Monthly Archives: December 2011

An Apple iPad Christmas

The Apple iPad had a stunning Christmas – at least, it did in my part of the world.

A key factor was that EA Games decided to offer a range of classic board games adapted as iPad apps for 69p ($0.90)  each. So for less than the cost of a takeaway pizza I downloaded Scrabble, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Risk.

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The games are not perfect – Scrabble accepts all sorts of odd words and US spellings, for example – but they are official licensed versions, nicely implemented, and a lot of nostalgic fun, which is the idea after all.

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Trivial Pursuit supports in-game purchases for extra questions, so that could work out more expensive eventually, but nobody could complain about the value.

It is not quite the full board game experience, with wine spilt on the pieces, junior tipping over the board in disgust, and game abandoned early because it is time to visit grandma, but the changes are mostly for the better.

One thought: this is another example of how well a tablet substitutes for physical things. A book, a board game, a photo album: the iPad is a better replacement than a PC or laptop, easily passed round, long battery life, no flapping screen, and a more natural user interface.

I am not sure what are the economics of selling games at 69p, but no doubt EA has drawn the graphs. Currently EA 69p games occupy four of the “Top Paid iPad Apps” category slots in the UK store.

Of course I am interested in the big picture. Looking at user reviews of Android equivalents like Monopoly I get the impression that there are more bugs, partly because EA has a dedicated iPad verson for these games whereas the Android versions are universal across multiple screen sizes, and partly because there are more OS versions and hardware differences to accommodate.

What about other tablets or new entrants to the market like Windows 8 in 2012? Prising users away from their Apple devices will not be easy, though I still think Microsoft has chances if it plays to its strengths in business applications.

Running Windows on an Apple iPad

I love the convenience of the iPad but there are times when I miss Windows apps. It is not just for work; there is nothing on the iPad to rival Jack Bridge, for example.

The solution is to run Windows on the iPad via remote desktop.

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Most versions of Windows have remote desktop built-in, though you do need to install a client on the iPad. I have tried several and settled for the moment on Mocha RDP. If you tap the up arrow at bottom right, you get a toolbar which controls the on-screen keyboard, extra keys useful for Windows, and a menu with options including a macro of pre-defined keystrokes. It even works with my cheap iPad keyboard.

The downside of this approach is that Windows needs to be running somewhere on your network. However Mocha RDP supports wake on lan, so you can turn it on remotely; note that this normally needs to be activated in the PC BIOS.

In my case I already run a Hyper-V server, a free download. I have installed Windows 7 on a VM (virtual machine), so it is always available.

The iPad also supports VPN (Virtual Private Network), so given a decent broadband connection I could connect to Windows while out and about. Alternatively there are systems like LogMeIn which do not require a VPN, though you have to install the LogMeIn agent on the target PC.

The general approach makes a lot of sense to me. Technically it is a hybrid thin/thick client approach. An iPad or other tablet is smart and has its own local apps and storage, but does not attempt to provide the full capabilities of a PC or Mac. When you need that, you can log into a remote desktop.

It is another example of how the mobile revolution is making us rethink how we do computing. The thin client concept is nothing new, but it is only now that it is becoming compelling for users as well as administrators, giving them the convenience of a tablet as well as access to rich applications like Microsoft Office.

Microsoft no doubt has its own plans for combining tablets with desktop-as-a-service. I would guess that it involves Windows 8 on ARM; but it will take some effort to tempt users away from their iPads.

Review: my bargain iPad Bluetooth keyboard from a Chinese market

During my recent visit to Beijing I went along to the Hong Qiao market. It was quite an experience, with lots of fun gadgets on display, mostly fake but with plenty of good deals to be had.

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I did not buy much but could not resist an iPad Bluetooth keyboard. I have been meaning to try one of these for a while. The one I picked is integrated into a “leather” case.

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The packaging is well future-proofed:

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Of course I had to haggle over the price, and we eventually settled on ¥150, about £15.00 or $24.00.

It comes with a smart 12-page manual, which you will enjoy if you like slightly mangled English, though there are some small differences between the product and the manual. A power LED is described in the manual but seems not to exist. The manual makes a couple of references to Windows and in fact the keyboard does also work with Windows, but there is nothing silly like a Windows key and this really is designed for the iPad.

No manufacturer is named, which is odd as the vendor insisted that it is “original”, though the box does say “Made in China”.

The design is straightforward. The iPad slots in to what becomes the top flap of the case. Open the case, and you can set the iPad into an upright position for typing. The lower flap of the case has a magnetic clasp, which works fine. It is a bit of a nuisance though as it gets a little in the way when you are in typing mode. You cannot fold it back to tuck it out of the way.

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I noticed a few blemishes in the case; possibly I had a second-grade example.

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But I have not found any technical problems.

The unit is supplied with a micro USB cable for charging. It did not take long to charge and I think was already half-charged when I purchased.

Here is a closer look at the keyboard itself.

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Once charged, you turn on the power and pair it to your iPad by pressing the Connect button. I had a little difficulty with this until I discovered that you must press down until you feel a distinct click, then it goes into pairing mode. If you then go into the iPad’s Bluetooth settings you will see the keyboard as an available device. Connect, and you are prompted with a code. Type this code on the keyboard to complete the pairing.

The power switch on the keyboard is impossibly small and fiddly to use. If you know how small is a standard micro USB socket you will get the scale in this picture:

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So can you just leave the keyboard on? The keyboard claims a standby time of 100 days, so maybe that will be OK, though the manual warns:

When you are finished using your keyboard or you will be required after the keyboard to carry, so don’t forget to set aside the keyboard to switch the source OFF, turn off the keyboard’s power to extend battery life.

Note: When you normally using the keyboard, or if you are not using the keyboard and didn’t turn off the power switch, please don’t fold or curly, so you will have been working at the keyboard, it will greatly decrease you using the keyboard.

I think this means that turning it off is recommended.

Now the big question: how is it in use? It is actually pretty good. I can achieve much faster text input with the keyboard than using the on-screen option, and it is great to see your document without a virtual keyboard obscuring half the screen.

The keyboard is the squishy type and claims to be waterproof. In fact:

It is waterproof, dustproof, anti-pollution, anti-acid, waterproof for silicone part

according to the manual, as well as having:

Silence design, it will not affect other people’s rest.

which is good to know.

The keyboard has a US layout, but shift-3 gets me a £ sign and alt-2 a € symbol so I am well covered.

There are a number of handy shortcut keys along the top which cover brightness, on-screen keyboard display, search, iTunes control, and a few other functions. There is a globe key that I have not figured out; it looks as if it should open Safari but it does not. There are also Fn, Control, Alt and Command keys, cursor keys, and Shift keys at left and right. Most of the keyboard shortcuts I have seen listed for iPad keyboards in general seem to work here as well.

Learning keyboard shortcuts is one of things you need to do in order to get the best from this. For example, press alt+e and then any vowel to get an acute accent, press alt+backtick and then any vowel to get a grave accent, and so on. Finding the right shortcuts is a bit of an adventure and I have more to discover. Not everything is covered; I have not found any way to apply bold from the keyboard in Pages, for example. I would also love to find an equivalent to alt-tab on Windows, which switches through running apps. There is a Home key which you can double-tap, but then you have to tap the screen to select an app (unless you know better).

I am pleased with the keyboard, though given the defects in the case and irritations like the tiny power switch it is not really a huge bargain. I find it thought-provoking though. Is iPad + keyboard all I need when on the road, or have I just recreated an inferior netbook? The size and weight is not much different.

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Unlike some, I do still see value in the netbook, which has a better keyboard, a battery life that is nearly as good (at least it was when new), handy features like USB, ethernet and VGA ports, and the ability to run Microsoft Office and other Windows apps.

I am also finding that while I like the iPad keyboard for typing, the integrated case has a downside. If you just want to use the iPad as a tablet, the keyboard gets in the way. Maybe a freestanding Bluetooth keyboard is better, like the official Apple item, though that means another item kicking around in your bag.

In the end, the concept needs a little more design work. Having a keyboard in the case is a good idea, but it needs to be so slim that it does not bulk up the package much and gets out of the way when not needed. Perhaps some sort of fabric keyboard is the answer.

Incidentally, if you hanker after one of these but cannot get to the Hong Qiao market, try eBay or Amazon for a number of keyboard cases that look similar to me. Look carefully though; I noticed one by “LuvMac” which lacks a right Shift key, causing some complaints. Mine does have a right Shift key; perhaps it is a later revision.

Hmm, I have just realised that the lady on the stall forgot to give me a receipt or warranty …

3D games: gimmick or the next generation?

I’m attending NVIDIA’s GPU technology conference, and at the exhibition here I took the opportunity to view some 3D images on some Lenovo (and of course NVIDIA) kit.

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I was impressed; yes you have to wear the special specs, but the results are superb. The images are more immersive and more realistic, and I can see the appeal.

I am still not sure though whether 3D games will take off. The screens are substantially more expensive, the specs are inconvenient, and there are not many games.

We have also seen how Nintendo’s 3D support in the DS was insufficient to generate much momentum.

The question then is whether 3D gaming will ever be mainstream. Looking at a high quality 3D display makes you think that it must catch on eventually; but it has a lot stacked against it.

Nokia Lumia 800 review: beautiful phone, some annoyances

I have been trying Nokia’s Lumia 800 for the last week or so, the first Windows Phone from the company. It is a significant device, since Microsoft is relying on Nokia to revive its Windows Phone 7 platform which has won only a tiny market share since its launch in late 2010, while Nokia is betting its business on Windows Phone after selecting it in preference to Google Android or its own MeeGo operating system. No pressure then.

The phone is nicely packaged and comes with a free protective skin as well as a fake railway ticket stating “Your one way ticket to amazing.” This is a UK ticket so I presume it is suitably regionalised elsewhere. A small detail, but it formed part of my impression that Nokia has thought carefully about the unwrapping experience, whereas previous HTC Windows Phones have felt like just another phone in a box.

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The Lumia takes a micro-SIM, as used in the iPhone 4.x, and the only one I had available was in my iPhone, so I removed it and popped it in the Lumia. Everything worked, the switch-on and initial setup was good, and I was soon up and running with Exchange email. I did have to install my self-signed certificates for Exchange, but this is not an issue that will affect most users.

This phone has a polycarbonate body and a Gorilla Glass front and feels solid and well-made. The 480×800 screen is bright, clear and responsive to touch. I have not had any issues of laggy or uncertain response to taps.

What counts here is that the Lumia feels like a high quality device; the design has something extra that sets it apart from most smartphones out there.

In terms of hardware features, the Lumia is unexceptional, with volume, on-off and camera buttons on its right edge, speaker at the bottom, standard headset socket on top, and rear-facing camera lens and flash.

I rate the sound through the supplied ear buds as decent, but the speaker is tinny, much worse than that on the iPhone 4. Fortunately you rarely want to play music through the built-in speaker.

The USB connector (also used for charging) is behind a flap. You have to push a small protrusion to swing it open. It is a little awkward at first and a slight annoyance, but I can also see how it improves the appearance and protects the socket.

Although I like the hardware overall, there are a few issues. One is battery life; it is barely adequate, though Nokia says a future update will improve it:

A software update in early December will include improvements to power efficiency, while a second update in early January introduces further enhancements to battery life and battery charging.

How bad is it? Here is a screenshot:

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Do the maths … if 23% is 1 hour then 100% is just over 4.5 hours, not good. Of course this is with active use, mostly email and web browsing. Do not panic about the “Time since last charge” – it was not a full charge!

The Lumia does have a neat feature whereby it goes into a “battery saver” mode which turns off non-essential services to prolong battery life when it is low. Curiously this was off by default, but I enabled it and it works.

Lumia Software

Physically the phone is above average; but what about the software? This bit is mostly Microsoft’s responsibility, though Nokia has done what it takes to make it run sweetly on the Lumia; the user interface flows smoothly and the chunky tiles are easy to tap.

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On an iPhone you get four favourite shortcuts at the bottom of the screen and page through the others by swiping through pages (or you can create groups). On Windows Phone you get eight favourites above the fold, scroll down for more favourites or tap the arrow at top right for the complete alphabetical list which scrolls vertically. It is different but equally easy to use.

You have to tap at the top to see network and battery status; I would prefer to have this always visible but it is a minor point once you know how.

Nokia does supply several apps. Nokia Music is radio without the ads or commentary; you choose a genre and it plays continuous tracks. A decent app.

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Nokia Maps is an alternative to the standard Bing Maps, which is also installed, and seems redundant to me, since it has fewer features. I also noticed several cafes wrongly positioned in my local area, which does not inspire confidence.

Nokia Drive though is worthwhile, offering turn by turn directions and its own set of road maps – though I am not sure how practical it is if you are driving on your own.

The Lumia comes with a mobile build of Internet Explorer 9, and I have found it pretty good in general though of course neither Adobe Flash nor even Silverlight is supported.

Office Hub

The Office Hub is one good reason to get a Windows Phone – provided you use Exchange and SharePoint (though note the annoyance below), or the free SkyDrive, or Office 365. I like the way Outlook on the phone easily handles multiple Exchange accounts, which appear as separate instances.

The Office Hub gives you read-write access to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote documents, which I personally find useful, even though the editing features are limited.

Me and People Hubs

The Windows Phone 7 OS aggregates a number of social media accounts: Windows Live, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn though not Google+. I find this works fairly well, though I found the slightly different roles of the Me tile and the People tile confusing at first. Personally I use Twitter more than Facebook; and I find tweets of people I follow listed in the People app, while my own recent tweets and notifications of tweets mentioning me are in the Me app. I wonder if these two apps could usefully be merged?

That said, Windows Phone does a great job of surfacing your social network interactions and I would guess that this is one of its foremost attractions in the consumer market.

Annoyances

I found a few bugs and annoyances, though I suspect for most of these Microsoft is more to blame than Nokia.

First, there seems to be a bug in the interaction between the maps, the GPS and the direction finding and “Local Scout”, which is meant to find local attractions and facilities.

I saw this today. I was in London and the GPS was working fine, I could tap the “me” button and it correctly located me on the map. But when I asked for directions to a street nearby I got this:

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“No location information”. Something not right there – and yes, I tried again. I also get this sometimes with Local Scout.

Second annoyance: on my Android phone I can connect to my laptop and use the mobile as a 3G modem. Windows Phone has a Mobile Hotspot feature, though it does not work on my O2 connection; I assume that is a carrier issue, but I miss the feature and the direct USB connection works well for me on Android.

Third annoyance: Zune. I do not know why Microsoft persists with the tarnished Zune brand, and it is a mistake to build in this dependency on Windows only desktop software – yes, I know there is also Windows Phone 7 Connector for the Mac. I would prefer to be able to connect the phone to any PC or Mac and have the ability to copy documents and music to and from device storage.

Zune is not too bad when everything is working, though I had a specific issue on the train recently. I had written some notes in a Word document on my laptop and wanted to transfer them to the phone. Zune only syncs music. The only way to get the document from the laptop to the phone would have been via the internet, and that was impossible because the laptop was offline.

Fourth annoyance: SharePoint. I run my own SharePoint server, and while I can easily access it on the internal network, if I try using it from Office Hub over the Internet I get the message “SharePoint doesn’t support this authentication scheme.”

This turns out to be documented:

Unless your organization uses a Microsoft Forefront Unified Access Gateway (UAG) server, you can only access a SharePoint 2010 site if you’re in the office and connected to your organization’s Wi-Fi network.

That is not what I consider a detailed technical explanation and maybe there is a workaround; but it is annoying when Microsoft cannot get its own products to work together properly. Note though that SharePoint in Office 365 works fine.

Fifth, I had to sign up for a paid developer account in order to install a screen capture application. This is why many Windows Phone reviews have no screenshots. How difficult would this be for Microsoft to build in?

Sixth, I have found Local Scout near-useless. This is mainly because of lack of momentum; it needs more data and user reviews to be useful. However I have also noticed that a restaurant near me which closed a while back is still listed even though I have twice reported it closed through the “Tell us this place is closed” link, the first time two months ago. It makes me wonder to what extent this database is actively maintained; inaccurate information can be worse than useless.

Windows Phone Apps: still a disappointment

The biggest disappointment deserves its own heading. This is the apps available in the marketplace. When I go to the Apple or Android stores I see dozens of apps that look interesting; in the Windows Phone store on the other hand I struggle to find excellent apps. The number of apps in the marketplace is less important than the quality, and here Windows Phone 7 still seems to fall short.

If I go to the marketplace, choose the category of All apps, and then select Top (which I presume ranks according to popularity and rating) it is interesting that they are all games and mostly from Microsoft Studios:

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Games are important, but that does not look like a healthy ecosystem to me.

Could this be an opportunity for developers? Since Nokia World in London at the end of October I have seen a dramatic increase in profile for Windows Phone; it is what Microsoft should have achieved at the original launch a year earlier. We will not know numbers for a while, but there must be more of these things going out, with new users looking for apps.

The Camera

I am not reviewing the camera in detail here. The quality is good though the images seem a little “cold” to me, which means I suppose that the colours are not as vibrant as they should be. I will not press the point though; it is a decent camera and good enough.

Summary

This is a beautiful phone and the only showstopper problem is the poor battery life. If Nokia fixes this, we are left with what seems to me the best Windows Phone 7 implementation yet, despite a few annoyances which are mostly in the Windows Phone 7 OS and its core apps rather than being the fault of Nokia.

There are a number of things to like: social network integration, the Office Hub, Mix Radio

Nokia’s Windows Phone launch has made more impact than I had expected. Microsoft and its partners need to follow through with faster updates, and to work on quality rather than quantity in populating the app Marketplace.

High resolution downloads from Kate Bush

The official Kate Bush website is selling high-resolution 24-bit downloads of her new album 50 Words For Snow. There is even a detailed explanation of why the downloads are on offer and how they are created, credited to Bush’s organisation “The Fish People.”

The Fish People state that CD technology is old (true) and inadequate (controversial):

…despite the huge improvements the CD brought with it, the state of technology at the time introduced some limitations in the quality of audio that could be recorded and stored on the CD. The many advantages of the CD mean that it has continued to be the default consumer format for many years. However digital studio technology has moved on immensely.

According to this account, Kate Bush mixes her recordings to an analogue 1/2 inch 30ips tape. Then she masters this to 24/96 digital, which as she states:

increases the dynamic range and frequency response of the digital process well beyond the levels perceivable by the human ear.

The master is normalised for CD’s 16/44 format, which means the volume is adjusted to use all the available headroom. However for the downloads there is no normalisation, and if the description is to be believed, the files are the same as those used for the studio mastering.

Curiously the files are offered in uncompressed .wav, which makes for a bulky download:

With these files we also wanted you to be able to hear the recordings as close as possible to the way it sounded on the analogue master. For this reason we have chosen only to make available 24/96 .wav files in an uncompressed format. By not using compression we avoid any further possibility of introducing errors or noise into the files. The downside of using uncompressed files is that the files are large and will take a long time to download.

This is unnecessary since formats like FLAC and ALAC compress the size of the files but do not lose any musical information; you can expand them back into WAV without any loss.

The files sound excellent as you would expect. It is worth noting though that efforts to identify audible difference between 16/44 and 24/96 in blind listening tests have been mostly unsuccessful, suggesting that they sound either the same or very very close to the human ear, when careful level-matched comparisons of the same master are made. If the high-res files sound different from the CD, it is more likely because of other factors, such as additional audio compression (as opposed to lossless file compression) which does change the sound, or additional equalisation applied when mastering the CD.

Another quibble I have with this offer is that it gives the keen purchaser a difficult choice. Do you want the CD with its attractive hardbound mini-book and artwork, or download which costs more and comes with no artwork but may sound better? The keen fan has to buy both. By contrast, recent Peter Gabriel CDs have a code that lets you download the high-res files as well for no additional cost.

That said, kudos to Kate Bush for making available such high-quality downloads.

A Lego Christmas Tree at St Pancras Station, London

I was passing through St Pancras station today and noticed a Lego Christmas tree. From a distance it does not really look like Lego:

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As you get closer, the construction is more noticeable:

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and if you look inside it, the tree illusion disappears and it just looks like a curious Lego construction in green and brown. Someone put a lot of work into this.

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Update: according to this article it is “the world’s largest Lego Christmas tree”, contains 600,000 bricks and 172 branches, and took two months to complete. Thanks to Peter Ibbotson for the link (see comment).