Nov 182011

I’ve never really been that big on mobile devices.  Adrian would often extol the virtues of a 27-some-odd pocket Scottevest – equivalent to an extra carry-on for the airplane, he’d often say – while I’d wonder what I could possibly put in the 24 remaining pockets after my wallet, phone, and compact camera were stowed away.

Almost exactly two months ago, I left Alcatel-Lucent, and while there were many things I’d miss, the two mobile devices that were company property – a Blackberry 8700 phone (note the intentional lack of the word “smart”), and a Lenovo Thinkpad laptop – were not really among them.  My Blackberry was pretty much exclusively for work E-mail while travelling, and similarly, my laptop only saw use when I was on the road (I greatly preferred my desktop both in the office and at home).  But fast forward just a couple of weeks, and it felt like it was raining new kinds of mobile devices; I picked up 5 in the span of just 2-3 weeks, resulting in the following stack:

I only owned two of the devices pictured above when I came in for my last day of work at ALU – the 3rd-gen Amazon Kindle, and the HP Mini netbook which has had the sole role of recording who came to play badminton. This lack of mobile devices actually got momentarily scary, when I realized I’d be alone in Kirkland for 10 days before getting my Google-issued computer, without a device capable of playing Starcraft. Fortunately, my 3 checked bag allowance with Air Canada remedied this – one bag for my desktop, one bag for a monitor, one bag for the keyboard/mouse/accessories… and a few clothes.  My carry-on luggage was exclusively camera bags. So what are all the extra devices above, and what do I think of them? In the order I received them…

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

This Android tablet was a really nice gift that I received from my co-workers as a going away present.  I’d always maintained that I didn’t really have a use for tablets, plus I had a general aversion to Apple products mostly caused by an aversion/disapproval of their locked-in ecosystem model, so I’d never really considered a tablet.  Did having a tablet change things?

Tablet ownership mostly validated my assumption that I wouldn’t be one of those people who carry their tablet at all times.  However, it was surprisingly versatile and very good at a number of use cases. I did not have to use my old netbook at all during the move, as the tablet did everything I needed short of providing standard IP tools like ping and traceroute (which I’m sure are indeed available).  In part because I had forgotten to bring a webcam for my desktop, it was also the primary way I communicated with my family using video (with Google Talk; Skype didn’t release a version of their Android app with support for the Tab until later, and Google Talk well enough that it’s become our primary tool).  Video quality was good and being able to walk around my temporary apartment while on a video call was great!

The Tab 10.1 also saved me from the embarrassment of failing the knowledge test part of getting a drivers license here in Washington (Valerie was not as lucky).  The state only has reciprocity with British Columbia, so if you move here from elsewhere in Canada, you can’t just trade in your drivers license as I did in Virginia – you’ve actually got to test as if you were a brand new driver.  Many of the knowledge test questions were easy (“when you see a red light, you should…”), but a number were very specific (“what is the minimum penalty in Washington for drunk driving offenses”) or both specific and imperial (“what is the maximum number of inches you can park from the curb?”). No, I wasn’t cheating during the test using the tablet, but the Tab made it easy to read the PDF Driver’s handbook during the extended wait to take the test. I’m lucky that there was a lot of waiting, or I definitely wouldn’t have read enough to pass!

Since we’ve settled in our regular routine, I haven’t been using the Tab as much.  The kids love it because of the touch interface, and apps for things like drawing are great at keeping them entertained. I’d definitely bring it if we were going somewhere with the kids, but haven’t really needed it from day-to-day. It does also seem like it’d be great for recipes/cooking, but we do sadly little of that despite the abundance of local organic ingredients here in Washington…

T-Mobile/HTC Sensation 4G

T-mobile likes to call it’s pre-LTE HSPA network “4G”, perhaps because it looks like it’s not in a hurry to get to true LTE. Regardless, the Sensation is the Android smartphone I decided to pick up for my own use. I would have gone with the popular and capable Samsung Galaxy S II, but it didn’t show up on T-Mobile for more than a month after I arrived, and I wasn’t prepared to be phone-less during that entire period, especially since we didn’t get a traditional home phone line. It’s hard to comment on the Sensation; it was an absolutely stunning upgrade over my Blackberry 8700, but I suspect that even the worst Android device on the market would have been a stunning upgrade over that device; most new Blackberry devices would probably have been a significant improvement too.

While I certainly haven’t gone app-crazy like many smartphone owners seem to, good integration with Gmail, Contacts, Google Talk, Google Voice, Search (including voice-based search), Maps, Navigation (for free), and other services is just solid – and a vast improvement on my prior experience. The Sensation was essential for finding things and getting around in a place I didn’t know, even for looking up old things in Gmail or showing certain places a scanned copy of my I94! Apps for SmugMug, controlling my Squeezeboxes at home, and quickly checking my Amazon orders have also proven useful, even if not essential. I don’t play games on it at all, because… well, Starcraft 2 doesn’t run on mobile devices, and neither do any of the other games (Uncharted 3, Skyrim) I’d probably be playing if I wasn’t still stuck on SC2.

There’s just a few things I don’t like.  Battery life is just horrible – my Blackberry would last almost a week under regular use, the Sensation lasts less than a day even if I don’t do anything with it.  It’s also not been 100% reliable for me; the device does crash on occasion (though not terribly often), and it sometimes has trouble figuring out that it’s not in Wifi range anymore.

A last thing worth commenting on is that T-Mobile’s support for Wifi calling is very handy.  You can’t go from Wifi -> 3G while on a call, but if your coverage is less than superb within your home, Wifi fixes that right up for voice calls.  This may become moot if/when Google Voice supports VoIP directly, but it’s handy for now.

T-Mobile/HTC myTouch Slide 4G

For people like me that don’t change mobile devices too often (the Blackberry 8700 was released in Q2 2006, five years before I stopped using it), North America mobile plans are terrible. They assume that people switch after 2 years when their contract is up to get a new device, and since there’s a $200-$300 subsidy on most high end devices, there’s basically about a $10-20/month premium built into every plan to recover what they pay out in device subsidies.  You pay this even if you hold on to your device for a long time (like me), or pay exorbitant prices to get the unsubsidized device from Europe or Asia a few days earlier (like Adrian). Either way, it sucks. Fortunately, T-Mobile is offering a “value” plan where you simply buy the phone without a subsidy, and your monthly plan for the same set of services is $20/month cheaper than it would otherwise have been. So for $60/month, I have unlimited voice, text, and data (though only the first 2GB is full speed, anything beyond that is reduced speed). With a subsidized device, it’s $80/month.

The only real condition was that you had to activate two lines on this plan, so I had to get a 2nd device which I was going to need to Valerie anyways. I picked the Slide for a couple of reasons; first, I didn’t think she’d like the touch experience much, and secondly, the greater thickness of the Slide allowed them to put a class-leading 8MP camera in it. At the time of purchase, it apparently tested better than almost anything short of the Nokia that was built around being a good compact camera. The camera in the Sensation was decent, but still lagged my Canon S90 compact by enough that I generally carry the S90 with me. The Slide, on the other hand, seems to have a sufficiently good camera that Valerie’s been able to simply stop carrying the Fuji Finepix 31d she was using.

The funniest thing about this device is that Valerie didn’t discover that it had a slide out keyboard until she saw Leo (still less than 2 years old) playing with it :). I’m surprised she didn’t complain that I gave a ridiculously thicker phone than mine!

If you’re counting, that’s 0 to 3 Android devices – and this was within an 8 day timeframe!

Apple Macbook Pro 15″

You can tell that Google is a real tech company, because along with the “what is your name and social security number” paperwork that you fill out when signing back your offer, you fill out a “what computer do you want” form, with Windows, Linux, and Mac options.  I picked Windows, because not having used a Mac, I didn’t want to show up at a company known for a challenging interview process and high hiring standards, and look like an idiot being unable to perform even the most basic tasks on a computer.

Well, fortunately the equipment preference sheet wasn’t just the final step in the candidate evaluation process, because apparently Windows is not actually a valid selection – I was given a Macbook Pro instead. It certainly led to a few of the “I must look like an idiot moments”, starting with me looking for where the power button was, although luckily nobody was watching most of the time. It was only recently that I was even educated on how to right-click with the stubbornly simple button-less trackpad; I almost always use an external mouse so this just hadn’t come up. In any case, I survived the initial learning process, and at Google once you can launch your browser you’re 90% of where you need to be anyways.

So am I a convert to the House of Jobs? Definitely not. The Macbook is a nice piece of hardware, well designed and spec’d, with good ergonomics and aesthetics – I have absolutely no complaints other than that Shift + Control + Option/Alt + Command  + Fn (to use any function keys) is at least one set of modifier keys too many. But I’ve developed no love of Mac OS X. It’s nice that Unix sits behind it, and it’s been reliable (though I’ve had no reliability issues with recent Windows iterations). But as a keyboard devotee, having to Command-Tab to the right application, then Command-~ to the right window in that application, and then (in Chrome) having to Control-Tab/Shift-Control-Tab to the right tab, is super frustrating. Very commonly, I want to flip back and forth between two things. On Windows, even if both those things are in the browser, I can very easily have two windows, and Alt-Tab will alternate between them in one keystroke. Command-~ doesn’t work this way, it cycles through all windows, so unless you stick to just two, it’s a pain; you have to traverse up to half the window set even if you remember which way to move in. Worse, if you need to get to the right browser tab, you now need to flip between Control-Tab and Command-~, which requires different hand positions. Maybe I’ll get used to this. For now, it drives me crazy.  I think I understand why some people really loved tabbed browsing whereas I didn’t see it as key – multiple windows on Windows with easy Alt-Tab access for switching between two web pages, a web page and a native app, or two native apps, was great for me.  Tabbed browsing is better than many windows on Mac OS X due to the cycling nature of Command-~, but now getting between two arbitrary things by keyboard is a three step process instead of a one step process, that uses a mixture of modifier keys and uses cycling for both window and tab navigation (versus the most-recent approach of Alt-Tab/Command-Tab). What a pain!

That’s not all I dislike so far; the insistence on a “simple” form factor means a trackpad that I think is less intuitive and certainly more prone to accidental right clicking (so far, for me), but more stunning is the insistence up to Mac OS X 10.6 that all window resizing should happen by dragging the bottom right corner only. Huh? This finally got changed in OS X 10.7 (Lion), from what I understand, but it’s infuriating, especially when switching monitor configurations and winding up with the right corner not even being on screen. The dock has yet to grown on me also – I greatly prefer the Windows taskbar because of the ability to see how many windows I have of any app and easily switch between them. And the jumping notifications bug me because it’s impossible to ignore the; perhaps that’s the intent, but Windows notification even have the good sense to stop blinking after you’ve ignored them for 60 seconds or so, to avoid getting on your nerves.

Finally, Starcraft 2 is poor on the Mac despite that the hardware should be fine. Mac mouse acceleration totally doesn’t work for games (at least RTS games), but even after applying a patch for this, the latency/repsonsiveness just feels very off compared even to a less powerful Windows laptop. Other Googlers noted the same thing and even pointed towards the mouse patch that I applied. Of course, it could just be a lack of optimization by Blizzard on Mac, but whatever the reason, Windows is just better at playing the game. I suppose that should have been obvious, or else the professional gamers would be on Mac.

Overall, this was a big disappointment, because I was really hoping that going to a Mac would yield some mind-expanding view on simplicity and graceful user experience. Perhaps iOS achieves that, but Mac OS X doesn’t, at least for me.

Samsung Chromebook Series 5

Honestly, I’ve actually used my Chromebook the least out of the devices I have, mostly due to time. It’s light, it boots amazingly fast, and it is a very clean experience. It doesn’t play Starcraft or compile code, so it’s not as likely to be the one device I take with me on a trip, but when what you want is the web (which is the case for many if not most people), it does a great job. Once robust offline support becomes more commonplace, I think they’ll be very compelling for most users, and I plan to replace my Mom’s current laptop with one – but her connectivity is still pretty spotty, so that offline support is going to be quite important. Teaching her to use online Gmail on other people’s computer, and the offline Gmail Chrome App when on her own is just a bit too complex.  She just learned about copy & paste, after all!

I do think that within a few years, this will be the best model for a large chunk of people. My Win7 machine here at home needs a reboot to install some updates; My Macbook Pro bugs me every day about installing a new version of Safari, which I don’t use, but will require a reboot of my Mac anyways. It takes a lot longer to unlock my MBP already, and I’ve only had it for a month. I can’t figure out why Lightroom runs really slow sometime, and whether it’s Lightroom or something else causing it. Non-techies have it even worse, because they have no chance of solving such problems and they’re more prone to viruses, lack of sufficient backups, and other such problems. Chromebooks solve all these problems!

Full disclosure: I work on Chrome, though not on the Chrome OS team, so I’m going to be extremely biased on a topic like this! In general, I’m not going to post or comment on Chrome or Google here, not just because you shouldn’t trust my opinion, but also to avoid ever accidentally saying or disclosing something I shouldn’t! My job is great, being fired would be bad :).

 Posted by at 10:48 am

  5 Responses to “Fistful of mobile devices”

  1. For switching apps/windows on os x Witch: is very convenient.

    For keyboard devotees, Quicksilver is sublime. I use it to navigate to menu items directly from the keyboard (typing the menu option name).

    • There’s a message in our bathroom suggesting the use of Quicksilver… which was originally created by a Googler, and one I’ve even had the chance to interact with! I should try it out, but haven’t had taken the time to try and understand how to optimize my Mac usage. Somehow I thought Apple products were just supposed to work out of the box :).

  2. Hi Mark, I guess you’ve tried using spaces to help with some of this.

    It works well for me. Put the windows or apps in separate spaces and switch between them with Ctrl-leftarrow or Ctrl-rightarrow, or three finger swipe left or right.

    • I haven’t really, no. I’ve made multiple attempts to get myself to use similar things historically going back to things on XWindows, but have just never been able to make a habit out of it for some reason. I think the reason why is that it’s quite dynamic; the things I need to swap between are very dependent on a particular short-lived task. One E-mail might require swapping back and forth to a particular bug report; the next, to a set of visual UI mocks. If I was switching between the same sets of applications/windows that I use persistently across multiple tasks (e.g. if I was always going between Gmail, Photoshop, and Eclipse or something) those approaches might work better for me.

      I did come across a post I really liked on this topic: It seems to capture my issue in a nutshell, but state it more eloquently – though the solution proposed still seems more complex than a one-dimensional way of getting at MRU items (regardless of which app, window, or tab they’re in).

  3. […] of December of last year, I switched from the HTC Sensation that represented my first jump into Android just three months earlier to a Samsung Galaxy Nexus […]

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