Fail Fail Fail iPad

Checking out the 20 inch luggable tablet from sony“If the heap of new products that Microsoft showed here Sunday is any indication of the future of computing, the desktop PC is old news,” or so read the lead story from the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Yeah, desktop sales are tanking. Tablet sales are exploding. Yeah, desktops are old news, right on. Oh wait, that’s the lead story from PC World’s report on CES in November 2000, more than 12 years ago.

I offer this little historical gem as a bit of perspective and, perhaps, counter-prediction to much of the snarky and dismissive commentary emanating from this year’s CES. Sure, there are some great targets for comedy, like bragging about a phone you can take in the shower (“The Xperia Z can even survive being dropped in the toilet” – great, does it dispense hand sanitizer after that?). But with the entire computer industry in the midst of a transition from boring old form factors to exciting new varieties, that ugly dog you laugh at today may become best in show in a few years.

Looking back at earlier efforts to build tablet computers, you can see the ideas and the technologies evolve. Slowly, the expanding computing abilities of tablets enabled more and better uses and at more affordable prices. The iPad only came along after many, many duds and failures, including even from Apple (although the ill-fated Newton did produce one of the funniest bits ever in Doonesbury).

It wasn’t obvious from the start which features would be most compelling. Bill Gates’ original vision focused on a hybrid of the features of computer applications and a pad of paper. In the first couple of years, the big manufacturers all got on board and built tablets but in a dizzying array of different forms — folding tablets, hybrid tablets with keyboards, many of the same form factors that have shown up again this year at CES, oddly enough. None had mobile broadband and most weighed as much or more than laptops.

I’m not trying to argue that we will all one day be playing virtual air hockey on our computers. But there is some merit to the larger tablets and luggable touch screen computers that will only increase as they get lighter and more powerful.

The other day, my eight-year-old daughter and I were in a local Best Buy perusing one of these weird new form factors — Sony’s Tab computer. That’s it pictured at the top of the post.  It’s your basic all-in-one desktop computer with a 20″ screen. But by adding a small battery and touch sensors, Sony’s also created a giant, luggable tablet. It weighs about 12 pounds and the battery lasts for only an hour or two, but you can see where it’s going. My daughter enjoyed the drawing program, sorting photos and editing photos was a whole new experience and it’s a fine way to watch a movie.

So maybe it’s time to reconsider that most infamous 2001 prediction Gates made about tablets — “within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.” After being claim chowdered to death on that one, now it seems he was just a bit optimistic on the timing.

 

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.

Putting a close on a great 2012, blogwise

As 2012 winds to a close, I’m looking back at another year on Gravitational Pull dot net, my eighth writing this blog. This year, I suspended my experimental commentary blog, The Orange View, in an effort to write fewer and better stories here. Some months worked out better than others — I had no posts in January, a bunch in February and March, none in April, few in June and July (took a long European vacation in there) and then decent productivity for the rest of the year. Traffic was up 54% from last year and more than double 2010, according to the unique visitor count on Google Analytics, though still far short of what I’d need to do this full time, sadly.

What were people reading about in 2012? Here are the 10 most popular posts I wrote in 2012:

  1. One of these things is not like the other: Apple store, Microsoft store
  2. John Gruber spills 2000 words on the importance of pixels and typography and the awesomeness of the new MacBook Pro with Retina display without ever mentioning that most apps look like ass and relegating to a footnote that the fifteen inch laptop size is a jack of all trades master of none that fits few people’s needs
  3. Great Google Voice apps for Android and freedom from cell phone plan tyranny
  4. A Mac user’s travels in Ultrabook land
  5. It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times: Tough to buy a new Mac
  6. History will show journalists missed the big Amazon story today: ebook discounting is back
  7. The great Google storage price hike of 2012
  8. A longtime Mac user’s first impressions of the Thinkpad X1 Carbon
  9. Finally, serious Lightroom photo syncing on the iPad – no iPhoto required
  10. A Day in the Life: iPhone versus Nexus

I’ve excluded from the list my fixed pages as well as the ever-greens, like Review: Top 10 reasons why Civ V is awful (updated), written more than two years ago but still drawing plenty of traffic (and grouchy comments). Lately, a bit of research I did about which parts of the 2010 Facebook movie, The Social Network, were accurate and which less so has drawn a lot of traffic, too. Overall, though, traffic from search engines suddenly dropped quite a bit just in the past month or so for unknown reasons — maybe Google tweaked their algorithms?

You can also see the rise and fall of various operating systems in the visitor data from WordPress. After many years as #1, Microsoft Windows saw a sharp decline in its share of visitors and was surpassed by those using the Mac. The Mac usage share actually also declined, but much less than Windows. And iOS? It’s share doubled and now equals almost half the share of either of the desktop OSs. Crazy. Android’s share almost doubled but from a much smaller 2011 base so it’s lagging well behind iOS.

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.

Amazon is discounting ebooks, whenever it’s allowed to, unlike Apple

Some really silly journalism covering the ebook marketplace today. It starts with this really bad, no good article in the New York Times by David Streitfeld. The headline gets off to a completely wrong start — “Little Sign of predicted E-Book Price War” — and it goes down hill from there, as Streitfeld asserts there was going to be a “ferocious price war over ebooks.” Who was ever saying that? Of course, it was the made-up nightmare scenario that publishers were screaming about after they got sued for illegally conspiring to raise ebook prices. Streitfeld never explains that and actively seeks to mislead the reader, writing those expectations were “fueled by Amazon.” It’s a bad set-up that only gets worse.

Next, he asserts that prices have “selectively fallen but not as broadly or as drastically as anticipated.” No data, not a shred, is offered to back up this bold assertion, not even the usual misleading average price of all best-sellers publishers have sometimes cited in the past (an average which included all the sales of 99 cent independently published ebooks). Even a brief look at Amazon’s prices compared with the high price leader, Apple, makes it pretty obvious that a ton of discounting is occurring. It is limited because two of the big six publishers are still banning discounts and another, Penguin, just settled and is not yet allowing discounts, either. But on ebooks where Amazon can discount, it is doing so to the tune of 15% or more.

Compare, for example, ebook prices of the New York Times fiction best-seller list on Amazon and Apple. On four of the top 10, both carry the ebooks at $12.99. And, no surprise, in all four cases the publishers are still banning all discounting. Another older book is priced at $9.99 on both and, again, discounting is banned. On the other five, Amazon is discounting every single one, with the average price $10.93 versus $12.19 for Apple. It’s the same if you go deeper down the list or look at non-fiction.

The biggest laugh-out-loud line comes next:

“The $10 floor that publishers fought so hard to maintain for popular new novels is largely intact.”

See the old switcheroo there? Publishers hated the $10 price — the whole point of their illegal, price fixing scheme was to kill the $10 price. They weren’t trying to maintain a $10 floor — they were trying to push the “floor” up to at least $13 to $15. And that effort has failed. Amazon itself wasn’t trying to get below $10 for best sellers. In fact, even before the illegal price fixing, Amazon often priced best sellers between $11 and $12, just like it’s doing now. Jeff Bezos was going around back in 2009 and saying he intended to make a profit on ebooks as a stand alone business. And that’s right back where Amazon is pricing. Not to mention that we still don’t have a true free market for ebooks as even publishers forced to allow some price cutting retain the ability to limit the amount of overall discounting. Also left out of this narrative is the massive growth of independently published ebooks at prices well below $10. The price fixing conspiracy certainly fed the growth of this part of the market and gave Bezos plenty of cheap offerings for Amazon customers looking for bargains. That wasn’t true back when the Kindle first started.

Streitfeld then picks the one book on the best seller list that’s discounted the least by Amazon as his example. Prices of the other discountable titles are all cut by more. Lame. My favorite example, if we’re going to cherry pick, is JK Rowling’s new novel, A Casual Vacancy, which the publisher was selling for $18 as an ebook, now cut to $12.74 by Amazon.

Then come a couple of wacky theories to explain the lack of discounting, which obviously have to be pretty wacky since they are meant to explain a non-existent phenomenon. It’s the slow down in ebook buying growth rates. It’s the demise of Borders (a true WTF). It’s Amazon holding back. Blah, blah, blah.

I love the next bit where Streitfeld cites an ebook market forecast from two years ago as “typically ebullient.” It’s James McQuivey calling for $2.8 billion of ebook sales in 2015. Crazy? Insane? Hmm, maybe right on. Ebook sales last year hit $2.1 billion and up some 34 percent this year, according to Streitfeld, thus reaching — wait for it — $2.8 billion.

The finish is, of course, the most wrong: “this might be as cheap as ebooks will ever be.” That’s pretty unlikely given that Penguin is about to allow discounting again and Macmillan is being prosecuted in court for its recalcitrance.

A second, slightly better piece from Laura Hazard Owen needs a few corrections, too. She buys into the data-free assertion that prices haven’t fallen and the headline is off-base. But she’s correct to point out that not all ebooks were sold at $9.99 before the wave of price fixing in 2010 — though I’m pretty sure she has previously gone along with publishers assertions that Amazon cut everything to $9.99 in the bad, old days (I’ll have to double-check). And she explains that Amazon’s ability to discount now is still limited, as I explained above.

Ironically, it’s the element of competition that she seems to get wrong. Apple isn’t discounting to match Amazon. It’s sticking with high prices. So whereas when Amazon was the only major player, it used $9.99 as a kind of promotional advertising, a psychological sweet spot, now it has a simpler task of undercutting the actual prices of the competition. No need for psychology, there’s a whole ebook marketplace consumers can see. And in the new market where Apple likes to sell for at least $13 when it can, a discount to $11 looks pretty enticing.

But Owen doesn’t get it as she writes: ” These retailers have all shown themselves willing to match Amazon’s price drops on ebooks. The prices aren’t always exactly the same across stores, but they are at least close enough that there is little incentive to switch retailers if you’re already using a platform you like.”

That’s the chuckler in her piece. Prices are not that close. And there’s less platform lock in than ever — it’s easy to switch around. Amazon offers free ereading software for almost any platform including the iPad, iPhone and Mac. Ironically, it seems to be the higher-priced competition that’s having the biggest impact on Amazon’s pricing, creating a price umbrella that has eased the pressure to price at $9.99.

Online storage prices come down slowly — Apple still the max

Drastic price cutting has hit the online storage space, or so you may read. But, unfortunately, most of the price cutting is for big time corporate users not us little guys. Well, that’s not completely true. There have been some serious price cuts on online storage for us ordinary users since I last wrote about this back in May.

That was when Google switched from super cheap prices to only sort of cheap prices — and you had to sign up to pay monthly instead of paying once a year. Big drag. Google’s prices remain unchanged, starting at $1.20 per GB per year (excluding the free space you get).

But, the competition is heating up some. In July, Dropbox effectively halved its prices by giving you 100 GB, not just 50, for $99 a year. Excluding the 2 GB they give you free, that’s 99 cents per GB per year. And ahead of the updated Kindle Fire tablets, Amazon made a similar move, halving the price of its Cloud storage to around 56 cents per GB (excluding the 5 GB you get free).

Sugarsync has not reduced its prices since May and still sits at $2 per GB per year for starters, falling to $1.02 if you buy the maximum 250 GB plan $1.58 if you buy the maximum 100 GB plan. Apple, too, remains stuck at the high end, charging $2 per GB for additional space on iCloud (excluding the 5 GB free) — and up to a maximum of only 50 GB.

So, slight improvements — I’m not complaining — but not the all-out-war that’s taking place in the enterprise online storage market.

Finally, I’ll add that I have sampled services from Dropbox, Google Drive and Amazon Cloud on Mac and Windows computers as well as on iOS and Android devices. And I’ve used iCloud on Macs and iOS. I like Dropbox best because it just works so reliably and in the manner you expect. But there are benefits from the more integrated services. Dumping photos into my Amazon Cloud drive as a back up and seeing them sync automagically into my Kindle Fire’s photo gallery app is pretty cool. And you retain more control, or a finer level of control, over the process than with iCloud’s photostream and other Apple syncing practices.

UPDATE: Here’s a table comparing the major services

Service Free (GB) Added data (GB) Prices per year Price/Gb/year
Apple 5 10/20/50 20/40/100 $2/$2/$2
Amazon 5 15/45/95/195 10/25/50/100 $0.67/$0.56/$0.53/$0.51
Dropbox 2 98/198/498 99/199/499 $1/$1/$1
Google 5 20/95/195 30/60/120 $1.49/$0.63/$0.61
Microsoft 7 20/50/100 10/20/50 $0.50/$0.50/$0.50
SugarSync 5 25/55/95/245 50/100/150/250 $2/$1.82/$1.58/$1.02

Notes: “Added data” and “Price/GB/year” exclude free space. Prices have been rounded in some cases. Amazon and Google offer even higher data plans up into the terabytes.

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.

A longtime Mac user’s first impressions of the Thinkpad X1 Carbon

The Thinkpad X1 carbon

Well, as I’d been threatening for a while, I ended my decade plus using a Mac as my main computer this month and jumped to the Windows side, lured by the all-black, super-lightweight Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon. I’ve had the laptop for about three weeks and here are some of my first impressions. Feel free to chime in with questions and comments in the comments, but please keep it polite and informative.

Fantastic hardware – I love the feel of the X1’s carbon fiber body, nicely grippable and an attractive matte black. It reminds me of my all-time favorite Mac laptop, the Powerbook G3 I had in the late 1990s, though it probably weighs less than half as much as that old battleship. The X1’s matte screen is also gorgeous, clear and bright at 14″ diagonally with 1600 by 900 pixels. The keyboard works great and the touchpad is also among the best — love the dedicated page up and down keys. There are other small, brilliant touches like a true security slot for your Kensington lock, a finger print reader and an SD card reader that inhales the whole card, so you don’t have anything sticking out if you want to leave a card in when you pack up (I can’t tell you how many times I closed my Macbook Pro, putting it to sleep, with an SD card sticking out so it would’t fit in my case and I had to wake it up and eject the card just to put it away).

In addition to my trusty 13″ MacBook Pro, I also used a Macbook Air as my main machine when I traveled in Europe this summer and, for comparison, I’d say the Thinkpad has a better screen and keyboard as well as superior battery life. I also much prefer the Thinkpad’s carbon body to the Air’s slippery, sharp aluminum shell. The Air’s trackpad was better and it had fewer of the Thinkpad’s software hiccups, some of which are detailed below.

Windows 8 is intriguing but with annoyances – I spend most of my time on the traditional desktop side running the same kinds of applications I used on my Mac. It’s not that different than prior versions of Windows. The desktop itself is still there as a much needed home base for short cuts and files. I definitely needed some small but critical tweaks. For example, the three click drop which unadulterated Windows 8 forces you into just to choose from among all your installed programs is annoying but easily remedied. I opted for the free Pokki Menu, which creates one button access to a highly customizable start menu with quick access also to shut down options and notifications. And I actually had to spend $15 on a file add-in just so Windows 8 could comprehend the RAW format files from my Sony camera.

Cross-platform software saves the day – I am so glad I went out of my way over the years to find software solutions that worked on multiple operating systems. By resisting Apple lock-in, I can safely say that all of my most important programs were cross-platform. Of course, cloud-based apps like Evernote, WordPress, Spotify and Dropbox work great on Windows. And Microsoft Office is at least as good in its native environs, though I wasn’t excited to buy it all over again. But most programs let me re-use my Mac license for the Windows version, like Adobe Lightroom and Postbox for email. To fill in some small gaps, I’ve been trying out new Windows stuff, like lean, mean text editor Markdown Pad. I also like Azotix Software’s Active Organizer program, a dedicated, stand alone Google contacts and calendar program that works even when you’re offline.

Lenovo! Newman! – I must admit that every time I have to deal with Lenovo, I long for Apple. The online purchasing experience was awful — clunky, buggy and with too few options available. You want an Intel i7 processor and more than 4 GB of RAM? No luck, i5 for you. SSD bigger than 256 GB? Not available. The support site is even worse. Could it at least remember which model I have so I don’t have go through the eight-step selection process all over again every time I visit? And then there’s the god awful pile of crapware, sort-of-helpware and failware that comes pre-installed. So far, every fourth upgrade attempt utterly fails. Blech. I’ll blog later about the process of upgrading the brand new machine from Windows 7 to 8, but suffice it to say that it required following a 4-page, single space typed set of instructions from Lenovo that asked me to manually uninstall a half dozen programs and failed to explain that some needed driver software had to be downloaded separately.

Still keeping up with Mac world – I’m still using Macs and iPads around the house to remain bilingual and retain my ability to complain about the many flaws creeping into Mac OS X. Mountain Lion is just awful for me, from the insane iCloud file scheme to the anorexically thin scroll bars to the finder which needs an complete overhaul that’s about 8 years overdue. But OS X has other strengths and there’s lots of interesting Mac software, so I’ll try to keep up.

(Edited to add a few more examples for clarity. Also see my responses in the comments.)

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.

How to delete the horrid sparsebundle from your Time Capsule

Short version: Here’s how to actually delete a sparsebundle Time Machine backup file from a Time Capsule — use Windows.

Long version: We have an Apple Time Capsule here at home and it’s almost always been an incredibly great wifi router with built in storage. The kids, especially, benefit from having all of their laptop files auto-magically backed up via the Time Machine app without me needing to do much of anything. Sweet.

But even a big, fat Time Capsule hard drive eventually gets full. I was looking at the drive on our capsule tonight via the Apple Airport Utility. Each computer backup shows up as a single file that starts with the computer’s name, adds a bunch of junk and ends with the special file format, .sparsebundle. Under the drive tab, there’s just one option to delete and it deletes everything on the disk. That’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to keep the kids’ laptop backups, stored in the wacky sparsebundle format, but delete some extra folders and an old backup of a computer we don’t use anymore.

So I flipped over to the Finder and down in the “Shared” section I could click through to see the full contents of my Time Capsule’s hard drive. The old sparsebundle was right there so I right clicked on it and choose “delete.” Super. A dialog box asks if I want to permanently delete. I click ok. Then nothing — scrolling bar of nothing that will literally stay up for hours with nothing happening. Yuck.

I tried two solutions I found online but neither worked. One was to right-click on the sparsebundle, choose show package contents, go inside the folder called “bands” and delete bunches of the files in there. Nope — same freeze up.

Another online suggestion recommended doing the show package contents trick and then right clicking on the file called “token,” going to the “get info” screen and unchecking the “locked” check mark. But my token lock box was already unchecked. No dice.

Eventually I found the solution to deleting the unwanted sparsebundle by reading an Apple support board post. The trick is to use Windows. Or, in my case, use VMWare running Windows 8. Open the Windows Explorer and navigate to your Time capsule via the IP address — in the address bar you just type \\ and then the address which for most folks starts with 192.168 and then has two more bits, like 192.168.1.15. A dialog box asks you to log in. I have a password on my Time Capsule but no log in name. I just put anything into the log in name field and typed in my password. Once I was in, all the sparsebundles were displayed and a right click and delete worked in under a minute. So awesome:

using windows to delete a sparsebundle

UPDATE: In the comments, there’s also a way to force the Finder to connect to the Time Capsule the same way Windows connects via Microsoft’s SMB (Server Message Block) protocol. No Windows required. I haven’t tried it myself, however.