writing about tech

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Deprecated Post: 29 Days with the HTC One

My Nexus 5 recently had a freak accident, resulting in a functional unit but a broken screen.  Rather than use a broken smartphone screen (which has always driven my OCD crazy), I decided to bring my old HTC One out of retirement.  I’ll cover my experiences returning to the HTC One in a post later this week (spoiler: it’s a fucking great phone), but for now, I just wanted to revive my original review of the device from a year and a half ago.

The following was originally posted on The Verge’s forums on May 18th, 2013.

INTRODUCTION

A little over a year ago, I migrated from iOS to Android, via the HTC One X. Some time after that, I further reminisced about my experiences with Android, with the tl;dr being:

  1. Tinkering is fun, but at the end of the day, a smartphone is like an appliance – I just want it to work.
  2. Along those lines, I advised my future self to “Just get a Nexus, stupid.”

Well, I never was particularly good at taking my own advice, so here I am to discuss my personal experiences with the HTC One. Here’s thing thing: I didn’t even necessarily want to want a new phone. I’ve never been a “get a new phone every year” kind of guy – I like my phones to last a couple of years, at least. It helps the next phone feel all the better when I finally do upgrade. So, why did I upgrade? Well, this post will explain that, but it boils down to a few key things:

  1. My One X, as much as I loved it, had been frustrating me. I was tired of tinkering with it, and choosing between the camera features I loved and the pure performance of something like Cyanogenmod.
  2. The One won me over, once I realized how well it fits my life.

This isn’t a review, strictly speaking – there are enough reviews out there already…some of them pretty amazing, and other ones pretty terrible. Instead, I want to discuss why I chose the HTC One as the best fit my life, and why you may – or may not – want to do so.

Since this is a long post, I’ll give the tl;dr up-front –

  1. The HTC One gives me the stability, performance, and design excellence I’ve come to expect from an iOS device, but with the added benefits of Android.
  2. The camera isn’t the best in a phone by a long-shot, but it happens to be the best camera for my needs.
  3. The screen and the speakers are just insanely, ridiculously, disgustingly good.

If you still want to stick around for the rest of the ride – let’s get started.

THAT DESIGN

I don’t know what I can add to the discussion about the design of the HTC One that hasn’t been repeated a thousand-fold, but a commenter on Lifehacker gave what I think is the single best description of the look and feel:

It’s like a Retina MacBook Pro gave birth to a smartphone.

This covers both the positive and the negative – the screen, build, design, materials, and performance of both devices are best-in-class. However, if you’re more interested in a device that’s easy to repair, or has a replaceable battery, or expandable storage – best to close this window and move on, since I don’t think you’ll find all that much to like here.

Of course, I was not always a believer. When the leaks first showed up, I said brilliant things like:

I hope this is fake. Home button on the right? No multitasking button? Weird-ass bottom speaker?

This is making my One X roll in its grave and my One X isn’t even dead yet.

Now, I stand by some of this. I believe the home button being on the right and the lack of a multitasking button are still poor choices, but they are poor choices I’ve learned to do deal with, and don’t really bother me in my day-to-day use. I adapted to the new location of the home button within a matter of minutes. Of course, I was terribly, terribly wrong about the speakers…but we’ll get to that later. Overall, I thought the phone looked ridiculous, even after it was announced:

Dear HTC:

You are made of stupid.

Love,

Someone who wants you to succeed but doesn’t understand why you are made of so much stupid

So, yeah, I’m not too proud to admit that I was, in retrospect, mostly wrong. I still think the button layout is poor, and the power/volume keys are a bit too flush for my liking, but honestly, those are the only issues I have with the design. I have owned an iPhone 3G, iPhone 4, and an HTC One X before this…and the One blows them all out of the water when it comes to design and in-hand feel. When I hold the One in one hand, and the One X in the other, the One X feels like a plastic prototype for the One…which, I suppose, is kind-of true.

And here’s the punchline, at least for me:

Design. Matters.

If I’m going to carry, use, and look at something on a daily basis, and I have a choice between a well-designed product, and a par-for-the-course designed product, I will take the well-designed product every time. It’s part of why I used an iPhone for so long, it’s part of why I own a MacBook Air, and it’s part of why I have an iPad Mini.

Now, obviously, I would not buy a product for design alone – but I’d be lying if it wasn’t a major factor in my decisions. If I’m paying a premium for something, I want it to feel like I paid a premium – but perhaps more importantly, I want it to look like someone set down and really thought about the design. As a customer, lazy design actually kind-of offends me – it says to me “We didn’t bother to put much thought into this, because millions of you people are just going to buy it anyway.”

For those who would argue that you’re just going to slap a case on it anyway – I don’t buy thin-and-light smartphones that feel great in the hand, just to shove them in some case that will make them thicker, heavier, and feel worse. I won’t dive too deep into that debate, though, because I think Michael Fisher at PocketNow covered it far better than I ever could.

I totally understand and respect the mentality of those who prefer function and ignore form entirely. There’s a solid case to be made for that approach, and I’m not going to tell those people they’re wrong, because they aren’t. Neither side is wrong – people just have different preferences. Speaking of which…

LET’S TALK ABOUT THAT CAMERA

Some people hate it, some people love it. It’s rare that a smartphone camera is so divisive, and I understand both perspectives. Let me just start by saying this:

I think the camera on the Galaxy S4 is better.

Overall, in good lighting, it takes noticeably better pictures. It’s not that the One is bad; it’s that the S4 is really, really good. Having said that…

I think the camera on the HTC One is better for what I want out of a smartphone camera.

In fact, the camera was a large part of why I did want the phone. My goal for a smartphone camera is to capture a moment, regardless of the circumstances (lighting conditions, motion of the subject, etc.) and quickly share those moments with my friends. In that regard, I think the One’s camera presents some unique advantages in the smartphone world, even if the image quality is not always the best.

Most notably:

  1. Ridiculously fast shutter speed, allowing me to capture pictures that are literally impossible on other cameras.
  2. Reliable pictures in almost any lighting scenario. Daylight pictures aren’t the best – far from it, as they even tend to be overexposed – but the payoff of that means that I can quickly take a picture in medium-to-low lighting and be confident I’ll have a usable image. Perhaps even more importantly, the increased shutter speed I mentioned above means that, unlike most other smartphone cameras, you don’t haveto put the camera in Night Mode to get a usable low-light shot. Even cameras that automatically adjust for night mode like the iPhone 5 and the Lumia 920 do so by keeping the shutter open for longer, thus gathering more light – which is great, unless your subject is in motion. Then you’re basically screwed.
  3. For me, the lower file size of the lower megapixel image is actually a boon. I’m never going to print a smartphone picture – if I want a printable image, I’ll get a big-boy camera – so for my uses, smaller file sizes are ideal. They upload to social networking sites faster, they sync with DropBox quicker, and they take up much less space on my cloud storage drives.
  4. ZOE and Burst Mode are awesome. ZOE is like Burst Mode on steroids, but if I want my old school “hold down the shutter button and get a ton of pictures”, it’s still there.
  5. The wider-angle lens of the camera allows me to capture more of a scene from the same distance away, when compared to other smartphone cameras.

As a real-world example: last night, in a dimly-lit restaurant, my friends wanted to take a picture of a white sign to send to someone. Unfortunately, when flash was used, the text on the white sign became illegible. Fortunately, with Night Mode, I was able to take a clean looking picture with perfectly legible text. While this may not be a common use-case, I think it helps illustrate the adaptability of the camera, which is what makes is so appealing and valuable to me.

Here are some sample images:
My dog in-motion running up stairs (captured with ZOE): 2013-04-30_2018

Fountain, frozen in motion:

Fountain_medium

Palo Verde tree in my back yard at dusk.

2013-05-14_2019

Night Mode photo of my back yard at 10 PM with very, very little ambient light. This was definitely one of those moments where the camera saw way more light than I did.

2013-05-17_2021

Anyway, that’s enough about the camera. Some love it, some hate it – I’m in the former category, and hopefully I’ve explained why.

THOSE SPEAKERS

I find it hard to add something new to the dialog about those amazing front-facing stereo speakers. Yes, they’re front-facing, and yes, they’re amazing – and I found them way more useful than I ever thought I would. I love having a device that’s always with me and capable of producing decent enough sound that I can play music basically anywhere without having to worry about headphones. I’m just not a fan of headphones, if I can avoid it – especially when I’m moving around a room or around the house. I even find myself lowering the volume of the phone to about half-way when I’m close to it, and I can’t think of any other mobile device where that’s been the case.

Beyond that, though, they’re also amazing for being able to share media. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve wanted to show someone a video or play them a song, but the speakers on my phone weren’t able to overpower the ambient noise. That’s no longer a problem anymore. Again, for me, my phone is largely a social experience – so anything that enhances that social experience is a huge boon.

This actually is one area where my One X was getting really frustrating. The volume of both the earpiece and the speaker were inexcusably low, to the point where making phone calls was a miserable experience, and playing any kind of media was essentially impossible. So for me, the speaker upgrade with the One wasn’t just a nice-to-have – it was a necessity. Call quality on the One is the best I’ve ever heard on a mobile phone, and the speaker phone is right up there is well. I took one of those obnoxious phone surveys today on speaker phone, and the voice was crystal clear.

EVERYTHING ELSE

As I mentioned before, I spent more hours than I want to think about tweaking and customizing my One X. In the end, I always found it came down to two choices:

  1. Enjoy the awesome Sense camera software, at the expense of device performance thanks to Sense.
  2. Run an AOSP ROM, at the expense of the Sense camera software, battery life, and general device stability.

I even reached the point where I had two device backups so that I could swap between a Sense ROM and an AOSP ROM, depending on what I needed out of my device that day. In retrospect, it was kind of absurd.

If I was to be completely honest, there were definitely times where I found myself missing the rock-solid stability of iOS. It’s not that I didn’t have fun with the ROMing and the tweaking – I did – but at the end of the day, my phone is something that I need to just work – and the One X wasn’t giving me that anymore. Unfortunately, I’d also grown quite fond of the benefits of Android, and was reluctant to give that up.

Fortunately, the One made my decision much easier. While I regretted having to buy a new phone after only a year, I felt that the One was a device I could use for at least two years without concern – and so far, that appears to be the case. It is as stable and reliable as my iOS devices, while providing me the additional power and flexibility that comes with Android. I would also argue it’s nearly as smooth and lag-free as the iPhone 5’s I’ve used, with the exception of some poorly-optimized (and, unfortunately, high-profile) apps like Facebook and Chrome.

Unlike with my One X, I decided to run completely bone-stock for awhile, so that I could form a truly honest opinion of the phone. So far, I haven’t regretted this decision at all – I haven’t even rooted the phone yet, or installed a custom launcher. I just haven’t felt the need.

Don’t get me wrong, I love stock Android as much as the next geek, and I still kind-of wish HTC would make elements of Sense removable, but even as a stock lover, I have to say…Sense 5 isn’t bad. I might even go so far as to call it good, and I’m not the only one.

I even prefer a few things about Sense to AOSP – most notably the camera and the e-mail apps It also has some nice widgets, though nothing I couldn’t live without. I’ve actually come to kind-of like Blinkfeed when I have a few minutes to kill, but again, it’s nothing I couldn’t live without.

Occasionally, it even feels more cohesive than AOSP – for example, you can swipe left and right through e-mails in the e-mail app, the same way you can in the Gmail app. The last time I tried the AOSP Android mail client, it still didn’t support that, which was mildly infuriating.

Finally, Sense 5 is at least polite enough to try and compliment the Holo theme of AOSP – TouchWiz and Sense 4, on the other hand, look and feel like someone glued Gingerbread to Jellybean.

I just realized I haven’t really mentioned battery life, and I guess that’s because I don’t actually think about it much with this device. It’s better than my One X, and probably about on-bar with my iPhone 4, if not a little better. It lasts me through a day of my normal usage, though like any phone, I’ll top it off in the afternoon if I’m planning to go out that night. I also tend to carry an Anker Astro3 if I planning a long day/night of heavy usage.

Speaking of things I forgot to mention – I have been using the IR blaster feature a surprising amount. It may not be a full-fledged universal remote, but I can turn on my TV and audio system, change the volume, and change input sources, which is pretty much everything I need. Combined with a Roku app, I can control everything I need from my phone, which is kinda awesome.

THE FUTURE

I’m not going to pretend that HTC and AT&T have a great, or even a good, history of keeping their phones up to date. However, for once, that actually doesn’t bother me. Android 4.1 and 4.2 are already really, really good, and now that Google has shown they can make substantial updates to Android without a major version change (as I sort-of predicted would happen), I’m fairly confident I’ll be satisfied for the next two years.

The phone and the software are already pretty great, so even if it never got an update going forward, I’d live – and this might be the first phone I’ve ever felt that way about. When I was using an iPhone and later the One X, I always felt like something was missing – things I tried to compensate for by jailbreaking, rooting, and eventually ROMing. The One has finally given me what I feel is a no-compromise experience smartphone experience.

And, for me, that’s priceless.

Deprecated Post: My love letter to the JayBird BlueBuds X

When creating my new section, The Elite, I searched for my post about the JayBird BlueBuds and quickly realized I’d never actually posted it on this blog, so here it is.  These headphones are just the best, you guys.  

The following was originally posted on The Verge’s forums on November 9th, 2013.

Introduction

Let’s talk about the JayBird BlueBuds X Bluetooth headphones.

I hate to start posts with disclaimers, but I thought it was important to cover a couple of things right off the bat: I was originally going to call this a “review”, but that’s not really fair, because it’s mostly just me gushing. Enough people have asked me about them, though, that I felt it was worth putting my thoughts down. I will cover the negatives, of course, but I’m not even going to pretend this will be remotely balanced. It’s also important to note that I would never be mistaken for an audiophile – but that probably goes without saying, as I don’t think a true audiophile would be caught dead with Bluetooth headphones. For me, the convenience of wireless headphones has always outweighed any loss in audio quality.

So, with that out of the way – let’s get started.

The Good

I listen to music and podcasts basically all the time, so I’m pretty picky about my headphones – I need a pair of headphones that are just as usable and comfortable when I’m sitting at my desk at work as they are when I’m running on the treadmill or walking my dog. They also, preferably, need to last long enough on a charge that I don’t need to stop and charge them halfway through the day – I don’t need to add my headphones to the list of devices whose battery I worry about.

The Motorola S305 headphones used to be my go-to Bluetooth headphones – and I still think they’re a great value for the price – but there were still things that bugged me about them. I lost several pairs to sweat while working out; I actually reached the point where I kept an extra pair around at all times for when I inevitably lost another pair to a workout. They aren’t exactly bulky, but they aren’t super-portable, either – since they’re rigid, you can’t easily put them into a pocket . The first two are deal-breakers for me for many situations; I couldn’t just take them out in public anywhere, and I gave up on trying to use them in any capacity while exercising. Certain devices didn’t get along with them as well as others – most notably my MacBook Air and my Vita. The latter was especially annoying, as I’d really looked forward to having a handheld console that worked with Bluetooth headphones.

So why am I talking about the S305 when this is supposedly a post about the BlueBuds X? Because all my issues with the S305s are a thing of the past. The BlueBuds are small and convenient enough to how with me basically anywhere, yet somehow have a battery life greater than the S305. I seriously believe some sort of dark magic is involved.

Bluebudsclose_medium

Where is your battery?!  Where is it?!?  ARE YOU A WITCH?!?

Also unlike the S305, “basically anywhere” thankfully covers my indoor and outdoor runs and bike rides. The Bluebuds have a lifetime warranty against sweat damage, and more dark magic that protects them against the elements:

To further enhance our Lifetime Warranty Against Sweat,
BlueBuds X feature Liquipel Sweat Repellant Nano Technology.
A super hydrophobic process that provides the BlueBuds X with
added protection from exposure to sweat and the elements.

Finally, I’ve yet to find a device that the Bluebuds wouldn’t pair effortlessly with. iPad Mini? Yup. HTC One? Of course. Nexus 7? You know it. PS Vita? Surprisingly great. MacBook? Easy peasy.

Bluebudsdevices_medium

I LOVE EVERYONE!

I am constantly switching between devices, so being able to easily change what device my Bluebuds are connected is a pretty big deal to me. I’ve dealt with too many Bluetooth devices – headphones or otherwise – that were a pain to pair with multiple devices, so it’s refreshing to finally have something that Just Works ™ in that regard.

I would also say their range seems better than any other pair of Bluetooth headphones I’ve used. I can go basically anywhere in my (admittedly small) house and retain a connection, without any skipping or degradation of quality. Currently, they’re connected to my Nexus 7, located in the middle of my house, and I went from typing this outside on the patio to upstairs and back again without issue. I can’t ask for much more than that.

The controls are also wisely placed, and so far they’ve worked perfectly with any device I’ve tried. The only complaint I have is that I can only view the device’s battery meter on an iOS device – nothing else seems to support it. My suspicion is that this isn’t a problem with the BlueBuds themselves, though.

I almost didn’t mention it, but in case anyone was curious – on the rare occasion I’ve used the BlueBuds to make or receive a phone phone, they’ve worked fine. Audio quality wasn’t particularly good or particularly bad, and people didn’t seem to have any trouble understanding me. I’m probably not the best person to ask about this, though, as I avoid talking on the phone whenever possible.

Speaking of audio quality – as I mentioned before, I am not an audiophile, so all I can really say is that these headphones sound as good, or better, than any pair of Bluetooth or wired headphones I’ve ever owned. I’ve never owned high-end wired headphones though, so take that for whatever it’s worth. While they don’t have any sort of active noise cancellation, I’ve never had issue with ambient noise overpowering them – much to the dismay of my co-workers when they try to get my attention.

Comfort-wise, I have no complaints – with one important caveat that we’ll get to in the next section – suffice it to say that, more than once, I’ve actually forgotten I had the headphones on. You can wear them either “over ear” or “under ear” – I’ve found I greatly prefer the under ear configuration.

The Bad

So, about that comfort thing – while the Bluebuds conveniently come with three sizes of earphone tips, my ears just didn’t agree with the silicon material they’re made of. I couldn’t wear them for more than an hour or two at most without needing to take a break. Fortunately, a bit of Google research led me to Comply’s T-500 Isolation Earphone Tips which are relatively-cheap foam-based earphone tips that, essentially, saved the Bluebuds for me.

It’s fair to ask how I can be so positive about a product that required another product before I considered them 100% usable, but I wouldn’t (and don’t) blame JayBird for this – I’m sure there are people who can painlessly use the included earphone tips, I’m just not one of them.

The Ugly

$137.94. While I truly believe you get what you pay for with these headphones, the price can still be a difficult pill to swallow, especially if your use cases for headphones aren’t as broad as mine. If you just want something for work and for using around the house, I think the S305s are still a great choice.

Conclusion

There are precious few devices that I recommend to others without hesitation or qualification, and the BlueBuds managed to slide into that esteemed category almost without me even noticing. I honestly delayed writing this for awhile, largely because I enjoy them so much that it was hard to write anything that wasn’t just BUY THEM BUY THEM BUY THEM. It’s the same reason I don’t review something like my router or my cable modem – because when technology works well enough, you stop consciously thinking about it.

It is no exaggeration to say I rarely leave the house without taking the BlueBuds with me, whether they are in my ears, dangling around my neck, or stashed away in a pocket. It’s a special type of technology that painlessly dissolves itself into your everyday life and, honestly, that’s the highest compliment I can pay to any device.

Deprecated Post: An iPad lover’s take on the Nexus 7

Deprecated posts are where I revisit popular posts I made on other sites.  Depending on the amount of time that’s passed, some of what is written may no longer be relevant, but I believe much of what is covered in these posts is still worthy of discussion.

This is another precursor to an upcoming post about my current “fitness ecosystem”.  The Nexus 7 has largely been successful in replacing the iPad, at least when it comes to being a “workout companion”.  The biggest issue I’ve had since the latest update is unreliable Bluetooth connections, but at least I have a functional – if annoying – workaround in the form of a 3.5mm Bluetooth transmitter I originally got to use with my 3DS.

The following was originally posted on The Verge’s forums on November 14th, 2013.

Introduction

About a year and a half ago, I made the move from iPhone to Android via the One X. In my post detailing my reasons why, I said:

I am still an Apple fan (despite some decisions in iOS6 that I find questionable), and plan to stick with the iPad as my tablet platform for at least the next few years

Well, you know the saying…no plan survives contact with the enemy. In this, the “enemy” was the one-two punch of Apple pricing the retina iPad Mini outside of what I considered to be reasonable, and the presence of a much cheaper, well-received Android tablet with a similarly great screen.

Enter the Nexus 7.

First, let’s establish what kind of tablet user I am. I started with the original iPad. I’m not going to lie, I was in line with the rest of the haters, calling it an oversized iPad Touch. Within a few months, I gave in, because I decided that, if nothing else, it was best device for reading and watching videos while working out. I rewatched most of Babylon 5 over the course of a few months on the elliptical. While I flirted with the idea of using my iPad for productivity – going so far as to buy a Bluetooth keyboard and, later, a Logitech keyboard case – I was never really able to make it work.

I still believe that tablets, iPads and otherwise, can be used for productivity – it’s just not ideal for me. If I have to do anything productivity-related, I’d rather just bring for my laptop – my 13-inch MacBook Pro is not so much heavier that it’s a burden to bring it instead of the larger iPad – and either way, I have to throw it in a bag. If I have to carry a bag, I may as well bring the device with the most power, especially now that Haswell-powered laptop have battery life comparable to (and sometimes even exceeding) tablets.

Now, I admit freely that I wasn’t a very good iPad user; I never really used the devices to their full potential, because I just didn’t have the need to. The exception is gaming, but even in that case, I have enough other devices dedicated to gaming that the tablet is usually my last resort. My iPad had an amazing game library that I just never had a chance to leverage. I eventually came to realized that the majority of the time, I use a tablet as an eBook reader with a bit more functionality – a color Kindle that can run apps, play videos and music, and connect to the internet. The problem was, if I wanted it to replace my Kindle, it had to be small enough that it could leave my house without carrying a bag.

Last year, I sold my iPad 3 for an iPad Mini, and, other than the screen, I was pretty satisfied. I got the smaller tablet I wanted, and the iPad ecosystem I was already invested in. Unfortunately, it started to feel like it got slower and slower over time, especially with the release of iOS7. Perhaps it was actually iOS7, or perhaps it was just a negative-placebo, but the experience was because more and more frustrating:

All of that said, part of me thinks if I’m going to put up with instability and slightly-stuttery performance, I may as well the added functionality of Android. The benefits of iOS for me have always been performance, reliability, and ecosystem – and I feel like iOS7 has reduced two of those.

Frustrated with the Mini, and craving a higher-resolution screen for reading, I decided to play the waiting game and see what Apple brought to the table at their iPad event. While I was impressed with the hardware (as always), I was less-than-impressed with the pricing of the Retina iPad Mini, especially when compared to the competition. I already felt the $329 was pushing it with the original iPad Mini, so $399 was right out. After some debate, I decided to sell my iPad Mini and put the money toward most (or all) of a Nexus 7. I figured, worst-case-scenario, I’d take the Nexus 7 back.

 

Hardware

The Good

There’s a lot to like about the Nexus 7. The hardware isn’t necessarily Apple-class, but it’s solid enough – it definitely feels like a more expensive device – and the plastic reminds me of the plastic on the One X, which I loved. It’s thin and light weight, and doesn’t feel cheap, which is all I can really ask for – really more than I can ask for, given the price. I also think the placement of the power button on the side makes more sense than the iPad’s top-mounted power button. Finally, it’s nice to be able to get a bump from 16 to 32 gigs for only $40 as opposed to $100.

The screen, as others have mentioned, is amazing – other than size, it appears as though it’s even better than the retina iPad Mini, although I’ll wait to see Anandtech’s analysis before proclaiming that as absolute truth.

Wireless charging has turned out to be cooler than I expected. It’s certainly a gimmick, because it’s a useful gimmick. I got a couple of Nokia DT910 Charger Stands – one for the office and one for my bedroom – and it’s really, really convenient. I love to read in bed, so being able to reach over and put the Nexus on a charger without plugging anything in is pretty brilliant.

Nexus7chargingstand_medium

Wirelesschargingbedroom_medium

Convenience!

Now, it’s not such an amazing feature that I wouldn’t buy a device without it, but it will certainly factor into my purchasing decisions in the future.

The size is ideal in some ways and not in others. My iPad Mini was almost a little too big – I was rarely able to find a pocket that would fit it, meaning I often had to bring a small bag to carry it. The Nexus 7 is, perhaps, closer to a really, really big phone than a tablet…but for my needs, that’s okay. There was certainly a bit of an adaptation period where I got used to browsing the web in the comparatively-cramped landscape view, but again, I got used to it. I also prefer using the Nexus 7 in portrait when compared to the iPad Mini. I miss the 4:3 aspect ratio when reading, but not when watching video, so it’s kind-of a toss-up.

One other thing about the hardware – even the WiFi models have GPS, which has been surprisingly useful for two of my hobbies. The first is biking – it’s nice to have RunKeeper running on a device with a huge battery, so that my phone doesn’t have to take the hit. The Nexus 7 is small enough that it fits in the back pockets of my cycling jersey. The other is geocaching – obviously you have to download the cache information when you have Internet access, but once you have it downloaded, it works just fine as an offline GPS. Again, this is great for battery-related reasons.

 

The Bad

Speaking of WiFi…the Nexus 7’s is generally pretty good, but for some reason, it occasionally won’t see my Wireless N network. It can connect to the Wireless G network just fine, so it’s not a deal breaker, but it’s an unnecessary frustration. A reboot fixes it, but I really shouldn’t have to deal with it at all.

My other complaint: given the size of the Nexus 7’s screen, I am definitely looking forward to more apps adopting KitKat’s immersion mode, especially the Kindle app – software buttons have no place taking up screen space in games and eBooks. I’m still torn on the idea of software buttons in general, but so far they’re been tolerable. It’s one less moving part to break, at least, but in some cases, I just want them to go away. Hopefully developers will take care of that.

 

The Ugly

Those top and bottom bezels. Functionally they’ve grown on me, as they’re nice “handles” when using the device in landscape, but visually, they’re still pretty hideous.

 

Software

The Good

It’s Android on a tablet, for better or worse. As a mobile operating system, I generally prefer Android to iOS, for a variety of reasons. I won’t go into detail again, since I’ve covered those reasons before. Instead, I’ll focus on tablet-specific aspects of the OS.

After reading all the horror stories about the app ecosystem, I was prepared for it to be underwhelming – but so far, I’ve found that a decent number of the apps I use daily – YouTube, Chrome, Falcon Pro, Google+, Foursquare, Hangouts, Gmail, Kindle, Google Keep, Hulu Plus, Google Play Music, Pocket Casts, Flipboard, and MightyText – are all tablet-optimized. MightyText is worth a special mention, as it’s super-convenient to be able to text from my tablet if my phone isn’t handy. Again, it’s not necessarily worth buying an Android tablet just for MightyText, but it’s certainly a selling point.

Of course, just as many apps, including major ones like Facebook and Twitter, aren’t optimized – and, no lie, it sucks. Fortunately, on a 7-inch screen, a blown-up phone app isn’t too terrible – in fact, I prefer the blown-up phone app to the way the iPad handles non-iPad apps. Those are fewer and fewer every day, of course, but a couple apps I used pretty regularly on the iPad weren’t optimized. RunKeeper was perhaps understandable, but to this day I still don’t know why Any.Do doesn’t have an iPad app – using it on the iPad was not a fun experience.

One of the more frustrating things to me about the iPads I’ve owned is that they seem really,really eager to kill any suspended apps. On too many occasionally, I would start typing in an app, load another app or two, then return to that app and find my work gone. Also, the less said about Safari tab reloading, the better. I’ve heard the argument that Android devices needs more RAM than iOS devices, and perhaps that’s true to some extent, but it still makes for a much, much better multitasking experience. I’ve used iPads for so long that it still kind-of amazes me to jump back 6 or 7 apps in my recent list and find the app still sitting in memory. I can understand the desire for iPhones to kill background processes faster to save battery, but there’s no reason an iPad should have that limitation. If Apple really wants iPads to be productivity devices, they need more RAM.

I have no complaints about performance, either. It’s certainly snappier than my iPad Mini, and didn’t seem to fall too far behind my co-worker’s retina iPad Mini on day to day tasks. Certain Android apps (cough, Chrome, cough) are still a problem, but nothing that hinders my standard usage.

Then there’s the little things: I’ve never considered being able to access the file system a big deal on a phone, but for some reason it feels more substantial on a tablet – combined with the improved multitasking it helps make it feel more like a real computer and less like a giant iPod Touch. I still love what I can do with my home screens in Android, and Action Launchercontinues to be my favorite example of what Android can really do when a talented developer can put their mind to it. It allows my phone and tablet home screens to be simple but powerful:

Nexus7homescreen_medium

I don’t want to dive too deep into minutia surrounding Action Launcher, but Covers and Shutters are two of my favorite features in any Android app. It allows me to leverage the power of folders widgets without actually having to clutter my screen with folders and widgets, and that makes me a very happy user.

Also, DashClock, you guys. DashClock. If you don’t have it installed, and you’re running Android 4.2 or higher…just do it. Trust me. It replaces so many other widgets, and does so in such an elegant way, that I don’t understand why it’s not just built into Android at this point.

 

The Bad

It’s Android on a tablet, for better or worse. Perhaps the most frustrating software issue I discovered is that, after some period of time on a wireless charger, every app that wasn’t in memory would force close when I tried to open it. Only a reboot would fix the problem. The Nexus 4 apparently suffers from the same issue, as documented here. Fortunately, it appears to have been resolved when I installed KitKat, but this is the sort of issue you’d never see on an iOS device. It’s not that iOS devices don’t have issues, but something that can easily be replicated on any Nexus 7 (I tried two) is something that should never have been released.

My other major issue: I have not had a terribly good experience with typing on the Nexus 7. This is actually fairly surprising to me, as I type far faster on my Android phone than I ever did on my iPhone, especially with SwiftKey. For whatever reason, that hasn’t translated well to the 7-inch form factor. I also don’t think I could sit the Nexus 7 on a stand and type on the landscape keyboard quickly, the same way I did with my iPad Mini on a few occasions. The keyboard experience is certainly serviceable, but given my phone experience, I expected better.

 

The Ugly

I’m not a terribly big fan of the stock Android launcher, even the Google Experience one. It’s just too feature-less compared to any custom launcher you’d install, and Android app icons are pretty incongruous when you don’t have an icon pack installed. It’s perfectly usable, but basically every alternative out there is superior, both functionally and visually.

This isn’t Android’s fault, but I miss the iOS ecosystem. Even if I didn’t leverage it, it was always there as a safety net. I also liked having a foot in both major mobile ecosystems, which makes me wonder if I might eventually return to an iPhone or an iPad in a couple of years – I certainly don’t rule it out. It would be easier to swallow owning an iPhone if I had an Android tablet as a back-up. Still, in many ways, the Android devices compliment each other in ways that an iPhone and an iPad don’t – often thanks to the work of third-party apps like MightyText – and I would miss that if I moved to an iPhone. I’m interested to see where the next couple of years go, both hardware and software wise, for Apple.

 

The Bottom Line

I love this thing, the same way I loved my iPads before it. My biggest fear is that it won’t last the 2 or 3 years I’m hoping it will as, frankly, I am tired of jumping between tablets.

A year and a half ago, I wrote:

Before the One X, I always thought my first Android device would be a tablet – I would argue to others, before having used both as a daily driver, that Android would make a better tablet OS and iOS would make a better phone OS, because above all you need a phone to be reliable. Now, post-ICS, I would say my positions have actually switched – Android (and WP 7) both excel at getting to information quickly through widgets and Live Tiles respectively, which is my primary use for a smartphone other than communication. Tablets, on the other hand, are generally used when I want to focus on a single task at a time (like draft this post or catch up on Google Reader). I don’t really need widgets or Live Tiles with a tablet OS, because I’m not going to be taking my tablet out of my pocket to check the weather or update Facebook. That’s not to say they don’t have any value, just that I don’t think information-at-a-glance is as useful on a tablet OS – not that I’d mind having a dashboard on my iPad.

Actually owning an Android tablet has changed my mind a bit. I still think glanceable information is more useful on a phone, but I certainly see the value of it on a tablet, too, especially when it sits next to me at work or on my night stand.

I’m using the tablet in ways I didn’t anticipate, either – when I’m on WiFi, especially at home or work, my phone now generally stays in a dock or in my pocket, while I use the Nexus 7 for everything else. The iPad Mini was never really like that for me – part of that is just the joy of using a new device, I’m sure, another part of it is my preference of stock Android – but the biggest change is that I can do nearly everything I do with my phone – including texting – from my tablet. The only thing I can’t do is make phone calls. An iPad simply can’t do that for me, at least not yet.

I’m not going to lie; after years of using iOS, it’s a bit strange to be all-in with Android. I’m not sure it will last, depending on what Apple and Microsoft do (and how much the Android ecosystem evolves) in the next couple of years – but right now, this finally feels like the right combination of devices, and that’s really all a gadget nerd like me can ask for.

Deprecated Post: Information Consumption + Exercise: Why the iPad is a vital part of my workout routine

Deprecated posts are where I revisit popular posts I made on other sites.  Depending on the amount of time that’s passed, some of what is written may no longer be relevant, but I believe much of what is covered in these posts is still worthy of discussion.

Given that I spent this morning’s stationary bike workout reading the news and playing a couple of tablet games, I figured it was time to re-share this post.  Some aspects have changed – I now use a Nexus 7 and not an iPad, and I use a different pair of Bluetooth headphones – but I think many of the core principles of the post are still relevant.  This is a precursor to an upcoming post about my current “fitness ecosystem”.

The following was originally posted on The Verge’s forums on July 27th, 2012.

 

iPad? Exercise? Huh?

I’ve always been overweight, and – ever since the iPhone 3G and the Wii – I’ve had a bit of an obsession with finding ways to combine technology with my personal fitness.

In April of 2010, the original iPad was a revelation for me – but likely not for the same reasons as most other early adopters. Where some people saw couch companions, or a gaming system, or a netbook replacement, or an eBooker reader, I instead saw another tool in my quest to get in better shape.

 

iPad? Exercise? Huh?

A month before the release of the first-generation iPad, I started a 2-year membership with LA Fitness. I had been debating purchasing home equipment, but decided I’d rather figure out whattype of equipment I wanted, and a gym membership was ideal for that. What wasn’t ideal, however, was using the actual equipment. Unfortunately, like many others, I found using treadmills and stationary bikes to be monotonous – to put it nicely. What I needed was something to distract my mind and help me lose track of time. What I needed was a tablet.

 

Why a tablet?

I think anyone who has used the internet for any significant amount of time has experienced the time-loss that inevitably occurs when you get drawn into something like Wikipedia or TV Tropes…you decide to quickly look-up an article about Batman comics and suddenly it’s 2 hours later, the sun is down, and you’re reading about health care in Poland. I’m sure there’s some science-y scientific science behind the phenomena, but that wasn’t what I cared about – what I cared about was using that effect to my advantage. Tablets are often called media consumption devices, but I would argue they could more accurately called information consumption devices. When my brain is busy consuming information, an hour can – and often does – pass by incredibly quickly.

Over the last couple of years, I have harnessed this technique and – in the process – refined and streamlined my personal workouts in several key ways. Most notably, after my LA Fitness membership expired a few months ago, I acquired a treadmill and a stationary bike for my personal use – not something everyone has room for, but I found that I was much more likely to stick to a routine if the equipment was readily and immediately available. As a bonus, this meant I could take advantage of my home WiFi, rather than having to awkwardly tether the iPad to my phone’s crappy signal while I was at the gym.

 

My Current Setup

I workout 6 days a week in the morning before work – alternating 3 days on the treadmill, and 3 days on the stationary bike. I stream music and other audio from the iPad to my Motorola S305Bluetooth headphones (my preferred workout music is the Trance/Progressive Station on Slacker Radio), and monitor my heart rate on my old iPhone 4 using a Wahoo Fitness ANT+ Dongle and Heart Rate Monitor. I really should, at some point, upgrade to a Bluetooth Heart Rate Monitor, but I feel no need to as long as the old one is working and I have my old iPhone. Waste not, want not – and God knows I waste enough on gadgets already.

iPhone 4 + ANT+ Dongle + S305 Headphones

Headphonesplusiphone_medium

 

Treadmill

Treadmill1_medium

Treadmill2_medium

 

Stationary Bike

Bike1_medium

Bike2_medium

One thing you might notice is that the iPad covers up information like distance, speed, and time elapsed. I actually view this – particularly the third one – as a benefit, rather than a drawback. The less I know about how much time has gone by, the better. If there’s a timer for me to “accidentally” glance at, I almost certainly will – and as they say, the watched pot never boils. It’s bad enough that my heart rate monitor app is visible in the corner of my eye, feeding my valuable information, but also tempting me with knowledge of my elapsed time.

A question I hear often is whether or not I’m actually getting a good workout, considering I’m still able to use my iPad. I can confidently say: Yes. The apps I use for reading only require minimal input, and I use the HRM to guarantee I’m reaching my target heart rate – typically somewhere between 150 – 165 BPM.

 

Why the iPad? What about other tablets?

The simplest answer is that the iPad is the tablet I own, so it’s the tablet I use. Obviously, back in April of 2010, the iPad was really the only tablet that matched the qualifications I had: I needed it to be light, thin, and easy to use while working out. Over 2 years later, there are now obviously more options, but I opted to get the third-generation iPad for several reasons:

  • The retina display is unparalleled when it comes to reading on tablets.
  • The larger display and the 4:3 aspect ratio are also ideal for reading. I’ve never been a fan of widescreen aspect ratios on a tablet for this reason.
  • I was already invested in the iOS ecosystem, and knew the apps I wanted to use and how I wanted to use them.

At this point I’ve streamlined my usage to the following basic pattern: I start with Reeder so that I can catch up on my morning news. After Reeder comes Zite, which helps me catch on news I wouldn’t otherwise get in my regular RSS feeds. Finally, I finish up with Pocket, where I attempt to tackle my never-ending backlog of saved articles – mostly from Cracked.com. Occasionally I’ll also poke around in Flipboard, or jump into the Kindle app if I feel like reading a book. For some reason, though, catching up on news and various Internet articles seems to make the time go by faster than reading fiction. I guess that’s just how my brain works.

Obviously, there’s no reason you couldn’t use another type of tablet, especially given the recent (and deserved) popularity of the Nexus 7. Having not had personal experience, I can’t vouch for it one way or the other, though I’d think it might prove a bit more difficult to read on a smaller screen and to use smaller interface controls. Still, I’m sure it could be made to work well enough, especially if you’re part of the growing population of people that already own one.

 

What about movies, TV, or games?

While the primary use for my tablet was text-based consuming information, that’s not to say it’s the only strategy I tried. At various times I also used it to watch TV shows or movies and even play games with very simple control schemes. When it comes to TV and movies, the problem for me is that when I watch anything longer than 5 or 10 minutes, it’s too easy for me to subconsciously track the amount of time that’s gone by – which defeats the purpose of using information consumption to lose track of time. The problem playing games is simpler – there just aren’t that many games that are playable when you’re really exercising, and even for the games that are playable, they can be distracting enough that the overall quality of the workout suffers.

 

Do you really need the iPad?

Well, yes and no – despite writing an entire post about how I use an iPad to quickly pass the time while working out, I do also enjoy exercise just for the sake of exercise. I love riding my bike outdoors and going hiking. I’m also (very gradually) learning to enjoy running outdoors as well…of course, when outdoors, I have RunKeeper with me, because gadgets are a great and fun way to enhance outdoor workouts, too.

Unfortunately, back in reality, a busy work schedule combined with Tucson heat means that the simplest and most time-efficient exercise is almost always going to be preferable. When it comes to facing that reality, the iPad has proven to be an invaluable tool in that regard – there’s really nothing else like a tablet, at least not that I’ve found.

 

Closing Thoughts

Anyway, I would love to hear how you guys have incorporated technology into your fitness habits, whether it’s just listening to music or if you solely depend on the Wii or Kinect to get a solid workout – which I’ve done in the past myself, but that’s an entirely separate post. In addition, if you have any questions or suggestions about my current setup, or what I’ve tried in the past, etc. – I’d be glad to answer them.

Thanks for reading!

Deprecated Post: 13 Days with the Pebble Smartwatch

Deprecated posts are where I revisit popular posts I made on other sites.  Depending on the amount of time that’s passed, some of what is written may no longer be relevant, but I believe much of what is covered in these posts is still worthy of discussion.

Now that Google has officially released Android Wear devices (and my Pebble may not be long for this world), I figured it’d be appropriate to share 13 Days with the Pebble Smartwatch, which is both a review of the Pebble hardware but also a defense of the smartwatch as a useful concept.

The following was originally posted on The Verge’s forums on August 8th, 2013.

 

Let’s get something clear right away:

The Pebble Smartwatch is very much a first-world solution to first-world problems.

It’s a device that’s almost entirely about small conveniences, rather than big, world-changing ideas, and I think that’s fine. Not every smart device needs to change the world – and enough small conveniences in a single package can add up to something special.

I’m not even entirely sure why I bought one, to be honest. I was always a bit upset that I missed out on the initial Kickstarter campaign, so went to Best Buy a couple of times and asked about them. Each time, the salespeople basically laughed me away each time – not maliciously, but simply because they rarely got shipments of more than a couple in at a time, so getting one was almost impossible.

Logically, because it was impossible to get one, I had to have one.

As luck would have it, thirteen days ago I found myself in Best Buy picking up a Chromecast, when, almost-entirely-facetiously, I asked if they had any Pebbles in, too.

“Uh…I think we do, actually. One of them is claimed, but I don’t think the red one is.”

He went to check, while I racked my brain (and quickly looked up reviews on my phone) to decide if I really needed this thing. By the time he returned, and confirmed that the Pebble was mine if I wanted it, I’d decided.

Pebbleinbag_medium

...crap.

I double-checked the return policy (fourteen days) before leaving, just in case I decided the added convenience wasn’t worth the cost. So the question I’m answering now, thirteen days later, is: am I keeping this thing?

As usual, I’ll give you the tl;dr first: Yes, I’m keeping it – read on for why.

 

Life with Pebble

People often ask me what the Pebble does, and my answer – “send notifications from my phone to my watch” – and that’s true; at its core, the Pebble is simply a notification triage device. Sure, it can do more if you want it to and put the effort in, but notification triage is undoubtedly its primary function. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound terribly impressive or game-changing. There’s certainly more cool stuff I can do with it, and I’ll get to that later, but even that basic functionality has enriched my life in noticeable and, at times even surprising, ways.

First, a confession: I check my phone too damn much. It’s part nervous tick, and part Notification Anxiety (a term I just invented that means fear of missing an important notification –did I mention this is a first world problem?), but it’s also simply rude. One of Motorola’s big lines when announcing the Moto X is that people check their phones an average of 60 times a day, just to get the time and look for missed messages, and I can totally believe that.

In fact, when I read about the benefits of the Moto X’s Active Display, I can’t help but think that it’s the same idea as the Pebble – notification triage – but done somewhat differently. These quotes about Active Display, from Brent Rose (Gizmodo), Joshua Topolsky (The Verge), and Joanna Stern (ABC News) respectively, could just as easily be about Pebble:

“Active Display will also light up whenever you turn the phone over or when you remove it from your pocket. This saves you from having to hit the power button every time you just want to see what time it is. It’s a little thing, but it actually makes a big difference in the way you relate to your phone.

“It took a little while to get used to how this concept works, but once I “got” the expected behavior, it was wildly useful. I like to know when I get an email so I have a notification sound every time one comes in — but they’re not all of equal value. Being able to preview the information before unlocking the phone has definitely saved me time.

The Active Notifications feature in particular was made to solve the problem of people hitting the power button on their phones up to 100 times a day just to glance at the time and or notifications — something I know a lot about.

The Pebble has, more or less, solved this same problem for me, but in a way that isn’t tied to any specific phone. You might argue that I’m treating the symptom and not the cause, and you wouldn’t be wrong – but even so, it still helps. My phone comes out much less now – only when I need to actually do something with it – and I think that’s a great thing.

I’ve heard the argument made that glancing at your wrist is just as rude as pulling your phone out to check on it – the person you’re talking to might assume you’re bored and checking the time – but I’ve not found that to be the case. For me, the value comes from the slight vibration on your wrist, which comes with the knowledge that I definitely have a notification. That way, even if I can’t check my watch right away, I’ll know that when I pull my phone out, I’ll have something to look at – as opposed to pulling it out just because. It sounds silly, and perhaps it is, but I’ve found it makes a big difference in how I use my phone. There’s also a certain beauty in receiving a notification, even when your phone is otherwise on silent. I’m also, happily, no longer one of those people that puts their phone on the table while eating and constantly glances over to see if I have any notifications.

There’s also the added convenience that comes with being able to glance at notifications in situations that otherwise wouldn’t be possible – when you’re carrying things or when driving, for example.

Pebblecarrying_medium

Getting an email with my hands full is now less of an issue...

Pebbledriving_medium

...and it's awesome to see notifications right on my wrist as I'm driving.

Obviously, first world solutions to first world problems, but hey, useful is useful. Speaking of useful – notification triage may be the Pebble’s primary purpose, but I’ve found a few others so far.

 

What else can this thing do?

Beyond forwarding of notifications, I have found several other uses for the Pebble, though they vary in their degree of, well, usefulness. It’s important to note that I only have experience using the Pebble with an Android phone – the HTC One in particular – so I can’t really speak for how the experience is on an iPhone.

  1. Pebble Notifier is perhaps the single-most-useful Android app for Pebble, as it allows you to send all notifications from your phone to the Pebble. You can define exactly what you want to send notifications, and exactly what don’t want to send notifications. It increases the functionality and power of Pebble several times over.
  2. Glance for Pebble is another tool that, even though it’s still in beta, makes Pebble substantially more useful. It’s essentially an app you run in place of a watch face that gives you time, weather, and date information – but also gives you views of your calendars, and allows you to perform basic functions on your phone, such as sending pre-defined SMS messages and executing up to three Tasker functions. So far I’ve set up Tasker to toggle WiFi, turn on Google Now (very useful), and bring up the Recent App list. Setting up these Tasker tasks isn’t as easy as I’d like, and it’d be great to see this functionality supported more-directly by the Pebble API.
  3. Stopwatch and Timer are Pebble apps that…do exactly what you’d expect.
  4. Pebble Phone Ringer Switcher is another app that does exactly what you’d expect – it lets me toggle my phone’s sound profiles between Normal, Vibrate, and Silent. Surprisingly useful.
  5. Pebble Locker is similar to Trusted Devices on the Moto X – basically, when my Pebble is connected, there’s no PIN lock on my phone. As soon as my Pebble is disconnected, the phone locks itself and enables the PIN lock. Reconnecting the Pebble will once again disable the PIN lock. This is a nice way of adding convenience without sacrificing security.
  6. Pebble Rocker is a great little app, mentioned in the comments by drewstiff. It lets me check in on Foursquare from my watch (something I’d actually been actively looking for), take a picture with my phone from my watch, and “ping” my phone if it’s somewhere nearby, amongst a ton of other things I’m not actually using yet, like Facebook and Twitter browsing. The only issue I see is that Pebble can only hold a limited number of Watch Apps, and a lot of these are bundled separately, so you may have to choose what is most important to you.
  7. RunKeeper ties into the Pebble to display Time, Distance, and Pace information – nothing ground-breaking, but definitely a nice-to-have for someone like me who has used RunKeeper for years. Runkeeperpebble_medium

I have, of course, installed a few silly watch faces, like Mario and Star Trek-inspired LCARS, but generally, I use the default watch face, as I like the style and font. It’s always nice to have options, though.

I use the music controls more than I thought I would, mostly in the car to play/pause music and podcasts on the stereo, as my watch is generally closer, more convenient, and (surprisingly) more-reliable than the built-in stereo controls. It’s also easier to use without taking my eyes off the road – whether by providence or by design, when you leave the watch face, the first option is “Music”, so touching the same button three times will start or pause the radio. By default, you have to choose a single music app that Pebble controls, but I’ve installed a third-party app called Music Boss for Pebble that allows me to toggle between Google Play Music and the standard Music app by double-pressing the play/pause button. Quite handy.

The argument could be made that, between music controls and notification triage, the car is one of the most useful places for a Pebble – no more digging my phone out at a red light to see who sent me a message, or to see if that e-mail from work is something important. Fortunately, the Bluetooth connection from my phone to the Pebble does not appear to interfere with the Bluetooth connection from my phone to my car stereo.

Not directly related to any specific feature, but an unexpected convenience I discovered – the Pebble is great for two-step authentication with my credit union, as you can just glance at your wrist to get the login code. It’s also incredibly convenient to get my Google Now reminders directly on my wrist, as for some unknown psychological reason, it makes me more likely to do whatever task I’ve set for myself.

That’s not to say it does everything I want it to do, though. Over the last couple of weeks, some things I wish it did that it doesn’t:

  1. Dictation, through a hardware microphone that doesn’t currently exist (see the next section for more rambling on that)
  2. Direct Google Now integration. It’s cool that I can launch it with Tasker, but it’d be even better if it was somehow a native feature.
  3. Notification Sync. Getting notifications on my wrist is great, but I wish there was some way to mark the corresponding notification as “viewed” on my phone.
  4. A better included watch strap would be nice. I might get something like this, eventually.
  5. Better Pebble apps for viewing my calendar and viewing the weather forecast would be awesome.

So, that’s what it does (and doesn’t) do – but how about the device itself? Is it any good?

 

The Hardware

I’m not going to linger on the hardware of the Pebble too much, as I could really just say “good enough”, and call it a day. The display is good enough – it has an inky/oily view in certain, rare lighting conditions and from certain angles, but it’s clearly viewable in bright daylight, and the backlight works well enough to make the screen visible. My biggest complaint is that the glass on the display itself is beginning to scratch after only a couple of weeks, so I can’t imagine how it will look in a year.

Pebbleinkyscreen_medium

The oily screen looks kind-of gross, but doesn't happen often, and doesn't impact usability all that much.

Several people have asked me if the red faceplate is interchangeable and, sadly, the answer is no. Given its tendency to scratch, and the fickle nature of many consumers (myself included), I think it would be a great addition for the next version – and hey, from a business perspective, it’s another way for Pebble to make money.

The buttons are good enough – they felt a little cheap at first, but they work reliably. The interface is good enough for now – I would say it’s a bit like the classic iPod’s interface – simple and effective, but it feels like the form factor is waiting for a UX revamp akin to the first time we saw the iPhone’s interface. Installing new watch faces and new apps is good enough – it’s not the most intuitive experience, but I haven’t had much trouble. For the most part, stuff Just Works(tm). Until recently, there were some accessibility bugs on the HTC One that caused issues with the lock screen when the Pebble was active, but this appears to have been resolved with a recent OTA from HTC. Originally, I thought the OTA was just an update to carrier settings, so the fact it fixed the accessibility bug was a nice surprise.

Battery life is also good enough – it’ll last for 4-6 days, in my experience, but I’m the kind-of person who charges all of my devices every night anyway. My annoyance that the charger is proprietary is balanced by the convenience of the fact it’s magnetic. I just put the charger in the same place I leave my keys and wallet every day, and the watch is always ready to go in the morning.

Pebblecharging_medium

Magnetic chargers are cooooooool.

The alarm function is…mostly useless. It vibrates 20 times, which is a hilariously inept way of convincing me to get out of bed. I have enough trouble with an alarm I can reach from my bed, much less a slight vibration I can just ignore. The one time I tried to use it, I’m pretty sure I fell back asleep before it stopped vibrating.

Perhaps the most major hardware flaw, in that it potentially limits the target audience: the device itself is, in my experience, not really designed for women. A friend of mine was interested in getting a Pebble, until she put it on, and realized it was simply too big for her. Her own words, paraphrased, are that “she has big wrists for a woman, and this still doesn’t fit” and “this is definitely designed for a man’s wrist.”

Beyond that, there are some things I’d still like to see added. A microphone, to help with dictation and reminders, would be great, especially considering you can use the Pebble in the shower – I don’t know about you guys, but many of my great ideas are born and die in the shower, as I currently have no way of recording them as they occur to me – a Pebble with a microphone could change that.

I’d also love to see fitness tracking, as it seems odd to have to wear both a FitBit and somethingelse on my wrist, especially when that something else already has an accelerometer in it. Basically:

Pebbleequation_medium

 

Final Thoughts

A friend asked me if I thought the Pebble was the device that would “bring back the watch” – my answer was quite simply “no”. It’s not that it’s not good enough of a product (that’s a different debate), but rather than it only serves a particular subset of the population. It’s definitely something that appeals exclusively to nerds – and even then, it’s a subset of nerds that it appeals to. For now, though, it’s too expensive and too niche.

However, what surprised me is that my time with Pebble has shown me ways it was useful that even didn’t predict, and when the right smartwatch comes along, it might just have the same mainstream acceptance and market-transforming impact that the original iPhone and iPad did. It will take the right convergence of design, price, marketing, and easy-to-use features – and it may also take the right phone combined with the right watch. I think the Moto X, for example, paired with a Google smartwatch, could be a game-changer.

I imagine owning a Pebble is much like how owning the first-generation iPhone must have felt. That’s not to say that the Pebble should be compared to the iPhone – the smartwatch “revolution”, if and when it occurs, can never have the same impact as the smartphone revolution, and the Pebble is simply not on the same level as the iPhone, design or build quality-wise. Smartphones improve most people’s lives in obvious ways, while smartwatches are – by their very nature – a luxury that will serve a niche subset of that. But, there are notable similarities – the Pebble, like the original iPhone, is an overpriced device with obvious, obvious flaws and missing features that have to be fixed in the next generation – but the core concept of a companion device is solid and hints at greatness just around the corner. I don’t know if it will be Pebble, Microsoft, Google, Apple, or someone else entirely who finally nails it, but I’m more confident than ever that someone will nail it – and that it will happen soon.

The Pebble, in its current form, isn’t that device – but for now, and for me, it’s a great placeholder – it’s a bookmark on my wrist, holding down the fort until a real revolution comes along. I recognize that it’s definitely not a device for everyone, and honestly, perhaps not even a device I’d recommend to many people. Most people think it’s silly and useless, and for them, they’re probably right. Some people still think smartphones are silly and useless, and again, for theirlives, they may very well be right.

Really, though, that’s kind-of what being a tech fan is about – finding the devices that fit our lives – and I’ve found, based on how I live my life and use my devices, that the Pebble is a great companion, and makes my life just a bit more pleasant.

Deprecated Post: 29 Days with Android

Deprecated posts are where I revisit popular posts I made on other sites.  Depending on the amount of time that’s passed, some of what is written may no longer be relevant, but I believe much of what is covered in these posts is still worthy of discussion.

On the eve of Google I/O 2014, I figured it’d be appropriate to share 29 Days with Android, my first serious attempt at writing a long-form article about technology.  In this particular case, I’d been an iPhone user until 2012, when I decided to make the move from an iPhone 4 to an HTC One X, and thought my experience was worth sharing.  I was quite shocked and humbled when The Verge actually featured it on their site.  

To this day, the One X is still my favorite piece of Android hardware, design-wise.  Its biggest flaw was the fact it only shipped with 1 gig of RAM, which doesn’t really cut it in an Android flagship anymore.

The following was originally posted on The Verge’s forums on June 13th, 2012.

 

Introduction

After 4 years of owning an iPhone, I have reached the end of Day 29 of owning an Android phone – specifically, the HTC One X. Why is 29 days noteworthy? Because I have 30 days after buying a new phone to return it to AT&T if I am unhappy – so, if I’m going to go back to the iPhone, it would have to be tomorrow.

I’ll go ahead and spoil the ending for you: I’m keeping the HTC One X. If you’re curious as to why – read on! If you aren’t, well, I’m glad I didn’t waste your time. To be honest, this post ended up much longer than I expected it to be, so it’s hard to blame you.

For what it’s worth, I don’t intend for this to be a “Why Android is better than iOS” post, but rather, “why THIS Android phone is a better choice for ME” post. I am still an Apple fan (despite some decisions in iOS6 that I find questionable), and plan to stick with the iPad as my tablet platform for at least the next few years – I’m just an Apple fan who has discovered that, when it comes to a phone, Android, I was pleasantly surprised to learn, has more of what I personally want.

 

Why did I switch?

Flash back to a couple of months ago. Part of me wanted to wait and see what Apple was going to offer in the next iPhone, but the other (apparently larger) part of me is a gadget lover, and something about the HTC One X drew me in. I suppose it goes a bit further back than even that, though – back to the announcement of Ice Cream Sandwich. Since I like to think I’m not (overly) loyal to any specific brand or platform, I tend to watch all of the big tech announcements, and I came away from the ICS announcement quite impressed. It seemed that Android might finally be reaching a level of stability and UI smoothness that was on-par with the iPhone. Still, I wasn’t entirely sold on it – particularly as more and more Android handsets continued to come out with Android 2.3.

Beyond that, I honestly think I was just getting bored with iOS. As great and reliable as it is, it simply hasn’t changed that much in the last few years. The notification changes in iOS5 were welcome, but nothing I hadn’t personally been using since jailbroken iOS4. This is not necessarily a criticism of iOS, as this strategy is obviously working for Apple, but it just wasn’t inspiring me anymore – so, I started looking elsewhere. I briefly flirted with WP7, which I think is great in its own ways, but didn’t quite have the mature ecosystem I was looking for. Beyond that, after having had a retina display on my iPhone 4 and more recently on the new iPad, it was hard to imagine taking such a step back in resolution, even with something as otherwise-gorgeous as the Lumia 900.

Enter the HTC One X

I can’t remember when exactly I first started noticing the HTC One X. I want to say it was as early as CES, but all I knew for sure is that by the end of reading The Verge’s review, it had my full attention. The build quality seemed to be nearly on-par with my iPhone 4 (which had begun to rattle quite a bit around the camera area, not to mention the greatly-overblown-but-still-quite-real issue with reception), while offering a better screen, a better camera, and above-average battery life – the three things I really look for in phone hardware. In general, I can rely on Apple to make good hardware, but in this case, HTC took what I felt was a big step forward design-wise – it reminds me quite a bit of the Lumia 900 in that regard. I remember telling people “If this was the iPhone 5, I’d probably already own it.”

After much soul-searching, I decided that if I couldn’t wait until the new iPhone hardwareannouncement, I could at least wait for the new iPhone software announcement. As you’ve probably guessed based on the date this post was written, even that plan didn’t quite pan out. However, I did purposely time my purchase so that I would still have the option to return the phone after WWDC. So, a little over a month ago, I started the process of migrating ecosystems – most notably, I uploaded all my music from iTunes to Google Music. Most of the other services I used regularly were already multiplatform, with the notable exceptions of iCloud, Reminders and iMessage.

Interestingly, Apple was partially responsible for forcing my hand. I had decided I was definitely going to get a One X, and that it was just a matter of when it would happen…then I read the article on The Verge announcing that shipments of the One X had been held-up in customs due to the Apple/HTC lawsuit (http://www.theverge.com/2012/5/15/3022907/at-t-htc-one-x-blocked-at-us-customs-infringing-apple). Having no idea when this would be resolved, I quickly started calling AT&T stores, and found the closest one that still had a white model in stock. Two hours after reading the article, I was officially an Android owner.

First Impressions

I knew more or less what to expect when I got my hands on the phone – I’d spent enough time with friends’ Android phones that I was able to find my way around the interface pretty quickly, and nothing seemed any more or less intuitive than iOS. I’d also been to the AT&T store a couple of times to play with the store model, and I’d spent the last few days in XDA reading the General and Development threads – so my only two big questions were:

1. How much would the “Multitasking issue” impact me in my day-to-day activites?

and

2. Could I deal with such a significant screen-size change?

I quickly found that the answers were:

1. Not substantially

and

2. Definitely

It’s quite possible the One X’s approach to multitasking doesn’t bother me because I come from iOS, I’m not really sure, but overall, I haven’t encountered many frustrations. Slacker Radio seems a bit picky about running in the background, but that could also just be that it’s not a very well coded app. It also seems to run a bit better now that a big fix hsa come out.

Screen-wise, I am, without question, a convert into the Large Screen Club – it didn’t take long for me to go from the kind of person who would gladly mock the size of something like the Note, to thinking “Well, the Note is too big for me, but I can totally see why someone might want that.”

 

What I Like about Android

I could probably make an entire post dedicated just to the things I’ve found that I really enjoy about Android, but I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible. The big pluses for me really boil down to Customization (obviously) and Transparency (I’ll explain).

If you’ve used both iOS and Android, you know what I mean by customization. Just some personal examples: I enjoy widgets (though admittedly not as much as I thought I would), I love that I have immediate access to 10 different apps from my lockscreen, and I absolutely adore the beta for SwiftKey 3…and this is coming from someone who swore by the iOS keyboard for years.

Since I came from the jailbroken iOS world, I was used to at least some freedom of customization, but I’ve noticed a lot of iOS android-style customizations like live wallpapers, attempts at widgets, Springboard animations, Winterboard/Summerboard themes, custom keyboards, etc. will make iOS much more unstable and are often times more gimmicky than functional.

Stock iOS is generally more stable than stock Android (in my limited experience), but a heavily-modified jailbroken iOS is (in much much more extensive experience) generally less stable (and at times much laggier) than stock – or even rooted – Android. After all was said and done, the only real major tweaks I had left on my iPhone 4 were Intelliscreen X and Sprintomize, and those alone slowed down my phone to a noticeable level. Not only that, but my phone would fairly consistently re-spring. In the end, each tweak I added to iOS felt like another gamble. Overall for stability and performance I’d say:

Stock iOS > Stock ICS > Rooted ICS > Jailbroken iOS.

As for Android customization…as a personal example, after a few days, this was the first page of my Android homescreen. Things have changed subtantially now as I’ve adapted the phone to better fit my personal usage, but it still helps illustrate my point:

Androidscreenshot1_medium

There are a number of things in this picture that can only be done via iPhone jailbreaking, and even then, it may lead to a very unstable system. Just on this screen we have:

  1. App-specific status bar notification icons (note the Facebook and mail icons)
  2. Environment-specific status bar icons (plugged into USB, phone in vibrate mode, headphones plugged in, etc.)
  3. 7 apps in the dock, with ample screen space for all of them. As a bonus, the dock is scrollable.
  4. Instant access to current weather conditions
  5. One-tap access to toggles like WiFi, Bluetooth, and brightness.
  6. One-tap access to functionality like using a camera flash as a flashlight.

So, transparency. For some reason, this is the thing that ended up surprising me the most about Android – probably just because I’d never considered it until using it on a daily basis. The iPhone is a black box, both hardware-wise and software-wise. In contrast, I always feel like I know what my Android phone is doing, thanks to a combination of the built-in (and fantastic) battery and data monitoring tools, along with third-party apps like CPU Spy and BetterBatteryStats. These tools help me track down if any specific customization I’ve made might be impacting battery life or performance more than anticipated. Of course, you may argue that this doesn’t matter if you aren’t making major jailbreak-level customizations, and you’re right – but this is part of why I believe Android is more appealing than even jailbroken iOS.

This transparency doesn’t just apply to lower-level tweakers like me – to begin with, the status bar in Android is leaps and bounds above the one in iOS. Every app has a specific notification icon, so I know, at a glance, what has happened recently. Phone in silent mode? There’s an icon for that. Is an app or service is syncing in the background? There’s an icon for that. GPS satellites currently in use? There’s an icon for that. iOS, as a counter-point, has the general “location services” icon, but when it’s visible, it can mean any number of things. As an aside: the larger screen size of the One X shines here as well, since it gives the status bar much more room to breath – I always felt the iOS status bar was overly cramped.

The notification shade is another place where I think Android shines over iOS – I love the distinction between “ongoing” and “standard” notifications, adding another layer of transparency, and functionality-wise, dismissing notifications is much simpler than it is in iOS – one flick and a notification is gone. Or, if you prefer, one tap and they’re all gone. This may sound minor (and I admit it is), but dismissing notifications in iOS, particularly on the iPhone’s smaller screen, is an exercise in unnecessary frustration. Two-taps – if you’re lucky enough to accurately tap the “X” that appears – and that’s just for a single application.

Finally, Android’s “toast” messages are another way the OS is constantly in communication with the user. As a simple example – if I set an alarm, I get a toast notification telling me the alarm is set for X hours from now. Again, this isn’t exactly a huge platform-making-or-breaking feature, but for someone clumsy like me – who has set an alarm for PM instead of AM more than once – it’s nice to have the instant feedback.

There are other, obvious examples – the browsable file-system and the notification LED are big ones – but overall, I just feel like Android is more communicative to the user, which for my personal usage, is a big deal.

Obviously, none of these are reasons to go out and buy a phone…these are just specific, personal examples of ways in which Android fits my life better than iOS.

What I Miss About the iPhone

Surprisingly little – and I don’t say that with any malice or sarcasm. I legitimately expected to miss more about my ever-trusty iPhone 4…I put my own chances of returning the One X at about 50/50. I’d never been particularly impressed with the Android phones I’d handled before, and I’d always said that I valued stability and reliability more than anything else when it came to my phone.

Before the One X, I always thought my first Android device would be a tablet – I would argue to others, before having used both as a daily driver, that Android would make a better tablet OS and iOS would make a better phone OS, because above all you need a phone to be reliable. Now, post-ICS, I would say my positions have actually switched – Android (and WP 7) both excel at getting to information quickly through widgets and Live Tiles respectively, which is my primary use for a smartphone other than communication. Tablets, on the other hand, are generally used when I want to focus on a single task at a time (like draft this post or catch up on Google Reader). I don’t really need widgets or Live Tiles with a tablet OS, because I’m not going to be taking my tablet out of my pocket to check the weather or update Facebook. That’s not to say they don’t have any value, just that I don’t think information-at-a-glance is as useful on a tablet OS – not that I’d mind having a dashboard on my iPad.

So, what do I miss? Certain third-party apps, for one. There’s no Twitter app on Android that is anywhere near the quality of something like Tweetbot. The Google Reader app isn’t bad, but it doesn’t quite reach the same level as Reeder. For the most part, though, the quality of the apps I used the most on iOS are roughly on the same level on Android. I’d heard horror stories about the Android Facebook app, but I think the Android app runs as-good or better than the iOS app did on my iPhone 4. Some apps actually have more functionality – like Dropbox’s ability to automatically upload pictures in the background without needing to start the app. It’s also refreshing to see how much Android apps are allowed to communicate with one another – I no longer need a silly bookmarklet hack just to save a webpage to Pocket, for example.

thought I would miss the App Store, but Google Play (ugh, still a stupid name) has been just as easy to navigate, and I’ve found I like it even more than the App Store…I love that I can install applications directly from my browser, and that “root-only” apps are given equal visibility to all other apps, meaning you don’t have to dig through a special third-party app store just because you want to do something “unapproved” for stock.

I miss third-party accessory support. In fact, I still use my iPhone 4 daily, because I have an ANT+ heart rate monitor and an ANT+ iPhone dongle that I use to track my heart rate while I work out. Right now, there’s no real equivalent for Android.

I miss a few aspects of the iOS ecosystem – leaving the iOS ecosystem was actually my greatest fear, but it turns out I wasn’t nearly as tethered to it as I originally thought. Cloud was a great way of keeping apps on both iOS devices in sync, and Photo Stream was a convenient way to show pictures on my iPad that I’d taken with my iPhone (though Dropbox covers this need somewhat). I miss Reminders seamlessly syncing between my iPhone and iPad…I tried out some decent third-party cross-platform reminder/task applications like Astrid and Any.do, but I didn’t find any of them reliable enough to use for my personal use. In the end, I opted to just create a new Google Calendar for “tasks”, which works well enough. It doesn’t have geolocation-based reminder functionality, but I never really used that anyway. iMessage was a nice-to-have, but not everyone I know uses an iPhone, and a majority of my communication occurs through Google Talk. Also, to be honest, I found iMessage as frustrating as it was useful at times – often my message would end up getting sent as SMS due to network issues, and the distinction between iMessages sent to my phone number and iMessages sent to my Apple ID (finally resolved in IOS6, at least) was obnoxious.

WWDC didn’t do much to sway me back, either, unfortunately. I was willing to give it a chance, but it felt like Apple was once again playing catch-up…someone sarcastically referred to the release as “iOS 5S”, and it’s hard for me to disagree. On a personal note, I can’t say I was pleased to see the new turn-by-turn feature excluded from my perfectly capable iPhone 4, either. To be fair, I knew going into WWDC that I was going to need to see a significant revamp of the OS before I’d be willing to go back, and I didn’t really expect that to happen. Apple has a good thing going, and there’s no reason for them to throw that aside for tinkerers like me.

Finally, I will miss the Apple support system. Say what you will about the company, but my personal experience has been that their support – assuming you are within driving distance of an Apple store – is second to none.

Conclusion

So, what have I learned from all this? First of all, I’ve learned it’s never fair to judge a product until you’ve used that product for yourself – a lesson I should have learned a couple years ago, after calling the original iPad nothing more than a “giant iPod Touch”, only to end up buying (and greatly enjoying) one a couple months later. I knew Android was customizable, but I never really understood the full extent of that until owning one.

I learned that, despite what some people may want you to think, Android has come a long way, and ICS is finally approaching stock iOS-levels of stability and polish. I’ve also learned thatChris Ziegler was right back in December…if someone asked me what phone to buy, I’d tell them to buy an iPhone, for reasons he explained far more eloquently than I ever could. Of course, if they pressed me, I’d be happy to gush about the One X…but that brings me to my final point.

I’ve learned that iOS is what Apple wants it to be and Android is, for better or worse, what youmake of it. In the last 29 days:

 

  1. I have rooted my phone.
  2. I have gone from 9 homescreens full of widgets and app shortcuts, to 5 homescreens full of mostly widgets, and finally now to mimilistic approach with only 3 homescreens, one widget on each home screen with a custom lockscreen full of my most-used apps.
  3. I have installed Titanitum Backup and manually frozen bloatware and other unused Sense features.
  4. I have manually unlocked the bootloader, at the risk of bricking my phone.
  5. I’ve installed custom recovery tools.
  6. I’ve installed a couple of custom ROMs (CleanROM Lite 1.1 and CleanROM DE 2.3).
  7. I’ve flashed a new radio.

Can I honestly say I’d be as happy with my Android experience if I hadn’t gone through all of this? I don’t know. The stock Sense experience I started with a month ago was certainly not a bad one, but it also wasn’t as smooth as the custom ROM I am using today. I think I’d still be holding onto the One X, if only for the hardware, but I might be a bit more torn by the decision.

Am I worried that my phone may not get Jelly Bean or Key Lime Pie? Maybe a little, but right now, there’s not really much more I want out of the phone – and, as a tinkerer, I am already looking forward to a bright future with this device. There are enough customization options, even without custom ROMs, that I think it’ll take me quite awhile before getting bored again – I can always find a new way to mix things up and adopt it to my usage patterns. Once you start talking about custom ROMs (which are surprisingly easy to install), a whole new world opens up – a world I am eager to explore. Every day I feel like I’m learning new things – for instance, I discovered I could make my Foursquare app shortcut in the dock load directly into the “check in” page, rather than always starting on whatever page I last used. Since 99% of the time I’m opening the app, I’m doing so to check in somewhere, this is incredibly convenient for me.

Besides, my iPhone 4 isn’t going anywhere. I recently unlocked it through AT&T, and it’s still a part of my daily routine. There’s no small amount of comfort knowing that no matter what happens with my One X, I still have a great, reliable piece of hardware to fall back on.

Finally, I’ve learned that between the new iPad, great Android devices like the HTC One X, the new MacBook Pro, and the impending releases of Windows 8, (presumably) Windows 8 Phone, and the next-generation iPhone…it’s a fantastic time to be a gadget nerd like me, and no matter what you choose, it’s hard to go wrong.

Well, you know, unless you get a Blackberry.

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