Category Archives: mobile

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 App.net? 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 BostonGloble.com, checked out restaurants on the SF bulletin boards of Chowhound.com 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.

iPad, Nexus, Kindle Fire – which tablet should I buy?

Compare the ipad, nexus and kindle fire tablets

What a crazy time to be shopping for a tablet computer. There are so many, many choices. Which tablet should you buy? I have some advice — and please give me your intelligent feedback in the comments section below — on the biggest sellers, all of which I have personally used: Apple’s iPad line, Google’s Nexus family and Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD offerings.

Unlike past years, the competition at the beginning of 2013 is hotter than ever, making a decision more complicated than ever. To to simplify, let’s review three basic factors and then I’ll have some advice at the end.

budget | content | uses

budget

How much do you have spend for a new tablet? If you want to hit that magic $199 price point or less, it’s between Amazon’s 7″ Kindle Fire HD and Google’s 7″ Nexus. If you can go up to the $300 to $400 range, you can reach the 10″ Nexus, the 9″ Kindle Fire and the 8″ iPad mini. Heading to $500 and over, you reach the full 10″ iPad.

Adding a mobile broadband radio, which you may want if you plan to travel a lot with your tablet, costs more:

+$100 to the minimum Nexus 7 (also doubles your memory) = $299

+$200 to the entry level 9″ Kindle Fire HD (and more memory) = $499

+$130 to iPad mini = $459

+$130 to the big iPad = $629

(The Nexus 10 and 7″ Kindle Fire HD aren’t sold with built in mobile broadband)

content

A lot of people will tell you that the easy way to decide on a tablet is to review your so-called ecosystem, or the existing collection of digital music, books, movies and TV shows along with any premium apps you have bought. Just stick with your ecosystem, they say. But I think it’s not nearly so simple anymore. Ecosystems matter less than ever.

First, for music, the vendor is all but irrelevant. Music files now a days are no longer locked to any company’s devices with digital rights management, or DRM, software and can be easily (and legally) trafficked among the brands. The new cloud services, Apple’s iTunes Match, Amazon’s Cloud Music Player and Google Music, all keep track of your songs and let you download them onto multiple computers and devices. And how important is owning all your music? At least in my house, the kids today are far more interested in using subscription music services like Spotify and Rdio, which work great on all the devices, too.

Next come ebooks, which sadly do still carry DRM locks. But even here, for most users, ebooks can travel onto many kinds of devices. That’s because the two leading sellers, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, provide software to read their ebooks for all the different platforms. I’m a Kindle fan and I’ve read my ebooks on devices not just from Amazon but also from Apple, Google and BlackBerry. Google offers ebook software for Android and the iPad but Apple sticks just to iOS (for what it’s worth, I think that’s reason enough to avoid them completely).

Apps are an in-between case. Many are free or cost just 99 cents, so the lost investment of switching platforms is pretty small. Remember just a few years ago when switching, say, from Windows to the Mac meant spending hundreds of dollars just to restore a few key apps like Microsoft Office. In tablet world, this so-called “applications barrier to entry” is almost non-existent.

And many of the most popular apps are available on all three platforms. Amazon has the most limited supply and Apple tends to have the best new apps. But if you’re wondering, it’s pretty easy to see which apps you may be able to keep if you switch platforms by checking the web stores of Google and Amazon.

There is still one area where you might have serious investments locked to one ecosystem: movies and television shows. Apple’s iTunes store has been around for a decade and I know we’re not atypical with our vast holdings of hard-to-transfer iTunes videos. Likewise, movies and shows bought from Google won’t play on the iPad or Kindle. Amazon has built an app to let you watch its videos on the iPad, though not yet on Google’s Android devices (you can watch via the web site on the Nexus if you are willing to install Adobe Flash software).

Like music, however, video is an also an area where the ownership model is slipping away. Do you watch most of your shows on Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go or some other subscription service app? Those apps are offered on all three platforms.

A final consideration is Amazon’s amazing deals for anyone subscribing to its $79/year free shipping service known as Prime. If you pay for Prime you get access to a ton of movies and TV shows for free. That can save a lot of money in the future in addition to any savings by buying a Kindle Fire now.

So take a survey. Ignoring music, do you have tons of video and possibly ebooks that you bought from Apple for your iPhone or iPod touch? And is it the kind of stuff you want to come back to and watch or read over and over again? That could be a lot of lost value if you switch tablets just to save a little on the upfront cost. On the other hand, Amazon’s ebooks and video can play on the iPad (and sort of on the Nexus) and you get all the free stuff if you subscribe to Prime. Google’s ebooks but not video play on the iPad.

There’s also the rest of our digital life’s ecosystem to consider. For file storage and syncing, calendars, contacts and email, some people are deeply embedded in Apple’s iCloud. Others are all Google, all the time. What do they say about Harry Potter and Voldemort? Neither can live while the other survives? Apple-istas will do best sticking with the iPad. iCloud doesn’t do Android. Google-ites? In the past, I have found syncing Google data to iOS devices to be a huge pain and subject to major limitations, but I should point out for more experienced users, Google has made the process easier recently, as explained by TheVerge. Nexus devices, obviously were made for it. You can also sync your Google account with the Amazon Kindle Fire’s calendar, email and contacts apps but, again, nothing for iCloud.

usage

What are you actually doing with your tablet? When I reviewed the very first Kindle Fire, I said it was a good deal because it could do most of what you wanted to do on an iPad for less than half the price. And that’s still true today. If you want a tablet for mostly web surfing, reading ebooks, watching video, playing the occasional game and doing light email, the Kindle Fire HD line is hard to beat. Amazon has a smaller but more cultivated app store than Google and lags far behind Apple. But the actual hardware devices are pretty nifty, with really good screens, and at a bargain price. They also have the most innovative child control software by far.

Are you going to be doing “real” work or using your tablet as a laptop replacement? In this case, the Kindle Fires are a lot less appealing. They don’t play as well with other platforms. The iPad has plenty of software for writing, making presentations, editing photos and all that plus it benefits from the widest choices of keyboards. The Nexus works really well if your work is often via Google Docs and other Google services.

What about sharing a device or and handing one of these tablets off to your kids? The iPad stinks for sharing, absolutely stinks. Signing in and out of email accounts, iCloud accounts and the like is inconvenient and apps and movies and what not can’t be shared between iTunes store accounts. Given how annoying it already is to move and arrange apps just the way you want them on iOS, having other people move your cheese is no fun either. The Nexus is much better in this area — a recent software update added true multiple user accounts. And the Nexus is smart, storing only one copy of an app or other content that appears in more than one user’s account.

Amazon’s child control feature, called Freetime, brings sort of, kind of the notion of multiple user accounts to the Kindle Fire. It does offer by far the best and smartest child controls of any tablet if a kid is the primary user. The iPad child control screen is a nightmare.

And how much traveling will you be doing? While it’s possible to use the wifi hot spot feature on your phone to connect your tablet, it’s so quick and convenient to have built-in mobile broadband. It’s not free, typically adding about $20 a month to your cell phone bill, or $10 if you have a family plan on AT&T or Verizon. There’s nothing like the feeling of flicking on your tablet and getting right to work without having to mess with wifi sign ons or other devices to get connected.

bottom line

If you’ve considered all the the issues above, you may have already come to a realization about which tablet to buy. People deeply invested in either the entertainment or business-y ecosystems of Apple or Google probably have the most obvious answers. If not, I would suggest that for the most budget-minded, for those planning to use their tablet mostly at home and for more for entertainment purposes, the Kindle Fire HDs are a great bargain. The savings come not just in the lower price but also with all the free content you can access from Amazon.

If you are looking to get some business done, it’s time to spend a bit more for the iPad, which not only has a far more robust and diverse selection of apps but also a better selection of accessories like keyboards, cases and other add-ons (blood pressure monitor anyone?). The Nexus line is second best here by a fair margin but totally workable and far better in the realm of Gmail, Google calendar and voice and all that.

As far as whether to go for 7″ to 8″ screens or the larger screens, think again about your budget and your usage. Small screens are cheaper and work best on-the-go. They’re also good for reading. Try holding a full size iPad in one hand for more than a few minutes – forget it. I don’t love the screen resolution of the iPad mini — both the 7″ Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 are much sharper. But after a short time using a lower resolution screen, it seems not many people can even tell the difference, so I wouldn’t get too hung up on that one spec.

By the way, if you can’t even decide whether to get a tablet versus a laptop or e-ink electronic book reader, I have looked at that question as well.

Best apps for Amazon Kindle Fire tablets

Looking for the best apps for your new Kindle Fire HD tablet? Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t give you easy access to the Google Android app store with its hundreds of thousands of offerings. Instead, you get just what is in Amazon’s much more limited store, missing plenty of good stuff especially Google’s own apps. But there are still many solid choices. I’ve had the 8.9″ Fire HD for about a month now and I have some recommendations for great apps. I’ve provided links to Amazon’s online web app store when I could find them but some apps can only be downloaded from on board the Kindle Fire itself.

Kindle Fire HD tablet

You may have purchased a Kindle tablet just to get easy access to Amazon’s pretty good collection of free and rentable video selections but there are also apps to access video from other services you may subscribe to, including Netflix, Hulu Plus and HBO Go. If you have any movies on the Hollywood studios Ultraviolet system, you can watch them using Flixster. For music, I had no problem matching my entire iTunes library to Amazon’s excellent Cloud Player — Apple, for the love of god PLEASE copy Amazon’s simple “cloud/device” interface — but there are other options including Spotify, Rdio and Pandora.

Among games, our family is currently obsessed with the brain teaser Flow Free, which requires that you draw lines or “pipes” to connect dots on various size grids. Sure, it starts easy but it gets harder and harder. Race against the clock and then hand off to someone else in your family to get the adrenaline pumping. On a different note, the latest version of Need for Speed lets you race around the world in exotic cars while pushing the Kindle Fire’s graphics capabilities to the max. On a more relaxing note, I am zoning out with the “Zen like” puzzle game Quell lately, on sale for 99 cents. Finally, I really don’t need to go through the motions and give you links to Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Words with Friends and all those other super popular titles you can easily find yourself, right? Well, I do love Sudoko.

There are gazillions of weather apps, not surprisingly. I prefer Weather Bug Elite (it’s $2) for the full featured interface and ease of switching locations. Weather Geek Pro ($3) is also cool, offering the real weather symbols and some simplified models used by meteorologists so you can track storm systems and make your own predictions.

On the finance front, I’ve noticed that more and more of the big banks have converted their apps to work on the Kindle Fire including Bank America, Wells Fargo and Chase. It took me a long time to find a good stock tracking app, though. A lot of the apps are junked up with distracting backgrounds to misdirect you from noticing the limited functionality. One clean and simple app is Wikivest HD. It can import your current holdings from dozens of firms or you can enter stocks yourself and it has simple charting and news functions.

I’m a new junkie so I have plenty of apps loaded up to keep me informed. I use the Pocket read-it-later service and their free app is excellent. There is an official Twitter app but it’s not particularly great in any way. I have switched around a couple of times, starting with Tweetcaster, which is a little busy for my taste, before switching to Tweetcomb, which is only available from inside the Kindle Fire’s own app store. For my Google Reader RSS needs I have gReader and for Reddit, I use the popular Reddit is Fun reader app, $2 without ads. I am also trying out the more tablet-y BaconReader Premium, also $2, which seems to do better in landscape mode. There are also apps from the big players in news and I especially like NPR and the Huffington Post. ESPN Sports Center is here, of course, but I am also using ScoreMobile for its sports blogging links. My employer, Reuters, has no apps here yet which is a real shame.

Speaking of work, I rely on Evernote for work writing, blogging and generally keeping track of any scrap of important information in my life. I am also a big Google calendar user so I bucked up and spent $6 for the versatile Calengoo app. You can also just sync Google Calendar to the built-in Kindle Fire calendar app for free. Astrid is an excellent and free to-do list manager syncing with Google Tasks. I also sucked it up and paid $15 for the full version of Documents to Go, which I have been using on different portable devices for what seems like a decade to read and edit Microsoft Office documents. You can also use it to read PDFs and for your Google Docs. The official WordPress app works great as a blogging tool.

Some popular apps available on iOS and Google Android have yet to reach Amazon’s app store but there are unofficial substitutes. Instafire lets you access your Instagram photo flow. It’s $3. The Chrome Browser is not here but Chrome Sync will bring your Chrome bookmarks over to Silk for 99 cents.

I’ll update this post as new apps arrive and impress me. Feel free to leave more suggestions in the comments. Thanks.

Great Google Voice apps for Android and freedom from cell phone plan tyranny

Are you a big user of Google Voice like I am? Here’s my best advice about apps and some cool tips to use Google Voice with an Android phone. You can also use these apps to make calls from an Android tablet.

One of the most important reasons I switched from an iPhone to Android was to get better (vastly better) integration with all the many Google services I use, especially Google Voice, or GV. For example, there’s no direct way to access all your Google contacts in iOS apps like the phone dialer or email, syncing to Apple’s contacts is a poor substitute that doesn’t work very well and even Google’s own iOS app for GV can’t access your Google data. But on Android, it all goes directly to the source.

Just as a mini-refresher, Google Voice is an amazing, free service, originally called GrandCentral before being acquired by Google in 2007, which lets you take total control of who calls you where while virtually eliminating the “pain in the ass” quotient of voice mail. Give out your Google number and then decide where it should ring — you can switch things up based on who is calling, the time and date and other criteria. Voice mail is transcribed for free and sent to your email. And you get free calling to numbers in the United States and Canada along with discounted rates to other countries.

Not nearly enougsceenshot of the google voice widgeth praise has been lavished on the Google Voice widget for Android. The widget screen not only provides a one click shortcut to your various GV mail boxes but also shows a live, scrollable list of the most recent voice mails and texts, including who called and a bit of the insanely useful transcribed text of the messages (see screenshot at left). Click on any message to hear the audio.There’s also one click access to send a text via GV. And at the bottom of the widget is a running total of your account balance (for covering international calls). It really shows off the power of widgets with Android to both display new information, with no clicks required, and make app features instantly available with a single click.

But the regular GV app lacks a simple settings screen to adjust your call forwarding. There are plenty of third party apps to access those settings with a minimum of clicks to adjust which phones you want to ring. I use Groove Forwarder, a very simple app with one handy extra feature. In manual mode, the app just offers a checklist of your Google voice registered numbers. Click to check or uncheck a number. But it also has an automatic mode that can switch the settings based on whether your phone is getting Internet access via WiFi or cellular.

Which reminds me, one of the most useful ways to use to Google Voice is to make and receive calls over WiFi. This is especially handy if you’re out of your cell phone carrier’s coverage but have Internet access, say when traveling abroad or vacationing in a remote locale (or maybe you just live somewhere with crummy cell service). This requires an app like Spare Phone or Groove IP. And the apps work on Android tablets, giving you the power to make and receive calls without a phone at all.

I like Groove IP so far, because it can integrate with my phone’s basic phone dialer if I want, providing a seamless WiFi calling experience. To use it, you sign into your GV account and then set GV itself to forward calls to the Google Talk option (not to the number of your cell phone — that’s very important). Instead of using minutes from your cell phone plan, the app is using data at a rate of about 1 MB per minute. That’s no problem if you’re on WiFi but obviously would eat into your data allowance if you started using it while on 3G or 4G mobile broadband.

Traveling in Europe this summer, I was reminded again about how inferior and overpriced our cell phone service is here in the states. But WiFi calling with Google Voice can free you from needing to sign up for expensive calling plans. Get a data-only plan and use GV for calling. Or buy a mobile hotspot and no phone plan and use GV for calling. The trick is easier than ever now that Google is selling the Nexus 4 phone relatively cheap and unlocked without a carrier plan.

Even if you don’t want to go WiFi only, Google Voice offers the possibility of taking more control and relying on prepaid plans to save a lot of money. For example, both Simple Wireless and Wal-Mart run on T-Mobile ‘s network but frequently have cheaper rates. It’s a competitive market and the best plan and carrier can change from month to month. If you have people calling your Google Voice number, it’s no problem to swap out SIM cards whenever you feel like it and pay for the cheapest available service. Your phone number may change but no one has to know or care.

Instapaper isn’t Instaworth it anymore – switching to Pocket

I think I was one of the earliest fans of Marco Arment’s ingenious Instapaper service. I even wrote up a rave review back in March, 2009. This is the original thing that let you save long web articles to read later in your browser or on your phone or ereader. The amazing feature that first hooked me was Instapaper’s ability to compile a bunch of saved articles into a personalized newsletter and email it once a day to my Kindle. Genius. Just think how many trees have been spared by the reduced volume of printing out long web pages.

But times change, competition grows and it’s now time to move on from Instapaper and its $12/year subscription fee (not to mention the bucks spent on separate iPad and iPhone apps as well as unofficial and finally official Android apps).

The main reason to leave is that competing products are more than good enough and cost less. Pocket, for example, has entirely free apps and a free service. It does almost everything Instapaper does that I need and it looks good, too. Adding the oddly named crofflr service to do the Kindle emailing trick costs a one-time fee of $5.

I’ve switched over to Pocket for the past two weeks and have had no problems at all on my iPad, iPod Touch, Galaxy Nexus Phone and Nexus tablet. Everything syncs nicely. The apps look really good and have enough font sizes to let me read in all conditions. Instapaper has a greater range of font choices but that’s not a critical issue. Pocket’s single serif and sans serif fonts are “good enough.”

To ensure that my reading material is downloaded to each app for offline use, I did need to tweak a setting. Under the “Offline Downloading” section of each Pocket app’s options, turn OFF “Download Best View” and then turn ON “Always Fetch Article.” Otherwise, Pocket sometimes wants to download an article from the web when you go to read it instead of keeping a cached copy available all the time.

Pocket also has those little snippets of code known as bookmarklets that you can slap on your browser’s bookmarks bar to instantly send the current web page over to your Pocket queue. And it has an array of other helper bits, like an extension for Chrome, to do the same. I’ll insert the usual Android brag here: just by installing the Pocket app on an Android device, you can send web pages from any other app directly to Pocket via the sharing menu.

The site’s extensive FAQs and discussion forums offer tips for connecting to other services. I wanted to have Pocket show up on the “send to” menu of Google’s online Reader, for example. A quick Google search found the instructions here.

There are, of course, times when we all pay more than we absolutely must for a product or service because of other benefits we receive or maybe just because we want to support a place we like. I often shop at local stores like Wellesley Books and Lower Falls Wine Co. in Newton, even though there are places to buy books and liquor cheaper, because I value their selection and service and I want to support local businesses and local jobs.

With Instapaper, though, it’s just the opposite. Marco Arment, who I once dubbed “the Mouth of Brooklyn” back in the day, is a one man mis-truth squad when it comes to too many of Apple’s competitors. His wacky theories and misstatements about Android are legion and he’s over-the-top on Amazon’s Kindle products, too. Personal favorite? When he whined about the build quality of a Kindle USB cable because, you know, Apple never has build quality issues or ships new hardware with imperfections or whatnot.

So — much credit to Marco for his beautiful and innovative reading service but time to move on. Sayonara and happy trails.

One of these things is not like the other: Apple store, Microsoft store

Boston Apple store I was an hour early for dinner with fabulous wife Whitney Connaughton and friends last Friday so I thought I’d tool around the local Apple store for a bit. The Back Bay Apple store in Boston is a thing of beauty — and it only took two years to get Boston’s historical commission to approve the design.

It’s a typical big format Apple store. I took some cool pictures and got to meet Ron Johnson back in 2008 when it opened. Spinning off the central spiral staircase, the store is spread over three floors with computers mostly the focus on one, iPhones, iPods and accessories on two and training space and more accessories on three. I needed to get Whitney a keyboard for her iPad and selected this lovely one from Logitech. I was surprised to discover that there were no wandering, wireless cashiers in the store. I actually had to go back down to the second floor and wait in line — the horror — to get to a regular register to pay.

One aspect was completely consistent with every other Apple store visit I’ve ever made. Not only were there tons of people in the store, there were tons of people buying stuff — all kinds of stuff — in the store. It’s one of those amazing retail chains like Target, Costco and Whole Foods where there just seems to be something in the air that makes people want to empty their wallets and purses at high speed.

Mission completed, I crossed the street to the Prudential Center mall where I was surprised to see, right at the very center of it all and in the highest foot traffic spot, a brand new Microsoft store. On first glance, it looked just as busy as the Apple store.

Boston Microsoft store

I cruised around the store and noticed a few things right away. Although well staffed and attractive, it was a lot more cramped and harder to move through than any Apple store. Also, the tables featured a wide mix of brands. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but I noticed laptops from Acer, Vizio, Samsung and all-in-one type PCs from Lenovo and HP, I think. Most were running Windows 7 although there were a few computers and tablets running Windows 8 to try — not to buy. They definitely did not have the Lenovo X1 Carbon I have my eye on, however. Phones from Nokia and others were all running older versions of Windows Phone, not the new 8 system.

There were also XBox stations set up at each end of the store and lots of people were playing or watching others play. All of the accessories, like laptop cases and boxed software, were set on shelves at the two ends of the store. Yep, right below the XBox television screens thus requiring a potential customer to get in way of all those people focused on the XBox playing. So the physical layout left a lot to be desired.

But the punchline, of course, was that in the 20 minutes I spent perusing the store I did not see a single person buy anything. Not one thing. Why would that be? I’m open to anyone’s theories. A couple of things occured to me:

  • Lack of consistency: At Apple, distinct areas of each store are dedicated to one thing, such as iPods or laptops. In each area, there’s just a whole bunch of the same machines to play with. The message is pretty clear and there’s not much comparing to be done. At Microsoft, too much was jumbled together and yet everything was split apart. I am in the market for a laptop. Should I go to the table called “laptops,” “ultrabooks” or “entertainment laptops”? And each table had a half dozen compeletly different models each with its own tiny sign filled with tiny print showing the specs.
  • Poor layout: As I mentioned above, everything felt cramped, packed together and in the way of everything else. I went to look at the laptop cases but quickly realized I was blocking the view of some people watching an XBox player on a big screen TV on the wall above where the cases were. Embarrassing. And where would I pay? No idea. It made me feel confused. So cramped, embarrased and confused. Not emotions I associate with a positive buying experience.
  • Mixed branding: People see Apple ads on TV or otherwise decide they want to buy an Apple product. So they head to an Apple store. Makes sense. I see a Samsung ad on TV. Where do I go? Is there a Samsung store? What do they have to do with Microsoft? Is Samsung’s Android phone there? I want a Lenovo laptop running Microsoft Windows. It’s actually not here.

Other thoughts?

p.s. Dinner was at Bin 26 Enoteca, an upscale Italian place on Charles Street near the Boston Common with good food and a ridiculous wine list. Recommended.

How to get Internet access in Rome – and how not to

Relaxing in Rome

I had an awesome vacation in Italy this summer with my awesome wife, Whitney Connaughton. Highly recommended. But ugly American that I must be, I made too many assumptions about getting online, thereby frustrating my ability to…get online.

It all started so well. Just off the high tech marvel that is Italy’s high speed train from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport to the city center, I smiled at the gleaming shops full of stylish clothes, delectable pastries and, obviously, mobile phones galore. Well, not quite. There was no sign of the biggest Italian carrier, Telecom Italia Mobile, also known as TIM. But no worries. Down on the lower shopping level was a store for Three, a brand I’d recently considered in London. I strolled in with my guide book knowledge of the local lingua and an aging but unlocked Samsung Nexus S cell phone in need of a SIM card. And so started my quest to find Internet access for a week in Roma.

The guys at Three had a quick answer for me: no. Seems my phone runs on globally widespread GSM and third-gen HSDPA networks and they were selling somewhat obscure GSM-ish UMTS compatible service. They told me I needed to get a card from the Wind store down the hall.

The Wind guys were happy to supply me with a free SIM card, a brand new Italian phone number and a 20 euro month-to-month data package. Sweet.

I got back to our cute rented apartment in the Monti neighborhood near the Colosseum, put in the card and waited for activation. And waited. And waited. After about 36 hours, I made an unhappy discovery plumbing the depths of my Nexus S phone’s settings screens. The Wind network was also the obscure and incompatible UMTS. Ugh.

It turned out that only the TIM folks had real GSM cards. Grabbing a wee bit of wifi at a coffee bar, I searched for nearby TIM outlets — second floor of the central train station. Easy as pie. But not so fast. When I went back to the station, I discovered that the store was closed for renovations.

Italian mobile phone store is closed

A few days went by with me all offline and getting very mellow and gelato-filled. Eventually, on a Saturday night, I passed another TIM store that had just closed minutes earlier. And it was closed all day on Sunday. And it opened at 10 am on Monday, an hour after we had to grab a train to Naples. So I never actually got my phone online.

What about regular old free wifi, you ask? Surely, there is some easy way to get wifi in the middle of one of Europe’s busiest cities? Well, yes and no. Yes if you can decipher this screen you could in theory get free wifi in Rome. Actually, they do have it in English, too, but I couldn’t get to that link somehow when I was Italy. I did manage to get to the sign-on screen. Free wifi required a sign up process that I could not navigate without translation. And of course translation wasn’t available without Internet access. Catch 22? Pretty much.

Back home and researching this post, I found travel writer Jessica Marati’s incredibly helpful guide to getting on the free Roman wifi network. It only requires a cell phone number and, hey, I managed to get one of those, even if I couldn’t actually use it on my phone. Next time?

So what are the lessons for other travelers looking for cheap or free Internet access in Rome? Prepare ahead of time. After having such a ridiculously easy time in London a few months back, where a simple vending machine at the airport offered multiple brands of SIM cards for all kinds of phones and tablets, I assumed Rome would be similar. It was not.

If you’re not carrying a UMTS-compatible phone, be ready to go data only. In fact, both carriers I visited were selling cheap wifi hotspots (kind of like Verizon’s mifi in the United States) and I could have made do with just that. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

And, yes, please use the comments to tell me — and anyone else who stumbles across this page — what I should have done. But be kind.

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times: Tough to buy a new Mac

I wandered into a local Apple store this week to check out the latest goodies. Afraid that my resolve might be even weaker than my bank account, I left my wallet in the car. But I needn’t have worried. We’ve arrived at a point in time for Apple users where the shear number of ongoing transitions and uncertainties in the entire desktop/laptop product line has overwhelmed the possibility to make a wise decision for most ordinary consumers like me.

This state of confusion first surfaced ahead of Apple’s annual developer conference this year when the rumor mill got itself into quite a lather. Apple would use its keynote to introduce new laptops, new desktops, a new iPhone, a revolutionary television operating system — pretty much every product in Apple’s line up except the iPad, which was just revised in March, was possibly about to be reborn. In the end, there were new laptops and a minor desktop upgrade but on the whole, not quite the tsunami Apple storm some wanted to see.

The rumor mill has alway had a pretty mixed track record but it’s interesting how broadly the rumors stretched ahead of the 2012 WWDC. I think it offers an important window, pardon the metaphor, into our current extremely transitional state of computing. And with a few too many transitions in full swing, it’s time for almost all consumers to step back and wait. Each member of the current line up of Macs is fatally compromised in one way or another for us ordinary users.

What’s the big transition? It’s not just one. After a decade of tablet computers going no where, the iPad has created an insanely fast growing new niche that is clearly taking usage time — and sales — away from traditional laptops. Even smart phones are getting so powerful and capable that they are displacing traditional computers to some degree. Both call into question long-established conventional wisdom about the need for portable computers. Displays are shifting to high detail more quickly than apps. The nearly three decade run of the PC’s spinning hard disk is also coming to a close, though the new generation flash memory is still very expensive (try pricing one of the new Macbook Pros with 512 GB of storage). Optical spinning drives, too, seem to have quickly passed into a state of decline with Apple at the lead pushing DVDs into early obsolesce. The standards for moving your data around seem a mess as well — a new, much faster flavor of Wifi called “Gigabit Wifi” or 802.11ac is just around the corner but not available yet while Apple’s once favored wired port, Thunderbolt, seems dead in the water and retread USB 3.0 is suddenly making a comeback.

At the same time, progress on a number of other critically important fronts has stalled, at least as far as users are concerned. Yes, yes, Intel’s new generation of CPUs dubbed the “Ivy Bridge” line is sooo much better than what came before. Well, sort of, kind of. Science fiction author and longtime tech reviewer for Byte magazine Jerry Pournelle used to say it’s not time to upgrade your computer until you’ll get twice the performance. Anything less than 100% improvement would barely be noticed after a few days by ordinary users in the real world. Maximum speeds topped out years ago below 4 GHz and chip designers seem more focused on adding little tricks and treats to squeeze out a little bit more performance or lower battery consumption than dramatically improving all-around speed. Meanwhile, graphics performance is actually slipping backwards as fewer Mac laptops include discrete, high performance video cards instead relying on so-called integrated chips built into CPUs and lacking their own high speed memory. Battery life is remaining steady only because Apple is putting more battery into its newest model at the expense of weight. That’s hardly progress.

So with all that in mind, consider the new and much hyped 15″ MacBook Pro with retina display I just checked out at the Apple store. As I first played around with the Safari browser, I was duly impressed by the super sharp display. But then I opened a common app used by almost everyone, Microsoft Word, and typed a few sentences. The text looked horrible, with jagged edges and visible color alterations around the anti-aliasing. I tried several fonts and ran through all five available resolution settings for the MBP to no avail. Maybe Word required some kind of update but surely Apple’s Pages app would look good. Nope — equally horrible. Here’s a top of the line, super professional machine and text looks like crap.

(UPDATE: A few months after this post was written, Microsoft updated its Office apps for the retina display. Then in December, Adobe updated Photoshop.)

Not to mention the lack of innovation in battery technology means the new unit weighs only a pound less, or about 20%, than the DVD-toting prior version. A heavier pack was needed to avoid shortening battery life (UPDATE: actually, battery life is considerably shorter than the previous Macbook Pro 15″, according to Macworld). For comparison, the 13″ MacBook Air weighs 34% less than its 13″ Pro counterpart (and it also gets less battery life).

What about the rest of the new line? New MacBook Airs and Pros have USB 3 and the latest Intel CPUs but no retina displays and the same old battery life and wifi chips. And who thinks the MBPs with their dual, dead weight spinning drives will remain in the line up for much longer?

New Mac Pros have, well, nothing (technically they have slightly faster CPUs but barely noticeable). Even Apple seems to be a little ashamed and removed the “new” badge that had initially adorned the Mac Pro icon in the Apple online store. New iMacs and Mac minis? There weren’t any, so they have no USB 3, no retina display and not even the “Ivy Bridge” processor upgrade.

All of this confusion and transition has also undone some of the conventional wisdom for buying computers in recent years. Laptops had become capable enough that many Mac consumers were forgoing buying a desktop at all. Apple’s combo docking station/monitors made that a great choice. But now there’s no retina display monitor so docking means giving up the fancy new graphics if you buy the top of the line model.

So what you really should do is wait for the next iteration of Mac updates — MacBook Airs with retina displays and broad third-party retina app support. Better batteries and wifi would help justify upgrading, too. Desktop Macs should be arriving with USB 3.0 and multiple Thunderbolt ports soon, too. Hey, at least our budgets will be happier.

(Comments are moderated so please keep it clean and relevant)

Teenage wasteland? Defending the iPhone, dissing the Droid

(As promised, here’s my teenage daughter’s rebuttal to my iPhone 4S whining. Added bonus: she threw in a rant against her brother’s Droid 4)

iPhone world

Listen to your favorite new song by that British boy band you and your friends have become recently obsessed with stream out of your pocket. Fumble around in your pocket until you pull out your phone- streamlined, smooth, made of metal- classic and practically indestructible-but you keep the adorable designer phone case on it anyways. Slide the lock open to answer the call, talk to your best friend as she moans about how she knows no boys.

Decide to get some homework done while she mumbles on- email your french teacher about the new french vocabulary and your math teacher about that simple interest rate equation that nobody on Facebook can remember- as you’ve already checked multiple times in your super-secret group you set up for your class 5 minutes before. Finish talking to your friend and then send your mom directions to [another school] — she’s picking you up there later after the winter play.

Get on the bus ride home- the 6th graders are having a bus party and offer you a cupcake. Someone has their radio and you decide you love the song they’re playing. Go onto iTunes, the largest database of music for mobile devices in existence. Buy the song, it downloads in seconds. You also have a second copy on your computer automatically, just in case you need some homework motivation later.

Open up Pages, and continue writing that English essay that you started last night on your computer- finish it and save to all your devices. One more thing done.

Listen to music from Youtube — and play Temple Run, your new favorite game, at the same time. Get totally distracted from the awesomeness of the game, until Siri reminds you to get some work done, you idiot. Go to the [another school] play and get totally lost on campus.

While jogging through buildings you don’t recognize, tell Siri to text your friend for directions. The text is sent easily, and Siri calls you cupcake, making you smile. Finally get a call from your friend who goes to [another school], he gives you directions and you make it on time.

Enjoy the play, switching your phone to silent with a flip of a conveniently located switch on the side of your phone. Download all the pictures you took on your phone to Facebook. Show your friend that dress you’re planning on wearing to her Bat Mitzvah next weekend using the Nordstrom App. Take silly pictures with friends at the cast party with your amazing camera and make them your wallpaper for your phone, making you laugh every time you take it out. Get an email from your friend- your skit for drama class has been chosen for the Arts assembly this fall. Yes. Beat your friend in words with friends. Double yes.

Go to bed feeling giddy.

Droid World

Hear the cliche wind chime noise emit from your phone- well, it could be yours, but who knows? everyone you know has the exact same ringtone. Curse under your breath as the awkward lock- 9 circles- won’t open because you’ve forgotten your overly complicated lock pattern. Again.

When and if it finally opens, see the cliche wallpaper on your phone- weird black and grey lines- your phone obviously trying to cater to the overly “manly” and wannabe gangsters. You groan. You’d change it to one of the pictures you took with your friends last weekend with Apple Photo Booth, but you can’t connect your phone to your Mac. You also have a horrific camera, so that keeps you from making it anything cool either.

Waste way more money than you should because you have to re-buy every piece of music that you have on your computer. Accidentally log yourself out of your father’s Spotify account and mope. You have no music. Try Youtube, but you can’t do anything else if you do that — the music stops automatically when you close the app. Ugh.

Try and send your sister a text using a voice command app, but it won’t work. On top of that, you can’t even find anything because it’s all jumbled together- there aren’t any categories for easy access like there are on your sister’s iPhone. Stinks for you.

Drop your phone as you get on the bus. The cheap plastic of your cheap case cracks, which you were pretending was protecting the cheap plastic of your phone, although you know it wasn’t. Try and find your Google Maps app to find your way to the Starbucks where your meeting your friend uptown today.

But… where is it? You flip through countless pages of apps that you never use and are all seem to do the same thing. You start to question your purchase of this phone- something you should have done a while ago. More than half of these pages of apps are all Verizon technical stuff. What on earth is “My Verizon”? Are trying to sell you something all over again? ugh. And what is “Let’s Golf!” ? You never bought that. And TMZ? this stinks. You have an app to turn on your vibrate… this is pathetic.

Go to bed and try to set a reminder to go to the Apple store tomorrow and get this atrocity out of your life. But, alas, it doesn’t recognize the the word iPhone. Or any of the others, for that matter. See? Even your phone is in denial.

Go to bed crying about how terrible your life is.

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)