The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

June 1, 2015

I Went to the Dark Side, Now Where’s My Cookies?

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , , — Brian Lutz @ 2:38 am

As I noted in the last post, I started a new job a few weeks ago.  Given the number of different jobs I’ve been in over the years, this isn’t anything unusual, but in this particular instance the transition from one job to the next has been a little more difficult than usual, mostly because for the first time in my professional career I have found myself needing to use a Mac for my day-to-day work.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’m pretty much a diehard PC junkie, and anyone who has read my various writings over the years (especially the older stuff I’d really prefer to just keep buried in the depths of the Internet Wayback Machine never to see the light of day again) knows that I’ve never cared much for Apple in general or Macs in particular, mostly as a result of early exposure to Mac zealots in my formative years.  One thing I’ve learned about my personality over the years is that I automatically tend to become skeptical about pretty much anything that inspires irrational fanaticism.  There used to be a time when I wouldn’t go anywhere near a Mac, but over time my career path and various circumstances have mellowed my attitudes toward Apple products somewhat.

I am no longer at a point where I would just flat-out refuse to use anything with an Apple logo on it, but I still don’t care for them all that much.  In fact, after using a number of different tablets over the years I’ve pretty much settled on an iPad Mini as my everyday tablet (although I think I might eventually go back to the 10″ size since the Mini is a little smaller than I’d like it to be.)  I’ve tried a number of other ones (most notably a Nexus 7,) but haven’t been able to quite get used to them on a day-to-day basis.  I know quite a few people who have gotten to the point where they have basically replaced their computers with an iPad for personal use, and for some people I can see that making sense.

The problem with it in the long-term is that tablets in general (and iPads in particular) are functionally limited in what you can actually do with them.  Even though I’ve done it before, I would not recommend doing any significant amount of writing using a touchscreen keyboard.  And unless you’re running on a tablet with a full Desktop OS like a Surface Pro your tablet doesn’t have the capability to develop software for itself (and even there I wouldn’t recommend it.  Even with the Type Cover my Surface Pro still has a pretty horrible keyboard for anything but the most basic of typing.)  When it all boils down, tablets are great devices for consuming media (video, audio, etc.), so-so devices for web browsing, and flat-out terrible devices for basically any productive work.  In spite of that, they still have their niche.  Even though I’ve got all the computing power I could possibly need in my big powerful Windows desktop, there are times when you just don’t need all of that.

Which brings me to my experience with using a Mac.  Somehow I suspect that I would have had an easier time getting used to a Mac if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve spent over 20 years using PCs, and have gotten very comfortable with them over the years.  One of the things I’ve noticed about computer users is that over time they begin to develop their own workflow and particular ways of accomplishing certain tasks.  You like to have this window here, certain taskbar icons in certain places, certain keyboard shortcuts you like to use, and so forth.  The last time I bought a new smartphone (nearly three years ago at this point) I found that one of the first things I did with it was to arrange the homescreen icons and widgets in as close to the same layout I had with my old phone as possible.  Given the fact that I was going from one HTC phone to another at the time it was pretty easy to get it pretty close.  The biggest issue I’ve found when switching between PC and Mac is that there’s really no way to replicate that familiar workflow when switching to a different operating system.  Eventually you come up with a workflow that (sort of) works on there, but there always seems to be a couple of things missing, and a couple of things that you can never seem to get quite right.

In my case, perhaps the biggest nuisance of switching between Windows and Mac on a daily basis is the fact that a lot of the keyboard shortcuts are almost, but not quite, the same between the two.  For example, the copy and paste commands (which I use a lot) are CTRL-C/V and Command-C/V on PC and Mac respectively.  The annoying part is that the Mac keyboard has a CTRL key in approximately the same place that a standard PC keyboard does, but it does basically nothing except for inside the command shell, where Command-C (a commonly used *nix command to abort a running process) doesn’t do anything.   What this means is that switching between the two platforms involves a fair bit of having to do things twice because you used the wrong keyboard shortcut (which happens to be the right keyboard shortcut on the other platform).

One of the reasons I’ve never been much of an Apple fan is that for all of their obsessive focus on design, they frequently seem to place form over function, opting to make things look pretty at the expense of making them useful.  Perhaps the biggest example of this in OSX that I’ve found is in notifications.  On a Mac, notifications for things like mail and updates are placed in a little pop-up that appears in the upper right corner of the screen.  I’ve found that this has a tendency to get in the way of things, as it happens to be right in the area where I might have things like browser tabs or menu options.  There is also no obvious way to dismiss these notifications.  I figured out eventually that you have to click on them and push them back off the screen, but most users wouldn’t be able to figure that behavior out without being prompted, and there’s no obvious prompt for this.  As far as I can tell, there’s no way to move it (and a Google search reveals mostly message board posts complaining about the behavior) and no real solution to this besides to turn notifications off.  On a Windows machine, the vast majority of these notifications happen in the lower right corner, which makes a lot more sense because it rarely interferes with anything there.  Windows apps also tend to standardize on right-click to dismiss notifications, or at least provide an obvious X icon.

Another major nuisance I’ve found compared to Windows on the Mac is that there’s no good way to deal with child windows in an app.   The way I have Windows 7 set up, these child windows just show up in the taskbar, which makes them nice and easy to find (Windows also has a “group icons” option, which I find much less useful.)  On the Mac, you can’t see where any of your windows are unless you open “Mission Control”,  a view that basically shows every open window at once.  If you’re using a trackpad you can use a gesture to open this, but if you’re on a Magic Mouse there’s no good way to do it without using a keyboard shortcut. So basically if you’re looking for a window you had open but moved away from (such as an e-mail message) you have to find the icon in the dock, right-click on it )or command-click if you’re one of those Mac traditionalists who never bothered enabling right-click) and find the window you were using.It’s just a pain to deal with really.  I suppose someone used to using a Mac would know how to do all this, but especially for someone who has been using Windows for years, this stuff just seems like a bad user experience to me.

That said, in spite of various nuisances in the operating system, I do have to say that the hardware is top-notch, which is pretty much what you’d expect for the premium price you (or in my case, someone else) would pay for Apple hardware.  After years of dealing with laptop keyboards ranging from mediocre to outright terrible (I have to say that the Type Cover on my Surface Pro tends much more toward the latter category unfortunately) I’ve found that the keyboard on the MacBook Pro is actually quite nice to type on.  The USB Apple Keyboard I use at my desk at work is slightly less so, but still pretty decent.  The construction of the system is nice and solid, and after you use something like this you start to wonder why you spent so long dealing with cheap plastic laptops.  For the development work I’m involved in, it’s also nice not having to go search the Internet for an ADB driver for every Android phone I connect to the system, and having a proper Unix command shell to work with, since the work I do actually involves a fair bit of work in the command line.  That said, there does still seem to be something of a disconnect between the Mac side of things (Finder and it’s version of the file system) and the Unix side of things, which functions very differently.  For the most part it works, but getting one to talk to the other when you need to can be annoying.

When it all boils down, even though I’m no longer the Mac hater I used to be (I’d say I’ve mellowed out to something more in the “Mac Skeptic” category) I still don’t see myself ditching my big powerful desktop PC anytime soon in favor of a Mac.  When you use both platforms regularly you can see a lot of the areas where Apple and Microsoft copied things off of each other over the years.  Even so, both platforms are still very different from each other, and switching from one to the other (especially if you’re doing it on a daily basis) isn’t exactly trivial.  I think I’ve mostly gotten used to it, but there are still some regular tasks that are accomplished easily in Windows that I haven’t found a good way to do on a Mac.  Part of that may be just a matter of figuring out the proper way to do them, but in general, I find I just have a (very slightly) harder time getting work done on a Mac than I do on a Windows machine.  And given the choice, I’d still rather work on a PC.  That’s not to say that the Mac is necessarily any better or any worse at what it does.  Just that it’s different.  And isn’t different what Apple was going for in their ad campaigns many years ago?

August 7, 2014

I Have Absolutely No Idea How Much Phone I Really Need.

Filed under: Technology — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:59 am

It has now been a little bit more than two years since I bought my current smartphone, an HTC Evo 4G LTE. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that (I’m led to understand that the HTC One X and its variants were pretty popular back in their day, even if they were thoroughly overshadowed by the Samsung Galaxy S3) but in my case, it’s the “More than two years” part that’s rather unusual in this case.  With my last couple of phones, by the time my two-year upgrade rolled around I was pretty much ready to jump onto the Next Big Thing as soon as I could.  In both cases, the new phone was a clear upgrade from the old one, and represented a pretty significant leap in technology.  Fast forward a couple of years, and at this point, for various reasons I find myself in far less of a hurry to upgrade than I normally would be.

That isn’t to say that I couldn’t use an upgrade about now.  My current phone, in spite of the fact that it’s held up surprisingly well given what I’ve put it through, is definitely starting to show its age about now.  Battery life is still surprisingly decent most of the time as long as I don’t do something to aggravate the thing, and for the most part everything works the way it should, but for some time now it’s had a habit of rebooting itself at inopportune times (less now than it used to once I figured out that I was pushing down on the power button if I tried to tie a shoe with it in my pocket) and lately it’s taken to quarreling with the local WiFi in my apartment, to the point that it quickly drains its battery banging its proverbial head on the proverbial wall if it can’t connect.  But the most obvious issue that has cropped up recently is the fact that somehow, my phone has gotten bent.  I have no idea how it happened, but at some point the top portion of my phone managed to actually develop a slight kink in it, as you can see above.  Interestingly enough, it doesn’t seem to impact functionality at all (nor does the display appear to be affected in any way,) and for the most part I don’t even notice it unless I actually take the cover off and look at it.  Nonetheless, even if it’s not actually doing anything it just makes the thing look weird.

Of course, if you’ve been keeping up with the latest trends in smartphones, you’ll know that curved displays are one of the things that shockingly large quantities of R&D money has been poured into, and as a result of this a couple of smartphones with these curved displays have shown up on the market (the Samsung Galaxy Curve and the LG G Flex.)  In spite of the fancy new display technology, both of these phones seem to be decidedly middle-of-the-pack on specs, and the reviews on both seem to be pretty lukewarm.  Of course, given the fact that large quantities of R&D money has presumably been spent on the displays, someone had to make them, right?  I actually got to spend some time messing with an LG G Flex at work the other day (one of my responsibilities at work is to run interoperability tests against our head unit with a number of different models of smartphones roughly once per quarter) and in spite of the unusually large screen and the allegedly fancy curved display, I couldn’t shake the feeling that in spite of the bells and whistles there just wasn’t much to distinguish it from any of the other nine Android phones I have tested to date in the current interoperability pass.

Which brings up the question:  Just what distinguishes one phone from another these days?  Basically, what it boils down to is that you have roughly three or four flavors of phone OS out there depending on who you ask (While I was writing that it took me a minute to remember that Blackberry somehow still exists, which says something about just how far and how quickly they’ve fallen off the radar lately.)  In terms of most mainstream users you’ve got iPhone flavor, Android flavor and Windows Phone flavor.  The iPhone side isn’t all that difficult to figure out since you have just one manufacturer and a handful of models to worry about.  On the Windows Phone side your choices won’t be all that much more complicated (over there you pretty much have Nokia and a few miscellaneous devices from the likes of HTC and Samsung, and not much else.)  Then you get to Android, and things get a lot more complicated in a hurry.  On the current round of interoperability testing I’m working on at work (which is unusually large because it accounts for two quarters worth of devices) there are only four iPhone models (basically the four most recent ones, barring whatever Apple happens to announce in early September) but there’s also twenty different Android handsets from eight different manufacturers.  Granted, Samsung accounts for eight of those by itself (and there aren’t any HTC models on this particular round of testing,) but that’s a lot of testing on a lot of different handsets that seem largely identical, at least on the surface.  Most of the ones we’re testing run some variant of either Android Jellybean or Android KitKat, and even with the various customizations that most handset manufacturers seem all-too-willing to paste all over the stock Android, in the end the only way I ever seem to notice any of that is when the custom UI does something that breaks my standard workflow.

Anyone remember when people thought the iPhone 5 was going to be too big? Me neither.

So far, out of the handsets I’ve tested during this pass, the only one that has really stood out (at least for reasons other than bugs filed during the tests) would be this one, the Sony Xperia Z Ultra.  Yes, apparently you’re supposed to carry one of these things around and use it as your phone.  And while it is possible in theory (in a pinch, I’ve found I can actually cram an iPad Mini into a pocket of my jeans, not that I’d recommend it) but you’re going to look awfully silly doing it.  I suspect the idea is that you hire some guy to follow you around carrying your phone.  in spite of the apparently impressive size of the screen, when it all boils down there really isn’t all that much to distinguish this from a lot of the other phones on the market.  Which seems to be the problem that just about everyone has these days.  Sure, you get different cases and a few scattered gimmicks here and there, but by and large when you start using a lot of different Android devices it becomes clear pretty quickly that there really isn’t a whole lot to distinguish any one of them from another.

Which, ironically enough, makes it harder than ever to shop for a phone.  If you read the two posts I linked above, you can see some of the thought process that went into my last couple of phone purchases, but in each instance the choice was pretty straightforward, and the devices that I replaced my then-current one with were pretty significant upgrades over the previous one.  But now when I look at the choices I’d have available, it’s not really all that clear that I’d really be gaining all that much by replacing my current phone.  Sure the new one would be new, shiny and presumably not bent, but it seems that it would be an incremental upgrade at best.  And aside from a couple of rumors about some of the Nexus devices we might get later this year, there isn’t really anything that sounds interesting on the horizon.  I suppose I’ll eventually figure out something, but to be perfectly honest I’m not in a big hurry.  I suppose if I really wanted a change I could go for an iPhone, but I’ve just never really been all that interested in using an iPhone.  I have one at work I use as a test device on a regular basis, and I don’t really have anything against them (which might shock some people who have been reading my stuff for long enough) but they really don’t fir into my workflow as well as Android phones do.  Which is basically a fancy way of saying that I prefer the other brand.  It’s really just another Coke/Pepsi situation these days, only the cans cost several hundred bucks and you usually only drink one every couple of years.

I suppose in the end, the problem with having used smartphones before using smartphones was cool is that at some point you get bored of the things.  And it’s up to the manufacturers to try to figure out how to convince you that you aren’t bored of the things.

November 16, 2013

Take Two Tablets and Call Me in the Morning

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , , — Brian Lutz @ 10:36 pm

Is it just me, or does it seem like practically everyone is trying to sell you a tablet these days?

Seriously, it’s practically impossible to keep up with all the new tablets that keep popping up.  Although there were plenty of tablets that existed there before the iPad was released back in 2010 (support for pen-based input on a computer designed for the purpose dates all the way back to Windows 3.1,) most of them toiled in obscurity, generally relegated to specialized tasks and a few diehards that were willing to put up with their quirks and limitations.  I’ve long observed that for a certain large segment of the target audience of computer buyers, any novel new technology introduced to the public (especially if Microsoft is the company doing the introduction) is largely rejected by most as being a pointless waste of time, right up until Apple makes something similar, at which point it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.  This seems to happen regardless of the actual merits of the technology in question (although I will say lately the naysayers have had a point in many cases, and skepticism toward Apple’s offerings seems to be on the rise even if the sales don’t really reflect it) and has been happening for long enough that a lot of people just accept it as part of the realities of the market.

Nonetheless, regardless of what you happen to think of it as a product, there’s no denying the impact that the iPad had on the market when it was introduced.  Even though speculation about Apple’s entry into the tablet market had been rampant for months beforehand, when the iPad actually showed up it was disruptive in a way that few products have ever been disruptive before.  And at the time the iPad was introduced, I was in a bit of an odd position that gave me an inadvertent front-row seat to the whole thing.  It was about a month or so after I had been laid off from my most recent (and as of right now last) Microsoft contract working on a forgettable project for a dysfunctional team, and somehow I had landed a short-term gig with a small company in need of some testing for an iPhone app they were working on (which is a rather interesting story by itself, but that’s beside the point right now) in spite of my total experience with iPhones being about ten minutes on demo kiosks at the time (which was still about ten minutes more time than I had spent using Android phones.)  Nonetheless, I managed to go in and make enough of an impact that what was supposed to be a two-week contract turned into seven months, and seriously changed the direction of my career for the better.

And even though I’ve never been a big Apple fan, I do firmly believe that the introduction of the iPad in February of 2010 contributed significantly to this.  At the time, we were working on a number of (mostly) iPhone projects for MTV, but as soon as the iPad was introduced, they immediately wanted iPad apps, to the point that we were instructed to all but drop what we were doing and switch our development efforts to an iPad version of the app we had been working on.  The artists (one of whom had to be brought back after having finished his work and moving on)  had to redo basically all of the animations in the app to match the higher screen resolution (this was back when 1024×768 could still be considered “HD” for marketing purposes) and a fair bit of the code had to be redone as well.  Since basically nobody smaller than a Fortune 500 company had any chance of getting hold of the actual iPad hardware prior to launch (and even the ones fortunate enough to have it had to deal with some pretty ridiculous NDAs and security procedures set forth by Apple) we had to work with the iOS simulator included in the SDK to try to test things as well as we could, but even then there was no guarantee that any of the stuff would actually work.  In spite of all this, we were able to get the Beavis and Butt-Head app for iPad into the App Store on the iPad’s launch day.  It was for that reason, and that reason alone, that I actually bought an iPad on launch day (skipping the horrendous multi-hour Apple store lines at Bellevue Square in favor of the local Mac Store, where I was able to grab one with practically no waiting) mostly so I could download the app and see if it actually worked (it did, but not without a few glitches.)  The iPhone version of the app that I was brought on to work on originally ended up not being released until nearly a month later, mostly because other iPad projects had relegated it to the back burner.

Of course, these days the iPad isn’t the only game in town the way it was back when it came out, although they do still command a significant share of the market.  Microsoft, even though they were involved with the whole tablet thing long before most other competitors, was caught flat-footed by the iPad, took way too long to release a not-so-competitive competing product, and nearly four years later is still trying to play catch-up, mostly filling warehouses with unsold Surfaces in the process.  Blackberry and HP’s attempts at taking on the tablet market with their own operating systems did little but leave both companies swimming in red ink (although HP does still maintain one Android-based tablet in their line-up.)  Most of the action in the tablet market these days seems to be on the Android side, where it seems that just about everyone and their dog is making Android devices these days.  On one side, you have the larger OEMs (Samsung, Asus, Acer, Lenovo, Dell, etc.) putting out their own variations of Android tablets (plus a few Windows 8 based tablets on the side) and not making much effort to differentiate their products from everyone else’s similar products.  Google, for their part, is selling their Nexus phones and tablets, mostly by merit of providing a “pure” Android experience free of the clutter and fluff prevalent on a lot of the other Android tablets.  And then there’s Amazon  with their Kindle Fires, which are technically Android tablets, but in reality they kind of exist in their own little world where the operating system is mostly just there to sell you their content.  Throw in a couple of fringe competitors here and there, and you can start to see where this whole thing might start to get a bit confusing.

So, out of all that, what do you actually need if you’re looking for a tablet?  I’m pretty sure I’m not the one to answer that question, since I can barely keep up with the announcements for all these things, much less actually use enough of them to form informed opinions on them.  If you truly wanted to use just about everything you might use a tablet for, you’d want to have an iOS tablet, an Android tablet of some sort, a Windows 8 tablet (probably a real one, not an RT-based one) and possibly an Amazon tablet just for good measure, although there are other ways to consume most of the Amazon content on the other ones.  Ultimately, the answer to the question of which tablet to get depends on your specific needs.  I do have to admit that the iPad Air and the newer model iPad Mini do actually look rather compelling, to the point that for the first time since I bought my original iPad (which was orphaned by Apple rather quickly to the point that it never even got updated to iOS 6, even though the iPad 2 remains on store shelves three years after its release) I actually considered getting a new one.  The $200 trade-in deal Target had a couple of weeks ago for any working iPad probably helped there too, although I ultimately ended up blowing the trade-in credit for my old iPad from that on buy-2-get-one-free video games a week later (but that’s another story for another post.)  Of course, you’re going to be paying a premium to get the Apple logo on the back of your tablet, and in the case of the iPad Mini that premium is steep indeed, especially compared to some of the deals you can get out there for some of the more prominent Android tablets.  On the Android side, the most recent Nexus 7 seems to be the most obvious choice, but if you’re looking for a bigger screen than that (and a lot of people are) the question gets a lot harder to answer.  And as always, there seems to be no shortage of new releases looking to dethrone the reigning champion (with the latest challenger apparently being nVidia’s Tegra Note 7 platform.  Then again, if you’re looking for a somewhat cheaper tablet and can deal with some trade-offs, I’ve actually been reasonably impressed with the Kindle Fire HD that I’ve been using as my primary tablet for the last year or so, but you do lose the Google apps and have to deal with the more limited software selection of the Amazon app store if you do go that route.)

The underlying problem with all this, of course, is that there’s no guarantee that any of this info is going to be valid for more than about five minutes or so.  By the time you read this, I’m sure someone is going to have released some compelling new tablet that’s going to throw the whole thing off, and by the time we sort it all out from there we’ll get another tablet from someone else and the whole thing will start all over again.  In just a matter of a couple of years tablets have gone from being a novelty to being a commodity, and a rather unstable one at that.  When it’s getting to the point where you can just about have your pick of the lot for not much more than $200 or so (at least on the Android side of things,) it’s not surprising that people might not be getting too attached to their tablets.  After all, why stick to just one when you can collect the whole set?

July 10, 2013

It Feels Cooler in Here Already

Filed under: Technology — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:44 am

Not long ago, I opted to renew the lease on my apartment again.  I was pretty sure when I moved into a Downtown Bellevue highrise (well technically a midrise, but that’s just nitpicking really) three years ago that it would be something I’d get a chance to do once during a relatively small window of opportunity, then I’d have to go find somewhere a little more sensible to live.  Apparently things didn’t quite work out that way, and somehow I’m still here.  Not that I mind too much.  Sure it’s expensive as heck to live here and things to tend to get a bit crowded with various stuff every once in a while, but the commute into Seattle where I’m working is just about as easy as I’m going to find without actually living in Seattle (given the fact that my housing search criteria tends to start with “It’s not in Seattle”, I can’t say I’m a big fan of living there) and the amenities are quite nice.  I’ve been making some efforts to get myself into better shape recently (or at least counteract some of the extra sitting around and staring at a computer that’s come with my job lately,) and having health club quality exercise equipment and an indoor pool at my disposal certainly helps with that, and even if I find myself with less time these days to enjoy it, I still enjoy the view I’ve got here.  Eventually I would like to move toward buying a house, but I think I need to get some personal things in order before I make that kind of commitment.  Nonetheless, it’s definitely something that’s started to show up on the radar.

One thing I found when I filled out my lease renewal this time around is that occasionally they’ll throw in various add-ons for a few extra bucks a month.  In the past, these have mostly been pointless things like $6 a month for eco-friendly light bulbs to be installed or things like that.  This time around when the renewal came up, a new option was added:  Installation of a Nest Thermostat in my apartment for $12 a month.  On one hand, if I go back and look at it from a practical perspective, there really isn’t a whole lot of point to something like this.  After all, it’s not like my electrical bills have ever been particularly high here.  Even with running the AC in the Summer I don’t think I’ve ever had an electric bill of much more than $60 or so, and the east-facing windows here let in enough heat during the Winter that I hardly need to run the heater at all.  On the other hand, as an inveterate gadget junkie I’m pretty sure I couldn’t click the checkbox to get the thing installed fast enough.  Today I arrived home from work to find that it had been installed in place of the old thermostat while I was away.

I haven’t had too much chance to mess with it yet (as a learning thermostat, it takes some time to learn your patterns and tweak itself accordingly)  but compared to what it replaced the thing is ridiculously high-tech.  The original thermostat I’ve had in this apartment during the time I’ve lived here was a relatively basic model that is theoretically supposed to be programmable, but in reality the procedure to do so is so convoluted that I suspect at least 90% of the people who own the things don’t ever bother even trying to do so.  This, on the other hand, is connected to the Internet, allowing it to retrieve local weather data and adjust itself accordingly, and also to be remotely controllable through a website or a Smartphone app (which would have been handy a few weeks ago when I forgot to turn the thermostat up before one of my recent weekend trips.)  It also has sensors that can sense when someone is in the area and use that data to learn when people are or are not home, adjusting accordingly.  Eventually, it’s supposed to be able to collect energy usage data and tell you how much of a wasteful energy hog you are, but I don’t think I’ve gotten to that point yet.

Of course, even with all the cool features, the big question remains:  Is it actually worth it?  In my case, it’s hard to really tell at this point since I don’t really have all that much energy usage here in the first place, even with the old-and-kind-of-primitive thermostat I used to have here.  One thing I’m quickly learning is that the temperatures that the old thermostat reported had little to do with actual reality, and it’s taking a bit of learning to figure out what the “proper” temperature range to keep the apartment reasonable is supposed to be again.  In some informal experimentation with the old thermostat I figured out that it generally reported temperatures 2-3 degrees lower than they actually were (for example, a 68 on the thermostat seems to have meant an actual temperature of around 71-72) which was a bit of an annoying quirk, but one I just dealt with.  Now that I have a thermostat that accurately reports temperature (and humidity) I’m having to figure out the proper temperature range again.  Sure it’s a smart thermostat, but apparently it requires some learning on my part too.

It’s too soon to tell just what kind of impact (aside from looking really cool on the wall) the new Nest Thermostat is going to have on my electric bills or the overall comfort level of the apartment, but it’s certainly interesting to see what kind of things we get when people start throwing large amounts of technology at problems we didn’t even know we had.  I’m sure if there’s anything interesting to report here and/or I run short on Blog material I’ll update on some of what I’ve found here, but in the meantime, I guess I’ll have to see if I manage to get my twelve bucks a month worth of usefulness out of it.  Of course, given the fact that it costs $250 to buy one, I’m actually getting a pretty decent deal here (at least until I move out, buy a house, and have to buy another one for there.)

February 27, 2013

Back on the Cutting Edge… Sort of.

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 11:50 pm

I apologize for the lack of a post last week.  This was because the vast majority of the time I had for writing was taken up by preparing a talk for Sacrament meeting at church on Sunday (I am planning to post that a bit later on, if for no other reason than to have it in my archives; I have a tendency to lose these type of things quickly after I’m done with them, and there are some older ones, as well as some of my older writing, that I wish I still had copies of.)   A few posts ago, I talked about some upgrades I was doing to my computer.  It was actually while I was in the process of writing that particular post that I discovered through my Blog archives that my then-current desktop PC had gone over four years without a major upgrade.  This was a year longer than I thought it was, and even though the upgrades I made a few weeks ago did provide a decent speed boost to my system, it did make me start to reconsider my plans to wait another 6-12 months to upgrade the rest of my system.  When I originally made those plans, I had figured that I was going to get a new case, video card and replace the main hard drive in the system with an SSD.  On doing a bit of further research, I came to the realization that the SSD, while it would have been a pretty decent speed boost, would have been badly bottlenecked by the slower serial ATA controller on my old motherboard, so I wouldn’t have been using it to its full ability.

Naturally, I probably could have found a cheaper solution to the problem than going out and replacing the whole system, but that was before I figured out how old my current system had become, apparently without me noticing.  And by the time I got to that point, it was pretty much all downhill from there.  Besides, given the age of my old system, there was a good chance that any upgrades like that would end up being a sunk cost when I did replace the system later on anyway.  Given the fact that I got over four years out of my old computer and over five years out of the one before that, I do have a tendency not to keep up with the latest trends in PC hardware quite as well as I used to back when I would either build or do a major upgrade on my PC roughly every eighteen months or so..  This means that the process of putting together a new computer generally starts out with several weeks of mostly figuring out what the heck you’re actually supposed to use.  And unless you’ve been keeping up with trends in the PC hardware market (which I haven’t) there’s a good chance that for at least the first week or so of the process, it’s mostly going to be a matter of figuring out which model numbers are supposed to be the good ones.  Fortunately, the info isn’t too hard to find if you know where to look (and don’t mind reading a whole lot of reviews).

Eventually I figured out that I should probably go with the 3570k (as opposed to the 3770k, which would have TOTALLY been overkill and would have cost too much,) the Z77, the GTX 660 Ti, the 840 and either the X-750 or the HX750 (either one, but the 700 I already have is apparently a ticking time bomb and really shouldn’t be reused.)  And yes, even after reading all the reviews and the benchmarks that still looks like a bunch of random numbers, but eventually I was able to turn it into something vaguely resembling a system formula.  Then I posted it to a web forum for some advice… At which point I had to basically redo half of it.  Finally, after a fair bit of going back and forth on things and waiting around for sales, here’s what I ended up with:

  • Case: CoolerMaster HAF X (this is the one I bought a few weeks ago)
  • CPU: Intel Core i5 3570k
  • Motherboard: Asus P8Z77-V
  • CPU cooler: Corsair H100i closed-loop watercooler
  • Power Supply: Seasonic X-Series 850W
  • Video card EVGA GeForce GTX 660 Ti (I also bought this a few weeks ago)
  • SSD: Samsung 840 Pro 256GB
  • Storage drive: Seagate Barracuda 3TB
  • Other stuff: Some random DVD-R drive, the Ceton InfiniTV card I bought back when I was having various cable problems, got working on my old system for about three days then messed something up to the point of never being able to get it back

When all was said and done and once mail-in rebates on a few parts are figured in, the whole build came in somewhere a little bit under $1,600 total.  That does seem like a lot to be spending on a computer these days,  and indeed I could have easily gotten something fairly respectable for half that amount, but it’s interesting to note just how far things have come over the years.  If I recall correctly, when my parents bought our family’s first 386SX based PC sometime in 1991 or 1992 (I’m a little vague on that) it sold for $1,499.  Even though that price did include a monitor, keyboard and mouse, DOS 5 and Windows 3.0  (which I didn’t need for this one since I already had all the peripherals and a transferrable copy of Windows 7) at the time that was considered to be a reasonably priced entry-level PC.  20+ years later, we’ve come to the point where an entry-level PC is a lot closer to the $300 range (plus $100 or so if you need a monitor to go with that or want to go with one of the all-in-one models,) and $1,500 will get you an out-and-out firebreather of a system.  The resulting system isn’t anywhere near the insane-level top-of-the-line stuff you see in the really crazy rigs (If you were really motivated you could manage to easily spend $3,000 on video cards alone these days) but I aimed to make a system that would cover my computing needs for a while and allow for some upgrading if the need arises later on.  Not that I should need to do so for a while, since what I’ve got is already pretty dang fast.

Thanks to the SSD (a Samsung 840 Pro, which is right near the top of the list of the fastest consumer-level SSDs you can get right now) this new system can go from pressing the power button to showing the Windows login prompt in ten seconds.  It’s particularly amusing to see the Windows startup animation not even have time to finish before it’s ready to go.  For quite a while it’s been shown that SSDs can be a huge performance boost, but for all the speed they bring they also come with the price of frequently dubious reliability.  This blog post over at Coding Horror has a rather interesting way of putting this (based on Barney Stimson’s Crazy/Hot scale from the sitcom How I Met Your Mother,) but still concludes that the drives are hot enough to put up with the crazy that comes with them.  Then again, that post was made nearly two years ago, and the SSD I ended up putting in this system does come with a 5-year warranty on it, so what’s the worst that can happen?  (No wait, don’t answer that.)   Currently, the conventional wisdom seems to suggest that the SSD is best used for putting system files and applications on, while a conventional hard drive covers the heavy lifting of data storage duty, which is what I’m doing for the time being.  As for the performance boost from an SSD:

This disk benchmark should give you some idea of just how much difference the SSD makes compared to a hard drive.  The red one is the 3TB Seagate I’ve got as my storage drive in my new system, which is considered reasonably fast for a hard drive these days, but falls behind some of the higher-end drives on the market.  And yet, when put next to the SSD, it’s no contest.  The IOPS on the hard drive don’t even register on the chart compared to the SSD.

And then just to make this a really unfair comparison, here’s the SSD next to the 500GB storage drive I had in my old system, which has to be at least 5 or 6 years old by now.  Perhaps the more interesting result to look at here would be a comparison with the WD Raptor 150 that served as the system drive in my old system and which was considered to be one of the fastest SATA hard drives on the market back when it came out (I think consumer-level SSDs were just barely starting to appear by then, but they were still firmly in the “rare and hideously expensive” category), but I don’t have that one hooked up right now.

Either way, even with Moore’s law starting to slip lately as the pace of improvements in processor technology slows down, you can still see that four years can make quite a bit of difference.  To be honest, my old system was still in pretty decent shape as far as being able to handle the stuff I was using it for, but it was getting to be time to upgrade.  I suspect I’ll be having this conversation again here in four years or so…

February 2, 2013

It’s Getting Just a Little Crowded in Here

Filed under: Technology — Brian Lutz @ 11:52 pm

One of the nice things about having kept this Blog for as long as I have (over 5 1/2 years now) is that it’s easy for me to figure out what I was doing at some particular point in time by going back to look at my Blog posts.  For example, while in the process of writing this post, I went back and referred to the post I wrote the last time I built a new computer.  Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned by rereading my old post is the fact that my current PC is (mostly) actually a year older than I thought it was,. which would make it just about as old as the PC that preceded it was when I replaced that with the incumbent system I’m writing this on now.  The funny thing about this is that it really doesn’t feel nearly that old.  Even with most of the major components just left alone, this PC has held up quite well, and I have yet to find a game that it can’t handle.  Four years after I built the previous system it had become rather slow, and although it was quite stable for most of the time I used it (about the only problem I really had with it was one failed hard drive) it was pretty much inadequate to handle any game that had come out in the previous two years.  I don’t know if this is more a matter of things just plain not advancing as fast (it’s been widely noted that Moore’s Law seems to be slowing down significantly as of late) or a matter of me doing more futureproofing on this system when I built it, but I have yet to find anything that this system can’t handle.

Even so, there have been a few nagging issues with this system that I’ve been wanting to deal with for a while now.  Perhaps the most notable of these is that it hasn’t been quite as stable as I’d like it to be, especially when running GPU-intensive tasks (read: games.)  The GeForce GTX 260 I’ve been running on certainly has enough horsepower to handle the task of running most modern games, but it makes a lot of fan noise while doing so, and tends to crash out if it gets too hot, which happens a lot.  Oh, and the company that built it went out of business about a year after I built the machine, so the lifetime warranty on the video card turned out to be not-so-lifetime after all.  In order to keep the system from melting into a pile of unrecognizable goo (which would probably mess up the carpets and lose my deposit on the apartment) I’ve had to run it with the side off the case for quite a while now.  This is, of course, ugly, and tends to create dust-covered nightmares inside the system, like you can see above.  Naturally, this is something that I’ve been wanting to fix for a while, and as of late, I’ve started the process of doing some PC upgrades.

The first order of business:  Moving into a bigger case.  I’ve been using an Antec Sonata for quite a while now, which is a pretty decent case if you’re looking for something quiet, but as you can see, my system was kind of crammed in there, without much room to spare, cable clutter all over the place, and generally not exactly the kind of thing you’d want a respectable PC to be running in.  With that in mind, a couple of weekends ago I moved my system into a CoolerMaster HAF X case, which provides a lot more space to work with, as well as a lot more cooling.

This is the result of that.  Still not exactly perfect, but definitely a lot cleaner than it was before.  And so far, the video card is a lot less temperamental  with improved airflow in the case (blowing out the half ton of dust probably had something to do with that too, but that’s beside the point.

Oh, and the new case has a couple of other cool new features as well. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.  I spent way too much time back in tech support back in the day, still trying to sort out a few of the emotional scars that resulted from it.)

Speaking of the video card, it’s next on the list.  An EVGA GeForce GTX 660Ti has replaced the old GTX 260 card that was purchased along with the rest of the system.  It definitely runs faster and at higher resolutions than the old card (which means I can actually run stuff at the resolution of my two monitors now, instead of having to scale things down to keep from blowing things up) but now it’s getting bottlenecked by things.  And even if I did get the SSD I’ve been looking at (probably a Samsung 840 Pro) it looks like that would end up getting bottlenecked too.  Naturally when you work with this type of stuff one thing inevitably leads to another, and before you know it you’re looking at just replacing everything and calling it good.  Then again, it’s been four years since I’ve really done anything with this system at all (aside from messing around with peripherals) so I’d say it’s probably a good time to just go ahead and build a new one.  Naturally all the cool new stuff that changes everything will probably get announced a week after I finish building it (as was the case with both of my last two systems) but as I’ve noted here on a number of other occasions, sometimes you just have to decide on something or you’re going to end up waiting forever for the next new thing, then end up waiting for the next new thing after that when that one comes because the next new thing wasn’t quite as cool as you wanted it to be when it finally showed up.  Then again, it’s not like I have to be in any particular hurry anyway, since what I have is still running perfectly well in the meantime.

Oh well, I suppose I’ll sort all this stuff out eventually.  Sometimes getting distracted by bright shiny objects can turn out to be a lot more work than it seems.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go try to figure out what the differences between the half zillion different variations on the P8Z77-V motherboard are.  This might take a while…

January 17, 2013

They Say You Want a Resolution…

Filed under: Random Stuff, Technology — Brian Lutz @ 11:30 pm

Resolution #1 for 2013:  Stop procrastinating.  Pretty sure I’ve already blown that one.  Especially because I just barely got around to making that one up.

Come to think of it, is there supposed to be a deadline for these kind of things?  Yeah, I know they’re supposed to be New Year’s resolutions, but who says you’re supposed to be making the things on January 1st?  Then again, according to the collective wisdom of the Internet, January 17th is supposed to be some sort of unofficial Ditch Your New Year’s Resolutions Day.  I’m guessing you’re supposed to celebrate that by doing all the bad stuff you claimed you weren’t going to do anymore or something like that.  Then again, apparently the whole thing is based on when statistically most people will have given up on their resolutions, so maybe it might actually make some sense to wait for the traffic to die down, so to speak.  Sure, it probably just means that you’ll be ditching all your resolutions on February 7th instead (statistically speaking of course,) but maybe this way you’ll actually manage to get a treadmill at the gym while you’re making your halfhearted effort at improving yourself before your semi-inevitable regression to the mean.

Then again, I’ve never been all that big on the whole New Year’s resolution thing anyway.  I think I tried making a few of them back at the beginning of 2011, promptly managed to forget about all of them about three weeks later, then didn’t even bother with any last year.  I suppose I might have passively adopted a few of the standard resolution clichés somewhere along the line (Eat less junk food, lose some weight, stop setting things on fire for entertainment purposes, etc., etc., etc…) but probably managed about as well as most people do with those ones.  Well OK, I do mostly keep the latent pyromania under control these days,  but that one’s kind of a gimme since they tend to throw you in a highly fireproof jail cell if you do too much of that stuff.  The rest of them all kind of fell by the wayside the way they all usually do.  At least having access to some decent exercise equipment at my building means that I can  pass by the exercise room on the way to the mailboxes and feel kind of guilty about never using any of it for a lot less money than I’d spend on a health club that I pass by and feel guilty about never visiting.

Of course, none of this is to say that I’m not trying to find ways to improve myself, but I think of this less in terms of things that I need to do, and more in terms of things that I would like to accomplish, preferably before the end of the year.  Of course the last time I tried this I managed to accomplish roughly zero of the things I had planned on, but none of this is particularly earth-shattering stuff anyway.  That said, here are a few of my goals for the coming year (or what’s left of it anyway):

  • Learn how to work with electronics.  As I’ve mentioned in some of the posts about the laser cutting projects I’ve done, it seems like every time I head over to Metrix Create:Space to do lasercutting, I always walk out of the place feeling just a bit inadequate because it seems like everyone else there is working on much cooler stuff than I am.  I’ve actually done some work with electronics before back when I was in college, but I’ve managed to forget most of it by now, and the one class that I took barely scratched the surface of electrical engineering, which is a subject you could get yourself a Ph.D  in if you pursue it fervently enough.  I don’t expect to ever be building giant killer robots in a secret underground lair or anything like that (the opportunities to use one’s powers for evil around here seem dreadfully limited these days) but it’s definitely something I’d like to learn more about.  If nothing else, I still need to build that JAMMA Supergun I was talking about two years ago so I have something to play my arcade boards on.
  • Build a new computer.  To be honest, my current desktop system is holding up pretty well for me right now, but it is over three years old now, and I’m thinking it’s time to start looking at a new build.  I think I’m going to end up doing this one more in increments rather than just buying everything at once and putting it all together, but eventually I do plan to replace (almost) all of the major components.  In the first round of upgrades I’ll be getting a new case (a Cooler Master HAF X which I’ve actually already bought, and intend to move my current system into when it’s convenient to do so), an SSD to replace the system drive, and a new video card (currently I’m looking at a GeForce GTX 660 Ti, but I need to do a bit more homework on things before I jump in.)  After that, I think I’ll plan to follow with a new motherboard/CPU and RAM in about 6-12 months.  For a while now I’ve been tempted to just go all-out and build a high-end monster of a system, but it never seems like the performance of a high-end system like that quite lives up to the high cost, so I usually end up somewhere around a mid-to-upper range system.
  • Cut the clutter.  Although I do still quite like my apartment here in Downtown Bellevue (at least when the appliances are working, there’s a long story to that but I’ll hold off on it for now,) it does definitely get a bit crowded in here.  In particular, there are a couple of trouble spots in the living room and in the bedroom where stuff tends to accumulate, and I’d really like to find a better way to deal with things than to toss them onto the nearest convenient flat surface.  Ultimately I think the long-term solution is going to be to move to somewhere with enough space to actually store things,  but for now I’ve got to deal with what I have, so I’ll need to find ways to try to organize things better here.  I’m pretty sure that mostly translates to getting rid of a bunch of stuff, which is mostly a matter of sorting it and actually making the effort to get rid of it in one way or another.  It seems like the best way to avoid this is to not let it accumulate in the first place, but that tends to be kind of difficult in a small place like this.  In short, there’s not much room, but there’s definitely room for improvement.

So aside from the fact that it’s already nearly eighteen days into the new year, and that none of these goals are anything particularly earth-shattering, those are some of the things I’d like to get accomplished over the course of the upcoming  year.  I’d call them resolutions, but I think we might already be past the deadline to ditch those, so I might actually have to follow up on some of these if I did.  Besides, if I really wanted to make resolutions, I could always make them later.  I could always stop procrastinating  on December 31st, right?

November 15, 2012

A Visit from the Internet Fairy

Filed under: Technology — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:00 am

For as much as people like to complain about their Internet providers these days, Internet service tends to quickly fade into the background for most people, being one of those things that’s just there.  As I’ve noted on several other occasions on this Blog, it tends to fall into the category of everyday items that most people don’t pay much attention to unless something doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.  In my case, for as long as I’ve lived here I’ve had one of these relatively mundane Internet connections through Comcast, one of the two Internet providers I can get here.

As you can see, by most standards it’s a pretty fast connection.  Although the connection I have goes (theoretically) up to 50 megabits, in practice it’s rare that I would ever see that type of speed, and in extended downloads I think 25 megabits is probably closer to reality on a day-to-day basis.  For all the various drama I’ve had with Comcast over the years over my various troubles with cable service (mostly, it turns out, of my own making,) their Internet service has been a relatively drama-free affair, one or two account issues aside.  It becomes one of those things that just happens to be there, only occasionally gives me trouble (none of which seems to require much more than resetting the modem to fix) and mostly does its job.  And yet, as seems to be the case with a lot of people I know, I would be ready to drop it in a heartbeat for any other viable option that isn’t Comcast. 

I suppose I haven’t had nearly the number of technical problems or customer service headaches that some people have had with their Comcast service, but there seems to be a pretty widespread perception out there that Comcast is at best the lesser of two evils, and at worst the greater of one evil.  Then again, most people don’t have a lot of choice in the matter; typically here in Downtown Bellevue your choices are either Comcast or CenturyLink (formerly Qwest, formerly, USWest, formerly Pacific Northwest Bell, formerly Ma Bell, etc.) and I think the fastest connection I could get from CenturyLink would be around 12 megabits, which maxes out at a bit less than half of the (theoretical) bandwidth I’ve been getting on my Comcast service.  Over in Redmond, a few years ago Verizon was starting to install FIOS (their fiber optic service) in various neighborhoods around town, but just before I moved out of Redmond they had sold off their entire network in Washington and several other states to Frontier, who as far as I can tell would just as soon ditch the whole entire thing and move people back to DSL (which claims to do up to 25 megabits on the highest service tier, but I don’t think I ever had more than 3 megabits down and 768K up in my old apartment).  In other words, if you want an Internet connection that isn’t terrible in most areas around here, you’re stuck with Comcast.  So we put up with it, hoping that some day other feasible competition will show up, at which point there will probably be a line out their door of people looking to switch for the simple reason that they’re not Comcast.

That long awaited alternative to Comcast just happened to show up here unexpectedly last Friday in the form of a notice in the mail that CondoInternet, a small Internet provider that provides fiber optic service to a number of high-rise apartment buildings in Downtown Seattle, Belltown and surrounding neighborhoods, would soon be offering 100 megabit service within my building for $60 a month.  They do this by taking advantage of the fact that the Westin Building, a major Internet regional hub, is located in Belltown, so they can take advantage of the existing infrastructure for enterprises and datacenters to offer residential Internet service.  And I just happen to be lucky enough to live in the first building in Bellevue to get wired up for their service.  Sure, I have existing service that’s reasonably fast mostly trouble-free, but most people around here can’t get a connection that fast around here at all, and even if they can it’ll generally cost twice that much, if not more.  After about three or four seconds of considering my options, I naturally decided to go for it.

If the connection was fast, the speed at which it got hooked up was also surprisingly fast.  When I got the notice, I went to their website, where they offered to put people in this building on a list to inform them when service would be available.  I filled this form out at roughly 11pm on a Friday evening.  By 11:30 I was being contacted by someone from CondoInternet to set up an installation appointment on Monday.  A few more e-mails went back and forth, and the arrangements were made.  When I came home from Work on Monday, everything was hooked up and ready to go.  This is what I came home to:

In technical terms, I think that falls somewhere in the category of “Holy freakin’ crud that’s fast”.  Just for grins and giggles, I went and downloaded some stuff off Steam, and was able to install Left 4 Dead (about 6GB) in under ten minutes, at a speed hovering right around 10 megabytes a second.  To put that in a little perspective, I can recall a time back in my pre-Internet days when a 10 megabyte download (usually some Apogee or Epic shareware game from one of the local BBSes, this was back before I could afford to actually buy software) over a 14.4 modem would have taken over an hour to complete, now I can download that in a second.  Some quick back-of-the-napkin calculations put my new 100 megabit connection somewhere in the neighborhood of nearly 7,300 times as fast as dialup over a 14.4 modem.  And I don’t even want to know how that compares to a 2400 baud modem…

So, at least until someone else starts catching up, I’ve got just about the fastest residential Internet connection in town, and I’m even paying a bit less per month than I would be for Comcast internet service…  Which I fully expect that I won’t be doing anymore pretty quickly.  Then again, right when I get my blazing new Internet connection, down in the Kansas City area the first customers on Google Fiber are starting to come online witrh their much vaunted gigabit Internet service, which from early reports blows even this stuff out of the water.  I guess that’s why technology is a moving target, right?

September 7, 2012

Turning Over a New Page (Sort Of)

Filed under: Technology — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:56 am

The new Kindle Paperwhite, also known as “What I’ve been doing for the last six months”.

From back in one of the earliest of my many contracting stints at Microsoft, I can recall a recruiting poster on the wall of the building I worked in, looking for developers to deal with some of the really deep low-level portions of the development tools.  After the poster listed a few of the perks of working on this particular team (this was back in the day when Microsoft was still, by and large, the king of the proverbial hill in the software industry) this poster offered a slogan which has stuck with me over the years:

“Because you never want your mother to understand what you do for a living.”

Even though my career since then has taken me into some rather technical directions, but I don’t think I’ve ever managed to quite reach the point where I wouldn’t be able to eventually, with a bit of patience, explain to my mother exactly what it is that I do for a living.  In fact, of the various products I’ve worked on and roles I’ve been in, I am pretty sure that my current one would be among the easier ones to explain to someone unfamiliar with my field.  Of course, being able to explain this to someone, and being allowed to explain it to someone can be two different things at times, and particularly when you’re working on a rather well-known product, it’s quite common to find yourself telling people that you can’t tell them what you are currently working on.  Non-disclosure agreements are a fact of life in the fields I work in, especially when working with products intended for highly competitive emerging markets.  This means that when I have friends and family asking me about things pertaining to my job, quite often it means that I have to tell them that I’m not allowed to say anything.  Not that I would ever expect any of my friends or family members to go out leaking things to Gizmodo or anything like that, but to paraphrase an old quote (which I think has been attributed to at least half a dozen different people over the years,) it’s better to keep your mouth shut and have people think you an idiot than it is to open it and get yourself fired for saying something stupid that ends up on a dozen different Blogs within 24 hours.

Naturally, the fact that you’re not allowed to say anything doesn’t mean that people won’t speculate about things.  The various gadget blogs are particularly notorious about this, and when they’re not busy reporting breathlessly on the latest allegedly leaked component of the allegedly next iThingy they’ll be breathlessly reporting on soon enough, every once in a while you’ll find various speculation about whatever it is that you happen to be working on.  Naturally, it can occasionally be rather amusing to see people speculating on the tech Blogs about something that you happen to have sitting on your desk while you’re reading it (or, depending on exactly what it is you’re testing, quite a few of those somethings,) especially when they’re way off the mark.  Naturally, the speculation on the Blogs leads to even more speculation on the comments, and before you know it you’ve got the Internet equivalent of the old Telephone Game going on with rumors piling on top of rumors, eventually leading pretty much everyone down the proverbial garden path.  For those people with inside knowledge of the product  in a position of wishing to remain employed and/or employable, the only real option they really have in this situation is to just stay out of the conversation completely.

Eventually, if people are doing their jobs the way they’re supposed to be, there’s supposed to be a finished and hopefully marketable product at the end of the whole process.  In most cases, this product will make it out the door with some degree of fanfare, but this also depends a lot on exactly what it is you’ve been working on.  If said product happens to be version 2.3 of something that 99.99998% of the people on the planet have no idea even exists, chances are that people will probably put up a news release on the website then go out for lunch and/or a few beers and head back to the office to start working on version 2.4.  On the other hand, there are times when you happen to be working on a high-profile product that will be getting a high-profile introduction to a significant base of patiently waiting users.  Over the course of my career to date, I’ve worked on products at both sides of the spectrum, and plenty in between, but this is the first time I’ve worked on a product that has gotten the full-fledged press conference treatment. 

As you probably noticed if you read any of the tech Blogs or most of the news sites yesterday, Amazon held a major press conference in California, where Jeff Bezos took the stage to announce a number of upcoming new Kindle devices, including a number of new Kindle Fire models.  Also included in this product launch was the brand new Kindle Paperwhite, which just happens to be what I’ve been working on as a localization tester for the past six months.  Although I have also worked with other Kindle devices as well (including some testing on the refreshed version of the low-end Kindle device and an update for the now previous generation Kindle Touch that went out a few months ago,) the Kindle Paperwhite is the one that the vast majority of our team’s test efforts have been directed toward for most of the time that I have been there.  Most people will be raving about the new improved screen (now with built-in lighting) and the significantly overhauled user interface, but given the efforts that me and my colleagues have put into this, I do have to say that my favorite feature on this particular device is the fact that it will be shipping with support for eight different languages right out of the box.  Admittedly, I may be just a little biased on that one though…

Anyway, for those of you who will be buying this new Kindle when it comes out (which is currently expected to be on October 1st,) enjoy, and remember:  If there are bugs in it (which I’m sure there are, I’ve still got an article in the works on this subject that will become the next post in my software testing series), I’ll probably blame someone else for them.  But still, even though I happen to be moving off the localization team and into a different role within the Kindle team at this time, I have to say that I am quite satisfied with the way this one turned out.  Naturally, there are hundreds of people that have to work together to get something like a Kindle out the door, and even though I really only worked with a handful of them, I’m glad to have had the chance to work on this.  But still as always, technology will not stand still, so it’s on to the next thing.  It will be interesting to see what that turns out to be…

July 18, 2012

Seriously, How Much Phone Do You Really Need?

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — Brian Lutz @ 12:22 am

All four of the HTC-made smartphones I’ve owned over the years. You can definitely see the family resemblance…

It was a bit more than two years ago on this site that I wrote this post on this site discussing my then recent purchase of an HTC Evo 4G to replace the old and worn-out HTC Mogul I had been using as my phone for the previous couple of years.  That isn’t to say that the Mogul was a particularly bad phone; for its day it was actually just about the best smartphone you could get, although it should be noted that in this particular case, its day just happened to last around two weeks or so, at which point the first iPhone was released.  I think we all know how that one turned out (in fact, if I recall correctly I got a hold of this particular phone second-hand from someone who was switching to an iPhone at the time.)  I don’t recall exactly when I started using the Mogul as my primary phone, but I’m sure a particularly clever web archaeologist could trace the change by going through my old Blog posts and finding out when the photos started going from being merely blurry to being extra-blurry.  Although the camera on the Mogul was theoretically better than the one on my previous phone (a Sprint/HTC PPC6700,) in practice I could never get the blasted thing to focus properly, and as a result I was never particularly satisfied with the photos it took.  Anyway, by now that’s all ancient history.

By the time I replaced that phone it was pretty badly in need of retirement, although surprisingly when I plugged it in and turned it on for the first time in two years to take the photo above it came right up and promptly beeped out a calendar notification for something that happened all the way back in May of 2010.  After some digging through my stuff to find it, it turns out I was able to do the same with the PPC6700 as well, hence the “reunion” photo showing all four of the Smartphones I’ve owned over the years (not shown: a pre-production Palm Treo 700WX I used for about a month as part of some sort of beta test for Sprint, but that’s even more ancient history by now.)  To make a long story short, I must admit that few (if any) tears were shed when it came time to retire the Mogul and replace it with what was at the time the absolute top-of-the-line phone you could get on Sprint (and quite possibly even the best phone on the market that wasn’t an iPhone if you read some of the press at the time:)  The HTC Evo 4G.  It came with a monstrous 4.3 inch screen running at 480×800 resolution, which is quite the step up from the 2.8 inch 240×320 screen on the Mogul.  To be honest, pretty much any halfway decent Android phone would have been a significant upgrade over the Mogul by the time I finally replaced it, but since most phones these days come attached to a 2-year contract it pays to get as much phone as you possibly can for the money, and at the time the Evo seemed to be the best choice by far.

Now that I look back at this purchase two years (plus another month or so) later, I have to say that for the most part I’ve been pretty satisfied with the Evo.  It’s served its purpose well, has given me few technical problems (aside from some random shutdowns I may have been complaining about a couple of months ago, but eventually I traced those to the third-party replacement battery I had installed not to long before the trouble started) and has for the most part been more than capable of performing the various tasks I use a Smartphone for.  On the other hand, battery life has been passable at best and notoriously brief at worst, and I’ve encountered a number of occasions where I could drain the battery in a couple of hours with light-to-moderate usage, which can prove to be pretty inconvenient when you’re miles away from your nearest charger (still better than draining the battery on a two-minute call like my last phone did shortly before I got rid of it, but definitely enough to be annoying.)  Still, in spite of a few relatively minor annoyances here and there, the phone has done its job with a

Even so, the two-year contract signed for that phone when it was purchased has now expired, and as it always does, technology moves inexorably forward.   And although the phones of today aren’t quite the same huge leap forward from the phones of two years ago that the Evo was from the Mogul, the improvements over the last generation are pretty clear.  The screens are getting bigger with higher resolutions, the form factors are getting thinner, the processors are getting faster, and the user interface is getting smoother and more polished.  Unlike the last time I got a new phone where I was practically spending three months counting down the days until the Evo came out so I could finally get rid of my decrepit old Mogul, at this point I still had a phone that was, for the most part, still reasonably functional.  I’m pretty sure I could have easily gotten at least a few more months (if not another year) out of my current phone, so technically I didn’t really even need a new phone.  Even so, a number of tantalizing new choices have found their way onto the market in the past couple of months, and if I was going to be getting a new phone, the decision on which phone to get wasn’t going to be nearly as simple as it was the last time.

Right now, the two kings of the proverbial hill (at least on the Android side of things, your mileage may vary depending on your phone and/or manufacturer preferences) seem to be the Samsung Galaxy S III and the HTC One X, which serve as the flagship models for Samsung and HTC respectively.  In this case, Samsung has opted to retain the Galaxy S III branding on Sprint (which is the first time they have done this, as both the Galaxy S and the Galaxy S II used the Epic 4G branding) while a variation on the base HTC One X has been released on Sprint as the Evo 4G LTE.  Although there are a handful of clear differences between these two phones, most of these are in relatively minor details, and when it comes to the big features there really isn’t enough difference between these two phones to make either one a clear choice over the other.  The Galaxy S III has more RAM and a replaceable battery, but the Evo seems to have better build quality overall, and a better user interface.  Ultimately, I had to try out both phones a number of times to get a feel for each one, but ultimately I decided on the Evo.  Aside from being a logical upgrade path from my previous phone, I also found it a bit easier to use overall, and I thought it looked a bit better too.  I suspect I could have been just as happy with the Galaxy S III if I had gone in that direction, but as I’ve discussed on this Blog before, sometimes when it comes to technology you just have to make a decision and get something, lest you find yourself forever waiting for the next big thing to come out.  Honestly, just because I chose the Evo over the Galaxy S III doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily any better or worse, just that there are two choices out there that are for the most part equally suitable.  In addition to these, there were also a couple of other options in the Galaxy Nexus (which is basically a Galaxy S II running plain vanilla Android, something I might actually consider if I was still working with Android apps on a regular basis) and I could have even gotten an iPhone 4S without having to switch carriers for the first time if I was so inclined (I wasn’t, but that shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone who has known me for long enough.)

So far I’ve only had a few days with the new phone, so I haven’t really had a chance to fully get used to it yet.  Even so, I’ve found that in spite of the larger size and larger screen, it actually seems to be easier to carry around in a pocket, mostly owing to the fact that it’s a fair bit thinner than my previous phone.  I’ve also found that the battery life seems to be better than I Was getting with the old Evo, but that may just be a matter of the phone being newer without a battery that’s been used for most of the last two years.  Owing to having an evolved version of the same HTC Sense user interface that my old phone had, I’ve also been able to largely replicate all the apps and UI layouts from my previous phone, making the transition between the two relatively seamless.  Perhaps at some point I’ll revisit this with some longer term impressions of the Evo, but for now it seems to be doing a pretty good job of things.  But, as mentioned above, technology doesn’t stand still for anyone, and no matter how nice this phone turns out to be in both the short term and the long run, there’s a pretty good chance I’ll be having this same conversation again two years from now.

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