May 032012
 

A great benefit of working for Google is being exposed to all the cool stuff that Google actually does. Even better is that the vast majority of those things are either already publicly available, or become publicly available not long after Google employees get a chance to play with those things. I thought I’d mention a few things I’ve started using recently. A few things that I’ve mentioned before but will repeat: (1) of course I’m biased, I liked Google enough to work there, so take that into account; (2) everything here is 100% public and unrelated to what I work on because I would like my badge to work tomorrow morning, and (3) like all my posts here, this is 100% my own opinion, not that of Google.

So, what cool Google stuff have I started using recently – or started using differently?

1.  Samsung Galaxy Nexus

As 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 (thanks Google!):

While the HTC One X is supposed to be a new possible contender for best Android handset, the Galaxy Nexus is a pretty incredible device, thanks in large part to the Android 4.0 ICS release that runs it. I was still reeling from how much better modern Android smartphones were than the Blackberry devices I had previously used! There’s no need for detailed commentary on the device, but I’ll just mention a few of the things that were most notable to me:

  • Incredible screen. At 4.65″ it’s certainly not small, but it’s 1280 x 720 resolution makes for a ridiculously clear display. Yes, Apple did the whole retina display thing earlier, but it’s nice, and it was a noticeable step up from the Sensation.
  • Double the battery life. Does it really have double the battery life of other devices? No, but that’s because reviewers measure battery life in hours, which I don’t think is particularly useful. Why?  Because either I have to charge the thing every day, or I can charge it once every couple of days. My earlier devices were in the former category; the Galaxy Nexus is in the latter category – most of the time – which is really handy if I neglect to charge it on a given day.
  • Smooth and responsive. Surprisingly, I don’t care much that the GN has a beefy CPU and GPU from a gaming perspective, as I just never have a need to play games when I’m out – and if I’m home, it’s Starcraft 2 on PC (or maybe a console game, though usually not). But the phone is genuinely more responsive in every dimension, and that definitely matters.
  • Stock ICS.  I definitely prefer the straightforward stock ICS interface and UI over Android 2.3 with HTC Sense. It’s simple and clean, and gets the job done.
  • NFC.  More on this below!

There are things that could be improved, as always, and on the GN the camera sticks out as one of those things (it’s not bad, but it’s still nowhere close to a 3-year old compact camera, even with new software tricks).

Why did I wait all this time to comment on the GN? Mostly because of something I think is worth noting, which is that you can buy an unlocked GSM Galaxy Nexus for $399 directly from Google. Why is this meaningful? Because wireless plans in North America all have messed up pricing, thanks to the usual model of subsidizing phones through higher monthly plans. This became clear when I signed up with T-Mobile a half year ago; they had their “Classic” plans with a two-year contract and phones that were between free and $200 – and their “Value” plans that had no subsidized phone but were $20/month cheaper for a given feature level. Essentially, you were paying $20/month forever in order to get a cheaper/free phone up front. That’s a broken model that works against people who stick with a phone/plan even after their contract has expired.

Unlocked phones and plans that don’t include subsidies are a much more sensible model for many reasons. The consumer gets to choose an update frequency that works for them – and is aware of, and bears the cost for their choice. The whole locked phone nonsense goes away, and makes it simple to pick up a used phone if that’s what you prefer. And plans reflect what they really cost. So I hope selling devices directly is more successful this time than with the Nexus One. Considering that I paid $499 for a locked  HTC Sensation (less a $100 rebate), a $399 unlocked Galaxy Nexus seems like a fabulous deal.

2. Logitech Revue (with Google TV)

The Logitech Revue is a standalone Google TV box that was introduced a year and a half ago:

Sadly, the Revue didn’t do so great and was eventually cancelled by Logitech. That let me pick one up for just $79 refurbished – and I later got another one from work; they now power almost all the content we watch, since we elected not to even get TV service when we moved here to Kirkland. It’s ironic that the Google TV box cost less than what Rogers charged for a month; we do have a Netflix subscription, but that’s pretty reasonable and provides more kids shows than we’d allow our kids to watch.

I understand that the initial Google TV software was a little rough around the edges, but for our use, the updated version runs just fine. Netflix works great, YouTube works great, Amazon videos work (though navigating is a pain). Most importantly to me, Google TV supports Flash. Now, I hate Flash and just as on the PC, Flash is the least reliable part of the entire experience. I will not shed a tear – in fact I’ll jump for joy – when there’s no longer a need to run Flash. Why is it so important to me? Because the primary content I’ve actually been watching on my Revue is the GSL – a professional Starcraft 2 league based in South Korea. It’s a great thing to watch while exercising, and the Revue does a great job of delivering it in high definition (it’s not 20Mbps Blu-ray quality, but it’s pretty decent) on my home theater.

It’s a shame that the Revue was launched at the now-obviously-ridiculous price of $299. I feel like it tried to do too much. It has an HDMI input and a whole pile of logic to control other devices via IR blasters and integrate live TV via a feed from your set-top box. I’m sure that added a ton of cost, but that functionality just isn’t useful to most people. But as a pure streaming media box with Flash support, a full (albeit dated) Chrome browser, decent built-in apps and the ability to run 3rd-party Android apps from the market, it’s great – better IMO than anything else I’ve tried. At a lower price and a more focused feature set, I feel like it could have been great for everyone. At $79 refurbished, it was and continues to be great for me :).

Except that Flash crashes, but at least for the GSL, it only crashes after roughly an hour and a half which is more exercise that I can really do in one sitting.  Or sometimes even one week.

3.  Google Wallet

The NFC chip in the Galaxy Nexus allows the use of Google Wallet as a replacement for carrying cards around. It’s more secure than a standard credit card – because you authorize transactions with your PIN, but on your device, not something that might be connected to a skimmer. And because North America massively lags in getting clone-proof smartcards deployed, for some reason. But it’s almost convenient.  My first few transactions were a little clunky – maybe something happens on the first transaction – but when I use it now, it’s by far the fastest way to pay.

It’s still really early days for three reasons :

  • It’s only on two phones.  I’m fortunate to have one of them, but it needs to be way broader to catch on.  Which I really hope will be the case!
  • It only works with one type of credit card.  You have to have a Citi Mastercard with PayPass. Fortunately, there’s a workaround for now – you can use a Google Prepaid Card, which can be recharged instantly at any time on your phone, from any other credit card. This must be costing Google money (Mastercard commissions are typically lower than what Amex charges, so someone is paying the difference), but it works well for me!
  • It’s not accepted in that many places. I’ve only used it – an unfortunate number of times – at McDonalds. It uses PayPass, which is getting deployed, but this takes time I guess.

I’m really looking forward to having the ultra-convenient experience of using Wallet at McDonalds available more widely. And hopefully at places with better, healthier food!

4. Two-factor Authentication

Okay, maybe “cool” isn’t the right description – but two-factor authentication costs you nothing and is something you should enable right away.

I had no idea how many accounts of all types – including Google accounts – are stolen or hacked every day. Now that I see some of the stats via internal reports or presentations (Google is very open internally), it’s mind blowing. When security experts discuss the more clever approaches that hackers or other troublemakers have come up with, I become simultaneously amazed and scared. I always thought that the common-sense defense of not opening .exe files with a subject line of “you win $200,000,000!” and using a complex essentially random password was sufficient. I was wrong. Security is an arms race that has reached the nuclear phase; the baseball bat that us civilians arm ourselves with simply aren’t sufficient.

Fortunately, per this post, anyone can enable two-factor authentication on their account. This uses one-time codes to protect your account against unauthorized remote access (still a good idea to keep malware off your PC, 2FA doesn’t help against that!), without being too terribly inconvenient. You have to enter a code once every 30 days, and whenever you’re using a device for the first time. You can get the codes via SMS on demand, or using a mobile app.

Personally, I find the mobile app to be a far better choice. I travel, and SMS is unreliable (and sometimes costs money); the mobile app doesn’t require a data connection to work. In addition, you can print a bunch of one-time-use backup codes in case you lose or forget your phone. There are a few wonky things around application-specific passwords and other things that are improving, but I strongly recommend the use of 2FA, and I’m proud that Google offers this level of protection. Go turn it on!

I have to admit, there is one tech company that beat us to the punch on this one. Blizzard. Who would have thought that people would put more effort into protecting their World of Warcraft accounts than all their other combined data, including their bank accounts?

 Posted by at 10:46 am

  2 Responses to “Cool Google Stuff”

  1. HI Mark

    The HTC one is really *the* best Android today (IMO) – we’ll see what is announced later today by Samsung. It also has Bluetooth 4.0 (I am just waiting for Wahoo heart rate support so I can entirely switch away from the iPhone 4S). Sense 4.0 has improved tremendously and it works quite nicely with my Sony SmartWatch.

    NFC has some other interesting (non-payment) use cases which (you’ll see if/when you visit Toronto later this year). Here is one you can have fun with. I now use the microwave for lunch every day at work but hate the “guessing when the timer goes” off aspect. So I simply have it set up to touch my Galaxy Note (or HTC One) to the NFC tag by the microwave and it is perfectly timed to vibrate my MetaWatch (and display a “your lunch is ready” image) just before the microwave timer is done so I arrive at the microwave just in time to extract my food – all fully automated other than tapping my NFC Android to the tag right next to the microwave. One of our coops asked me how I was able to hook the NFC into the microwave timer 🙂 All I can say is that my wife said was that whatever my lunch is just heat it up for 3 minutes in the microwave.

    Adrian

    • Hey Adrian,

      You are right that I can certainly have fun with that use case – though I agree there’s other uses for NFC. I’m hoping we replace all our badge readers with NFC, for example (since most of my co-workers carry that Galaxy Nexus), so there’s one less thing to carry or forget on a daily basis. I know it’s a ways out before it replaces boarding passes, drivers licenses, and other such things, but I’m looking forward to that too.

      As for your specific use case, I think the first mobile phone I got back in 1997 had a similarly cool feature, called a clock that displayed on the home screen. It was pretty handy for knowing when 3 minutes had passed. Even better, it didn’t require me to put NFC tags on things – and if it even handles food with variable cooking times! Maybe you should switch from a massive bowl of fruit to a massive bowl of porridge in the mornings so you have more opportunities to practice your precision timing?

      You’re lucky I didn’t learn of this while in the Toronto office. At least once, I would have tried to notice when you go for lunch, then I’d head there afterwards and set the microwave to 5 minutes at 60% power, or something subtle like that. It’d be fun to see you try and debug that one :). Maybe I’ll make a few suggestions like that when I come visit :).

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