Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The best bike computer that you can't buy...!

Cycling computers have evolved over the last 10 years. Remember when you had to have a wire running from the sensor on your fork up the the handlebar mounted unit that displayed speed and distance, and that was it. The big breakthrough came with wireless units - I remember my Cateye Cordless 7 being the envy of the day! Then Polar came along and suddenly you could have heart rate, and even altitude on your computer. In my opinion, and in the opinion of no less a blogging authority than the Fat Cyclist, the best bike computer currently available is the Garmin Edge 500, which adds GPS. However, at about R2,400 (or $250 in the States), this is an expensive bit of kit.
Now, if you ask any cyclist to turn out his pockets at the end of a ride, in amongst an assortment of keys, mini-tools and sticky energy bar wrappers, you'll always find a cell phone. And most top-end phones include GPS, so why should we have to pay twice for it? There are numerous apps available for Android, iOS and Symbian phones designed for runners and cyclists, and most of them have a free version. Most rides I go on I track with my phone - I love being able to sit at my computer and see my exact route, speed at each km point, altitude etc.
The problem is, most modern smartphones are a bit big to strap to your handlebars, and their screens are notoriously difficult to read in direct sunlight.
And then I saw the Sony LiveView micro display, and the answer was revealed to me! This is a tiny, Bluetooth connected device that gives a status linked to your phone, letting you control your music or see your Facebook updates. It's so small it can even be worn as a watch! Unfortunately, with only a 1.3" display the LiveView would be a bit small, and with an LED display would almost definitely have the same problems in sunlight as a fully fledged smartphone. The ideal bike computer would have an LCD display similar in size to the Garmin Edge 500 above, but the unit would link via bluetooth to your smartphone which would be doing all the heavy lifting! Even with it's expensive OLED display the LiveView is retailing for only $100, so I figure with a cheaper but slightly larger LCD screen, my device needn't cost any more than that! Any takers?

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Android vs Symbian

I've been using an Android phone for a few weeks now, and while mostly good, my experience hasn't been without its problems and frustrations. Coming from a Nokia and Symbian experience, it's impossible not to make comparisons.
The phone I'm using now is definitely not one of the best examples of Android available, but I expect many of my thoughts are generic. The Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini is very much an entry level smartphone, but its most limiting factor is that it is still running Android 1.6 (Donut). Hopefully that will change before the end of October, when the upgrade to 2.1 (Eclair) is due. Anyway, to put it into context, my previous phone was a Nokia XpressMusic 5800, Nokia's first effort at a touchscreen phone. However, I have also spent some time with an N97 Mini, so I'm fairly familiar with the S60 V5 software, and its capabilities and limitations.
As a Google self-proclaimed fanboy I really want to like Android. However, it's lack of polish came as a big surprise. The OS, certainly in 1.6 form, feels unfinished. Considering the speed at which update are being churned out, maybe this version should be considered unfinished! But worries me is that maybe this is the Android Team's approach, and all versions will be like that.
So what am I talking about? Mainly, it has to do with the features available natively on the phone. For example, Nokia have long offered the option for an ascending alarm ringtone. There's nothing worse than waking to an alarm at full volume! Such a basic feature, you'd think it would be standard on every phone. For sure, if I was developing a new OS, it's just one of the things I would have on my list of essential features. But not Android. Sure, I was able to download a free app (AlarmDroid) that includes that feature, but that's exactly what worries me about the success of Android in the market. Most of the people I know don't want to be bothered with trying to find an alarm app to download; they expect it to come standard, and if it doesn't they'll tell their mates about the lack of features! The Android Team shouldn't be leaving it to the app developers to supply the features for their phones; they should be building those features into the OS.

Of course, the alarm feature isn't the only example. I've had to download an app to monitor data usage (NetCounter), another to add an alarm and pop-up notification for calendar events (Android Agenda Widget), and a third to pull my calendar events into a widget on one of the homepages (Calendar Snooze). These features are standard on Nokia's phones.
Of course, there's a huge amount being written by how important apps are in the post iPhone world. Apple and Google are even adding App Stores to their desktop OS's. And there are some fantastic apps available; many for free. Apart from the obvious Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare ones, I've been very impressed with the likes of Endomondo and CardioTrainer (both for sports tracking via GPS), doubleTwist (music and podcast syncing and playing), and Google's own Google Goggles (search via photos taken on your phone). My point is that many of these, or variations of these, are also available in Nokia's Ovi Market. 
In my opinion, Nokia isn't quite as dead as many tech journalists would have you believe. Apps alone will not make a great OS! 
However, I will pursue with my Android phone for a while longer, and I hope that upcoming upgrades (Gingerbread, Honeycomb) will add the polish that Android needs.

Thanks for reading!

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini

I've long been a Nokia fan, but over the last few years they seem to have lost the plot. Ever since the original iPhone was launched back in 2007, Nokia have steadily lost market share in the smartphone market. Nokia's loss has been Android's gain; in less than 2 years the Google developed mobile operating system has gained substantial footing in this competitive market.

As a self-proclaimed Google fanboy, the attractions for any Android phone are numerous. Above all, the auto sync with gmail, calendars and contacts. After years of wrestling with Mail for Exchange and apps like Emoze, I couldn't wait to get my hands on the real deal!

My chance came this week in the form of a Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini. I have this phone on a short term loan from my girlfriend, but I already dread the day I have to go back to my old Nokia 5800. Anyway, back to the phone: this is the smallest Android phone available, and comes in at a very competitive price. It offers the convenience of a touchscreen smartphone, without too much complexity or any of the bulk, weighing in at a featherweight 88g. An ideal handbag phone. The interchangeable coloured backcovers should also appeal to the style conscious. But that's not to say it lacks oomph, I've been very impressed with how smoothly the phone has handled everything I've thrown at it. The 2.55" capacitive screen doesn't offer the highest resolution either; at 240 x 320 pixels don't expect the "retina" display.

The biggest problem with the X10 Mini is shared with its big brother, the X10. Both phones are still running Android 1.6 (Donut), and the update to 2.1 (Eclair) has been pushed back to the end of October. Judging by the reaction on the various forums, everyone is desperate to get their hands on the upgrade. However, its still not clear if or when the Mini will get 2.2 (Froyo). We can only hope...

My other problem has been the battery capacity. At first I couldn't go a whole day without recharging. However, after a weeks use, and several charge/discharge cycles, performance has improved slightly. On the advice of several forums members, I installed the JuiceDefender app. The free version doesn't offer many features, but by reducing the length of time the phone accesses data in the background, the battery life is extended substantially.

Another useful free app is Timeriffic. This allows you to set various 'profiles' for different times of the day. For example, an essential one is to switch off the notification at night. Getting woken up every time I receive an email is not an option!

The X10 Mini has a number of homescreens that can be set up with widgets, one for each page. Flicking through these will give you instant access to your calendar, weather reports, Google Search, etc. Set these up as you like. A vertical flick across the screen reveal the icons for any apps you have loaded. Again, a horizontal flick takes you from page to page, with 9 icons per page. This system works very well, and makes good use of the limited screen space.

The one feature I haven't mentioned is Timescape. This Sony Ecicsson app combines your Twitter and Facebook stream with your text (SMS) messages, MMS and missed calls, into tiles that flow chronologically on the screen. The effect is awesome, but due to concerns about excessive data usage I disabled it almost immediately!

So, as my introduction to Android, what do I think? Did it live up to my expectations? Definitely! Android highlights how dated Symbian has become. I love that almost everything can be modified or adjusted, if not natively, then by using one of the thousands of available apps. As of right now, us South Africans do not have access to the paid apps in the Android Market (although that will apparently change shortly), so it was a nice surprise that almost every app I wanted has been available for free. The Market itself could use some work, especially on discovery, but compared to the Ovi Store it's been fantastic! Looking ahead, I'm thinking about what phones will be available when my current contract comes up for renewal in the new year. One thing I know for sure: it'll be an Android!

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Nokia N97 Mini

My friends at Nokia SA delivered a package to my office last week. It came as a bit of a surprise, as it's been a while since they've made contact. However, imagine my delight to find an N97 Mini - mine to evaluate for a couple of weeks.

For those not familiar with the Mini, it is the little brother of the 'N' Series flagship model, the N97. As the name would imply, the Mini is smaller is all directions, and is also lighter by 22g. The main differentiating features are the lack of the 'D' Pad, and the 3.2" screen, compared to the 3.5" of its big brother. The mini doesn't have a camera lens protector, but shares the same 5MP camera and dual LED flash. Internally, the key difference is a reduction in the internal memory, from 32GB to 8GB; still plenty for your music files and photos. If you do need more memory the Mini also supports up to 16GB expansion via microSD.

The N97 Mini runs the same Symbian OS as my Nokia 5800XM; S60V5, and so the menu structure was immediately familiar. However, the N97 and the Mini have a far nicer homescreen than the 5800; it has six customisable widgets that can show a selection of contacts, calendar, apps, or online feeds like weather or Facebook. The 640 x 360 pixel TFT display looks great indoors, but suffers in direct sunlight; something that South Africans need to consider when buying a touchscreen phone!

I have never been a fan of slide out qwerty keyboards, but the N97 Mini changed my mind. With S60V5, many apps and websites, and even Nokia's own messaging app, have not been optimised for touch. For example, if you want to send an SMS, you'll first be taken to the text screen that Nokia uses on it's normal numeric keyboard phones. Then you have to tap the screen, and you get taken to the touch screen. You enter your text, tap OK, and you go back to the text screen. Very convoluted! With the qwerty keyboard, you can type in directly from the first screen. This makes the work flow so much simpler!

The slide-out keyboard is a beautiful piece of engineering. As the keyboard slides out, the screen tilts to a convenient angle for viewing the display. This configuration also lends itself to putting the phone on a table and typing 2-handed, like a very tiny laptop. Unfortunately, while this works quite well on the N97, the off-centre design of the camera lens housing means that the phone doesn't sit flat on a table, and typing causes the phone to rock annoyingly!

The loan phone I was testing came loaded with the latest version 3.0 of Ovi Maps. This free to download app rocks! It offers voice-guided, turn-by-turn navigation, and works without a data connection, so you don't face a horrendous bill at the end of the month. You do need to upload the map for your country, as well as the voice for the guide, but this can be done on a PC and synced to your phone. Used with the provided windshield mounting, this offers a very real alternative to the dedicated GPS systems, as long as you're happy with the slightly smaller screen.

If you're choosing between the N97 and the N97 Mini, both are great phones, even if the OS is a bit limited. The Mini is cheaper, lighter and more compact, but loses out on some memory and battery life. On the other hand, if you're upgrading from a classic styled phone, and you're looking for a phone that'll look good on the board room table, this is a great option. If you don't need the qwerty keyboard, have a look at the recently released X6, or wait for the new N8 which runs the all new Symbian ^3 OS.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Google Needs It’s Own iTunes

Anyone that’s read my blog before knows that I’m a Google fanboy, and despite owning an iPod Nano, I’m not a huge fan of the ‘walled garden’ approach of Apple. I cannot deny that Apple’s hardware design is market leading, but I hate being a slave to Steve Jobs’s vision of our digital life.

A big part of the iPod/iPhone success can be directly related to the success of iTunes. I personally stopped using iTunes when I discovered MediaMonkey, because I only sync music and podcasts, and MediaMonkey is a superior product for this purpose (in my opinion). However, for the full media experience, users of the latest generation of iPods, and especially iPhones, users want to sync video and apps as well, and MediaMonkey doesn’t have this capability. In South Africa, we still don’t have (legal) access to the iStore (for music), so this is also not a requirement for me.

iTunes has it’s faults, but once you have all your media set up, the process of syncing your Apple device is as easy as plugging it in and hitting ‘sync’. It just works. And people that have used it have come to expect this simple ‘one click’ functionality.

Google doesn’t offer any comparable software that can do this with your Android based phone, and until they do, they won’t enjoy the same device loyalty that Apple has. The majority of people that use iTunes aren’t going to settle for anything less.
What Google doesn’t seem to realise, is that most people are still more comfortable searching for content on their home PCs. The ease of using a big screen and physical keyboard far outweighs the convenience of doing the same thing on a portable device. I want to be able to sit at my PC, access the internet via my uncapped broadband connection, download an album, a couple of new apps, select a photo album from my hard drive that I want to show my mates, rip a DVD, and sync the whole lot to my portable media device/phone, preferably wirelessly, with one click. Is that too much to expect?
The technology to do all of this exists, and to mash it all together into one application would be simple for a company with the resources of Google. The Google owned Picasa application is one of the best photo (and video) managers available - a similar app for music would be brilliant. It could even be added into Picasa. Picasa syncs to the online Web Albums app, and it would be simple to create a similar online music app. They could even use the Lala model, whereby you don’t have to physically upload each song, but if it’s on your HD, it’s added to your online library from a central server. I could imagine listening to music loaded on my Android based phone, and if I can’t find the song I want, switching to the web app and streaming it to my phone. Don’t own it? Use the search function and either buy it and download it, or stream it for a couple of cents.
Such an online photo/video/music web app would fit in perfectly with the soon to be released Chrome OS. Google’s vision for Chrome OS is that it would run on fairly basic machines, with minimal, solid state hard drives. No space for a 40 Gb music library! The OS will be a browser. However, they haven’t offered a solution for playing back media yet. Viewing photos and video could be covered by Picasa Web Albums, but to date they are relying on 3rd party apps like Spotify for music. They would be much better served if they offered their own app.
What’s in it for Google? Well, once a customer had the software set up and all his media connected, he wouldn’t want to switch to another platform and start all over again. when his contract expires, he’s going to upgrade to another Android based phone, or Chrome OS based laptop or tablet. He would be locked in. That’s the real beauty of iTunes.
Thanks for reading.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

My Take on Google Buzz

Many, many blogs have already commented on Google Buzz since it was unleashed upon the world on the 9th of February. I wanted to wait a while before chipping in with my 2c, so that I could get a feel for what Google might be trying to do with their latest release.

So, by now, most of the people that might read this blog have already tried Buzz for themselves, so I won't go into all the features. Instead, I want to look at what Buzz means to Google, and where Google is perhaps positioning Buzz. This is just my take on it, and is by no means official.

Google may have started out as an internet search company, but "as a business, Google generates the majority of its revenue by offering advertisers measurable, cost-effective and highly relevant advertising, so that the ads are useful to the people who see them as well as to the advertisers who run them.

This business is dependent on people using the internet. The more page views, the more money Google makes. As simple as that. However, Google have not sat back and let nature take it's course. They are constantly developing new apps to make the internet experience ever more compelling, and they are looking at ways to make the internet an indispensable part of everyday life.

When people complained the internet was too slow for some of the apps Google was developing, they introduced their own browser to speed things up. Foreign languages a problem? Google have invested heavily in translation tools.

So where does Buzz fit in? Well Facebook has grown into the king of social networking, with in excess of 400 million users. Facebook offers the complete intenet experience for many users;  messaging, which is soon to grow into a full email service (if the rumours are to be believed), instant messaging, photo albums, real-time micro-blogging, and thousands of apps for games etc. Oh, and they also have the best system to stay in touch with your real-life friends available today. The problem for Google is that many of these people using Facebook aren't venturing out of it's "walled garden", and are thus avoiding the Google advertising that has infiltrated the rest of the internet. Google needs to be a player in the social networking game.

Of course, they do have Orkut, but that has not taken off in their home market, and the U.S. is where the real advertising dollars are. Google already have apps that compete very admirably against the individual aspects of Facebook, and then some, but currently they are very disjointed. And they had nothing in the real-time micro blogging arena at all.

With this background, Buzz starts to make sense. They took their most popular app, Gmail, and baked Buzz right in there. You couldn't miss it. They immediately had more than 140 million users! Privacy issues aside, straight out of the box, Buzz integrates very well with the other Google apps like Reader and Picasa, but not so well with the likes of Twitter and Friendfeed. There have also been a lot of complaints about the amount of 'noise'. Don't worry, these issues will get sorted out. Google is taking Buzz very seriously!

What excites me is the potential of Buzz. Google will get the real time problem with Twitter sorted out, and will add links to other sides too. Imagine Buzz a few months down the line, when it has become the go-to site for all your social networking needs. You'll link with your friends, both real and virtual, from sites all over the web, in one place. Facebook may resist, and are probably big enough to do it, but I foresee smaller sites agreeing to Google's terms in the hope that it'll drive more people their way.

So what else does Google need to do? Well, a lot of people have complained about the integration with Gmail. I say integrate more! I think that Google should have one main page with Profile, Reader, Contacts and Calendar, all together with Gmail/Buzz. In fact, I don't know why Google hasn't done this - maybe it is a speed issue. I would hate Gmail to slow down to Windows Live speeds! However, I think Profile needs to become an integral part of the Google experience. People maintain their profiles in other apps, why not Google. The Google Profile should be central to your on-line personality.

A lot of people have drawn comparisons between Buzz, Facebook and Twitter. For me, Twitter isn't even in the same league, and I wouldn't be surprised if their numbers dropped off significantly. If you consider what Google offers; email (Gmail), instant messaging (Gtalk) and micro-blogging (Buzz), it sounds very similar to Facebook. Add photo albums (Picasa), and you've got all the main elements. Then if you add Reader, Calendar, Tasks and Docs, you've got (in my mind) a Facebook killer! It may not all be under one roof like Facebook, but gradually we are seeing better integration between these products. The fight for our eyeballs is far from over, and I think that the consumer will benefit from the competition. For me, I love Gmail, I think Buzz compliments it well, and as long as they keep Farmville and the like out, I'll keep Buzzing!

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Awesome Nokia X6

If you live in North America and want a smartphone, you probably only think iPhone, or one of various Android devices, like the Motorola Droid or the HTC Nexus One. However, if you live in Europe, or as I do, in South Africa, Nokia dominates the market.

Nokia entered the touchscreen market with the 5800 XpressMusic, and has followed up with a number of similar, yet slightly differently featured 'entertainment' phones, like the 5130, which also saw the introduction the the successful "Comes With Music" package in South Africa. This offers consumers unlimited downloads to the entire Nokia Music Store catalogue, which currently has over 6-million digital tracks, and this offering is valid for a one year period.

Now Nokia has launched the X6 (note all future XpressMusic phones will now be prefaced by an 'X') in South Africa as it's new flagship model. At only 13.8mm thick it is less than half the size of the 5800, but now includes a 3.2" capacitive touch screen with a resolution of 640 x 360 pixels. In a departure for Nokia, the X6 comes with 32GB of internal memory, as apposed to the microSD cards used on most of it's phones. It's also got a 5 megapixel camera equipped with a Carl Zeiss lens. With a standby time of over 400 hrs, a talk time of over 8 hrs, and 35 hrs of music playback, this phone sure has the power needed for all your entertainment needs.
Quoting from the Nokia Press Release:
"The Nokia X6 is the ultimate device for social butterflies, bringing friends and virtual communities, like Facebook, to the homescreen thus making it easy to socialise with friends and follow all the favourite blogs and celeb gossip. The device has a 16:9 widescreen which is optimised for photo and imaging display, web browsing, video recording and gaming."
I haven't been able to get my hands on one of these beauties yet, but I'll be sure to post my comments as soon as I do.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Track your Daily Mileage with

I recently discovered a new on-line training log called dailymile, and it's a really great site whether you're a cyclist, runner, walker or swimmer. I have decided to use this to help motivate me as I try to resume my training regime.

What sets dailymile apart from other such sites, is it's social networking aspect. After entering your data from your training, you get the option to share it, with comments, on either Twitter or Facebook, or both. You can also add friends from within dailymile, and track your mileage against their's.

Your training history can be displayed graphically, and the charts have a great, clean look. Another useful feature is being able to plot your routes using Google Maps - I really like that it gives a distance reading, so you know exactly what you're getting yourself into! Other features are to add races and challenges, but I haven't quite got to grips with those yet. What I did like is the widget that you can add to a blog - check it out in the sidebar!

Lastly, there is a fun aspect too, based on the theoretical calories burned during your training. After only 2 days I've already burned the equivalent of 11.42 donuts! Now that's great motivation!

Thanks for reading!