Category Archives: Amazon

A Day in the Life: iPhone versus Nexus

(People are wondering should I get the iPhone 4S or is the Galaxy Nexus better. Am I a man or am I a muppet, smartphone style. Everyone’s got their own needs and wants from their gadgets. Turns out, mine are best met by the Galaxy Nexus phone. The iPhone 4S? Tried it for a few months and got fed up. One man’s experience comparing and contrasting.)

Pleased with the galaxy nexus

Hearing the the slightly muffled tones of Cee Lo Green’s “F–k You” emanating from your pocket, you slip out your phone with your right hand without putting down the New York Times business section in your left. There’s that familiar, comfortable feel as you reorient the phone rightside up in your hand and then glance over and use your thumb to flick across the screen and answer the call.

Done chatting with Uncle Abe, pull down the notifications screen and see what’s up. Thumb flick away notices from Twitter and Facebook – you’ve got work to do.

But looks like you missed a call earlier – must have been driving through the Ted Williams Tunnel. Google Voice has got your back. The notice shows who called and the start of a transcription of the voice mail they left. Just the dentist’s office reminding you of next week’s appointment. Even if you hadn’t seen the notification, it’s right there on your home screen thanks to the Google Voice widget, too.

No need to call back but let’s make sure that oral appointment is down, shall we? Hit the big fat button for the list of all apps. CalenGoo is right where you expected it, sitting in alphabetical order. Handy. Looks like the appointment is all set. Hit the back button and you’re back in the list of apps.

Near by the Calengoo icon, there’s something new. Last night, after the kids went to sleep and you finally got your hands on the iPad, you read about a new Android app for Twitter that sounded cool, Boid. Zipping over to the web version of the Android Market — oops — Google Play Store, you checked it out and sent it to install on your phone right from the iPad. Play around with Boid for a few minutes and then back to work, salary man.

At lunch time, walking down the street, you decide to text the wife and tell her she’s sweet. Pull out the phone, swipe unlock and hit the microphone icon. Say “Text Whitney Connaughton I love you baby.” Watch as the phone calls up a blank text message and transcribes almost in real time. Hit send. Dictation fails when there’s no signal but you’re comforted that Android warns you immediately without making you waste time bleating into the void first.

Thinking of the wife, she wants you to get on your contractor, Chris, about those new windows. Hit the phone icon, then favorites. Scroll past those cute pictures of your favorites and there’s a handy-dandy list of frequently called numbers Android keeps up to date automagically. Of course, Chris is here — he’s not the world’s most reliable contractor. You can also get to him quick via the contacts app. There’s a button for groups and you’ve got one set up with all the numbers of folks working on the window replacement project. Done harassing Chris, it’s time for a sandwich. Pocket the phone and dig in.

On the walk back, call up some tunes in the Amazon MP3 player. It’s got everything — everything you ever bought from Amazon, saving a ton of bucks from Apple’s not-so-customer-friendly prices, and everything sucked up from iTunes, too. New Springsteen album got mixed reviews but we’re going to check it out for ourselves, aren’t we? It’s not on the phone yet, so hit the “Cloud” tab instead of “Device,” scroll to “Wrecking Ball” and start streaming it. “Heaven knocking on the door that holds the throne…”

Time to go home. Check how bad the commute’s going to be with a glance at the traffic widget on your phone. Yellow? Not good. Better grab a podcast. Love that awesome Pocket Casts app. It’s Friday so there’s a new episode of Hypercritical. Download it in about 30 seconds over Verizon’s super-fast LTE network.

After dinner, kids having grabbed all the iPads, you’re left surfing the Internets on your phone. Boston Globe too pessimistic about the Celtics chances this year? That got your juices flowing for a strong counter-argument to mount for your buddies on Facebook. Hit the share button, type in your unbeatable refutation and post. While you’re at it, jump over to the photo gallery and post that picture of your bike ride from last weekend to Facebook, too.

Time for sleep. Hit the microphone on the phone and say “Set alarm for 7 am.” Click okay. Head hits the pillow before the phone’s out of your hand.

Fade to black…we fade back in to: Three months earlier

Frustrations with the iPhone 4S

Hearing the familiar if far away bleating of the “Marimba” ring tone, you do nothing. Must be someone’s iPhone around here. But the music doesn’t stop. Better check your phone. Grab that sharp slab of metal encased glass and take a look. Upside down again? Flip it over and answer the call.

Done chatting with Uncle Abe, pull down the notifications screen and see what’s up. Try to hit those tiny little buttons to get rid of the Twitter and Facebook stuff – you’ve got work to do. Stab madly a few times and finally give up. Make a mental note to change the default on notifications for Twitter and Facebook so they don’t hog so much of the notifications list.

Back on the home screen, looks like you missed a call earlier. Back to the list of notifications. How did you miss that Google Voice listing? Must have been pushed down below all the Facebook and Twitter junk. Here on the notifications screen, Google Voice tells you who called and adds a transcription of their voicemail. It’s a reminder for your haircut. Wonder for the fortieth time why the notice always adds “Voicemail from [the caller]” at the beginning of every transcription – it already told you who called on the line above. Tap, tap, tap at that tiny “x” to try and clear the listing. Never mind, you just hit the home button.

Got to check the calendar about that hair appointment. We’ve got CalenGoo on the iPhone, too, you self-satisfied Android fanboys, you think to yourself. Now where the heck did you put that icon? In the folder called “utilities” on your home screen? Nope. Slide over to the left, second screen, nope, third screen, nope. Wait, wasn’t it back on screen two in the folder called “organized life”? Right. Okay, tap CalenGoo and you’re all set.

Back on the home screen, seeing the icon for the official Twitter app reminds you of something you were reading last night on your iPad. You bought a new Twitter client app. The app store downloaded it to your iPad, but where is it on this phone? Oh right, just go to the app store app, click on update and then purchased items. Hit the “Not on this iPhone” tab and wait…and wait. Here’s the list, tap the new app and it’s downloaded and installed. Enough time wasted — back to work for you.

At lunch time, walking down the street, you decide to text the wife and tell her she’s sweet. Pull out the phone, hit the home key twice to call up Siri and say “Send a text to Whitney Connaughton I love you baby.” Wait a few seconds, then a few seconds more. “I’m really sorry Aaron. I can’t do that right now. Please try again later.” Doh. Resisting the urge to hurl Siri into the Fort Point Channel, you call up the messaging app and type it in.

Next tap the Google Voice app to call that contractor you just hired to put in the new windows. Hit contacts and a huge list of your iPhone’s contacts come up, straight out of the Address Book on your Mac. Ugh. Google Voice on the iPhone still can’t get to your Google Voice contacts? Right. But don’t worry, you’re syncing Google contacts with Address Book and you have the contractor in the group called “Window Project.” Hit the groups. Oh right, the syncing feature doesn’t sync groups so that group’s not here. Back to the list. Scroll down the list to find his name. Sure is neat-o the way it bounces to a stop.

Grab a sandwich and on the walk back it’s time for some tunes. Bought the new Coldplay album the other day. Is it on the phone? Check the music app. Not here. Purchased? Hmm, weird not there either. You’re so sure you bought it. Oh right – it was on sale at Amazon for like $5 bucks less than iTunes. Wasn’t iTunes Match supposed to match stuff even if you didn’t buy it from Apple? But on the phone iTunes Match can only show either every single song in your entire library or just what’s on this phone. And since the setting to change the view is buried somewhere, you’ve got it just showing local stuff.

Head back to settings, dig around, flick the switch. Wait a while for everything to get up to date. Find Chris Martin’s latest without thinking about his sham marriage to G. Paltrow. Hit play. No, no play – that’s download. Wait for the songs to download. Deep sigh. Wonder about Verizon’s faster LTE service while you wait. Unhappy thoughts. Hit the app store to install Amazon’s MP3 app. No go — it’s not available. Wouldn’t it be cool if Apple’s music app had tabs for on the device and in the cloud? Deeper sigh.

Time to head home and you’re wondering about the commute. Find that darn maps app on side screen four, open it up and click on the traffic overlay. Looks pretty messy. Let’s grab the new episode of Hypercritical. Downloading, downloading, downloading, some day my Siracusa will come.

After dinner, surfing the net on the phone, the urge hits to post an article about the Celtics to your Facebook buddies. Hit the share button. Hmm, no Facebook here, just Twitter. Can’t you just add the services you want? No? Not at all? What the…okay, well then let’s load a photo to FB. Can’t do that either, just Twitter again. Damn you Twitter, how much did you pay Apple for this annoyance-enhancing exclusivity? Go to FB app and post the pic. Then go back to laboriously cut and paste the Celtics article URL into another FB app post. Annoying.

Time for sleep. Double press the home button and say “Siri, wake me up at 7 am tomorrow.” “I’m really sorry Aaron, I can’t…”

Screen wipes to dead TV channel static.

(Coming later, my teen-age daughter’s rebuttal and why she loves the 4S and hates her brother’s Droid 4 with a passion)

Review: First 24 hours with the Amazon Kindle Fire

It costs less than half what an iPad costs but it does more than half of what an iPad does.

That’s the bottom line.

The new Amazon Kindle Fire is no iPad but it is a slick little gadget that is frequently delightful and worth $199.

Sure, the Fire has a smaller screen, slower processor and less storage than Apple’s cheapest iPad. But most people won’t care. The Fire also has a nice sharp screen, comfortable grippy sides and sufficient processing power and applications to make a device that’s great for watching movies and TV shows, reading books, listening to music, catching up on email and doing light web browsing.

Surely, Amazon made compromises but it feels like they made all the right compromises. No camera? The camera on the iPad is terrible and I have my phone’s camera with me all the time. Less memory? Lots of free online storage and streaming media services. It is a bit on the chunky and heavy side — you wouldn’t want to hold it in one hand for very long — but it still has a nice feel.

The Fire is at its core an Android device — a very important part of its appeal because it runs thousands of Android apps. So there are plenty of games and diversions available. It doesn’t run most Android apps directly (those which haven’t been approved by Amazon), however, so there are also many holes. My daughter was pleased to find all the gaming biggies here like Angry Birds, Cut the rope, Fruit Ninja and so on. Among the missing are lots of nerdier fare like super useful 1Password. UPDATE: 1Password is available now. Over time, I’d expect the gap to narrow, especially as the Fire becomes more and more popular. You can also install apps not in the Amazon app store through a somewhat complicated process called “sideloading.” The Fire also does without Google’s native apps for Gmail, mapping and other useful services, which is a shame.

The software has typical version 1.0 hiccups, as many reviewers have pointed out. Sometimes you have to tap just so on the screen to register a click and the Photo Gallery app automatically downsizes your pictures without giving you any other options, for example. But I didn’t find any show stoppers and the bugs are mainly the kind of thing you get used to so quickly that they all but disappear from conscious view.

Some pundits have waved off the Fire as a vending machine for buying stuff Amazon sells. It’s one of those nerdy, in-the-know put downs that is irrelevant to real life customers. It’s very easy to watch free, rented or for-sale videos from Amazon on the Fire but it’s also easy to use the Netflix or Hulu apps to watch non-Amazon video. And the Fire’s video player is compatible with a couple of different formats including H264, MPEG 4 and VP8. You can hook the Fire up to your computer and drag and drop in any compatible videos you’d like.

It’s much the same for music. Music you already own elsewhere can also be loaded via the Internet and Amazon’s free cloud player. I bought Adele’s album on iTunes, had Amazon upload to its cloud server one night, and downloaded to the Fire today. The Fire also has its own email address so you can email documents and other files right to it, as well.

I really prefer the Fire’s organizational metaphor, which is much like Apple’s cover flow. I’ve complained many times about how frustrating and useless I find Apple’s iPhone and iPad method of organizing apps — the endless sea of rounded corners. On the Fire, everything is mixed together in a scrollable display of pictures which are larger and more detailed than typical app icons. The scrollable display includes not just apps but also ebooks, music albums, magazines, movies, personal documents and TV shows. For some apps, like the browser, the picture shows a mini version of what you were doing last. At the top of the screen, you can choose to filter instantly the scrollable list to include just books, songs, videos, documents or apps. There’s also an easy to reach spot for stashing favorites.

The Fire’s considerable appeal is lessened when you’re out of range of a Wifi signal, however. There’s only limited storage for offline viewing and the super-convenience of having everything stored out on the Internet on Amazon’s servers is eliminated.

One thing struck me as odd but nice. While Apple, Amazon and others are hoping that putting everything in their particular cloud storage will make it harder for you to jump ship, at this moment there’s a funny confluence of services between the competitors. If you buy all your music on iTunes, you can use Amazon’s Cloud Music uploader to sync it to all your non-Apple devices for free. And if you buy a lot of music from Amazon’s MP3 store, where it’s often cheaper, you can now use Apple’s $25/year iTunes Match service to propagate it across all your iPhones, iPads and Macs.

It’s highly unlikely Amazon is planning to sit still with its Fire line-up, a point some pundits seem to have missed. Even if this initial version is way behind the iPad, the next version will close some of the gap. Apple will be improving the iPad as well.

But the nature of computer-powered gadgets is that the gap from cheapest to most expensive in any category shrinks over time because of Moore’s Law and all its corollaries. Many times a “good enough” level is reach that eventually renders more expensive models unnecessary. Apple has done a great job over the past decade side-stepping the “good enough” level through its innovations. Whether that will continue in hotly contested markets like tablets remains to be seen.

Using an iPhone 4S without iTunes – ever!

For reasons that shall be dealt with later, I’m the owner of a new iPhone 4S. Having had more than my fill of iTunes annoyances, delays and freezes, I’m trying to go without ever syncing my new iPhone to my Mac. In the first few days, it’s mostly gone smoothly.

Email/Contacts/Calendars

I’m using both Apple’s iCloud (converted from MobileMe) and Google’s various web services right now. Since I’ve been on an Android phone for almost a year, my Apple contacts and calendar are a bit dated around the edges compared to my Google stuff. It’s sort of a bake-off and if the phone works well with Google services, I’ll probably phase out the iCloud.

Adding iCloud was easy and everything appeared quickly. To get the best of all possible experiences with Google, I’m following the advice from some support boards to use the iPhone’s default Google settings for Gmail and Google calendar and an Exchange account pointing to Google servers for contacts. Directions for the Exchange bit are here. That also seems to have worked without a hitch.

Inside my contacts app, I can choose any of the groups set up in my iCloud contacts lists (which mostly originate from the Address Book program on my main Mac) or my Google contacts. I cannot access different groups I’ve set up in my Google contacts, but I can’t do that on my Android phone either. On the iPhone’s phone favorites screen, I can select any number or email from any of those many lists. Very handy and smooth so far.

Previously purchased music and apps

As soon as I activated my new phone and signed in with my iTunes identity, the iTunes store app had a tab for previously purchased music and TV shows. I could download any of the thousands of tracks or shows I’d bought from Apple over the years. Very spiffy. Of course, music purchased elsewhere was nowhere to be found and there’s no Amazon Music Player app for the iPhone that I could find. If I agree to pony up another $25/year, Apple will shortly solve this problem with “iTunes Match.”

Apps were a bit trickier. There was no tab in the App Store app and for a few minutes I was stumped. It’s not intuitive but previously purchased apps appeared under the Updates tab. They seem to be listed in the order in which you first downloaded them — the most recently purchased app is at the top, the oldest stuff is at the bottom — with no sorting choices. Annoyingly, selecting any app for installing on the phone took me off the purchased apps screen, out of the App Store app and out to the iPhone’s home screen where the app was being installed. I had to double-click the home button and hit the App Store icon to jump back.

I haven’t previously backed up app data to iCloud from any iOS device so the apps all arrived in a virginal state. It took a good couple of hours to sign in and set up all the apps. Thank god for 1Password (which, not coincidentally, was among the freshly downloaded apps that needed to be reset).

Files and documents

It’s actually pretty easy to get access to any document I need on my phone using Dropbox. Some day this may be doable with iCloud. But so far iCloud is only syncing documents from one iOS device’s versions of Apple’s office suite apps, Pages, Keynote and Numbers to another iOS device’s versions. That’s the iOS versions — not the desktop versions.

Another key app for on-the-go documents is Evernote, my reliable digital shoe box that stores copies of notes, web pages and other kinds of files and makes them auto-magically available on all manner of devices and computers.

Movies

Well, I may be screwed. Apple’s previously purchased download policy doesn’t apply to movies. I can watch some flicks streamed via a Netflix or HBO app, but that’s not an optimal solution. And it leaves the movies we’ve previously purchased in iTunes out. The iPhone has wifi syncing with iTunes but that’s still iTunes syncing, not to mention it requires an initial USB sync. Yuck.

So, overall, it’s been a pretty smooth experience being PC free with a new iPhone 4S. So many apps and services are built for the cloud and do their own syncing that I may not need iTunes at all.

Amazon’s cloud drive pricier than Google but cheaper than others

Amazon announced a cool new service, or combination of services, really. The new cloud drive stores your stuff in an easy-to-access online “locker.” A related cloud music player lets you upload and download music to the locker as well as live stream any songs you’ve already uploaded. Streaming is limited to web browsers on computers and an Android phone app so far — no iPhone or iPad app.

But as far as the cloud storage goes, Amazon’s prices aren’t that great. You can get 5 GB free, but for more you pay $1/GB per year ($20 for 20 GB, $500 for 500 GB).

Google’s cloud storage, which can also hold all kinds of files, is much, much cheaper — 25 cents/GB per year ($5 for 20 GB, $125 for 500 GB).

Amazon is cheaper than some. Sugarsync is over $1 per GB unless you opt for the $250 for 250 GB plan. The cheaper plans are $50 for 30 GB ($1.67/GB), $100 for 60 GB ($1.67/GB), or $150 for 100 GB ($1.50/GB).

Apple’s MobileMe is also pretty bad, even if you exclude the $99 you pay for just 20 GB to start. Another 20 GB costs $49, or $2.45/GB — ouch.

What about DropBox? It is more expensive even with the annual payment discount. 100 GB costs $200 and 50GB cost $100. You can do the $/GB math on that one yourself, I think.

UPDATE: Michael Robert’s MP3tunes music locker service starts at $20 for 20 GB and slides down to $40 for 50 GB (80 cents/GB) and $140 for 200 GB (70 cents/GB).

Rock, paper scissors: Should I get a Kindle, iPad or MacBook?

Well, we’ve been Amazon Kindle owners for almost four years now at our house, we’ve had Apple’s iPad for almost a year and we’ve had Mac laptops since too long ago to remember. So we’re getting asked a lot now: Should I buy an iPad or a Kindle? Can I use an iPad instead of a laptop? Do I need a computer to use my Kindle? With all three products hot right now, the answer is sort of like the old game of rock, paper, scissors. Each has different strengths and weaknesses not to mention very different prices. Let’s review some of the basic strengths of each, starting with the cheapest.

Amazon Kindle  (3rd generation)

$139 with wifi or $189 with free mobile wireless for life

You are a reader. You always have at least one book on hand, sometimes several. When you finish a book, you simply move on to the next. The Kindle has been carefully honed to meet your needs.

You use it to read in any place you would read a book in the way you would read a book: hold it in one hand, read outside, read inside. There is no backlighting, so if you are in bed at night, you need a lamp. The black and white screen is incredibly easy to read and easy on your eyes — you will never feel the eye fatigue you get from staring at a computer screen all day. And when your eyes are already tired after that long work day, you can adjust the size of the Kindle’s type on the fly.

You want a bring it and forget it device. The Kindle fits in a purse or jacket pocket, weighs practically nothing, the battery lasts for weeks on end. You never need to sync it to a computer ever. Because the wireless connection is built-in and free (it runs on Sprint’s network but you don’t need to know that) you can access the bookstore anywhere, anytime. You can also grab any ebook you’ve ever bought any time from your personal online library maintained by Amazon. Any ebook you buy can also be read on other Kindles you own or on special apps available for most smart phones and computers — or the iPad.

The Kindle has a primitive web browser that works on the free wireless connection. It may be perfect for catching up on news, blogs or other text content but no video or complex stuff at all. There is also a mini-sized built-in keyboard. It’s handy for searching for ebooks in the store, taking a few notes but not much more. Your fingers would cramp and die trying to write the great American ebook novel on this thing.

New versions of the Kindle have historically come out around the holidays so you’re safe buying one now.

Apple iPad 2

$499-$699 with wifi, $629-$829 with mobile wireless (plus monthly contract)

You want to enjoy digital entertainment like music, movies and web sites when you’re not sitting at your desk. The iPad loves to be in the family room, the living room, on the train, at the coffee shop. Its crisp full-color screen, much larger than the Kindles’s and fully back lit,  is great if you like watching a lot of video. It also works as an ebook reader with apps for Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook and Apple’s iBooks (though there is some danger Apple is going to banish its competitors later this year). The back lighting lets you read in bed with no lamp, a feature much appreciated by sleepy spouses.

The iPad is perfect when you need to pull it out quickly and use it for 15 minutes here or 30 minutes there — waiting at the doctor’s office or to board a plane, say. There is no boot-up time, it’s instantly on and, with the mobile wireless models, connected immediately almost anywhere. Great for taking the train to work, waiting at the doctor’s office, 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there.

There is a full strength web browser built in. It’s absolutely great at almost everything but won’t play Flash content (more on that below). You will pay extra, considerably extra, over a Kindle for the iPad models with a mobile wireless connection. You can choose AT&T or Verizon but monthly plans are going to add several hundred dollars a year at least to your total cost of ownership. AT&T’s plans start at $15/month and Verizon’s at $20/month. One way to avoid the bill is to buy the wifi-only model and use your smart phone’s tethering capability or a mobile hotspot like the Verizon mifi.

The iPad can be used like a computer with its on-screen keyboard but it’s best for writing short notes or emails. There is no feeling of physical feedback from pressing each key on screen as there is with a normal keyboard, of course.

The iPad is great with web-based email services like Google’s gMail or Apple’s MobileMe. The built-in iPad email app for old-fashioned email accounts where you download all your mail, however, remains rather limited. Compared to Apple’s desktop email, the iPad version lacks basic features like spam filtering and folders.

The iPad is a great device to review or present large documents, spreadsheets or PDFs. It’s not bad for typing documents but has only limited formatting options, which can cause huge problems if you are planning to move files back and forth with a PC. And it is pretty darn horrible for spreadsheets, which cry out for a mouse and full keyboard.

The iPad is at its best showing off personal photos and home movies to friends, offering amazing slide shows anywhere you happen to be. I mean really great. The feeling of pulling up photos, zooming in and out and flicking around your albums all with your fingers in comtrol is constant fun. The iPad is less great for organizing or editing photos but you can do that on your computer and sync them over.

The iPad is part of Apple’s vast and growing iOS app ecosystem. There are thousands of great games and zillions more apps to do all sorts of things, guide you through the Louvre, track your eBay bidding, download digital comic books and on and on.

We have found that the iPad is the perfect second computer if you already have a computer for work. Get your personal life off your company’s computer (really, you should!). The iPad is light enough that you can travel with both. It now has a built in camera so you can do video chatting on the go, too.

The iPad is also kid-proof and there are lots of kid friendly games. It’s like letting the kids play in a sandbox — they can’t mess it up the way they inevitably seem to mess up full-powered computers.

There are a few weaknesses versus the Kindle or the MacBook Air. The iPad is too heavy to hold in one hand so it doesn’t work if you’re standing up on the subway or trying to use it in a cramped space where the Kindle is great. Also unlike the Kindle, the iPad does want to be synced to a computer. That’s the only way to back up your stuff and the only sane way to re-arrange your app icons if you have more than a few. And storage space can easily get tight, requiring that you sync big files like movies or TV shows back and forth with your computer.

The battery lasts for a day, maybe even for two, but then needs to be recharged. And, without getting too deep in a matter of some controversy, the iPad is not compatible with Adobe Flash so there are web sites that you cannot see (like those for some high-end restaurants and hotels) and you cannot view flash videos or play flash games (hello Club Penguin). And Apple does not let you add your own favorite web browser to your iPad.

The updated iPad 2 came out almost a year after the first iPad and while there are some vague rumors of an update in the fall, again I think it’s a pretty safe time to buy now.

The 11″ MacBook Air

$999-$1299

Another contender in the mobile and useful computing category is Apple’s new MacBook Air with an 11″ screen. It is about the same size as an iPad though almost twice as heavy (2.3 lb versus 1.3 lb).

The MacBook Air is one of the most powerful and capable laptops in the history of the category we used to call ultraportable. It has a full-size keyboard and is ready for serious writing, document creation, photo editing, pretty much any task you want to throw at a regular computer, all in a super-portable package. Load up a full copy of Microsoft Office, Adobe Lightroom or Apple’s Garageband and get to work. Spreadsheet jockeys will be happy with the trackpad. You can easily do serious emailing using Apple’s email or whatever software you like.

The web browser on the MacBook Air is a full-powered browser capable of displaying, with the correct plug-in, all flash-based web sites. You can also choose to add any browser you prefer like Firefox of Chrome.

But it’s also small enough to make for a fine movie player on the couch or in bed. You can run the Kindle ereader app for Mac and use it as an ereader, too.

Battery life is reported at 5 hours. There are no built in mobile wireless options but it’s easy enough to get a mobile wifi hotspot like Sprint’s Overdrive or Verizon’s Mifi for on-the-go connectivity.

MacBook Airs have gone a long time between updgrades so even though the current model came out almost six months ago, I’d also put this in the safe to buy now category.

Rock, paper, scissors:

As you may have gleaned from the above discussion, there is plenty of overlap in the uses and capabilities of these three great gadgets but also some major gaps for each. The Kindle may be the “paper” covering the iPad “rock” if you want to read on the subway, but that same iPad “rock” may break the Macbook “scissors” if you want to watch YouTube videos instead. Hence, if you have the budget, you might be well-served with more than one or even all three. And remember, a family with kids that owns an iPad is a family shopping for a second iPad. And a family with kids and two iPads is a family shopping for…well, you get the point.

Additional links of interest:

CNet’s Brooke Crothers has a good piece looking at an iPad2 versus the Macbook Air for all his mobile computing needs.

Give Amazon credit for great data on Blu-ray Lord of the Rings

I’ve been among the many movie fans disappointed by the studios’ greedy Blu-ray releases. Last year’s issue of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (non-extended editions) was probably an all-time low. New Line Cinema paid the price, with so many one-star reviews on Amazon that the discs were eventually consigned to the store’s virtual discount bin for half off.

Now, with the release of the extended edition LOTR trilogy on Blu-ray in a “limited edition,” Amazon, at least, seems to be more concerned with customer satisifaction.

The first thing you notice on the pre-order page is a warning alerting you that a non-limited edition version, presumably with just the longer movies and not the days’ worth of extras will also be released soon (presumabaly at a lower price). But scroll down futher and there is a really cool and useful chart of all LOTR DVD and Blu-ray releases.

Now you can see pretty clearly which movies and extras that are on the upcoming discs you already own from buying previous sets. That may hurt sales of the “limited edition” some — do you really need to have a copy of “Cameron Duncan: The Inspiration for Into the West” in high definition if you’ve already got it on the Platinum series DVD set? Maybe not. But it is a really pro-customer move by Amazon for which they should be applauded.

The future of Apple computing isn’t all led by Apple

There’s a great video up on Macworld’s site of a conversation between four highly knowledgeable Mac pundits about the “future of the Mac.” The participants were Daringfireball’s John Gruber and Tidbits’ Adam Engst along with Jason Snell and Dan Moren from Macworld. The discussion was interesting and worth the 48 minutes or so of my time, but I was struck by one kind of shocking oversight or blind spot demonstrated by all four panelists. In looking to the future of the Mac, there was hardly any mention of any products, services or software besides Apple’s. I think Dropbox may have been the only non-Apple company mentioned in a forward-looking way.

That’s a real shame because while Apple has led the personal computing revolution for pretty much the last decade, whether it be via Mac OS X, the iMac, the MacBook, the iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad etc, there have been plenty of important developments from others and plenty of misfires from Apple. And Apple is far too smart to ignore what others are doing well. The future of the Mac will most likely involve a fruitful and innovative mash-up of the best ideas both from within and without Apple.

Start, at the top, with Google. Clearly the future of the Mac is going to be more cloud-based. Apple has built a huge and mysterious server farm in North Carolina, principal purpose TBA. The newest MacBook Airs are also clearly intended to be more cloud-connected. But Apple is not a pioneer in cloud services — the opposite in fact. There’s no Apple cloud video or music services yet and its MobileMe offering is so overpriced and lacking as to be a joke to even many of the Mac faithful like me.

I’ve been a paying MobileMe subscriber for many, many years. In the beginning, I used web hosting, web-based email, web bookmarks list, syncing of data across multiple Macs and even paid for extra space to use for cloud backup and file sharing. In the past few years, though, competitors have surpassed MobileMe in nearly every area and I find the only thing I really need it for anymore is automatic syncing of my Mac address book. Gmail is the best web mail, Firefox syncs my bookmarks, Dropbox and Mozy do cloud-based file storage and backup and Bluehost and WordPress do my web sites. If Google improved its Contacts service, which needs a HUGE amount of improvement, I might not rely on MobileMe for anything anymore at all.

A second area of focus for future computing developments will come from cloud-based entertainment. For a while, Apple seemed to be almost purposely ignoring the potential. The second-gen Apple TV finally seems to be a recognition that streaming video is the best option for many scenarios but Netflix, Amazon, Xbox, Tivo and others have been here for a while. Streaming music from Spotify, Rhapsody, Napster and others also beats iTunes in some ways. I love the model popularized by services like Amazon’s Kindle and its online video store, where the company maintains all your content in the cloud for download to your various devices whenever and where ever you want. And it’s galactically simpler than maintaining an iTunes server in your home. Don’t even get me started on the mess Apple made of our various iTunes libraries with the iTunes Plus upgrade program. Blech!

In the Amazon model, if I want to read a new book on my Kindle on the train to work, I buy it and download it there. Later in bed, I have my iPad and I download it there. A few weeks later, I need to quote a passage at work so I fire up the Kindle for Mac program and access it there. I wish iTunes worked the same way for all the zillions of dollars I have spent on movies, TV shows, music and, now, apps.

Finally, not all hardware innovation arises out of Cupertino’s labs. As I blogged about yesterday, I think the new Motorola Atrix 4G smartphone is the first step towards a promising converged computing future. The Atrix has a speedy dual core processor, up to 48 GB of storage and fourth-generation mobile connectivity (I know, I know, AT&T’s 4th gen network is kind of bogus, but roll with me). Its HDMI port is capable of outputting high-definition video. A notebook shell dock turns the Atrix into a laptop and a media dock and wireless remote connect it to a TV.

(Update 2/3/11 – oops, Motorola seems to be way overpricing the laptop dock)

Once upon a time, laptops were so underpowered and expensive relative to desktop computers, few people could really function with just a laptop. But Moore’s law and all that has brought us such ultra-powerful laptops that it’s now the norm. Personally, I rely on my 13″ MacBook Pro Mac PowerBook as my sole machine (with external storage and the fantabulous Apple LED Cinema Display as my dock at home). In a few more years, with super-powered smart phones, proliferating docking options and cloud-based storage and services, the Atrix model will predominate. Peter Rojas’s great proposal to standardize docking interfaces also makes a lot of sense in this future.

And just as a final aside on the Macworld panel, I think the future of desktop computing will not be the iOS “every app in full screen” model, which the panel seemed to think was a real possibility. Lots of research has been done showing people are more productive using larger screens and multiple screens to keep more of their work in front of their eyes. Right now, I have MarsEdit open to write this post, two browser windows for finding links and background material and a Skitch window for grabbing screenshots. If I had to hit control-tab or something every time I wanted to remember what i had just read or to see the web page I needed to reference in this blog post, I think I’d go batty.

I found it a little condescending the way the panel seemed to assume the most important or most common user of the future would be the your-65-year-old-mom type. In fact, if anything, I think younger generations are more comfortable with all things computer-y, even the wild and crazy practices of having multiple windows open on-screen and having files stored in a “documents” folder.

NB This essay was inspired in part by that kitschy, trashy 1990s television show Time Trax. You remember, the one with the future cop who traveled back to 1993 with a super-computer-powered credit card.

Your thoughts, arguments and corrections, as always, welcomed in the comments.

Why can’t anyone compare iTunes store video to Android’s offerings?

The other day, Josh Topolsky at Engadget published a lengthy and detailed review of the new Samsung Nexus S smartphone which runs the very latest version of Google’s Android operating system. The 3,300 word review seemingly runs through every feature, includes a dozen or more pictures and generally appears to be the most thorough run down of the hardware and software imaginable.

But nowhere, not in one single place, in the whole review, did Topolsky mention watching TV shows and movies on the phone. Venture capitalist and blogger Bijan Sabet, who’s a pretty big Android fan, has also been blogging about his experiences with the S and, again, nothing about commercial video (I even asked in the comments). The Christian Science Monitor even did this nifty round-up with links to a bunch of reviews and you can click through all you want but still find out nothing about video purchases.

It’s actually become a huge problem in the product reviewing blogosphere — seemingly no one can tell you anything about purchasing, downloading and watching commercial video programming on Android devices. Ben Brooks wrote a loooong review of the Samsung Galaxy Tab and, again, no video mention¹. I mean, isn’t it a core use of tablets to watch movies and stuff? Come on, world o’ gadget reviewers!

It’s not because there isn’t any. A friend has the new HTC EVO Android phone operating on Sprint’s 4th generation mobile broadband network. It has some sort of Sprint video application that lists dozens of movies and TV shows (there’s some guidance on this Sprint TV web page). I’d have to say it’s an ugly mess with some channels operating on a schedule and others “on demand.” Some basic set of channels is included but others are packaged in tiers just like the bad old cable box at home. As far as I could tell all the content was streamed — no Internet signal, no video.

On the Apple side of the fence, of course, it’s trivial to assess what video programming is available for Apple’s iPhone/iPod/iPad universe — just go and look. The iTunes store has a dazzling array of movies and TV shows. Prices are pretty standardized and content is available for rental or purchase. It’s silly to even discuss in detail. Recently, I wanted to catch up on the BBC/PBS modern-day series of Sherlock Holmes. It’s on iTunes in standard or high-def. Bing. Gift the PBS series from a few years ago, On the road again: Spain, to a friend? Bam. Rent Ed Burn’s new movie, Nice Guy Johnny, to watch on an iPad? Bada-bing.

So what about Android? Can you rent movies for any or all Android devices? Or is it a carrier by carrier questions? Where’s the comparison of what they offer? Are you dependent on some third-party sources like Netflix? Without more and better reviews, it’s very hard to make the decision to abandon the Apple mobile world.

Footnotes

¹I emailed Ben and he replied “Depends on the carrier, though there may be apps that can do it – I didn’t investigate that. I also don’t have the device any longer to check.”

Google eBooks review: Liked the rough edge, not much else

Google’s long-awaited electronic bookstore has finally arrived with the promise of great “openness” for all. But in the end, Google’s offering is merely another in a long line of ebook platforms that offers some pluses and minuses but in no way, shape or form revolutionizes the market. Whether you want to talk about pricing, selection, business model, organization, availability on different PC and mobile operating systems or any other basic criteria for comparison, Google eBooks is either a little better or a little worse than its predecessors. Bottom line? Very little innovation here but a set of features that may be appealing for some consumers.

Basically, Google has opened an ebook store stocked with about 200,000 commercial books comprised of the usual stuff you find in stores. That compares with about 300,000 commercial ebooks from Barnes & Noble¹ and almost 800,000 in Amazon’s Kindle store. I can’t figure out how many books are in Apple’s iBookstore but it appears to be a lot less than Amazon or B&N. Availability of recent and popular stuff in the Google store seems pretty good.

Prices not controlled by publishers (aka not on the “agency model”) are higher that Amazon’s in all cases I could find. For example, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Ice fantasy series, A Game of Thrones, is $7.01 at Google and $6.29 at Amazon. The start of the world’s most romantic teenage vampire series, Twilight, is $9.99 at Google and $8.99 at Amazon. Of course, four of the big five publishers have worked hard to wipe out discounting with agency pricing (which lets them set a uniform price across all ebookstores), so Amazon’s price advantage is much less significant than it used to be.

And though Google has added a vast repertoire of reader reviews thanks to a partnership with Goodreads, the ebookstore web site itself still seems awfully spare and lags far behind B&N’s or Amazon’s in fit and finish. For example, ebook search results can only be sorted by relevance or date published, while Amazon also offers sorting price, sales rate and star rating. Amazon recently added gifting to the Kindle store, another cool feature so far missing from Google.

Google emphasizes that they also have some 2.8 million older, out-of-copyright free ebooks, the vast majority of which are useless effluvia with a few tens of thousands of volumes previously widely available for free on other ebook platforms (think Mark Twain, Jane Austen or Herman Melville).

Like Amazon but unlike Apple, Google stores all your ebooks for you in a virtual library that you can access from myriad apps and platforms. So far, you can read Google ebooks via any web browser that has javascript enabled, dedicated apps for Android and Apple iOS and any ereader device compatible with Adobe’s latest Digital Editions digital rights management, or DRM, system including both the Sony Reader and Barnes & Noble Nook. Notably absent so far  are apps for Blackberry, Windows Phone 7 or HP/Palm’s WebOS.

Purchases must be made with a Google checkout account, which can be added to a typical Google account you may already have for gmail or other services. This could be a hurdle for the adoption of Google’s ebook platform because I’m increasingly convinced that the failure of Google’s payment network to gain much popularity is holding back the company’s Android app store for paid apps. Apple through iTunes and Amazon through its vast web site already have payment info on tens of millions of consumers, so they can easily tap existing customers for new offerings. Google not so much.

One aspect that has been largely overlooked in all the discussion of Google eBooks is the powerful push it could potentially give for adoption of Adobe’s “Digital Editions” DRM. Previously used by Barnes & Noble and Sony but ignored by Apple and Amazon, the Adobe DRM allows consumers to buy from one ebookstore but view with a reader from another ebookstore. That is, you can now buy an ebook from Google and read it on your Nook or buy an ebook from Sony and read it with one of Google e-reader apps. Well, that’s true at least in theory — there are inevitably technical snafus that have to be resolved whenever a new vendor comes aboard. Google’s entry adds more platforms and apps for B&N and Sony ebook buyers as well as opening a new supply of ebooks for those devices.

If you check out the page Adobe maintains that lists “Digital Edition” compatible devices, you’ll discover that Sony, Koboi and even Barnes & Noble’s Nook can now read ebooks bought from Google. Their press release touting this compatibility is here.

The Google app's natural spacing

It seems like the Google effort is great news for Sony ereader owners, since they have the worst ebookstore, the highest ebook prices and the fewest platform choices of apps. Likewise, people who become big fans of the Google ebook ecosystem may be well-served by buying Sony hardware.

What about a simple comparison of the iPhone/iPad app? I’m a big user of the Kindle and its app generally has more features than Google’s app, including highlighting, looking up words in a dictionary and so on.

But the Google app does have one setting that makes me incredibly jealous and that’s allowing for a non-justified right margin, a jagged ending of words from line to line that makes reading easier on the eye (or maybe the brain). In the Kindle app, you’re stuck with ugly justified lines and uneven spacing between words. Yuck.

Footnotes:

¹It’s really hard to tell how many of the 2.1 million ebooks B&N has when you search for everything are in-copyright, modern books. I’m estimating by adding together the categories of “Under $10″ at 202,000 plus another 100,000 or so listed in the “$10 to $25,” “$25 to $50,” and “Over $50″ categories. I can’t for the life of me figure out how to tell how many ebooks are in Apple’s iBookstore.

Living in the future, Apple style, some day

Tech journalist Harry McCracken has an excellent post up about the implications of the latest Macbook Air line. He noticed a bit in Apple’s press release that I had overlooked:

Apple® today unveiled an all new MacBook Air®, the first of a next generation of notebooks which will replace mechanical hard disks and optical drives with Internet services and solid state flash storage.

As McCracken notes, Apple is aiming to get rid of spinning platters and use all solid state memory storage sooner rather than later. That means a future with faster access to data and applications plus the “instant start-up” and sleep we already get on out iPads.

But I’m also intrigued by the reference to “Internet services” which could make the amount of storage you carry around with you much less relevant. We’ve been waiting and waiting for Apple to do something cloud-based with iTunes. Kent Anderson over at the Scholarly Kitchen blog has a good post about this today, noting some other companies like Netflix and Pandora that are moving more quickly to put the consumer at the center of their content rather than the other way around.

Amazon is leading the way with its digital video and Kindle ebook services. Both keep your content stored on Amazon’s servers so you can zap it into your local devices over and over (and for video, even watch it online anywhere with a browser). Even Amazon doesn’t let you do that with your music files, so there may be some rights issues with the record labels — that wouldn’t be a shocker.

And there is still so much more Apple could and should be doing with its MobileMe service. At $99 a year for just 20 GB of online storage (split between for email and iDisk storage), it’s no bargain. For another $49 you can bump storage up to 40 GB and up to a total of 60 GB for $99 extra, or almost $200 a year.

DropBox offers 50 GB of storage for $120. SugarSync offer 60 GB a year for $100 and 100 Gb for $150. And Google offers really, really cheap storage through GoogleDocs ($5 for 20 Gb, $100 for 400 GB and a whopping 1 TB for $256) though you can only use it through Docs, Picassa Web albums and Gmail. Amazon’s S3 is also pretty cheap ($1.80 per GB per year equal to $90 for 50 GB) and can be used in conjunction with a program like JungleDisk to mimic the auto-syncing of some of these other offerings.

So Apple is slowly moving towards a more cloud-based approach and the new MacBook Airs are a tiny step along the way. Rights holders like the record labels might be holding things back but eventually, it shouldn’t matter whether you download or stream your files, be it your latest resume, a new Batman comic or last year’s best picture winner.

p.s. if this post sounds familar, I’ve been making the same requests of Apple’s horrible MobileMe pricing for ages and last blogged about the state of online storage pricing back in January.