Three weeks on the road with a iPad

I just got home from an almost-three week business trip to Shenzhen and Nice. I had to bring my bulky work laptop along, and so I decided to leave my MacBook Air at home and use the iPad for all of my personal stuff. I brought along the BlueTooth Keyboard and VGA-out adapter; the camera adapter kit wasn’t available when I left. So how did it work? And if I hadn’t had to lug the work laptop, could I have done it with just the iPad?
The short answer is no – certainly not with the current iPad software. Single-tasking is a real killer. I would fire up Skype on the iPad, start a voice call (and why isn’t there a camera?), and then realize that I needed to refer to an email message. The impulse to Cmd-Tab to switch to Mail was palpable. Eventually I got into the habit of using Skype on my iPhone for the voice call, leaving the iPad free to check email, PDFs, web, etc. So I was basically using two iPhone OS devices all the time. This is an expensive way of doing multitasking. And when I needed to simultaneously Skype and check email and take some notes, I had to break down and use the work laptop (still running Windows XP, of course).
The iPad certainly had some obvious advantages over a laptop. With no camera, and no USB slot, it passed scrutiny with the security people in various facilities. It was an excellent way of carrying around hundreds of PDF files in a convenient form factor, and displaying some of my presentations to a few colleagues. (But too many wound up getting mangled beyond readability.) It was excellent for note-taking and back-of-napkin sketching. And I passed the time on my long flights around the world by reading books using the Kindle iPad app and watching videos from iTunes U. (I particularly recommend the Stanford University EE380 Computer Systems Colloquium presentations.)
I found that I didn’t really use the BlueTooth keyboard very much, and I didn’t use the VGA-out at all. Like many, I had misunderstood this device, and didn’t realize that it was only supported by a handful of applications. If it supported full screen mirroring, it would be much more useful. Since I had no way of transferring pictures from my Nikon P90 to the iPad, I had to wait until I got home before I could email any photographs or upload them to MobileMe. (See Hong Kong here and the Marc Chagall museum here.) Fortunately I had an 8GB SD card, so I had plenty of space (I used about 2.3GB during the trip), but the delay was irritating.
At the end of the day, though, the most frustrating thing was the lack of a camera. The iPad ought to be the perfect video-chat device, and the lack of a camera is inexcusable. Video calls via Skype are one of the few ways of making long business trips tolerable, and I didn’t realize how much I missed them.
So the iPad remains a great portable media player, ebook reader, and casual web browser. But on my next business trip I’ll be taking my MacBook Air along….
UPDATE: Ron asks me why I use the Kindle-on-iPad app; why not just convert everything to ePub format and use the iPad’s native Reader? The answer is that I own a Kindle, and I also use the Kindle iPhone app. I like to be able to read on whichever device is handy, and have Amazon keep my reading position in sync across all of the devices. I’m also anachronistically straitlaced about licensing and copyrights: once I’ve decided to buy some content under a license, I will not violate that license. I don’t strip DRM, or rip copy-protected DVDs, or anything like that. If I’m not willing to live with the consequences, I’m not going to sign a contract.

Yes, I did get an iPad

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I have an abiding interest in portable network devices, dating back to the MS-DOS based HP 100 with a packet wireless modem in the early 1990’s. Things like the Sharp Zaurus showed promise, but quickly disappointed as they failed to garner adequate market share to create a viable ecosystem. Recently I’ve been relying on mobile phones: iPhones in the USA, and a G1 Android in China and Europe. I’ve also untethered my MacBook Air by equipping it with a 3G USB modem, of which more anon.
This morning at 7am I lined up with the other faithful at the Apple store in Palo Alto, and around 9:05 I was clutching my 32GB iPad and tendering my long-suffering Visa card to the applauding (really!) Apple employee. And right now I’m composing this blog entry on the iPad using the WordPress app.
My first reaction is that Apple have got it pretty much dead right. Sure, there are some areas that could be improved, but in general it feels natural and harmonious. As Stephen Fry wrote in his review in Time, this is the kind of device that Douglas Adams would have approved of. Don’t Panic. The FOSS bigots have got this wrong: I don’t care that this is relatively closed, any more than I care that my DVD player is closed. It’s an easy to use information appliance.
How about the applications? iBook is sweet, though it’s no Kindle-killer – indeed the Kindle app for the iPad has most of the same usability features. The Netflix app is wonderful, and is going to change the way I watch movies. The ability to run existing iPhone apps is a nice bridge, but after a while I found myself going through and removing a large number of apps that iTunes had brought over for me. This isn’t a phone, and I don’t expect presence- and location-based apps will be very important. (However I was pleased to see that Skype just worked!)
So what about communications? You’ll note that I didn’t wait for the 3G version of the iPad. The key for me is that I want to be able to use this device anywhere in the world, especially in China. So I’ve taken my AT&T USB 3G modem, paired it with a portable WiFi hotspot from Cradlepoint, and I can use this to provide net access for any of my WiFi devices (and those of colleagues). When I get to China, I will substitute a China Mobile 3G modem, and my iPad and laptop(s) will be able to connect without fussing with SIM cards.
Best touch: the “rotation lock” switch. Most annoying: the fact that it’s almost impossible to get the iPad out of the rubbery (and rather ugly) Apple case.
UPDATE: In response to a couple of queries:

  • I’m currently on a 5120 MB/month plan from AT&T which costs me $60. The modem was effectively free after rebate. I don’t expect to use that much data, but we’ll see.
  • All the PDF files I’ve tried display just fine in portrait and landscape modes.There are several reasonably-priced PDF reader apps which claim to give a more iBook-like experience.
  • As for viewing AVI files, I haven’t tried – see this thread at MacRumors.

Rockford Fosgate "Punch Plugs" Headphones

What follows is the review I posted to as part of the “Vine” program. Disclaimer: I received the item in question for free, but those who follow my reviews will know that this doesn’t affect the objectivity of my assessments.

Over the years I’ve tried (and reviewed) many headphones. I travel a lot, and so I need headphones that will work well in planes, when I’m listening to the movie or simply playing soothing stuff to help me sleep. I also find myself walking through strange cities, with the soundtrack provided by my portable music device du jour. (These days, that’s my iPhone, of course.) And when I’m trying to crank out a document, or some code, I’ll often block out the world with the right kind of music.
None of the headphones that come for free – with devices, or from airlines – seem any good at all, so naturally the after-market is vibrant. I’ve swung back and forth between in-ear and over-the-ear phones: from the Bose QC2 to the Philips HN060/37. Those are both noise-cancelling units, but I’ve also tried passive devices like the Rivet phones. On my last trip to China, my cheap Skullcandy Earbuds died and I picked up a pair of overpriced Sennheiser CX300-B’s. Frustrating.
But then Amazon sent me a pair of the Rockford Fosgate Punch earbuds. And I’m in heaven. Superb fit, glorious full sound, crunching bass where appropriate. The flat “ribbon” cable is really different: obviously it doesn’t tangle like regular wires, but I also expect that it will be less likely to fray under repeated flexing. We’ll see.
No, there isn’t a microphone, so I can’t use this to make or take calls on my iPhone. But that’s a small price to pay for such wonderful sound and comfort.

Camera test: Panasonic DMC-TZ4 v. JVC Everio GZ-HM200 v. Nikon Coolpix P90

After weighing up the alternatives (literally and figuratively) I’ve picked up a Nikon Coolpix P90. It definitely falls into the “ultrazoom” category, at 12.1MP and 24x zoom. This morning I headed out to Charleston Slough and Shoreside Lake to compare the Nikon with my existing compact camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4. While I was about it, I decided to toss my digicam (the JVC Everio that I blogged about last year) into the bag. It has a “photo” mode, auto-stabilization, and a fairly impressive 20x zoom; the downside is the small (2MP) image size.
The forecast was for sun, but the NWS lied: it was ten-tenths cloud. Nevertheless there were a lot of birds – and bird-watchers! – out this morning.
You can see a collection of more-or-less comparable shots in the MobileMe gallery here. Most were taken at 1x followed by maximum zoom. After taking these, I wandered around the margin of the slough, having fun with the Nikon. There are some pictures of waders, ducks, and a hummingbird in this gallery here. The zoom is simply amazing, although at full stretch you can see that many subjects are less crisp than one would like, even with optical stabilization in effect. I think it’s time to (1) pick up a monopod or tripod, and (2) experiment with camera features like “BSS”, which takes a series of shots, analyzes the results, and keeps only the crispest.
This is the first new camera I’ve got since July 2008, when I blogged about the Panasonic here. Overall, I think I’m going to have fun with the Nikon. I particularly like this pair of shots of exactly the same scene:
Wetlands with egret (1x) Wetlands with egret (24x)

Bird photography on the cheap (?cheep)

Last summer I moved to Palo Alto, where I live in the middle of the urban sprawl that runs from San Francisco down to San Jose. One urgent need was to find a good place to go for walks, away from the traffic and the concrete, even if it meant a short drive. The answer was to return to an old favourite location: the Baylands Nature Preserve and the many trails that wind around Charleston Slough at the edges of San Francisco Bay. Charleston Slough“Old favourite”, because during my many years at Sun Microsystems, I would often visit the SunLabs building (MTV29), and the parking lot behind the building backed right on to Shoreline Lake. On many occasions I would wrap up a day’s work in MTV29 and then go for a walk around the Slough (often before heading up to SFO to catch the red-eye home to BOS.)
Which brings me to birds, and photography. The wetlands around Charleston Slough are a mecca for birdwatching. Egrets, pelicans, ducks of many different kinds and colours, waders, insect-eaters… every visit brings something new. New, interesting, and usually several hundred feet away! (Though there are some incredibly tame fearless egrets at Shoreline Lake.) And frankly my current camera – the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4 – doesn’t really hack it. The 10x zoom is fine for day-to-day stuff, but it’s not going to let me distinguish between the various kinds of ducks or waders out in the wetlands.
The obvious answer would be to grit my teeth and spend the money to get a DSLR with a couple of decent lenses. Obvious, but expensive: at least a kilobuck, all in. And I’m intrigued by the recent emergence of ultrazoom point-and-shoots. Things like the Olympus SP-590UZ (26x), the Nikon Coolpix P90 (24x), or the forthcoming Fujifilm FinePix HS10 (30x!). All of these look like much more affordable (and less fiddly) solutions to the problem.
Recommendations, anyone?

My iPhone apps of 2009

Following Adrian’s example, here are the iPhone apps that I use most often. I’ll skip the basics, like Mail, Calendar, iTunes, and so forth.

  • Travel: Currency, iBART, KTdict-CE (Chinese dictionary), Mandarin Chinese Pro, My Caltrain, TripIt Travel Organizer
  • Games: Bejeweled 2, Dragon Portals, Gem Spinner, Moxie, Rogue Touch, Scrabble
  • Information: Formula 1 2009, NPR News, NY Times, Wikipanion
  • Communications: Facebook, MobileRSS for Google, Skype, Twittelator
  • Other: Amazon Mobile, AppBox Pro, iHandy Level Free, Instant Queue Add for Netflix, Kindle for iPhone, WordPress 2

And the biggest disappointments among my iPhone apps:

  • FAIL: Civilization Revolution, Harbor Master, TweetDeck for iPhone

Stuff fails

Last week I awoke to a nasty surprise: my Apple Time Capsule had died. I’ve been using it for about three years, as both WiFi access point and back-up disk, and I was dimly aware of reports that early TC’s had a nasty habit of failing when they were out of warranty, but of course nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition it to happen to them. But it did. And as I tweeted, the replacement was quickly installed: an Airport Extreme WiFi access point, an external Iomega 1TB hard disk for backups, and an extra Airport Express to make sure that I had good coverage throughout the apartment.
And that was that. Or rather, it wasn’t. Because both of us had (ahem) used the Time Capsule for more than simple backup. We’d used it as a convenient way of sharing data, especially photographs and genealogical data. And so there was a lingering “action item” to try to recover what was on the TC hard drive.
This morning I received a request for a photograph: one which I knew was on the TC. I got the Time Capsule off the Shelf Of Dead Electronics and… well, on a whim, I decided to plug it in. To my surprise, the light came on! WTF? I quickly unplugged it before it could complete POST and try to take over my WiFi network. Naturally, when I came home this evening, I tried plugging it in again. Nothing. Not a flicker. And then I read the various descriptions of TC failures, and realized that the most likely cause was a capacitor in the power supply, and that such a failure might well taunt me with a random flicker.
So I’ve just completed disassembling the TC, and removing the Hitachi Deskstar HD. Tomorrow I will stop at Fry’s and pick up a 3.5″ AT enclosure, so that I can try mounting the disk on my Mac Mini. I’m not worried about the Time Machine backups – those have been recreated – but I hope I can get the other data off it.
UPDATE #1: After reading this MacRumors thread, I’m going to be extra careful in choosing a HD enclosure. Apparently many of them have feeble power supplies that can’t meet the start-up demands of the Hitachi disk. (The label says that it needs “5V 680mA 12V 850mA”, which is comfortably less than the 2A that most supplies are spec’d for. However I bet that’s steady-state current, not the start-up suckage.)
UPDATE #2: I wound up getting a generic SATA enclosure made by Sabrent. It was a returned item, so I paid only $23.74. It turned out that the TC HD was carved up into two small admin partitions and a partition called “Time Capsule”. One of the subdirectories had been written from Windows, and even though the permissions looked OK, I couldn’t read or copy it, so I had to chown/chmod the whole thing before I could recover it. Otherwise, no problems.

San Juan Bautista

Here are some photos from San Juan Bautista, taken on our visit on Labor Day weekend, 2009. San Juan Bautista interiorThey are mostly shots of (and in) the buildings making up the National Park. The final pictures show the San Andreas Fault just below the Mission: you can see how the path has been displaced laterally by as much as 50 feet when it crosses the fault.
This was also the first reasonably long run we’ve tried in the Prius. We told the navigation system where to take us, and it did, competently. However the way that the voice instructions were mixed in with the music from the CD changer was definitely odd. Overall it was very comfortable: the Touring package definitely improves ride and handling.
One thing that remains a challenge is the voice command mode. At first I thought that it was simply my odd, British accent. (I told the system to “Call Kate” and it responded by saying that it was “Setting temperature to 80 degrees”!) But it couldn’t understand Kate either. Time to dig out the manual, I guess.


Just installed Eclipse and the Android SDK on my Mac Mini, plugged in the G1 that I bought in China, and built and debugged a couple of really simple apps – first in the emulator, then on the phone. That felt good.


I had been warned before coming to China that real coffee was hard to find, and quite expensive. Those who know me and my caffeine dependency might have wondered how I would survive.

I arrived here in Shenzhen with a pound of espresso-ground coffee from Starbucks in Santa Barbara and an Aerobie Aeropress. Unfortunately I left the measuring scoop behind, so I had to wait until breakfast this morning, when I was able to grab a few (disposable) soup spoons. Finally, before settling down to work back in the hotel this afternoon, I made the first cup of coffee that I’ve had since I arrived here.
The Aeropress works beautifully. I had calibrated the kettle, so that I knew how long it would take to get close to the magic 175°F. (They recommend “three-quarters of the time to bring to the boil”.) I think I used a bit less coffee than I should have (what’s “two scoops” in Chinese soup-spoons?), but I followed the directions exactly, and the result was excellent: smooth, great flavour, no bitterness, good colour, perfect crema. The trick is in keeping the pressure gentle, and not rushing it. And clean-up is trivial.
Highly recommended. With any luck, my blood-caffeine level should now be inching towards the “operating” range….