Compromise and Nexus 5: a review

I know a thing or two about com­pro­mise — I bought a Nexus 5 a few months ago. It’s not the phone I want, but it’ll do. For now.

It’s been years since I bought some­thing that wasn’t the lat­est and great­est Nexus model, but this time I think it was the right call. Like other Android fans, I awaited the an­nounce­ment of the Nexus 6 with every bit as much ex­cite­ment as the en­tire world does when it’s new-iPhone-time. (Yes, this is a thing peo­ple ac­tu­ally do for Nexus de­vices.)

I found my­self ut­terly un­der­whelmed by Nexus 6. Price, size, bor­ing, etc. But I knew I needed a new phone, so I im­me­di­ately or­dered the fan-favorite Nexus 5.

Continue read­ing “Compromise and Nexus 5: a re­view”

Yes, that’s a new laptop. Yes, I know what year it is.

lenovo-thinkpad-x230-frontI know it’s 2013 and as far as “mo­bile com­put­ing” goes, I’m sup­posed to be pinch-zooming and app-buying and poorly-typing on a tablet like the cool kids. And I do — my  O.G. Nexus 7 (the 2012 model) some­times makes a nice com­pan­ion1 to my Galaxy Nexus Android phone, by be­ing slightly faster and hav­ing a slightly bet­ter screen. However, over the 15 months I’ve owned the Nexus 7, it never quite be­came the sec­ond mo­bile de­vice that I wanted. Useful, yes… tran­scen­dent, no.

I knew some­thing was still miss­ing, so I re­cently went and bought a small lap­top com­puter, a Lenovo ThinkPad X230, to carry around. It runs Debian Linux. It does the things I want. It’s a won­der­ful thing to have.

I needed this because…

The lap­top that the ThinkPad re­placed was from 2007, and while a de­cent com­puter from back then would likely still be good to­day, my old lap­top was not a de­cent com­puter, even when new. Back then, I didn’t know just how painfully slow an ultra-low-voltage, low clock-speed CPU could be… I guess I thought it be­ing dual-core would some­how make up for it. Also, the cool­ing fan was a bit of a whiner, and would con­stantly and very vo­cally dis­agree with Linux’s style of power man­age­ment. The darned thing would con­stantly sound like a mini-jet-engine — too ob­nox­ious to use around peo­ple I ac­tu­ally like.

Low on power, high on noise — not a good combo.

But these days…

In the last half-decade or so, main­stream hu­mans seem to have ac­cepted the smart­phone, and seem to be do­ing the same for the id­iot cam­era (“tablets”). It’s the “Post-PC era,” or some­thing. Plenty of peo­ple seem to be do­ing okay with­out spend­ing much time on their general-purpose per­sonal com­put­ers, but over time I re­al­ized that as I tried to go along with this trend, I was miss­ing out. For me, a com­put­ing life cen­tered around mo­bile “smart” de­vices was one of un­ac­cept­able com­pro­mise. Composing more than a cou­ple of sen­tences with­out a key­board makes me want to just not bother to write, de­vices with­out ex­pand­able stor­age make one de­pen­dent on rent-seeking “cloud” ser­vices, and the mo­bile app ecosys­tem has hand­fuls of well-known prob­lems (pri­vacy, lock-in, and so on).

There’s a place for these de­vices, even in my life, but they just don’t re­place a general-purpose com­puter. Ever.

So I did this…

I made sure not to make last time’s mis­takes when buy­ing this com­puter. The i5 CPU is more than ad­e­quate, and I have a ton of RAM. ThinkPads are known to play nicely with Linux, be­cause they’re used by that awe­some kind of geek who fig­ures that shit out (and wouldn’t put up with a jet en­gine lap­top). It runs Debian Jessie (“test­ing”) with only mi­nor an­noy­ances — not per­fect, but noth­ing I can’t han­dle.2

Hardware build-quality and dura­bil­ity are ma­jor plusses for an every­day carry ma­chine, and that’s what ThinkPads are known for. And of course, TrackPoint is truly the best way to mouse. A lot has been said about the new ThinkPad key­boards, and while this one suf­fers from the bull­shit key lay­out (com­pare it to the awe­some, ugly 1337-geek clas­sic style), the key­board ac­tu­ally feel pretty nice to type on, even if the bizarrely-placed PrintScreen key oc­ca­sion­ally en­rages me.

And finally…

In the spirit of bury­ing the lede, here are some things I in­tend to en­joy while tot­ing around this rock-solid, large-screen-and-real-keyboard de­vice:

  • Full desk­top OS that does all the things
  • Better web brows­ing; ap­prox­i­mately 1,000 open tabs
  • Actually writ­ing things, blog­ging silly ideas and such
  • Tons of lo­cal stor­age (SSD + HDD = yay!)
  • Semi-modern PC games, in­clud­ing lots of Humble Bundle good­ness
  • Codecademy
  • Interactive fic­tion, per­haps (now, where did I mis­place my pa­tience?)
  1. My most com­mon tablet uses are as fol­lows: gam­ing, view­ing TV episodes and movies, and web brows­ing. I’m putting this in a foot­note so as not to side­track my­self, but it’s an im­por­tant point. One of the best things about hav­ing the tablet was that it gave me an­other 16 GB of stor­age, on top of the 16 GB avail­able on my phone. A lot of peo­ple seem to think that Google in­ten­tion­ally lim­its the stor­age avail­able in their flag­ship de­vices to push peo­ple into us­ing their mon­e­ti­z­able “cloud” me­dia of­fer­ings in­stead of lo­cal stor­age. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if this were true, but hon­estly, the #1 rea­son I’d like more lo­cal stor­age in my de­vices is not to carry around more me­dia, but more and larger apps — some­thing you can’t put in the cloud.
  2. I imag­ine Debian Stable or Ubuntu would be bet­ter.

goatse mobile

I had a strange mo­ment of serendip­ity ear­lier this evening.

I was read­ing some RSS feeds and I saw there was a new post to the Flickr tag “first­goatse.” (If the term goatse is new to you, I’m not sure what to say ex­cept: don’t blame me when you look it up… now. The above link is safe to view, by the way.)

I felt like I hadn’t seen a ‘first­goatse’ in a while, so I checked it out. The photo it­self was un­re­mark­able, but I was view­ing it on my Nexus S phone and hap­pened to glance away from the screen, at the phone it­self. Something clicked in my head, and I thought of a way to breathe new life into the age-old pas­time of show­ing your friends dis­gust­ing im­ages and cap­tur­ing their hor­ri­fied re­ac­tion for shar­ing on the Internet.

HOLY SHIT YOU GUYS WE ALL HAVE SMARTPHONES WITH FRONT-FACING CAMERAS!! (It must be the fu­ture!) These tiny pocket de­vices are cor­nu­copias of giv­ing: lulz for us, lulz for the Internet, and hor­ri­fic, can-ever-forget mem­o­ries for our friends!

Basically, what the best app ever would do is dis­play a hor­ri­fic im­age of your choice… self-supplied of course, in case your poi­son is more tub­girl, or what­ever kids these days show other kids these days. It would also cap­ture the re­ac­tion of the per­son hold­ing the phone via the front-facing cam­era, at the very mo­ment of ex­po­sure.

A se­ries of pho­tos lead­ing up to the mo­ment would work nicely too. Heck, what about cap­tur­ing a video of the en­tire re­ac­tion? For all I know, kids these days are show­ing each other the video equiv­a­lent of that guy bend­ing over and… ugh. For bonus points, it might even com­bine the orig­i­nal and re­ac­tion videos into one, side-by-side, not that any­one would want to ever view that.

I’m ready to be­lieve that a mo­bile app like this al­ready ex­ists. It clearly, how­ever, can’t ex­ist for iPhone, be­cause Apple doesn’t al­low that brand of awe­some, and I can’t be both­ered to check the Android Market (aside from, okay, my quick search for “goatse,” which turned up noth­ing), but this is clearly the kind of app that the wold to­day could use.

Well, there’s a Mac app, but who can fit that in their pocket?

Hey world — some­body make this!

Nexus S review

Owing to its sta­tus as the cur­rent hot Android phone, the rep­u­ta­tion of and con­tin­u­ing sup­port for the Nexus One that came be­fore it, and the Nexus line’s no-crapware, pure Android na­ture, last month I made a Samsung Nexus S my next mo­bile phone.

My pre­vi­ous phone, for ref­er­ence, was the first Android de­vice, a T-Mobile G1 (HTC Dream).

I like al­most every­thing about Nexus S. The de­vice is, for the most part, blaz­ing fast, smooth and com­pletely open.

By “open,” I mean:

  • It’s sold SIM-unlocked, mean­ing I can switch be­tween al­most any ser­vice provider. This isn’t very use­ful on a daily ba­sis, but is a great op­tion to have for in­ter­na­tional travel.
  • Gaining root ac­cess to the phone is sim­ple. Rather than re­ly­ing on a se­cu­rity hole to get root, Nexus de­vices have of­fi­cial sup­port for un­lock­ing the boot­loader, which opens up the phone to what­ever you want to do, in­stalling what­ever you want, etc.
  • Even if you don’t root, the Nexus S — like all Android de­vices — is “open” in a very prac­ti­cal way: apps can be added to these de­vices from any source you as a user deem wor­thy. If Google doesn’t see fit to in­clude a given app in the Android Market for what­ever rea­son, the de­vel­oper can provide an .apk file how­ever they like, and you as an adult can make up your own mind as to whether you want to use it.

Here are a few things I like:

  • It’s fast. There’s al­most never a hic­cup in run­ning apps, switch­ing be­tween them, hav­ing calls and mes­sages come in when you’re do­ing some­thing else, etc.
  • Front-facing cam­eras may be stan­dard these days, but I love fi­nally hav­ing one in my phone. Just need video sup­port in the Skype app…
  • The screen is amaz­ing. It’s bright, high-resolution, and the glass is ac­tu­ally curved, which lets it sit face-down on a ta­ble with­out scratch­ing, fit the cur­va­ture of your face, and as some have sug­gested, there are er­gonomic ben­e­fits for your thumb as well.
  • I don’t know the specs, but the bat­tery life with ac­tive use seems way bet­ter than my G1.
  • Lots of on­board stor­age. 16 GB may not be enough for some peo­ple, but it is for me, and I prefer this over deal­ing with a slow, un­re­li­able mi­croSD card.
  • Small touches like the afore­men­tioned curved glass, head sen­sor that dis­ables the screen dur­ing a call, am­bi­ent light sen­sor for au­to­mat­i­cally ad­just­ing screen bright­ness make for a nice ex­pe­ri­ence.

Here are a few things I don’t:

  • The browser some­times lags a bit while scrolling web­pages with mul­ti­ple large im­ages. I don’t see a lot of this, so it’s not that an­noy­ing.
  • No 4G. Of course, T-Mobile doesn’t have “true” 4G ser­vice, and 3G speeds are enough for web brows­ing… and al­most every­thing else I usu­ally want to do. Where this has been a prob­lem for me is in stream­ing high-quality mu­sic us­ing the Last.fm app; the play­back very of­ten catches up to the load­ing. That said, I feel like Last.fm may be partly at fault too, as the app seems un­re­li­able in other ways that make me doubt it.
  • In-browser Flash per­for­mance sucks, but I’ll take it over none at all so long as Flash el­e­ments can be off by de­fault and loaded only on-demand (and they can).
  • I get an­noy­ing au­dio in­ter­fer­ence in the car when the phone is plugged to the au­dio while also charg­ing. Not sure if this is the phone’s fault, as it doesn’t hap­pen in the house.
  • Doesn’t shoot HD video, but in­stead, widescreen VGA… sim­i­lar to my Canon PowerShot from six years ago. I can’t fig­ure out who thought this was a good idea. I don’t do much video, so it’s not a deal-breaker, but an an­noy­ance. I’d love to see them fix this with a soft­ware up­date, which should be pos­si­ble given the beefy hard­ware in this thing.

The lack of key­board wor­ries me:

  • While the av­er­age per­son prob­a­bly has to oc­ca­sion­ally en­ter a sim­ple pass­word and a poorly thought-out sta­tus up­date, I’m a writer and a geek (did you guess?), so ac­cu­racy of text en­try is im­por­tant to me. Typing on-screen kind of both­ers me.
  • I hate the lack of con­trol when com­pos­ing text, even if auto-correct takes care of most of the in­ac­cu­ra­cies. It also cor­rects my in­ten­tional mis­spellings, col­lo­qui­alisms, “big words” and many proper nouns. The thing to do here is ob­vi­ously make sure it says what I want be­fore click­ing “Send,” but that’s not al­ways easy.
  • Like I said, I’m also a geek. Who the fuck uses com­mand lines these days? I the fuck do. I man­age a Linux server at work, and very of­ten re­motely con­nect to the com­put­ers at home to do things through­out the day. Not only is typ­ing awk­ward, but other things don’t work, like double-tabbing key for com­plet­ing com­mands and file­names.
  • On the plus side, on-screen op­tions like Swype and SwiftKey, and Google’s pretty good voice in­put makes this hurt a lit­tle less. Still, I’d to­tally go for an iden­ti­cal phone with a key­board, even if it was a bit thicker and heav­ier.

But I’m op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of my phone:

  • As a Nexus phone, its up­dates are man­aged by Google, so there isn’t any wait­ing for Samsung and T-Mobile to get their act to­gether and re­lease up­dates to fu­ture ver­sions of Android.
  • Its open-phone sta­tus should make it ap­peal­ing to third-party de­vel­op­ers like Cyanogen, who will hope­fully con­tinue sup­port­ing it into the fu­ture.
  • While I’m a lit­tle con­cerned about buy­ing a new phone now, given the up­com­ing wave of Android phones with dual-core CPUs (Tegra II and oth­ers), I’m not sure that my phone be­ing left “in the dust” will be a con­cern for the next cou­ple of years. After all, desk­top de­vel­op­ers haven’t ex­actly made great use of multi-core CPUs, which have been widely avail­able there for at least five years now. They’re still good to have for mul­ti­task­ing, which is a nice fea­ture to have your mo­bile OS sup­port, but the sort of mul­ti­task­ing we ex­pect out of our phones doesn’t usu­ally in­volve two CPU-intensive tasks, but rather one that chugs along per­form­ing some me­nial task (play­ing mu­sic, rout­ing GPS, etc.) while an­other in the fore­ground does what you want it to at the mo­ment.

In all, I think Nexus S makes a pretty good G1 re­place­ment, and will serve me well into the fu­ture. I’ll keep you posted, uh, Internet.

I basically have the mobile phone I want, and that is awesome

I just re­al­ized that I, ba­si­cally, have the mo­bile phone I want. I use a T-Mobile G1 (HTC Dream), rooted, SIM-unlocked, and run­ning the great CyanogenMOD.

I could not re­ally say this about my pre­vi­ous phone, a Palm OS Treo…

My G1, in its rooted gloryI just re­al­ized that I, ba­si­cally, have the mo­bile phone I want. I use a T-Mobile G1 (HTC Dream), rooted, SIM-unlocked, and run­ning the great CyanogenMOD.

I could not re­ally say this about my pre­vi­ous phone, a Palm OS Treo. Though it had its strengths (read: the or­ga­nizer fea­tures), I bought it pretty much right be­fore the first iPhone was an­nounced, which, for bet­ter or worse, re­de­fined what a smart­phone would be.1

My affin­ity for the G1 re-occurred to me as I opened the Terminal app to check some­thing. I slid the screen open with a sat­is­fy­ing click, typed su and checked that some­thing. I wanted to go back a bit through my shell’s com­mand his­tory, and a quick flip of the track­ball made easy work of that.

Sure, I have my gripes… it’s a lit­tle slug­gish some­times, com­pletely short on app stor­age space (root­ing fixed that) and takes the crap­pi­est videos I’ve ever seen (worse than my circa-2001 Nikon CoolPix). And now that newer Android de­vices are out, I com­pletely have 1 GHz CPU-envy, high-res screen-envy, and Android 2.1-envy (Google Earth, want!).

But for the fore­see­able fu­ture, my G1 and I are cool. Its form fac­tor is per­fect. Its phys­i­cal key­board is un­matched by newer de­vices with cramped lay­outs. It’s clearly no svelte iPhone, but it’s not too chunky ei­ther.

My sat­is­fac­tion is matched only by my an­tic­i­pa­tion for what­ever could ma­te­ri­al­ize in the fu­ture and top this. Bring it, fu­ture!

  1. By this, I mostly mean “have a real web browser,” not “have no na­tive app sup­port and a charis­matic CEO try to con­vince you that you don’t re­ally want apps on your smart­phone, any­way.”

The case of the disappearing, reappearing dictionary

I was a vo­ra­cious reader from a rather early age. I re­call hav­ing had my read­ing level, in first or sec­ond grade, as­sessed at that of an eighth-grader.

My read­ing prowess could be at­trib­uted to a few things, like my par­ents read­ing to me from a young age, and of­ten en­cour­ag­ing me…

I was a vo­ra­cious reader from a rather early age. I re­call hav­ing had my read­ing level, in first or sec­ond grade, as­sessed at that of an eighth-grader.

My read­ing prowess could be at­trib­uted to a few things, like my par­ents read­ing to me from a young age, and of­ten en­cour­ag­ing me to read to them. More im­por­tantly, if I came across a word I didn’t know and asked them what it meant, they al­most al­ways made me go look it up in the dic­tio­nary. I had a children’s dic­tio­nary that I adored, but for words that didn’t ap­pear in there, I’d use their musty col­le­giate dic­tio­nary. This fos­tered an en­vi­ron­ment where lit­er­ally no word was be­yond my com­pre­hen­sion, an em­pow­er­ing feel­ing for a pre-geek with a single-digit age!

As I grew up, I didn’t al­ways man­age to keep read­ing with such vol­ume and tenac­ity, and to­day, while I read tons of bits and blogs from the Web, long-form con­tent isn’t some­thing I take in a lot of. When I do, it tends to be an e-book. (I read these, in epub for­mat, on my Android phone us­ing the ex­cel­lent open-source FBReader. Yes, read­ing off of a small back­lit screen sucks, but this is mit­i­gated by a nice serif font and the knowl­edge that, as I’m of­ten read­ing in the dark, I wouldn’t re­ally be able to read any other way.)

As I read, still I come across the oc­ca­sional word I don’t know. These days, my main dic­tio­nary (ei­ther Free Dictionary Org or Lexicon Lite) also lives in­side of my phone. FBReader doesn’t have its own built-in, and to switch to an­other app is kind of a pain, so I’ve lately been find­ing my­self shrug­ging off un­known terms. I have be­come the sort of per­son who stopped learn­ing new words.

This both­ered me, so I de­cided that, damn the in­con­ve­nience, I would start look­ing up words again. Once I tried, I learned that it ac­tu­ally wasn’t so hard, af­ter all.

The se­cret (if you could call it that) was to long-hold my phone’s Home but­ton. This is the equiv­a­lent to the Alt+Tab key com­bi­na­tion in Linux and Windows, which al­lows you to flip through open apps (only, in Android, it’s a list of the six most re­cently used apps, open or oth­er­wise). As long as the dic­tio­nary is among the last six, it’ll ap­pear in that list… as does FBReader, when it’s time to switch back. This is much more en­joy­able than go­ing back to the home screen, flip­ping open the apps drawer, etc.

I guess that’s a pass­able not-so-new-anymore year’s res­o­lu­tion: to leave no word un-lexicized.

More introduction (this time, the geek side)

I un­der­stand that self-identifying as a geek in 2010 makes me nei­ther cool nor spe­cial, now that geeks are con­sid­ered… you know… cool and spe­cial. But hav­ing laid out my blog­ging cred, I’d still like to make the case for the geek side of the equa­tion (equa­tions be­ing some­thing I ac­tu­ally know very lit­tle about).

I un­der­stand that self-identifying as a geek in 2010 makes me nei­ther cool nor spe­cial, now that geeks are con­sid­ered… you know… cool and spe­cial. But hav­ing laid out my blog­ging cred, I’d still like to make the case for the geek side of the equa­tion (equa­tions be­ing some­thing I ac­tu­ally know very lit­tle about).

Yep, a dis­taste for math­e­mat­ics cur­tailed dreams of study­ing com­puter sci­ence, or some­thing along those lines, in col­lege. Back in mid­dle school, how­ever, I was hap­pily hack­ing BASIC in my school’s Apple //e lab. I had sort of a knack for it; in com­puter class, I raced through the packet of pro­grams we were re­quired to tran­scribe faster than any­one else, and be­gan spend­ing my time writ­ing my own pro­grams, which would do things like tell my friend that his fa­vorite foot­ball team sucked, re­peat­edly, through the magic of 20 GOTO 10.

I didn’t re­ally ap­ply this knowl­edge very well at the time; it would still be a cou­ple of years be­fore I had a com­puter at home. And even when I fi­nally did, a com­pletely awe­some Pentium 166 MHz IBM Aptiva1 run­ning Windows 95, I didn’t quite know how to get started pro­gram­ming on it.2

Another de­vice ap­peared in my life a few years af­ter the com­puter; I re­ceived a TI-83 graph­ing cal­cu­la­tor for use in Algebra II. I ini­tially found that it made a great mo­bile Tetris ma­chine, but it wasn’t un­til read­ing Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead, in which he re­counted his early days pro­gram­ming prim­i­tive com­put­ers, that I found my­self in­spired to do more with it.3

The cal­cu­la­tor seemed like a good place to start pro­gram­ming, es­pe­cially be­cause the user man­ual con­tained an en­tire chap­ter de­voted to teach­ing the TI-BASIC lan­guage! I picked this up pretty quickly, since I still re­mem­bered a lot of con­cepts from Apple BASIC. In my ju­nior year of high school, I was soon writ­ing pro­grams to help me take short­cuts to solv­ing math and sci­ence prob­lems. But most im­por­tantly, I wanted to make games.

So I made a game. How I did so could be its own en­try, and very well may be in the fu­ture.

This in­spired me to sign up for the Computer Programming I elec­tive in my se­nior year. They taught us Visual Basic, and the class was nei­ther in­ter­est­ing nor fun. This, paired with the re­al­iza­tion that study­ing com­puter sci­ence in col­lege meant tak­ing lots of math (some­thing I’d al­ways heard, but col­lege course cat­a­logs as­sured), made it clear that I should fo­cus on the other thing I liked do­ing: writ­ing.

I ma­jored in com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and the rest is his­tory. Except for a fruit­less foray into Python a cou­ple of years ago, I haven’t pro­grammed much lately.

But I still em­body, I think, the hacker ethos. For me, 2005 could also have been called the myth­i­cal Year of Linux on the Desktop, thanks to the then-nascent, but still quite amaz­ing, Ubuntu dis­tri­b­u­tion. While it was alien to me, and didn’t quite ‘just work’ on my lap­top, I per­se­vered (smug Windows-using friends would say I “suf­fered”) and use it to this day. I love Ubuntu, and it still… al­most just works.

Along the same geek lines, do­ing more with the de­vices I own seems to be a re­cur­ring theme in my life. These days. I carry in my pocket a rooted Android phone (run­ning CyanogenMod), and at home have a homebrew-enabled Nintendo Wii and DS, a Canon PowerShot sport­ing CHDK, and Linksys routers run­ning the dd-wrt and Tomato firmwares. My (lack of) skill-set means that you won’t find me help­ing the cause of hack­ing open a new de­vice, but I’m glad to file the oc­ca­sional bug. In short, I like to get as much as pos­si­ble out of my de­vices, in­clud­ing, quite lit­er­ally, my data. Backup is a topic I’ll be com­ing back to, for sure.

I think that about sums up my geek side (and un­in­ten­tion­ally makes a pretty good case for my navel-gazing side).

  1. Mine looked ex­actly like the tower pic­tured there!
  2. Let’s re­mem­ber this when we talk about the iPad.
  3. My 2010-self is a lit­tle em­bar­rassed by hav­ing drawn geek­spi­ra­tion from Bill Gates, but you’re read­ing a truth­ful blog.