted in CarPuter, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | 2 Comments »

Nokia N810 otw

Posted by Deliverator on 25th November 2007

Well, after much internal deliberation, I finally decided to purchase a Nokia n810 to replace my n800. While the n810 was introduced/released in October and has been nominally “released” in retail sales channels for a little over a week, it still hasn’t hit the market in significant quantities.  The hardware has been finished for a while, but the software only recently reached what Nokia considers release quality. My guess is that Nokia is loading up already finished units with the software as fast as possible and kicking them out the door. This trickle of a release has been frustrating to a lot of enthusiasts and especially developers. Nokia wisely released the SDK for the new Chinook version of the Linux based OS 2008 ahead of time and instituted a developer discount program whereby 500 lucky developers get a n810 for the low low price of $100 via a discount code on Nokia’s online store.  Unfortunately, there is as yet no way to redeem the discount code as the n810 has yet to show up on the online store. It also looks like European developers may be hard pressed to redeem their discount code, short of selling it to someone in the US.  This is all by way of saying that Nokia has managed to botch yet another major product release. Many gadget freaks are impulse buyers, so it is a really good idea to have said gadget available for purchase when the impulse strikes. Nokia should really take a page from Apple and not “release” a product until it is ready to ship in sizable quantities. It would also be a good idea to have a developer program that actually gets devices into the hands of developers prior to or at launch times.

Anyways, after my initial and quite concerted attempts to get my hands on an N810 failed, I did take some time to reconsider whether it was enough of an upgrade to the N800 to justify the purchase. To me, the major deciding factors came down to the transflective display, built in GPS, better overall build quality, improved button positioning for ebook use and slimmer design. On the negative side was skepticism over the keyboard’s design/utility and the switch to a single mini-sd card slot instead of the n800’s two SDHC slots. In the end, after a couple weeks of mulling things over, I decided I still wanted one.

After a couple very frustrating attempts to purchase the N810, including several companies verbally confirming they had units in stock and ready to ship only to be followed by post-purchase emails announcing that it was back ordered, I finally managed to get in an order with tigerdirect shortly after they received their allotment and I now have a tracking number confirming that my unit has left the warehouse.

By far the worst experience was attempting to purchase through Nokia directly. Nokia has an order by phone system and I called up and talked to a sales-person who confirmed that they indeed had n810’s available for immediate shipment and that they were even discounting the price by $75 over retail price, which put the damage at much more palatable ~$410 . I gave her my billing information and then was floored when she asked me for my full social security number to verify my credit. I immediately balked and told her there was no way that I was going to give anyone my social security number (a number which should only ever be used for tax and employment purposes). She explained that they are using a new system called Verid, which uses your SS # to generate questions that only you are likely to have the answer to. She told me that they have implemented the system at the request of their credit card processor because of high rates of credit card fraud (which doesn’t impact them directly)  and that they don’t store the number. I told her I still wouldn’t give her the number, as I have no way of verifying that they don’t store it, and even assuming I trust some faceless corporation to do the right thing, I wasn’t going to read my number out to some random call center employee identified to me only by a fake first name.  I explained to her that I had already provided her enough information to verify that my credit was in good standing with my bank and that my shipping and billing information were the same, so there is basically no chance of fraud.  She explained that she had no way of processing the order without going through the Verid system and she practically begged me to just relent and give her my ss # so that she could rack up a commission.  It was at this point that I told her pretty bluntly that there was no way in hell I was going to just hand out information which is commonly used for identity theft and told her to cancel my order and hung up. About five minutes later I received a call from the sales person’s manager who ran through a list of completely irrational arguments as to why Verid is a good idea and how handing my social security number left and right is a good thing for me. After completely debunking everything the manager said to me, she then tried a different tack and tried to appeal to my love of fortune 500 companies saying “Verid is legitimate and is being used or soon will be used by most of the fortune 500 companies including Macy’s.” I asked her to list a few more and once she did, I thanked her for saving me the hassle of ever bothering to try to give money to those companies ever again and hung up. I’ve seen more than a few ill-conceived “security” schemes in my day, but Verid really takes the cake. While I like a lot of Nokia products, the insulting amount of effort it takes to actually purchase one or get even basic support increasingly makes me want to look to other brands when making a purchase decision.

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

Updated information about Nokia N810

Posted by Deliverator on 19th October 2007

Thoughtfix just got back from the Web2Summit event where the N810 was announced. He managed to take home a retail boxed demo unit and held a live interactive video “show and tell” with the Internet Tablet Talk community using ustream.tv which allows for live syndication of video content using flash based video. You can chat with the host(s) of the show using an integrated flash based chat room. About 80 people showed up for Throughfix’s impromtu show and almost everyone came prepared with a ton of questions.

Here is what I learned from Thoughfix’s show:

-The 2 GB of flash that is built in is 80% full of maps to begin with and is likely fat formatted, so those hoping for expanded storage space for Linux applications can look elsewhere.

-The memory card slot is indeed Mini-SD. The slot insertion/removal mechanism is difficult to operate. The maximum theoretical overall capacity of the unit is 10 GB when combining internal and external flash.

-The battery door is difficult to open, but without an internal card slot there isn’t much point. Door is solidly in place and doesn’t rattle in its frame like on the n800.

-The top keys have been improved with the full screen and +/- buttons seperated as on the 770. There is a hardware lock key on the top that locks the device from coming out of power saving mode due to accidental key presses or bumping of the screen while it sits in one’s pocket.

-The camera appears to use a higher quality sensor than on the n800. I spoke with him over my n800 using google talk video during his show. There was very little “speckled” ccd noise evident in his stream, whereas my image was a noisy mess despite a lot of overhead lighting.

-The screen is brighter and also appears to be transflective a.k.a. direct sunlight viewable.

-The keypad has a nice back lighting feature that is activated/deactivated automatically by the ambient light sensor.

-The casing/construction is almost entirely metal and has a very solid feel to it.

-Despite not being an officially listed feature, the N810 paired with a set of Bluetooth stereo headphones (A2DP). When attempting to use for voice calling, got a lot of stuttering/poor quality noise.

-Would pair with a bluetooth mouse, but does not support the profile.

-The new Firefox based web browser seems to work better with a lot of Web 2.0 websites, but also crashed on a number of occasions.

-The revamped Desktop Applets/Plugins functionality looks to be cool and applets can now be resized and can overlap.

-The UI skins look nice and utilize transparency well. Best default visual theme of any NIT yet. Navigation and opening of programs was quite responsive.

-The GPS was able to lock onto five satellites indoors at Thoughtfix’s house. Software was extremely slow in plotting a route for a 600 mile trip within the same state. The 3d view still doesn’t show street names. The N810 comes with a cradle and a basic screw-type mounting bracket for in car use. It sounds like many GPS features will only be functional for an additional price.

-Keypad seemed to be slow and cumbersome as an input method due to chiclet sized keys with a very stiff response. Hitting keys along top row is somewhat difficult due to the overhanging lip of the screen. Several common keys like tab are simply not present (arg!). Many common keys including number keys are on a second function and there isn’t a function lock/sticky keys mode for more efficient entry. Nor will holding a key down longer activate the second function for that key. This has become a common convention on compact qwerty devices. Hopefully Nokia will improve this in a software update.

-The D Pad positioning is as awkward as it looks and the center “enter” key of the D Pad is too large. Hitting up on the D Pad is difficult as it is against the side of the screen when extended. It sounds like Nokia needs to make the slider extend more.

-The soft slip case is pseudo-seude leather and is made in turkey and better fits that N810. There is no official hard case in the works as far as anyone knows.

-The speaker volume seems adequate and the N810 has the same special jack that allows one to use a standard set of headphones or a special set of stereo headphones with a built in microphone.

-Expanded video format support has not been shown in my mind as the N810 crapped out on a number of attempts to play formats listed in the new specifications. I would like to see a systematic testing of a wide variety of formats under rigorous conditions. I would like to see an official statement as to what resolutions and bitrates the N810 is capable of playing and what subversions of formats are supported (i.e. if you state WMV support, does that mean WM8, 9, 11, etc.?)

-There is no FM radio tuner on the N810, a disappointment to many people that used that feature on the N800.

-Despite long promises of an improved email client, the default mail client on the N810 is the same POS as before. I recommend installing Claws Mail and forgoing the built in client altogether.

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

Introducing the Nokia N810 Internet Tablet!……meh

Posted by Deliverator on 18th October 2007

Yesterday, Nokia soft-launched their 3rd internet tablet product, the N810.

Nokia N810

The device will be available for purchase in about a month for around $470. I have been an avid 770 and N800 user, but I am not at all convinced that I need one or that the changes made to this latest device are for the better. I am definitely going to have to hold it in my hands and spend some quality time with one before I consider buying. Here is some of the good and bad:

Good:

-An OS release that will bring IT OS closer to desktop Linux parity. This will hopefully make for easier porting of applications. Commitment to maintain OS parity on N800 for at least several revisions. Thinking in terms of “platforms” and not products is good.

-Somewhat smaller, making it more easily pocketed

-Supposedly a 20% brighter screen, which some have said is transflective. I have yet to hear this direct from someone who can speak with authority.

-Ambient light sensor might help more intelligently use battery by auto-dimming screen in darker environments. I hope this functionality is directly exposed so that I can overide it.

-Faster processor

-More formats listed for media support (although I will believe it when I see it)

-Integral GPS is nice, although the GPS on my N95 absolutely sucks, so a lot depends on the quality of implementation.

-They got rid of the pop-out camera in favor of one mounted on the screen bezel. Remains to be seen if the quality is as atrociously bad as the one on the N800 though.

-Keyboard will be nice for quick replies to emails, im’s, etc. For serious typing, I would still carry a bluetooth keyboard. Keyboard appears to be backlit.

-Dedicated hardware lock key. This will make the N810 insensate to accidental key presses and screen taps while in your pocket. Having the device come alive in your pocket all the time was a big battery waster on the N800. The 770 had the best solution, a magnetic switch as part of the hard case. Put the hard case on, device goes to sleep. Take it off, device wakes up. Simple genius. In many ways, Nokia seems to have forgotten many of the things it learned in designing the 770.

Bad:

-The new OS breaks compatibility with OS 2007 in a way that will require that basically all existing 3rd party apps will have to be rewritten. If they were going to force this break, I wish they would have given me a real window manager and let me use almost any Linux app without major modification to support the joke that is HILDON.

-Moving the D-PAD onto the slide out keyboard is a BAD BAD idea. On the N800 and 770 the D-pad and all other buttons were within easy reach of your left hand’s thumb and index finger. This made it possible to access most device and software functionality one handed. Now, some of the primary device control keys are on the screen and some are on the slider. This NIT is a two handed device. Not only that, but as a two handed device, the positioning of these keys is rather poor. It will be very difficult to use the D-PAD easily while holding it naturally. I hope you all have very flexible fingers.

-VERY high price at launch, much much higher than the n800 while only delivering two major feature upgrades. Keeping the device at a lower price point makes it much more attractive to many people and a lot of people will look at the price and say “if I am spending this much already, I might as well spend a little more and get a MID or an ultra mobile pc of some sort.

-Previous Nokia GPS solutions have been atrociously bad performing compared to even garden variety $30 bluetooth GPS units that are scarcely bigger than a box of matches these days. While the unit comes with GPS mapping software, it sounds like certain route guidance and POI features will cost extra. Nothing worse than getting nickeled and dimed especially when cheap alternatives exist.

-N800 had two SDHC storage card slots allowing for a staggering amount of storage in a portable device. The N810 has only one and it is a smaller type, meaning it is no longer useful for viewing photos from cameras. A lot of N800 users have invested significant $ in storage cards and to have to make further card purchased and not be able to get as large a card capacity is a real kick in the teeth.

-2 GB of internal flash ram is nice, but is no substitute for a swapable card. Flash is also know to go bad from time to time, which makes this unattractive. I am also willing to bet that the flash is not formatted with a linux FS, but rather FAT, making it useless for program storage.

-Nokia has moved the speaker from the user facing front to side emitting. I bet the perceived volume will have gone down significantly and it will be easy to cover the speakers with your fingers while holding it. I think Nokia has placed too much emphasis on making the device smaller by moving things off the screen bezel and has significantly compromised device usability in doing so. I would have much rather seen a slider of similar size to the N800 with the D-PAD and speakers left in place, which would have also provided more space on the sliding keyboard for larger keys. The keys are extremely chiclet sized and don’t appear to be convex. Top row of keys is right against the side of the screen, which will make them particularly difficult to hit. I hope those emails you have to write are short.

-N810 uses a micro-usb plug instead of the much more common mini-usb. Still no ability to charge the battery via USB or hostmode USB support for use of USB keyboards and low power flash drives. Gee, another cable to carry around. Thanks Nokia! :(

-N810 lacks a hard cover case, which was also one of the major, widespread complaints about the N800 compared to the N770. I know 770 users for whom this was a deal-breaker in upgrading to the N800. The N800 also had a lousy slip case and the long promised flip over screen protector took a long time to appear and then never really showed up at market. If I am going to spend $500 on a device, I want to know that it isn’t going to get broken in my pocket after a week or have the screen scratched by my keys.

-While they have increased the processor speed to 400mhz, from the sound of it, the N810 is internally almost exactly the same beast as the N800. This likely means that the video sub-system issues that lead to inferior video playback performance are likely still present. The 770 actually had a faster video sub-system than it’s sucessor, the N800, despite having a slower processor.

-No listing of A2DP Bluetooth stereo support

-There is no integrated WWAN and No Bluetooth PAN support. PAN is increasingly becoming the standard for phones to share their internet connectivity. Bluetooth DUN remains the only option for WWAN support.

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

Secundus

Posted by Deliverator on 28th September 2007

In what is probably my last hardware purchase in a while, I went ahead and purchased a factory refurbished Shuttle SN25P small form factor case/motherboard from Shuttle’s eBay store. I’ve come to respect Shuttle’s well designed and well ventilated small form factor systems over the last few years and have used them extensively as home theater and point of sale boxes for clients. I had a number of fairly high end parts left over from recent upgrades to my main box, Deliverator, and decided to put them to good use rather than leave them to languish in a drawer. Despite warnings that refurbished systems might contain scratches or slight dents (which made me instantly conclude that I would be receiving a unit with a side caved in), I received a unit which pristine cosmetically and has functioned flawlessly thus far. The well packed box I received came with all original driver cd’s, manuals, cables, etc. I’ve always felt a bit wary about refurbished products, but Shuttle did a bang up job.

Installation of the CPU, memory, hard disk, DVD, etc. was all made relatively painless thanks to Shuttle’s well written manual. Shuttle uses some proprietary “tool-less” brackets for mounting hard drives and cd-roms and their heatsink retention bracket is a bit finiky, so plan to spend a little time with the manual on this one. In the end, though, I had my new box up and running in short order. I plan to use it to replace my current secondary box Spareparts, which is getting a little long in the tooth for the duties I place upon it and also takes up far too much space on my crowded, though ginormous desk.

The new shuttle box to which I am giving the Neil Gaiman inspired name Secundus should be more than up to the task. It is powered by a AMD Athlon X2 dual core 2ghz processor, 2 GB of ram and a PCI-Express Nvidia 6800 GS graphics card. Hopefully it will give me many good years of secondary use and not die an early death like its namesake :)

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

…and the kitchen sink too

Posted by Deliverator on 28th July 2007

In general, I am not a fan of so called “convergence” devices. Devices which cram too many functions into a small package often suffer from interfaces which are inappropriate or clumsy for any particular task or at the other extreme have a tendency towards buttonitis. Even devices designed towards a single function but with a need for small size often have hopelessly confusing and clumsy interfaces. One common example of this is the Bluetooth headset, which tend to access all functions through three or four buttons which each have a variety of sub-functions depending on the context of use. Devices like this practically necessitate carrying around a twenty page manual to facilitate their use.

On the other end of the quality spectrum, you have companies with a long history of designing intuitive user interfaces. The recently released iphone from Apple sets a new and very high standard for out of the box intuitiveness for a multi-function device. At the same time, while Apple got the user interface right, the iPhone is fundamentally flawed in many ways. A lot of functions on the iPhone are minimally implemented (such as the one button camera) and common functions that have been considered near mandatory by all phone manufacturers for years are simply missing. To generalize, the iPhone suffers from a problem common to many convergence devices. Namely, having too few developers to implement every feature properly on a deadline and in a way consistent with the look and feel of the device. Companies attempting convergence devices often find out midway through an implementation cycle that they simply don’t have enough developers or the right skill sets to deliver on an ambitious goal in a short period of time. It has long been known in software engineering that pouring on more developers midway is actually counter-productive. So, features get cut or are under-implemented. In the case of under implement or half assed implementations of features, it tends to be an attempt to retain as many all important “bullet point” features for product marketing purposes. While this will sometimes sell a product in the short run, consumers tend to feel burned in such cases and it does little to build brand loyalty.

Apple, on the other hand, has been very smart over the years by not announcing feature sets in advance of a product’s release (to avoid the inevitable “why did features x get dropped?” questions) and indeed to rarely announce a product at all until it is done and ready for purchase (although things do tend to leak, but Apple is amongst the most aggressive in the industry a attempting to plug leaks via whatever means necessary). They also tend to release only the barest number of units (and presumably to carefully vetted journalists) in advance for “just in time” reviews. Apple seems to “get” the challenges of releasing ambitious products (and dealing with the public) more than perhaps any other company in the modern computer and personal electronics industry. While the iPhone, at present, is too much of a compromise to meet my needs, I fully expect many of my qualms about the device to be fixed in future software releases and certainly by the time iphone generation 2 or 3 rolls about. Given that Apple makes no promises or even hints about future features to be implemented in future free software upgrades, I can’t justify spending $600 on a device that doesn’t meet my needs and has little chance of ever doing so in the future. Although I would be more inclined to believe a promise from Apple of future software support, it is my observation that many companies promise future software upgrades that never end up materializing in an attempt to separate a consumer from his pocket book. This sort of behavior usually creates a LARGE amount of ill will and isn’t exactly the sort of thing that brand loyalty is built upon. Usually you see this sort of behavior from struggling companies after a version 1 product release in a desperate attempt to bring enough money in the door to keep going till version 2 is out, or at least make off with more loot as the company implodes.

This long ramble/rant is all prelude to this most un-me-like statement, “I bought a convergence device and love it!” To be specific, I purchased a Nokia N95 “super” phone. This was not a light decision for me, I read a great number of detailed reviews before purchasing it and made a somewhat out of the way trip to the Alderwood Mall to visit their Nokia Experience Center. The Experience Center is an un-store, they don’t actually sell anything there, which is somewhat confusing for people strolling in right out of the mall without any foreknowledge. It is simply a place where one can go to try out Nokia products and speak with a Nokia representative for any length of time about their product line up. I found Brian, the Nokia representative at the Alderwood to be an excellent representative for his company. He was extremely well versed about issues surrounding the contemporary cellular market in the US and knew the entire Nokia product lineup in and out and was extremely articulate and able to adapt his presentation to the perceived level of knowledge of the person he was speaking with, without ever seeming to “talk down to” them or resort to misleading or grossly simplified answers, a common fault I see in tech sales people everywhere. I often times “play dumb” (which is not hard for me ;) just to evaluate the character of a salesperson with whom I am dealing. Anyways, Brian passed with flying colors and is a credit to his company. I would have happily walked out of there with a N95…if they sold them. Unfortunately, Nokia only has two retail sales locations in the entire US, one in Chicago and the other in New York. I ended up purchasing mine online via Amazon with fulfillment provided by Tiger Direct. I usually try to avoid Tiger Direct, but their price was $100 cheaper than Nokia’s online store and I couldn’t stand the thought of purchasing it through the next cheapest well established retailer, Walmart. Anyways, I’ve had my N95 for a few weeks now and have been using it intensively every day.

What all did they cram into this device to interest me in the first place?

– Quad band GSM radio with EDGE data connectivity, as well as UMTS 3g (but only on the European frequencies, sadly)
– Wifi
– 5 megapixel still camera with a decent flash, optics with actual autofocus, settings adjustments for things like white-balance + DVD quality video recording + a second lower resolution camera for video conferencing. This is unquestionably one of the best camera-phones sold in the world today.
– SIP based VOIP
– Well implemented audio playback functionality with A2DP wireless headset support, support for Podcasting, support for syncing with your desktop via a variety of means/programs, stereo speakers built in. I was somewhat skeptical about the built in speakers, but they are surprisingly loud and I can leave my N95 in one room and listen to most spoken word content easily from several rooms over. With the support for bluetooth stereo headsets, for the first time, I can leave my mp3 player in my pocket and listen to music without a tangled mess of wiring getting in the way. Strangely, the iPhone, which many are calling the best iPod ever, doesn’t support stereo headsets.
– Micro-SD card slot for up the 4 GB of storage expansion
– Decent built in GPS and included navigation software, plus options to use external bluetooth GPS devices and other mapping packages. The onboard GPS usually takes a few minute to get initial lock if you haven’t used in a while, but is accurate enough to get you where you are going.
– FM radio with good sensitivity and the software can download a list of preset stations for your area!
– Very bright, large 320*240 screen with excellent daylight visibility. You can slide the screen to one side to reveal a standard keypad with excellent tactile feedback or push it the other way to reveal dedicated media control keys. Sliding the screen open one direction or the other automatically unlocks the device and switches it from landscape to portrait mode and sliding it shut automatically locks the device. Almost as intuitive as the “gravity” sensor in the iPhone.
– Robust, non-crippled Bluetooth 2.0 support and a host of PC side applications for easy syncing of data. I am sick of the intentionally crippled Bluetooth support on phones sold through cellular network providers. I don’t want to pay extra to be able to offload a picture of a device or install my own custom ringtones!
– USB 2.0 with multiple user selectable modes for acting as a USB flash drive, MTP device, or for printing directly to a photo printer.

The N95 feature list goes on an on for pages and I suggest checking out another review if that is what you want. I am simply listing the things that attracted me to this phone. So, what are my general thoughts on the device after a few weeks of use?

The user interface is not as jaw-droppingly fluid as the iPhone, but it is substantially more fluid and intuitive than any phone interface that I have used before. The N95 implements a much greater set of functionality than the iPhone and implements it well. I don’t find the controls for any of the N95’s many functions counter-intuitive or misplaced or buried in the “wrong” settings menu. A lot of obvious thought went into the UI and menu design for the N95 and it has a very consistent look and feel. I haven’t had to pick up the manual once.

As just a phone, the N95 is the best I have ever owned. The reception is better than anything I have ever used. The speaker phone function is loud and clear. Contacts and call logs are easily accessible. The included wired headset is excellent and bluetooth headsets work well. I can access almost all common phone functions without having to grope for keys or hunt through menus. I really like how I can shift menus around and create both key based and voice based shortcuts to the phone functions that are most important to me. My only real complaint against the N95 as a phone is that its battery isn’t big enough for some users. If you make heavy use of the phone’s other features, you are going to need to charge it once a day. Thankfully, like every Nokia phone I have used, the N95 charges extremely quickly and Nokia thoughtfully included a “travel” sized transformer/charger rather than the cheaper, larger wall transformers that come with most phones.

The camera/camcorder functions of the phone are excellent. I feel no need to carry around a separate digicam for those spur of the moment shots. I have a D80 for more serious photography. I love the many syncing options for offloading and playing around with photos taken by the device. The Lifeblog app is pretty cool and I also really like the integration via bluetooth between the N95 and my Nokia N800 internet tablet. I can easily view images taken by my N95 on the 800*480 screen of my N800. When I get home, my computer automatically downloads the pictures of the N95 without me having to press a single button.

The audio playback functions work really well and I haven’t been tempted to pickup my dedicated DAP, an iRiver H320 in quite a while. I wish that the N95 supported SDHC instead of Micro-SD to provide for more storage space for music and a beefier battery so that I wouldn’t have to trade off phone talk time with tune time. I feel that Nokia could have actually gone with a slightly bigger device without loosing their intended audience. Indeed, my Nokia 6620 is bigger than my new N95. Nokia is in fact kinda infamous for defying the trend towards ever smaller phones and I think for good reason. At a certain point, you have to acknowledge that a phone is a device that is going to be used by apes with big fat fingers.

With its long initial sync times, poor sensitivity and accuracy, the GPS solution offered by Nokia is sub-par compared to my usual combo of Maemo Mapper and Holux M1000 on my Nokia N800, but pretty much ever standalone GPS device I have used doesn’t compare to that combo. I am extremely impressed that they achieved the level of GPS functionality that they did in such a small device. I can see the GPS in the N95 being useful for location based services, but I wouldn’t want to use it day in and day out for in car navigation or even pedestrian use. On the other hand, if it is going to be the only device you carry, I see it being extremely useful and probably good enough for most people’s use. The actual application design is excellent and easy to use and I like the ability to load maps dynamically over the air or manually preload maps from a PC.

I had no problem using the devices built in Wifi with a variety of access points. The signal strength is good from a surprising distance away and it is easy to find and connect to (as well as disconnect from) different networks. The built in web browser is surprisingly good for such a low resolution device, although it doesn’t compare to the browsing experience of Opera and the new Firefox based browser on my N800’s gorgeous 800*480 display. While the N95 offers a mobile web and email experience far above most devices I have tried, it just doesn’t compare to the desktop like internet experience that I get from my N800.

I am really pleased overall with the N95 and am continually amazed at not hating its many, many functions. It has helped me consolidate my pockets down from at maximum:

-Nokia 6620 Phone and headset
-iRiver H320 DAP and wind up headset
-Nokia N800 Internet Tablet
-Bluetooth Keyboard
-Holux M1000
-Dedicated Digicam
-Wallet
-Keys

to maximally:

-Nokia N95 and headset
-Nokia N800 Internet Tablet
-Bluetooth Keyboard
-Holux M1000
-Wallet
-Keys

and more typically:

-Nokia N95 and headset
-Nokia N800
-Wallet
-Keys

This later configuration will in fact fit in my normal pair of jeans whereas before I pretty much had to wear a jacket (not fun in summer) and was almost getting to the point where I needed cargo pants or an oh so geeky Gear Management Solution. For consolidation without too many compromises, I can whole-heartedly recommend the N95.

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The Obligatory Iphone Post

Posted by Deliverator on 3rd July 2007

I wasn’t going to post about the Iphone, but for several weeks, it is all that anyone seems to want to talk to me about and I have had a lot of inquiries about it from my clients. In short, I think the Iphone incorporates some very interesting technology and productizes some amazing rethinking of computer/human interaction, but is fundamentally flawed as a device in many, many deep ways. I am thoroughly disinterested in owning one. Here is a canonical list of reasons why:

-Touchscreen only interface makes it impossible to execute common phone functions without pulling it out of your pocket. I frequently make use of my phone without ever looking at it. The touchscreen only interface and glass screen make for a device quickly covered in oily finger print smudges. The touchscreen is also of a type which is only useable with fingers, so forget using a stylus, using a gloved finger or protecting your precious Iphone from your keys with most (I have heard a few work) screen protectors.

-Battery is internally sealed and soldered in place. It is not end user swappable or replaceable. It has long been anathema in the cell phone world to make a device with a battery which is incapable of getting through the day. My own experience with the batteries used in Ipods and other mobile devices is that they greatly diminish in overall capacity within the first year of heavy use and that they can fail very unpredictably. I find the idea of having to go without my phone for likely weeks when I need to send in my entire phone to have my battery replaced to be an incredible turnoff. The stated price I have seen for out of warranty replacement is $86. My Nokia 6620 has exceedingly long battery life and takes less than an hour to recharge. I have for years carried a spare battery around with me in my wallet for those not so rare cases when I forget to charge my phone for days on end. I have no such option with the Iphone. My spare battery cost me $5, shipped to my door.

-The Iphone is $600 (you do want 8GB right?) and the minimum monthly charge is $60 for service with a minimum commitment of 2 years. The Iphone is just plain EXPENSIVE AS HELL.

-The only current service option (barring future hacking) is through AT&T. AT&T’s EDGE data network is extremely slow for even light web and email use, much less the bandwidth intensive intertube 2.0 uses everyone seems to envision for the device. My own experience with EDGE and GPRS through various providers is that it delivers a modem class experience, not the “slow dsl” experience of more modern CDMA networks such as offered by Sprint and Verizon. Did I mention the first day after ATT/Apple released the Iphone their EDGE network was down throughout the US?

-As stated, the ONLY service option right now is AT&T. This is not the phone for you if you want to travel outside the country (or just outside of ATTs coverage) and use it via prepaid SIMs on global GSM networks.

-The Iphone has a standard 3.5″ headphone jack, but the jack is so far recessed within the Iphone’s shell that the majority of headphone are unusable without an adapter jutting from the side and causing pocket maladjustment/clipping/breakage issues.

-Built in camera app has no adjustable parameters, only a shutter button and isn’t capable of video.

-Bluetooth profile support is extremely limited and doesn’t extend to sharing the EDGE connection with other devices. I frequently use my Nokia 6620 to provide internet access to my laptop or to my Nokia N800 internet tablet while on the run. The Iphone basically supports monaural bluetooth headsets period. It doesn’t even support A2DP (stereo), which seems like a no brainer on a device which doubles as a music player.

-For $600, the Iphone is the dumbest Smartphone in history. You are limited to only the applications that Apple chose to bundle with the device. Basically every modern phone has allowed for 3rd party applications, many of which have provided much needed and more refined functionality than that provided by the built in ones. My mantra over the last few years has been that “The non-obvious uses for a technology/device are far more compelling than the obvious ones.” Apple has left many functions out of the Iphone that phone users have taken for granted for years and some of their implementations of other functions are less than overwhelming and not fixable by anyone other than Apple.

-There is currently no support for exchange/push email. Although support has been vaguely alluded to, it isn’t here yet and nobody has had a chance to evaluate how good that support will be. I don’t see anyone dropping their Blackberry or Treo for the Iphone in the near future.

-The on screen keyboard which Apple has been trying to assure the world is just as good as dedicated keys has been getting decidedly mixed reviews. Avid SMS/mobile email users need not apply.

-The Iphone’s screen resolution (480*320) is too low for web browsing without significant reformatting of most pages, yet Apple has attempted to display the screen layout as if you were browsing on a desktop. This makes most text far too small to read, necessitating constant zooming and panning. The mobile version of Safari on the Iphone does not support Flash, which for better or worse, has become a defacto standard. It also doesn’t support JAVA. For a desktop like mobile web browsing experience, I recommend the Nokia N800 Internet Tablet. Its 800*480 screen provides a much closer to desktop web browsing experience and it supports flash (if only through version 7, currently).

-There is no Instant Messaging client built in and no ability to easily add one. It doesn’t even work with iChat, Apples own service. I consider web based IM clients to be a very poor alternative and reports are that some of the more popular web based clients do not work with the Safari browser on the Iphone.

-No MMS messaging either way and no ability to attach files within the email app. Apparently, you are supposed to send photos one at a time (only one per email) through email and only to people capable of receiving email.

-No Voice dialing

-No GPS. I know some people could care less about this one, but this has become an increasingly standard feature on phones in this price range.

-Limited ringtone selection and no ability to use mp3’s or AAC files as ringtones.

-No streaming audio support

-Can’t copy/paste and there is really poor integration between all the phone’s built in apps

-No file manager and Iphone doesn’t show up as a UMS. How is one supposed to keep one’s files organized?

-No document editing support or even viewers for most common file types. Again, this makes the Iphone absolutely useless to most of the Treo/Blackberry crowd. Steve Jobs constantly compared it to these phones (mocking them in many ways) and yet the Iphone doesn’t provide much of the functionality that has been taken for granted for years for users of these devices. Oh, you can’t get the Iphone on a business or family plan anyways. Despite all talk to the contrary, it is obvious that the Iphone is for rich, white afluent jerks with more money than sense.

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Holux M-1000 Bluetooth GPS

Posted by Deliverator on 18th June 2007

My Holux M-1000 Bluetooth GPS arrived today, mere hours after mentioning it in a post earlier today. The eBay seller GPS4Evyone, from whom I have purchased four GPS devices has consistently had fast shipping. I was, however, displeased when I opened the package and discovered that it did not include a wall charger and usb charging cables, as described and pictured in the auction, but simply a car charger. The manufacturer’s packing list doesn’t list these as shipping standard with this model, but the seller’s auction does both in “included in the package” and by pictures. I have sent two emails today asking to be shipped the promised wall charger and usb cable. So far I have not got a response back. I don’t particularly need either, as I have plenty of USB cables and the Holux appears to charge just fine using a standard USB mini cable, but it is the principle of the thing. If I don’t get a response back within a few days I will be forced to leave bad feedback for the first time in my eBay history.

eBay recently added an interesting and much needed new addition to the feedback system which lets you leave anonymous numeric ratings on various aspects of a transaction without fear of reprisal. Future buyers can see the average rating of a seller, but the seller has no way of seeing individual ratings and thus cannot engage in “mutually assured destruction” type behavior. A very interesting twist on ye olde Prisoner’s Dilemma.

I left the Holux charging this afternoon using the cigarette lighter adapter and a 12v bench power supply. This evening, I took the Holux out for a walk around my hill. Before I had even left my yard, the Holux already had a solid fix on my position. This was by far the fastest “cold start” or “time to first fix” which I have experienced with a GPS. The Evermore DL200BT on the other hand took several minutes to get an initial fix, by which I was several blocks away from my starting position. Also unlike the Evermore DL200BT, which required careful hand holding (to keep the integral patch antenna facing skyward) just to keep a useable number of satellites locked, the Holux unit quickly locked onto 8 satellites from within the breast pocket of my jacket. The unit kept between 7 and 9 satellites locked throughout my entire walk, which impressed me greatly, as my usual walking path takes me through several areas where I am surrounded by tall pine trees and other substantial obstructions to line of sight. Equally impressive was the unit’s accuracy. While the DL200BT struggled to simply show me walking on the street and not through someone’s backyard, the Holux unit consistently showed me not just what side of the street I was on, but that I was walking alongside of the street/on the sidewalk. It was easy to identify when I crossed a street to the other side as well.

Maemo Mapper - Holux M-1000

Quite simply, the Holux M-1000 is the most impressive GPS I have used to date and is an absolute bargain at around $50.

Posted in Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | 2 Comments »

My GPS Adventure

Posted by Deliverator on 7th June 2007

My Holux GR-213 GPS “mouse” and Evermore DL-200BT Bluetooth Gps & Data Logger arrived today and after wrapping up the day with an un-fun data recovery project (thankfully someone else’s for $ and not my own) I gleefully got down to the ritual unboxing and ignoring of manuals.

I slapped the Holux on the trunk of my car (it has an integral magnet to hold it in place) and plugged it into a USB extension cable and thus into my carputer. I fired up the carputer and it was instantly recognized and assigned a serial/com port. There is an included driver cd, but I didn’t need to use it, probably because the carputer already had the necessary usb->serial driver installed from the previous Holux GPS. I did a milk run down to Factoria as an excuse to test the new Holux out. It got a fix impressively quickly and maintained a connection with at least 7 satellites at all times, except for one brief drop to 5 while driving under the super wide I-90 overpass. This impressed me greatly as the previous Holux GPS rarely maintained more than 4-5 on the my hill, likely due to the large number of very tall trees. I guess all the good things I have been hearing about the SiRF III chipset are true.

The DL-200BT I tested later in the evening after giving its lithium ion battery a few hours to charge from my computer’s USB port (with the included USB->power adapter). In addition to the unit itself and battery, it came with a non-slip mat for mounting on a car dashboard, car charger and a CD with tools and drivers on it. Sadly missing from the box was a USB data cable to plug into the unit’s proprietary ps2 like USB connector. As I hate pointless proprietary connectors (and companies looking to “Nickle and Dime” their customers by selling overpriced cables), I might do some soldering work and add a standard USB mini port at some time. I will post the pin out when I get around to it.

I painlessly paired the unit with my computer at home and played around with the included software for a few minutes just to make sure it was working. I picked up the DL-200BT and my Nokia N800, put on my coat and went for a walk. As I walked out the door, I downloaded a few podcasts onto my N800 using gPodder to listen to while I walked. I then went into the control panel and paired the DL-200BT with my N800. I then fired up Maemo Mapper, went into the settings menu and had it scan for my GPS. It added the GPS’s MAC immediately and within a couple minutes Maemo Mapper auto centered onto my position. I’d downloaded fairly detailed maps of Washington onto a SD card a while back, but just for fun I decided to fire up the EDGE connection on my phone and let Maemo Mapper download maps on the fly. The connection was fast enough to keep up with my walking pace, but I am unsure whether this connection speed would be adequate for on the fly downloading of maps at highway speeds. Maemo Mapper has a nice built in display showing the number of locked satellites and signal strength of each. I kept glancing at it while walking around the hill. Unfortunately, the GPS used in the DL-200BT is nowhere near as good as the one in the Holux. Over most of the hill, the GPS ping-ponged between 2 and 3 solid locks and fairly often lost lock entirely. Only rarely did it have four satellites locked, which is necessary for vertical positioning. I also noticed several occasions when the map showed me walking through the middle of someone’s back yard when I was walking in the middle of the street or showing me on the wrong side of the street. Both of my Holux GPS units have exhibited far better positional accuracy and higher number of locked satellites than this Evermore unit. If you need a robust GPS data logger for some fairly critical application, I would suggest looking elsewhere.

When I got home, I launched the included data logger application and easily exported my logged routes and exported it to Google Earth with the click of a button. The data logger application is easy to work with and can export to a wide variety of common data formats including OziExplorer, .gps, Waypoint+, NMEA0183, GPS Exchange and the KML format used by the various Google mapping apps. For visualization with Google Earth, there is a single button export option which will launch Google Earth and zoom to show your route. The software is definitely this unit’s strong suit.

Here is a screencap of my route from within Maemo Mapper and a cropped screenshot from Google Earth. I purposefully started my logging from several blocks from my home to avoid all you crazy internet stalkers :)

Maemo Mapper

Google Earth GPS Log

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Holux 210 Dead

Posted by Deliverator on 26th May 2007

My Holux 210 USB GPS “mouse” has been acting oddly of late. On several occasions, after resuming the carputer from hibernation, I’ve had to “cold start” the gps to get it to lock on. On other occasions, I haven’t been able to get it to work at all and its usb->serial com port has been missing. Usually, power cycling the carputer or replugging the gps has been enough to solve the problem, but problems came to a head Yesterday.

Yesterday, I took a trip with my father and grandmother (driving seperate cars) down to Tacoma to deliver a car to a shipping company, which is going to haul my grandmother’s old Camry across the country and deliver it to my brother in Cleveland. His car finally bit the dust as a result of a bad head gasket/cracked head and he has been trying to muddle through life by biking everywhere for the past few weeks. My grandma was kind enough to donate her 10 year old, well maintained, low mileage Camry and used it as an excuse to buy a very swanky 2007 Camry XLE with all the trimmings (including GPS). Anyways, the GPS in MY car managed to get me to the dropoff location, but on the way back, it kept conking out and I kept hearing Window’s “new hardware inserted” noise over the speaker system. When I got home (thankfully we were close to I-5 and I know the way back from there), I started looking into the problem.

I unhooked the GPS from the car and first tested it on another computer. It exhibited the same problem of being detected for a while and then going dead. I cracked open the plastic shell to examine the GPS itself. The 210 is comprised of a double sided circuit board with metal rf shielding covering the circuitry on both sides and a little patch antenna attached to the top of one of the shields and an LED indicator light poking through a hole in the plastic. A couple little dabs of solder around the edge holds the shielding in place. The shielding was pretty heavily corroded with rust and it was obvious the water had gotten in through the area around the indicator light. I find this to be a particularly poor design given that this unit is designed to be magnetically mounted to the exterior of a vehicle where it is exposed to the elements. Once water is inside the plastic enclosure, it has no difficulty getting to the actual electronics, given that the RF shielding is only held in place by a few small dabs of solder instead of properly soldered around the whole periphery. I desoldered the RF shielding and sure enough, moisture had obviously gotten in and dried in the past (you could see residue markings on the board). I found that one of the surface mount capacitors on the board, mounted in a residue discolored area had cracked in half and I believe this to be the source of my problems.

According to my brain, the Holux 210 lasted ~2 years. With a little more care in the design of this unit or some additional waterproofing efforts on the part of the owner, I have no doubt that this unit could have seen several more years of productive use. Perhaps the 2 year design lifetime is exactly as intended by Holux. After I confirmed that my unit was dead, I threw it in the trash, spent a half second mourning and then jumped on eBay and purchased a new Holux from the same vendor. Yes, I purchased a Holux again, with no qualms.

I purchased a Holux model 213 which uses a new SiRFstar 3 chip. The SiRFstar 3 supposedly has a much faster “time to first fix,” can track more satellites simultaneously and works better in Urban Canyons. GPS, that multi-billion dollar miracle of late 70’s technology is now officially disposable technology. I think I might vacuum pack the new unit to give it a bit better protection, but if I get two years of reliable use out of it, I will be happy. I also went ahead and purchased a small battery powered Bluetooth GPS unit with integrated data logging for use with my Nokia N800 and Maemo Mapper. I will probably also buy the latest iGuidance for my carputer when it come out next month.

Posted in CarPuter, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Tech Stuff | No Comments »