It’s not about the specs – dumping my fancy pants camera

relectFor the past year or so, I’ve been taking pictures with one of the most well-reviewed and highly spec-ed out digital cameras on the market, the Sony NEX-7. It didn’t come cheap and a couple of additional lens added to the bill but this was supposedly one of the great cameras out there. Considerably smaller and lighter than a D-SLR, the mirrorless NEX-7 had a largest-in-class sensor to pick up tons of detail, a real view finder, extensive video capabilities, a built-in flash and a highly customizable array of dials, buttons and other controls.

There was only one problem: I couldn’t seem to get it to take the pictures I wanted. Despite the accolades and endless list of killer specifications, the Sony was a beast to actually use — more like a complicated, poorly thought out computing device than a camera. Too many of the dials and buttons were poorly placed leading to frequent accidental changes in settings. Otherwise, the whole process slowed down as you hit a button to lock our changes, then unlocked the lock out to make changes, then locked out again. The video button was a particular villain in this regard. There were other significant issues too, especially the lack of great, affordable lens. That amazingly detailed sensor cries out for great glass, but Sony was deaf to the need.

So the other day, I put the NEX-7 up for sale on eBay. And, after a ton of research, I bought a much simpler camera that hardly compares on paper with the Sony, a Fujifilm X-E1. The Sony has a bigger sensor with way more pixels, higher ISO range, more autofocus points, more video settings, a larger and higher resolution LED screen on the back, weighs less and on and on. But the Fujifilm is one well-designed mother fucker, no two ways around it.

Instead of covering the camera body with a bevy of blank-faced, multi-function, programmable doo-dads like Sony, Fuji chose to have just a few dedicated controls on the X-E1. On top, set the shutter speed and exposure compensation. On the lens, set the F stop. Done. Both dials also have an automatic setting, which means no more messing around with “aperture priority mode” and “exposure priority mode.” And because the dials are labeled, you can see with your own eyes instantaneously how the camera is set for the next picture. I feel like I am taking pictures again, not trying to remember how to work some crazy-complex gizmo. It doesn’t hurt that the camera came with a great prime lens and a fast zoom lens, neither of which were available for the NEX-7 (at least in my price range).

And, as you can see above, now I can take the cool pictures I always wanted to get with no muss and no fuss — and I’m having fun doing it.

Post PC Vacationing: kids, cameras, iPads but no laptops

Ocean Beach in San Francisco

Just back from a short family vacation to San Francisco where much fun was had. We traveled light, or at least light-ish, for this wired day and age. We took smart phones, digital cameras and iPads but we didn’t bring a laptop. For the most part, everything went well. The iPad makes a great travel companion, whether it’s providing maps for driving around the city, instant web searching for cool spots to eat or an ebook or movie for entertainment during down time at the hotel.

Apple has thankfully worked to make the process of using an iOS device the iPad without a computer easier and easier. We downloaded apps and music right to our iPads and never needed to sync anything to anything. Email is all “in the cloud,” so we could access important messages with our travel confirmations from any of our devices. It was all very smooth.

On our first day tooling around the Bay Area in our throwback, sky blue Crown Victoria, we wanted to find Bette’s Ocean View Diner in Berkeley. An iPad 3 with built-in LTE and GPS proved a trusty navigational aid taking us over the Bay Bridge and right onto 4th Street, Berkeley’s more swich shopping district away from the UCal campus. My wife, Whitney Connaughton, is an expert at parking honking large vehicles so we nimble-y parallel parked despite crowded conditions. Unfortunately, by 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning, the wait at Bette’s (which really does have the world’s best pancakes) was over an hour. So we had to make due with the excellent Mexican style Cafe M around the corner. I was snapping photos mainly with my Samsung NX200, a relatively pocketable mirrorless digital camera that takes very fine shots. Later, we checked out the college campus, grabbed some amazing doughnuts in Oakland and headed back to San Fran for a burger and shake dinner.

When I wanted to review my pictures for the day, I grabbed the iPad and attached the SD card adapter from Apple’s Camera Connection Kit. You may be familiar with this trick — you can import photos directly into the iOS photo gallery off your camera’s memory card. Once I had the pictures aboard, however, things were not quite so great. You can only do a few, limited things with pictures like upload to Facebook or post to Twitter. Upload to Flickr or post to See you later. With my laptop and Adobe’s fabulous Lightroom program, I have plug-ins to send my pictures to all the services I choose. I tried using some of my other services’ iOS apps, like Zenfolio, but it choked and crashed without uploading my pictures.

treesThe next day, we traveled down to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, an amazing place-out-of-time wilderness area with huge stands of Redwood trees, many more than a thousand years old. On the way, we discovered a limitation of navigation by iPad. Driving up into the mountains where cell phone signals are sketchy at best, the iPad’s maps app lost track of where we were, couldn’t download maps and generally left us blind. We thought we’d be okay since we’d asked the app to get the directions list while we still had a good signal. But we stopped for lunch and let the iPad screen go blank. Logging back in, we discovered that the directions hadn’t been saved, even though no other app had run. Luckily, we were near the park at that point and a few helpful road signs were all it took. Inside the park, iPads stayed in the trunk of the car and we enjoying the gorgeous and lush Redwood forest unwired. If we’d gotten our directions the old-fashioned way (from Google maps on a laptop web browser), we’d probably have printed them out back at the hotel, avoiding the out of service issue.

As far as keeping in touch with friends and family, the iPads and phones were plenty suitable for reading and writing emails, Facebook posts and future blog entries. I kept up with the sports news back home via, checked out restaurants on the SF bulletin boards of and almost finished the latest ebook in Hugh Howey’s “Wool” series.

At night, back at our hotel, everybody wound down with a little technology. Watching video on the go can be an a problem with our 3G and LTE-enabled iPads, however, and we had to be very careful. Sitting in your hotel watching a couple of episodes of the “House of Cards” series on Netflix, for example, can burn through more than half of your entire month’s  broadband usage allowance. And downloading a movie for rent from the iTunes store will actually use up the whole pie and send you into the land of overage charges. Hotel wifi was expensive, slow and limited us to one connected device per room per 24 hours. Ugh. I keep a gazillion movies on my laptop and an accompanying external drive but we didn’t have access to that bounty on this trip.

Golden Gate BridgeNo one among us took any pictures with their iPads, thankfully. Casual snapshots were all iPhone and Galaxy Nexus and I used my Samsung camera for the important stuff. As I mentioned, it’s quite light and — with its pancake 30mm lens — even pocketable in my jacket. It does suffer from a lack of truly great lens, a problem for almost all sub-DSLR size camera systems. That meant some of my low light shots didn’t come out as well as I’d hoped and I didn’t get the kind of mind-blowing semi-focused photos a great DSLR can take when paired with a great (yet still affordable)  lens. I used to rely on a combination of a relatively tiny Canon S-100 and a bulky, full size Canon DSLR. Sometimes the tiny camera let you down, but as long as you didn’t mind carrying around the bigger camera, amazing photos were easy. After this trip, I’m rethinking my switch the middle ground and its lack of upper-end greatness.

The iPads also served ably on the airplane trips out and back. No need to worry about power. Unlike a laptop, an iPad easily lasts for a full cross-continental flight, even showing videos the whole time. That’s a big relief when JetBlue’s multi-channel video system is showing reruns of Seinfeld and movies you don’t want to see.

In the end, I’d call our Post-PC vacation a success with just a few minor hassles. No need to lug that laptop around the world with you anymore. An iPad can set you free.

Finally, serious Lightroom photo syncing on the iPad – no iPhoto required

Old workflow for getting cool pictures I’ve taken from my camera to my iPad:

Import photos into Adobe Lightroom. Throw out junk, make fixes, sort and rate. Choose photos I want on my iPad and export to a folder on my hard drive. Drag said folder into iPhoto. Make newly imported photos into a new iPhoto album. Hook up iPad for sync via iTunes. Place check mark on new album in iTunes iPad photo syncing tab. Wait.

New workflow for getting cool pictures I’ve taken from camera to iPad:

Import photos into Adobe Lightroom. Throw out junk, make fixes, sort and rate. Choose photos I want on my iPad, drag to Photosmith publishing service, hit sync.

What a great program, though it does cost $20. What I’ve just described, using the app to send pictures or albums right from Lightroom onto your iPad, is worth more than $20 to me. You also have to install a free Lightroom plugin on your computer to make to all work.

But the other side of the app is for doing field work on photos using just your iPad, which I have not done much in the past but may get more into. Using Apple’s Camera Connection Kit, you can import photos right off your camera into the Photosmith app, rate them, tag them, flag them for deletion etc. You can also directly upload them to a couple of services such as Facebook, Flickr and Dropbox. Then just get near your Mac, open up Lightroom and sync back to your computer. Sweet.

photosmith app screen shot

Annoying limits I’ve encountered so far?

You can’t sync iPad screenshots back to Lightroom. That’s because the iPad makes them in the PNG format which Lightroom doesn’t support. But a fix is coming.

It seems like you can’t use the iPad app to re-arrange photos imported from Lightroom among your collections or make them into a new collection and have the changes sync back to Lightroom. Only new photos imported directly from a camera to the iPad (or taken with the iPad, god have mercy on your soul) sync back to Lightroom.


Hot stuff, cold crap – shopping for your nerd gear in 2012

I’d planned to spend a couple of hours watching my son at the first Little League clinic of the season today, but turned out it wasn’t that kind of clinic — dads begone. Like all good gadgetistas, though, I had a few niggling unmet accessory needs to fill. So sprung for a couple of hours of invented time, I headed into Boston.

I have a new carry-everywhere camera, the mostly delightful Samsung NX 200. It’s a slightly odd size though, kind of a tweener, and doesn’t fit into any of my current camera bags. It’s lost in the Crumpler “Three Million Dollar Home” that holds my digital SLR and it’s a complete no go to squeeze into one of the smaller cases designed for point-and-shoots I have lying around. But it’s high time to get some protection. Already had a few freak-outs — once, I left the camera in a jacket pocket, dumped the jacket on the couch, then looked on in horror as one of the kids sat on it. No crunch, no foul, luckily.

After striking out wandering into a local camera store and a Radio Shack (right, what was I thinking?), I decided to see what Google thought. Quick search for “Crumpler cases Boston” via the trusty Galaxy Nexus came up with a 2008 list of recommendations on Metafilter. The obvious answer seemed to be Hunt’s Photo & Video.

Shopping karma was good. I zipped into the city only to find a free parking space on Comm Ave right in front of the store. Inside, there was a great variety of bags plus the kind of truly knowledgeable sales people that make shopping fun. I ended up with a perfect fit, the Crumpler Two Million Dollar Home, as it turned out, and bought a needed lens filter, too.

I needed a couple of bottles of wine for a dinner we’re hosting this weekend and Hunt’s happens to be right over a liquor store with a reasonable wine selection and another super-helpful sales person. Grabbed some Shiraz and a couple of Merlots to go with the incredible lamb dinner super wife, aka Whitney Connaughton, is cooking up and it was time to move on.

I was on such a shopping high, I decided to see if I could find cheap, on-street parking in the Newbury Street neighborhood, which includes the giant Back Bay Boston Apple store. Sure enough, the parking gods continued to smile upon me and I got a great space. Walking down Newbury Street, Yelp via Android advised the best caffeine refill is from Wired Puppy — and they’re correct as usual. A small cap and some fresh roasted beans later, I’m on my way in the spring drizzle, feeling like my shopping fu is so strong I cannot be defeated. The feeling doesn’t last long, unfortunately.

The second task was to get a new cover for our aged iPad2. My wife’s upgraded to an iPad (3rd Generation) and taken her leather smart cover and BRIGHT PINK Incase sleeve case — which they don’t even seem even to make anymore — with her to cutting-edge-gadget-land (where I assure you she’s just visitor not a long-time local like me). That’s left poor hand-me-down, kid toy iPad2 naked, vulnerable and smudgy.

I thought the obvious answer was just to go into an Apple Store. After all, they have an endless supply of iPhone and iPod cases. But, turned out, they’ve completely de-stocked iPad cases except their own smart cases at least at the big Boston store. I found that so hard to believe that even after one of the helpful blue shirts told me this information, I continued pawing the shelves in disbelief. Sure enough, they now have a vast and beautiful display of laptop cases, including many for the 11″ MacBook Air that would almost fit an iPad, but nothing else. Crazy. Ok, Apple, consider that at least $50 of my money you don’t get.

So what about the giant, three-floor Best Buy nearby? Almost as bad! A few choices of folio-type cases, a few hard covers for the screen and nothing. (Update: A few weeks after I wrote this post, Best Buy announced it was closing the Back Bay location. Not exactly a shocker.)

In desperation, I even wandered into the local Urban Outfitters. Cool stuff for cell phones, crazy-looking headphones and a few other tech-y items. But for the iPad? Nada.

I don’t think I’m being too picky. I don’t like the smart cover (at all!) and I’m looking for something that will protect the iPad on both sides from scratches, scrapes and even maybe a short drop. I’d also like to be able to squeeze the iPad with cover into the laptop pocket of my briefcase along with my Macbook, so the cover needs to be devoid of scratchability on the outside, too. Is it really so hard?

The answer will have to reside online, I guess. Etsy has a billion possibilities, as does Amazon. I’m just not so psyched to shop online for something I’ll be holding in my hands all the time. No tactile info comes through on my screen. And the search experience with the billion possibilities leaves much to be desired. I wish there were checkboxes or sliders that worked to filter the choices in real time by color, material etc., but it’s all just keywords and prices. (Postscript: I ended up going with this kind of boring black sleeve from an Etsy seller)

But the experience got me thinking. With so much available online, it’s getting harder and harder for retail stores out here in the real world. Borders, Circuit City, CompUSA — all long gone. Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, Gamestop — it feels like they’re just hanging on by a thread.

Apple’s doing fine but it’s such a banal and generic experience — there was almost no difference between the merchandise in the Apple store on Regent Street in London I perused last week and the one I visited today on Boylston Street in Boston. Of course, the computers and phones are the same, but even the range of bags and cases and other accessories was amazingly identical.

No one can deny that Apple has aced most of the winning strategies for succeeding at retail in the 21st Century but there’s one piece I positively ache for — a unique shopping experience — that they never give me. It’s just so damn generic. Is there room in the world of 2012 for a tech-y, nerdy store that stocks not computers and phones themselves but all the needed add-ons, goo-gahs and accessories? I want a focus on the high-end, the mega-high-end, the artsy, the unusual. If 40 or 50 million of us all have to carry around the identical iPad, the same phone, a common laptop, can we at least regain some style points or distinction via the case, the sleeve, the stickers, the wrapping, the externals and add-ons? And can someone smart and helpful curate a collection for sale of great accessories, the best, the lightest, the coolest, smallest, achingly brilliant ones that as soon as we see and touch we simply can’t do without? Must be a way.

What do you think?

High-end pocket cameras still trail far behind low-end D-SLRs, sadly

Everyone loves the gorgeous pictures that their digital SLR camera takes but no one likes carrying around the unwieldy, weighty cameras themselves. So we’re all on a perpetual quest. We want a much lighter camera that still takes great pictures and allows for the kind of fiddling and fixing — both in the camera settings and later in the “digital darkroom” — that D-SLRs offer.

Until recently, there was virtually nothing. For one, very few smaller cameras allow you to take pictures in the RAW format that preserves all the data from your digital camera’s sensor. Jpeg and other compressed formats trash some of the data, leaving you with less ability to fix and adjust pictures back home on your computer.

The other major shortcoming was the size of the digital sensors in most smaller cameras. While camera makers want to confuse you with useless information about the total number of pixels on a sensor, the really important stat is the density of those pixels. A ton of pixels mashed on a relatively tiny sensor results in a worse image than many fewer pixels on a larger sensor.

Lately, there have been some strides towards really improving small digital cameras. One of the first of the new breed (which we own) is the Canon S90. It has a larger sensor than most small cameras, saves images in the RAW format and has numerous manual controls to help you get just the photo you’re looking for.

I’ve used the S90 quite a bit this year in place of my aging Canon Rebel XT. But unfortunately, the results have not lived up to my possibly unrealistic hopes. Despite the improvements in the S90, it still remains hamstrung by a built-in lens that has far less flexibility and overall quality than the lens available for D-SLRs. That means worse low light performance, less detail captured and limited ability to take artsy shots with blurred backgrounds.

I kind of knew this was the case after a few recent disappointing outings with the S90. But I confirmed it last weekend by taking both Canons out for a spin in the back yard. Below you can see the S90’s inability to blur the background and failure to capture the same level of detail. Obviously the external conditions were the same in all shots and I was setting the f-stop manually.

Here’s a shot from the S90
Backyard photo with no blurring

And a similar shot from the Rebel XT
Backyard photo with pretty blurring

Notice the flatness of the background in this S90 shot

And here’s some pretty blurring, or bokeh as photogs say, from the Rebel XT

All of this makes me think that I should probably move in the opposite direction. The Rebel has a sensor that is sort of medium sized and known as the APS-C format. Instead of a smaller camera, I should get a better D-SLR — one with a larger “full frame” sensor that is about the dimensions of old-fashioned 35 mm film. A couple of years ago, some less-than-insanely-expensive full frame cameras hit the market like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and the Nikon D700. But neither has been updated in two years.

Prior coverage:

All I ask is a full-frame and a single mirror to sail her by (July 1, 2008)

Start saving my pennies: Canon updates 5D digital camera (September 17, 2008)

Zenfolio iPhone photo app is great – finally!

The kids and I have been watching an old Bill Cosby routine lately — chocolate cake for breakfast. Of course, my favorite part is after Bill has given his kids cake for breakfast and they start singing: “Dad is great, gave us chocolate cake.” I found myself humming the tune after I downloaded and installed Zenfolio’s new iPhone app. It’s a great mobile front-end to one of the best web site services around for photographers. I only wish they had issued it sooner!

As you can see from the main screen below, the app has three basic functions. You can access your previously saved photos from the site. You can access your iPhone camera to take a picture. And you can upload pictures you’ve taken on your iPhone to Zenfolio. Each of those functions seems basic and obvious but each is enhanced with connections to Zenfolio’s existing web services with a few clever extras.

Accessing your existing photos is pretty straightforward. You can navigate through your galleries and collections in typical iPhone fashion. When you open a gallery, all the thumbnails download, which can take a minute or two depending on the number of photos. But the app saves a cache of previously downloaded thumbnails, speeding up the process after you download them once. Individual pictures can viewed with the usual pinch to zoom or emailed or downloaded to the iPhone to use as background wallpaper.

From within this section, you can also access some of the Zenfolio web site’s features, like sending out email invitations to view a gallery, adding or deleting photos from a particular collection and editing metadata like a caption or keywords.

The uploading module lets you chose a previously taken photo from the iPhone’s camera roll or take a new picture. You can add a title, keywords, a caption and apply your existing category tags from the web. You can also set access controls (to prevent an uploaded photo from being viewed by everybody), pick a gallery to upload to and select whether to upload full size or a smaller versions of each photo.

Even better, there’s a button marked “save and  upload later” which lets you assemble a queue of photos you want to upload all together. That’s very convenient if, for example, you want to wait until you’re within range of wifi.

The third button, to access your camera, is handy if you want to be able to add photos to your Zenfolio upload queue right after taking them (which means you can also add all your metadata right then, too).

As a final note, I’d just add that while there are many photo sharing sites, including Google’s darn good Picassaweb, Zenfolio is where many serious photographers go to post their work. It has many, many options for displaying and selling photos that make everything look great. Prints come from a great source, Mpix Labs, that provides much higher quality than the average CVS store. There’s a good selection of other printing options, too, from tee shirts to mugs to giant posters. You can easily set up password-protected galleries. You can even use Google Analytics to track visitors to your galleries.

And now that finally we’ve got a great iPhone app, too, Zenfolio is better than ever.

Apple LED Cinema Display is the best dock for a Macbook Pro

I’ve been slowly devolving from a laptop with a huge screen to a laptop with a medium-sized screen to, most recently, a laptop with a small screen. But the smaller my laptop gets, the more I’d like some kind of docking solution when I bring it home. Apple hasn’t been very receptive to we would-be-dockers and the Frankenstein contraptions from other companies are too ugly to contemplate.

But I’ve just solved my dock-at-home woes with an Apple product that came out over a year ago. It’s Apple’s 24″ LED Cinema Display. How can a display be a dock? When it connects all your miniaturized laptop gear to your full-sized desktop gear. And through a little bit of creative engineering, the cinema display can do just that. In addition to its own power cable, the display has three more bright white cables emerging from the rear. Hook them up to your Macbook or Macbook Pro (see picture below)  and that makes all the difference.

What is a dock supposed to do? When your laptop is at home base, you want to connect it to a bigger screen. Well, right — that’s the product itself. The display has a cable that connects directly to the “Mini Displayport” which is standard on all current Mac laptops and the Mac mini. It’s a gorgeous and bright screen measuring 1920 by 1200 pixels, just like some almost-recent iMacs.

There’s also a power cable with Apple’s annoyingly-patented MagSafe connector on the end so you can charge your laptop while it’s hooked up to the monitor.

The third connection is a USB cable. That is critical to creating a docking solution because USB can handle audio and video. The Cinema Display has its own built-in speakers and an iSight webcam with a microphone, so when you connect the USB cable to your laptop, you’re connected to the camera, mic and speakers, too. The back of the display also has three of its own USB ports. So when you connect its USB cable to your laptop, the display functions as a hub and and any peripherals you leave connected there will connect to your laptop.

So in essence, by slipping your Macbook or Macbook Pro under the display and hooking up three simple cables, you can instantly have a much bigger display, external speakers, a webcam, AC power and any other USB connections you want on a regular basis (like a keyboard and mouse). Your laptop’s own wifi can still connect to your network or, as I had to do in my office, you might need to plug in a fourth connection with an ethernet cable (it’s that bright yellow cable in the picture above).

A final great feature comes from Apple’s control over both the hardware and software  in its laptops. When I want to connect to the display, I just shut the lid of my Macbook Pro, put it under the display and hook up the cables. Hit any key on my big, comfy desktop keyboard and — violá — everything appears on the big screen. When I want to leave, I put the laptop to sleep, disconnect everything and take off. Re-open the lid and everything appears. In the picture below, I’ve disconnected and what you see is the same programs that were running in the picture at the top of this post but they’ve squeezed into the smaller display space.

The software is seamlessly switching between the much smaller laptop screen (1280 by 800) and the huge cinema display screen (1920 by 1200) without requiring me to change any settings and without leaving any of my programs off-screen in an invisible limbo land (as happens constantly with a docked Dell laptop I use for work). Great feature!

There are a few downsides. The first, which is a deal breaker for some people, is that the monitor is only available with a super shiny and reflective “glossy” display. There is no option for the more subdued “matte” type of display. The upside of glossy displays is more vivid colors and a sharper picture. But you have to set them up carefully to minimize background reflections. Since this is a huge (and heavy!) desktop monitor, I think that’s less of a problem than it is on a laptop. The other issue is price. The display retails for $899, considerably more than basic 24″ monitors from other companies. Given the included peripherals and the convenience factor, if you can fit that in your budget, however, it’s well worth the price.

Apple’s iPad may be the perfect computer for kids

I’m excited about Apple’s new iPad for a couple of reasons. While a lot of the iPad’s features and services had been leaked in advance, I found myself gasping along with the audience in San Francisco when the price was announced. This is a product that is going to have vastly more impact for under $500 than it would have had at $800 or $1,000. And as I’ve pondered the iPad’s possibilities for the past day or so, one particular use has begun to dominate my thinking and that’s the iPad as the perfect starter computer for my pre-teen kids.

The three kids in our family are a pretty tech savvy bunch, with their iPods and Nintendos, PSPs and Wii. They’re also happy for all the time they can get with mom and dad’s laptops, desktops and the Kindle. They know how to work Tivo, download from iTunes and find stuff on YouTube. They need a lot of supervision and we’re seemingly forever in search of the perfect parental controls and web filters that will let them access all that’s good and fun while protecting them from all the garbage and viruses and worse.

But I have to say, the more I think about it, the more perfect the iPad seems as a solution. One of the biggest problem the kids have is dealing with the complexity and fragile nature of our current computers, running either Mac or Windows. It’s just too easy for the mouse cursor to get lost, file systems to overwhelm and key settings to get munged. On one computer the kids use, flash was somehow disabled one day and won’t come back no matter how much re-installing and uninstalling I’ve done. Another laptop last only a few weeks before they had it unable to boot. It’s not maliciousness or ignorance on their part. Modern PCs just remain pretty darn delicate and temperamental beasts.

The iPad does away with much of this complexity and hides much of what ails the modern PC. Simple is good. No mouse — use your finger. No searching for missing files — they’re all inside each application just when you want them. And no complicated and mysterious settings and system files just waiting to be accidentally deleted. Some people call the iPad/iPhone software platform a “sandbox” due to its limitations but what better metaphor for the kind of computing environment my kids need than a sandbox?

The kids get homework but they hardly need a full-powered copy of Word or Excel to complete it. The iWorks programs look more than adequate. They need a physical keyboard, I’d expect, for the occasional short essay but thankfully Steve Jobs has seen fit — finally — to let use Bluetooth keyboards with the iPad (a feature that would REALLY come in handy with the iPhone, but I digress). And they need a browser but one simpler and safer from malware than the average copy on a PC.

Of course, like all their little digerati friends, the kids are both big consumers and producers of digital media. They take pictures and make movies, record their own songs and even try their hand at blogging. They watch shows downloaded from iTunes or the Tivo or on YouTube or other sites. They play with Ze Frank’s funny frog, use Club Penguin and all the wonderful games PBS has created to accompany its television shows. Flash limitations aside, I think they can do most or all of this stuff on the iPad. And once Amazon ports its Kindle app, they won’t even have to borrow mine anymore. Hallelujah.

I’ve got a couple of months to keep thinking about this and I’m interested in your thoughts as well as the likely stream of additional information that will be flowing out of Cupertino. On the parental controls front, for example, I’m disappointed with what Apple offers for the iPhone/iPod Touch platform and I’m hoping for far more on the iPad. For homework, we’re really going to need to be able to connect to a printer, too. So please weigh in if you have any thoughts and stay tuned for more details.

UPDATE: Over on Twitter, Mark Nikolewski says his four- and seven-year-olds mainly use web sites with embedded games and videos that rely on Adobe’s flash plug-in. There’s no flash on the iPhone and so far none on the iPad. This is a problem but maybe Apple and Adobe get with it? Wired, John Gruber and other Mac followers are less than optimistic. Web sites could, however, offer alternatives if the iPad caught on. They already do so in some cases for the iPhone. Why wouldn’t Disney, with Steve Jobs on the board, want to make an iPad app version of Club Penguin, for example?

UPDATE2: A couple of other folks channeling this same idea include Warren Buckleitner over on the New York Times Gadgetwise blog and, surprisingly, Dallas Mavericks owner and frequent Internet buffoon Mark Cuban. He’s right on when he writes:

It will be the product that kids of this generation grow up with and look back on with affection just like we did with the first video games. Video games changed how we grew up. The iPad will change how kids today grow up.

Making the transition to a Blackberry Curve

card-1-2Well, the two-year handcuffs on my Verizon-locked Treo 700p smartphone finally came off and it was time to reevaluate. The biggest downside to the Treo was its miniscule battery life, though its bulky weight was another serious bummer. My company pays for the phone so my replacement choices were fairly limited. Since my wife appears to have substantially greater smartphone satisifaction with her Blackberry than I had with my Treo, that’s the option I was looking for.

It meant switching to AT&T Wireless but I was able to select a fairly modern Blackberry Curve 8310 with a snappy red case. The Curve includes a camera with flash, a robust Bluetooth implementation and the ability to take MicroSD memory cards. It’s also pretty much half the thickness and weight of my old Treo and it works just as well with my office-sanctioned Outlook email account. I’m still getting used to the many new key combinations and short cuts — mentally, it’s much worse than, say, going from Mac to Windows, as I occasionally do.

But – wow – battery life is insanely great. I didn’t have to recharge the Blackberry for over three days. A welcome change from the crummy Treo battery that didn’t even last through a whole day sometimes.

I was also nervous about wireless signal coverage here in the Boston suburbs. Some years ago when I last had an AT&T phone, coverage was spotty and considerably worse than Verizon’s. Happily, I can say that the situation has changed. At least out here west of Beantown, AT&T has improved its wireless coverage to at least reach parity with Verizon in real world usage. Even 3G data coverage is excellent.

One downside is Mac compatibility. Though there’s some software called PocketMac for Blackberry which you can download from the RIMM web site, it’s god awful. Palm compatibility wasn’t great either but better than this.

More reports to come but so far, I’m liking the switch.