Twitter Question: Nexus 5X as a primary camera?

Cory Hixson asked me a question about the Nexus 5X that was interesting and complicated enough that my reply became a blog post:


I’ve just finished recording an Ihnatko Almanac about traveling with a phone as your sole camera, and about camera choices in general, so this topic is still on my mind. I’m a little stuck on the phrase “primary camera.”

In a way, I’m the least helpful person to ask for camera advice. I’m an Enthusiastic Amateur, plus I’m a technology columnist. This means I don’t know about the needs of the average camera user and I’m way too arrogant to try to find out.

I’m going to zero in on the word “you” in this question. I wouldn’t be choosing a phone as my primary camera. I’m too persnickety about the results, and I want to have lots of control. I’ve just come back from a week at Yosemite and I would have missed my flight rather than leave home without my Olympus OM-D E-M1 and some lenses.

Nonetheless, for three days in New York city the week before that, I left the gear at home and relied solely on the Nexus 5X. Mostly because I had to catch a 6:30 AM train, so I was grumpy, and in no mood to sling a camera around my neck and find room in my bag for an extra lens.

I also knew that the Nexus 5X camera was up to the job of Taking Swell Photos:

 

Added another Daniel Chester French to my Life List. Outside the Hamilton Custom House, NYC.

A photo posted by Andy Ihnatko (@ihnatko) onMar 9, 2016 at 12:00pm PST

When I choose a daily carry phone, I want the best camera I can get but I’m trying to maximize other variables as well. I think the iPhone 6S Plus has the best camera overall, but I wouldn’t switch back to iOS just to get the camera. I think the Samsung Galaxy S series has the best camera on any Android phone (and it’s better than the iPhone’s in many ways), but I see many advantages to Nexus devices, and their “fresh from Google” updates, that I want more than that camera. If I had bought something else, I’d only be trading an excellent camera for a better one.

It’d be hard for me to choose a phone as my primary camera. I tend to think in terms of an arsenal of devices. I’ve got the Olympus for situations where I foresee myself immersing myself in photography and wanting to come away with the best photo possible. I’ve can trust the Nexus for those situations where I’m expecting to take mostly snapshots, or didn’t know that I’d be confronted with something amazing, or I just couldn’t be arsed to carry the howitzer with me all day. I keep attempting to seduce myself into buying a nice, tiny camera, such as a first-gen Sony RX100. The argument for is “teensy camera with a big sensor, a big lens, full manual controls and handling, and RAW capture.” The argument against is “$400, and don’t you already have a nice camera, doofus?” But I keep wishing for a “daily carry” camera that was a big leap better than my phone.

One shouldn’t become like one of those weekend golfers who keeps buying new and increasingly-exotic putters, thinking it’ll improve their performance. Every camera has limits. Even this Olympus that I love so much has limits. But great things happen when you try to find a solution to a creative problem that works within those limits. Phones don’t have zoom lenses. Okay, but is the photo of that Daniel Chester French sculpture no good because it’s a tight crop of a much larger photo? The resulting 3 megapixel resolution forced me to be even more careful about the composition; every pixel was carrying such a great load.

Plus, our desktop tools for massaging photos are extraordinary. I can do things with exposure, depth of color, and addressing sensor noise that would have been a fantasy just a few years ago. So really, I could just concentrate on framing the shot correctly and tapping the shutter button at the right moment.

The direct answer to Cory’s question is that any premium phone, and even most midrange ones, will take excellent photos. So don’t worry about it. Buy the phone that presents the best total package for you.

These sorts of answers can be very very frustrating, however. So if pressed, I will sigh and say “If I had to rely on a phone as my primary camera, it’d be an iPhone 6s Plus. Image quality is a real tossup between it and the Samsung Galaxy, but the iPhone’s speed and reliability tilt the scales.”

Yeah. That answer definitely took more than 140 characters, eh?

Aggressive Android ransomware spreading in the USA

Aggressive Android ransomware spreading in the USA:

Fortunately, you can’t download this application from the official Google Play Store. This Trojan can be delivered to users from third party markets, warez forums or torrents. The most effective way to avoid getting infected and being locked out from your device is by proactive preventative measures.

(Via welivesecurity.)

Android malware is super-scary, thanks to the very thing about Android that I love: it doesn’t have an obstructionist attitude about software that modifies the behavior of the device. This story is about another type of lockscreen ransomware. After the user is tricked into installing the malware, it changes the device’s lockscreen PIN/pattern and locks the phone until a ransom amount is paid. It aggressively defends itself from any attempt to disable or remove it.

Nonetheless, it’s not of great concern. In the Android world, the Google Play Store is the canonical app store. An Android phone will let you install apps from a different app repository — or even from a disk file — if you go through a bunch of hoops. The “proactive preventative countermeasures” indicated by the article include using Android security tools that the author’s employer sells (fair enough).

Another effective Proactive Preventative Measure would be “only use apps from the Google Play Store.” It seems like every story from an Android user who wound up with malware includes the phrase “I didn’t get this app from Google Play, but it promised me free porn” or something similar about a super-awesome website that had pirated versions of, like, every commercial Android app ever, and dude…it was all free!!!

It’s another example of the difference in philosophy between iOS and Android. iOS works very hard to prevent you from doing something that Apple thinks isn’t in your best interests. Android warns you that safety rules are there for a reason, but in the end, if you want to break your fool neck, hey, it’s your funeral.

Well. I’m sorry for anyone who had their phone bricked by this malware. I hope the porn was really worth it.

Its new phone day!

I’m taking a break from work to do something that is only defined as quote fun on quote in my sick little vernacular: I’m setting up a brand new phone. I do that all the time, what with all the devices that I review. This one is special, because it’s a personal phone that I bought during the Black Friday sale last week: a Nexus 5X.

I bought it because, yes, I’m definitely trending towards switching back to Android. The switch to the iPhone 6 was never intended to be permanent, it was just a necessity of getting to know the Apple watch. But it was certainly possible that I was going to stay with iOS. Most of the decision was going to hang on what Google released in September or October.

These new Nexus phones really scored big. I only really cared about three things, hardware – wise: I wanted an iPhone-class camera, I wanted fingerprint security, and I wanted to finally have a battery that didn’t make me want to scream every four and a half hours, which is when I would need to find a new source of power for my previous Android phone, a Nexus 5.

And, well, what do you know: the new Nexus phones delivered all that stuff. The smaller of the two is a better fit for my needs, and the price is absolutely one that I’m comfortable spending on a phone.

I’m not officially back on Android yet. My SIM card is still inside my iPhone. But, yeah, that’s where I’m leaning.

I’ve been setting it up for the past hour or two. This isn’t a reflection of how difficult Android is; it’s a statement about how much of it you can actually customize. As you can imagine, I’m having a ball. It’s great to be able to configure something for my needs, specifically. It gives me the opportunity to think about how I use my phone, and how I can make things easier on myself.

image

I’m giving a lot of thought to widgets, for instance. I’ve been setting up this new phone so that all of the features I need are always right in front of me, and that I rarely have to launch an actual app. The new iPhone does a good job of this with 3D Touch. Android has always had a version of this solution, in the form of allowing apps to put their most useful features and content right on the desktop.

Mostly, I’m getting my head back in the game of relying on Android as my full time phone, if it comes to that. I’ve been using Android phones all summer, but always just in a casual capacity. Its reminding me of all the things that I like about Android.

One of those things is Android’s Material Design UI. It’s just much more in tune with how I think, and how I want a phone interface to look. Even after three years, the new iPhone user interface still seems so very stark, and isn’t as intuitive to me as the Android design language.

Another thing: I did actually pay for an Apple Watch, to make sure that I would have one in my hardware library forever and ever. I’m a little surprised that I don’t like it so much that it’s encouraging me to stick with the iPhone.

In the end, I think this speaks well of the diversity of the mobile market. The biggest reason why I’m leaning towards Android is simply because I prefer the looks of the interface, and it’s a better fit overall for me. This is maybe the first year when the software libraries are pretty much equal, and the level of hardware is also pretty much equal, and The level of polish and innovation in the underlying operating systems are 100% equal.

We are now free to make a choice based solely on personal preference. And that’s sort of perfect, isn’t it?

(Written completely on the Nexus 5X, using speech to text.)

Three Pipe Problem: Alteration and invention – Raphael, Vermeer and the mashup

Rather than viewing the mashup as a modern phenomenon, it could also be described as a modern and digital re-iteration of practises long used by artists from the past. From ancient Roman copies of Greek sculpture, to Raphael’s numerous quotes from sources as diverse as a Roman sarcophagus, a  Memling portrait or a drawing by Leonardo. The determination of what constitutes influence, homage or direct plagiarism is a complex undertaking, with accompanying legal concerns raised since the fifteenth century.


via Three Pipe Problem: Alteration and invention – Raphael, Vermeer and the mashup.

A typically engaging post from Hasan Niyazi’s art history blog. It neatly presents a historical context for modern mashups.

Looking at someone else’s creative work sometimes provokes an artist into thinking what he or she would do with that same subject, or it inspires a new twist, or even the direct thought “Gee, if I ever need to draw the face of somebody shrieking their lungs out, I am definitely going to remember how da Vinci did it in his cartoon for ‘The Battle Of Anghiari’!”

Theft is theft, and when a lazy creator blandly copies the work of another, the work usually tells the tale within five seconds. But it’s no good to recognize an influence and then dismiss the second work without thinking any deeper. That reaction is ignorant of the creative process, and it’s contemptuously dismissive of the amount of hard work and innovative thinking that the original work inspires. George Lucas himself acknowledged that “A New Hope” was hugely influenced by Kurasawa’s “The Hidden Fortress.” But would anyone deny that Episode 4 is an original work?

Today, we all acknowledge that designing software and hardware is a creative, even an artistic, endeavor. That’s a welcome change in attitude. Engineers were once perceived as just a bunch of dull technicians ticking items off of a list of features and specifications under fluorescent lighting. Now, we often think of these men and women as artisans who want to make something that functions beautifully.

If we’re going to fully embrace this new perception, however, we need to acknowledge that the artistic process is universal, whether the thing the artist creates is a single painting or 10,000,000 phones. It’s the same in Jony Ive’s day as it was in Raphael’s. Software patents, as well as the most hysterical superfans of a platform, try to pretend that art is made in a vacuum and that ideas, like real estate, exist with firm boundaries and sole ownership. Hogwash on both counts.

Yes, theft is theft. Sure, a direct, lazy copy is easy to spot. But when Google pivots their new mobile OS away from keypads and towards multitouch after they see the iPhone, and then Apple changes the iPhone’s notification system after they see Android, they’re just following in the footsteps of the Old Masters. It’s fine.

A Broken Lock Is Secure 100% Of The Time

That's Real Security

I’m doing deep-soak testing with the Samsung Galaxy S III. I’m at that bit of the pageant where my iPhone is shut off and I’m using the S III for absolutely everything. I’m liking it a lot.

I flicked the power switch this morning and was presented with a bug. The phone is supposed to be showing a 3×3 grid of dots but for some reason, it’s drawn the thing way off to the side, there.

I need to draw a specific pattern across that whole grid to unlock the phone. So that’s, um…unfortunate.

Before we proceed further: I restarted the phone and it cleared right up. No worries. But the bug put me in a philosophical frame of mind. The function of a lock screen is to limit access to the phone’s data and services. So is this problem a bug? Or is it really the most effective lock screen device ever?

I’m reminded of the series of old cars I’ve owned. Many of them were impossible to steal as they neared end-of-life.

(Beyond the fact that they’ve never been closer than one standard deviation under the mean desirability of the cars in any parking lot.)

(Then again, I’ve never left one in a dealer lot of unsold Pontiac Azteks.)

Each of them eventually acquired signature problems that made them impossible to operate by anyone other then their owner. My current car is ticking along just great with no mechanical problems or quirks whatsoever. Soon after it broke 120K, however, there was a three-week period in which the starting procedure involved disconnecting the negative terminal of the battery for ten minutes, using a small wrench I kept in the center console for exactly that purpose.

So maybe that’s the best way to secure our mobile computers: make them unreliable. A friend who’s seen the huge Empire Strikes Back photomural on my wall might correctly guess that my lock screen PIN is 1138 or that my system password is han-shot-first. A thief might be able to work out the PIN based on the smudge spots on the screen. A spy can use software that will brute-force-guess the password. But none of these individuals would ever guess that my phone has an intermittent short that will cause it to reset unless they keep tapping the Volume Down button after waking it.

(Note: those aren’t my real passwords.)

(Note-2: I like my lock screen image.)

Tegra Gives Good Demo

You can’t say that an actual market for slate computers exists today. “An actual market” implies that “there’s actual competition.” The only competition in tablet space right now is between the Verizon and AT&T versions of the iPad. And unless HP reaches into the WebOS bag and pulls out the god-damnedest rabbit you ever saw this summer, that’ll be the state of affairs through the rest of 2011.

But Apple won’t own this product category forever. Someday, someone’s going to figure out how to make a tablet that’s so good, so compelling, that even when it’s placed side by side with the iPad, consumers won’t be able to choose between the two without factoring in things like “Well, the iPad comes with free stickers…”

I don’t know when that’ll happen. But it looks like when it does, those Android tablets will have some lovely processors. NVIDIA has posted a video demonstrating the abjectly insane performance of their next-generation mobile CPU, the sequel to the Tegra 2 processor that sits in some of the best Android tablets on the mar… — well, let’s say “available for sale” — today.

This new CPU has four cores and it looks as though it runs like hot sick:

Those of you who chose not to watch the video didn’t see a demo of a game running on an Android 3 tablet built around an engineering sample of the next NVIDIA CPU. By tilting the tablet, the player rolls a marble around a fully-rendered 3D table. The marble is a light source. It knocks over barrels, which are also light sources, and they collide with each other and the table naturally. It moves through curtains, which ripple realistically and are rendered with convincing translucency. All the while, lights and shadows and reflections and physics are being rendered at a smooth framerate and in realtime. It all looks gorgeous.

Those of you who did watch the video are now thinking “Holy ****! The marble is a light source! It’s knocking over objects that are also light sources, and all of the light and shadow and reflection effects are rendering gorgeously, at a smooth framerate and in realtime!”

It’s a hell of a nice demo. Instinctively, I wonder if we’re seeing the true, overall performance of the CPU, or merely how well its 12 GPU cores can handle 3D graphics. When the demo game turns off two of the tablet’s CPU cores (ostensibly mimicking the performance of current-generation processors), the game completely falls apart. So there’s that.

Can I rescue my cynicism? Oh, easily. That smokin’ hot power is useless if it drains power like a teenager shotgunning beers at a graduation party. The demo also doesn’t say anything about how much heat it generates or how big it is. I’d expect that NVIDIA is aiming for the same overall specs as the Tegra 2, but the point here is that raw performance is only one metric of a mobile CPU.

NVIDIA claims that the first tablets with this next-generation CPU could ship as early as August. Mmmmmokaaaayyyyllllllet’sssseebouthat. But 2012 is looking interesting…and my mind boggles at the thought of a handset with this CPU. Yes, the gaming would be majestic. But think about this kind of power in a 4G handset. Today’s car navigation apps can download and refresh a 2D map and it’s often impossible to correlate what’s on the screen with what you’re seeing through the windshield. Imagine a phone that can download Google Maps 3D wireframes and textures and render, in realtime, the camera view of your position from a virtual chase helicopter. Driving through a city be just playing a videogame, only without the ability to take a shortcut through the glassed-in atrium of an office building.

Then I take a step back and remind myself that the limiting factor on Android devices has never been the hardware: it’s been the software. Google hasn’t shown much of a knack for supporting and motivating developers to create truly ambitious, world-class software. Hell, I’d be happy if they could even motivate themselves. When I tap a button in an Android app it should feel like I’m tapping a (goddamn) button. Instead, it feels like I’m filing and submitting a requisition form for the function I wish the app to eventually perform…and the person who needs to sign it has already left for the weekend.

Still! Good things ahead from NVIDIA, eh? This new CPU is just the next chip in a multiyear plan. Their current mobile CPU is the Tegra 2. This new one is code-named “Kal-El.” The next ones, due to be released from 2012 to 2015, are Wayne, Logan, and Stark.

You understand now that even without that impressive video demo, I am forced to love NVIDIA lots and lots and lots.

(I feel a discreet tug on my shirtsleeve)

(A reader whispers that he doesn’t understand why this is.)

(I explain that the CPUs are named after Superman, Batman, Wolverine, and Iron Man, respectively.)

(The reader thanks me for the explanation, and also for being so discreet about it and allowing him to keep his dignity.)

(I reply that it’s perfectly fine, I wouldn’t want him to be humiliated publicly for being the only one not to pick up on all of that.)

There’s just one bit of unfinished business: the original Tegra processor doesn’t fit in to the naming structure. I don’t know much about how it got its name. It’s certainly safe to assume that they paid some company the usual six-figure fee to break a huge list of Latin words into their roots and then pick twos and threes out of a bag until they had a name that (a) perfectly encapsulated the strength, speed, and reliability that would be associated with NVIDIA’s new dual-core mobile CPU and (b) wasn’t already trademarked, nor similar to the street name for any horrible drug that’s being pushed to middle-schoolers.

But the name is tantalizingly close to that of Tigra, the half-cat, half-human hero in Marvel Comics’ various “Avengers” series.

NVIDIA should retroactively rename the current processor to preserve the flow. Naming all of your CPUs after popular characters is one way to honor and celebrate the traditions of the comic book industry…but unapologetically rewriting established history to avoid inconvenient inconsistencies with what you’ve got planned for the near-future is an even better one.

Bonus Inside Joke exclusively for comic book fans:

If NVIDIA formally changes the name to “Tigra,” then every time a piece of software caused an Android tablet to crash or suffer a huge performance hit, we could say “Man! This new app is totally Bendising the CPU!”

(Thank you.)

Google IO Keynote Liveblog

Coming in a bit late here (had to do a little shopping).

Proud of their new USB support for Android — keyboards, mouses, trackpads, game controllers. Seems to be saying that a touchscreen device shouldn’t rely on its touchscreen.

Tries to demo a game controller…nonstarter.

App store coming to Google TV, the product that nobody’s using.

Announces next Android: “Ice Cream Sandwich” for Q4. Very pleased to talk about “choice,” referring (correctly) to wide variety of devices you can choose from. That’s a great feature yes, but they’re idea of running one OS on phones, tablets, and notebooks seems wrong-headed; suggests that you don’t need a wrench, a screwdriver and a hammer because one tool can be made to work for every kind of fastener. Why not optimize?

“Let’s shift topics and talk about media.”

Android Cloud Services team mgr takes the stage.

Movies on Android Market.

market.android.com

Bringing purchase of books and movie rentals to Android Marketplace: buy and instantly stream them to your decices. Rentals start at $1.99.

30 day rental period and once you start watching, you have 24 hours to finish.

They’re using a Xoom tablet for demo. Works via the Web, but also via a new “Movies” app for playback has two tabs: one for rentals, and one for Personal Videos.

“Pinning” feature lets you “pin” a movie to a device; they download into the device in the background.

Carousel shows the usual Demo Darlings: “Inception,” “King’s Speech” and…Burlesque?

UI looks nice.

Part of Honeycomb 3.1 update, going out to Xoom users starting today.

Android Music

Shown off by a Google manager dressed as The Bride from Kill Bill.

(Already this keynote is a turnaround from last years, which kept firing harpoons at Apple.)

“Music Beta” by Google. App for Windows and Mac OS acts as your iTunes. (And the fact that I use that word to explain the entire concept shows you what they’re up against.)

Create a playlist in the app and it’s instantly available on every Android device you use.

They have their own version of Genius playlists (“Instant Mix.”)

“Our model literally listens to your music.” OK, but do you just mean “We analyze beats-per-minute,” I wonder.

“I never have to use a cable to add music again.” Which is a nice feature. But what about offline listeng?

1) They cache music you’ve recently played automatically.

2) You can “pin” music, in a fashion similar to the Movies app.

“If I get a brand new phone, all I have to do is sign in. All my music is right there, right away.” Again, a nice feature. But boy, I REALLY want to examine the terms of service. Am I giving Google a chance to collect metrics about my listening habits?

Beta is invite-only for start, can upload 20,000 songs for start, is free…for start. :)

music.google.com

Back to Hugo.

New Update Alliance

Verizon, HTC, Samsung, Sprint, Sony, LG, T-Mobile, Voda, and AT&T now agree to be part of an alliance to make sure that Android updates roll out in a timely and coordinate fashion.

(Good. This is the biggest pain in the butt for the Android platform.)

More

“Android was always meant to go beyond the mobile phone.”

Enter the Android hardware engineering team.

Announcing “Android Open Accessory.” New API for talking to accessories.

(Kind of like iOS’ support for external devices. Not a lot of support for iPhone and iPad custom external devices yet. Let’s see if Google can make a better case for this in their marketplace.)

Demo has the Android phone plugging into an exercise bike.

Supports USB now, and Bluetooth in the future.

Android Open Accessory Reference Design. The ADK is based on Arduino, which is an EXCELLENT idea. It gives the most popular and affordable development board work with Android.

(As always, though: FOLLOW-THROUGH. Can Android get developers and DYI’ers excited enough about this (really cool) resource to actually do stuff with it?)

“No approval process to make this hardware and release the software.” Good, repeating a valid point about Android versus iOS.

Android @Home

New framework for controlling devices in the home via Android.

“We want you to think of your home as an Android accessory.”

(Oh, no. No. NO.)

(HELL no.)

Can interface with anything that’s electrical in your home…all appliances are potentially an Android device…even dishwashers and stuff.

Demonstrates with a simple “hello world”-type app that controls the lights in the auditorium.

“Can build an alarm clock app that slowly raises the lights in the room and turns on the stereo.”

Partnering with “several industry players.”

One company making Android-enabled LED bulbs.

(OK, lights? Something a little more interesting?)

Android Tungsten. Music devices that run Android and work with Android @ Home.

He dims the lights, to show how this reference speakers and box glow in color. (Who cares?)

“Tablet can direct music to one or more Tungsten boxes.”

So it looks like they’re trying to do something like Apple’s AirPlay, but explaining it in a complicated and fussy way. (Well, this IS a developer keynote, not a consumer one.)

Conceptual demo: you buy a new CD and it has an RFID chip in it. You tap the CD to your Tungsten box and immediately it starts playing that CD.

(Not a product, just a concept. But were they demoing “Now, you only have to carry all 1000 of your CDs with you to control this box” or “it doesn’t matter that this box doesn’t have a copy onboard; it’ll ask the Internet to please send it a ripped copy, because you’ve proven you own this”?)

(I’m guessing the first one.)

(Too many pie-in-the-sky, “here’s what we want you people to do with this” demos so far. Should be more “here’s what we’ve done”s.)

Samsung Galaxy Tab

Google IO has an Oprah Moment: “YOU get a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1!! And YOU get a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1!!!! And YOUUU get a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1!!!!!!” (freebie to all attendees)

And Lastly…

“Thank you for your support.”

(Hmm. Bit thinner than I thought it’d be. I was expecting something about Google Chrome, especially given that they had a whole big deal about the launch a few months ago…and they’ve started actually doing Google Chrome commercials in prime-time. Oh, well.)

Amazon to Apple: Oh, it is sooo ON!!!

Screenshot of Amazon.com browser window, showing the Cloud Player; foreground window is the Amazon MP3 Uploader, copying iTunes playlists into Amazon Cloud Drive.
Screenshot of Amazon.com browser window, showing the CloudPlayer; foreground window is the Amazon MP3 Uploader, copying iTunes playlists into Amazon CloudDrive.

This is why I love my job. Today, Amazon enabled two new features to their site: Amazon Cloud Player and Amazon Cloud Drive.

Cloud Drive is iDisk via Amazon storage, pretty much. You get 5 gigs of storage for free and can buy more as you need it. Your Cloud Drive can store anything…documents, photos, movies, music.

Cloud Player…lets you stream all of the music you’ve stored on your Cloud Drive. Annnnd everything you purchase via Amazon MP3 (from now on, anyway) is automatically added to your Cloud Drive and doesn’t count towards your storage limit. If you buy 100 gigs of Amazon MP3, you can play all of it for free without paying a dime. In fact, if you buy MP3s from Amazon, they’ll up your “regular” storage to 20 gigs anyway.

And there’s a helper app that’ll scan your existing iTunes library for music files that are compatible with the service. Click a button and all of it — or selected playlists — get uploaded to your Cloud Drive…even files you didn’t purchase through Amazon MP3.

The Cloud Player works through any web browser that supports Adobe Air. So: your Mac is in the club…but your iOS devices are out. But good news if you have an Android phone: the Amazon MP3 app will stream alllllll of your content just great.

Photo of the Amazon MP3 app for Android phones.
The Amazon MP3 app for Android devices...all of the music I've put into my CloudDrive is streamable. Even the stuff I didn't buy from Amazon!

I’ve already transferred four gigs of music to the cloud and yup, it works great. Any computer, anywhere there’s Internet, I get an iPod Nano’s worth of music. I’ve also downloaded the new Amazon MP3 app to my Android phone and…yup…there’s my music.

I tried opening the webplayer on my iPad and it warned me that I’ve got the wrong kind of browser. The player loads up, I can see my music, I can tap a Play button, it selects the track…but nothing happens.

iPad browser with the Amazon CloudPlayer.
You can visit your Cloud Player on the iPad, and it looks like it could be playing your music...but nothing will play. It seems to require Adobe Air/Flash.

Well, isn’t this very interesting!

I wrote a column last week about the new Amazon AppStore and how this signaled a start to some more direct and aggressive competition between Amazon and Apple as the elite seller of digital content and as the Great and Powerful Oz of your mobile experience. This is the second shoe to drop in that battle and there’s a centipede’s worth yet to come.

I’ve used this service for just a half an hour but yes, I already like it a lot. It’s a much simpler and more robust way to cloud-stream your online music purchases than anything else going at the moment. It’s a reason why I’ll continue to buy music from Amazon instead of iTunes.

And — God help me — it makes all Android phones that much more cool.

[Added: and to anyone who wonders where the money is for Amazon in this…you should think bigger. Think of the next Kindle as an entirely cloud-oriented media player. It always has ample local storage for books and a playlist or two, but it has an intimate connection with all of your Amazon purchases and can retrieve — or stream — any of them at any time. Someone deciding between an iPod Touch or a 7″ Kindle Color could be swayed by that kind of feature, couldn’t they?]

I’ve sent an email off to Amazon about any plans for an iOS player. I reckon they’ll make one if Apple will let them release it. Amazon’s always been about selling content, not operating systems and hardware and it’s always benefitted them to get the Kindle reader on as many devices as they can.

I actually first heard about this when I hit Amazon.com to buy a couple of things an hour ago. As soon as I saw it, and I set to work downloading things and uploading things and playing with it, I had to stop and think “Damn…I love my job. Apple versus Amazon is like Ali versus Frasier. This is two evenly-matched fighters and the outcome of their battle can only benefit consumers.

This is what I’ve been hoping for: a company with the skill, vision, clarity, and competence to truly compete with Apple. It wasn’t going to be Google. It was never going to be Google. I’m grinning at the thought of how high these two companies can push each other. What a great time to be a geek and to be alive.

Now iOS 4.2 is here and installed.

Partial screenshot of an iPad running iOS 4.2, showing the dock toolbar. Screen lock button, iPod playback controls, and sliders for volume and brightness are visible, plus an AirPlay button.

I’ve now updated my iPad and my Apple TV to today’s new editions of iOS.

I’m already loving AirPlay. It’s such a natural way to integrate all of your devices that contain media. The desktop edition of iTunes, plus any app on the iPad or iPhone that deals with media, has an AirPlay button. Tap it and you’re presented with a popup list of all of the devices on the network that can stream AirPlay audio and video. It’s the same basic mechanism as when you decide to plug something into a set of amplified speakers. It’s spontaneous and it works.

Mostly. I did get one stall-out when I tried to stream HD video from my iPad to an Apple TV. But for the record, the initial frame from “Up” was, er, stunning.

As it happens, I’ve been working from the sofa all morning, and streaming tunes from my MacBook’s iTunes library to the ATV. An hour ago, I’d choose my music by picking up the ATV remote and peering across the room. Now, the TV is just the output device. When I wanted to pause the music, I tabbed to iTunes and clicked. It’s a subtle distinction but a powerful one.

The good news is that my Apple TV seems to manage multiple inputs with grace. Obviously I can’t select it from my iPad if my MacBook is actively using it. But if the playlist ends, or I hit Pause, the Apple TV immediately becomes available to other devices.

A clear Win. When I reviewed the Apple TV I said that it was a tough choice between this and the new Roku boxes (which are cheaper and also support older analog TVs). The OS updates reinforce my conclusion. If you’re mostly looking for a way to watch Netflix movies, you might as well save a few bucks and get a Roku. But if you’re already putting most of your media in iTunes libraries, you definitely want the Apple TV.

I already miss the “rotation lock” function of my iPad’s new “Mute” switch. Honestly, I can’t imagine a single circumstance under which I’d be grateful that Apple made this change. It’s not like it’s a colossal pain in the butt to have to access the screen lock via the Home button, but it’s annoying enough.

On the plus side, the Home widget deck also includes a screen brightness control. That setting always felt like it was a bit buried.

As expected, AirPrint doesn’t care that my HP printer is connected to the network via an Apple Airport Extreme base station. The HP doesn’t support AirPrint so no dice. Oh, well.

Also as expected: fast app switching is a huge win. Particularly when you’re reading books. It’s as though I always have my current book at my elbow, opened to the current page. I can check my email and then return to Suzanne Somers’ latest book right away. AirPlay works just fine in the background, incidentally. You can be reading a book in iBooks while your iPad streams our music in the background.

(Though there were a couple of quick cuts in the audio early on, likely while the playlist was still buffering to the Apple TV. Playback has been perfectly smooth every since.)

The second semi-transformative enhancement of multitasking: pre-4.2, newsreader apps would hold my iPad hostage while it spent ten minutes downloading hundreds of new blog pieces. Now? I can still look at email or read while it grinds away in the background.

Or at least the app will once I update it to iOS 4.2. As with the iPhone, many of the goodies of the OS require new (but usually free) updates to old apps.

I’m starting to think that the true competition in tablet space just got pushed back another six months. HP certainly has some interesting things planned for WebOS, but that’s all still speculative. Android slates are hopelessly stalled; they can’t even pull out of the garage and head for the starting line until Google releases the first tablet-oriented edition of Android. Even then, there’ll be the delays and caveats associated with all Android releases.

In January of 2010, I believed that by December the iPad would be the front-runner but there’d be some interesting competition to be found. Now, despite the Samsung Galaxy Tab (which I like a lot) I’m wondering if there’ll be any credible and mature competition before summer.

The Great Google Phone Brain Dump: Part One

I’ve had the Google Phone (aka the T-Mobile G1, the first phone to ship with Google’s new Android phone OS) for nearly two weeks now. And frustratingly, only today, just some 9 hours before I was allowed to start talking about it, did someone go wide-eyed after spotting me using it in public.

“Is that the new Google Phone?” he said. “How did you get it?!?”

There. Is that too much to ask, o Lord? I’ve adhered strictly to the terms and the intent of the NDA I signed. I haven’t even Twittered about it and I although I did take a couple of cameraphone shots and send them directly to my Flickr account from the G1, I “privatized” them a minute later when I discovered that the photos were tagged with EXIF data identifying the camera as a Google Phone.

(I ask you: who among tech pundits and other sneak-peekers is as rectitudinous as I? Not these people, that’s for sure.)

But, thank you: that’s all I wanted. Just one person who recognized what I was playing with and was duly impressed. Just one. It doesn’t make me Mr. Big Shot. It’s just a tiny little reward for remaining schtumm on the subject for 12 days.

I had promised to keep the phone under embargo until after midnight on Thursday. Time’s up. A more concise review appears in my Chicago Sun-Times column this week. In the interests of both saving trees (all of which are good and kind and pump life-giving oxygen into our atmosphere) and slaying electrons (which rust the bodies of our Camaros and electrocute our golfers) I’m posting the full brain-dump right here in several installments over the next day or two.

So: carb up and let’s proceed.

Overall Hardware Impressions

The G1 is a nice bit of hardware. There’s a lovely solid heft to it and it has none of the things you associate with a cheap-ass, free-with-contract phone. IE, a plasticky feel, misaligned shell components, mushy buttons, or the sour odor of either overheated components or your disappointment at what you’ve has failed to achieve in life thus far.

The entire assembly holds together nicely. The screen snaps open and locks smartly into position when you flick it up to reveal the keyboard.

The keys and mechanical themselves are well-arrayed and have a nice feel…very much on-form for a HTC handset. I do wish that they weren’t quite so flat and flush; I prefer “bumpier” keys. But as an avowed hater of thumscrews (er: “thumbboards”) I found the G1’s keyboard quite roomy and comfortable.

The section of the G1’s face bearing the microtrackball and other buttons central to the Android UI (more on these in Part 2) is canted up slightly. This makes the G1 damned comfortable to hold either in portrait or landscape mode and offers a nice bit of insurance against fumbles and drops.

Good news: the MicroSD card slot can be accessed without having to take anything apart.

Bad news: No headphone jack. If you’re one of those “hip” kids who wears the flared trousers and the long sideburns and wants to give this “listen to music on your phone” deal a try, you’ll need to rely on the cheap earbuds that come with the phone or buy an adapter.

(Advice: Buy seven adapters. That way, you can go ahead and lose six of them straight away, instead of losing them individually over the course of the next 14 months at the most inconvenient of times.)

The screen is the same pixel dimensions as an iPhone screen. But it’s physically smaller and to my eye it doesn’t have the same crisp detail or snappy color of the iPhone’s display. It’s possible that this is just because the Android UI doesn’t exploit its display anywhere near as aggressively as the iPhone OS does (see next section).

Nice touch: the half of the case that pops off for battery and SIM swaps is a very flexible plastic. You’re not likely to snap off a tab or crack a vent otherwise be forced to lie to your friends that you saw this cool limited-edition duct tape-themed G1 skin at ThinkGeek and you just had to have it.

Bad touch: no headphone jack.

Yes, I know I already said that but I’ve read it back and realized that it can’t possibly be right. Let me look at this phone again…

Nope. Indeed, there is no headphone jack. This is an HTC handset, all right.

Speaking of bad touches…the base of the G1 got noticeably warm at some points. Not uncomfortably warm, mind you. Is this like the soothing butt-warmers in a luxury BMW’s leather seats?

Overall Android User-Interface Impressions

This is clearly a 1.0 operating system. This is also clearly an OS built with Google’s design aesthetic.

You may charitably summarize this aesthetic as “Don’t overload the user or the CPU with lots of distracting graphical ticky-tack.” However, you would more accurately describe the philosophy as “Okay, the prototype is feature-complete and functional. F*** it. Let’s just ship the thing as-is.”

Honestly. “Functional” and “Good enough” are words that keep coming to mind; you may freely add the suffix “…I suppose” at will. But you will not “ooh,” nor will you “aah.” You will not stop to activate a function or control a second time just because you were so impressed with how cleverly the UI managed something.

The 1.0 Android UI has problems with both contexts and clutter, which are usually the detritus of several project managers dumping their code into the mix without a single gatekeeper keeping his or her protective eye on the overall experience.

Example: I tap the mechanical “Home” button to bring up the home screen. I then tap the bottom windowshade to “roll up” a panel of application icons. This static windowshade, which overlays the home screen, can scroll (violation of Third Law of Newtonian UI Physics).

app launcher (vert).jpg

I tap the “Menu” button, which always brings up the menu for whatever app I’m in. A second windowshade rolls up to cover the first windowshade (violation of Fourth Law). And the functions I call in this second windowshade don’t affect the windowshade of application icons; it affects the Home screen behind it (violation of Second Law).

And just to be bitchy about it, let’s try this: I notice that my status bar at the top of the screen is completely packed from left to right with meaningless icons (not a violation of any Newtonian law, but still: tacky). This is where Android collects status messages. How to I reveal that list?

Yyyyeah: I pull down a windowshade from the top to cover the two layers of windowshades coming up from the bottom.

Android’s UI is full of these “Huh?” moments. Even that top windowshade doesn’t “broadcast” that you can drag it down with your finger. I hadn’t a clue; there’s no grabber on it, no dimple, nothing to differentiate it from any other static status bar on any other phone.

Cut, copy and paste? Android’s got ’em! I roll up my sleeves and prepare to copy some text out of a webpage so I can paste it into an email later on…okay, hold down the “shift” key and roll over the text to select it, then type MENU-C…

Um…

Wait, I’m probably not doing it right…

Hmm…

No…

And then a day later I get a reply to my email and I’m told that you can only copy text out of an editable text field.

Response (a): I select text from webpages all the time on my desktop machine; what in the Android experience communicates that this feature only works under certain circumstances?

Response (b): It’s an improvement over the iPhone’s total lack of cut and paste. But it’s a poke in the eye with a soft stick. Not painful but still bloody annoying.

I have to conclude that all of this is the result of a rush to market and a lack of hands-on usability studies.

I honestly don’t mind when I’m learning a new piece of tech and I have frequent cause to mutter “Andy, you’re an idiot.” The device or the software is smart; I’m dumb; how sad for me, but I’ll learn, I promise.

With Android, you’re not learning an unfamiliar but logical methodology; you’re adapting to its quirks. There’s a difference. FedEx will happily deliver your package anywhere across the country, overnight: you just have to fill out a form according to the procedures they’ve set. By contrast, Android’s UI is often like the FedEx driver who refused to leave a package on your doorstep until you removed the garden gnome with “those mocking, judgmental eyes.”

In the category of “minor UI disappointments,” let’s just say that I had to double-check the hardware specs to remind myself that this thing actually has motion and rotation sensors. As an iPhone user, I kept looking for places where turning the phone or giving it a shake would do something helpful. I doubt a non-iPhone user would even care.

Finally, there are serious interface consistency problems from one app to another. If you learn how to use an iPhone app, you’ve learned 70% (wait…no guts, no glory: let’s call it 90%) of everything you need to know to operate any iPhone app. With an Android app, it feels more like 50%. Does a certain function belong in an onscreen button, a scrolling list, or the application menu? The answer depends on how much sugar or dietary fiber the software developer had when he or she coded the UI.

(Experimental and differential evidence is thready at this early stage; but it appears that too many buttons is a symptom of hypoglycemia, while chronic constipation tends to lead to a crowded app menu.)

But I’m not saying that the UI is wretched, useless, an abomination that its parents should have placed in a wicker basket and allowed to drift away into the sewers of Gotham to emerge years later as the commander of a mutant underground and one of Batman’s most remorseless foes, etc.

The UI is disappointing and it’s uninspired, yes. But I refer you to Paragraph 3. This is a completely functional OS and it’s perfectly adequate for its intended task. I drive a ’95 Oldsmobile instead of an ’08 BMW M5; I fully appreciate that “adequate” is good enough for many.

Reliability

Not a single crash or freeze or forced-restart since I first charged it up.

… .. ……

…Huh? Sorry, I was just reminiscing for a moment. Remember way back in June of 2008, when you could say the exact same thing about the iPhone?

Ah, nostalgia. Cokes were just $1.25. Moviegoers fell in love with the adorable antics of a robot named “Wall-E” who drove the highways in his 18-wheeler accompanied by his orangutan sidekick, raisin’ hell and takin’ names. Those of you who didn’t sleep under a Faraday tent when the Large Hadron Collider was first switched on won’t remember this, but hamsters were tiny, adorable, harmless household pets instead of immense, remorseless reavers of human flesh; houses had wooden doors and glass windows instead of double layers of steel plating.

It was a simpler, more pleasant time.

Anyway! The G1 was stable and reliable.

The 3G Experience

…is no better or worse than 3G on any other network. The 3G network simply isn’t pervasive enough. If you’re in a metro area, you can anticipate seeing the “3G” indicator in the status bar but you still can’t count on it. If you’re in the burbs or worse, T-Mobile (like AT&T) seems to think that if they bothered to build 3G towers in your county you’d just try to inbreed with them.

But when it does have a 3G connection, will it download and draw webpages as fast as an iPhone?

Oh, don’t even get me started. Besides, I’m saving that screed for Part 3, when I talk about the G1’s built-in browser.

Battery Life

T-Mobile states for the record that the G1’s battery life “is comparable to other HTC devices available from T-Mobile,” citing 5 hours of talk time.

But accurately gauging the battery life on a 3G phone is big voodoo, particularly when you try to compare two phones on different networks. Even if you have both handsets set to the same power profile (3G, WiFi on, bluetooth off, GPS off…) if one phone is happy with its current cell tower but the other is fishing for something stronger and faster, it can unfairly make you think that the former has a much longer battery life.

So the best I can do is report an overall sensation that I could get a full day’s work out of the G1…which is indeed consistent with my experiences with other HTC handsets. This would be vaguely worse than my 3G iPhone, which will let me get away with failing to recharge it overnight, if I’m stingy with it on Day Two.

Am I being dodgy enough for you on that point? No?

I have hard numbers with a wide delta implying that the deviation of the power curve on the G1 is substantially flatter than the corresponding sample band on the iPhone.

Still no?

Okay, screw it. The G1’s battery isn’t heroic, but it’s nothing to complain about. Particularly since you can easily slap in a fully-charged spare whenever you want. And the G1 gives you a full range of power-management tools…such as the option of turning off the 3G and relying on a slower, but less power-hungry, EDGE connection.

Here endeth Part 1 of the Great Brain Dump (a four-part trilogy in five acts).

In Part 2 (to be posted later today), I’ll be talking about the most important thing I’ve learned about the G1 (preview: it’s a mediocre touch-based phone, but a fabulous clickybutton-based one); I’ll cover the agony and the ecstasy of its built-in camera; I’ll reveal why every iPhone user should worry about Android’s relationship with third-party apps; and I’ll probably work in several baffling and annoying references to “Unbeatable Banzuke” and “Ninja Warrior,” two Japanese game shows on the G4 network that I’ve been watching an awful lot of lately.

Questions?