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Goodbye iOS, Hello Android

Apart from a battery that tends to die randomly and unpredictably once it’s south of a 38% charge, there’s nothing wrong with my iPhone 6S. While I’m hoping the Apple store will be able to do something about the battery, I wasn’t really in the market for a new phone. The device is otherwise in fine shape, and more than adequate for my needs. Which is, oddly, why I’m replacing it.

When the iPhone 7 was announced, it was clear that my time on iOS was about to end. The only question was when. Initially, I thought I’d get the usual two years or so out of the platform and then jump back to Android. But with the release of the Pixels, that equation changed. Here’s how.

Why the iPhone is Out

There are some things I don’t like about the iPhone: notifications, for example, are just not usable for me. But there are a number of things I enjoy about the platform – iMessage being the most obvious. Several of the iOS applications are just better than their Android counterparts as well. Tweetbot, for example, is better than any Android Twitter client I’ve seen. Slack’s iOS app is pretty solid, for its part, while the Android version comes across as an afterthought.

But the showstopper for me with iOS was the elimination of the headphone jack. Apple’s decision to replace it with a Lightning port creates two issues for me.

  • First, while I accept that the 3.5mm jack will be retired eventually, I think Apple’s a couple of years early with this move. If Bluetooth headsets like Apple’s own Airpods were credible replacements for wired alternatives (and didn’t look so weird), that would be one thing. But if even Apple can only get five hours of battery life out of them – not even enough for a transcontinental flight – those aren’t viable for what I need them for. Particularly given that I have an expensive set of wired headphones already.

    But, you say, it’s not a big deal because Apple’s included a free dongle. Well one, I don’t want to deal with another dongle. Two, they have a way of getting lost.

  • Second, if we assume that the headphone jack is ultimately going to be retired on all phones, I’d rather bet on a USB-C port than Lightning. Even Apple’s long awaited Macbook Pro’s will have USB-C. Lightning? Less likely, which means that you’d have to connect to laptop and phone using different connectors. That doesn’t make sense to me.

    If you’re going to ask me to dump a standard connector that works literally everywhere, I’d like it to be replaced by another standard connector, not one that will only work on some – but not all – Apple devices natively.

Once Apple went Lightning only, then, I was going to become a former Apple customer. The question was when.

Why the Pixel is In

Like a lot people, I was curious to see what Google had come up with the Pixels. As an Android customer, I have only ever owned Nexus devices (Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 7) or other devices that delivered a pure Android experience (Moto X) because I don’t believe Google’s Android OEMs had anything to add to the user experience. But even with the Nexus devices that carried Google branding, the company had limited control over the hardware. What would happen if Google had Apple level control over the device?

We don’t know the answer to that and won’t for a while, but the early returns are positive. The Verge called the Pixel a “home run” and Wired’s reviewer is switching back to Android because of the device. It’s not a perfect piece of hardware, but then neither is the iPhone. The Pixel’s battery life is reportedly excellent, the camera is supposed to be very good, and the Google Assistant integration will be interesting to play with.

As for the friction of leaving the platform, I deliberately do not rely on any applications or services with the exception of iMessage (and I didn’t turn that on until Apple provided a way to opt back out) that are platform specific. So the overhead to my switching back to Android is less than it would be for someone who was all in on iOS.

The Pixel being a good phone wasn’t enough to make me jump, however. It was only after looking at the sale prices for used iPhones that a switch began to make sense. If I’m going to jump eventually anyway, it makes sense to do it sooner rather than later because I can sell my current iPhone today for more than I’d be able to a year from now, which helps offset a good portion of the Pixel’s cost.

What About the Size?

Given that the enormous size of virtually all of the Android flagships is the reason I switched to the smaller iPhone in the first place, how does the Pixel fare in that regard? The short answer is that we’ll see. It’s taller than the 6S, which isn’t a big issue for me. But it’s a tenth of an inch wider as well, and that could be a problem. It’s narrower than the Moto X that the iPhone replaced, however, and thinner to boot, so while it’s larger than I’d prefer, the hope is that it’s small enough. Worst case, I’ll return it and hang on to my 6S.

In all likelihood, however, I’m off iOS for the second – and perhaps last – time. Assuming, that is, we don’t discover that Pixels double as incendiary grenades before mine ships in a few weeks.

Categories: Smartphones.

An Android User Goes Back to the iPhone

For the first time in almost six years, I’m a regular iPhone user again. As someone who’s used Android as a primary platform for both handsets and tablets for over five years, the obvious question is why switch back? Was it an Android failing? An iPhone feature? Some combination of both?

The answer is none of the above. The reason I switched back to an iPhone is ironic, actually, considering the nature of both the Android and Apple ecosystems. Theoretically, part of the promise of Android is the diversity of choices available. There are dozens of Android manufacturers manufacturing dozens of different devices. The only vendor producing Apple devices, on the other hand, is Apple. And there aren’t that many of them: two form factors for phones, three for tablets. Which would imply that if one of my primary drivers was physical handset size, I’d stand a better chance of getting exactly what I wanted from the Android ecosystem.

Except that’s not what happened.

I’m not a fan of the large phone craze, you see. Drives me crazy, in fact. I do not understand on any level the mass market demand for enormous phones. Part of it is that I have a tablet (Nexus 7 2013), I suppose, but I can’t figure out how people with smaller hands use giant phones. I don’t have enormous, Koufax-ian hands – I can’t quite palm a basketball – but they’re reasonably sized. And most of the phones manufactured today are just too large for me to use comfortably. What about the majority of the population with smaller hands?

My platonic ideal in terms of size was the orginal Moto X. It fit the hand perfectly and the entire screen was easily reachable. Unfortunately, I broke that phone and replaced it with the second generation Moto X. It was, predictably, expanded from the original: around a half of an inch taller and a third of an inch wider. Still usable, but barely.

With the battery on that phone prematurely shot, I began looking for an Android replacement. The problem? They were all even larger. Part of the problem, to be fair, is that I won’t consider most of the Android manufacturers because they modify stock Android in unhelpful ways, are glacially slow to roll out operating system updates, or both. But then again, that’s a problem that Android has created for itself, so my sympathies are limited.

Anyway, the only models I really considered because they a) offered a pure Android experience and b) would provide reasonable updates are manufactured by Motorola or Google itself (Nexus). Which were all too big.

The successor to my already-uncomfortably-big Moto X, the Moto X Style? It’s half an inch larger (again), and a little less than a third of an inch wider. Enormous, in other words. Rumor had it, however, that Google was coming out with not just one Nexus device this fall however, as it typical, but two. One large, and one small. Even better, they’d have fingerprint sensors and use the same USB-C port as my Macbook.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when the small phone turned out to be larger than my current Moto X. Which was, again, too big. The best “small” phone on the market, then, turned out to be the iPhone 6S, which was shorter, narrower and thinner than my Moto X.

So back to an iPhone it was. It’s funny that I had to go back to the platform of limited choice to get the choice I wanted, but until (viable) Android manufacturers offer something other than too large, larger and giant models, I’ll probably be an iPhone user.

For better and for worse.

In the meantime, here are some thoughts on the transition.

The Good

  • Hardware: I mentioned above that the original Moto X was my preferred size, but the 6S is pretty close in terms of the experience. It’s very comfortable in the hand, and short enough that I can get to the entire screen easily. The packaging and physical design is what you’d expect from Apple as well, which is to say excellent. So, as expected, the hardware is great.
  • Battery: Every time an iPhone comes out, someone takes it apart and everyone pretends to be surprised at how small, relative to competitive hardware, the batteries are. In a market in which additional battery life is typically added via additional physical battery material, Apple’s total control of the entire device down to the chip level is a big differentiator. The battery life on the iPhone, in the few weeks I’ve had it, is materially and noticeably better than my Moto X. It’s not night and day – under heavy use over half a day, the iPhone will still be in the fifties percentage-wise – but Apple remains the indisputable leader in battery efficiency.
  • Install: The last time I was on an iPhone, everything had to be routed through iTunes, which was in stark contrast to Android which needed no such intermediary. In the interim, Apple has removed this restriction, and there is no need for iTunes to install apps or even update the OS itself. The ability to install via a desktop has been retained, however, and in my case it was a nice benefit. The morning of my iPhone delivery, I went into iTunes and queued up all the applications I wanted. When the phone arrived, then, I installed everything in one shot. Even better, I could manage the placement of the apps on each screen, though that process is hilariously clunky.
  • Camera: I’m not much of a photographer, so this isn’t the priority for me that it is for a lot of buyers, but the iPhone’s camera is a lot better than any Android handset I’ve had. It’s not just the image quality, either: Apple has consistently been ahead of the competition in terms of delivering interesting new camera features, from slo-mo to hyperlapse. The latest are “Live” images, which I have not used yet.
  • Storage: If you ask people in the mobile industry why Android handsets have always lagged their iPhone counterparts in available storage space, you get different answers. Some argue that it’s a function of Apple’s supply chain prowess; that Apple has made it effectively impossible to produce devices with comparable storage at scale. Others point to Google’s historical tendency to advantage network services over local device capabilities. Whatever the cause, it has meant that no Android phone I’ve ever been able to purchase has had enough on board storage to accomomodate my entire music collection (~90 GBs not counting audiobooks). The new 128 GB iPhone, on the other hand, does, with room left over for movies and anything else I might want to store. Big advantage for the iPhone for my usage, because with mobile and even home data plans inreasingly capped, streaming all of my media as Android handsets would encourage me to do simply isn’t economical.
  • Fingerprints: This isn’t unique to iPhones, of course. Several Android handsets, including the Nexus devices I decided against, include these. But it’s a feature that I didn’t have before, and it’s a nice one.

The Same

  • Apps: One of the things I was curious about coming back to iOS as a primary device was whether I’d notice a bump in app quality and aesthetics. So far, with two notable exceptions, everything’s been pretty much the same. The apps I use on Android are also available on iOS, and most of them are consistent in terms of aesthetics across the two platforms. The only big addition is Tweetbot, a better Twitter client than anything on Android, in my opinion. This is offset by a much less robust Google Now implementation, but I’ll come back to that. At some point I’m sure I’ll benefit from the tendency of apps to debut for iOS before Android equivalents are made available, but I haven’t experienced that in the couple of weeks I’ve had the iPhone.

The Bad

As a brief caveat before getting into the specifics of things working less well, let me state up front that I’m following what I’ve referred to as the Manjoo Doctrine: “Buy Apple’s hardware, use Google’s services and get media from Amazon.” To the letter, in this case. There are a variety of reasons for this. I can’t go all in on iTunes, for example, first because I still use Android devices and second because my workstation is Linux. The utility of iMessage, meanwhile, is massively tempting, but its questionable track record with detaching phone numbers from iMessage and the fact that I am by no means wedded to an iPhone for life leaves me disinclined to use it. As for iCloud, well, it’s iCloud. So no thanks.

The net then is that I’m an Apple hardware buyer who a) buys his media (books, music, etc) primarily from Amazon and b) relies heavily on Google services (Gmail, Apps, Music, Maps, Now, etc.) Which means, by definition, that my experience is going to be fractured and higher friction than someone who relies on Apple for everything top to bottom.

That caveat out of the way, these are a few areas of frustration for me at the moment.

  • Music: As mentioned above, I can’t go all in on iTunes because a few of the platforms I rely on (Android/Linux) don’t support it. Even if I could, however, I wouldn’t, because iTunes as an application is a tire fire. In Apple’s defense, there aren’t many music applications I can point to that are provably superior, but iTunes is bloated to the point of being unusable for me. While Pandora has substantially eroded the incentive for me to create custom playlists, to the extent I still do that, it’s in Google Play. This means that I can access these playlists on any of the platforms I use regularly: Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, even Sonos. The problem is that Google Play doesn’t offer me any method for downloading my entire library to my phone for offline use as I can finally do with the 128 GB iPhone. Nor can, if I sync the entire library over to the phone via iTunes, Google Play access that media. So the net at the moment is that I can have my entire library on my phone via iTunes, or I can have my current and up to date playlists via Google Play, but not both. It’s unclear how I’m going to resolve this moving forward, but it’s irritating.
  • Books: On Android, the way I managed my audiobooks was simple. I manually copied the directory of an audiobook, either by connecting it to my desktop or more frequently pulling it from Dropbox, to my phone. A very nice little app called Smart Audiobooks would then index the directories, and then add useful audiobook specific features such as remembering place, time left in the book, intelligent restart and so on. On iOS, the correct audiobook approach is substantially less obvious. You can sync them via iTunes, but then it’s a pain to switch between audibook and music. And you lose the book specific features. Theoretically you can have another app like Audible read your iTunes audiobook directory – they have to be manually assigned the type audiobook in iTunes, simply having that in the genre metadata isn’t enough. But while Audible could see my iTunes synced audiobooks, it lost the metadata in the process so that none of the files were in sequence. At the moment I’m using an app called “Book Mower” that pulls directly from Dropbox, but this process is easier on Android.
  • iMessage: As mentioned above, this is due to a deliberate choice on my part as opposed to a functional limitation on Apple’s, but with no Mighty Text equivalent for iOS and being unwilling for the mentioned reasons to register with iMessage, I can no longer send text messages from my computer. It’s not a big deal because most of the local friends I might text are on a personal Slack instance, but I miss texting my brother and best friend from the desktop. Whether they miss that is a separate question.
  • Tethering: On the Motorola and Nexus Android devices I used, turning my phone into a hotspot involved nothing more than a click. On the iPhone, I apparently have to call AT&T to set that up, and presumably pay them more money for the data I’m already paying them for. Not ideal.
  • Back Button: I wanted to give this a fair shot, rather than complain about it after a few days usage, but I’m still a believer that Android’s dedicated back button is simpler and more efficient than the app-specific implementations iOS relies on.
  • Google Now: On the vanilla Android implementations I’m used to, the screen to the left of the home screen is dedicated to Google Now. Populated by current weather, stories from websites I rely on, traffic reports, scores from the teams I follow and so on, Google Now is one of the most useful Android features for me. It’s available on iOS, which is nice, but it’s buried in the Google search app, so it’s much less accessible. For an app whose utility depends on easy access, that’s less ideal. Apple has a few similar features in its notifications, but that’s the wrong place for them in my view. Which brings us to…

The Ugly

  • Notifications: My first question to all of the Apple people I talk to about this transition is: what’s the deal with iOS notifications? The first problem is the pulldown menu at the top. When I’m looking for notifications, I want notifications. Apple has instead attempted to use the pulldown menu to combine Google Now-style weather updates and so on with device notifications, which is one function too many in my opinion. Even after I click over to the notifications tab once I’ve pulled down the notifications menu, however, the notifications are more burden than helpful. They don’t roll up if there are multiple notifications, for one. Then I have to clear them all by day; as far as I can tell, there’s no dismiss all.

    It’s possible that I’m merely suffering from Baby Duck syndrome, but Android’s dedicated Google Now screen / notification-only pulldown menu split seems cleaner. The current state of iOS notifications is a real surprise coming from a company of Apple’s abilities.

The Migration

I’d meant to address this in the original review, but I did in fact use Apple’s Move to iOS application as part of my transition from an Android device to the iPhone. The good news is that it mostly worked – the text messages in particular made the transition more or less intact. The bad news is that it didn’t work perfectly and it took a very long time. Contacts, in particular, got mangled: in many cases, I have three or four entries for a single contact that are devoid of any actual contact information. I haven’t yet figured out how to resolve that. And in spite of the fact that I did not ask the application to migrate my photos – both because I knew it would take a long time and because they were all already in Google Photos – the migration took several hours, which seemed a bit excessive given that the information to be transferred over could presumably be measured in megabytes rather than gigabytes.

The net is that Apple’s migration app is probably better than nothing, particularly if you just want to preserve a text history, but expect a lot of remediation work post-migration.

Categories: Smartphones.

Seven Days With a Macbook

What follows is my review of the new 12″ Macbook after a week of use. The fact that I’ve had seven days with the 12″ Macbook is to Apple’s credit. Originally, Apple promised delivery between May 6 and May 13. Instead, I picked the alarmingly small box up at Fedex a week ago yesterday. The tl;dr review is that in the week that I’ve had the machine, it’s been almost exactly what I expected. The machine is a series of trade offs. You don’t get 10 hours of battery life, MagSafe or a high end processor or memory. You do get an ultralight frame, a reasonably large Retina display and a USB-C connector that, its current detractors aside, I consider a virtue. But more on that later.

There are a lot of reviews of the Macbook floating around, and the one thing that most seem to agree on is that the machine is a compromise. What people are debating is: to what degree? Joanna Stern of The Wall Street Journal, for example, is convinced that the machine is too aggressive with its single USB-C port, arguing that

The majority of us still require two or three ports for connecting our hard drives, displays, phones and other devices to our computer.

I’m not convinced that’s true, however. Certainly it’s not for me, as I rarely used the two USB-A ports on my 2011 Macbook Air, and never for a display. From hard drives to printers to phones, I’ve gone wireless.

My reaction instead, then, is closer to David Sparks, who wrote:

The new MacBook isn’t for everybody. Indeed, I’d argue it’s not for most people. There are a lot of compromises involved but in exchange you get a Mac that can go just about anywhere with you. The compromises required for that portability, in my case, are worth it.

Here’s why.

Processor and Memory

Because I have a large workstation to fall back on when I need to do anything computationally difficult, the clock speed in the machine – which is close to my four year old MBA except when it bursts up towards 3 Ghz – the processor’s perceived limitations just aren’t relevant for me. I opted for the 1.3 Ghz model just to future proof myself, but even at 1.1 Ghz that wouldn’t be enough to disqualify the machine from consideration.

As for memory, while I would vastly prefer 16 GB, I’m coming from a machine with 4 GB, so the performance is an improvement for me either way.

The net for me after a week of use is that the performance is fine. Right now I’m running Slack, Tweetbot, VLC, iTerm2, Skitch, Excel, RStudio, the memory pig Chrome (22 open tabs) while writing this in Sublime Text. Zero issues.

In the time that I’ve had the computer, I’ve noticed the performance once. HBO Now stuttered a bit at fullscreen during Game of Thrones. Netflix, for its part, is fine at full resolution, as are Amazon Prime and Plex. Everything else I do on the machine is unremarkable, in that it just works. Large datasets in Excel have been fine, and most importantly works like a champ.

On the plus side, the fact that the processor doesn’t require a fan is big. Particularly because this is what the fan in my MBA used to sound like.


The Macbook’s display is excellent, and a huge improvement over the non-Retina Macbook Airs. The machine ships with a default resolution of 1280×800, but I bumped mine up to the “More Space” setting, which is 1440×900. The additional screen real estate is welcome, but if you wear reading glasses you might want to skip it.

The Retina pixels are nice to have even when doing something as trivial as tabbing between open applications. For HD apps like, it’s legitimately transformative. I’m not so spoiled by the Retina that I can’t go back and use non-Retina displays, but the downgrade is both noticeable and grating. If you’re on the fence about an 11″ Macbook Air versus the 12″ Macbook, I’d go with the latter for the display alone.

Keyboard and Trackpad

To make the Macbook even thinner than the Air, Apple had to sacrifice depth in both the keyboard and trackpad. This means that neither the keyboard nor the trackpad travel as with previous machines, meaning that the Macbook has a different feel to it. Of the two, the trackpad is in my opinion less affected. With the addition of haptic feedback, the Macbook’s trackpad is virtually indistinguishable for me from the Air’s in terms of feel. If I hadn’t been told that the underlying machinery had changed, I never would have known.

Reactions to the keyboard will, I suspect, depend on personal preference. As someone who wasn’t in love with Mac keyboards to begin with, the Macbook’s new design is fine. The difference is noticeable, but hasn’t materially affected my typing. For superfans of the current Mac keyboards, however, expect an adjustment period. Layout-wise, the larger function keys at the top of the keyboard are an improvement, while the arrow design is not.

Size, Weight and Form Factor

In his review, Matt Mullenweg compared the Macbook to an iPad, and it’s close. The first generation iPad was 9.56″ × 7.47″ × 0.528″ and weighed 1.5 lbs. The Macbook, meanwhile, is 11.04″ × 7.74″ inches × 0.52″ and weighs 2.03 lbs. In other words, the Macbook is essentially an iPad that’s two inches wider and a half pound heavier. With a larger, higher resolution screen and full keyboard. The form factor practically advertises its intended purpose: portability is the goal here. It also suggests its limitations: power is not.

In terms of build quality, it’s basically what you’d expect from Apple. The only issue I have with the frame is that the sides are a sharp angle, and thus uncomfortable to rest your wrists on for any period of time.

Besides the machine itself, it’s worth noting the weight differences in power supplies. The 29W USB-C brick that the Macbook ships with is slightly smaller than the 45W adapter for the Macbook Air, and noticeably lighter.

More importantly, it’s now small enough to fit in my gear bag, like so.

Which means that while I used to travel with these:

This is all that I need to throw in my travel bag these days:

Battery Life

Apple claims that the battery should provide 9 hours of battery life if you’re browsing, and 10 if you’re watching movies on iTunes. Most of the reviews I’ve seen claim real world battery life of around 7 hours; I’m usually shy of that. Maybe I’m working the machine harder, maybe it’s because I opted for the slightly more powerful processor, but short of turning the screen down to an unreadable level it’s not likely that I’ll see anything close to 10 hours of battery life. Complicating matters is the fact that the battery is taking its time with calibration.

Fully charged, the Macbook might tell me I have less than four hours remaining.

Down to 39% capacity, on the other hand, it may project over six.

The poor ability for the machine to predict its own battery life aside, averaging out the other reviews, it seems reasonable to expect seven or so hours off mixed usage. For me, that’s an improvement as my MBA was lucky to hit four with a new battery. If battery life is your absolute priority, however, the Macbook Air is a better bet – with one wild card I’ll address in the next section.


Of all of the features of the new Macbook, USB-C might be the most controversial. Whether critics focus on the fact that it’s not MagSafe or bemoan the lack of current peripherals, USB-C is frequently cited as one reason to not get this machine. As far as I’m concerned, however, USB-C was one of the reasons I bought the Macbook.

Before we get into the advantages of USB-C, it’s necessary to acknowledge two things. First, it is true that, relative to traditional USB, USB-C peripherals are harder to come by. They’re not totally unavailable, as some reviewers have stated, but simple items such as USB sticks are not yet available for USB-C – you have to use a USB-C ==> USB-A dongle. Second, Apple’s decision to include only one port means that users who rely on ports day-to-day for outboard displays, external drives or the like will have to employ secondary hardware such as USB hubs for now. It’s probably also worth mentioning that the USB-C port is most definitely not-MagSafe, but from what I’ve seen of MagSafe 2 I actually consider that a positive.

Anyway, to focus on the above issues is, to me, to miss the bigger picture. The fact that USB-C is a standard connection is tremendously underappreciated by reviewers. First, it means that Apple now has competition for accessories. Don’t want to pay Apple $50 for a USB-C power supply and a startling $29 for a 2m USB-C cable? Not a problem. Google has a USB-C charger with cable for $50, and even if you want to stay with Apple’s power supply Monoprice has 6′ USB-C cables for less than half of what Apple charges.

Expect more and more USB-C accessories to follow, as well, as Apple and Google ship more USB-C hardware and other manufacturers’ models come to market. Whether it’s vendors like Amazon and Monoprice or Kickstarters such as InfiniteUSB, USB-C peripherals are on the way – and you don’t have to pay Apple’s prices for them if you don’t want to.

Also nice about USB-C is the fact that it can be connected to existing USB hardware in ways that proprietary Apple power supplies cannot. As noted by David Sparks in his review, this regular Anker USB external battery pack used for reviving phones or tablets can actually be used to recharge your Macbook (this Mophie cannot, however). If you’re concerned about battery life but already carry this or a similar external battery then, expect to be able to extend the Macbook’s battery life significantly.

Lastly, there’s the possibility that USB-C could become not just a standard, but a universal standard. Android phones will reportedly be incorporating USB-C in future models. After years of carrying around separate connectors and power supplies, the prospect of consolidating down to one charging system for laptop, phone and tablet is very attractive.


There’s no argument that with an entry pricepoint of $1299, Macbooks are premium hardware. That being said, as noted in my look at the machine pre-purchase, if you compare the price for a Macbook which includes a 512 GB drive and 8 GB of memory to the price for a 13″ Macbook Air with a 512 GB drive and 8 GB of memory you’ll find that they cost exactly the same: $1599. Expensive, but not enormously relative to other Apple hardware.

The Net

The Macbook is a good fit for my particular needs. I’d appreciate a bit more memory and battery life, but I’m not willing to trade weight or the Retina display for them, which makes the machine a better choice for me than an Air. Your mileage may vary, of course. Here is how I would break down the machine for potential buyers.

Buy If:

  • You can pair the Macbook with a more powerful second machine
  • You travel frequently and weight is a primary concern
  • Your typical usage is light and doesn’t require big processors or large amounts of memory

Don’t Buy If

  • Your day-to-day usage involves connecting to multiple peripherals
  • Your typical usage is computationally heavy, requiring a high clock speed, large amounts of memory or both
  • Portability is not a concern


  • Macbook buyers will want to keep an eye on Monoprice’s USB-C page.
  • Things that will not charge the Macbook: Mophie 4000 Mah Powerstation, Motorola Turbo Quick charger.
  • Things that will charge the Macbook: Anker 2nd Gen Astro3, 2011 Macbook Air (connected USB-A to USB-C, the Macbook will charge off of a Macbook Air).

Disclosure: None. The machine was purchased through normal retail channels at full retail cost.

Categories: Laptops.

Why I’m Buying a Macbook: The Q&A

If you visited the Apple Store in Portland on Friday, you would have been greeted first by a uniformed security guard and then by twice as many Apple staffers as you might expect. Or they needed, frankly. Such is the interest, at least anticipated interest, in the new Apple Watch. But my trip down was not for the watch, but rather to take a look at the new Apple Macbook.

Even for its fans, Apple’s newest hardware line is controversial. It wins universal praise for its form, as it should being noticeably thinner and lighter than even a Macbook Air. Functionally, however, the consensus seems to be that Apple has been just a little bit too aggressive and cavalier with user needs. Specifically, even if people can look past the good but not great battery life and the Macbook Air circa-2011 clock speed, the decision to strip the machine down to a single port – and a non-MagSafe port, at that – is the last straw for otherwise would-be buyers.

Here is why I bought one yesterday.

Q: First off, did you consider any non-Macs?
A: I did not.

Q: Why not?
A: Two main reasons. First, the Apple store is ten minutes from my office. A few months ago, the touchpad in my 2011 Macbook Air stopped working. After making a Genius Bar appointment for the next day, I was with a tech two minutes after my appointment time and out the door with a repaired machine in less than 15 minutes. Total cost to me? $0. Having that service available locally is a significant factor.

Second is OS X. There are a lot of things I don’t like about Apple’s desktop operating system, particularly the networking stack which has been a real problem for me. But it mostly Just Works, supports a lot of native applications I rely on (including the all important and has the Unix core I’m familiar with.

So yes, my selection criteria was more or less limited to Macs, though I very much like what Dell has done with its Sputnik line of Ubuntu machines. If not for the factors mentioned above, I’d be buying a Dell.

Q: Why not a Macbook Pro?
A: Weight, primarily. As someone who travels over 100,000 miles a year, 3.5 pounds is too much, particularly given that I don’t need the performance. And the weight of the machine doesn’t account for the size and weight of the charger, which becomes significant.

Q: We’ll come back to that. But why not a Macbook Air?
A: The display, mostly. I got four years out of my current Macbook Air, and while I don’t intend to wait quite that long this time around, I want it to be somewhat future-proof, which means I want the highest resolution display I can get in a light form factor. As neither the 11″ nor the 13″ offer a Retina-class display, they’re not ideal.

Q: Which leaves the Macbook. What about its power deficiency?
A: Power isn’t an issue for me. My basic setup is laptop for home and road, and workstation for the office. When I’m at the office, I have 16 cores and 24 GB of RAM to throw at anything computationally challenging.


The applications I have up on a laptop continually are Chrome, Excel, iTerm2, RStudio, Slack, Sublime and Tweetbot. With the exception of Chrome, which has gotten to be a pig performance-wise, none of the rest require a lot of horsepower. Which is why the modest clock speed of the new processor is less interesting to me than the fact that it’s fanless.

That may or may not be influenced by the fact that this is what my Macbook Air’s fan sounded like a few months back.

Q: How about the max 8 GB of RAM?
A: This is the biggest issue for me. I’d prefer to have the option of 16 GB, and I understand those who don’t feel they can work on a machine with 8 GB or less. But for the past four years I’ve been living with 4 GB, so by comparison 8 GB should be workable.

Q: Wouldn’t you prefer the 13 hour battery life of the Macbook Air to the 9 of the Macbook?
A: Prefer? Sure. I’d prefer to get 24 hours, actually. But I’m also coming from a 2011 Macbook Air which – even after a battery replacement – gets 4 hours of battery life if I turn everything down and don’t do much. Nine hours would get me through a workday with minimal charging, which is adequate. Put differently, I’ll trade the extra four hours of battery life for a machine with a Retina display that’s a pound lighter.

Q: Apple changed the keyboard and touchpad with the Macbook, right? Do they measure up?
A: I couldn’t tell the difference between the old and new touchpads, personally. I haven’t had the chance to play with the secondary force gestures, but in terms of general navigation the new touchpad is essentially indistinguishable in my usage from the old. Which is good.

The keyboard, however, had me worried, particularly because most of the initial reviews said that there would be a considerable adjustment period. In the brief time I had with the machine at the Apple Store, however, the keyboard exceeded my expectations. Maybe it was because they had been lowered by reviewers, but overall typing a few sample passages was not a materially worse experience than my current Macbook Air. Which isn’t saying much, as I’ve never been a big fan of Apple’s keyboards (I’m a Thinkpad keyboard guy), but the takeaway is that I expect the keyboard to be fine.

Q: And what about the most controversial decision, the single USB-C port?
A: Those need to be considered separately, in my opinion. First there is the decision to include only one port, and secondly there’s the choice of USB-C. On the single port question, this is what makes the machine a non-starter for many of my friends in the industry. While there will undoubtedly be connector solutions eventually, if you’re heavily invested in Thunderbolt displays, external hard drives and other peripherals, the single port of the Macbook is a problem.

Q: But is that most users?
A: That’s the question. A lot of reviewers seem to think their peripheral-heavy usage is common. Apple seems to be betting otherwise, and in this case I’m with Apple. The only external displays I have ever connected my Macbook Air to are projectors while giving presentations – all VGA, notably. Likewise, I have never connected the MBA to an external hard drive; all backups are done through Dropbox and other network services. My printer and scanner at the office is accessed via wifi. I’ve never used external mice or keyboards. I don’t need an on-board memory card reader, first because I rarely use my DSLR anymore and second my workstation has one if I need it.

With very rare exceptions, then, I’ve never used the ports for anything except charging a phone or tablet. And even there, I stopped using the laptop for this purpose because it charges the device far more slowly than dedicated USB bricks.

For me, then, the ports are largely vestigial. The lack of more than one, then, is not a concern.

Q: What about USB-C? Aren’t there basically zero accessories for that format right now?
A: USB-C is, to me, the most misunderstood feature of the Macbook. For many reviewers, this radical new port is a deal-breaker, either because of the perceived lack of accessories, the fact that it’s incompatible with the connectors that came before it, the fact that it’s not MagSafe or all of the above.

For me, USB-C is a major selling point for the machine.

Q: Why is that?
A: Because it’s a standard. For the first time, an Apple machine can be powered by non-Apple hardware. True, there have been knock-off Mac power bricks on Amazon and eBay for years, but there are just enough questions on quality (not to mention sketchy reviews) and safety to make them poor investments. With the USB-C standard, you’ll be able to buy cables from Monoprice. Can already, in fact.

I’ve always enjoyed the fact that Android devices use micro-USB ports. I can buy cables of all shapes and sizes for a dollar or two, so that I always have extras in case of loss or damage. With USB-C, I can treat an Apple laptop the same way.

It’s not impossible, in fact, that should I forget the Macbook’s USB power brick, I might even be able to trickle charge my laptop off the same USB brick I use for my phone – the Verge reviewer did. Or vice versa: I can carry the Macbook power brick and leave the phone brick at home. Which will save me additional weight. As will the brick itself.

Q: How will the power brick save weight?
A: Because it’s tiny. It’s only a little larger than the one that you get with an iPad or iPhone, which means it’s a fraction of the size of full sized 45, 60 or 80 watt Macbook Air/Pro power brick.

Apple doesn’t seem to make the weight of the brick itself available, but just look at the size of it.

It’s tiny, and considerably lighter even than the 45W brick I have for my Macbook Air.

Q: So the pound to pound and a half lighter Macbook plus a power brick perhaps half the size of a typical alternative means a lighter all-around package?
A: Correct, and all the more so if it turns out that I can charge my Android devices off the same brick. And we haven’t even talked about the cost factor.

Q: What’s the cost factor?
A: Today, if you need a new charger for your Macbook Air or Pro, you can either a) choose from the aforementioned sketchy aftermarket products or b) pay Apple $79. Dongle? Pay what Apple asks. And so on. With USB-C owners will have choices other than Apple. The Macbook isn’t even shipping yet, for example, and there is already competition within accessories. Don’t want to pay Apple $79 for their HDMI adapter? Not a problem: Google has one for $39.99 and Monoprice’s equivalent is $34.99. Standards enable competition which will manifest itself as lower prices and more options.

Ideally, Monoprice will have a 29W UBC-C brick out soon for a fraction of what Apple charges, and I’ll have compatible power outlets all over our house and office.

Q: Basically then you’re hoping that USB-C becomes the micro-USB equivalent for laptops, where the power is no longer proprietary to the vendor?
A: Precisely so. And with Dell, Google, HP, Intel, Lenovo and Microsoft all having contributed to the spec, it seems like a reasonable bet.

Q: Won’t you miss the MagSafe connection?
A: Sure, but my understanding is that the current generation is a step down from what I have on my 2011 machine anyway – it’s why things like the Snuglet exist. MagSafe is a great piece of technology, but for me not enough to offset the advantages of having a standardized port.

Q: Lastly, what about the price? Isn’t the Macbook a bit of a luxury?
A: It’s certainly not a cheap machine, but the price differential between it and a 13″ Macbook Air is less than you’d think. The price for the higher end Macbook model, for example, is $1599 which includes a 512 GB drive and 8 GB of memory. The price for a 13″ Macbook Air with a 512 GB drive and 8 GB of memory? $1599. True, the Air has a more powerful processor for that price (1.6 to 1.2 Ghz), but it’s giving up weight and display quality as discussed. So yes, it’s pricy, but Apple’s never exactly been the low cost supplier.

Q: So you’ve bought a Macbook?
A: Yesterday morning, as soon as they went on sale. Though it’s odd that Apple is not making them available in-store. The employees suspect that they’re being transitioned away from a retail model towards being more of a showcase, and they may be correct.

Q: Did you get the gold model?
A: Hell no. Space gray.

Q: What would your reply be to people who say that it’s crazy to buy a Macbook because of the ports, price, processor or otherwise?
A: De gustibus non est disputandum.

Categories: Laptops.

A Linux guy tries a Surface Pro 3. You won’t believe what happens next.

I’ve been a Linux guy for close to 15 years now. I started using it because the simulation software I needed only ran on Linux, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Even though the “year of the Linux desktop” never arrived, I’ve been using it as my desktop for a very long time now. More than a decade ago, I moved beyond just using Linux to creating it, as a Gentoo Linux developer and a contributor to X.Org, among other open-source software.

So you could say I’m fairly dedicated, on a personal level, to Linux and the ecosystem around it.

A couple of years back, I just had this reinforced. Microsoft kindly gave me a Samsung Series 7 tablet with Windows 8 on it, but the experience was … underwhelming. The tablet was just plain heavy, switching between desktop and Metro (i.e. tablet) modes felt disjointed and awkward, and needing to carry around a separate stand, keyboard, and mouse was a killer. I felt pretty good about sticking with Linux.

Three weeks ago at the Adobe Max conference, Microsoft gave a Surface Pro 3, its latest and greatest device, to every attendee. It was the i5/256GB model, which retails near $1300 for the curious; you can get the i3/64GB model for about $800 on the low end. The Type Cover is another $130 or so, but it is absolutely critical so I’m not sure why Microsoft doesn’t just bundle it with every Surface.

I figured I’d give it another try, so I picked mine up and started playing with it.

Then I kept playing. And it still didn’t suck. Here’s my experience, as a Linux guy trying out the latest and greatest Microsoft has to offer.

The hardware

From the outside, it looks like this:


The outside has a magnetically attached keyboard that doubles as a screen protector. Overall, the whole combo weighs just under 2.5 lbs, lighter than a Macbook Air. The iPad Air 2, however, is now under 1 pound, so that ought to set some context for you.

As will become clear, I regard the Surface Pro 3 as a true laptop replacement rather than merely a tablet, and the fact that it’s accomplished this with that flexibility and low weight is remarkable.

It also comes with a smart (i.e. battery-powered) stylus if you want to sketch, which will pop you into the OneNote app with the touch of a button. It’s got just enough buttons on it to let you avoid the keyboard for most of your sketching work — a right-click, an eraser, and the top one opens OneNote and takes screenshots. Plus there’s a pressure-sensitive tip that will do things like vary line thickness based on how hard you’re pushing.

The pen loop is actually attachable anywhere, but that seemed like a reasonable place. Every once in a while somebody confuses it for a clipboard when it’s closed, but meh.

There’s a few ports. This one is the power connector:


As you can see, in contrast to a Macbook Air, you get an actual port rather than a sealed magnetic connection. However, the Surface Pro does make extensive use of magnets so the plug stays in reasonably well. My biggest concern is that the plug is basically a flat board, which could snap off if I bang it wrong on something. Not being terribly interested in ruining a brand new device, I haven’t tested that hypothesis.

Here are the other ports:

surface_connectorsI show them mainly because of the humor factor. The right one is clearly USB, but doesn’t that one on the left look … eerily familiar? If you’re thinking it’s a mini DisplayPort, you’re right — exactly the same as the one on a Macbook Air. This made it incredibly amusing to me when I plugged in my Apple miniDP-to-VGA adapter to use a projector 2 weeks ago.

It’s also got an audio jack and a few buttons (power, volume up/down), and a very interesting combination of magnets to hold the cover closed, to tilt up the keyboard, etc.

After you open it up, you make it stand up with a kickstand:


The great thing about the kickstand is that it’s 100% flexible about what angle you put it at. There’s no predefined positions, so you can always angle the screen to point directly at your eyes, or to avoid glare.

The thing that really sucks about the kickstand is that, as you can see in the picture, it’s sharp, and when set up, it makes the Surface Pro 3 take up significantly more desktop depth than a laptop would.

Why does sharp matter? Ever tried using a laptop in your lap? If you had to do that while resting its weight on two sharp corners that gouged directly into your knees, you would probably be less than thrilled about the experience. I won’t show you the red, unpleasant dents in my legs from using it for a couple of days at a conference, but trust me, they were there (and fortunately temporary).

Why does depth matter? I tried using the Surface at a Blue Bottle coffee shop in San Francisco last week, which has a shallow bar you can sit at. Turns out that bar is so shallow that you effectively can’t work with a Surface, without doing strange contortions that are likely to damage either the facilities or your wrists.

The software

Once you open it up, here’s what you get:


One of the big things I missed with Windows 8.0 on the Samsung was that it seemed optimized purely for Metro apps (the new style) rather than also working well with desktop apps. But with 8.1 on the Surface Pro 3, it’s a different story. The keyboard is surprisingly usable, greatly unlike many of the flat keyboards I’ve used in the past. The trackpad actually clicks, and you get the usual behavior of a two-finger touch giving you a right-click action.

Once you log in, you’re presented with a Metro tiled start screen. For those of you who haven’t seen Windows in a while (or a long, long time), here’s what that looks like:

Screenshot (16)

You can pop into the old-school desktop mode or stick in the touch-friendly Metro mode. Having a solid keyboard+trackpad in addition to the touch interface makes both of them work smoothly, which is why I earlier said the Surface is essentially useless without the Type Cover.

Once you’ve got some apps open, you can do interesting things that Linux users have enjoyed for years, like tiling your windows:

Screenshot (19)All in all, the software experience is quite good. The touch works well, the desktop mode works well, and the integration between them seems much more consistent and smooth in 8.1. It’s got all the usual Windows apps available like Office, Adobe stuff, etc so you’re not limited to whatever’s available on a tablet, which often has limited functionality.


Nearly all the problems are with the hardware, particularly the kickstand I mentioned previously in addition to some minor annoyances like the keyboard making it difficult to touch the taskbar when you tilt the keyboard up, and the battery life (up next).

I’ve been traveling exclusively with the Surface rather than my usual laptop for three weeks to see whether I could survive without any fallback. And frankly, it works great. The battery life is much more like what you’d expect out of a laptop (maybe 2/3 of a day under my workloads), but then again, that’s exactly what it is. If you also traveled with a portable battery or found a power plug once a day, you could do just fine at conferences with it.

The Surface Pro 3 is a laptop with the benefits of a tablet, rather than a tablet you can try to pretend is a half-cocked laptop.

So, good show, Microsoft. Keep on iterating and keep up the excellent work. It’s great to see you experimenting with software and hardware. The price point leaves something to be desired in comparison to other premium devices (an 11″ Macbook Air w/ similar internals runs $200 cheaper). But given the sales numbers I’ve been hearing, I’m hopeful that economies of scale will begin to help with that.

Disclosure: Microsoft has been a client and gave me a Surface Pro 3, as with every other attendee at Adobe Max. Apple is not a client. The first picture is courtesy Microsoft, while I took all the others.

Categories: Laptops, Tablets.

Thirty Days With a Fitbit Flex

tl;dr: I like the Fitbit Flex and recommend it.

My order for the Fitbit Flex was originally placed in early March, a few days after I’d reviewed the Lifespan treadmill desk I’d gotten for the office. I didn’t get mine until late May, however, the 18th, as Fitbit’s vague “Spring” release for the device almost turned into summer.

It was in part because of the treadmill desk that I originally considered a fitness tracker. I was capturing my time on the machine at work, but there was far more activity lost than otherwise. And given my affection for both spreadsheets and making evidence based decisions, devices like the Flex were not a hard sell.

Before purchasing the Fitbit, I considered both the Jawbone Up and the Nike Fuelband. What tipped me towards the Flex were two factors. First, the fact that Fitbit explicitly designed for scenarios like the treadmill desk – where you are walking, but your hands remained stationary. This is, at least from reviews I read at the time, a problem for the other two devices. Because a significant portion of my activity per day would be on a treadmill desk, this was a critical feature for me.

Second, and nearly as important, was support for the Android platform. Nothing against the iPhone or its users, but I’ve been Android on both phone and tablet for several years now, and I had no intention of switching platforms just for the sake of fitness tracker compatibility. Jawbone has Android support, I believe, but Nike – perhaps not surprisingly as Tim Cook sits on their board – after initially claiming that Android support would arrive last summer, backpedalled and in February committed to an iOS only path.

Winner Fitbit Flex, in other words. But not just by default. I’d played with their Android app and their dashboard ahead of the purchase, and found them more than acceptable. Nor has anything in my experience since altered that opinion; I’ve enjoyed the Flex and recommend it. The sleep logging in particular has been intriguing.

The Good

  • Fit and Finish: The Flex is a well made piece of hardware. It’s light weight, relatively unobtrusive on the arm and waterproof – meaning that you can basically put it on and forget about it (unless you’re a diver). Removing the device from the wrist sleeve and reinserting it is simple, though putting it back on your wrist is a challenge as I’ll get to.
  • Accuracy: While it has some issues with activity recognition that are discussed below, in general I’ve found the Flex to be remarkably accurate in capturing strides – even when I’m on the treadmill desk. That was one of the first tests I put it through, in fact, and over the three minutes I measured it, the Flex recorded my strides on the treadmill desk more accurately than the treadmill itself. It will occasionally under or over-report an activity, but from my usage the Flex seems to do just what it’s supposed to do: record when I’m moving and how much.
  • Battery Life: With one phone, one tablet, a battery pack and a set of noise-cancelling headphones to keep charged ahead of a trip – not to mention the laptop – good battery life is crucial. I don’t want to have to charge a tracker every day or even every other day, and with the Flex, I don’t. Reviews I read claimed a five day battery life, but I’m consistently getting around seven. I charge it every Sunday night, and then I forget about it until the following week. It’s great.
  • Android Support: As mentioned, the Android support was one of the tipping factors for me with the Flex, and while that’s a selling point, it’s worth mentioning that there’s a caveat. For reasons that are unclear to me, Google has been comfortable ceding the wearable fitness market to both Apple and specific Android partners like Samsung by declining to support, to this point anyhow, the Bluetooth Low Energy / Bluetooth 4.0 standard most devices in this category and others are beginning to rely on. Google, in fact, closed comments on the open issue in June. Even more oddly, a member of the Android team has publicly stated that even older devices like my Galaxy Nexus that have the hardware to support Bluetooth 4.0 will not be getting that support moving forward. Google’s approach here baffles me, frankly, but be advised that Flex’s Android support will not be universal. As I plan to purchase a supported phone eventually, it’s still a plus for me, and Fitbit is to be commended here for at least trying to support Android here, unlike many of their counterparts who are iOS only.
  • The Dashboard: While the Fitbit dashboard could use some UI help – extracting weekly or monthly history is a particular challenge (look under “Log”) – in general, it’s pretty easy to navigate, aethetically well put together and simple to configure.

The Bad

  • Activity Recognition: The most common complaint I’ve seen about the Flex is that it’s poor at recognizing different activities, and this is a fair complaint. Setting aside the things it cannot handle at all – like using a sawzall or hammering which bounces it into and out of sleep mode – it rates mowing our tiny lawn as a more vigorous activity than a brutal crossfit-style workout. Which I can assure you is not the case. My hope is that over time Fitbit is able to improve their algorithms to the point that they can make at least an educated guess as to what you’re doing. In the meantime, expect that whether you’re hauling two trees up a steep hill or walking though a parking lot, it’s just going to count the steps. Though to be fair you can enter you activites into the dashboard manually.
  • Band Fitting: Another common complaint is that the wrist band is difficult to fasten, and again this is an accurate statement. The first time I tried to put it on, I almost bruised the inside of my wrist trying to seat the teeth of the band. One trick is to rotate it slightly so you’re pressing into the side of your wristbone, which should have less give than the arteries and veins just south of your hand, and with a bit of practice this becomes a non-issue. Still, it’s an area where Fitbit should and presumably will improve.
  • Timezones: Something of a First World problem is that Fitbit, at least on an automated basis, has no notion of location and thus no idea about timezones. Which means that if you fly coast to coast, for example, the sleep and activity cycles get crossed up such that while walking down 3rd St in San Francisco in search of a late dinner it will register those steps as the first of the day. Not a big deal, but it can skew your data.
  • Elevation: I believe that Fitbit’s non-wrist style devices have on-board altimeters in order to understand whether you’re climbing a flight of stairs, say, but the Flex does not. This would be a welcome addition to future iterations of the product.
  • Sleep Mode: Lastly, one of the things I’ve been surprisingly interested in is tracking my sleep. How long I’m sleeping, when I go to bed and wake up, how restless I am and so on. And the Flex is, in general, excellent at capturing that data. The catch is that you have to tell it – manually – when you’re going to sleep and have woken up. Predictably, I forget every so often creating a gap in my data. As with activity recognition, my hope is that the Fitbit can at some point in the near future at least hazard a guess at when I went to sleep and woke up with no intervention from me.

The Net

The above concerns notwithstanding, I’m comfortable recommending the Flex. It’s been a tremendously useful tool for me in understanding when I’m active, how active I am and if that pattern is beginning to trend in the wrong direction. The only time I take it off a month into this experiment is when I’m doing home improvement work; it just cannot handle the simple act of hammering a nail. It’s not perfect and has some obvious areas for improvement, but it’s more than justified the $99 price tag for my usage. Depending on your needs, and maybe your mobile platform, it might work for yours as well.

Categories: Accessories, Wearable Technology.

Seven Days With a Chromebook Pixel

Screenshot 2013-05-29 at 10.32.34 AM

Tl;dr: I liked the Pixel, but don’t recommend it at the price.

If I’m being honest, my first reaction to the news at Google I/O that we were getting a Pixel was apathy. Having been part of the original CR-48 release, and having received a Samsung Chromebook at a previous I/O, I was familiar with the idea behind the Chromebook – I just didn’t like it.

Because I spend most of my time, particularly my workday, in the browser, a computer that only runs a browser is theoretically viable for me. There are a few things I can’t do – like sync my Fitbit Flex, or use RStudio and Sublime Text – but with most of my media accessible via interfaces like Google Music and Plex, for example, life without a desktop is not hugely problematic for my usage.

But the devices themselves were singularly uninspiring. And in an age of sleek, elegantly designed hardware either made by Apple or designed to compete with it, that’s a problem. A problem the Pixel was almost certainly intended to address, or help address.


If Google set out to create a benchmark, one for its Chromebook-building hardware partners to shoot for, it has succeeded. The Pixel is a very well designed machine, one that’s equal parts form and function. The form is a matte gray square slab of a machine, broken up by a thin, Cylon-like status bar that glows blue during usage and the Chrome rainbow at shutdown. Fittingly, in a machine aimed at least in part at developers, the status bar is programmatically manipulable. The display more or less lifts with one finger, exposing a backlit keyboard mostly distinguished by its lower case letters and the omission of a caps lock key (it’s replaced by search).

Overall, it’s not Apple, but it’s definitely a premium design.


Functionally, everything comes down to the display, which is every bit as impressive as you’ve heard. With a greater pixel density than even the Retina MacBook Pros, it can make even Apple’s flagship laptop “look like crap.” The bigger problem, as a caveat for those considering the machine, is that it makes non-Retina displays – such as the one on my MacBook Air – look even worse than crap. After having studiously avoided seeing Retina-style displays for fear of having them destroy my appreciation of the majority of my devices which don’t possess Retina-level displays, the Pixel has basically done what I feared it might: it’s ruined them all. Beware, then, what the Pixel will do to your other devices. In the meantime, be sure to watch live sports on it. Like so.

Screenshot 2013-05-19 at 5.13.40 PM

Many have asked about the touchscreen-nature of the display, but to be honest, I don’t really use it all that much. It’s cool to demonstrate, but the only application I really use in touchscreen fashion is Google Maps. Very few other web applications have adapted for desktop touchscreens, limiting the appeal. This will undoubtedly change over time, but for now, the touchscreen is like coverflow – a beautiful and impressive, but mostly useless, feature.


When the Pixel was released, I thought it was too heavy. It is. It’s over a pound heavier than my 11” MBA, and almost a half a pound heavier than the 13”. That might not seem like much, but when you travel with any frequency, it adds up. And considering that the Pixel can’t compete with highly portable devices like tablets by offering the ability to us, say, Microsoft Office as a Mac or Windows laptop could and the problem becomes more acute.

In my case, I briefly considered bringing the Pixel instead of my MBA on my trip out to Gluecon in Denver last week, but discarded the idea simply due to the weight. It simply wasn’t worth it.


In terms of usage, the Pixel is much more laptop-like than previous Chromebooks I’ve tested. Google has abandoned, apparently, the browser-only UI conceit in favor of a more traditional
operating system type experience, even down the background with selectable wallpaper (all of a sufficiently high resolution to show off the display, of course). This is a good decision, in my opinion, as it makes the total experience less jarring. True, the only application you can run (essentially) is a browser, but it’s not as in your face as with Chromebooks where the entire UI consists of a browser window.

Compared to previous editions, then, the Pixel feels much more like using a traditional operating system – albeit at a much higher resolution. And for those of you, like me, that spend the majority of your time operating within the context of a browser, it really won’t feel that different at all.


When I first began using the Chromebook, the performance was surprisingly poor. Like the first edition of the MacBook Air, which was memory-starved, the Chromebook would constantly idle neglected tabs, forcing a reload. This is inconvenient when you’re trying to use applications like Gmail – no one wants to reload that interface every time you switch back to the tab – but it’s a killer with streaming media. Whether it was Google Music or Pandora, the Pixel would eventually kill the tab, and thus the music, until the page was reloaded. And this was with a very manageable number – ten or less – of tabs open.

At first I suspected, like the original MBA, that this was a memory issue. But Wikipedia claimed that the Pixel was built with 4 GB of memory. How a modern machine with 4 GB of RAM running nothing but a browser could be perpetually so low on memory was a mystery, but eventually I discovered a setting in about:flags called “Don’t discard tabs.” Once that switch was flipped, the experience improved dramatically.

Otherwise the experience has been mostly painless. The Netflix plugin worked initially but has not since, and intermittent errors regarding the Google Drive “client” pop up, but in general the machine works without issue.


At its pricepoint, it’s not entirely clear who the audience for the Pixel is. Certainly it is more than adequate for those who exist mostly in a browser based environment, and the overall experience is impressive enough that it may widen that audience. This resolution coupled with an operating system-like interface makes the Pixel far more accessible than previous Chromebook iterations.

But the price generally precludes it from being part of general usage conversations.

The Verdict

The Pixel has absolutely exceeded my expectations – destroyed them, in fact. Against long odds, it has become the first laptop I reach for when I’m at home, taking over that role from my MBA thanks to the advantage it has in display quality.

But I cannot recommend the device to others simply because of the price. At a list price of $1499 – the version I have comes with on-board LTE – it’s simply too expensive for a machine of its type. If cost is no object, than the Pixel is a marvelous machine for a wide range of tasks, but for the cost it would have to be either much lighter in weight or substantially more capable. I’m very happy to have one, but if mine were to be lost or stolen, I would not spend $1500 to replace it. I’d want to, because the screen is that good, but I would not be able to justify the cost.

As prices inevitably come down, however, particularly for displays, pay very close attention. Google’s close to delivering the kind of experience that will begin to make Chromebooks a realistic laptop replacement. Which should make things interesting.

Quick Hits

The Good
* Incredible display
* Improved, more OS-like UI
* Aesthetically attractive hardware package

The Bad
* Machine is heavy (3.4 lbs)
* Performance can be uneven (particularly Discard Tabs)
* Plugin errors (e.g. Netflix)

The Ugly
* Price is just too high

Categories: Laptops.

Treadmill Desk Review: LifeSpan 1200DT / DT-5

(Yes, I have a giant mural of Fenway Park next to my desk)

Tl;dr: I like the unit and recommend it, with the caveat that long form writing may be difficult.

According to my Google Docs spreadsheet (I’ll get to that), I’ve walked just shy of 61 miles on my Lifespan 1200DT / DT-5 treadmill desk. Since taking delivery, I’ve been in the office for sixteen days, thus averaging a bit below four miles per day with a high of 9.64 and a low of 1.63 – the delivery came late that first day. Calorically, the treadmill desk claims to have burned off almost 10,000 calories, or a bit less than 600 daily. It’s been only a month, so definitive statements about usage over time can’t be made, but thus far a treadmill desk has fit into my workday seamlessly.

The first I can recall hearing about a treadmill/desk hybrid was in 2006 when Brad Feld wrote about his. Candidly, I found the concept outlandish at the time. It seemed like a set up made possible only by Brad’s stature and the nature of his profession; when people are asking you for money, rather than vice versa, they’re likely to be more accommodating.

Over the years, however, demand for treadmill desks has increased to the point that there are commercial options like the Lifespan – several of them, in fact – and major media outlets are beginning to cover the trend (see the Atlantic, BBC, or NPR). Part of the demand, of course, derives from the increasingly dire warnings about the health risks of prolonged sitting. The dire warnings being one of the primary reasons I’d been considering the idea more seriously over the past year or so. It was Neal Stephenson’s 2012 piece “Arsebestos” in his collection Some Remarks, however, that pushed me over the edge. He’s rather unequivocal in his advocacy:

Let us be clear about the import of this research. It’s not just that a bit of exercise is a good thing. It’s not the usual suggestion that deskbound office workers might want to spend a few minutes out of every hour on leisurely stretching activities. What we have here is hard scientific data telling us that if you sit for any significant amount of time per day, it will kill you. Maybe with a heart attack, maybe with a stroke, maybe with cancer, maybe with diabetes. The reaper comes for those who sit.

Even if one concedes that some of the risks of sitting are overstated (remember when eating eggs was considered dangerous?), and that the risks of alternatives are underappreciated, it can’t be argued that the basic metabolic exchange of sitting for walking is a positive one. Particularly if you do a lot of sitting, which I have to – or had to, I guess – to be any good at my job.

While I don’t care to speculate on the relative fitness of treadmill desks for wider adoption (I don’t, for example, agree that they’re for everyone), nor whether they will prove to be another passing healthcare fad (a more expensive version of the thighmaster), after a month with one I’m comfortable commenting on my usage. For those considering the jump, here are some thoughts on the pro’s and con’s of the device.


In the TechCrunch review of the same device I have, cost was apparently the number one complaint among commenters there. And at a $1500 retail cost, it’s easy to understand why. For businesses used to paying close to a thousand dollars for high end desk chairs, it’s not a big leap. For an individual, it’s pricy.

Certainly it’s possible to assemble one on the cheap. This was actually the first route I considered, but I wasn’t able to find a match for the treadmill component on Craigslist: everything was either cheap and terrible, or much more machine than I needed and much higher cost.

In restrospect, I’m glad I bought the Lifespan rather than going the DIY route, simply because it’s been much easier to adjust desk height, and it’s nice have the treadmill controls integrated into the desk.

Two other notes on cost: first, most of the available retailers are eating shipping costs. This is significant because the shipped weight is over 200 pounds. Second, several of the available retailers have promo discounts available, and a little creative Googling may well turn one up. The cost of my unit, in fact, was $1350 rather than $1500.

Build Quality

The first thing I noticed when extracting the unit from the packaging was the build quality. The treadmill looks much like you’d expect a treadmill to look, but the desk is heavier duty than I’d anticipated. Structurally, the unit is quite sound and has no problem with my 30″ and 27″ monitor setup – weight-wise at least. It’s rated to hold up to 110 pounds, in fact.

General Installation & Setup

Installation was actually relatively straightforward. It comes in two large packages.All of the necessary tools – Allen wrenches, primarily – are included with the unit, and assembly is uncomplicated. I was able to complete it in maybe a half hour. The only tricky part, particularly if you are smaller, is bolting the desk surface to the desk legs: it’s somewhat heavy and unwieldy. I was able to complete it solo, but if you’re worried about it a second set of hands would help.

Lifespan has also thoughtfully provided wheels for the heaviest component, the treadmill unit, so that’s relatively easy to move and slot into place.

What They Don’t Tell You About Setup

One unanticipated issue was that none of my cabling – whether it was the USB cord for my keyboard/mouse or the power/DVI cabling for my monitors – was long enough for the new height. A USB hub and a couple of low cost 10′ cables from Monoprice solved this problem for me.

Desk Height

The one aspect of setup that is a bit of a challenge is determining desk height. It’s easy to do logistically, because the desk is designed to easily slide up and down with a series of predetermined slots. I’ve tried a number of different heights, and eventually settled on the calculation provided here, but I do occasionally experience some wrist pain so it may be that I have some tweaking ahead of me.


The unit is, in general, very quiet. The only real noise I’m making while underway is from footstrikes, as the motor and belt operation is present, but pretty minimal even at higher speeds. Getting going is simple: enter your weight and click On/Start. After a three second delay, the belt kicks in and you’re off to the races. Pausing is likewise straightforward: click Stop, and the belt starts slowing immediately. Starting up again will resume from where you were in terms of accumulative metrics; because I’m looking for metrics on a daily basis, I tend to stop and start a bunch each day, then reset it each morning so I can record the day’s numbers fresh.


One of the things I set out to do after getting the unit was determining what I could and couldn’t do at various speeds. This is roughly what I’ve come up with, though it changes as my experience with it grows.

  • .5 – .8 MPH: Longer writing (email, posts), participatory voice calls (more on that later)
  • 1 – 1.5 MPH: Research, reading, browsing, medium length writing (email)
  • 1.5 – 2.0 MPH: Reading, browsing, shorter writing (Tweets)
  • > 2.0 MPH: Light reading, non-participatory voice calls

The unit technically will get up to 4.0 MPH, but I’m almost completely unproductive above 3 MPH, and my downstair neighbors would probably kill me.

What I Can’t Do on the Treadmill (Thus Far, Anyway)

I’ve been able to acclimate most of my work responsibilities – reading, researching, email, Twitter, even my work in R – to treadmill usage, and I’ve even managed to write a few shorter pieces while walking. Longer writing tasks, however, are more of a challenge. At this point, pieces that require significant concentration – whether it’s for content, organization, or both – I do off the treadmill. Because I spend more time researching than I do actually writing, for better or for worse, this hasn’t been an issue for me. This may change over time – certainly it sounds like Stephenson has no issues with this, but for now long form writing is the one task for me that hasn’t translated yet.

I also haven’t tried development on the treadmill, so I can’t speak to it in that capacity. I will note, however, that I’m able to do my analysis in RStudio while walking with no real issues.

Voice Calls

The first week or so I had the unit, I took all of my voice calls from a chair. Over the weeks since, I’ve gradually begun incorporating voice into the mix with zero issues. If you’ve spoken to me on the phone in the past few weeks, the odds are good that you’ve spoken to me on the treadmill. It may be that the Polycom speakerphones I use – I get them used off Craigslist and eBay for < $50 – is actively cancelling out some of the noise, but to date no one has been able to detect the noise of the treadmill while on a call. Or if they have, they’ve chosen not to mention it.


  • Over the month I’ve had the unit, it has locked up twice displaying a “DC – 1” error, and Googling that error message has been generally unhelpful. A simple power cycle of the machine is enough to remedy things, but I’ll be opening a ticket with Lifespan to make sure I don’t have a real problem on my hands.

  • This is probably a complaint relatively unique to my setup, but I do wish the desktop space was slightly larger. It’s 46.75″ x 36.5″, which means that with my 30″ monitor centered, my second 27″ monitor has to be closer to perpendicular to me than is ideal. I have to turn enough to view the second monitor, in fact, that it affects my gait on the treadmill. Another inch or two would allow me to use a much more shallow angle and thereby improve the usability. I may eventually try to mount an arm on the desktop surface or even do away with the second monitor entirely, but in the interim, it’s a bit crowded.

  • My only other real complaint is connectivity and data access. My unit is equipped with Bluetooth, which theoretically should be able to sync data to my phone or laptop. As far as I can tell, however, my treadmill will only talk to the LifeSpan app, which I can only get if I’ve joined the “LifeSpan Fitness Club.” I’m hoping that LifeSpan will eventually open up access to their APIs and allow integration with other services, be they Nike+, FitBit (I’m contemplating a FitBit Flex) or otherwise. LifeSpan clearly makes excellent quality fitness equipment; I have less confidence in their ability to build and grow a competitive software and services business. So in the interim, I’m manually recording all of my statistics in a Google Doc spreadsheet.

  • One discovery made a result of getting the treadmill / desk is that there is one live/work space in my office building, and that it happens to be the unit directly below me. After using the unit late one night, I had a visit from the downstairs tenant the next morning. Fortunately, he was quite understanding – particularly about usage during the day – but it remains an issue. I’ve cushioned the legs of both treadmill and desk with hard furniture pads and some vibration absorbant under-carpet material from Home Depot, but if I’m to use the unit at night I’ll probably need a different approach. Or an office on the first floor.

The Verdict

Overall, I’m very happy with the purchase. Whether or not the “SITTERS DIE” academic studies prove to be completely correct or not, turning what would otherwise be sedentary portions of my day into periods of at least mild exercise is a win in my book. In spite of the issues just mentioned above, it’s my opinion that the 1200DT / DT-5 is a good value for the money. It is a solidly built and easy to use piece of hardware that can improve your overall health without negatively impacting your productivity. If budget permits, then, I’d recommend it.

Disclosure: There’s nothing to disclose. This was not a review unit, but one purchased straight from retail.

Categories: Desk.

Seven Days With a Nexus 7

In February of last year, I purchased a Motorola Xoom Android tablet from Verizon the day they went on sale. Intended to serve as a travel machine for shorter trips – same days to Boston or New York, as an example – it adequately served in that role until November of 2011, when I purchased a MacBook Air 11″. While that machine was intended to replace my dying Thinkpad X301, not my Xoom, in the end it did both.

For a half pound more weight, I could bring along a keyboard. And while I, like Apple, believed that the 10″ form factor was ideal for tablets, the reality was that the Xoom was just big and heavy enough to dissuade casual usage. The Xoom was still great for trips, both because of the built in LTE and the battery life, which was roughly double that of the MBA, but I used it more and more rarely outside of that context. Which was not the end of the world, having been purchased as a travel machine, but certainly not what I had originally envisioned.

When Google announced its Nexus 7 tablet at Google I/O, I was initially underwhelmed. First, because I already had an Android tablet. Second, because the form factor seemed small; little bigger than my Galaxy Nexus, in fact. And last because Android tablets have, in general, underwhelmed. The more I thought about it, however, the more interesting it seemed. A smaller unit would mean even less weight for travel, the pricepoint was very aggressive, and the reviews were good. Excellent, in fact. When I solicited feedback on Twitter, it was immediate and universally positive and I was sold. Last weekend I walked out of the Staples in Brunswick, Maine with their last unit (most venues were already sold out).

A week later, and I’m that much more sold. Here are a few questions and answers on my seven days with a Nexus 7.

Q: First, what are you going to do with your Xoom and the Verizon contract?
A: It’s headed for eBay, and as far as I can tell should – with the free stand Motorola provided as an apology for the delay in the LTE upgrade process – more than offset the purchase price of the Nexus 7 ($249). The LTE contract, meanwhile, will be maintained via the Verizon MiFi Google handed out at Google I/O last year; I extracted the LTE SIM from the Xoom, popped it into the MiFi and my Verizon hotspot lives on.

Q: Which model Nexus did you get?
A: The 16 GB. 8 GB is, to me, too small. Even 16 is a little light, though fine if you stream most of your video and audio. The extra $50 is well worth it here, IMO, because the device does not include expandable storage.

Q: Is the Nexus 7 unboxing as hard as everyone says?
A: The fit was pretty tight, but not that big a deal.

Q: What stands out about the Nexus 7 on unboxing?
A: The build quality is solid, and the unit feels good in your hands. The matte-like covering on the back is perfect; neither slick nor tacky. The speed of the UI, also, is impressive. It’s very responsive.

Q: How’s the activation and setup?
A: For Android users, it’s pretty straightforward. You feed it your account details, and it will begin populating inboxes, browser bookmarks, calendars and so on. It will also list all of your available Android applications, although I was sadly unable to find an option to bulk install multiple applications.

Q: What surprised you about the device?
A: The vertical orientation, although it shouldn’t have, because that was how everyone I saw using one interacted with it. But coming from the Xoom, which was designed to be held horizontally, the vertical orientation of the Nexus 7 was mildly surprising at first.

Q: And how do you feel about the orientation after using it for a week?
A: It’s perfect. Typing, for one, is dramatically improved. It’s a bit like using the keyboard of a very large phone, the result of which is a dramatic increase in both the speed and accuracy of typing on the device. I probably won’t be using it to blog, as has Tim Bray, but there are things I would not consider typing on my phone that I’ll happily compose on the Nexus 7.

Transitioning to a horizontal layout for applications that require it – Evernote, MLB At Bat, and so on – has been a non-issue thus far. The vertical orientation seems perfect for the 7 inch form factor.

Q: How do you use the Nexus 7 differently than you used your Xoom?
A: Mostly, I use it more. It’s just small enough that it will fit in my shorts pocket (though admittedly sagging them to dangerously teenage levels), so if I’m walking over to lunch at the sushi bar, I’ll bring it. It’s replaced my Galaxy Nexus as the device I carry around the house or the property for browsing, Twitter and so on. And once I start traveling again, it will be making every trip, not just the long haul ones the Xoom was relegated to by the end. And it will replace my MBA for the short duration visits, an up and back to NYC, let’s say. In short, I think Tim is correct: the 7″ form factor is the correct one for personal use. My personal use, at least. Portablility might be its most compelling feature.

Q: When you use the device, it’s still primarily about consumption, I assume?
A: Correct. The Nexus 7 is much easier to type on than either my Galaxy Nexus or the Xoom, but it is still no match for a full keyboard. If I’m writing sentences, the Nexus 7 is fine. When I’m writing in paragraphs, I’ll use something with a keyboard.

Q: What are your specific use cases for the device, and how have you organized it?
A: In setting it up, I’ve tried to build three basic screens. The home screen is populated by applications I use regularly (Calendar, Dropbox, Maps, Skype, Untappd, etc) as well as widgets for weather and so on.

The screen to the left of that is half entertainment (Plex, Roku, Rdio, etc) and half utilities (ConnectBot, GitHub, WordPress, etc).

And the screen to the right of home is oriented towards travel. The TripAdvisor widget tells me what’s around, the TripIt widget my schedule details and applications like FlightTrack, GateGuru and Wi-Fi Finder are a boon on the road.

Q: Speaking of applications, how have you found the Android application experience?
A: Mixed, and I know that iPad users I know like Alex King have found this frustrating:

And you can see why. Almost two years after the Galaxy Tab was launched, Twitter has yet to release a tablet specific Android application. The majority of applications similarly take no advantage of the larger screen size; some look just plain weird when blown up on a screen that might be twice the size of a smartphone’s.

In general, this hasn’t been too much of an issue for me. First, because I haven’t been spoiled by beautifully designed custom iPad applications. Second, because the application I care the most about – MLB At Bat – actually does have an Android tablet version. And last, and most important, because I believe this will be transient. Application builders could be forgiven for not building for Android tablets in years past, because none of them sold particularly well. But with the device sold out at retailers all over the country, and applications like Instapaper seeing spikes in demand based on the Nexus 7, more and better Android tablet applications seem likely.

Q: How is the browser? Hasn’t the Android browser been average, historically?
A: The Android browser has been replaced by Chrome on the Nexus 7, and the experience is excellent. I’ve got 37 tabs open on my Nexus 7 at present, with no observable issues.

Q: How’s the battery life?
A: Seems to be as promised. I’ve been getting a day out of mine, under heavy usage. The best battery related feature of the device, however, might be the fact that it charges over USB. Unlike the Xoom, then, which required me to pack a separate charger just for it, the Nexus 7 requires nothing extra as I already carry a USB charging cable for my phone. I can charge the device off my laptop as easily as a wall outlet then, not to mention the USB specific chargers that are showing up at more and more airports these days.

The only caveat to the above is that car chargers apparently don’t put out enough juice; my Nexus 7 won’t charge off the one I carry in my car.

Q: Anything you wish were different?
A: While I’m happy to tether and or use a MiFi with the device, cellular connectivity options would be welcome, as would more storage. And even better battery life, as always.

Q: What are the advantages of the Nexus 7 compared to your other portable devices?
A: The Nexus 7 is about a third the weight of my MBA 11″ with, conservatively, twice the battery life. And it fits in a pocket (if barely). Compared to the Galaxy Nexus, it’s got a bigger, brighter screen which is better for reading, video and application UIs. It’s also nice to have two portable devices rather than one for battery life reasons. By splitting usage between devices, rather than just relying on my phone, both of their batteries last longer during the day.

Q: So would you recommend the Nexus 7 overall?
A: For straight Apple households, probably not. They’ll probably be better off waiting for a smaller iPad, assuming the form factor is a draw. But for everyone else, it’s an excellent device, one that has outstripped my expectations thus far and more than justified the modest purchase price.

Categories: Tablets.

Tags: , , ,

Seven Days With a Galaxy Nexus

Announced in October and first sold in the US in December, this review of the Galaxy Nexus is late, even by my standards. But it took me longer than expected to get one, because AT&T still hasn’t offered it and I’m averse to spending north of $600 on a device whose shelf life is maybe two years and which is more likely to be lost, broken or stolen than a laptop. Switching to Verizon to get one wasn’t an option because they have no coverage on the island I currently live on: for better or for worse, I’m stuck with AT&T. And frankly, I’d prefer to have a GSM version of the phone; I don’t travel internationally a lot, but it happens enough that a CDMA handset would be suboptimal.

Eventually, I worked out an upgrade path. Purchase a Galaxy Nexus, then renew my contract with AT&T using my upgrade to get a subsidized Galaxy Note, which when sold on Craigslist or eBay should more than offset my cost for the Nexus. The net for the Nexus then, is my AT&T upgrade price: a far more palatable sum than $600+. Having used the phone for a week or so, here are my thoughts. In Q&A style, naturally.

Q: Why a New Phone?
A: I never loved my previous phone, a Nexus One, the way that I understand that Hilary Mason did. But it was – is still, in fact – a fine phone, if one showing its age. It was limited to 3G, but that wasn’t enough of an issue for me to upgrade. Instead, my primary issue with the phone was storage space. Unlike the Galaxy Nexus, the Nexus One allowed you to upgrade the onboard MicroSD card, so that you could expand – dramatically – the amount of available storage. But pre-Honeycomb versions of Android distinguished between internal and external storage. Later improvements allowed applications to be moved to the larger external storage card, but many – like Twitter – did not. With only 190 MB of available application storage, then, things got crowded. Crowded enough that by the end, when I wanted to install one application I had to pick another to uninstall. Which isn’t handy if part of your job is evaluating mobile applications. So a new phone was in the cards sooner or later.

Q: Why the Nexus?
A: First, because Android fits my needs better. Second, because I advantage Nexus devices.

Q: Taking those in order then, why Android?
A: A few reasons. First, most of my services usage is Google centric. I use Gmail, and we’re a Google Apps shop, my music collection currently lives in Google Music and so on. The integration of those services on Android is better than it is on competing platforms. Second, while I’ve been an iPhone user in the past, owning a first generation and then a 3GS and enjoying both, I prefer some of Android’s conventions, most notably the back button. Third, the competition. Apple still makes, in my opinion, the best devices, but their services don’t deliver the same experience. MobileMe was, by Apple’s own admission, a failure, and the early returns on iCloud and Apple’s second generation services are mixed. Which would be less of an issue if I wasn’t consuming these at an accelerating rate, but more on that later. As for Windows Mobile, they’ve gotten a lot of positive press lately, and while it’s generally well earned, this is enough to make Windows Mobile a non-option for me.

I kid, but only sort of. As I’ve told reporters repeatedly, Microsoft’s biggest problem in mobile isn’t product, but time. They were very late to market, and the result is a vicious cycle of fewer apps equals fewer sales equals fewer incentives for application developers to create new applications. We’ll see what role Nokia can play in changing those fortunes; for now, Windows Mobile wasn’t an option for me, and not just because my address is my spam address.

Q: Ok, so why the Nexus?
A: A few reasons.

  • Google, while not Apple’s equal in software design and usability, is better at that than Samsung, HTC, Motorola and any of the other Android manufacturers. I have no more interest in what OEMs do to Android to differentiate themselves than I did in what Lenovo did to Windows. Features intended to differentiate are, you can be sure, not features put there solely for the user.
  • The Nexus line comes with full, uncrippled functionality. While iPhone users, for example, are required to pay extra for the ability to tether their connection, I can do that out of the box. And before someone says to the above that I could always swap a carrier ROM for something custom, I get that. But the days when I had time to sift through the various phone ROMs and play with various combinations for pleasure are, in all likelihood, gone.
  • Nexus devices are first inline for operating system updates; a not insignificant advantage given the well documented problems with Android version fragmentation.
  • Nexus devices are unlocked, so when I’m in Europe I pop in a different SIM: no need to pay for unlock codes from sketchy vendors on eBay.

Q: The GSM Nexus is HSDPA only. Didn’t you want LTE?
A: I actually have LTE on my tablet – itself a Google Experience device, and it is every bit as impressive as people say it is. It’s one of the fastest connections I’ve used outside of universities, in fact. I consistently get 13-15 down in LTE services markets. HSDPA, by contrast, has clocked in at a little less than half of that; 4-6 down, though I haven’t tested it in a major market yet.

But you know what? That’s more than enough. Besides being faster than what I had, it’s actually 2-3X faster than my DSL connection at the home office. Which, yes, is an indictment of our internet speeds on island, but also confirmation that I don’t need to get too greedy. LTE for my handset would probably be overkill, in fact. And given the battery life issues with LTE at the moment – its extremely thirsty – I’m happy to trade a few extra download ticks I won’t notice on a handset for more usable device time.

Q: The other major complaint about the Galaxy Nexus is the size.’s Stephen Shankland, for example, would “exchange some screen size for a secure one-handed grip.” Any issues with the size?
A: I don’t have Koufax-sized mitts, but the size has been a non-issue for me. Every so often there’s a dialog in the extreme upper corner of a screen, which requires a bit of a stretch, but in general I haven’t noticed it. Part of that is the weight.

Q: What about the weight?
A: The first thing that people – iPhone users in particular – notice about the phone when I hand it to them is the weight, or rather the lackthereof. It’s a mere 5 grams lighter than the iPhone 4S, but because it’s physically larger the difference between expectation and actual makes it seem even lighter than it is.

Q: How about the camera?
A: It’s no match for the iPhone’s, as I understand such things; 5 megapixels. It’s fine for my basic usage, but I’d recommend against the Nexus if the camera’s a priority for you.

Q: How’s Ice Cream Sandwich?
A: It’s got its rough edges here and there, but I’m a fan. The notifications remain good, the application tray metaphor is a big step up from Gingerbread, and lots of little things have been improved like access to Settings and the voice recognition UI (the latter being one of Android’s most underrated features, IMO). Something long overdue – the ability to take screenshots – has finally been added, as well. Personally, I don’t notice the lag or latency that iOS users point to – it feels quick to me – but your mileage may vary.

I still don’t think believe it to be the equal of iOS, but I like it.

Q: What about the storage size?
A: This has been one of the more interesting epiphanies I’ve had; after thinking about it, I got the 16GB model. It used to be that I obsessed over the on device storage, because I wanted to have the majority of my music, at least, with me as I did on the iPod it replaced. These days? I’ve got maybe a gigabyte’s worth of music on the device, to be employed on planes, at the gym or other places I can’t get bandwidth. Otherwise? Everything is streamed, and I’m not worried about maxing the device out. The obvious problem with this is bandwidth costs, as I’ve written about before. If everything is streaming, your data consumption adds up quickly. According to the phone, in the last week Google Music is the leading bandwidth consumer at 151 MB. But what happens when I start watching NetFlix when I’m on the road? Or

When I asked Google’s Andy Rubin about this at I/O, he was unconcerned, saying that we were a step function away from this being a non-issue. The Verge’s Chris Ziegler would, presumably, be skeptical of this claim. It will be interesting to see who’s right.

Q: How about something you don’t like about the phone?
A: The battery cover is flimsy and difficult to remove, which will be a problem if (when) I get a second battery. The placement of the headset jack on the bottom of the phone is also inconvenient; if you want to listen to music at the gym with the phone on a treadmill or elliptical and use the Kindle app at the same time, you’ll be doing so in landscape.

Q: Speaking of, how is the battery life?
A: I’ll know more when I’ve traveled with it, but when I get up in the morning, an hour and a half’s heavy usage knocks it down to around 70-75% from a full charge. Which theoretically means that if I’m not on the device constantly, I should get a full day out of the device. Even so, I will probably still employ a two battery system, the device’s suboptimal battery cover notwithstanding.

Q: What’s the thing I should do first when I get a Nexus or another Ice Cream Sandwich handset?
A: Install Chrome for Android and replace the stock browser. It’s a vast improvement, and if you’re using experimental builds of Chrome on the desktop, you can even access their tabs.

Q: Tl;dr – thumbs up or down?
A: Thumbs up. This is the first phone I’ve really liked since my first iPhone. If you can find one, I recommend it.

Categories: Carriers, Mobile Data, Smartphones.