The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for the 'Tech Stuff' Category

Some thoughts on the forthcoming 520 bridge toll system

Posted by Deliverator on 16th February 2011

While I am normally in favor of tolls and other systems of taxation that generate revenues to pay for infrastructure where it is to be used and by those who use it, our state has a poor history of continuing to collect tolls after the cost of construction has been paid, even in cases where the original legislation authorizing the construction and tolls had specific sunset clauses. Government has a tendency to be very reluctant to give up a revenue stream once it has been established, even when such taxation is no longer (or never was) justifiable under any reasonable, expressible philosophy of taxation. With the recent, massive budget shortfall, we have seen seen increasingly desperate attempts by the government to stick their fingers in other people’s pies, with often little or no justification for why they are entitled to a slice in the first place.

It should be noted that the legislation establishing the toll does not have a sunset provision requiring the toll to be removed after the bridge is paid for, or be scaled back to maintenance levels after payment of the bonds are completed. It merely requires that “Revenue from tolling the bridge will only be used as authorized by the Legislature for bond payments, operations and maintenance within the SR 520 corridor.” This means that the toll revenue may be used to pay for anything in the 520 corridor, potentially freeing up funds to pay for budget shortfalls elsewhere. It also appears that tolls can be used to fund mass transit and not simply highway purposes, something some toll payers may disagree with strongly. Is there even a requirement to pay off the 30 YEAR bonds as quick as toll revenues allow? The original I-90 floating bridge’s tolls paid off its cost of construction in 9 years, decades ahead of projections. The current 520 bridge’s tolls were ended in 16 years. I have to wonder after all the accounting jiggery-pokery takes place, how much and for how long 520’s toll revenues will have been used to pay for highly controversial projects like Seattle’s Waterfront Tunnel?

I am also extremely opposed to electronic RFID or plate registration as the sole means of paying a toll. RFID systems have severe privacy implications that often go un-addressed or unacknowledged by implementers or are addressed dismissively. From WSDOT’s faq :

Will my privacy be protected?
Yes. Good To Go! electronic tolling Passes use radio frequency identity chips, which do not hold any personal information. For Pay By Mail, only photos of the vehicle are taken, not the driver or occupants. All personal data, including name, address and payment information, is kept confidential and privacy is protected by law. Under no circumstances is individual customer information disclosed for use by marketing firms.

This scant acknowledgment of the issues surrounding RFID systems answer falls into the dismissive category. There is essentially no anonymous way of paying this toll. You either have to register your plate and establish an account, or get an RFID badge/sticker and establish an account. Government entities have an even poorer reputation for keeping databases private (uh, Wikileaks anyone?) than commercial enterprise, who often at least have some financial/reputation impact rationale for keeping client data private and I am very loath to supply my billing information to a government agency. While they make assurances that the data stored in their databases will remain private, tolling data has been used in numerous criminal and civil cases.

Unless you deliberately shield the RFID tag in other areas, there is nothing to prevent the tag from being read at other locations by the state or by other individuals and most people are frankly not going to bother. There are countless examples of how tags can be abused (up to and including cloning of someone else’s card) by private individuals. For instance, an acquaintance of mine, Eric Butler, recently showed how a commonly available cell phone could be used to remotely read someone’s ORCA transit card and display their recent whereabouts.

WA state is one of only a few that has a law against skimming someone’s RFID data without their knowledge, but if the rewards of doing so are large enough and it can be done anonymously, with little chance of being caught, then I am doubtful that this law will have a deterrent effect.

Turning 520 into a toll bridge will undoubtedly shift a lot of traffic onto the region’s other, already crowded arterials. The particular implementation details of this toll system just give me one more reason not to use 520 and not to go into Seattle for non-essential needs.

Update: It does appear you can set up a quasi-anonymous “Unregistered Pass Account” account without deliberately disclosing identifying information by showing up in person at one of the customer service centers and paying for a pass in cash. Given that they already have equipment in place to take pictures of license plates for plate based billing, they have the technical ability to correlate a plate with an unregistered pass, effectively de-anonymizing it. This is a marginally better situation, as the government/company hired to run the system wouldn’t have your direct billing details, but you would still be carrying around an RFID tag that is chirping for all to hear/clone/whatever. They also warn that if the pass isn’t read correctly, one would be sent an inflated/surcharge bill by mail. In such a situation, you couldn’t really protest without revealing your identity.

A more desirable setup would be the ability to set up a cash only account for plate based billing. In such a situation, one wouldn’t have to carry around a chirping RFID tag and wouldn’t be disclosing more information than the state already has through a vehicle’s registration. This doesn’t appear to be possible, currently, and they are charging a $.25 extra surcharge per toll for plate based billing. How much is your privacy worth to you? One has to wonder at the rationale for this disincentive. This may be an indication that their plate image capture system functions poorly in some situations, such as gridlock traffic, when an overhead mounted camera may not have a clear shot of the plate. I wonder whether this will cause scofflaws to deliberately tailgate large trucks and the like?

Posted in Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

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 »

Notice Anything Different?

Posted by Deliverator on 20th October 2009

Ryan pulled a late night and did a final sync of data from Frankenputin (old server) to Minimus. I mainly sat back and let Ryan do the heavy lifting, just acting as cheerleader, head scratcher in chief and occasional googler of error messages. There were some struggles with Mysql and the usual Gallery puking, but eventually the beast was wrestled into submission. A few port forwarding changes and now everything is being served up by Minimus. Frankenputin has been powered down, quite possibly for good. My garage no longer sounds like a jet taking off and I kinda miss it.

If you are a silverfir.net user, please poke your head into infrequently visited dark corners and see if you find anything growing there. I plan to consign Frankenputin to its new role as boat anchor and kick Minimus into a closet as soon as it is verified that the new server is stable and no additional settings/data need importing from Frankenputin.

Posted in Blogging, Emulation and Virtualization, Linux, Tech Stuff | 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.

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

The Last Hard Drive I Will Ever Buy?

Posted by Deliverator on 23rd September 2009

I needed to free up a fair sized hard drive to donate to Minimus and simultaneously had pretty much filled up my main content storage drive on my main desktop PC, so I went to Frys and picked up a Seagate 2 Terabyte drive and proceeded to spend a few days copying data back and forth between my main desktop’s many hard drives in order to free up a 500 GB drive. This is a process I have done MANY times over the years. I still have some data from the first hard disk my family owned, which held a whopping 80 MB (that’s megabytes folks). While doing all this, I realized I had a pretty good cross section of drives manufactured in the last 5 years in my personal possession and couldn’t resist doing some quick benchmarking. I’ve posted a gallery full of the results here and thought I would make a few quick comments on notable trends.

One of the results which is immediately apparent after viewing the results is that as drive capacities have gone up, sequential read speeds have gone up as well. This makes sense, as greater bit density on the platters means that more data passes under the read/write heads for a given unit of arc.

At the same time, random access times have gotten progressively worse.  Using a lower level drive utility like Spinrite on today’s ultra high capacity drives immediately reveals the reason for this trend – today’s drives are having an ever greater problem with seeking to the correct location over the platter in a reasonable amount of time. Spinrite shows a constant barrage of head seeking errors and reliance on error correcting code even with its extremely sequential access patterns. 12 milliseconds used to be a fairly typical random access time on a 7200 RPM hard drive. This has now gone up to more like 15 milliseconds on high density platter drives. My new 2 TB drive actually spins at a mere 5900 RPM, likely because head seeking errors were too high at 7200 RPM. This has lead to the extremely weird precedent of slowing down a drive to increase real world performance.

Real world performance is heavily dictated by random i/o patterns (particularly on fragmented hard drives).  This has created a niche market for lower capacity drives with high spindle speed and low random seek times, such as the Western Digital Raptor (now Velociraptor) line of drives. An older 74 GB model of which can be seen on the results page. This drive easily bests all the other conventional hard drives I’ve tested in terms of random access times (8 ms)  and I can attest to the fact that it basically never needs to re-seek. So, for years now performance enthusiasts have mixed and matched drives in their systems, using drives like those in the WD Raptor line for their main OS and program storage and using huge , poor performing drives for bulk storage of content such as movies, music and photos.

All this discussion is basically moot, as the one solid state disk I tested easily blows every hard disk I’ve ever used away in terms of performance. The OCZ Agility 64 GB SSD, which isn’t a particularly high end SSD, delivered sequential transfer rates 50-100% better than any conventional hard drive tested and random access times soo low I am not sure the benchmark tool even properly measured them (.1 ms). The effect this low random access time has on real world app performance is huge. We are talking Windows cold boot times measured in seconds here.

The vast majority of PC users I’ve encountered in my consulting tend to have under 30 GB of data. For these users, I see no reason for them to ever use a conventional hard disk ever again. Conventional hard disks, in my mind, should today be relegated to bulk storage and backup purposes only and by the time my giant 2 TB hdd fills up, I expect there to be equivalent size SSD equivalents available. It may very well be the last hard disk I ever buy and all I can say is ABOUT TIME.

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When Presentation is Everything – Coraline Needs 3D!

Posted by Deliverator on 27th May 2009

I recently learned that Coraline was going to be released this month and I hoped for a true 3d release. Unfortunately, the only announced options were either conventional 2d or Anaglyphic 3D (those cheesy red/blue glasses that moviegoers rightfully consigned to history’s trash heap back in the 1950’s). I saw Coraline in 3D in a theater using the excellent RealD 3D projection system. I felt the presentation really added something to the experience and can’t imagine watching Coraline in anything other than true 3d. It may be a while till such an excellent 3d system as RealD becomes practical for home users with budgets less than several hundred thousand dollars, but there are plenty of excellent 3d home theater options available for under 5 grand.

Here is a listing of 3d projector options at stereo3d.com. The DepthQ series of projectors from Infocus for instance supports high framerates and can be found for as little as $2300 and uses commonly available active LCD shutter glasses to achieve its effect.

Samsung has a line of DLP based 3D capable HDTV sets that all support 3D via shutter glasses starting at as little as $1000.

There are numerous 3D LCD monitors (some even sold through big box retailers like Frys) capable of displaying true 3d video, some without even needing glasses.

I have a Headplay Personal Cinema Display, which is available for around $400, and can display 3d content from several different input sources.

In short, the technology for quality home 3d viewing is out there and available at modest cost. There are a ton of 3d movies coming out this year in theaters including Pixar’s UP and James Cameron’s much anticipated Avatar. 3D has already shown it can help make movies on the front end without increasing production costs greatly, but movies have lately made a large percentage of their revenues on the post theater DVD market and I doubt nearly as many people will want to purchase watered down 2d version of movies they first saw in 3d. While not a lot of home theaters are currently 3d equipped, the cost to do so is fairly minimal and the additional costs of releasing a frame sequential 3d DVD alongside the 2d and Anaglyphic releases are likely minimal as well. It costs the studios little to grow the market by releasing frame sequential titles and the only way they are ever going to solve this chicken and the egg problem is by doing so.

Posted in General, Media, Movies, Photography, Rants and Raves, Windows CE | No Comments »

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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