The iPad Mini: worthy successor to the iPad

ipadminiWhen Apple introduced the iPad in April, 2010, I was a bit skeptical but excited. Initially, I resisted the urge to buy one, but, ultimately, I did.  It was exactly what I had been wanting…except it did not run Windows. But, the device had so much going for it, I decided that the lack of Windows was OK. (It really wasn’t, but I had been able to get around it.)

When I bought, I went all in with the accessories. I bought the camera kit, extra power cables and adaptors, the keyboard dock, composite and VGA cables, you name it. If Apple had an accessory, I bought it. I LOVED the iPad.  It was toted around with me, everywhere I went.  I bought a WiFi hot spot just to have Internet access too (I bought the 32gb WiFi only version) and thought I was just all that.  Indeed, when I went travelling, it was all I carried.  My clunker laptop stayed mated to my desk at home.

Well, fast forward four years.  That original iPad is, at best, an aging game machine. It is no longer stable, the multitude of iOS updates have just killed it.  It is no longer supported, so I cannot update it to iOS 7.0.1, which seems to have stabilized my old iPhone 4.  Many apps I have on the device are out of date.  It crashes. A LOT.

I finally convinced my wife that she needed a decent tablet of her own, one that was still current and supported by its manufacturer. Well, she’s not a big Windows 8 fan (she pretty much hates it) and she does use her iPhone 4 as her computer, so I talked her into an iPad mini. I’m glad I did.

We got the iPad Mini 16gb WiFi version. Using my Best Buy rewards points, we got the device for about $270. Not too bad. It is new and has the very nice Retina display and a very fast A7 processor. Compared to the old iPad, it is like a Porsche to a VW Beetle.

The device is almost the perfect size, too. It isn’t overly heavy and it is pretty thin.  My complaint is with the screen. Even though it is the beautiful Retina display, it is a tad small for these tired eyes. For some reason, it seems tinier than my Kindle Fire, which is about the same size. I don’t have as much trouble reading text on the Kindle as I do the iPad Mini.  Weird. Still, the display is very, very nice and photos look great. It does video very well.  The sound is a bit tinny, but that is to be expected.

Of course, it came with iOS 7, which works much more smoothly on the iPad Mini than on my iPhone 4.  The nuanced animations, reshaped buttons, transitions…all look and work much more nicely on this device than my old iPhone (which doesn’t do most of the animations anyway.)

Apps seem to respond better, run faster and crash less. Yes, they crash less. They still crash, though, and crash more than they should. It would seem that Apple still has a way to go in the operating system department.

Aside from the screen issue I mentioned, the only other real complaint I have is that damned connector. We have tons of things that use the 30 pin connector and almost nothing that uses the Lightening connector, so…we had to buy another car charger and, likely, will get another household charger. She does not want the keyboard, yet. That may not be an issue, since we can use the Bluetooth keyboards we have.

The tablet comes with both forward and rear facing cameras. The take nice photos, with the rear camera taking the best still and video. The forward camera is better suited for Facetime.  In fact, this thing is the perfect Facetime device: big enough to actually use, not too big and easily propped up, far better than an iPhone.  It will also work well with Apple’s iMessage service.  Keep in mind, though, that Facetime needs excellent WiFi to work well. Oh, and you need a lot of light to get a good, crisp image sent to the recipient. That forward facing camera isn’t too good in the low light scenario.

Apple’s suite of video editing software works well with the device. I was able to use the iPad Mini to shoot video of my baby’s birthday, then edit it and post to Facebook as well as share the video with other devices in my house.  Apple’s in house developed software was excellent. I had not gotten to use it since my old iPad did not have a camera and Apple prevented me from downloading it because of that, even though I could use other software to edit video on the device (remember, I have the camera kit, which pulled video from my camera.  Apple, you were so forgetful…)

Overall, the iPad MIni is nice device. The price, while still a bit high, is better than what you pay for a full size iPad or Windows tablet. If you already have an investment in iOS apps, and you want another tablet, you cannot go wrong with the Mini. IF, however, you are starting out fresh and have little or no Apple interests, then you would be better off with a Windows tablet or even the Samsung Galaxy, if you care for Android.

Advertisements

Windows Phone 8: A superior mobile operating system

wp_ss_20140125_0002Windows Phone 8 is, simply, the best mobile operating system since webOS came out. The operating system is smooth, good looking and fairly easy to use. It takes the Zune UI experience to a more complete and fulfilling level.

Because Microsoft dictated a decent minimum spec for devices that will run the operating system, performance is snappy and satisfying. You tap an icon or link and are, nearly, instantly taken to the site, app or whatever you tapped. No waiting, which is something I do, a lot, with my iPhone.

(NOTE: See my experience with T-Mobile, here.)

The device I have, a Lumia 521, is well suited for Windows Phone 8 and came with just a handful of non-Microsoft supplied apps. These are from Nokia and consist of the ‘HERE’ apps and some T-Mobile oriented apps.  By now, I’ve learned to accept the crapware from the carriers and just avoid them.

THE INTERFACE

When the operating system starts, you are presented with the now familiar Tile interface. You can scroll through, up or down, your tiles.  You can have tiles of differing size and, depending on the app, they can be ‘live’.  My three weather apps are live tiles and are very informative.  The photo tile will cycle through your photos giving you a mini slide show. The Facebook tile, while live, isn’t as useful as it could be.  The people hub, music and video hub and XBOX games tiles are all live, though the games and music/video hubs don’t really need to be live. 

Swiping left on the tile page will present a vertically scrollable menu of all of your apps. You can launch them, delete them or add them to the tile page from here. Tapping on one of the boxed letters will present a screen with the alphabet. Tap a letter and you will go straight to the part of the app list starting with that letter. Letters without apps are not displayed.

Each app that follows the style guidelines, will display in a horizontal and scrollable manner. They typography is beautiful and the overall appearance is gorgeous.  I love the look of these apps.

Of course, not all apps follow the style, like the Facebook app.  It looks like any other Facebook app. It has a few Windowsy things, but, overall, looks like the iPhone/Blackberry/webOS/Zune Facebook apps.

APPS

wp_ss_20140125_0003Contrary to what I have read, I have yet to find an app that I have on the iPhone that does not have a Windows Phone 8 equivalent. Except for a few games, that is.  I have given up on Evernote, but there is a Windows Phone 8 version. OneNote, check. Camera apps, check.  Angry Birds, check. Web browser? Yep. Weather apps? Yep. 

Recently, several apps that both Android and iOS have, but were lacking on Windows Phone 8, are now available. They include Path and Instagram. So, developers are, finally, taking notice of Windows Phone 8.  Microsoft has provided some and as have Nokia, soon to be a Microsoft company.

In fact, the Nokia apps are really nice. I love Nokia Radio. It is like Pandora and looks great.

PERFORMANCE

As I said earlier, performance is snappy.  I have been very pleased with just how fast this operating system can be. Credit some of that to the hardware, but the multitasking aspect of Windows Phone 8 is, simply, fantastic. Press and hold the BACK button and you are presented with a horizontal,scrolling window that contains thumbnails of all running apps. Swipe left or right to scroll through them and then simply tap the one you wish to enter. To shut it down, tap it and then double tap the BACK button.  The only thing I would change is to add the up-swipe, ala webOS, to shut down an app.

wp_ss_20140125_0005Even with five or six things running, performance remains snappy. In fact, I’ve not really experienced any slow downs. Even with a couple of graphically intense games running.

ISSUES

Unfortunately, as with any operating system, Windows Phone 8 is not without its problems.  The worst problem I have encountered involves the Photos app and Facebook or pretty much any other app where you can select a photo to embed. After selecting a photo, the operating system may crash. It’s been mostly confined to Facebook, but I have experienced it with other apps, including OneNote.

The on-screen keyboard is junk.  The buttons are too small.  The iPhone, which is smaller than the Lumia 520, has a fairly decent on-screen keyboard when compared to Windows Phone 8. This is disappointing as the Zune HD’s on-screen keyboard was fantastic. The Zune HD is even smaller, but I had little difficulty with the keyboard. I don’t know what can be done to make it better, but they need to do something.wp_ss_20140125_0004

My last gripe is not really an OS problem, but an omission from the Lumia 521: no flash.  Yep, it has a nice camera, takes very nice photos (compared to other phones) but does not have a flash. Seriously? Make sure you have LOTS of light when using your camera.

SUMMARY

Windows Phone 8 is a superior mobile operating system. I am anxious to see what Microsoft is going to do with it. The roadmap has Microsoft ‘marrying’ the mobile and desktop operating systems into one OS and one app store. 

With its snappy performance, ease of use and nice looking interface, Windows Phone 8 is a fantastic alternative to Android and, especially, iOS powered devices.

New iPhone or Android phone? So, what to do with that old one?

Palm_Pre_SmartphoneIf you are like me, you probably have two, three or more old smartphones lying around, collecting dust. If they are still functional, they are still useful.  I will pull out the old Palm Pre, charge it and use it to play a few games or even surf the web. It has a good browser and I downloaded a fair number of decent games, a couple will even work with the iPhone/iPad counterparts for multi player action (Shrek Racing, for one.)  So, what can you do with those old phones? Well, read on for a few suggestions…

eReader

  • If you have an old iPhone, Android or Windows Phone 7, there is the Kindle app.  There was also a Nook reader app for Android.  There are also a few e-reader apps from other companies that are available on these and other devices like the Palm Pre. There a thousands of free ebooks as well.

WiFi Phone

  • Older iPhones, Android and Windows Phones have Skype clients that will allow you to use that old smartphone, over WiFi, as a phone. Imagine that. You can use it at home and save those minutes on your cell. Carry one for use when near a hotspot in case your phone has poor service or, again, to save those minutes.  (Granted, it could be cumbersome carrying around multiple devices.)

Web Browsing

  • Most older smartphones come with some kind of browser. iPhones, even the first gen, have the sufficient Safari and Android has it’s native browser. Firefox and/or Chrome may also be available. The Palm Pre has an excellent browser and Windows Phone 7’s Internet Explorer, well, it works. 

Games

  • Here’s where devices like iPhone and Android really shine. There are a ton of games out there for both of these platforms. If your phone is powerful enough, this can be a great alternative to the Nintendo or Sony handhelds. Or, like me, why not have them in addition to the Nintendo or Sony offerings? Lots of the games for the smartphones simply are not available for either Nintendo or Sony handhelds.  I still pull out the Palm Pre and play some of those games. Even my old Motorola Q has a few games I like. It had a nice Sim City game. Hmm…where did I put that? Even older, non-WiFi phones like the Palm Centro had some decent games. If you still have it, why not use it?

285389-htc-evo-shift-4g-sprintSecondary Info Screen for your PC

  • Ok, I’m stretching here, but I use my HTC Shift for weather and email as a secondary screen for my PC. I have it connected via USB so it continuously gets power. Right now, I am using the built in apps, so it isn’t a true secondary display, HOWEVER…there is an app called iDisplay which turns your Android device into a true secondary display.  For more, read here and here. There are also other apps like AirDisplay.

Portable Media Playeriphone4

  • iPhones, especially, make decent portable players. An iPhone is, essentially, an iPod Touch with the cell capability. Android, Palm Pre and Windows Phones are all good media players as well.  My Pre came pre loaded with the Amazon player and Androids have the Google Play store. There are tons of apps, for all major platforms, like Pandora and YouTube. This is, next to games, perhaps the best use of these devices.

Digital Camera

  • Nearly all smartphones have cameras. Some are poor, but most of them are fairly decent. The iPhone and Nokia smartphones have excellent cameras. You can keep one in the car or your bag and when the shutterbug strikes, you’ll have at least one camera around.  I know, your shiny new phone has one too. And it probably is better, but on your older device, you’ll have storage that you may not want to use on your new device. They can make good video cameras as well.

Emergency Calling

  • ALL cell phones, smart or otherwise, can still place a 911 call, no matter if you have service on them or not. As long as they are in a cell network, they can place a 911 call. This is an FCC mandate, so if, for no other reason, you could keep one (charges, of course) in a car or your home for an emergency.  The key, however, is to keep it charged up and readily available.

There are, of course, other uses for the phones, these are just a few suggestions. Others include remote control of televisions, cable boxes, Roku devices and more. Calculators, portable databases, USB storage, etc.  My point is that just because you got something shinier and newer, doesn’t mean these older ones are useless.  They even make great mini-tablets for young children. Since they are no longer in cell service, they cannot make calls so why not let them have one for games or Netflix?

Our digital heritage, but, for how long?

The thing with technology is that it never slows down. Technology marches on and, for the most part, we embrace and move with it.  That means our methods of preserving our heritage, from books to music to art and entertainment, changes with that technology.

For over a hundred years, we were mostly an analog society. For centuries prior, our method for recording things consisted of cave art, stone tablets and printed material on different forms of paper. The printing press revolutionized our ability to produce printed material for the masses.

In the late 1700’s, humans began experimenting with methods for recording things both visually and aurally. Photography came to practicality in the mid 1800’s, while methods for recording sound followed in the latter half of the 1800’s. Radio and crude television followed. Moving pictures were perfected around the 1890’s.

By the 1920’s, we were enjoying most of our modern forms of entertainment: radio, television, film, recorded music and plays, etc.  And, for the most part, the technologies, while getting better in quality, pretty much stayed the same. In fact, the basic principals did not change. Once could take an early phonograph, from, say, 1915, and play it on a turntable made in the 1980’s and you could understand it.

Better forms of recording both audio and pictures came along, but were still analog and, mostly, interchangeable. Magnetic recording was stagnant through the 1980’s.  It was the latter part of that decade where it all started to change.

Something called ‘digital’ began to force its way into both our lexicon and our lives.

Indeed, today, we have digital television, digital music, digital films (kind of ironic, that name is) and digital photography.  Our lives are digital now.

And that’s the problem.

How do we preserve our heritage?  Clearly, digital is NOT the answer.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I have zero desire to give up my Zune MP3 player for a bulky Walkman cassette or 45rpm disc. I like my Nikon DLSR and HD television is way better than 250 line, black and white tv.

So, since I am such a digital person, what the hell do I mean that it is not the answer? Well, simply, it changes too quickly.

I recently came upon a box of old computer gear that I brought with me to my new home (well, it was new to me, two years ago!) In the box, there were a few diskettes, an iOMEGA Zip Disk, and some old CD-ROMS.  I also have a number of LaserDiscs and a box of about two hundred VHS tapes.  This made me think: I better transfer what I can to DVD before I can no longer do so. Some of those tapes are of my son as a baby as well as some now deceased family members. I also have years of recorded material from a local television station that no longer exists.

So, if I transfer this material now, I buy, what, maybe ten years before I can no longer play those DVD’s. Then what? I keep reading that physical media is dead. What do I do with my memories?

I have gigabytes of photos. I cannot, realistically, print them all. I could burn them to DVD, but, again, what about when DVD drives become scarcer than a Baird television scanner?

I also realized that I am not alone here. And it is not just individuals either. What about museums? Governments? Hell, Hollywood will have the same issue: many television shows and movies are now shot on video and distributed electronically.  Those formats and storage mechanism will not last. What happens to them?  In a hundred years, hence, we could still play back Edison’s old movies: they are, after all, images on film. Film, as long as it is properly stored, will last a very long time and the means to view it are simple. The same cannot be said for that YouTube video I uploaded last fall. Bits and bytes are not ‘real’. They cannot be shone through a bright light and viewed.

This is going to be a real problem going forward.  How do we rectify numerous storage methods, mechanisms and, more importantly, the bloody digital rights management schemes to keep us honest?

The funny thing about our digital society is what would be left if something catastrophic occurred and rendered our electronic means of playback useless.  We would be able to watch the Marx Brothers and Birth of a Nation, but not listen to Justin Bieber or watch Twilight. Hmm…maybe that would not be such a bad thing after all.

Rummaging around the world’s attics

Writing runs in my family as does blogging and a love of photography.  My sister does both very well and has a new blog on WordPress called ‘History World Traveler’. Please go have a read. The latest post is about debtor’s prison and I am certainly thankful these are no longer in use!

historyworldtraveler

Windows 8/RT App Mini Review: PhotoFunia

I have been sampling some of the applications in the Windows 8 store. Most of them look fantastic (with a few exceptions) and most work well, though seem to be limited. However, I have found a few gems among them.

photofunia1The first is a photo app that takes your picture, looks for the face(s) and then inserts the face portion into a template that you choose. The app, called PhotoFunia, also lives on the web and is available on all major smartphone platforms, including Palm webOS, Windows Phone, iPhone, Android and Symbian. It’s the Windows RT app, however, that shines.

When you start the app, you are presented with the typical, but attractive RT grid layout of template options. Click a template and you are taken to that template’s page. Most of them have a tile that holds the photo you select, maybe an option or two and the go button. You can also pin the template to the Start page or add it to the application favorites.photofunia3

The application then inserts the face of the person in your photograph into the appropriate area of the template, resizing and adding any effects as necessary.

Once complete, you are presented with the final photo, which you can save if you wish (by right clicking to bring up the save bar.)

The speed is impressive, I have only waited a few seconds-less than five-in most cases. I think one took ten seconds, but it had two people instead of one.

There is a plethora of templates included. They range from movie posters, billboards, magazine covers and tattoo’s.  The Tattoo is one of the cooler templates in the application. There are cutesy ones and, so it seems, there are movie tie ins as well (perhaps this is where they make money.) You can get the same templates on the web site as well.

The most intriguing thing, however, is support for Symbian and webOS smartphones. They are still listed on the ‘apps’ page of the website and, indeed, you can see phones that run those operating systems in the photo on that page. It is nice see someone still supporting webOS, perhaps the most innovative smartphone platform out there.

photofunia5The application is free and, so far, I’ve not seen where you need to purchase anything. The web site contains ads, but, so far, I’ve not seen any in the app.

The thing I’ve noticed, so far, with most RT apps is that they look great and PhotoFunia is no exception. The app looks great, is easy to use-even with the mouse and keyboard. In face, I’m really at a loss regarding the criticism about the Windows RT environment and using a mouse and keyboard with it. There is a slight learning curve, but it is really quite easy to use.

PhotoFunia is available in the Windows App Store and is free.

Kindles, iPods and crappy ear buds…high tech is not always best

LD-660If you’ve read a few of my posts here, you probably know how tech centric I am. I am a geek. A tech fan. A tech fanatic. I love technology. But…

I get tired of technology every now and again. And, just because I love technology, does not mean I loathe non-techie things. Like magazines. And books.  And things analog.

As much as I love my Kindles and iPad, I like to pick up a magazine, fresh from the newstand. The feel of the slick paper. The smell.  Having to actually, you know, drive to a store and walk inside, gander through the magazines and find the one I want. Yeah, I like doing that. I miss it. I subscribe to several magazines on my Kindle. One of them is no longer in PRINT, but still publishes a digital edition. While the publisher has done a fantastic job replicating the print edition in digital, the digital edition just isn’t the same.  Oh, sure, it has the same features, writers and even ads, it just is not the same thing. It is convenient to carry around and receive wirelessly, but I miss the paper edition.

Digital cameras have replaced film. Traditional film companies like Kodak and Fuji have abandoned film altogether. Digital seems to have won.  Now, don’t get wrong, I’m not a photographer and I love my digicams, but there is something missing from the photos I take. I’ve not been able to quite pinpoint it until recently while playing around with my HTC smartphone. I discovered that the camera app has settings to reproduce the LOOK OF FILM. Yep. All of the technology that went into the digital camera simply isn’t the same as film.  A friend of mine, recently, lamented the loss film saying that most digital photos lacked ‘life’.  I dismissed it (sorry) as being old fashioned. But, while playing with my phone, I discovered what my friend meant.  You can get really sharp photos with even a cheap digicam, but, without help, those photos look kind of lifeless. Take the same photo with a film camera and the photo takes on character.  My HTC phone replicates it via software. The color pops and the slight fuzziness all add up to a certain character that they would otherwise lack. It is hard to put into words, put I do understand now. I still love my digicams, but have a new respect for the old medium.

One thing I will not acquiesce on, however, is vinyl albums.  While they are still quaint and have a unique quality of sound, I rather enjoy the full range of digital audio. My complaint with modern albums (of the CD type) is the harsh and overly modulated sound and it is not a fault of the technology but of the producers.  More specifically, it is Apple’s fault. Those crappy little earbuds forced producers to play games with the audio so the tracks would sound better in those damned little cheap ear buds.  They, correctly, figured out that the majority of listeners use those crappy earbuds and NOT quality sound systems. iPods and other MP3 players are capable of decent quality audio (my Zune HD has superb output) but most of them will be used, solely, with those crappy ear buds.  Did I mention they were crappy?

Television. A medium that, in the United States, changed very little for nearly 50 years.  The last major change was color, and that took nearly 25 years. Then it was stereo and that took about five years. Then, digital came along.  After several false starts, it finally was real.  Only problem was that most stations still treated their broadcasts like it was 1980.  Most stations were slow to adopt high definition technology to enhance the digital broadcasts. Those expensive HD televisions were, for a while, nothing more than expensive standard definition monitors.  As more and more HD programming hit the air, stations converted to HD and such, I found myself wanting to watch my older stuff.  Like my LaserDisc and, wait for it, my VHS tapes. I have programs I recorded 25 years ago. I have LaserDiscs I bought in 1989. I have video games that I only play on the last remaining CRT television (a Zenith, at that!) What the hell is wrong here? Well, the HD programming, for the most part, is just as bad as its SD counterparts. The technology got better, but content did not.  Sigh. 

Other technology that I thought would be a great thing but did not turn out that way…

Digital picture frames.  When I first saw them, I was enamored with them.  They were cool. You could have a live slide show in your bedroom, living room or on your desk. They were expensive at first, but the price came down. When I finally got one, I was…well, less than than impressed. The one I got, a Pandigital, was mediocre.  The quality on most was just OK. And that was part of the problem. Quality devices were, and still are, ridiculously priced. And then you have to rotate pictures out. And there’s the power cord. The reality of them was that they were just a pain in the ass.  It is a product category that needs fixing.

Digital watches. A fad that came, went, came again and is going away.  I want a nice, quality digital watch but they are hard to find.  A nice analog watch is easier to find and cheaper, so that is what I use. And, yes, people still wear watches.  Oh, and no, I don’t want an iPod mini in a watch band with crappy ear buds.

In the end, I’m still a techie, a nerd, a geek, a lover of things high tech.  Still, that technology is not necessarily the best thing all the time. Sometimes, it is just better to sit back, un plug and read a book while listening to some good music. On a ‘hi-fi’. No crappy ear buds in site.