Category Archives: Toys and Gadgets

Samsung Galaxy Tab – Yes, It’s Awesome

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
After some time enjoying my Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, I have to say it is an awesome device. I absolutely love the direction Google is taking Android with Honeycomb and the various user interface changes. Having spent the last year or so using Android phones, the changes did take a little adjustment but once you understand the paradigm it works. It would be a lie if I said I was not enjoying the Tab a lot.

Now here’s the thing I am still hung up on – as awesome as the Tab is, and as much as I enjoy playing around with it, I fail to see where a tablet is a must have device. There is nothing that jumps out at me that says “THIS is why you need a tablet” and no real killer app that is a unique enough of an experience on the tablet to make me give up my laptop.

Honeycomb Home Screen

So far it has found a niche for me as a luxury, fun device. I use it to check email when lounging on the couch and surf the web occasionally. I read my Nook or Kindle books when my reader is not charged and play a few games on it as well. Pretty much anything I was already doing on my phone, but now on a bigger screen. That’s not to say it is bad – far from it. It’s just that everything I do on my tablet I can do on my phone, just without the awesome screen.

The difference for me between a tablet and a phone is that I personally consider a phone a must-have device. If you are out on the town what will you check to see show times or find directions? The phone. You sure ain’t going to carry around a 10-inch tablet without people thinking you are a bit odd.

Tablet Gmail Interface

I’d really like to use the Tab for more productive endeavors, but other than email and web I am still chained to the Macbook Pro for any serious work.

There are a couple of apps on the Tab though that do stand out above the rest in my opinion. – Gmail and TweetCaster HD (currently in beta). Both of these apps are optimized for the tablet screen and make excellent use of the the new user interface fragments introduced in the Android 3.0 software development kit.

Gmail on the Tab is an example of an excellent user experience. I’d even go as far to say it is a better Gmail experience than on the web or any other device. The layout, the flow of the interface, the simple design. It just works and is really well thought out.

TweetCaster HD Interface

TweetCaster HD has become my favorite Twitter app on the Tab. This of course is very subjective. You could ask five people with tablets which app is their favorite and you might get five different answers. But for me, TweetCaster HD is what I use on the Tab. The interface is very simple, it loads tweets quickly, and for any tweets that contain links it has a little preview box so you can get an idea if it is worth clicking through or not. A close second would be TweetComb which uses a different approach to the interface using multiple columns for tweets, mentions, lists etc. I used it for a bit but found I preferred TweetCaster HD.

Grave Defense HD

One area I find the Tab shines is games. Not sure I’d personally ever want to play a hardcore arcade game on it due to the controls being weird, but for puzzle and strategy games it is great.

Plants vs Zombies (via Amazon’s app store) and Angry Birds have both eaten a lot of time and battery.

The game I been enjoying the hell out of the last few days is Grave Defense HD. It is your typical tower defense style game, with awesome graphics and sound, and a fun story. Some of the levels are pretty damn tough even on a low difficulty setting so it is addictive.

So do people need a tablet? Not really. Should they get one? If they have the means, then sure why not. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is awesome and it really raises the bar for Android tablets in the big battle with Apple which up until now have been getting smacked around pretty bad by the iPad and iPad 2.

Consider this a big escalation of the tablet wars. When it comes to hardware, the newest Android tablets are on par or exceed Apple’s offerings. But Apple has a huge leg up with not just quantity of tablet-specific apps, but the quality. Some of their iPad apps are polished to desktop-quality and unfortunately most Android apps are not there yet. It’s all about the apps. Give it time though.

What a great time to be a consumer and have so many great choices!

Cheers,
–Jon

Android App Goodness: doubleTwist’s AirSync

doubeTwist Library
The main music library screen in doubleTwist

Over the last 7-8 months I have become a pretty hardcore Android fan. From the statistics I am most definitely not the only one. Not many platforms can claim 3,130% growth in a year!

I absolutely love the OS, the open nature of the platform, and the plethora of apps that have been coming out for it in recent months. As the platform has matured and gained market share (and along with it development resources and investment dollars) the quality and usefulness of applications has really improved as well.

AirSync Options Screen
AirSync Options Screen

One of my new favorite apps is doubleTwist. doubleTwist is a free media player for Android that I’d rank as one of the better ones. There is also a desktop version I use on my Mac that is basically an iTunes replacement that is currently free, though if you like it you can donate to the developers.

An optional but VERY cool addon app that they sell for Android called AirSync expands the functionality of doubleTwist to allow wireless syncing over wifi. It is currently on the Android market for $4.99 and is a real gem. I absolutely recommend it as it is really useful and at $4.99 it is hard to beat the value. Never hurts to support an excellent developer who does great work either 🙂

Installing the client on my Mac was painless and I have it set to use the same location as iTunes for the library. So if I buy a song on iTunes or on Amazon it is available to either application seamlessly.

Once I installed the doubleTwist player and AirSync on my HTC G2, the first thing it does is gives me a passcode. This passcode is entered into the doubleTwist application on my Mac to pair up them up so that they may sync over my WiFi network.

doubleTwist Passcode Pairing

So far, so good. All very easy. Next I created a simple test playlist, AirSync Test. For my test I selected only the AirSync Test playlist, and pressed sync and boom. Over a fast WiFi connection it synced my four test songs in a couple of seconds. The playlist and songs were now identical on both my Android phone and my Mac laptop.

You can also set this to be automatic as well so that anytime your computer is running doubleTwist and your phone connects to the same WiFi subnet they will check in with each other and will sync up automatically. Unless you have a lot of space on your device you will probably want to specify specific playlists for it to sync otherwise by default it will try to sync it ALL.

doubleTwist Playlist

One thing to note – while doubleTwist can play files encoded in both MP3 and Apple’s AAC, it won’t play the .m4p files from iTunes, only the .m4a files. The .m4p file extension is for songs still protected with Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management and can only be played within iTunes or Apple approved devices such as the iPod or iPhone. Thankfully, all music purchased on iTunes since March 2009 no longer has this restriction giving us the ability to play our music on other devices such as our Android phones.

doubleTwist Sync

I have been getting a lot of use out of this lately syncing tunes onto my phone for the car. Many new cars these days like my 2011 Honda Civic EXL come with a USB connector for use with media players.

At this point I simply connect the G2 to the cable on my phone, click the “turn on USB storage” button when prompted, then click the Aux button on the car’s stereo. Now I can play songs through the car’s stereo directly from my Android phone, navigate tracks, set volume etc via the steering wheel controls.

Playlist on Android

The only thing I have not quite figured out when using my Android phone with the car stereo is making track names show up on the display like they do when I use the iPod with the car. I am not sure if it is an issue with how files are set up on the phone’s USB storage or if it is something proprietary it happens to do with the iPod.

This is one of those projects I plan to research when I get some free time.

Cheers,
–Jon

iPad: Great New Device or Harbinger of Digital Confinement? (UPDATED)

Apple's iPad A few weeks ago Apple formally announced the long-rumored iPad and my first impression was that I HAVE to have one. I think the device is really a cool, neat toy that would be nice to use around the house.

Like any other Apple device it has generated a lot of buzz. Some early reviews have been quite positive and others were more measured.

The more I thought about it as a device though, the more I began to think of it as going down a path I am not sure I want to go down.

One of the things many of us take for granted with our computers is the ability to install what software we want when we want. You buy a Windows machine, a Mac, or a Linux box and you can go on the Internet, download freeware/shareware, or buy commercial apps, install them, etc.

Contrast that to a device such as an iPhone (and many other phones for that matter) that require applications to be digitally signed before they can install and run on the device.

In our phones this has been par for the course under the guise of it being in our best interests so that when we need to count on the phone it works (though it is likely in the interest of carriers to keep certain apps from interfering with their lucrative business.)

But for our actual computers this has never been the model. We have always had the “freedom to tinker” with our PC’s.

While some folks are quick to point out that the iPad is basically a larger and enhanced iPhone, the cynical side of me thinks this is a gateway device to Apple (or other large companies) being able to change the locks on our digital front doors.

What if the next generation of Macs and Mac OS X used an app store model and required signed apps? What if Microsoft Windows adopts a similar model in order to “keep us safe” from all the malware?

Of course this is all what if’s at this point, but there has been a trend with corporations like Apple, Microsoft etc acting more and more like gatekeepers of content and information. Look at what happened with Amazon’s Kindle. It had it’s own beacon of irony when they remotely removed Orwell’s “1984” off of users’ Kindle readers.

Even Apple’s app store is not without it’s own controversy. Many developers have cited Apple for their glaring inconsistencies in the approval process and in some cases exercising some behavior that seems to be anti-competitive such as removing applications from the app store for mentioning competitor’s services or in some cases denying approval to an app such as Google Voice.

Sure one could say this is all tin-foil hat territory and that I am reading too much into it but am I really?

Guess only time will tell. Either way I have to admit I do like what I see in the device from a technology and user experience standpoint. My only hope is that Apple is more open with the platform and more forthcoming with the application approval process than they have been with the iPhone.

UPDATE – Somehow I missed this when digging around but it seems the Free Software Foundation has some similar concerns.

–Jon

Gigantor

The various components used to build Gigantor If you have ever had a computer die on you, you know it REALLY sucks. Sometimes it is something minor that you can fix, other times even the most seasoned computer folks among us scratch our heads and wonder wtf happened.

Unfortunately, I got to experience first hand a significant hardware failure on my Windows XP machine, Megatron (yes, all of my computers on our home LAN are named after fictional characters from TV, movies, mythology, etc.) I have had machines fail before and usually I have been able to salvage them, but this one was different as it seems it completely “fried” itself – the connector from the power supply to the motherboard had actually melted, and the connector from power supply to the nVidia GeForce 7900 was melted as well. Turning on the machine, the fans would spin up, but the board would not do any of the POST beeps, and the hard drive would spin up, but the operating system would not boot, and my monitor showed it was getting no signal.

Not wanting to be bothered I figured I would just forget about it. But after a few short weeks I kept finding times where I needed to have a Windows machine. One night a bunch of the guys were playing Counter Strike: Source but running it on OS X is kind of pain so I did not bother. Another night I needed to test out this database GUI app but it only ran on Windows.

Yes, I am still a proud Mac user, but as a software/web developer and gaming geek I would be remiss not to have multiple platforms available to me. Any given day working in the information technology field I may spend time in Windows, Mac OS X, Linux or Solaris.

It goes without saying that my Windows XP box was a part of my workflow and entertainment more than I had realized so I decided to rebuild it.

Megatron was a good, reliable machine for a few years. It had a nice Asus motherboard with an Intel Core2 Duo CPU, good hard drives, 4GB RAM, etc. Most of the components were premium.

Sadly though, the cost for replacing a lot of the Intel components is not cheap and I was reluctant to buy previous generation items or end of life items that may not be supported in the coming years.

So I opted to build a new rig – Gigantor – built based on the AMD platform this time. AMD has really come a long way over the years. Their performance is comparable to Intel’s offerings, but at a much better price point. I wanted a high-performance machine but on a budget and the economics of the AMD platform worked out well.

Once I decided on the platform, the rest was easy to fill in based on research and word of mouth.

Here is the rundown of the components (pictured at top of post):

MSI 790FX-GD70 motherboard (solid socket AM3 board, DDR3 RAM support, loads of goodies)

AMD Phenom 2 955 black edition (AMD’s current top-of-the-line quad core CPU)

Corsair 750 watt power supply (great reviews – my only complaint is that the cables are a pain in the ass)

OCZ Platinum AMD Edition 4GB DDR3 1600 RAM (really nice, fast RAM – currently running at a conservative 1333 6-6-6-24 timing)

HIS Radeon 4890 1GB graphic card (all I can say is this thing is a BEAST)

Creative X-Fi Titanium PCI-E sound card (for some reason most onboard sound cards still suck after all these years)

Pair of Western Digital Caviar 1TB drives (RAID 1 mirror at the moment – eventually moving boot drive to SSD)

Lian Li black aluminum case (great cases but the documentation is BRUTAL – all written in Engrish lol)

Thermalright TRUE heat sink (due to ordering issues I subbed in a Zalman until the TRUE arrived)

All of these components probably retail for $1,500 or so but with rebates, sales, coupons, and some leftover credit on PayPal I think it was all under $900 bucks, which of course I will write off on my taxes next year.

One thing I did not order (completely forgot) was an OEM Windows license. My previous XP license had been activated many times, and I did not want to mess around with XP on bleeding edge hardware, and I hate Vista so I went an alternate route and installed the Windows 7 Release Candidate (I will write up more on this experience later) and it has worked well.

So here is the machine is all built:

Inside Gigantor

The inside of the case has good airflow, and the fans are pretty quiet. At idle my CPU cores are measuring at 28 degrees celcius and under 100% load about 55 degrees celcius which is not bad for air cooling.

Only a couple of annoyances in this process – one was all the extra cables from the Corsair power supply that as you can see in the picture above I stashed in the unused optical drive bays, and the other would be the tiny connectors from the motherboard to the case. They never label them well, and sometimes the pins are not an even match, ie connector might have four pins, but cable only needs three.

Other than that, it has been a smooth experience.

–Jon