Who Needs An Apple Tablet?

Rumors that Apple is building a tablet computer have reached a fever-pitch over the past six months. The basic gist is it will have a 7 inch screen and run a version of the iPhone OS making a good chunk of the apps available to also run on this new tablet. But why do we even need such a thing?

This thing sounds too big to be carried around with you wherever you go like an iPhone or iPod Touch but too small for long periods of work. It almost seems like it is aimed at two lifestyles: 1) Frequent flyers, 2) a TV watching companion device. This sounds just like the MacBook Air which was introduced on January 15, 2008.

I wonder, how long the battery will last in order to power a 7 inch display? And what extra functionality will this bring to our lives? According to one rumor blog, Apple Insider,

“The tablet is expected to be portrayed as a multimedia device capable of browsing the Web, watching movies, and reading content.”

Wow, you mean just like my laptop of today? Again, why is everyone getting worked up over this?

There have also been rumors swirling that the iPhone is coming to Verizon, which seems less likely from a technical stance (CDMA vs. GSM). I think if we ever see an Apple/Verizon partnership it will be for a data plan for this tablet device so you can use the web wherever you go. Verizon currently does this with a few netbooks, though it is a horrible deal. $199.99 + a 2 year contract of at least $39.99 per month ($1,159.75 total), all for a dinky, underpowered netbook that retails for $399.99 on HP’s own site.

So the idea of an Apple tablet looks lackluster from my point of view pre-announcement. Maybe Apple has a card up its sleeve when it announces the device and the world will wonder how we lived in the pre-tablet era. Perhaps this post will go down in Apple fanboy history just like all the negative reactions when Apple first introduced the iPod in October, 2001. Or maybe the Apple Tablet will just fade away into gadget history just like the Apple Hi-Fi.

“Great just what the world needs, another freaking MP3 player. Go Steve! Where’s the Newton?!”

—WeezerX80’s reaction to the announcement of the iPod.

The Touch Book From Always Innovating

Always Innovating announced a new tablet/netbook hybrid today at the DEMO conference. What’s unique about this tiny notebook is the detachable tablet screen that has a magnetic backing so you can stick it to a refrigerator and turn it into an instant wall computer. Both the tablet half and the keyboard half have their own battery which is being touted to last for 10-15 hours. It is designed to be always on just like a cell phone and with 10 hours in between charges, it will probably surpass my T-Mobile Dash. Unlike most other netbooks on the market today, the Touch Book uses an ARM chip instead of a “power-hungry” Intel Atom processor.

The Touch Book by Always Innovating is a sleek netbook/tablet hybrid

The included operating system will be a Linux derivative developed by Always Innovating featuring a unique 3D UI. But since the device is open source, according to their FAQ you could “install many OSes on the device, including Google Android, Ubuntu, Angstrom and Windows CE, though we would not recommend the latter.” If it can run the gorgeous looking Jolicloud OS from Netvibes founder Tariq Krim then I’m sold. Who needs an Apple netbook anyway?

Jolicloud mixes desktop and cloud software with large icons that make it easier on Netbook users.

I don’t believe any of the tech media has had a chance for a hands on review, but I’m anxious if this device lives up to it’s hype. Coming in at $399 for the tablet and keyboard or $299 for just the tablet, this little ultra portable really piques my interest. It is expected to ship in May or June of this year but is available for pre-order now.

Speaking of ultra-portables, I was at a Microcenter over the weekend and I happened to see a Fujitsu LifeBook U820. This thing was tiny! The dimensions are 6.73″ x 6.14″ with a 5.6″ screen. I had to squint to see my mouse cursor and the keyboard was just small enough for fat-finger mashing. Sometimes there is such a thing as “too small.” The scary thing is it runs Windows Vista Business. Pocketables.net has a good picture of it in use.

The Fujitsu Lifebook U820 requires tiny fingers.

Other coverage of the Touch Book:

T-Mobile Has 3G But No Phones

T-Mobile has had their 3G service up and running for over a month here in DC. My 2 year contract that I got with my T-Mobile Dash expired on Halloween of this year. So technically you could say I’m in the market for a new cell phone. The problem is there aren’t any phones that I’m particularly excited about. I would like a 3G QWERTY keyboard phone that I can surf the web and take pictures with. It sounds simple, but there are surprisingly few options.

There are only two official phones from T-Mobile that meet those needs: the Samsung Behold and the T-Mobile G1. The Behold lacks Wifi and the supposed real web browsing is mediocre. The G1 is the new Android-powered phone that everyone made such a hoopla about a month ago. A friend of mine has a G1 and says the battery life is abysmal. After playing with it for a couple of minutes I felt impressed but not knock-me-down I must have this NOW. If I did get a G1, I would certainly get it from Walmart where it sells for $50 less than T-Mobile.

T-Mobile G1

Other options include an unlocked Nokia phone. The E71 looks like a great contender though it is more expensive and doesn’t support T-Mobile’s 3G spectrum. Drats!

Nokia E71

Looks like I’ll just keep on waiting for something more interesting to come along. I mean is a 3G QWERTY phone with decent battery life too much to ask for?

Steve Jobs Cannot Design A Mouse

Over the weekend I began reading Inside Steve’s Brain by Leander Kahney which has given me an insight into the control-freak that is Steve Jobs. Take the design of the mouse for the first Mac computer:

“Jobs paid close attention to every detail. Even the mouse was designed to reflect the shape of the computer: it has the same dimensions, and its single square button corresponds to the shape and placement of the screen.”

Macintosh SE and the ADB mouse were designed with the same proportions in mind.

Fast forward 24 years and when I go to use the Mighty Mouse connected to my fiance’s 24″ iMac I find the scrollball unwilling to scroll down. The gray nipple-like scroll mechanism might have been good on paper but after just a year of normal, everyday use the thing becomes flaky and useless. About every other week I need to flip the mouse upside down and rub the scroll ball vigorously along the length of my finger to restore functionality (video demonstration). In extreme cases when that doesn’t work I apply a dab of rubbing alcohol on the ball and gently turn the ball around in all possible directions to scrub the runners clean. Some people have even taken the Mighty Mouse apart in order to clean it. Since Apple’s products have won numerous industrial design awards, it escapes me how the mouse has been so neglected considering it is one of the most frequently used input devices on a computer.

The Mighty Mouse wasn’t the first unsuccessful mouse released by the Cupertino company. In 1998 to coincide the release of the first iMac, Apple created the USB Mouse which became known as the “hockey puck”. While considered stylish with it’s translucent colors and circular design the USB mouse was actually very uncomfortable to use. Third parties released USB to ADB converters so people could use the older, more comfortable Apple mouses with their new iMac computers. There was even an adaptive shell called the iCatch which elongated the circular mouse making it more comfortable to hold and similar looking to the old Desktop Mouse II.

The Apple USB mouse that came with new iMacs looked and felt like a hockey puck.

So while Apple dared to be different by making computers that were easy to use while being gorgeous to look at, their mice could never compare. But on the other hand the trackpads on Apple’s new MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops are marvelously responsive and a joy to use. Apple is at the top of it’s game when it comes to user inputs on non-desktop products. Perhaps Steve Jobs should ditch the whole mouse concept and bundle his desktops with a USB powered trackpad. That would certainly be better than licensing the trademark of a popular cartoon series to tack on to a crappy product.

Finger gestures make using an Apple laptop easy.

P.S. I had to “clean” the trackball 3 times while writing this blog post.

Microsoft’s Zune 80 Is A Joy

Around the end of October my Creative Zen Vision:M suddenly died on me during my morning commute. It’s no surprise that the player finally pooped out after being with me every workday for 2+ hours a day since I got it on Christmas, 2006. It was a fine media player and I would have gotten another one except Creative wasn’t making them anymore. Besides, the new Zunes were out with better features at a much cheaper price. So naturally I decided to “join the social.”

One of my favorite features of the Zune is how it keeps your place in the song or video after powering down. This makes it a breeze to pick up where you left off without fuddling around with bookmarks and now I don’t even hesitate listening to a podcast for a short drive. With my Creative Zen Vision:M I would spend more time loading and saving my place than driving on short trips. This feature is not important if you listen to music most of the time, but a podcast junkie like myself is always starting and stopping episodes and it is a relief to have a player take care of marking the place in my audio and video files for me.

Zune 80 Front and Center

The physical design of the Zune 80 is compact and simple. The player consists of two buttons, a large 3.5″ screen and a squircle for navigating. The squircle is a combination of a touch surface and button interface. Using your thumb you can flick up or down to move through list items just like an iPhone or press up or down for more precise navigation. Holding one edge of the squircle down will gradually speed up the seeking of a list when you need to go through a lot of items. To help you stay oriented as songs scroll by, the player will show the first letter of the track in a big, easy to read font so you know when to slow down. Basic categorization like Artists and Genre is available along the top which is accessed by moving left to right. To the right of the squircle is a play/pause button which is also used as an on/off switch when held down. On the other side is a back button. Navigating around the Zune is a real pleasure and a big improvement over the Zen player I was previously using.

The dimensions are pretty much like any other hard-drive based media player on the market. The Zune 80 is thinner than my Zen Vision:M and is probably just as thin as an iPod but I don’t notice the difference during everyday use. The player fits in my backpack and in my jacket pocket and that is all I really need to carry it

A Zune 30 would have been sufficient for my needs at the discounted price and with the newer Zune 2.0 interface, but the newer Zune 80 packs better video hardware. Formerly left to transcode MP4 files for playback on my Zen, the Zune has no problem playing these processor intensive video formats natively. Lots of podcasters offer their video up in the iPod-friendly MP4 files and since I have a device that supports the codec, a bigger selection of content is available to me. With the latest firmware update, I can now unsubscribe from a podcast feed right inside the player on the go making it easy to sample new podcasts without the extra hassle of managing feeds. When I dock the Zune with my host computer, the Zune software automatically adds the new content and removes the media I watched or listened to as well as updates any podcast feeds I have marked ‘unsubscribe’.

Using the squircle on the Zune 80

Speaking of the software, the Zune 2.0 software is good enough for syncing media to your device but falls short in a lot of areas. For one, it is resource intensive causing my machine to slow down considerably when using it. To be fair, my 4 year old computer doesn’t meet the recommended requirements but I still didn’t think the software would be a big resource hog. If you don’t use the official Zune 2.0 syncing software then you are out of luck as any third party software is locked out from managing the Zune hardware. I would prefer to use the excellent Media Monkey software for organizing and syncing my media but since the Zune uses proprietary drivers, there looks to be little anyone can do to break the tie with Microsoft.

Once you have your media set-up, the software isn’t that difficult. At first there were issues with duplicate podcast episodes showing up but as I made my way through the unplayed media, the issue sorted itself out. The Zune does a great job at staying synced with my computer. I just have to plug the Zune to the USB connector and off it goes with little intervention for me. I haven’t tried using the wireless syncing yet. In face I have turned the wireless capabilities off for the time being because I have never found another Zune device nearby and I would rather save the battery power than send out messages to my non-existent Zune neighbors. But one powerful feature about the wireless capabilities in the Zune has gone unnoticed. Wireless sync only works when the player is charging. Since I only have the included USB cable which connects to my computer, it doesn’t make sense for me to use wireless sync. But if I had a the Zune dock that connects to your TV than what I basically have is an Apple TV that I can carry in my pocket. Think about it. The Zune 80 will sync wirelessly with your computer and can output video to a standard definition TV at full resolution. Anything you can watch in your pocket, you can easily enjoy on a larger TV parked in front of a comfy couch. What’s not to love about that?

My biggest complaint about the Zune is there is no obvious comfortable way to hold it, especially when watching videos. The rectangular design is simple and makes great use of the space, but there is no place to put your hands. The best way I found to handle the Zune 80 is to rest the bottom corners in the web between your thumb and the index finger of both hands. Similar to holding a book.

This is the best way to hold a Zune 80

A must have accessory for the Zune is the leather case. Not only does it protect the player from outside abuse, but it gives you something to hold on to while watching videos. The squircle pokes through but the buttons are covered but usable through the brown leather case. A large flap goes over the device to protect the screen when not in use and is secured by a magnet. It’s easy to open and stays out of your way while using the Zune.

Microsoft Zune 80 with premium leather case

If Microsoft is listening, they really need an accessory that lets you control the device while it is tucked away in a backpack. Creative had a wired remote control that allowed you to play/pause, change tracks, and adjust the volume all by a little dongle that goes between your headphones and the player. This was a dream to have on morning commutes with my Zen in my backpack and the remote clipped to my shirt. A wireless version would be cool but dealing with a battery to keep it charged sounds like a big hassle.

After a month of using the Zune 80 and putting it through it’s paces, I am really happy with my purchase. Every morning I wake up with glee knowing that my commute will not be a dull, monotonous one-hour train ride thanks to my slick media player to keep me informed and entertained. If a digital media player is part of your daily life then you will know how important it is to compare what is on the market and find the best player for your needs. Apple vs. Microsoft politics aside, the Zune is a fantastic device that I could enthusiastically recommend to any media junkie I meet. Don’t let the trash talking sway you, as I truly believe the Zune 80 is the best portable media player out on the market right now.

Update: On January 8th, after writing the bulk of this review, my Zune suffered a software crash as I was walking home from work. The podcast that I was listening to suddenly stopped and the screen read “Could not play track”. Thinking it was a problem with just the MP3 file itself, I tried to play a song from my music library. When I selected play from an album view my player froze and became unresponsive to any button mashing I attempted. When I got in front of my computer I looked up the hard reset button combo which requires holding the back button and the top of the squircle. This Microsoft knowledge base article details everything you need to know. Upon reboot I was greeted with this lovely message, “To recover from an error, Zune must erase all content.” The only option was to hit “OK” by pressing the middle of the squircle. The media player would then reboot and this process continued forever in an endless loop.

After digging around on the net for a better solution, I decided my only course of action was to replace the firmware and completely wipe out my nearly 40GB collection. Following these arcane directions, I managed to get my Zune back to its factory default. It then took me all night to reload all of the songs from my library back onto my fresh Zune.

I suspect this crash was due to a hard drive glitch and I can’t really blame Microsoft for the fragile nature of hard drive based portable media players. Problems like this will eventually be a thing of the past once solid state flash memory, which has no moving parts, comes down in price. For now I thought it was important to add this addendum to the review of what problems can happen after normal use out in the wild.

666th Zune Fan

I just joined the official Zune group on Facebook the other day and when I looked at the number of fans I saw this…

Zune 666

I’m sure lots of Zune haters will get a kick out of any reference to Hell and the Microsoft device. I am actually a fan and my review will be coming in a couple of days.