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Why I Got a MacBook Air

11" MacBook Air

Seven years ago this summer, I switched from Windows to Linux as my primary desktop operating system. And while there have been ups and downs, I have no real regrets about that decision. Linux, or more specifically Ubuntu, remains, in fact, the operating system on my primary machine, a Dell workstation.

But as of August 24th, I became a (part time) Mac user for the first time since college. Because I’ve been using Linux for so long, a few people have asked why I made the decision to get a Mac. This is my answer.


It’s been said that Apple’s single biggest competitive advantage isn’t its devices, but rather its supply chain. The iPad revenue stream alone would support this argument, but the reality is that Apple can make better hardware, cheaper than anyone else. Like Jeff, the single most compelling reason to get a Mac was the hardware.

It’s not perfect – the battery life in particular on the 11″ Air (i7) is disappointing – but the overall package is light, performant and aesthetically attractive. It’s close to perfect for frequent travelers; the battery’s the only major flaw.


While I actually like Windows 7 – I have a few virtual instances of it running on my workstation – it’s not an option for me simply because I don’t want to deal with Cygwin. I’m not a developer, but I use a lot of tools that require a Unix core, so for me that means Linux or Mac. There are little differences between the userlands, but overall most of the scripts, libraries and applications I use on Linux run comfortably on the Mac out of the box.


I’m not as comfortable on OS X as I am on Linux, but that’s to be expected: I’ve been using the latter for seven years, the former for three months. I cannot, therefore, objectively evaluate the usability of OS X. Nor can I comment on the ‘bloat’ that frustrates Tim O’Reilly, as I have no basis for comparison.

I can say, however, that the Mac has been substantially less stable than anticipated. My MBA is crashing about once a week, where crashing means I’m required to power cycle the machine. Whether this is Apple’s fault or the fact that I push my hardware very hard isn’t clear, but either way the experience has not been as advertised.

In general, OS X is nothing more or less than opinionated software. It is heavily prescriptive, and while its approach is inconsistently successful, it is difficult to look at the application breadth and polish and build the case against. And love or hate their individual design decisions, like the omnipresent top menu (I’m not a fan), Apple is by most measures the best in the world at user experience.


One of the interesting discoveries of my brief Mac tenure has been that the App Store is, by and large, a failure. Of the 93 items in my Applications folder, the App Store claims to have installed 11. By rough count, then, 12% of my applications are installed and managed through the App Store. Anecdotally, this experience seems common; most of the people I speak with are not relying on the store as their primary installation mechanism. On Ubuntu, by contrast, all but a handful of my applications were centrally installed, managed and updated. The App Store application itself, meanwhile, has been buggy, particularly when installing or updating very large applications such as Xcode.

While the store experience has been poor, however, the individual applications themselves are impressive. Conventional wisdom argues that Mac apps are, as a rule, more polished aethetically than their Linux or Windows counterparts. In this case, the conventional wisdom has born scrutiny. Apple makes it comparatively easy for their developers to construct attractive applications.

Apple’s own apps, meanwhile, have exceeded my expectations. While the import/export options are disappointing, I already prefer Keynote to Powerpoint, which in turn I prefer to OO.o’s Impress. Numbers, meanwhile, is not a functional match for Excel, but from a charting perspective I find its graphs and visualizations far more appealing than the Excel defaults.

And then there are the applications that are available on OS X but not Linux, such as the Adobe Creative Suite.

The Net

I like the MacBook Air. The hardware is elite, and while the operating system occasionally frustrates, it’s generally well thought out and aesthetically without peer. I have no plans to abandon Ubuntu on my workstation, but I am somewhat concerned about the state of the user interface on that platform at present as the fragmentation of effort has negatively impacted its direction, in my opinion.

That said, OS X has its own challenges; when high profile users like Tim are frustrated, you have a problem. Bigger picture, there are concerns about Apple’s appetite for control of application delivery. If sandboxing is required, for example, for applications delivered through the App Store, the logical next is either requiring it for all applications or restricting installation to the store. Either of which would be problematic for developers and users alike.

In the meantime, however, I’m happy to have added OS X to my technical arsenal.

Categories: Laptops.

Using the iPad as a spare battery. Any tablet?

I could write about five different iPad reviews – all on different aspects of the machine. For example – how the iPad inveigled its way into my wife’s affections with a game of Sodoku. But I wanted to say a little about the amazing battery life of the iPad.

Like my founding partner Stephen – I find the constant scurrying for plugs at conferences (and kvetching when there aren’t any) to be a real drag. So his talk of long battery life on the Android-based Motorola Xoom was compelling. Unlike Stephen however, I am not looking to replace my laptop as a note-taking device any time soon. But when Adobe gave me an iPad ( seriously! so I could keep tabs on their tooling for IoS) I started taking it to conferences to augment my ancient, creaking, two hour on a charge Thinkpad. I’d be sitting in a session taking notes when suddenly the Thinkpad shut down. When that happened I just pulled out the iPad and carried on taking notes. The cloud-based Evernote note-taking software is really helpful in this regard (thought not auto-saving on IoS sucks, and caught me out a couple of times).

As I travelled with the iPad I kept expecting it to run out of charge, but it never did. I would go away on Sunday, and still have juice left for a few games of Angry Birds on the flight home Thursday afternoon. Thing is with the iPad is that at rest, if its not registered on a wifi network, it just doesn’t draw any power. Taking a device on a trip without needing a charger – its like going back to the Nokia 6310i.

I explained here why the Dell Streak’s limited battery life is a deal breaker; so while Ian Lynch argues in a comment on that post that this won’t be the case for Android tablets in general I haven’t had any hands on experience yet. My HTC Desire phone is certainly power hungry, for example – and perhaps surprisingly Google Docs background sync is a big part of the problem there. Protip- turn off background updates when you’re travelling for better Android battery life.

To be fair, Android tablet reviews indicate power consumption on tablets is not a show stopper.

However in summary – the iPad basically won me over through the simple expedient of having really good power usage. When I took the iPad on holiday to Greece, and we had power cuts, my son could still have ten minutes of digital entertainment.  And so on.

Am I still in the market for an Android tablet? At some point sure. I am an Android. But the family has certainly taken to the iPad, and it sure makes a great spare battery.






Categories: Tablets.

Withings Scale

Withings scale

The problem with scales is their ephemeral nature: it reads your weight and once you step off, the measurement is gone. You can record it, but that seems so tedious. The Withings scale neatly solves this problem: it’s a scale for the app generation. First, it’s connected to wifi so it uploads your weight to the cloud, as it were, where it keeps a historic record. Not only is there a website, but also a iPhone and iPad apps with nice graphs of your weight and the the other measurements it tracks.

These other measurements seem like some kind of voodoo: lean mass and fat mass, some kind of BMI thing. I don’t really trust that those can be measured through your feet, so just ignore them (clearly from my not knowing what they are).

It works with more than one person, too. It tries to identify by weight, and the weights are too close, the scale asks you to step on the left or right side to identify yourself.

Withings iPhone app

There are some awkward things: the scale is so pretty, with a glass top that you’re alway afraid you’ll break it; the setup over a USB cable is weird (there’s an iPhone way to do this, but I stopped short of doing it least I screw it up); and you have to wait around 30 to 60 seconds between measurements.

But overall, if you’ve always found scales kind of not, well, updated to the rest of the world, you’ll like the Withings Scale. I actually find it very helpful my weight losing: it’s fun to take your weight and check out the pretty graphs. Once you build up several months of data, it gets even better.

I got the scale as a birthday gift, my wife knowing what kind of dork I can be. It’s expensive, compared to unwired scales, but I’d go for it.

Categories: Uncategorized.

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The iPad Revisited – a liminal device

When nerds pack

After several months with a tablet, the iPad, and trailing different uses, I revisit where an how it fits into my daily workflow and life.

The iPad finds itself most useful to me as a second computer. I leave my laptop – my “main” computer at work and just use my iPad and iPhone at home. From time to time I borrow Chrome with sync on my wife’s laptop (getting all my settings, plugins, and such through sync), but the platform provided by my two iOS devices gives me everything I actually need at home in the evenings and weekends.

Those needs are simple: checking email, checking my calender for what meetings I have tomorrow, reading news (GReader’s mobile web), taking notes in Evernote, bookmarking in (mostly via email), Flipboard, and entering to do items in OmniFocus. I don’t print or edit pictures or movies, do much with music (which I miss a great deal), or even have a reliable way to get podcasts.

I’ve used the iPad as a travel device, and it’d doable, esp. with the Zagnut keyboard case I have (that case suffers from two things: being $100 and not having a way to “lock” the iPad in while using it, meaning the iPad easily falls out). I actually type a lot “on the road,” using the lonely time away from family and the open schedules to write in the evenings and during the day – but also, writing in near-real time during keynotes and conference sessions…drafting, at least.

I’ve stopped bringing just my iPad on trips as I did for awhile. The portability of an iPad isn’t too appealing, but the battery life (4-6 hours) looks tasty. Portability doesn’t matter too much as I have MacBook Air so size and weight isn’t much a problem as other laptops (I have a Samsung QX, for example, that would be I’ll suited for light-weight travel). And while I’d love to have my iPad with me, I leave it at home if I’m bringing my Air: it’s just a bit too much to have both.

Recently, I’ve noticed that my iPhone (3gs) is the primary device I use at home: I can go days without getting the iPad out of the drawer. Email, Kindle, OmniFocus, Evernote (I wrote the first draft of this post on the iPhone), and GReader works just fine on the phone. I miss having Flipboard though. The iPhone is really “the remote for the cloud”: if you have most of your services and files in the cloud, as I do with things most things I use, that metaphor works.

In truth, I end up spending less time “on the computer” in this laptoplass, tablet-lite mode. I still use computers all the time: there’s lots of Google TV for Netflix, for example. To some extent, I do “create” less, but that’s more my chosen laziness than the form-factors fault. And, creating is for work, where there’s plenty of time for all sorts of things like marking up blogs posts (HTML or otherwise formatted text on iOS is still terrible compared to a real computer), or video and podcast editing that require a “work-station,” not just a desktop.

The verdict: the iPad is a fun, useful device as I’m sure most modern tablets would be. Reading text off it is not only fun, but productive. Apps like Flipboard actually make you more productive, and if you wire-up all of your services to the cloud, the overall system is working well for accessing the data and services you need (see all the apps mentioned above). If you have one of those lurking, dark-plastic covered laptops, the iPad is going to be a much better travel computer and you should try it out. Similarly, if you’re carrying your laptop back and forth to work, chances are you could just leave it at work (if the software you need to use allows for it) and rely on the iPad and/or iPhone.

(Having just gotten a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 at Google I/O, it’ll be interesting to revisit all this after using an Android-based tablet. It’ll be fun to see if my “10 things iPad rivals must do to compete with the Apple” piece holds and water.)

Categories: Tablets.

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Google Voice iPhone App

Google Voice is an excellent service, but the iPhone app is too slow to be usable.

I’d been waiting for the release of the Google iPhone App for a long time. I’ve used the service for many years and find it incredibly useful: call screening, ringing all your phone at once, call recording, the (relativly new) click to call funcionalty in Chrome, and the record keeping are just some of the things I like about the service. The issue was always that you really couldn’t use it from you phone, it was overly clunky and overall not worth it.

Sadly, even though there’s an app, that’s still the case for one reason: the Google Voice app is slow, in almost all dimensions that matter.

Opening the app itself is slow: I often wait several seconds with waiting for the white-screen of waiting to get filled in with contacts to dial.

Dialing someone take much too long: there’s some sort of telco hack going on that with dialing other numbers and connecting you to the original number, but, you know, I’m not interested in dancing bears.

And then there’s a slow design: to call someone, you had to select their name and then select dial. On the iPhone, you just tap their name. This my seem petty, but two step dialing adds up, and having one step dialing is helpful in the car, on a bike, or while you’re otherwise not moving.

The txting interface is odd too: when you’re staring a new txt, it likes using phone numbers instead of names and doesn’t auto-complete on typing in names.

Aside from a couple odd UI workflow choices (like double-step dialing and txting), the overall patterns of use are nice. There’s push notifications for txt messages, the history log is exactly what you’d like, you can browse the voicemail transcripts (and listen to them). There’s things I’d love to see like integration with my GMail and GCal accounts to show me information about people I’m on the phone with (from calling or being called). Here, I really like what Windows Phone 7 has with its integrated Facebook and, soon, Twitter information about contacts.

Google knows most everything about me and my contacts, and it’d be very helpful if Voice integrated that info together. Of course, oddly enough, Google isn’t very good at integrating all its services together: they seem to suffer from high silo walls that prevent such integration – just guessing.

The final verdict

After using the app as my primary phone interface for several months, I finally switched back thinking, “I just want dialing to be fast and easy.” And with the native iOS phone app, it is. There’s much potential with the Google Voice app, but without fixing the performance issues, using the app is not worth the waiting.

Categories: Apps.

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Android at Google I/O 2011 – GearMonk #003

Press Q&A

We’re at Google I/O this week and after the day one keynotes, Stephen and I sit down and go over the Android related news (plus Google Music and Movies). In addition to just going over the news with our commentary; we discuss why this platform play might work better for Google than it did for Sun, Adobe, Microsoft, and the others who’ve tried and are trying; we wrap-up by exploring what Google’s “grand strategy” might be with all this stuff that doesn’t seem directly tied to revenue.

Download the episode directly right here, subscribe to the feed in iTunes or other podcatcher to have episodes downloaded automatically, or just click play below to listen to it right here:

We’ll try to get a recording in of day two, which we predict will be mostly about Chrome, Google’s platform for (web) application development, more or less.

Disclosure: See the RedMonk client list for clients mentioned.

Categories: Podcast, Smartphones, Tablets, Uncategorized.

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First Pass at Amazon’s Cloud Drive

The Good

  • Pricing is excellent. More generous with free storage (5 GB) and substantially cheaper ($140 less per year than Dropbox at 100 GB) than the competition. Options are straightforward and fairly tiered.
  • There’s no new Cloud Drive Android client: it’s just an update to the existing Amazon MP3 store application. Interestingly, it will play your existing music as well as streams from Cloud Drive. The interface is clean, but the store integration adds clutter and an extra click.
  • Cloud Player played the sample MP3 (Think You Can Wait by The National) I loaded via Chrome without incident both on the browser and Android (Xoom). Network connection was DSL.
  • Music purchased through the Amazon MP3 store does not count against your storage capacity.

The Bad

  • As far as I can tell, at present Cloud Drive offers no synchronization, meaning that you have to load Cloud Drive manually. This alone makes Cloud Drive a non-starter for me. Expecting users to load files and media by hand – after every purchase or update to local files – just isn’t realistic. Sync is what makes Dropbox worth paying for.
  • Service is US only, apparently. Or more accurately, anything but the 5 GB free plan is. Terms for Cloud Player aren’t as clear, but my Twitter stream is full of frustrated non-US voices.
  • No video locker. The ability to store and stream my hundreds of gigabytes of movies and TV would have been worth paying for. Music, on the other hand, is a mostly solved problem.
  • Music previously purchased through the Amazon MP3 store is not automatically inserted in your library: it has to be reuploaded.

The Ugly

  • The Android application explicitly warns users that it streams audio at its original bitrate, reminding them that they’re responsible for all data charges. In addition, the application allows users to set both delivery and streaming preferences, including wifi only. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: streaming services and mobile data pricing are on a collision course, and it’s going to get ugly. Many users will either not be aware of the difference between mobile data streaming and wifi or ignorant of the potential cost of overages, with the inevitable result being some potentially outrageous overage charges.

    None of which is Amazon’s fault, of course. But it seems likely that some portion of their user base will at some point hold Amazon partially responsible for an ugly monthly bill from their carrier.

The Net

  • Amazon Cloud Drive is interesting, and certainly the first of many streaming services to come, but the lack of sync is a full stop omission for my usage. It just isn’t compelling enough at this point to for me to consider leaving Dropbox. Ideally, Amazon’s entrance will apply some downward pricing pressure to the market, but it projects to have little utility for me otherwise.

Categories: Mobile Data, Streaming.

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The tablet round-up: iPad, Xoom, Streak – GearMonk #002

We sit down and go over the state of tablets, looking at three specific ones, the iPad, Xoom, and Dell Streak.

Download the episode directly right here, subscribe to the feed in iTunes or other podcatcher to have episodes downloaded automatically, or just click play below to listen to it right here:

Some of the topics we cover are:

  • Tablet-scape
  • What are the use cases for tablets? Reading stuff, mostly.
  • iPad 2 – does it have enough new to buy if you already have an iPad?
  • Xoom – Stephen’s gonna keep it! And, see the write-up of his first seven days.
  • How does tablet Android compare to Android for phones? Multi-tasking stands out as a big difference.
  • Media on the Xoom – generally pretty bad.
  • Then, the Dell Streak – more of a fun curiosity than a practical device?
  • …and, finally: pricing across tablets.

Disclosure: Dell sent us a few Streaks to look at and is a client.

Categories: Podcast, Tablets.

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Old-school & faceless – Das Keyboard Model S Ultimate

Das Keyboard, opening

Two things can be said about the Das Keyboard:

  1. It exactly the old school feel it advertises itself as and feels really comforting to use if you grew up with old, IBM keyboards.
  2. It’s loud.

This is the keyboard that’s modeled after old keyboards, spec’ed out with all sorts of mechanical keys, a full key-set, and much mentioned “German Engineering.” There’s even gold involved! It’s the anti-Apple keyboard, and it delivers on the tactical feel of an old IBM keyboard like you wouldn’t believe. With this comes a loud “clacking” (there’s a softer version). The loudness and the expense ($129) are the only negatives, really.

I checked out the Ultimate keyboard, the one without letters printed on it. I mean, isn’t that what you really want to know: can I type on a blank keyboard? In addition to myself, I lent it to two other people who tried it out, a programmer and a startup CEO. I used this with my MacBookAir: all I needed to do was remap the control and alt keys to match the Apple-layout using OS X’s keyboard preferences.

Using It

The full, 104 key keyboard is something of a spiritual opposite of the keyboard I usually use, and Apple wireless chopped keyboard. I’m no trained touched-typist, having learned some odd, fore-fingers, pinkies and thumbs style long ago. Nonetheless, typing without the letter printed on each key was surprisingly easy. There’s the lesser used secondary keys that I’d have to look up or hunt out some times (quick, which key is “^” on?) and not being a user of anything beyond the core keys I have no idea what’s over on the right side of the keyboard.

The programmer I loaned it out to liked the idea of a blank keyboard to help him learn Dvorak. However, that same coder bemoaned the lack of volume and other “media” keys. Arguably, those can just be mapped to various function keys. Nonetheless, given the $129 price-point he compared it to a “$30 Dell keyboard” that had a volume knob and such. If you’re out for all that whiz-bangery on your keyboard, this is definitely not the keyboard for you.

The feel of the keyboard is the main thing here, though. After all, you can get a Das Keyboard with letters printed on it (which is what I’d probably do if I got one, actually). The keyboard has the heft of one of those old beasts that you could pound nails in with – it makes me think of the hefty (metal encased?) keyboards that my dad had with his IBM XT and then AT “machines,” as he’d call those early desk-tops.

There’s a two port hub built into the keyboard which I didn’t get a chance to test. That’s a nice addition, though.


The clicking is more than audible, it’s loud once you “get going.” In fact, the CEO I lent it to said he didn’t even get a chance to plug the keyboard in because his co-workers heard him fiddling with it and said “dude, that’s too loud.” When I showed the keyboard to another coder in my building, he said an old co-worker of his had one and that he’d have to put earphones on when the keyboard started up.

I didn’t mind the clicking too much, really, but I sit in my own office.

The Gist

After using the keyboard, I went back to using my Apple keyboard. I like the Apple keyboard because of it’s size: it’s the size of a laptop keyboard without the number-pad and friends. I don’t use the number-pad or other keys and that part of the keyboard takes up the space I’d rather have my mouse on. I really did like the feel of the Das Keyboard – it felt like doing real “work,” not just typing. Serious business, click, click, CLICK!. I definitely wouldn’t pay $129 for it, but if you’re the type of person who lusts for this kind of keyboard, I don’t think that amount would be too rich: the feel of the Das Keyboard is exactly what you’re hoping it will be.

Side-note: if you’re at SXSW, check out the Das Keyboard IronGeek event they’re having (see the fancier, official page for it). One of the contestants insisted on Dvorak even.

Categories: Accessories.

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Seven Days with a Xoom

the Xoom

First impressions are fine. But I prefer the seven day take, at least when we’re talking about hardware. A week later, then, here’s my review of the Motorola Xoom. For ease of consumption, I’ve broken it up by category, and further by good/bad. If you just want an executive summary, the gist is at the bottom.


  • The Good:
    The apps that are there are solid. Tablet sized Gmail is tremendous, whoever built the new Calendar app deserves a raise, and you’ll be happy to know that Angry Birds looks pixel perfect at 1280×800. Likewise the blown up versions of Maps, Music, and a few non-Google apps like the Kindle look great. And while apps like MLB At Bat 2011 are not tablet optimized – and therefore look very odd on the larger format screen – they are at least present and functional.
  • The Bad:
    There are 16 applications in the Android Apps for Tablets category. That’s not remotely competitive with the 65,000 strong stable of preexisting iPad applications, let alone the brand new built-for-touchscreens GarageBand and iMovie that debuted Wednesday. How important this is to you depends, obviously, on how important apps are to you. For Scoble, they are make or break: “no apps, no sale.” Which is fair enough, and possibly representative of the market at large.

    Personally, this isn’t an important part of my decision. First, because I just don’t use that many applications – most of my day is spent in a browser. Second, because I know that Google knows it’s got a problem with the app volume, and is doing what they did before to rectify the situation: handing out free gear. I expect this to work, over time, so the app vacuum is not likely to be a permanent problem for me. Your mileage may vary, obviously.


  • The Good:
    Battery life appears to be mostly as advertised. I’m getting about a day out of a charge – day and a half if my usage is light. Wednesday, I left for Boston at 9:30 AM and charged the device on the two hour trip down. Apart from a forty minute charge at a Starbucks in the afternoon, that was all the juice the device got until I got home a little after 11 PM. The remaining voltage at that point? 46%. My biggest problem with the battery life, in fact, is psychological: I’m conditioned not to trust it, and reflexively charge at every given opportunity, whether I need to or not.

    Charge time, likewise, is reasonably quick: I can add 50% to the battery in about an hour, a full charge in a little over two. That’s a marked improvement over my laptop.

  • The Bad:
    Walt Mossberg’s tests contradict AnandTech’s: the latter says it’s comparable to the original iPad’s battery life, the former says you get seven and a half hours of video rather than Motorola’s claimed 10. If true, that’s a mild disappointment.


  • The Good:
    Easily my favorite part of the device to date. Basically because the browser is more or less like Chrome on a desktop. The browser is fast and tabbed, and you can even load tabs in the background. One of my biggest issues with the iPad just as it was with the original iPhone was its need to reload when browsing between open pages. On the Xoom, you can load tabs in the background, open incognito pages for testing or logging in as different user IDs, and generally treat it like you would your desktop equivalent. Which is welcome. The AnandTech guys have some numbers for you on browser performance if you’re so inclined.
  • The Bad:
    Sencha has evaluated the Xoom for HTML5 compatibility, and it performed poorly. By contrast, the RIM PlayBook reportedly scored much better by their metrics. The question for potential buyers is what impact the questionable support for HTML5 audio/video and issues with CSS3 animations and transitions means in practical terms. With the caveat that my sample size is websites visited in the last seven days, I can say that it’s had little impact on my usage thus far. But it’s worth noting.


  • The Good:
    As mentioned previously, the device charges relatively quickly.
  • The Bad:
    Whatever the reasoning, the inability to charge the device via micro-USB is a minus. While the Xoom leverages that format for media transfer – itself an issue – it will not charge over it. Instead, the Xoom charges via its own proprietary charger. The Motorola explanation for this choice is that USB doesn’t provide sufficient voltage to charge the device. Which is plausible, but suboptimal.

    1. This means carrying a second charger, which adds weight and one more item to be lost/damaged/etc.
    2. With no aftermarket chargers available at present, your only option for secondary chargers is Motorola or Verizon, at a cost of $30.
    3. The device cannot be charged off anything but a plug. The iPad will only trickle charge off USB, but even that would be preferable to the current situation.


  • The Good:
    With Verizon’s subsidy, the device cost ($599) is acceptable if not ideal.
  • The Bad:
    As Senor Churbuck put it, Apple threw down the gauntlet yesterday by keeping its pricing static. And Samsung, at least, sees the problem. Given that Apple has a 65+ thousand lead in app volume, has the most impressive hardware on the market with the most mature tablet OS, Android tablet manufacturers are going to have to undercut Apple on price to be competitive in mainstream markets. Which will become increasingly difficult as Apple heavily leverages its available capital and the economies of scale created by the runaway success of the first device to realize a cost per component that will be difficult for other manufacturers to match. Loss leaders are almost certainly in iPad competitors futures.


  • The Good:
    As other reviewers have stated, the Xoom is a well constructed device. It fits well in the hand and is nicely balanced. Many have complained about the placement of the power button; I’ve had no real issue with this myself.
  • The Bad:
    At 1.6 pounds – or almost the same weight as the first iPad – the Xoom is at the fringe of what’s comfortable to carry. The forthcoming Samsung 10″ tablet and the iPad 2 are both almost a third of a pound lighter, and that is an improvement, but the utility of the devices will really jump when they crack the pound barrier.


  • The Good:
    I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the keyboard. It’s not comparable to a physical keyboard and isn’t suitable for extending typing, but I’m quite a lot faster and more accurate on the Xoom’s keyboard than I am on my Nexus One. Interestingly, I’m substantially more accurate on the Xoom’s keyboard than the original iPad’s.
  • The Bad:
    The keyboard does an inconsistent job of picking up stray contact from the palm, which can jump the cursor during typing. The autosuggest function is only mediocre relative to Apple’s version. Non-touch typists may have difficulty as their hands will obscure the keys.


  • The Good:
    Once you’ve populated the device with media, the Music application is excellent. The animations in scrolling through albums are smooth, the notification window control widget is simple and responsive, and the speakers are acceptable. I’ve used the tablet to play music while cooking dinner and such, and it’s been better than anticipated.
  • The Bad:
    For devices which are at least partially marketed as multimedia portals, Honeycomb’s half-baked music and movies story is a real surprise. To start with, Honeycomb deprecated USB storage in favor of the Media Transfer Protocol. Like the inability to charge over USB, while there are technical justifications for this decision the list of unintended consequences is long. Of the three most popular desktop operating systems, only Windows supports MTP natively. Mac users will need to download this utility, because Mac does not support MTP and as far as I can tell the device packaging does not include that software. Linux users may install mtp-tools and/or mtpfs, but I have not gotten either package to work consistently and have been forced to load my device via a Mac. Which is ironic because one of my reasons for not buying an iPad was its strict Mac/Windows only compatibility.

    Once the media is transferred, the Music application works without incident. Movies, on the other hand, are far more challenging. First, the Xoom will only play certain formats: .avi, .mov, and .ogg are all out (though you can try RockPlayer, which is like the VLC of the Android ecosystem). If you wish to transfer and play movies, you must contend with the bewildering maze of video codes, formats and framerates. If you care to use Handbrake – on video you own the copyright to, of course – the iPad preset will work, but the video may seem slightly off. I’ve had reasonable luck with MPEG-4 at a QP of 4 as well. But really, if users are arguing over Handbrake presets, the platform has failed. This is one of Honeycomb’s biggest issues at present.

    Presuming that you are able to reformat your video in a manner acceptable to Honeycomb, you may have still have difficulty playing it. For reasons that are not clear, Android does not surface Movies – its default video player – in the catalog of available applications. I only discovered it when I used Astro – a file manager for Android – to try and play video I’d loaded onto the device. Movies, rather inexplicably, are made available under the Gallery application; your movies are stored alongside your photos, in other words.

    Not only does Google or a partner need to introduce a movie rental/purchase service for Android to more effectively compete with Apple, they need to rethink the way that video is handled in the UI at present because it could not be less intuitive.

Network / Mobile Data

  • The Good:
    Thus far, Verizon’s 3G has performed well, and the transition to/from wifi and cellular networks is relatively painless.
  • The Bad:
    Verizon’s mobile bandwidth is expensive [coverage], and the fact that the LTE upgrade requires that the tablet be shipped back to the factory is unfortunate.

Operating System

  • The Good:
    More than any other aspect to the product, impressions of the operating system are something of a Rorschach. Reactions to Honeycomb – positive and negative – are highly personal. For my part, I find Honeycomb to be aesthetically attractive and performant. From a user interaction perspective, navigation is generally intuitive, and the animations are responsive with no observable latency. The two areas where Honeycomb really shines are notifications and multitasking. Honeycomb has jettisoned the pull down ribbon common to all prior versions of Android, but while I was initially skeptical of this decision, the new notifications mechanism is excellent. It’s not distracting, and the notifications can be individually dismissed. Multitasking, meanwhile, has its own dedicated button, and moving between open applications is effectively seamless, particularly compared to the old return-to-home iOS model.
  • The Bad:
    Besides multi-tasking and notifications, Android enjoys few if any advantages next to iOS which is both more polished and more intuitive. Worse, Honeycomb appears to have been prematurely released to market, as the early reports of it being less stable with consistent application failures have proven correct for me. Some applications – Twitter, most notably – have stablized post upgrade, but in general the operating system and baked in applications like the Market have been more characteristic of beta quality offerings.


  • The Good:
    The extra resolution of the screen is useful, whether the usage is watching movies or browsing the web.
  • The Bad:
    The two primary issues with the screen are not its brightness – it apparently suffers in comparison to devices like the Samsung 10″ Tab – but rather the glare and its tendency to retain oils from the hands. Particularly in well lit conditions, the glare to the screen is substantial and can result in the tablet taking on mirror-like qualities. And like many touchscreen devices, the Xoom has a tendency to collect oils from the hand which mar the surface when the device is placed in direct light.

The Gist

It seems clear that the Xoom, at least, was introduced before it was ready in an attempt to avoid getting buried in the wake of iPad 2 discussion. The limited tablet application volume, the baffling multimedia setup, the non-functional Flash/SDcard/LTE and the general lack of stability of the platform point to a product rushed to market. The question is whether this matters.

For the first wave of users, it may. These issues and others may yield higher than average product return rates, though determining which returns were a consequence of Xoom product issues versus the subsequent iPad 2 product features will be a challenging exercise indeed. But shipping is a feature: I’d rather have the imperfect Xoom today, for example, than hold off for the long awaited HP or RIM tablets.

As for the iPad 2, it is gorgeous, both thinner and lighter than the Xoom. iOS is not only (likely) more stable and (provably) backed by an application market with 4000X more choices available. It is also a device explicitly tied to one of two desktop operating systems that I don’t use. More importantly, it seems reasonable to suspect the reason that Apple chose not to disclose the iPad 2’s available memory at launch time is because it does not compare favorably to the shipping Android alternatives. The latter of which is an issue for me, given my primary use case: browsing.

Your calculus may be – probably is – different than mine. The iPad may be – probably is – a better option for you at present. But that’s not the interesting question to me. What I’ll be watching is how they compare in the future, because most of the things wrong with Xoom right now, well, they’re just software. And software, unlike hardware, can be fixed after the fact.

With the notable exception of issues such as the weight or the proprietary power cable, the majority of my complaints about the Xoom are software related. Michael Gartenberg is right to say that we should not praise Motorola for the Xoom’s lack of Flash, not yet operable SD card functionality and so on. But neither should their pending introduction be fully discounted. If the hardware doesn’t include an SD card slot, I’m not likely to have that functionality during the life of the device. If it’s present on the hardware, however, well, the rest is just software. Like most of the Xoom’s problems at present. For me, anyhow.

It took Android approximately five versions, in my opinion, to be competitive on the handset – FroYo being the first legitimate alternative [coverage]. I expect it to progress much more rapidly on tablets, if for no other reason than the fact that the community is exponentially larger than it was in September 2008 when Android 1.0 launched. As a result, I’m willing to give Honeycomb the benefit of the doubt. Will regular customers extend Android the same courtesy? I doubt it.

The greater concern for the Android ecosystem, however, should be Apple. Honeycomb is a 1.0 release; current performance is not likely to be predictive of future potential. Certainly it was not with handsets. Apple, however, is increasingly using the iPad’s success as an engine to drive and reinforce its dominant market position. Remember that Apple is more than willing to put its capital to work to secure its supply of vital components, the byproduct of which is shortages and thus higher costs for competitors. The more successful the iPad is – and make no mistake, it’s been absurdly successful – the more challenging this becomes.

As a user, of course, none of that is my concern. I just want the best tool for the job, and for me that’s looking like the Xoom, the warts notwithstanding. But ask me again in seven days.

Categories: Apps, Mobile Data, Tablets.

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