Archive for the ‘Gadgets’ Category
There were a flood of Windows Phone 7 “Pre-reviews” published today in the major gadget blogs, as Microsoft distributed an initial build to developers. The consensus seems to be that the OS has a lot of promise, but it’s several years (and 100,000 apps) behind iOS and Android. I thought this was interesting, but started thinking more about the mobile phone space – it really is true that all the hype and excitement is around the mobile OS’ these days in a way it’s not for desktop OS’ – I can’t remember what the newest version of OSX had (and Windows 7 was really just playing catchup for the sins of Vista).
I can think of a couple reasons for that:
- Mobile phones are changing rapidly – it’s hard to believe for those of us in the valley, but the smartphone that changed the market, the iPhone, is only 3 years old!
- Mobile phones are personal – they are a status symbol in a way that computers (Apple excepted, perhaps) largely aren’t
- The price points – at least, the perceived price point – of mobile phones are lower than computers
It’s that last point that fascinates me. I’m currently writing this blog entry on my 4 year old laptop – an older generation MacBook Pro. For the most part it doesn’t feel old – I occasionally wish it were a little faster, mostly when watching online video, and wish the battery lasted a little longer, but there is nothing about it that screams I need a need computer. On the other hand, my several year old Windows Mobile handset seems like a relic when held up to modern handsets like the iPhone or any of the myriad Android devices.
Just a of my gripes about the phone:
- I don’t have a good map app on my app – could be really helpful when walking around the city
- No touch screen. This is a huge difference in a mobile device, it really makes a enormous difference when browsing the web, for example.
- Cloud integration. While the basic applications, like contacts and calendar, update from the cloud on my phone, there is no easy way to upload photos to my favorite photo sharing sites, or to capture and share audio, etc. This is really a feature which makes a mobile phone really useful, as it takes things that you could always have done (with a lot of work), and makes it something you just do!
Okay, so mobile phones are where it’s at, and computers are relatively stagnant.
But I don’t know if it’s always been that way; I remember in high school my brother and I bought a new PC every year, moving from a 386SLC to several 386DXs, and finally being able to afford a 486. The RAM, of course, jumped with the increase in processor speed, and there really was a big difference in what you could do with the PC at the time – you could run windows well, not have to wait 5 minutes for wordperfect to load, play better games, and eventually load up a browser in acceptable time.
Could it be that the same might happen to mobile phones? Will we get to the point where we won’t upgrade every 2 years when the contract expires, because the new phone doesn’t do much more than the previous one?
If so, it probably won’t happen soon. According to a recent FCC Report, most (58% as of December 2009) Americans still don’t have a smart phone:
So we’ve got a ways to go before Americans reach the point when they don’t feel like they need to upgrade, strictly on the features. Beyond features, battery life is another area where SmartPhones can compete for new customers (HTC Evo not keeping more than a 3 hour charge after 2 years? Buy this new one!) Design might be another area where handset manufacturers can compete – a few years ago everyone I knew wanted a Motorola RAZR because it was the fashion accessory!
Still, I think when we look back in 10 years I have a feeling that I might feel about my phone the way I do about my laptop: last year’s model is good enough.
About 4 months ago I decided to leave Verizon Wireless and switch to pre-paid wireless carrier Page Plus Cellular. When I tell my friends I moved to a pre-paid carrier they laugh, and inevitably make a joke about it being “ghetto”. But I think that pre-paid wireless is a great deal for people who don’t need a full data plan and want to save money (who doesn’t?).
Prior to leaving Verizon Wireless I had a base plan without data. The plan included:
- 450 daytime minutes
- Unlimited nights and weekend minutes, but night minutes don’t start until 9PM
- No included text messages, but an extra $10 bought me 500 text messages
- No data plan
All of this cost me $44.95 plus an additional $10 for the text plan. With taxes I was up to almost $60 per month (I believe it was $58).
When I looked at Page Plus I examined how I used the phone and what was important to me. The network is first and foremost more important, as I live in a house which gets really poor coverage on at&t. This attribute alone prevents me from getting an iPhone. Beyond the network I wanted a decent number of texts, as I use this more these days than voice minutes. I would like to move to a data plan, but twice I’ve switched to an Android phone (first with an HTC Hero on Sprint and then with a Motorola Droid on Verizon) and both times I switched back to my feature phone due to poor battery life. At this point good battery life so I can talk and text are more important to me than email and other functionality, but perhaps that will change in the future.
In any event, needing a reliable network with a good number of texts and a minimal amount of voice minutes I took a look at Page Plus Cellular after my buddy Maynard suggested I take a look at their plans. I liked what I saw, as:
- Page Plus uses Verizon’s Pre-paid Network, which is almost as good as their whole network (and certainly so in urban areas)
- They have a 1200 anytime minute and 1200 text plan including 50MB of data for $29.95
- They have an unlimited voice and text plan with 20MB of data for $39.95
- You pre-pay in advance and there is no contract
Wow, so I can get more anytime minutes with a similar network and more texts for half the price of what I was paying with no contract? That sounds pretty good to me. As an added bonus I would also get 50MB of data!!
I thought when I switched I should get a new phone, as my LG Dare really sucks. I decided to go for a fairly cheap phone that had a keyboard and wifi, so I found a used HTC Ozone, an older windows mobile phone that looks a bit like a blackberry. Overall I’m not a huge fan of the Ozone, but for now I’ve got a phone with wifi and a keyboard, with more minutes and texts than I had before for $29.95. The coverage is just as good as I had with Verizon before (as far as I can tell – I’ve used it extensively in my home San Francisco, in Oahu, and in Little Rock), and as an added bonus I found that Page Plus doesn’t charge tax – so all I pay is $29.95 a month!
Page Plus is not all roses, however. Their customer service leaves a lot to be desired (it’s tough to get on the phone), but fortunately there are dealers who specialize in dealing with their phones. I used Kitty Wireless, an online dealer, to activate my phone. For $2 the company helped activate my phone in a few minutes, including porting my number from Verizon.
However, if you can stomach a bit of work yourself you can save a bundle by going with pre-paid wireless!
Yesterday I wrote about Google TV and Apple TV, and the different approaches taken by these two tech giants in the battle for the computer/internet in the living room. Another thought occurred to me about the Apple TV, and it has to do with what the app store did for the iPhone. When Apple first launched the iPhone jobs emphasized that what Apple was launching that day was three devices:
- A wide screen iPod with touch controls
- A revolutionary new mobile phone
- A breakthrough Internet communications device
Of course all three devices turned out to be the same device: the iPhone. The one thing Jobs didn’t predict is that the iPhone would become the de facto phone for writing software for, and that games would be one of the most popular categories (17.6% of apps are games) of applications for the iPhone. In fact, it seems even Jobs believes that games are the biggest use of the iPod Touch. And why not? If you are a casual gamer you can buy a Nintendo DS for $129 and games for $29.99, or you can buy an iPod touch for $200 and download hundreds of games for a few dollars and get a great music player as well as an internet device.
And that leads me to where I am as a gamer, as I am one of those who bought an iPod Touch (I refuse to get on at&t’s network, hence no iPhone). Initially I bought it because I wanted a better iPod (my old mini was running out of power very quickly), but I found the device got more useful the more I used it: wifi came in handy when browsing the web, it works great to show off my photo library, downloading podcasts without having to synch to the computer is awesome, and having the app store allows me to download useful apps to use wherever I have a web connection. Of my 57 apps currently installed, I have 6 games installed. For me, that’s perfect: I’m not a hard core gamer, but once in a while on a train or a plane I like to play a game or two.
This is sort of how I feel about my PS3 in the living room. I bought the device initially as more of a blu-ray player, but then I convinced myself to buy a game or two, and I received one or two as a gift. For the most part I might play each game a couple of hours, but that’s pretty much as far as it goes. I bought Grand Theft Auto IV, for example, because the reviews said the game was amazing, but I never really got into it. I played for an hour or two and since then it’s been collecting dust on my shelf. The most fun I have with my PS3 is when I play with others. I think there are a lot of casual gamers like me out there, although most of them bought the Wii. Looking at the tie rate (average number of games sold per console) we see that XBox 360 owners buy more games per console than the Wii and PS3.
And this is where I think the Apple TV might come in. Imagine if Apple makes it easy to develop games for on the Apple TV, and deploy them through the app store. Casual gamers might think twice about buying that PS3 or Wii and pick up an Apple TV instead. After all, like the iPod Touch, if games are just one of the things you do with your set top box, maybe it makes more sense to invest in the thing that does the rest better? Users might buy these instead of other consoles, and just have fewer devices connected. Apple might sell it as a device to get existing content to your TV, but perhaps the ecosystem will make gaming the killer app.
If I were at Nintendo (especially, since they are the casual gaming console) I would be up worrying right about now.
With the recent announcement of Google TV and the rumors that Apple is seriously working on a new version of Apple TV, I did a little thinking about where Google and Apple are thinking strategically here.
Apple’s current Apple TV offering has been fairly underwhelming, and has sold that way: CEO Steve Jobs was quoted in early 2009 noting that the industry and Apple TV are essentially “a hobby”. The product is a small PC-like box, running a modified version of Apple’s OSX Front-Row product, allows users to purchase downloadable TV shows at $2.99 in HD ($1.99 for non) and rent movies for $3.99 in HD, and it will play back your movies stored on your hard drive (both from it’s small internal as well as streaming from your PC or Mac). Additionally, it also streams your music and photo collections to your TV. There is very little internet integration, and no DVR integration.
My take on AppleTV is it’s fairly incremental: it doesn’t replace my DVR, it doesn’t bring any “must-have” content to the table, and it doesn’t provide any great internet integration. Apple’s approach was to work with Hollywood and secure deals to bring the content they control to the device as downloads – I think of this as a lot like Apple being a cable company: providing the content, but doing it one piece of content at a time. Someone who only watched shows (and no sports) that Apple offered could conceivably get rid of cable and consume content from Apple TV, but they’d be missing a ton.
Google’s vision for it’s foray into TV is more grandiose: a software platform that OEM electronic manufacturers can use to build set-top boxes that integrate with your existing system (DVR and cable box via IR blaster), and will integrate web and existing content together. It will allow you to use Google TV to search content across your DVR and the web, and choose to display any of that content on the TV. The software is Android (yes, the same on the mobile phone), and it comes with a full featured browser that will allow you to access the web on the phone. In that respect, this could be a pretty sweet system: you have your existing content on your DVR and cable system, and now you can bring the web’s content on (presumably from places like Hulu with a subscription) easily.
Google’s vision appears to be to enter the living room by doing something similar to what it did with web search: bring together existing content from various places (cable TV, web, etc.) and display this, with one device, on your TV. With this approach Google is not trying to be a cable company (like I have accused Apple of), but I believe is attempting to become more of “Google for TV” – searching and finding content wherever is exists and displaying it easily on your TV. In some sense this is a lot like Clicker, who are trying to be the “TV Guide of the Internet”. Of course, the vision is larger as Google TV integrates your existing content as well, and is aiming to hit you where you want to watch TV – your living room.
Last week I decided that some of the stuff I had sitting at home were taking up a bit too much room and so decided to get rid of it. Among the clutter at the house I decided I wanted to get rid of my last cell phone, a Verizon LG Dare, my old PS2 + games, and a unopened DVD box set of Lost Season 2 (which I had received as a gift but already had).
Among my options to rid myself of this old stuff I considered:
- Selling on ebay – I’d done this before with fairly good results, as far as I remembered
- Selling on craigslist – sell locally, which I’ve done before for things like tickets
- Giving to the goodwill – a solid option without monetary upside (except a tax deduction)
Knowing that ebay has a large marketplace I decided I to go with that route. I listed my three items on ebay, and I noted a couple of things have changed:
- ebay now has a nice system of matching an item to a stock description and category. This is great, and I assume a response to Amazon’s zshops catalog – it’s a great way to bring the structured catalog to the crazy bazaar that is ebay
- ebay limits your shipping prices for certain items based on it’s category and place in the catalog. This is probably great for buyers, as they know what they’ll pay, and possibly good for sellers as they will gouge less on shipping and possibly get higher prices for the items. On the other hand what this might do is just shift a higher price to the bid amount, leading to higher fees for ebay. I assume that’s what’s going on here. I got stung by this, read on to find out more
- ebay charges 15 cents per image listing that you host on their page. If you want to host your images elsewhere you can do that but you’ve got to edit HTML to do it. I did that, but I can see why others might not want to
- It took me a while to list my items: the steps which give the better user experience (finding categories to put the items in, selecting shipping details) take more time to list. I think I spent a little over an hour taking pictures and listing the items
I picked a 5 day auction, so on the day of the auction I madly refreshed my listings to see what would happen. True to my memory of before, the bids accelerated rapidly in the waning minutes of the auctions. The PS2 increased nearly $20 (about 40% of the ending price) in the last 5 minutes. After it was over I found:
- The PS2: sold for $58.50 (plus $15 shipping)
- Lost sold for $10.50 (plus $3 shipping)
- The LG Dare sold for $58.50
After the auction two of the buyers paid quickly: the PS2 buyer and Lost buyer. The LG Dare buyer emailed me to explain her 17 year-old brother was actually the one bidding, and he would pay me next week after he gets paid. She advised that if I could I might be better off re-listing the item – I’m not sure if that’s possible, so I emailed ebay to see what they advise, and I’ll update this when I hear back.
Because the PS2 came with so many things (18 games, the console, a headset, etc.) I wanted to charge around $20 for shipping. However, ebay caps the shipping amount to $15 so this was all I was able to list. When I went to the shipping place (a Postal Annex) I had originally packed it in a large box that I had laying around. Imagine my shock when the initial quote given was $46! I quickly inquired as to why, and having being told that the problem was the box size, downgraded to a smaller box, the smallest which would accomodate the PS2 and accessories. The end damage, however, totalled $32 after $24 for shipping, $4.09 for the box, and $3 for packing peanuts and “handling”. That’s $17 more than ebay would let me charge for shipping, and a significant percentage of my $58.50 selling price (29%). The PS2 sold for $73.55 with shipping, and after subtracting $31.87 for shipping and $2.43 for paypal’s fee I’m looking at $39.25 before paypal’s fees.
The Lost DVD was a similar issue – I purchased a USPS mailer envelope (with padding) and priority mail shipping to get a tracking number. This totalled over $7 when the maximum I was allowed to charge by ebay was $3. With the Lost DVD after paypal’s 69 cent fee for handing I’m only netting $5.80 for the unopened set, and that’s before ebay’s fees.
The shipping, of course, took nearly an hour out of my day. So I’m looking at nearly 2 hours of my time, a PS2, and a Lost DVD set for around $45. ebay’s policy of maxing the shipping costs below the sellers actual costs is going to help buyers, and possibly sellers who do lots of volume and have low shipping costs, but screws the small time seller.
Next time I’ll turn to craigslist or the goodwill.
I wrote this in March 2010 in my old blog, so I’m porting over
I’ve recently come around to the idea that I may not need my “Comcastic” cable TV anymore. My Comcast bills are seemingly always a shock when I open them and see that I owe $130 a month for internet service and fairly basic TV service. What am I getting for my $130?
- Their basic “hi-speed” internet package – pretty quick, at least when compared to the DSL I had before
- The basic cable package with HD, or as I put it: “your cheapest HD package with ESPN”
- An HD DVR , because I can’t stand having to schedule my life around the show times.
More recently, however, I realized the following about my TV watching:
- I don’t watch many sporting events anymore because the bay area teams *SUCK*. Yes, you: warriors, A’s, Giants, and Niners.
- Most programs I watch are on network TV: Lost, the PBS News Hour, The Office, and every once in a while American Idol.
- I watch a few more shows like Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Dexter, but I watch them on disc or through Netflix Streaming.
Why Cable Sucks
The thing that’s so infuriating about cable is that you pay for tons of channels that you never watch – the list is so ridiculously long: HGTV, Bravo, MTV, Blah blah blah. I will not watch those shows unless I’m unbelievably bored and too hung over to read a book or something. Looking at the list above I realize that what I really need is netwok TV, which can ostensibly be pulled down via an old school antenna (rabbit ears style – who remembers those?), a DVR, and Netflix Streaming.
What I Really Need
Netflix Streaming I have with my PS3, so I’ve got that box checked.
Now where do I get a TV tuner and DVR from? Turns out that my TV – a panasonic plasma – doesn’t have a TV tuner, so I’ve got to get one of those. One option could be a Tivo – they just announced some new models, and they look pretty sweet. They do all of this:
On top of being able to record and navigate through cable, FiOS, or regular antenna TV, the TiVo Premiere connects to the internet to bring you streaming video from Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster; streaming music from Rhapsody and Live 365; and it can transfer downloaded content to your laptop or mobile device.
Unfortunately what it also comes with is a $300+ price tag and a $13 a month service charge. It’s just switching masters, albeit to a much cheaper one!
P.S. Where the hell is Hulu? My guess is Hulu’s content providers gave Tivo the big f-u just like Boxee got it.
Hmm, what’s this HTPC Thing?
After some Googling and bitching to friends I discovered there are a wealth of computer-based options that might be able to fill the tuner + DVR role. Turns out there are a lot of software options that do this type of thing, including MythTV and Windows Media Center. Whenever I tell people that Windows comes with a DVR I get a blank stare: what? How? But apparently Windows Media Center is actually a really awesome piece of software. You need a PC with a TV Tuner card, and suddenly your windows machine turns into a pretty sweet DVR.
So now I just need a PC to hook up to the TV, and a TV Tuner card. Looks like the newest crop of low-cost HTPC machines center around the Intel Atom Processor (a really cheap low cost processor) and the NVidia ION graphics processor. A few of the options I’ve seen are:
- Acer Aspire Revo – the 3610 includes the dual core Atom 330 processor, 2GB of RAM, a 160GB drive, the Ion graphics processor, and Windows 7 home premium.
- Asrock ION 330 – another dual core Atom 330 processor, 2GB of RAM, a 160GB drive, Ion, but no OS (you have to buy your own)
- Zotac MAG – similar specs to the Revo sans the OS – but much cheaper than the Asrock.
One potential issue with these units is that they use 2.5″ hard drives that spin at 5400RPM so that tends to slow them down, but indications are that these machines are fast enough to record and play HD Video from a TV tuner. Additionally the ION processor with Adobe Flash 10.1+ beta is supposed to have super smooth playback of 1080P video from Hulu, Youtube, and the like.
Taking the Plunge
Computing has come a long way with respect to video and I’m amazed that these sub-$400 computers can become my DVR, stream online video, and enable me to get rid of Comcast. I’m seriously considering taking the plunge.
Note: I wrote this on my old blog in August 2009 so I’m moving it over – obviously a lot has changed since then in the mobile space
With the Palm Pre‘s launch last June it finally looked like there would be finally be a worthy competitor to the Phone’s dominance in the smartphone field, at least from the technology journalism field. It seems to me that the tech press, with Techcrunch as lead, have branded the iPhone the winner of the SmartPhone, largely on the success of Apple’s remarkably successful App Store.
I have an iPod touch, the phone-less counterpart to the iPhone, which I’ve refused to buy because AT&T’s service is really horrendous in my home area. To me, at least at this point, there is not much point into having a phone you can’t talk on. Thus I remain hopelessly stuck on my Verizon dumbsmartphone, the LG Dare. My problems with the LG come down to some pretty basic ones:
- The touch-screen keyboard sucks. I can’t type very fast on it because when I do I mistype often. I’ve found, despite the fact the phone supports a landscape touch-screen keyboard I usually use the T9 version – as if I didn’t have a smartphone at all!
- The email application was really really bad. First off Verizon charges you $5 a month to use the application, which was horrendous. It takes an eternity to load, and the interface was clunky at best.
- Finding names in the contact list is challenging at best. LG helpfully puts an alphabet selector at the top (Select F to find users with the first name F…), but the problem is the area to tap is so tiny that it becomes very difficult to hit the right key and you end up scrolling helplessly trying to find the right name.
My contact is up in August, so I’m contemplating a new phone – specifically a Palm Pre, because I’ve heard Sprint’s service may actually work in my home. It seems to me a key criticism that their store is devoid of apps, at least when compared to Apple’s, and that Apple has an insurmountable lead. I find this ironic because I see the phone OS war as quite analogous to the battle that played out between Windows and the Mac 20 years ago.
At that point Windows was by far the market leader in terms of PC installation, and generally you bought a Mac because it was “easy to use” or you liked the design. However, the big knock was that “it doesn’t have the applications” that Windows did. You wanted a Spreadsheet? Wait till next year for Lotus 123 in Mac. You want an office suite – no Office for you, as it doesn’t exist on the Mac. I think open source killed that problem – open source apps provided tons of code that people built on to build high quality apps for the Mac, and even now there are strong competitors even on linux for almost any productivity software you need. Games remain the one category that the Mac (and linux) remain far behind on.
I find this fascinating because people now make a similar argument about the iPhone and the app store – how can anyone possibly catch up? My answer: give it a bit of time. If the phone (or more precisely, the OS) sell, people will develop for the phone. And as more open source apps find their way out developers will be able to create more applications with lower effort, and soon there will be a substantial catalog of Palm WebOS apps. Will there be the 50,000 apps? Perhaps not, but I suspect you’ll be able to find everything you want on the Palm App store soon.