tech

Polyprogramy

Twice on this blog, I’ve written listings of the various software I use: one from when I owned a Dell laptop and worked in all-Microsoft shop, and one half a year after I switched to a MacBook Pro. But I’ve noticed that in just the five months since that last one, my technological behaviors and habits have changed in a less common way. Instead of having an application of choice for a given task, I’m no longer able to pick just one, instead using many similar programs because of their minor advantages over one another:

  • I constantly switch between Safari, Firefox and Chrome for browsing. Firefox has my beloved Firebug, Chrome does tabs exactly how I want, and Safari has the most adherence to the Mac OS UI guidelines and seems to hate Flash the least. (Their asynchronous release cycles often also make one browser temporarily less stable than the others.)
  • On my Mac, I use three apps for accessing Twitter and Facebook in slightly different ways. (Echofon is great if you view one feed at a time. TweetDeck presents it all but has either weak or no support for browsing and exploring different categories/lists/friends. Socialite is unparalleled at aggregating and organizing feeds from multiple sources, but only if you want to read every single item as short text or a link, and has quite a few buttons that don’t behave as you expect them to.) And on top of that, sometimes I can’t get any app to quite do what I want, so I have to – shudder – actually use the Facebook or Twitter web applications. I do the same thing on my phone, switching between HTC Peep/Friend Stream, Touiteur, and touch.facebook.com . (Not Facebook for Android, though. Whoever let that app see the light of the day needs to be taken out back and forced to use MySpace. Or their own app. I can’t decide which is worse.)

Those are just the most prominent examples, but I find myself app-hopping just as much with my text editors, word processors, SSH clients, video players and photo libraries. (I won’t even get into how I carry around an Android phone but still use my old iPhone on Wi-Fi for certain tasks.)

I think the “normal” behavior is to pick the application that best fits one’s needs and find workarounds for the needs it doesn’t satisfy, and to switch programs if a more fitting one comes along. I used to do this for sure. But I’m finding that recently, I’ve become so picky/anal/demanding that I am no longer willing to settle for an app that addresses 95% of my needs – that I’d rather manage two web browsers for their individual niceties than use one.

My new approach certainly isn’t a comfortable one; running so many programs in parallel is taxing both on my computer and on my multitasking-challenged brain. And then there’s that feeling I get every time I decide to switch from one program to another that does the same thing: the reminder that there isn’t one application that works quite the way I’d like. I guess I’ve done this in different ways in the past, like when I switched e-mail providers and addresses all the time, or when I was installing a different OS on my laptop each weekend. Maybe this is just an uncomfortable period of chaotic upheaval before I settle into something more predictable. Maybe I need to go super minimalist and do everything from a bash shell. One thing, though, is certain: I am too geeky for even my own taste.

HTC Droid Incredible first impressions

My HTC Incredible came in the mail today from Verizon. After ripping the package open like a kid on Christmas, I ran into the good and bad of the device very quickly. I don’t have time to do a full writeup on the Incredible right now, but here are my impressions from the first few hours:

(for some perspective, I have been on an original iPhone for two and a half years, and I tested the Motorola Droid for a month after its release before deciding it wasn’t for me.)

Pro

  • HTC’s Sense UI is nothing short of amazing. I wasn’t surprised to see Android have a clunky default UI, seeing as Google is such an engineering-centric company, but HTC really put a lot of thought into streamlining the whole user experience. Sense has a much better keyboard and autocorrection system, which has me typing at almost the speed I type on my iPhone, on which I’ve had two and a half years’ practice. Also, the UI is fully multi-touch, and does so very well.
  • Performance wise, this phone screams. Nothing seems to choke it up.
  • I’m still getting used to the “optical trackball” at the bottom of the phone. I want to use it like an inertial scroll, similar to a finger swipe on the screen. It’s a pain to try and scroll with just the nub of my thumb, but once I swipe the whole length of my finger across the trackpad, it becomes a lot more useful.
  • Speaker quality is very good for both the earpiece and the speakerphone.
  • So far I am impressed with the quality of the camera and its dual-LED flash. The autofocus works very well. I’m disturbed that my phone captures images at 8 megapixels while my high-end point-and-shoot has six.
  • Complaints about the Incredible’s quality of materials are highly exaggerated. I prefer metal phones myself, but this hardware is very solid and have no doubts that it’ll last me through a 2-year contract. (I couldn’t say the same about the Motorola Droid, which had a loosely seated headphone jack and battery cover that was constantly falling off.) The soft touch plastic back feels great, and its unique angular design on the back is a lot more subdued than it looks in pictures- once you feel how thin the device is, it’s a lot less of a problem.
  • Likewise with the display- people say AMOLED displays like those on the Incredible and Nexus One are terrible in sunlight. Yes, it is not very good, but it only becomes a serious problem with the sun beating straight down on it from overhead. (Want a display that deserves a bad rap? Try a Palm IIIc.)
  • Verizon sent a free 2GB microSD card in the box that wasn’t advertised in the pre-order contents. My guess is that this is Verizon’s quick fix for existing compatibility issues for apps that don’t recognize the device’s 8GB of internal flash memory, which is a first for an Android device. Yes, it’s small, but it’s free and unexpected. My bet is that these phones will start coming with microSD cards preinstalled.

Con

  • The display is quite good, but doesn’t blow me away quite like the Motorola Droid did.
  • Cell reception is noticeably worse than that of the Motorola Droid. I haven’t tested this enough to know if it’s a serious issue or not.
  • The Incredible comes loaded with HTC’s version of Flash Light, which works with some stuff and doesn’t work with other stuff. It’s an imperfect solution, and becoming irrelevant as Apple forces the web towards HTML5, but Android 2.2 will have full-powered Flash anyways.
  • The USB port on the device plugs in on the bottom left side in portrait orientation- right where you want your left palm to rest while typing with both thumbs in portrait orientation. You can mangle your fingers around it in an effort to avoid it, but basically you’re going to want to use this puppy in landscape mode all the time while charging.
  • There are without a doubt some growing pains for a brand new device launching just today on Verizon. My data connection didn’t work at first, and Verizon’s technical rep told me it was likely a problem with HTC and Verizon’s initial network setup for this phone. They got it working for me eventually. (The problem was server-end.) Also, some things that could be fixed in a firmware update include an oversensitive ambient light sensor – it seems to make tiny adjustments when lighting conditions barely change – and navigation button LEDs that occasionally turn off when they shouldn’t.
  • Motorola preloaded a lot more interesting ringtones on the Droid than HTC did on this phone. That’s a matter of taste, but I found myself rushing to make my own ringtone ASAP on this thing.

So basically, this phone addresses almost all of the concerns that kept me from keeping the Motorola Droid. Sense UI is a joy to use, performance is increased, and the build quality seems much more solid to me (albeit not metal). I feel like I’m much more likely to choose to keep this and move my contract over to Verizon. The only holdout I have in my mind as of now is the quality of cell reception, which I’ll have to test some more outside of my signal-killing brick house.

Real-life Babelfish: The Translating Telephone

This is nuts. (Skip ahead to 0:40 to ignore the SVP’s rant.) I think that automatic translation like this might be one of the single biggest advancements in technology during our lifetimes. I can see the language barriers crashing down now.

It’s also not surprising to hear that this effort is being run through Microsoft Research’s Beijing office. Pretty cool that they’ve got Australians and Germans working together on such a project- they even collaborate on the product’s development using this translation software!

Follow-up: This isn’t the DROID I’m looking for.

Last week I posted an article about my thoughts on Verizon’s Motorola DROID after using it for a week. Here’s where I stand after over two weeks now:

I’m not going to keep it. I love its superior functionality. I can overlook the young OS’s shortcomings. The hardware just isn’t resilient enough. There’s no way that it will hold up under my usage patterns for two years.  I have already exchanged one Droid for another unit due to shorts in the loosely-seated headphone jack. The battery cover loves to fall off without user modification. And the keyboard seems to be made of one contiguous sheet of plastic, so I can’t imagine that holding up well over time. For comparison, my original iPhone is still in excellent condition, and no parts have worn out at all.

The OS itself is pretty good overall, but it has some bugs that kill me. Were it on better hardware, I wouldn’t switch devices solely because of them. Most annoying is how I can’t ever stream a long podcast without it dying halfway through – and this happens with any app, it must be an OS problem. Today, the whole screen refused to turn on and I had to remove the battery to force reboot it.

Today, when I came to the point of telling myself, “I couldn’t keep using this for two years, I have to send it back,” it really pained me. Despite the crappy build quality and occasional software problem, I am loving the crap out of Verizon’s network and 3G speed. I love having constant background applications so I have persistent and bug-free connections to Gmail, IM and Twitter. Integration with Google Talk is great, and I’d love to work on actually developing software for this phone. So naturally, I didn’t like the idea of having to return to AT&T and my nice, but albeit feature-limited iPhone.

I may not have to go back to AT&T after all. I’ve been trying to figure out all of the rumors going around about the HTC Bravo / Passion / Dragon. It may prove to be the Google Nexus One, which so far only is known to exist in a GSM variety. But it looks like the Passion is also slated for a Verizon release in January. I think HTC does a much better job at making great hardware, so I would jump at the opportunity to use a 1GHz, keyboard-free Android phone on Verizon.

So I have until January 13 before my “worry-free guarantee” on my contract expires. If the Passion comes out on Verizon, I’ll exchange my Droid for that. If it doesn’t, I’ll be back to AT&T or T-Mobile and my reliable old iPhone until something better comes along on Verizon.